UNDERAPPRECIATED WINES OF THE IBERIAN PENINSULA

Spain and Portugal share a remarkable landscape that is home to some of the planet’s most interesting wine grapes and fascinating wines.

 

Tempranillo is Spain’s premier red grape and just about every region in the peninsula makes distinctive wines from local variants of the grape. Probably the best known of those regions among Americans is Riojain north central Spain. I recommended a number Rioja wines in an earlier post.

 

The next best-known region is the Ribera del Duero just southwest of Rioja. Here, the grape is known as tinto fino or tinta del país and produces several of Spain’s greatest, most expensive wines. From the Marqués de la Concordia comes a fine example in the mature, earthy, multifaceted 2009 Hacienda Zorita Abascal Vineyard Reserva ($30). It’s mature with earthy red and black fruit, oak, licorice, and coffee, harmonious and deep, nice structure, and plush texture.

 

Also in the Ebro Valley just to the northeast of Rioja, within the mountainous province of Aragón (shares a border with France), the vineyards of Cariñena date to the Roman occupation of the area possibly as early as the 3rd century BCE.

 

Although the region is named after the cariñena grape (carignan in France), garnacha (grenache in France) is more common these days and often the two grapes are blended. Garnacha actually originated in Spain. It produces crowd pleaser wines with high-toned strawberry, raspberry, and black cherry, hints of spice and a fleshy texture. Not surprisingly, this region also is known for wines from cariñena.

 

Wines from Cariñena offer solid value and deserve more attention from consumers. Typically with intense flavors, they are packed with high-toned red berry fruit, smoke and baking spices, and a fleshy texture with approachable tannins. Taste this quality with the fleshy, oaky 2013 Corona de Aragón Special Selection ($16), a blend of old-vine garnacha and cariñena; and the jammy, 100 percent cariñena 2015 Bodegas San Valero “Particular” ($15).

 

In Spain and especially this part of Spain, many grower cooperatives dominate wine production. And they produce high quality wines at everyday prices, combatting the received “wisdom” in much of the wine world that co-ops are only interested in producing mass quantities of common bulk wine.

 

You will taste this quality in the 2013 Corona de Aragón Special Selection ($16) produced by Grandes Vinos y Viñedos, an enterprise established in 1997 of five cooperatives with roots in the region dating to 1950. Old-vine garnacha and cariñena yield ripe black fruit and good acidity, balanced with noticeable oak. The 100 percent cariñena 2015 Bodegas San Valero “Particular” ($15), from a cooperative of 700 growers created in 1944 is jammy, creamy, and woodsy, with a plush texture.

 

Garnacha also grows well about 37 miles west of Cariñena in neighboring Calatayud where the (Gallo affiliated) Bodegas San Alejandro cooperative has produced a 2014 Las Rocas Garnacha ($14) from old vines that yield red and black fruit, fresh acidity, with oak and earth accents, and a smooth palate.

 

In Navarra, near the border with France, the Chivite family’s Hacienda de Arínzano also produces notable tempranillo-based wines. Arinzano even has been awarded the rare Vino de Pago appellation (actually the first one in Spain) reserved for distinctive single-vineyard estates. Arínzanoqualifies for Pago status because it has a long history of winemaking (dating to the 11th century), a distinct terroir (higher elevation and drying breezes from nearby mountains, along with organic farming practices), and viticultural practices that facilitate wines reflecting the estate’s terroir.

 

The 2012 Tinto ($20) includes 10 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent merlot and offers sweet dark plum, with dusty earth and light oak, and a smooth texture. The 2010 single-vineyard La Casona ($40), with 25 percent merlot, delivers intense dark berry fruit and notes of toast, chocolate and tobacco, with solid tannins. The 2016 Rosé Tempranillo ($20) offers delightful fresh red fruit.

 

And as you hunt for winter warmer and holiday wines, remember Sherry. “What’s that?” you say. I will forgive you if you have forgotten about Sherry or think it’s made in California. It seems the American wine market also has ignored (as evidenced by sales figures) this fortified wine made in the southern province of Andalucía near the Atlantic coast.

 

Sherry styles (none of which carry a vintage date) range from dry to sweet and from light to luscious but all are best served chilled.

 

The most food friendly is “fino”, the lightest, driest and lowest alcohol (15%, not much more than regular table wines). After fermentation, these wines age in partially filled casks under a layer of yeast (called “flor”) that apparently is unique to this part of the world and prevents oxidation. The resulting wine is fresh and light with immediate impact of saline and mineral notes followed by light nut, vanilla and apricot.

 

A special kind of fino called manzanilla is made only in the exceptionally humid and salty climate around the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Here producers such as the over 360 year old Bodega Delgado Zuleta produce particularly light, dry, especially delicate wines such as the “La Goya” Manzanilla (375 ml, $17) with its noticeable saline and mineral elements.

