Whenever southern France's militant vignerons go on the rampage, as they do with regularity and surely increasing futility, they cite one principal enemy: Spain. While most European wine producers are in the doldrums, finding it more and more difficult to sell their wines both at home and abroad, Spanish wine is enjoying unprecedented popularity.
Spain is the principal, arguably only, European beneficiary of the success of New World wines, whose deep colours, robust alcohol levels and ripe flavours have left the average French and Italian wine looking rather puny, tart and unfriendly in comparison. Only last week I asked a group of about 70 bons viveurs, of several different nationalities, to vote for their favourite wine chosen from a fine red burgundy, a Brunello di Montalcino 1999, a top Chilean 1999 Cabernet and a Barossa old-vine Shiraz. One single vote was cast for Europe. Because most French and Italian wines are more obviously acid and astringent than wines made from grapes grown in hotter climates, they can be difficult to appreciate when tasted without food, even if over time they can be more digestible and easier to drink during the course of a meal.
Most Spanish wines on the other hand are grown in sunny Mediterranean climates very similar to those responsible for the mainstream wines of Australia, California and South America. In the 1970s Spanish wines may have seemed coarse, rustic and rudely alcoholic next to the wines then regarded as fine, but today even Spanish wine regions as hot as Alicante, Jumilla and Toro make some wines of serious interest to non-Spanish palates.
This is not just because of changing consumer preferences. The catalyst for the Spanish wine revolution was improved technology. Sophisticated irrigation systems may now help young vines survive until their roots are deep enough to find underground water. Refrigeration, the key to modern winemaking in hot regions, has helped winemakers retain freshness and fruit in grape juice that in the old days would have been flat and irrevocably oxidised. Wine producers in today's Spain are well trained, well travelled and sophisticated, unlike previous generations who had been isolated and hidebound by a peculiarly Spanish view of what constituted quality in wine - typically long ageing in old American oak barrels. Modern Spanish winemakers are as likely as winemakers anywhere to import their barrels from France, or even in at least one notable case from South Australia, as from the forests of Minnesota or Wisconsin which traditionally supplied the Spanish wine industry with their barricas.
While the Spanish wine industry was gearing itself up, notably in the 1980s, it fell victim to the trend then prevalent throughout the wine world to over-value everything French and under-value indigenous assets. Thus thousands of hectares of vine varieties that were particularly suitable for Spanish soils and climate, notably Garnacha and Monastrell, were pulled up and vines perceived as French and therefore top quality such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay went into Spanish soils.
I have yet to meet a truly superb Spanish Chardonnay, however delicious Parxet's sparkling Tiziana version is and however hard Torres tries with their still Milmanda bottling in Penedès – where admittedly many fresh, bright, local variations on red bordeaux continue to be made. But the wonderfully healthy thing about today's Spanish wine scene is that it is generally so – Spanish. Virtually all the finest wines are made from grape varieties with centuries' experience in the regions where they are grown. Those who make them are no longer trying to make Spanish copies of internationally recognised French classics, but are turning out an excitingly varied range of distinctively Spanish wines.
Alvaro Palacios, the young trailblazer behind the stratospherically-priced red L'Ermita which put Priorat, and arguably Spanish wine in general, on the international map, could not admire the great wines of France more. An early period in Bordeaux was his initial inspiration. But he believes that the winemakers of his generation are revelling in delving into their own history. "We have been putting our trust in our lineage with an almost spiritual perception, and having the vision to see that we'd be successful discovering our real roots. That's why we have enjoyed recuperating so many of our wine regions."
Of course, it is invidious to try to encompass the country with the world's biggest area of land devoted to the vine in a single article, but it behoves any interested wine lover to realise that such names as Alella, Bierzo, Calatayud, Campo de Borja, Carineña, Cigales, Conca de Barberà, Costers del Segre, Empordà-Costa Brava, Manchuela, Montsant, Ribeira Sacra, Ribeiro, Rueda, Somontano, Terra Alta, Utiel-Requena, Valdeorras, Valdepeñas and Yecla are all producing some stunning wines nowadays.
The flavours of these wines, even the cheaper ones, tend to be particularly intense – partly, Palacios argues, because in Spain particularly vines are grown on soils too poor for any other crop, with so little natural rainfall that Spanish grapes tend have particularly thick skins and the resultant wines tend to be high in all the phenolics and flavour components - the same sort of phenomenon that makes tomatoes grown in near-drought conditions on a Mediterranean island taste completely different from those factory-farmed in Holland.
Of course not all of Spain's interesting wines come from her warmer, drier regions. The damp, green north west of the country produces a host of varied and rewarding reds and, particularly, whites from local vine varieties. The most traditional region of all Rioja, which now produces wines in a host of styles from traditional long-oaked, soothing, pale classics to concentrated essences more likely to electrocute than soothe, is so cool in autumn that it often has one of Europe's latest grape harvests. And the next pretender to the throne Ribera del Duero is, like many Spanish wine regions, so high that nights are cool enough to produce wines with great natural acidity and notable bright colours.
Below are some new wave Spanish wines I have particularly enjoyed recently.
SOME GREAT MODERN SPANISH WINES
Bodegas Bernabe Navarro, Beryna 2003 Alicante
A steal. Monastrell with Tempranillo and some Bordeaux grapes planted high and wild.
Zachys $11.99 and elsewhere in the US (see earlier wine of the week)
Alonso del Yerro 2003 Ribera del Duero
Stéphane Derenoncourt of Bordeaux's fragrantly burgundian take on Ribera.
Widely available in the US from $20 a bottle. Bordeaux Index £130 a case
Guelbenzu, Lautus 1999 Ribera del Queiles
Super-healthy blend of old-vine Tempranillo with Cabernet, Merlot and Garnacha from nether Navarre. Perhaps the most traditional of this selection. First made 1996.
About £25 Moreno Wines London W9, Harvey Nichols, The Oxford Wine Co, Portland Wine Co.
Casa Castillo, Pie Franco 2000 Jumilla
Rich, dramatic Monastrell from a producer which, along with Casa de la Ermita, is one of the most go-getting in the region.
The Ultimate Wine Co of Marlow about £120 for six bottles
Finca Sandoval 2004 Manchuela
Spanish wine writer Victor de la Serna's wonderfully winning but tightly-wound liquorice balm.
Haynes Hanson & Clark of London soon at around £21
Alto Moncayo 2002 Campo de Borja
Australian Chris Ringland's transformation of local Garnacha into international superstar.
Widely available in the US from $33
Pintía 2002 Toro
Vega Sicilia's move into this fashionably rediscovered region has paid off.
Berry Bros £23.45 and widely available in the US
Vall Llach 2001 Priorat
Treacly drama, complete and very long.
Wine Library and Handford of London, Noel Young of Trumpington £26-30