Didn't quite make it. We have been having such a warm, dry, sunny autumn that I was sure I could stay in shorts into November. Last night was windy, though, and chilly, and today has still been sunny and dry but much cooler. So this morning the jeans came out of the wardrobe. I'm still in sandals, however and definitely without socks! I suppose I can look on it as a kind of acclimatisation; next Thursday we fly to England. Oh dear, England in November. Dark by late afternoon. Grey and cool and probably wet. It will be a contrast. The last time that we had that kind of weather here for more than an hour or two, was way back in May. Ah we'll, all part of life's rich tapestry.
Of course, Spain doesn’t just produce red wine. There are a number of areas producing white wines, and in recent years there has been a rapid expansion in the production of rosadao (rosé) wines, using a variety of grapes. Indeed, in the summer I drink rosado in preference to red for the very simple reason that unless you chill it in the fridge, red wine is just too warm to drink, whereas rosado is designed to be drunk chilled. Let’s not get into that area though; let’s look at white wine, and let’s track our way across the peninsula from west to east. We first encounter the Rías Baixas region in Galicia. Rías are fjord-like inlets around the coast of Galicia, and give the region a climate highly suited to the production of white wines. The grape used, native to Galicia and not encountered elsewhere in Spain is the Albariño. All are extremely drinkable, some are of impressively high quality. Travelling east, we next come upon the region of Rueda, and its predominant grape, Verdejo. Rioja and Navarra also produce their fair share of white wines, using the Macabeo and Viura grapes, as well as a little Moscatel. The Basque country produces its own distinctive Xakolí, which is a bit of a Marmite. Crossing to the Mediterranean coast of the peninsula, Valencia produces sweet Moscatels, suitable for use as dessert wines, and pretty inexpensive, but the main white wine region in the north east of the peninsula lies in Cataluña, broadly between Tarragona and Barcelona. This is the home of Cava! Cava is a white sparkling wine; indeed it is the largest selling sparkling wine in the world. It is produced using the ‘método tradicional’. Since I am not offering it for sale, I am able to upset certain French producers and tell you that this is Spanish champagne. However, whereas the French predominantly use Chardonnay to make their fizz, the Catalans blend three local, traditonal grape varieties, Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada. They do so to very good effect. Moreover, the cost of bottles of cava and champagne of equal quality means that you get far more bangs for your buck drinking cava - and for me, far more enjoyment, too. You can buy good cava for around 10€ a bottle (£8.50 at today’s exchange rate) and for 20€ euros and upwards you are drinking a superb wine. So that is all I have to tell you about wine in Spain, apart from this little gem. Hunting for a UK source for a particular white wine (Dry Libalis) for some friends, I came across this online wine seller, which I would recommend if you want to put any of what I’ve written recently to the test: www.vinissimus.co.uk If you do put me to the test, please let me have your thoughts.
Between La Rioja and the city of Pamplona lies the wine region of Navarra, one of the oldest in Spain. The main grapes used for red wine are Garnacha (known as Grenache in France) and of course, Tempranillo. Over recent years Navarra has suffered a low profile as other regions have forged ahead. Two wines to look out for, though, are Gran Feudo from Bodega Julian Chivite, and Irache from the bodega of the same name. As a matter of interest, the Irache bodega lies on the Camino de Santiago, the great pilgrim route that enters Spain from France at Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees and crosses northern Spain to arrive finally at the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. For the convenience of passing pilgrims Irache offers a drinking fountain in the wall of the bodega with two taps, one dispensing water, the other red wine.
The other red wine region to consider is Aragón, which divides into four sub-regions. Aragón lies at the foot of the Pyrenees between Navarra and Cataluña. It was the kingdom of Ferdinand, who married Isabel of Castille, and together they completed the Reconquest of Spain, taking Granada from the Muslim rulers on 31st December, 1492, and gaining for themselves the title of "Los Reyes Católicos" (The Catholic Monarchs).
The most northerly of the sub-regions is Somontano, east of the city of Huesca. Its proximity to France has led it to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah alongside the traditional Garnacha and Tempranillo. A Somontano red that can be recommended is Enate.
