Sunday School – September 2021, Week 1
Join us each Sunday for an ongoing series of articles exploring the world of wine.
Spain has a rich and diverse wine culture full of excellent values. Join us this month for a series of articles on the indigenous grapes of Spain.
Consistently among the top three wine producing countries in the world, and year-after-year the country with the most acreage under vine, Spain is also home to some of the best values in the wine world. In many ways, Spain’s wine culture is very similar to that of Italy.
Similarities Between Spain & Italy:
- Both countries consistently rank in the the top three countries for both volume produced and acreage under vine (the third country being, no real surprise, France).
- Both countries have an extensive number of indigenous grapes (although Spain’s 400+ varietals are much easier to navigate than Italy’s 2,000+ varietals).
- Both countries experienced revolutionary changes in the quality of their wines in the latter part of the 20th century, following decades of post-WWII commodity production.
- Both countries have a degree of culture-crossover (at least in terms of wine) with their mutual neighbor, France (especially with Bordeaux and the Rhône valley).
With all of these similarities, our recently concluded article series on Italian grapes seems to be a very logical jumping-off point for an exploration of Spanish grapes. Don’t worry, Spain is not nearly the minefield of varietals that Italy is, being a much more homogenous geology and climate thanks to its more compact nature. All the same, there are some unique oenological treasures to be found in Spain — and most of them are cracking good deals. . . Let’s dive in with the red grapes that you are most likely to encounter.
Tempranillo is, by far, Spain’s most widely planted red grape, but you might never know it for the number of aliases it assumes. To bend a phrase, “A grape by any other name (at least in Spanish), would be tempranillo.” Among its many synonyms (alternate names), you will find Aragonêz (not in Spain, but in neighboring Portugal), tinta roriz (also in Portugal), tinta de Toro (in the region of Toro), tinto fino (in Ribera del Duero, although, for the life of me, I cannot tell you what causes the grape to be feminine (tinta) in one region, but masculine (tinto) in another…), tinta del pais (also in Ribera del Duero, but also in nearby Cigales — this synonym, however, it NOT to be confused with pais (also known as mission, or criolla), which is an entirely different grape), cencibel (in la Mancha and Valdepeñas), and ull de llebre (meaning “eye of the hare” in Catalonia/Cataluña/Catalunya), among MANY others (many of which begin with tinta or tinto. . .). . . The name tempranillo is taken from the diminutive form of the word “temprano,” meaning early, indicating the grapes ripens early. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons that tempranillo is so prevalent in Spain — its early ripening helping to ensure successful harvest. On its own, and in its most basic iteration, tempranillo shows notes of red fruits, particularly strawberry, cherry, plum, fig, and currant, often with tobacco/herbal tones. With oak aging, tempranillo can also assume spice character (particularly anisette, peppercorn, and Asian spice) as well as hints of leather. In the case of the famous wines of Rioja (northeast of Madrid), the wines were historically influenced by refugee Bordelais winemakers (fleeing the destruction of their vineyards by the root-louse phylloxera) using American oak barrels. In this region, the wine can also take on notes of vanilla, coconut, dill, and sandalwood. Another intriguing characteristic of Rioja is its tendency toward brettanomyces, a strain of yeast (often referred to as “brett”) which can cause rather funky notes that, in moderation, might be likened to clove, leather, or even bleu cheese, but may become as odd as aromas of bandages (which can also show up in a number of craft beers and some whiskeys, most notably, in the the Scotch whisky, Ardbeg). Tempranillo, of any stripe, but particularly Rioja, is a great pairing for beef (be it burgers or steaks) and lamb. Lighter, less heavily oaked styles are great pairings for pastas and tomato based dishes. Very little tempranillo is planted outside of Spain and Portugal, but there are small plantings in Washington, Oregon, California, and Texas, as well as in Australia and (perhaps no surprise) Mexico, Chile, and Argentina.
The second most widely planted red grape in Spain is likely to be one you have never heard of. . . bobal. There are veritable oceans of bobal planted in Spain (as well as some acreage in the Roussillon (in southern France, on the Mediterranean coast) and Sardinia), but it is planted mostly for use in bulk wine, much of which never leaves Spain. If you do encounter bobal, expect a wine with relatively high acidity and notes of blackberry, pomegranate, anise, cocoa, and black tea. As such, bobal makes a great pairing for fruit and spice inflected dishes (orange beef comes to mind. . .)
