Spain: New rain from the old plains |

Spain: New rain from the old plains

In the past couple of years I have had the opportunity to visit some of Europe’s most important wine regions including Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, the Rhone, the Rhine and the Mosel river regions.

I think of them as wine geography trips.

As much as any product we consume, wine is “of a place.” At least for me, knowing what that place looks like makes the enjoyment of the wine a richer experience.

It’s heady stuff to look out over the spires and slate rooftops of Bernkastel, the hill of Hermitage or the tower of Latour. Even though I could never afford the wines, standing in the middle of the Romanée Conti vineyard in Burgundy, breathing in the perfume of the moment, is a memory to cherish long after the bottle would have been emptied.

And so, filled with curiosity and some confusion, my wife, Melanie, and I headed off to Spain in May for another wine trip. I had never been to Spain, which doesn’t have the glorified wine history that France and Germany share. I barely knew where to go.

But don’t think Spain is a wine wimp. It is the world’s third-largest producer behind France and Italy. Spain has more acreage devoted to grapevines than any other country. Vines were growing there millions of years before any recorded history of mankind. Sherry, historically one of Spain’s top guns, was the best selling wine in England at the end of the 16th century.

But by the second half of the 20th century, Spain’s enological prospects were bleak. Sherry had fallen out of favor and the rest of the country was producing over-oaked reds and oxidized whites that were course and simple, if not awful. Only Rioja, in northern Spain, had any kind of international reputation.

Growth in Rueda

But the last quarter of the 20th century brought new life to old Castille. For one thing, Franco died in 1975, unleashing a wave of modernism. That happily coincided with a worldwide wine boom as well as a surge of new technology. There was a renaissance afoot and Spain was right in its path.

Wine in Spain today is a study in contrast, one foot steeped in history, the other boldly kicking down the doors of the 21st century. It seemed like every wine region we went to we heard the same story. Rueda, one of Spain’s few white wine districts, is a good example. Of course there were always grapes there. Of course there was always wine made there. But mostly it was of inferior quality produced by the regional co-op for local consumption. Who else would want it?

But in the 1970s, vintners at Marques de Riscal, a well-regarded winery from Rioja, thought the Rueda area had potential. Taking a chance, they invested in new vineyards planted with the verdejo grape and built a thoroughly modern winery.

The gamble paid off. Marques de Riscal’s verdejo is tangy, crisp and dry, with delicious grapefruit and citrus flavors. But more importantly they pioneered the region for other producers. Rueda now has over 40 bodegas.

Exciting, new wines

Toro, a neighboring red wine region mirrors that story. It’s vineyards and wines were slumbering in mediocre obscurity until a powerful winery from another region showed interest in Toro. Now it is a thriving wine center full of wineries producing really good, bold, richly flavored wines from Tempranillo grapes.

One variation or another of that story is occurring all over the country. Spain is exploding with old regions producing exciting new wines.

No place demonstrates Spain’s contrast of old and new better than the tiny medieval village of El Ciego, in Rioja.

El Ciego is home to the original Marques de Riscal winery, founded in 1860. El Ciego is a picture postcard of centuries-old stone buildings and cobblestone alleyways. It is also home to architect Frank Gehry’s ultra modern City of Wine. Gehry, renowned for his intriguing design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, was commissioned to design a luxury hotel directly on the Riscal winery property.

Jarring, soaring, imaginative, weird, this shiny, billowing, brightly colored titanium-clad hotel can be described a lot of ways, but fitting quietly into the surrounding countryside would not be one of them. Not exactly a skyscraper in a mud hut village, but it might have been equally out of place. What could the locals think, we wondered. It puts us on the map, came the answer.

There is no doubt Spain has demonstrated huge improvements both in vineyard plantings and management techniques as well as modernized winemaking operations. They have succeeded masterfully in taking something old and making it fresh. Wine tourism on the other hand gets a “room for improvement” grade.

Drop-ins difficult

Rioja is Spain’s most established wine region with wineries dating back to the 19th century. They do have a “wine route” that leads you through the countryside, past vineyards and villages. But to stop at a winery you need to make an appointment in advance. For about $10, some of them offer a lengthy tour, well over an hour, then a short tasting of a couple of wines. They are not set up for drop in visitors.

Other regions were even more difficult. It was almost like the idea that someone would want to stop at a winery and taste the wines had never occurred to them. “Do what? Oh no, we don’t have anyone here who could help you with that.” There are opportunities to taste but it can be very awkward when they open the bottle just for you and stand there, watching, waiting for a reaction. Other than the biggest places, it’s not at all like walking into a California tasting room.

It’s hard to imagine that the Spanish don’t see wine tourism as having a future to develop. Their vintners have done the heavy lifting by improving quality. A great next step would be a central location in each region where tourists could taste the wines of that region.

Before I went there, I would have happily told you that I liked Spanish wines. But that is like saying I like California wines. Does that include Napa Valley and the Central Valley, the Sierra Foothills and Cucamonga? Spain, like California, is region specific.

Look beyond the country to the specific region. Just because you’ve never heard of the grape variety is no reason not to enjoy the wines. Choose Penedes for crisp sparkling wines called Cava. Select Rueda and Rais Baixas for delightfully aromatic, crisp and dry whites. Choose Bierzo, Campo de Borgia and Navarra for engaging fruity reds. Try Toro, Ribera Del Duero and Priorat for full-bodied, robust, husky reds and then there’s always that stalwart standby, Rioja. And those are just some of the regions in northern Spain. The rest of Spain is equally exciting.

Rod Byers, a certified wine educator, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California State Certified Wine Judge. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 530-913-3703.

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