You may be old enough to remember when Sangria was considered a “cool” drink. Sangria was a mix of wine, sparkling water, lemons, limes, oranges and lots of sugar. Back in the day, that was about the only experience most of us had with Spanish wine. It was sweet and alcoholic and did the job, but no one really took it seriously as wine.
Today, Spain is booming in the wine world. With close to 70 wine regions from Alicante to Yecla, Spain has a wildly diverse range of very good wines. The famous regions of Rioja and Ribera del Duero are being challenged by the hot, up- and- coming regions of Bierzo, Jumilla, Toro, Utiel-Requena and Vinos de Madrid (the newest wine region).
Why Spain Is Hot
Americans bought over $170 million worth of Spanish wine last year—10 percent more than the year before, and an almost 44 percent climb from five years ago. Why? Possibly because Spain is producing more new, world-class wines than ever before, thanks in part to an abundance of brilliant winemaking talent. At the same time, Spain remains a source for some of the best wine values around, especially robust reds from emerging regions.
Rewind to the early 1980s: most Spanish wines available in the U.S. came from the Rioja region and most were made from Tempranillo or from a few obscure white grapes. Although Spain had been growing vines and making wine for at least a thousand years, the wine industry was stagnant and old-fashioned. As a result, almost all the wines tasted like Sherry, Spain’s flagship aperitif wine. (It wasn’t a good thing! One of the signs of oxidized wine is a Sherry-like taste.)
The stagnation of the Spanish wine industry reflected the malaise of Spanish society, which had languished for decades under the rule of the repressive dictator, Francisco Franco. But after Franco’s death in 1975, things were going to change, and change in a big way.
I was in Marbella, Spain in 1975 and wearing a modest bikini, and I stopped traffic because so few women were wearing them. Fast-forward to 1982 and most of the sunbathers were topless…that’s change! The wine was still pretty bad, though, but it was at least cheap- my husband was able to buy a bottle of iffy white wine to drink on the beach for all of 69 cents, although the bag of ice he bought to keep it cold, cost over a dollar.
Enjoying a new-found freedom, Spain was ready to modernize in every way. And making world -class wine was one way they could leapfrog into the then 20th century. Starting in the mid-1980s, Spain invested in modern viticultural and winemaking techniques, using state of the art equipment and processes. Maybe because a lot of the wine used to be of such poor quality, the quality control monitoring by Spain’s independent regulating council is now more stringent in many respects than what we find in the other European wine producing countries like France and Germany. The commitment to quality is that important to them. Nowadays, if you want wine that tastes like Sherry, you have to order Sherry.
A Great Spanish Oldie
Of course, even in the bad old days, there were always exceptions to the bad wine rap. Vega Sicilia is Spain's best-known prestigious estate. Located in the northerly region of Ribera del Duero, Vega Sicilia produces three wines, primarily from the Tempranillo grape. Vega Sicilia has been producing wines in the Ribera del Duero region since 1864. And at least since 1962, their flagship wine, Vega Sicilia Unico, has gotten the highest recognition from critics worldwide. Unico is made mostly from Tempranillo, sometimes mixed with a little Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Malbec. The 1998 Unico, with a score of 98 from a top critic is selling for $350 and up today.
Rioja is the oldest wine region in Spain, having produced wine as far back as the 12th century. Rioja was the epitome of fine red Spanish wine for generations, and it can still be superb. Tempranillo is still the principal grape used in Rioja and the wines are recognized as being some of the best for cellaring. Two top Rioja wineries, Artadi and Bodegas Sierra, produce spectacular, tannic wines that need to be aged for 15 years before drinking. Intestingly, much of Rioja's character depends on long aging in American oak. Rioja also produces some more accessible, value- priced wines. Ribera del Duero, which does not have the long history of Rioja, was only recognized as an official wine region in 1982.
Rioja and Ribera del Duero represented the twin peaks of Spanish wine quality until the 1990s. But other regions are now challenging their dominance. In just 20 years, wines from Priorat have gone from obscurity to being the most expensive in Spain. The surging popularity of wines from this rugged mountainous area in Catalonia, 80 miles southwest of Barcelona, stems from their ability to deliver the power and ripeness associated with California or Australia wines balanced by an uplifting freshness. Their chief drawbacks are their limited production, availability and steep prices.
Up and Coming Winemakers
Today, world-class winemaking superstars, are raising the (wine) bar for quality and accessibility by making lush, fruit- forward wines that are drink beautifully upon release. Alvaro Palacios, who makes the pricey L’Ermita (the 2001 is going for about $500) in Priorat, also makes inexpensive reds under his own name. Other highly regarded winemakers include Mariano García of Bodegas Mauro, Carlos Falcó of Marqués de Griñón and Peter Sisseck of Pingus. Meanwhile, creative young winemakers like Jose Maria Vicente, Sara Perez and Eduardo Garcia are creating marvelous, juicy reds by working in formerly obscure wine regions with unusual grapes and blends like Tempranillo/Grenache/Merlot, Bobal/Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah/Grenache/Cabernet Sauvignon.
Tempranillo still reigns supreme in Ribera del Duero, Rioja, Toro and other regions of Spain. Nobody really knows where Tempranillo came from, but some believe its original home was southern France. But there are now over 150 different red and white wine varietals being vinified in Spain, from Airen to Xarel-lo. Some of the varietals you are (or should be) familiar with are Albariño, Monastrell (known as Mourvedre in France) and Garancha (Grenache).
Grapes from France’s Rhone region have become very popular in Spain. Grenache, (called Garancha in Spain), is now taking a starring role in Priorat and other regions. Drought- and heat-resistant, Grenache yields a fruity, spicy, medium-bodied red wine with smooth tannins. Grenache is also used in Rioja as a secondary grape in wines dominated by Tempranillo, and is also vinified in Priorat where it often takes the lead in blends that may also contain Carignane, Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah.
The Priorat region, whose winemakers also blend Carignane, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon with Grenache, has become one of Spain’s shining success stories, exploding in production and quality since the late 1980s. Some other hot regions (not in temperature, in delicious wines!) to keep your eyes on include Jumilla, where the Monastrell grape is being made into powerful reds, and Yecla, which is producing value -priced Mourvedre. Bierzo has revived the Mencia grape and is delivering elegant red wines that some say resemble a cross between Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir.
White wines used to be an afterthought in Spain, but have improved dramatically in recent years. White wines made from the Albariño grape in the northwest region of Rias Baixas offer a nice mix of ripe fruit and refreshing acidity. Look for Albariño producers Martin Codax, Pazo de Senorans and Vionta for delicious, aromatic Albariño. Sparkling wines, called "cava," come from the Penedès region, near Barcelona. Cavas, made by the classic Champagne method but the using native grapes, Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada (don’t ask, just drink!), also provide good value.
Even the Balearic Islands are getting into the act. They form an autonomous community and a province of Spain, of which the capital city is Palma de Majorca. When I visted the island of Mallorca in the 1970s, all I knew of it were lovely beaches filled with vacationers, yet a mere 20 miles off the beach lies a land filled with rolling hills dotted with windmills and countless small winemaking bodegas.