Thoughts of Old World wines do not always bring Spain and Portugal to mind as top producers. But they should. After France and Italy, the Iberian Peninsula is the third largest producer of wines in the world, with 3 million acres under wine grape cultivation in Spain alone.
You might think that’s an awful lot of sherry and port, for which the two countries were historically known. But acreage devoted to the famous fortified wines is just a small part of the region’s total wine output. More and more, Spain especially is combining traditional cultivars with New World winemaking techniques, resulting in some fresh, bright approaches that are quickly finding their niche in the ever-expanding wine world.
Archeological evidence shows that wine grapes have been under cultivation in Spain since about 4000 B.C. The first wine trading port was established at Cádiz in 1100 B.C. Spain’s conquest by Roman legions in 218 B.C. helped spread the nation’s wine throughout the Roman Empire, which eventually covered most of Western Europe.
Despite centuries of expansion, however, the Spanish wine industry has lagged behind its French and Italian counterparts in its development. But the situation is changing.
There’s growing familiarity with and appreciation for Spain’s indigenous grape varieties, including Albariño, Garnacha, Tempranillo and Xarel-lo. At the same time, innovative growing techniques have kept Spanish wine prices relatively low while raising their quality to higher levels. That’s excellent news for wine drinkers in search of exciting new flavor profiles.
What’s more, Spanish winemakers see their jobs as “elaborer” rather than “fabricar” – to elaborate or nurture factors the grape already offers rather than use the raw material to simply fabricate wine. That’s an oenological aesthetic anyone can appreciate.
Here is a six-pack splash of Spanish and Portuguese wines designed to help you start celebrating the coming of spring.
In the lightest and brightest category, Portugal’s Gazela White ($7) easily takes the lead. Blended in the country’s Vinho Verde region from four different grapes, the wine arrives with a light straw color and a slight effervescence. Its natural acidity is balanced by a touch of sweetness and highlighted with bright tropical notes, resulting in a wine that’s unusually refreshing and an excellent value for the price.
For something a little more complex, try the 2011 Lo Nuevo Lunares ($11), produced from Verdejo grapes grown on old vines in Spain’s Rueda region northwest of Madrid. The palate explodes with pineapple and floral notes, followed by a creamy mouthfeel, vibrant acidity and a lingering finish. This is a surprisingly fresh-flavored excursion for a wine grown from vines around 100 years old
The Martin Codax 2011 Rias Baixas Albariño ($16) is made from one Spain’s best-known varietals. Medium-bodied and delicately flavored, the wine teases the palate with tastes of apple, pear and lemon. The wine also has a distinct acidity and bright minerality that make this one exceptional for both sipping and supping.
As nice as the whites are, the reds are even better – starting with the 2009 Callabriga Dáo Red ($17) from Portugal’s Dáo region. Produced from a blend of Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional and Alfrocheiro Preto grapes, the wine pours a deep red with an aroma of spicy, even balsamic notes with a flavor profile to match. Firm tannins and a good acidity make this full-bodied wine an excellent accompaniment to heavier dishes.
More old-vine fruit comes into play with the 2009 Las Rocas Garnacha Viñas Viejas ($17), also from northwest Spain. Harvested from aging vines clinging to the hillsides of the arid Aragon region, the wine presents with a deep ruby color and spicy bouquet. Las Rochas’ flavors are characterized by dark cherry and stone fruit notes, with vanilla essences from the French oak in which part of the harvest was aged. Round supple tannins and a fruit-forward finish round out this fine red varietal.
Another standout, both in terms of flavor and economy, is the 2005 El Coto de Rioja de Imaz Rioja Reserva ($21). Produced from Tempranillo, Spain’s signature red wine grape, the El Coto de Rioja offers red berry aromas with smoky vanilla notes extracted from its American oak casks. Blessed with a supple, velvety mouthfeel, the wine’s red cherry flavors are backed by subtle tannins and just the right amount of acidity. The result is an outstanding wine for both casual as well as formal occasions.