I fully admit that I get particularly excited about Ribera del Duero, that famous outpost of Tempranillo (that isn’t Rioja).
Not everyone does: Sarah Jane Evans highlights her love-hate relationship with Ribera in this month’s Decanter; hers are interesting thoughts, but not, in my experience, as controversial as she thinks.
When it comes to Ribera, I reckon I encounter three types of customer:
You can see I’m very much in with the c)s. The Tempranillo clone of Ribera del Duero (Tinto Fino or Tinta del Pais), coupled with the extreme day-night temperature variation and the limestoney soils, undoubtedly produce a bigger, blacker, fuller and more tannic wine than we typically see emerge from Rioja (exceptions exist, of course). A typical Ribera, compared with a typical Rioja, is undoubtedly more of a wine in the 21st-Century idiom of power, intensity and depth.
None of which is to say that Riberas lack elegance, finesse, restraint and balance – the best have it in spades – but it is not their calling card. I like elegance and restraint as much as the next wine merchant, but the combination of the fruity smoothness of Tempranillo and the intensity of medium-to-good Ribera is, for me, quite irresistible.
<For more information on the region, see Decanter’s new Ribera profile and also the introduction to their January 2017 panel review.>
This goes a long way to explain why I found myself in Ribera for a few cold-but-fascinating days in January. Compared with the large number of Riojas we (web-)list, we supply rather fewer Riberas (partly a reflection of the comparative size of the two areas). But the one, go-to, never-want-to-run-out-of-stock Ribera producer to whom we’ve been close for years is Protos.
I’d go so far as to say that if I could only take one wine region to my notional desert island, it would be Ribera del Duero. And just one producer? Protos.
This might surprise, when you consider the stellar names of, say, Barolo, Barossa, Brunello, Bordeaux and Burgundy. Protos are, after all, no Ferrari or Bentley of the wine market: I hope I shall not offend them in saying that I see them more as having the dependability, innovation (stay tuned…), affordability and broad appeal of Volkswagen or Audi. Maybe that’s what I like about them so very much. It takes quite something to deliver all of these.
Both parts of their bodega (winery) in Peñafiel are immediately arresting: the grand, modern, Richard Rogers-designed, train terminus-like HQ building, along with the former underground caverns and 2.5km of tunnels that lead deep into the limestone cliffs beneath the precariously-poised 10th-Century castle.
Winery tours can have a tendency to become a touch samey after a while, but this alters a lot when the wines being made are ones you have long put on a pedestal (and personal wine rack). Large hallways and caverns of barrels are the norm in Rioja and Ribera, but they are particularly impressive at Protos.
I also wandered around a corner to find lines of barrels that looked exactly like this, far from the norm. What, I wondered, were these?
See below for the answer that emerged.
I’m guessing that, when Charlie Bucket was trailing around behind Willy Wonka, he wasn’t purely interested in the design/chemical engineering of the Chocolate Factory and, I suspect, quite fancied trying a few of Mr Wonka’s wares (I recall this not happening because of repeat visits to A&E by other factory visitors).
I was delighted when my guide for the day, Alexandre Llado, Protos’s International Marketing Manager, took me as painstakingly through the Protos reds as he had through the barrel caverns.
Here, based on that day (plus before and after) is what I made of the wines:
Before I get going, though, a quick mention of Protos’s white, their Verdejo from the nearby (ish) Castilian Denominación de Origen (DO) of Rueda: it comes in at around a tenner. This is one classy wine: great intensity, aroma and acidity, the zing of the fruit (peaches and citrus) made all the deeper by the extra body added by 3 months of lees contact (this one is now badged as a sobre lias). This is wonderful for the money.
To the reds: the Crianza (I tried the 2014 in Peñafiel; we have the 2013, which I rate just as highly) is the Protos workhorse. Ready to drink now, it also keeps wonderfully well (we were selling the 2007 until recently: it accompanied a steak-and-kidney pudding as my Christmas lunch (you read that correctly) and was divine for a £18 wine). Crianzas often get a bad reputation, largely owing to the welter of poor ones that emerge from Rioja, where they are often treated as a lowly quality category. Crianzas from Ribera are invariably much better and this is a gem.
