Spain: More than Rioja: Spanish wine no longer comes by the charity case

Spain has regretfully been the redheaded stepchild of the wine world. Besides the occasional cheap red gem or expensive Rioja, I considered “quality Spanish wine” an oxymoron. But after a recent trip with a flock of wine journalists, I can now drunkenly report my wrongness. We spent a week exploring the northern wine regions of Ribera del Duero, Galicia and Priorat, tasting our way through countless wines at countless meals. I emerged, fat and happy, a changed woman.

Northern Spanish wine country is vast, defined by brown rolling hills with endless dry plains. Like the people, the rugged grapes work hard to achieve success since the wildly fluctuating temperature and minimal rain is far from ideal growing conditions. But there’s a small, green, lush region on the northwestern coast called Rias Biaxas [REE-ahse BYEE-shash] in Galicia, where the grapes practically drown in over 50 inches of rain a year. In order to avoid rot, the fruit is hung far above the wet ground, using granite support posts rather than wood, to support the vine canopies. Albariño [al-bah-REEN-nyo], the finicky, aromatic white grape of the region — Rias Biaxas only produces whites — deliciously complements the area’s primary cuisine, seafood. Albariño wines, similar in style to New Zealand sauvignon blancs, smell and taste like a fruit salad of green apples, grapefruit and lime.

Ribera Del Duero [ree-BEAR-a del DWEAR-o], a red wine-producing region south of famed Rioja, is quickly becoming the rising star in Spain’s fine wine scene. For a long time, grape growers dumped their fruit into the village coop wine vats, creating a wine stew with little or no complexity or character. But about 10 years ago, impoverished and watching the boom in worldwide consumption pass them by, they realized what consumers want — better value and better wines. Many began bottling under their own name, increasing quality by limiting crop yields — growing less fruit on the vines to concentrate the nutrients in fewer grapes. Tempranillo, the same hearty, tannic Spanish grape used in Rioja, responds well to these techniques and winemakers also began tempering its robust flavor with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec and garnacha.

As in several red wine regions across Spain, Ribero employs four quality-level designates, based on how long the wine sits in oak barrels (from least to best): Cosecha, Roble (not normally sold in the U.S.), Crianza (or Crianca) and Reserva. This usually dictates price as well, but not necessarily value.

Priorat [pree-or-OTT], a tiny, ancient wine region south of Barcelona, is well known to those who collect Spanish wines, but the rest of us have probably never heard of it. The arid, hilly landscape seems foreboding with steep slopes laden with creeping vineyards. Beside them grow thick, gnarled, 900-year-old olive trees bursting with berries. Since the precipitous inclines reject machines, the grapes (and the olives) must be harvested by hand, making Priorat wine prices a bit steep as well. But neighboring Montsant, a newer region designate, or appellation, boasts better values within its boundaries. The predominant red grapes in both Priorat and Montsant are vastly different than in Ribero and Rioja, starring garnacha and carineña and sometimes syrah, the same grapes in the celebrated French Rhone wine Chateauneuf du Pape. All great stuff.

Yes, after years of slacking, Spain is off its ass. With improved wines and great values, it’s high time we declare this country open for business. Exploration might change your perspective, like it did mine.

Recommended Wines

Vionta Albariño 2002 Rias Biaxas One of my favorite Albariño producers and they make plenty of it. Typical Albariño flavors of grapefruit and green apple splash into crisp acidity. $15. 4 1/2 stars.

Fra Guerau 2001 Montsant Cosecha Might be hard to find, but it’s here in the States. Elegant with roses, cherry and vanilla that linger on the tongue. Even-tempered and kind to your mouth. Worth much more than its price. $12. 4 stars.

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