Sketches of Spain: Everything Old is New Again

Sketches of Spain: Everything Old is New Again

Among wine-producing countries, Spain has a history that is hard to compete with. Dating back to the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Romans, vines have been cultivated and wine has been made in Spain for millennia. Happily, a recent exploration of the wine-producing regions of northern Spain unveiled tremendous evidence of a vigorous spirit of the people, the vines and the land. From the Basque country and Navarra, through historic Rioja, rejuvenated Ribera del Duero, up-and-coming Toro, and unique Galicia, a recurring theme presented itself: the transformation of old into new.

In virtually every corner of the varied landscape, around the curves of the narrow rural highways, on the coastlines and alongside the rivers, ancient buildings—often medieval monasteries—are being rescued from disrepair and even abandonment. Restored, many have become home to modern wineries housing state-of-the-art winemaking equipment. In the vineyards, indigenous grape varieties have been saved, like Godello in Valdeorras, and regions that had long languished, like Toro in Castilla y León, are being brought back to the forefront of excellence.

This renaissance in Spanish winemaking started more than two decades ago, coinciding with the end of the Franco regime, and later, Spain’s entry into the European Economic Community. And today there is a changing of the guard. A generation of pioneers has seen its efforts come to fruition and a new generation is assuming the reins of control and experimentation, expanding on the strong foundation built by its predecessors.

And the results are impressive. Last fall we reported on the evolution of the wines from Catalonia, some of which have topped $100 a bottle but have still built a following of committed collectors. And now we turn our eye westward, to a string of regions so diverse that it’s best to tell their stories individually: snapshot views of the top wines and the people behind them.

From coast to coast, northern Spain has emerged as a global wine power, with wineries excelling at traditional and modern-style winemaking. Wine lovers who have heretofore focused their attention on France and Italy can safely broaden their horizons: Spain has been reborn, and its best years may lie ahead.

Tasting notes for some 100 wines from Spain are presented in our Buying Guide.

Navarra and Chacolí
Nestled at the base of the Pyrenées and adjacent to Rioja, Navarra has established itself as a great source of world-class affordable wine, with more expensive offerings sure to follow.

The area receives both Atlantic and Mediterranean climatic influences and has proven successful with Spanish and non-native varietals.

Concha Vecino, the winemaker at Bodegas Nekeas, is a member of Spain’s talented younger generation—and a pioneer in the region as a woman winemaker. The winery’s Vega Sindoa brand consists of wines that are quite flavorfully made, with good fruit and even some sophistication, at prices between $6 and $15 per bottle. At such modest prices, these are exciting wines that offer a great taste of the region. Vecino works mostly with Tempranillo and crafts some affordable and tongue-tantalizing Tempranillo-based blends (incor- porating red Bordeaux varietals). But her non-native Merlot and oak-aged Chardonnay, called Cuvée Allier, are particularly impressive.

Other producers of note in Navarra include Julián Chivite, Guelbenzu, Bodegas de Sarria, Piedemonte-Olite, and Magana. Adjacent to Rioja and possessing similar climatic and topographic elements, Navarra’s future seems wide open.

Not far northwest of Navarra, and facing the Bay of Biscay in Basque country, is Spain’s smallest denominated wine region, Chacolí de Getaria (Getariako Txakolina, in Basque). Here, where the people speak a language unrelated to any European tongue, we encountered the first of a number of interesting indigenous whites Spain has to offer. Not surprisingly, the region’s white wine is made from grapes with similarly unique and obscure names: Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza.

The best Txakoli come from steep, sometimes prephylloxera vineyards that sit on hills directly overlooking the ocean. These easy-drinking wines with crisp, lean fruit and a minerally character are the perfect accompaniment to seafood. Unfortunately, you may have to wait until your next trip to San Sebastián or Bilbão to enjoy Txakoli, because it is not widely available in the United States. One fine example of Txakoli that does make it to the U.S. is Txomin Extaniz (pronounced Cho-meen Esh-ta-neez).

Rioja, with its centuries of tradition—and heretofore traditionally styled wines—is by far Spain’s best-known denominación de origen (Spanish appellation). Over a century ago Rioja offered Bordeaux winemakers a refuge from their phylloxera-plagued vineyards, and over the ensuing decades the region adopted many Bordeaux techniques. Rioja’s higher vineyard sites sit against the dramatic backdrop of the Sierra de Cantabria, and the face of the mountains overlooking the Ebro River valley has a dramatic beauty.

Recently, especially in the Rioja Alta and Alavesa districts, exciting new wines have appeared, showing amazing fruit density. Often the power behind these New World-style bruisers is old-vine Tempranillo vineyards, and winemakers are increasingly employing French oak barrels (in addition to or instead of the traditional sweeter-tasting American oak) to cushion and deepen the wines.
A pacesetter in the movement to bigger, more palate-enveloping wines has been Remelluri, situated under a rock face that guards the region like a sentinel. The bulk of the progress at the property has occurred under the direction of Jaime Rodríguez, an important senior figure in the overall rebirth of Spanish wine. The estate (the full name is Granja de Nuestra Señora de Remelluri) has earned a reputation for rich, well-structured Tempranillo-based wines that offer weight and texture in the range of a California Cabernet or a fine Bordeaux. Remelluri’s commendable white is a unique and delicious blend of Chardonnay, Viura and Rhône white varietals.

