The Best New Wines From Spain

Of all the wine-producing countries regularly covered in this publication, Spain must be the world's greatest source of wine values at the moment. That's not to say, however, that there's not a flood of mediocre Spanish wine in the U.S. market right now. In fact, the 2003 and 2002 vintages, which accounted for the majority of wines I tasted during the past couple of months for my annual report on Spain, were both very tricky years. On the other hand, the 2004 and 2001 vintages are superb. My notes on the following pages include plenty of terrific 2001s, and we can look forward to many more outstanding releases over the next few years from 2004.

Numerous growers describe 2002 as the worst harvest in recent memory, as a cool summer was followed by a September that featured widespread rainfall, especially in the northern half of the country. Many 2002s are simply green; others have alcoholic weight but lack depth or betray underripe tannins. Sites that escaped the worst of the rains, though, or were able to harvest late, often produced surprisingly aromatic and lively wines, in a less dense style than those from the warmest years but with an added element of refinement. Many bodegas in Rioja, for example, are happy with their 2002s, and growers in parts of Montsant maintain that they experienced less damaging September rainfall than most of nearby Priorat. The most successful 2002s have plenty of aromatic character, palate presence, and definition and complexity of flavor; these wines can truly be said to transcend the vintage.

At the other extreme was the baking hot summer of 2003, which widely yielded round, high-alcohol wines with low acidity and considerable early appeal. Most normally hot regions produced wines that are more pruney and oxidative than ever. But it is important to keep in mind that many of Spain's important growing regions commonly consist of vineyards planted 600 to 1,000 feet above sea level, and this gave them a geographic advantage over much of France in 2003. In vineyards at higher altitude, even if afternoon temperatures were extreme, cooler nighttime temperatures gave the vine some respite. As a very general rule, the higher the area and site in Spain, the better it performed in 2003. Some of the best 2003s were made where growers were able to wait to pick in cooler weather, after their fruit had achieved real phenolic ripeness, not just high sugars. At the other extreme, there are many 2003s that show texture and weight without much depth of fruit flavor, and others that are compromised by green elements from underripe skins.

The best news to lovers of Spanish wine is that vintages 2001 and 2004 appear to be outstanding across much of the country. Two thousand one is a wonderfully rich year, with some wines showing near-roasted ripeness but with generally sound acid levels giving most wines excellent vinosity and balance. Many wines from this vintage show depth of flavor rare for Spanish wine. While most 2001s have been released by now, there are still a handful of Rioja reservas and gran reservas to come. Vintage 2004 is being talked up in Spain as a great year, with some winemakers labeling it the best vintage they have ever witnessed. In many areas, the harvest was a good two or three weeks later than normal, but it took place under dry conditions, allowing the ripening to occur slowly and well, and the grapes to retain healthy levels of acidity. My tastings of a number of early-release 2004s, mostly wines made in tank but some that spent a few months in barrel, already indicate the strong potential of this vintage. And of course many of the white wines reviewed below are from 2004, and they tend to be intense and vibrant. White wine in Spain has been utterly transformed over the past 15 to 20 years, and today there are countless juicy, minerally wines available from the more temperate northwest and north central parts of the country.

The Spanish fly in the ointment. Tasting Spanish wines in the U.S. is always complicated by the fact that too many wines are compromised between the bodega and the American consumer. Here's how I explained the problem in Issue 116: "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. . . . 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." So it is entirely possible that many 2003s, low in acidity and often rather roasted to begin with, gave up the ghost along the route to America. In my recent tastings, I could not help wondering whether some of the wines that showed poorly here might be perfectly sound in Spain.

The U.S. market today is being flooded with inexpensive country wines from Spain. The best of them offer astonishing value. The majority of these wines, however, are rustic hot-country wines with muddy if not dirty flavors, poor-quality oak and/or coarse tannins. Some are respectable at first sip, but quickly grow pruney or unacceptably dry as they open in the glass. To be fair, most cheap Spanish wine in this market comes from producers or co-ops that make no pretensions to quality: the wines are finished in tacky bottles with poor-quality corks and slapdash labels, and these products sell for just a couple of euros at the bodega. Yet I've seen rave reviews in the U.S. press for wines that are no better than the dullest co-op wines from the South of France. However, I must single out two outstanding sources of inexpensive wines from Spain: Jorge Ordoñez (Fine Estates from Spain) and Eric Solomon (European Cellars). Both of these importers offer numerous terrific wines for under ten bucks, many of which are available in large quantities. Some of these are legitimate estate wines while others are special cuvées created by Ordoñez and Solomon for the U.S. market. What these wines have in common are healthy colors; clean flavors; and, best of all, real sweetness of fruit. It is hardly a coincidence that I had better luck with the condition of my samples from these two importers than from any others in my recent tastings.

Here are 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. Spain is a vast producer of wine, and I feel as if I have barely scratched the surface of what the country has to offer. On the other hand, please note that many Spanish wines in the retail marketplace today were reviewed in the IWC back in Issue 116