Very few consumers pay any attention to the small print on the back of a wine bottle. In most cases, they aren't missing much. In some instances, however, they're missing something very important when they don't notice a name associated with the line reading, "Imported by...."
Insiders to the wine trade know that importers can have a huge impact on the wines we taste in North America. Some importers have opened American eyes to under appreciated regions. Others have assembled portfolios of small but excellent estates that might otherwise have remained unavailable here. A few importers have an impact that reaches into the wine itself, either by steering their producers toward a particular style or by influencing crop yields or oak usage. In brief, you would have missed something exceedingly important if you overlooked indications that a wine was imported by the likes of Robert Chadderdon, Robert Kacher, Leonardo Locassio, Kermit Lynch, Neal Rosenthal or Terry Theise.
I'd like to propose another name for consideration in the ranks of America's most significant importers: Aurelio Cabestrero, president and owner of Grapes of Spain, Inc., based in Lorton, Virginia. Cabestrero started his company quite recently, in 2002. Yet, in this brief span he has assembled a lineup of wines that seems impossibly strong.
That phrasing was not chosen carelessly. The strength of the Grapes of Spain lineup seems impossibly strong for two reasons: it seems impossible that wines this wonderful weren't already being imported here by someone else, and it seems impossible for Cabestrero to have established relationships with so many stellar producers in such a short time. Understanding his success is indeed possible, but only if one learns a few things about the recent history of Spanish wine and about the man himself.
Spanish wine is now in the midst of a great resurgence, but the backdrop to this is a period of underperformance that ran for the better part of a century. Although Spain has many spectacular regions for winegrowing and an abundance of sites with old vines, its presence in world markets during the 20th century was hampered, in succession, by phylloxera, a world war, global economic depression, a civil war, another world war, and a long period of relative insularity under a fascist regime.
Only in the 1970s did Spain begin to reconnect extensively with the rest of Europe, and it took another 20 years and the turnover of a generation to prepare the country's wine industry for the rigors of international competition. An influx of funds from the European Union helped kickstart the modernization of winemaking facilities, and growing prosperity within Spain helped to build additional momentum.
A new, more widely traveled and internationally minded generation of viticulturalists and winemakers sought to make the world aware of Spain's best grape varieties and growing regions. Some railed against traditional practices and began working with French grape varieties, whereas others defended indigenous grapes and sought to improve their wines while working within established modes of grapegrowing and winemaking. Although the Spanish wine industry was marked by heated internal disputes, the disputes were productive ones that sharpened everyone's attention to key issues of technique and style. The pace of improvement in Spain throughout the 1990s was clearly faster than any winegrowing country in Europe, and was arguably the fastest of any country in the world during that decade.
It was possible to acquire some of Spain's top wines in the USA during the 1990s, thanks to the efforts of a handful of elite importers such as Christopher Cannan, Stephen Metzler, Jorge Ordoñez and Eric Solomon. However, with Spain in the midst of a renaissance that seemed to produce a brilliant new bodega every month, there was plenty of opportunity for another importer to crack into the top ranks.
Although fortunate timing certainly helps us understand what Aurelio Cabestrero has accomplished, we should recall Machiavelli's lesson that good fortune is quickly squandered by those who fail to secure its opportunities by means of virtue. Combining the virtues of deep knowledge, extensive experience, a great palate, and a friendly, modest personality that attracted countless valuable contacts, Cabestrero built a killer portfolio in short order while other contenders in the Spanish importing derby were slowly trying to learn the landscape and get up to speed.
I first encountered Cabestrero at a tasting of top wines from Spain that I helped conduct to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Jaleo (one of America's best Spanish restaurants, now with three locations in the Washington, D.C. area). This was about the time when Cabestrero was launching his business. I was working with Antoni Yelamos (originally from Catalonia, and one of the brains behind the excellent wine program at Jaleo and its sister restaurants), who pointed to Cabestrero in the crowd and said, "You need to meet Aurelio, who knows everybody who is making great wine in Spain."
That seemed like polite hyperbole at the time, but, in retrospect, I'm inclined to believe that it was true even then. I've been to Spain four times since 2002, and all across the country I've run into people who would see the address on my business card and say something like, "You're from D.C., so do you know Aurelio?"
Cabestrero built up all of these contacts by working first as a sommelier in Spain. Originally from Madrid, he worked at that city's Michelin-starred Café de Oriente for three years before coming to D.C. to work as sommelier at Taberna del Alabardero and subsequently at Marcel's. Along the way he won the Ruinart 1993 prize as the Best Sommelier in Spain, the 1994 award as Best Young Sommelier from Wine and Gastronomic Magazine, and second prize at the National Sopexa Competition of French Wines and Spirits in 1994.
Grapes of Spain now represents 35 producers with a portfolio of more than 85 wines from regions across Spain. All the wines are new to the American market, and are made by family winegrowers with relatively limited production but a strong emphasis on quality. The wines are shipped in refrigerated containers to the company's warehouse, which is likewise temperature controlled.
