Category Archives: Spanish wine

Beyond Rioja

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Think of Spain and the next word that comes to mind for a wine lover is probably Rioja.  And with good reason: some outstanding reds and many other very drinkable ones, whites in both traditional and modern styles and even the odd rosado (rosé).  But Spain is so much more than Rioja; it has the largest area of vineyard of any country in the world – yes, even more than France or Italy, even though they produce more wine – and almost everywhere you look, you can find interesting and different wines.

Basque whiteSometimes, you might not even realise that they’re Spanish at all.  Take Olatu’s Getariako Txakolina (Corks, £15.99) in its unusual blue, flute-shaped bottle; it’s from the Basque region of northern Spain but the only mention of its country of origin is in tiny print on the back label.  And to taste, too, it’s about as un-Spanish as it could be: to start, it’s only 11.5% alcohol – the result of the cool Atlantic winds and currents restricting the ripening of the local Hondarrabi Zuri grapes.  But, unlike many wines light in alcohol, this isn’t thin or sharp; you’ll find quite a bit of richness on the palate and attractive flavours of baked apples and spice.  There’s an apparent hint of sweetness in there, too, although the wine is actually bone dry, really refreshing and finishes quite long.

You might be tempted to think of it as an aperitif wine, as I did, but, in reality, the savoury flavours mean that it works much better with food, even with quite a robust dish like baked river trout on a bed of herbed toasted chickpeas.

Thinking of other Spanish whites – a white Rioja or Albariño from Galicia, perhaps, this couldn’t be more different; proof, if you still need some, that Spanish wines today are really worth looking out for and just so much more than Rioja.

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Priorat Re-vitalised

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Most wine drinkers will be familiar with the name ‘Cava’ although, according to a recent survey, surprisingly few who bought it knew where it came from.  The correct answer is, of course, Catalonia, but this region in the north-east of Spain has far more than just the popular sparkling wine to offer.  I’m thinking, in particular, of the marvellous, intense red wines from the remote hills of Priorat. 

Vines were first planted there by Carthusian monks in 12th century and wine has been made there ever since.  But, by the 1980s, Priorat’s vineyards were regularly being abandoned and the area was in danger of disappearing from the wine map.  It was so steep and the stony land so difficult to work that most of the traditional farmers found winemaking there uneconomic and the younger generation were lured towards jobs in the larger towns or the tourist resorts along the coast. 

But a small group, led by Rene Barbier, were moving in the opposite direction.  They recognised the potential in the very old bush vines of Garnacha (Grenache) and Carinena (Carignan) and in the unusual llicorella soil, comprised of decomposed slate and quartz, which reflects the heat and aids the ripening of these late-maturing varieties.  Now, some 30 years later, the area has been re-vitalised and is producing some outstanding wines and, although the most prestigious ones sell for £200 or more, you can find some extremely attractive bottles for a lot less.

PrioratTake Arc de Pedra, available from Majestic, for example (£12.99).  At first sip, you find lovely sweet red fruits but, as it develops in the glass, it reveals raisins, prunes and subtle hints of vanilla and toasted almonds.  As you might expect, this is a big wine (14%) but it is well balanced.  The 2016 vintage that we opened was still showing quite prominent tannins, and although it went well enough with the strong flavours of a venison steak, in truth I probably opened it a couple of years too soon.  But, whether you drink it now or keep it, it would certainly benefit from decanting a couple of hours in advance, a comment that would apply equally to most of the deep, brooding reds from this – happily – rediscovered area.

Cup and Rings

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Cup and Rings AlbarinoIt wasn’t just the label that made me buy this wine, although I was so intrigued by both its design and the name – The Cup & Rings (available from Majestic, £9.99) – that I had to pick it up.  I suppose that counts as a victory for the marketing team!  But, when I looked more closely, I realised this was a wine I should try. 

