Stage 18: Roa to Riaza

Tempranillo Glass

Rioja vs. Ribera del Duero

After Wednesday’s blistering time trial run by Tom Dumoulin of team Giant-Alpecin, the overall GC standings are closer than ever, with Dumoulin in the red jersey.  But the real story was how Fabio Aru surprised everyone.  He trails the red jersey by just three seconds after acquitting himself admirably in the time trial, which is not his specialty.  Third place is held by Joaquim Rodriguez,  just 75 seconds off the lead.  With the next three days taking the peloton back into the mountains, the question on everyone’s mind is, can Dumoulin hang with the other GC contenders through the next batch of rough terrain?  I don’t know, but I’m really looking forward to watching the race play out.  Who will be on the podium in Madrid?  Stay tuned . . .

Stage Eighteen is a long one, and it becomes steadily harder as the riders progress.  There are two Cat 3 climbs about halfway through, then lots of bumps until the sprint.  After that the bumps become a bit longer and steeper, leading to the Cat 1 climb up the Puerto de la Quesera (1740 meters); then a tricky descent over narrow roads leads us to the finish.  Sounds like a few of the days last week, doesn’t it?

Since we’re still in Ribera del Duero country, I thought I would explore those wines in more depth, particularly how they stack up against the wines from Rioja.  Both are based predominantly on Tempranillo (Tinto Fino in RDD), but they are quite different beyond that.  Rioja’s grapes enjoy a more moderate climate and have the benefit of a very long growing season, whereas in Ribera del Duero, the climate is harsh, with searingly hot summers and frosty winters.  The growing season is notably shorter than in Rioja, with grapes harvested almost a month earlier.  All of these distinctions show up in the glass.  Pour a glass of each and place them side by side.  Here are some things you might notice:

Color:  Chances are one glass will be noticeably darker, more purple than red.  That will be the RDD wine.  Riojas are known for their clear ruby color which is much lighter and less dense than the inky purple-black of RDD.

Smell:  Just as the colors differ, so will the aromas.  The Rioja will be redolent of fresh red fruit, strawberries and cherries, maybe a floral note as well, while the RDD smells a lot like it looks – really ripe black fruit, blackberries, especially.  You may also notice whiffs of vanilla coming from the Rioja.  That will be the influence of oak (probably American), which is traditional in Rioja.  In Ribera del Duero, French oak is more common and imparts a less assertive vanilla/toast character to the wine.  You may love one and hate the other – and there are many wine lovers in each camp.  Oak is definitely a personal preference!

Taste:  Again, the Rioja will be full of red fruit flavors, perhaps cherry and cranberry, with notes of coconut on the finish (the oak again!)  As you might expect, the RDD wine tastes more of spice – I always think I detect black licorice – and those really ripe blackberries.

Weight:  Because of the conditions in which the grapes are grown, RDD wines can be massively powerful, with relatively high alcohol levels.  Rioja wines can also manifest power but they tend to retain a bit more acidity, which keeps that alcohol in balance with the rest of the wine’s components.  As a result, when tasted in comparison, the RDD wines may feel bigger and more structured than their counterparts from Rioja.  I’ve heard the difference described this way: Rioja wines are a tad bit softer and more floral, more feminine wines, while Ribera del Duero wines have a more masculine profile.

How does that comparison stand up to your own observations?  Does the generalization hold true across all categories of the wines, or do the longer-aged wines have more similarities than differences?  What’s your preference?