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The Duende of the Duero

Elyse Glickman / photos by the author

Wineries in and around the Ribera del Duero appellation are using oenotourism as a tool to spread word about their wines outside of Spain.

Although Spain's Rioja wine production region is well-established as both a popular travel destination and source of red wine for quality-minded American consumers, producers in and around the neighboring Ribera del Duero denomination are not to be ignored, with a strong push they hope will get American consumers and wine professionals to both visit the region and bring it into their restaurants, retailers and homes.

Indeed, oenotourism, is critical to the Spanish economy, especially in these times where the nation is affected by the well-publicized pan-European economic crisis making world headlines. On that front, the wine tourism industries of Rioja, Jerez and Valencia are well-oiled machines that have kept public perception about Spain and its gastronomy-driven lifestyle thanks to its collaborations with restaurants and tourism boards  (Case in point: Frank Gehry's complex anchoring the Marqués de Riscal winery and the Santiago Calatrava's Gaudi-inspired structure for Bodegas Ysios).

Based on creative measures wineries and related businesses in Castilla y León have used to promoted themselves, they are also selling duende, which loosely translates from Spanish as, "having soul, a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity." In other words, everything a winemaker would want the final consumer to experience in every bottle.

Wineries from the Ribera del Duero appellation and other neighboring appellations are working the trades on both sides of the Atlantic, and things are really starting to flow, evidenced by coverage in Tasting Panel as well as other trades. The tourism office of the Castilla y León region of Spain (encompassing the provinces of Burgos, Segovia, Soria and Valladolid), meanwhile, is working alongside those wineries to generate deeper consumer and trade interest in wines that spring from the same river-enriched soils and microclimates. The goal is to develop interconnected marketing initiatives that are intended to be greater than the sum of its components.

Outside regional capital Valladolid, Abadia Retuerta (whose wines are imported by Europvin and distributed by Michael Skurnik Wines) has an impressive presence as well as an optimal location near Ribera del Duero's "Golden Mile." While winery is not officially a part of the geographic Ribera del Duero D.O. appellation, the guide leading our tour around the property says it takes advantage of the best of two worlds-producing and marketing wines on their own terms outside appellation rules and being in a location where they can work collaboratively with Ribera del Duero wineries to bring consumers and trade to the region.

"While we recognize selling the wines in foreign countries may be a little bit more challenging because we are not part of the Ribera del Duero appellation, we get an edge by supporting our importers," says Alvaro Perez Navazo, Director of Marketing and Communication. "With the help of brand ambassadors, whom we educate about our approach to winemaking way we do at our winery, we simultaneously want to communicate in a fluent and positive way that we have some of the (geographic) advantages that come with the 'Golden Mile.'"

Navazo further explains that the founding of Abadia Retuerta pre-dates the establishment of the Ribera del Duero D.O.P. by ten years, though the owners knew that the property had definitive potential after conducting an extensive amount of research based on the slopes and the soils. The most prime 200 hectares on the property have 54 different microclimates. This empowered Abadia Retuerta to operate their land as a diversified estate with 54 growing plots with their own unique advantages and characteristics. Every plot, in turn, is individually overseen. Once the winemakers have 54 different wines at their disposal, they ultimately bottle the best of the best for their higher end wines targeted for import.

The high-echelon wine and mid range red we sample during the tour both stand up to some of the better wines that are officially Ribera del Duero wines. The limited edition 2009 Pago Negralada (100%Temperanillo), retailing for 65€ ($88), is rich with essences of dark stone fruits, making it a perfect sipping wine or a partner with with heartier roasts or game meats. The Seleccion Especial 2009, 18€/$26, a Syrah-Cabernet-Tempranillo blend that varies from year to year based on the harvest), meanwhile, is a delicious all-purpose wine.

The inns, hotels and restaurants businesses operated by Castilla y León wineries are also effective brand ambassadors. The five-star Abadia Retuerta Le Domaine hotel built into a 12th-century monastery provides a nice canvas for the winery's products. The Ribera del Duero-certified Bodega Arzuaga Navarro (near Valladolid) takes an earthier approach to the Ribera del Duero wine lifestyle as does the Bodegas El Lagar de Isilla of Aranda de Duero in the Burgos province. These inns and restaurants trade on the winemaking history of the region as well as the generations of families involved in the wineries and anything related that may pre-date the establishment of the Ribera del Duero appellation.

Bodega Arzuaga Navarro's affiliated restaurant specializes in simple dishes and grilled meats, and the wines served (including the Pago Florentino Arzuaga, 20€/$28, blending 90% Tinto Fino, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Merlot) is crisp, refreshing and would work just as well at all-American backyard barbeque as they would for the Castilian comfort food of pork and beef kababs, charcuterie, cheeses and grilled seafood in the farmhouse/country inn setting.

While the Bodegas El Lagar de Isilia's winery and inn have a steady flow of visitors, its free-standing restaurant in Aranda de Duero's city center is packed with some fun surprises. The front part of the restaurant is a classic Northern Spanish tapas bar. A semi-circular open heart perfuming the air with roasting peppers, lamb, and pork anchors the middle of the restaurant, which accommodates large groups.  If you venture further, you will carefully navigate yourself down a steep stairway into the winery's original production location, where winemakers' tools, antique photos, storage bins and other paraphernalia are on display. Kitschy and touristy? Yes, but fun, and it offers potential in sparking interest in its present day winery and various selections to an importer considering bringing it into the U.S.

In terms of moving Ribera del Duero and the other adjacent appellations forward internally and internationally, the relatively new Bodegas Portia stands as the Castilla y León region's ultimate brand ambassador.  The futuristic Norman Foster-designed facility looks a lot like a spaceship that would impress George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The functionality of Foster's design, fashioned from materials of the winemaking process (wood, glass and steel), is integral to the production of wine. The flower design is not just pretty, but makes it easy for the winemakers, employees and oenophile tourists to get from place to place more readily than the traditional square or rectangular winery complex.

Each "petal" of the flower houses a different stage of the winemaking process. The first houses the workings of fermentation process, the second houses the barriques where the wines are aged and the third houses the cellar for storage of finished bottles. The "stigma" connecting the petals is the social and cultural heart of the winery, with its boutique, meeting space, tasting room and restaurant that pairs modern twists on Castilian food with their four marquee red wines: Bodegas Portia Ribera del Duero Crianza (32€/$42.95 for the 2009 vintage), Portia Prima (29€/$39) and Ebeia Roble (15€/$20). All wines are distributed in the U.S. through Palm Bay International) except Triennia, which is produced in limited quantities and available only at the winery.

While these and other Ribera del Duero wineries are working hard in tandem with representatives and importers to get word of mouth going in the U.S., they are also taking measures to ensure oenotourism aspects of their business will bolster word of mouth about their wines as well as the culture, gastronomy and lifestyle in ways that will capture consumer imaginatin.  While their approach to capturing trade and consumer attention is tasteful and flavorful now, it should age well if the same care is put into the process as time goes on.

Essential information and useful web sites:

Planning Your Trip:


Non-Winery Must Visits:

An innovative, woman-friendly wine shop that offers tapas and novel wine education programs at night. Locations in Valladolid, Madrid and Valencia.

A newly opened museum that includes historical displays of the area's winemaking.

One of Burgos, Spain's top-rated restaurants, offering contemporary adaptations of traditional Castilla y León cuisine and a compact, but impressive selection of Ribera del Duero wines.

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