After a few years of organising wine tastings and meeting people from across the world who have an interest in Spanish wine, there remains a constant theme to how people view wines produced here: they’re good value for money. This isn’t always a view the Spanish wine industry is thrilled about, but one that it finds hard to shake. Is it true, though? I had a think about it and realised that I can’t actually be sure. This is partly due to my decision to drink as broadly as possible, but also due to the fact I rarely drink wines that would be considered “Good value” by your average consumer. Simply put, as I’ve been trying to wrap my head (and lips) around the framework for a global industry within a few years, it’s meant that pretty much all my income has gone towards that goal. Benchmark wines often carry hefty price tags, although there’s certainly been a bit of irresponsible cherry-picking along the way, and normally only expensive wines make it to the shores of Barcelona from distant lands. For example, you can get a decently made bottle of New Zealand Pinot Noir in the UK for a little above £10; good luck in Barcelona for less than €20-25.
Well, as fate would have it I’m now in an excellent position to investigate this further. Namely:
I appear to have ran out of money.
I no longer have to prepare for international tasting exams(famous last words)
I’ve always wanted to explore the idea(perceived wisdoms should be tested where-ever possible)
Well, it’s not like I’m going to suddenly stop drinking, is it?
So with that in mind, I winced at the remaining funds in my bank account and started to plot how to go about it. It might sound obvious at first, but there are a few issues to be taken into account. First and most importantly, where is the line drawn for ‘good value’? This has been discussed a few times and ultimately, it depends on your own finances. In my local bodega, I can remember more than a few times when potential customers have left in a huff because there’s no bottled wine for less than €4 available. On the other end, I’ve seen people goggling at €100+ wines in Monvinic that are ‘good value’ because they’re less than ½ the going market rate. Like most things in life, it’s all relative. The next decisions are mainly based around red/white/styles/quantity etc. This is a lot easier as, despite the relatively affordable wines I’d be looking at, there’s still only so many I can afford and so they balance out quite naturally against the budget.
The one criteria that I hadn’t previously considered was variety. Given we’re talking about value here, are we talking about value amongst the better known appellations of Spain, or as a general rule? When it comes to vinous powerhouses like Rioja, there are wines available at every price point and in a variety of styles. Would the same be true of someone popping into their local bodega in a small village in Andalucia? Given that my own Spanish drinking experience tends to hover around the same 10-15 appellations, it also seemed like a good opportunity to stretch my own taste buds and become better acquainted with wine from Ucles, Arribes, Menorca and Pla I Llevant. After a lot of thinking under the influence of an ill-advised 11pm coffee, I came up with the following list of rules for the experiment:
No bottle can have a retail value of more than €10(I pulled the number out of the air. It’s arbitrary but feels about right)
Each wine must be red(easier to compare within a single style)
Each wine must come from a different region, ideally from a new(at least to me)producer or at least a wine within a portfolio I know, that I haven’t yet tried.
Where possible, opt for indigenous grape varieties over international
2 hours later, and I’ve ordered what is perhaps the most sensible wine order I’ve ever placed; at least in terms of cost per bottle if not in terms of quantity. 24 bottles of Spanish red wine, from 24 different regions and producers, each under €10 a bottle; €7.90 a bottle on average. They’ll all be drank over the coming 2 months, and I’ll post a detailed tasting note per wine as I go. Who knows if I’ll actually end up with a semblance of an answer to whether Spain really does offer good QPR at lower price points. It’ll be a valuable experience either way, I’m more likely to be able to pay my rent and it’s a great excuse to re-explore some of the ‘lesser’ wines of the country, as well as digging into regions to which I rarely, if ever, venture. Stay tuned for more, and for anyone who’s curious as to exactly what I’ll be drinking, the wines are below:
Price by the bottle – Shelf price + 5 euros corkage fee
Address – 90 Carrer San Pere mes Baix, 08003
Phone number – 933 10 26 73
Opening Hours – Monday to Saturday from 10am to 2:30pm and 2:30pm to 10pm
Closed on Sundays
Gran Bodega Maestrazgo is one of Barcelona’s oldest existing wine shops, having been founded by Agustin Moliner back in 1952. An olive farmer by trade, the two severe winters of 1951 and 1952 quite convinced Agustin that there had to be more to life than scraping a living in the countryside, and so he headed to Barcelona to set up a Bodega. Now, Bodega’s traditionally sold wine but also olive oil, vinegar and other related products so it wasn’t such a giant leap to move into the sales aspect of the business, rather than growing and producing it. The neighbourhood in question, was, and still is, a quiet residential close to the Santa Caterina market. Business flourished, to the extent that the Bodega is still thriving under the capable hands of Jose Moliner, the third generation owner of Bodega Maestrazgo.
