On the Spanish Wine Experience we have already covered the two stars of Spanish red wines in Meet the Grape: Tempranillo and Garnacha. They are the Premiership of red grapes if you will. However, it is within Division One that you find more and more varied grape styles.
One of my favourite grapes, that so often goes under the radar and is often criminally underrepresented, still, in the bars, is a little spicy and minerally number from the northwest: Mencía.
When people think about Spanish wine, they often think of medium to full-bodied and berry fruit-forward reds á la Rioja and Ribera del Duero. However, hiding in that top part of Spain is a grape that creates a very different style of wine. Spain’s answer to Pinot Noir, Mencía is a grape that deserves to be a superstar.
So let’s meet the damn thing!
- For a long time these medium-sized red wonders were thought to have been related to Cabernet Franc – but DNA profiling has proven this not to be true.
- In fact it appears to be one of our native varieties, although possibly introduced by the Romans.
- It is identical to Portugal’s grape Jaen.
- It’s also locally known, as always it seems in this country, by other names: Loureiro Tinto, Negra, Negro, Tinto Mollar. But I’ve never seen these, so just stick with Mencía!
- The grapes are high in sugar and have good acidity.
- In Spain its home are the northwestern regions of Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras and, maybe its pinnacle area, Bierzo. Though it can also be found in Tierra de León, Arribes and Monterrei denominaciones.
- After the Phylloxera plague ravaged the country at the turn of the 18/19th century, masses of Mencía were replanted on the high-yielding fertile plains in that part of Spain. This resulted in famously diluted, pale and aromatic wines.
- The grapes have recently been enjoying a huge revival Spain – look up wine heroes Alvaro Palacios and Telmo Rodriguez – with winemakers rediscovering old, low-yielding hillside plots of Mencía.
- Generally the grape grows, and grows best, on schisty hillsides which, along with the low-yield, helps give intensity to the resulting wines.
- Mencía is occasionally blended with other local varieties of the area: Sousón, Caíño Tinto, Brencellao, Merenzao.
- If the wines used to be limp and uninspiring, they are now quite the opposite. They are wonderfully complex.
- This complexity is especially pronounced on the nose thanks to Mencía’s high levels of terpenoids.
- Dark fruits, flowery notes like violets, earth, minerals and black pepper abound.
- The wines generally have a rather deep colour with lovely violet hues towards the rim.
- They usually are medium bodied with a fairly decent yet supple acidity which makes good Mencía wines both refreshing and suave.
- That acidity also makes Mencía wines great for food pairing: grilled and smoked meats (especially with peppery sauces), roasts, stews, strong cheeses like Manchego, cooked mushroom and tomato dishes.
- The wines take well to a touch of chill, so are great for summer if you just leave the bottle in the fridge for 10 minutes before serving.
- Mencía takes ageing well also, as it can be a little tannic. Ageing adds vanilla, nutmeg and other sweet spices.
If Tempranillo and Garnacha are the Premiership League of Spanish red wine grapes and spicy Mencía was always stuck in Division One, then I think its about time this brilliant grape – a personal favourite – was promoted!
If you come to Madrid, which of course, we hope you do. If you go into a modern or classic little Spanish tapas bar, which of course, we hope you do. And if you order a wine, which of course, you should, you’ll often have limited options. You ask for a vino tinto, and will almost always be given a Tempranillo from Rioja – although these days it is common to be offered a Ribera del Duero. Ask for a vino blanco, and you’ll be proffered a goblet of Verdejo from Rueda – though, again, sometimes Albariño from Rías Baixas makes an appearance.
Across most of Castille – both Castilla y León and La Mancha – and Madrid, Extremadura, and Andalucía the most common white wine is always Verdejo. Go most other places and that exotically named grape is still there, accompanied with her productive little region of Rueda. It’s the most well-known grape and region pairing that no-one has heard of!
So today it’s time to meet Verdejo: Spain’s quiet signature grape.
- The juicy green gapes were brought to Spain probably sometime in the 11th century by the Mozarabs coming from the north of Africa.
