New Releases from Spain

Veteran IWC readers don't really need to be reminded that Spain is, in our opinion, the world's richest source of outstanding red wine values.  That continues to be the case today.  As I worked my way through over 1,500 Spanish wines over the last few months, that point was driven home on pretty much a daily basis.  Perhaps even more striking for me this year was tasting a larger number of world-class white wines than I expected to find. 

We are long-time fans of the best wines from Rias Baixas, and the current batch of releases maintains the region's high standard.  But still more intriguing was the number of terrific whites from other areas of Spain, even from zones that until recently seemed to be completely dedicated to red wines.  At this point it's tempting to say that Spain's white wines are offering the same bang for the buck as her reds.  That's not true in sheer numbers--at least not yet--but the consistent quality of the white wines I tasted from Rioja, Terra Alta, Valdeorras and Rueda, among other regions, was truly exciting this year.  Better yet, with rare exception these are wines that retail for less than $25 a bottle and are in wide distribution, making it relatively painless for wine lovers to check them out for themselves.

Current vintages in the marketplace.  Following 2010 and 2009, both generally outstanding vintages across Spain's wine-growing regions, 2011 and 2012 presented growers and producers with a variety of challenges, beginning with cool summers during which the grapes often struggled to ripen.  The upside is that the regions of Spain that most collectors follow produced plenty of red wines that are lively, focused and true to their heritage--unlike in 2009, for example, whose wines are strongly influenced by the warm weather.  And that goes double for the whites.

In Rioja, 2011 was marked by a mostly cool summer followed by rising temperatures and dry weather at the end of the season.  The positive spin among the producers emphasizes the clement weather leading up to the harvest, but from the first look I've had of the 2011s I'm not yet convinced that it was enough to compensate for what was essentially stalled maturity during July and the first half of August.  These are still early days so it's a little premature to rush to judgment.  That said, it's unlikely that any but the very best wines will match their 2010 and 2009 siblings.  Those two vintages are living up to their promise, with the '09s mostly showing the best side of this ripe year and the 2010s focused, pure and balanced for a long life.

In the northwestern Galicia/Leon area, which includes Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra, 2012 gave a very short crop, off by as much as 50% in Rias Baixas, a shortfall all the more painful because the resulting wines are generally fantastic (with a caveat), showing greater concentration than usual.  Most of the white Rias Baixas, Bierzo, Monterrei and Valdeorras wines I tasted display powerful pit fruit and ripe melon character, as opposed to the more typical citrus and orchard fruit qualities one usually finds here.  While that heft and power can be undeniably appealing, it can also potentially obscure the mouth-watering minerality that defines the region's wines, especially with a little bottle age.  That's good or bad, depending on how you like your albarinos.  I visited the region in May and while most producers were thrilled with the quality of their '12s, they all made a point of describing these wines' unique character, advising that they be consumed on the younger side, just to be safe.

The Ribera del Duero/Toro/Castilla y Leon area of central Spain enjoyed a warm summer in 2011, which pushed sugar levels up, and many of the wines show the result in fleshiness and early accessibility.  Alcohol numbers are not generally as high as those of torrid years like 2003 but are in the neighborhood of those reached in 2009, 2006 and 2005.  I suspect that the wines will drink well over the short to medium term and I found lots of soft tannins and forward fruit in the wines I tasted. 

Two thousand twelve looks to be a fantastic vintage for red wines in Ribera del Duero and Toro, based on barrel samples I tasted from these areas in May and freshly bottled, unoaked wines that I tasted in late summer.  But as with the wines of Rioja, it's still a little early to make hard judgments.  The 2012 growing season produced wines with verve and focus, although without quite the intensity and depth of the 2010s and 2009s; most of the young '12s are already delicious and I imagine they'll be at their best within the decade, so don't hesitate to dive in soon.

Down in the Priorat/Montsant/Penedes area 2010 looks to be flat-out brilliant, having produced wines that are fresh, structured and focused, with plenty of fruit (though not to the extent of the opulent 2009s) to see them into old age.  I continue to hear grumblings about the aging potential of wines from Priorat and, frankly, that puzzles me.  Over the last few years I've had the chance to taste--and, more important, drink--some superb Priorat wines between 15 and 20 years old, and they have consistently shown the character I'd expect from wines of similar age and pedigree from anywhere else in the world.  At this point I'm confident that the best 2010s from this region will reward patient wine lovers who can hold off on cracking their bottles until, say, 2020 and beyond.