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The Spanish Winemaking Regions to Watch—Now

by Brahm Callahan, MS

I’ve been selling wines from Ribera del Duero and Rueda on the floor for a long time; both have grown and in general, I think the flavor profiles match quite a bit the American palate. Last year, I had the opportunity to go on a trip and see where the regions are going—not just where they are right now but where they’re headed—and was approached afterwards about becoming an ambassador. I thought it was a great opportunity to get behind some regions I was excited about already.


Horses are used in the vineyards at Bodegas Vidal Soblechero in Rueda.
Photo: Brahm Callahan.

Recently, I returned to go deeper in learning about what’s being produced there. Both are in Castilla y León, just north of Madrid. Ribera del Duero is known for its lush, Tempranillo-based red wines, while Rueda is famous in the country for its bright, Verdejo-based whites. Yet the biggest thing I noticed during this visit was that, while most drinkers have an idea of what these wines are and how they taste, they’re far more multi-faceted than most people realize.

Rueda

I spent more time in Rueda during this visit, and got to see an expression of the range of quality levels, which was really cool. I have always liked Shaya, and was familiar with Belondrade, but tasting through the wines this time, I saw a wider expression of Verdejo, including those aged in oak. The wines I tasted from Vidal Soblechero were absolutely stunning on this front. Their Verdejo still was technically in a cleaner, less developed style, but with minerality, with a depth and concentration that was really impressive.


Author Brahm Callahan, MS, with a winery hawk at Bodegas Vidal Soblechero in Rueda.

Also, we got to see a little more of the agriculture. Rueda’s unique climate allows growers to farm in a different way. Because it’s so dry, a lot of people are farming organically, even focusing on biodynamics—which is unusual for an area that does that scale of production.

Not only is it labor- and cost-intensive, but climate-wise it’s hard to pull off unless you have a combination of things—from the diurnal shift of rain at the right time to nutrient soils that drain well—that allow you the flexibility to do that. Plenty of winemakers in the area are doing more commercial-style farming, but I did get to see that balance.


White wines from Rueda. Photo: Brahm Callahan, MS.

It’s worth noting that Rueda is still nascent on the tourism side; they’re making great wine there, but there isn’t really a tourism industry set up around it yet. Part of the issue is that it’s so spread out; but then again, the appeal of visiting a region like this comes from the honest experiences you can have when you go. When you’re seeing mostly family-owned wineries, it’s clear that people’s heritage is built into the area, and it hasn’t been commercialized yet.

Ribera del Duero

Having been there before and being more familiar with Ribera del Duero than I was with Rueda, the best part of this trip was being able to taste wines I was not aware of that are not necessarily in the U.S. market. Overall, it was neat to see their range.


Samples from Ribera del Duero producers Vega-Sicilia and Alión were part
of a 20-year vertical. Photo: Brahm Callahan, MS.

The last time I visited, I got to taste all these wines when they were young, which was great, but as somms and collectors, we want to know how they age. At the Consejo Regulador, we were able to pull corks on a 20-year vertical of wines from a range of producers and styles. It showed me the continuity and identity of Ribera, seeing a sense of place over time among the wines.

Several wines really impressed, including Protos, Val Sotillo and NEO . The cool story behind NEO is that it was started by locals who are young and making their wine about as modern as it gets in Ribera del Duero. To have that next to a more traditional producer helps you see both sides of the equation—something you might not be aware of unless you go.

Another memorable experience was riding in a hot air balloon; to see what the area actually looks like from an aerial view was really beneficial. Ribera has a range of exposures and elevations, and being up there in the sky when the sun is coming up, you can see what’s getting the morning sun and what’s getting afternoon sun, and you can see the farming techniques change as you float over the area.

What’s Ahead

I’m already thinking about my next trip back. One of the things on my checklist will be to experience more sparkling wine in Rueda, and to do a specific day where we talk and taste and see what’s going on there. And in Ribera, I’ll be getting a little more familiar with producers and their older style, discovering where they started and how the wines have developed from there. To have a conversation about where they see Ribera going would be ideal.

You see that when you talk to people at the Consejo Regulador. A lot of producers started making wine a certain way in Ribera 30 years ago, and then they saw how it evolved; they expanded its complexity and dialed in on every aspect of the process, controlling the exact moment and interaction that they wanted on each parcel and barrel. I want to talk to them about that transition, and what their vision for Ribera is now—and whether they feel they’re approaching it or not. Stay tuned for my next report.


Dramatic Ribera del Duero landscape. Photo: Consejo Regulador Ribera y Rueda.

Brahm Callahan is a Master Sommelier and Beverage Director at Grill 23 & Bar, Harvest, and Post 390 for the Boston-based Himmel Hospitality Group, as well as an ambassador for the Ribera del Duero and Rueda wine regions of Spain.

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