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Exciting Wines from Secret Spain
By Rebecca Murphy
Sep 29, 2015
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In 2014, Spain was number three in the world in wine production behind France and Italy.  Spain’s tradition of wine production began when the Phoenicians planted vines 3,000 years ago in the area where sherry is now produced.  I like Spanish wines for the variety of styles and the usually high quality-to-price ratio.  So, it was not a difficult decision to participate in a Wines of Spain webinar about the lesser known wine regions of Spain hosted by Lucas Payà, a Washington DC food and beverage consultant who has worked as a sommelier at Ferran Adrià’s Il Bulli and wine & beverage director for the José Andrés ThinkFoodGroup.  We visited several Spanish wine regions via the wines in our glass and commentary from Lucas.

Certainly the most fascinating wine region and grape totally unknown to me was Valle de la Orotava DO and Listán Negro, respectively.  Valle de la Orotava is a small appellation on the island of Tenerife.  The island is part of a volcanic archipelago called the Canary Islands, located off the west coast of northern Africa.  Valle de la Orotava consists of about 988 acres on the slopes of Teide, Spain’s highest mountain.  Measured from the ocean floor, Teide is the world’s third largest volcano.  Not surprisingly, the soil is 70 percent volcanic.  The climate is hot and humid, with temperatures quite high in the summer.  The vineyards on the slopes of Teide are often covered in mist due to year-round trade winds, so they don’t fry in the summer heat.  Apparently phylloxera is not an issue on this island, perhaps because those critters are not happy in volcanic soils.  The appellation’s main red grape is the native Listán Negro.  Some believe this is the Mission grape that the Spanish brought with them to the New World.  According to Wine Grapes (by Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz), the grape’s DNA profile does not match that of any other grape, and furthermore the traveling grape was Listán Prieto.

Suertes del Marques, Valle de la Orotava DO, 7 Fuentes, Listán Negro 2013 ($23, European Cellars) was the wine we tasted from the region.  The grapes come from different vineyard sites, so each lot is fermented separately in temperature controlled stainless or concrete fermenters.  For the 2013 vintage, 60 percent was aged in concrete and 40 percent in French oak barrels for eight months.  It was smoky and toasty with savory, bright cherry, strawberry fruit.  It was light and well structured in the mouth, finishing with ripe, integrated tannins.

Another unknown grape and region (to me, anyway), was the indigenous Prieto Picudo grape from Tierra de Leon.  The appellation is in North Central Spain in Castilla y León south of Leon not far from Bierzo.  The climate is continental and the altitude ranges from 2700 to 3100 feet.  The Prieto Picudo grape is the primary variety of the region.  It is thick-skinned, therefore highly tinted with plenty of acidity and tannins.  It requires winemaking skill to avoid over-extraction.  The Bodegas Margon, Tierra de Leon DO, Pricum Primeur Tinto 2013 ($9, Grapes of Spain) that we tasted had a deep, dark ruby color, floral, juicy pomegranate and red cherry fruit.  The fruit was offset by vivid acidity and finished with dense, chewy tannins and a bit of pleasant bitterness.

Green Spain is always bit of a welcome surprise to me because I tend to think of Spain as producing warm climate red wines.  It sits atop northwestern Spain bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Biscay, which provide a strong, cooling marine influence.  It stretches from Galicia from the west into the Basque country to the east.  It includes the town of San Sebastian, home to three of Spain’s eight Michelin three star restaurants.  Likely the best known wines from Green Spain are Albariños from Rias Baixas and Txakoli wines from the Basque country.  We tasted two wines from Green Spain, a white from Valdeorras and a red from Ribeira Sacra.

Valdeorras got its “valley of gold” name when the Romans discovered and mined gold there.  The altitude in the region ranges from 900 to 2100 feet, and with a Continental cold winter, warm summer, and mild autumn and spring, it is well suited for growing high quality wine grapes.  The predominant red grapes are Mencía and Garnacha, while the whites are Moscatel, Palomino and Godello (pronounced, “go DAYE oh”), which according to Wine Grapes, was likely born along the Rio Sil in Valdeorras.  The grape was brought back from near extinction in 1970s when there were only about 400 vines left in the valley.  Appropriately, the Godello we tasted, A Coroa, Valdeorras DO, Godello 2013 ($20, De Maison Selections) was from a winery owned by the López Vincente family, which only makes Godello.  It showed chalky pear aromas and flavors, almost like a Chablis, although not as much acidity.  Light, bright and crisp on the palate. 

While other Green Spain appellations excel with white wines, in Ribeira Sacra red wine is the focus.  The main grape is Mencia with very small amounts of other reds and white grapes.  Ribeira Sacra sits in the middle of Galicia where both the Rio Miño and Rio Sil have carved their way through the landscape creating valleys and canyons with steep slopes.  Here the climate is more continental, with long hot summers and cool autumns with an average annual rainfall of nearly 32 inches.  The Romans were the first to plant vines on the steep slopes, and growers continue this practice today.  I’ve tasted and quite enjoyed Mencia from Bierzo, but this was my first from Ribeira Sacra.  It was definitely in a lighter, more aromatic style than those I have previously tasted.  The wine was Guimaro, Ribeira Sacra DO, Tinto 2013 ($18, José Pastor Selections) made by Pedro Rodriguez who established his winery in 1991.  This wine is hand-harvested from steeply sloped vineyards, de-stemmed, and fermented in stainless steel.  It showed pure black cherry, raspberry fruit both salty and floral. In the mouth it was lean, fresh and medium bodied with lightly chewy tannins.  It was lively, exciting and elegant.

A grape we don’t usually see as a single-varietal wine is Xarello, (“cha REL oh”).  It’s part of the classic sparkling Cava blend with Parrallada and Macabeo.  The one I tasted comes from the Penedes region in Catalonia on the easternmost part of Spain, bordered by France on the north and the Mediterranean Sea on the east.  Needless to say, the climate is Mediterranean, mild and warm, and the region has a wide range of micro climates and altitudes.  The wine we tasted was Raventos I Blanc, Penedès DO, Silenses, Xarello 2013 ($24, Michael Skurnik Wines).  It was a lean, crisp, lemony, salty, chalky wine with plenty of acidity to give it staying power.  It is a perfect wine for oysters on the half shell.

Wines from Rioja are not lesser known wines…unless the wine is white.  The wine In this case is made from Viura, also known as Macabeo, one of the Cava grapes.  Baron de Ley, Rioja DOCa 2014 ($11, Frederick Wildman) was charming and delicious with floral, spicy, pink grapefruit and apple flavors and balancing acidity that keeps the mouthwatering, but doesn’t intrude. 

The Sherry appellation in Andalucia is certainly well known, but Palo Cortado has traditionally been talked about as a bit of a mystery or even a miracle.  Basically it is a fino, the palest and finest of the base wines, that just doesn’t properly develop flor, so most of its life it is aged oxidatively, not unlike an Amatillado.  We tasted Lustau, Jerex DO, Penninsula Palo Cortado ($24, Europvin), lucky us!  The aromas are beguiling notes of baked apples, roasted almonds and a gently piercing freshness, while in the mouth the flavors are rich, caramel, nutty with a bit of orange zest.

It is very exciting to see the growers and vintners committing themselves to the revival of nearly extinct grape varieties and their willingness to farm those grapes in often extreme situations.  It’s what makes wine so exciting.  It is easy to follow the market and plant Chardonnay and Cabernet because they’re easy to sell.  It is challenging and likely not as profitable to follow the heart to make a wine that truly speaks of its place.