The Best New Wines from Spain

Since my last sojourn in Spain two years ago, I have looked forward to the opportunity to revisit the best estates of Rioja and Ribera del Duero and to discover more of Spain's rising new winemaking stars. That next trip was scheduled for the second half of September, but my plans, along with the hopes of thousands of others in New York and around the country, were radically changed by the terrorist attack of September 11. So I stayed home and started tasting. While you will not find profiles of the best estates of north-central Spain on the following pages (info you normally receive when your correspondent is visiting cellars and vineyards), you will find even more extensive coverage of current releases than I would otherwise have been able to provide, as well as notes on many wines due in the market between now and next spring. Thanks to the epic efforts of several major American importers of Spanish wine, as well as bodegas in both Rioja and Ribera del Duero who managed to ship samples to me in good condition, I've been flooded with Spanish bottles in recent weeks. One benefit of my canceled trip was having the time to sample many, many bottles from regions other than Rioja and Ribera del Duero, particularly Navarra, Priorato and Rias Baixas.

If any category of wine can be described as hot in today's listless market, it's Spanish wine, which offers consistently rich and satisfying reds and an unending stream of exciting new ventures. Better yet, for every exorbitantly priced wine from Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorato, there are two or three that offer astounding quality/price rapport. Enterprising American importers such as Jorge Ordonez (Fine Estates From Spain), Steve Metzler (Classical Wines From Spain) and Eric Solomon (European Cellars) have also managed to bring back significant quantities of satisfying red wine in the under-$10 range; the best of these bottles are surely among the world's great wine steals.

Recent vintages in Rioja and Ribera del Duero. In Ribera del Duero, the '99s are generally fleshier and more forward than the comparatively austere '98s, even if the very best '98s are more tightly structured; I suspect most tasters will find greater pleasure in the '99s. Yields in this region were generally huge in 1999. In fact, a good deal of Ribera del Duero fruit ultimately had to be sold outside the appellation and thus, in effect, declassified. But it was a good vintage for those bodegas that had ripe fruit before the weather turned, which generally means estates with older vines and those that carried out strict green harvests, as well as those in favored warmer and lower sites. Some properties in hillier, cooler terrain were still waiting for more ripeness when rains arrived at the end of September.

In Rioja, the '97 through '99 vintages were mostly unexciting, at least compared to the splendid '94s and '95s and the very good '96s, but many good wines were made. The pace of improvement at the level of the smaller estates is rapid today, as it is in Ribera del Duero, and there are many more quality-conscious producers able to capitalize on what nature provides for them than there were even five or six years ago. The '97 Riojas are essentially soft wines of modest structure, but some producers in cooler spots who were able to pick healthy tempranillo late in the season, after the worst of the rains, have made very satisfying, well-balanced wines. The '98s tend to be firmer but more austere; there were highly localized problems with rot, but also plenty of wines made from reasonably healthy and ripe grapes.

Increasingly, the vast Rioja region is looking like two very different worlds. On the one hand, there are well-placed, low-cropped hillside vines from selection massale, vines that typically reach solid sugar levels early enough in the fall to be picked before the weather deteriorates. And then there are the strictly industrial, high-yielding clones that have resulted in a flood of cheap juice. The difference between good and bad grapes has been more pronounced in the last couple of harvests than ever before, in terms of both potential alcohol and the prices fetched by fruit in the bulk market (this is true to a lesser extent in Ribera del Duero as well). Prices for mediocre fruit are extremely low today, and many large Rioja producers are beginning to dump wine in desperate attempts to lighten up on inventory. But retail prices thus far for the top wines have remained stable.

Not surprisingly, some of the most exciting wines from Rioja today are markedly different in style from the region's traditional wines: they are largely from tempranillo grown in favored sites (with virtually no garnacha, mazuelo or graciano), they are aged for a shorter period in smaller, newer barrels (often made from French rather than American oak), and they are released on the market earlier. They are darker, more robust and more tannic than traditionally styled wines from the region, and possess fresher, more intense fruit flavors. But though they are made in a more international and generally less oxidative style, they are not necessarily better. I continue to taste too many gritty, overextracted wines, as well as those whose inherent aromatic character has been squashed by heavyhanded use of new barrels, especially from the '99, '98 and '97 vintages, in which the raw materials tended to be less substantial than those of '96, '95 and '94. At the same time, the greatest reserva and gran reserva bottlings from classic veteran producers like Muga, Lopez de Heredia, La Rioja Alta and CVNE number among the world's most aromatically complex, food-friendly wines-wines that can truly stand comparison to the top Bordeaux and Burgundies.

Other highlights of my current tastings. My tastings this year featured more wines from Priorato than ever before; the gold rush in this appellation is on in force, much as Ribera del Duero exploded as a region in the late '80s and early '90s. Many Priorato wines are still roasted and distinctly rustic, but the most distinctive of them offer deeper, fruitier aromatics; dense, rich flavor; huge palate presence; and considerable aging potential. For such a small appellation (Priorato is located about 60 miles down the coast from Barcelona, just inland), there is a wide range of microclimates and exposures, not to mention grape varieties; the oldest vines tend to be carinena and garnacha, but many new blends are increasingly making use of syrah, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The greatest examples continue to come from the area's famed llicorella, or brown slate soil, which retains enough moisture to allow the vines to get through the region's hot, dry summers but still produces tiny yields and highly concentrated grapes.

Prices for Priorato wines are generally full to high, and this part of Spain is not normally a place to look for value. But the best of these wines are so original as to be reasonable buys. The '99 vintage, which is generally the wine for sale in today's retail market, featured some rain during the harvest, so quality varies. However, many very good wines with substantial early appeal were made, even if they rarely match the '98s for density and structure. Early word is that 2000, largely because of a poor flowering that resulted in especially tiny crop levels, is a great vintage for Priorato. Certainly the 2000 barrel samples that have come my way thus far boast tremendous concentration.

And a final word about albarino, a white grape variety that produces scented, minerally, bracing wines in Spain's cool Atlantic-influenced Rias Baixas region just north of Portugal's Vinho Verde area. Vintage 2000 brought a large harvest of average quality for albarino in most sites. This rather gentle vintage provides a good introduction for those new to these wines, even if most examples do not show the intensity, thrust or sheer mineral character of the best '99s, which came from a tiny crop steeply reduced by spring frost. Sharp-eyed wine lovers may still be able to find well stored '99s on retail shelves. Good albarinos repay a few years of aging.

My notes on the following pages include wines currently in the market as well as some due to arrive over the next six months or so. I have included a handful of barrel samples of some particularly interesting wines; as always, I have provided ranges, rather than precise scores, for wines not yet in bottle. Please note that many other Spanish wines still available in the market were reviewed in Issue 92, as well as in Issue 87. My in-depth, on-site coverage in the earlier issue provided short profiles of the top Rioja and Ribera del Duero bodegas; readers seeking more detail on vinification and the varietal make-up of various wines should refer to this issue.