SPAIN: LOOKING BACK TO THE FUTURE

Three-star restaurants, cultish boutique wines and appreciative, affluent consumers: Europe's gastronomic epicenter just may be shifting to España.


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Three-star restaurants, cultish boutique wines and appreciative, affluent consumers: europe's gastronomic epicenter just may be shifting to España.

When I first began traveling the wine roads of Spain in the early 1970s, the state of Spanish wine and food was dramatically different than it is today. Most wineries were rustic and used time-honored, often ancient, techniques to vinify grapes and age their wines. They were imbued with the romance of Old Spain and were aged in old barrels, often in moldy, cobweb-laced, ancient caves. I loved tasting them. However, while some of the wines were excellent on the spot when served with down-to-earth Spanish food like milk-fed baby lamb chops grilled over vine cuttings, air-cured hams and artisan cheeses, many of the wines were not built to travel.

Back then, there were wonderful down-home restaurants with legendary regional dishes that were often the object of gastronomic pilgrimages by Spanish aficionados. The meals included roast suckling pig and lamb, black rice paellas, fat pochas beans cooked with country chorizo and quail, and shellfish hot off a flat grill. But many ordinary restaurants were plagued with poorly trained cooks using substandard cooking oils instead of the quality Spanish olive oil that gourmands so appreciate today.

The striking aluminum roofline of the ultramodern winery Bodega Ysios in Rioja mirrors the Sierra de Cantabria in the background.

In fact, many upscale restaurants often offered so-called "continental" cuisine that seemed designed to protect foreign tourists from the horrors of olive oil, garlic and other ingredients that are now highly regarded elements of the Mediterranean diet.


Martin Berasategui and an assistant prepare
one of the meals that helped earn Berasategui's eponymously named restaurant a third coveted Michelin rosette.
In those days I often wished that the Spaniards would figure out how to get those deeply flavored, ruby-colored Duero Valley wines—in Aranda de Duero, served in earthenware pitchers—in shape to sell in foreign markets. And those wonderful Manzanilla Sherries that I drank on Sanlúcar de Barrameda's Bajo de Guía beach at sunset with exquisite grilled langostinos (giant prawns): Would we ever be able to get fresh Manzanilla in America? And what about those deeply flawed, but incredibly promising backcountry Priorato wines I drank with grilled rabbit and allioli in the 1980s?

Up until the early 1990s, the main players in the export markets remained the well-aged red wines from Rioja, Sherries from Jerez, cheap sparkling wines from Cataluña, the wines of Miguel Torres, Sr. and the near-mythical Vega Sicilia, then Spain's most expensive and mysterious wine. For most Americans, Spanish wines conjured up visions of a hot Mediterranean country that produced robust oak-aged reds, mediocre whites, cheap bubbly and Sherries that usually sat on restaurant and retail shelves until they were shot. Since then, there has been an explosion in the quality and breadth of Spanish wines comparable to that of California in the 1970s and 1980s. And many experts are now beginning to believe that the food in Spain these days is better than it is in any other country in Europe.

Poised on the Edge
Until the mid-1970s, the octogenarian dictator Francisco Franco was ostensibly still running the country; to outsiders, Spain seemed mired inextricably in the past. At that time, Spaniards were poised on the edge, precariously balanced between that backward post-Civil War period—an era they desperately wanted to shake—and an uncertain future, one that the many brighter lights in Spain thought was filled with promise.

During that unstable political climate, a few were willing to take a chance on the future of Spanish wine. Years earlier, Jean León, a Spanish expatriate and Los Angeles restaurateur, had already shown what could be done in Spain with estate-grown wines, producing several acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon-based reds and Chardonnays in Penedès. In Rioja, in 1970, Henri Forner, a Bordeaux producer (Château Larose-Trintadon and Château Camensac) whose Valencian family was exiled to France during the Spanish Civil War, took the plunge and founded the Unión Viti-Vinícola, whose brand Marqués de Cáceres became a legendary success. Sherry producers such as Domecq (Marqués de Arienzo), González Byass (Beronia) and Osborne (Montecillo) either founded or purchased new bodegas in Rioja and, in 1973, Bilbao industrialist Luís Olarra founded the state-of-the-art Bodegas Olarra, one of the greatest Rioja wineries of the period.

