“Trying to describe places by sculpting liquid is a fascinating job.” - Stéphane Derenoncourt
Perhaps it takes Stéphane Derenoncourt, one of the many French winemakers in Spain, to put the Spanish situation in perspective. Historically, Spain was a country of prohibitions and Civil War and their wines were often rustic, coarse and alcoholic. But Spain has changed, and so have the wines. Whatever the catalyst, the Spanish wine revolution grows stronger each day.
Spain offers winemakers an opportunity to experiment. In fact, it’s this flexibility that brought the French here in the first place. It doesn’t hurt that Spanish wine sales are on the rise while French wine sales are plummeting. When you combine this evolution with quality-oriented importers, the result is impressive. It might be the greatest wine renaissance the world has ever seen.
In a country where vineyards date back to the third century and whose grapes were considered little more than a condiment along side their eclectic gastronomy, globalization brought abrupt changes. But the country adapted quickly. In fact, it only took three things for the Spanish wine renaissance: reinvention, redevelopment and reestablishment.
There is something unique about modern Spanish wines. Terreno (Spanish for terrior) was quickly accepted and grapes of origin are now thriving. Tempranillo, the king of Spanish grapes, is planted in nearly every region and old-vines garnacha (grenache) could be the grape of the future for Spain.
Spain has more land devoted to vines in the world than any other country. The third most mountainous country in Europe, 90 percent of its vineyards lie at seemingly high altitudes, and historically, climate has been problematic. However, current Spanish wine laws are flexible. The acceptance of new viticulture techniques, like increasing the height and distance of the vines planted, and irrigation, are making the country a winemaker’s destination.
For instance, let’s look at Bordeaux winemaker Stephane Derenoncourt. Whereas Stephane might be seen as a rebel in St. Emilion, he’s seen as innovator in Spain. Regardless, he’s successful. His 2004 Alonso del Yerro ($30) is a superb effort of 100 percent tempranillo from the Ribera del Duero. An amazing price for a wine you can enjoy today or in 2015.
Another example is winemaker, Jean Marc Lafage, of France’s Domaine Lefage. He is a veteran of the Mas Liaro cooperative in the Languedoc-Roussillon region and responsible, in collaboration with Eric Solomon, for the Las Rocas wines at one of Spain’s most progressive cooperatives, San Alejandro in Calatayud. His 2004 Las Rocas Vinas Viejas ($16), a wine made from 100-year old Garnacha vines, provides an astonishing blend of fruit and earth, combined with a level of complexity that rivals most Rhone wines.
Of course, if it weren’t for two talented importers, Americans wouldn’t see these wines. Jorge Ordonez and Eric Solomon deserve credit for the spread of Spanish wine in the United States. They scour the Spanish countryside, searching for both small and large production wineries in emerging and established wine regions and chose wines of exemplary quality.
Spanish wines beckon exploration and demand a spot on the shelves of American stores. They offer a sort of depth, character and intensity found only when winemakers challenge tradition, allowing the earth to speak and quality to prevail. A trait every wine region should share. And for U.S. wine drinkers, this is a sign of a great future.
This article is part of an ongoing series by Michael Whitehead titled El Vino Nuevo.