The Spanish winemakers with a missionary zeal

7 March 2020

9:00 AM

7 March 2020

9:00 AM

It is time to begin with an apology, and hope. In the course of these columns, I have already admitted to a deplorable ignorance of Spanish wine, including sherry. The finest sherries are subtle, complex, powerful — and excellent value. The same is increasingly true of other Spanish wines and there again, I am lament-ably ill-informed.

There have always been serious Riojas. But a couple of decades ago, the late Bron Waugh lamented the fact that most Riojas left a hint of eggshell on the palate. In those days, he had a point. The principal Spanish grape is Tempranillo, which also produces excellent reds from the Ribera del Duero. There, the climate is harsher than in the rest of the Rioja vineyards. This makes additional demands on the wine-growers, which they often triumphantly surmount. The high point of Ribera del Duero is Vega Sicilia, generally regarded as the supreme product of Spain’s vineyards, and priced accordingly. Then again, I have not tried it often enough to judge, but I remember listening in about 30 years ago to a conclave of experts who seemed to know everything there was to know about Spanish wine. They appeared to agree that Vega Sicilia was unreliable. Good vintages would be followed by indifferent ones, with prices significantly exceeding quality.

That was never the case with either the whites or the reds from Vina Tondonia, the finest Rioja I have encountered. The white Gran Riservas attain an effortless old age. This is one of the world’s great wines.

But in recent years, beyond the well-known names, Spanish winemaking has hugely improved. Dear Bron’s doubts are no longer applicable, as I discovered at a tasting sponsored by the Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish equivalent of the British Council. Its director, Ignacio Peyro, is a superb ambassador for Spanish culture. The arts, literature, history, cuisine, wine: nothing escapes him. While his enthusiasm is unlimited, he is aware that when dealing with Spanish history, conflict is never far below the surface. This inevitably spills over into cultural matters. Is bullfighting a majestic spectacle, a secular consecration, which refreshes modern Spain with an infusion from a heroic past? That is my view, but many Spaniards (possibly, alas, an increasing number) regard it as a reversion to an all-too-recent dark age.

These arguments will continue, but wine is simpler. Ignacio had assembled an outstanding group of mainly young Spanish winemakers, who had a missionary zeal. They and their backers have all invested in their vineyards, drawing on viniculture from all over the world. In particular, many of them had served apprenticeships in Burgundy. The limestone soils are similar to the geology of many Spanish terroirs, and Charles V was the grandson of Mary of Burgundy. Even though the Burgundian, Hapsburg and Spanish dynastic alliance was never able to reconquer Ducal Burgundy, there is a link, historic and nostalgic.

But the history of Spanish winemaking easily predates the Hapsburgs. Wine was being made in Spain before the Romans arrived. In one house, Celler del Roure from Valencia, the wines spend their first year in amphorae, which look similar to the ones found in Mediterranean shipwrecks from vessels which had been used to transport their vinous cargo across the wine-dark sea since Mycenaean times.

A lot of the wines I tasted were works in progress. But there is a lot of work which is yielding progress. There is so much to explore. Both Berry Bros and Justerini and Brooks have expertise, as does the Hispania restaurant and other less well-known wine merchants. The internet has its uses, but there is a lot to be said for just wandering around Rioja and the Ribera del Duero, savouring landscape and saluting the harmony between old and new.

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