Spanish Wine's Take on Common Grape Varietals

An increase in quality of non-traditional varietals should give the average wine drinker something to think about.

There are many reasons why I love Spanish wine. I won’t bore you with every single one. Instead let’s focus on one specific characteristic that makes Spain such a dominant force in the industry: diversity.

Spanish wine may be synonymous with grapes like Tempranillo, Albariño, Verdejo and Garnacha. However, there are countless other grapes grown in the country, some of which you might not expect to see either.  

Riesling. Chenin Blanc. Trousseau. Pinot Noir.

Yes, these are all grown in Spain and many of which are produced into pretty epic varietal wines.

Spain has the highest volume of land devoted to the cultivation of grapes in the world. The breadth of diversity should hardly be surprising. Add to this a wide array of climatic and geographical differences both on the mainland and on the islands and you have a country with the ability to produce very unique wines.

The staple varietal favourites will always provide the bread and butter in Spanish wine consumption. The increase in quality of non-traditional varietals should give the average wine drinker something to think about. I’ve always been a firm believer that grapes show their truest expression when grown in their indigenous home. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t find an alternative expression elsewhere.

I’ve picked 4 of my favourite International grapes and tried to find a quality Spanish wine made from each. I realise this ‘experiment’ had the potential to blow up in my face but, bear with me, the results may surprise you.

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Riesling 

Alsace. Mosel. Clare Valley.  Riesling is an iconic grape grown is some fairly iconic vineyard destinations. Loved by sommeliers and wine geeks around the world. Rieslings have aromatic complexities, ability to age for decades and its exceptional ability to express terroir.

These characteristics have enabled the grape to travel well in areas such as New Zealand, Austria, Canada, The Finger Lakes. Also, in Catalan Pyrenees in Spain with wineries such as Castell d’Encus.

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It is here that winemaker Raul Bobet harvests his Riesling grapes at around 1,000 metres hidden within the Pyrenees forests. Farming is completed organically with complete respect to the environment. Constant research is carried out by the team to understand planting density, cover crop, pruning types, all to enhance the quality of grapes.

The grapes are hand-harvested in small 10kg baskets from the small vineyard plots. The soils are clay limestone. Because of the altitude and high diurnal range the climate stays cool. Catalunya allows for a slow grape ripening which enhances the complexities.  

The site is surrounded by mountains and often prone to snow and frost. This makes vines suffer and therefore enhances the quality of the grapes. All of this attributes to a unique micro-climate and expression of Riesling that could most likely not be made in any other location in Spain.

Their Riesling is named Ekam and has developed a cult following despite being unknown in the wine world.  

The vines are young, about 15 years old. Fermentation is carried out naturally in small 25HL tanks before being bottled and held for 6 months before being released. A pinch of Albarino is added to the wine which adds some aromatics and mineral freshness.

The result is a persistent and intense wine with mutli-layers. Aromas of lime, grapefruit, white flower and a touch of smokiness that is overarched with a wonderful acidity and minerality. It has the potential to age for a very long time.

Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is famed for its world class quality produced in its home in the Loire Valley. It is also found in small plantings around Catalunya, Aragon and Navarra.  The planting sizes are relatively modest. However, there are a few producers creating world class Chenin wines with their own Spanish personalities.  

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One of these very producers is the acclaimed Escoda Sanahuja. Their bottle of Els Bassots is made primarily from Chenin with small percentages of Sumoll Blanc, Garnacha Blanca and Macabeu. 

Based in the DO of Conca de Barbera within Catalunya, they are committed to producing “natural wines of biodynamic agriculture”. This involves the use of native yeasts for fermentation and with no filtration, clarification, stabilization nor sulphites.

At Escoda Sanahuja the grape is the only protagonist. The grapes for this wine are handpicked and undergo a maceration on the skins for around 10 days. This gives the wine an amazing amber tinge. Fermentation is in stainless steel using natural yeasts. Then the wine is aged for at least one year in neutral French oak.

The result is a unique and expressive wine. Funky nose and bucket loads of flavour with ripe pear, dried apricot, honey and lychee. The tannins from the skin maceration create body. There’s a slight effervescence to the wine that ends with a long and citrus sweet finish.

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Trousseau

Trousseau is originally from France. It’s mostly planted nowadays in Portugal as Bastardo, and used as part of the blend for Port wine. Trousseau it is also found in North West Spain under the name of Merenzao.

There are various mutations of the grape. There are enough synonyms to ensure the average wine-buff would have come across the grape in some shape or form.

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It is a dark skinned grape typically producing deep cherry-red wines with dark berry and forest fruit nuances. The high natural sugars in the grape generally produce wines with high potential alcohol content.

We’re sticking with North West Spain in Ribiera Sacra and a small winery Adega Algueira. Here is where their small plot of Merenzao is located on the steep, schist slopes of the River Sil.

It is a family run winery in the midst of development, growth and ambition. I was lucky enough to visit them in 2018.  The winery building itself has been expanded from the original structure into a large, modern, clean and organised operation.  The wide array of barrels, foudres, amphoras, all different shapes and sizes show commitment to artisanal winemaking.  Elaborations are carried out based on what is best for the grape rather than the winery.

Their Merenzao wine named Risco is ultra-low production and it’s sensational. Named after the previous owner, this special plot of vines is 100% Merenzao. The vines are 80 years old and the wine is whole-cluster fermented, foot-pressed and aged in old oak. The end result is unique and exquisite. Beautiful texture and inky dark colour with flavours of perfumed blackcurrant, fleshy plum, lavender and balsamic. I didn’t bring many wines home from my trip due to luggage restrictions but this one made the cut.

Pinot Noir

What is there to say about Pinot Noir? It’s grown all over the world in various styles but firmly rooted as the darling grape of Burgundy. It produces bland $5 wines and those life-changing bottles from the Cote d’Or where you’d need a 6 figure bank balance.

You only have to listen to Paul Giamatti in the film Sideways to understand the passion and obsession many feel towards the grape. It’s “thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early…it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world…only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression”. (Can you believe Sideways is over a decade old?)

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Quite the high maintenance grape but if there’s one winemaker in Spain who would be up for the challenge it’s Raul Perez.

Affectionately known as the Wine Wizard, Raul has been working magic with the indigenous Spanish grape Mencia for decades. Considering the grape is known as the Pinot Noir of Spain, it makes sense that Raul would branch out and experiment with Spanish Pinot Noir.

Planted as an experiment by Raul himself, his tiny single-vineyard in the Bierzo region in North West Spain produces the grapes for his wine ‘La Tentacion’, often considered as the finest Pinot in Spain.

Whole bunch fermented in open-top 5,000 litre foudres and aged for 12 months in French oak barriques and made entirely by hand.

The production is miniscule but the quality can rival many in Burgundy.

It is elegant, precise and complex and shows fresh red fruit character with wonderful acidity, a subtle earthiness and a long and opulent finish.

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