- Q & A
Spain has more land under vine than any other country in the world, nearly 3.5 million acres. However, its production is much less than France or Italy due to the extremely harsh climate and viticultural methods that are sometimes outdated. However, there has been swift and impressive modernization, particularly since 1985.
Spain's superb reds from Rioja (made from Tempranillo and classic wines from Catalonia (mostly Cabernet, Tempranillo and other local varieties) can rival any country's in all fields except recognition. It is best known for the unique Sherries produced in the southwest part of the country. Easily, this is Spain's, if not the world's, most versatile wine.
Rioja is in the center of northern Spain, but Rioja DOC stretches across three regions: La Rioja, Navarra and País Vasco. This famous wine-growing area has cause to celebrate, as it was the first one to win Denominade Origen Calificada (DOC) status. This recognizes Rioja's strict application of wine controls and lowering of maximum permitted yields.
Rioja's history is quite unique in the world of wine. In the late 1800s, as the French were battling a cure for phyloxera, many vignerons journeyed to Rioja to plant grapes in the hopes of escaping phyloxera. They picked Rioja because it was a day's ride by carriage from Bordeaux. The Spaniards welcomed the French winemakers and their wines. For years, Cabernet and Merlot were grown in the Rioja to the delight of both the French and the Spanish. Unfortunately, the French also brought phyloxera with them, which began to plunder the Spanish vineyards. By then, however, all concerned had resigned themselves to the only cure, replanting their vineyards with American, phyloxera resistant rootstocks and Spain recovered sooner than the rest.
The French went back to Bordeaux and the Spanish went back to their native Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes. What they kept, however, were French techniques for winemaking, vineyard management and lower yields accounting for the beginnings of a quality push that continues today.
Rioja is divided into three distinct districts; Rioja Baja, the lowest point, Rioja Alavaisa, the middle and Rioja Alta, the highest. Baja is hotter and produces riper grapes and the Alta is cooler, producing better acids. The Alavaisa offers a mix. Most Rioja is a blend of all three, but a few concentrate on Alavaisa and Alta in the better vintages when those areas ripen fully.
Rías Baixas, located in the northwest corner of the country, is making Spain's best whites mostly from the luscious and aromatic Albariño grape. The best examples can be compared to the wines of Condrieu in style and depth.
The newest and most heralded area for superb wines (also matched with very lofty prices) is the Ribera del Duero located just southwest of Rioja. For more than a 100 years Vega Sicilia stood alone in producing great long-lived wines. Since 1975 the number of wineries rising to the challenge has steadily increased. There are now a number of small producers making wines of astonishing quality and Ribera del Duero is now often considered Spain's best red wine DO.
This beautiful hilly, isolated district of Priorat is characterized by vineyards planted on slopes in deep slate soil. Water holding and drainage are excellent and its dry, Mediterranean climate provides ideal conditions for high-quality grapes. The Garnacha and Cariñena grapes grown here give the lowest yields in Spain and thus account for the rich, concentrated flavors unlike other areas producing the same varietals.
Sherry is by far Spain's most famous wine, if not its most famous beverage period. Unfortunately, the name has been used in other countries to make cheap imitations of the real thing. This has resulted in Sherry being perceived has a cooking accouterment as opposed to the great elixir many of us have enjoyed for years.
Real sherry comes from one of three villages, Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa María. Most Sherries are blended through a solera system, whereby older barrels of sherry are refreshed with wine from younger ones, thus maintaining a balance of maturity and freshness.
Finos, Manzanillas and Amontillados derive their extraordinary, tangy, pungent, salty flavors from the flor yeast which grows naturally here in barrels that are filled to about three quarters of their capacity. Any other wine would oxidize and turn, but here the flor (which means "flower" because the white haze which grows on the wine looks like flowers) actually protects the wine from the air while adding its own special flavors.
Young, newly-fermented wines destined for these styles of sherry are deliberately fortified very sparingly to just 15.5 per cent alcohol before being put in barrels for their minimum of three years' maturation. The flor grows on the surface of the wines, protecting them from the air. Manzanillas are Fino-style wines that have matured in the cooler seaside conditions of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where the flor grows thickest and the fine tang is most accentuated. True Amontillados are simply Fino Sherries that have continued to age after the flor has died, about six to eight years, and so finish their aging period in contact with air and are relatively dry. Medium-sweet Amontillados have been blended with the super sweet, concentrated Pedro Ximenez grape, also known as PX, to add sweetness.
Oloroso is fortified after fermentation to deter the growth of flor. Olorosos therefore mature in barrel in contact with the air, which gradually darkens them while they develop rich, intense, nutty and caramel flavors.
Palo Cortado is an unusual, dry style Sherry between amontillado and Oloroso. It is the result of a barrel that for some, unknown reason, will not support the growth of the Flor yeast, so it is left to oxidize without it. Sweet Oloroso creams and pale creams are mostly made for the export market although they are slowly finding their way into Spain's tapas bars.
Manzanilla is one of two original classifications of wine made through the sherry process. This pale and extremely dry wine is aged under the protection of the flor yeast. This yeast needs replenishing with nutrients in barrel but will last for six to eight years. Manzanilla is unique in terms of the fact that it is the same wine as Fino except that instead of maturing in barrels in Jerez de la Frontera, it is trucked to the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda where the proximity to the ocean accounts for the wine's salty tang.
In reality, Fino and Manzanilla are difficult to tell apart; the stamp of the producer is often more apparent. Like regular Fino, Manzanilla tends to be used increasingly as a table wine in Spain. Its alcohol content is similar to Fino or even slightly lower.