Wines of Spain
Spain’s biggest wine export, like that of Portugal, is a fortified wine. Spain’s answer to the port of Portugal is sherry, from the baked chalky landscape around Jerez.
Even if Spain’s reputation as a producer of lighter wines is not yet established, at least with non-Spaniards, the country has enormous potential. As the French are only too well aware, Spain has more land under vine than any other country. Much of this land is extremely hot – so hot that it turns out very deep-coloured wines that have lots of alcohol and body but not too much refinement. This makes them good for blending and useful ingredients for inexpensive branded blends. Huge quantities of full-bodied wine leave ports like Valencia and Alicante by tanker each day. Valdepenas is probably the most distinguished of these heady reds, partly because almost all of the grapes used are in fact white, giving the wine made in such a hot region lightness and crispness. It is dyed and flavoured by about 10 per cent of the essence-like local red wine.
Spain’s most famous and most respected wine region is Rioja, pronounced ‘Ree-ocher’ as in the Scottish ‘loch’. Up in the hilly wilds of northern Spain it is so cool that the grapes ripen considerably later than in, say, more northerly Bordeaux. In fact, there are strong historical links with Bordeaux which account for the most distinctive feature of making Rioja: the small oak barrica or cask.
Rioja is made from a blend of mainly local grape varieties, notably Tempranillo or Ull de Llebre, grown in one or usually more of the three sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. Alta makes the longest-lived wines, Alavesa those with lightness and pronounced acidity, and Baja, usually, the most robust and least refined. Any Rioja that is described as Crianza is matured for at least a year in barricas made from the richly flavoured American oak that gives the wine a distinctive, warm, ‘oaky’ vanilla perfume.
The wine is often moved from one cask to another to soften it and stop harsh flavours developing from contact with the lees, which means that Rioja rarely develops any sediment in bottle, and tends to be light in colour. A Rioja labelled Reserva is usually at least six years old before being bottled; most of that time will have been spent in barricas.
The foregoing comments apply more usually to red wines, Rioja’s most important product, but some deliciously rich, oaky whites are also made using exactly the same methods, and nomenclature. The local Viura grape is also the main ingredient in a more modern sort of white Rioja, made without using oak to maximize the fresh fruitiness of a dry white to be drunk young. Some red Rioja being made today exhibits these qualities too but such wines will not usually carry the back label guaranteeing a Crianza wine.
Most grapes are grown by smallholders and bought by the wine producers, whose enterprises are usually called bodegas — though they rarely look as bucolic as this name suggests.
Navarre just to the north of Rioja makes wines that are similar but slightly less intense, while Penedes in Catalonia is the other major quality wine-producing region. Spaniards have been slow to try out classic non-Spanish grape varieties, but now they are taking to Cabernet, Chardonnay and the like with enthusiasm. This daring development was pioneered by innovators in Penedes such as Miguel Torres and Jean Leon. Thanks to their work, Penedes is probably producing a wider range of wines than any other Spanish region. By far the most important individual in this range is the sparkling wine made in San Sadurni de Noya, a little town which turns out some well-made sparkling wine using the same method as champagne.
Spain’s most expensive and sought-after wine is Vega Sicilia, from an isolated little pocket of vines grown high up near Valladolid. This rich, spicy red is made from a unique blend of classic Bordeaux grape varieties and local vines which are fermented very slowly and then allowed to mature in small oak barrels, a la bordelaise, for up to 10 years, more than five time longer than in Bordeaux.