The Best New Wines from Spain, Part 1

During the first half of my tastings of new Spanish releases this year, I was impressed once again by the often surreal values available on the U.S. market, especially in the under-$20 category. A quick survey of the marketplace, from mom and pop liquor stores to Internet market-makers, tells me that this isn’t exactly news. Never before has top-quality Spanish wine been so widely available and, by most indications, so warmly received by American wine-drinkers. It’s easy to see why. A ridiculous number of the wines I’ve sampled this year represent the best bang for the buck I can think of from anywhere. With many basic Côtes-du-Rhône bottlings pushing $18 and entry-level zinfandels hovering in the same price range, it’s remarkable that so many wines of equal quality are available from Spain at half the price.

Much of the credit must go to veteran importers like Jorge Ordoñez and Eric Solomon, who spearheaded the importation of smaller-production, quality-driven, fairly priced wines from all over Spain and established widespread distribution of those wines. Their progeny, including José Pastor (Vinos & Gourmet), Aurelio Cabastrero (Grapes of Spain) and Patrick Mata (Olé Imports), among others, are the next wave, and their wines have begun to trickle into markets that in the past were dominated by large-production brands. As the notes in this article—and in the next issue—indicate, Spain is the source of the best red wine values on earth. And it’s no slouch when it comes to good value in fresh white wine, either.

Current vintages. Followers of Spain’s wines who have been feeling left out in the heat by the 2003, 2004 and 2005 vintages may find more wines to their liking as the 2006s begin to flow into the United States. The long-term drought that has wreaked havoc across many European wine regions since 2003 continued in 2006, but it was not a year marked by the heat waves and oven-like temperature spikes that occurred in ’03, ’04 and ’05. Thanks to the relatively cooler growing conditions across the country throughout 2006, and to some usually well-timed rain, wines from virtually all areas are lower in alcohol and potentially more elegant than those from the preceding three harvests. Exceptions to this generalization would be in the southeast, where Jumilla, Yecla, Utiel-Requena and Alicante enjoyed typically hot, dry conditions and appear to have produced typically rich, full-throttle wines.

Poorly timed rain fell in Rioja during the 2006 harvest, and the more conscientious producers cut their production by up to 50%, often rejecting or selling off grapes and juice that were not up to their standards. In Priorat, cooler conditions than those that characterized the previous three vintages generally translated into fresher, more energetic wines, but still with plenty of ripeness. In Rías Baixas, which is enjoying a surge in demand for its racy albariños, damp conditions in ‘06 in some instances triggered rot and often produced wines with lower-than-normal acidity along with lower alcohol levels. I am much more enthusiastic about the vivacious, concentrated and still impressively fresh 2005s and advise consumers to snap up the better versions that remain in the market.

Ribera del Duero enjoyed an early flowering in ‘06, followed by a benign middle season save for a widespread but not particularly severe hailstorm on June 24. A cool, humid August slowed ripening but was followed by a major blast of heat at the tail end of the month that continued until harvesting began in the western end of the appellation in the second week of September. Overall, 2006 appears to be a vintage that will appeal most to those seeking less extreme, less ripe wines than recent years have provided. Incidentally, in 2008 Ribera del Duero will be elevated to Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) status, joining Rioja and Priorat as the only wine regions in Spain to bear this highest designation. With that status, naturally, comes greater government oversight and regulation, but most producers seem willing to accept this for the added prestige. Not surprisingly, new-wave producers are less happy about the prospects of increased oversight and more rules.

Two thousand five across the majority of Spain’s viticultural zones produced wines that tend to be broad-shouldered, with full ripeness and serious structure. This was another drought year, after all. That said, the ripeness tended to be less extreme than that of many 2004s and nearly all 2003s. Still, most 2005s from northern as well as southern Spain should be monitored closely, as high-alcohol wines made from superripe grapes are not sure bets to age gracefully. This may be worth keeping in mind if you plan to lay down major quantities of wine from this vintage or are looking more than six or seven years down the road.