Spain – The New Frontier?
While Spain may be one of the oldest winemaking countries in the world, it seems that only in the last few years are the Spaniards starting to assess their entire history as wine producers to try and re-discover their true wine identity and see what the full potential is for their terroir and wines.
I visited the two most important wine regions in Spain this past October with an appointment agenda that was an ideal cross-section of different kinds of producers to ascertain for myself what the current status of wine is in Spain and their place in the global wine marketplace. For some regions, like Valdeorras, I could not visit but I tasted their wines as much as I could at wine bars and during meals. I drank more Godello than any other white grape-based wine that entire week and loved every sip.
What I found along the wine route in Spain was remarkable and exciting. If this new band of forward-thinking producers can continue to build on the momentum they have created in resurrecting some of the greatest wine growing sites in all of Spain, not just in Rioja and Ribera, the world will take notice.
Driven by a passion to share and further explore the true terroir of the best wine growing sites in Spain, I need to further clarify, when I say forward looking I do not refer to “modern” in the sense of what we think of today with very ripe fruit, lots of oak and squeaky clean global wine aesthetics. Tradition is not forgotten either, but not in the sense we think of today as traditional Spanish wine. 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, this is not the sole identity and the true traditional wine of Rioja. In reality, it is just one of the styles offered to consumers that has not changed since the modern era took root. One could say the new band of “terrorists” 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, driven south to source wine by the phylloxera epidemic ravaging the Bordelaise vineyards in the late 1800s. The recent blip of ultra-ripe and overly extracted oaky wines is thankfully over.
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, Benjamin Romeo and Juan Carlos of Rioja; Jorge 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 vignerons through their wines.
As we drove up and down Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta, what amazed and boggled my mind was the sheer size and quantity of mega Bodega (Bodega = winery) that frequently dot the landscape with their 2-3 story facilities glistening and contrasting against the natural landscape and in some cases sporting the name of the bodega in enormous letters matching the size of the bodega. However, the size is the least puzzling part of my confusion, as I know that most Rioja producers make oceans of wine and would need a big facility. It was the lack of recognition of these brands to my well-acquainted mind of the best wines of Rioja and Ribera. It was almost as if all the investment went into making the facility look attractive and modern, whilst the money could have been better spent on the wine to increase quality.
This leads us to the big issue in Rioja today, the lack of quality indicators and the slow (and mostly illegal) use of site designations on wine labels. The lack of this information on the wine labels is holding the wines back from advancing the reputation of Rioja and Spain in the global economy.
The current classification system only denotes the minimum amount of time a wine has been aged in oak and stored in bottle at the bodega. It tells us nothing of where the grapes may have come from out of the 200+ villages that exist in Rioja that vary in soils, altitude, and temperatures. Quality indicators are nowhere to be seen but are maybe more secondary in importance. The most famous quality indicators are from Burgundy where Premier and Grand Cru status at the least guarantees the wine comes from high-quality terroir (though says nothing about the resulting winemaking). To me, the producer is the second most crucial important aspect of quality as it can transcend vintage conditions, though it should always start with good terroir and the producer should only focus what mother nature giveth into the bottle. Diversions from this are obvious and are similar to when someone you know well is not acting like themselves, the lack of genuineness sticks out.
Spain has the great terroir and impassioned producers that care about distinction and individuality of expression in their wine through terroir. The seeds are planted. 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 genuine personalities. The market will speak, and as it does the changes will happen sooner than you know it.