Spain's Ascent of Quality

A series of great vintages delivers better wines
Thomas Matthews
Posted: December 15, 2007

There's nothing like a great vintage to showcase an emerging wine region. When grapes achieve optimum ripeness, and hard work in the cellar truly pays off in the bottle, wine drinkers reap the benefits in the glass and the region is rewarded with consumer attention.

Since 2001, Spain has been blessed with a series of fine harvests. Even in the difficult years of 2002 and 2003, some bodegas managed to make excellent wines. Now the 2004 and 2005 vintages are delivering an abundance of riches. (Here is a complete vintage chart of Spain's major wine regions.)

Since our last report on the country ("Spain in the 21st Century," Dec. 15, 2006), we have blind-tasted more than 850 wines (excluding cavas and Sherries) in our New York office. Nearly 140 earned 90 points or higher, with an unprecedented 11 reds achieving classic scores (95 to 100 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale).

Most of the top-scorers come from Rioja, Ribera del Duero or Priorat, Spain's three principal red-wine regions. Overall, the wines are not inexpensive, with prices for the highest-rated bottlings comparable to those for wines of similar quality from Bordeaux, California or Italy. The outstanding wines (90 to 94 points) cost $75 a bottle on average, while the classic wines average about $125 a bottle. (An alphabetical list of all wines tasted for this report is available.)

Successful growing seasons are like rising tides—they lift all the boats, not just the luxury yachts. This year, wine regions across Spain delivered many great values. I reviewed about 90 bottlings that scored very good (85 to 89 points) and cost $15 or less, including nearly three dozen whites and rosés. Don't overlook wines from less-established, and generally less-expensive, denominacións. The Bodegas Borsao Garnacha Campo de Borja Tres Picos 2005 (90 points, $12), for example, is focused and vivid, with fresh berry flavors. And there are outstanding whites as well. The 2005 Rueda Basa (88, $11) by Telmo Rodríguez, one of Spain's most innovative vintners, is a harmonious blend of Verdejo, Viura and Sauvignon Blanc.

Whether you're looking for a powerful young red to lay down in the cellar, a mature wine to match a great meal, or a crisp white or fruity rosé for a picnic, Spain can supply the perfect bottle. All it takes is a willingness to explore the many grapes and regions of this diverse winegrowing country.

RIBERA DEL DUERO

Ribero del Duero shines brightest of all Spain's red-wine producing regions in this year's report. Nearly 40 percent of the wines I tasted earned scores of 90 or more points, including six of the 11 wines that reached classic quality.

Bodegas Emilio Moro turns in a phenomenal performance. I tasted six wines from this family-owned winery and all are outstanding or classic. The Malleolus de Sanchomartin 2004 (97, $197), a single-vineyard bottling, is the highest-scoring Spanish wine released this year, while the 2005 version (96, $207) is just a step behind in quality. The Malleolus de Valderramiro, another single-vineyard red, also excels; the 2004 rates 96 points ($170), the 2005 93 points ($178). Only a few hundred cases of these wines are produced, but it should be easier to find the Malleolus 2004 (90, $68), a vineyard selection, and the regular Ribera del Duero 2005 (92, $35), which are both produced in larger quantities.

The Moro wines all share a powerful style, with structure, balance and lush fruit backed by toasty oak. They are modern in texture yet retain distinctive local character, with mineral, floral and wild herb accents to the black fruit flavors. Savage yet seductive, they show contemporary Spain at its best.

A similar style marks other reds from Ribera, such as the intense and expressive Bodegas Aalto PS 2004 (95, $110); the dense, mineral-scented Pago de los Capellanes Parcela El Nogal 2003 (95, $68); and the polished, still reticent Bodegas Monasterio Hacienda Monasterio 2004 (93, $50).

Riberas in a more traditional style can also excel, displaying mineral, game and earth notes, firmer structures and less new oak. These are also hallmarks of many of the older wines now being released. The Bodegas Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva 1996 (93, $350) is a beautiful case in point; balanced and fresh, it has an appealing, complex mix of spice, fruit and floral notes that bring you back for another sip.

