How Spain is Rediscovering its Vinous Treasures

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By Henry Jeffreys Posted May 25, 2016

For decades, Tempranillo has dominated Spain in a way that has no precedent in the rest of Europe. But that's about to change.

If you ask wine lovers to name a Spanish red grape, I bet that most will say Tempranillo. It's the primary grape of Rioja and Ribera del Duero (where it's known as Tinto Fino), but it's planted all over the peninsula, and it can make anything from cheap, easy-drinking wine to highly-structured reds that need years of aging to show their best. You can even make rosé from it.

As the most-planted red variety, Tempranillo dominates Spain in a way that has no precedent in the rest of Europe. It's the national grape. Compare this with Italy, where the grapes are regional—such as Nebbiolo in Piedmont, Sangiovese in Tuscany and Aglianico in Campania—or Portugal, which has so many different varieties that some farmers have no idea what they're growing.

Spain seems to lack these native riches. The Tempranillo takeover of Spain began in the 1970s, as other regions tried to ape the success of Rioja. French varieties, too, were introduced, most notably in Catalonia by the Torres family. In 1979 their Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon beat Chateau Latour in a blind tasting conducted by the Gault-Millau restaurant guide. The future for Spanish red in the '90s appeared to be either Tempranillo or international—i.e., French varieties. Spain, it seemed, just didn't have the depth of native talent.

Look a little closer, though, and it's clear that this isn't strictly true. Many grapes that we think of as French—like Grenache (known in Spain as Garnacha), Carignan (aka Cariñena, Samso or Mazuelo) and Mourvedre (Monastrell)—are actually native to Spain. Spain has thousands of hectares of old vines that were previously used to make rustic local wines or fortified wines. The success of Priorat, a mountainous region in Catalonia that came to prominence in the 90s, was based on old-vine Garnacha and Cariñena. Now, perhaps inspired by the success of Priorat, producers in other parts of Spain are reexamining their old vinous riches. In the Gredos mountains near Madrid, Daniel Landi makes a Grenache with the purity and elegance of Pinot Noir. In Montsant next door to Priorat, producers such as Coca i Fito are making superbly intense wines without their neighbor's hefty price tag.

Varieties that were once unheard of outside of their native regions have also come to prominence in recent years. Mencia in Northern Spain's Galicia makes vibrant zingy reds. Graciano, a variety that was once so unpopular in Rioja—due to its low yields and susceptibility to disease—that Riojans used to joke that its name meant 'Gracias no!' (no thank you!), now makes distinctive varietal wines. Even Bobal, a work horse grape in Catalonia used to add color and body to cheap wines, now has its champions, such as Cien y Pico in Utiel Requena, who value its power but have managed to tame Bobal's harsh tendencies. Finally, there's Listan, which makes pale vibrant wines on the island of Lanzarote. What all these grapes have in common is high acidity—which is why they're proving particularly popular with sommeliers. They are excellent food wines. It's no coincidence that these wines have come to prominence as Spanish cooking has risen in prestige and popularity.

The success of these previously obscure varieties begs the question: Are there more discoveries to make? The Torres family, which did so much to introduce French varieties to Spain, certainly thinks so. According to Miguel Torres Maczassek (ak.a. Miguel Jr.), Catalonia had hundreds of different grape varieties before the region was hit with phylloxera, the vine-eating louse that destroyed vineyards in the late 19th and early 20th century. They were never replanted. Thirty years ago, the family began its Ancestral Vine Project to see if they could find any survivors. They put advertisements in the papers asking if people had any unknown grape varieties growing on their land. They received thousands of calls. Most of the time the mystery vine turned out to be Garnacha; nevertheless, they found fifty unique varieties—including six with great potential for first-class wine.

"Some varieties are rubbish," Torres Maczassek told me. It was a laborious process finding out which were suitable. The Torres family took cuttings, grew them in a laboratory, and then grafted the vines onto phylloxera resistant rootstocks. Then they had to wait three years for them to bear fruit. "We built a winery just to micro vinify the grapes. The project cost millions of Euros over thirty years," he said. So why did they bother? "Partly from curiosity, but we are also worried about global warming. These are grapes that preserve their acidity even in Catalonia's hot climate."

Torres Maczassek let me try three varietal wines: Gonfaus, Garro and Querol (the names were made up by the Torres family). My favorite was the Gonfaus, not least because it sounds like a character from the Harry Potter books. It combines high acidity with full fruit, firm tannins and finesse. It produced a savory, structured wine that reminded me a little of Aglianico from Italy. The Garro is light and juicy, like a Gamay. The Querol has a deep color and is powerfully aromatic—even a little rustic. Torres Maczassek says it is good for flavoring and providing color to a blend.

They only have five hectares of experimental vines, so these varietal wines are not available commercially. Instead they feature in two blends: Grans Muralles, a premium blend of Garnacha, Cariñena, Monastrell Querol and Garro; and the cheaper Purgatori, a blend of Syrah, Gonfaus and others. When they have approval from the local regulatory body, they'll make cuttings available to other producers. "They belong to the Catalans; they're our heritage," as Torres Maczassek put it.

Experiments such as these are part of a wider trend in wine of looking beyond the star names for unusual native grapes. "In the past it was easier to make great wine from Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, with better techniques in the vineyard and winery, we can make great wine from these lost varieties," Torres Maczassek told me. Which is why the Torres family have now widened their search for obscure grapes to the rest of Spain. I am excited for what they can find. And I'm excited to see what other producers can do with these discoveries—not just in Spain, but in other hot climates around the world, too. Barossa Gonfaus anyone?

Here, four unusual non-Tempranillo Spanish reds to try now:

Grans Muralles 2010, $114.99 (I tried the 2010, but other vintages are available, too.)
You can see why the Catalan for red wine is Vi Negre, which translates to 'black wine.' The nose is similarly impressive, spicy, and perfumed, with layers of brooding dark fruit. It's a big polished wine with ripe tannins and an amazing backbone of acidity. It really came to life with some roast lamb. Its baby brother Purgatori is excellent in a lighter style but not yet available in the US.

Daniel Landi Las Uvas de la Ira Garnacha 2014, $29.99
This smells rocky and mineraly. The fruit is sweet and ripe like strawberries, but with a firm savory edge, strong tannins and high acidity. Great tension and there's a floral quality too. Truly a thing of beauty. I'd love to see how this ages.

Guimaro Ribeira Sacra 2011, $15.99 
Textbook Mencia from Galicia, there's masses of acidity and a peppery bite but plenty of ripe cherry fruit too. Superb with fatty food.

Zorzal Graciano 2011 Wine Deals, $10.99 
From Navarra, the neighboring region to Rioja. This is combines superfresh raspberries with a savory earthy quality.

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