The Wines from Spain annual tasting seems to have found its natural home at Sky Garden, where it returned to offer buyers a broad look at the quality and innovation that is rife in the country, and happening in the most unexpected of places. Rueda, for so long a bulk producer of average wines, had a singular focus where it was clear just how far the region has moved on particularly with producers doing interesting things with key grape Verdejo. Justin Keay picks out the wines to get on your radar as well as picks his Magnificent Seven – wines that stood head and shoulders over the other wines present.
One of the highlights of the Wines from Spain tasting was the masterclass by Sarah Jane-Evans MW which showed that Verdejo is no one-trick pony
Wines from Spain seem increasingly at ease in what now seems to have become home for its UK annual tasting. With fantastic views over London and the Thames, it’s hard to find a more impressive venue than the Sky Garden, to which fast elevators whip you up from the busy streets of the City, 35 floors below. The event is seldom crowded thanks to the strict policy on attendee numbers (although the downside is that most visitors must chose between an AM and a PM slot) and the two stairways connecting Level 35 and 36 over which the tasting is spread allow time for contemplation amidst the tastefully placed trees and benches that look down into the vast atrium below.
“This is a great venue and the temperature allows us to keep the wines at the right temperature, which is more than can be said for some places,” says Alex Down, head of Enotria’s brand management division.
And yet I was disappointed to see that, like last year, there were still standard ISO glasses rather than Riedel, commonplace in pretty much all other trade tastings. OK for sherry perhaps, but hardly a great way to explore the subtle nuances of a hefty Ribera del Duero.
And although UK importers were mostly all present and correct, from Alliance and Armit via Gonzalez Byass and Liberty right through to Vintage Roots and Withers, producer stands were few (just 16, all looking for distribution) and un-representational. And last year’s intriguing special tasting area for local varieties, was this year occupied by Going Green, emphasising organic and sustainable winemaking, which I felt was less focussed.
This was a complete contrast to last October’s Wines from Spain Awards Tasting, which every year provides a fantastic overview of the New Spain, with wines from most regions at a wide range of price points. That said, there were some real gems to discover.
Here’s my Magnificent Seven, in no particular order.
Torres, Cuvee Espendor by Vardon Kennett 2013
Last year’s decision by several leading Catalan producers to break away from the Cava designation, coming on top of an earlier decision by other producers, seems to have energised Spain’s sparkling wine industry. I tasted quite a few good sparklers, using Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and of course, Xarel-lo, but this was one of the best. (Fells)
Another great sparkler, this time from the Cava DO, and made from Macabeo and Parellada, this was aged for 36 months before bottling. Great value at under £20. (Ehrmanns)
Fuentes del Silencio, Las Jaras 2016
I didn’t expect to find myself recommending a wine from the raher humble Tierra de Leon DO but this wonderful blend of Prieto Picudo, Mencia and Alicante Bouchet really works. Very well integrated and moreish. (Jeroboams)
Contino, C.V.N.E, Contino Blanco 2017
The high end label from this renowned Rioja producer – whose winemaker Jorge Navascues only took over the reins in mid 2017 – was positively singing at this tasting. And what a lovely range; the high end Contino Graciano 2014, made in tiny volumes, was lovely with saline notes offsetting the fruit, whilst the Gran Reserva 2010 was full on, well integrated tannins but fresh acidity supporting dark berry fruit. My favourite though was this white, made from Viura and Garnacha Blanco, a light use of oak making this a wonderfully expressive wine. More please! (Hatch Mansfield)
Bodegas Palacio, Cosme Palacio, 1894 Blanco 2015
This white Rioja, made with 93% Viura and 7% Malvasia had wonderful acidity and fresh tropical fruit on the palate. A shame there were just 1728 bottles made. (Ehrmanns)
Gaintza, Gatariako Txakolina 2018
The Txakoli DO was one of tasting’s stand-outs and this fresh, young wine, with the DO’s normal low alcohol level (11.5%) is a fine, fresh example. Gros Manseng and the little known Hondarrabi Beltza support the Hondarrabi Zuri. (Liberty)
Vintae, Grandes Anadas Blanco Reserva 2012
Famous in the UK mainly for its Matsu range from Toro and for the Hacienda Lopez de Haro range from Rioja, Vintae is not particularly well known for whites but this was a revelation, with subtle oak showcasing the fruit flavours from Viura, Garnacha Blanco and Malvasia.
According to CEO Ricardo Arambarri, although Vintae “grew out of Rioja today we want to show the diversity of Spain,” and his wines clearly showed that. The varietal range from Hacienda Lopez de Haro was impressive, as were the Toro Matsu range and the Bardos range from Ribera del Duero. This family owned company, which has also made a range of wines showcasing Garnacha in some of the 15 different regions of Spain where it produces wine, is really going places. (Vintae)
Verdejo really coming of age in Rueda
Another big takeaway for me from this tasting was on the growing diversity and improved quality of Rueda, a region to which I had previously paid little attention because, well, it seemed boring, cheap and of rather average quality. Sarah Jane-Evans MW, who held two masterclasses exploring Verdejo, the DO’s best known variety, and Sauvignon Blanc, the other variety Rueda specialises in, says this image is rather out of date.
“If you want a cheap Rueda you will find it, but lots of winemakers here are doing interesting things. The region is at a moment of great change,” she says.
This is evident in the re-branding the DO has undertaken for its wines, which emphasise the region rather than the variety through labels on the back of the bottle, which are also colour coded. The idea is that the region – which accounts for over 40% of Spanish white wine production – gets wider recognition, with consumers asking for a Rueda as they might for a Rioja, and that more consumers become aware of the region’s pluses, which include stony soil and bush vines.
The timing couldn’t be better: exports to the UK have soared, reaching over one million bottles in 2017 after just 700,000 in 2016. And some of the wines are really, well, pretty good. At Evans’ masterclass, the Jose Pariente Verdejo 2018 (imported by Georges Barbier of London), was delicious, light with a floral lift, showing the variety simply and delicately; next up the Ramon Bilbao Edicion Limitada Verdejo Lias 2018 (Enotria) was completely different, fermented in concrete before spending eight months in Hungarian oak, wonderfully moreish; and the Belonrade y Lurton 2017, the most prestigious of the three, wild ferment and barrel-fermented. Three very good but very distinct wines, illustrate that Verdejo is no one trick pony but capable of showing many faces.
Further tasting reinforced this; the lees-aged Harenna Verdejo 2017 from Garciarevalo, a medal winner, comes from vines at least 70 years old. Made using traditional methods it is rounded with lots of stone fruit on the palate; a long way from traditional perceptions – well, mine at least – of Verdejo from this region. A more conventional, fresh and fruit-forward style is offered by Javier Sanz’s Verdejo 2018, which again comes from vines up to 80 years old. Meanwhile the Sauvignon Blanc from this region is about as far from New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as you can get; for example the Bodega Cuatro Rayas’s Sauvignon 2018 – grapes are night-harvested – has tropical flavours that are supported by a full, rounded body and the finish is long.
Rueda is certainly a region I shall be looking out for in future, its progress in recent years a reflection of the overall improvement in quality across Spain. Life beyond Cava, Rioja and Albarino? Absolutely, with innovation and quality emerging in the most unexpected places.