The Reserva 2012 is a deeper, (fractionally) smoother and more intense version of the Crianza: I put this almost entirely down to the extra time in bottle rather than any major difference in the vineyard or winery (oak ageing is almost identical in the two). The Reserva is lovely, but, honestly, for the price-conscious consumer, the Crianza, kept well for a couple of years, is a comparative snip at £8 less.
Protos themselves say that, if there were an iconic Protos wine, it would have to be its Gran Reserva, which has long delighted wine lovers from round the world. It’s a wine, in their words and those of international critics that “surprises for its startling freshness and modern profile, despite being a classic wine that is aged for two years in French oak barrels and three in the bottle. It is pure elegance”. The Gran Reservas are only made in exceptional years and it shows. I’ve now tried the 2004 (we have it here), the 2010 (likewise) and the 2011 (at Protos): all are stunning. Even the fairly recent 2011 has all that savoury leather/bacon/tobacco 'thing' going on, but not at the expense (as one can often find) of severely faded fruit. Personally, I adore the 2004 (especially at the price), although the 2010, as Decanter quite rightly point out, was a “dream vintage” and is just now coming into its prime drinking window.
Now, this is where it gets exciting and is what we’re making all the fanfare about.
Not all of Protos’s reds reach the UK market: indeed, some of them seldom leave Spain. This is no reflection of the quality of those wines, but more, it seems, that these are more the modern style of Ribera and not the classic crianza/reserva/gran reservas to which the UK has become very accustomed. To my mind, that’s a shame, as the new-age Riberas emerging from Protos are incredible, but seem only to be available in Spain, the US, Germany and (rather weirdly) most of Central America.
I figured this cannot be allowed to continue. And so, after an easier-than-imagined bit of persuasion at Protos, and then with their UK importers, we have an exclusive on two new wines emerging from the Protos bodega. You can’t - and you won’t - find them anywhere else this side of Cologne, New York or Pamplona and we’re delighted that we’ll have them both here soon.
Read on for your chance to order.
For the boutique wine fans and collectors among you, we can offer Protos’s no expense-spared, single vineyard super-Ribera, the Finca El Grajo Viejo 2014. It stems from their Valdepalacios estate of the same name (= the old rook), home to some of Ribera’s oldest, very finest, lowest-yielding vines (yielding at just 1300 kg/ha), producing incredibly intense and persistent Tempranillo/Tinto Fino, which as Protos say “expresses its full character and power here”.
Only 9,500 bottles of this unique wine come to market in a year (and 2014 is only its second vintage). Unusually for a Ribera, this is fermented in 500-litre new French oak tanks: that’s what those weird barrels above are about. El Grajo Viejo is then aged for 18 months in new French oak casks (making it a a "200% new French oak" wine, like the icons of Pomerol).
I found tasting the Grajo Viejo quite a sublime experience: it’s super-velvetty and complex already and I can only imagine what it might be like in 5-10 years. Don’t just take my word for it – Decanter’s most recent Ribera panel review (Jan 2017) rated it among the best under review and it wowed two of the reviewers in particular. It also scored 91 with Wine Enthusiast and 93 with James Suckling.
Our price of £55 for the Grajo Viejo is ultra-competitive. I couldn’t find it for that in Madrid (and I really tried). For a wine that, as Protos put it, “is to be second to none”, it’s one for the list.
But £55 wine is not for everyone. If you want a very-collectible-but-affordable (£23), but also ready-to-drink Protos, then what you want is the Protos “27”. 2017 was a symbolic year for Protos, celebrating their 90th anniversary since establishment. To celebrate, Protos has revived its first label from 1927 to adorn a wine which looks set to be a new standard for the winery. It’s the fruit of many years of work on many winemaking projects (see also product description) - such as that of using autochthonous (= indigenous) yeasts - and these are fully reflected in the wine. These yeasts are obtained from the skin of the grapes themselves and imbue the wine with a unique personality and great refinement.
The Tempranillo also expresses its full character (which is is not blanketed in heavy oak) via its 16 months in new and used French barrels, yielding the wine a greater roundness and balance. My personal take on it is a greater focus on smoothness/softness and fruit intensity when compared with a Crianza or Reserva of the same age. This is (obviously enough) only the second vintage of the "27", and is felt by Protos (in line with wider sentiment re Ribera generally) to be the better of the two vintages so far produced.
Protos have made an excellent 1-minute video clip about the "27" - click here - highly recommended.
It won’t surprise you to learn that I’ll be getting a few bottles for myself …