Friday, July 31, 2009

Intro to Spanish Wine Part 1

Our geographical subject for this month is Spain and the fantastic wine regions spread throughout the country. Spain is setting the world standard for foodies and wine lovers worldwide these days. It is the epicenter of the culinary world, with more Michelin 3 Star rated restaurants than any other country in Europe. It is where top chefs worldwide are going to learn, and it is absolutely the one place on earth where chefs are pushing the envelope to the extreme with results that are pure mad genius. One restaurant even gives you the opportunity to bring in your favorite perfume or flower so that they can make you a dessert that tastes just like it! At the same time, the best chefs are paying careful attention and respect to a culinary heritage and traditional ingredients that have been developed over many centuries.

Along with this great, unique, and boundary pushing cooking, Spain has also undergone a renaissance in winemaking over the last quarter century plus. Whereas most of the many regions in the country were once known for high volume, low quality wine where the national or regional system paid growers purely on volume, it is now a region of multiple, unique regions producing fine, high quality bottlings.

The wines and regions of Spain are many and varied. There are excellent reds, whites, sparklers, and roses or rosados as the natives call them. Although this doesn’t cover everything, the main grapes used in fine winemaking in Spain are Carinena, Garnacha (Grenache), Mencia, Monastrell (Mourvedre), Tempranillo, Albarino, Verdejo, Xarel-lo, Parellada, and Macabeo. To complicate matters, many of these grapes are called different things by different regions. For example, let’s take a look at Tempranillo. Depending on which region you’re in, this could be called Tempranillo, Cencibel, Ull de Llebre, Tinto Fino, Tinto de Toro, or Tinto del Pais. How’s that for confusing?

The good news is that most Spanish wines are bottled under the guidelines of classification laws, which will give you pretty clear guidelines about what you’re drinking and its quality. In the interest of not boring you to tears as you read this, I will not go through the all the details of the classification system, and instead just give you the basics. Vino de Mesa (VdM) is your basic table wine without a place associated with it. Vino del la Tierra (VdlT) is essentially a table wine that comes from a particular region but doesn’t follow that region’s rules as outlined in stricter classifications. Denominacion de Origen (DO) wines are by far the most common ones we will see here in the U.S. This is the most common quality wine indicator among Spanish wines. Each DO is associated with a region (there are approximately 60 regions) and each region has its own “consejo regulador” or control board that sets the rules for wines from that region and can govern everything from type of grape, cultivation, harvesting, ageing, and many other aspects of the winemaking. For the most part it is the DO wines that have transformed the quality of Spanish wine. Finally there are Denominacion de Origen Calificada (DOCa) wines which is an even higher requirement for quality that is only found in two regions – Rioja and Priorat.

For those of you who find all this very foreign and confusing compared to the American or New World system of naming wines after the grape, rest assured that this system works very well. Oenophiles and serious wine drinkers have long known about the concept of terroir. Countries with longstanding traditions of winemaking like France, Italy, and Spain figured out long ago that certain grapes perform best in particular climates and soils. This combination of place and soil are the heart of the concept of terroir. True believers in terroir will tell you that the unique combination of place and soil with a particular grape will make the wine from that terroir unique from any other place it is grown. I was one of many who used to only half believe in this concept. My epiphany moment came during a 2007 visit to the Villany region of southern Hungary where I tasted Cabernet Franc that was absolutely unlike any other Cabernet Franc I had ever tasted. At first I thought it was just that particular winery’s winemaking style, but as I tasted other Cabernet Francs in the region and noticed the same unique qualities, I began to truly understand the concept of terroir. Throughout Spain you will also see the influence of terroir on Spanish wine. Take the wines of Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Toro, as an example. Although I enjoy Tempranillo based wines from all of these regions, I find that these wines have differences that cannot be explained by winemaking alone. The beauty of classification systems like the Spanish D.O. are that they tell us more than just what grape is used, which is sometimes all we are told with New World wines. The downside is that they require some effort to learn and understand what you get with each region and classification.

There are 60 different DOs (or DOCa in the case of Rioja and Priorat) in Spain. Here I will try to give you some of the basics of what you will get with Spanish red wine only for now in some of the better known as well as up and coming regions. White wine regions will be covered in a future post.


Rioja is by far the best known of the Spanish wine regions and was the first to be recognized as a region that makes high quality wines to compete on the worldwide stage. Rioja is certainly best known for Tempranillo, although that is not the only red grape used in some Riojas. Some Riojas have Garnacha as a significant component as well as other grapes in smaller quantities. Rioja also has three distinct sub regions. Rioja Alta in higher elevations in the west is known for very traditional, lighter, old world style wines. Rioja Alavesa is known for producing fuller bodied wine than Rioja Alta that are more fruit forward. Rioja Baja is known more for Garnacha than Tempranillo. There are great wines and great values to be had throughout Rioja, but I will caution that this is the one region in Spain where you will see some not so great wines and values make their way to the U.S.

