I have known Félix Cabello, director of Spain’s largest collection of grape varieties in Spain, for 20 years. An occasional contributor to SWL, I frequently turn to him whenever I taste a wine made with some obscure grape, something which thankfully is becoming increasingly common in many Spanish wine regions.
However, we sometimes disagree on the qualitative potential of certain varieties. Is this because I try finished wines while he usually tastes grapes freshly picked from the vine? Earlier this month, I had the chance to put myself in his shoes as I joined a grape tasting for trade professionals at El Encín in Alcalá de Henares (Madrid), which houses the vine collection Cabello looks after -and the only one that is organically farmed in the world.
I have tasted grapes when visiting producers during harvest time. Nowadays, any self-respecting winemaker looks beyond the technical data in their search of perfect juiciness, balance and acidity. They usually end up eating a considerable amount of grapes to help them assess their aromatic potential, skin texture and seed ripeness.
Researchers are more concerned about establishing the characteristics and personality of each grape variety. Ampelography, the science devoted to this purpose, studies the shape of leaves, bunches and grapes; fruit colour; oenelogical features and agronomic conditions.
In terms of flavour, five different taste profiles have been identified: neutral, which is the standard flavour of grapes; special, white grapes such as Gewürztraminer or Albariño, which release aromas from terpenes; muscat, which is the distinctive flavour of the large family of Muscat-like varieties; herbaceous, which is found in the Cabernet family and other red grapes; and finally the foxé flavour profile, which is specific of direct producing hybrids, the result of crossing vitis vinifera with the American vitis lambrusca. Widely grown in South America, the Isabella grape I had the chance to try at El Encín tasted very sweet, with slightly artificial notes of strawberries and raspberry candy.
The rest of the morning was devoted to the wide array of Spanish native varieties grown at El Encín. Many of them, including grapes from the Canary and Balearic islands, are far away from their native regions in terms of climate and soils, but all of these varieties are grown in the same conditions. I would love to hear some feedback from producers who know how these varieties perform in their native land in order to gauge the extent of the deviations. I could not help comparing the Bobal I tasted at El Encín - coarse and high in tannins and acidity- to the much more balanced and juicy sample that I tasted the previous week in a very old vineyard in Ribera del Duero.
What follows are my musings on an extensive tasting of over 50 indigenous varieties on a sunny October morning and the inevitable comparisons between the solid world of grapes and the liquid universe that I am familiar with.
Most of the white varieties currently grown in Spain come under the neutral taste profile. This does not mean uniformity, though. Grapes range from bland and coarse to others with strong flavour and fine texture.
Arguably the most bland are Airén from La Mancha and Listán Blanco from Huelva (Andalucía), both of which share a powdery, unappealing texture. Prensal Blanc from Mallorca and Tardana or Planta Nova from Valencia (big berries were a distinctive feature in the latter) showed a similar pattern, whereas Malvar from Central Spain felt a step higher with its crunchy texture and pleasant sweetness.
Predictably, the thin-skinned, more acidic Jaén (also grown under the names of Baladí, Cayetana Blanca and Calagraño) is mainly destined for distillation.
Neutral varieties can be excellent terroir ambassadors as is the case of the exciting new trend of briny, unfortified Palomino whites that capture the Atlantic influence and the essence of the bright white limestone soils in Sherry country. We tasted two different Palominos at El Encín: the widely-grown Palomino Fino resembles Jaén and Airén; in contrast, Palomino de Jerez, which has lost considerable ground in the area, wasn’t powdery at all and displayed beautiful acidity.
Some favourite varieties in the neutral-flavoured category were thin-skinned Pedro Ximénez, finer than Palomino (if left on the vine, Félix Cabello said, Pedro Ximénez grapes dry naturally without rotting); Albillo Real, a tasty, slightly acid variety also featuring very thin skin that is grown in Central Spain; the mouthwatering, thick-skinned Xarel.lo with its small berries that make it so apt for winemaking; and a clon of Macabeo from Aragón, featuring relatively thick skin but vibrant acidity.
The distinctive features of Galician grapes. Félix Cabello drew our attention to some common elements: small bunches, small berries, well-defined herbaceous flavours in red varieties like Brancellao, Ferrón or Espadeiro and the “special taste” of the whites: Albariño, Caíño Blanco, Loureiro and even in the sweeter Treixadura.
Despite its bright acidity and first-class quality, Godello doesn’t belong to this group as it is a descendant of Traminer, as are Verdejo (Rueda) and Maturana Blanca (Rioja). The rather neutral Merenzao, aka Trousseau in France, nor Torrontés (also known as Monstruosa) from Ribeiro, with its sweet, thick berries, belong to the Galician group.
This herbaceous taste is also present in some red varieties grown in northwest Spain that have gained recognition thanks to the work of a handful of committed young producers. The list includes Albarín Tinto or Bruñal, Carrasquín and Hondarrabi Beltza, which raises hopes for red txakoli. The white version, Hondarrabi Zuri, which is commonly found in the vineyards of the Basque Country is not a mutation but the same Courbu Blanc grown in France. It shows distinctive character and enough acidity to be part of the special taste category.
