It’s time for the “Wines of the Month.” We’re headed to Spain!
Spain has more acreage planted to vineyards than any other country. However, they don’t produce more wine. Part of this is that they concentrate on lower yields to produce better wine. Part of it is that the soil in many areas is so bad that the vines must be widely spaced. The Romans certainly brought grapes with them to Spain, but winemaking existed in Spain long before the Roman Empire existed.
We’ll be visiting three distinct regions in Spain – Rueda, Rioja and Priorat.
Rueda – For centuries, Rueda was a popular and influential winemaking area in Spain, but in the 1800’s the Phylloxera louse devastated the region's vineyards. Phylloxera is a microscopic insect that eats the roots of grape vines and almost destroyed winemaking in Europe in the latter half of the 1800’s and early 19th century.
In the latter half of the 20th century, established Bodegas (Spanish term for winery) from other wine regions helped reestablish Rueda as an important wine-producing region. Fortunately, they focused on grape varietals native to the region rather than planting “popular” international grapes such as Chardonnay. The whites produced here are considered among Spain’s best white wines.
Rueda is located near Portugal in northwestern Spain, in the Castilla y León province. The Duero River flows through Rueda’s northwestern corner (this same river flows through the famed Ribera del Duero winemaking area and into Portugal where it is the Douro River – where Port is made).
Rueda has a “Continental” climate – it is cold in the winter; and, hot and dry in the summer (but not too hot, some cooling influence from the Atlantic helps). Vineyards may use modern drip-irrigation to help grow grapes. Without this technique, Rueda would produce significantly fewer grapes and we’d have less of this wonderful summer white!
About 84% of Rueda’s vineyards are planted with white grape varieties (in 2001, changes to the DO regulations permitted red wine to carry the DO status). Verdejo is the dominant white grape (90%) of production. The other grapes are Viura (Macabeo), Sauvignon Blanc and Palomino. Tempranillo is the dominant red grape, as it is in Rioja and Ribera del Duero.
Rioja – along with Sherry, one of the two the best-known winemaking areas in Spain. Wine was produced in Rioja long before the Romans arrived. The Phoenicians helped introduce winemaking to Rioja in the 11th century BC.
Rioja produces both red and white wines, as well as some rosés. The red wines are dominated by the Tempranillo grapes. They also grow Garnacha Tinta (peppery), Graciano (dark berry flavors) and Mazuelo (adds tannins). The white wines are made from Viura (tartness), Malvasia (nutty) and Garnacha Blanca (adds weight and complexity).
Red Riojas tend to be about 60% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha and the Graciano and Mazuelo make up the rest of the blend. White Riojas are mostly Viura (Macabeo) with small amounts of Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca. Rose Riojas tend to be mostly Garnacha.
Rioja is named after the river, Rio Oja, which forms the Oja Valley in the province of La Rioja in northern Spain. The wine region runs down both sides of the river for 75 miles. The river provides the needed water to help irrigate the 14,000 vineyards.
Three subregions produce Rioja – Alta, Alavesa and Baja.
- Rioja Alta – this is the highest area in terms of elevation and it is to the western edge of Rioja. Rioja Alta is known for it silky wines with lots of soft fruit.
- Rioja Alavesa – the vines in this area are planted far apart to provide enough nutrients to the grapes. The soil here is extremely poor, but poor soil tends to make better grapes. Wines from Rioja Alavesa tend to be fuller bodied and have higher acidity than those from Alta.
- Rioja Baja – this is the driest and warmest part of Rioja. Droughts in the summer months are a serious problem. Wines from Baja tend to be blended with grapes from other regions.
Riojas are labeled in specific ways. This labeling helps identify the type of aging the wine has gone through.
- Crianza – aged at least one year in oak barrels and one year in the bottle before it can be sold.
- Reserva – aged at least one year in oak barrels and two years in the bottle before it can be sold.
- Gran Reserva – aged 2 years in oak barrels and 3 years in the bottle before it can be sold
Priorat is tiny – it encompasses only 4,151 acres (Rioja is over 150,000 acres).
Priorat is named after the priory established in the hills above Tarragona by Carthusians who arrived from Provence in the 12th century. They may have brought the Garnacha (Grenache) vines with them.
Priorat had extensive vineyards before the phylloxera louse arrived at the beginning of the 20th century. This destroyed winemaking in Priorat. Then, Spain had to endure Franco’s dictatorship. No one was investing money in Priorat, so the area was desolate and impoverished.
By 1979, when René Barbier arrived, the Priorat area had only 600 hectares (1,500 acres) of vineyards left. Old vine Carineña (Carignan in French) and old vine Grenache are all that is left.
Barbier, who grew up in the wine business in Penedès, recognized the region’s potential. By the late 1980’s, he was joined by four fellow “evangelists,” who applied modern winemaking techniques and small French oak barrels to the best local grapes. This band of 5 all worked from the same sun-baked, barn-like winery in the tiny hamlet of Gratallops. All five wineries had similar names, starting with the word “Clos.”