Bodegas Felix Callejo, family-owned like Moro, has been growing grapes for nearly half a century and began bottling its own wines in 1989. Its high-end Felix Callejo 2003 (96, $112) delivers gorgeous boysenberry and mocha flavors, while the lively and deceptively accessible Crianza 2004 (94, $30) is among the better values in this report. The excellent 2004 vintage resulted in a number of values from Ribera—look also for the brooding Celeste from the Catalonian Torres family (90, $22), the suave Bodegas Raúl Calvo 2004 (87, $13), the solid Urban Oak (87, $14) and the bright Bodegas Gormaz (85, $9), among others.

2004 is a classic vintage for Ribera, powerful but not heavy, showing plenty of black fruit but very little earthiness or herbaceousness, with bright acidity to balance the muscular tannins. It's early to judge the 2005 vintage; some wines seem a bit hollow, but the best are tremendous. The 2003s I tasted this past year impress me for their vivacity despite the scorching growing season, but some are losing freshness, so I have downgraded the vintage slightly. The 2001s are maturing now, but remain balanced as they develop complexity.

There was a huge expansion of vineyards in Ribera in the 1990s, which led to many light, herbal wines, produced from young vines. But the region seems to have managed its growth and is now turning out some of the most impressive Tempranillo-based reds in Spain.

RIOJA

Spain's traditional leader for red wines, Rioja has been playing second fiddle to Ribera for a few years now. The 2004 and 2005 vintages don't change the tune, but do prove Rioja can still make plenty of great wines, along with its share of good values. Of the nearly 200 Rioja wines I reviewed for this report, one-quarter of them received outstanding ratings, while an additional 10 percent represent good value, with scores of 85 points or higher and prices of $15 or less.

2004 proved its mettle with 20 wines at 90 or more points, including two classics—the Bodegas LAN Edición Limitada (96, $48) and the Bodegas Muga Torre Muga (95, $88). These wines have excellent track records and very reasonable prices. Both are made in the modern style, with ripe black fruit, plenty of new oak and plush, even syrupy, textures. Other bodegas that produced multiple outstanding wines in my tastings include Bodegas Roda, -Bodegas Sierra Cantabria, Finca Allende, Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta, Contino and Marqués de Cáceres, whose Reserva 2001 (90, $23) doubles as an excellent value, showing the spice, tobacco, floral and mineral flavors characteristic of mature Tempranillo. The Contino Graciano 2004 (90, $138) is a rare 100 percent varietal bottling of a grape that has long been a small but important part of many Rioja blends; it's interesting to isolate its fresh, chewy blueberry notes.

You can pretty much buy at will among reds from the 2004 vintage. Many top 2005s have not been released; for now, look for values at the crianza level, or try one of the juicy whites or rosados. There are excellent 2003s to be found, but some are drying out, and so in general I recommend waiting for younger vintages. If you are looking for a mature vintage, 2001 is reliable and still widely available.

My tastings also threw the spotlight on one of Rioja's most traditional producers, R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia—especially its whites. These wines, which are produced from the fairly anonymous Viura grape, are matured in old oak vats for years before being bottled. The bodega has just released five vintages, ranging from 1996 back to 1981. All of them are distinctive and alluring, and all are outstanding. These wines have to be tasted to be believed, and are well worth the effort to find.

PRIORAT

With Ribera del Duero and Rioja showing so well in 2004, Priorat's consistent success is less noticeable. But this small, mountainous region southwest of Barcelona continues to make some of the most elegant, concentrated and distinctive reds in Spain. More than one-third of the wines I tasted this year earned 90 or more points.

Priorat's workhorse grapes are Garnacha and Cariñena, with some bodegas adding smaller amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah to the blends. As a result, the typical flavors lean toward red fruits, with a strong mineral element from the slate soils and a pervasive note of wild mountain herbs. At their best, the wines are nervy, intense and elegant.

The 2005 vintage emphasizes this character. You can taste it in the expressive Celler Mas Doix Costers de Vinyes Velles 2005 (95, $115), the perfumed Ester Nin Nit de Nin 2005 (94, $85) and the bold Laurel 2005 (93, $45) from top producer Daphne Glorian, who also released the vibrant Clos Erasmus 2005 (92, $140).

