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Two Spanish Trendsetters

Thomas Matthews
Posted: February 3, 2000

Two Spanish Trendsetters
By Thomas Matthews, New York bureau chief

Spain has been making red wine since the Romans, and for the last century or so its national model for great red wine has come from Rioja. The ideal gran reserva was a rich but supple wine that prized elegance over power, emphasizing flavors of spice, tobacco and earth rather than fresh fruit, valuing the complexity of maturity over the exuberance of youth.

Today, that model still holds among the traditional producers of Rioja and winemaking regions across the country, and it still produces beautiful wines. But a few winemakers are challenging this style with their own vision of what a great red wine should be, and it's a radical break with the Spanish past.

Two recent tastings offered concrete evidence of this sea-change in Spanish red wine styles. Alvaro Palacios is helping reinvent and reinvigorate Priorat, an ancient wine region in the mountains southwest of Barcelona. Peter Sisseck, a young Dane, is pushing Ribero del Duero, south of Rioja, to new levels of excellence. Both are making great red wines that are truly Spanish yet rival the best from any wine region in the world.

Palacios, 35, grew up in Rioja, where his family ran Bodegas Palacios Remondo. But after working with Christian Moueix in Bordeaux, Palacios decided to abandon his tradition-bound home and pioneer the nearly abandoned wine region of Priorat. Joining a group of young winemakers led by Rene Barbier in 1989, he has been producing some of Spain's most powerful and opulent red wines under his L'Ermita and Clos Dofi labels.

Palacios recently came to New York to present these two impressive wines. Though grown in neighboring vineyards, they represent, he says, the "two faces" of Priorat. Clos Dofi is the modern aspect, comprised of 35 to 40 percent international grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, and the traditional Garnacha and Carinena comprising the rest. L'Ermita, the traditional version, is 80 percent old-vines Garnacha with a dollop of Cabernet. Both wines debuted with the 1993 vintage.

In general, Clos Dofi echoes the international style: Very ripe fruit flavors are supported by lush tannins, with lavish oak that adds notes of coffee and chocolate. All of the wines are still youthful and show great promise for at least a decade's improvement from the vintage. L'Ermita, in contrast, adds a gamy, earthy note to the ripe fruit and toasty oak that gives it a distinctive character indigenous to the terroir. They are even more backward than the wines of Dofi, and should age well for 20 years or more.

The '93 Dofi is still very fresh and tight, with vivid fruit flavors of crushed berries. The '94 is richer and rounder, a bit rustic in character; though still very firm, it is approachable now. The '95 shows more harmony, with well-integrated tannins supporting luscious berry and cassis flavors. The '96 is exotic in character, with lovely roasted fruit and smoky oak notes, still very young. The '97, taken from barrel, is surprisingly supple, dominated by oak now, perhaps less concentrated than the other vintages. The '98, another barrel sample, is rich and deep yet beautifully focused and balanced, with lovely plum and berry fruit flavors.

The '93 L'Ermita is intense and rather hard, with lead pencil and mineral notes underlying the fruit. The '94 is a monster, with loads of tannin and alcohol and flavors of wild berries and earth. The '95 is a bit suppler, with more vivid fruit flavors of cherries and cassis to go along with the notes of minerals and coffee. The '96, tight and unyielding now, has great power. From barrel, the '97 is lush and supple, echoing the profile of the '97 Dofi. The '98, also a barrel sample, is potentially the best of the group, adding polish to its nearly savage character.

Sisseck, like Palacios, is an outsider in his region. Born in Denmark, he first worked in Bordeaux, at Chateau Rahoul with his uncle, famed winemaker Peter Vinding-Diers. Friends of Vinding-Diers got involved with wine properties in Spain, including Hacienda Monasterio in Ribera del Duero. The wise uncle encouraged the young Sisseck to join them.

"I didn't want to go to Spain," recalled Sisseck during a recent visit to New York. "I wanted to stay in Bordeaux. But once I got there, I liked it very much."

Sisseck helped the nascent winery make outstanding wines; the 1995 Hacienda Monasterio is lush and velvety, rich with flavors of plums and chocolate (90 points, $30). But he grew dissatisfied with his lack of control over the operation.

"I wanted to show myself that my inability to make a great wine at Hacienda was due to circumstances, not my own ability," Sisseck said.

So he began exploring the local vineyards. He found old farmers with small plots of very old Tinto de Pais vines (the local strain of Tempranillo), and discovered he loved the wine they made so simply, a barrel or two for home consumption. He targeted four small vineyards (three of which he now owns), and made his first red under the Dominio de Pingus label in 1995. Though made in tiny quantities (about 450 cases in a good vintage), Pingus was an immediate success.

In New York, Sisseck presented the 1995 to 1998 vintages of Pingus. Overall, they represent a remarkable achievement of consistency and concentration--wines that should develop well for 20 years in the bottle.

The '95 is rich with ripe fruit and dark chocolate flavors, lush on the palate but with muscular tannins underneath. The '96 is even bigger, aromatic with cassis, licorice and smoky notes, followed by flavors of grilled fruit and meats on the palate. The '97 is a bit lighter and suppler, due to early-season frosts, but the characteristic flavors of chocolate, roasted cherries and toast are still evident. The '98, assembled from barrel samples of the various vineyards, is unyielding now but extraordinarily concentrated, with earth, mineral and black fruit flavors and mouthfilling tannins.

Sisseck and Palacios are working with different grape varieties and different terroirs, but they share an approach to viticulture and winemaking that might be characterized as minimalist. They believe in reducing yields through vineyard management, especially the use of very old vines, and then letting the wine make itself as much as possible, with aging in new oak and bottling without clarification or filtration.

"My goal is to make a wine where I do nothing," Sisseck proclaims. "No racking, no manipulation at all. Every time you manipulate a wine, you lose something. I want the pure essence of the grape and the terroir."

These two winemakers are changing the model of Spanish red wine. They add the polish of the most advanced international techniques (both use French barrels, for example), to the purity of their traditional sites, to create wines of great individuality and great completeness.

Palacios and Sisseck are not alone in Spain, of course. In Ribero, for example, Alejandro Fernandez led the way with Pesquera beginning in the 1970s, and Miguel Torres was planting Cabernet Sauvignon in Penedes back in the 1960s. But these young winemakers are providing proof that even the most traditional wine regions can benefit from new ideas, and, conversely, that the best new wines are ineluctably built on traditional foundations. My advice to any wine lover interested not only in Spain, but in tracking the most advanced wines in the world, is to buy their 1998s. Their minuscule productions and high prices (over $200 a bottle for both Pingus and L'Ermita) make them difficult to obtain, but their character and quality make them worth the effort.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from New York bureau chief Thomas Matthews. (!--in a piece also appearing in the current issue.--) To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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