New Releases from Spain

Coming on the heels of the challenging 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages, the mostly very good to excellent 2009, 2010 and 2011 trio is providing welcome relief to growers and importers, not to mention wine lovers.  The most recent of those vintages, 2011, is reported to be uniformly excellent across the country and more than a few producers and importers I spoke with praised the wines' blend of forward, vivacious fruit and firm underlying structure.  Based on my early look at the vintage I'll go out on a limb and call '11 a cross between 2010 and 2009, combining the precocious character of '09 and the focus of '10.  Keep in mind that vintage 2010 produced some of the finest wines since 2005 in most of Spain's growing areas, but some lower-lying regions like Rueda experienced more extreme heat than normal, with subsequent loss of vivacity in the wines.

Two thousand nine in northern Spain's premier growing regions continues to be a mixed bag of thrilling, intensely flavored and concentrated wines along with others that show roasted character, loose structure, high alcohol and serious tannins due to thick grape skins.  While the tannins achieved in ripe vintages such as 2009 are beneficial to aging, what is really gained if the fruit loses its freshness?

How do they do it?  Bear in mind that most of Spain's best red wine regions are situated at higher altitudes than other growing areas in Europe, apart from the Alpine regions of Italy.  This contributes to diurnal temperature shifts that help to prolong the growing season and to preserve the natural acidity in the grapes.  Most of these vineyards also enjoy the benefit of cooling winds and, thanks to mostly arid conditions, the vines are rarely under mildew or rot pressures.  Vineyard pests are also less common in Spain than in most of Europe, so the vines can be productive well past the average lifespan of vines in cooler, more humid regions.  Indeed, many vineyards in Spain, particularly those planted on sandy soils, were never hit by the phylloxera of the late 19th century and some vines planted before and during that period are still viable.  Couple that with low land prices and production costs in areas like Calatayud, Jumilla, Yecla and Campo de Borja and you have a recipe for what I consider to be the greatest red wine values in the world.

The market today.  Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that tastes here for Spanish wine have swung decidedly in the direction of elegance, even understatement, in recent years, especially in the upper-tier category.  That's a trend that I'm seeing for wines from across Europe, actually, if not from around the world.  Red wines made in a traditional, minimal-intervention style, with minimal new oak and moderate alcohol levels, are the fastest movers, according to most importers, wholesalers, retailers and sommeliers I talk with regularly.

That said, there is still a thriving market for oak-influenced wines in the under-$25 category from Spain, a situation that many importers handle very creatively.  Basically, an importer who works with wineries that offer wines at varying price levels will move new and used barrels around, from winery to winery, through their useful lives, which usually run up to five years.  For example, if a high-end Rioja is destined for extended aging in a new, expensive barrel, that cask might do its first couple of months of duty at a winery in, say, Calatayud or La Mancha, where an inexpensive wine is briefly aged in the barrel, to "season" or "rinse" it before it is shipped to its new home.

Alternatively, wineries that rely heavily on new barrels as part of their winemaking regimen need to move their used and unneeded barrels out to make way for new casks and new wine.  Because those barrels are now being put to use at wineries that produce modestly priced wines (the barrels have already been amortized by the primary user), many inexpensive wines now enjoy the luxury of spending at least part of their lives in a quality of oak unheard of for wines selling for under $100 a bottle, much less under $25.  That's a huge boon for the many consumers who like oak character in their wines but whose budget won't permit dropping $50+ on a daily bottle or two.  In contrast, how many people who drink everyday French, Australian or California wines will ever get to experience the sexy perfumes and textures imparted by barrels from tonneliers such as Taransaud, Chassin, Dominique Laurent and Darnajou?

As for white wines, the racy style produced in Spain's northern regions has been one of the great success stories of the wine world in recent years.  It seems like only yesterday that the words "lively, fresh and vibrant" and "Spanish white wine" were never uttered together, at least in the United States.  Now, wine lists and retail shelves are packed with current-release white wines from Rias Baixas, Rueda, Ribeiro, Valdeorras and even Basque country, whose Txakolis simply did not exist here a decade ago; today the top wines from these regions are actually allocated.  For an old-timer like me this is nothing short of astonishing.

Looking ahead.  As good as Spain is at putting excellent wine into the bottle, many producers have a lot to learn when it comes to projecting a serious image to consumers who are increasingly spoiled for choices.  Way too many wines are bottled with sub-par corks, packed in flimsy boxes, or look like they were labeled in a garage, at night, with the lights off.  On the flip side, a number of Spanish wineries are among the industry leaders when it comes to over-the-top packaging, especially in their use of oversized, overweight bottles, although I did see fewer of these this year than previously.

It would also be nice if the Spaniards could get their collective act together sufficiently, for example, to address the endlessly confusing use of regional dialect with grape varieties.  Here's a very brief cheat sheet for the most common offenders, and the synonyms you'll likely run into while exploring Spain's amazing and often bewildering range of wines:

samso = cinsault
mazuelo = carinena = carinyena = carignan
ull de llebre = tempranillo = tinto de pais = tinto de toro
garnacha = garnatxa = garnatxa negre = garnacha tinta
garnacha tintorera = alicante bouschet
sira = syrah
macabeo = macabeu = viura
monastrell = mourvedre (though there isn't universal consensus on this)

I actually see the grape names interchanged on labels from the same producer, meaning that the label for one of their wines says "garnatxa" while another says "garnacha."  Confusing the consumer is never a good business strategy, but since the Spaniards have a long history of protecting their regional, even micro-regional traditions, especially when it comes to language, don't expect things to get clearer anytime soon.

I tasted all of the wines for this article over the last few months in New York.