Spain excels in a remarkable range of styles
When it comes to wine, diversity is a virtue. Shaped by differences in soil, climate, grape variety and culture, wines vary in ways that make them distinctive and alluring.
When it comes to diversity, Spain embraces extremes. Of the 14 wines that earn classic ratings of 95 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale in this report, nine are red wines spanning vintages from 2015 to 2005, one is a multi-vintage red, one is a dry white from 2004, and three are non-vintage dessert wines.
Some people who love wine fear that globalization—in terms of production methods as well as consumer tastes—is imposing a sterile standardization of style. They may have a point when it comes to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir from Burgundy. It takes close attention to find the differences in wines from these categories.
But Spain argues against this fear. Its glorious variety testifies that wine culture is inherently resistant to uniformity. With an abundance of natural resources and talented vintners, Spain cultivates the entire rainbow of wine styles.
All the colors are on display in this report, which encompasses the more than 1,600 wines reviewed in blind tastings at our New York office since my last report (“Forging Ahead,” June 30, 2017). Nearly 150 are sparkling wines, mostly Cavas, reviewed by Alison Napjus, and another 75 are Sherries, reviewed by James Molesworth; you will find recommendations for both. I reviewed the rest, including more than 950 red wines, nearly 350 whites and more than 60 rosés. These wines are the focus of my analysis. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)
REDS OF ELEGANCE
Spain has long been recognized for its ability to produce red wines of grace and complexity. Rioja provided the template with its “gran reserva” style: blends dominated by indigenous Tempranillo, but deepened through the addition of other varieties, then aged for many years in neutral American oak barrels before release.
La Rioja Alta, a bodega founded in 1890, remains a stalwart champion of this style. Its 890 Gran Reserva Selección Especial 2005 (95 points, $175) is a classic example, with its graceful tannins and lively acidity supporting complex flavors of tea, tobacco, dried cherry and orange peel. Only recently released, it has many years of life ahead of it.
Other fine traditional red wines include the silky, generous Bodegas Muga Rioja Prado Enea Gran Reserva 2010 (94, $85) and the Bodegas Beronia Rioja Gran Reserva 2009 (92, $33), spicy and graceful.
Young wines can be shaped in this style as well. The Bodegas Palacios Remondo Rioja La Montesa Crianza 2015 (92, $20) is energetic but polished, with berry, orange peel, clove and mineral notes. The Torre de Oña Rioja Finca San Martín Crianza 2014 (90, $15) is plump, yet remains focused and balanced, with plum, vanilla and orange peel flavors.
There are also reds in other regions that aim for elegance over power, balanced more toward savory than fruity flavors. The Mencía-based wines from the areas west of Rioja are fine examples.
Rodrigo Méndez delivers two beautiful Ribeira Sacras from the 2016 vintage, the A Boca do Demo (93, $50) and Finca El Curvado (92, $33). Both are light yet energetic, with tart berry flavors accented by clove, tobacco and mineral notes. From Bierzo, Descendientes de J. Palacios is a consistent winner. The Petalos 2016 (92, $21) and Villa de Corullón 2015 (92, $50) offer different expressions of Mencía, both showing focus and energy.
REDS OF POWER
While elegance has been the traditional template for Spanish reds, it has not become a prison. Tempranillo, Garnacha, Cariñena and Monastrell, all indigenous varieties, have proven their ability to make beautiful wines of power.
The attempt to play in the same league as Bordeaux, Tuscany and Napa has required changes in both mindset and technique on the part of Spanish vintners. The effort began in Rioja in the 1990s. Winemakers worked to get their grapes riper; they used new French oak barrels for aging; they bottled sooner. They also focused on single-vineyard and, often, single-variety bottlings. The resulting wines were very different from the gran reserva model, but, in my opinion, the best are no less transparent or true to their terroir.
The Eguren family has been growing grapes in Rioja since 1870, and brothers Marcos and Miguel, who run the company, have been leaders in this movement toward more powerful reds. Four of their wines earn classic scores in this report, two from Rioja and two from Toro, a region to the southwest that also relies on Tempranillo for its reds, here known as Tinta de Toro.
Both of the Riojas are single-vineyard expressions made from 100 percent Tempranillo, but the different soils on which the wines are grown yield distinctive characters. The Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Rioja Finca El Bosque 2015 (95, $150), from a vineyard planted on bedrock at the Egurens’ home winery, is powerful yet graceful, with an alluring balance of savory and fruity character. The Viñedos de Páganos Rioja La Nieta 2015 (95, $140), from a site with more clay and limestone in the soil, is bigger, with darker fruit flavors and more minerality.
