Rioja Does Not Mean Spanish Wine I know, I know. I just ruined your game plan when you were trying to impress your friends while ordering Spanish wine. Allow me to begin by saying, “I’m sorry”. Actually, no I’m not. This is a commonly known disease called Riojitis. But don’t worry, there is a cure – and the treatment doesn’t hurt a bit. Since the end of the Franco monarchy in 1975, Spain has continued to go through a wild cultural revolution. Music, film, design, fashion, food, wine, and other industries that were once not allowed to flourish in the name of the greater good came out from under their rocks. And flourish they have. In the case of wine, Spain currently has more vines planted than any other country in the world, and is the world’s 3rd largest
The Pingus vineyards
wine producer behind Italy and France. With almost 80 regions working with distinct grape varieties, many indigenous to Spain, it has a diverse range of wine styles. In the hopes of providing a snapshot of a few of these styles, listed below are my top five non-Rioja wine regions of Spain. That’s right, Rioja is a region, not a grape. After tasting at least one wine from each of these regions, your case of Riojitis will be gone. Sherry-Jerez-Xeres – “The Archie Bunker” (The Old Curmudgeon) In the U.S. most people put Sherry in same category as fruitcake – stale
and sticky. It’s something no one admits to liking, yet it’s sold all over the country. Unlike fruitcake, it turns out that Sherry happens to make some of the most unique and delicious wines in the world. Historically, these wines were so prized that during the Age of Exploration, Magellan spent more money on Sherry than on weapons for his voyages. By inventing a wine-ageing technique known as the Solera System, where wines are cross-blended between years to produce consistent flavors, Sherry produces dynamic, oxidized wines in both dry and sweet styles. This region boasts the most original winemaking traditions of Spain that can be traced back over centuries and represents Spain’s greatest and most original contribution to the world of wine. Here are a
Penedès – “The Frank Gehry” (Beauty in Sleek Modernism) This region is home to one of the most forward-thinking winemakers in Spain, Miguel Torres. Aside from being outspoken regarding the effects of climate change and investing heavily in modern science and technology to combat it, he is equally innovative in the vineyard. Employing satellite imagery to take pictures of his vineyards, he determined which vines received the most light and then divided his land into different parcels, giving each one a classification based on This photo : Wine cellar at Pingus winery. Top, from left: Gnarly Tempranillo vines in Ribera del Duero at Pingus vineyards; Albariño vines trained head high on pillars to provide airﬂow, preventing grapes from rot in damp climate; Vega Sicilia barrel room.
his theory. Most of us know the Torres name for the Sangre de Toro, a cheap and cheerful red blend sold in most liquor stores. But as validation of his methods, in the 1970s his single-vineyard, 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, called Mas La Plana, beat all other contenders (including Chateau Latour) in a blind tasting in Paris. The arguably bigger story is that this region is home to Spain’s greatest sparkling wines, Cava, the Spanish version of Champagnestyle bubbly. The Cava process follows the exact steps as Champagne,
including the most crucial step when the second fermentation happens in the same bottle in which the wine is sold. This is vitally important to quality because the persistence of the bubble has little chance to dissipate since it never leaves the sealed environment. The history of Cava only dates back to the mid-1800s, but there are grounds for its reputation as one of the greatest examples of dry sparkling wine made outside France. The distinctive character of Cava can be found both in nuanced, delicate, and bone-dry styles and hearty, smoky, and oak-tinged versions. Although not as established as great Champagne, they are great wines sold at a fraction of the price. Whether you know it or not, you have probably enjoyed a glass of “complimentary Champagne” and been served a delicious glass of Cava. Ribera del Duero – “The Donald Trump” (The Golden Comb Over of Wine) Ribera del Duero is home to luxurious, oak-laden red wines, the best of which are produced by three of the most famous wineries in Spain. Historically it is known for the world-renowned Vega Sicilia, a winery that is the source of Bordeaux-styled wines of myth and story. Further elevating itself into the spotlight in the 1980’s, the wines of Pesquera showed once again that the region was capable of grandeur. Most recently, staying true to pedigree, a Danish winemaker named Peter Sisseck established the now legendary, critically acclaimed Dominio de Pingus in the 1990s. When Ribera del Duero shines the wines are robust, powerful, and graceful with a price tag to match. Made almost entirely from the grape Tempranillo, these mouthfilling wines would make any table of Hedgefunders happy at a steak house power lunch. In addition to these leading three wineries, there are numerous lesser-known wines of distinction from every corner of the region. Unfortunately, there are also sub-par, over-priced wines that piggyback on the name of the region. It is because Ribera has been unable to raise its level of overall quality that the upper-tier wines are lumped in with the massproduced, simply oaky wines of disinterest. Until this is remedied, it will be up to the wine drinker to navigate by specific winery rather than by being able to trust the schizophrenic nature of the region. (Why do you do this to yourself, Ribera? Why!?) Priorat – “The Manu Chao” (when Spanish and French inﬂuences combine) Priorat was only a blip on the Spanish wine map for centuries from the time that monks first planted vines in the area in the 1200s. It wasn’t until the 1990s that a handful of French and Spanish winemakers came together to form the original five “Clos” – Clos Martinet, Clos Mogador, Clos Erasmus, Clos L’Ermita, and Clos de l’Obac. Once established,
PREVIOUS PAGE: COURTESY RARE WINE CO. THIS PAGE; TOP, FROM LEFT: ADAM RIEGER; COURTESY JOSE PASTOR SELECTIONS; COURTESY VEGA SILICA. BOTTOM: ROBERTO PETRONIO.
