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The "Spain is different" slogan on old tourist posters is long gone, but its message is perennial. Spain's geography is unpredictable and harsh, its history convoluted, and when it comes to culture, the Spanish people expect variety. The numerous wines produced include old-fashioned relics, cutting edge novelties, and everything in between, and wines, like people, can be strongly individualistic. The stolid past and determined present live casually beside startling visions of the future. Spanish history is full of drama. It encompasses the deluded piety of Don Quijote, the bloody, golden glories of New World conquest, and the humanitarian disasters of the Civil War. So we should not be surprised that the story of its wines is equally unique, and each of the many viticultural regions has its own personality. History is evident in the wines: the steely, bone-dry fino sherries of Jerez and the velvety, exquisite red wine of the Duero's Vega Sicilia, whose elegant fire has been celebrated for a hundred years. There are also sturdy Rioja reds for special and everyday dinners, the modern sparkling cavas so familiar to chic Barcelonans, and sweet M'laga dessert wines. Looking toward the future, Spain is also investing in new viticultural areas and reviving old ones: the trendy Priorat, Costers del Segre, and R'as Baixas are getting lots of local dedication and international attention. To get at the essence of Spanish wines, keep an open mind and appreciate the variety -- because Spain is still "different."
Spanish history is long, deep and sometimes dark, with an abiding sense of dignity and pride. Indigenous grape vines were cultivated as early as 4,000 B.C., even before ancient seafaring Phoenicians established a trading port at C'diz. Winemaking was a common village trade during the ages of Phoenicians and Carthaginians, and during the subsequent rise of Rome, wine amphora imports from Andaluc'a and Tarragona became well-known by Roman commentators including Ovid, Pliny and Martial. Most -- but not all -- of this wine was evidently of forgettable quality.
Though Islam forbids drinking wine, it was common among the caliphs, and winemaking was allowed to continue after the Moorish conquest of Spain in 711 A.D. For seven hundred years this Muslim toleration for wine continued, but by the thirteenth century, Spain had begun to slip back into Christian hands, and trade between Bilbao and English ports came to support a more generous flow of wine commerce.
The wine industry of Rioja in the country's northeast grew up to supply pilgrimage traffic through monasteries on the medieval road to the great cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, and the country's first wine laws date from the Middle Ages. The hot climate, high alcohol Spanish wines were appreciated for their good aging qualities and sometimes used to adulterate expensive but low alcohol wines from other areas.
The violently Catholic era of Ferdinand and Isabella followed the defeat of the Moors at Granada in 1492. Spanish Jews were expelled from the country, and foreign (particularly English) merchants stepped into their situations to increase wine trade, especially around the Andalusian cities of C'diz and M'laga. The English upper class consumed sherry and M'laga wines enthusiastically, but the strife of ensuing centuries made their market hard to supply. Trade history was marred by crises and financial ruin as the Spanish Inquisition, wars and colonial competition between Spain and England interfered for several centuries. In the later 1700's English merchants invested heavily in southern areas and brought trade back to a profitable boom by the 1820's. The sweet fortified wines of Jerez and M'laga were internationally celebrated, and though current fashion is directed more toward table wines, their reputations endure.
The Spanish table wine producers of the 1700's meanwhile continued to make rustic wines acceptable only to a village trade barren of other choices. As in ancient times, many wines were fermented in earthenware tinajas or old wooden casks and stored in hogsheads lined with pitch. There was little export except to the Spanish colonies, which often had to be forced to accept them.
Modernization of the industry began thanks to the arrival of viticultural disasters in neighboring France: oidium (powdery mildew) beginning in the late 1840's and phylloxera in the late 1860's. A decimated French industry sent merchants, winemakers and more sophisticated winemaking techniques across the border to Rioja, which would benefit greatly from their taste and expertise. For the first time, the French style barrique (59 gallon/ 225liter) oak cask was introduced, and the flavor of Spanish wines greatly improved. During the same period the Marquis de Murrieta established Rioja's first commercial bodega and began exports to Spanish colonies in the 1850's.
Oidium and phylloxera both eventually spread to Spain. In general the pests' influence was less important than in France, but in the coastal areas of Galicia, Catalonia and M'laga, the wine industry was almost erased and in some instances never recovered. When infected vineyards were replanted, as elsewhere, resistant American rootstocks were used, and the quality and influence of Spanish wines grew until the early 1900's, when French vineyards recovered and the remaining colonial markets dried up.
