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The Excitement of Modern Spain

After many years of fairly traditional – and, often, conservative – winemaking, today’s Spain is an exciting place to be; here are a few of the wines that help make it so.

Beyond its well-established classics, traditional Spain had a few problems causing wine lovers many ripples of eager excitement.

Not so now though.

Innovative producers, re-born varieties and rediscovered regions (or combinations of all three) emerge almost constantly.

Administratively, there are positives too; one is a less complex Denominacion de Origen system than France or Italy.

Another is a classification structure (reserva etc) that discourages wine being released too soon.

Equally, switches from American to French oak have made wines more approachable, as has the drift away from an over-emphasis on lengthy maturation.

Admittedly, climate is a mixed blessing (warmth helps while the all-too-frequent near-drought conditions do not) but, for the brave, that just adds to the challenge.

Here, then, is a swift tour of modern Spanish wines that enthral me – but a post of this size means, of necessity, that more is omitted than included.

As ever, guys, pictures and hyperlinks are used to help you identify the wines in question or garner more details about them.

An unheralded variety

Let’s start by focussing on one of those less well-known varieties with an attractive example, from Navarra, of the perfumed but “hard to grow” graciano grape.

Increasingly it appears in wines from Rioja next door where it successfully adds intensity, aromatics and freshness to blends.

Medium bodied with a savoury twist, 2019 Vina Zorzal Graciano (£8.50 at The Wine Society and 13.5% abv) bring us bright cherry and red plum fruit embellished by good acidity, little tannin and a trace of clove.  

A slightly better-known grape.

Although it is possibly more familiar under its French name (mourvedre) – and has “walk on” parts in the new world – it is really in its Spanish homeland that monastrell grapes produce arguably the best (and constantly improving) varietals.

To get an idea of its qualities, let’s take a look at a great value example from Jumilla, west of Alicante, with wine that gets a little help from syrah yet still reflects the characteristics that make monastrell so appealing.

Smooth as well as nicely textured, 2019 Familia Pacheco Monastrell Syrah (£6.99 – instead of £7.99 until 22 June –  at Waitrose and 14%) offers us ripe raspberry, plum and black cherry flavours combined with firm tannin, acidic freshness, cinnamon and coffee elements accompanied by a gentle sweetness.

Then moving up a step

A little more money (but not that much) gets us a lovely example of the variety, this time made with 100% monastrell (and with older vines) in the next-door region of Yecla.

Sleek and well-integrated, 2019 Familla Castano Hecula Monastrell (£10.99 at Noble Grape and 14%) has mulberry and prune flavours complemented by good acidity, sage based earthiness, limited tannin and olive, liquorice and black pepper influences.   

Now for a “bridesmaid”

Although gallons of it are produced in many parts of the world, grenache (garnacha in Spain) has only recently secured the star status justified by its high-quality potential – so, today, I shall spend a little time on it.

Traditionally, its flavours include raspberry, white pepper and a bit of spice – although that can vary appreciably even within a country – but let’s start with a basic version.

Soft and medium bodied, 2019 Extra Special Old Vine Garnacha (£6 at Asda and 14.5%) provides rich raspberry and red plum flavours with good acidity (but little tannin), hints of cinnamon, menthol and chocolate wrapped in a structure that makes the high abv come as a surprise.

But getting more sophisticated

While a notable exception to the “uncelebrated” status of garnacha is in the distinctive wines of Priorat in Cataluna – however, volumes and yields there are low and (consequently) prices are high.

So, for a great value option, try this one from Carinena.

Concentrated and sophisticated, 2018 Mancuso Garnacha (£12.95 at The Wine Society – due to arrive this week – and 14.5%) delivers brilliant loganberry, black cherry and damson flavours partnered by smooth tannin and suggestions of clove, dark chocolate and ginger with associated hints of sweetness.

And putting it in a blend

I can never consider serious garnacha without a reference to El Escocés Volante – Scottish winemaker Norrel Robertson MW – who here combines garnacha with syrah and mazuelo (carignan) in Calatayud, where his talents are probably best known currently.    

