Introduced by the Phoenicians in 1100BC, the infamous maritime traders who are also credited for establishing the city of Cadiz in the Southwest, grapes have been planted in Spain since their inception. Evidences reveal that the hauntingly beautiful, intoxicating nectar of wines was being produced since the 800BC, and later traded in amphorae to the Middle East, Africa, Mediterranean Islands, and other parts of the world via sea. Hosting more land under vineyards than France and Italy combined, wines have been an important binding fibre of the Spanish culture and heritage. Lost under the Islamic dictatorship of the the Moors, and revived as recently as the1970s, wines of Spain are a great way to enter the fascinating array of European wines. You can find soft, fruity, crowd-pleasing wines under a few bucks, and those bold, heavy, and high-end drops that can challenge the best from any wine-producing country. Wines in Chile and Argentina have flourished under their colonisation and are regarded the world over for their meticulous production, and neat flavours.
After the dictatorship fell in the mid-1970s, Spain had a revolutionary alteration in its winemaking approach. The heavy oak influence engraved in the genes of Spanish wines by the French, in the 1850-60s during the Phylloxera epidemic, went away and stainless steel took over. Science has stepped in to help produce cleaner, well researched, and controlled wines, sending away the Sherry-styled rancio, reductive, and savoury flavours country’s wines were once known for. They were always strong and bold, so much so that the French and the Italians added them to their local produce to bring a gutsy oomph. Holding strongly the reputation of these elegant and sturdy reds is the duo of Tempranillo and Garnacha, that dominates the vineyards, the blends, and the shelves. They’ve become synonymous to Spanish reds, with little assistance from varietals like Monastrell, Bobal, Mencia, and the sorts
Tempranillo, a local Iberian varietal, flourishes in cooler and moderate climates, delivering bright ruby wines, with nervy acidity, and is driven by red fruit flavours, especially cherries and plums, that age gracefully and are quick to develop notes of leather and tobacco. Their smooth tannins are seldom weighty, and, thus, produce early drinking wines that are a perfect companion for the tapas-hopping tourists. Put them in oak, and they can yield credible wines that can age for decades. Take Rioja’s Gran Reserva for instance. They spend a minimum of five years and upwards in oak barrels before they’re bottled and released and are best consumed after the hit their twelfth. Its medium to full strength, and flavours that can team up with any varietal quite easily, makes it a perfect charming companion in the blends. Often paired with Syrah or Shiraz, Garnacha, or the local Graciano and Mazuelo, these wines are amongst the most regarded ones from the country.
I regard Garnacha as an intelligent varietal. Though barely praised for its varietal wines outside of Southern-France, Spain, and a few parts of Australia, Garnacha, or as the French call it, Grenache, loves the sun. Born in Aragon, inland from Barcelona, it is a local varietal. Where Tempranillo struggles and gets a tad uncomfortable from the heat, Garnacha steps in like the elder sibling to soak up all discomfort and stand up to the challenge. The thin-skin varietal produces deceptive wines that carry a faint colour and are easily mistaken for a lighter body. It ripens to very high natural sugar, with chewy tannins, and a boozy spine, delivering almost candied wines with plush strawberries, raspberries, and dark cherries notes, with negligible acidity. That’s precisely why Garnacha is picked a tad early, to retain its acidity, and produce alluring fruity roses. When pushed in to the hotter pastures, it develops savoury, herbaceous, white pepper, and oregano notes. However, from these vineyards hails the Garnacha that can age graciously for decades, maturing into a complex wine, holding layers of flavours, and a delectable experience. In the Spanish hierarchy of quality, only regions holding the highest order of Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) are Rioja and Priorat. While in Rioja Garnacha shares the soils with Tempranillo and other subsidiary varietals, it enjoys Priorate all to itself. That is a testimony of Garnacha’s potential and the respect is commands. Single vineyard Garnacha are a treat, and can be easily found around the world now. They have strong pillars of flavour, tannins, and alcohol to stand upon for long and deliver wines that have been shaped by the virtue of time and patience. And they deserve a little more to flourish in to their utmost potential once opened.
Wines in Spain are very different from those of the French, Germans, Italians, or even their neighbours, the Portuguese. For one, the varietals are different, and second, the weather that decides the final winestyle is extremely varied, from being year-round snowcapped North to the forever tropic South. Spanish wines are neither difficult to fall in love with, nor to decipher. Yet, they demand a study in themselves given such a vast array of wines they produce. The cooler North is dominated by Tempranillo and as one continues traveling away from the Iberian coasts and the Pyrenees hills, where sweat starts to breaks, it’s Garnacha’s territory. Travel further to the centre of Spain, the godfather Garnacha enjoys near monopoly. In the East, Catalonia hosts both varietals, but Garnacha has a bigger share of the total vineyard area. Till the Spaniards colonised South America, they were dependent on the fairly expensive French oak. With the onset of colonisation, they discovered American oak and brought ship-loads of them back home, replacing the expensive French wood with the confiscated, free and abundant, sweet American oak. Temparnillos age very well in new American wood, lending the wines a heavy candied, concentrated cola flavour, making the wines further aromatic and palatable. Rioja reds are known for these characteristics while those from the centrally-located Ribera del Duero are rarely masked by this new oak, sweetness, and rather prefer French oak, completely or partially.
India has been flirting with the two varietals for a while now. Sula, Grover Zampa, Charossa Vineyards, all Maharashtra’s Nasik-based, have produced wines from duo. Sula Vineyards has had a Provence-styled Grenache rose that was only available at their winery until recently, hence, rightly christened as ‘The Source’. Grover Zampa and Charosa have produced highly acclaimed Tempranillo. While Grover Zampa’s ‘Chene’ has some Shiraz in the blend, Charosa’s produced varietal wines. They both hold potential to challenge many of the mid to high range Spanish imports available on the shelves, and at a quarter of their price. Their success is exemplary in a market dominated by French varietals, and stand to speak for Tempranillo’s potential on the Indian soils and cash in bigger bucks. Ravi Vishwanathan, now owner of Grover Zampa and Charosa Vineyards claims that their 2019 and 2020 Tempranillo will hold marked improvement from the already stellar current avatar as they actually know how to improve them, both, in the fields and in the winery. Kailash Gurnani or York Winery, also in the valley, is also toying with the varietal and promises a representative produce soon.
The craft of winemaking has existed in Spain for long, but was lost and impressively revived. In many ways, Spain is a new producer, with a fairly nouveau winemaking approach. Unlike its neighbours, it offers a great mix of traditional and modern winemaking. The new producers are trying to take inspiration from the older styles, and the old are trying to adapt to the ever-evolving currently-prevailing styles. Spain is comfortably positioned for those looking for Smartly-made wines that offers typicity, terroir, culture, modernism, and a fistful of flavours. It is marching ahead in to modernisation to match the young New World countries, while still strongly gripping on to their traditional styles, and the wisdom of its elders. Sangria is crowned as its national drink buts that’s not all what country’s wines are for. Salud!
First published in Sommelier India Wine Magazine in May, 2019