We asked Spain’s foremost wine authority, Jose Penin, to tell us what he was most excited about in his diverse, rapidly developing country. The answer may surprise you…
Think of a top Spanish wine, and the chances are that it’ll be red. After all, ours is a hot, dry land – the driest in the Mediterranean – where you would expect fresh, crisp whites to suffer. Yet just 25 years ago, white grapes comprised 80% of the entire Spanish vineyard – varieties that could withstand our high temperatures, yielding even more than red varieties.
This almost unbelievable figure does not tally with the wines we saw on the market. So why did we not see more Spanish whites? The reason is a regrettably longstanding, common practice for making cheap wine whereby winemakers ‘tint’ a white wine by blending it with 10% of a red – of the deepest colour and greatest concentration – to make it pass as rojo. But we don’t call red wine rojo, as it literally should be. No, in the Iberian peninsula, red wine is known as tinto.
This legal fraud has led Spain to be known as the country where red wine has enjoyed the biggest popular impact. By contrast, the production of quality whites (except, of course, Sherry) has never been seen as realistic.
Things have changed. When I predicted in 2006 that within eight years white wine would become fashionable, I had in mind the solidness of our red wine culture as the basis for that future trend; that consumers would finally appreciate the character and singularity of white wine despite the fact that its body and alcoholic strength differ significantly from that of its ‘tinted’ relative. To put it differently: that fruitiness, lightness, acidity and lower alcohol – the basic features ascribed to white wine and so hard to achieve in our Mediterranean climate – would no longer be imperative for wine lovers. Besides, even though Spanish cuisine has historically been red-wine oriented, whites have proved excellent food pairings in our relentlessly hot summers.
All these facts awakened the conscience of a generation of winemakers who, working mainly organically, have achieved a previously unknown sensory and taste dimension from well-known white varieties, as well as a joyous revival of lesser-known grapes, most of which share a late-ripening pattern and are thus more suitable to hot climates. While red grapes lose much of their varietal character when overripeness hits, white varieties manage to preserve theirs even above 15º alcohol levels – as long as they retain enough acidity.
The discovery of the truest character of Spanish whites occurred when this new generation of winemakers realised that old vines were the best tool with which to control yields, and identified ripening cycles more in tune with the Spanish climate and soil. The clear potential of Spain’s most popular white grapes, and the considerable investment in technology over recent years have erased all doubts as to whether white wine production is viable. Quite simply, it is the most exciting element of Spanish wine today.
Written by Jose Penin