2012 Isaac Fernandez Finca La Mata Tinta del Pais

You better sit down for this - it’s some good stuff. Full, ripe cherries and red plums with bright green herbs and a sprinkle of cinnamon on the nose. Nice acidity on the palate - fresh cherries, plums, a hint of wood, and herbs. Lovely!

5/5 bones


Tinta del Pais

14% abv

Ribera del Duero, SPAIN

Re-Barrel del Duero


             [Ribera del Duero - where they’re not afraid of oak]

When our panel of tasters decided to shift the focus to Spain, I was excited and yet tentative to taste through a line-up of the wines of Ribera del Duero.  Spain is the part of the wine sandbox where I’ve played the most.  I’ve worked with it in depth for the past 8 years and I know that, in general, Spain is a schizophrenic mix of very ripe fruit, bold flavors, and fresh barrels.  Despite this, there’s no denying that when the wine is good, the wine is really really good.  For all these reasons I’m the hardest on Spanish wine because I know what it is capable of.  

Spain is so much more than just Rioja these days.  With almost 90 quality regions in every corner of the country there is a frenzy of activity in the industry.  As recently as 8 years ago there was a glut of Spanish wine at low prices, and quality was very high considering the value.  Yet in the last 5 years as prices have gone up, deservedly so in many cases, new wineries have recently been established by the boat-load to take advantage of this popularity.  

No Spanish wine region is more guilty of this generalization than Ribera del Duero (RdD).  The great quality of wine made here is peppered with plenty of poor efforts by new wineries (and some old ones) cashing in on the history, fame, and wealth of the region.  It is because the wide variation in quality between wineries that it makes overall regional quality practically impossible to maintain.  This is the main reason why RdD has remained a DO (Denomición de Origen) and has not been elevated to DOCa status (Denomición de Origen Calificada – the highest Spanish regional classification) even though it’s home to the most famous winery in the country, Vega Sicilia.


[The billionaire’s golden comb-over: a proper metaphor for Ribera]

I’ve always thought that RdD is the “Donald Trump of Spanish wine regions”.  The great wines of the region are elite, glitzy, oak-laden & spare no expense. This is the land of names like Vega Sicilia, arguably Spain’s most collectable wine; Pingus, founded by Peter Sisseck who is the former head winemaker at Vega Sicilia; and Pesquera, founded by Alejandro Fernandez (the “Duke of Tinto Fino”) who renewed the world’s interest in the region by bottling 100% Tempranillo wines in the early 1980’s.  These wines are competing in class and price range amongst the bold wines of Bordeaux and Napa.  Rich wines, rich prices. —

If your tastes veer to the fresher/vibrant reds that can be consumed young, don’t fret as there is a tier of practically unknown young wines from the region that spend less time in oak and are less expensive.  Though I should say they are harder to find.  RdD promotes their richer wines because they receive more exposure in the press, but that’s only a portion of what the region is capable of.  Little attention comes to these youthful wines that can be fresh, simple, easy-to-drink and showcase the health of the fruit in the region.  There are especially good examples when these wines are sourced from cooler microclimates in the area.  

Ribera del Duero literally means the “banks of the Duero River”.  The Duero River helps moderate extreme temperatures common to the surrounding geography.  It can be brutally hot during the days in late summer.  In certain sub-zones, altitude provides much needed freshness for the predominant red grape variety Tempranillo, locally known as Tinto Fino.  It’s often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot (and occasionally Syrah) which are found in small amounts usually accounting for up to 10% of the blend.  It helps develop more complex aromatics and also provides greater balance in the finished wine as physiological ripeness of the grapes is more likely.  Hot days, cool nights, arid climate, little rain – these are all common to the area and central Spain in general.