As a disclaimer, it’s worth noting that this is a shop very close to my heart. I lived on the street for three years and it was largely down to visiting Bodega Maestrazgo on a nightly basis that I started to become fascinated by wine. Jose was the first person to explain wine to me on any level and he’s now a close personal friend of mine, also allowing us to organise our very special Maestrazgo Wine Club tastings in the private tasting room adjacent to the shop itself. I’m thrilled to be able to recommend Bodega Maestrazgo to anyone visiting or living in the city, as it’s truly one of the last historical wine shops still in business and thanks to Jose’s forward thinking nature, manages to stay up to date with many of the latest trends and wines, as well as catering to the old classics and even bulk wine for as little as 2 euros a litre!
Bodega Maestrazgo is first and foremost a Spanish wine shop. To that end, it comes as no surprise that a good 95% of the products here are from across Spain, with a small selection of Champagne, German Riesling and the occasional splurge on something interesting (most recently a selection of wines from Penfolds, South Australia!). However, the wines on sale are a wonderfully eclectic mix of what Spain has to offer, with a big selection of the classics such as Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat, but also a lot of the new-wave Spanish wines from Galicia, Andalucia and Madrid. The price points are all very reasonable and it’s rare to find wine on sale here for more than €50 a bottle; there simply isn’t the market for it within the area. If I had any criticism of the bottle selection, it’s that there could be more thought put into the white wines but frankly, that’s as much to do with consumer demand as it is with any purchasing decisions.
The other option you have of course, is to buy the bulk wine stored in barrels at the front of the shop. In terms of volume, these sales far outstrip bottle sales and with good reason; the prices are outrageously low. €2.30 a litre for a reasonable, if anonymous, of Spanish red grapes? €2.60 a litre for a young, supple Tempranillo blend from Ribera del Duero? Yes please! Do like the locals and bring your own plastic container, it only has to be an empty bottle of some sort, as that saves you the cost of purchasing a new one which costs almost as much as the wine itself. The ‘Vi Negre’, literally ‘Black wine’, also happens to make an excellent base for Spanish Sangria.
The real beauty of Bodega Maestrazgo, however, is their dispensation to serve alcohol by the glass until 9:30pm every evening, something that not every wine shop can boast of. There are typically 2-3 whites and 2-3 reds available by the glass, but if you’re with friends simply ask after the corkage fee to drink within the shop. €5 is the going amount and makes for a stupendously affordable alternative to ordering wine in restaurants and bars; take a €20 euro wine, drink at €25 due to corkage and compare that to the same wine selling for €40 in a restaurant. It’s a no-brainer. They also have a large selection of cold wines, Cavas and Champagnes in the fridge to the front of the shop so feel free to peruse there as well; nothing beats a cold bottle of Cava and a plate of Jamon Iberico on a warm summers evening!
When I bring people to the store, I refer to the area as being ‘Old-old town’ rather than the ‘New-old town’ of central Born. It’s not that one is older than the other, it’s simply that this part of Barcelona has seen very little in the way of investment and only recently has there been any changes in business ownership at all. As a result, the shop itself looks like it hasn’t changed much since 1952 and in reality, it hasn’t much!
As you enter you go through the doorway with the till on your left and the large selection of bulk wine in barrels to your right. All the bottles and the space to sit down and grab a drink are at the back, so this is where I strongly recommend you make yourselves comfortable for the evening. Grab a barrel or a small table, sit back and relax! If you find yourself falling in love with any particular wine and need to take it home via air-travel, make sure to ask Jose who can either ship it or wrap small quantities in bubble-wrap to be safely stowed in your hold luggage.
As there is no bar licence here, the food is a relatively simple but delicious affair; cheeses, cold meats, olives, anchovies, bread and some truly delicious olive oil. The Jamon Iberico they slice off the bone is as good as any I’ve had in the city and very competitively priced; it’s become my go-to plate for €15 whenever I eat there! There’s a selection of cheeses and I highly recommend the Idiazabal, a smoky sheeps cheese from the Basque Country in the north of Spain and whatever new delights they have in stock. The beauty of the food here is that it changes often, with Jose constantly experimenting with new cheeses, cured meats and even different breads from across the country. If the Galician sour-dough is available, order half a loaf, dribble liberally with olive oil and prepare yourself for one of the best rustic food experiences going.