Sherry country itself experienced something on the order of a coup d'etat as more than 50 percent of the production was gobbled up by Rumasa, a giant company with Sherry-family roots. Soon Cava country bubbled over as Rumasa moved in and took over 40 percent of the production. Building Spain's first truly international brand of oak-aged table wines, the Torres family continued to invest profits back into their company in Vilafranca del Penedès, and year by year young Miguel Torres, Jr. made his presence increasingly felt on the style and quality of the wines. Codorníu, the Cava giant, planted a sizeable estate vineyard with Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay in Lerida province in the foothills of the Catalan Pyrenees. It then became its own denominación de origen, Costers del Segre. And, in a little-known area of the Duero Valley, Alejandro Fernández, a producer of agricultural equipment with a taste for rich, silky, but balanced and ageworthy wines, began making Pesquera, which became Spain's first great overnight international star in the 1980s. By the mid 1990s, Ðlvaro Palacios (Clos Dofi and L'Ermita), Carles Pastrana (Clos de L'Obac), René Barbier (Clos Mogador) and Daphne Glorian (Clos Erasmus) had begun to put the dark, powerful wines of Priorato on the map.

Gastronomy and
Winemaking Flourish
Following the death of Franco in 1975 and several more years of political turmoil, Spaniards began to excel in business, the arts, cinema, architecture, fashion and even golf. Fueled by a newly affluent and steadily expanding middle class armed with credit cards and buoyed by a surprising jump in the number of English speakers, Spain experienced an unprecedented wine and food boom that hasn't let up. The country's gregarious citizens who always loved to wine and dine suddenly began to take a serious interest; wine and gastronomic publications, wine clubs, wine-tasting groups and wine courses proliferated. Spaniards, like their American and European counterparts, began to see wine and food as desirable career choices; enology courses and cooking schools cropped up around the country.

Jesús Madrazo is an exemplar of the new wave in the Spanish wine world. He is a thirty-something member of one of the regal families of classic Rioja wine—CUNE (Compañía Vínicola del Norte de España)—and is one of Spain's brightest new wine stars. Madrazo is currently the general manager of Contino, a CUNE-affiliated winery and one of the first to embrace the Bordeaux-style single-estate concept in the early 1970s. His three wines, Contino Reserva (which becomes more elegant and stylish each year), the single-plot El Olivo and the 100 percent Graciano (probably the best example of that classic Rioja varietal made) have earned serious national and international attention.

"In 1985, when I was working on my engineer in agronomy degree," Madrazo remembers, "it was difficult to find any wine-tasting courses; now there are hundreds around the country. There were just a few magazines specializing in wine and food, now there are at least 10. Specialty wine shops hardly existed, now there are hundreds."


Temperature-controlled fermenters at Fillaboa, a single-vineyard estate in Rías Baixas, epitomize the new technology adopted at many Spanish wineries.

It took a couple of decades, but to longtime observers, Spain's quantum leap happened with surprising speed. In the March 2002 issue of Sobremesa (one of Spain's top food and wine magazines), Editor-in-Chief Ernesto Portuondo reflected on how the Rioja-Jerez-Cava trio dominated the early articles of the magazine and how much things have changed. In just over 15 years, he wrote, "Spanish customs, polemics, language, understanding, the national panorama and, above all, wines have changed so much that it is difficult to believe that we are talking about the same country."

