Before I began working in the wine business, and before finishing college, I served in the Air Force, and was stationed in Germany for most of my time in the service. Because of this, I was fortunate enough to have traveled over most of western Europe. Even then, I liked wine – especially red wine! But I can’t honestly say that I recall drinking anything that was specifically a Rioja, for example. My longest “stay over” trip to Spain at that time was several nights along the Spanish coast, in Tossa de Mar, on the Costa Brava. While the Tempranillo grape may have been the main component of the various sangrias that my bride and I sampled, I was not yet as sophisticated about the wines of Spain that I like to think that I have become. My infatuation with Spanish red wines really began when I was a retail liquor store manager. I was interested in some of those unusual bottles, shaped like those that French Burgundy came in; some were contained in something like snug burlap sacks and said in clear letters “Rioja”. That is probably where I had my first real sampling of this particular Spanish treasure. Happily, I have had the time – and inclination – to learn much more about Spanish wines. Almost three decades later in my career, I had the opportunity to spend more than a week under the tutelage of Miguel Torres and the Torres Wine company, staying in Barcelona, and immersing myself in the culinary and wine culture of northeastern Spain. The wine scene in Spain had dramatically changed in those decades.
It was really from the 1970’s on to current times that Spanish wines have shown such consistent growth in quality. The last 50+ years have been exceptionally good for viticulture in the whole country of Spain. It’s not just that Spain makes some excellent wines. It’s that Spain makes some excellent wines in so many different states! From Jerez in the southwest, from Galicia in the northwest, to Catalunya in the northeast and even to the Balearic Islands in the Western Mediterranean, excellent examples of fine winemaking abound.
Some facts first, to aid in understanding the scope of the Spanish wine industry. Spain’s viticultural output includes red, white, and sparkling wines produced throughout the country. Located with Portugal, on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain has almost 3 million acres planted in wine grapes, making it the most widely planted wine-producing nation – but the third largest producer of wine in the world, behind Italy and France, and just ahead of the United States. This is partially due to the very low yields and wide spacing of the older vines that are planted on the dry, infertile soil found in some of the Spanish wine regions. The country has an abundance of native grape varieties, with over 400 varieties planted throughout Spain. Though almost 80 percent of the country's wine production comes from only 20 grapes — including the reds – Tempranillo, Bobal, Garnacha, and Monastrell; the whites – Albariño, Airén, Verdejo, Palomino, and Macabeo; and the three classic Cava grapes – Parellada, Xarel·lo, and Macabeo.
Major Spanish wine regions include the Rioja and Ribera del Duero, which are known for their Tempranillo production; Jumilla, known for its Monastrell production; Jerez de la Frontera, the home of the fortified wine Sherry; Rías Baixas in the northwest region of Galicia that is known for its white wines made from Albariño and Catalonia which includes the Cava and still wine-producing regions of the Penedès as well the Priorato region.
In this article, I will try to focus on the highlights of Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Navarra, and Priorato, all regions that have shown wonderful advances in the quality of the wines produced in their regions.
The Wines of Northern Spain – A Cornucopia of Choices
By Don Clemens
Rioja – The "Room Where It Started”...
For many of us, the first interesting red wine from Spain that we encountered was probably from the province of Rioja. With me, some basic familiarity with French red wines likely started this journey into learning about the red wines of Spain, or maybe it was the popular red wines of Italy that led the way.
In any case, winemaking in Spain goes back many centuries. The abundance of native grape varieties fostered an early start to viticulture with evidence of grape pips dating back several eons. Archaeologists believe that these grapes were first cultivated sometime between 4000 and 3000 BC, long before the wine-growing culture of the Phoenicians founded the trading post of Cádiz around 1100 BC. Following the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians introduced new advances to the region-including the teachings of the early viticulturist Mago. Carthage would wage a series of wars with the emerging Roman Republic that would lead to the Roman conquest of the Spanish mainland, known as Hispania.
Under Roman rule, Spanish wine was widely exported and traded throughout the Roman empire. During this period more Spanish wine was exported into Gaul than Italian wine, with amphorae being found in ruins of Roman settlements in Normandy, the Loire Valley, Brittany, Provence and Bordeaux.
As vineyards were planted in many parts of Spain in the following centuries, they also eventually arrived coming upriver, to Rioja, where a thriving winemaking region was developed several hundred years ago.
Rioja is located on the north central part of Spain, south of the Pyrenees Mountains, which separate most of Spain from France. It is a fairly rugged (one could say “mountainous”) region, with seven valleys which are oriented generally from the southwest to the northeast. All these valleys have streams or rivers which flow into the Ebro River, which ultimately flows into the Mediterranean Sea.
