Let us be frank. We do not look at Spain for high-quality still Pinot Noir. Save for a handful of high-altitude or coastal mesoclimates, Spain tends to be too hot and too sunny for this finicky grape variety to thrive. Its thin and delicate skins coupled with being an early ripener can easily result in shrivelled grapes and unmanageable high alcohol levels.
Although Cava – and other traditional method sparkling wines – producers have historically used this variety with varying degrees of success, the maturation targets for sparkling wine are lower than those set by still Pinot Noir producers. Notwithstanding this, how climate change will affect Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) growers in Penedès remains a big question mark. As a matter of fact, Gramona are experimenting with these varieties in La Cerdanya, at 1200 metres above sea level in the Catalan Pyrenees, searching for cooler terroirs for these early-ripening varieties. According to Jaume Gramona, the option of shifting the entire production of the Burgundian varieties to this enclave in the future cannot be ruled out.
If climate is getting increasingly too warm for sparkling wines made of Pinot Noir, it can be assumed that the future of its still wines in Spain is dire. The good news is that Spain has a very exciting palette of indigenous grape varieties better suited to withstand the effects of the current climate crisis, some of which with plausible similarities to its French counterpart.
Whether it be its red fruit aromatics, light body, fresh palate with soft tannins and modest alcohol levels, or its understated elegance, restrain and subtleness, there are reasons aplenty to love Pinot Noir.
When tasting wines blind, Pinot Noir can often be mistaken by an in-vogue variety: Garnacha. If the latter’s warming alcohol can be forgiven, they both share a pale colour, a bright red fruit profile, no more than moderate tannins and certain fluidity on the palate. A subtle herbaceous character can also be characteristic of their wines, particularly if whole bunches are used during fermentation. This technique, not suited to all red varieties, is not uncommon with neither Pinot Noir nor Garnacha. Stalks can add tannins but also a sense of freshness and length to the palate, despite slightly reducing the total acidity in the final wine (potassium from the stalks leaches into the wine and pH increases as a result).
Wines that are not short of freshness are those made by Joan d’Anguera in Montsant, a Garnacha (and Cariñena) producer who does not hold back on their use of stems during fermentation. The Anguera brothers, Josep and Joan, made a 180-degree turn in 2008 and, amongst other things, introduced whole-bunch fermentation to their vinifications (in fact, they got rid of their destemmer). Their Garnachas have been tipped to be as Burgundian as they get, sometimes even compared to the iconic Chateau Rayas of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Whilst their top wine Vinya de la Glòria receives a lot of praise and their (not so) basic Altaroses is a great introduction to their style, halfway in between both is Finca l’Argatà. This lieu-dit or paratge in the village of Darmòs produces a wine quintessentially Mediterranean in its structure but with a lift and lightness of touch that most Garnachas envy.
If weight and warmth are not forgiven, the northwest offers an array of light, red fruited and very fresh varieties with a herbal undertone made in a very drinkable and fluid style. Grapes such as Merenzao, Espadeiro or Brancellao fill this profile to perfection and have overcome past stigmas linked to indigenous varieties (colour too pale, not enough structure or alcohol, etc.). Fortunately for us, there is no shortage of options from any of the different Galician appellations. For example, Algueira’s Serradelo Brancellao has been an iconic wine in Ribeira Sacra for many years, serving as an inspiration for a younger generation of winemakers who moved away from overripeness and overextraction, focusing on the finer elements of this variety: brightness, lightness of touch and nuance. Clocking in at 12.5% abv, this offers much more than just a simple vin de soif, but becomes a transcendental wine that perfectly exemplifies the personality of an entire region.
In spite of most Pinot Noirs having silky, powdery tannins, a firmer tannic structure is not all that extraordinary. Some Burgundy communes such as Pommard or Fixin can be grippier than the average Pinot Noirs in the market. The former owes its robust and muscular tannins to an iron-rich clay and limestone soil, whilst the latter has a very shallow topsoil and vine roots quickly reach the limestone mother rock, resulting in a sturdy and chalky palate. The most structured examples from these communes might require years of cellaring before the wines are somewhat approachable. If these styles of Pinot Noir are of interest, a grape that can fit the stylistic profile is the late ripener Sumoll, known in the Canary Islands as Vijariego Negro.
Late ripening varieties have their benefits from a viticultural point of view – they are able to retain acidity even in warm climates –, but it also involves some risks, such as autumn rains hindering ripening or difficulty to fully ripen its firm tannins. With Sumoll, like with all other tannic varieties, producer is key to find wines that show both the characteristics of the grape but are also able to display elegance and finesse. In Catalunya, producers such as Celler Pardas or Heretat Montrubí are well known and have a proven track record working with Sumoll. If budget is not a problem, one producer that often flies under the media’s radar is Els Jelipins, a tiny project in the higher parts of Penedès, in the village of Font Rubí. Glòria Garriga and her daughter Berta produce insignificant quantities of a red wine made chiefly of Sumoll with a small addition of Garnacha for good measure. The wine is extremely bright, elegant and polished, showing present yet powdery tannins. A wine ready to drink soon after release but also capable of holding well after 6-8 years in bottle.
Arguably, the most important characteristic of Pinot Noir valued by wine connoisseurs is its unparalleled ability to communicate terroir, especially (but not exclusively) within the different villages and vineyards in Burgundy.
If Pinot Noir enthusiasts appreciate the subtleties that differentiate one Burgundy village from another and are happy to explore similar nuances in a more meridional context, the new Rioja classification where villages can (finally) be stated on the labels is the foundation for organoleptic differences to be consistently appreciated in the glass.
Telmo Rodríguez was on of the first modern winemakers to state village names on the labels of his Lindes de Remelluri range, even before new regulations came into effect. So far, two villages are featured: Labastida and San Vicente de la Sonsierra. Since their inception in 2010, the former tends to display more lifted, almost floral aromatics and a fresher palate, perhaps owing to its slightly higher altitude. The latter, on the contrary, is broader, more structured and shows earthier aromatics. Other names such as Ábalos, Briñas and Samaniego will be added to the exciting range, which, in time, will showcase the stylistic nuances of each village, something Burgundy aficionados will undoubtedly appreciate.
Similarly, in Bierzo, a Burgundian classification has been implemented. Here, there is a clear pyramid-like hierarchy starting with regional wines at the bottom through to village, lieu dits and single vineyard wines. What makes Bierzo standout from other regions that have implemented a similar classification is that several producers have agreed to share the names of the lieu dits (all credit given to Raúl Pérez for sharing the trademarks). It is then possible to taste wines coming from the same vineyard made by different producers, adding another variable to the equation.
The paraje which offers the highest number of examples is El Rapolao, a cool, north-facing spot in the village of Valtuille de Abajo – from which several producers bottle a wine labelled as Rapolao. Of these, one wine which has consistently performed since its maiden vintage in 2015 is that made by César Márquez, Raúl’s nephew. César’s take on the vineyard is always looking for finesse and elegance, playing with a variable percentage of whole bunches to add freshness to Mencía, a grape that does not yield high amounts of acidity in Bierzo.
Regrettably for the producers, choosing these wines over any Pinot Noir of similar or even lower quality, will save the reader money. These alternatives are often priced much more humbly than Pinot Noirs from Burgundy or indeed from any other “new classic” region from around the world. This is a trend that might well be overturned once the world realises that Spain is capable of producing not only cheap and cheerful but also very serious wines worth of every effort to seek, find and buy – if anything, by the case, now that they are circumstantially underpriced.
Since he moved to Spain, Álvaro Ribalta has kept working for UK importer Indigo Wines. Many of the wines featured in this article are part of Indigo’s portfolio.