Day 18: Natural in Spain
“The Australia of Europe,” an increasingly used term in the wine world these days, is a pretty low blow against a country with as rich and varied a viticultural history as Spain. But, as we saw recently with the classification of Chardonnay as an acceptable grape in the storied Rioja appelation this is a country that has adopted an international style so popular down under. K & L Wine buyer, newly created cyborg, and hip-hop head Joe Manekin explores the vexing problem of why a country that seems so old school is fast abandoning its vinous past.
For a country that boasts more land under vine than any other, with a variety of terroirs, climates, winemaking traditions and styles that is only surpassed by France and Italy, Spain has a long way to go in the natural wine world.
The definition of natural wine has generally come to encompass organic or biodynamic vine cultivation in the vineyard, fermentation with native yeasts, minimal intervention in the cellar, and significantly lower doses of sulphur at all stages of the winemaking process. Another classification of this sort of farming and winemaking could be ‘traditional.’ In other words, the way that conscientous, quality oriented winemakers made their wine before the advent of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides in the second half of the 20th century, and prior to the emergence of the new French oak barrique, lab made yeasts and assorted heavy handed cellar methods.
If natural wine means wine made traditionally with the fruit of well tended vines, why would Spain – a country steeped in wine tradition and covered (to the tune of 1.16 million hectares) with vines – be lagging far behind Italy and France in the production of natural wines?
“The Spanish are very attracted by a modern attitude towards winemaking and keeping up with the trends as they perceive them in the world,” says Spanish wine importer Andre Tamers of De Maison Imports, a company which focuses on small production, traditional, natural Spanish wines.
“They have been very influenced by wine critics and styles that are pervasive today as a way to differentiate themselves from their past.”
That past, up until fifteen or so years ago, usually involved picking grapes that were not super-ripe, and aging for longer periods of time in larger vessels, often times made of American oak, or perhaps concrete. Some of the wines which resulted from this practice tasted oaky and dried out, lacking vibrancy and fruit. Often times they were also oxidized. Many of these wines, however, were distinctive and delicious, as Santo Domingo and New York based wine blogger Manuel Camblor recalls, “[the late 80’s-early ’90s] was a time when five bucks could still buy you a wonderful bottle, if you had your head on straight.”
Of today’s similarly value oriented bottles from Spain, Camblor is far less enthusiastic, decrying most of them as ‘homogenized and globalist’ with ‘zero soul.’
‘Zero soul’ wines sure are popular with the vast majority of discerning Spanish wine critics in the US, abroad and even in Spain. There are countless examples which score 90-92 pts on a 100 pt scale, and cost a mere $15 or less. While those who value consumer reports may be elated, others with more drinking experience, or even those who are relatively new to Spanish wine and have tasted the real thing, tend to look for authenticity.
Bodegas R. Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia, in Rioja, is that rare Spanish wine that appeals to a cross section of new Spanish wine drinkers, seasoned Spanish wine afficionados and even the hypercritical, generally French leaning tastes of natural wine fans. They farm organically, harvest by hand, allow fermentation to take place naturally in huge, very old American oak vats, and in many respects make wine in a manner similar to how it was made in the early years of the bodega in the late 19th century. As staunchly traditional as the wines are, Maria José Lopez de Heredia is far from critical of more modern efforts being made elsewhere in Rioja and throughout Spain.
“Spanish palates have evolved with the progressive integration in the European Union,” says Lopez de Heredia, “and have become more international in the acceptance of styles and flavors. Also all palates get adapted to the products that exist on offer.”
So are Spanish palates becoming more international, appreciating the same sorts of richer, heavier, higher alcohol wines which have sold so well in the US? Not necessarily so, according to Andre Tamers:
“Spain is still a very classic wine drinking nation and many of the wines that show up on our shores are expressly for a foreign market very similar to the way Sherry was sold two hundred years ago to the British (sweetened).”
Another importer who has been seeking out authentic, traditional Spanish wines is Jose Pastor, who imports properties such as Señorio de P. Pecina in Rioja and the unusual, but rewarding Monastrell based wines of Primitivo Quiles outside of Alicante.
“I would say that it is getting harder to find honest [Spanish] producers,” says Pastor.
Neatly summing up the current lack of conviction plaguing Spanish winemakers, as well as importers and retailers, Pastor observes:
“The problem that I see here, is that we are trying too hard to please other people when we should first learn how to please ourselves.”
Follow day by day here: https://saignee.wordpress.com/31-days-of-natural-wine/
Up next: Lyle Fass on why we don’t see many natural wines from Germany/Austria; or: I should put a Mets joke here