Best New Wines from Spain

I was presented with more wines for this year's coverage of Spain than I've ever seen before. And that's at every price point. Most of the importers and retailers to whom I spoke while working on this year's piece admitted that sales have slowed at the upper end, which is in fact the case with wine across the board. But at the entry level especially, and up to about $20, Spain is rolling right along. This probably has something to do with the buzz surrounding the two most recent vintages, 2009 and 2010, which have both been eagerly awaited following the mostly lackluster 2008s and 2007s, which were themselves preceded by the average 2006s.

Spain, like almost all of Europe, enjoyed--if that's the right word--a warm to hot growing season and harvest in 2009, conditions that in my view play particularly well into the hands of producers who specialize in easy-drinking, fruit-forward wines meant to be drunk on release or within a few years of bottling. Hot vintages typically mean low acidity, elevated alcohol and loose-knit structure, none of those factors being very conducive to ageworthy wine. Longevity is clearly a non-issue for the vast majority of wine lovers who are looking for maximum value, especially when it comes to red wines, and that's a game that Spain continues to pretty much own these days. There are plenty of excellent, under-$15 red wines being made around the world today that would shame the wines that people happily paid $25 or more for a decade ago, but no country is producing as many right now as Spain.

And on the white wine front, I'm hard-pressed to think of a more dramatic reversal of fortune than what has occurred in Spain. Only a decade or so ago most of the white Spanish wines found on retail shelves in the U.S. were next to undrinkable. There were the random white Riojas that were either inoffensive or eccentrically oxidative but that was about it. Wines from Rueda, Rias Baixas and the Basque country were basically non-existent here and for many winos the very term "Spanish white wine" was cause for alarm.

How things change. Right now, one could easily argue that Spain is the best source for vibrant, pure white wines of any country on earth. The best white wines from Spain's northern regions can stand toe-to-toe with those from anywhere, as I was reminded over the last few months. And the value delivered by many top-notch Spanish whites is really remarkable.

On a downbeat note, those 2007 and 2008 red wines I mentioned earlier are a distinctly mixed bag. Rotten weather and resulting vineyard maladies in both vintages conspired to produce wines that are often lean, mean and green. The best producers, whose wines tend to be the focus of the IWC, made the necessary sacrifices in the vineyards and cellar to make respectable and even excellent wines, but these are years that I would approach with a jaundiced eye. As with all difficult vintages there are a number of wines that are successful by any measure, and, as always, there's a better than good chance that they'll be ignored by the larger market, which will subscribe to the usual simple math of "2007 and 2008 = bad" without considering the individual wines. That can be a good thing for savvy wine lovers who prefer to drink wine rather than read vintage charts, because a number of really good '08s and '07s are already being discounted in the retail market. Keep your eyes and mind open and you can score some outstanding wines for far less than they're worth.

Notes on many more new releases from Spain will follow in Issue 159.