As these three Spanish wine regions prove, progress can mean reclaiming the past as well as embracing the future.
Rioja: New-Wave Reds
Although Rioja, located in north-central Spain, is easily the country's most famous red wine region, its success has posed perils of its own. Back in the '70s, when demand for its wines rose, many of Rioja's producers responded by increasing vineyard yields. They planted more productive clones of Rioja's chief grape, Tempranillo, and lavished them with fertilizers. The resulting wines—light and soft—stood in direct contrast to the rich, full-bodied ones being made in other parts of the world. More and more wine drinkers came to associate Rioja with reds that were not only light and soft but, due to extended aging in American oak, even vaguely oxidized.
A new generation of Rioja vintners is working hard to change that impression, making wines so concentrated and intense they invite comparison with the reds of Bordeaux or California. Although these vintners often regard themselves less as innovators than as restorers of Rioja's authentic traditions, their wines stand in stark contrast to the old status quo. Leading examples include Torre Muga from Bodegas Muga, Roda I and Cirsión from Bodegas Roda, Dos Vinedos from Bodegas Palacios Remondo and Aurus from Finca Allende. All are made from rigorously selected grapes drawn from low-yielding old vines planted in optimal vineyard sites; they are uniformly dark, dense and richly flavorful, framed by the finest French oak. Even though they retail for $50 or more a bottle, they often sell out immediately upon release. (More affordable renditions are available as well—in the $20 to $30 range, look for Contino Crianza, Bodegas Bretón's Loriñon Reserva and Bodegas Martinez Bujanda's Finca Valpiedra.)
These are the wines that have not only garnered acclaim in international circles, but have also gained a following among native drinkers. Ibone Candina, export manager for Bodegas Roda, notes that even in Spain, the audience for Rioja's old-style, light, oaky wines has grown smaller as a new generation of young, well-traveled Spaniards demonstrates a preference for the powerful New-Wave, fruit-driven wines they have encountered abroad.
Toro: Red-Hot Reds
It's been a very long time since Toro produced wines worthy of notice, although many in Spain believe this region in the northeastern corner of the country, bordering Portugal, is poised to become the most important of all. Toro's hot, semiarid climate has proven ideal for ripe, robust reds, and its preferred grape, Tinta de Toro, a strain of Tempranillo, has adapted particularly well to the local peculiarities of soil and climate.
Manolo Fariña was the first to blaze a trail from Toro to the world back in the early 1980s. His international-style wines are made from grapes picked late in the ripening process, and thereby retain Toro's legendary power, but none are afflicted by Toro's equally traditional raisiny notes of over-ripeness. Today, Fariña works alongside his Bordeaux-trained son Bernardo, planting vineyards and experimenting with new techniques. He confidently predicts that in 10 years' time, Toro will not only surpass the rest of Spain but will be the premier winemaking region in Europe. Fariña's optimism seems to be shared by several other top Spanish winemakers, including two from the Ribero del Duero who bear Spain's most famous names, Alejandro Fernandez of Pesquera and the Alvarez family of Vega Sicilia. Both wineries have established new operations in the area of Toro.
Two top Toro wines are the 1998 San Román from Bodegas Maurodos ($30) and the 1998 Numanthiá bottling from Vega de Toro ($40). Both attest to Toro's extraordinary potential. Similarly impressive Toro reds can even be found for as little as $12 a bottle, such as the Fariña's 1999 Gran Collegiata or Dehesa Gago's 1999 "G." Slightly more expensive, the 1996 Reserva from Bodegas Vega Sauco or the 1999 "Piedra Roble" from Estancia Piedra are worth a search.
Navarra: More Than Rosé
Although it's not very well known in the wine world at large, Navarra, located next to Rioja, has been exporting wine in quantity since the Middle Ages. The region hit its peak late in the nineteenth century when (along with Rioja) it became Europe's major source of fine wine in the wake of the phylloxera scourge that swept France's vineyards. But phylloxera soon killed Navarra's vines as well, and its wines pretty much disappeared from the international market for most of the twentieth century. If Navarra was known for any wine at all, it was probably for its rosado, a rosé that was often old and tired by the time it reached wine drinkers outside Spain. However, thanks to a cluster of innovative family estates, a government-funded research institute and vineyards replanted with international grape varieties such as Merlot and Chardonnay, Navarra winemaking has revived to such an extent that it is now one of Spain's most progressive wine regions.
Leading producers such as Fernando Chivite, an 11th-generation winemaker for the venerable Navarra estate, Chivite, combine traditional winemaking with contemporary techniques, using indigenous grapes as well as international stars like Chardonnay. For example, Chivite makes traditional wines such as his fresh, delicious 1999 Rosado ($8) and a flashy, single-vineyard Chardonnay aged in French oak, 1998 Coleccion 125 Blanco ($48).
Another leading New-Wave Navarran, Bodegas Ochoa, produces a range of wines, which includes traditional-style kinds, such as a sweet Moscatel, as well as modern-style Merlots and Cabernets. Other notable producers include Bodegas Guelbenzu, Bodegas Otazu and Bodegas Nekeas, the latter turning out ripe wines in a straightforward international style with plenty of new French oak.
Michael Franz is a wine columnist for the Washington Post and a professor of political science at Loyola College in Baltimore.