Ribera del Duero to shine a light on their whites

The Boletín Oficial del Estado (Spanish State Bulletin) isn’t light reading. There are sticky gobs of technical announcements for absolutely all facets of the government but, if one is willing to hone in on the “Ministerio de Agricultura, Pesca y Alimentación” (Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing, and Food), it’s where all the latest wine information is announced. Why? Well, because once announced, it’s officially law as per royal decree in the Cortes Generales–blessed be those European kingdoms that still remain.

This is why it came to pass on July 27th that DO Ribera del Duero had some changes to their organizational specifications or the pliego de condiciones announced in the bulletin. Once you get past all the requirement preamble, there were essentially three items of note.

The first was that you can now use either the term rosado or clarete on the label to indicate a rosé wine whereas previously it was only rosado–this is perhaps most important news to British consumers. Another change was that Grenache can now be up to 25% of the blend in finished red wines. Previously it had only been allowed up to 5% although foreign grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec had no limits, presumably because when the DO was created, there was a lot of looking to Vega Sicilia in terms of what wine from Ribera “should” be. Keep in mind that Tempranillo or “Tinta del País”/”Tinto Fino” is a steady 98% of total production every year.

In no way is there any plan to get rid of the French grapes as they do seem to do well in the region, but placing more emphasis on grapes from Iberia is something the current DO council is finding tantamount to continuing to improve their region. It also happens to echo the leanings of many wine buyers, sommeliers, and ultimately consumers who want to drink all that is local and original from a region.

Ribera’s lighter side

In talking with the Technical Director for the DO, Agustín Alonso, he told me that they’re wisely working to do exactly this and it leads to the third item in this bulletin: Albillo Mayor. For those not aware of it, this is the only white grape authorized for production in DO Ribera del Duero and so if you buy a bottle of white Ribera, it will officially be 100% Albillo Mayor. Admittedly, if looking at production totals from 2018, you can see that there were 681,840kg of Albillo Mayor harvested but then 734,503kg of white grapes in total so there are some others individuals getting into the mix but in rather small amounts.

It made me beg the question of Sr. Alonso as to why they’re bothering to include a mention in the DO regulations to give more emphasis on Albillo Mayor. If it’s the only allowed white grape, then theoretically, it would have by default any and all spotlight in terms of a white wine bearing the DO Ribera del Duero seal, no? Alonso reiterated that it was all part of their desire to focus more on “native” varieties. I have to think it goes a bit deeper than that and if so, it’s a good thinking on the part of the DO.

Into the fold

Production totals can vary a great deal in Ribera del Duero due to their Continental position. You can see that because of some bad frost, 2017’s harvest produced less than half 2018’s: 55m/kg vs 125m/kg. But there’s more at work here as Ribera del Duero sits within the greater Castilla y León IGT which, is massive. Producers who want to can re-classify their vineyards to this IGT instead of DO Ribera del Duero. It’s similar to how production can shift between DO Cava and DO Penedès from year to year as they occupy the same vineyard space for the most part.

Why on earth would anyone not want to produce under such a well-known brand such as Ribera del Duero? There’s the simple reason that perhaps a winery is making a wine that has a touch of other grapes in it that don’t fall within the DO’s regulations, or they want to create some cheaper brand for faster sales while waiting for their higher-end wines to age. Or then there’s always the pirate-like “natural” wine crowd who want to eschew all formal brands for something more generic à la Vin de France. Whatever the reason, the DO would appear to be saying to these other people, “Hey, when it comes to Albillo Mayor, we hear what you’re trying to do and we want to support it to work within the DO.” If this is the case, I have to applaud them as unfortunately many DOs take the opposite approach of, “This is the game. Play ball or get off the court.”

But then there’s another aspect which is that doing a bit of cellar math, there are roughly half a million bottles of white wine being produced in DO Ribera del Duero. That’s most definitely not nothing and in fact, several people I talked to at the DO said that there about about 30 different white wines now being produced so there’s clearly some movement to have Ribera whites be a bigger part of the conversation.

To talk about Albillo in general however is to talk about a shit show. As one can read in “Wine Grapes”, there are at least 10 different grapes that carry the name Albillo with my favorite being the “Albillos” from Salamanca and Cigales which turned out to be Chasselas from Switzerland. How did those end up in Spain? You’d have to ask Trousseau from Jura (at the border of Switzerland) if they both caught the same horse down because Trousseau also turned up in Iberia as Maturana Tinta and Bastardo. There are actually only two true Albilloes: Mayor and Real, which have no relation to one another and it’s the Mayor that’s in Ribera.

Here’s the thing though: whether Mayor or Real, no region has to date worked to claim Albillo as “their” regional white grape. Albillo Mayor is found in various places like in DO Vinos de Madrid and it can make quite nice white wines. So, it makes one wonder if the DO is seeing that there’s now enough production and in turn, momentum, behind the grape that it bears promotion as part and parcel of their winemaking heritage. One can and should always strive to be more than a single checkbox on wine certification exams, thus being more than “just” another region in Spain producing age-worthy reds has merit.

When asking the DO if they were going to be working to promote the Albillo Mayor aspect more, it was again restated that this was all part of their plan to focus on local varieties. That’s all worthwhile but it seems that in actuality that they’re trying to embrace more white producers and take ownership of the grape. If this is indeed the case, well-played Ribera del Duero, very well-played.