NYC: A Report From Drink Ribera. Drink Spain. Grand Tasting 2013

Last week in New York City, in a Mandarin Oriental ballroom high above the streets of New York City, 120 winemakers from the Ribera region of Spain gathered to showcase their wines for distributors, sommeliers, journalists and others. It was an eye-opening event for anyone without a serious background in all matters involving the tempranillo grape. In that spirit, let's start with a bit of a primer, with 10 things you should know about Ribera and its wines (before I recount my experiences at the Ribera Grand Tasting):

10- The Ribera region is located about 90 minutes' drive north of Madrid, and is situated on the Duero river ("Ribera" means "river bank," hence the region's name "Ribera del Duero.").

9- The main grape variety grown in the Ribera region is Tempranillo, referred to locally as "Tinto Fino" or "Tinta del País." The red grapes grow smaller, in looser clusters and with tougher skin than in most other regions of Spain, leading to a richer color and more full-bodied wines.

8- Winemaking in Ribero dates back over 2,000 years to the Roman era.

7- The Ribera del Duero has the highest average elevation in Europe for growing red wine grapes, with most vineyards planted between 2,500 and 2,800 foot elevations. The growing season is shorter here than in many European wine regions, and there's minimal rainfall.

6- One of its oldest and most respected wineries is Bodega Vega Sicilia, founded in 1864, and today producing highly coveted bottles like the Vega Sicilia Unico vintages (many of which sell for north of $300 a bottle).

5- There are now about 270 wineries operating in the region, which became certified as Denominación de Origin (D.O.) in 1982. What this means is that the region is subject to a sort of governmental quality control, and the wines must be composed of at least 75% Tempranillo grapes.

4- Ribera wines typically fall into one of five designations: Cosecha or Joven, fruity wines that are unoaked and aged only three to six months after harvest; Crianza, aged two years with some time in oak barrels; Reserva, aged three years with a minimum of one year in oak; Gran Reserva, exceptional wines made in select vintage years only, with release limited to after October 1 five years after harvest; and Rosado, rosé wines fermeneted with minimal skin-to-juice contact.

3- The United States is the top market for wines from Ribera.

2- The average size of a vineyard in Ribera is 5.3 acres.

1- Almost 98% of the wineries in Ribera are family owned.

Now that you know all of the above (most of which I personally did not know before attending the Grand Tasting), let me tell you a bit about the event itself.

After check-in, attendees could either enter the tasting or attend a seminar. I took advantage of a very special seminar — Pablo Alvarez Mezquiriz hosted a vertical tasting of Bodegas Vega Sicilia wines. I'll have much more on this later (as well as an interview), but suffice it to say that the wines he poured were extraordinary, and hearing him discuss the Vega Sicilia philosophy was inspiring.

Inside the Grand Tasting, it was something of a Spanish wine lover's paradise. A buffet table with the greatest hits of tapas — chorizo, jamon iberico, patatas bravas and croquetas, to name a few — while booths featuring Ribera wineries lined the windowed walls looking out onto Manhattan's skyline.

Most of the booths featured wines that are available in the U.S. I met several of the importers and distributors and tasted through the boldest red wines I've ever had that didn't have Bordeaux or Barolo on the label. Olé Imports, for instance, poured selections from Bodegas Vizcarra, several of which I may begin hoarding.

I met several female winemakers, including Lina Páramo Arroyo, who runs one of the region's few certified organic wineries, Bodega Páramo Arroyo. She was among the winemakers at the Grand Tasting seeking U.S. importers. I also met Maria Luisa Cuevas, managing director for Ferratus, a woman whose big personality seemed to match her wines. And, most likely, a great example of why it's worth learning more about Ribera's wines: they've got personality.

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