The Egurens were pioneers of this modern style in Toro, founding Bodegas Numanthia in 1998. After selling the bodega to drinks giant LVMH in 2008, they established Teso La Monja, which has pursued the same approach of using old vines (some own-rooted), biodynamic viticulture, fermentation in small oak vats (with malolactic in new French oak barrels), and 18 months of barrel aging.
Of the estate’s three bottlings, the top cuvée is Alabaster. The 2014 (96, $235) offers luscious fruit and lavish oak, deeply concentrated yet harmonious. The 2015 (95, $220), from a riper vintage, is more muscular, a bit reserved, but with a long finish that shows lovely floral and mineral notes.
In nearby Ribera del Duero, the Moro family is also committed to single-vineyard wines of concentration and balance. They produced two classic-scorers this year, one each from their two bodegas.
The Bodegas Emilio Moro Tempranillo Ribera del Duero Malleolus de Valderramiro, from a vineyard planted in 1924, has a strong track record, earning scores of 90 points or higher in every vintage I’ve reviewed, back to 2000. The 2014 bottling rates 95 points ($145). Bodegas Cepa 21 is an estate the Moros created to make fresher wines from higher elevations. The Ribera del Duero Horcajo 2014, also at 95 points ($110), comes from a vineyard at the upper limit of viability for the region. It shows brighter fruit flavors with lively acidity.
Cariñena has a poor reputation in France (where it is known as Carignan and has traditionally been made into gros rouge, or plonk). But in old vineyards in Priorat, the variety can produce wines of depth and complexity. Vall Llach’s Priorat Mas de la Rosa 2013 (95, $165), from an old, steep, stony vineyard mostly planted to Cariñena, delivers ripe flavors of cassis, kirsch and cola, but remains balanced and fresh.
The Gil family, which owns wineries all around Spain, embraces a fruit-centered style across their range. Their home base is in Jumilla, in the southeast, where the leading grape is Monastrell (known as Mourvèdre in France). Clio, one of three wines from the Gils’ El Nido estate, is mostly Monastrell with some Cabernet Sauvignon; the 2014 (92, $45) is plush yet balanced, with plum pudding, fig and licorice flavors.
A BOUQUET OF VALUES
This analysis has concentrated mostly on wines that earned outstanding scores of 90 points or higher in our blind tastings. Many of them sell for $100 or more, commensurate with benchmark wines from top regions around the world. But Spain is deservedly known for its abundance of values, and these wines offer a full range of styles as well.
Of the nearly 1,200 still, dry wines reviewed for this report, about half earned very good scores of 85 to 89 points. Of these, more than 200 cost $15 or less—mostly reds, but also about 50 whites and 20 rosés. Exploring these wines is a way to minimize risk while maximizing the opportunity of discovering exciting new flavors.
Garnacha, known as Grenache in France, was born in Spain, and flourishes from Rioja to Priorat. It makes round, fruity reds in Calatayud, Campo de Borja and the Cariñena region. Look for the San Alejandro Calatayud Las Rocas 2014 (87, $14), Bodegas Aragonesas Campo de Borja Coto de Hayas Centenaria 2016 (86, $15) and Castillo de Monséran Cariñena Evil Eye 2015 (86, $13).
For a more savory character, try the Monastrell grape, which stars in Alicante and Jumilla, in the southeast of Spain. Good examples include Volver’s Alicante Tarima 2016 (88, $9), Telmo Rodríguez’s Alicante Al Muvedre 2016 (86, $15), Bodegas Carchelo’s Jumilla 2015 (88, $14) and Bodegas Ego Jumilla El Gorú 2016 (87, $15).
Verdejo is a white grape that flourishes in Rueda, in north-central Spain. It makes savory wines with firm textures that are good complements to food. Many bodegas from Ribera del Duero and Rioja have turned to Rueda in recent years and are delivering good values. Bottlings to look for include the Bodegas Protos 2017 (89, $14), Bodegas Beronia 2017 (88, $13), Bodegas Riojanas Viore (87, $15) and Bodegas LAN Duquesa de Valladolid 2017 (86, $12).
As a wine drinker, if you know what you like, that’s fine. If your tastes keep you focused on a particular region or grape, there’s nothing wrong with that. But we live in an era where the same chain stores selling the same mass-produced products dominate every downtown. Wine can be an antidote to that. Its identity is rooted in its diversity. If that variety is the spice of your wine life, then Spain offers fertile ground for exploration.
Executive editor Thomas Matthews is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on the wines of Spain.
For the complete Spain tasting report, including scores and prices, read the full article, “Extreme Virtues,” in our online magazine archives.