Rioja has a lot to be proud of and thankful for these days. From the smaller estates to the bigger bodegas that make their money through large-scale production, quality and character is impressive. Established producers including Bodegas Montecillo, Marqués de Cáceres, Marqués del Puerto and La Rioja Alta are making delicious, very affordable wines that have the added advantage of being widely available throughout the world.

Sierra Cantabria, a property owned by the Eguren family, whose wine interests extend to many regions of Spain, deserves mention for both its regular bottlings and its superb estate Tempranillo, San Vicente. The San Vicente is made of a Tempranillo variant called peludo (hairy), a name derived from the hairy fuzz that coats the grapes. In a similar example of the breadth of vision here, Finca Allende is an estate that makes a splendid and fairly priced $20 red wine called Allende, as well as Aurus, an intense $150 massage of the mind and palate. It’s made from 60-to-80-year-old Grenache vines and it offers a level of hedonistic pleasure not experienced in old-school Rioja. Meanwhile, Bodegas Roda has garnered solid praise for its Roda I and II reds, and is now offering Cirsion, an ultraselect, native-clone Tempranillo from its very best vines. At about $200 a bottle, it offers quality and finesse
comparable to a first-growth Bordeaux—and the price to match. On so many levels, in so many ways, Rioja is bursting with energy.

Ribera del Duero, Rueda and Toro
The plateau of the province of Castilla y León drains east toward Portugal via the Duero River. Here, south and west of Rioja, is Ribera del Duero, the highly touted region that now has a deserved reputation for its world-class reds. Playing respectable supporting roles to Ribera del Duero are Rueda, source of delicious inexpensive whites, and Toro, the new frontier for big Spanish reds.

In the heart of Ribera del Duero, long before the D.O. grew into an international darling, is Vega Sicilia, the winery that most connoisseurs consider to be Spain’s original first-growth-quality estate. Classically structured and ageworthy, Vega’s Unico is legendary and can cost a fortune. Much less costly and more widely available is Alion—from a separate estate owned by the same organization. While not inexpensive, the current-release 1996 is a fabulously structured and palate-pleasing wine that, as a bottle for a special occasion, is affordable and will no doubt deliver the goods. While other wines may find it hard to compete with the outright quality and legend of Vega Sicilia, the fortress-like estate’s success has led to major positive developments in Ribera del Duero.

The best example is Pesquera, the winery owned by Alejandro Fernández, which over the past 15 years or so has become a benchmark for making reds of international repute. Fernández’s more recently established estate, Condado de Haza, makes lighter, more accessible offerings than does Pesquera.

Mariano Garcia, former technical director at Vega Sicilia, now produces Mauro, a hearty and substantial red made just outside of the Ribera del Duero D.O. He is also involved in a new project in Toro. Curiously, two very impressive “Ribera” labels, Mauro and Abadía Retuerta, are actually made not in, but just outside, the Ribera del Duero boundaries, and thus are restricted to calling themselves vino de mesa, or simply table wine. With such great wines currently forbidden from using a specific appellation name, one can reasonably expect the Spanish government to either authorize a new D.O. or extend Ribera del Duero.

For Abadía Retuerta, its success over the past few years almost makes talk of appellations moot. The property, located in Sardon de Duero, has become big news in the wine business. With a $20 million investment from Switzerland-based Novartis, one of the planet’s pharmaceutical giants, this winery epitomizes the country’s metamorphosis from old to new. A 12th-century monastery with vineyards, Abadía Retuerta produced wine for much of its existence, yet had its vines pulled out in the late 1970s. Within decades, however, it was back in action, and today is bigger than ever, with truly state-of-the art winemaking technology and an all-star winemaking team in Pascal Delbeck (ex-Château Ausone in Bordeaux) and Angel Anocíbar. Tremendous efforts are being made here to make top-level wines, regardless of price. From the everyday-priced Primicia and Rívola to an array of single-vineyard Tempranillos, the wines amply reflect Abadía Retuerta’s intense attention to the nuances of winegrowing: vine selection and careful plantings—the entire estate is mapped out in Burgundian detail; the totally gravity-fed winery (no pumping of juice at all); even computerized vineyard weather stations.

Also hailing from Ribera del Duero is Teófilo Reyes, like Rodríguez of Remelluri one of the grand old men of Spanish winedom. I didn’t dare ask them, but I’m pretty sure both men would object to the age-defined reference, and they’d have a point: Collectively, their vision, commitment, and youthful energy are legendary, and the proof of their work is in the bottle. Like Remelluri in Rioja, Reyes’s wines have a defined style and have built up a track record for consistent quality, structure and depth of flavor.

