Despite the country being blessed with a multitude of diverse, extreme regions capable of producing distinctive and fascinating wines, state-sponsored inexpensive bulk wine production has long been, both in ancient times and until relatively recently, the dominant force in Spain. The last hundred years, however, have seen wholesale changes – and the past 20 have seen Spain rise to the challenge of its global rivals; through applying modern techniques to ancient terroirs, it has harnessed its singular attributes, fashioning one of the most dynamic wine scenes on earth.
The holy grail trifecta of small production, often epic ageability and relative affordability make Spain a fantastic source from which to start a wine collection – or indeed to expand into. If one of the true definitions of ‘fine wine’ is maturation and improvement potential, then the best Spanish wines make as good a case as any top wine-producing country. The great wines of Rioja thrive with decades under their belt, as do the leading wines of Ribera del Duero, but even lesser-known regions are producing wines of superb concentration, structure and freshness, making them surefire winners for the cellar.
The first purple patch of the ‘modern’ era came before the turn of the 20th century, with the arrival of Bordelais wine growers from across the Pyrenees looking for work after phylloxera had ravaged their own vineyards. Their skill in both field and winery – particularly in the realm of barrel production, fermentation and ageing – heralded the birth of modern Rioja. But it was the fall of Franco and the rise of the EU, as well as the subsequent Spanish economic recovery, that built interest in the consumption of quality wine, the ability to invest in its production, and the opportunity for the younger generation to become educated in wine production not just domestically but, crucially, in more established fine wineproducing countries. Spain is now arguably the most enlightened wine region in Europe, and it produces perhaps the broadest range of wine styles of any single country.
Spain is now arguably the most enlightened wine region in Europe, with the broadest range of styles of any country
Rioja remains the driving force in terms of volume and fame, but Ribera del Duero is gaining traction beyond the biggest names of Vega-Sicilia and Pingus. The preservation of ancient vines and an increasingly light touch in the winery are allowing this unique lunar landscape to express itself as never before. On both Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts and up various rugged mountains, historic traditions are being revived with long, snake-like vines clinging to sea cliffs, and gnarled bushes delving into granite at impossible gradients. The historic methods of grandparents and great-grandparents are being explored by 30-somethings trained in precision winemaking, creating wines of immense character and a true sense of origin at a quality level never before seen. And despite the often high costs involved, usually related to manhours (many of the environments are so extreme they cannot be managed except by hand), many of the most impressive wines are available at prices that belie their sheer excellence, making them more than worthwhile investments.
The superstars of Spanish wine
La Rioja Alta, 890
There can be little doubt that La Rioja Alta is fully deserving of its place within the top tier of ‘traditional’ Rioja producers. Over the past few decades, it has consistently produced wines of incredible concentration, balance and freshness that drink beautifully from release and long into the future. Unlike many of the big-name producers, its grapes are all sourced from its own vineyards, and the wine aged in barrels from its own cooperage, which specialises in the finest outdooraged American oak, the signature of this wine. The Gran Reserva 890, named to celebrate the first wine produced in 1890, is La Rioja Alta’s pride and joy and one of Spain’s greatest and most age-worthy wines. The current release, 2005, is available at 550 for six bottles, and with so few releases (just 13 vintages since 1973), owners can realistically expect to see 30–40% growth in value over 10 years. Older vintages can reach 300+ per bottle.
Muga, Prado Enea
Prado Enea from Bodegas Muga is perhaps the best-value fine wine produced anywhere in the world. It is made only in ‘the best years’ – or to be more accurate, in the years in which, in the family’s assessment, the fruit quality is at a high enough level to fashion a Prado Enea. As such, buyers can be confident they will never be underwhelmed; this rigorous process excluded the 2002, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2012, and 2013 vintages. High-altitude vineyards and insistence on the finest quality French oak are two of the key characteristics of Muga: cooler plots generate a unique sense of freshness aligned with great fruit concentration, and French oak – produced on-site by Rioja’s only master cooper – lends the wines a distinctly Bordelais character. Release prices are generous at just 450 for 12 bottles, but great vintages such as 2010 or 2004 will cost buyers twice that price.
