The New Spain

  • Friday 1 March 2002

A group of talented young Spanish winemakers is breaking away from the old guard and giving Spain a new reputation for producing exciting, modern wines. Spanish expert JOHN RADFORD looks at the cult wines of the future from around the country.

Winemakers are like policemen – they keep getting younger, and there comes a day when you realise that a new generation has taken over. Spain is a country steeped in tradition, which used to mean that the sons learned the same techniques as their fathers, because 'we have always made wine this way'. The present new generation, trickling in since the late 1980s, is different. The sons – and, increasingly, daughters – started asking questions about why wines were made in a particular way; they even dared question the DO system and the power of the Consejos Reguladores. The result, initially, was a new wave of 'maverick' and experimental wines which raised a few eyebrows but had little impact on the market. Then, by the mid 1990s, the new thinking began to manifest itself in 'mainstream' regions and by the end of the century almost every region had at least one, probably several new, emergent or reinvented bodegas turning out wines that would have been unrecognisable as recently as 1990.

Spain has always had its innovators, of course. Miguel Torres introduced stainless steel in the 1960s, Enrique Forner changed the face of ultra-conservative Rioja in the 1970s, Paco Hurtado of Riscal reinvented the Verdejo grape in Rueda in the 1980s and a man who has done more than most in the 1990s is Carlos Falcó, the Marqués de Griñón, with innovative projects all over Spain stemming from his originally experimental vineyard in Malpica de Tajo. Rioja is arguably still the most conservative wine area in Spain, but even here there are dissenters making wines in their own way. Fernando Domingo at Bodegas Primicia in Laguardia thinks that 12 months is too much oak for crianza wines but he still wants to call his wine Rioja, so he ages it for as long as he thinks is right and then racks it into old casks whose oak-effect is negligible for the remainder of the period. Paco Hurtado at Riscal is shamelessly using 40% of Cabernet Sauvignon in Barón de Chirel, on the basis that his family was growing the grape for 60 years before there even was a Consejo Regulador to tell them they shouldn't. The real departure, however, has been in wines made from the traditional Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo and (especially) Graciano grapes. This last shows up in varietal wines (most notably from Contino) but also in blends from two of the newer bodegas, Allende in Briones and Roda in Haro. Miguel Angel de Gregorio at Allende is turning out blockbusting wines with tremendous power, fruit and extraction from Tempranillo and Graciano. Carlos Díez at Roda is doing similar work with Tempranillo and Garnacha, and at a recent tasting in Sweden both Aurus (Allende) and Cirsión (Roda) were described as being totally unlike any other Rioja. They are made with the traditional grapes and spend considerable time in oak. The difference is purely in the winemaking, and it is astonishing.

CATALUNYA

Catalunya was the scene of another evolution in the early 1990s when the Gratallops project got under way. A number of young winemakers took over old plantations of Garnacha and planted new vineyards of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah in the cold, rocky, schistous soils of the highlands of Priorato. Most of them have become legends – notably Finca Dofi and L'Ermita (created by Alvaro Palacios), Clos de l'Obac (Carles Pastrana), Clos Mogador (René Barbier Fill) and Clos Martinet (father and daughter José-Luis and Sara Pérez). The Pérez family has gone one better and created a new wine called Cims de Porrera in a small vineyard 15km to the east in Porrera, which is a permanent fixture among medal and trophy winners. The 'Gratallops effect' has spun off into the neighbouring DO Tarragona. That part of Tarragona which (almost) surrounds Priorato – essentially the lower slopes of the Priorato mountains – will became a new DO in its own right in 2002 under the name DO Montsant. Sleepy old cooperatives have turned themselves into limited companies and followed the Priorato example, and the most notable and widely available wines are those from Celler de Capçanes, which was the first to break into the export market.

