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Sexy Spain... so hot right now

By Jeni Port

The Finca Antigua 2005 Syrah from La Mancha is, to quote the influential US wine writer Josh Raynolds, 'a chippy piece of crap'. Clearly it’s not the wine of choice for the writer but at just US$9 a bottle the Spanish red is a roaring success with his fellow drinkers in the US. So much so, Raynolds felt compelled to show the wine at the recent International Shiraz Alliance in the Barossa Valley.

“This,” he told his Australian audience “is your competition.”

It wasn’t exactly hot-off-the-press news but it did give everyone a jolt to be told by an American that they’d better be watching their backs.

Spanish Syrah, Spanish Tempranillo, Spanish Grenache, and Spanish Albarino are hotter than Marble Bar in February in the world’s leading wine markets. Australian winemakers are feeling the heat. As they should.

So, why, what and who is behind Spain’s bullish rise?

Why? The answer is easy.

Spain is hot because it has been working towards this moment for the past decade or more.

It has embraced new technology in winemaking, it has opened up large tracts of land with irrigation, it has sent its young winemakers out to explore and it has learnt important lessons from competitors like Italy and Australia.

“Technically, they are now up with us,” says Don Lewis, the former Mitchelton winemaker who now makes wine each year in Priorat.

“Back in the 1990s when I first went there they weren’t. Now, there’s a young generation of winemakers working there, many of them have worked overseas, especially in Australia.

“They’re using the same yeasts as us, they’re making acid additions, they’re using oxidation control, temperature control. Even in viticulture they are up with us.”

Spain, importantly, also has a story to tell.

It is the most widely planted wine country in the world and boasts the greatest concentration of old and dry-grown bush vines.

It also contains the highest number of indigenous grape varieties of any country, which, unlike the grapes of France and Italy, aren’t found in any great quantity (or quality) elsewhere in the world. Tempranillo and Albarino, in particular, are its ambassadors and they do a fabulous job of introducing the Spanish story to the world.

And, finally, Spain is sexy.

If the Australian message to the world is one of sunshine, a relaxed lifestyle and laid-back dudes on beaches, Spain’s marketing exudes a strong, dark swarthy sexuality. “Spain is sexy as hell,” says John Edwards, formerly of Starvedog Lane wines (a Hardy-Edwards joint venture), now tramping the world selling his own wine label, The Lane. “You go to international wine fairs and Spain just stands out like dog’s boys saying ‘Look At Me! — I’m red, white and black and I’m sexy and I’m beautiful, rich and vibrant. Drink me!’”

“We look so lame in comparison with our tired kangaroos and our tired green and gold.”

What? The wines that get Spain noticed on the world stage fall into two groups.

First, there’s something we might call ‘the internationals’. They are deliberately made with an international palate in mind and include so-called Parker wines. Sound familiar? These are big, obvious, high-alcohol monoliths, etc.

Just like Australia (and France and Italy) there are winemakers in Spain who run to the Parker tune. One estimate suggests that 10% of Spain’s makers follow the Parker nose.

The other ‘internationals’ blend well-known French classics – Merlot, Cabernet, Shiraz – with Spanish homespuns like Tempranillo and Monastrell. The familiarity in knowing at least one of the varieties on the label has helped introduce Spanish wines to many consumers.

But according to Melbourne-based wine importer Scott Wasley of The Spanish Acquisition, the real X factor, the wines that are set to truly excite the world, have their own category.

They might be called a modern take on old vines. In so many cases the source of these exciting styles is high altitude, old vines.

In the hands of a new group of professional winemakers (rather than the co-ops of old) they come alive through low cropping, organic viticulture and what Wasley calls “appropriate” use of new technology.

“They’re not slaves to the roto-fermenter or new oak,” he stresses. “They’re modernised but still very Spanish and they are more in the feminine, textural, perfumed, mid-weight and savoury styles.”

Who? Just like Australia, Spain has big companies out to rule the wine world with cheap, everyday drinking wines and it also has the little guys championing distinctive regional flavours.

Familiarise yourself with some of these names. You’ll be hearing more about them (if you haven’t already)…

Alvaro Palacios: Hot young-ish winemaker (he’s in his 40s) who is becoming the darling of the world’s wine press. French-trained, he settled in Priorat in 1990 and set himself the task of making a new classic Spanish wine (L’Ermita), principally using Garnacha (Grenache).

Campo Viejo: One of the largest producers in Rioja that is enjoying incredible success in the UK. Campo Viejo’s brands are everywhere.

Finca Antigua: Often cited as a leading member of the new wave of Spanish wines, Finca Antigua was founded by the Martinez Bujanda family in 1999 and has almost 1000 hectares under vine in La Mancha. Is making inroads with Merlot and Syrah.

Freixenet: Largest producer of methode traditionalle sparklings (cava) in the world, producing 10 million cases a year, and has a global winemaking empire across three continents (including Katnook in Australia).

Pagos del Rey: Owned by a large investment group with wineries in Rioja, Rueda and Ribero del Duero, Pagos produces more than seven million bottles annually. Is focused at the £5 pounds and under market.

Roda: Rioja-based bodega that produces award-winning Tempranillo from old vines using organic, sustainable viti practices. Telmo Rodriguez: One of Spain’s golden sons who seems to be everywhere. Highly influential to a young generation of Spanish winemakers, his family interests are in Rioja but he also makes wine from Alicante, Toro, Ribera del Duero, (you name it, he’s there).

And finally, Josh Raynolds of Steve Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar was right and wrong about that Finca Antigua 2005 Syrah. Yes, it fairly represents strong competition for Australian Shiraz in markets like the UK and the US. No, it’s not a chippy piece of crap.

Far from it. It is nicely perfumed with even a hint of pepper, shows good fruit and little obvious oak (chippy or otherwise) and isn’t as sweet as some of the Aussie styles going about. AND, it’s only US$9.

This article first appeared in the August 2008 issue of the Grapegrower & Winemaker. To get your copy of the August issue or subscribe to the magazine contact Winetitles on +61 8 8292 0888 or email ">s

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