From the rebirth of old-vine Garnacha to multi-varietal whites and dabblings with amphorae, the Spanish wine scene is a riot of experimentation. Sarah Jane Evans MW takes a look at one of the most dynamic winemaking countries in the world
Spain is in a state of flux. The election in December was indecisive, and Catalunya is engaged in a furious 'stay or go' debate. There is energy, uncertainty and a sense of nervous excitement.
And the same could be said for the wines. They are quietly coming out of the oaky shadows of Priorat and Rioja, the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot elsewhere is waning and there is a terrifically exciting array of choice.
Spain’s old-vine material is astonishing, and it’s a heritage that has only been partly explored
Spain is a good place to go for wine customers who want to be adventurous. Along with the famous denominations (DOs) that we all know, there’s plenty that’s unexpected and inspiring from a country whose wine history, don’t forget, dates back to the Phoenicians.
Take a look at what the second most mountainous country in Europe (yes, really!) has to offer from its varied terroirs. It has classics like Rioja and Ribera del Duero; old-vine bottlings, especially from Garnacha; cool-climate Atlantic wines; chunky southern reds, all muscle and heft; textured, multi-varietal whites; and even amphora wines. And of course, to quote Paul Shinnie, the Spanish buyer for Alliance Wine, it also has 'Sherry, sherry and sherry!'
So let’s start with the one Spanish wine that every wine drinker already knows, and ask a difficult question: is Rioja really a must-buy, even for a radical list?
Greg Sherwood MW, senior buyer at Handford Wines, is unequivocal. 'You have to have Rioja. Quality has never been higher, and the 2010s are really exciting. The bodegas are focusing on their own styles, taking ownership of their brands, and they are unashamedly different from one another.'
It has been two decades since Rioja freed itself from its slavish attention to American oak, but that welcome move does not mean older wines should be forgotten. One of the most exciting recent developments in the region is the release of old Riojas made in 1945 and earlier. These historic Riojas are still relatively cheap and the only great old wines that are still affordable. Don’t waste time – snap them up!
Old vines and cool climes
Meanwhile, outside Ribera and Rioja, the talk is all about old vines, particularly Garnacha. This variety (the same as Grenache in France) was for years the powerhouse for high-alcohol, high-production red wines or rosés. Today’s gnarled, blackened stumps of centenarian, sometimes pre-phylloxera bush-vine Garnacha are producing just small quantities of concentrated wine from tiny berries.
These Garnachas are helping to revive the fame of places like Navarra (thanks to the elegant wines of producers such as Domaines Lupier and the energetic Viña Zorzal); Sierra de Gredos (with the dynamic Comando G); Salamanca (not yet exporting seriously); and the Vinos de Madrid region (with producers including Bernabeleva).
Try something new
Step outside Rías Baixas into one of the oldest denominations in Spain. Created in 1932, along
with Rioja, Jerez and Málaga, the ‘Sleeping Beauty of Galicia’, is now awakening. The white Treixadura variety dominates, making wines richer and a little softer than Albariño.
Also in Galicia, this DO is a lovely region with crunchy reds. It’s home to the terrific SWA Gold: Pizarra 2012, Algueira (£28.54, Bibendum Wine, 0845 263 6924). Shop around for other examples.
Producers to follow
- Raúl Perez, the wild child of Spain’s north-west (Indigo Wine)
- Norrel Robertson MW makes wines with personality under the El Escoces Volante (‘The Flying Scotsman’) label (Alliance Wine)
- Envínate, a quartet working in Ribeira Sacra, Canary Islands, Extremadura and Almansa (Indigo Wine)
An early leader in the charge was Alvaro Palacios, building the fame of Priorat through his Garnachas grown on the region’s llicorella slate. Priorat may have been influenced by the Rhône, but it is now making its own individual, identifiable wines with a real sense of place. Palacios is now returning to the same theme in Rioja: different soils, yes, but still rebuilding the reputation of Garnacha with terroir-driven wines.
This variety flourishes in so many regions and soils, however Spain has good reason to claim ownership of Garnacha. The Sardinians are now contesting it originated there, but Spain’s connections go way back. The country’s old-vine material is astonishing, and moreover it’s a heritage that has only been partly explored. The next time a wine-grower suggests that their 40-year-old vines are old, just get them to take a look at Spain’s heroic survivors.
Along with Garnacha, others who have made it this far include the remarkable Txakoli vineyards that survive the bracing, damp Atlantic climate. The result is ringingly fresh wines unlike anything in the world. Proof of their potential is the three medals – including a first-ever Gold – in the 2016 Sommelier Wine Awards (SWA). Tough on the tooth enamel but terrific with a plate of oysters or razor clams.
'We’ve been championing cooler-climate reds and white for years,' says Handford’s Sherwood. 'It’s almost old hat. So now we are drilling down into smaller villages and indigenous grape varieties.'
The Galician Wine Institute is keen on the idea of building the identity of 'Atlantic Wine'. Defining the geography is difficult but the style is very obvious: chilly, salty and mineral. Alvaro Ribalta, sales manager at Indigo Wine, thinks that there’s definitely mileage in the idea.
'Nowadays sommeliers are trying to find different and innovative ways to structure their wine lists. So why not have an Atlantic section, like they do for the Mediterranean?' he says. 'In fact, I’ve been considering restructuring our price list in a way that groups together Atlantic wines from both Spain and Portugal, if we find producers that fit the bill.'
While we’re talking of all things cool and maritime, mention should also be made of Spain’s island wines. The Canary Islands are genuinely Atlantic, with an astonishing number of denominations for such a small vineyard area. The wines’ success is part of our hunger for the authentic.
