A Bargain Red from Spain

Spain has more land planted with vines than any other country in the world and, wherever you look, you will find unique local grape varieties and interesting and different wine styles.  From the sherry region in Andalucia in the south, to Galicia in the north-west with its crisp, fragrant Albariños to the famous reds of Rioja and Ribero del Duero.

But this blog concerns Catalonia (Cataluña to the locals) in the north-east of the country; a region with its own language and culture and a diverse and characterful range of wines that would take a lifetime to explore fully.  The region’s most famous wine, Cava, is one that many consumers may not even associate with Spain, let alone this one region; it has become a generic name for those looking for a cheap and cheerful alternative to Champagne.  If only they looked a little further (and paid a little more) they would find some attractive, distinctive Cavas that stand as quality sparkling wines in their own right.  

And, although large producers such as Torres dominate the Catalonian wine scene, it’s also a region where smaller growers can thrive, particularly in the hilly, inland areas.  Priorat is, perhaps, the best example of this with talented, artisan producers exploiting its rugged terrain and centuries-old vines to create remarkably intense and focussed wines.  Inevitably, wine prices there have rocketed and Terra Alta, hidden away in the hills to the west, is a better choice for value. 

Dardell’s organic red (Majestic, £8.99) is a robust mix of mainly Garnacha Tinta (known more commonly as Grenache) with some Syrah giving a rich, spicy full-flavoured wine with delicious dried-fruit flavours and a savoury, smoky finish.  I opened and decanted it an hour or so before drinking to allow it to develop all the flavours and aromas and was pleased I did.  It also needs generously flavoured food to show its best (a warming venison casserole was our choice).

I began by highlighting the wealth of different wines from Spain; by buying a bottle from one of that country’s hidden corners, I found not only a delicious wine but also a real bargain.

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Rioja to Galicia

Anyone who enjoys a glass of Rioja will surely be familiar with the producer generally known as ‘Cune’.  Their wines are reliable, good value for money and readily available in most supermarkets and many wine merchants.  But, although the wines are sold under the name Cune, the company behind them is actually CVNE (or Companiá Vinícola del Norte de España to give it its full name).

Whatever we call them, their wines aren’t limited to Rioja; they have vineyards and wineries in several regions across the north of Spain (as you might guess from their name).  They produce Cava, reds in Ribera del Duero and one of their newest projects is in Galicia in the far north-west of the country.  I’m a big fan of Galician wines and this is a region that is now becoming rightly fashionable as the source of crisp, fragrant whites from indigenous local varieties such as Albariño and Godello grown on cool, Atlantic-influenced slopes.

But CVNE’s Galician involvement is based further inland, in the more continental climate of Valdeorras, where, apart from a delicious Godello, they also produce an attractive red from the local Mencía grape.

I opened a bottle of the latter recently, sold under the brand name Maruxa with its striking label (Majestic, a bargain at £10.99). 

A red that would appeal to lovers of New World Pinot Noir, this is delightfully floral on the nose and full of lovely, upfront bitter cherry fruit.  Quite food-friendly – we paired it with some pan-fried duck breasts and it worked really well – but this is a wine that opens up and develops in the glass over time so is well worth decanting.

So far, the Valdeorras region and the Mencía grape variety are less well-known than Galicia’s whites but, on the evidence of this bottle and others I have tasted previously, wine lovers looking to explore new ground and different flavours should certainly be seeking out these flavoursome local reds.

Nelson: Small but Diverse

My wife and I loved New Zealand wines even before we were lucky enough to visit there a few years ago.  Of course, we dropped in at a few vineyards as part of our sightseeing (and enjoyed plenty of tasting!).  But New Zealand is a larger country than many in the UK realise and, although we managed to get to several of the more famous wine regions, Nelson, in the far north-west corner of the South Island, is one we missed.  That is a shame because, even though it’s one of the smallest of the regions and dwarfed by Marlborough, its better-known neighbour to the east, its warm, maritime-influenced climate and poor, stony soils are ideal for vine growing.  And, despite its size, it’s home to as diverse an array of different grape varieties as you’ll find anywhere in New Zealand. 

One local company, Waimea Estates, alone, grow, at least 9 different varieties and Majestic Wines often have a selection of their bottles in stock.  I’ve particularly enjoyed their Sauvignon Blanc and Gruner Veltliner in the past so, when I saw the same firm’s Albariño on the shelf recently (£10.99), it was an obvious buy.

Albariño is a white variety native to Galicia in north-west Spain and to Portugal (where it is known as Alvarinho) and it’s only in the last decade or so that it has started to be planted more widely.  That’s a trend I hope will continue. Waimea’s example is beautifully clean and fresh with lovely floral aromas, peach and melon flavours and a long, attractive finish.  Drink it as an aperitif or team it, as the Galicians and Portuguese would, with grilled sardines, but it’s more versatile than that and I’m sure it would work well with a wide range of fish dishes.

I can only remember tasting one bottle of Albariño from New Zealand previously – an equally delicious example from Stanley Estates in Marlborough – but this quality variety clearly thrives in the conditions there and I’m looking forward to it becoming a common sight in vineyards across the country.

Too Old or Too Young?

