Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro is one of the more recognizable brands from the Spanish DO of Ribera del Duero.
Ribera del Duero — which literally means Duero Riverbank — is located in northwestern Spain, and is at the heart of Castilla y León, the country’s largest autonomy state. As the name suggests, the region benefits from the influence of the water of the Duero River which also passes through the nearby DOs of Toro and Rueda.
To me, quality and reputation-wise, Ribera del Duero DO is up there with the two DOCa (Ca for Calificada) regions of Rioja and Priorat.
Among the most renowned brands from this region are the iconic Vega Sicilia, the pioneering Tinto Pesquera (by the late Ribera del Duero legend Alejandro Fernandez), Bodegas Alion (from same owner as Vega Sicilia), and cult-wine Dominio de Pingus.
I had discovered Arzuaga wines way back in the 2000s and had always admired its style of both power and finesse. So, when 2nd generation owner Ignacio Arzuaga was in Manila, and the hardworking General Manager of Happy Living Corp., Julian Gagliardi, invited me to the Arzuaga meet and greet event, I did not hesitate at all. After all, I also found out from Julian that aside from the chance to converse with Seńor Arzuaga, there would be a wine tasting featuring their latest vintages and some added surprise wines.
A LOOK AT THE RIBERA DEL DUERO DO
Back in 2008, there was a strong buzz that the Ribera del Duero DO would be joining the highest wine classification in Spain, the DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada), joining the ranks of Rioja, which was the first to achieve this classification in 1991, and Priorat, which got it in 2000. But then this fizzled out.
The Spanish Government’s Agriculture department has been extremely stingy in adding to this classification. The additional word “Calificada” means “qualified.” The equivalent of this in neighboring Italy is their DOCG (Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita), with Garantita meaning “guaranteed,” which is their upgrade from the DOC (Denominazione d’Origine Controllata) classification similar to the Spanish DO. Italy currently has 76 DOCGs and 332 DOCs compared to Spain’s measly two DOCa and 69 DO wine regions. To think that Spain has the world’s largest vineyard area, and Italy is only 3rd after France!
But Spain obviously made up for this with its unique VdP or Vinos de Pago classification — their single estate classification that is closely patterned after the French Burgundy Grands Crus classification. There are now 21 VdPs, since this classification started in 2003 — I will write about VdPs in a future column as this is extremely fascinating to me.
Ribera del Duero’s difference from other regions also stems from its oak-aging. It followed Rioja in terms of its Crianza requirements.
Most Spanish regions follow the six-months minimum oak-aging rule on Crianza, with another 18 months minimum of bottle aging, so that is two years before commercial release of a vintage. But Ribera del Duero follows the same requirements as the Rioja DOCa region when it comes to Crianza oak-aging. Like Rioja, Ribera del Duero requires a minimum of 12 months oak-aging, and another 12 months of bottle-aging before commercial release.
This makes sense because most of the Tempranillo in this region needs oak-aging to tame its rustic tannins. Also, the minimum yield per hectare in Ribera del Duero is 7,000 kgs of grapes, very close to Rioja’s 6,500 kgs/hectare and Priorat’s 6,000 kgs/hectare. In contrast, in a DO region like La Mancha, the yield is over 10,000 kgs/hectare. Bodegas Arzuaga averages around 5,000 kgs/hectare — way below the DO yield requirement.
A CONVERSATION WITH IGNACIO ARZUAGA
Q: How important is the Philippines to your business? How big is Asia in terms of its contribution to the Arzuaga export sales?
Ignacio: Well, the Philippines to me is going to be an important market for us moving forward. I believe that wine is becoming part of the Philippine culture as when I was here around 15 years ago, I did not see what I am witnessing now with more Filipinos drinking wines. Asia in general is pretty important for us, as it ranks 3rd after our European and our United States markets. Japan and China are our top two volume generators in Asia.
Q: What do you think is the signature style of a good Ribera del Duero wine as differentiated from other wine regions?
Ignacio: To know the Ribera del Duero style is to understand the terroir, the soil, the climate. There is contrast in soil and temperature that adds to the complexity of our wines. The region has rich soil in the valley — that is not good for vines — and it has poor soil on the slope — that is very good for vines.
And there is the huge contrast in temperature between summer and winter, and even between day and night. Most important of which is during the harvest months of August and September where ripeness needs to be achieved. Day and night difference could go up to as high as 30Cº, with 25Cº difference being quite often. Therefore, the region gives the grapes the right acidity and the optimum ripeness that helps create well balanced wines Ribera del Duero is known for.
