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Ribera del Duero vs Rioja

Ribera del Duero vs Rioja

Rioja or Ribera del Duero? What is the difference between one appellation and the other, and how do I recognise each one? Which Tempranillo should I drink and why? Are Rioja Tempranillo wines different from those of Ribera del Duero, or do they taste more or less the same? What are the differences? And what about the similarities? Which wine goes better with what I’m eating tonight? What if I’m not eating? Which wine would work better as a cocktail?


A comparison between Ribera del Duero and Rioja

These are two of Spain’s foremost regions, renowned worldwide for the characteristics of their vineyards and the high quality of their products. They are home to some of the most exclusive and outstanding wineries globally, which no lover of good wine can avoid. The characteristics of each of these regions give each bottle a unique quality that makes them delightful and incomparable.

Tempranillo has been the backbone of Spain’s most noble wine region, Rioja, for generations. The red wines of Rioja have been the signature wine of Spain for almost two hundred years. But since the beginning of the last century, wine lovers have also come to know Tempranillo as the main variety of another tremendous Spanish wine region, the Ribera del Duero.

Many sommeliers and wine merchants have appreciated the different facets of Tempranillo and the nuances that are evident in the cultivation of this variety in other areas of Spain.

Consequently, the overall selection of wines has increased. Which one do you like best? When they are Crianza wines, both wines are similar, although they have their own distinctive nuances. And there are at least two reasons for this:

1. Firstly, they use the same grape: Tempranillo.

2. Secondly, they both grow on clay and calcareous soils.

So, where does the difference lie? You will find the answer later in the article.


Characteristics of the region

In La Rioja, vineyards are grown on both sides of the Ebro River. The Ribera also has a river, in this case, the Duero and the region cover Burgos, Valladolid, Soria and Segovia. In Rioja and Ribera, the main grape variety is Tempranillo. But the grapes from which the wines are made vary.

As far as permitted grape varieties are concerned:

– There are four red varieties (Tempranillo, Garnacha tinta, Mazuelo and Graciano) and three white varieties (Viura, Malvasía and Garnacha blanca) in Rioja. However, Tempranillo is king in these parts.

– In Ribera del Duero, Tempranillo is permitted, as are the French Cabernet, Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. Garnacha and Albillo are also permitted, but in small quantities. As in Rioja, the most important variety is Tempranillo.

Rioja produces red wines (90%), white wines (5%) and rosé wines (5%), while Ribera del Duero produces red wines (98%) and rosé wines (2%). Rueda does not count, although some consider it a companion of the Ribera del Duero.


La Rioja

La Rioja is protected from cold winds by the Sierra de Cantabria and La Demanda mountains. Thanks to this, the climate is temperate continental: mild winters, warm autumns and summers without excessive heat. Thus, Rioja is a humid and warm region influenced by the Atlantic and Mediterranean climates.

The heat amplitude of this zone is relatively subdued and not very extreme, which enables the grapes to ripen deeper, develop more delicate skins compared to the Ribera del Duero vines and achieve higher quality nuances.

Many of the vineyards in La Rioja are situated on an elevated plateau 1,500 feet above sea level. The soils in the lower Rioja Baja are clayey, while the more elevated areas of Rioja Alves and Rioja Alta have more chalk and limestone. Although Rioja is an inland region, it is about an hour’s drive from the city of Portugalete on the north coast of Spain.


Ribera del Duero

The climate in the Ribera del Duero region is continental and semi-arid: long, harsh winters, hot summers and little rainfall. With these extreme temperatures, the grapes ripen more quickly and produce concentrated wines. And rainfall is 30% less than in Rioja. The annual sunshine here is more than 2400 hours.

In addition, during the September grape ripening season, the region experiences a wide range of temperatures between day and night. This directly impacts the thickness of the skins (grape skins) and consequently on the properties of the wine. Therefore, a more robust and full-bodied flavour is achieved.

The Ribera del Duero region is situated to the south and west of Rioja on a much higher plateau. The elevation of the vineyards in the Ribera del Duero ranges from around 2,300 feet to over 3,500 feet, making it one of the highest altitude vineyards in Europe.