Grapes of Spain wines are now available in 15 states as well as in the District of Columbia, and they range from fairly affordable to ultra-premium bottlings. They form a diverse group, since they reflect the distinctive characters of the grapes, regions, and personalities behind them, yet it seems possible to discern a certain continuity of style. Perhaps due to Cabestrero's background as a sommelier, he seems to select wines with a view to pure fruit and balanced structure. Even the biggest, most serious wines rarely seem hard or forbidding when young, and ripeness and oak almost never seem to obscure the mineral nuances that give the wines a connection to their places of origin.
Aurelio Cabestrero is a young man with a future that seems very bright for him and very promising for those of us who love Spanish wines. Here are recommendations of some current releases that could give you a taste of his outstanding work:
José Pariente, Rueda (Castilla y León, Spain) Verdejo 2004 ($18.50, Grapes of Spain): I'm fortunate to taste almost every Verdejo imported to North America almost every year, and this bottling is almost always the best. Light-bodied and utterly refreshing, this is tough to beat in warm weather, and yet it features penetrating flavors that make it quite satisfying year round. Citrus fruit is augmented by interesting little nuances of dried herbs, straw and minerals, with superb integration of fruit and acidity. 91
Fuente Elvira, Rueda (Castilla y León, Spain) Verdejo Fermentado en Barrica 2004 ($19, Grapes of Spain): One look at this label had me itching for an argument, despite the fact that importer Aurelio Cabestrero is such an agreeable guy. However, I like my Verdejo unadulterated by oak (just like my Sauvignon Blanc and Albariño), and think that this is probably the objectively right approach to this grape rather than a merely subjective preference. Moreover, the presence of the word "Barrica" reminded me of my basic principle of avoiding any wine that mentions wood on the front label. However, trusting Aurelio as I do, I gave it a try--with surprising results. Yes, the toasty, vanillin aromas mask the pungency of the grape's zesty personality, but once tried with food (a simple salad of crabmeat and corn with herbs and spices), this bottling outperformed the excellent regular bottling of Fuente Elvira. It had more depth and power to deal with the relatively rich food, and once tasted with the dish, the overt oak notes virtually disappeared. Complex and tasty, this is a winner. 90
Fuente Elvira, Rueda (Castilla y León, Spain) Verdejo 2004 ($12, Grapes of Spain): Thrilling stuff, this features piercing, pungent notes of citrus fruit, freshly cut grass and dried herbs, with subtle mineral undertones. Light and fresh but deeply flavored, it delivers real punch on the palate, but finishes with absolute clarity and cleanliness thanks to a very healthy dose of acidity. Although it sent me into immediate oyster lust, it has enough stuffing to work with all sorts of fin fish or chicken dishes as well as soups or salads. 89
Adegas Gran Vinum, Rias Baixas (Galicia, Spain) Albariño "Esencia Diviña" 2004 ($19, Grapes of Spain): This delicate, well-integrated Albariño features very nice fruit notes recalling peaches, along with subtle mineral notes and soft acidity. Medium-bodied and highly versatile, this will pair beautifully with a wide range of seafood dishes. 88
1 + 1 = 3, Cava (Penedes, Spain) Brut NV ($14, Grapes of Spain): This excellent Cava shows lots of class and very little of the rustic, wet straw character that mars many wines in the category. Toasty, nutty aromas and flavors are very pleasant, with lots of bright acidity lending freshness to this quite dry sparkler. The effervescence is unusually fine for a Cava, and the whole package offers a lot of flavor and fun for the money. 86
Bodegas J. C. Conde, Ribera del Duero (Castilla y León, Spain) "Neo" 2002 ($57, Grapes of Spain): This is a phenomenal accomplishment from the difficult 2002 vintage, and I'm convinced that other reviewers underscored the wine because they didn't believe that anything from 2002 should earn a score up into the 90s. Although this rendition doesn't have quite the concentration or length of the spectacular 2001 Neo (or the delicious debut release from 2000), the aromatic complexity of this 2002 is amazing, with alluring notes of ripe blackberries, bing cherries, cassis, woodsmoke, spices, vanilla, leather and toast. The appropriate way to adjust to the somewhat lighter body of the 2002 is to substitute a grilled veal chop for the grilled steak that would be best with the 2001, and that is all the adjustment you'll need to adore this wine. Although I know it will be hard to persuade you to buy a wine costing $57 from a less-than-stellar vintage, you will thank me if you buy this one! 93
Elias Mora, Toro (Castilla y León, Spain) "Daniel" 2003 ($49, Grapes of Spain): This wine may offer more pure pleasure than any red I have yet tasted in 2006, and to its credit, it is as pure as it is pleasurable. Ripe fruit notes of dark berries are immense and immensely appealing, with supporting notes of woodsmoke, spices, and subtle vanilla all contributing to the impressive complexity of the finished product. Concentrated and intensely flavorful, this will continue to develop for another 7-10 years, but those without cellars should not shy away, as it is thoroughly enjoyable now. 93
