The Best New Wines from Spain, Part 1

Despite the anemic U.S. dollar, Spain is still the savvy wine buyer’s go-to category for great values in red wine. My recent tastings of Spanish wines, which will continue through the summer, have already turned up a load of high-quality, fruit-driven reds that are tough to beat in the sub-$20 category. In most cases, these are wines that show well when they land in the U.S. While some of these wines will gain from a few years of bottle aging, for most the potential loss of vibrant fruit outweighs the likelihood of a gain in complexity.

At the high end of the market, Spain is also producing a great number of extremely competent, often outstanding wines, but too many of these are more about low-yield, high-octane fruit, no-expenses-spared élevage, and highly skilled winemaking than they are about real personality. These are world-class wines, no doubt, but also made in a one-world style. Too often I find myself wishing for a bit of quirkiness to emerge from the sea of technically flawless Priorat, Rioja and Ribera del Duero wines that I’ve been tasting through. Yes, there are differences to be found from wine to wine, but they are often extremely subtle. There can be something almost oppressively opulent about these wines. Impressive though they can be, I’m tempted to say that some of them are missing what the Spaniards might call un pequeño obsequio, if their Spanish were as bad as mine.

Today, the middle of the market—wines that sit on U.S. retail shelves for $20 to $40—seems to be a trouble spot. Yes, a number of these bottles can compete with other Spanish wines retailing for upwards of $100, but too many of them offer only marginally more complexity and overall quality than some in the under-$20 range. In a tough economy, it’s pretty easy for consumers to satisfy their garnacha or tempranillo cravings for $15. The danger for Spain, as a category, is that consumers may simply view her wines as offering solid bang-for-the-buck, while avoiding the higher end in favor of wines from more established regions like Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley. On the other hand, with top classified-growth Bordeaux now frequently in the $200 range, I’d opt for two or three bottles of many Spanish wines reviewed here, especially if I’m after immediate gratification or ordering off a restaurant list.

As for restaurants, I’m pressed to think of a better pool of red wines to draw from than Spain, at every price level. Except for the wines of a few traditional producers, most Spanish reds, especially those made from garnacha, are seductive and expressive from the get-go. Since most American restaurants are loath to lay down inventory, their wine lists are dominated by new vintages, and the simple fact is that top Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône and Piedmont wines offer just a glimpse of their potential on release. Not so with Spain.

Recent years have brought an increasing number of high-quality Spanish white wines into the U.S., and the best of these are produced mostly from the albariño variety in the cool, Atlantic Ocean-influenced northwest region of Galicia (the “Green Spain”), especially in Rías Baixas. These brisk citrus-and mineral-flavored wines are excellent companions to fresh seafood and salads, and they’re refreshing on their own as well. The verdejo grape can produce enormously appealing citrus-, mineral- and herb-dominated wines, and the best examples I’ve come across are from Rueda, a couple of hours northwest of Madrid. These wines can be eerily reminiscent of sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley and, indeed, sauvignon blanc is often planted in Rueda, usually for blending with verdejo. With rare exceptions the white wines of northwest Spain are vinified without any oak, although a few experiments with barrel fermentation are always going on.

The vintages in the marketplace. Recent vintages have been kind to all regions of Spain, especially 2005. That vintage’s wines are turning out to be fresher and more energetic than the vaunted 2004s, which generally impress more for their size and power. This is definitely the case in Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat, at least to my palate. Yes, most of the 2005 reds are rich, fleshy and structured wines by international standards, but their fruit, acidity and tannins are in balance, and the best of them are destined for a slow evolution in a cool cellar.

Two thousand six was blessed with good rainfall in the winter and early spring, which ensured a healthy supply of water for the vines to draw from through the summer. This vintage has produced red wines that are typically more elegant and approachable than those of the previous three years. If most wines lack the flavor impact of 2005, 2004 and, especially, 2003, they offer greater finesse. That is not to say that they are wimpy or malnourished. The white wine harvest in the northwest was up almost 40% over 2005, and some of these wines can be on the taut or even tart side. It is early days to make a call on the red wines of 2007, but the 2007 whites that I’ve been tasting are usually fresh and energetic, with good, nervy minerality and typical citrus character. Yields were on the high side so some of these wines lack body and heft. But, as is the case with the 2006s, are people who enjoy this style of wine really after a palate-throttling? Many more notes on current releases from Spain will appear in the next issue.