Spanish metal (Impressions of Spain)

It was a great privilege to travel through Spain for five weeks and visit the fourteen major wine regions to meet some of the absolute top producers in the country. What an amazing learning experience to not only be introduced to the wines they produce, but also their philosophies, culture and traditions. A lot of this is thanks to Scott Wasley who as I have mentioned is probably the most important importer of Spanish wine in Australia, working with an exceptional range of wines from the worlds largest wine producing country. I was fortunate enough to not only gain an insight into the most premium wines that Spain produces from the source, but also to their generosity and hospitality as many of the producers very kindly invited me to share lunch or dinner with them, and sometimes offered me somewhere to stay which as I have said is such a huge help to me as I am completely self-funding this trip. So from the beginning I would like to thank both Scott and all of the producers who gave me such a warm welcome to their regions and wineries.
Attempting to draw fino from the solera at Sanchez Romate

Probably the most important thing I learnt about wine in Spain is that the wines are good. I mean really good, well deserving of the their reputation as some of the best in the world. This quality has increasingly gained more recognition and attention in the past twenty years as Spain continues to evolve after the long wilderness of Franco. All across the country a high level of investment in time, finances and human resources have been and continue to be made to better understand the terroir, indigenous varieties, premium wine production and communication to improve Spanish wine and their customers’ enjoyment of them. This investment comes partly from a desire to be the best which is both patriotic and competitive, and is fuelled by competition from neighbouring countries who are of similar size and diversity in terms of viticulture. Spain wants to be the best at any cost, both in terms of investment on their side but also in terms of different price-points. There is great pride in Spain and it is well deserved, but has the potential to blind them to developments in other parts of the world.

I got thirsty at La Purisima in Yecla

The question that I sometimes asked myself as I travelled in Spain was, what do the people drink? In actual fact the Spanish people don’t drink a lot of wine per capita, less than Australia in fact. Beer is far more dominant in Spain as an alcoholic beverage, not hard to understand when you are there during June and July in the heat of summer when all you want is refreshment. By all indications the vast majority of the wine consumed within Spain is at the lower end, mostly coming from regions like La Mancha. Very little of the top wines are drunk in Spain, mostly being exported. The premium wines that are consumed within Spain come predominantly from Rioja, with other regions like Ribera del Duero, Cava, Rueda and Rias Baixas having some prominence. There are many other more marginal regions which offer great diversity and quality and will continue to be more important in the future as they are better understood, gaining their own unique identity and the overall quality improves. Like Italy Spain has amazing diversity in terms of climate and soils which affords the chance to make so many different types of wine, even from the same varieties (such as tempranillo or garnacha).

Enjoying a snail in Alicante

As always my opinions about the best wines are those made from indigenous varieties that are perfectly suited to their environment and are made to reflect the place and culture. In most cases these wines are very simply made and can be enjoyed young and fresh but also with a little age on them, most notably white wines from Rias Baixas and traditional wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Not unlike my experiences in Spain I found it somewhat difficult to find high quality wines within this framework, which has a lot to do with the still developing understanding of quality wine production, indigenous varieties (as opposed to introduced French varieties), the nature of their terroirs and the desire to produce commercially successful international styles of wine rather than authentic and unreproducible wines. With their tumultuous recent political history their seems to have been a great deal of broken successions and changes of ownership with wineries, with many of the wineries being established in the past 30 years and any older than that being purchased and/or relaunched. This in a way is similar to Portugal but also not unlike in South America, which is interesting but coincidental.

Getting in touch with the terroir of Toro

Also like these other countries you can feel that Spanish producers truly are appreciating the great business potential for wine production and there is less of a tradition of succession like there is in France, Germany and Italy (the latter to a lesser extent). This is most easily seen at the top and the bottom end of the quality pyramid. In large volume regions like La Mancha and Rioja, producers have the climate and soils to produce almost any kind of wine, and are willing to work with their customers to design wines to their style and volume specifications. Particularly in La Mancha they can grow any kind of variety they want and produce it using any techniques they need to make an inexpensive fruit driven wine for large-volume customers in the retail markets. At the top end no expense is being spared to have the best quality viticulture (low yields through green harvesting, bio-organic, trellising systems) and winemaking (optical sorters, high-tech fermentation/maceration systems, top quality new barriques). The thing that seemed lacking in my opinion was great wine in between these two extremes, as quality seemed to be quite variable and was complicated by regulation and terminology, something that several producers noted themselves.

Not easy to pour a glass of txakoli in Getaria

Like each of the southern European wine producing countries I have visited they have put French wine on a pedestal and are naturally very competitive with them They actually seem to know very little about the many regions in France apart from the best known ones, nor about the great void in France of wine at lower prices. They compare themselves a lot, bemoaning the fact that France has such strong brand recognition (regionality and appellation) and also market penetration. Something they need to consider is that France didn’t suddenly start producing high quality wines and communicating about them recently, they have centuries of tradition and experience during the time Spain was suffering financial and political problems and were unable to compete. The future is where Spain will come into their forte, particularly as there is a much more diverse and fragmented wine market globally and customers are looking for diversity and authenticity. The two most important things Spain has over France is their ability to make great quality high-volume wines at lower price points thanks to climate and lower costs, but also their own terroirs and grape varieties  It is nice to see a lot less French varieties planted in Spain compared to Italy and the new world, I hope they continue to focus on their autochthonous varieties in the future and they just get better and better.

With Josep Maria Raventos in Penedes

One of the real shames about wine in Spain is that they don’t really have the same level of wine culture as their neighbours to the east and west, which is another reason they don’t drink so much wine themselves. One of the more noticeable things about the lack of a wine culture is that people don’t drink wine with food as much as other places, and when they do they don’t understand well the idea of wine and food matching. Don’t get me wrong, the food in Spain is some of the best I have had in my whole trip, not only in terms of quality but also in terms of regionality. They are proud of the quality and authenticity of their foods, and boast some of the top chefs in Europe most notably in San Sebastian. In many cases the wines they produce in each region don’t always lend themselves to the local cuisine, but there are a number of good examples of perfect pairing such as albarino with seafood in Rias Baixas and barbecued lamb with tempranillo in Rioja. Their choice of beverage also has a lot to do with the climate, as typically the kind of wines you produce in warmer climates (i.e. full-bodied red wines) aren’t great to drink in those climates as it is too hot. This however is not specific to Spain; another perfect example is the food they eat in the very cold regions of Germany being too heavy and fatty for the crisp mineralic whites wines they actually make.

An ancient tomb in a necropolis in Rioja

Another reason that the lack of wine culture is really surprising is their very long history of viticulture and winemaking, particularly in the south. The history of wine is something so few people know about (even within Spain) and doesn’t get talked about nearly enough in my experience. Some of the most fascinating traditions include; the fortification of wine to retain sweetness introduced by the Moors; fermentation of wines in large ceramic amphoras in Valdepenas; ancient wine presses carved into rock platforms in Rioja; and multi-vintage blending of wine in the same barrel over time in Fondillon. Too much of the wine in the past was used to improve wines in other parts of Europe, and Spain never got the recognition or compensation they deserved. This probably was another cause for the very late development in premium wine production.

In one of the highest Spanish vineyards in Priorat

I really look forward to seeing how Spanish wine evolves over the coming years, and to tasting more and more of it wherever I may be. I’m interested to hear other peoples thoughts about wine in Spain and if they agree or disagree with my impressions. As someone quite unfamiliar with the wines from Spain it was a really eye-opening experience, and there is still so much to know about them.

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