- The first vines were planted in the small but sensationally productive region of Rueda, 175km northwest of Madrid. There are fewer than 60 bodegas in the area, but the grape has become synonymous with the area. Pure terroir.
- It seems to be the daughter of Savagnin and Castellana Blanca.
- The name stems from the Spanish for green, verde. The viticultural version of ‘say what you see’ as they are famed for their green-blue bloom.
- In 2010, Australia got a taste for the grape and started to plant it.
- The grape is ideally suited to the poor soils and harsh environment present in Rueda; a region that can drop 25 degrees celsius at nighttime.
- The climate of the meseta is also handy, because Verdejo has a high susceptibility to Powdery mildew fungal disease. The complete dryness doesn’t allow the humidity-loving growth of the fungus.
- It’s only really in the last 40-odd years that Verdejo from Rueda has come into its own. For a long time it was used in Spain to produce a strong Sherry-like wine.
- It wasn’t until 70s, with the Rioja giant Marqués de Riscal seeing its potential, that Verdejo began to be used to make fresh and crisp still wines.
- It’s a fairly venerable Spanish denominación de origen, formed in 1980.
- The grapes, like many in hot climates, are generally harvested at night. The cooler temperatures will protect the grapes and mean they won’t start to oxidise.
- As per usual, Verdejo has myriad other names, though generally they are not common but they are wonderful to look at: boto de gall, botón de gallo blanco, cepa de madrigal, gouvelo, verdal del país, verdeja, verdeja blanca.
- Verdejo as a wine, especially when showing its full expression in Rueda, is famed for its slightly green-tinted straw colour and aromatic and almost herbaceous aroma.
- It’s not dissimilar to Sauvignon Blanc or a big Pinot Gris. Some laurel, bitter almonds, lemons and citrus are all found on the nose. The palate is smooth and quite full and has sharp acidity.
- Be aware Verdejo can be rather unappealing if not served chilled enough, sometimes too alcoholic and petrolly. But when chilled correctly is an utter delight.
- Verdejo can take to ageing quite well, turning almost nutty. That being said, it is not overly common; many producers believing that you lose the intrinsic qualities that Verdejo is good for.
- The grape, due to the similarity of the vines and name, is sometimes confused with Verdelho. They are not the same. And that’s that.
- Verdejo is often mixed with Sauvignon Blanc or Macabeo.
- Due to the acidity of the wines, Verdejo is almost the perfect food pairing white wine.
- It goes very well with seafood and shellfish.
- Salty or matured food like strong cheeses pair brilliantly.
- Verdejo also can go toe to toe with ‘exotic’ food like Thai or Chinese and even spicy food – though, as stated prior, make sure it’s well-chilled!
- The wines, to be called Rueda Verdejo must be 85% Verdejo. Usually, to show it off fully, producers are more likely to produce 100% wines.
- Despite finding its spiritual home in Rueda, the largest planting of the grape is actually in Extremadura followed by Castilla La Mancha.
So, even though the boozing populace of Madrid may either a) be bored of Verdejo these days or b) take it for granted, there is no doubting or ignoring the fact that this little green juice bomb has been carrying Spain’s greatest cities, its most famous socialites, its hardy workers and its tiniest villages, into various states of inebriation for centuries.
Verdejo (and Rueda) are owed a debt of soused thanks from a lot of Spain. When all else fails and the cabinets and shelves are running dry, there’s always Verdejo, smiling down at you and saying ‘Hola, pop me in the fridge a while and then drink me!’
Spain may be famed for its Tempranillo, but there is another, more widely-planted variety that often slips under the radar despite it being one of the most famous grapes in the world. Garnacha, or, as it is more commonly known worldwide, Grenache.
This is an old fogey of a grape, being possibly the oldest variety in the country yet its fame has been overshadowed by the elegant Rhône name-changing stylings of Grenache. However this grape is Spanish to its core, so it’s about time we shine a light on it.
Glasses at the ready!
- These gorgeous dark purple orbs likely originated in the region of Aragon in Spain. There is written accounts of it as far back as the 1500s.