RdD label terms that denote minimum aging requirements:

ROBLE or JOVEN – usually denotes some oak aging, but no technical minimums, and sometimes no oak aging at all.  Usually made from younger vines, these wines are not meant to be cellared but are meant to be drunk young.
CRIANZA – minimum 12 months aging in barrel plus 12 months aging in bottle.  Some more age-worthy than others, but always of good quality.
RESERVA – minimum 1 year aging in barrel plus 2 years aging in bottle.  Long life ahead for most wines of this level.
GRAN RESERVA – minimum 2 years aging in barrel plus 3 years aging in bottle.  Made only in the best years and are generally the most age-worthy.

Note: These are just minimums and many producers will exceed these minimums based on house style.

With all that said, here is the line-up that we tasted.  All wines were tasted blind.  Most of them were decanted (unless otherwise noted).


The Cork Dork Rating Scale is based on a possible ★★★★.  I do not rate wines that I wouldn’t drink personally.  So even the lowest score has value to me.

Less than ★: I’d buy her a drink (fun and somewhat interesting)
★: I’d call her back (tasty, shows great character)
★★: I’d cook her breakfast (impressive, stylish, well-built, delicious)
★★★: I’d travel abroad with her (eye-popping, stunning, above & beyond)
★★★★: Let’s make babies (a masterpiece; ‘nuff said)


Wine #1: ★★½ Lopez Cristobal, Crianza, 2000 ($25)

Crappy photo of the label, but a very tasty wine.  This was well-composed and very expressive.  Sturdy, smoky, dark cherry-fruited, spiced and genteel.  11 years of aging on this wine served it well (impressive for a Crianza level wine).  It is composed of all Tempranillo except for 5% each of Cab Sauv and Merlot.  Roa, the town of origin, is one of the higher altitude sub-zones that serves up a fresher regional style.  

Wine #2: ★★¾ Ramirez de Ganuza 2000 ($60–$75) (NOT RIBERA DEL DUERO)

I still remember drinking the 1995 vintage of this Rioja, the first time I tried anything from this producer.  Serious, serious wine.  The 2000 did not disappoint…except that this was supposed to be a Ribera del Duero tasting.  But hey, I don’t mind tasting good wine.  Nicely concentrated that was between medium and rich on the palate. Impressive since it’s almost 12 years old.  Cherry fruit dominated the attack, then followed by black olive, smoke, herbaceous spices, and a tangy quality that was supported by the concentration of texture through the finish.  Well integrated and a well made wine that still has much life ahead of it.

Wine #3:  Matarromera Crianza 2007 ($30)

I was disappointed by this wine, especially when I found out the identity of it.  I remember much greater quality in the past from Matarromera wines and I expected to find a lesser producer behind this effort.  The soft, medium-bodied texture lacked depth and concentration.  The fruit tasted sugary and all other flavors were based on barrel treatment: coconut, sweet spices, cocoa, none of which were very well integrated into the wine.  It came across as over-worked, over-saeasoned, and with little oomph behind it.  I’d like to taste it again to see if this is consistent in all bottles, or if this was a one-off example.  On a personal note, I hope so.

Wine #4: ★ Condado de Haza 2006 ($28) [NOT decanted]

This is the second Ribera del Duero winery started by Alejandro Fernandez, well-known for his first winery, Pesquera.  2006 provided concentrated and rich wines, something local producers were very satisfied with since they knew the critics’ point scores would soar.  At first taste I wasn’t thrilled by this wine because it was almost overwhelming on the palate.  A bit like being beaten by a blunt instrument.  But as I tasted, and then re-tasted, I felt the wine growing on me as there was an underlying freshness beneath its dominant murky, rich qualities.  Bacon-like aromas hit me first.  The palate was densely textured and displayed mounds of sweet cinnamon spice, jammy/juicy dark fruit, with a savory finish that lingered with baking spices.  What saved the wine was enough acidity to provide balance for the rich characteristics of this powerful vintage.  

