Spain’s New-Style Wines
Long gone are the days when Spanish wines were heavy clunkers, over-oaked, high in alcohol and frequently oxidized. Historically, hot arid conditions and rudimentary resources had given winemakers little choice. Long aging was needed to tame wines that were raw, tannic and heavily concentrated. But Spanish winemakers had learned to make a virtue of necessity and even the very finest wines were styled around long oak aging.
In Rioja, Spain’s best known and most prestigious wine region, classic wines were noted for their oaky sandalwood perfume. As one distinguished wine writer put it, “In Spain, luxury is the taste of oak.” These traditional styles still exist, thank goodness! Among them, you’ll find some of the greatest wines in the world. In the brave new world of Spanish wine, though, traditional styles are starting to share the field with a wave of innovative, assertively fruit-driven wines.
Spain is home to a greater expanse of vineyards than either of the Big Two, Italy and France. However, total Spanish wine production lags well behind that of these giants, due to limited rainfall, poor soils in many areas and restrictive measures on irrigation. These harsh conditions throughout much of Spain have always been a huge obstacle to quality. New investment, better vineyard management and winemaking practices have all played a part in turning that around, however. The biggest single factor has been the use of stainless steel and controlled-temperature fermentation. Now, even blisteringly hot semi-arid regions are producing stunningly attractive, freshly fruity wines. Better still, since most of these regions have yet to establish a pedigree, prices can be incredibly reasonable.
Dynamic young winemakers have emerged – many of them women – to put a firm stamp on the wine map. Prestigious bodegas in Rioja and other premier wine regions, have seen that new technologies offer great potential and have begun to expand into long-neglected appellations. Then only twenty-five, Alvaro Palacios of Rioja’s Palacios Remondo left the family firm in 1989 and joined other young winemakers to plough new furrows in Priorat. Venerable Rioja producers such as Marques de Riscal have established satellite operations in Castilla and Rueda.
Although classic international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay have played a large role in Spain’s wine development, it is the magnificent rebirth of the country’s native varietals that hold the greatest promise. And the leader of the pack is Tempranillo.
Always the mainstay of Rioja blends, this noble grape is appearing in a number of new guises. Its special qualities have been allowed to shine through as a single variety more often than in the more customary blends. Spanish regulators don’t seem quite as hung up about specific grape varieties as the French or Italians and permitted combinations are not as restrictive. Interesting and uniquely Spanish blends are showing up, often featuring Tempranillo with other varieties in a supporting role. Amazingly, Spain claims some 600 native varieties, although only about 20 of these are widely planted.
Tempranillo can rightly claim its place of pride as the most widely grown and respected red grape, thriving as it does in so many different regions. Depending on where you are, it can appear variously disguised as Cencibel, Ull de Llebre and Tinto Fino. These days though, with the international consumer well in mind, most labels will carry the better-known Tempranillo name. Some remarkable examples of Tempranillo are emerging from the large Castilla-La Mancha area, smack dab in the semi-arid central Spanish plain, a remarkable departure for a region previously known only for crudely made rustic wines.
In the more northerly Castilla-Leon region, the rediscovered Toro appellation has been making waves. Castilla-Leon is one of the driest wine-growing regions in the country with an average annual rainfall of only 300 millimetres. Before the current technological revolution took hold, winemaking was primitive and the wines were crude and excessively alcoholic. Now, tired old cooperatives have reinvented themselves and are starting to create stunningly good wines. As elsewhere in Spain, winemakers are using their skills to rehabilitate very old vines. Handled with proper care, these ancient stalks, often more than 100 years old, are yielding extraordinarily fine wines. Tempranillo is definitely king here, although in Castilla-Leon, it is known as Tinto de Toro.
The small region of Rueda in central Castilla-Leon was long famous for old-style, almost sherry-like whites, with a typical 15 per cent alcohol content. Today, some splendidly fresh, crisp whites are made from local varieties and also from Sauvignon Blanc.
In the southwest corner of Catalonia, not far from Tarragona, long-neglected Priorato (known as Priorat to the Catalonians) is creating great excitement. Under the inspired leadership of Alvaro Palacios and his small group of pioneers, this poor but compellingly beautiful area of Catalonia is making some of Spain’s most dynamic wines – complex age-worthy reds.
