River valleys are the gold standard of winemaking. Vine growers have for centuries known that grapes cultivated in valleys make the most sought-after wines, a reality attested to by prime regions across the world including Alsace, Barossa Valley, Bordeaux, Burgundy through Napa Valley, the Rhône and Rioja. Prominent among them is the Duero River valley, known as the Douro when it crosses the border with Portugal as it heads toward its opening into the Atlantic Ocean. The region has been justly described as the modern red wine miracle of northern Spain. Its roots, and hence its pedigree, however, go back a long way.
Late last century archaeologists excavating an early human settlement in the valley made a discovery that stunned academics and historians. It had long been thought that Middle Eastern traders such as the Phoneticians had brought winemaking culture and know-how to Spain’s southern coast around 2,000 years ago and that it had slowly penetrated the Iberian peninsula from there. The dig at a site along the Duero Valley near its confluence with the Duratón River found remarkably advanced winemaking equipment and several ceramic drinking cups still containing traces of wine. Laboratories confirmed the equipment and cups, of a type known as craters similar to those used along the central Mediterranean region, dated from the fourth century before the Christian era, that is, more than 2,400 years ago.
Drive or take a bicycle tour through the region, today known as Ribera del Duero (banks of the Duero), and you will see vast numbers of little stone towers sticking out of the tawny ground. These are known as respiraderos or breathing turrets whose aim is to provide ventilation to uncounted miles of underground tunnels that have been used to make and store wine for centuries. While some have crumbled and disappeared over time, a surprising number are still in use today, stretching from Burgo de Osma in the province of Soria at the eastern end of the region, across the plain of Old Castile to the once imperial city of Valladolid to the west. Intriguingly, some underground cellars retain arabesque-style horseshoe-shaped arches holding up ceilings, echoes of Spain’s ancient Moorish past.
The region went through a golden age when Isabel I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, known as the Catholic Monarchs, married in Valladolid in 1469 and made it the capital of the Kingdom of Castile and then of a united Spain. The city flourished, housing a fabulously wealthy royal court and attracted famous writers such as Miguel de Cervantes, Francisco de Quevedo and José Zorrilla. Navigator Christopher Columbus, following his voyages of discovery to the New World, died in Valladolid in 1506. The city reached its zenith when Philip II, the Hapsburg king of Spain and its world-spanning empire, made the city his capital from 1601 to 1606 before finally moving to Madrid.
The departure of the court and its wealth to Madrid began a decline in the region which hit rock bottom when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded and occupied Spain, leading to the Peninsular War (known in Spain as the War of Independence) which lasted from 1808 to 1813 and saw Valladolid ravaged by fighting and ransacked several times. “It was a terrible time, they destroyed and took so much from us,” said Enrique Diez, husband of Josefina Martín Berdugo who is the current owner and custodian of our vineyards. The decline was halted with the arrival of the railway in the 19th century but by that stage, the vast expanses of vineyards in the region, whose wines had once graced the tables of Spain’s imperial aristocracy, were reduced to making pink-colored wine that was stored in animal skins.
The memory that the region had once made wines of stature somehow remained alive and midway through the 19th-century new investment arrived and the first high-quality winery was established, making wine with an “astonishing, penetrating personality,” according to renowned expert Hugh Johnson. A slow transformation began to revitalize the ancient vineyards and in 1982 the regulatory body, D.O. Ribera del Duero, was established, drawing up regulations aimed at fomenting quality and promoting the region across the world.
Today no wine importer, retail outlet or restaurant of stature would be complete without including Ribera del Duero on its lists. Located just east of Aranda de Duero, Martín Berdugo’s single-vineyard estate offers a full range of styles made from the region’s acclaimed Tempranillo grape. Now that much of the vineyard has reached the significant milestone of 30 years since its plantation, wines of increasing depth and personality are being made with every vintage. Please contact us if you wish to know more about our estate and its significance within this historic wine region.