Master Sommelier Brett Zimmerman hosted the first-ever Drink Ribera Denver Workshop at Zengo yesterday afternoon; it included an in-depth seminar and walk-around tasting of more than sixty wines from the Ribera del Duero region. Winemaking there dates back 2,000 years to the Roman era; the Tempranillo grape, known locally as Tinto Fino, produces acclaimed wines that represent the peak of Spanish winemaking, combining modern technique with a steadfast respect for old tradition.
After the seminar, we talked with Zimmerman, who owns the Boulder Wine Merchant, about the growth of this winemaking region.
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Westword: What initially drew you towards the wines of Ribera?
Brett Zimmerman: As a sommelier, you learn quickly when a region has something special to offer. The wines that are here today are certainly on par with any great wine from any region around the world; some of these fetch prices that high-end Burgundys and Bordeaux do in certain places. One of the best wines I've ever had was a 1968 Vega Sicilia Unico, labeled as a wine of the land, prior to the D.O. of Ribero del Duero being put into place in 1982. There were a handful of producers -- as of 1982 there were nine producers -- and now, there are 270 producers. A lot of growth has occurred in a short period of time, and you can still see that separation of the old tradition; the people that were doing it in the early '80s and the people that have a stamp on the modern side of things.
There are people who are borrowing from modern, people who are borrowing from traditional, or a combination fo the two. It's a region that is so young relative to the rest of the wine world, so you'll continue to see development and growth -- with that, there will be growing pains. I was just talking to someone about the fact that there aren't a lot of producers that don't have synergy in a region, that have different kinds of ideas, whether it's the Consejo Regulador or a group of people who try to get it to the next level -- it will be interesting to see where it goes.
I like wines of place, and I like wines that are a single variety, I like blended wines as well, but it's really a great exercise to see a single variety wine in this case, Tempranillo, from multiple areas within a short distance from one another. Getting a chance to see how unbelievably different they can be -- that goes from the landscape to the temperatures to the population to all sorts of stuff. That western region is really putting the region on the map, but there's a lot in the next five to ten years of growth, things like Drink Ribera having an impact and making that happen. There's been a lot of government and producers hiring PR agencies and getting communities open and excited to what's going on.
Earlier, you spoke about the diversity of flavor with the wines, even for such a small region. What could someone new to the wines of Ribera expect?
Even being one variety, the hand of the winemaker changes things so much. A Joven-style wine with little or no oak, which can be really juicy and refreshing and vibrant from the cooler climates on the further east side of the zone, those wines will keep a Pinot Noir drinker really happy. That first wine that we tasted in the lineup today was $10, which is incredible for that price point. As you go up the levels, the more oak, the larger structured styles can certainly lend themselves to people who are used to drinking Cabernet or Bordeaux varieties, even Grenache-based drinkers -- a lot of red fruit tones. But Tempranillo specifically has more black fruit tones that go back and forth with a number of grape varieties -- there's a lot of versatility. In terms of price ranges, you'll find wines from Ribera that range from $10 up to $400.
Have you found that these wines are easy to find in the Denver/Boulder area?
You can find a lot of producers -- it really speaks to the growth. We're looking at seventy wines here that are looking for a home on the import side of things, and that suggests it will be getting more popular. The American community is their top export market, so it's an important market for them to invest in.
You pointed out that the wines of the Ribera region are very food-driven. In your experience, what are some of the foods you would pair Tempranillo with?
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One of the things that really helps with the food pairing is that these wines inherently have a bright acidity; I think Tempranillo has acidity, and the cool nights add a lot of brightness, but there's still structure and texture, so whether it's pairing things with proteins, like pork, beef, chicken or lamb, you can have something substantial and play around with it. For something oak-aged, you can have a bit more substance on the spice or robust flavors or, if you want something simple and clean, something that's a Joven-style can be great for even bold tuna or fish dishes because you don't have the issue of oak bringing out the oils of fish and making things taste fishy. There's a ton of diversity in terms of food and wine pairing. The Spanish culture is already geared towards food and wine and the celebration of food and wine, so it's fairly easy to ride the coattails and force people to have food and wine together -- they go hand in hand.