I used to have regular discussions with a friend of mine over the wines we tasted together.  He would say that I always opened my wines too young, before they had a chance to develop all their complexities.  I would counter that he always kept his wines too long, so that they lost their fruit and freshness and were past their best.  Of course, we were both right and both wrong; wine is about tastes and opinions and his and mine clearly differed.

But he had a point; most of the wines my wife and I drink at home are quite young.  So, when I opened a 9-year-old Rioja recently, it was a bit of a shock at first.  I had to adjust to the different tastes and search hard for the words to describe its character. 

Urbina’s Rioja Crianza 2012 (Wine Society, a bargain at £10.95) was at an interesting stage of its development, still retaining some of its youthful cassis fruit alongside some attractive cooked plum flavours, more typical of wines showing a bit more age.  All this was wrapped up with distinct coconut and cedar flavours from the oak ageing. I was actually a little surprised at the oakiness of the wine; the Crianza category only requires wine to spend 6 months in oak barrels, although many of the more traditional producers – among them, I suspect, Urbina – significantly exceed this minimum without upgrading to Reserva status.

Overall, we both enjoyed the wine with its – for us – different tastes, and it certainly went really well with some rib-eye steak.  But did it convince us to buy older wines more often?  I don’t think so.  And should we have waited until it was even older before opening it?  I would say firmly ‘no’; my friend, I am sure, would be equally convinced that it would improve further after a few more years in the bottle.

Life would be so boring if we all liked the same.

A Spanish Rarity

I love seeking out wines from less well-known areas or from rarely seen grape varieties.  Inevitably, not all turn out to be good – perhaps that’s why they’ve been ignored – but often you can find interesting and different flavours.  And, because these wines are hard to sell because no-one recognises the names on the label, prices can sometimes offer excellent value, too.

You can find these unusual bottles from all over the wine world. 

Take the Clos Lojen Bobal from the Manchuela region of Spain that I picked up in Corks of Cotham recently (£15).  Bobal is actually Spain’s 2nd most widely planted red grape variety after Tempranillo but, despite that, it still counts as a rarity as you don’t see it on our shelves very often.  I’ve only tasted it a few times before and certainly not for some time.  And, as for DO (Spain’s equivalent of Appellation Contrôlée) Manchuela, I had to check my Wine Atlas to confirm that it’s inland from Valencia on the eastern edge of Spain’s high central plateau with many vineyards above 800 m (2500 ft) above sea level.

I also did some research on Clos Lojen, again a producer I hadn’t heard of, but, it seems, clearly one with high ambitions.  The vines on the estate are up to 90 years old, giving the wines the kind of intensity you only find with true old vines; some are even still planted on their own root stocks and all are farmed biodynamically (the super-organic regime I’ve commented on previously).  The owner has spent time working with Telmo Rodríguez, one of Spain’s star winemakers and shares his ethos of ‘letting the wine make itself’, using only natural processes and minimal intervention.

And the result of all this?  A lovely, food-friendly, fresh, clean red with attractive dried fruit flavours, a hint of warm spice – my wife thought cardamon – some very subtle woody notes from brief ageing in large old oak barrels and a long savoury finish.  Try it with grilled lamb chops.  Delicious!

A Shy and Reticent Wine?

The English are often described as ‘reserved’ people: shy, reticent, not very forthcoming.  But the word ‘reserve’ can have other meanings: I can reserve a table at a restaurant or set a reserve – a minimum sale price – at an auction, for example. But what does it mean to wine lovers?

Look along the shelves of your local supermarket or wine merchant and you’ll notice that Reserve (or a local variant such as Reserva or Riserva) is one of the words most commonly found on the labels.  So, does it mean that the wine is shy, reticent and not very forthcoming?  Unfortunately not!  But, what it does mean (if anything) varies a lot, depending on where the wine comes from.

Things are clearest in Spain.  Spanish wine tasting (2)There, Reserva denotes a red wine that has been aged for at least 3 years before being released for sale, at least one year of which must have been in oak barrels.  For whites and rosés, the figure is 2 years (6 months in barrel).  The requirements for Gran Reservas are longer: for reds, 5 years (2 in oak barrel), for whites and rosés, 4 years (6 months in barrel).

Across the border in Portugal, the rules for their Reserva are much less specific, simply requiring the wine to be from a ‘good’ vintage (how do you define that?) with an alcohol level at least ½% above the regional minimum (which varies from place to place).

Italy’s equivalent is Riserva.

41 SelvapianaThis also varies from place to place – as do most things in Italy; it, too, denotes a certain minimum ageing, usually at least a year, although, for Barolo, it is as long as 5 years!  Often, higher alcoholic strength and other requirements are also included in the local rules.

And that’s as far as the regulated use of these terms goes.  Anywhere else and the word has no official meaning.  It might be used to suggest that the wine is of a higher quality, as in the French ‘Réserve du Patron’ or terms like Estate Reserve or Reserve Selection, or has seen some oak ageing, but, outside Spain, Portugal and Italy, none of this is guaranteed.

To my mind, we ought to reserve (sorry!) the use of the word to those places where it does have a legal meaning, but I’m not going to make a fuss about it because I’m English and too reserved!