The other three sub-regions lie further to the south near the city of Zaragoza. All produce good, serviceable red wines mainly from Garnacha, though with some Tempranillo. Old vines Garnacha can result in some very good everyday, quaffing wines. Campo de Borja, west of Zaragoza has Coto de Hayas. Incidentally the Borjas were known in Italy as the Borgias. Calatayud, to the south of Zaragoza has no outstanding wines to offer, but if you see Calatayud on the label and the price is reasonable, give it a try and see what you think. Finally, Cariñena is a bit of a contradiction. It is the name, not only of the sub-region, but also of its indigenous grape - which it virtually ignores preferring Garnacha. The wines are mainly Joven, but a label to look out for is Corona de Aragón.
And that really is about it so far as Spanish reds are concerned, except to say that surprisingly, given the climate, my own communidad of Andalucía has begun to produce quite decent red wines. From the Province of Cádiz there is Barbazul, a powerful 15% abv!In Granada Province, Bodegas Señorio Nazarí offer Delirio and Muñana Roja, and Málaga Province, too, has its offering. However, all of these are small producers and you are unlikely yet to find any of them outside Spain. Still that's a good excuse to come visit.
Heading west again from Ribera del Duero, and following the river we come to one of my favourite red wine regions, Toro. The region is situated a mere 40km from the Portuguese border but produces typically Castillian wines;it lies within the boundaries of the historic Old Castille. I can do no better than quote the opinion of John Radford in his book, "The New Spain, a complete guide to contemporary Spanish wine." (Mitchell Beazley, 2004, London): "Characterised by their powerful alcoholic strength, and bright, upfront fruit, these are perhaps the most authentic examples of the wines of Old Castille that are still being made today". The wines are made with 100% Tempranillo (here called Tinta de Toro) and must achieve a minimum of 12.5% alcohol by volume, but frequently reach 15%. Toro first came to prominence through the work of Manuel Fariña and Bodegas Fariña, who produce Colegiata, and Gran Colegiata. Always on my rack, though, are a few bottles of MATSU: El Picaro, a Joven with 14.5% abv. Right now I'm looking forward to a week on Monday when Vintae, the group which owns the brand, are putting on a tasting at my new wine supplier, Vinomar in Torre del Mar. I shall enjoy tasting the other wines in the MATSU range and discussing them with the makers. A distinctive feature of MATSU wines is that they are produced organically and using traditional methods of vinification. If you want to know more, this is their English-language website. http://www.bodegasmatsu.com/en/
The second of Spain’s ‘big’ rivers is the Duero, known when it enters Portugal as the Douro, the river which provides us with Port. From San Esteban de Gormaz in the east to Valbuena de Duero in the west, on both banks of the river, is the region of Ribera del Duero. It produces splendid red wines, historically from 100% Tempranillo, but now including cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the blend. The soil is very similar to that of the Port region, sharing the same basin, and so it produces wines of very good quality. The vines are grown at altitudes between 750 metres and 800 metres. The season is short, and although daytime temperatures can exceed 40º, the risk of frost is the major threat. The advantage of these difficult growing conditions is that you don’t have people piling in to produce lower quality wines; it wouldn’t pay them. It does mean though that you are unlikely to find a cheap bottle of Ribera. The same categories (Joven, etc) are used as in Rioja, but the majority of production is Joven, and Gran Reservas are very rare indeed. Which brings us inevitably to D. Eloy Lacanda Chaves. This gentleman was a landowner at Valbuena who went to France in the middle of the nineteenth century to study winemaking. Impressed by what he learned in Bordeaux, he lavished the same care and attention on the Tempranillo grape and produced what to this day is Spain’s most prestigious and most expensive wine, a large proportion of which goes straight to the cellars of King Juan Carlos. The wine is Vega Sicilia. It is produced in two versions. Único, its first wine, and Valbuena, its second. I just checked the internet. A bottle of Vega Sicilia Único will cost you around 200€, more in a good year. Valbuena retails at around 90€ a bottle. If you can’t run to those kinds of prices, look out for wines produced by Tintas Pesquera, Arzuaga, Pago de Carraovejas, Protos, Tarsus, or Señorio de Nava, though in truth it’s hard to go wrong if the label says Ribera del Duero.
