The Best New Wines from Spain

Spain today continues to offer unbelievable wine value, especially in the under-$12 range. And thanks to the universally high quality of the 2004 vintage these cheapies are better than ever. Best of all, most of these wines are virtually unoaked, offering striking purity and sweetness of fruit. Yes, there are still plenty of funky, even dirty, inexpensive Spanish wines kicking around the market, but I saw precious few in my six weeks of tasting through nearly a thousand examples. What you will find in the following report are some of the best wine values that I have ever tasted—bottles that drink way above their category, at prices that seem impossibly low. Best of all, these wines are usually plentiful and widely available. If there was ever a time to seek out a forward-thinking, attentive wine merchant, this is it.

Spain has experienced a rollercoaster ride of vintages in the new millennium, with the superb 2001s followed by the mostly light and rain-weakened 2002s. Then came the often roasted, full-blown 2003s, from Spain's warmest growing season in over 60 years. The resulting wines frequently showed very high alcohol levels and obvious signs of overripeness. The normally hotter areas such as Jumilla and Toro baked in the sun, though sites with old vines were able to draw on deeper water reserves. Ribera del Duero was particularly successful in ’03, while regions such as Priorat and Montsant suffered the most, with many wines showing a heavy quality. On the plus side, cooler regions experienced a growing season that provided the opportunity to make wines of greater richness and power than ever, many showing a style they had not previously communicated. It is generally agreed that most 2003 reds (the whites have mostly been drunk up—or should be by now) will be best consumed during their first decade in bottle, before the roasted notes and alcohol take complete control.

Every importer I met with this July and August expressed the opinion that 2004 was a magical year, with near-perfect conditions allowing harvesting to take place over an extended period unprecedented in the past generation. The season was coolish and disaster-free, giving growers the chance to pick their vineyards at leisure rather than at the mercy of the weather. "Normally the harvest is a race, taking maybe a week," said importer Patrick Mata (Olé Imports), "but in 2004 things were so perfect that grapes could be picked in small parcels, according to their ripeness, instead of all at once." "It's a spectacular vintage across Spain, and I hate blanket statements," added the Rare Wine Company's Blake Murdock. "The wines benefited from extended hang time and have fully developed aromatics and unusual complexity. They’re not missing anything." My own experience echoes these views as I tasted an incredible number of '04s with beautifully complex bouquets, deep and sweet but not overripe fruit, and impressive, finely integrated tannins.

Two thousand five is currently being hyped as an outstanding vintage across Europe, but it should be noted that this was an incredibly dry year in Spain, the beginning of a severe drought that threatens to affect the 2006 harvest. In 2005, vines in areas that don't have the kind of clay subsoil that Rioja enjoys, as well as those that were too young for their roots to drive down to water beyond four or five feet beneath the surface, often shut down. The result was that while sugar levels rose, the grapes were not actually maturing and much of the harvest in the hottest zones saw grapes come in with green pips. Under these circumstances, macerations were often shortened and the wines can be forward and highly aromatic but lacking the stuffing for long-term cellaring. André Tamers (De Maison Selections) describes these wines as generally "finished, meaning that they are perfumed, fresh and delicious, with polished tannins." They should mostly be drunk before the ‘04s, Mata believes. This appears to be a red vintage for fans of size rather than finesse. The normally cooler, damper northern zones, from Galicia east to Basque country, were notably successful in this dry year.

There is much grumbling among devotees of old-school Spanish wine that the best days are over and that Spain has now become just another source of internationally styled—which is to say anonymous—wine. I find this point of view a bit curious as the overwhelming number of wines I tasted through were made from indigenous varieties such as tempranillo, monastrell, garnacha and cariñena for reds, and, for whites, albariño and viura. Most of the whites were raised in stainless steel, or in large or neutral oak. Yes, there are plenty of wines whose élevage could have taken place in Napa or the Barossa Valley, but these tend to be small-production, luxury cuvées priced for, and targeted to, a particular audience. Those who decry the modernization of Spain’s wines should spend more time drinking at the lower end of the scale. I’ll bet they’d change their tune about the death of Spanish wine.

Following are the best new releases from Spain that I tasted in June, July and August. Due to space constraints, many additional very good wines that I rated 85 or 86 points are listed as "also recommended." (Under "other wines tasted," wines that scored 83 or 84 are denoted with an asterisk.)