Traveling south and west on the Castilian plain one enters Rueda, a source of delicious and inexpensive whites made of Viura and Verdejo grapes (the latter of which is being toyed with by Australian winemakers). This is high and open country, producing a variety of agricultural products; with the rather cold and windy weather we met in April, it was decidedly raw, almost wintry. Still, it was easy to imagine ourselves on the patios and pools of summer when we tasted the region’s clean, dry whites. If you have a fondness for Sauvignon Blanc, which growers have recently begun to cultivate here, I encourage you to look for and try a Rueda white. Names to look for include Martivilli, Viña Morejona and Basa.

Toro lies adjacent to and west of Rueda. The region once made renowned reds from Tinta de Toro (the local Tempranillo variant) that graced the court of the Kings of Castille. Today much energy is going into resuscitating and elevating the reds of the region, with good results, including San Román, Numanthia, and Muruve. San Román is the Toro-based project of the aforementioned Bodegas Mauro. The wine shows a deep masculinity but also finesse, not surprising given the hand that guides it, Mariano Garcia.

Numanthia is the name of a wine (and of the indigenous inhabitants who battled the Romans) that is a project of the Eguren family, who also own Sierra Cantabria of Rioja. Huge in every sense of the word, Numanthia is a still undiscovered wine that’s sure to generate a buzz once critics and wine lovers get a hold of it. For sure, few people will be ambivalent about it. Tight and unevolved, the 1998 shows dense fruit in an acutely compressed structure. Whether it will evolve and develop a refined sense of balance, proportion and scale is a judgment only time will render, but the material for greatness is there.

While Numanthia and San Román both demonstrate the tremendous upper-end potential of Toro, those seeking an affordable, accessible wine from the region should look for Dehesa Gago from Telmo Rodríguez, former winemaker at Remelluri. This is a luscious, jammy fruit bomb with more taste and texture per cubic centimeter of liquid than 90 percent of the wine on the planet.

Not content to stay in any one place for long, Rodríguez is now involved with projects all over Spain. A leader in the new generation; he’s making wine in Rioja (the excellent Altos Lanzaga), Navarra, Rueda and Ribera del Duero, as well as in Toro. Experienced and internationally trained, Rodríguez has a quick mind, keen knowledge of winemaking, and unfettered vision. His achievements at Remelluri give more than an inkling that his diverse projects will receive the attention they deserve. “Fruit is the foundation of all good wine,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where I am working. I can be making a Rioja, a Garnacha in Navarra, white wine in Rueda, or a Toro red. I am seeking to allow the fruit to express itself, positively and under my guidance. Manipulating wine should always be undertaken with total respect for the fruit.”

Galicia (Rias Baixas and Valdeorras) North of Portugal, Galicia has a distinct regional quality of its own. The cultural background here is Celtic, as in Ireland, Wales and Brittany. Like those places, it faces the Atlantic, has a strong fishing and sea-going culture, and its people exude a tough, independent attitude that comes with that kind of life. Pilgrims to a major shrine added a more worldly outlook over the centuries, as they flocked to the Shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela from France, Germany, even Italy, bringing news, culture and maybe even grapes from more central European locales.

Two unique wines are what Galicia is all about. Albariño is made in the Rias Baixas district along the coast. A crisp, citrusy and chalky white, it shares common elements with Txakoli. Well-made Albariño has a floral nose and brisk acidity that can compare favorably to Rieslings from Germany’s Mosel region. It has been speculated but not proven that Albariño is a distant relative of Riesling. Alba, from the same Latin root as albino, can mean white, and riño is the Spanish name of the Rhine River, so a linguistic case for the grape’s Germanic roots can be made. Regardless, it’s hard to find another wine that’s better suited for shellfish or white fish than Albariño is, and fine examples—Morgadío, Martín Codax, Condes de Albarei and others—are readily available on the U.S. market.

My northern Spain adventure ended inland, in Valdeorras, where an ancient grape variety, Godello, was rescued from near oblivion just a few decades ago. At Bodegas Godeval, not only the grape but a beautiful monastery even older than the one at Abadía Retuerta has been salvaged, rebuilt, and now houses the winery (and a museum as well).

Belying its status as a relic of times past, the winery’s interior hosts rows of modern stainless-steel fermentation tanks and other sophisticated winemaking equipment, all assembled with the goal of making a delicious, crisp yet nutty white wine. Walking the steep hillside vineyards in the rain, I struggled to keep up with the brisk pace of owner Horacio Fernández, although he is easily half again as old as me. Another of the “grand old men” of the first wave of the Spanish wine renaissance, his energy and enthusiasm testify to a life well lived and a strong sense of purpose. He was at the forefront of saving Godello from oblivion, and his wine, Viña Godeval, is now an emissary to the world for the grape, and for Galicia and Spain.

As we walked back through the vines and entered the old abbey, past the steel tanks and toward a roaring fire to warm ourselves, we picked up a glass of his wine and toasted the heritage of the past united with the vision and technology of our age, which has created a dynamic present and a bright future for Spanish wines.

Published on August 1, 2000
Topics: Spain, Wine Travel

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