The first part of the twentieth century was very difficult, as the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), and World War II (1939-1945) contributed to the destruction of vineyards and extinguished European markets. The industry limped along until the 1960's, when infrastructure (such as the highway between Logro'o and coastal Bilbao, expanding commerce in Rioja wines) eased shipping constraints. In the 1960's and 70's the wines of Rioja and Pened's emerged on the world scene and exported greatly improved products.
Also to begin in the 1960's was the saga of the private Spanish corporation Rumasa, a sherry/banking/construction conglomerate owned by Jose Maria Ruiz-Mateos. Rumasa modernized wine procedures and facilities in many areas, but also interfered extravagantly with the sherry industry until 1983, when the elected socialist government, fearing the company's collapse, nationalized, split and defused this capitalist mini-empire.
The death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 ended years of political and economic repression, and the monarchy instituted a modern democracy and a new vision of Spanish identity. The post-war generation, determined to catch up with the rest of industrialized Europe and enjoy its new freedom to the fullest, joined the European Union in 1986. Immersed for the first time in a truly international market, Spain is being forced to adapt its products to a modern palate to compete. Both for export and for the new, more cosmopolitan Spanish middle class that has recently arisen, wines are being popularized with an up-to-date emphasis on fruity, fresh styles with less of the heavy aging of the past. The prices of Rioja, traditionally (like other Spanish products) low, rose 40% between 1985-1989, though the increased prices slowed growth in exports even as EU regulations accelerated the steady trend to modernization.
Spain's situation in the world of wine is still in transition. While recently it was best known for sherry and inexpensive, ready to drink reds, (a position currently occupied by Chile), Spain is becoming a choice for more serious wine lovers as styles are created or modified to suit modern international tastes. Prices vary enormously, and while Spain has seen great changes within a generation, it has even more wine potential waiting to be developed. With continued investment and modernization it could still surprise us with a variety of styles and qualities.
Spain's widely varying geography is clearly the most important cause of the great variety in its wines. The center of the country consists of a large arid table land called the Meseta ranging in altitude from 2000-3300 feet (600-1000 m). A number of mountain ranges called cordilleras rising to 11,420 ft (3,482 m) make it the second most mountainous country in Europe and divide the country into many discrete regions.
The most important feature of the climate, much appreciated by English and German tourists, is the relentless sunshine which can raise sugar levels in wine grapes, and therefore alcohol levels in the finished wines, to astronomical levels. It also concentrates wine flavors wonderfully. Coastal plains or terraces are often cut off from the interior by mountain ranges, but in the majority of wine growing areas (except for the north coast and the far northwestern province of Galicia), modifying marine influences of the Mediterranean and Atlantic are negligible. Most of the variable and mountainous terrain toward the center of the country is dry and hot in summer, dry and freezing in winter. With the exception of Galicia, drought is common and unpredictable.
In Spanish vineyards, summer temperatures often rise to 95 degrees F (35 degrees C) in the northern half of the country and can go above 104 degrees F (40 degrees C) in the southernmost region of Andaluc'a. Famous for its white albariza soil which contains a high proportion (40 percent) of chalky limestone in addition to clay and sand, Andaluc'a has a Mediterranean climate, with moderate winter rains averaging 25 inches and summer heat rising regularly to 105 degrees F; winters are mild.
Like southeastern coastal areas, the north coast of Spain has more moderate temperatures year-round; it also has more rain: over 39 inches (1000 mm).
With 3.5 million acres planted, Spain has the largest amount of vineyard land of any country in the world, but its average yields are so low that it falls to number three in grape tonnage (1.4 tons/acre). On the dry Meseta, freestanding vines are purposely spaced far apart (typically 2.5 meters, over eight feet) to utilize the meager amount of water available; even so they must struggle for existence. A few of the driest areas such as Costers del Segre in the easterly province of Catalonia have been allowed an "experimental" status that allows controlled irrigation and can bring yields up to European standards of 3.4 tons per acre (60 hl/h) for red grapes and 2.8 tons per acre (50hl/h) for whites. The natural yield in hot areas, though, can be closer to 1.7 tons per acre (30hl/h) or even less, with resulting concentration of flavor and high sugar levels in the fewer berries produced.
Traditional vineyards are bush trained in the goblet shape, while areas with more replanting resources (notably Rioja and Pened's) are beginning to plant closer together and train vines on wires as in France. Northwestern vineyards in Galicia are unprotected from Atlantic storms and receive plenty of rainfall, but are among the few spots in Spain where humidity can cause fungal problems. Traditionally, as in Portugal's Minho region, grapes were grown here on high stone trellises, but today it is more common to train vines on lower wires and use chemical sprays to control disease.
