Focus on Spain

Like most of the rest of northern Europe's wine-growing regions, Spain suffered through a cool, rain-plagued growing season and--in many regions--harvest in 2013.  The unfortunate consequences became abundantly clear as I worked my way through some early red wine releases--mostly bottlings that saw no oak or experienced only quick sojourns in used casks.  Many of these wines were edgy and lacking in mid-palate weight and texture, not to mention breadth and sweetness of fruit.  Spain is too vast a region to paint vintage character with too broad a brush but conditions were rough pretty much everywhere, although some zones--Rioja, Toro and Jumilla come to mind--enjoyed drier, warmer weather at harvest and thus hold out better promise.  

This is a vintage that wine buyers will want to approach with caution and one where it is even more crucial than ever to focus on top producers who are always able to be extremely choosy with their fruit and willing to declassify or sell off sub-par lots or entire cuvees rather than run the risk of sullying their reputations by releasing inferior wines.  In fact, I tasted a fair number of appealingly fresh 2013 whites from Galicia (a region that had mildew issues) over the summer, although they are almost universally wines that should be drunk now and over the coming year, and definitely before their 2012 siblings and even some 2011s.

The good news for red wine lovers is that 2012 is shaping up to be an overall strong to very strong vintage, especially in Catalonia and also in Leon, with some excellent Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra wines coming into the market now or arriving this fall.  They tend to lead with their fruit and possess very good balance, with moderate tannins, healthy acidity and great upfront appeal.  Unfortunately, yields were low because of long-term drought conditions (a problem that to some degree was corrected with the rainy 2013 season) so the big-gun wines will be hard to find and prices could also take a jump, so buying early is strongly advised.

Two thousand eleven, which also suffered yield-wise, is looking pretty good as well, especially for wine lovers who favor bright, elegant wines and aren't looking to stash their wines away for extended aging.  Broad-shouldered, even boozy, superripe wines were possible from 2011 as well, if growers and producers waited well into the fall to pick.  Those wines can possess sometimes very high alcohol levels so, even though it's hardly an exact science, checking on a given bottle's stated alcohol level is advised.

As for the current state of the American market, the red wines of Spain's generally cool northwest, especially those of Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo, continue to find favor among adventurous American wine lovers.  The popularity of these spicy, mostly mencia-based wines tracks closely with the continued market growth of pinot noir and other energetic red wines from cooler growing regions.  Over the last year, I have had the chance to taste a number of older Bierzo bottlings, back to 2005, and I was quite pleased to find that a number of them are still lively and leading with their fruit and are hardly in danger of going off the cliff any time soon.

American consumers are also showing burgeoning interest in specific regional character in Spain, and nowadays producers and importers, especially those who work in Bierzo and Rioja, are increasingly providing information on exactly where different vineyards are located, their soil composition, exposure and the like.  For a wine-growing region to be taken more seriously, it must be viewed as an amalgam of sites, or zones, each with individual character.  Selling a relatively generic Bierzo or Rioja is not the best approach for producers if they want to attract the attention of savvy, open-minded buyers.  I found more wines than ever from Rioja that listed varietal breakdown on back labels as well as where in Rioja the fruit was sourced (i.e., in the relatively cool, higher-altitude Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa sub-regions or the warmer, drier Rioja Baja, where garnacha rules).  Interestingly, more wines are stating clearly if they spent time in American oak, either exclusively or in part, while a decade ago "aged in oak," with no mention of the source of the wood, unless it was French, was usually all one found on Spanish wine labels.

Traditionallly styled wines continue to surge in popularity, from Rioja especially, and there is also a steady and increasing return to indigenous varieties in Catalonia, especially in Priorat and to some extent in Montsant and the general environs.  I found fewer examples of Priorat wines with international varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah than I can ever recall, a move that I heartily applaud.  On the other hand, white grapes, especially verdejo, are increasingly being planted outside their traditional, usually cool home zones (like Rueda, for verdejo) and the resulting wines, especially when they're from warm sites, often do the reputations of these varieties no favors.

It seems hard to imagine now, but less than a generation ago the market for Spanish white wines was a wasteland--or, in the case of what was available on our shores, a graveyard.  The words "vibrant" or "fresh" and "Spanish white wine" were rarely uttered together, and it's almost surreal how quickly things have changed.  Wine lovers of my generation had never hear of Txakoli, and even the wines of Rias Baixas and Rueda were more a rumor in the U.S. than reality.  Now, a scan of the white wine offerings at serious American retail shop often reveals dozens of such bottlings, and by all accounts they consistently move rapidly off the shelves.  Forward-thinking restaurants and wine bars have played no small part in promoting Spain's best white wines.

The practice of making white wines that are fermented and aged partially or entirely in oak casks continues at a number of bodegas in Spain's northwest but with a less heavy hand than in the past.  Happily, many producers who dabble in this style are now moving toward larger-format barrels (500 liters and bigger), which impart less overt lumber character to the wines than the small French barriques of 225 liters that were in vogue in years past.  And more of those larger-format barrels have already been seasoned, which also mitigates the oak character imparted by the casks while contributing the richer texture that the winemakers are pursuing with this method.  Use of older barrels also puts the break on potentially oxidative air exchange.

It's likely still true that much of the wine-buying public equates oak with high-quality wine but anecdotal evidence suggests that more and more serious buyers realize that this is hardly always the case.  The best producers who play with the oaked style (and this goes for red wines as well) are able to strike a balance between the richness and aromatic complexity that the judicious use of oak barrels can bring, and the delicate, nuanced, minerally qualities that one expects from white wines in cooler regions.  But its all too easy for the graceful character of such wines to be subsumed by oak's assertive qualities so I approach these bottlings with no small degree of trepidation.

Things aren't completely rosy for Spain's bodegas overall.  Domestic consumption has been on the skids for a while and by all reports only the most established high-end wines from all of Spanish wine regions are moving quickly through the international market without strong hands-on sales support.  The fact is that during the country's faux economic boom of the 2000s, the hangover from which is still causing major pain across the Iberian peninsula, way too many overoptimistic Spaniards invested far too heavily in creating new wineries.  Many of these investors built highly leveraged monuments to their egos, with the wines priced to reflect that fact--not to mention to help them pay off their debt.  Things haven't worked out too well, though.  It's a buyer's market now, and has become increasingly so, and high-ticket bottles of tenuous pedigree are having a tough go of it, regardless of where they're from.