As I said at the beginning, this is a shop close to my heart, so I admit it’s hard to be objective about it. However, I’ve not once taken a guest or family member there who hasn’t fallen in love with it and it’s not hard to see why. In a world where authenticity is at a premium, Bodega Maestrazgo manages it effortlessly and with no strings attached; what you see is what you get. There are fewer more genuine experiences of Barcelona’s wine scene to be found and every wine lover passing through should try their best to visit. As I still spend a lot of my time there, should you see me come and say hello and of course, make sure to meet Jose if he’s in the shop himself as his intense, warm and generous nature is as much a part of Bodega Maestrazgo as the bricks and mortar.
Bodega Maestrazgo is an enormously popular spot with the local community, so make sure to get there slightly ahead of the crowd as it can be hard to find a spot past 8pm, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights.
Whilst the wine-by-the-glass list is interesting and balanced, it really does pay to bring a friend or two and take advantage of the corkage directly from the shelf. There are some stunning wines to be had, constantly updated and very reasonably priced.
Only one or two members of staff speak English so be patient if you don’t speak any Spanish and you’ll figure it out!
Make sure to ask what cheeses and meats are currently available as they change often. Regardless, definitely order the Jamon Iberico de Bellota in the largest format possible!
Either go early during the evening or better still, during the middle of the day. Setting up shop at 12:30 and enjoying a bottle of excellent wine over the next 2 hours is one of my greatest pleasures in life. Bring a friend (or a book!) and expect to wander out with a big smile on your face.
Every month we’ll be tasting and learning about an iconic producer of Spanish wine in detail. To attend these tastings, please make sure you check the blog on the 1st of every month for the newsletter with the details, or join the Meet-up group to get updates as tastings become available.
It’s often said that DO Penedes attracts some of the most innovative wine-makers and projects in Spain, partly due to the varied climates and soils, and partly due to the relatively relaxed regulations around grape varieties and general wine production. However, there are also many excellent producers who’ve been around for quite some time, and this week we’ve chosen to look at one of my favourites; Can Rafols dels Caus. Details of the wines can be found at the end of the article.
As we’re only presenting a single Spanish producer per month as a dedicated tasting, the selection process is always a bit of a dilemma as there’s simply so many quality producers to choose from. Are they an iconic producer? Not really, as most people outside of Catalunya aren’t aware of who they are. Are they on the cutting-edge of wine innovation? Again, no. Whilst the use of some of their grape varieties are a little unorthodox, they have a refreshingly balanced approach to the creation of their wines. So why did we choose to showcase Can Rafols dels Caus this month? Simply put; they’re focused on slowly but surely improving the quality more than the size of their production, they’ve invested heavily into both the estate and their vineyards, and the results are starting to become very apparent in the glass. This methodical, honest and hard-working approach towards wine strikes a chord with me and I’ve very much enjoyed tasting their wines over the past year.
Carlos Esteva, owner of Can Rafols, has been at the estate since 1979 although the land itself was purchased in 1939 by his grandfather. The estate itself is a sizeable 450 hectares of land, although only 90 hectares are given over to vines and recently the family have acquired another 250 hectares of land, although my understanding is that it was only done to ensure that it wouldn’t be purchased by a stone-quarrying company which would, in their own words, ‘represent a serious threat to the environmental equilibrium of this part of the Garraf.” Where deep pockets meet strong principles, wine does remarkably well! Thanks to the undulating terrain, there are various slopes with different exposures to sunlight on top of the chalky, limestone mass that is the Massis del Garraf; a coastal mountain range in Catalunya which the vineyards of Can Rafols sit neatly on top of. This, along with differing depths of soil and an owner with a desire to experiment have led to the cultivation of more than 28 different grape varieties, with a nice blend of both indigenous Spanish and Catalan grapes, as well as other European varieties.
The vineyards are mostly either organically or biodynamically farmed, something that Carlos and his team don’t make a huge fuss about. To quote their website: “Good wines can only come from good grapes and balanced vines where production allows the grapes to ripen properly – there is a great belief that nature should be allowed to take its course…This is the philosophy at Can Ràfols dels Caus and the secret to making the best wines.” Seems fair enough to me! The last 40 years have seen Carlos invest heavily in the vineyards, both practically and in terms of research, as well as planting new varieties. As you’ll see from the single vineyard wines in a moment, this has paid enormous dividends with those varieties now approaching 30 years of age and a good balance between vigour and fruit concentration.
The estate itself was originally constructed during the reign of the Romans over 2000 years ago now, and unsurprisingly when Carlos decided to spruce it up a little in 1979, there was a little bit of work to be done. The biggest issue by far was the old cellar, which would have undone a lot of the hard work and investment in the vineyard had they continued to use it to make wine. In 1994 Carlos decided to renovate it completely and whilst I can’t find a cost quoted for it, it was an enormous undertaking, completely changing the 2000m2 space into a modern facility, designed to be both clean, hygienic and optimally functional. It’s completely embedded into the stone of the Massif del Garraf with huge, stone doors designed to make you feel as though you’re walking into a mountain. Only wine is made here, leaving enough space for both the production of wine as well as simultaneous visits to the facility, with gravity harnessed to carry the finished wine into a nearby bottling facility.
