Sarah Jane Evans MW picks out 12 wines to create the perfect Spanish wine cellar - for a total of £300.

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A few hundred years ago, well-off Englishmen spoke proudly of their Spanish wine cellar, with their precious flasks of Canary, Malaga, Alicante and Tarragona wines, and, of course, Sherry: expensive wines for the most refined palates.

Then came wars between Spain and England, marriages between English kings and Portuguese princesses, and the sheer power of the British Navy. Britain was free to buy wine from anywhere in the world, and Spain was abandoned to increasing isolation and poverty. Since the first condition for an icon wine is wealthy, appreciative customers, those great wines disappeared into oblivion.

So great was the isolation that as recently as 40 years ago, a collector’s cellar would merely have contained Rioja and the eternal Vega Sicilia. Nothing else. From those depths, Spain has risen to its fortunate present position in the international marketplace offering great diversity and very high quality. Its ascendancy has been fairly rapid. With democracy, Spain joined the First World and the European Union. As a result many more Spaniards could study and travel, and there was plenty of wise investment in wineries and vineyards.

Yet all this came to a shuddering halt with the 2008 global financial crisis. The domestic market for the wineries dried up, with the result that today Spaniards drink 30% less wine per capita than the British. Producers were forced to focus on exports and learn to compete in the most challenging markets. The ‘national’ taste was swiftly replaced by a demand for quality according to international standards. Originality also came in: indigenous grape varieties were rediscovered as a consequence of better viticultural science; there was a deeper understanding of terroir; and, above everything, an increasing self-confidence.

Talking of terroir, the key fact to remember about Spain is that it is, after Switzerland, the most mountainous country in Europe. Furthermore, for at least 2,700 years, all Spanish regions have grown vines. These two factors help to explain the glorious complexity of the country’s wine styles.

Thus, in creating our two contemporary cellars we have taken an eclectic approach, reflecting the originality and diversity that makes Spain today the most exciting wine country in Europe.

Personal taste

The point is that Spain is still in its infancy in terms of serious delimitation of appellations. Most appellations are large and quite heterogeneous in quality. Many vary greatly in terroir too. That includes climate, and it’s what makes writing vintage descriptions a very inexact science, though we have included a guide. There’s no substitute for tasting the wines and making your own personal choices on your preferred style.

The financial downturn of 2008 has had a beneficial effect for lovers of Spanish wines – they are much more widely distributed internationally. In general pricing is very attractive – except, of course, for the top wines. There are also some prestigious appellations with wines at very low prices. This is explained by the involvement of the biggest wineries across many regions making strong downward price pressures on growers. Only a powerful appellation can control this debilitating return to the growers, and the threat to quality.

For those starting out with our £300 cellar, make a foundation with some classics. The savings can then be made by choosing from top producers outside their classic region, as well as from lesser-known appellations. This is where Valdeorras, Calatayud, Terra Alta, Costers del Segre, Manchuela, Jumilla, Alicante and Tenerife, among others, come in. They may not – yet – win fame at auction, but do give plenty of drinking pleasure.

With rare exceptions, Above: Mustiguillo’s single-estate Pago wine will show you the Bobal grape in a new light Spain’s wines are not sold en primeur. But if you are looking to buy top wines, establish a good relationship with the importer or retailer well in advance. Old Rioja and Vega Sicilia wines are a star in major auction houses. Overall prices of these wines are going up, but they are still attractive compared to their French equivalents.

Whatever your priorities for your cellar, be sure to make a link to those great collections of yesteryear by adding some fine Sherries to your order – another Spanish classic, ready to drink, yet built to last. Whatever your budget, this is an excellent time to begin.

Sarah Jane Evans MW and Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW are the Regional co-Chairs for Spain and Sherry at the Decanter World Wine Awards

Written by Sarah Jane Evans MW and Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW

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