The Best New Wines From Spain

Spanish wine continues to be hot in the U.S. market, even if the 2003 and 2002 vintages posed serious challenges in many regions. In my extensive annual tastings, I found a large number of extremely rich and characterful wines, as well as some of the most extraordinary under-$12 values in the world. At the same time, however, many producers in Spain appear to be deluded about the current state of the world wine market. Some have raised prices over a period in which the U.S. dollar has lost strength against the euro, and their wines are now significantly more expensive in the U.S. retail market. Their sales here have slowed as a result. Some bodegas that have long enjoyed wide visibility in the U.S. market are currently in the process of switching importers, in some cases perhaps due to unrealistic expectations.

Below are some general observations from my tastings of new releases from Spain during July and August.

Recent vintages. Vintage generalizations are always difficult in Spain, as the country covers a vast range of climates, from the wet, Atlantic-influenced northwest, to the arid, blazing Mediterranean east. Differences in soil type, elevation and drainage, as well as in crop levels and vinification skill, introduce additional important variables. But following the widely excellent harvest of 2001, Spain has had two tricky vintages. As in other parts of Europe, the 2003 harvest was brutally hot, although a bit less extreme in the context of certain normally hot appellations than it was in the northern half of France, for example. I tasted many white wines from Rias Baixas and Rueda that lack their normal flavor development and vibrancy, not to mention the minerality that gives albarino in particular its spine. Yet some vineyards on or just off the Atlantic, where the fruit often struggles to ripen during cool, rainy weather in September, produced unusually textured wines owing to the atypically warm conditions of 2003.

In contrast to 2003, 2002 featured a cooler-than-average summer and harvest, with rain a serious problem in some areas (in this growing season, it was the northern half of Europe, especially Scandinavia, that basked in summer sunshine). From Priorat to Ribera del Duero, I tasted many wines that showed the effects of incomplete ripening. On the other hand, in spots where heat is normally so extreme that grape sugars tend to skyrocket before skin components are really ripe, wines made in 2002 often show uncommonly good balance and freshness of fruit-especially in areas that dodged serious rainfall before and during the harvest. Not surprisingly, many fresh, intensely flavored white wines were made in 2002.

Generally speaking, vintage 2001 provided superb conditions for most of Spain, as it did across Southern France. Many outstanding wines were made in 2001, but of course overcroppers and careless winemakers had no difficulty at all making mediocre wines.

The shipping variable. One of the stiffest challenges facing Spanish producers is the difficulty of getting their wines from the bodega to the consumer without cooking them. Much of Spain is extremely hot for half of the year, and few importers have mastered the art of getting their wines from their clients to the coast without exposure to heat. Spanish truck drivers, it seems, are virtually required by law to break for lunch while their wines simmer in the afternoon sun. Even if wines somehow arrive at their point of consolidation without being compromised, they are frequently shipped in containers that are not temperature-controlled. I tasted several dozen wines in recent weeks that were distinctly pruney, if not seriously oxidized. Whether the wines were cooked in the first place or damaged by heat along the way hardly matters to the consumer.

One importer, Jorge Ordonez (Fine Estates From Spain), told me he has learned from experience that unless importers of Spanish wines pay careful attention to every link in the shipping chain, odds are that their wines will suffer. In recent years, Ordonez has taken radical steps to protect his wines, beginning with the decision to consolidate all his wines in Bilbao, on Spain's cooler Atlantic coast, rather than in Barcelona, on the Mediterranean coast. He uses refrigerated trucks to deliver wines from the bodegas to Bilbao (usually relying on local companies that are more responsive to the needs of bodegas), which he says can add as much to total transportation costs as shipping the wines from Spain to America by reefer (temperature-controlled) container. He sends all shipments leaving Spain between mid-March and mid-November in refrigerated containers, not just those that are sent during the hottest months of summer.

