A Toast to Spain's Golden Decade

The transformation that Spain is undergoing is exciting to witness, and one example can be found in the contents of your wine glass.

The 10-year period from 1992 to the present has been like one long coming-out party for Spain. It has been referred to as the "Modern Miracle," a slice in time when, culturally and commercially speaking, Spain once and for all stepped out of the past and into the present.

From my perch, this decade appears nothing short of triumphant for a country that had long been a diamond in the fairly deep rough. Taking advantage of safe and affordable air travel, we in America have spent the last 50 or so years learning much of what there is to know about France, Italy and Britain. But only recently have we come to know Spain.

The turnabout began with Barcelona playing host to the '92 Olympic Games. Who can forget the divers plunging gracefully from the tall platform atop Montjuïc, with the spires of Gaudí's La Sagrada Familia in the background? Unless you are the type who really took your college-level art history seriously, this was maybe the first time we were thoroughly introduced to the whimsically masterful works of Gaudí.

Three years ago, I visited Barcelona for the first time, seeing Gaudí's awesome, unique parks and buildings with my own eyes. We went atop Montjuïc, where we explored the museum dedicated to Joan Miró— a true 20th-century master. We walked the Ramblas. We ate immaculately fresh seafood and drank Cava and great local wines. I immediately fell in love with Barcelona, and I was quickly getting hooked on Spain.

Over the past few years, with my awareness of all things Spanish piqued, I have been noticing that there is a lot more to Spain than what I had thought only 10 years ago. Dusty mental images of Papa Hemingway, bullfights and Franco have been joined, even replaced, by modern images of Spain—the most obvious example is arguably the most impressively designed new building in the world, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbão, which opened in 1996. On the world stage, the European Union summit and the 14th International AIDS Conference both took place this year in Barcelona. In movies, superstars Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz are from Spain. In sports, Spanish golf sensation Sergio Garcia, once dubbed El Niño, is ranked number five in the world. Spain might have got a raw deal at the World Cup this summer, but Real Madrid is currently Europe's top professional soccer team, while the men's side of the French Open this past spring featured a pair of Spanish finalists.

But where Spain has really rocketed into orbit is in the world of wine and food. Wine magazines, food magazines, travel magazines, even fashion magazines: Have any failed to cover the otherworldly exploits of superchef Ferrán Adrià of El Bullí? For that matter, has any other wine region in the world received as much recent attention and critical acclaim as has Priorat? None that I can think of, none except for possibly Ribera del Duero.

When I first became passionate about wine, long before this golden decade we are discussing, we did not speak of Spanish wine with the same knowledge or admiration that we had for French or Italian wines. And there was a reason for that: As Spanish wine expert Gerry Dawes points out at the beginning of his cover story, until the early 1990s just about the only Spanish wines making it to the United States were overaged Rioja, Sherry, and base-level Cava. You were deep in the know if you had discovered the better wines from Miguel Torres, and lucky if you had ever tasted Vega Sicilia.

Now it's a wide-open wine game, with Rioja going modern and Priorat and Ribera booming. And now word is coming out that several other Spanish wine regions, places forgotten or never really known, have been working behind the scenes, with results that are ripe for discovery. Regions like Jumilla, Tarragona, Toro and Galicia: Could one or more of these be the next Priorat or Ribera? That we can legitimately ask that question is proof that Spain has come a very long way in just one decade.


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