The wine landscape in Spain has been changing since the 80s, Many claim it’s made Spain one of the most exciting red wine regions on the planet. Others that its wines are mostly strong, over extracted, indistinguishable from each other, and ultimately simple. Classical Rioja is increasingly difficult to find in Spain which, like sherry is no longer fashionable.
The sight of Africa shrouded in swirling mists, as our plane veers sharply away from Spanish airspace, reminds me that winter is well and truly here. After landing in Edinburgh following a second flight from London, an attractive young woman in a short tartan skirt and an eastern European accent welcomes passengers at the terminal exit. I head for the taxi rank.
My destination is out in the sticks and pitch black when we get there. Not until a light is turned on and the door answered does my thoughtful driver disappear into the night.
Warmth, the smell of food and familiar voices discussing fine wine greet me like an old friend.
Dinner is well underway and flights of whites have already been drunk, wrappers removed and provenance confirmed. I can’t help noticing the well-scavenged bones of a roast turbot on the side board. The poor beast washed down, before my arrival, with several vintages of Louis Michel’s Grand Cru Chablis, judging by the empty bottles.
As I sit down, two glasses of red are placed in front of me. Their provenance already known to my companions who talk amongst themselves whilst I go through the ritual swirling, sniffing and tasting. Certainly not New World. Medium body and light in colour, restrained nose reminiscent of sea shells, very fresh with marked acidity. Understated fruit, but very classy, and a savoury finish that’s in no hurry to go away. Surely Pinot Noir. Top-notch Burgundy.
Impassive faces suggest I am hopelessly wrong. I have missed the unmistakable echoes of dry oak and me living downwind from Jerez! My now smiling companions kindly agree that mature Burgundy and old Rioja can be indistinguishable, give or take the odd stave of American Oak. The wines are Viña Albina Gran Reserva 1952 and Marques de Riscal from the same vintage. Not shabby for sixty-five-year-old wines!
Shopping for wine here and in Spain reminds me that time rarely change us. The world simply glides on leaving us firmly stuck in pasts of our own making. Then, shelves appeared to groan with wire-covered Riojas and Sherries from tiny bodegas long-disappeared into oblivion.
When the 80s arrived and Alejandro Fernandez’s Pesquera is described as the Château Petrus of Spain by the Wine Advocate, the more curious amongst us quickly went north for Alejandro’s inky-black Ribera del Duero. After all who didn’t want to taste Petrus?
Like Japanese Knotweed in a formal garden, Ribera del Duero begun to change the wine landscape in Spain and we stood mesmerised. Willingly we sunk into the luscious embrace of super-concentrated reds without any help whatsoever from Australian or Californian wines.
New Ribera producers joined the battlefield almost daily, eager to show us their wines in expensive, paper-thin glasses, turning our teeth purple and making us feel inadequate as their faces dropped when we told them we didn’t know Robert Parker.
Much later, when friends in Edinburgh introduced me to red Burgundies, old-fashioned clarets, and Savagnin whites from the Jura, I welcomed classical Rioja back like an old friend. Tasting wines back in Gibraltar became good-natured encounters with my friends here. They remained vehemently loyal to ripe fruit and assertive extraction, bringing out palate-busting, nuclear weapons like Pingus to pitch against my Mortet’s Lavaux St-Jacques or Domaine de Chevalier to prove I had taken leave of my senses.
Many in Rioja, fearful of being left out of the party, took to Ribera-like techniques with gusto, increasing cold soaking and lengthening skin contact to produce expansive, opaque wines, high in alcohol and intensely fruity. All the while hoping they would be described as the Chateau Lafite of Spain, though I never saw empty bottles of Grand Cru Classé wines in their small laboratories, which seemed logical if they wanted to take on the Bordelaise.
We never sold Pesquera in our tiny shop as the winery, having more orders than wine, closed its doors to newcomers who kept coming and rattling their locks like the half-dead in a horror movie.
We had no trouble with the likes of Roda, Artadi, Mattaromera and AllendeI, who were practically unknown and happy to sell their wines to fledgling wine merchants. We thought that Artadi’s Pisón was the best Spanish wine we had ever tasted and amazed at stratospheric prices it now achieves – unrivalled for a modern Rioja. Allende’s beguiling qualities also captured our imagination at a fraction of the price, and its white the best we sold.
Many bodegas, when international success eluded their new style, started making expensive bottlings of even darker and more intense versions of their regular wines like a gambler intent on making up losses. These wines, matured in all manner of oak, overwhelmed food and tired the palate like dogs fighting in the mouth. Perhaps they needed time.
We still sold old bottles of classical Rioja often returned as being ‘not quite right’, and we didn’t argue, but exchanged them for modern versions of Rioja Alta or Rioja Alavesa – or if they could afford the premium, Vega Sicilia – and they would go away happy and return regularly for more.
Like Jerez, Rioja has always been volume-dominated yet looking at France’s trophy wines with a mild touch of envy. Ribera del Duero appeared to find the Philosophers Stone in the 80s and many in Rioja followed suit. This has largely turned out to be a dead end if the object is to challenge France’s best. In the meantime, classical Rioja has been pushed aside in the rush to produce and promote modern styles.
Recent rules in Rioja mean that wines, like in Burgundy, can now be labelled to include vineyard of origin. Up to now Rioja wines could only be sold as Rioja without any reference to a vineyard. There is widespread optimism that single-vineyard Riojas could elevate the region to new heights. There is sound logic in this as the wine world delights in the rare and we know Rioja is capable of producing complex wines. I just hope that single-vineyard Riojas don’t turn out to be more-of-the-same, over-extracted, mouth-busting, 99/100 wines so beloved of the Spanish press. There are plenty of those already. I hope these new wines will be seductive, terroir-driven siblings of long-lived classical Riojas able to challenge France’s best at affordable prices. This would be truly revolutionary.