Most people associate Spain with Sherry and sparkling wines, which have been flooding North American markets in the last 30 years. But there are many other Spanish wine regions that have been quietly producing outstanding wines for centuries and catering to appreciative small niche markets.
Catalonia and Rioja have long passed niche market status, and are now international contenders in red wines exporting considerable quantities to the United Kingdom, the U.S.A., and European Community countries, Canada, Japan and South America.
Yet Ribera del Duero, Priorato, Navarre and Utiel-Requena are less well known, but produce excellent wines. It is only recently that Spanish wine promotion offices decided to promote these regions vinous products and chances are we will see these rich, generous, well-extracted, and robust wines on our markets in larger quantities and selection than we have been used to.
Many Spanish wine makers, especially those ascribing to modern technology have made great strides in producing fruity, brilliant, wines that reflect the terroir perfectly, and abandoning a long held tradition of aging wines excessively long in huge casks and causing unnecessary oxidation.
Ribera del Duero, some 100 Km. North of Madrid in the Douro valley (the Spanish part of the famous Douro Valley in Portugal), has been producing fine red wines for over a century but was granted D.O status (Denominacion de Origen) relatively recently in 1982. Much longer than that Vega Sicilia, the venerable winery of Ribera del Duero has been producing exclusive, and outstanding red wines catering to a cult following.
Ribera del Duero has an altitude of 700 – 800 metres with cold winters and short, hot summers, is not the most congenial growing region, but when the weather “Gods“ co-operate, and the wine is heavenly.
Day and night temperature variations help grapes retain acidity lacking in the fruit of other Spanish regions.
Tinto Fino, locally called Tinta del Pais is an acclimated Tempranillo from Rioja, but like Vega Sicilia practically all Ribera del Duero producers use Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec in their blends.
Albillo is the white grape of the region but has no D. O status. Much of the white wine is either consumed locally or blended into the extremely dark Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec blends for internal consumption.
Garnacha (Grenache) is used for rose wines . Ribera del Duero was revived by the considerable efforts of Alejandro Fernandes who recognized the potential of the region, and won international recognition with his Pesquera early 1980’s. Up to that time growers were content to sell to local co-operatives that were happy to make bulk wine and ship wherever possible. Since the success of Pesquera many more growers decided to make and market their wines. Today Dehesa de los Comingos, Ismael Arroyo, Perez Pascuas, Felix Callejo, Senorio de Nava, Valduero, Hijos de Antonio, Barcelo and Pago de Carovejas compete with Vega Sicilia and Pesquera.
Ribera del Duero wines require barrel aging, and when properly aged in small barriques for three to five years with further bottle aging of two to three years, the wines acquire a depth of flavour and multitude of taste dimensions few others can match.
Ribera del Duero wines are best with roasts of all types, hard aged cheeses, game specialties, and on their own, just to contemplate the complexities of history or life.
Priorato located north of Tarragona in Catalonia, produces one of the most inspired red wines of the country. Carthusian monks first produced this priory-made wine in the 12th century; they knew a thing or two about grape growing and wine making. But above all the good monks knew how to enjoy a good glass of wine, if not two!
This unique wine is made from two typical Mediterranean grapes (Garnacha and Carignane or Carinane) whose yields are restricted to five tonnes per hectare on the stony soils on slates and quartz. The intense sun ripens and darkens the grapes, thus producing thoroughly flavoured fruit that can be converted to deeply scented, well-extracted, dark, tannic, and fruity, age-worthy wines with a natural alcohol of 13.75 per cent minimum.
Priorato’s red wines are serious contenders to the best Spain can produce, but the small quantities force producers to limit their marketing efforts. They prefer to cater to a cult following who can appreciate these multidimensional wines and are prepared to pay for it.
Scala de Masia, Barril, De Muller and Rene Barbier are the better-known wineries that produce wine here. The region is now attracting attention from quality-oriented Spanish wineries interested in investing in a region with huge potential.
Priorato’s rose wines are fine as are its white wines, but too fragile to be transported to North American markets.
Navarre – use to be a kingdom stretching from Bordeaux to Barcelona. Today it is an autonomous region southeast of the more famous region of Rioja. This D.O region produced significant quantities red wine shipped in bulk to Bordeaux before the arrival of phylloxera in 1892.
Today the region is subdivided into five zones. Baja Montana, Valdizarbe, Tierra Estella, Ribera Alta and Ribera Baja.
Rainfall ranges from 400 – 600 mm. per annum, and summers are hot helping to ripen grapes fully.
Approximately 80 per cent of the production is red, mostly from the Garnacha, although lately Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot have been planted for experimental purposes. Navarre produces fine rose wines in addition to fine, fruity, light and very quaffable reds from Garnacha. Up to recent times and even today, some wine makers did not quite understand how to vinify Garnacha, and ended up with poor, coarse, and clumsy wines; hardly anyone was interested in drinking. The situation is changing however and it is believed that Navarre will be the next “ in “ Spanish province for red wines!
Some white wines are produced from Macabeo and Viura grapes, but as of yet with no distinct character. Chardonnay has been planted to determine its suitability in the region.
Somontano – located south and east of Navarre and almost at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountain chain. This is potentially an excellent growing region as it is blessed with rivers, lush valleys and well-drained soils allowing growers to produce fine quality fruit. Warm summers with intermittent rains help ripen fruit fully and rapidly circulating air often makes spraying unnecessary. Moristel and Garnacha were once the main grapes, but more and more growers are planting Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and even Pinot Noir.
To date, the major winery was a co-operative rather encouraging bulk wine production, but more and more small quality-oriented wineries are establishing themselves.
For white wine, Viura and Alcanon have been used traditionally, but now young growers are experimenting with Chardonnay and even Gewurztraminer in an attempt to revive the moribund white wine segment of the industry.
Recent investment in vineyards as well as wineries indicates strongly that the quality will improve within a few years. Exports are already strong and likely to become even stronger with improved quality and reasonable prices.
Utiel-Requena a small, traditional region southeast of Valencia famous for its thick and heavy red wine called doble pasta. The Bobal grape dominates the viticulture but Tempranillo is making headway. Bobal tends to be sweet and rich in extract; this forced producers to gravitate towards grape juice and concentrates for home wine makers.
Doble pasta, declining in popularity used to be sweet or sweetish, pleasing sun-starved German tourists. Spanish wines, especially red were always over aged and faded by the time they arrived on our shores. However the situation is changing and you can confidently try Spanish red wines. Not only will you be pleased with the quality, but will be amazed with their reasonable prices.