As I said in the first part of this Spanish mini-series, not only has wine been made in Spain for a very long time, but it also has the largest area under vine in the whole world. Surprisingly, though, Spain only comes in third in terms of total wine production, behind France and Italy. Perhaps this is due, in part, to the more arid climate in the middle of the country and the fact that the average vine density is lower than in the other two countries. In a very hot or arid climate, vines will fiercely compete for moisture in the soil and so it is not possible to plant them too closely. Of course, irrigation would solve this issue but it is not generally allowed in the European Union.
In 1932, four years before France, the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, along with the INDO (Instituto Nacional de Denominaciones de Origen) and regional Consejos Reguladores (‘regulating councils’, or governing bodies) started delineating areas of wine production. Eighty years down the road, Spain now boasts 46 areas designated as Vinos de la Tierra (VT), 54 Denominación de Origen (DO) and 2 Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) on the mainland, and another 12 DOs spread over the Balearic and Canary Islands. See a detailed map here.
If you are wondering why I haven’t mentioned DO Pago, it’s because I’m saving it for an upcoming post which, for now, has the working title ‘The Great Boxing Match’.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the whole range of possible wine styles is available in this country: fresh whites, intensely pink rosés, powerful reds and from still to sparkling to sweet. Of course, the beautiful fortified wines of Jerez (Xéres – Sherry), alone, make a name for Spain. Not every palate enjoys the yeasty Manzanilla or the strange in-betweener that is Palo Cortado and that’s fine by me – more for us to drink!
I’m guessing not much of this seems like a revelation to my UK readers. They are quite used to drinking Albariño from Rías Baixas, pink Garnacha from Navarra or Tempranillo from Rioja. The UK is, after all, the main export market for Spain and has been for quite a while. One thing though: my mother tongue is French and I’ve studied Spanish for three years so it’s rather easy for me to speak Spanish properly but, nonetheless, I was really quite surprised when I moved here to hear people pronounce Rioja as Ree-oh-ka. I know the letter ‘j’ is a tricky one to pronounce but it shouldn’t even come close to sounding like a ‘k’. The closest pronunciation would be an ‘h’, as in Ree-oh-ha. There, I’ve finished ranting.
The thing about Spanish winemakers which initially surprised me, and keeps warranting my admiration, is their custom for releasing wines on the market only when they think it is ready. This tradition has become a regulation and it details specific ageing periods for the different classifications:
Vino joven (young wine), or Vino del Año: wines in this category are made in a light and easy drinking style. They have either not been aged in oak barrels, or for a shorter period than Crianza wines. They are released quickly on the market.
Vino de Crianza: these reds will have been kept for two years before release, with a minimum of six months in oak barrels (the minimum is twelve for DOCa Rioja) and the rest in bottle. Whites and rosés will be aged for a year, with six months in barrels.
Vino de Reserva: the reds are aged for three years, of which the first twelve months are in oak and the rest in bottle. Whites and rosés are aged for two years, again with six months in barrels.
Vino Gran Reserva: red wines with a good potential for ageing might be chosen for this highest of classifications. They will spend the first year and a half in barrels and the next three and a half in bottle, for a total of five years of maturation. Whites and rosés will be aged for four years, still with only the first 6 months in barrels.
Any quality wine can be drunk the week after its release but it often requires a few years time before it really comes into its own. In a time when wines are consumed too early, it’s good to know that if you opt for a Spanish wine you can expect 1) a wine that was given the chance to reach its potential by ageing it both in barrels and bottle, and 2) a legal term on the label (crianza, reserva,…) with a clear definition of how and how long the wine was aged.
Spain and Italy are the only two countries where the notion of ‘reserve’ has a legal meaning, although the Italian term ‘riserva’ simply means a longer ageing period in barrel than what is required for a given wine’s denominazione.
I think it’s fair to say that Spain does not insist so much on the notions of terroir and climate the way Italy, France or Germany do but on the other hand, it has a wide range of styles to offer and its wines are often more ‘ready’ to drink than some from other countries.
We were walking in the streets of Madrid, looking for a specific wine shop which we couldn’t find. I decided to ask a lady tending bar in a place which would have admitted 15 people at the most. She informed me that the shop had closed a while ago but that I could find another wine shop five minutes away. Having left central Madrid precisely for this closed shop, we decided to make the most of being in a new neighborhood and visit the other one. La Joya del Vino is owned by Carlos Ganso. He doesn’t speak a single word of French or English and my Spanish is, er, not what it once was. I tried to explain that I wanted to buy something that I couldn’t easily find outside of Spain, perhaps a wine from a little known DO or made from a grape varietal that is not very popular. I failed. So instead, I tried to say that I wanted a wine with little oak and from a lighter grape. I hinted at Grenache. He said: “¡Ah, Garnacha!” and produced a bottle of Pagos del Moncayo 2006 at 13€. I didn’t think I’d manage to get either of my points across so we bought it.
I thought I’d push my luck a little further and inquired about natural wines. He wasn’t sure what I meant. I cut it short and said ‘wine without sulfites’. He spoke really quickly (most Spaniards do) for a couple of minutes and I managed to understand that he didn’t think there were that many in Spain and that in dry and hot areas, less treatments were necessary in the vineyard. He took us to the back of the shop and dug out a dusty bottle from a place where I wouldn’t have thought to look. It was a Rioja Crianza 1991. He explained that, back then, they made wine differently: they didn’t use oak as much, they didn’t tweak their wines as much and the alcohol was significantly lower, a mere 12.5% instead of the more common 14-14.5% we see nowadays. As it happens, 1991 was the year that La Rioja became the first DOCa. I asked how much, he said twenty, we bought it. It was a fair price to pay to get a chance to taste a twenty year-old wine.
La Joya del Vino, Calle Alonso Cano, 62
28003 Madrid; Tel: 91 598 75 46
We drank the wines on the following days.
Pagos del Moncayo 2006
DO Campo de Borja
Grape : 100% Garnacha
Dark ruby with a hint of tawny at the rim, the nose showed dried herbs, chocolate, pot-pourri, prune and, surprisingly, lavender. I thought it had a great mouthfeel with a good body, fresh acidity and ripe, silky tanins. Flavors of blackcurrant and morello cherry complemented the nose and the finish was really long.
The wine was aged – mostly – in 500 liter casks of American oak. The only place where I like American oak is in my Bourbon, never in wine. In this case, I had to read roble americano on the label to even know it was there so I’ll tip my hat to the winemaker for using it so elegantly. A very enjoyable wine!
Website: Pagos del Moncayo (in Spanish only)
Viña Cumbrero 1991
Producer: Bodegas Montecillo
DOCa Rioja (sub region Rioja Alta)
Grape: 100% Tempranillo
Light brown with an orange rim, the nose immediately told us it was past its peak. Still, it had a lot going on, perhaps a sign that it once was a very interesting wine. We could smell parched thyme, caramel, overripe cherry, leather, macerated fruits. Saw dust was mentioned. The palate confirmed that the wine had lost most of its fruit character and showed tertiary aromas common to old wines. There was a wee bit of red fruit left but mostly dried leaves, coffee grounds and date were what we tasted.
The bodega was founded in 1874 in Fuenmayor by Celestino Navajas. His son Alejandro worked in Bordeaux and brought back the winemaking techniques he learned there. The bodega was later bought by Osborne y Cía in 1973 and so the family business became an asset in a large company. They never blend their Tempranillo, only use French oak and have a high profile female winemaker.