Spain seems to change more quickly than almost any other wine region in the world. Here, the world’s leading Spanish wine expert JOHN RADFORD introduces his choice of 20 bodegas who are doing things differently, have improved radically, or are just plain underrated.
There was a time, as recently as the mid-1980s, when any quest for innovation in Spanish winemaking would have delivered few results. Most bodegas still operated on a father-to-son basis, with the next generation learning from the previous, complete with all the anomalies and errors that had crept in over the decades. Few winemakers ever tasted wines from outside their own region, let alone from other wine-producing countries. ‘Marketing’ meant sitting waiting for the ’phone to ring and the ‘consumer’ was the family down the road who’d come on Sunday after church to fill their five-litre container from the tank.
Twenty years on, Spanish winemaking is barely recognisable. More modern, forward-thinking winemaking is coming to the fore, some from new bodegas, and with new ideas from old bodegas.
For the record, for Spanish winemaking, my top winemakers are (in alphabetical order): Carlos Falcó (Pago Dominio de Valdepusa), Alejandro Fernández (Ribera del Duero, La Mancha, Castilla y León), Mariano García (Ribera del Duero, Toro, Castilla y León), Peter Sisseck (Ribera del Duero) and Miguel Torres (Penedès, Catalunya). But everybody knows who they are and what they’re doing. Hence none of them appear in the list below of my 20 wineries to watch, which provides a snapshot of some of Spain’s greatest wines and – more importantly – greatest value wines. I have allowed two each from Rioja and Ribera del Duero, but the other regions are rationed to one entry per DO. There are, of course, many more candidates. They are listed in alphabetical order by region.
REGION: VdlT Arribes del Duero
Producer: Arco-Bodegas Unidas
(Winemaker: Carmelo Angulo)
The latest development of the Arco project: Spanish winemaking all along the river Duero. It used to be known as Durius, is made at a new, very modern bodega in Fermoselle, and aged at Hacienda Zorita – a former monastery outside Salamanca.
Hacienda Zorita, Tinto 2001
Delicious, pure Tempranillo with 12 months’ oak, well rounded, crisp and full of fruit. £6.20; Evy
Barbadillo (Montserrat (Montse) Molina)
Molina has revolutionised the non-fortified dry white from this respected sherry bodega. These wines were once rather bland, but the rise of Rías Baixas and Rueda convinced the bodega that public tastes were changing and that it was time to refine the winemaking. This is now the best-selling dry white in Spanish winemaking.
Castillo de San Diego 2003
Lovely, crisp, fresh Palomino, amazing fruit, yet bone dry. £4.99; Msn
San Alejandro (Rubén Magallanes)
A former coop, meaning Rubén has access to grapes from 1,300ha of vines, some truly ancient. In addition the bodega is home to a rolling programme of flying winemakers from all nations, making specific styles for their own companies.
Astonishing depth of dark fruit, power and extraction from old-vine Garnacha with Tempranillo and Syrah. £11.49; DuW
Gran Ducay (Javier Domeque)
This bodega (formerly San Valero Coop) has the best Spanish winemaking. With 1,000 shareholders farming 5,000ha of vines, Domeque has his pick of ancient plantations of Garnacha and Tempranillo, and this wine includes Cabernet Sauvignon to ‘lift’ the nose.
Monte Ducay Reserva 1998
Beguiling wild-fruit, old-vines warmth, spice and ripeness from ancient plantations. £7.16; C&D
Agapito Rico (Agapito Rico)
Until the 1990s, Jumilla was dismissed as a bulk-wine production zone. Then several new bodegas started good Spanish winemaking from Monastrell, and it then emerged that old plantations could make wines with tremendous personality. Agapito Rico was one of the pioneers.
Carchelo Reserva 1998
Warmth, ripeness, spice and herbs with a rich, mature palate and elegant length. £6.49; LyS
DO La Mancha
(Jesús Martínez-Bujanda/Lauren Rossillo)
This is a spin-off from the Martínez-Bujanda family activities in Rioja, and is another successful attempt to prove to the world that La Mancha can make world-class wines. Jesús heads up the team, with his brother Carlos and sister Pilar assisting.
Finca Antigua, Crianza 2000
Big, powerful, classic Tempranillo fruit with an elegant Cabernet/Merlot perfume and 14 months in oak. Lovely smoky finish. £7.12; Evy
Europvin Falset (René Barbier/Fernando Zamora)
Montsant broke away from DO Tarragona with the 2001 vintage with a vow to match neighbouring DOQ Priorat, and this is evidence that it is on its way. Consultant winemaker René Barbier was one of the founders of the new-wave project in Priorat with Clos Mogador.
6 Vinyes de Laurona 2000
Rich and powerful with the dark fruit and deep structure of old-vine Garnacha and Cariñena. A masterpiece. £178.08 (case 12 in bond); N&P
Parés Baltà (María-Elena Jiménez/Joan Cusiné)
A small, old, family-owned bodega with new ideas. The main business is cava but it also owns small plots of Cabernet, Merlot, Tempranillo and Syrah. This example is, perhaps, challenging Priorat for the top spot in terms of concentration and extraction… and price.
Dominio Cusiné 1996
Outstanding. Perfect balance with endless length, richness and power.
h232. N/A UK; +34 938 90 13 99
DO Pla i Llevant de Mallorca
Miguel Oliver (Pilar Oliver/Jaume Olivella)
Most people have never heard of this new (1999) DO but there is good spanish winemaking being done here in central and southeast Mallorca by the third generation of a family business started in 1912.