Jumilla in arid southeast Murcia, used to be home to heavy, thickly concentrated alcoholic reds. Today, the wines are still full-bodied and robust, but with more elegant fruit and complexity.
A brief note on terminology and classification
Historically, the requirement for long aging put a premium on classifications such as Reserva and Gran Reserva; wines must spend many years in oak and go through further bottle aging before release. With the advent of the new, fresher styles, the term Vina Joven -young wine bottled without oak aging – is increasingly making an appearance. These wines are often charming, offering enjoyable early drinking and great value. Tempranillo adapts very well to this style, making a delightfully fruity, lighter wine.
Similarly, wines labelled Vino de la Tierra, as in Vino de la Tierra de Castilla – the equivalent of the French Vin de Pays – can also represent great value. As better wine is being made in the lesser-known regions, wines bearing this modest designation are often inexpensive and of excellent quality.
A note on other native Spanish grapes
While Tempranillo remains the undisputed king of native red varieties, other traditional grapes such as Garnacha (Grenache), Cariñena (Carignan) and Monastrell (Mourvèdre/Mataro) can also achieve excellent results, especially when skilfully blended.
Among whites, look particularly for Verdejo (Verdeho in Portugal) and Viura, also known as Macabeo in Catalonia and Rioja. The new star white, though, is undoubtedly Galicia’s Albariño, which is swiftly becoming recognised as world-class.
Many others could be mentioned. As Spanish winemakers continue to use modern techniques to get the best out of their unique heritage, more can be expected to make their mark in the future.
88 Vina Bajoz Ovacion DO 2001, Rueda ($13.49)
This blend of 60 per cent Verdejo and 40 per cent Viura is a fine example of the new Spanish style. It is full of fresh, ripe grapefruit and green tropical fruit on the nose with lovely sweet, ripe green fruit, peach and melon on the palate, and crisply fresh acidity and long, delicate tropical fruit on the finish. A charming, superbly balanced wine.
89 Bodegas Piqueras Castillo de Almansa 2002, Almansa Reserva ($10.25)
From a small Denominación de Origen in Castilla-La Mancha, this blend of Tempranillo, Monastrell and Garnacha is old-style but made to modern standards. Plenty of plum, black cherry and clove on the nose and robust, appealingly rough texture in the mouth. Black fruit, good weight and a touch of oak on the finish. A hearty robust drop to pair with similarly robust food or Manchego cheese.
88 Riscal Tempranillo 1860 2004, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla Y Leon ($13.79)
From Marques de Riscal of Rioja fame, this is an excellent example of new-style fruit-first Tempranillo, showing lively red-berry and currant flavours with supple texture, deft balance and finishing with a touch of peppery spice.
88 Bajoz Joven Tinta de Toro 2003, Toro ($12.79)
The bouquet is reminiscent of Beaujolais, with fresh young fruit and a bit of peppery spice. Fresh berry/plum on the palate is backed up by a stiff dollop of firm but agreeable tannin and lively acidity. Zesty fruit character pairs well with grilled meats and spicy pasta dishes.
88 Bajoz Cano 2003, Toro ($10.99)
A blend of 75 per cent Tinta de Toro (Tempranillo) and 25 per cent Garnacha, this ruby-coloured wine has plum and berry and lightly gamey scents with plenty of red-berry fruit in the mouth. Tannins are firm, with good weight and balance and some earthy rustic notes.
89 Casa de la Ermita Tempranillo/Monastrell/Cabernet Sauvignon 2001, Jumilla ($20)
Traditional meets contemporary with this marriage of classic Spanish grape varieties and Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged for ten months in new French and American oak, it is full-bodied, with deep red fruit and pungently earthy notes, typical of Monastrell. Fruit is developed, with concentrated richness in the mouth, firm tannins and balanced acidity.
90 Castell de Falset 2000, Monsant ($30)
Monsant is just across the mountain from Priorat. This is a powerful, complex wine made from old vines (at least seventy-five-years-old) Grenache and Carignan and twenty-five-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in French oak and unfiltered. The bouquet is intensely concentrated with dark fruit, elegant spice, liquorice and subtle oak. Huge on the palate, with thickly textured black cherry, plum and liquorice flavours, firm tannins and youthful acidity, seamlessly integrated finish.