The label showed it was made from one of Spain’s best native grape varieties for white wines, Albariño, grown in the ideal cool climate of Galicia in the far north-western region of the country.  Then there were the words ‘Sobre lias’; this is a winemaking technique that involves leaving the wine on the dead yeast cells (the ‘lees’ in English, ‘lias’ in Spanish) for a period of time after the fermentation has finished.  The aim of this is to add a certain depth of flavour to the wine and often to create an attractive savoury character.  In this case, the period of ageing on the lees was 2 full years – longer than I’d normally expect, but clearly promising a wine with some complexity.

The winemaker was obviously pleased with his creation as there was his signature on the label: Norrel Robertson is a Master of Wine who has been making wine in Spain since 2003, although he is a Scot by birth, hence his local nickname which translates as the ‘Flying Scotsman’.

On opening the bottle, the wine was as good as I’d hoped for: delightfully refreshing, rich and complex with a lovely floral character and ripe pear flavours – rather than the stone fruits I often associate with Albariño.  But there was also an almost salty tang about it – not surprising, I suppose, given how close to the sea many of the vineyards are in this part of the world.

And the name ‘Cup and Rings’?  It is, apparently, an ancient Celtic symbol found in prehistoric rock carvings across Europe, especially in both Galicia and Scotland.  So, very appropriate for a Scot working in Galicia but also a great way to encourage curious customers like me to buy!

 

‘Use By’ Dates for Wine?

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There’s been lots of talk in the press here recently about the use of ‘Best Before’ or ‘Use by’ dates on food packaging and whether products are safe to eat after the date shown.  But how about wine?  Does it have a shelf life and, if it does, should it, too, have a recommended date on it?

I certainly don’t recall ever seeing such a date on a wine bottle but I generally advise that most white wines bought in supermarkets and cheaper bottles (say under £10) bought elsewhere are normally best within about a year of purchase; for red wines, you can probably extend this to two years.  The wine should still be perfectly safe even after this time, but wine matures and changes when it is in the bottle and so it may be past its best if left too long.

On the other hand, many (usually more expensive) wines take much longer than this to reach their peak and it would be a shame to open them too early.  Often, good wine merchants and websites will quote ‘drinking windows’ – the period during which they suggest a wine is likely to be at its best.  But these are only a guide; everyone’s taste is different and, unless you know the wine, deciding when you should open any particular bottle is, unfortunately, a bit of trial and error.

A wine I think is drinking perfectly now is Faustino 1 Rioja Gran Reserva 2004 (Sainsbury’s, £15). 

Faustino 1It is already 13 years old and has spent more than 2 years in oak barrels and a further 3 years at the winery (as required by the ‘Gran Reserva’ designation).  Yet, when I took it along to a tasting recently, a couple of my colleagues suggested that it needed still more time or, at least, should have been opened earlier in the evening to further soften the tannins.

I’m not convinced but, as I said before, everyone’s taste is different.  However, this is certainly a wine made to be drunk with food and its mellow, harmonious flavours would work well with so many of the rich dishes that are likely to be on the table over the festive season.

What’s in a Name?

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Flower and BeeThere are many good reasons for choosing a bottle of wine: something you’ve enjoyed before, a recommendation, a wine on special offer.  And then there are the impulse buys; I’m sure most of us have made those on occasions.  “I wonder what that wine’s like?” as we pick up a bottle that our eye is drawn to.  And the wine pictured above must be a prime candidate for that sort of purchase: unusually named ‘The Flower and the Bee’ and, with a label reflecting the name and even the foil over the cork in yellow and black ‘bee’ colours, the entire packaging of this wine says ‘look at me’.  And ‘buy me’, of course.

But the design is not the only reason for giving this wine a try: it’s on the Association of Wine Educators list of the top 100 wines under £25 and, having tasted it (bought from Grape and Grind in Bristol, £13.99), I can confirm that it fully deserves its place.

It’s a delicious unoaked dry white from the Ribeiro region in the north-west of Spain, made from the local Treixadura grape.  Quite peachy and fresh on the nose leading to a rich, full flavoured mouthful with lovely peach and ripe pear flavours and a good, long finish.  Although I’d be happy to drink it on its own, it’s also a great food wine: ideal for some white fish in a creamy sauce.

