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.
Sometimes, 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.
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).
It 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.
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).
A 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.