100% Merlot with a big bite of new oak, this has tremendous complexity, and a Mediterranean perfume. h14. N/A UK; +34 971 56 11 17
Mas Doix (Marta Girón)
The Doix family has grown grapes for 100 years, but the bodega was founded in 1998 with the Llagostera family, and winemaker Girón is already a legend in the region. This old-vine example is from 90–100-year-old Garnacha and Cariñena.
n Doix, Costers de Vinyes Velles 2002 HHHHH
New-wave Priorat – blockbusting fruit but deep, dark subtlety, warmth, ripeness, spice and endless length. £509 (case 12, in bond); F&R
DO Rias Baixas
Adegas Galegas (Cristina Mantilla)
Founded in 1995, this adega belongs to a large group and benefited from the expansion of the DO in 2000/2001, giving a wider choice of fruit.
This has the lovely, bright, perfumed, peachy fruit of the Albariño against a drop-shadow of warm but very subtle oak – delicious. £12.63; C&B
DO Ribera del Duero
Pagos del Rey (Gregorio Ruiz)
Felix Solís said he could do it: produce a quality Ribera del Duero to sell at a supermarket price, by tapping into a market of high-quality but young-vine fruit from contract growers. The bodega is spanking new and ultra modern, designed by Ruiz himself.
Altos de Tamarón Joven 2003
Lovely fresh, bright Tempranillo fruit, delicious, crisp, lipsmacking acidity. Drinking young, and very affordable. £5.99; Sai
Legaris (Berta Laguna)
Another newcomer, scion of cava giant Codorníu with a smart new bodega with every modern contrivance. Laguna made her first vintage in 1999 and has played to the strengths of the region – top-quality, high-altitude grapes, new wood. Wonderful value for money.
Legaris, Reserva 1999
Classic Ribera del Duero style: a little toasty oak on the nose, ripe, musky fruit, long finish. £6.99; Evy
Luís Cañas (Fidel Fernández)
A new departure for this well-established bodega, proving that old dogs can learn new tricks and do them better, in some cases, than the pups. The name comes from the ancient vines, which only produce about three bunches (‘racimos’) each, against the legal maximum of 10.
Hiru, 3 Racimos 2001
Sumptuous. The epitome of new-wave Rioja. Winner of the Rioja trophy at the 2004 Decanter World Wine Awards. £50 (2002, spring 2005); All
Sierra Cantabria (Marcos Eguren)
At last – somebody trying something new with white Rioja. Eguren has access to some old plantations of Garnacha Blanca, and this is the key, along with a wodge of Malvasía and 50% Viura. The style really shows the ‘terroir’ of these north-of-the-river vineyards.
Sierra Cantabria, Organza 2001
Big, mineral nose, but fruit dominant, ‘rich-but-dry’ palate and the finish returns to the mineral complexity – superb. Approx £9; Sec, VgH
Hermanos del Villar (Pablo del Villar)
Two young brothers set up this company in 1995 and between them they farm 150ha of stony vineyard. Pablo del Villar has identified the native yeast of Rueda and uses it in his winemaking. On my last visit, harvest time 2004, he was picking from midnight to 6am, then supervising the pressing and fermentation.
Oro de Castilla, Verdejo 2002
Classic Verdejo spice and fruit, crisp acidity, lovely lipsmacking finish – delicious. £7.99; DuW
Viñas del Vero (Pedro Aibar)
This bodega was one of the pioneers of the new wines of Somontano, in the Pyrenees, and has developed excellent wines made from French grapes. It also recently joined the elite Grandes Pagos de España, widely seen as a step on the road to ‘DO Pago’ status.
Viñas del Vero, Chardonnay 2000
Chardonnay in Spain can work at high altitude. Chunky fruit, ripe, Mediterranean flavours with fresh acidity. £6.40 + delivery; RuW
DO Terra Alta
Bàrbara Forés (María-Carmen Ferrer)
One of very few bodegas working hard for quality in this forgotten backwater of Catalunya: María-Carmen Ferrer is a descendant of Bàrbará Forés (a pioneering woman winemaker of the 19th century) and has vowed to recreate the quality wines once made in this region.
Bàrbara Forés, Negre 1996
Old-vine aromas lifted by some spicy Syrah, but with prominent tannins and ‘deep down’ dark fruit – long. £17.63; C&R
Viña Bajoz (Eloy Jalón)
Another old dog learning new tricks: once a creaking coop turning out everyday wines of no particular quality, it converted into a limited company in 2000 and has never looked back. Eloy Jalón has 1,100ha of vines to work with and has exploited old vines and high-altitude grapes to great effect.
Gran Bajoz 2000
Big, powerful, spicy Tinta de Toro (Tempranillo) fruit with a real ‘bite’ of 12 months in oak. Rich, powerful, structured, excellent. h28. N/A UK; +34 980 69 80 23
Castaño (Mariano López)
The only bodega in Yecla anybody’s heard of, and with reason: family owned and run, it has been at the forefront of the region’s bid for an international presence, and this new high-expression wine says it all about Yecla’s potential. The wine has 20% Cabernet Sauvignon to improve aromatics, but the ‘meat’ is Monastrell.
Castaño Colección 2001
Big, powerful brambly fruit with hefty spice on the nose, old-vine weight and complexity, big structure and length. £9.54; Evy
For full list of UK stockists, see p114.