The Best New Wines From Spain

Spain remains one of the few hot categories in the retail wine market today, with sales driven not only by extraordinary bargains in the under-$10 range but by steady international interest in high-end bottlings from Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat. Further stimulating demand is the fact that some producers in the commercially important Rioja region are hyping 2001 as one of that appellation's greatest years in decades. In my exhaustive tastings of current releases in recent weeks, I found a wealth of outstanding wines, some of which are from new ventures in emerging wine areas of Spain and many of which will be new to readers of this journal.

Unfortunately, in addition to being a hot category, Spain is also the source of too many cooked bottles. While Spain has always produced a huge quantity of rustic, hot-country wines that begin their life with a markedly baked character, I suspect that many additional bottles begin reasonably fresh but are compromised between the bodega and the drinker. Much of central and southern Spain is extremely hot for a good six months each year, and the chain of shipping that connects the producer and its ultimate customer is only as strong as its weakest link. Importers who specialize in cheap wine rarely have the wherewithal to ensure proper handling of their bottles. When these bottles are pruney and oxidized by the time they reach the consumer, they can hardly be considered bargains.

With a few exceptions, Spanish wine aficionados should probably stick to bottles from our most serious importers of these wines, who are aware of the importance of careful shipping. An overwhelming majority of the best and the freshest wines I tasted in recent weeks came from Jorge Ordonez (Fine Estates From Spain), Steve Metzler (Classical Wines From Spain), Eric Solomon (European Cellars), Mannie Berk (The Rare Wine Co.), and Bordeaux-based broker Christopher Cannan (Europvin). Other importers such as De Maison Selections and CIV Imports also represent multiple estates of quality and seem to do a good job getting wines here in decent shape.

Recent vintages in Spain. In both Rioja and Ribera del Duero, 1999 and 2000 were decent if variable years in which numerous very good wines were made. The name of the producer on the label is generally a more important predictor of quality than the vintage. Both years widely produced suppler wines than 1998, but I still have a fondness for those '98s that have enough flesh on their bones. The 1998 vintage brought wines of impressive concentration and power in Priorat. But the downside to Priorat's hot, dry summer in 2000 was drought stress, which was particularly hard on the area's extensive new plantings; there's a distinct overripe/underripe quality to many of the wines made from young vines without deep root systems, while old vines often produced highly concentrated and far better balanced wines. Vintage 1999 witnessed some rot due to harvest-time rain in parts of Priorat, requiring careful picking and strict selection. Incidentally, we are now seeing a flood of wines from Montsant, an appellation that largely encircles Priorat. Particularly in the area of Montsant that lies closer to the Mediterranean, these wines can be somewhat fresher and less baked in the hot years than examples from Priorat, and they are considerably less expensive.

Vintage 2002 was one of Spain's worst vintages in years, while 2001 was one of the best. Producers in Rioja are particularly excited about the 2001 vintage. Although reserva and gran reserva bottlings from the best producers are still one to five years away, and in some cases longer, from being released, early 2001 bottlings indicate that this was the best year for the region since at least 1995. Some bodega proprietors are making even more extravagant claims for the quality of this vintage. But in Ribera del Duero, some sites were hit hard by spring frost in 2001. (Vega Sicilia has already announced that there will be no Unico 2001.) Spain's exciting Priorat region also enjoyed an excellent 2001 vintage. Alvaro Palacios, maker of the cult wines L'Ermita and Clos Dofi, describes 2001 as "a garden vintage" with near-perfect growing conditions. If the wines lack anything, he told me in June, it's a bit of thrust.

Calendar year 2002 reportedly featured the lowest average temperatures in Spain in 30 years, and in marginal growing areas the fruit struggled to ripen. Rains in September triggered widespread rot, and strict selection was often a requirement for making even decent wines. Rías Baixas had a difficult year; most of the Albarinos I've tasted to date lack their customary density and ripeness: too many are thin and sour. On the other hand, the cooler growing season may have benefitted certain areas that normally have problems with extreme heat, but few serious reds from 2002 have been released to this point.

All of the wines reviewed on the following pages were tasted in New York or Boston in May and June. Only a few were not finished, bottled wines, and these are clearly identified. My notes include wines currently in the market as well as some due to arrive this fall.