The current buzz in the wine trade is all about the new Spain. Exciting new producers, a whole range of new areas and a spirit of discovery. At the recent annual trade tasting, Wines from Spain 2013, there were many new producers to try. In addition, the UK’s larger companies were showing their Spanish selections whether from the new areas or the old. But in the excitement of the new, we should not forget Spain’s classic wines.
Before this large tasting I did spend a few minutes thinking about a strategy. You simply cannot taste everything that is on offer. I weighed up whether to try to taste new areas or just to go with the flow. After the tasting I realise I had done the latter and that I had tasted the traditional wines of Spain – Cava, the most traditional Rioja and to finish the day I did a round of Sherry styles. Sherry takes us into a whole other sensory space and will have to wait its day.
In my experience much Cava is little more than cheap fizz. Champagne is expensive and can be demandingly acidic. Prosecco is often bland and overly sweet. Commodity Cava falls somewhere between these two stools – it is inexpensive and drinkable but struggles to be more than that. Its main claim to fame is that it is bottled-fermented but it rarely shows the delicious toasty, brioche notes which are more obvious in Champagne. At the same time it does not often have a strong fruit character. Some of the main brands at the tasting were distinctly underwhelming. But there are exceptions especially among the small houses. It was a delight to discover the complex, layered fruit and elegance to be found in wines that, under the name of Cava, I would have previously ignored. It goes to show that, once again, hand-crafted is almost always worth the premium and the search.
Contemporary wines around the world are made to a common recipe. Aromatic and full of fruit; acidity and tannins kept in check in order to make the wine instantly drinkable; and hopefully a refreshing finish. This has been a proper response to the tired, often oxidized, wines of the past. But there is another way which is in severe danger of being lost altogether. Most wine cultures have responded by turning traditional styles into contemporary ones. Contemporary Barolo is unrecognisably fruit-forward and begins to drink after a mere five years – that is five to ten years earlier than the wines of preceding generations. Similarly, modern Rioja has attractive strawberry and plum fruit but again would not be recognized by those who first made wines in this area in the late nineteenth century. But there are a handful of producers who still work in the old fashioned way. It demands good fruit to begin with, meticulous care at every stage, investment, the loving maintenance of old barrels and, above all our least available commodity, time. The most famous of these is Lopéz de Heredia, more commonly known by the vineyard names on its bottles: Viña Gavonia, Viña Tondonia and so on. Here the wines are aged for many years in old, neutral oak barrels and are bottled in a state of moderately oxidized perfection. There is excellent fruit in there but it has been modified in a way which is almost unrecognisable to the modern palate. To take just one example: Viña Tondonia Blanco reserva 1998, fifteen years old and the current white vintage on offer. In the glass you are met by a waft of perfume which owes as much to the oak as the fruit. Not the vanilla and smoke of new barriques but in the transformation of primary fruit flavours into secondary, developed aromas, a glorious combination of orange peel, lavender and coconut. On the palate the fruit is more obvious but again it is in a different register. And, of course, long and skilful ageing in oak and bottle means that these are layered wines of remarkable complexity.
However exciting the new Spain might be, the old country still has something proud and distinctive to offer.