These four men love their jobs. And why shouldn’t they? After all, Joshua Greene, Michael Schachner, Josh Raynolds and Luis Gutiérrez get to taste, assess and review Spanish wines. Thousands of them, every year.
Still, it’s the quality, not the quantity, that animates them. Plus the opportunity to discover new brands, to explore emerging regions and to learn about the people behind them.
How do they love Spanish wines? Let Mr. Schachner, contributing editor at the Wine Enthusiast, count the ways. “First, the indigenous varieties,” Schachner says. “There’s very little of the so-called international varieties. So much of the country revolves around indigenous grapes like Godello”.
“And also the centuries [of winemaking], the history. The proof is in the vineyards and regions that have existed for thousand of years. And then the food-friendliness. A lot of the wines are just really, really good at the table.”
Raynolds, editor at vinous.com, also lauds the range of wines emanating from Spain. “What I’ve always found interesting, and what is getting more pronounced, is the sheer diversity of red wines. You have carbonic, spicy, low-octane, 12% [alcohol], minimal-oak wines, and then all the big bruisers —and everything in between.”
Gutiérrez, writer and reviewer at The Wine Advocate, strikes a similar cord, citing “the huge diversity of climates, soils and places with local grape varieties that can create unique wines impossible to replicate elsewhere.”
And Greene, publisher/owner of Wine & Spirits magazine, drills down even deeper. “Like many countries in Europe, there are so many cultural variations,” he said. “When we think of countries in Europe, we think of them having a national identity. But Spain had many regional identities before it became Spain.”
It’s not so surprising, then, that these seasoned experts — average time assessing Spanish wines: 21 years — find common ground when asked about emerging regions: the northwest corner of Iberia for its array of distinctive wines.
“The area that’s come the furthest in the shortest distance is Galicia and Bierzo,” Schachner says, “where it’s cooler with more rain and better natural acidity, plus lots of granite and slate, with good drainage and minerality.” He extolls the virtues of Albariño from Rías Baixas, Godello from Valdeorras, reds from Ribeira Sacra and Mencía from Bierzo.
Raynolds, meanwhile, lauds “minerally white wines with tension, unoaked or mini-mally oaked, particularly those from Galicia. If you look at France compared to Spain, Spain provides far more of those types of wines.”
Greene calls Galicia “one of the exciting places” along with another critics’ favorite. “The Canary Islands were known for pretty rustic stuff, but the wines now are incredible. There is this inheritance of old vines at very high altitudes that people are getting excited about.”
For example, he mentions the winery Suertes del Marqués in Tenerife, where some of the vines are 100 years old and 30 meters long.
The downside, says Raynolds: Wines such as these, “cool-climate Spanish reds are becoming popular but are always going to be on the small side. They tend to be in small areas, mountainous areas with tiny vineyards. Their growing methods are ancient. They’re never gonna be mass producers.”
He points to similarly small, constrained regions. “Yecla, Alicante and Jumilla are fairly isolated, and have serious problems with labor. Ribeira Sacra is like [France’s] Côte-Rôtie” in terms of quality and geographical limitations.
At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is Rioja. While the wines of this vast region, says Schachner, “can go from very insipid to very inspired… Rioja is still king.”
Greene concurs and goes one step further. “Rioja has some of the great vineyards of the world,” he says. When it comes to older wines, he proclaimed, “I’d rather have that than Bordeaux or Burgundy.”
He adds that the wines of “Rioja bear comparison to Bordeaux, and Ribera del Duero bears comparison to Napa.”
All of the critics have some wines and regions that they love recommending to readers.
Gutiérrez: “There are many, from the less-known 4 Kilos Callet from Mallorca or the white and reds from Monterrei created by José Luis Mateo at Quinta da Muradella to the better-known Comando G or [R. López de Heredia] Viña Tondonia — modern, new, traditional, whatever, but always with a strong personality.”
Raynolds: “The area around Madrid, Vinos de Madrid, [produces wines with] real elegance and intensity and balance. Juan Gil, Jorge Ordóñez and Aviva Vino Luzón have some outstanding values. I really recommend looking at importers. Ordóñez and Eric Solomon [with European Cellars] have high quality from top to bottom. They bring attention and care to every region they work.”
Schachner: He’s a fan of Alvaro Palacios’ Descendientes de J. Palacios Pétalos (“a nice, fresh, accessible red wine that captures the essence of Mencía) and Camins del Priorat (“an honest, fresher, lighter-bodied style”). “Both are accessible and affordable but authentic.” Also, these albariños: Palacio de Fefinanes, Adegas Gran Vinum, As Laxas and Granbazán. “They get Albariño.” From Rioja, albeit it working outside the appellation, “I’m a big fan of Artadi.”
Greene: From Ribera del Duero, Goyo García Viadero, and from the Canary Islands, “Jesús Mendez Siverio, director of Bodegas Viñátigo, has a low-intervention Marmajuelo white that’s incredible. … José Luis Mateo’s Quinta da Muradella is making an amazing Merenzao, a light-styled red wine… And I am excited about the partnership between Rodrigo “Rodri” Méndez and Raúl Pérez.” Riojas from Marqués de Murrieta, La Rioja Alta, Cvne, Marqués de Cáceres and especially R. López de Heredia. “López de Heredia has been able to translate Spanish wine country.”
That’s the biggest challenge for Spanish wines, the experts say: getting US industry folks and consumers to better understand what makes Spain distinctive. López de Heredia, Green says, “is on the forefront of building relationships with sommeliers.”
Otherwise, Schachner thinks Spain “lags a little bit in marketing, in support. In the restaurant world they tend to be pigeonholed in Spanish restaurants, not at Italian or French or Asian restaurants.”
That’s starting to change, Raynolds says, with regional trade boards investing money and time. And it will take time — and perhaps a different generation — to bring Spanish wines more to the forefront.
“My generation [baby boomers] and those ahead of me were trained to look at Spain as a value alternative to France,” Raynolds said. “[Spain] has always had the value stigma, the feeling that French wines deserve to be more expensive.
“Now there are other generations coming along looking for wines for what they are and not for what they’re aren’t.”
What they’re finding, slowly but steadily, is a raft of emerging regions and indigenous varieties to savor.