CVNE, Imperial Gran Reserva
Founded in 1879, Compania Vinicole del Norte de Espana, or CVNE (pronounced ‘coo-nay’), is one of Rioja’s leading producers. Imperial is the name given to its Rioja Alta vineyard holding, named after the special pint bottling produced for the British market in the 1920s. In this westernmost part of Rioja, the climatic influence comes primarily from the Atlantic, and the soil is rich in iron, limestone and clay, along with nutrients deposited in the region by the tributaries of the Ebro River. In their youth, the resulting wines are full-bodied with an exceptional purity of fruit, balanced with great freshness from the vineyards’ higher elevation. Imperial’s style can be described as very seductive, having great density but a silky structure, which is key to its ageing potential. And while, given the volumes produced, this is not a wine that will set investors’ hearts racing, its longevity and relative value make it one of the most rewarding wines to own, age and enjoy. New releases start at under 450 for 12, while fabulous mature examples, such as the legendary 2001, are still below 1,000 per dozen.
Ribera del Duero
The jewel in the crown of Ribera del Duero, Vega-Sicilia is the producer of the most sought-after and highly traded wines from Spain. Único is its flagship, arguably the greatest expression of Tempranillo (or Tinto Fino as it is called in these parts) – and certainly one of the world’s most consistently high-performing wines. While Único is typically released ‘in order’ – that is, vintage by vintage – Vega-Sicilia is never afraid to hold back a vintage if it is to the benefit of the drinker. Characteristically, Único is quite different from anything else: defined neither by length nor breadth, nor by fruit, structure, power or freshness, it manages to combine all these in a way that is reminiscent of great Bordeaux but with a unique sense of depth and energy. Typically, Único trades at around 2,800 for 12 bottles until it hits 10 years from release, when stocks start to dwindle. It can easily double in price over the following 10 years.
Vega-Sicilia, Único Reserva Especial
It seems odd that a wine called Único can appear in two guises, but there you have it. Put simply, Único Reserva Especial is a non-vintage expression from Vega-Sicilia that pays homage to the traditions of Spanish wine by blending together different vintages to give a house release that stands apart from the single-vintage Único. Usually blended from three vintages – in the past this could cover a spread of six or more years, but in recent times it is made from three consecutive years – it is theoretically ready to drink on release, but it can live and improve for decades. The challenge with Reserva Especial lies in making sure you know which release you are looking at: the vintages therein are only written in very small type on the front label, which is often damaged with age. New releases are priced above the single-vintage Único, at around 800 for three bottles, but do not generally have the same investment potential.
Under the charismatic Peter Sisseck, Dominio de Pingus has become one of Spain’s most iconic wines. When Sisseck arrived at Hacienda Monasterio in 1993, he noticed the exceptional quality of one of his growers’ fruit. This prompted him to visit the vineyard in San Cristóbal, where he found a 1929-planted 1.5ha plot of Tempranillo at 800 metres altitude that was full of potential. Upon purchasing the parcel, he ruthlessly pruned back the vines, limiting them to just one or two buds per vine. He later augmented this plot with another well-located 2.5ha parcel in Barroso. In 1996, Pingus was discovered by Robert Parker, and his rave review (the 1995 received an initial 96–100 points) set the stage for an extraordinary success story. Production remains unfeasibly low and demand sky-high; as such, release prices of around 750 per bottle are not uncommon, and full cases of older vintages are incredibly rare.
López de Heredia, Tondonia Gran Reserva
There is a handful of wines that are held in the highest esteem by wine lovers the world over yet remain utterly sensible in their pricing. One of these is the singular Viña Tondonia from López de Heredia in Rioja, a wine that balances ethereal, Burgundian aromatics with a fine but firm structure and fabulous purity of fruit. Wines from this vineyard combine the typically dry, mineral style of yesteryear with a tight core of pure fruit that creates a Dorian Gray of a wine that refuses to wither with age. Long maturation in huge old oak vats deep in underground cellars, followed by further ageing in bottle, creates truly unique, illustrious wines with an exceptional bouquet and the ability to be savoured either young or well into their dotage. Releases are few and far between, but the 1995, initially available at 840 for 12, now trades around 60–70% higher; Gran Reservas from the glorious 1960s can change hands for several hundred pounds per bottle.
