The Unlimited Potential of Spain, and a $12 Wine to Prove It

Twisted / Retorcido
(Photo credit: . SantiMB .)

Wine has been produced in Spain  since far into pre-history, with evidence that vines have been cultivated on there since the Tertiary period. That’s a minimum of 2.6 million years ago.  But despite its exceptionally long history with the vine, Spain has also had an equally long history of being more interested in making  lots of wine, but has had less regard to its quality. This has changed with pressure to compete in the international marketplace.  Spanish winemakers, like their peers worldwide, are utilizing new understanding of the processes and techniques, and this had a profound change in the quality of their wines. But similar information and techniques available worldwide, over the past decade, the quality of Spanish wine has improved faster, on a larger scale, and with more impressive results, than anywhere else. In these quickly developing Spanish regions, much of what is being produced is often sometimes made in an unpolished style, and goes for concentration rather than finesse, but it can be said without hesitation, that they are undeniably delicious.

“the quality of Spanish wine has improved faster, on a larger scale, and with more impressive results, than anywhere else”

Ironically, the exception of all this virtual, instantaneous change, is Spain’s greatest wine region, Rioja. In the past, Spanish winemakers never saw the need to apply the precision that the French did in their top growing regions, and remained quite backwards in winemaking technique and style. However, in the 1880’s Rioja got a big boost in quality when expatriate winemakers arrived there from Bordeaux, following the destruction of French vineyards by phylloxera.  But once the French returned to France, the wines from Rioja gained, you might say, their own unique dialect. These oxidative reds from Rioja certainly had their charms, but a new generation of Spaniards that had traveled Europe, and realized they needed to modernize the style of the wine produced in their families’ Bodegas.

Being Spain’s most historic winemaking region, Rioja has had to tread a more delicate path away from what they are expected to produce. Tradition can be a difficult taskmaster for winemakers looking to dramatically improve quality.  Young dynamic winemakers often became discouraged with the slow pace of change in Rioja, and tired of fighting with their fathers and their traditional ways. Ultimately many sought other regions,  like Priorat, to make the wines to make the wines they envisioned.  Today the overall quality in Rioja is very high, but it is that next step of precision, specifically changes in farming in the vineyard, that will be so difficult.

Much of the vineyard land in Rioja is divided into tiny plots, each owned by a family that proudly farms it, in addition to their real jobs. By long-standing agreement, they sell what they grow to a local Bodegas. Key to improvement in quality, will be for wineries to have control of the farming in each of these tiny plots. This kind of change, with so many players, and so much tradition, will be incredibly challenging to negotiate and to implement.

The tremendous vineyard resources all over Spain has already attracted many of the best and the brightest young winemakers to emigrate there.  It has also attracted an enormous investments from within Spain and elsewhere. With this new money has come the big-name, globe traveling, consulting-enologists, like the Michel Rolland and Australian Chris Ringland, that investment groups have brought in to “raise the game” quickly.  Ringland is very active in Spain, making his trademark super-extracted, high-octane wines in the Jumilla D.O.  For better or for worse, these successes will certainly inspire imitation.

In 20 or 30 years from now,  winemakers and vineyardists will truly have evolved their understanding of the regions of Spain.  They will have examined, dissected, and striven to understand the micro-climates, the vineyards, the smallest individual plots of vines. Down to the most minisule detail, they will seek for precision, just as the French did long ago (and still do) in Burgundy and Bordeaux. The potential for amazing quality is unlimited in Spain, and they are just scratching the surface.

The Barahonda winery makes the perfect case for my belief that potential future of Spain is virtually unlimited.  Barahonda produces a unbaked bottling of 100% Monestrell called Sin Madera, that blows away any expectation of what a $12 wine should taste like. It would take very little to make this precocious wine into something much more serious, and finessed. Barahonda is a modern winery with 120 ha. of organically farmed vineyards,  from the small D.O.  of Yecla (6500 ha. total acreage) in South-Eastern Spain.

2011 Barahonda Sin-Madera, Monastrell (Mourvedre),  Yecla
Fermented and aged in stainless tanks, this has very primary aromas of a black grapiness, along with cherry liqueur, filled out by black licorice, basil, and dark chocolate. Deeper in, there is plum on the nose, followed by a creamy vanilla.  In the mouth, the there is tremendous depth, without undue heaviness. The wine is not thick. The well-integrated acid pulls the flavors out effortlessly and quite long. There is an easy intensity about this wine, with its grapiness being overt, followed by cranberry, cherry liqueur, then powerful bass notes of molasses, deep plum, licorice that continually gaining depth and richness beyond the concentration the wine has.  It is a result of effortless acid and tannin balance, coupled with abundant fruit. There is no manipulation here what-so-ever, and that is what separates it from almost all other lower-priced wines out there. An incredible wine.

The wines of Spain can provide it all.  The top Spanish winemakers make a handful of the world’s greatest wines, and at the other end of the spectrum, Spain produces the wine world’s greatest values – now in a remarkable quantity.  The common denominator between these wines is a staggering number of very old, established vineyards from a wide array of superb growing regions.


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Diary of a Winebuyer

About Me: Thirty years ago, I graduated with a degree in political science from the College of Letters and Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Having grown up at the height of the Cold War, I still have vivid remembrances of being instructed to hide under our elementary school desk, covering our heads. The young, white, female teacher, training us without explanation, to face away from the windows. I suppose it is not all that surprising that I had a particular interest in the realpolitik of international relations. My fascination grew with the discovery that certain conditions almost uniformly exist where all revolutions ferment. Did this mean that the revolutions which had occurred in the first half century were revolutions which had been usurped by Marxists who were in the right place at the right time? Probably. A favorite professor was A. J. Gregor. This was a man who, while rakishly wearing a Gestapo-styled black leather motorcycle jacket, exuded expertise on fascism (which he looked the part) and Marxism. Improbably, he did it with a significant swagger. Then in my last semester, I had the blind luck to take a class on Asian Marxist revolution, and the professor, who just happened to be visiting that year while he worked on some unnamed project, was Chalmers Johnson. In retrospect, I should have known his name, as he was a luminary in the political science community but at that time, I did not. It was a remarkable opportunity to experience the ivory tower, but I seem to remember being anxious to get on with life. After college, I drifted through a few of jobs that were of interest to me. One of my former high school teachers said to me. "If I were in your shoes, I'd get a job as a flight attendant." So in order to be young while I could still afford to, I accepted a job serving chicken or beef at Pan American. With that airline losing money faster than it could sell its routes, I got a job doing cellar work at David Bruce Winery. This was the beginning of my wine career. All during this period, I wrote a still unpublished novel about homegrown terrorists the U.C. Berkeley campus, attempting to use some of what I learned in school, weaving in the Vietnamese political and military strategies of Dau Tranh as professor Johnson had lectured years before. Since the early 1990's, I have been involved in the wine industry, selling fine wine in both the retail and wholesale arenas. I have approached learning about wine, by always challenging myself to question how I know what I think I know? And in an effort to try to find answers I've turned, with varying degrees of success to wine books. Overall, I've not been happy with the quality of most wine writing, finding the authors either to lack any deep knowledge, or unable to move much past what I consider to be superficial information. I recognize that wine writers have to monetize their work, but I believe this has dramatically held back our knowledge and understanding of wine. I have set out to add to our industry's base of knowledge where I can. My first series, 'The Terroir of Burgundy' (which I should probably re-edit and complete some kind of conclusion, but I got involved in this project), can be viewed here. I currently work as a sales and marketing manager for a Burgundy and Bordeaux importer based in Atherton, California.

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