The wines of Spain haven’t always enjoyed a reputation for out-and-out quality. Much of Spain’s production was of bulk wines: cheap and hearty reds with little finesse. The Rioja region was one exception, finding fame at the end of the 19th century when phylloxera devastated the Bordeaux region of France. Bordeaux merchants turned to Rioja, importing the wines and encouraging the bodegas to adopt classic Bordeaux techniques such as de-stemming of grapes and barrel ageing.
Other than that, the only wines of international quality were the fortified wines, particularly Sherry from the town of Jerez on the Southern coast.Spanish wine making has been changing gradually through the latter half of the 20th century, particularly since the 1980’s. Spain’s entry into the European Community brought new funding to many run-down wine-producing areas. Couple this with a burgeoning confidence in the post-Franco era and a willingness to experiment with new ideas and new technology, and Spain today is truly one of the most exciting “New” wine regions of the world.
Rioja remains at the fore-front of quality wine in Spain. Sitting in the North of the country and straddling the river Ebro, Rioja is composed of 3 sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. Alta and Alavesa are to the west, where the climate is mild and temperate. Rioja Baja sits further East, where the temperature is hotter and the land more arid: consequently the wines from this region are generally considered inferior.
Rioja wines are associated with a lush, velvety appeal and the sweet scent of vanilla, largely the result of long ageing in American oak barrels. Tempranillo is the principal grape of red Rioja, though a handful of other grapes usually go into the blend. One of the first Spanish regions to be regulated back in 1926, the words Reserva and Gran Reserva on Rioja labels have strict legal meaning:
Reservas must be aged for at least 3 years before release, including a minimum of 1 year in oak. Gran Reservas can be released only after 5 years, including a minimum of 2 years in oak. Many traditional Riojas actually spend much more time than this. In recent years there has been a definite split in the Rioja camp, with many bodegas aiming for much more vividly fruity wines, where oak plays only a supporting role. Many more wines are appearing at Crianza level, with minimum oak and bottle age. Names to look out for include: La Rioja Alta, Marqués de Murrieta, Marqués de Riscal, Bodegas Montecillo, CVNE, Martínez-Bujanda and Bodegas Palacio.
The “hottest” streak of the past decade or so has belonged to the Ribera del Duero. Lying Southwest of Rioja, the region’s wines are also Tempranillo based and oak-aged. The biggest fish of the region is undoubtedly Vega Sicilia, whose wines are so highly prized as to be almost unobtainable. Blended with international grape varieties including Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot, Vega Sicilia is aged for a decade or more in oak. The estate of Alejandro Fernández produces “Pesquera”, an fine wine that is reasonably priced and widely available. ‘Condado de Haza’, their second wine, is also well worth trying.
The steep, high vineyards of Priorat have also garnered much attention and some very high prices. In the far northeast, not too far from the border with Roussillon in France, wines made from Grenache and Carignan in particular, grown on a slate soil known as llicorella, have been much in demand. A wine called l’Ermita from Alvaro Palacios now commands several hundred pounds per bottle on release.
Many other regions of Spain, such as Toro, Penedés and Somontano in the far North and Valdepeñas in the South, are producing excellent, fruit-driven wines in a modern style. Using a combination of indigenous and international grape varieties, producers employ the latest technology (stainless steel fermentation, refrigeration and cultured yeasts) to create wines of some style and value for money.
Another undoubted revolution has taken place in the Spanish white wine scene. 10 years ago or so, white wines from Spain were best avoided: rough and oxidised bottles were all too common. New World techniques have been brought to bear here too and finally some top-quality white wines have emerged. White Rioja is being made in a fresher, more lemony style than rather oaky versions of old, and fine wines emanate from the Rueda region.
Perhaps the most interesting white wines come from Galicia in the far Northwest. In particular the wines of Rías Baixas, made from the delicate Albariño grape, are well worth seeking out for their perfume, balance and refreshing acidity. Also in this area, Bierzo has become well-known for white Godello and red Mencia varieties.
Sherry is arguably Spain’s greatest glory. A fortified wine (made with the addition of grape spirit), Sherry is produced in a tremendous variety of styles and is tragically misunderstood by many consumers. The name has been bastardised over many years and applied to inferior quality wines from Cyprus and England amongst others. One of the saddest and most common mis-conceptions in the wine world is that Sherry is no more than the middle-of-the-road stuff that languishes at the back of a cupboard, awaiting the visit from a maiden aunt.
The secret of fine Sherry is in its ageing and blending. An individual sherry is blended from a collection of casks of the same wine from different vintages. This is known as a Solera. In the Solera system, the wine to be bottled is drawn from the oldest casks, but only a proportion of the wine is used. The cask is then topped up with wine from the second oldest cask, then it is replenished from the third oldest and so on. In this way, the bottled wine is actually a complex blend of various aged wines.
The many different styles of Sherry include:
Fino – a light, dry wine which is ideal on its own or with soups or shellfish.
Amontillado – an aged fino with darker, nuttier flavours. Dry.
Oloroso – a weightier wine, rich, dark and toffee like. Dry or semi-sweet.
Manzanilla – aged near the sea at Sanlúcar, said to have salty tang.
Pedro Ximénez (PX) – grape making intensely sweet, raisin-flavoured wine.
Sherry producers to look out for include Don Zoilo, Lustau, Hildalgo and González Byass (especially their range of old, rare wines such as “Amontillado del Duque”, “Apóstoles” and “Matúsalem” – even at £20/$30 per bottle one of the world’s great wine bargains).