The Reign in Spain

Less tradition, less conformity, more conviction.

The Spanish wine armada sailed into the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival last month before heading for wine stores across the country.

The New Spain – the one seemingly promised for decades – is finally ready for prime time in Canadian wine stores and restaurants. Spain has long impressed me with its culinary diversity, but its original wine kingdom seemed more interested in traditional winemaking and long years of oak-aging than making wine anywhere near as exciting as the local food.

Anyone who has spent time travelling the back roads of the Iberian Peninsula can’t help but be amazed by Spain’s ability to reinvent itself every few kilometres. It seems no matter what direction you head, the food and wine changes from town to town. It really is local wine and food at its best.

It’s hard to point to any one factor behind the New Spain. Maybe it’s the small producers – there are no giant Spanish brands in the mould of Australia’s Yellow Tail or Jacob’s Creek. Maybe the charm is in the lack of conformity and the plethora of almost-unknown grapes. Then again, there is a diversity of regions and the seldom-acknowledged fact that, while Spain has the most vineyards in the world, it does not produce the most wine. Naturally, a low-yielding vine that doesn’t overproduce has to be an asset.

Perhaps it is the fabulous, modern label designs and their bright colours. Or maybe it’s just because Spanish wine tastes so good with food. It could have something to do with tapas and the fact we have all embraced the small-plate concept. I’ll let you put the dots together. For my part I can only point you toward some of the wines and the people who are pushing the envelope.

An Armada of New Spanish Wines

Miguel Torres Jr. and his sister, Mirieia, have successfully pushed their father, Miguel, to spread their legendary company’s vineyards out from its Vilafranca del Peneds origins to some of Spain’s other well-known regions. The result is several terrific new labels, including Celeste (Ribera del Duero) and Salmos (Priorat). The duo pairs effortlessly into the original Torres lineup featuring, among others, Mas La Plana ($51), Torres Celeste ($29) and Torres Via Esmeralda ($17).

Torres Via Esmeralda, first created in 1961, is currently in a great space. The Upper Peneds white blend is a delicious mix of 85/15 moscatel/gewrztraminer. Now under screwcap, it displays an even brighter level of minerality. Expect a bright, zesty wine with lychee, green apple, lemon and lime notes. It is suited perfectly to calamari, mussels or curried chicken.

Meanwhile, winemaker Anna Espelt is busy building the Espelt name with the best selection of wines she can make from her 200-hectare, 100-year-old property that lies close to the now-defunct El Bulli restaurant in Spain’s northeast corner, within the Empord appelation, which sits within the Costa Brava region. You can’t miss the colourful labels of Espelt, designed by well-known artist Javier Mariscal, and the wine to look for is the Espelt Saul ($15), named after the region’s decomposed granite. It’s a blend of garnacha and cariena that over-delivers for the price. Grilled anything is the match.

My current favourite is a wine with the unlikely name of Descendientes De Jos Palacios Ptalos Del Bierzo ($30), but Ptalos will suffice. lvaro Palacios, founder of the winery of the same name, embodies the New Spain and, while he is better known for his work in the Priorat turning out L’Ermita and Finca Dofi, his Ptalos shines a much-needed light on Bierzo in northwest Spain. This entry-level red is made with mencia from 40- to 90-year-old vines. A crazy value you will love for its fragrant, mineral-soaked, black fruit flavours. Ridiculous style for the money.

By any measure, winemaker Telmo Rodriguez is a breath of fresh European air. Known for shunning traditional Spanish wine routes, Rodriguez has taken to the Spanish countryside to produce single-vineyard wines from lesser-known sites that technically appear to possess all the attributes required to make fine wine. By making wines outside the rules, he is able to take advantage of all the information available to the modern-day winemaker.

The Telmo Rodriguez Basa ($17) is a white wine from Rueda where verdejo, once thought to be an unremarkable regional grape, is making waves. Basa, which loosely translates as “foundation,” expresses Rodriguez’s attempt to uncover the potential of Rueda and the lowly verdejo. Packed with grapefruit, mineral, gooseberry, passion fruit, melon rind and green apple flavours, it is now under screwcap for complete reliability. Try it with sushi and you will soon be reaching for it regularly.

Toro, the region, not to be confused with Torres the producer, has really come into its own of late with a big helping hand from a legendary Spanish producer Vega Sicilia. The Pintia Toro ($50) is made from 100 per cent tempranillo and is now in its fifth release. Expect a big, brawny and muscular red with a palate full of black fruit, chocolate and vanilla. Although it’s still smothered under young and somewhat obvious oak flavours, you could drink it now with a steak or roast lamb or, better yet, lay this down for another five years and let it grow in the bottle.

All this and I didn’t even mention cava, the classic Spanish sparkler. In this case, may I suggest Pares Balt Cava Brut ($18). Two talented young women, Marta Casas and Mara Elena Jimenez, make this organic sparkler blending parellada, macabeo and xarel-lo into a very hip, modern and affordable fizz.

Finally there are some traditions that should never change and the great wine of Jerez, better known to your grandmother as Sherry, is one of them. If I could pick one wine to kick-start your Spanish adventure it would be the Lustau East India Solera Sherry ($19.50/375 ml). Rich and sweet, its walnut, toffee, chocolate, citrus-peel nose grabs your attention instantly, and its big rancio, walnut, orange peel, peppery, chocolate flavours will spellbound anyone with whom you share it.

If you’ve been thinking Spain, but not drinking Spain, isn’t it time you made the jump and joined the rest of the world before the ships sail?

Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who is the editor-in-chief of Calgary-based Wine Access magazine.

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