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Spain Beyond Rioja

Spain Beyond Rioja

(four other regions to be reckoned with)

I have just written down all the Spanish DOs that I could think of in three minutes. I got to forty-three which you might think is pretty good, although I did generously allow myself five points for writing ‘the ones that start with Pago’ and besides I am supposed to know about this stuff. In reality there are nearly a hundred, possibly by the time of publishing more, as they seem to invent them by the hour.    

Looking at a list there are a handful that I knew but didn’t get, a bit like watching University Challenge, but there are plenty that are absolutely foreign. I think we will ignore the likes of Ycoden-Daute-Isora, as relevant a DO as I am sure it is, it is not part of this discussion. What I want to talk about a handful DOs beyond the colossus Rioja which have lifted themselves to the very pinnacle of fine wine production, not just within the context of Spain, but within the world.

After phylloxera devastated the vineyards of France towards the end of the nineteenth century, the British began to look elsewhere to quench their thirst for claret-styled red wine. The shipping links from Rioja fitted, the style of red wine just about fitted and so the relationship began, a relationship that remains today. The only mystery perhaps is why, while the vineyards of Europe were busy regenerating, Rioja did not find the time to modernise.This only really happened later as a reaction against the success of new regions in Spain and the rest of Europe. Successful sports teams always have young blood coming through to continue their stay at the top but Rioja rested on its laurels, stagnated and this gave the rest the country a chance to catch up, even overtake.

While we were still being fed bottles of supermarket Rioja clad in that infuriating gold wire and smelling of oak, tasting of oak and more oak, things were brewing in a little, hilly region in the North East of Spain. Spearheaded by Rene Barbier of Clos Mogador a few brave souls began to put the wines of Priorat on the map. Aided by some fabulous raw materials; old Garnacha and Carinena vines growing at altitude, a particular type of schist known locally as llicorella and the warm mistral breeze from the East. During the following decades Priorat rose to stardom from producing local rancio wines into producer of some of the world's most outstanding, sought after and pricey wines. One might be tempted to describe the style as having the purity and complexity of Burgundy with the structure of Bordeaux, but that would only be scratching the surface and while Priorat continues to produce world class wines it did not take long for one of its forefathers to begin hunting for other terroirs of potential throughout Spain.

            In the late nineteen nineties Alvaro Palacios, in collaboration with his nephew Ricardo Perez began a winemaking venture high amongst the misty hills and steep vineyards of Bierzo. The grape that had harnessed their affections was local variety Mencia. This red grape with identical DNA to Portugal’s Jaen has also been compared to Cabernet Franc for its herbal freshness and to Pinot Noir due to its ability translate terroir into the glass. But there is white wine in Bierzo too. The native Godello grape is capable of providing both young, juicy whites and rich, oaked, age worthy wines of incomparable complexity and balance.

Head West from Bierzo but stop just before you plunge into the stormy waters of the Atlantic and you will find the almost exclusively white wine region of Rias Baixas.  It was the early  part of this century when the wines of this lush, green region burst onto the scene in the form of the grape Albarino. I suspect at the time it was one of the only wine styles which could compete with the heady, aromatic knockout punch of the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc that seemed to be consuming us. Albarino is a classic example of a grape that works in harmony with its terroir and the local cuisine. In fine examples the effortless aromatic power, weight and acidity means it is the perfect match for the fresh fish, shellfish and especially octopus that fill the coastal waters Galicia.   

Next, wander South-East and into the heart of Castilla y Leon for here lurks one of Spain’s most outstanding wine regions. Driving through Ribera del Duero out of the growing season reminds me of Connor McCarthy's post apocalyptic masterpiece The Road. Barren and deathly still with only the ruins of an old chapel or farm building punctuating the landscape. One almost expects to see the silhouette of the four horsemen upon a stony ridge. Come back in mid summer however and this world is alive with lush green vines sporting some of the most juicy, wonderful delicious fruit in the world. It is of course Tempranillo or Tinto Fino in these parts and the scorching summer heat with the drop in night time temperatures to retain freshness makes for world class wine estates. Vega sicilia, Pingus, Pesquera; this is a region of real pedigree and serious class.


Beyond Rioja Recommendations:

Bodegas y Viñedos del Jaro, Sembro 2015 Ribera del Duero, Spain

The secret of good quality Tinto Fino is to produce a wine that daintily walks the line between juicy fruit and savoury notes with a good lick of oak, but never overpowering. Ripe forest fruits with hints of cigar box and wood shavings. Fine tannins.

Bodegas Godelia, Godelia Blanco 2015 Bierzo, Spain

Blend of Godello and local variety Dona Blanco. 5 months in oak with lees stirring Floral and herbaceous, subtly nutty. Juicy with that quenching saline characteristic that makes me yearn to be slurping oysters on a Cornish beach.


Domini de Cartoixa, Formiga de Vellut 2015 Priorat

Lifted aromatics of strawberries and blackberry jam. Soil and moss covered rocks. Intensity in aroma, colour and flavour, but never big or showy, with an edgy Rhone-like character.


Pazo de Senorans, Albarino 2015 Rias Baixas, Spain

Benchmark Albarino. Floral with orchard fruit and great lashings of fennel. Weighty with depth of fruit and the bite of a great white shark.    

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