Some of the best wines coming out of Europe these days are from Ribera del Duero, the swath of land that cuts east-west along the Duero river, north of Madrid. Though these rich, intense, and deeply complex Ribera reds have a growing number of devotees around the world, the region itself is still largely undiscovered. Lacking the easy accessibility of, say, Napa or Loire vineyards, Ribera's bodegas (wineries) often require appointments for visits—and a basic knowledge of Spanish is helpful in getting around. Until recently, when a flurry of new hotels and inns attached to wineries started opening, even rooms were scarce. But for the adventurous oenophile, the payoff in visiting Ribera now is enormous. Medieval castles, ancient walled cities, and wildflower fields fill the landscape. The bodegas are small, with intimate tasting rooms and vintner-led tours (try finding that in Napa). And the regional food—lechazo asado (roast baby lamb), jamón ibérico (cured ham), rich sheep's milk cheese— alone is worth the trip. It's only a matter of time before the crowds arrive.
STAY Use one of the several new bodega hotels as a base. We like the centrally located Hotel Torremilanos at the Bodegas Peñalba Lopez (Finca Torremilanos, Aranda de Duero; 34/94-751-2852; www.torremilanos.com; doubles from $173), just west of the region's main town, Aranda. The lobby is grand, and the service outstanding, though the 20 rooms are basic. The pretty terrace off the breakfast room is just the place to sip a glass of wine in the late afternoon. At the western end of Ribera, Hotel Arzuaga (Bodegas Arzuaga, Km 325, Carr. N122, Quintanilla de Onésimo; 34/98-368-1146; www.arzuaganavarro.com; doubles from $180) has a tasting room and a restaurant in front. Guests can also have breakfast on the patio. Ask for a room that looks out over the vineyard.
TASTE Seventy-three-year-old wine maker Alejandro Fernández put the region on the map with Tinto Pesquera (2 Calle Real, Pesquera de Duero; 34/98-387-0037; www.pesqueraafernandez.com). Considering its renown, the winery itself is surprisingly small and quaint. Here, in a tasting room that feels like a private library, you can try some of Pesquera's best: a 2000 El Vinculo Campa de Criptana, with a pretty raspberry nose and bright acidity; the 2000 Condado de Haza, with a sweet fruit aroma, terrific concentration, and a generous, round palate; and the 1996 Pesquera—very rich, very long, and delicious. The nearby Condado de Haza (Carr. de la Horra, Roa; 34/94-752-5254; www.condadodehaza.com), Fernández's other Ribera bodega, is more of a showplace than the charming Pesquera. (Fernández's collection of restored antique vineyard equipment is on display in the courtyard.) Large and modern, the cellar houses thousands of barrels, including ones signed by Spanish royalty, soccer stars, and actors; it's the Iberian equivalent of the signed head shots you see in Los Angeles dry cleaners—all the bodegas have them. The sprawling winery is also the site of a splendid house that Fernández built recently for his family. • Don't be deterred by the unmarked dirt road that leads to Bodegas Peñalba Lopez (see Hotel Torremilanos). The 102-year-old estate is spread over 492 acres, including some planted with 80-year-old vines. The winery makes its own barrels from its vast store of oak staves; if you want to see how it's done, the cooper will often oblige by whipping a few barrels together on the spot. Try Peñalba's 2000 Torremilanos Crianza, which has a black-cherry nose and nice silky texture, or the 1997 Torre Albéniz: herbal, quite complex, and very elegant.
EAT You'll likely find throngs at the door of Mesón El Pastor (11 Plaza de la Virgencilla, Aranda de Duero; 34/94-750-0428; lunch for two $71), one of the region's best asadores—a type of restaurant named for the wood-burning brick oven at its heart. There's nothing that goes better with a red Ribera wine than lechazo asado, roast baby lamb with crackling skin and tender meat. Here, in a low-ceilinged room filled with brass chandeliers and mounted antlers, an order of lechazo is assumed. Servers will ask not what you'd like to order, but whether you'd like entremeses—salad, jamón, morcilla, chorizo—before the lamb arrives. (You would.) The extensive wine list ranges from Joven (young wines) to Gran Reserva (outstanding vintages, at least two years in oak and three in bottle). • Among the town of Peñafiel's steep winding lanes and tree-filled parks is the excellent Molino de Palacios (16 Avda. Constitución, Peñafiel; 34/98-388-0505; lunch for two $78). This old water mill turned restaurant serves the ubiquitous lechazo along with jamón ibérico, lomo ibérico (cured loin from the same type of pig), sheep's milk cheese, and, in the spring, white asparagus. After lunch, take a trip up the hill to see the 15th-century Moorish Castillo de Peñafiel, which houses a wine museum and tasting room. • The tavern-style Mesón de la Villa (3 Plaza Mayor, Aranda de Duero; 34/94-750-1025; dinner for two $84), set on the site of the region's oldest underground bodega, is a favorite among local winemakers. Intensely traditional, the food here includes piquillo pepper rellenos, generous platters of wild porcini, squab estofada, suckling pig, and Burgos cheese with honey and delicious bread.
THE ROUTE Most of the wineries lie off the N122, the road that follows the Duero river, but you'll also want to hit the backroads to the north to see the region's other highlights DON'T MISS The tiny village of Guzmán, whose pride is the 12th-century Virgen de las Fuentes Church, and the ancient walled town of Peñaranda del Duero, with its gorgeous Moorish castle RESOURCE Visit www.riberadelduero.es for more information
Whether you're wining and dining in Ribera del Duero or simply browsing at your local bottle shop, here are three of the region's dense, fruit-filled vintages that you don't want to miss. • Bodegas Emilio Moro's 2001 Malleolus ($62) tastes of concentrated cherries, berries, and smoky oak—plus a kiss of vanilla. • Bodegas Uvaguilera Aguilera's 2001 Palomero ($120) has an extraordinarily bold profile that combines truffles, herbs, berries, smoke, and even leather. • With hints of cherries, truffles, currants, and licorice, Bodegas Vega Sicilia Unico's 1995 Reserva ($325) is a bit of Ribera royalty—and has a price tag to match.—Anthony Giglio