The 17th and 18th centuries saw periods of popularity for various Spanish wines, including Rioja. However, the Spanish wine industry was falling behind those of other European countries who were embracing the developments of the early Industrial Age. Winemaking was certainly well established in Rioja, but it wasn’t really as important in international commerce as, for example, the wines of Germany and France. It took the vineyard destroying plant louse, Phylloxera Vastatrix, to really open the eyes of the rest of the Europe about the quality winegrowing taking place just a few hundred kilometers south of Bordeaux, where so many vineyards were being decimated. With the sudden shortage of French wine, many countries turned to Spain, with French winemakers crossing the Pyrenees to Rioja, Navarra, and Catalunya. Although the grape varieties most dominant in Rioja had little to do with those that were so well known in Bordeaux, the vines there were still healthy and not yet infested with that spectacularly destructive louse. In the 1850’s, many of the winemakers in Bordeaux transported themselves and their winemaking skills to the region, bringing with them the habit of using 59-gallon (225-liter) oak barriques for aging their wines. Local winemakers took note, and soon, virtually all Rioja red wines were being aged in similar oak barrels.
Eventually, when grafting to phylloxera-resistant rootstocks “back home” in France became more common, most of the French winemakers returned to their former vineyards, leaving a changed winemaking dynamic in their wake. The Riojanos gained a solid place in the world of fine wines due to several factors, but certainly, having the right grapes (red grapes: Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano; white grape: Viura) planted in the right terroir and using appropriate oak barrel-aging techniques gave them a great chance to compete at the highest level.
In more modern times, there are other things that have contributed to the increase in quality for Spanish wines, and by extension, the wines of Rioja. There is a wine classification system in place for Spanish wines that resembles the Italian system. In general, there are many levels of quality.
It is not at all unusual for winemakers in Rioja to take advantage of the variety of topographies and climates by blending wines from the different areas and grape varieties to create a wine with the characteristics that they are looking for. Blending is no sin! And, one thing remains very true – excellent examples of Rioja are available in most fine retail establishments, and certainly in most fine Spanish restaurants! I hope that you enjoy the wine reviews in this issue. I can tell you that, in almost every case, we enjoyed the opportunity to review them!
Ribera del Duero – Powerful, Elegant Red Wines
Best known for its Tempranillo-based red wines, Ribera del Duero has delivered some world-class wines in a very short period of time. When the region received its D.O. status in 1982, there were only nine wineries and 15,000 acres of vineyards. In less than 40 years, the region now has more than 270 wineries and more than 55,000 acres of vineyards. The vineyards of Ribera del Duero stretch intermittently for over 70 miles along the River Duero. These intermittently planted vineyards feature a mix of different soils, exposures, and elevations – some as high as a half-mile above sea level. The semi-arid terrain, ample amounts of sunlight, and extreme diurnal temperature swings (from day to night) — sometimes a 50-plus degree difference — create optimal ripening conditions for the Tempranillo grapes that define Ribera del Duero wines’ distinctive character.
This grape is a matter of great pride for the region. Known locally as “Tinto Fino” or “Tinta del Pais”, to distinguish it from other nearby Tempranillo producing areas, it represents 95% of all the grapes grown in the D.O. Old Tempranillo vines are the cornerstone of Ribera del Duero red wines. Vines 25 years and older represent about a third of all vines planted — meaning a significant percentage of the vines have deep roots that find enough nourishment to thrive in the harsh climate and produce moderate yields with minimal worries compared to younger vines. While the fruit tends to be smaller in size, old vines are known for producing more structured and balanced wines. The average yield of around 1.6 tons per acre produces a rich, complex red wine with notes of red berries, warm spices, leather, and tobacco leaves.
Many winemakers here make uniquely expressive single vineyard wines. Others, using Tempranillo from different plots, have found ways to achieve a balance and complexity through blending several varieties of grapes. In addition to those other Tempranillo “spices”, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Grenache (Garnacha) and the white grape, Albillo, are allowed in the blends. Once again, it’s no sin to blend!
Wine regulations in Ribera del Duero follow the same basic tenets of Rioja in terms of noting the age of its wines, i.e. “Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva, etc.”
Priorato – The Very Old “Modern Miracle”
Priorat is a Denominació d'Origen Qualificada (DOQ) for Catalan wines produced in the Priorat county, in the province of Tarragona, in the southwest of Catalonia. It is one of only two wine regions in Spain to qualify as DOCa, the highest qualification level for a wine region according to Spanish wine regulations; the other region is Rioja DOCa. (Priorat is the Catalan word, the one that appears most often on wine labels, while the Castilian equivalent is Priorato.)
Winemaking has a long history in the region. The first recorded evidence of grape growing and wine production dates from the 12th century, when the monks from the Carthusian Monastery of Scala Dei, founded in 1194, introduced the art of viticulture in the area. The prior of Scala Dei ruled as a feudal lord over seven villages in the area, which gave rise to the name Priorat. The monks tended the vineyards for centuries until 1835 when they were taken over by the state and distributed to local farmers.
Soil is of paramount importance to winemakers in Priorat as this is reputed to impart much of the minerality associated with the region's wines. Priorat's flagship soil type is "llicorella" - a free-draining, nutrient-poor soil made up of partially decomposed slate and quartz ('llicorella' is the Catalan name for slate).