The first aspect that differentiates the two regions, giving each a distinctive flavour, is geography.

The soils of D.O. Ribera is very varied. In the part with the highest altitude, it is a mixture of limestone and chalk. On the middle slopes, there is sand and clay. In the lowest position, there is only limestone. Thus, the Ribera del Duero wines are produced in the Castilla y Leon area, with fertile soil millions of years old and abundant in calcium and limestone minerals. Meanwhile, the climate of Ribera del Duero is characterised by low rainfall and extreme temperatures, combining cold winds in winter and dryness in summer. Consequently, the berries ripen less, resulting in highly aromatic and concentrated wines, but to the detriment of refinement.

Rioja wines are concentrated in the respective regions of La Rioja, Alava and Navarra:

– Rioja Alta has clay and chalk soils with a temperate continental climate.

– Rioja Baja is drier, with a semi-Mediterranean climate, the soils again clayey but with a rich iron-like mineral character.

– Rioja Alavesa is characterised by moderate winter temperatures with a low frequency of frosts and a landscape consisting of steep orograve and chalky soils. Thus, the mild temperatures of Rioja are conducive to the slow maturation of the grapes.

These soils have calcium and clay components that can retain water and deliver it to the grapes. This means that the more water is retained, the lower the concentration in the grapes and the lower the amount of sugars.

Taste of wine

Both D.O.’s use Tempranillo, also known as ‘Tinta del Pais’ in Ribera del Duero, as their main grape. However, the fact that they are made from the same variety does not mean that the wines taste similar. This is mainly due to two factors: climate and soil.

Differences in climate, rainfall, moisture, and soil characteristics affect the grapes’ quality and impact the vines’ ripening period. Thus, even though they are of the same grape variety, grapes may have thicker or thinner skins depending on the area. They may contain a higher or lower percentage of water, which affects the concentration of sugars and the final taste of the wine. The main difference between these wine regions is the climate.

In the case of Ribera, the temperature is more extreme, so the grapes are more concentrated. And this translates into more volume: their wines have more intensity, both in flavour and colour.

Thanks to the extreme climatic conditions combined with more fertile soils, the Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero tends to be stronger than that from Rioja, with higher alcohol content and riper, darker fruit. The wines can be denser and more textured, with assertive aromas of dark cherries, blackberries and sometimes cassis. Although oak ageing plays as prominent a role in Ribera del Duero as in Rioja, it is the dense, concentrated fruit that is the basis of the Ribera wines.

Rioja wines have a more fruity and berry-like flavour and are easier to drink. Primarily due to the terroir and dry growing conditions, Rioja Tempranillo is highly acidic with abundant floral and fruity notes. These wines are easier to consume, brighter and drier than the corresponding wines from Ribera.



In general, Rioja smells of red berries such as raspberries or strawberries. And Ribera smells of black berries, such as blackberries. To make it easier to remember: Ribera resembles the yoghurt of the fruit of the forest, which you are probably familiar with.


Combination with food

As in all of Spain, Rioja’s cuisine is characterised by large quantities of cured ham and roasted and baked meats. However, as already mentioned, Rioja is close to the sea, and quite a lot of seafood is consumed here as well. In fact, the high natural acidity of the Rioja Tempranillo makes it one of the best red wines in the world to drink with seafood.

Ribera pairs well with meats of all kinds and dishes with a powerful and intense flavour. The cuisine of the Ribera del Duero region places more emphasis on meat, with lamb playing a significant role. Few pairings between wine and food can match the delicious wine of the Ribera del Duero combined with grilled lamb chops.


Rioja or Ribera del Duero?

Rioja and Ribera del Duero are famous for their red wines. Although they may look the same to the untrained eye, each has its own distinctive characteristics. They can be appreciated with all the senses for the intensity of their colours, aromas and flavours, the delicacy of their textures and the sensations they evoke in the mouth.

There are many wines, as well as nuances, aromas and flavours. Each one is for different occasions. Some are ideal for a cocktail, others to accompany a delicious stew or give the perfect texture to fish. 

While there are certain similarities between them, these wines can nevertheless be easily differentiated.