History has given Spain dozens (vintners claim hundreds) of native vines, and these predominate, but other European varieties are increasingly popular in new plantings, particularly for sparkling wines. The native Tempranillo (also called Cencibel, Ull de Llebre, Tinto Pais and Tinto Fino) is the most distinguished and long-lived, and can produce deeply colored, complex, aromatic dinner wines as well as lighter everyday reds. Fine tempranillos have characteristic aromas of chocolate, coffee, smoke, overripe plums and sometimes brown sugar or tar.
Other red varietals are Garnacha (a variant of France's grenache), used for many different styles of wine including young fruity roses; Graciano; Mazuela (Carignan); Bobal; Monastrell (Mourv'dre) and small plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Pinot Noir.
Spanish white wines, particularly in La Mancha and Valdepe'as, have long relied on the drought-resistant Air'n (almost 1/3 of vineyards). Also distilled for Spanish brandy, Air'n is the most planted grape varietal in the world. Macabeo (Viura), another native white variety, is also widely planted and most successfully vinified with cold fermentation. In Galicia's R'as Baixas, the white Albari'o produces fragrant, zesty, moderately complex wines often compared to (but not at all similar to) Portugal's Vinhos Verdes. In Rueda, the Verdejo variety makes refreshing floral white wines. Cava, the sparkling wines of Catalonia, include Macabeo (Viura), Parellada, Xarel-lo, and some Chardonnay. For Jerez (Sherry) as in the related wines of Montilla-Moriles and M'laga, the principal grapes are the white Palomino, which makes neutral, low-acid wines, supplemented by the red Pedro Xim'nez and white Moscatel (Muscat of Alexandria) which add color, sweetness and some complexity.
Spanish vinification practices are in transition. Law and tradition have dictated that wines not be released until ready to drink, which often meant the necessity for excessive long term storage. Unfortunately, wine produced and aged in primitive conditions in a hot climate could mean high alcohol levels, low acid and maderized flavor. Old-fashioned clay or concrete tinajas were formerly used for fermentation and storage but only compounded the problem; being difficult to clean, they often distorted flavors even if wines were later aged in barrel. Some of these flavors gradually became acceptable to local taste, and in the case of sherry were actually refined into a product that used the natural flor yeasts successfully.
Many table wines, however, have been less attractive for export until recently. All but the lowliest reds and whites were aged for years in American oak barrels, and while the resulting wines often matched well with food, they could be dusty and tired with too much vanilla flavor. Wines in this style are still available, but the introduction of temperature stabilization and stainless steel tanks (beginning in the 1960s) has caused striking changes in the wine industry, with the result of cleaner wines with more universal appeal to modern tastes. Cask and barrel aging are still important, but more aging time is now spent in bottle, resulting in fruitier, livelier wines. Among the trendiest winemakers, some small French oak is also starting to augment the stock of American barrels.
Due to special vinification and aging processes, the renowned wines of Jerez (known as sherry in English and X'r's in French) have a unique character that sets them apart from all others. When Spanish table wines were in the dark ages, sherry was already exported worldwide, celebrated by statesmen and poets, and cherished by wine cognoscenti. Unfortunately, though sherry is still Spain's international signature wine, it is sadly out of fashion today, and production has been declining since the mid-1980's.
Sherries are hot climate fortified wines from grapes grown in the famous white albariza soil of Andaluc'a, predominantly from the white Palomino grape which makes up about 95 percent of vineyard plantings, and supplemented by red Pedro Xim'nez and Muscat of Alexandria for sweetness and floral complexity. Styles range from bone dry to rich and sweet, making them appropriate for both aperitifs and dessert wines. The Spanish appreciate dry sherry, while international tastes particularly in England and the Netherlands have emphasized the sweeter styles. Their enthusiasm has contributed to the great variety and encouraged other countries around the world to produce maderized, fortified "sherry style" wines mimicking the Spanish style, with results that are usually economical but without the soul of the original.
Sherries are divided into two main types, fino (called manzanilla in Sanl'car) and oloroso. The fino types are the driest, with the greatest delicacy of flavor; they are usually cold fermented of free-run juice where possible, whereas olorosos may be barrel fermented at slightly higher temperatures. For both types of sherry, the base wine is fortified with aguardiente (neutral grape brandy) after fermentation - up to 15.5 percent alcohol for finos and up to 22 percent for olorosos.
The naturally occurring yeast flor is the main agent giving personality to fino-type sherries. The desirable flor changes and adds complexity to flavors as it feeds on oxygen and nutrients in the wine. It floats on top of the wine, which is aged in partially filled barrels, and thus also protects it from oxidation. Olorosos, with their higher alcohol content, do not grow flor and hence get their darker character from aging in the presence of oxygen.