It was a pleasure to present the wines of Can Rafols dels Caus last night and below is a list of the wines we drank as well as the reception they got from our 10 tasters as part of our weekly wine tasting here in Barcelona:
Gran Caus Blanc 2014 – Xarel.lo, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay.
An interesting point about even the affordable wines of Can Rafols is that the wines are always held back for 2 years or more in the bodega before being commercially released, to allow the wines to settle and evolve slightly. This is an impressive part of their production and that it applies to wines like this fresh, zesty white, Gran Caus Blanc, even more so. At 13 euros a bottle, this would be warmly received at any dinner table.
Gran Caus Rosé 2015 – Merlot
I really like this style of rosé wine; bright pink, immensely fruity and very, very old-school. Most Spanish rosé wines you see today imitate the enormously fashionable style of wine from around Provence in the south of France; light, salmon-pink, delicately perfumed and soft on the palate. Traditionally in Spain, macerations were longer (18 hours in this case), making the colour deeper and the wine more intensely flavoured. They don’t look as attractive in a transparent glass bottle but there’s a lot to be said for a glassful of strawberries, cherries and red plums! Simple, honest and delicious.
Pairal Xarel.lo 2012 – Xarel.lo
Xarel.lo continues to make a case for being the Catalan white grape variety to pay attention to. This was the first of the single vine-yard white wines that we tried, and it ended up blowing the other two away, despite being the most affordable of the three. Made from the oldest vines on the estate, between 60 and 70 years old, and aged in chestnut oak for 4 months and then the mandatory 2 years in bottle, this was the group favourite by a significant margin. Still quite lightly coloured but full of evolving fruit aromas, light oak influences and a lovely nuttiness. I enjoyed learning about the use of chestnut oak (more porous than normal oak, with slightly fewer congeners to impart) and I can’t help but feel that it had some impact on the evolution of the flavours, whilst maintaining the freshness of the wine. The Wine of the Night with a very impressive 7 votes!
El Rocalis 2012 – Incrocio Manzoni
The second of the single vineyard wines and made from an interesting grape variety that seems to be slowly infiltrating Catalan white wine production; Incrocio Manzoni, named after Professor Luigi Manzoni of Italy’s oldest school of oenology in Veneto. A cross between Riesling and Pinot Blanc, it certainly takes strongly after the former with fresh, green fruit aromas, citrus components and that lovely element of minerality so often found in good quality Riesling. 4 months in oak softens the wine and I can’t help but feel this could age for quite a bit longer, as it was still quite focused on primary aromas and flavours.
La Calma 2012 – Chenin Blanc
Like El Rocalis, La Calma is a single vineyard wine with grapes planted around 25-30 years ago, with this wine focusing on Chenin Blanc. Whilst it’s uncommon to see 100% Chenin Blanc wines in Catalunya, various wineries are experimenting with it as part of their blends and it’s easy to see why; with it’s ability to grow in a variety of climates whilst maintaining depth of flavour and naturally high levels of acidity, Chenin Blanc is truly an under-rated variety. La Calma is now starting to come into its own as the vines age. Also like El Rocalis, I’d be interested to see this wine in 5-10 years time!
Can Rafols Sumoll 2013 – Sumoll
The indigenous red variety that’s capturing the hearts of everyone in Penedes at the moment, Sumoll is slowly gaining momentum in the Catalan wine industry. The vines at Can Rafols are over 50 years old now and this is one of the best expressions of Sumoll I’ve had the pleasure of trying. Lightly coloured and delicately aromatic, with notes of raspberry, cranberry and wild herbs; I always think of Sumoll as being somewhere between Pinot Noir and Mencia. The use of large chestnut barrels is back at work here and the result is a lovely, quaffable wine. This was the second favourite wine of the evening after Pairal.
Gran Caus Tinto 2008 – Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot
Last but not least, we finished with a Bordeaux blend, the greatest of the “Gran Caus” range and a throw-back to the sort of wines that inspired Carlos Esteva from a young age. A blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and aged for 12 months in barrel, then another 4 years in bottle before release. At 12.5% ABV, this was styled on old-school Bordeaux and had the classic green bell pepper, graphite and muted fruit of a cooler vintage from the region. The beauty of this wine was the powdery tannins and long, savoury finish. Certainly not a wine for everyone and about as far away from typical Spanish wine as it’s possible to be, showcasing the diversity of the Can Rafols estate. A lovely finish to a lovely evening!