Q: What is your take on the Bordeaux varietals being added to Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero?
Ignacio: The rule in Ribera del Duero is still for Tempranillo (also known locally as Tinto de Pais) to be the majority varietal at a minimum of 75% of the DO’s red wine. The Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec are allowed up to 25%, while Garnacha (or Grenache in France) is allowed up to 15%, and local white varietal Albillo, is allowed up to 5% for a Ribera del Duero red wine. This is actually a good thing because of the flexibility these varietals allow us. But it really depends on the vintage, as sometimes our winemakers decide on which other varietal can complement our Tempranillo.
We have planted 5.7 hectares of Malbec in 2020 as we are starting to experiment more with this varietal. We also planted some Grenache as we feel Grenache can make our wines more approachable in its youth at lesser alcohol and higher acidity. But Tempranillo, as you can see from our Arzuaga red wines, is still by far the majority, being in the high 90% of our red blends.
Me: What is your take on the Vinos de Pago since your family also owns Pago de Florentino? And what to you is the justification of having this classification? And when did Pago de Florentino get the VdP classification?
Ignacio: The Vinos de Pago was born in 2003 because the regions where these estates come from, like DOs La Mancha, Navarra, or Valencia, are not recognized for quality wines. So, when some of these estates do special things and create very good quality wines, they are given the VdP classification, above and beyond the DO they belong to. You will not see this with popular regions like Rioja and Ribera del Duero as both these DOs are already well-recognized.
Our first vintage in Pago Florentino was 2001. We got our VdP classification in 2009 with our 2007 vintage. At that time in 2009, there were only nine VdPs including Pago de Florentino, but now this list is over 20.
Q: Finally, as a wine drinker, not an owner of a bodega, what is your favorite wine to drink?
Ignacio: I travel the world and appreciate different wines, but my preferred style of wine is still Ribera del Duero. Whether for everyday drinking or for special occasions, I still like Ribera del Duero.
CUSTOMARY TASTING NOTES
• Arzuaga Rosae 2021 — 100% Tempranillo; “red rose nose, notes of fresh strawberries, sour cherries, dry, lively acids, flinty and refreshing floral finish’’
• Pago Mota Chardonnay 2021 VdP — 100% Chardonnay; “lemon rind nose, peaches, clean and crisp, dry with lively citrus tones, and fresh vegetal finish”
• Arzuaga Crianza 2019 — 94% Tempranillo, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon; “nose of dried plums, violets, mocha, very silky on the body, nice soft tannins, well-balanced with enough grit and finesse for a delicious drink from whiff to finish”
• Arzuaga Reserva 2019 — 96% Tempranillo, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Merlot: “fragrant, notes of tobacco leaves, dried berries, cinnamon, very supple with juicy bitter-sweet tannins, lengthy in flavors and delectable at the end”
• Arzuaga Reserva Especial 2014 (Limited Edition) — one of two surprise wines, it is not presently available for sale in the country, and came from Ignacio Arzuaga’s personal cellar; 95% Tempranillo, 3% Merlot, 2% Albillo; “dark and inky, fruit-forward, very alluring nose that keeps adding flavors, from black currant, cocoa, to earthy notes, silky on the palate with friendly tannins, toasty, and long peppery finish”
• Gran Arzuaga 2014 (Limited Edition, less than 700 bottles made on this vintage)— the second surprise wine of the day; a blend with minimum 75% Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Albillo; “captivating complex nose, chocolate-mint, herbal, dried berries, amazing depth of flavors, full-bodied, meaty yet soft enough to savor the ripeness of the fruit, lovely lingering grainy finish”
These Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro reds we tasted were all amazing, ranging from an everyday go-to Crianza, which in my experience can beat Reserva wines from other Ribera del Duero producers, the ever-reliable Reserva, to the surreal limited-edition wines.
Bodegas Arzuaga had actually gone through a couple of Philippine importers in the past, but since 2021, the winery has found a good home in Happy Living Corp. For interest or inquiries on the Arzuaga wines, contact Happy Living at 8895-6507 or 8896-0336.
The author is the first Filipino wine writer to be a member of both the Bordeaux based Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux (FIJEV) and the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers (CWW). For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, wine consultancy, and other wine related concerns, e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check his wine training website https://thewinetrainingcamp.wordpress.com/services/