Monday, 23 March 2009

Spain - is there life beyond Rioja and Cava?

We love Spain – love its warm weather and late-night tapas-munching bar culture when on holiday. Love its wines – Cava, all the fizz of Champagne at a fraction of the price and Rioja of course, lovely soft, fruity red wines.

Well yes, I wouldn’t want to argue with any of that but, as the world’s third largest producer of wines, there is a whole sea of Spanish wines out there to explore. We have been happily paddling in the shallows of Cava and Rioja – but perhaps it’s time to strike out for deeper waters in search of adventure.

Most of the Cava that we know and (some of us) love hails from the Penedés region near Barcelona in Catalonia, north east Spain. But there is much more to area than cheap and cheerful fizz. Miguel Torres, one of the most important figures in Spanish wine for the last four decades and more, is based in Catalonia. His wine stable includes all wine styles (and prices) but a delightful introduction to the modern face of Spanish white wine is Torres Viña Esmeralda. It’s a blend of highly aromatic Muscat grapes, along with a dash of Gewurztraminer. Muscat is about the only grape variety that can be said to smell of, well, grapes; Gewurztraminer adds a hint of rose petal to the pot. All this might lead you to expect a sweet wine – but Viña Esmeralda is dry, with plenty of clean, aromatic fruit. It’s also just 11.5% alcohol, so makes a great choice for sipping in the garden on a sunny afternoon.
Torres Viña Esmeralda, Waitrose £6.99; Thresher/Wine Rack £8.49 or £5.66 at the 3 for 2 price; Majestic £6.64 or £4.99 if you buy two.

Rías Baixas
This cool, rainy northwestern corner of Spain probably has a hard time attracting the average British holidaymaker – why go all that way for weather we can get at home? Its white wines, however, are definitely worth seeking out. These are made from Albariño, a grape which combines the slightly peachy aromas and flavours of the increasingly trendy Viognier, with the crisp acidity reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc. What’s not to like? Great for fish and seafood.
Albariño 2007, Martín Códax, Majestic £10.99 or £8.24 when you buy two.

Spanish wine regions are like the washing up: there seems to be an endless supply of them. Cariñena is one of the ones with little to distinguish it from countless others – but this low profile makes it a good source of bargain bottles for wine shoppers. Spain does a good line in spicy, heart-warming reds and this one is a blend of Grenache, topped up with around a third of Tempranillo – the predominant grape of Rioja. Grenache produces punchy, spicy wines that go down well at this time of year. The Tempranillo gives more tannic structure and classy black fruit. If this were from Rioja, you’d have to pay considerably more for this amount of drinkability.
Castillo de Montearagón Reserva 2003, £4.49 at Tesco.

Another region you’ve probably never heard of, but a familiar grape in the form of Grenache – or Garnacha in Spanish. It’s got plenty of meaty flavour and dark bramble fruit – and its tannins need something meaty to eat alongside to enjoy this wine at its best.
Viña Fuerte Old Vine Garnacha 2007, £5.49 at Waitrose.

Navarra is one of those wine regions which suffers from being next door to a much better-known neighbour: in this case, Rioja. Rather than trying to plough their own furrow, many of Navarra’s winemakers seem content to produce wines in the mould of Rioja, but sadly most are just not as good. This wine, however, is an exception. It’s made from the Graciano grape, which is sometimes used in small quantities in better quality Riojas, but it’s rare to see a wine made entirely from this variety. This is not because Graciano is a poor quality grape, but the fact that it’s hard to get it to ripen fully. Underripe, Graciano makes wines with mouthpuckering tannins and rasping acidity – not a good combination. Viña Zorzal’s Graciano, though, is fully ripe with plenty of silky blackcurrant fruit, but with enough acidity and tannin to keep it fresh and balanced.
Viña Zorzal Graciano 2007, The Vineking (branches in Reigate and Weybridge) £8.99 or £15 for two bottles.

New grape varieties, unfamiliar wine regions – and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of what Spain has to offer the wine lover. Cast off your water wings and dive in, the water’s lovely.


catalonia blog said...

I'm not a great lover of Spanish Cava but I'm certainly with you on the riojas - a nice bottle of Protoss 2002 and you cannot possible go wrong.

fran said...

good choices: i am a big fan of Viña Zorzal Graciano 2007 either, and pleased to find it mentioned inhere.

Heather Dougherty said...

Thanks to both of you for your comments. I have to admit that I cannot get excited about Cava either (does it show?)

Jose luis Louzan said...

I had never visited your web site but I found it a pleasant visit. I do not agree with you partly on Galicia and Rias Baixas. Far from it so cold in the cold, cold London (and in summer we have nothing to envy in temperature in southern Spain).

Moreover, their choice is the worst possible albariño, Martin Códax?, One of the worst in its price. For those extra pounds you can drink more than a dozen albariño much smaller and much better production quality.

But thanks anyway for talking to the world of lesser-known wine areas in Spain.

Heather Dougherty said...

Jose Luis - I'm glad you found the article interesting. It's a thrill for me to see people who have probably never laid eyes on The Surrey Advertiser reading my blog, so thank you for leaving a comment.

I'm sorry that you feel I have done Rias Baixas/Galicia a disservice. You do know we Brits are absolutely obsessed with the weather, especially our own bad weather, so a chance to point out that somewhere else might be a bit rainy is too good to pass up. However, I'm sure you're right that there is probably no comparison between winter in London and Rias Baixas.

I don't agree that Martin Codax is a bad wine - but it is fairly widely available and a recognized name. These issues are important when trying to highlight a new region AND grape variety to readers. Choosing a hard to find wine will only discourage those readers looking to branch out and try something new. And once they get a taste for Albariño...they will move onto other wines and producers - I hope.

Jose luis Louzan said...

Mrs. Dougherty ¡Oh, I hope not having trouble with my comment about the poor quality of Códax Martin. I understand your argument, but this particular wine is a very poor imitation of the real albariño.

While it is true, as you say, if the consumer does not get used to dare to try a new area of the world, it does not matter too much to discover these new flavors.

I regret not meeting Great Britain over proposals of this grape. The low production is a problem, but it was in France and yet they do not need wine from Bordeaux and Burgundy in England.

I suppose that is a matter of time.

And pardon my English. Thanks for your patience.

Xabi said...

Viña Zorzal Graciano 07,

Gold medal in International Wine Challenge 2009!