Discovering Wine (IV): Beyond Rioja in Spain

By Tim Jackson. Master of Wine.

Classic wines are ‘classics’ for a reason. These are wine regions and styles that have stood the test of time; that have proven finesse, longevity, complexity; that can give a wine lover that extra dimension of drinking experience. Bordeaux and Burgundy, Barolo and Brunello, Rioja and Ribera del Duero, all fall into such a list.


I was recently in Rioja again, meeting and talking to producers of all kinds, and seeing first-hand why it is Spain’s classic; why it was the first of only two Denominacións de Origen to have “Calificada” status added. We tasted some exceptional wines. We also saw changes, as a ‘new wave’ of single vineyard wines arrives. There is plenty for any wine fan here.


But many people struggle to get beyond the classics and to find new things. In the UK, although there is perhaps the widest availability of wines from everywhere in the globe, fine wine lists and fine wine consumer interest remain solidly concentrated in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. For an American drinker, Brunello di Montalcino and Napa Cabernet could probably be added to that list. In Spain, Rioja, Ribera and perhaps Sherry.


For Spain, where innovation and change are happening far beyond the boundaries of Rioja, where new, quality regions are emerging, and where old varieties and vines are being rediscovered, this is a shame. There are exciting wines from across the country that deserve the attentions of wine lovers everywhere. I’d like to share some that have caught my attention.


Down the Duero

As Ribera del Duero’s rise in the 1980s showed, under the names Tinto Fino and Tinta del País, aristocratic grape Tempranillo can excel outside Rioja, producing rich, dark fruited wines to Riojas more elegant styles. Celeste Crianza y Reserva son típicos de ese estilo.


But little further down the Duero it has another incarnation in the wines of Toro. Here, as Tinta de Toro, the grape produces bigger, darker wines in a more powerful style. The tannins can be a little wild, rustic and firm, in a manner more akin to wines from even further down the river in Portugal’s Douro valley, as Tinta Roriz. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of interest in Toro, with wineries like Vega Sicilia making Pintía there.

When in Toro, one cannot overlook the whites of Rueda. Verdejo produces wines with a profile a bit like Sauvignon Blanc with richer tropical fruit. Although Sauvignon is also permitted in the DO, for me the pure Verdejos are of most interest. With producers experimenting with oak, concrete and stainless steel for fermentation and maturation, making fresh and crisp wines for drinking now, like Verdeo,or those with some potential for development like Camino de Magarín, there are wines for all wine lovers.



Garnacha renaissance

While king Tempranillo took all the interest in the 1990s, Garnacha (Grenache Noir) was in decline. Disfavoured as a low quality, volume production variety, many vines were uprooted. However, in the last 5-10 years especially, dedicated producers have rediscovered what Garnacha can do at its finest.


If any region led the redemption of Garnacha – and its partner Cariñena (Carignan, Rioja’s Mazuelo) – it must be Cataluña’s Priorat. Here old Garnacha, Cariñena and imported varieties like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon combined to produce dense, deep, structured wines with black fruit and raisined fruit character, and marked mineral savouriness. Its Calificada status in 2000 was certainly merited.


Most excitingly, since around 2010, key producers like Mas Martinet have started to reduce the presence of imported varieties as well as reducing the use of new oak barrels. Both of these factors have served to highlight the varietal characters of Garnacha and Cariñena, to the particular benefit of Garnacha. At ProWein this year, I tasted Torres’ fine flagship Priorat, Perpetual, which is a blend only of old vine Garnacha and Cariñena.



For less expensive, slightly lighter-weight examples, look to Montsant which almost encircles Priorat. Also close by is the small DO of Conca de Barberà, with llicorella weathered slate soils similar to Priorat. Here again, Garnacha is blended with Cariñena to generate intense, powerful but ageworthy wines. In this case though, these often incorporate tannic Monastrell (Mourvèdre) and rare local varieties, as found in Grans Muralles.


Other winemakers, often the younger generation, have then recognised the beauty of old vine Garnacha. They have sought out old plots, to recover them and make new and different styles from all over Spain. This renaissance means there are other regions to consider. That includes Navarra, where producers like Domaines Lupier remind us that, with old vines at altitude in the Pyrenean foothills, there can be much more to Navarra Garnacha than inexpensive Rosado.


Campo de Borja and neighbouring Calatayud in Aragón are both also producing finer quality Garnacha wines. The creation of a Calatayud Superior category, with a minimum vine age of 50 years, yield not more than 3.5 tonnes / Ha, and at least 85% Garnacha, should help drive this further. With a quality scale suggested for Campo de Borja by Fernando Mora MW in 2017, potentially taking it in a similar direction, these are two regions to watch.


Finally, and perhaps most excitingly, the Garnacha revolution has hit Madrid and particularly at altitude in the Sierra de Gredos, west of the capital. Here vines grown up to 1,200m display the lighter side of Garnacha, producing wines more like Pinot Noir, with pale colour, delicate floral aromatics, herbal overtones and lively, refreshing acidity.


New wave producers like Comando-G, Daniel Jiménez-Landi and Marañones are using Pinot winemaking techniques such as whole bunch fermentation and larger 500L barrels to make very interesting wines.



Brisk Atlantic coastal wines

Last, but not least, I come to the Atlantic north west – the part of Spain that has excited me most for longest. Here, the cooling ocean influence has created a series of crisp, lively aromatic white wines that not only work excellently with their local seafood, but also can be ageworthy, serious wines.


The Albariños of Rías Baixas will need little introduction to most readers. It is no wonder that their blend of crisp acidity, lemon citrus and salty flavour, with a bright apricot aromatic tone has spread around the world, with fine examples from producers like Pazo de Señorans, Terras Gauda and Torres’ Pazo das Bruxas showing the finesse of the variety. These also can prove ageworthy.


Further south in Galicia, Ribeiro is bringing local grape variety Treixadura to the world, typically blended with Loureiro to make more delicate, citrussy, refreshingly mineral whites. Inland, Valdeorras is home to Godello. This variety, in the hands of winemakers like Rafael Palacios, combines rich stone fruit flavours with a brisk streak of acidity that can age very well. With a touch of mealy French oak, this grape has a white Burgundy sense to it.


Inland also, especially in Bierzo, old vines and terraces of indigenous red grape, Mencía have been reclaimed. Here, and in Ribera Sacra, this can produce firmly structured, blue and black-fruited red wines, with deep purple colour and a smoky, rocky mineral savouriness, but underpinned by refreshing acidity courtesy of its cooler climate origins. Some, again, are proving ageworthy and serious.


Finally, on the north coast, influenced by the Bay of Biscay, we have the delicate, lively, light-alcohol País Vasco whites of Txakolí. From Hondarribi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza, these whites and rosados are have vibrant lemon, a gentle spritz of carbon dioxide and mouthwatering acidity. These pair excellently with oysters and other local seafood.


In conclusion, it’s fair to say that the renaissance of regional Spain provides a wide range of styles from different places, that can reach quality levels every bit as good as the finest of Spain’s classic regions. The smart wine drinker will do well to seek them out.

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