FOOD & DRINK / Grapevine: Kathryn McWhirter on a great Spanish region

WINEMAKERS normally fall over themselves to open bottles for visiting wine writers. Not so the makers of Vega Sicilia, Spain's most expensive red wine.

Journalists are lucky to get a drop at the imposing Vega Sicilia estate, and they say that even the King of Spain is on a tight allocation, such is the demand for this complex, powerful red. (In Britain you'd pay between pounds 40 and pounds 80 a for ready-to-drink bottle.) Vega Sicilia used to be the only fine red from the Ribera del Duero (literally 'the banks of the Duero', the up-stream extension of Portugal's port river, the Douro), a region of gentle, pine-covered hills a couple of hours' drive north of Madrid. Now the Ribera del Duero has become a cult area for Spanish winemakers and wine enthus-iasts. Seven new estates sprang up last year alone. Even Rioja producers, a little further north, have recognised the area's potential, and three have moved in to start to grow and make their own Ribera del Duero wines. Not all the new wines are good, but the best are rich and concentrated, a match for the very best Riojas. The finest competitor to the big Vega Sicilia estate is Alex-andro Fernandez, once the smith and agricultural machinery merchant of the village of Pesquera, with a wine-making business on the side. His sudden rise to fame in America and Spain has made his wines expensive, but the taste is worth the price: the vintage currently on sale here is the rich, velvety ****1991 Pesquera Crianza (pounds 9.99 Oddbins, pounds 10.42 Laymont & Shaw of Truro by mail order), a delicious, raspberry-fruity red with strong oak flavour. This will be brilliant (and certainly sold out) in two to three years. Also worth keeping a few years, ***1990 Mesoneros de Castilla Crianza, Ismael Aroyo (pounds 6.35 Fullers, pounds 7.95 Wine Society, pounds 7.99 David Byrne of Clitheroe, pounds 9.40 Berry Bros & Rudd of London SW1) is dark and tannic, chocolatey and slightly farmyardy, also with intense raspberry fruit. For impatient drinkers, the yummy ***1989 Duron Reserva (pounds 7.59 E&B Wines of Tonbridge, pounds 6.99 Harrison Vintners of EC1, pounds 8.17 Wine Appreciation of Doncaster) is ready now, soft and mature, with rich, ripe plum and strawberry fruit.

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