CASTILLA Y LEON

Looking ahead, probably the most dynamic region for 2002 is Castilla y León. Rueda is reinventing itself (for about the fourth time since 1972) with space-age winemaking technology for white wines (as witness Dos Victorias, made by Victoria Pariente and Victoria Benavides) and the first red wines under the DO since its foundation. These were finally classified Rueda from the 2001 vintage, and replace the old Vino de la Tierra (VdlT) Medina del Campo. Made from Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Garnacha they seek to emulate Ribera del Duero in quality – the best known of these is probably Yllera, made by Ramón Martínez at Bodegas SAT Los Curros. Meanwhile, in Ribera del Duero there is a new producer making waves, Bodegas Aalto. The winemaker here is Mariano Garcia, who used to make wine for Vega Sicilia and has always produced wine for his family firm (Bodegas Mauro – outside the DO zone). He's gone into partnership with Javier Zaccagnini, who was director of the Consejo Regulador for several years and is a marketing expert. Their first vintage, 1999, won't be released until later in 2002 but much has been sold forward to American collectors at ridiculous prices. Aalto (named after the Finnish architect) is one of the founder members of Grandes Pagos de Castilla, of which more in a moment.Much else is afoot in Castilla y León: the VdlT zone of Ribera del Arlanza, around the town of Lerma, 37km south of Burgos on the A-1, has applied for DO status. Only one bodega (Monte-Aman) has made any name for itself outside the region, but the style is again in the mould of Ribera del Duero, with Tinto Fino (Tempranillo) aged to Reserva level and commanding impressive prices.

The area with the most potential is probably the VdlT zone of Arribes del Duero, around the river Tormés on the Portuguese border. Here Arco-Bodegas Unidas is building the new bodega for the Durius wines of the Marqués de Griñón. Until now grapes for these wines have been sourced from vineyards in Toro, Rueda and Ribera del Duero, but new and re-trained vineyards will provide grapes in the near future, and a consortium of growers here, too, has applied for promotion to DO status.

CASTILLA-LA-MANCHA

The DO debate has taken a different turn in Castilla-La Mancha, where the regional parliament decided in August 2000 to pass a law allowing for 'private' DOs: individual estate wines that had achieved the highest international reputation, despite being outside the DO system, perhaps because of where they were, or because of the grapes they grew or the cultivation methods they used. Under the 1978 Spanish constitution, central government cannot overturn regional legislation on agricultural matters, and the first application for a private DO was filed in 2001 by Dominio de Valdepusa, aka the Marqués de Griñón. In the meantime (November 2000), a new organisation called 'Grandes Pagos de Castilla' (Great estates of Castile) had been formed, with nine founder members, all but one of whom (Bodegas Aalto) were outside the traditional DO zones. Carlos Falcó was elected president, and it seems likely that they will all, eventually, apply to become 'private' DOs. The names with which to conjure are Calzadilla, Dehesa del Carrizal, Dominio de Valdepusa, Finca Sandoval, Finca Vallegarcía and Manuel Manzaneque (all Castilla-La Mancha) and Aalto, Mauro and Viña San Román (in Castilla y León). These nine bodegas could conceivably create a whole new echelon in European wine regulation.

ARAGON and MURCIA

Other regions making it happen include Aragón, where Somontano is forging ahead and becoming the region's flagship DO zone, although better and better wines are being made in the 'three Cs' of Calatayud, Cariñena and Campo de Borja. Murcia has emerged from its murky past as a supplier of hefty bulk wines for blending with the revelation that the Monastrell (aka Mourvèdre) is not rubbish after all and, in the hands of a skilled winemaker, can make wines of blockbusting fruit and vigour.

ANDALUCIA

In Andalucía, it's that man again (Carlos Falcó), this time consulting for the bodega of Principe Alfonso von Hohenlohe, who farms 37 hectares of vineyard at an altitude of 750m near Ronda. Quality red wine this far south is a bit of an anomaly, but with Falcó's methods the vineyards are yielding splendid wines up to crianza level (not a legal term in these parts) from Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Petit Verdot, Syrah and Merlot. Even as you read this, there are people in every part of Spain who have an idea, a vision, a new strain of yeast, a belief in some obscure grape variety, a few hectares of vineyard inherited from the family and the will to take out a hefty mortgage to build a small bodega. They will become the next generation. That's the new direction of the ever-newer Spain.

John Radford is the award-winning author of The New Spain and presented the Spanish masterclass at the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter last November.

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