As had happened all over Europe, the creeping disaster of phylloxera finally arrived. At the end of the 19th century, the phylloxera pest devastated the vineyards of Priorat, causing economic ruin and large-scale emigration of the population. Before the phylloxera struck, Priorat is supposed to have had around 5,000 hectares (12,000 acres) of vineyards. As a result of the death of the vineyards, Priorat ended up with about 600 hectares (1,500 acres) of vineyards. It was not until the 1950s that replanting was undertaken. The DO Priorat was formally created in 1954. The seat of the DO's regulatory body was initially Reus, some 30 km to the east of the wine-region, rather than in Priorat itself.
In the years since 1985, the production of bulk wine has been phased out and the bottling of quality wine has been phased in.
Early on, winemaking cooperatives dominated. Much of the development of Priorat wines to top class is credited to Carles Pastrana, René Barbier and Álvaro Palacios. Winemaker Barbier, then active at a winery in Rioja owned by the Palacios family, bought his first land for Priorat vineyards in 1979, convinced of the region's potential. In the 1980s, he convinced others, including Palacios, to follow his lead and plant new vineyards in likely locations, all named Clos “Something”. For the first three vintages, 1989–1991, the group of five wineries pooled their grapes, shared a winery in Gratallops, and made one wine sold under five labels: Clos Mogador (Barbier), Clos Dofi (Palacios, later renamed to Finca Dofi), Clos Erasmus, Clos Martinet and Clos de l'Obac. From 1992, these wines were made separately. In 1993, Palacios produced a wine called L'Ermita sourced from very old Priorat vines, which led to an increased interest in using the region's existing vineyards to produce wines in a new style.
Alongside the traditional Garnacha and Cariñena, several Priorat winemakers are using international grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah for their red wines.
The region's white wines are made from the four authorized white varieties, Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Pedro Ximénez and Chenin Blanc.
The Catalan authorities approved of Priorat's elevation from DO to DOQ status in 2000, but national level confirmation from the Spanish Government in Madrid only came on 6 July 2009. In the period from 2000 to 2009, when it was approved as DOQ but not yet as DOCa, despite the fact that these designations were exactly the same but in Catalan and Spanish, respectively, the situation was somewhat confused. A new set of DOQ rules was approved by the Catalan government in 2006. The regulatory body moved from Reus to Torroja del Priorat in 1999.
The vineyard surface of Priorat has been continuously expanding since the Clos-led quality revolution in the 1990s. At the turn of the millennium there were 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of vineyards, with an equal amount of planting rights for future development secured. As of 2018, Priorat had 2,010 hectares (5,000 acres) of vineyards, now at the same level of vines as there were in the pre-phylloxera era.
Navarra – The Ancestral Home of Great Rosados, and MORE!
Navarra is a Spanish Denominación de Origen Protegida for wines from the southern half of Navarra. The vineyards are on the lower slopes of the Pyrenees as they descend towards the basin of the river Ebro, adjacent to Rioja, on the south.
Tucked into the Pyrenees, below France, nestled into a series of rugged valleys emanating southward from the mountainous tip of north-central Spain, the vineyards of Navarra spill out across verdant foothills fed by Atlantic rains before descending rapidly downriver into Spain’s vast, arid Ebro basin—a total distance, north-to-south, of a mere 80 kilometers (50 miles).
Navarra’s dramatic topographical variation—as well as its unique geographic location at the junction of Atlantic, Continental, and Mediterranean climatic influences—helps explain the region’s complex mosaic of soils and microclimates.
The cultivation of the vine in Navarra dates to the Roman occupation of the first century A.D., but the region’s winemaking reputation blossomed in earnest during the late Middle Ages, as pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago—a medieval pilgrimage route currently enjoying a dramatic resurgence in popularity—began noting the particularly high quality of wines encountered while passing through the then-Kingdom of Navarra.
Around the same time, a succession of French monarchs ascended by marriage to the Navarra throne, presiding over three centuries of cultural flowering still evidenced today by the region’s “High Gothic” and late Romanesque architectural icons, and by a certain residual influence of French culture that flows through local sensibilities, especially when it comes to matters of food and wine.
Even before the establishment of D.O. Navarra in 1933, the region was known primarily for its exceptional rosés, made from the indigenous Garnacha Tinta grape variety. But beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, a handful of pioneering growers in the D.O. began to experiment with classic French varieties, especially Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The result was that, in Navarra, these new efforts would eventually impress wine lovers all over the world and push the D.O. into a new phase of its evolution as a producer of fine wine.
While Garnacha has lost considerable ground to newer varieties as a result (Garnacha represented 90% of total vineyard plantings in the 1970s; it is 25% today), it is still the second most-planted variety in the D.O. and still a highly regarded piece of the Navarra grape portfolio. In fact, in recent years, much of Spain’s winemaking community has come to regard Garnacha as a national treasure, capable of world-class greatness and worthy of protection from overzealous replanting by other varieties. In Navarra, a new generation of winemakers has been at the forefront of these efforts, reclaiming and rehabilitating old Garnacha vineyards and producing wines of exceptional concentration of flavor, complexity and minerality.