Rioja is probably the best know wine region in Spain and is to be found on all supermarket and off-licence shelves.There is some very good Rioja and there is a lot of very mediocre Rioja. The Rioja region which is centred on the city of Logroño, straddles the River Ebro, one of Spain’s major rivers, is divided into three sub-regions; Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. The first two are where the best wines are produced, and they lie to the south of the river. Alavesa is on the north side of the Ebro and tends to use 100% Tempranillo grapes producing wines for drinking young. In recent years the wine has suffered a similar fate to Bordeaux in France and the German riesling wines produced around the towns of Piesport and Nierstein; the name became so popular that growers bought up as much land as possible in the areas that could claim the name for their wines, whether it was good wine growing land or not, and then planted vines from which only very ordinary wine could ever be produced, and so the name Rioja could no longer be relied upon to guarantee a minimum quality. There are other wine regions today that are producing wines to equal the good wines of Rioja, and usually at a lower price. I will deal with these regions in future posts, but first a word or two about the quality classification of Spanish wines, and about the main grapes used. Traditionally classification has been into Vino de Mesa (Table wine), Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, but more recently you will find the terms ‘Joven’ and ‘Roble’ being used as well. Today wine is mainly fermented in stainless steel tanks under climate controlled conditions, although the more prstigious producers in Rioja still ferment in oak. ‘Joven’ (young) indicates wine produced in one year and sold the next. It usually goes striaght from the tank to the bottle and is meant for drinking young. ‘Roble’ (oak) is similar wine but has had a short time, probably no more than three months in oak barrels before being bottled. Like Joven it is meant to be drunk young. ‘Crianza’ (nurturing) must be aged for a minimum of 24 months after fermentation, with at least six months spent in oak casks. It is the first level of quality wines. ‘Reserva’, the next one up, has to be aged for a minimum of 36 months, with a minimum of 12 months in oak, and ‘Gran Reserva’ are produced only from the finest vintages and must spend five years in the cellars with at least 18 months in oak. Of course, the higher the quality, the higher the price, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the young wines. My only advice would be to discount any Rioja which does not have at least ‘Joven’ or ‘Roble’ on the label. Next, a word about the grapes. As I mentioned earlier, Alavesa producers tend to use only Tempranillo, those of Rioja Alta use mainly Tempranillo with the addition of sma ll quantitiesof Mazuelo and Graciano, whilst in Rioja Baja uses mainly Garnacha (known in France as Grenache). Imported grape varieties are not used in Rioja. Finally, who are the top bodegas? When you look at the back label, the town to look for is Haro. In addition you will not go far wrong with CVNE, Marques de Griñon, El Coto, Faustino, LAN, Muga, or Marques de Cáceres. There are others of course, but that’s a fair selection to start with.
Up until a couple of years ago we had the good fortune to have an independent wine merchant in the village. Vinos Don Juan, which was located in a tiny shop at the foot of calle Zacatín, the most photographed street in Frigiliana, was owned and run by an Englishman, John Harwood, who had an amazing knowledge of the small producers across Spain. He was so good at his chosen profession that in the early 2000s he was described in one of Spain’s foodie magazines as “probably the best independent wine merchant south of Madrid”. Sadly, the shop is no more. There were a number of reasons why it closed, including no doubt some that I don’t know of, but two stand out as foremost in my mind, and together they combined to ensure that I and others did not buy more from John than we did. From a simple, location point of view the shop was hard to access with a car. OK for the odd bottle or two to carry home in a bag, but if you preferred to buy in larger quantities then two trips were necessary, the first to select and pay, and then a second visit when you stopped the car at the bottom of the street, switched on the hazard lights and went and collected your purchases. This wasn’t a real problem because everyone who lives in Frigiliana knows that if you drive through the old village you are likely to be held up in this way two or three times before you get to your destination. The second reason was that the local supermarkets all carry a pretty good range of wines from bigger producers sold at highly competitive prices. Put the two together and it was just so much easier to buy most of your wine during your regular supermarket shopping trip, and just pick up the occasional bottle of good stuff for a special occasion from John. So of course, now he has gone. Fortunately I have found a similar shop down the road in Torre del Mar. The difference is that it sits on a wide street and you can park virtually outside the door. That is all the encouragement I need. I no longer look at what’s on the shelves at Eroski. I make a special journey to Vinomar where I can find all kinds of obscure wines at good prices and excellent quality. When I first used to come to Spain, the country was famous for its plonk. Bulk wine at silly prices that was OK as long as you used it to wash down highly flavoured food. Spain has come on by leaps and bounds since then and now produces some very, very good wines indeed. But if I write ‘Spanish red’, you will probably say, “Oh yes, Rioja.” I think maybe I should write a few posts about the alternatives.