Can you taste the difference between Tempranillo from Rioja and Ribera del Duero in a blind tasting?
The question was posed to a group of wine professionals last week. We had gathered at St. Cecilia in Buckhead for a lunch and tasting with two Spanish winemakers: Diego Pinilla of Bodegas Bilbainas in Rioja and Jorge Bombin of Legaris in Ribera del Duero. The wineries are part of the Codorníu Raventós group.
Both winemakers offered a glass of what they felt was the characteristic Tempranillo of their region. They then offered a brief history of their winery and how the location affects the Tempranillo grape, to assist us in guessing each wine.
Bodegas Bilbainas is located in the city of Haro in Rioja Alta (within the darker shaded portion in orange on the map). It was established in 1901, and was the first bottler in Rioja. With the Atlantic Ocean 100 miles to the north, the vineyards are influenced by the Atlantic climate. Clay soils give the vines water little by little, and mountains protect the vineyards from getting too cold.
Legaris is located along the Duero River in the Ribera del Duero region (within the darker shaded portion in yellow). It was established in 1999, bringing together tradition and innovation. The vineyards are planted at an average elevation of 2800 feet, and are influenced by a harsh continental climate with hot summers and low rainfall. Pebble soils reflect the sunlight back towards the vines.
Based on the terroir and growing conditions, Tempranillo from Rioja is typically higher in acidity with floral and red fruit notes. Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero is typically higher in alcohol content with black fruit notes.
Then it was time for the blind tasting. After knowing what differences to look for in the wines – acidity, alcohol and fruit – it was clear that the wine on our left was from Rioja, and the wine on the right was from Ribera del Duero.
The wines were revealed: Viña Pomal 2010 Reserva from Bodegas Bilbainas and Legaris 2011 Crianza.
The Viña Pomal was 100% Tempranillo aged for 18 months in 20% new American oak. Winemaker Diego Pinilla said he tried to bring out floral and violet notes in his Tempranillo. Red cherries, sweet spice, vanilla and roasted coffee rounded out the palate.
With the Legaris Crianza, winemaker Jorge Bombin said he wanted to achieve the perfect balance of fruit to oak and alcohol to acidity. The wine was 97% Tempranillo and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon that was aged half in American oak and half in French oak (25% new). The intense black fruit flavors mingled nicely with the toasted spice from the barrels.
After the exam portion of the tasting was complete, we enjoyed a fabulous six-course menu with wines from Bodegas Bilbainas and Legaris. The Legaris Verdejo we sipped upon arriving at the event paired nicely with the first course of Hamachi Crudo. From there we enjoyed sampling each course with four red wines from Bodegas Bilbainas and three red wines from Legaris.
On the entry level side was the 2012 Viña Zaco, an easy to drink, super crowd pleasing Tempranillo from Bodegas Bilbainas. With its modern label, screw cap opening and price tag under $15, it’s meant to be enjoyed any night of the week.
At the other end of the spectrum was the 2009 Calmo from Legaris. Made from a special selection of grapes during an outstanding vintage to commemorate the winery’s 10th anniversary, the wine is powerful yet elegant, and can still benefit from aging. Nearly impossible to find and costing upwards of $150 a bottle, the Calmo was a real treat to sip.
In between were wines that demonstrated the range that Tempranillo can produce.
The 2011 Viña Pomal Crianza was aged for 12 months (required to be classified as Crianza) in 15% new American oak. It is a versatile and food-friendly wine, with flavors of red cherry, violet and black licorice.
The 2010 Viña Pomal Alto de la Caseta spent 20 months aging in new French oak. Concentrated dried cherry and balsamic notes are enhanced by a full mouthfeel from gripping tannins. This is the kind of wine you want to decant ahead of time and enjoy with a dry-aged steak.
The Legaris Reserva is only made in top years. The 2010 vintage spent 16 months aging in French oak (50% new, 50% one year old barrels). Well-structured and just lovely to sip, the full-bodied wine is a mix of ripe blackberry, black pepper and vanilla with a long finish.
So at the end of the tasting was it the Tempranillo from Rioja or the Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero that came out ahead? It was an impossible question, as we went back and forth over the assorted desserts.
If your taste for Tempranillo falls more on the nuanced and floral side, look to Rioja. If it’s big and intense fruit that you’re after, look to Ribera del Duero. Or better yet, pick up a bottle from both regions and enjoy a tasting with friends.
Map and bottle images courtesy Codorníu Raventós.