Tracking down freshness. Some wines are easily associated with their corresponding grape varieties, specially those that can perform well in a context of climate change. It is the case of the Tinta Velasco variety and its sweet freshness, which reminded me of an intriguing single varietal red from Ciudad Real that I tasted last summer. The same happens with the high acid Moravia Agria, a variety from Castilla-La Mancha which might work very well in blends rather than as a single-varietal. Other varieties that showed acidity on the vine were Mandó from Catalonia and Levante; the exotic, strip-skinned Melonera, grown experimentally in Ronda (Andalucía); or Doradilla, also from the South and with particularly astringent skins.
Up-and-coming stars. Three varieties didn’t make it into my Top Five list below, but tasted great as grapes. The first one is the ultra-juicy Listán Prieto which features in some interesting wines from the Canary Islands -this variety is going through a renaissance in Chile (called País there) and California, where it is known as Mission. The second one is Juan Ibáñez, a savoury variety from Aragón (also known as Moristel) despite the fact that there are no exciting wines yet. The third one -and my favourite- is Prieto Picudo from León. I loved the intense flavour and the pleasant herbal notes and promised myself to pay more attention to single-varietal reds of this grape in the future.
An unknown synonymy. I had always thought that Priorat’s Escanyavella was an obscure white grape of unknown origin, but it is clearly identified at El Encín as a being Merseguera from Valencia. A thick-skinned grape, its neutral profile and vibrant acidity fit in with the best Escanyavella/Merseguera whites I have tasted from Priorat and Valencia.
Given that Tempranillo is behind some of the country’s best reds, I expected more complexity from Spain’s most widely grown red variety. Considered a neutral variety among grape experts, Tempranillo’s main feature was sweetness, as observed after comparing different clones from Rioja, Ribera, Toro and Madrid. It can clearly be much more expressive in the right terroirs, but what is unique in El Encín is Benedicto, a variety that can only be tasted there. Its high acidity has not been inherited by its descendant Tempranillo (incidentally, Albillo Mayor is the mother).
Despite being a passionate Garnacha lover -we have written extensively in SWL about its rich styles and terroirs- I didn’t find it appealing as a grape except perhaps for the Peluda version (with its distinctive downy texture on the underside of the leaves) which was expressive and had vibrant acidity.
I had a similar feeling with Alicante Bouschet (Garnacha Tintorera is the most common name in Spain) and surprisingly, with Mencía. I love the way Mencía provides a refreshing oasis of distinction among a majority of Tempranillo-based reds in Spain but what I tasted at El Encín was a bland, sweet, low-acidity grape.
Varieties from the Balearic islands tasted fairly neutral except for Callet. Thick skins are a common feature among many of them, notably Fogoneu, Gargollassa and Excursach. According to Cabello, it acts as natural barrier against fungal diseases like mildiu, oidium or botrytis which are endemic in such a humid environment.
Other red grapes that would fit the low-profile, neutral category include Negramoll from the Canary Islands and Trepat. With distinctive thick skins and big berries, the latter tasted miles away from the vibrant, herbal, straightforward and peppery wines from Conca de Barberá (Catalonia) that I have been enjoying so much lately.
Some of the next varieties have a clear correspondence with wines that I love; others only match the best wines within its category and in the case of the red Ferrón variety, I am not aware of any single-varietal wine available so far.
Ferrón (red). Herbaceous taste, flavourful, vibrant, refreshing acidity. It really lingers on the palate. What a discovery! After this I can’t wait to try a 100% Ferrón.
Malvasía Aromática (white). It is part of the special taste group of white varieties. The clone that I tasted, sourced from La Palma in the Canary Islands, reminded me of the wines: fragrant, deep, well-defined and with zesty acidity; a perfect mix of intensity and finesse. With small berries and thick skin, this is an amazing grape variety; I’m positive that we are going to see an increasing number of outstanding Malvasía whites from the Canary Islands and Cataluña.
Mazuelo (red). Also known as Cariñena, it is playing an increasingly important role in Cataluña, Aragón and even Rioja. Rusticity continues to be an issue in many Cariñena reds, but the grape I tasted had the depth, energy and liveliness of the best single-varietals that are being made in Spain now. Thick skins are not an obstacle for such quality.
Brancellao (red). I fell in love with this grape the first time I tasted a 100% Brancellao wine, so I was happy to experience similar feelings when tasting the grape itself. Beyond its acidity and the herbaceous flavours shared with other Galician varieties, its fine, elegant skin and the energy behind it are an unbeatable combination.
Monastrell (red). I wasn’t really conscious of how small Monastrell berries are or of their herbaceous nuances. Then I remembered that there’s also a fresh, herbal background in the very best Monastrell wines from Southeast Spain that offsets its high ripeness and alcohol. Félix Cabello timely reminded us that it is related to Graciano.