Samui Wining & Dining
Splendid Spanish Wines

The last 20 years have seen major changes in Spanish wine production.


wining - dining 26I highly recommend wine lovers discover the wonderful wines of modern Spain, if they have not done so already. Here in Thailand, where one needs to hunt high and low for affordable and reasonable quality wines, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with some inexpensive and gorgeous Spanish Tempranillo and Garnacha red wines, branded as “Old Vine Selection” for a well-known supermarket chain. (Yes okay… Tesco Lotus, but please keep it a secret!) In my humble opinion, one of the more compelling wine stories of recent decades has been Spain’s almost miraculous evolution from a producer of oceans of mediocre commercial wine, to a source of some of the most exciting and original wines in the world, across the price spectrum.

      However, it’s true to say that change was a long time coming. Spain has a very long history of viticulture, it’s estimated that grapes first appeared in Spain around 1,000 BC. But the arrival of the non-drinking Moors, in the 8th century, put a damper on the wine trade that lasted 700 years. Not until the 1490s, with the expulsion of the party pooping Moors, did business begin to pick up again. Spanish explorers planted Spanish vines throughout the New World, but only in the 19th century did Spanish wines begin to move, hesitantly, into modern times.

       Where was Spain in the centuries when France, Italy and Germany were defining and redefining their tastes and traditions? With the exception of the export driven regions of Andalucía, Jerez and Malaga, it had slipped back almost to the Middle Ages. The proud traditions of Castile and the Duero had sunk into a stupor, Catalonia was a downtrodden province, and the rest of the country was making the dubious double-strength wine that was swigged, uncritically and unceremoniously, out of goatskins! Then, one of the most famous events in wine history happened. The phylloxera virus destroyed the French vineyards in the 1860s and 70s, and many Bordeaux winemakers were forced to move south. They brought with them their vines, their winemaking skills and the iconic Bordeaux bottle. And of course, as far as the highly regarded Rioja is concerned, the rest was history.

      But it was over century until other regions decided to join the contemporary wine world. And gradually Spanish wines began to improve immensely. Wine regions, unknown even within Spain a few years earlier, flourished, led by the Penedès region in Catalonia, and later Ribera del Duero. Priorat, Navarra and Toro also began to capture the attention of wine buffs worldwide. It’s curious that of all the countries in Europe, Spain was the first to have wine laws governing quality, yet its entry into the fine wine market is younger than California’s. Two decades ago, it had only half a dozen regions with any pretensions to quality. Today it has at least twenty, and most of them are still so young that an apt comparison would be New Zealand.

         It’s worth remembering that as late as the 1980s, most Spanish wines were over-sulphured to combat spoilage, and not very successfully. (If there is one chemical element that will guarantee a head-splitting hangover, it’s sulphur!) Thankfully, within a decade that practice ended, even in the cooperatives that sold inexpensive bulk wine all over Europe.

         Grenache, called Garnacha in Spain, is the country’s most widely planted grape but not necessarily its best. That honour surely goes to Tempranillo, the principal grape of the Rioja. Vega Sicilia, long considered Spain’s greatest red wine, comes from Ribera del Duero and is made principally from blending Tinta del País with Cabernet Sauvignon. (Tinta del País was once thought to be a separate grape variety, but today it’s often known as Tempranillo.) While Vega Sicilia has maintained the standard it set in the mid-19th century, it now has some serious competition. For several decades, Priorat, which is part of the Penedès, has been producing wines the envy of winemakers everywhere. Wines from producers Alvaro Palacios and the Clos Erasmus, to name just two, match anything Bordeaux or Burgundy can produce. Dominio de Pingus has produced intense red wines that go for 400 Euros a bottle and more. At the other end of the price scale, Torres Gran Coronas Reserva and Marques de Caceres Rioja can be found (in Spain) for less than 20 Euros.

         Of course, Sherry is still Spain’s best-known wine. And yes, I do class it as a wine, and not as some special aperitif or after-dinner drink. In Spain, people drink sherry throughout their meals. The different styles of sherry (especially dry) pair very well with a wide variety of foods, from seafood to white meats to salads. I highly recommend you consider it, for a deliciously refreshing change, when contemplating food/wine combinations for a dinner party.

         I would also recommend, the once embarrassing, Spanish white table wines, which have recently taken on a new life. Thanks mainly to the gallant efforts of the Rias Baixas region’s winemakers, along with a once little-known grape, the Albariño. The wine is dry, fruity and fresh, with lively acidity. And well worth hunting down for lunchtime enjoyment when dining on seafood at a Mediterranean brasserie.

         Clearly, there has been a frenzy of investment and serious upgrading in the Spanish wine industry. And the enlightened concept is not difficult to see. Most of Spain is now technically equipped to make wines as good as its grapes will allow. And several of its varieties have inherent qualities as positive as any in the wine world. Like Italy, Spain sees the perils, as well as the benefits, of joining the international Cabernet Sauvignon club, which is surely a good thing. And happily, Spain’s recent and valuable contribution to the variety of the world’s fine wines will expand all our horizons.


Peter James


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