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The Spain Report 2024

Following a month spent tasting his way through Spain's key fine-wine regions, Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW presents The Spain Report 2024 - including tasting notes and scores for over 500 of the latest wine releases

Words by Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW In partnership with Catawiki

rioja vineyard with spain wine report logo
The Collection

Those who have visited one of the many wineries of Spain know how likely it is to be regaled with stirring tales of the Phoenicians, the Romans and the medieval monks, or of soils that were born from impressive tectonic movements and then flooded by Jurassic oceans many millions of years ago. It all sounds as though today’s wines were the predestined result of a series of mythical factors. Despite all these things being absolutely true, I would recommend taking them with a pinch of salt. Mostly, it’s a nice bit of storytelling that makes these wines even more exciting. Instead, I would argue that there is more of a New World rationale about the current fine-wine scene in Spain.

Spain’s history is very long and complex, and the country holds an amazing variety of soils and potential terroirs. Its geographical and cultural diversity – quite natural in a country that is split many times by several mountain chains – results in a great range of climates, soils, cultures and, of course, wines. But 90% of fine Spanish wine was created in the last 30 years, with an additional 5% in the last 150 (basically, Rioja and Cava, plus offerings from a few outsider wineries). Older wine styles like Sherry, and regions like the Canaries, Alicante, Ribeiro or Málaga, have also been deeply transformed of late.

Nowadays, I would define Spain as the most original cocktail of New World attitudes acting on a landscape of very Old World vines. Spain is part of the New World because its wine sector is driven by internationally trained and highly qualified professionals (although some of them play the role of ‘humble’ vine grower to support the aforementioned act of storytelling). Among them, there is a lot of well-informed creativity and a push for exploration of remote lands and almost-extinct grape varieties, plus a new confidence in the potential of Spanish lands and grapes to produce wines with identity. There is also a sound basis for improving existing classic brands, even to experiment with new wine styles at some of the oldest estates.

Indeed, the first quarter of this century will be remembered as the period in which a number of regions became classic wine areas. Spain’s northwest, already cited 150 years ago as the place for great wines, has realised its potential during our present time. Within this quarter there are several examples of regions that have come of age: Bierzo, with its 3,000 years of history, but effective greatness only in this century; Rueda and its postmodern expression of fresh, aromatic white wines; Rías Baixas, the trendsetting region for Atlantic wine styles; and Valdeorras, home to serious white wines made to age with refinement. These regions now produce several dozen wines at a great level, some of them carrying international prestige.

And in each one of these regions, there is an indigenous grape variety that has been exploited by winemakers in a way that gives the resulting wines identity and class: Albariño for Rías Baixas, Verdejo for Rueda, Mencía for Bierzo and Godello for Valdeorras. This is a great psychological step forward from the Spain of the 1980s, my student years. In those days I was taught that Spanish wine would be better if it were more like French wine. Thankfully, not many people paid attention to such dogma, and Spain became all the more interesting for it.

In my opinion, Spanish producers are not as attached to perceived traditions as, for example, the French – and they do not have a very strict and slow procedure, centralised in the nation’s capital, to approve modifications to their winemaking protocols. Neither are they as hooked to a particular wine style as the Italians are. An appellation in Spain is, in plain terms, an indication of origin rather than a definition of a wine style, as is the case in France or Italy. Besides, the governing bodies of Spain’s appellations are keen to support any new developments that look likely to enhance the creation of quality wines.

Nowadays I would describe Spain as the most original cocktail of New World attitudes acting on a landscape of very Old World vines

Because of this, Spaniards can create new wine styles with relative ease, and many innovations have been successfully developed within the institutional framework – from the whole- bunch wines of Sierra de Gredos, to long-aged iterations of Cava; from non-fortified Sherry wines, to new styles of rosé, including gran reserva versions; from volcanic (reductive) styles, to wines made through the use of tinaja (amphora). This is especially true in some of Spain’s most famous winemaking regions, where experimentation is flourishing and standards are climbing higher than ever. And this is precisely what I encountered in Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat and Montsant, where I tasted the country’s most collectable wines with a view to compiling The Spain Report 2024 for Club Oenologique.


