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Spain: Notes from a big country

It’s hard to keep up with all the emerging wine regions of Spain, so we asked John radford to pick out the 10 making the biggest waves

Spain has more land under vine than any other country, along with 77 quality wine areas – most of which are unknown in the outside world. There is, however, serious work under way in many of them. I’ve chosen 10 which I believe are showing the most promise and excitement, plus a wine from each by way of evidence.

Arribes is where Spain meets Portugal along the banks of the Duero/Douro River, in a national park amid stunning countryside with beguiling, tiny villages, dry stone walls, herds of semi-wild goats and ancient, gnarled vines. The most interesting work here is being done with varieties not found anywhere else in Spain. The red Juan-García, for example, produces wines with real local character. La Setera is a husband-and-wife operation in the village of Fornillos making lovely, scented white wines from Malvasía and a rosé, young red and crianza exclusively from Juan-García. Equally interesting is Ribera de Palazas, which makes reds from Juan-García but also from the rare Bruñal. The winemaker discovered small abandoned plots of this obscure grape and nursed them back into production. The result has blockbusting fruit and endless length, as it should when selling for around £85 a bottle.

In the northernmost part of Old Castile, the main town is Cacabelos, which is on the Camino de Santiago, and most days you can still see pilgrims heading westwards. Bierzo’s wine fame rests on the red Mencía grape which, as recently as the mid 1990s, was turning out wines with sharp acidity and little else. The man who broke the mould was famed Priorat winemaker Alvaro Palacios with his nephew Ricardo Pérez, who bought old plots of vines in the village of Corullón and proved that the variety could make great wine. He was not alone: old-established and (especially) new bodegas took to the grape with great enthusiasm, and Bodegas Peique has won Gold medals in the Decanter World Wine Awards. Other newcomers include Dominio de Tares, which is also turning out medal-winning wines and Agribergidum which, as well as making red from Mencía, also produces an experimental sparkler from the white Godello grape which is quite astonishingly good.

‘Cava?’ I hear you cry. Well, yes… there’s a growing trend for Cava to punch its way out of the supermarket £6 market and demonstrate that this DO can also make premium wines. The big producers Freixenet and Codorníu already have wines in the UK priced between £18 and £20, but there’s a great deal more to the region than that. Raventós i Blanc is making an experimental blend to retail at €100 a bottle in Spain and Recaredo has a 100% Xarel-lo at a similar price. Xavier Gramona of his eponymous winery says that the key to premium Cava is ageing. Most budget and mid-range Cavas have only nine months on the lees and they can’t compare with a wine which has had three years or more. ‘And time costs money. The longer the wines stay in my cellar, the higher the price.’

Manchuela fields a range of wines, from modestly priced co-operative examples to impressive single-estate wines. The Bobal grape is prominent and Tempranillo is also widely planted, as well as international grapes. Probably the most high-profile estate is Finca Sandoval, which is owned by Spanish wine writer Victor de la Serna; here he makes a Touriga Nacional which is splendid, if technically illegal. Look out too for Pago Altolandon and Ponce (for a wonderful ungrafted Bobal). A recent tasting proved that there is room for world-class wines from Manchuela if the bodegas can keep up the momentum.

Montsant is a horseshoe-shaped area at the base of the mountainous Priorat DO, and, like Priorat, it has old-vine plantings of Garnacha and Cariñena, as well as Tempranillo and others. The standard is very high, and on a recent visit I tasted excellent wines from Malondro (whose 2006 Latria I scored 18/20 and sells at the cellar door for just €4), Joan d’Anguera, El Masroig and Noguerals. The impression was that the best wines tend to be equal Garnacha-Cariñena blends, often with a bit of Cabernet or Syrah, and the value is outstanding.

Twenty years ago, Priorat was a sleepy hollow with only one winery anyone had heard of (Scala Dei) and little interest from the outside world. Since pioneering winemakers reinvented it – Rene Barbier, Alvaro Palacios, Josep Pérez-Ovejero and Carles Pastrana were all young mavericks in the 1980s – Priorat has become an established classic of Spain and Europe, and names such as Clos Mogador, Cims de Porrera, Clos de l’Obac and Finca Dofi (which includes l’Ermita: £410; BBR) have become legends. On my most recent visit we were offered a tasting of 80 wines, including two of my favourites, Vall-Llach and Sangenís i Vaqué, and some spectacularly good whites made from Garnacha Blanca.