- The key regions for Garnacha in Spain are Campo de Borja, Cariñena, Calatayud (all three of which are in historic Aragon), Navarra and Priorat.
- The grape travelled north over the Pyrenees first touching down in Languedoc-Roussillon before finally making its way to the Southern Rhône where it became a superstar.
- Garnacha is a famously brilliant blending wine. In Rioja it adds juiciness and fruitiness to Tempranillo, in France can tone down a Syrah and in Australia is part of the Holy Trinity GSM – Grenache-Syrah-Mouvèdre.
- The grape has its own day. International Grenache Day on the 3rd Friday in September.
- Garnacha buds quite early and needs a long growing season to fully ripen. Often the last to be harvested. This long process is what gives Garnacha wines a high booze content. More ripening = more sugar in the grapes. We see this as a good thing.
- Apparently it’s quite a big deal in China. There are rumours of 12,000 acres of planted vine over there! Maybe we will start to see bottles of Chinese Garnacha sometime in the future.
- In the 17th century Burgundy winemakers used to secretly add Rhône Grenache to their Pinot Noirs to make them taste better! Garnacha really is the friend of the blender.
- In Spain and France it is a very popular grape to make rosé wines and in France is used to make fortified Port-like wines.
- It has a couple of other cousins in Spain. The Garnacha Tintorera (internationally known by the bizarre name of Alicante Bouschet), with its dark pink flesh, and the odd nomenclature of the Garnacha Peluda – the Hairy Garnacha (named for the soft hairy texture on the bottom of the leaves.
- Grows best on ‘old vines’ (minimum 35 years of age), which can be found in Aragon, and really wants a hot climate to ripen. We shan’t be seeing any British Grenache wines any time soon.
- In the Old World the grape can also been found sneaking about in Italy, where it is called Cannonau, Israel, Algeria and even Morocco and Tunisia.
- Being so widely-planted, the styles of Garnacha wines are incredibly varied. Generally though you get high alcohol content, full-body and a fruit-forward character.
- Strawberries and raspberries – red fruit – are the calling cards of the Garnacha. The wines are often quite light, and are usually drunk young.
- As well as the fruit, a touch of spice or sweet spice is quite common to find as well.
- The wines have a propensity for oxidation so are not the greatest candidates for ageing.
- Having said that there are some instances, when yields are kept in check, where it can produce dark and intense wines that have ageing potential.
- Some of the Priorat wines are like this. They can be dense and dark and very rich. This is in comparison to the lighter and more jovial Aragonese wine styles.
- Young, even slightly chilled, Garnachas from Aragon and Navarra can actually pair quite well with spicy and herby foods. The high alcohol content can help reduce the burn of spice as alcohol is a natural solvent to capsacin.
- It is become an increasingly fashionable wine in Spain, though without the price tag. A bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape can leap into the hundreds of dollars a bottle and some cult makers in Priorat have pushed the hundreds too, but normally in Spain nice and delicious bottles of youthful Garnachas are a bargain.
- It is so important and indicative of some regions of Spain – like Tempranillo for Rioja – that the tourism boards are getting creative to give the wines the respect they deserve. Campo de Borja has a new marketing moniker: El Imperio de la Garnacha – the Empire of Garnacha.
So next time you fancy a bottle of red and happen upon the section of the wine aisle that says ‘Spain’, try ignoring the Tempranillos for a moment. Pass up the Rioja and the Ribera del Duero reds that have become so famous. Try a Garnacha. They are affordable, juicy, crowd-pleasing and vary from place to place.
From the light and uncomplicated wines of Navarra, to the fun and delicate juice bomb fruit roll ups of the ancient Aragonese regions, to the obsessive plummy depths of Priorat, there’s a lot to try with Spanish Garnacha.
Next time someone snooty is banging on about French wines and next time that haughty nose sniffs snobbily about Grenache from the Rhône, politely inform them that you’d rather take a fun little sexy number from Spain. And that, by the way, it’s Garnacha…not Grenache.
Generally when people’s minds drift towards the world of wine and those history-covered countries that form Europe’s fiery underskirt, the Mediterranean, they may well chance upon Spain. If that happens they, they being my favourite kind of people – wine-drinkers – will probably think of something potent and red.