New ideas at their height

Of course, Rioja is Spain’s fine-wine flagship, in terms of quality, quantity and diversity. It is also ideal for exemplifying Spain’s transformation. Basically, the best producers in Rioja are applying new knowledge and global expertise to the way they express wines from mostly old vines, creating new styles to add to – but not replace – the existing ones.

Of the wines I tasted blind, I was particularly impressed by the whites; along with excellent reinterpretations of classic styles, such as 200 Monges or Allende Mártires, I gave top scores to wines that demonstrated very recent stylistic developments, such as Sancha’s Cerro La Isa or Pujanza Añadas Frías. These are two wines that, despite being quite diverse – the former, a field blend of various varieties; the latter, a Viura varietal wine made only in colder vintages – have both been made with balance in mind rather than so-called phenolic ripeness, representing a quest for elegance and subtleness, instead of obvious power. I would bet on both styles gaining added complexity after many years of bottle ageing, despite their markedly different approaches. I wanted to draw attention to these white wines because they are less obviously appealing to collectors; but with the red wines, I discovered even more examples of such a contrast between classic renditions and a more New World style.

Indeed, I would go as far as to say that there is a movement towards a new postmodern style among the reds of Rioja. Of course, the classics are still thriving, but there is plenty of interest to be found among a new generation of wines that tend to offer impressive aromatic expression, with little oak influence. They are very suave, but with tightly knitted textures, deceptively moderate concentration and very slow, complex finishes. All of them are built upon particular vineyards, which are harvested early. The wines are made with extreme care, so that they appear as ‘natural’ rather than ‘man-made’. The top single-vineyard wines by Palacios Remondo, Telmo Rodríguez, Marqués de Riscal, Lalomba, Viña Real and Amaren are all great examples.

pagos de carraovejas barrel room
Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW names Pago de Carraovejas as one of the champions of The Spain Report 2024, the 2021 its best vintage yet

Meanwhile, Ribera del Duero’s prestige is built upon a main grape variety, Tempranillo, and a winemaking approach based on oak ageing. It could have been a simple formula; however, the region, a narrow stretch of land along the Duero River, presents an infinity of terroirs, resulting in what I call the Spanish Burgundy: one grape variety, one axis, but hundreds of different expressions, many with a well-defined identity. Again, classic powerful and assertive Spanish styles coexist with very modern, subtle and delicate interpretations. Dominio de Calogía, Sei Solo or Bosque de Matasnos are probably in the latter group, now rubbing shoulders with the great representatives of the classic style: renowned Ribera wineries such as Vega-Sicilia, Carraovejas or Valtravieso. I think that most of the top-scoring wines within the Ribera del Duero Report are extremely likely to improve over long periods of time, whichever the wine style.

And then there’s Priorat, which gives probably the best example of New(er) World attitudes in millenary lands. Despite its wine-growing history and heritage, the region was largely ignored until a bunch of young and well-trained winemakers rediscovered it; now it is the epitome of terroir expression, with wines often made from centennial vines, in very particular soils. What many people call a Priorat classic style was developed barely 30 years ago and is still evolving. Nowadays, the best Priorat wines are distinguished by their complexity and balance, rather than by their power or concentration, as they were some years ago.

emptying a cement vat at Montsant’s Venus La Universal
Emptying a cement vat at Montsant’s Venus La Universal, a star of the Spain Report 2024

The evolution of founding brands such as Finca Dofí or Mas Martinet is quite indicative of this movement. In the case of Finca Dofí, winemaker Álvaro Palacios is reaching new heights: when compared to the original wines, the latest vintage is more refined and precise, joyous to drink, even more complex and, most of all, purer. And at Mas Martinet, chief winemaker Sara Pérez – one of the most intellectually gifted people in Spain – has changed the profile of the original wine without losing anything of its essence. The result is a postmodern take on the original Priorat wines, with some concentration sacrificed in favour of expression, a wine with a wide array of fruity notes – from classic cherry, to plums and blueberries. Although oak is obvious, it is deftly integrated.

