Established in the 1860s, Vega Sicilia were the first to plant vineyards in the north central region of Ribera del Duero, a plateau that is known for its dry, sunny weather and cool nights. The combination of their traditional winemaking style, their exceptional terroir and respect for high quality has garnished them a place amongst the greatest wine estates in the world. Part of their uniqueness is imparted in their vinification/ageing methods. Fermented and aged in wooden vats, Único is then transferred into new barrels of both American and French origin before being furthered aged in older (and predominantly American) oak barrels and then finished in 180 HL wooden vats before being bottled. The total ageing time is between 6 - 9 years in both wood and bottle. This requires a huge investment in both time, dedication and money. Since 1982, the estate has been owned by the Álvarez family. They have been instrumental in guaranteeing their wines' high quality and reputation. In addition to their original estate, Vega Sicilia also own Alión, another Ribera del Duero, and Pintia, a top Toro, both of which are made with more modern methods (and with 100% tempranillo) though they still remain elegant and pure.
By the far the best known of Spain's wine regions is Rioja, which takes its name from the rio(river) Oja, a tributary of the river Ebro. Lying in the north of the country, along the Ebro valley, the area is sheltered from rain-bearing Atlantic winds by the dramatic Sierra de Cantabria to the north and west. The hilly vineyards are interspersed with orchards, poplars and eucalyptus trees. Rioja is further divided into three sub-regions - Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. The first two are best regarded, with vines planted on cool slopes with clay and limestone soils. The permitted grape varieties for Rioja are tempranillo, which is grown extensively in Rioja Alta and Alavesa and will form the backbone of all the best wines, garnacha, widespread in Rioja Baja and used to add body to the blend, and mazuelo (carignan) and graciano, both grown in miniscule proportions. The key to understanding Rioja is the technique used to mature the wine. Unlike most other areas of Europe, American oak barrels are used which give the wines their characteristic soft vanilla, almost coconuty flavour. Historically the wines were aged for periods far longer than legally required, until all the fruit character had died down and the end result was a light, tawny-coloured wine dominated by oak flavours. Although there are still supporters of this classic style, far more producers are making wines in a more modern way, allowing the dark berry fruit flavours to burst through balanced by a more judicious use of oak ageing and often opting for French oak now.