The sleeping giant has finally awoken. With nearly a million hectares of grapevine, Spain has the world’s largest acreage devoted to wine production (France has just over 800,000, and Italy a mere 692,000 ha). Yet for much of the 20th century, the country languished behind the rest of Europe as the fine wine revolution took hold. Under the insular fascist government of Francisco Franco, time in the wine industry stood still. Exposure to, and inspiration from, the rapidly developing worldwide wine industry post WWII was limited, and with it, innovation, modernization, and progress.
The fascist regime ended with Franco’s death in 1975, but it would take a generation to drag Spanish wine into the 21st Century. Now, 20 years into the new millennium, the country’s full potential is finally becoming a realization. With dozens of native and imported varieties, Europe’s second most mountainous topography, and a dazzling collection of climate zones and soils, Spain is now among the most dynamic wine-producing countries in the world.
One of the key drivers of the Spanish wine renaissance is the association called “Grandes Pagos d’España”, or “Great Vineyards of Spain”, an alliance of ambitious producers with 32 members and counting, represented in virtually every corner of the country.
The idea for the association was devised in 2000 by five wineries seeking to co-promoting their products from the unknown central Spanish region of Castilla-La Mancha. The likes of Marquès de Griñon, Pago de Vallegarcía, and Pago Calzadilla, had begun to rock the status quo by producing wines from non-traditional varieties at eyebrow-raising quality. Parallels between “Super Tuscan” wines such as Sassicaia, Solaia, and Ornellaia in Italy in the 1970’s are undeniable.
But what began as Grandes Pagos de Castilla, quickly evolved into Grandes Pagos d’España, as producers in other parts of Spain recognized the benefit of banding together with like-minded, quality-focused operations to co-promote their work. And it wasn’t just radical newcomers with non-traditional wines who sought to join, but also producers in traditional appellations such as Jerez, Rioja, and Cava, whose beliefs in promoting the concept of terroir aligned with the group’s point of view.
Adhesion standards are stringent. Wines must be produced from estate vineyards, and all wines are tasted by an external committee before earning the Grandes Pagos seal of approval. Wines can be, and are, rejected, and members can even be ex-communicated, a harsh rebuke that has occurred twice in the association’s history.
The GPE logo on a bottle of wine is an excellent way to discover some of Spain’s lesser known, or overlooked regions and varieties, with low risk. Pepe Mendoza of Bodegas Enrique Mendoza, for example, has redefined the potential for monastrell (aka mourvèdre) in the region of Alicante, formerly known for, and still associated with rustic reds. “We are not Rioja, Ribera [del Duero], or Bordeaux” says Pepe. “There was a stigma attached to the region and we were considered crazy men from Alicante making millions of liters of poor quality, over ripe monastrell”, describing the uphill battle to promote new wines from the region.
But Mendoza has defied the past and proven that it’s possible, through impeccable cultivation, to achieve concentrated wines that are also balanced and naturally fresh, with little intervention needed in the winery. The trade-off is volume: “I get one kilo [of grapes] per plant rather than three,” he reveals, though the results are worth the effort. Mendoza produces two superb single vineyard wines from ancient bush vines grown on different soil types. La Quebrada from limestone is the more dense and powerful wine, while Estrecho, from a higher elevation site with nearly 100 year-old vines on pure sand, is the lighter, floral, and fragrant version. Both are revelations in the genre.
Bobal, from neighboring Valencia, is another black-skinned variety that has been associated mostly with low-quality, inexpensive cooperative wines. But it is not the fault of the grape. “It’s a noble variety…but it’s not an easy variety,” insists Tony Argiles, winemaker at Bodegas Mustiguillo – Finca El Terrerazo in the Utiel-Requena appellation, an hour west from Valencia. Mustiguillo’s secret has been a slow and painstaking selection and propagation of the best old vines on the property to mitigate Bobal’s inherent genetic variability, as well as, cultivating very old vines themselves.
The Finca Terrerazo Bobal contravenes the logic of this hot, Mediterranean region, drawing from a plot planted in the early 1940’s to produce a wine redolent of savory herbs and fresh black fruit. Mustiguillo is also a champion of the local white variety, Merseguera, which had nearly vanished from existence thanks to its unpredictable yields. The Finca Calvestra Merseguera is a marvel of complexity and delicacy, gently wood aged, and truly one of southern Spain’s most impressive whites.
With more common varieties, but from an unknown region, Pago Calzadilla has single-handedly put the town of Huete, near Cuenca in Castilla-La Mancha, on Spain’s fine wine map. What began as a hobby project of Francisco Madero and his wife Celia Uribes in 1992, has evolved into a bona fide business.
However, the project was not haphazard. A four-year soil study was conducted before Madero selected a steep virgin hillside to plant with tempranillo, Garnacha, Cabernet sauvignon, and syrah, among others. The key aspects were elevation, up to 1000 meters above sea level, and deep, limestone soils peppered with a rare reflective mineral crystal called Lapis Specularis, mined by the Romans to make mirrors two thousand years ago. Calzadilla vineyards have been organic from the start, and now his daughter Paula fashions an impressive range with a gentle hand, including the green apple-citrus and sweet-herb-scented Matelot from white garnacha, as well as one of Spain’s best Cabernet Sauvignon-Tempranillo blends, the sturdy, structured and highly age-worthy Gran Calzadilla.
Other excellent cabernet blends are made by GPE founding member Pago Vallegarcia, as well as neighboring Dehesa del Carrizal, both established as hunting estates near the mountains of Toledo in Castilla before the potential for fine wine was recognized.
But the GPE group members cover much more stylistic ground. Gramona makes some of Spain’s best traditional-method sparkling wine, while fans of aromatic whites should seek the superb Albariños of Fillaboa in Rias Baixas. Bodegas Valdespino flies the flag for the great fortified wines of Sherry in all of their glorious complexity (not your Aunt’s sweet cream sherry), as does Bodegas Alvear for the great Pedro Ximenez-based wines of similar stature from the Montilla-Moriles region near Córdoba.
Legendary Abadía Retuerta and newer stars, Aalto and Alonso del Yerro, represent the great wines of the Duero Valley, and the recently “rediscovered” treasure of Priorat, inland from Barcelona, finds its GPE representative in Mas Doix.
These are simplyt a few of the Great Vineyards of Spain, representing 19 different appellations. For a full list visit, grandespagos.com. Or better yet, plan a trip to Spain to visit some of these splendid properties, and experience first-hand the new Golden Era of Spanish wine.