Every month we’ll be tasting and learning about an iconic producer of Spanish wine in detail. To attend these tastings, please make sure you check the blog on the 1st of every month for the newsletter with the details, or join the Meet-up group to get updates as tastings become available
The Palacios family are one of the most famous producers of wine across Spain, which is no mean feat when you think that around 70%-80% of wineries here are family owned and operated. It all started back in 1945 with Jose Palacios Remondo, a grower in Rioja Baja, who had the foresight to build what was for the time a modern winery with the intention of producing high quality wine. Jose had 9 children throughout his life, 4 of whom decided to continue the tradition of producing wine including a certain Alvaro Palacios, would become a star in the industry. For the sake of simplicity, below is a simple description of who is working where:
Alvaro is in Priorat, in Palacios Remondo in Rioja and in Bierzo with his nephew Ricardo
Ricardo is only in Bierzo
Rafael is only in Valdeorras
Whilst there were tensions during the 80’s and early 90’s, the death of Jose Palacios in 2000 was a catalyst for peace within the family with Alvaro returning home from his highly successful project in Priorat, where he now acts as the head of the overall family business. However, perhaps this period of discontentment was key for the development of the business outside Rioja; would Alvaro have moved so far away from the family business in Rioja if everything was rosy at home? Would there still be a joint venture with his nephew Ricardo in Bierzo? Hard to say. What’s certainly true is there is now a wealth of quality wines being made across the north of Spain; from Priorat to Rioja, and from Bierzo to neighbouring Valdeorras.
There isn’t a single philosophy that binds the style of the Palacios family together, although you can be sure if Alvaro is involved it’s likely to be based on small plots of lands or even single vineyards, with a heavy focus on Garnacha for red wine production, which he strongly believes is Spain’s most noble grape with the highest quality potential. This week with Maestrazgo Wine Club, we’re going to delve into two wines from each of these three areas and learn a little about the production, style and philosophy of the Palacios family through the wines themselves.
Palacios Remondo – DOC Rioja – Founded in 1945 – 150 hectares under vine
This is where it all started for the family when Jose Palacios decided to look to the future, and built his winery back in 1945 in Alfaro, Rioja Baja. By the 1980s the winery was thriving and Jose made the bold decision to only focus on the production of quality, bottled wines, something completely unheard of at the time for a producer located in Rioja Baja, considered to be an inferior location to the cooler Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa to the north. Over thirty years later, Jose was proved right but in the interim, there was a great deal of work to be done and it wasn’t an overnight success.
The winery itself is now in the capable hands of Alvaro Palacios who returned home from Priorat in 2000 after the death of his father. In total, the area under vines is around 150 hectares with by far the most important plot of land being the Montesa vineyard, which is around 110 hectares by itself and provides the grapes for the La Montesa cuvee, the wineries benchmark product. This has been reinforced in recent years by the introduction of another Garnacha led blend, La Vendimia. Both are fresh, fruity styles of wine best enjoyed young and neither will break the bank, with La Montesa retailing for around 11 euros and La Vendimia around 8.
However, the wines we’ll be tasting will be a 100% Garnacha based wine known as La Propiedad and Placet, the wineries only white wine.
Placet Valtomelloso 2012 – The only white wine of the estate and a 100% Viura, an increasingly uncommon find in Rioja as more producers seek to blend Malvasia in for extra perfume, flavour and weight. This is really the work of Rafael Palacios who after a stint in both France and Australia, became fascinated by the idea of white wine production in Spain. He first launched Placet in 1997 before leaving the winery in 2004 to create his own production in Valdeorras, but not before making his mark at home with this lovely white Rioja. The wine is aged for between 9-12 months in large oak barrels (foudres) prior to bottling and has a wonderful mixture of ripe stone fruits, white flowers and cream. At 5 years old this is hitting its stride and should be a real pleasure to kick off the evening with. Retails for €17.
La Propiedad 2011 – This was previously a blend of grapes, albeit Garnacha dominant, but over the years since Alvaro has been in charge it has become more and more like his wines in Priorat; 100% Garnacha from small, specific plots of land. It’s then fermented in oak vats and then matured in a combination of both larger oak vats and small barriques before the final blending process. It’s really quite a substantial and ambitious wine and is made in a very ‘Alavaro’ style, with similarities being drawn to Finca Dofi in Priorat. There’s absolutely masses of red fruit on the nose; if you want to find a benchmark ‘Garnacha’ style wine from Spain that smells of strawberries, pepper and fennel, this is your wine! There’s lots of flavour but no noticeable heat from the alcohol and quite a bit more complexity on the palate, where the time in oak becomes more noticeable. Delicious stuff and my favourite wine from Palacios Remondo. Retails for €24.
