Spanish wines from white grape varieties are gaining popularity in the global market. For publication in the week of 24 April 2017.
Spain is the world’s largest exporter of wine and has traditionally been known for robust reds, especially from the Rioja region. The country’s winemakers are constantly producing new wine styles while maintaining a rich tradition of oenological practices. One key trend appears to be the evolution of new or unusual whites.
Wines from the white grape Albarino, known as Alvarinho in neighbouring Portugal, have proven a major success story. Albarino is being made in a wide variety of styles, including sparkling. These have always attracted a devoted following but in recent years we have seen excellent wines from other white grapes such as Godello, Verdejo, Xarel.lo and Macabeo (also known as Viura), either blended or made into single-variety wines.
At the same time Spain has moved its focus from domestic sales to an emphasis on exports. Spain has been the world’s biggest exporter of wine since 2014, selling about 2.28 billion litres abroad compared with about 2 billion from France, though it should be noted that France earns considerably more from its exports (8 billion Euros against Spain’s 2.6 billion Euros).
Spanish wine is popular in the United States because of the large Hispanic population and the country’s reputation for value for money. The United Kingdom is another huge market, though this is mostly because of sales of Rioja and Cava.
These two wine styles represent Spain’s largest sales: Cava is the leader with 23.9 per cent of exports, followed by Rioja with 22.4 per cent. The numbers are reversed for domestic sales, with Rioja selling 25.5 per cent and Cava 9.9 per cent of the total.
The 2016 harvest in Rioja was reported to be “exceptional” or “classic” in terms of both quality and quantity. Grapes harvested in the Penedes region near Barcelona, the main region for Cava, were generally healthy despite the worst drought in the region since the 1940s. Yields in some areas were half of the 2015 harvest. In the Ribera del Deuro in the north of the country the harvest was said to be as good as the excellent 2015 vintage. The region’s limestone soils helped retain water during the late summer.
Sarah Jane Evans MW believes Spain is the most exciting wine region in the European Union. “Most consumers assume Spain is about red wine but the whites are really good quality.” She noted a trend towards single vineyard, high-end Cavas and also noted that more women winemakers were becoming recognised for their talents.
An example of the new type of Cava is the 2013 Vilarnau Els Capricis made solely from the Xarel.lo grape. Cava is usually a blend of Xarel.lo with Macabeo and Parellada. An unusual aspect of this sparkling was the fact that about a quarter of it was fermented and aged in chestnut barrels, the barrels coming from a nearby forest in Montseny. The wine has intense citrus flavours that linger in the memory and mouth, combined with a fresh and zingy mouthfeel. The fruit comes from an organic vineyard.
Another exciting wine made only with Xarel.lo is the 2014 Amphoras Loxarel, made as the name suggests in clay amphorae. Loxarel is the name of the estate. The clay vessels are not lined with resin, which is usually the case with amphorae, and the grapes are from a bio-dynamic estate. The clay promotes a high level of complexity and creaminess. Along with zingy acidity, the wine has a pleasant chalky texture and taste, presumably because of the vessels.
The 2014 Monopole Clasico is a dry white from the Rioja region blended from the Viura and Palomino grapes and made in concrete vats. Viura is the name of the Macabeo grape in Rioja. The wine offers intense floral sensations, like walking through a field of wildflowers, with masses of spicy notes and loads of character. The wine receives a smidgen of Manzanilla sherry as part of the blend, which gives the wine an edginess that is most appealing.
The 2014 El Lagarto Luby is made from another unusual white grape, Albarín Blanco, which is unrelated to the Albarino grape despite the similar spelling. The grape is generally only grow in the Leon region of north-western Spain. Winemaker Jörg Zielske is from the Ruhr in Germany but has been a winemaker in Spain since 2008. The wine has a chalky textural feel and good acidity.
The non-vintage El Cerro Oloroso La Callejuela sherry from the Jerez / Xérès region is made from a white grape, Palomino. Previous columns have described how sherry is made. This is a superb example of a dry sherry, filled with aromas and flavours of nuts and sunshine, and a slight saline note. It would be a lovely aperitif.
Our focus has been white grapes but we need to meet a red grape that is notable if only because it has at least 40 aliases. The 2014 Valteiro Valdesil comes from a grape known locally as Maria Ardoña in the Valdeorras region in the centre of the country, but it has a wide variety of names such as Bastardo, Merenzano, Bolonio and Trousseau. Made by the Valteiro estate, the wine has a lovely zingy presence in the mouth. It is delicious on its own but would pair well with a range of stewed game dishes.
A little-known fact about the Spanish wine industry is the huge amount of bulk wine the country produces. The vast La Mancha region in the centre of the country grows about half of all Spain’s wine, much of it Airen, the world’s most widely-planted white variety. The region sells about 2,000 million litres of bulk wine each year to a range of countries, including France. This wine costs about 35 Euro cents a litre. Talk about cheap and cheerful.