Ribera del Duero

Ribera del Duero is a wonderful success story for Spanish wine. Located in North Central Spain but further south and west of Rioja in the Region of Old Castile, Ribera del Duero is producing some of the greatest red wines in the world these days. The region surrounds the Duero River which eventually makes its way over to Portugal and the Atlantic. Its unique terroir, which owes to its high altitude and chalky soil with large swings in daytime vs. nighttime temperatures, results in a beautiful expression of the Tinto Fino or Tempranillo grape. Top Ribera del Dueros are recognized worldwide. Estates such as Vega Sicilia command prices well into the hundreds of dollars for a bottle and have earned scores as high as 99 from critics like Robert Parker. The wines themselves are more consistent, powerful, and more fruit forward than what you will typically see from Rioja, but they are not just big fruit bombs. Many Ribera del Dueros have wonderful balance and structure. There are also many other producers who make excellent wine for a good value. Some favorites of mine include Condado de Haza and Atalyas de Golban.


Toro takes us even further west than Ribera del Duero. Toro is one of the top up and coming regions in Spain. It has not earned the reputation of Rioja or Ribera del Duero yet, but the beauty of its relative anonymity is that there are fantastic values to be had in this region. See my review of the 2006 Bodegas Real Sabor Toro for a fine example. Toro also makes most of their wine using the Tempranillo grape, but in this region it is typically called Tinto de Toro. More similar to Ribera del Duero in style than Rioja, Toro reds are powerful but balanced. This is one of the fastest growing regions in Spain with multiple new wineries being added every year.


Priorat, in Catalonia in the northeast, is a region producing some of the greatest wines in Spain and many might argue in the world. Priorat’s unique climate and soils set it apart in the wine world as someplace that can make exclusive, top quality wines. The soils are very rocky schist, and the climate is extremely dry. Grapes are generally grown on hillsides, where numerous old vine plantings exist. This combination makes the grapevines work very hard to produce low yields. This results in intense, concentrated wine from primarily the Garnacha grape but also from Carinena. Wines like Alvara Palacios L’Ermita command over $300 and scores of over 95 points from Stephen Tanzer. There are also some better values comparatively, but due to the reputation it has earned and the harsh growing conditions, this is generally not a great region for lower cost value wines.


Montsant just became its own DO in 20001. This is a region that just about wraps around all of Priorat. Like Priorat it has a number of old vine plantings of Garnacha and some Carinena. Some winemakers here are also experimenting with international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. Montsant is what I would classify as one of the up and coming regions of Spain. It has not yet developed the reputation or top level collectible wines that its neighbor to the north has, but it has some outstanding wines that can be had for very little money. See my review of of Mas Donis Barrica Montsant for an example of an excellent wine in the under $15 price range.

Jumilla and Yecla

Jumilla and Yecla in the southeast of Spain are two neighboring regions that are very similar in their wines and their recent history. Both had a long history of making cheap bulk wine for very local consumption. Winemaking was dominated by large co-ops that had little care for quality. In the late 1980’s, approximately one hundred years after it hit the rest of Europe, the area was hit by the dreaded phylloxera. Vines and production were both dealt a devastating blow. The silver lining in the story, though, is that this tragedy forced the DO to rethink their approach. For awhile at least they could not count on high yield vines to produce cheap bulk wine. They were almost forced to improve the quality of their product and to make better wine. In the end, this was great for the region and the consumer. These two regions are now producing very good wines for still very inexpensive prices. Bodegas such as Finca Luzon in Jumilla and Castano in Yecla are producing very good wines from the Monastrell (Mourvedre in France) grape with international varieties sometimes added to the blend. See my review of the Bellum Providencia Yecla 2005 for a nice example.


Bierzo is a young, small region that is producing some of the most unique wines in all of Spain. Here, winemakers have been able to get some very interesting results from the Mencia grape. This grape has been grown in Spain for a long time, but in the past it has produced very light and simple wines without very much structure. In Bierzo, some cutting edge winemakers have been able to get great results. The wines are still lighter in body, but they have wonderful aromatics, good fruit flavor, and elegant structure. The best examples will have a lot in common with Burgundian Pinot Noir. This is a region to watch.

Some other regions to watch for red wines are Costers del Segre, Navarra, Calatayud, and Vinos de Madrid. All of these regions have producers that make very good wines, but they are certainly harder to find than the regions I have discussed in more depth. There are also some excellent white and sparkling wines in Spain, but that’s a story for another day.

Spain does not yet have the reputation that France or Italy has, but this is a country with a wide variety of outstanding wines. Whether your looking for that one incredible bottle for a truly special occasion or a great value to buy by the case, Spain has some great choices for you. Go visit your favorite wine store and give some Spanish wine a try.

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