few recommended examples for the adventurous wine drinker: Manzanilla or Fino: These are the lightest and driest styles with no trace of sugar to be found. Think of them as the salty ‘White Wine Spritzers’ of Sherry that are refreshingly cold. Amontillado or Oloroso: Lightly browned, these lightly oxidized wines are savory, not sweet, with flavors of walnuts/hazelnuts. PX: Short for Pedro Ximenez. The PX grapes are dried in the sun and provide the basis for the sweetest form of Sherry. With a texture so luscious you’ll think about it on pancakes but you’ll prefer it with a piece blue cheese.
TOP, FROM LEFT: COURTESY RAMON DEL MONTE OF TEMPRANILLO; AMY CLARK; AMY CLARK. BOTTOM, FROM LEFT: COURTESY RARE WINE CO.; COURTESY JOSE PASTOR SELECTIONS
these wineries changed the vineyard ecology to organic and biodynamic practices and introduced French oak for ageing, thus creating deeply fruited, finessed, and powerful wines. Were it not for this severe change in approach, the wines of the Priorat would have remained anonymously produced by state run co-operatives while outsiders may have only stopped to take notice of the local Sherry-styled wines, called Rancio. The red wines are now made using French techniques in the winery, and are predominantly based on the nearly century-old vines of Grenache and Carignan. White wines are based mostly on White Grenache, but they are allowed to blend with a plethora of obscure local and international varieties. Both whites and reds are harvested from impossibly steep terraced vineyards forcing the work to be done
AFTER TASTING WINE FROM THESE REGIONS, YOUR RIOJITIS WILL BE GONE painstakingly by hand. There is a particular soil-type called Llicorella that’s found in the region that provides a distinct smoky mineral flavor in the wines common to every bottle labeled Priorat. I only hope that high prices spurred by huge point ratings in the wine press don’t doom this region to an unsustainable reputation of greatness yet to be proven in the long run. There is great quality here and promise in recent vintages where less expensive cuvee’s are starting to be produced. Perhaps this ability to produce wines of all quality will be Priorat’s saving grace. Galicia – “The Tony Bennett” (Great then, somehow better now) Galicia is not actually a winemaking area, but is the most northwesterly province in Spain, which is host to a slew of wine regions. The most seasoned of these regions is Rias Baixas where the locals drink seafood-friendly wines based on the white grape, Albariño. Beyond the well-established sea-salty, citrusy, and stone-fruited Albariño wines, this is also home to Spain’s newest rising star grape varieties: the indigenous, all but forgotten, white Godello and red Mencia. In the last 10 years, the quality of wines coming out of regions like Valdeorras,
This page, from left: Terraced vineyards in the Priorat; Walled vineyard at Albet i Noya winery in the Penedes; Barrels in the Solera System at Lustau. Bottom: Terraced vineyards under snow at Clos L’Ermita in Priorat; Track and pulley system used to pull baskets of Mencia grapes up the sloped vineyards in Ribera Sacra.
Ribera Sacra, Ribiero, and Bierzo (this last one technically not a part of the province, though in wine terms it shares much in common) are nothing short of stunning. Godello is an ancient native grape variety that ripens unevenly and needs the watchful eye of the grape grower to remain vigilant during harvest. When harvested properly it creates acid-driven wines that are everything from crisp, bone-dry and minerally, to rich and creamy interpretations teeming with honey-suckle and ripe citrus fruits. The best of these whites come from Valdeorras, but great examples can also be found in Ribera Sacra and Bierzo. Mencia is equally impressive for its perfumed, peppery, mineraldriven, and herbal tea-like nature. It has been penned that there may be a link between it and Cabernet Franc, but it has not been proven by genetic testing yet. The cool climate regions of Bierzo and Ribera Sacra founded on their granite soils are perfect beds upon which Mencia flourishes. Traditionally these wines were created in concrete tanks, yielding rough, rustic and slightly awkward wines. With the influx of cleaner, more modern techniques utilizing stainless steel tanks and oak barrels, a new age of wines made from the traditionally overlooked Mencia has been borne. Take that, Riojitis! Feel it melt away as your curiosity propels you to sample some of these Spanish wines. With your mind now filled with new knowledge, you are ready to take the next step: tasting. I told you this wouldn’t hurt. With plenty of other great stories in wine happening all over Spain we’ll stop here for a breather - there is no need to take it in all at once. Stay tuned for further stories from behind the bar. Until next time, Salud.
Published on Mar 7, 2011
There's more to Spanish wine than Rioja, but you knew that, didn't you? By Alex Alan, Bar Jamon’s Spanish Wine Specialist