Wine #5: ★ Lezcano-Lacalle 2005 ($30) (NOT RIBERA DEL DUERO)

Cigales is a land-locked region just north and west of Ribera del Duero that also uses Tempranillo for most of their reds (many Bordeaux & Rhone varieties are also permitted).  It is not known for a particularly high level of quality, but there are a few producers who have been doing exceptional work considering the intensely ripe fruit that comes from the region.  To achieve freshness here is a labor of love.  I was blown away to find out this wine was from Cigales.  Few producers are doing anything of note, and its exciting to find a wine that excels in its category.  Powerful and sooty, with cocoa powder and raspberry flavors.  Though heavily oaked with silky tannins, it exhibited a balanced and savory demeanor.  And most importantly, there was always a gentle nudge from the wine’s acidity to make it behave properly on the palate.  A very good effort from a little-known region.

Wine #6: ½ Vega Sicilia “Valbuena” 2003 ($150)

Inky black color.  Aromas & flavors of black olives, blackberry, blueberry, black cherry…everything about this wine seemed like it was grown in an inferno.  If it was a steak it was well-done, but somehow not a hockey puck.  There was grace here somehow.  Short on the finish, but when I revisited the wine 30 minutes later there was more on the back end.  It seemed as if it was only just opening up.  Probably would have done better with another 2-3 hours in the decanter before tasting it.  This was a beast of a wine.

Wine #7: ½ Valderiz “Valdehermoso” 2009 ($15) [NOT decanted]

The only Joven in the tasting group.  Partial carbonic maceration made this wine hit a note that was both mildly composed and somehow awkward on its feet.  Kind of like a teenager who hit a growth spurt and hasn’t yet grown into his new frame.  Medium bodied wine, stemmy, dark fruit, cherry, and it showed a bit more heat on the finish.  Nice freshness via acidity, tannins a bit clumsy, but overall tasty and drinkable.  Most people thought this wine was not from the RdD because of the frugal oak treatment and the brightness of the acidity.  That’s why it was interesting in the tasting.

Wine #8: ¼ Pesquera Reserva 2007 ($50)

Medium-bodied, focused, and hearty but not heavy.  Tannins are strong but not aggressive.  Smoky, grippy, gently spiced, and with cassis-like fruit.   A nice showing of 100% Tempranillo raised in the traditional American oak barrels.  Enjoyable and well composed.  This is the kind of wine that brought the image of Tempranillo and the region into the forefront of the Spanish wine conversation.


I hate to be disparaging about this region, but the more I taste wines from this region the less I’m interested in what is happening here.  This tasting was relatively reflective cross-section of what the region purports itself to be: wine with moments of great interest, but mostly dominated by heavy handed oak treatment.  Although it seems like more work in the vineyard and less work in the “barrel houses” would make for a more pure expression of the region, maybe all those trees who are sacrificing their lives in the name of wine are the main reason why Ribera del Duero receives the kind of attention it does at all.  This is not to say it’s not possible to make great wine in RdD without 200% new oak, but it is to say that it seems most wines coming from the region would have us believe that to be true.  Food for thought.


[Definition of a Tasting Panel: a group of wine drinkers taking notes who can’t wait to imbibe the good stuff when the tasting is over] [Drawing by Gene Ploss]

Estudio Barozzi Veiga, Ribera del Duero Winery, Roa, Spain, 2011 (via subtilitas)

The actual building, which is nearing completion, is “a slight let down from this rendering, which convey a much more monolithic and heavily textured building that appeared to have been carved from the hillside (and also featured a much more interesting angled entry door), the locally sourced stone compliments the existing structures nicely.”

We hosted a blind wine tasting party on saturday of spanish red wines and these were the results:

1. Resalte Crianza 2005 - Bodega Resalte de Peñafiel, Ribera del Duero.

100% Tempranillo, aged 15 months in 80% french oak and 20% american oak.

2. Llanum 2005 - Bodegas Hemar, Ribera del Duero

100% Tempranillo, aged 14 moths.

3. AAlto 2008 - Bodegas Aalto, Ribera del Duero
Tempranillo, aged 23 months 50% new french oak and 50% one year old french and american oak.