These days the whole world is talking about Spain's latest wine-and-food miracle. A Basque restaurant was recently awarded Michelin's highest rating—three rosettes. That makes four Spanish restaurants with three each (the newest, Martín Berasategui, joins Arzak in San Sebastián; El Racó de Can Fabes, just outside Barcelona; and the famous El Bullí, two hours north of Barcelona). The indispensable dining guide in Spain, the Madrid-based Gourmetour, rates restaurants on a 10-point scale and lists a dozen establishments with nine or more points, which is their equivalent of Michelin's three rosettes.


Some wineries, such as
Marqués de Murrieta, still
bottle their gran reservas by hand.

"The most innovative cooking in Europe is being done in Spain nowadays," says Mark Miller, chef at Coyote Café, which has locations in Santa Fe and Las Vegas. Miller has been to Spain a dozen times in the past few years. "Not only are the cooking techniques and presentations as creative as at other top restaurants in the world, but the whimsical and creative design and casual atmosphere make dining a true pleasure for the mind and the senses, and not just an exercise in status. The Spanish passion for living and expression makes eating in Spain a true delight."

According to Michael Lomonaco, former executive chef at Windows on the World and now a consulting chef at Manhattan's new Latino restaurant, Noche, "Spain is a must for everyone serious about food and wine. I am impressed with how Spain's distinctive regional cuisines seem so naturally suited to the wide spectrum of Spanish wines."

A Trend in Pagos and Estates
That wide spectrum is reached, in part, because of the thousands of old-vine vineyards in very special, if previously underdeveloped, microclimates such as Rías Baixas, Priorato, Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra. These are places in the Texas-sized country where long-acclimatized grape varieties are rooted in the kinds of soils that rival the terroirs of France.

Some of the recently released wines from these microclimates have been so impressive on a world-class scale that they are making real headway in the American market. In addition to the traditional favorites from Rioja and brands established in the late 20th century, reds from the Ribera del Duero, Priorato, Navarra and Penedés and white wines from Rías Baixas, Rueda and Penedés have made significant inroads lately. And there is a steady buzz about the new-wave wines coming out of these areas, especially those from single vineyards or pagos.

Andrés Proensa, one of Spain's top wine writers, calls the single-vineyard movement one of the most dominant trends in modern Spanish wines. Historically, Spanish wine producers paid little attention to single-vineyard estates. In the early 1970s, Rioja had only the fledgling Remelluri and Contino estates; Cataluña had only Jean León and Miguel Torres's Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards. Today, there are too many to count.

"This is the most important change in Spanish wine," Proensa says, "producers at the vanguard are looking more towards vineyard quality now and are relying less on using technology to manipulate the wine in their cellars."

Even in Rioja, where wines are still largely made by a modified négociant system in which some grapes and wine are purchased, the process is undergoing dramatic changes. Many of the larger bodegas have augmented their grape sources by purchasing existing quality vineyards, planting new ones and cementing relationships with quality cosecheros—those who have not yet founded their own small estate-based wineries. These are the same viticulturalists who have been growing grapes for the larger wineries to increasingly demanding specifications.

Proensa, who authored the annual Guía de Oro de Los Vinos de España for several years and will begin publishing the Guía Proensa (de Los Mejores Vinos de España) next year, says that for the past decade there has also been a distinct trend toward what he calls "Parkerian fever" as many Spanish winemakers have been making styles seemingly preferred by Robert M. Parker, Jr. But Proensa acknowledges that many top producers are beginning to let up on the big, ripe, blockbuster wines—wines he describes as having a "bruising character"—in favor of those with "a more finely drawn style that is more subtle, but still rich in color, flavor and aromas."

While backward winemaking technology ceased to be an issue in Spain several years ago, Proensa believes that technical progress has reached its ceiling. The latest advances have been rapidly assimilated in Spain as well as elsewhere, even at traditional Rioja wineries such as Marqués de Riscal (founded 1860), CUNE (1879) and La Rioja Alta (1896). While having state-of-the-art facilities has obvious benefits, Proensa explains this development has had its downside.