 

Other styles of Sherry are fortified more and exposed to more air during the solera aging process. This results in higher alcohol but also darker color and deeper, more complex character. One such is Oloroso, which is more heavily fortified and isaged oxidatively (with no influence from flor) for a longer time than a Fino or Amontillado. A fine example is the Williams & Humbert Collection Don Zoilo Oloroso 12 Years Old ($25) – a darker, richer, more complex wine, aromatic and spicy, with alcohol at 19 percent.

 

Between fino and oloroso is Palo Cortado, which is a fairly rare, distinctive and highly prized style. Palo Cortado begins life under flor, and then loses that cover (either accidentally or intentionally), similar to the amontillado style. Sometimes, though, the wine tracks more in the direction of an Oloroso. The exposure to a more air yields a wine like the multilayered Williams & Humbert Dos Cortados Aged 20 years Solera Especial Rare Old Solera (21.5% alcohol, $45) with its darker color, deeper aromas and flavors, and a balance of richness, freshness and elegance.

 

Of course, Spain shares the Iberian Peninsula with Portugal. Portugal also has long been a premier source of fine table wine values. These days, wineries are contending at premium levels, too.

 

I tasted three rather amazing wines recently from Quinta dos Murças located in the Douro Valley. The property dates to 1714 and now is owned by Herdade do Espoão, whose origins date to the thirteenth century and is now one of Portugal’s largest wineries company. Using indigenous grapes and native yeasts from the same Douro area that produces Port, these wines are top notch in their price ranges.

 

Each of the following wines benefit from organic and integrated production methods, foot treading to crush the grapes, concrete vats for fermentation, and previously used oak for a lighter wood imprint.

 

The entry level 2015 Minas ($25) is a blend of touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta francisca, tinta roriz, and tinta cão. It has mouthwatering berry fruit with earthy notes and accents of licorice presented with structure and a touch of oak.

 

The next two come from the Douro’s oldest vertically planted vineyard (planted close to the Douro River in 1947). The 2015 Margem ($65), from touriga nacional and touriga franca vines situated close to the river with an average age of 33 years, is intense, with pure red fruit and graceful tannins but well structured with anise accents, cocoa and a spicy herbal note.

 

The 2012 “VV 47” ($100) is aptly named as it is intended to showcase those vertical vines at their best. This vineyard is a field blend of touriga nacional, touriga franca, sousão, tinta amarela, tinta barroca, tinta roriz. It is amazingly concentrated, lush, and complex. A mix of savory and sweet spice notes solidly structured and powerful, firm tannins and is still young. It will develop nicely with a few years.

 

Portugal, of course, is most famous for its Port wine, a fortified wine like Sherry but made only with red grapes. Also from Portugal’s Douro Valley, this sweet red wine is high alcohol (fortified with brandy) and bursting with red and black fruit flavors, it is a powerful wine, even in styles that manage to fashion a sense of elegance. The richness of intense dark fruits and natural sweetness balanced with refreshing tannin and finished with an alcoholic kick always warms my soul.

 

One of my favorite styles is Tawny Port. These wines marry several vintages and spend extensive time in casks, periods ranging form ten to forty years (the year on label refers to the average age of blended wine). Tawnies mellow in the barrel and are released when their peak of maturity is reached. 

 Tawny Port is known less for power and concentration than for complexity, purity of fruit and finesse. Also expect a distinctive nuttiness, admirable balance, elegance and a silky texture.

 

Graham’s “Tawny Porto Aged 10 Years” ($36) is smooth and delicate with pure cherry, brown spices, almonds, honey, and fig. Another outstanding example is Warre’s 10 Year Old “Otima” (500ml, $30), which is quite fine in its own right, offering an intriguing mix of fresh and dried cherry and orange, with hints of toffee, almonds and caramel.

 

A Twenty Old Tawny should provide more complexity and intensity but still taste fresh. For instance, the elegant Dow’s “Old Tawny Porto Aged 20 Years” ($60) has a complex nose of raisins, nuts, honey and date with an impressive purity of fruit.

 

A very special Porto (that also would make a fine gift) is the recently released Taylor Fladgate “325thAnniverary Reserve Tawny” ($40). Packaged in a bottle in a shape common to the period of Taylor’s founding – with a bar-top cork and a wide bottomed bottle – it brings bright fruit, fine depth and spicy richness. While it includes percentages of 10, 20, 30 and 40 year old tawnies, overall the average age is eight years. It brings bright fresh fruit, great depth and spicy richness with precision and a youthful impression. It’s complex, with a touch of caramel and chocolate.

 

Finally, a little treat included in my tasting. Probably even more ignored than Sherry is Madeira, another fortified wine, which comes from the islands of the same name off the coast of Portugal. I suggest you check them out. For history buffs, Madeira was the wine of choice of the Founding Fathers and the colonies. Styles range from dry to sweet. Among the sweeter styles, Blandy’s Malmsey Aged 10 Years ($29) is a good introduction. From the grape also known as malvasia, this wine nicely balances natural sugar and fresh acidity, with fig and marmalade flavors.

 

 

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.