Updated: Jan 9, 2020
There are many reasons why I love Spanish wine. I won’t bore you with every single one of them but instead focus on one specific character of the wine production that makes Spain such a dominant force in the industry: diversity.
Whilst Spanish wine may be synonymous with grapes like Tempranillo, Albariño, Verdejo and Garnacha there are countless other grapes grown in the country, some of which you might not expect to see either.
Riesling. Chenin Blanc. Trousseau. Pinot Noir.
Yes, these are all grown in Spain and many of which are produced into pretty epic varietal wines.
Given the fact that Spain has the highest volume of land devoted to the cultivation of grapes in the world, the breadth of diversity should hardly be surprising. Add to this a wide array of climatic and geographical differences both on the mainland and on the islands and you have a country with the ability to produce very different and very unique wines.
Whilst the staple varietal favourites will always provide the bread and butter in Spanish wine consumption, the increase in quality of non-traditional varietals should give the average wine drinker something to think about. I’ve always been a firm believer that grapes show their truest expression when grown in their indigenous home, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find an alternative expression elsewhere.
I’ve picked 4 of my favourite International grapes and tried to find a quality Spanish wine made from each. I realise this ‘experiment’ had the potential to blow up in my face but, bear with me, the results may surprise you.
Alsace. Mosel. Clare Valley. Riesling is an iconic grape grown is some fairly iconic vineyard destinations. Loved by sommeliers and wine geeks around the world and famed for its aromatic complexities, its ability to age for decades and its exceptional ability to express terroir.
This has enabled the grape to travel so well and find additional expressions in areas such as New Zealand, Austria, Canada, The Finger Lakes as well as the Catalan Pyrenees in Spain with winery Castell d'Encus
It is here that winemaker Raul Bobet harvests his Riesling grapes at around 1,000 metres in the vineyards hidden within the Pyrenees forests. Farming is completed organically with complete respect to the environment and constant research is carried out by the team into factors such as planting density, cover crop, pruning types, in order to enhance the quality of grapes.
The grapes are hand-harvested in small 10kg baskets from the small vineyard plots. The soils are clay limestone and due to the altitude and high diurnal range, the climate is cool, particularly for Catalunya and allows for a slow grape ripening which enhances the complexities.
The site is surrounded by mountains and often prone to snow and frost which makes the vines suffer and therefore enhancing the quality of the grapes. This creates a unique micro-climate and a unique expression of Riesling that could most likely not be made in any other location in Spain.
Their Riesling is named 'Ekam' and has developed a cult following despite being fairly unknown in the wine world.
The vines are young at around 15 years and fermentation is carried out naturally in small 25HL tanks before being bottled and held for 6 months before being released. A pinch of Albarino is added to the wine which adds some aromatics and mineral freshness.
The result is a persistent and intense wine with mutli-layers and aromas of lime, grapefruit, white flower and a touch of smokiness that is all overarched with a wonderful acidity and mineral back-bone. It has the potential to age for a very long time.
Famed for its world class quality wines produced in its viticultural home in the Loire Valley, it is also found in small plantings around Catalunya, Aragon and Navarra. Whilst the planting sizes are relatively modest, there are a few producers creating world class Chenin wines with their own Spanish personalities.
One of these very producers is the acclaimed Escoda Sanahuja with their bottle of Els Bassots made up primarily from Chenin with small percentages of Sumoll Blanc, Garnacha Blanca and Macabeu.
Based in the relatively unknown DO of Conca de Barbera within Catalunya they are committed to producing “natural wines of biodynamic agriculture”. This involves the use of native yeasts for fermentation and with no filtration, clarification, stabilization nor sulphites.
At Escoda Sanahuja the grape is the only protagonist. The grapes for this wine are handpicked and undergo a maceration on the skins for around 10 days which gives the wine an amazing amber tinge. Fermentation is carried out in stainless steel using natural yeasts before the wine is aged for at least one year in neutral French oak.
The result is a unique and expressive wine with a funky nose and bucket loads of flavour with ripe pear, dried apricot, honey and lychee.
The tannins from the skin maceration create body and there’s a slight effervescence to the wine that ends with a long and citrus sweet finish.
Originally from France and most planted nowadays in Portugal as Bastardo and used as part of the blend for Port wine, it is also found in North West Spain under the name of Merenzao.
There are various mutations of the grape and enough synonyms to ensure the average wine-buff would have come across the grape in some shape or form.
It is a dark skinned grape typically producing deep cherry-red wines with dark berry and forest fruit nuances. The high natural sugars in the grape generally produce wines with high potential alcohol content.
We’re sticking with North West Spain, Ribiera Sacra to be exact, and small winery Adega Algueira where their small plot of Merenzao is located on the steep, schist slopes of the River Sil.
It is a family run winery in the midst of development, growth and ambition - and I was lucky enough to visit them in 2018. The winery building itself has been expanded from the original structure into a large, modern, clean and organised operation. The wide array of barrels, foudres, amphoras, all different shapes and sizes show commitment to artisanal winemaking. Elaborations are carried out based on what is best for the grape rather than the winery.
Their Merenzao wine named 'Risco' is ultra-low production and it’s sensational. Named after the previous owner of this special plot of vines and made from 100% Merenzao, the vines are 80 years old and the wine is whole-cluster fermented, foot-pressed and aged in old oak. The end result is unique and exquisite. Beautiful texture and inky dark colour with flavours of perfumed blackcurrant, fleshy plum, lavender and balsamic. I didn’t bring many wines home from my trip due to luggage restrictions but this one made the cut.
What is there to say about Pinot Noir? It's grown all over the world in various styles but firmly rooted as the darling grape of Burgundy. It has the ability to produce bland $5 wines but at the same time those life-affirming bottles from the Cote d’Or where you’d need a 6 figure bank balance, an extremely rich friend or a highly technical robbery plan in order to taste one.
You only have to listen to Paul Giamatti in the film Sideways to understand the passion and obsession many feel towards the grape. It’s “thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early…it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world…only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”
Quite the high maintenance grape but if there’s one winemaker in Spain who would be up for the challenge it’s Raul Perez
Affectionately known as the Wine Wizard, Raul has been working magic with the indigenous Spanish grape Mencia for decades.
Considering the grape is known as the Pinot Noir of Spain, it makes sense that Raul would branch out and experiment with Spanish Pinot Noir.
Planted as an experiment by Raul himself, his tiny single-vineyard in the Bierzo region in North West Spain produces the grapes for his wine 'La Tentacion', often considered as the finest Pinot in Spain
Whole bunch fermented in open-top 5,000 litre foudres and aged for 12 months in French oak barriques and made entirely by hand.
The production is miniscule but the quality can rival many in Burgundy.
It is elegant, precise and complex and shows fresh red fruit character with wonderful acidity, a subtle earthiness and a long and opulent finish.