To allow the flor to impart its distinctive character to the wine, winemakers in Jerez, Sanl'car de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa Maria (the three important cities in the sherry industry) rotate new sherries through a solera system for aging. (Technically the solera indicates the oldest wine within the system, but the word is also used to indicate the system itself.) The solera system constantly blends younger wines into those which already have some flor character, removing finished wines only after a number of years in the cycle.
Inside the system, barrels of wines of the same vintage are grouped into criaderas (nurseries) and used to progressively replenish the older wines. Depending upon the size of the bodega or sherry house there may be hundreds or even thousands of criaderas contributing to the signature products. By replenishing older barrels with progressively younger wines and removing no more than 33 percent of the total wine in any given year, winemakers produce sherries that remain consistent in style and flavor.
Once the flor in a fino-type sherry is exhausted (flor can live up to ten years), fino is bottled and shipped. Since it has a moderately high alcohol content and delicate flavor, it should be treated as carefully as table wine and served chilled. If not bottled, increased oxygen contact will cause it to darken in color and taste to become an amontillado. Though the classic amontillado is dry, sweet amontillados fortified with sweetened grape juice are also produced. The categories of finos are:
Fino (Jerez) or Manzanilla (from Sanl'car)
Fino Amontillado (also called Manzanilla Pasada)
(true) Amontillado. Some finos are also blended with sweet wines
(Pedro Xim'nez or Moscatel) to become Pale Dry Sherries.
Olorosos, with a higher alcohol content, age differently from finos. They become more concentrated and brown, with strong, rich flavors and a nutty maderized aroma. Though the basic olorosos are dry, they are usually blended and sweetened to various degrees with Muscat or Pedro Xim'nez wines (produced from dried grapes) or arrope (boiled grape juice concentrate) and are designated Oloroso, Cream Sherry or commercial Amontillado. The relatively rare Palo Cortado is a wine that develops a flor like fino but loses it relatively soon and finishes aging like an Oloroso, giving it characteristics of both types.
Spain has refined its regulations since joining the European Union in 1986. Labels describe wines by region, though some also give varietal information. (If only one grape is named, EU requires it to be 85% of the wine.) The federal INDO system (Instituto Nacional de Denominaciones de Origen) appoints a Consejo Regulador for each appellation (DO), and the local body establishes and enforces regulations regarding varietals, cultivation, vinification and aging procedures. The Consejo Regulador also registers vineyards and bodegas, monitors stocks from vineyard to bottle, and tests before approving for export.
The most basic wine category is vino de mesa or VdM. This is ordinary table wine made from unclassified vineyards or various blends. It can be red, white or rose and is often sold young (joven). Often it is not bottled but sold in bulk to bars and restaurants.
Vino Comarcal (VC) is reserved for wine made outside a recognized DO area and adds an area name to the Vino de Mesa labeling.
Vino de la Tierra (VdlT) labeling designates a wine from one of the larger wine areas and connotes slightly higher requirements, status and quality.
Denominacion de Origen (DO), is similar to the French appellation controloe, indicating a local wine region of some distinction governed by a Consejo Regulador. The DOC system currently recognizes 52 such regions around the country.
The most elevated category for superior wines, thus far awarded only to Rioja in 1991, is Denominacion de Origen Calificada (DOCA). Qualification for this status is largely determined by the market and requires that a wine sell for 200 percent above the national average price.
The three additional designations crianza, reserva and gran reserva indicate reserve wines subject to longer than usual aging in wood cask and bottle. Regulations differ among the DO areas depending upon local tradition and varieties. In Rioja, for example, red crianza wines must be aged in oak for one year and bottle one year. The more distinguished Reservas require two years in oak and one in bottle, and the finest Gran Reservas receive at least two years in oak and three or more in the bottle before release. White wines are similarly aged in both cask and bottle but are released somewhat younger.
With a long history of world commerce akin to that in Portugal, the major concerns of sherry regulations are aging and shipping. The Jerez Consejo Regulador recognizes the following categories of wine merchants: Bodegas de Produccion make basic wines, while Bodegas de Elaboracion may vinify and hold wine for limited periods. Bodegas de Crianza y Almacenado (Almacenistas) with a minimum capacity of 265,000 gallons (1,000 hl) including 60 percent from Jerez Superior, are allowed to age and mature wines; and only the largest, Bodegas de Crianza y Expedicion, with a minimum capacity of over 3.3 million gallons (12,500 hl) including at least 60 percent from Jerez Superior, are allowed to mature and ship wine. These include the large merchant shippers such as Sandeman, Croft and Harvey which maintain enormous and complex soleras to assure the continuing quality and identity of their name brand sherries.