Spain – The New Frontier?
An Overview of Spain
While Spain may be one of the oldest wine making countries in the world, only recently have the Spaniards started to assess their entire history as wine producers in an attempt to re-discover their true wine identity and the full potential of their terroir and wines.
I visited three important wine regions in Spain this past October – Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro. My appointment agenda was an ideal cross section of different kinds of producers so I could ascertain for myself the current status of wine in Spain and its position in the global wine marketplace. For regions I could not visit, like Valdeorras and Bierzo, I tasted their wines as much as I could at wine bars and during meals.
What I found along the wine route in Spain was remarkable and exciting. A group of forward thinking producers are in the midst of resurrecting some of the greatest wine growing sites in all of Spain. Their objective is to move away from the industrial, formula driven, production style of wine making and see if the terroir potential is as great as they think it can be. The idea of singular site characteristics, or terroir, is not something most wine producers in Spain have focused on.
As a group these producers are louder and people are taking notice as their wines earn acclaim and catch the attention of more wine consumers. In the old world things take a long time to change. It has so far taken many years to get to this point and will take many more years of hard work, passion and dedication to achieve success. Many producers and the regulatory bodies need to open their minds (and eyes) to what real terroir is in Spain. The best producers and vineyard sites will rise to the top as more producers join the movement that is driven by a passion to share and further explore the true terroir of the best wine growing sites in Spain.
For now, especially in Rioja and Ribera del Duero, most wine producers are either what we think of as “modern” or “traditional”. With “modern” wine we often think of very ripe fruit, lots of new oak and squeaky clean wine aesthetics. “Traditional” is often characterized by Lopez de Heredia or La Rioja Alta, long bottle aged wines released in many cases 10 years after the vintage date. Lopez de Heredia is the poster-child of what most of us think as “traditional Rioja” wines thanks to Eric Asimov and many somms trumpeting their well-deserved praise. However, if you think about it, neither of these styles have much to do with terroir and beg the question, “Are these wines the true definition of a classic Rioja”? My perception based on my travels and tastings is that both are “styles” offered to consumers that are rooted in winemaking principles that have little to do with terroir. Sure, Lopez de Heredia use a single vineyard for Tondonia, Gravonia and Bosconia, but what does the site say when contemplating the wine? Don’t get me wrong, I love these wines, but I think they have less to do with terroir than they do a process. One could say the new band of “terroirists” are taking it back to the “old, old school”. This is a time before the true modern era changes took place when Bordeaux pervaded Rioja with their wine making knowledge, driven south to source wine as the phylloxera epidemic ravaged the Bordelaise vineyards in the late 1800s. The recent blip of ultra-ripe and overly extracted oaky wines started in the mid-1980’s and though it is fairly common, it seems to thankfully be waning. Part of this is fashion, but for the best producers that still use new oak, I think they are more skilled at integrating their use of the vessels, backing off on the amount of toast and amount of new oak in each wine.
At the forefront of this movement for terroir in Spain are quite a few important names, but the few that I got acquainted with were Telmo Rodriguez, Juan Carlos and Benjamin Romeo of Rioja; Jorge Monzon Pascal of Dominio de Aguila in Ribera Del Duero, and Rafael Palacios of Bierzo. While I only met with Telmo, Jorge, and the team at Contador, I got a very good sense of the ideas and objectives of these talented and visionary vigneron through interviewing them and tasting the proof in their wines. Of the group, Contador is leans more to the modern scale of wines, but the wines are truly site driven and based on the newer crop of wines he has scaled back on the amount of oak in the wines.
Through this I have learned that Spain does indeed have great terroir and impassioned producers that care about distinction in their wine through terroir. The wines are better than they have ever been and are only getting better and more original. Time should bring more acceptance internally and globally as the wines gain genuine acceptance of their original personalities. The market will speak, and as it does the changes will continue and increase the pace of change.