López de Heredia, Tondonia Gran Reserva Blanco
If the reds from López de Heredia have a style of their own, the whites have practically rewritten the rule book on traditional Rioja Blanco. Few producers would have the confidence – indeed the nerve – to subject the humble Viura (and a dash of Malvas a Riojana) to as much as 10 years in ancient oak and the same again in bottle before release, but the current release of this singular wine is the 2001. Something more akin to a fine solera Sherry or a great Château-Chalon from the Jura than the everyday white Rioja served in your local wine bar, Tondonia Gran Reserva Blanco is driven almost entirely by savoury, near-fungal characters and acidity that defines the popular somm-speak ‘nervous’. Even though extraordinary on release, its construction is such that it will live for further decades. Prices start at around 20 per bottle, but the bigger challenge is finding it; as few as 5,000 bottles are created in each harvest.
López de Heredia, Tondonia Gran Reserva Rosado
Just when you thought this section couldn’t become more bizarre, we bring you the Gran Reserva Rosado from the same vineyard and producer. While not held as long as the white before release – the current vintage is 2011 – 10 years is still an ambitious length of time to mature a rosé, yet the results have initiated a cult following that possibly outweighs that for the traditional red and white Tondonia Gran Reserva. The colour – more sockeye than Scottish salmon – is mesmerising, as are the aromas, which combine suggestions of red fruit alongside pungent, medicinal, perfumier’s notes, a result of the region’s unique ability to blend red and white grapes to fashion a rosé. But it is the texture that sets the wine apart, managing to be both pixellated and precise and yet plush and supple. No wonder prices leap from a mere 360 for 12 on release to north of 100 per bottle within a few years.
Ones to watch
Daniel Landi/Comando G
Few wines capture the sense of place and authenticity of Spain’s mountain vineyards like the old-vine Garnacha created by Daniel Landi, both under his own name and alongside Fernando García, with the Comando G label. In the foothills of the Sierra de Gredos, just an hour west of Madrid, pure, ancient granite soils yield tiny volumes of incredibly concentrated, mineral-driven wines. They display a distinctively finegrained, stony, almost chalky character that underpins stunning bright red fruit and blood orange flavours. It may seem flippant to compare the best with the legendary Grenache of Château Rayas, but the aroma profile and texture are not at all dissimilar. Comando G has the bigger worldwide following (perhaps due to having achieved a 100-point Wine Advocate score for one wine), but Landi’s family wines are not to be missed: even the very best can be obtained for under 200 per bottle, with the majority being closer to 70 – and they deliver sensational experiences at this price.
Dominio del Águila
Jorge Monzón is one of the most talented winemakers of his (young) generation – an assertion supported by his CV. When your first gig out of oenology school is at Domaine de la Roman e-Conti and your second at Vega-Sicilia, it’s fair to assume that, when you come to set up your own project, the results will be noteworthy. Jorge and his partner Isabel Rodero’s Dominio del Águila wines, made using fruit from some of the most expressive old Tempranillo vines in Ribera del Duero (many over 100 years old, prephylloxera, and rescued and revived personally by Monzón), are suitably spectacular for a wine grower with such a glowing track record. Carrying experience from his legendary former employers, Monzón produces wines that exist in a sort of mythical world that inhabits both the elegance and perfume of DRC and the structure and intensity of Único at a fraction of the price of either (roughly 50 per bottle), though this cannot last long…
Zárate, El Palomar Albariño
While it is undoubtedly becoming increasingly well known and popular, Albariño is a wine that many consider to be a cheap and cheerful drop for bistro lunches and the like. Bodegas Z rate is on a mission to lift this humble grape to new heights and show what it is really capable of – and the results are truly brilliant. The estate’s founder, Ernesto Z rate, was pivotal in promoting Albariño in its traditional homeland of Galicia, and his grandson Eulogio Pomares, the current winemaker, has inherited this passion. The Palomar vineyard is the jewel in its crown: from just half a hectare of pre-phylloxera vines, planted on its own rootstocks circa 1850, Eulogio produces a tiny volume (just 350 dozen) of stunningly pure, precise and intensely citrusy white wine that gains texture and richness from nine months’ ageing in a large oak foudre. At around 25 a bottle – roughly the same price as a mid-level Bourgogne Chardonnay – it will delight and astonish.