At first sight, the issue might appear trivial, however, several customers recently asked me the following question: “What is the difference between the wines from the Rioja and those from the Ribera del Duero?”. What’s more, according to my experience, the next question tends to concern the price difference. This is why I thought an article would be the ideal opportunity to come back on the topic, especially considering that Christmas is at the door and we should be thinking about which wine to open during the holiday season.
The most famous Designations of Origin in Spain and those whose wines sell best are, beyond any doubt, the Rioja and the Ribera del Duero. Their red wines are famous not only in Spain but worldwide. Each receives a fervent support from their amateurs whose positions hardly seem compatible. But what are the differences between these regions’ red wines? In order to answer, I have to go through some of the “boring” differences … Before getting to the interesting part!
La Rioja has been a Designation of Origin (Denominación de Origen, DO) since 1925 and even received the “Denominación de Origen Calificada, DOC” in 1991, which implies an excellent quality. On the other hand, the Ribera del Duero is a relatively new DO as it was only recognized in 1982.
The geographical situation
The Rioja DOC’s production area is located in Northern Spain on the banks of the Ebro river, mainly in the autonomous communities of the Rioja and the Basque Country. Moreover, the region is subdivided into three geographical designations: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. All in all, the DO counts 63.593 hectares of vineyards producing between 280 and 300 million litres (90% of red, 5% of white and 5% of rosé).
The production area of the Ribera del Duero DO stretches over the south-east of Castile and León, mostly in the provinces of Burgos, Segovia, Valladolid and Soria. There are 22.320 hectares of vineyards which produce about 130 million litres (98% of red and 2% of rosé).
Regarding the geographical situation, it is not so much the formal delimitation between the various areas that matters but rather their soils or “terroir” as well as their respective climate. The soils and the climate determine the wine quality among other factors.
As to the Rioja DOC, generally speaking for the three production areas, the climate is continental, moderate, and almost Mediterranean in the Rioja Baja’s case. The mild temperatures allow for a slow and careful maturation of the grapes. The designation is characterized by a diversity of soils, though clay-calcareous, clay-ferrous and alluvial types of soil predominate.
Typical for the Ribera del Duero DO is the extreme continental climate along with scarce rainfalls. Winters are cold with icy winds whereas summers are hot and dry but with low nocturnal temperatures. As a result, the grape ripens faster and is more concentrated. Soils are rather diverse in this DO even if limestone prevails.
Varieties of grape
The main grape variety grown in both DOs is the Tempranillo but that is where their similarity ends. Indeed, in the Rioja, the allowed red varietals include the Tempranillo (the most common), the dark Grenache, the Carignan and the Graciano as well as three white varietals: the Malvasia, the Macabeu and the white Grenache.
In the Ribera del Duero, red varieties include the Tempranillo, also called locally Tinto Fino or Tinta del País, the Cabernet, the Sauvignon, the Merlot and the Malbec. Additionally, they have a small amount of Grenache and, for whites, the Albillo.
Although the Tempranillo is the most commonly grown and used varietal in the elaboration of wines from both DOs, their wines remain truly different.
Aroma, power in the mouth, alcohol and alcohol level, colour and savour
In short, red wines from the Rioja can be described as sweet and hardly astringent. They do not leave a dry feeling in the mouth and are not harsh.
Ribera del Duero’s wines are more concentrated and intense both in their colour and their savour thanks to the extreme climate and the grape’s quicker maturation. They give a sensation of greater astringency, dryness and harshness in the mouth. They can be described as powerful.
For the same reasons as their power in the mouth, wines from the Ribera de Duero have a higher level of alcohol than those from the Rioja. Though, if the wines are well elaborated, one does not necessarily notice their higher alcohol content.
The Rioja wines’ aroma reminds us of red fruits and they leave a fresh aftertaste thanks to their acidity. The aroma of the Ribera del Duero wines calls ripe fruits to mind, appears smoother and rounder in the mouth and tends to end with a lactic hint, similar to a strawberry yoghurt.
Both DOs classify their wines according to their time of ageing in barrels or bottles (Crianza):
- Joven / Roble (they do not age in wooden barrels neither do they mature in barrels for more than 12 months)
- Crianza (minimum two years of ageing, one of which in a barrel)
- Reserva (minimum three years of ageing, one in a barrel and the other in bottle)
- Gran Reserva (minimum five years of ageing, two in a barrel and three in bottle)
The graph below shows the ageing potential of wines over time according to their “Crianza”. For both DOs, young wines should be drunk rapidly, whereas “Crianza” and “Reserva” wines can be savoured over a longer period.
The boring, yet objective, part is finally over and we can now focus on the more interesting part.
