Why Spain is the most exciting wine country in Europe

Spain,Europe, People & Places Articles
  • Tuesday 14 October 2008

Innovative winemakers, investors and owners, regional diversity, and the rise of native grapes have made Spanish wine the biggest hit of the
year. SARAH JANE EVANS MW flies the flag

All hail the nation of champions. Home to Wimbledon and Olympic star

Rafael Nadal; this year’s European football champions; Oscar winner Javier Bardem; world-renowned chef Ferran Adrià of El Bullí fame; and many more.

Spain is the most vibrant and interesting of European nations today. Yet, to outsiders, the most famous Spaniards are long dead: the tortured and torturing grand inquisitor Torquemada, the dreary, teary Saint Teresa of Avila, and the gloomy King Philip II, whose Armada came to a sticky end thanks to the English (and the weather).

The same goes for the image of its wine. Spain is home to some of the most interesting and exciting wines in Europe, made by passionate winemakers using local varietals. Leaving aside the cheap vino, the popular image of Spanish quality wine is still that old favourite, Rioja and, to those in the know, its neighbour Ribera del Duero.

Since they are both made from Tempranillo, more or less, it has been all too easy to dismiss all Spanish reds as being made from this grape – aged, of course, in American oak.

Even experts on Spanish wine seem to think this is the case. This year I judged at Tempranillos al Mundo, an annual competition organised by the Spanish Oenologists Association. It brings together Tempranillo wines from around the world – Spain, of course, plus Argentina, Australia, Greece and so on – to be assessed by panels of international judges.

At the outset, my table chair, a well-respected Frenchman, declared that the Spanish wines would all be obvious to us as tasters because all Spanish wines were matured in American oak.

Where, I asked myself silently, had he been in the past decade, with the invasion of posh French oak across the Pyrenees?

Our chairman also fell into the assumption that since Rioja comes from Spain, all

Spanish wine is Rioja. It’s a mistake that is easily made. In the UK 35% of the 6.6 million 12-bottle cases of Spanish wines imported are from Rioja, only exceeded by the catch-all category of vinos de mesa (table wine) and others.

Put it another way, almost half of the £321 million of Spanish wine sold in the UK comes from Rioja. Given such revenues, Rioja has the budget to promote itself, and to commission worldrenowned architects such as Santiago Calatrava (another champion Spaniard) and Frank Gehry to design astonishing wineries and hotels.

Ribera del Duero, too, has done a great job in leading us to

believe that all the wines from the DO are the same quality as Vega Sicilia (see this month’s Ribera tasting, p101, to find out).

There is plenty happening in Rioja and Ribera del Duero, but the really exciting work is happening elsewhere. There are revived varieties and revived regions, both given the shot of life by dynamic investors, winemakers and owners, happy to escape the regulations of traditional DOs. These are wines of the 21st century, mediated by centuries of history and a bold sense of regional identity (see By land, not by hand, p46).

My interest is in indigenous varietals, and the regions identified here are those where viticulturists are regenerating old vineyards. So my focus is not on newer

areas, like Somontano, which have had real success with international grapes.

Equally, I’m excluding established DOs such as Navarra, to sharpen the focus.

Rediscovered grapes

Of the trio of factors to consider – varieties, regional diversity and people – let’s begin with the varieties, since the case for Spain’s originality starts with the grapes themselves. In the marketing game, Spain’s neighbour Portugal stole a march by launching itself as a premium producer of table wines made from indigenous grapes that need a pronunciation guide (see this month’s Portugal supplement, p79).

Spain needs to catch up. Tempranillo is the most famous of the native grapes, and long ago earned its place in the pantheon of noble varieties. Now Spain must boast of its distinct qualities.

The new kid on the block in terms of exciting varietals is Monastrell, known in France as Mourvèdre and in Australia and elsewhere as Mataro. It’s a variety that flourishes in dry, hot climates, hence its dominance in Murcia and Alicante, where influential winemaker Enrique Mendoza has been such a pioneer.

Part of Monastrell’s appeal is its ripe fruit and softish tannins. Ed Adams MW, co-owner of the Báscula brand, is one enthusiast: ‘Monastrell is a fantastic variety, especially when the vines are 50 years old, and the fruit is extraordinarily concentrated.’ He explains why the quality of the Monastrell is so high: ‘Historically Spain just pumped out bulk wine. There were no funds for investment. As a result, there are still some old, ungrafted vines around. They’ve

become very valuable - ironically the years of poverty have helped growers today.’

Also on the list is Mencía, a newly rediscovered star, native to Bierzo in

north-west Spain. Mencía’s reputation has been built as much by the fame and

skills of the high-profile winemakers who favour it as on the character of the grape itself. It has delicate, strawberry fruit and fresh acidity which verged on

the sour in the old days. Careful viticulture and winemaking today makes deeper,

richer wines. Bierzo’s altitude and Mencía’s acidity should make it a winning combination in times of global warming.

Boldest of all the new-waves wines are those made from Garnacha and Cariñena in Priorat and Montsant. The history of how these two varietals, already well known in southern France, were revived in the isolated, dramatic slate terrain has been frequently told: the soaring reputation of these wines restored life to the dying villages. If there’s one caveat, it’s that for the wine lover today – and the weary wine judge – the relentless search for expression can produce some undrinkable wines. Undrinkable, that is, for three reasons: the intensity of the tannins exhausts the palate; the high alcohol exhausts the brain; and the astonishing prices exhaust the wallet.