The 2004s are bigger, with more powerful structures and black fruit flavors, and will need more time to show their best. Álvaro Palacios delivered three outstanding '04s, all with his signature focus and depth: the L'Ermita (94, $445), at once delicate and powerful; the Finca Dofí (90, $70), aromatic and complex; and the Les Terrasses (90, $30), firm and polished. These wines are always reticent in youth and should certainly improve in the bottle.

Yet most Priorats are delicious to drink young, and few have much track record for aging. Despite my initial enthusiasm for the hot 2003 and rainy 2002 vintages, I have been disappointed by some recent examples, and so have downgraded those years slightly. The more balanced 2001s, however, are evolving nicely.

OTHER REDS

The big three regions don't have a monopoly on high quality reds; I found two dozen outstanding wines this year from emerging denominacións such as Toro, Bierzo, Campo de Borja and Jumilla.

Toro, west of Ribera, uses a local variant of Tempranillo to make rich, powerful reds. Local leader Numanthia-Termes continues its extraordinary run with three great wines in 2004. The flagship Termanthia (96, $201) delivers concentration with grace; the midrange Numanthia (95, $57) is deep, and still holding back; and the entry-level Termes (92, $26) delivers dark, polished flavors in a velvety texture. Hard to go wrong with this producer.

Toro has seen an influx of newcomers who are using the region's old vines to make some stunning wines. Mariano Garcia of Aalto in Ribera (and formerly of Vega Sicilia) crafted the plush Bodegas y Vinedos Maurodos San Román 2003 (93, $50); Jacques and François Lurton, in partnership with Michel Rolland, made the oaky yet balanced Campo Eliseo 2004 (91, $72); and Bordeaux magnate Bernard Magrez introduced Paciencia with the 2004 vintage (91, $75), another oaky, modern red with the Rolland touch.

Bierzo displays a different character, showcasing the indigenous red grape Mencía, which is leaner, with red fruit and a lively snap of acidity. In 2004, the Dominio de Tares Bembibre (91, $45) is elegant and intense. The Pétalos 2005 (90, $20) from Descendientes de J. Palacios, Álvaro Palacios' project in the region, is both a good value and a promising sign for the bigger Bierzos from this bodega.

Campo de Borja, east of Rioja, specializes in the Garnacha grape. Bodegas Alto Moncayo, which has delivered delicious wines since its 2002 debut, is a joint venture among local Bodegas Borsao, U.S. importer Jorge Ordoñez and Australian winemaker Chris Ringland. The Garnacha 2004 (92, $44) is ripe and powerful.

Jumilla, in Spain's southeast, may be the original home of the Mourvèdre grape, there called Monastrell. Look for Bodegas El Nido, whose flagship El Nido 2004 (91, $135) has mouthfilling flavors, with lively acidity. The smoky Clio 2005 (90, $44) offers excellent value.

WHITES

Spain is crafting more and more whites of character and depth, from indigenous grapes in far-flung regions.

I love the fresh fruit and crackling minerality of the versions from Galicia, which are generally unoaked, as are most Spanish whites. Rafael Palacios (Álvaro's brother) produced the stunning Valdeorras As Sortes Val do Bibei 2005 (92, $30), austere and intense. Always reliable, the Bodegas Godeval Valdeorras Viña Godeval offers very good value in 2006 (90, $17), showing pine, pear and anise flavors supported by a firm backbone.

None of the Albariños from Rias Baixas I tasted this year reached the outstanding threshold. But you can choose a 2005 or 2006 almost at random and count on very good quality for less than $15. Drink the youngest available vintage, and look for pear, peach, almond and anise notes that make seamless matches with food.

Rueda uses the indigenous Verdejo grape (often blended with Viura or Sauvignon Blanc) to produce richer, thicker wines that adapt well to oak, delivering pear, almond, coconut and menthol flavors. The J. & F. Lurton Cuesta de Oro 2005 (91, $25) is an excellent example, voluptuous and charming.

Smiled on by this string of excellent vintages (which looks to continue in 2006), Spain is firing on all cylinders. The country showcases an enormous diversity of grapes from very different terroirs to produce wines of quality and character. The best are worth hunting for, and abundant values are there for the asking. Take a chance—and enjoy.

Executive editor Thomas Matthews is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of Spain.

 

 

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