The price difference
Why are Rioja wines generally cheaper than the Ribera del Duero’s? I answered this question to a large extent in my previous explanations: the production area and the number of litres produced in the Rioja is sensibly higher than in the Ribera. Indeed, we still have in mind the Rioja’s 63.593 hectares of vineyards in contrast to “only” 22.320 hectares in the Ribera. Moreover, the climate has a defining influence. Indeed, it is easier to produce wine in the Rioja than under the Ribera’s extreme conditions. The Ribera’s cellars face more frost problems which limit the yields of the vines. Less wine, higher prices!
To summarize, these DOs are different regions with different soils, climates and varietals. So, why do people keep arguing over the superiority of one designation over the other? To each his own tastes, no? Or should I prefer meat over fish?
This being said, some issues and disagreements are brought to light. Nowadays, several estates in the Rioja Alavesa wish to break away from their current DO to create a new one (“D.O. Viñedos de Álava”). Local Alavese winegrowers (about 42) promote the differences and the unique character of their wines. If we consider the French or Italian classification system, their demands would be quite sensible. In 2015, the famous ARTADI Bodega quit the Rioja DO. The winemaker justified his choice declaring, “Renowned wine regions such as Bordeaux (with 52 sub-designations) or Burgundy (96) offer their consumers wines which evoke specific areas. It is essential to provide the consumers with the opportunity to discover our land’s diversity, which grants quality wines their uniqueness and authenticity”.
While they are right to wish for a distinct recognition and to promote their wines’ particularities, I might have some reservations. Indeed, let us not forget that the reputation and the fame of the Rioja wines are the result of its winegrowers’ efforts and dedication, but also the considerable resources deployed by the DOs to support their products’ commercialisation and promotion. It is necessary to thank the DOs for their great work. Yet, it can hardly be otherwise: just like every child will eventually stand on its own feet and trace its own path, winegrowers will aspire to a greater autonomy and step outside the DOs’ framework.
In the Ribera del Duero’s case, the situation is quite different. Here, we talk about those excluded from the DO. Some of the most famous cellars of the Castile and León region such as Mauro, Abadía Retuerta, Bodegas Leda, … Do not belong to the Ribera del Duero DO but to the “Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León”. Is it a problem? Abadía Retuerta answers, “At Abadía Retuerta, we could say that our auto-regulation is much stricter than other designations. Though our application to the Ribera del Duero was refused, today, we can affirm that this event is one of the secrets of Abadía Retuerta’s success. We are currently in touch with the administration to create our own designation in compliance with the recently voted Wine Law”.
As for Mauro, they are among the best red wines from Spain and acknowledged as such by the greatest critics in the world.
Every day in France, there are more winemakers who decide to break away from the designation of origin and to commercialize their wines under the name of “Vin de France”. It might be time for designations to rebrand or reinvent themselves. A similar situation is happening in Catalonia with the Cava DO where several estates quit their DO but, unlike other regions, they created two classifications: Clàssic Penedès and Cava de Paraje.
But let’s get back to our DOs: Would it be more sensible or relevant to distinguish Modern vs Classical wines? Are the former better than the latter?
It would like asking whether one prefers our grandmother’s traditional recipes or sushi … Wouldn’t it be possible to enjoy both? These are two totally different types of vinification and we shouldn’t compare them.
The so-called modern wines are usually more full-bodied and fleshy, they also have a greater intensity as well as a greater power and a higher alcohol content. These wines undergo their ageing process in new barrels (my best friends …). At first, it might sound unsavoury, but nothing is further from the truth! These wines’ problem is that they are drunk too soon, too young. They must remain in their bottle for 10 years before consumption in order to let them balance themselves and achieve their ideal drinking point. They should not be consumed too soon.
On the contrary, classical wines, my personal favourite, are left for a long period of time in used barrels, that is, in barrels previously used to mature other wines. The wood’s influence on the wine quality decreases and the wine becomes smoother. Moreover, once bottled, the wines are stocked in cellars for some time before commercialisation. For example, Viña Tondonia, La Rioja Alta, Vega Sicilia are wines bearing a tile colour with an evolved nuance and a very agreeable mouth.
Actually, the Rioja vs Ribera distinction does not really make sense. There are safe bets in both DOs, indispensable great wines and small cellars to give them a novel distinction. When well elaborated, a good wine with its own character can be found in every cellar and suit every pocket.
This being said, the wine landscape in Spain has tremendously changed over a short period of time. Some smaller regions unveil an incredible and fantastical potential thanks to a new generation of winegrowers who travelled, studied and worked in Spain or abroad with great winemakers. This generation shows a clear will to develop their vineyards, autochthonous varietals and quality wines which deserved to be known, and of course, enjoyed.