Clos Mogador was Barbier’s label. Clos Martinet (now Mas Martinet) belonged to José Luis Pérez. Clos de l'Obac belonged to the local mayor whose wine company is now Costers del Siurana. Clos Erasmus is the creation of Daphne Glorian (her husband is wine importer Eric Solomon). The fifth Clos was Clos Dofi was renamed Finca Dofi in 1994. Its founder is Alvaro Palacios, who is the best known winemaker in Priorat. He makes Spain's most famous wine, L'Ermita. The Rare Wine Company imports Palacios’s wines and we stock a few of them (we buy them from SOPO).
What makes Priorat so distinctive is the soil and the steep hillsides. The most important natural part of Priorat is a particular schist, licorella. It’s dark brown, heavily striated and pitted. It’s a soft rock and has the benefits of being both cool and damp enough to help nourish the vines in the dry, hot summers of Priorat. The best vineyards face north and east to avoid the intense heat of the sun. These hillsides also catch the breezes from the Mediterranean at altitudes of about 1,500 feet. As an example, the vineyard for L’Ermita is on a 60 degree slope.
Castillo de Nava Rueda 2008 (Rueda, Spain) $12.99 – This is a near-perfect wine for summer, especially summer in Maine when we eat more lobster and steamers! This is bright, fresh, juicy and refreshing! It has flavors and aromas of lime, minerals, crisp Granny Smith apples and gooseberry. It’s crisp, clean and makes you want to take another sip! Mostly Verdejo. Stainless steel fermentation and aging. Food pairing – seafood, salads, lighter pasta dishes. Brand new to Maine!
Bodegas Las Orcas “Solar de Randez” Rioja Joven 2008 (Spain) $13.99 – This is a family-owned winery that’s at least 100 years old. All of the fruit is estate-grown.
Joven in the name merely means this wine is aged for a short period of time with little-to-no exposure to oak and it is bottled relatively young.
This is a “weighty” red for a Joven. It’s clean with good dark fruit and soft, firm tannins. It has a bright, refreshing “tartness” to it. By that, I mean a good tasting tartness. It’s more like biting into a dark plum or black cherry (or both at the same time) that is just a shade underripe. This has good acidity, that helps make the wine pop. Subtle vanilla and licorice notes to the flavors and aromas. Food pairing – grilled chicken, tuna, salmon and pork tenderloin. On a warm day, I might toss this in the fridge – it’s a refreshing red when it’s about 45-50 degrees! Brand new to Maine!
Bodegas Ermita Veracruz Verdejo 2008 (Rueda, Spain) $19.99 – Beautiful wine that has a zesty, almost spritziness to it! This is juicy, fresh and has great crispness from the acidity. Aromas and flavors of white flowers, pears, lemons, limes and tropical fruit. This has a hint of vanilla. 4,000 cases made. Food pairing – great with seafood, especially shellfish, lobster and crab. Excellent with salads and as a cocktail wine. Brand new to Maine!
Bodegas Las Orcas “Solar de Randez” Rioja Crianza 2004 (Spain) $19.99 – Delicious and rich. This has the berries, flowers and spiciness that I think about when thinking about Rioja. The flavors are full of baking spices, red berries, black cherries and vanilla. Crisp acidity. The tannins are balanced and firm, but they don’t dominate the wine. This finishes clean with nice berry fruit. 2004 is an excellent vintage in Rioja. 1,700 cases made. Brand new to Maine! Food pairing – lamb, steak, duck, grilled pork tenderloin. Decanter Magazine, 3 Stars
Both wines in this tier come from the same winery, Viñedos de Ithaca (Ithaca’s Vineyards). The founder, Jos Puig, is fascinated with Greek history and mythology. The winery has a “Trojan Horse” on the roof of its cellars and throughout the winery are Greek tiles and antiques. His daughter, Silvia, rolls her eyes at her Dad’s obsession. She’s also the winemaker. The vineyards and winery are located in Gratallops, which is a tiny hamlet in the heart of Priorat.
Viñedos de Ithaca “Odysseus” Priorat Garnatxa Bianca 2008 (Spain) Reg. $35.99, Sale $29.99 – The flagship wine for this tiny winery! This is a unique, delicious, big, mouth-watering white wine! Aromas and flavors of herbs, freshly mown grass, nuts, vanilla, pears, lemons, cream and toast. Great minerality to the flavors. This is full-bodied. Great acidity and “zip” to the wine. Long, lingering finish. 100% Garnacha Blanco. About 125 cases made each year. Aged in oak barrels. Food pairing – poultry, paella, seafood, lobster, grilled fish, grilled pork or chicken. Brand new to Maine!
Viñedos de Ithaca “Odysseus” Priorat 2002 (Spain) Reg. $55, Sale $29.99 – This is a medium-to-full bodied wine with rich, ripe fruit and a little baking spice/pepperiness in the aromas. Rich flavors and aromas of Vinifed and fermented in 400 litre open barrels. The grapes come from very old vines that have exceptionally low yields (low yield = better fruit). Blend of Cariñena, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon with Touriga National, Petit Verdot, Syrah and Caladoc combining to make 10% of the wine. Aged in oak barrels for no more than 10 months (they remove the wine from the oak barrels before they taste any “oakiness.”). 1,200 cases made. 2002 was an excellent vintage in Priorat. Food pairing – most anything from grilled chicken to steak to lamb to paella. Brand new to Maine!