Dark with minty aromas, 2018 Papa Luna Unfiltered (£9.50 also at The Wine Society and 15%) brings us smooth cherry and raspberry flavours with traces of allspice and cola density, limited tannin, good acidity and attractive all-round richness.  

Now for the really big player

We turn next to the tempranillo grape – not only the most widely planted red wine variety in Spain but also the power behind some of the country’s highest quality wines.

We start though with a version from Castilla-La Mancha, south of Madrid, to illustrate that moving off the beaten path often leads you to very good value options. 

Herbal and medium bodied, Vina Gala Tempranillo (£5.85 at the Co-op) and 13.5%) contains soft loganberry and cherry flavours married here to suggestions of caramel and menthol with good acidity but little tannin.

Turning to a classic region

However, you cannot discuss tempranillo for long without talking about Rioja  and here are two – starting with one that is dark in colour and beautifully intense.

Full and enhanced by savoury depth, 2016 Baron de Ley Reserva Rioja (£12 at Tesco and 13.5%) has velvety black cherry and mulberry flavours accompanied by acidic freshness (but minimal tannin) and suggestions of eucalyptus, cinnamon and dark chocolate.  

Really classy Rioja

As an alternative, the same money will get you a more subtle option that still displays impressive complexity yet is poised and balanced but is a notch lighter than the Baron de Ley.

Smooth and skilfully balanced, 2015 Duque de Miralta Rioja Reserva (£12 at M&S and 13.5%) provides cherry and bramble flavours supplemented by menthol, clove and bay leaf touches with firm tannin neatly counterbalanced by lively acidity.

Tempranillo from another celebrated location

Instead of Rioja, many in Spain choose wines from the high altitude vineyards to the west in Ribera del Duero where very cool nights keep balancing acidity levels high.

Increasingly, the top wines from this region have substantial price tags so I have chosen a modestly priced example that, nevertheless, gives a clear indication of what this area is all about.

With a herbal background – especially thyme – 2018 Taste the Difference Ribera del Duero (£10 at Sainsbury’s and 14.5%) contains rich cherry and red plum flavours supported by balanced tannin, lively acidity with suspicions of vanilla, cedar and minerality but limited texture – despite the richness of its fruit-like components.

Looking at whites now

If many Spanish red wine varieties were ignored until recently, that relates to an even greater extent to the country’s white wines, since the overall climate is seldom compatible with quality white wine.

That, however, does not apply to Rias Baixas where an average rainfall of around 70 inches (almost three times the level in Jerez) allows varieties like albarino to prosper.

Here’s a good example of the style at a very good price indeed.

Sweet edged yet mellow, 2020 Finest Vinas del Rey Albarino (£8.50 at Tesco): and 12.5%) has red apple, orange and apricot flavours invigorated by pink grapefruit acidity set against a background that combines depth with zesty vitality.

A classy, unusual grape

Another grape that does well in North Western Spain is godello – a rich, weighty and perfumed variety slowly being recognised for the stellar qualities it possesses.

The latest Lidl Wine Tour has a basic Godello that wins high praise and here are my comments on the one in a Wine Tour earlier in the year but I have chosen to feature a hugely impressive (albeit more expensive) version today.

Textured and aromatic, 2019 Rafael Palacios Louro do Bolo Valdeorras Godello (from £20 at Noble Green and 14%) is built around a grapefruit and green apple superstructure neatly embellished by zesty vibrancy, mineral and saline elements but a certain creaminess too.  

Thence to white Rioja

While the aristocratic reds of Rioja attract world wide acclaim, its whites (traditionally made from the viura grape – aka macabeo) are something of a poor relation.

Although selected “foreign” varieties, including chardonnay, are now permitted in white rioja, the example I have chosen blends viura with white garnacha and white tempranillo.

Aromatic and bold, 2019 Baron de Ley White Rioja (£6.69 – instead of £8.99 until 22 June –  at Waitrose and 13%) delivers ripe melon, white peach and apple flavours coupled with lively grapefruit acidity and a creamy (possibly chocolate influenced) depth.

