The Best New Wines from Spain, Part 1

Spain’s wine producers are proving as eager to promote (read: hype) the 2009 vintage as just about every other wine-producing region in western Europe. And while a number of recently released white wines from Spain’s north and northwest and some simple, stainless steel-raised and early-bottled reds do make a case for the year, there’s also an open-knit and sometimes warm character to the wines that makes me question their long-term cellaring capacity.

For what it’s worth, a fair number of questions are also being raised about the white wines of other, normally cool white wine-producing regions of France, particularly the Loire Valley. While up-front fruit and immediate appeal make for a great marketing kickstart, those wines are often atypically broad and loose-knit, and they often lack the acidity and balance to see them past adolescence. That’s fine for the majority of white wine drinkers, who frequently drink those wines within hours of buying them, but many fans of the racy whites from Rías Baixas, Rueda and Basque country might discover that they actually prefer the racier 2008 versions of the same wines.

My early look at Spain’s 2009 reds, however, leaves me with more confidence that a good number of these wines will offer both immediate, fruit-driven appeal and the freshness, structure and balance to age for at least the mid-term. A long, warm (sometimes very warm) growing season benefited from some well-timed rains, which rejuvenated the vines and delayed the harvest in Spain’s northern regions,where the bulk of the country’s collectible wines are produced. These conditions ensured a steady buildup of sugar without excessive ripeness, which would have resulted in high and often out-of-whack alcohol levels. Attention by growers to canopy management also meant that grape skins didn’t get too much sun and build up excessive tannins. Their efforts also helped preserve sound levels of natural acidity, which is not the case in excessively hot vintages and which prompts many producers to (over)acidify their musts. Happily for the producers, high fruit quality was accompanied by a sizable crop.

The south, unfortunately, didn’t have it so easy. The season was very hot and dry, and sugars ran ahead of actual ripeness in the grapes in most sectors, which led to blocked ripening and raisining on the vines. Conscientious producers made severe selections in the vineyards and on their sorting tables but, overall, 2009 looks to be a vintage to step through gingerly. Production in most of the south, predictably, is way off normal.

The eagerness of Spain’s winemakers to focus attention on the upcoming 2009s is understandable given the generally difficult 2008 and 2007 vintages, which are working their way through the market right now. Both years handed winemakers a range of challenges during the growing seasons, mostly to do with rain and cool weather. Getting full ripeness was a problem across northern Spain in both years and many of the wines show this in elevated acidities and lack of real sweetness of fruit. Fans of lighter-bodied wines will find a number of choices to their liking but these are vintages that should be bought with care and an eye to early drinking.

Spain is either approaching or has already arrived at a commercial crossroads in the American market, based on my conversations with producers there in June during a trip through most of the northern regions, as well as on talks I had with importers stateside during the summer. Apart from blue chip Riojas and the bluest of the blue chip Ribera del Duero wines it seems that high-end Spanish wine sales have ground to a halt in the U.S. market. Even some of the most vaunted names from Priorat, which were all the rage less than a decade ago, are being discounted by importers and wholesalers or flat-out being dropped by their American importers.

Meanwhile, all reports I’ve heard say that at the low end ($12 and under), sales of Spanish wines are robust. This potentially dangerous scenario resembles the lead-up to Australia’s recent plunge into American wine market ignominy. More than a few of the higher-end producers I visited wondered aloud if Spain was becoming too well-known as a source for cheap, fruity, accessible wines at the expense of her upper-tier, world-class bottlings. And how many Americans have had the opportunity to experience the best examples that Spain has to offer when the wines are actually mature, which would help to make their case to serious buyers and collectors?

I actually have a solution to that problem but it requires getting on a plane and flying to Spain. In Rioja, especially, the cellars of many of the best producers are loaded with older (sometimes really old) wines that are often available at astoundingly low prices, especially when one looks at the market for aged Bordeaux and Burgundy. The López de Heredia family in Rioja put on one of the most memorable vertical tastings of red and white wines I’ve ever experienced, and every single one of the wines is for sale, even the 1947.

Even better, the top restaurants in the Rioja and Ribera del Duero region, as well as in and around San Sebastián and Bilbao, often have troves of older, well-stored wines at prices that are usually just a small fraction of American retail. I’m talking about top vintages from top producers with up to four decades of age on them for less than $100 a bottle, and sometimes far less. The fact that some of the most creative food in Europe is being cooked up in this area should be another impetus for American wine and food freaks. And they have a lot of incredible ham that’s still illegal here, too.

The wines in this report were tasted either in the cellars in Spain or here in New York in late spring and over the summer. Because of the sheer volume of wines I found worth writing up this year we have decided, again, to break up the annual Spain report into two installments. In the next issue of the IWC you’ll find reviews of wines from the portfolios of Jorge Ordoñez (Fine Estates from Spain), Eric Solomon, The Rare Wine Company, Vinos and Gourmet, and Aviva Vino, and others.