Sometimes I look back at the wines I drank over the summer with the same nostalgia that I feel for all things warm weather. I miss walking around barefoot in a sundress drinking chilled trocken (dry) riesling. Luckily there’s plenty of wonderful, heartier red wines to embrace in the winter, particularly the latest coming out of Spain.
Now, I’ve spent hours trying to convince people of the wonders of mencia from Ribeira Sacra or the breadth of food pairing possibilities of dry sherry, but most are unwilling to branch out past tempranillo from Rioja or cheap bottles of cava. Perhaps it’s because Spanish wines are mostly made from indigenous grapes that can be intimidatingly obtuse—how do you know what mencia tastes like, anyway? Perhaps its because there isn’t a unified story behind Spanish wines that makes drinking them seem like a compelling proposition, something like the narrative put forth by luminary Kermit Lynch many years ago that galvanized a whole new generation of American wine drinkers into taking a second look at French wines.
I would argue that today, Spanish wines are undergoing a quiet revolution in terms of quality, a transformation taking place in every region. Spanish wine is finally rooting itself in its history, culture, traditions and landscapes; it isn’t all trying to imitate the iconic reds from Rioja, or trying to conform to an over-oaked, extracted, international style of wine. These are wines that you can only find in speciality wine shops and restaurants, because production is limited and quantities are small, because the wines are handcrafted and made with love. But they are worth seeking out for their uniqueness and fine craftsmanship. And just in time for cold-weather winter drinking, these complex, earthy red grape flavors take the edge off that bite in the air.
Viñedos Telmo Rodriguez, “Lanzaga,” Rioja, $39
Part of the problem with Spanish wine has been its lack of specificity. The wine regions of Spain are huge, with Rioja itself containing about 152,328 acres of vineyards; further, the historic Bordelaise style on which fine Spanish winemaking is based did not stake itself in the elevation of certain vineyard sites (a sort of “cru” system) that has now become a modern prerequisite for the marketability of a fine wine region. But that is changing, in part due to the groundbreaking work of Telmo Rodriguez, who, along with his partner Pablo Eguzkiza, has been buying up forgotten or abandoned vineyard sites with the intention of preserving the planting of indigenous Spanish varieties. In the process, they have made some truly fantastic wines. This wine was crafted in a small, 17th-century bodega a few kilometers outside the town of Haro, and is a callback to what Rioja could be before it became dominated by large estates, before machine harvesting and chemical fertilizing. The native yeast strains of Rioja can be found in the air here and are used in the wine, which is deep, bold, layered and ultimately completely satisfying.
Envínate, “Albahra,” Canary Islands, $22
Envínate translates to “wine yourself up!”, a proprietary name rather than the name of a person. There are four winemakers behind this producer, and each of them are involved in many different projects all over Spain, working with the intention of defining points of origin, determining quality levels and creating a hierarchy for Spanish wine based in terroir. This bottle is from the Almansa area of the Canary Islands, an area that has not been done justice by Spain’s appellation of origin system. The grape is garnacha tintorera, blended with a grape called moravia agria, which brings out the lightness and freshness that can be hard to find in garnet-based wines. The Albahra has an unexpectedly Burgundian flavor profile for a wine from a Mediterranean region, and is an excellent testament to the untapped potential of the Canary Islands.
Mengoba, “Brezo,” Bierzo, $15
When most people think of the wines from Northwestern Spain, they only think of albarino—which is a shame, because it has a powerful history of viticultural tradition, extending all the way back to Roman times. Luckily, French winemaker Grégory Pérez crafts affordably priced bottling from mencia, the red grape of the region, sourced from organically cultivated, old-vine vineyards. Grown and made at an altitude of 2,500 feet, this wine has power, structure and intensity. Its bold, earthy flavors make it perfect for cold winter nights.
Spain has always been a unique wine region, but in the past few years it has definitely come into its own. Regions that have been dormant for centuries, that have hid their shine under the marketable style of overripeness and overoaking, are now being rediscovered and celebrated. This is what good wine is supposed to do; it is supposed to be a standard-bearer for artistic revolution, for refinement, and for change that reflects the values of the people that make the wine. If there is one overarching value that Spanish wine embodies, it is the passion and zeal for life that its winemakers possess.