The internationalization of Spanish wine. As in so many other wine-producing regions, there is a great deal of winemaking by formula in Spain today. That formula includes picking overripe fruit and extracting heavily to make deeply colored, high-alcohol wines, and then slapping on a lot of new (and usually French) oak. Many wines are concocted to satisfy the perceived tastes of export markets, without regard to loss of site or even regional character. Moreover, regions that previously made blending wines that were virtually too strong to drink on their own, such as La Mancha, Valencia, Jumilla and numerous hot spots along the Mediterranean coast, are now firmly in the table wine business. As Spanish wine expert and past IWC contributor Gerry Dawes explains today's mindset in Spain, these producers have basically said: "If California can pass off a 15% cabernet, why can't we pass off a 15% tinto fino?" It was no coincidence that these hot-country wines were previously blended, says Dawes. "These wines do not go with food, and they become more boring and heavy to drink as you go through the bottle."

Critics of New Wave Spanish wines bemoan the fact that much of today's market has lost interest in the best old-guard producers of Spain, particularly of Rioja. Lovers of traditionally made Riojas are appalled at the idea of modern-style examples carrying alcohol levels of 14% or more. Having drunk more than my share of the great Riojas of the '50s and '60s, I can say that I miss these insinuating, subtle wines as well. I recall, on a visit to London in the early '80s, reading in a local London newspaper about a major auction purchase of old Riojas by the retailer La Reserve. I hustled over to La Reserve's shop in Knightsbridge and picked up an incredible assortment of old bottles for a song (Cune, Marques de Riscal, Lopez de Heredia, etc.). For the rest of my stay in London, I drank deeply and often. Luckily, these wines were easy on the head and stomach, delivering more intensity and complexity of flavor than would seem possible from wines often carrying no more than 12% alcohol. But as with topnotch older Bordeaux, the finest Riojas of yesteryear were always the exceptions, and there were far too many lean, green, dried-out or downright dirty wines released during the same decades. Diehard fans of traditional Spanish wines who bemoan the new style and valorize the old are often talking about the wines of their memory, which have a tendency to get better every day.

Are Spain's New Wave wines balanced, and will they age? Sure, they're darker, richer, riper and more extracted. A lot of them are also hot, shapeless, and lacking in freshness. But the best of them are also reasonably balanced and loaded with ripe fruit. It's tempting to compare some of Spain's superrich new bottlings to high-octane shirazes from Australia, but I find that the better Spanish wines have more Old World savoir-faire and suaver textures. They are also far less likely to come across as overly manipulated.

Certainly, I tasted many lesser Spanish wines in recent months that were killed by new French or American oak. In too many of these wines, the oak overwhelms the nose and palate or dries out the finish. But this was not the case with wines that began with stronger material. Whether Spain's more extreme new reds age more gracefully than Australia's remains to be seen. For the time being, I would recommend drinking most of these wines in the short to medium term (i.e., any time over the next seven or eight years) for the qualities you enjoy right now.

Pricing. Prices for Ribera del Duero wines remain quite high, particularly for wines that are more likely to impress with their sheer richness than with their aromatic complexity or class. Some of the better-established producers in this region seem to be coasting on their reputations. Meanwhile, plenty of rather rustic country wines continue to come onto the market with stiff price tags. There are still many exciting wines from this region, but smart consumers will want to pick their spots carefully. The same applies to Priorat, where prices are often extremely high and quality varies widely. A relative handful of producers, mostly those working with the region's distinctive llicorella soil (loosely packed schist rich in minerals), are making immensely rich yet balanced wines that can be compared in quality to the best Chateauneuf du Papes. But there are also many chunky, high-alcohol wines of limited complexity and dubious balance. In both Priorat and Ribera del Duero, the 2002 vintage is not in the same quality league as 2001.

Here are the notes on the best new releases from Spain I tasted in recent months. I have included table wines and some Cavas, Spain's normally inexpensive Champagne-method sparkling wine, but I did not review sherries for this article. Please note that many Spanish wines in the retail marketplace today were reviewed back in Issue 109.