Click below for Astor's (lengthy) thoughts on Spanish wines...
Today’s wine world is a paranoid one. We carefully compile our collections of treasures – reading up on vintages, searching out undiscovered gems, tucking them away with care – only then to sit on them, biting our nails, and fretting over the precise moment to pop the cork. Is the wine ready? Is it too young? Will it be infinitely better in five years if only we can exercise the necessary restraint?
Let me introduce you, my conscientious connoisseur, to the wonder of Spanish wines – for central to the Spanish winemaking philosophy is the belief that a wine should be released only when it is actually ready to be consumed, and not a moment before.
Spanish wine law, in fact, focuses on the issue of proper maturation: the terms Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva are all indicators of the amount of time the wine spent both in the cask and in the bottle prior to release. The specific amounts of time required by these designations vary by region. In Rioja, requirements — red Crianzas must be aged a minimum of two years, one of which must be in barrel. Reservas require a minimum of three years of ageing, with, again, at least one year in barrel. For Gran Reservas, the minimum jumps to a total of five years, with at least two spent in barrel. Now of course, these minimums are often exceeded – sometimes by decades – by top producers. Take a walk through our Cool Room and check out the vintages of some of the exquisite wines from López de Heredia. The Gran Reserva Viña Tondonia from 1947 wasn’t released until the early nineties – it spent over forty years resting in the immense caves at López de Heredia, evolving and maturing into one of the most fascinating and complex wines in the world.
So whichever bottle of Spanish wine you decide to pick up during our sale, rest assured that the winemaker has done the cellaring for you (which is only fair, since after all, he’s not paying rent in Manhattan).
Here’s a brief breakdown of the major winemaking regions of Spain:
The origin of Spanish winemaking, Rioja has been the benchmark for Spanish wines in the international market for over two hundred years, and remains so to this day. Tempranillo is the star of the red wines here, though its expression can vary wildly from producer to producer. Traditionally-styled Riojas tend to be subtle and soft, and often have high levels of acidity to ensure their survival through the lengthy ageing process. The more modern producers are making powerful, dark, fruit-driven, tannic wines — often with a pronounced use of new French oak. The only way to navigate the differences between the wines is to be familiar with specific producers, so don’t be shy in asking our sales staff for advice. And don’t overlook the wide variety of white Riojas. Viura is the main grape of the modern white wines produced here, but traditionalists (such as López de Heredia) still use a good deal of old vine Malvasía as well. These traditionally-styled wines are intentionally oxidized, resulting in an array of fascinating and unique aromas reminiscent of Vin Jaune or sherry.
Ribera del Duero
This region is home to perhaps the most famed and acclaimed Spanish wine in history, the incomparable Vega Sicilia. Indeed for the better part of the twentieth century, Vega Sicilia was the single most expensive wine in Spain and, largely, the country’s major claim to fame on the international market. It wasn’t until 1972 that other winemakers began to creep into the region, but now the Ribera del Duero is home to a wealth of fabulous Tempranillo based wines that consistently garner critical acclaim throughout the wine world. The climate here creates a more robust expression of the grape than typically found in Rioja – with deeper concentration, more tannin, and darker fruits. For good value, look to wines from neighboring Toro as well. These Tempranillo based wines are often similarly plush, powerful, and elegant.
Located just east along the Duero River from the Ribera del Duero, this region is widely known for its delicious Verdejo based white wines. Often blended with Viura and Sauvignon Blanc, these wines can range from light, floral and crisp to richly textured and powerfully aromatic. For inexpensive quaffing wines – think summertime and ceviché — one need look no further.
Priorat is the precocious new kid on the Spanish wine scene. Twenty years ago, this tiny Northwestern winemaking region was all but forgotten. Then, after a handful of winemaking mavericks moved into the area, Priorat began to produce some of the most powerful, complex, and expensive wines on the market. In 2003, Priorat was awarded the prestigious D.O.C. status – a term previously held only by Rioja – and prices and quality levels have continued to soar ever since. Garnacha (called Grenache in France) is the most widely planted grape in the region, with Cariñena (elsewhere known as Carignan) coming in a close second. Most Priorat wines are made from a blend of grapes, including a number of international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. These are massive, modern wines, often with high alcohol content – yet they never fail to possess poise, structure, and an unmistakably earthy undertone. If Priorat prices are currently beyond your budget, check out the wines from neighboring Montant and the Costa Brava. These similarly-styled wines offer some of the best bang-for-your-buck values in Spain.
Just slightly inland off the Mediterranean Sea, this hot climate region is the ideal home for the red grape Monastrell (also called Mourvèdre in France). Wines from Jumilla are generally ripe and jammy, with loads of dark berry fruit intertwined with notes of baking spices, chocolate, and tea. These are very versatile food wines, and, at generally very modest prices, they are the perfect accompaniment to your Chinese take-out (or a heaping plate of barbeque spare ribs).
Located on the Northeast coast of Spain, just north of the Portuguese border, Rías Baixas is home to the famed white grape varietal Albariño. These deliciously refreshing whites typically offer aromas of peach, apricot, and melon, backed by a steely minerality and a lean, crisp finish. Not to be overlooked is the neighboring D.O. of Txakoli, which produces some equally fabulous (if largely unpronounceable) dry white wines. Bracing and fresh, these wines are ideal for cooling off on a hot summer day.