The world is finally finding out just how good Spanish wines are. By Mark Little
The wines of Spain are enjoying a boom. About time, too, as this country has been making wine for more than 2000 years. Although Spain has the largest extension of vineyards in the world (more than 14,000 square kilometers, or 5,400 square miles), until the 1980s its wines were better known for their quantity and low price than for their quality.
Today Spains wines young or aged reds, fresh, original whites, characterful rosés, elegant sparkling cavas, and the historical sweet wines and fortified wines of the south are earning an enthusiastic international following.
Spanish wines were famous in Roman times. Later, in the Middle Ages, French monks who founded monasteries along the pilgrim route of Saint James became active in wine making, introducing many of the grape varieties used today including the Tempranillo, the top Spanish variety, which is believed to be a close relative of the French Pinot Noir. For centuries the sweet wines of Málaga were enjoyed by drinkers all over Europe, as were the Sherries of Jerez.
But the story of modern Spanish wine making starts in the middle of the 19th century, when two Spaniards, the Marqués de Murrieta and the Marqués de Riscal, returned to their homeland after years of exile in France. Both had learned about wine making in France and each planted vineyards in the Rioja region of northern Spain to make Bordeaux-style wines. Until then Spanish table wines were not aged, but distributed locally and drunk young. The two marquises aged their wines in oak casks, which allowed the wines to survive the long sea voyage to the American colonies.
Thus was Rioja wine born. With one outstanding exception Vega Sicilia, founded in 1846 in Valladolid and for many years the source of Spains most expensive wine Rioja dominated the Spanish wine scene.
That was to change in the 1970s and 1980s. Individual wineries around the country, such as Miguel Torres in Catalonia, started to make wines of a quality that could stand up to the best Rioja. Increasing prosperity in Spain gave rise to an affluent domestic market for wine, and with Spains membership of the European community the door was open for export. The technological revolution in wine making, in particular the introduction of temperature-controlled fermenting methods, enabled the renovation of old wineries and the establishment of new ones.
In 1932 there were only four regions (Rioja, Jerez, Málaga and Montilla) designated as Denominación de origen areas, the Spanish equivalent of Frances Appellation dorigine controllée. Today there are more than fifty. The first of the newly emerging wine regions to draw the attention of connoisseurs were Rueda, which started to produce excellent white wines, and Ribera del Duero, whose wines earned praise from the likes of Robert Parker, the American wine guru. Catalonia, with its cavas (sparkling wines made with the traditional Champagne method but using Spanish grape varieties) rose to become the worlds chief producer and exporter of bubbly.
The star product of the Spanish wine scene is red wine aged in oak casks (called crianza, reserva or gran reserva depending on the length of its stay in the wood). Rioja continues to be the major wine area, with an annual production of nearly 400 million bottles. For decades Rioja was known for its smooth, mellow Tempranillo reds aged in old wood. Today, however, more and more Rioja wineries are making reds more in keeping with modern tastes: aged in casks of new wood, which imparts a distinctive character, they are potent, assertive, and well suited for laying down.
The gods have smiled on Spains vineyards precisely at the time when they are earning a strong following internationally. The harvests of 1994 and 1995 were historical in terms of quality in Rioja and the Ribera del Duero. In fact, 1994 is considered the best vintage of the century.
Where Spanish wines have a definite advantage is in their value for money. Although prices are rising steadily and there are plenty of expensive Spanish wines including one, Dominio de Pingus, which costs around $500 a bottle most still cost much less than French wines of comparable quality.
Copyright © Mark Little. This article was first published in Spanish in the Latin American edition of Expressions magazine.
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