Call in again on Monday when I reveal my latest Top Tips and outline the current promotions in major retailers.

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10 Responses

  1. Super article Brian, thank you. Some new Wine Society wines for me to try and just in time for my next order! It also gives me an excuse to visit the wine section of Waitrose again!

  2. Hi Brian, well done for highlighting a country which produces the best wines in the world (Lol !!) no surprises when I say I was eagerly waiting for this post and as usual it doesn’t disappoint. Looking through the list there’s only three I haven’t tried yet (The Vina Gala, Mancuso and the Godello) As for the rest there’s a few stand out for me notably the ‘Familia Pacheco’ Monastrell (which I thought , for the money, was one of my highlights of last year) closely followed by the ‘Hecula’ which I’ve had many times. Norrel Robertson’s MW ‘Papa Luna’ is silky. I must give a shout out to another red grape I think is very underestimated that being Bobal ( from a region close to my heart, Utiel-Requena in Valencia ) the Co op do a very good one called ‘Extreme Bobal’ £10.
    On to the whites and as you know ‘Godello’ is my favourite white by far, in all it’s guises from bright, minerally and unoaked , to the more richer oily, creamy oaked versions all superb. Does the the ‘Luoro’ have any oak? Again white Rioja gets my vote and usually anything by Baron de Ley’ you can’t go wrong with, the Morrisons ‘Marques de los Rios’ that you’ve highlighted before even at £13 is hard to beat.
    With the hot weather i must point out a another unusual white I love is Txakoli (pronounced Cho-co-li) ) from the Basque region brilliantly refreshing with it’s high acidity and slight spritz, not easy to find , maybe you’ve come across one you can recommend I think it’s very different and one you can drink out of a glass tumbler, theatrically poured from a height.
    Nice one Brian and thanks for that.

    1. Always good to hear your thoughts, Dave, on Spanish wines as you know them so well. In fact, I am rather pleased with myself for finding three you had not tried. I agree with your thinking about Bobal – when it is done well – but it’s a bit sad to see it being replaced with tempranillo in areas like Utiel- Requena. As for the Luoro, I believe it has oak fermentation coupled with time on its lees.

  3. Hi Brian,
    I enjoyed your excellent review of Spanish wine. I am fortunate to have a holiday property in Aguilas, Murcia, sadly out of bounds for the last 18 months, and I enjoy some of the wines from the Jumilla region. A favourite is Casa de la Ermita crianza, a lovely blend of the Monastrell and Petit Verdot variety, that I purchase when I am in Spain. There are a couple more smaller wine regions in Murcia, namely Bullas and Lorca, but the wineries are small volume producers and their wines are consequently fairly expensive. I particularly like the Rioja reds and enjoy Glorioso crianza from the Wine Society and the Beronia and Altos Ibéricos crianzas from Waitrose. I tend to stick to Albariño for my white wine enjoyment.
    Many thanks for the article and I can’t wait to get back over to sunny Spain.

  4. Ah well, there go the wages for the month after reading that one Brian. You know only too well my love for Spain and all things Spanish. Might need to even buy an extra rack for the cellar.

  5. Thanks for that comprehensive heads-up Brian for me who knows not a lot about Spanish wines. Spain like Portugal seemingly has its act together these days and availability of so much enjoyable stuff increases as people vote with their wallets. Cheers for now …

  6. Thanks Bill – appreciate you kind words. Very happy to provide the rationale for Wine Society and Waitrose purchases; you seldom go wrong with either supplier.

  7. Great to hear from you Bob and I hope you can get out Murcia again soon. Jumilla has done a great job re-inventing itself and, as you suggest, Glorioso will grace any glass. That Monastrell Petit Verdot blend sounds a great option, I will look out for it ….. Brian

  8. An extra rack is always a wise buy – filling it is the perfect rationale for buying more wine. There are real masterpieces currently coming out of Spain so that provides another good reaon!

  9. Appreciate your kind thoughts, Eddie. Iberia does indeed offer great value options at the moment and things get even better as one ventures further and further up the price ladder.

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