The lie of the land

The Garnacha and Cariñena blends of Priorat and Montsant nevertheless have that true sign of quality: a sense of place. This expression of the microclimate and soil, the diversity of the regions, is the second strong reason to be excited about Spain.

The terrain is astonishingly diverse, capable of producing the finest expression of electrically crisp, low-alcohol white wines in the north and north west, as well as succulent, alcoholic reds in the centre and south. Although Spain’s first DO – Jerez – was declared in 1934, before the civil war, there remains much to explore and exploit.

The latest activity at the top end is the declaration of pagos, the single vineyards. Chivite’s Señorío de Arínzano, declared this year, is only the fifth since legislation changed in 2003. If you have the personality to drive the application for status and the cash to invest in the estate, then a pago can be yours – at a price. The difficulty for consumers is that, as John Radford explained in these pages in the May issue, they’re not a consistent guarantee of superior quality.

From north to south there are Spanish vineyards being revived or new ones planted. The best-known innovator in the south, in Andalucia, was the colourful Prince Alfonso de Hohenlohe, but he has been followed in the land around Ronda

by a number of other investors. Among the most recent has been banker José Manuel Ramos-Paul, whose El Chantre is in the Serranía de Ronda DO, a subregion of the Sierras de Ronda DO.

Where else are the good soils to be found beyond the classic regions? Wherever there is someone interesting at work, untrammelled by tradition and regulation. Hence Bierzo, and its more established neighbours Cigales and Toro; the individual pagos of the great stretch of Castilla–La Mancha; the east coast running north and south from Barcelona, including Conca de Barberà, Costers del Segre and Empurda; and Murcia, with the fashionable DOs of Jumilla and Yecla.

Spanish wine critic Bartolomé Sánchez captured the spirit in Spain Gourmetour this year: ‘Like a volcano, Bierzo is seething, with new projects following hot on the heels of the last, overlapping, combining and dissolving. The vineyard is taking on increasing importance and plantations of old vines are venerated and sought after like hidden treasure. Oenologists change jobs and wineries more readily here than in more established areas. The dynamism is palpable.’

Movers and shakers

Who are these dynamic people driving change? They fall into two categories: foreigners and local heroes. Spain has not been over-run by the usual foreign consultant winemakers. Those who have made the pilgrimage are passionate about what they find, and tend to stay.

They include South Africa’s Eben Sadie, whose work at Dits del Terra in Priorat informs his work in South Africa and vice versa. Bruce Jack, formerly the independent pioneer behind the Flagstone Winery in South Africa, also caught the Spanish bug with Ed Adams at Báscula, and retains it despite a more than full-time day job for global wine giant Constellation.

Ben Rose, the Australian viticulturist, and brother to Louisa Rose of Australia’s Yalumba winery, consults to Tempranillo producers in Spain. His compatriot Dr Richard Smart, the Australian guru on vine growing, is regularly to be found lecturing and consulting in the country.

Fortunately, Spain also has its own heroes. Local-boy-made-good Telmo Rodriguez worked for his family winery at Remelluri before setting off round Spain discovering old vines and renewing old traditions of winemaking. You can find his footprints in Cigales, Toro, Malaga and elsewhere. His enthusiasm is infectious. Then there’s the equally glamorous Alvaro Palacios, dedicated to both the regeneration of Priorat and the management of the family business. Catch up with his nephew Ricardo Pérez Palacios at Descendientes de J Palacios in Bierzo and Alvaro’s brother Rafael at As Sortes in Valdeorras.

Don’t overlook the older generation either, most notably former Decanter Man of the Year Miguel Torres. He may be just a few years from retirement, but in his years as the fourth generation at the helm he has reinvented the company an impressive number of times. Just because he attached plastic bulls to his Sangre de Toro bottles does not mean that he was not also capable of investing in long-term research into native varietals, which has culminated in the wine of Grans Murallas. The great walls in Conca de Barbera, after which the wine is named, make a remarkable estate where Torres has regenerated two varieties, Samsó and Garró. The wine is a worthy outcome for a long project.

There’s new money coming, too, in the shape of investors like Jorge Ordóñez, the US-based importer who has done so much to establish the reputation of the new Spain in America. Robert Parker is a barometer of the rising interest in Spain. The publication of his ratings caused a serious upheaval to established reputations: new wineries with no pedigree were suddenly getting top scores.

Undoubtedly the result has been a flurry of expensive wines which are excessively ripe and alcoholic. But following on from this burst of celebrity are regular wine shows round the country, where record breakers and aspirants can display to an eager audience. The varieties, the individuality, the soils, the people, the high prices – is this enough to explain the change in Spain? Certainly. Spain has been a longabandoned, peninsula. Cut off from Europe for centuries by the Pyrenees, by religious differences or by politics, it is now a vibrant force. Whereas the vineyards of Italy and France have been combed by the professionals, annotating every last inch in a geeky, respectful manner, Spain has been refreshingly free of that traditional, obsequious respect for wine regions; its potential is therefore huge. There’s only one country in Europe that could produce Ferran Adrià and Alvaro Palacios. Its dynamism is indeed palpable.

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