"The reliance on modern winemaking technology has a tendency to make wines that are too uniform," Proensa says. (Much the same can be said for the widespread, heavy-handed use of new French oak in Spain.) "The smartest Spanish enologists are looking to combine many elements—soil, grape varieties, climate, proper vineyard cultivation, production methods and different types of oak—in order to make more harmonious wines with distinct personalities." Yet Spain's steady stream of new wines could become an embarrassment of riches. A bewildering array of new wines from diverse and little-known regions around Spain are constantly entering the market. No longer confined to specialty shops, wines from La Mancha, Toro, Somontano, Jumilla and other even more obscure regions are becoming widely distributed and many top restaurants feature them on their wine lists.

Three Steps Forward and Two Back?

It is difficult to keep up with the hundreds of wines that are being produced in Spain. And while a vast number are very good, there are a few unfortunate characteristics common in many emerging Spanish wines. Often their color is so dark that you can't see the bottom of the glass, they have the smell and taste of overripe fruit, have too much alcohol and are brutally lashed with new French oak.

In my darker moments after a full day of tasting too many of these oak-whipped wines, I sometimes feel that my tongue has been trampled by the late shift at a sawmill. I wake up in a sweat, sure that one day new oak will be discovered to be a carcinogen, which would be curtains for any journeyman wine taster of this epoch.

I also get wary when I hear the claim so common with regard to Spanish wines (and others) that a special wine is exclusively from old vines. Old-vine grapes often produce superconcentrated wines that are overly rich and too much of a good thing to my palate—I have never been of the school that more is better. And I wonder, if those grapes are that good, why are they being taken out of the winery's main blend?

Likewise, another pet peeve is the claim, also in vogue in Spain, that a wine should be unfined and unfiltered, as if those features alone guarantee wine quality. Pardon me, but I like the idea that the makers of classic Spanish wines fine their wines with fresh egg whites (as Muga, CUNE, López de Heredia, and others still do). I don't think consumers should be straining dead lees (amply stirred by battonage these days), grape skins and other bits of debris through their teeth just so some winemaker can avoid proper racking and light filtering, if even needed after proper racking. And I am not convinced that many unfiltered wines are even stable. However, winery owners should erect a statue to whoever came up with this brilliant bit about not filtering wines. It actually allows some wineries to sell the sediment in the bottoms of their vats and barrels, thus augmenting their revenues without having to increase the amount of actual liquid they produce. But none of these trends are uniquely Spanish. To many wine lovers, it is the curse of modern wines, a curse that many of us are praying will pass.

—G.D.

In the past five years in Rioja alone, scores of new wineries and new expensive modern international-style alta expresión wines have surfaced—partly in answer to a profusion of domestic challenges from international-style wines that have become media stars and partly to compete with the new generation of French "garage" wines, the boutique wine stars of California and Italy's super Tuscans.

Back in the 1980s, when I first began visiting the Ribera del Duero, I would regularly visit several wineries—Vega Sicilia, Pesquera, Valduero, Pérez Pascuas, Balbás and Torremilanos. Now there are 140 registered wineries in the region with more on the way. It would take more than a month of nonstop work to visit them all. In Rioja, after a three-day marathon tasting called Los Grandes de La Rioja where I felt I was catching up, I still fell short. I needed at least another week just to visit the rest of the worthwhile wineries. Not to mention all of the new wines emerging from the vast wine lake of Mediterranean Spain—Alicante, Valencia, Utiel-Requena, Jumilla, Murcia, Tarragona—and the even more expansive wine region that is La Mancha and its related denominaciones de origen.

As a 30-year observer of the Spanish wine scene, nothing that the talented, industrious wine people of this vibrant country accomplish surprises me anymore. With more acreage under vine than any wine-producing country in the world, many special microclimates, some splendid terroir-driven sites that are rapidly coming to the forefront, great grapes and more accomplished winemakers, there's no question of a remarkable future ahead for Spanish wines—and limitless enjoyment to be reached in drinking them.

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