Alvaro Palacios – DOQ Priorat – Founded in 1989 – 25 hectares under vine
The first major project for the family outside of Rioja was created by Alvaro Palacios in 1989, one of the 5 visionaries now credited for the huge success of Priorat over the subsequent two decades. Alvaro met Rene Barbier (Clos Mogador), another son of a wine-making family, who was also looking to create something new and together with Daphne Glorian (Clos Erasmus), Jose Luiz Perez (Clos Martinet) and Carles Pastrana (Clos de l’Obac) they invested in land in Priorat. What happened next was nothing short of a meteoric rise for the region, spear-headed by this 5 producers and with a huge demand for the wines being produced, particularly within the US.
Alvaro’s philosophy of single-vineyard expressions, the vineyards themselves often very steep and inhospitable, combined with his marketing nous proved to be a huge success. The price of L’Ermita, already the most expensive wine in the area continues to rise and the most recent vintage was retailing at well over €1000 a bottle and continuing to sell without great difficulties. This makes Finca Dofi look like a relative bargain at a mere €75 by comparison. The rest of the range comprises of Gratallops, Les Terrasses and Camins del Priorat and a new wine launched in 2015 known as Les Aubaguets. The two wines we’ll be tasting are the benchmark Camins del Priorat 2015 and the emblematic Gratallops 2013.
Camins del Priorat 2015 – The entry level wine from Alvaro Palacios in Priorat and a very fresh blend of 50% Garnacha, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Carignan, 10% Syrah and 5% Merlot. One of the best selling Priorat wines due to its accessibility and comparatively lower pricing, this spends a short 4 months in French oak to soften it a little, especially important as most of this is consumed within around 2-4 years of release. There’s a lot of fresh fruit in this, which you’d expect in a young wine, with some light floral notes and a reasonably prominent presence of oak. Dense but still fresh, this is about as good value as Priorat gets! Retails for €17.
Gratallops 2013 – If you find yourself with a bottle of Gratallops to hand, you know you’re in for a treat. Typically this is a blend of 80% Garnacha and 20% Carinena, but with the 2013 vintage they changed the split to 89/11 due to the incredibly high quality of the Garnacha. This is a real gem, with huge amounts of fresh, juicy red fruit, pepper, spice and some herbal, menthol notes. The truly great thing about this wine is the freshness, which makes the 14.5% alcohol almost undetectable and the already smooth tannins, which add to the weight and richness of the palate. This is the sort of wine you want to give to someone to showcase what Priorat is all about and I’m thrilled we’re able to showcase it for this tasting. Retails for €47 euros.
Descendientes de J.Palacios – DO Bierzo – Founded in 1999 – 27 hectares under vine
Bierzo is now a relatively well known region in Spain, but in 1999 it was flying well below the radar. Ricardo, the son of Chelo, visited the area and was taken with both the natural beauty and the potential to produce wine here from the native grape; Mencia. He approached his Uncle, Alvaro, who it turns out had spent time in the region in the 80’s trying to generate money for his upcoming winery in Priorat and had also noticed the potential of the vineyards. The joint venture was formed and Ricardo runs the day to day operations as well as being the head wine-maker.
The winery was named a year later, in honour of Jose Palacios on the year of his passing. It is focused around the village of Corullon and the vineyards are run on biodynamic principles, although it is worth noting that they are not certified with any organisation. Several single vineyard expressions commanding super-premium prices; Faraona, Moncerbal, Las Lamas and St.Martin all record prices between €80 and €600 euros a bottle! Corullon is a combination of these estates and retails for a far more sensible €35-40 euros, although by far the best value from the producer is Petalos and it’s this wine we’ll be tasting from this lovely project in Bierzo.
Petalos 2014 – For a wine that is clearly produced in reasonably large quantities and sold in many countries throughout the world, a lot of work goes into it; not least the selection of Mencia grapes from vines with an average age of 60 years old. It’s then aged for an average of 10 months in French oak and quite rightly has become known as something of a stalwart of the appellation. The fruit profile is simply so juicy, it’s irresistible. There’s an earthy characteristic to the wine as well, with just a touch of graphite and sweet spice. For a wine that retails at around €14 a bottle, it’s hard to find better value for money within the appellation.