Take a chance
Many of these non-traditional wines do need organising differently on a list or, at the very least, explaining. At London’s Launceston Place, Agustin Trapero says: 'Rioja, Ribera del Duero, sherry and Albariño sell themselves. With other regions you may need to introduce them to the guest. As soon as you explain about the typicity, terroir and unique character of a wine region, about the producer’s style or techniques, or even anecdotes about the wine, then the guest will follow your recommendations.'
And some of these wines are almost impossible to dislike. For customers who want a blast of flavour in the glass, then a chunky southern red often works. Jumilla has been a regular medal-winner at SWA over the years for its reds – and it’s no surprise thanks to their energy and bold fruit flavours.
Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Sherry and Albariño sell themselves. With other regions you may need to introduce them to the guest
Bobal, a grape native to Utiel-Requena and once thoughtworthy only for cheap rosados, has been transformed into something deliciously rustic, verging on the elegant. A prime mover for the variety’s success in the UK has been ex-sommelier Bruno Murciano, co-founder of Spanish wine importer De Vinos; and also winemaker for his own range of wines that he produces with David Sampedro Gil at the Valencia-based Valsan 1831 winery, under the Compañía Vitivinícola del Mediterráneo label.
Tips from the floor
Sommelier and consultant Agustin Trapero picks out Spain’s up-and-coming varieties to watch
DO: Ribeira Sacra
The bright crunchy reds of Galicia are a must-buy. One to propose for lovers of Pinot Noir and Loire Cabernet Franc, though admittedly they can have a brisk and tight acidity which isn’t for everyone. Fresh and with moderate alcohol, Brancellao often appears in blends – reflecting the traditional vineyard field blends. Try A Torna dos Pasas 2013, Luis Anxo Rodriguez (£25.90, The Sampler, 020 7226 9500). Also look out for wines from Coto de Gomariz, Sameirás, Algueira and Dominio do Bibei.
DO: Valle de la Orotava
Orotava is one of the best-known DOs in Tenerife, partly through Suertes del Marqués (Indigo Wine, 020 7733 8391). This exciting producer is reviving a number of the Canary Islands’ old varieties that have lived in splendid isolation for decades. One of these is Vijariego (it exists in both red and white versions). There’s a rare 100% Vijariego Negro from the Tanajara winery (not currently in the UK), but it is mainly turning up in blends. Also look for wines from Tajinaste.
Grape: Prieto Picudo
DO: Tierra de León
Well-known for producing serious rosados, this region is also making chewy, fresh reds from this indigenous variety. Seek out the 2012 from Pardevalles (£12.99, Red Squirrel Wine, 020 3490 1210). Also keep an eye out for other examples from top producers such as Raúl Perez, Mengoba and Dominio do Tares.
Rufete is a variety coming in from the cold, currently in transition from a rustic red to the source of serious wine. While this DO is its home, it’s also turning up in other regions such as Sierra de Salamanca. Try the 2013 Roble (oaked) version from Arribes de Vettonia (£8.99, Red Squirrel Wine, 020 3490 1210).
For Alliance’s Shinnie, there are clear reasons to look at Spain’s lesser-fêted regions. 'They offer great accessible flavours that reveal the character of the people who make them and where they come from.' As an example, he cites Celler del Roure, one of Alliance’s producers in Valencia – which uses amphorae and works with the rare local variety Mandó.
With such a range of different styles and grape varieties being produced across the country there are plenty of approaches to selling these wines. The obvious technique is recommending a wine that’s similar to one that a customer already enjoys. For instance, you could offer a crunchy Mencía from Galicia to a lover of Loire reds. And if nothing else, it is surely worth offering a difficult guest a Canary Island wine and then watching their face when you say 'Bastardo!'
And don’t forget about the whites – there is a range of engaging varieties to tempt customers bored with Albariño. White Rioja has been enjoying exceptional growth this year, mainly fuelled by the squeaky-clean styles fermented in stainless steel rather than oak. You could suggest Merseguera from Utiel-Requena (Mustiguillo’s version is a great example). This local variety has a floral, almond delicacy that makes a welcome contrast from some of the fatter, richer white table wines of the south. Or pick a curiosity like Zalema from DO Condado de Huelva in the deep south. It’s another light white from Andalusia adjacent to sherry country, and perfect for drinkers who want to try something different from a familiar place.
If you want to stick with Jerez, try one of the new wave of non-fortified Palominos – the 'not-quite-sherries'. Top sherry producers like Equipo Navazos want to make more of this long-held regional secret: fino-style wines, aged under flor, but not fortified to the regulation minimum of 15%. Take a look at Navazos’ La Bota no44 Florpower, which is just 11.5%. More familiar are the white Garnachas from Catalunya, which are all about texture rather than fruit. They are definite food wines.
Speaking of textured whites, you can’t go past amphora wines – Spain has some of the best producers (and amphorae vessels themselves) – in the world. The wines are, as you might expect, a mixed bag, however a group has started to research quality and share knowledge in a bid to understand the minutiae of the amphorae and how to use them.
Josep Mitjans at Loxarel, a producer of the sparkling Classic Penedès (an initiative that operates outside DO Cava) uses amphorae for some of his still whites and reds, and is one of a number of Catalans now using the containers. His cellar lies beneath a vineyard that served as a landing strip during the Civil War. The cellar itself was a Republican shelter, and there is still a trap door up to the middle of the vineyard. Not surprisingly he calls one of his sparklings Refugi, in memory of that hideout.
It’s a sharp reminder of the horrors and upheavals that Spain endured barely 80 years ago, and a reminder of how far it’s come in a short space of time – progress that is being mirrored in the wine world, too.
The country’s flirtation with international varieties is fading. The next decade looks full of promise as Spain finally steps out of the shadows.
Sarah Jane Evans MW is a member of the Gran Orden de Caballeros del Vino, and a Dama do Albariño
Illustration: Laurence Whiteley