However, I would say that the most relevant trait common to the best Priorat wines is respect of the place. Producers are trying their best to express origin by picking earlier, extracting less and taming the oak influence. Besides, environmental conscience and increasing self-confidence are common features in the region. I believe that the ever-increasing aromatic precision and finesse witnessed in the wines of Priorat are the results of this approach and the deeper understanding of viticulture that comes with it.

Montsant, finally, was created out of Priorat fame, with a more diverse range of terroirs. As such, it is also heir to Priorat in the creativity of its winemakers, and its capacity to express excellence in markedly different styles. For instance, Venus La Universal’s Venus de la Figuera is stylistically very far away from Teixar by Vinyes Domènech – the former, a delicate wine that slowly unravels; the latter, a rich, juicy and intense showcase of the Garnacha Peluda variety – but both wines are great examples of excellence from particular plots in the region.

A hint of what’s to follow?

Of course, it’s not just the work of plucky winemakers that is propelling these new styles ahead. Spain is between the Old and New World because of its market structure. Its business model is more aligned to Bordeaux, where wineries are in command, than to Burgundy, where vine growers dominate. As a consequence, brands are a key component of Spain’s wine sector. Until recently, Spain progressed towards excellence because of the efforts of its prestige brands. Even now, most of the best-known Spanish wines are brands: Vega-Sicilia, Viña Tondonia, Marqués de Riscal, Juvé & Camps or Valdespino own vineyards, but their prestige is built upon their brand. Many of those brands are multiregional, too. Rías Baixas, Toro and Rueda, for instance, owe much of their recent recognition to investments made by companies from other regions with a brand-based approach. Therefore, when looking away from Rioja, Ribera and Priorat, one should keep in mind that, often, prestigious brands are a good clue to exploring the wines of the rest of the country.

And while the northwest is ahead, other parts of Spain are also emerging. We have liquid proof of their excellence through a limited number of wines, but they often are too small or too new for international relevance. The Canary Islands, with its amazing array of indigenous grape varieties and stupefying range of wine styles, is a leading example. The development of Xarel.lo and Trepat in Catalonia, the amazing style of Arcos and Mandó in Valencia, the high-altitude elegance of Bobal in Utiel-Requena, the stunning new profiles of Txakoli in the Basque Country, the refined expression of granitic Garnacha in Gredos or the surprisingly delicate Monastrell wines in Alicante and Jumilla are all great examples. Again, identity is the key word and the basis for progression. Those wines do not look like any other – they are just themselves. These are the regions to watch.

Identity is key. Those wines do not look like any other – they are just themselves

Spain is so complex that there is yet a third group of regions that are even now quite unknown. The exploration is far from being finished, and as I said before, the country is full of mountains that create diversity. Those regions are unlikely to ever become mainstream, but they can be a good basis for the exclusive pleasure of distinguished and rare wine profiles. Asturias and its unique high-mountain wines, Alto Turia in Valencia and the stunning Merseguera, Arlanza and its cool climate, Salamanca and its particular grape varieties, Betanzos and its wines of steely structure, Majorca and its autochthonous varieties… Again, each region is developing its own identity, based upon its own terroirs, indigenous grape varieties and, most of all, people with plenty of professionalism and confidence.

For intrepid wine lovers, Spain certainly offers a whole new world of drinking – in its more obscure regions and in parts of the country that are now sitting on the global fine-wine throne. These, of course, are still the safest investments to make – but they might also offer a hint of what’s to come from elsewhere as experimentation and inspiration spread across the land.

Find the results from The Spain Report 2024 at the links below, presented via each individual region (and featuring only wines scoring 90 points and above). Tasting notes and scores are available to all registered users of The Collection, the online home of our premium wine and spirits content. To register, click here