Despite having 70 wine regions and despite making every kind of wine imaginable (red, white, rosé, fortified, aromatised, sparkling, box, sweet, orange…the list goes on), your average Joe will probably instantly think of red, maybe Rioja; rarely white.
This is a shame because there are around 15 native varieties; and we plant everything from Chardonnay to Riesling.
Today we are going to meet the cream of the crop: Albariño.
- The grape grows in fat bunches of little, perfectly spherical green-orange orbs with thick protective skins. This could be Spain’s answer to Pinot Gris/Grigio.
- Saying the grape is small is an understatement. It’s the smallest white wine grape in the world.
- The grapes are sweet and high in glycerol making wines that are big on alcohol and acidity.
- The grape is grown almost exclusively in Spain and Portugal, though there are grapes planted in both the US and even the UK (check out the Chapel Down winery in Kent).
- 90% of the wine in the region of Rías Baixas – in the northwest Spanish community of Galicia – is Albariño.
- It is thought that Albariño was brought to Iberia by Cluny monks in the 12th century. The name, Alba-Riño means ‘white wine of the Rhine’. Locally, it was thought to be a clone of Riesling, but it has also been thought to be a relative of Petit Manseng, a French grape.
- Goes by the name Alvarinho (or Cainho Branco) in Portugal, where it is a major component of the country’s delightfully crisp and slightly effervescent Vinho Verde.
- The grapes are grown in an unusual way: on high trellises, called parrales, so they don’t touch the ground but also get maximum sun exposure. Also, because Galicia is wet and soggy, this protects the grapes from rot and fungal infections.
- All harvesting is done by hand.
- Historically it was blended was other local Galician grapes such as Loureiro, Godello, Caiño, Arinto or Treixadura; but modern winemakers are realising its talent for single varietal wines.
- Australia had, somewhat comically, been accidentally selling incorrect Albariño wines for about a decade; thinking they were helping to inject money into the Albariño market. They had been selling the French Savagnin instead!
- In Spain it can also be found growing in Ribeiro and Valdeorras; but here it is often blended.
- Albariño is famous for making very aromatic, crisp, fruity and acidic wines. They are legendary for the lemony, lime freshness as well as a punch of peaches , grapefruits, and melons plus a touch of minerality.
- They can be light and imperceptibly sparkling, full-bodied and mouth coating and also, thanks to that acidity, aged on lees or in oak. Very versatile.
- There is no wine in Spain that pairs better with seafood that a big, chilled glass of Albariño. The old maxim of local wines with local food works here. Atlantic seafood – prawns, octopus, clams, squid, lobster – pairs perfectly with these wines.
- Albariño is mostly grown in the Rías Baixas DO – a windswept world of vast Scandiwegian estuaries, rumbling hills, and eucalyptus forests. The DO, though fairly small, is split up into five subzones:
- Val do Salnés: low and wavy hills by the coast. Rocky and alluvial soils.
- O Rosal: the banks of the Miño river. Alluvial soils.
- Condado do Tea: the stepper sides of the Miño river valley. Alluvial soils.
- Soutomaior: south of Pontevedra. Light, sandy and granite-covered soils.
- Ribera de Ulla: near Santiago de Compostela. Alluvial soils.
- Many producers carry out a slow, pre-fermentation maceration to extract complexity, colour and aromas from the grapes.
- Full or partial malolactic fermentation is becoming more and more common. (Malolactic fermentation: where acidic malic acid is converted to creamier lactic acid.) This results in a smoother and silkier wine.
- When ordering wine in Spain, one usually orders by the region: Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat, etc. However, due to Albariño basically being from one region, the Spanish basically just order it by the grape. Albariño rolls off the drunken tongue more easily than Rías Baixas.
Spain has many other native white wines on offer; and if you are in the capital ordering a ‘vino blanco’ you will most likely be offered a crisp, dry tropical scented wine from the region of Rueda. So, if you are looking for a glass of Albariño, it pays to ask for it by name to see if they have it.
