The vibrant world of Spanish wine

In the first of a new series of guest blogs, GOCV member Paul Shinnie shares stories from his extensive travels round Spain’s wine-making regions and explains the major changes he has witnessed over the past forty years.

One of the pleasures of working with Spanish producers is the opportunity to travel round that large country. Such diverse countryside that- from the sandy Atlantic beaches around Cádiz, to the simple quiet of La Mancha villages disrupting the eternal flatness to the aromatic pine-steeped hillsides of Cataluña and the rolling wheat fields of Navarra there is an extensive range of climates, soil types and grape varieties to engage us.

What has become evident recently is the boldness and confidence newer entrants are displaying as they shed the old imperatives of Spanish winemaking. I so well remember weeks spent in the 80s and 90s tasting Cabernet and Merlot blends, barrels of Tempranillo with the life purged from them by the sheer dominance of super-toasty new oak and then the comparative delight of joven wines.

What a difference the current state of Spanish wine making is in compared to 30/35 years ago; there are no doubt many more exciting varieties to be unearthed and fashioned into drinkable wines.

All this allied, however, to the constant frustration of seeing the quality of fruit sacrificed in the search to drive up perceived ‘value’ with flashy winemaking. There was the relief my throat felt as we both crossed the border into France at Le Boulou and the prospect of some fresher fruit flavours.

Nowadays, however, I can taste the true flavours of varieties like Bobal, Tintilla, Mandó, Verdejo, Xarel.lo not to mention Garnacha and Tempranillo and how their vines interact with different soils and different winemakers. The cool vibrant fruit of Garnacha from Baja Montana in Navarra against the piercing minerality and grace of Garnacha from Gredos – and while talking of graceful wines, what about Pintaillo found in the odd spot in Manchuela, or the 2018 Tintilla from Bodegas Forlong in El Puerto de Santa María. How can this be? Graceful red from Cadiz?

No longer are growers constrained by the old clichés of Spanish winemaking – age and oak.

So much of Spanish wine culture has been bound up with what happens in the winery and the reverence for ageing in small oak barrels. The traditional classification system rewards extended elaboration with words like Reserva or better still, Gran Reserva. What has often been the result? Can you tell the difference between a regular wine aged for 2 years in a barrel in Laguardia and a wine aged for 2 years in a barrel in Alfaro or even Toledo? As winemakers move out of the bodega and into the vineyard, throwing away the crutches of oak barrels that have not just supported wines but at the same time moulded them all into a certain sameness, they reveal the underlying character of a region and its grapes. Alongside this courage to lay bare unadorned flavours comes a greater distinction between regions, winemakers and grape varieties.

I am excited that we see producers like Contreras Ruiz in Rociana del Condado in Huelva extracting as much from Zalema as the chef Fergus Henderson might from a pig, or to see the afore-mentioned Forlong playing up Palomino in Cádiz. What a discovery is Mandó in the hands (or more correctly the tinajas or amphoras) of Pablo Calatayud at Celler del Roure in Valencia. And what about those tantalising Galician grapes like Souson and especially Merenzao that give you bracing acidity with such purity and intensity of flavour! What a difference the current state of Spanish wine making is in compared to 30/35 years ago; there are no doubt many more exciting varieties to be unearthed and fashioned into drinkable wines. Some are already on their way, to name a few  –  Arcos, Tardana, Rufete, Juan García – and all with individuality, personality and vibrancy. 

A vibrant world of Spanish wine!

This blog was written by: Paul Shinnie, buyer at Alliance Wine and who became a GOCV member in March 2019.