Spain is a country rich in culture, history, culinary artistry, and of course, wine. Within the past decade, Spain has undergone a renaissance in their wine industry. Even though technology is not something that I like to include in a conversation about wine, it has truly been a blessing for Spanish wine. It has been a tremendous help in improving the quality, longevity, and overall flavors of the wine. While retaining the incredible flavors of each area, which is key. For a long time the wines from Spain would reach the United Stated in a poor state. They would not travel well and would be oxidized by the time they got here. Cleaner winemaking techniques, newer oak, and cleaner bottling lines, have contributed to the new success of the Spanish wines.
Unfortunately, Spanish wines are still very unappreciated. Many other wine regions are suffering from a similar problem--labeling! Many times labeling can be one of the things that deters people from trying a new wine. In many cases I believe that explains why Spanish wines have not gained the popularity they deserve. Without a famous chateau name behind them, many of the wines are not recognized. For example, when I first started learning about German wines I thought I was going to lose my mind. Is it dry or is it sweet? Where is it coming from? Is this a good vineyard? The only thing I could understand was that it came from Germany. That was because it had a U.S. import label. After learning how the German wine label works, which was very easy, it was so much more simple to figure out what I liked and what to buy. After learning about many of the different areas in Germany, I also learned some of the better producers in each area.
In northern Spain, the Rioja and Navarra are are making a large comeback. These regions first began to grow before the turn of the century, when French vines were killed by phyloxera. Many winemakers from Bordeaux moved to Spain instead of replanting their vineyards. With the first surge of incredible winemaking, these areas gained the respect of the rest of the world. In Rioja, it is the tempranillo grape that makes these wines so wonderful. Other grapes are allowed but they don't seem to have the impact on the wines. This grape is said to be the distant cousin of the pinot noir grape. Its berry flavors and the way it carries the flavor of the soil is only matched by pinot noir. Garnacha, also known as grenache to the rest of the world is also allowed in the wines of Rioja though most producers use tempranillo for the majority of the wine. In addition to the red and white wines of this area, Rioja produces a fair amount of rose from the garnacha grape. The roses, when consumed young, are vibrant and fresh, with a delicate spice that is quite enjoyable on a hot summer day.
Spanish wines are very simple, yet can be confusing to someone who has not experienced many of them. In Rioja, the laws for red and white wine are very similar. Wines are labeled from Rioja up to Rioja Gran Reserva, the latter spending the most time in oak. Normally the wines from Rioja are made in a way that they can be consumed upon release. In addition to oak aging, the wines spend time in the bottle before release. Here are a few general rules for Rioja:
Crianza- These wines must spend at least one year in oak and one year in the bottle before release.
Rioja Reserva- Must spend at least one year in oak along with two years in the bottle before release.
Rioja Gran Reserva- Must spend at least two years in oak along with three years in the bottle before release.
Crianza- must spend at least six months in oak with one year in the bottle before release.
Riserva- Must spend at least six months in oak with two years in the bottle before release.
Gran Riserva- Must spend at least six months in oak with four years in the bottle before release.
As for the roses, they should be consumed upon release. The method of making these wines produces a fresh, lively boquet. Garnacha does not age well when made in the vin gris style does not age well. Drink up!
Stylistically, the producers in Rioja differ just as in any other region. Many are more traditional and use more tempranillo and American oak. Conde de Valdemar, one of my personal favorites, tends to have more of the wild berry fruit with creamy vanilla flavors. Their whites can be similar, having more nuttiness from extended oak aging. These can be some of the best wines with food. There are also the "New World" style producers in Rioja. These wines tend to use a lot more garnacha, which gives the wines more richness and tannin. Many of the producers making wine in this style use stainless steel for fermentation. They also use more french oak, which is more mellow than the forward vanilla flavors in the American oak. In this style, Torre Muga and Artadi are leading the pack. While using many of the "New World" winemaking techniques, they don't overdo it. The wines are rich and dense, yet capture the essence of Rioja.
Next time we will finish up with the Penedes, and do an in-depth study on sherry.