Part of the romance of Albariño, apart from the fact it is utterly and supremely lively and delicious, is the fact that it has a ‘home’; hiding out in the folklore-filled fjords and peaks of Celtic Galicia. A wet and windy place that offers, for our money, perhaps Spain’s most reliably brilliant white wine experience.
Over here in Spain we have a lot of different grapes, both red and white, that we plant throughout our more than one million hectares of vineyards. That being said, if you ask anyone about Spanish wine they’ll probably say ‘Um…Rioja? Red wine?…Tempranillo?’ And they would be right on all three counts. Spain is mostly famous for those three things. Its reds are more famous and better-regarded in the market than its whites and Rioja is the most venerable and venerated region in the country. However, its time to zoom in on something else.
Today we meet Tempranillo: Spain’s superstar grape.
- A classic Spanish thick-skinned beastie. This is the country’s answer to Cabernet Sauvignon, though according to wine kingpin Telmo Rodriguez it has the characteristic of Pinot Noir to show off terroir down to the village.
- There is more than 30,000 hectares of it grown in Spain; and over 60% of that is in Rioja.
- The name Tempranillo comes from the word temprano, ‘early’, because of the grape’s propensity to ripen early.
- It’s been here in Spain for quite a long time indeed. It has been grown here since the Phoenicians arrived in 1100BC.
- Its fairly short growing cycle means it can thrive in fairly harsh climates such as Rioja Baja, Ribera del Duero and Toro.
- In Rioja it is often blended with Garnacha, Mazuelo, Graciano and Viura.
- Just to be confusing, Tempranillo goes by many other names; so look out for:
- Tinta de Toro
- Tinto del País
- Tinto Fino
- Ull de Liebre
- There are 500 variations in total. So that’s a lot of names and personalities.
- Also grown in smaller quantities in Portugal (known as Roriz), USA, Argentina, South Africa, France and Australia.
Of course this is going to depend a lot on the region where it is grown, both in Spain and around the world. Everything from climate to soil; from regional grape variations to the quality and talent of the winemakers themselves. Here’s a quick breakdown of three distinct styles.
- The climate is generally more moderate in the principal regions of Rioja Alta and Alavesa.
- The resulting wines are the classic all rounders. Mr. Medium. Medium-body, medium-acidic, medium-tannin. Elegance and sometimes quite dainty flavours and aromas shimmer out from good Riojas.
- The cooler temperatures bring out gentle touches of strawberry and other red fruits.
- Famously spicy and leathery, smoothened with sweet spices and vanilla, when aged. Rioja just loves to age their wines!
- Ribera del Duero:
- A warmer climate with both brutal winters and summers. Swinging from -18C to 40C.
- Also looking at medium-acidity and tannin, though a little more full-bodied than the Riojas.
- The wines are darker here; inkier with plummy and blackberry fruits abounding. These are bigger and more masculine wines that yearn for cooked meats, yet still retain their suave style.
- Also loves a bit of ageing in barrels à la Rioja.
- A very hot and stark region, whose climatological violence is represented in its wines.
- The wines historically, and we are talking medieval fame here, were heavyweights. Without care and intense management the alcohol will shoot up to 16% and beyond when you’re not looking. The bull has been tamed in recent decades and an elegance is creeping in.
- The heat punch is presented in both big booze, big body and big dark fruits like blackberries and sloes and rusticity.
- Known for being the kind of wine that slaps you in the face and reminds you it means business, Toro wines are often blasted with American oak to soften them.
- These hefty, jammy wines also follow the Rioja system of ageing and do take to it well.
All this being said, Spain as a country is so diverse geographically, climatically, and topographically, that trying to pen down one style of Tempranillo is almost impossible. It can be grown in both moderate temperature areas and screaming hot ones; from low gentle valleys to the highest mesetas a kilometre in the air. This noble grape’s genius has been its ability and willingness to let the country throw it about this way and that; to test its limits with some of the harshest winters and highest temperatures on the continent.
In the hands of great winemakers Tempranillo can take many forms, but it is and will always be the joyous ruby grandmaster of Spain and is unlikely to be toppled any time soon.