So, why ‘The Flower and the Bee’?  The wine comes from the Coto de Gomariz estate which is run organically (although not certified as such) and is moving towards biodynamic methods which involve nurturing the entire eco-system of the estate; the flowers and the bees are as important as the grapes to the producers and the naming and the label reflect that.

It’s a neat idea and certainly good marketing.  But, try the wine and I’m sure you’ll buy it again – regardless of the eye-catching packaging.

A Rioja for Summer

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Spain is the world’s 3rd largest wine producer (after France and Italy) and is home to some great native grape varieties as well as a host of innovative and dedicated winemakers.  I’ve blogged before about how you can find delicious bargains in some of Spain’s ‘Hidden Corners’, but it would be a serious mistake to ignore the wines of her flagship region, Rioja.  Standards there are high wherever you look – so much so that you could almost pick up a bottle at random and be fairly sure of finding something enjoyable.

Of course, if you do so, it’s most likely to be red – more than 8 out of every 10 bottles from Rioja are – and made using Tempranillo, Garnacha – aka Grenache – and possibly some other less well-known varieties.  But there’s also some white produced – at one time rather dull and heavy but, these days, much fresher, more subtly oaked (if at all) and often delicious.   

And then there’s Rosado (the Spanish name for rosé).  I opened a really drinkable bottle from long-established producer, Muga, recently (widely available for about £9). 

Rioja RosadoA blend of 3 grapes: the red varieties Garnacha and Tempranillo as above and one white, Viura.  It was dry, clean and beautifully refreshing – ideal at this time of year – with a lovely smoky edge to it; delicious on its own (perhaps with an olive or two to nibble alongside) but with enough weight to match with a range of dishes – we found it a perfect cooling foil to a mildly spicy root vegetable curry, but I can also see it going well with smoked fish or charcuterie.

After a period in the doldrums, rosés in all styles and from all over the world are seeing a resurgence but, for me, the dry style, of which this Rioja is a great example, is the way forward.

Spain’s Hidden Corners

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In my view, Spain is one of the most exciting wine countries in the world today.  Wherever you look, you’ll find dedicated and innovative winemakers working with an array of high quality local grapes.  And it’s not just in the traditional areas – Rioja and sherry – that you find delicious wines.   I recently ran a course at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre concentrating on Spain’s ‘Hidden Corners’ – some of the lesser-known regions and grapes – where you can find wines that are not just very drinkable but, because they are not well-known, they are also great value. 

The bottles I found for the group to taste provoked plenty of discussion – and some very diverse views; indeed, when I invited votes for favourite wines of the day, 11 of the 12 wines attracted at least 1 vote.  But, there were 2 clear winners:

ruedaSan Antolin’s Rueda (Waitrose, £8.99) comes from the Upper Duero Valley in western Spain where vineyards are planted more than 600 metres (1800 feet) above sea level.  The altitude means cool nights, even in summer, which help to retain precious acidity in the Verdejo grapes from which this wine is made, while the heat of the day results in perfect ripening and a succulent, rich but refreshing white wine.  Fine for drinking on its own but even better with some fish in a creamy sauce that reflects the character of the wine beautifully.  I’ve enjoyed this Rueda over a number of years and it was an unsurprising winner.

tempranillo-gran-reservaThe close runner up, however, was, perhaps, a little less predictable.  Not, I hasten to add, due to any lack of quality in the wine, but, I might have expected that the soft, mellow, cooked fruit and spice flavours of an 8 year old red that had spent 2 of those years in old oak casks wouldn’t have had such wide appeal.  Happily, I was wrong and Anciano’s Tempranillo Gran Reserva 2008 landed in a well-deserved 2nd place.  Had this wine been from Rioja rather than from the deeply unfashionable Valdepeñas area south of Madrid, it would certainly have been at least double the £8.99 I paid for it in Waitrose.  A bargain, indeed!

And bargains are what you can expect if you explore ‘Hidden Corners’.  You just have to know where to look.