Málaga’s sweet fortified wines have been around since Shakespeare’s time but, as with all classics, their market has been stagnant or shrinking for 20 years. In 2001 the region added the designation of Sierras de Málaga for non-sweet wines. Sierras means mountain ranges, and most of the new development has been around Ronda, in vineyards at altitudes of 750m and more. There’s been massive investment in the steep mountain valleys and some impressive new bodegas are in production. They grow mainly international grapes but also Garnacha, Tempranillo and the local Romé, and the altitude of the vineyards and the traditions of Andalucía give the wines their own individuality. Look out for names such as El Chantre (a magnificent new palace on precipitous vineyards), F Schatz (a real eccentric who has planted German varieties), Bentomiz (for new-generation sweet wines) and Descalzos Viejos (a wonderful single-estate in an old monastic vineyard) as well as many more. This is a region with enormous potential.

Since the DO of Tierra de León was awarded in 2005, around 30 bodegas have sprung up, making wine mainly from the red Prieto Picudo grape. One of the first on to the UK market was Bodegas Gordonzello in Gordoncillo and the wines won a modest following at value-for money prices. My most recent visit was to Margon: it has ancient vineyards and grows Albarín Blanco for whites and Prieto Picudo for reds. The brand-name is the Roman name for this part of León – Pricum. A female fellow-traveller remarked to the winemaker, Raúl Pérez, that he might have to find a new name if he wanted to market the wine in the UK. He asked why and she suggested he ask one of her male colleagues. The wines were, however, excellent.

Madrid’s most high-profile winemaker is the Marqués de Griñón, Carlos Falcó, at El Rincón, but there are 45 wineries in the three subzones between the city and Aranjuez. Some are established co-ops making workmanlike good-value wines, but many are small, boutique estates making individual, characterful efforts mainly from the Malvar and Albillo white grapes, plus Garnacha and Tempranillo (here known as Tinto Fino or Tinto de Madrid). Many smaller bodegas are new, and names to seek out include Gosálbez Orti, Nueva Valverde and Tagonius, as well as Ricardo Benito, whose Divo is made from old Tempranillo vines and sells for £85. The wine style is single estate in its ambitions, and succeeding.

Valdeorras is immediately to the west of Bierzo, divided from it by the spectacular gorge of the river Sil. They grow the same grapes here as in Bierzo. Being further to the west and closer to the sea, the climate is slightly more maritime and well-disposed towards white grapes; Godello is king. The main road through the region runs alongside the Sil, with wonderful scenery and restored buildings, most notably the 9th-century monastery of Xagoaza, now home to Bodega Godeval. Interestingly, Rafael Palacios, brother of Alvaro, has a bodega here: his wine retails at a more modest £25 a bottle.

Raúl Pérez is definitely at the top of this top 10, although he is attached to many wineries, rather than just one. Ferrán Centelles, sommelier at El Bullí, is a big fan: ‘I like all his projects. His wines are currently the cult wines in Spain.’ Perez is one of the young stars of Spain’s most exciting region today, the north-west. He works as a winemaker and consultant across Bierzo, Monterrei, Ribeira Sacra and Rías Baixas, and has a reputation for recovering old vineyards and reviving local grapes. In Monterrei, he is restoring the reputation of the white variety Doˇna Blanca at Quinta de Muradella; in Bierzo, at Castro de Valtuille, he works with Mencía, the crunchy, vibrant red.

Pittacum is another of the new-wave wineries, founded less than a decade ago. It is owned by Terras Gauda, an Albariˇno producer in Rías Baixas, which had been looking to branch out into red winemaking. Working with the Mencía grape in nearby Bierzo was the obvious choice, and it was able to acquire a good selection of old vineyards on slate soils. The winemaking is meticulous, with no short cuts: careful selection, manual cap-plunging, long macerations, vertical press, cask ageing, egg-white fining. The result is a distinctive, fresh expression of Mencía. It also produces an intense rosado, Tres Obispos, quite unlike the usual pale versions of northern Spain.