Bodega Rafael Palacios – DO Valdeorras – Founded in 2004 – 22.5 hectares under vine
The most recent project of the Palacios family has come relatively recently, with the aforementioned Rafael Palacios leading the charge into DO Valdeorras, an inland appellation of Galicia in the north-west of Spain. After creating and launching Placet Valtomelloso at Bodega Palacios Remondo, Rafael decided to set out to cultivate his white-wine making skills, freshly honed from his recent experiences in both France and Australia. He originally started working at Bodega Valdesil in Valdeorras, who produce some excellent quality expressions of the native white grape Godello, and by 2004 Rafael had started to acquire some small plots of his own, favouring the granitic soils over the more common limestone and schist. Today, 27 of these plots go into a broad portfolio of some of the best Godello in the country including Sorte o Soro, As Sortes, Louro and Bolo.
Louro 2015 – Louro is the combination of some excellent old-vine Godello and Rafaels meticulous attention to detail. Despite retailing for close to 15 euros, this wine is fermented in specially made 3000L oak foudres, made from Norman oak as apparently the cool weather lends a wide grain which helps slow oxidation (The As Sortes and Sort o Soro wines are made in 500L barriques, each equipped with their own water-cooling system and individual thermostats!) This is really a wonderful Godello wine and an indication of the potential quality we have for white wine production in Spain. There’s such a density and concentration of citric and green fruits, as well as really nicely integrated oak. Lots of life still to go but I love drinking it now, whilst it’s positively crackling with youthful energy. Delicious! Retails for €14.
The Palacios family truly deserve their status as one of the premium producers of Spanish wine and continue to maintain their high standards whilst searching for new, interesting opportunities. Just last year, Alvaro Palacios released his new wine, Les Aubaguets for the first time to be purchased En Primeur, probably the only Spanish producer to successfully adopt this very Bordelaise practice. Their strong connection with Vila Viniteca and broad portfolio of products means that their wines are available across the country, and continue to be popular abroad, particularly in the US. The future is bright and as long as the wine stays as delicious as it is, few will have cause to complain.
Spain is a vast and diverse country when it comes to wine and like much of the world, has benefited greatly from improvements in viticultural sciences, wine-making technology and communications which has led to a revolution of style and quality over the last few decades. However, despite still being the 3rd largest producer of wine in the world, I feel that our quality wines aren’t well understood or represented outside of a few niche retail outlets and restaurants. Spain is often described as a ‘sleeping giant’ and there’s certainly some truth to that. Despite being the biggest exporter of wine in the world by some distance on volume, we’re 3rd when it comes to value. A great deal of our wine is still disappearing in tankers to the south of France or appearing for outrageously low prices on UK supermarket shelves which is not good for the longevity of our own brand, whilst also managing to really irritate French producers in the process. Not only that but Spaniards are drinking less wine than ever before, with consumption declining year by year, and barely half of what it was in the 1960’s.
Not all is doom and gloom however as there are a lot of producers in Spain working hard not only to improve the quality of their wine but also to educate consumers and make them aware of the differences in style and quality of what they’re making. Artadi have famously left DOC Rioja in protest at what they perceive to be a lack of support for quality minded producers, Catalunya has introduced Spain’s only real single-vineyard system, Cava is in the process of finalising a system to recognise and support premium, terroir-linked expressions of their wine and high altitude wines from Madrid and Galicia are gaining support for their cooler, fresher styles of local grape varieties. So what’s the future for Spanish wine? It’s hard to say, as we’re still losing ground to beer, gin and cocktails but there does seem to be a better level of engagement at the quality end of the spectrum, which is no bad thing. With that in mind, here are the regions and styles I’m going to really dig into this year in some depth, as they’re the ones I’m most excited about.
I consider Rioja to be the greatest wine region in Spain, which is not a popular opinion in my little corner of it. Historically it benefited greatly from the phylloxera epidemic that essentially reset wine as we knew it across the world and spent most of the 20th century leading the way in terms of wine regulation, innovation and, very importantly, marketing. Today it’s a tale of two halves; cheap, nasty Rioja that you’ll find on your supermarket shelves are best to be avoided and are a constant thorn in the side of quality minded producers who want to link their wines to specific sub-regions, villages and vineyards and have this recognised on the labelling. However, much like Cava, as soon as you leave this zone and move upwards of €10 a bottle, the wine gets very good, very quickly.
Stylistically you can expect two types of red wines; the more extracted ‘modern’ style that often spends time in French oak and resembles Ribera del Duero in profile, and the more traditional style that undergoes a long maceration, fermentation and ageing process and is often aged in American oak, or more commonly a mixture of the two. It’s not only red wines either, with some of the very best white wines I’ve tried from Spain hailing from Rioja; usually creamy, floral barrel fermented Viura and Malvasia. In 2017 I’m looking forward to investigating more of the single-vineyard expressions of Rioja as well as saving my pennies and trying some of the premium expressions from my favourite producers. I hope the Consejo Regulador finally gets its act together and allows for more specific labelling practice although I’m not holding my breath here!