4.  Arzuaga 2008 - Ribera del Duero.     

5. Condado de Haza 2006 - Ribera del Duero.

6. Pago de los Capellanes 2009 - Ribera del Duero

7. Lealtanza 2006 - Rioja.

8. Callejo 2007 - Ribera del Duero

In A Spanish Way

We love Spanish wines for its slightly oxidized character and old world charms. Many vino sessions were conducted with wines from different regions, where Spanish wines often takes the prize without being overpriced. Spanish wines has always been treated as my “great for value” option, and I never had a bottle which is priced amongst the same range as Bordeaux First Growths. When we heard that there was a wine tasting of the legendary Spanish estate, Bodega Vega Sicilia, we jumped at the chance to learn more about Ribera del Duero and drink some serious (and pricey) wines!

Vega Sicilia is located beside a highway east of Valladolid in Ribera del Duero, and its wine, Unico, is considered as probably the best wine of Spain. In 1864, Don Eloy de Lecanda intended to emulate Bordeaux on his estate at the Pago de la Vega Santa Cecilia y Carrascal. Bringing back vine cuttings of Cab Sau, Malbec and Merlot from Bordeaux, he planted these vines, but soon discovered that Tinto Fino, the local name for the Tempranillo grape, can be nurtured to perfection in its native environment.

Ribera del Duero is a land of extremes. Biting winters, sun-bleached summers and high altitudes work hand-in-hand with clay, silt and limestone to create the perfect terroir for Tempranillo, which makes up 95 percent of the region’s wine production. The wines of Vega Sicilia are predominantly Tempranillo based, with a small percentage blend of either Cabernet Sauvignon for Unico, or Malbec and Merlot for Valbuena 5°.

We tasted Pitia 2007, Alion 2007, Valbuena 5° 2006, then finally, the Unico 2000. The last 2 wines were delicious, meaty with notes of raisin and chocolate. The Valbuena was very gutsy, with an alcoholic punch like vodka. The Unico was much more creamier, probably due to the longer aging period, where it was oxidized, yet full of volatile acidity and dried fruit flavours. The minerality added much to the finish of the wine, and from what I heard, this wine could be cellared for another 30 plus years.

The thing that was most interesting for me in these wines was in terms of the wine production, where prolonged barrel ageing is carried out in the winery before its release. For example, the Valbuena 5° 2006 took 5 years in the winery before its release, while the Unico 2000 was released after 10 years. The winemaker of Vega Sicilia decides the release date of the wine, which sometimes takes more than 20 years depending on the vintage, before it becomes available on the shelf, ensuring that the wine style is to the satisfaction of both winery and consumer.

Since we live in Hong Kong, we don’t really get to drink much of Spanish stuff in this franco-vino dominated scene. Most of the times, we buy French wines from shops with recent vintages, which are most likely way too tannic and young for enjoyment. It is a pity, especially for those not looking for something to cellar, but maybe for a bottle to celebrate with dinner that day, to have to shell out big bucks for a wine that is not ready to drink. If perchance, you want splurge to on a nice bottle of red, skip the disappointment of a young Bordeaux and try these aged Spanish wines for a change, you might be pleasantly surprised.

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5° Reserva Especial 2006, Ribera Del Duero, Spain 2006 $1258 GDV
Vega-Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva 2000, Ribera del Duero, Spain $2680 GDV

This is a clear, bright, medium garnet color wine with tawny hues and some tears on the glass. Clean on the nose with medium+ intensity of aromas suggesting violet, sour cherry, strawberry jam, cranberry, prune, wet leaves, black pepper and vanilla. Fully developed. Dry on the palate with medium acidity, high ripe and fine-grained tannins, medium alcohol, medium+ body and medium+ flavor intensity displaying violet, sour cherry, strawberry jam, cranberry, prune, wet leaves, black pepper and vanilla. Medium+ length with burnt fruit aftertaste. Very good quality wine with balance between fruit and oak expression, some fruit concentration and complexity and medium+ length. Good to drink now, but could last another 3-5 years.