Méntrida is a nondescript, small DO south of Madrid, dominated by co-ops, with a mere handful of contrastingly good producers. One of these is Jiménez-Landi, run by Daniel and José Jiménez-Landi. They are indicative of the approach of the new generation, working old vines (Garnacha) biodynamically and the new vines (Syrah) organically. In the winery they ferment in either stainless steel or open-top oak vats. The wines (below) are neither filtered nor stabilised. Also highly rated in Méntrida is boutique producer Canopy, with its Tres Pata and Malpaso reds.

Equipo NavazNavazNavazos: Jerez

The most exciting new project to come out of Jerez (2005), given the region’s traditional approach. It was started by and for a group of private individuals but fortunately its wines have now slowly become commercially available. It’s a very simple model: track down the best wine in specific butts, and bottle and market them individually under the overall brand. The principals of the Equipo (team) include a leading cellar master/winemaker. Proof of the quality of their choices is that a recent pick is a Palo Cortado butt from Fernando de Castilla, a 2009 Decanter World Wine Awards Trophy-winning bodega.

Bodegadegas Lopezpez de HeredHeredHeredia: Rioja

Just to prove that it’s not necessary to be young to be exciting, this historic Rioja house (founded 1877) easily earns a place in this list. Now under the energetic leadership of Maria-José López de Heredia, working with her siblings and father, the bodega has become modern simply because the rest of the world is now emulating its traditional practices. Estate wines, handpicked grapes, not a glint of stainless steel and long ageing in old oak. Particularly remarkable is the long ageing of the white and the rosé, producing complex wines out of step with current fashions for unoaked, youthful fruit.

Petereter Sisseck: Ribera del Duero

Sisseck’s reputation in Ribera del Duero is long established through his cult wine Pingus. What puts him back among the exciting producers is his new project, PSI. The intention is to work with growers in the region to raise their game, and by improving their fruit, help them increase their incomes. In the process they will also be introduced to organic and biodynamic farming methods, and to locally produced biodynamic preparations. The winemaking follows traditional methods – oak casks, cement tanks and little new oak.

Dits del Terraerraerra: Priorat

As the big money and investors appear, so Priorat begins to seem establishment. Yet the appearance of Eben Sadie on the scene proves that Priorat’s remarkable scenery, its llicorella (slate) soils and network of creative winemakers are still a draw to individualists. One such is Sadie, maker of the fine Columella and Palladius from old vines in Swartland, South Africa. Dits del Terra is an adventure in discovering a new, distinct terroir. The work is boutique production (2,000 bottles), aged for 24 months in French oak, without filtering or fining.

Bodegadegas Acustic: Montsant

Garnacha and Samsó (Cariñena) drive the red blends of this boutique winery, owned by Albert Jané on the periphery of Priorat. Montsant is bound to suffer from the prestige and pumped-up prices of its neighbour, but Acústic proves that when a winery focuses on the terroir (well-drained stones and sand) and the vines (up to 75 years old), it can make exceptional wines that the world can afford to drink. Alas Acústic’s tiny production will never be widely available. The newest arrival in the stable is this unique, complex Rhône-style white.

4 Kilos: Mallorca

The winery was only founded in 2006, but has raced off the starting blocks, rising right to the top of the Mallorca rankings. The name of the winery comes from the money – 4 million pesetas, or 4 kilos (E24,000), invested at the outset, starting off in a garage and now in a converted sheep farm. The vibrant brand image comes from co-founder, musician and arts entrepreneur Sergio Caballero. Do not be taken in by the humour, though – the winemaking is serious. Partner Francesc Grimalt was winemaker at the award-winning Anima Negra, and is credited with rediscovering the local varietal Callet. They source grapes from all over the island, so produce wines as VT Mallorca.

Bodegadegas Ameztmeztmeztoi: Getariako Txakolina

Hidden in the steep hillsides near the Bay of Biscay, Txacoli (pronounced ‘Chacoli’) has long seemed too challenging except for locals and aficionados; the bold, tense acidity of the wine never travelled outside the region. But today palates and cuisines have changed and the tradition is becoming cutting edge. Ameztoi is a small producer making classic styles, with the zest of CO2 and green apple punchiness enhanced by the traditional technique of pouring the wine from a height into the glass. Also worth trying is its light, floral rosé.

Written by John Radford and Sarah Jane Evans

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