Favourite producers: La Rioja Alta, Muga, Allende, Marques de Murrieta, Lopez de Heredia, Ramirez de Ganuza
Producers to drink more of: Artadi, Remulluri, Artuke, Olivier Rivière, Oxer Wines
Costers del Segre
When it comes to new, exciting wines Catalunya is always right in the mix. A lot of attention has been made recently over the quality of white wines from Terra Alta and Emporda. However, clearly I’m going to different tastings as the wines I’ve tried from Costers del Segre have been a mile ahead of either, both in individuality and wine-making quality. Costers del Segre is often overlooked as it’s completely dominated by Raimat, a good quality producer with a broad portfolio of wines but unfortunately who also cast a very long shadow.
Whilst there are some very good red wines being produced, I foresee the future of Costers del Segre being based on white wines, both types often made from a blend of indigenous and international grape varieties, the two rivals being Chardonnay and Macabeo. Of the wines that really stood out for me, Macabeo was always involved at some level and I can’t think of another region where this relatively humble grape showcases itself quite so well. Simpler versions are high in acidity, very refreshing and showcase a nice mixture of florality and citrus fruit whereas the most interesting examples are usually barrel fermented, which the grape takes to well. I’m looking forward to trying more premium examples of Macabeo as well as exploring some of the more unusual international blends that usually fall flat in other regions.
Favourite producers: Clos Pons, Castell del Remei , Costers del Sió , Raimat, Vall de Baldomar
Producers to drink more of: Cérvoles Celler , Cooperativa L’Olivera , Castell d’Encús
Now here’s a region that’s been turning some heads over the last few years, both locally and abroad. Quite literally the ‘sacred hillside’, Ribeira Sacra has more or less designed the blueprint for cooler climate Mencia in Spain, for which it is becoming deservedly famous. It’s also one of the most visually stunning wine regions in Spain, if not the world, and more and more enotourists are discovering the rolling hills and meandering rivers as much as they are the excellent wine.
Whilst there are some very good white wines being made from Godello, Treixadura and Loureira the real strength of Ribeira Sacra is red wines made from Mencia. Not only that, but other, often indigenous varieties, are starting to be produced in quality wine with Merenzao probably the most exciting. Most reds from Ribeira Sacra tend to be lower in alcohol, high in acidity and are mostly unoaked. In the case of Mencia it showcases itself beautifully with signature notes of violets, white pepper, raspberries and wild herbs. Delicious even when young and best of all, these wines don’t command premium prices and work exceptionally well in the heat of Spanish summer. In 2017 I’m looking forward to trying as many of the indigenous grapes as possible whilst stocking up on relatively inexpensive, high quality wines for the warmer months. It’s a hard life.
Favourite prodiucers: Raul Perez, Dominio do Bibei , Fedellos do Couto , Guimaro
Producers to drink more of: Anything I can get my hands on!
One of Spain’s most famous vinous productions and a huge part of everyday life in Catalunya; the one wine that never seems to fade from popularity. Cava is a very unusual appellation in the respect that it isn’t limited to a single geographic location, and can indeed be made in as many as 8 regions throughout the country, although the vast majority is made within Penedes and indeed, Sant Sadurni d’Anoia in particular. Cava must be made in the traditional method and has to be aged on the lees for a minimum of 9 months before disgorgement. However, as mentioned earlier with Rioja, the real beauty of Cava lies in the better quality versions over € 10 a bottle with extended lees ageing and high quality base wines.
The real development in Cava is the clear need for a system that showcases these better wines, especially those linked to a specific plot of land known as a ‘Paraje’. The new classification is set to be rolled out in early 2017 and reads like a who’s-who of my favourite Cava producers. It’s long overdue as Cava has been producing some top class wines for a while now, often under the radar even locally, and hopefully this will give some more visibility to the quality potential of the industry and showcase to other regions across Spain that a link to terroir is a positive step forward. In 2017 I’m looking forward to drinking my way across as many quality producers as possible and trying more cavas made from indigenous red grapes such as Sumoll and Trepat. I have an exam on sparkling wine in March 2017, so it’s a great excuse to indulge myself a little.
Favourite producers: Recaredo, Gramona, Raventos i Blanc, Llopart, Alta Alella, Mestres
Producers to drink more of: Juve y Camps, Sabate i Coca, Agusti Torello, Pares Balta, Albert i Noya
It looks like I have a lot of drinking to do this year! If you live in Barcelona and you’re interested to learn more about Spanish wine, don’t forget to check out Maestrazgo Wine Club where we meet on a regular basis to discover and drink wines from not only across Spain, but the world of wine as well.