Grapes were planted in Spain as far back as 1100 BC, introduced by the Phoenicians. Wine was being produced as early as 800 BC and was later traded in amphorae to the Middle East, Africa, Mediterranean islands, and other parts of the world. With more land under viticulture than France and Italy combined, wine is an important component of Spanish culture and heritage. Production fell during the reign of the Moors in Spain, but revived soon after. Since then the wines of Spain have come into their own, producing a wide variety of styles. Today, you can find soft, fruity, crowd-pleasing wines for less than a few bucks as well as rich, bold, high-end drops that can challenge the best in the world.
With the end of dictatorship under General Franco in the mid-1970s, Spain made great strides in its winemaking. The heavy influence of oak borrowed from the French receded in the 1850s and 60s during the Phylloxera epidemic, and stainless steel took over. Science then stepped in to help produce cleaner, well crafted, controlled wines, moving away from the sherry-style rancio, reductive, and savoury flavours that the country’s wines were once known for. Maintaining their reputation for elegant, sturdy reds is the duo, Tempranillo and Garnacha. Both dominate in the vineyards and Spanish production, and have become synonymous with Spanish reds, overtaking the likes of Monastrell, Bobal, Mencia, and the rest.
Tempranillo, a local Iberian varietal, flourishes in cooler, moderate climates, delivering bright ruby red wines, with nervy acidity, 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 taperia-hopping tourists. Matured in oak, they can age for decades. Take Rioja’s Gran Reserva for instance. The wine spends a minimum of five years in oak barrels before it is bottled and released. Best consumed after the their twelfth. The tannins are medium to full strength, with flavours that can team easily with any other varietal, making it an ideal partner in blends. Often paired with Syrah (Shiraz), Garnacha, or the local Graciano and Mazuelo, these wines are amongst the most highly regarded.
I consider Garnacha (Grenache in French) an intelligent varietal that loves the sun, although the varietal wines are barely recognised outside Spain, southern France and some parts of Australia. Born in Aragon, inland from Barcelona, Garnacha 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 the discomfort and stands up to the challenge. This thin-skinned varietal produces wines, deceptively faint in colour that are easily mistaken to have a light body. The variety ripens into wines with very high natural sugar, chewy tannins and a boozy spine, delivering almost candied flavours with plush strawberries, raspberries, and dark cherry notes, and negligible acidity. Garnacha is picked early to retain its acidity, and produce alluring fruity rosés. When planted in hotter climes, it develops savoury, herbaceous, white pepper and oregano notes. However, from here hails the Garnacha that can age gracefully for decades, maturing into a complex wine, producing layers of flavours and a delectable experience.
In the Spanish hierarchy of quality, the only regions holding the highest order DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) are Rioja and Priorat. While in Rioja, Garnacha shares the soils with Tempranillo and other subsidiary varietals, it keeps Priorat all to itself. That is a testimony of Garnacha’s potential and the respect it commands. Single vineyard Garnachas are a treat, and the wines can be easily found around the world now. With a strong foundation of flavour, tannins, and alcohol, they deliver wines that have been shaped by virtue of time and patience.
Wines of Spain are very different from those of France, Germany, Italy, or even their neighbour, the Portugal. For one, the varietals are different, and second, the weather that decides the final wine style is extremely varied, from the year-round snowcapped north to the forever tropic south. Spanish wines are not difficult to fall in love with, or to decipher. Yet, they demand a study in themselves given that such a vast variety are produced. The cooler north is dominated by Tempranillo and as one continues travelling away from the Iberian coast and the Pyrenees hills, it becomes Garnacha’s territory. Travel further to the centre of Spain, and Garnacha enjoys a 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 expensive French oak. With colonization, they discovered American oak and brought ship-loads of it back home, replacing pricey French wood with confiscated, free and abundant, sweet American oak. Temparnillos age very well in new American wood, which lends the wines a heavy candied, concentrated cola flavour, making the wines more aromatic and palatable. Rioja reds are known for these characteristics while those from the centrally-located Ribera del Duero are rarely masked by American new oak sweetness, and prefer French oak, wether completely or partially.
India has been flirting with the two varietals for a while now. Sula, Grover Zampa, and Charossa Vineyards, all Nashik-based, have produced wines from both. Sula Vineyards has a Provence-styled Grenache rosé that was only available at their winery until recently. Hence appropriately christened, “The Source”. Grover Zampa and Charosa have produced highly acclaimed Tempranillo. While Grover Zampa’s “Chene” has some Shiraz in the blend, Charosa’s is a varietal wine. They both have the potential to challenge many of the mid- to high-range Spanish imports available in our market and at a quarter of their price. Their success is exemplary in a market dominated by French varietals, and speak for Tempranillo’s potential in Indian soil and ability to cash in on bigger bucks. Ravi Viswanathan, now owner of Grover Zampa and Charosa Vineyards claims that their 2019 and 2020 Tempranillo will show marked improvement from their already stellar avatar as they actually know how to improve them, both, in the field and in the winery. Kailash Gurnani of York Winery, is also toying with the varietal and promises a representative soon.
Although winemaking has long existed in Spain, it was lost in between but revived impressively. 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 style. Spain is comfortably positioned for those looking for smartly-made wines that offer typicity, terroir, culture, modernity, and a fistful of flavours. It is marching ahead into the modern era to catch up with the young New World countries, but with a strong grip on its traditional styles and the wisdom of its elders. Sangria may be crowned as its national drink but there is far more to the country’s wines than that.
Spanish Wine Label Nomenclature
Definition of the terms can change depending on the region they hail from.This gives a general idea.
Joven Young engaged wines, best consumed at their earliest. Light, fruity, and fresh.
Crianza translates as ‘rested’. Usually spends upto two years in oak, good for early drinking or cellaring for 2 to 3 years. Marked for its oak, and a balance of fruitiness and emerging savouriness.
Reserva Reserved and aged in barrels for 3-5 years, can cellar very well and deserve a special occasion. Expect lesser fruitiness and more developed notes. Deserves equally good food to show its full potential
Gran Reserva Well aged wines with 5 to10 years in oak barrels. Complex and layered wines, usually dominated completely by tertiary notes. Decant and approach with patience. Let the wine come into its own; leave for an hour or so.