Mencia, known as jaen in Portugal, is most prevalent in the areas nearest the border of north-eastern Portugal, notably the contiguous regions of Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras, and Bierzo. Mencia produces a light, fragrant wine characterized by notes of cherry, blackberry, and pomegranate, with accents of anise and stone. Surprisingly, this otherwise light wine can pack a bit of a one-two tannic/acidic punch. As such, foods with a significant amount of fat and protein are good bets for pairing. Pork and charcuterie come to mind, but mencia also pairs especially well with turkey (think of it as a somewhat sophisticated cranberry alternative. . .).
Trepat is a relatively rare grape, being grown primarily in isolated areas of Catalonia/Cataluña/Catalunya. Historically used for the production of rosé/rosato wines (and occasionally for use in the sparkling wine Cava), trepat is slowly coming into its own, sometimes as a solo act, and sometimes as part of an ensemble. Notable regions include Conca de Barberà (no relation to the Italian grape, barbera) where it may be blended with tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, and/or grenache) and Costers del Segre (where is it often blended with tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, carignan/cariñena, and/or mourvèdre/monastrell. In the region of Murcia, bobal is known as bonicaire. Bobal based wines can range from light and pale to deep and weighty, depending on the blending partners. . .
While most of us know this grape by its French name, grenache, garnacha/garnatxa has its origins in the Spanish region of Aragon. You may recall from the previous article that this grape is also known in Sicily as cannonau. Garnacha/garnatxa (the latter spelling being the Catalan spelling) thrives in Spain and can produce a range of styles, from hefty, meaty, highly alcoholic bottlings in hotter, arid climates, and lighter, fruitier, moderately alcoholic bottlings at higher, cooler climates. The premier appellation for garnatxa is the small region of Priorat, located west of Barcelona, in which garnatxa is often blended with cariñena (and a few international grapes). Priorat is known for its black, llicorella soil and the unique mineral character it lends to the wine. Otherwise, expect garnacha/garnatxa to deliver notes of stewed strawberry and plum, orange, leather, herbs (particularly thyme and rosemary), and spices (especially anise and black tea). Meaty and earthy notes are common in heftier iterations, and a touch of brettanomyces is not unusual. Great pairing options include roasted meats and dishes with Asian spices (although care should be taken to avoid spicy heat with higher alcohol versions — you may find yourself on fire. . .)
Monastrell is another grape most recognized by its French name (mourvèdre), but with origins in Spain. Monastrell also happens to be one of my favorite grapes! Expect an earthy, rustic mix of blackberry, cocoa, tobacco, meat, and black pepper, with a dense mouthfeel, high tannins, and relatively high alcohol. This is a great choice for grilled or smoked meats. Monastrell also has a few aliases under which it might be produced in Catalonia, specifically mataró in and, in the coastal region of Penedès, garrut.
Cariñena/mazuelo is still another grape best known by its French name (carignan). Yet again, this grape so associated with the Rhône valley has its origins in Spain. In Aragon, its place of origin, the grape is known as mazuelo (now the official Spanish name of the grape — you’ll see why in a moment). The Spanish name cariñena becomes carinyena in Catalan, but there is also an appellation/region (noted by the use of “DO” for “denominaciónes de origen”) called Cariñena DO. To avoid confusion (I know, too late), the grape is usually labeled as mazuelo or (in Catalonia) as samsó. Beware that the Cariñena DO is often a blend that MAY use the aforementioned grape OR that may be produced as a white wine (without the use of the grape of topic). WHEW! Once you are sure that you have cariñena (the grape), expect a cran/raspberry character with notes of tobacco, baking spices, and (the hallmark of Spanish/Rhône varietals) meat (this time on the bacon/cured meat end of the spectrum). Given the spice, berry notes, cariñena is an excellent choice for that pinnacle of feasts, Thanksgiving!
There are, of course, a host of other native Spanish grapes that you may encounter, but these seven will get you through most of your Spanish wine adventure. You may also encounter some international/French grapes. Cabernet sauvignon and syrah both perform very well in Spain and are often used for both varietal wines and for blending. In our next article, we will explore some of the white grapes you may encounter on your Spanish adventure. Until then, I encourage you to be adventurous with your wine choices. You’ll encounter not only new grapes and new regions, but also new cultures, new traditions, and new people.