Luna Beberide, Bierzo (Castilla y León, Spain) "Daniel" 2003 ($49, Grapes of Spain): This is one of several new wines in a series named after importer Aurelio Cabestrero's young son. It is intense and structured, but shows plenty of deep, sweet fruit to counterbalance the oak and tannins. The fruit notes are quite complex, including red and black cherries and red raspberries, with undertones of smoke, spices and subtle vanilla. Displaying many layers and facets of aroma, flavor and texture, this as interesting as it is downright delicious. 93
Luna Beberide, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León (Spain) "Tierras de Luna" 2001 ($29, Grapes of Spain): This is a deeply serious wine. Comprised of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Tempranillo, 15% Merlot and 15% Mencia, all grown in a marvelous vintage, this is very powerful and intense. The fruit notes are all black, with currents leading the way. Tarry, roasted meat notes and lots of fine-grained tannin make this a formidable partner for the most robust foods, so think lamb shanks and hearty stews. 91
Abadal (Bodegas Masies d'Avinyo), Pla de Bages (Spain) "Seleccio" 2000 ($50, Grapes of Spain): This blend of 40% Cabernet Franc, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Syrah is extremely expressive in aroma, flavor and finish. Notes of dark berries predominate, but are accented with scents and flavors of cocoa, roasted meats, woodsmoke, dried herbs and tobacco leaf. Medium-bodied but deeply flavorful, this will work beautifully with almost any robust meat dish. 91
Pujanza, Rioja (Spain) "Daniel" 2003 ($49, Grapes of Spain): This wine shows exceedingly expressive fruit, even allowing for a very hot year that produced particularly ripe fruit. The aromas include intense notes of red raspberries and dried red cherries, along with a nice floral undertone. Intensely fruity, with very subtle oak notes, this is juicy and charming on the surface, with lots of nuanced undertones that will become more prominent with bottle ageing. 90
San Román, Toro (Castilla y León, Spain) 2002 ($50, Grapes of Spain): The 2002 vintage was a difficult one in northern Spain, but you'd never know it from tasting this wine. Yes, it is a bit softer in structure and a bit more developed at this age than the wines of this bodega in other years, but there is no lack of depth, concentration or structure, and both the flavors and proportionality are extremely appealing. Soft notes of ripe blackberries and black plums lead the way, with oak notes well in the background. Full bodied but soft and rounded in texture, this is delicious and ready to roll, though it will no doubt perform well for another four or five years. 90
Genium, Priorat (Catalonia, Spain) Ecologic 2003 ($40, Grapes of Spain): This certified organic wine was crafted from 60% Garnacha, 30% Merlot and 10% Cariñena (a.k.a. Carignane). It announces its origins from Priorat immediately with very deep color and exceedingly ripe aromas with cherries in the forefront. Soft in texture but deeply flavorful, it shows lots of sweet, soft fruit, but then displays enough grip in the finish from wood and tannin to indicate that it can hang in with serious food. 90
Leva, Alicante (Spain) "Daniel's" 2003 ($36, Grapes of Spain): Impressively dark color, this displays ripe, fruity aromas accented by soft, subtle oak scents. Purity and freshness are the most prominent characteristics, but the wine shows excellent depth of fruit, with ripe flavors of black plums and cherries. There is plenty of tannin to structure the fruit, but it is very ripe in character and very fine in grain, leaving the texture of the wine soft and rounded. Charming, sexy stuff. 89
Guzmán Aldazabal, Rioja (Spain) 2000 ($27, Grapes of Spain): This wine may not completely impress either Rioja traditionalists or modernists, as it is neither leathery and oxidized nor super-concentrated and spicy. However, it will impress almost anyone who likes balanced, symmetrical wines with fine texture and pure flavors. The lead notes here are cherries and plums, with subtle supporting accents of smoke and tobacco leaf. Soft and sweet, this is a charmer with superb integration that can be sipped with great pleasure or matched with all sorts of foods from grilled fish to light meats. 88
Aylés, Cariñena (Spain) Garnacha 2004 ($10, Grapes of Spain): This very fine wine shows how interesting and delicious Garnacha (a.k.a. Grenache) can be when taken seriously and sourced from low yielding old vines. Deeper and more concentrated than most Grenache-based Côte du Rhones, but more graceful and vinous than the monsters from South Australia, this is medium-bodied and beautifully balanced. Fresh aromas of red and black cherries are augmented by subtle oak accents and emerging notes of smoke and leather. 88
Higueruela, Almansa (Spain) 2004 ($10, Grapes of Spain): Crafted entirely from old vine Garnacha without any oak contact, this is packed with fruit. However, it is neither simple nor grapey, as notes of anise, damp earth and leather accent the cherry and plum fruit notes to make this enduringly interesting. Very nicely integrated, it has lots of stuffing and plenty of tannin, but is nicely rounded and soft through the finish. 88