Close Menu
Slideshow

Top 10 Spanish regions to watch

Often touted as one of the most dynamic wine producing countries in the world, the only constant with Spanish wine it seems, is change.

Spain’s wine map is ever evolving, with new DOs and Pagos frequently popping up as wine growing regions come to light that merit official recognition. Happy to fly the red and yellow flag, the UK wine trade is bubbling with enthusiasm for Spain’s diverse and intriguing array of wines. Unfortunately, while their praise is more than justified, many of Spain’s most avant-garde wines are too small scale – and too expensive – to receive significant exposure in the UK.

One native grape that has successfully crossed the Atlantic is the attractively aromatic Albariño, which is enjoying its moment in the sun in both the on and off-trade. Atlantic grapes like Mencía and Godello meanwhile, are gradually finding their way into the UK.

Tapping into a growing consumer thirst for authenticity and provenance, winemakers in Spain have been busy reviving little-known indigenous grapes such as Rufete, Prieto Picudo and Juan García, leading to characterful, terroir-driven wines with a distinctly Spanish stamp.

The current Spanish wine boom in the UK owes a lot to forward-thinking Spanish restaurants like Fino, Pizarro, Camino, Cambio de Tercio and Ibérica, which are taking risks with their wine lists and shining a light on Spain’s unsung regions. Read on for our round up of the ten most exciting emerging regions in Spain and the native grape varieties they are hanging their hats on.

Bierzo

A small and remote region near Galicia in the north-western corner of Castilla y León, Bierzo continues to hit the headlines in the UK due to the irresistible charm of native grape Mencía, found to be genetically identical to Jaen in northern Portugal. Part of the ongoing interest in Mencía is the spectrum of wine styles the grape is able to produce, from elegant, fruit forward wines with supple tannins, to more powerful, concentrated styles packed with earthiness, spice and minerality imparted by Bierzo’s quartz-rich soils.

“Bierzo is a region of tremendous potential with wines that are distinctively its own that has helped usher in the exciting modern era of Spanish wines,” believes The New York Times’ wine critic Eric Asimov, who describes Mencía as “always beguiling, with exotic aromas of wild red fruit.”

Just over 4,000ha are planted across the small valleys in mountainous Alto Bierzo and on the wide, flat plain of Bajo Bierzo. Raul Perez, Descendientes de José Palacios and Bodegas Pittacum have led the way with trailblazing Parker scores, while Martin Codax’s modestly priced Cuatro Pasos, imported by Liberty, is enjoying considerable commercial success.

The region shot to fame in the late ‘90s when Spanish wine pioneer Alvaro Palacios spotted Bierzo’s potential and snapped up plots of low-yielding old vines in the village of Corullón. Adding weight to Mencía’s fine wine credentials, Palacios recently released a single vineyard example – La Faraona 2011 – priced at £500 a bottle through Berry Bros & Rudd. Made from a 0.5-hectare plot of old vines on steep slopes, the wine serves as the ultimate expression of Mencía in Bierzo, with aromas running the gamut from forest fruit and cassis to laurel and black tea.

Valdeorras

Bordering Bierzo to the west is Valdeorras – the gateway to Galicia in the east of the region. Like Mencía in Bierzo, white grape Godello is sending ripples of excitement through the UK. Hailed as the “new Albariño” and boasting a similar stone fruit and citrus character, Godello offers notes of apple, peach, apricot and honey, but is creamier and more luscious than its northwesterly cousin in Rías Baixas.

Champion of obscure Spanish grapes, Telmo Rodiguez, is enjoying commercial success in the UK with his Gaba do Xil Godello, represented by Adnams and The Wine Society. The unoaked wine, named after the Sil River that runs through the region, is made from Godello grown on slate and granite soils, and is described by the Wine Society as being “brisk, tense and thirst quenching.”

Not to be outdone by his brother, the aforementioned Alvaro, Rafael Palacios is going great guns with Bodegas Rafael Palacios, where he makes a pair of premium Godellos: the barrel-fermented As Sortes and Louro de Bolo, the former of which has proved so popular, it is now sold on allocation for £35 a bottle through Berry Bros & Rudd.

Described by Berry’s Spanish wine buyer, Simon Field MW, as “the sine qua non of Godello”, Jancis Robinson MW believes the wine “can hold its own against white Burgundies selling at the same price, bearing the structure and precision of a fine Puligny-Montrachet.” Palacios has since gone one better with a single vineyard Godello called Sorte o Soro.

Txakoli

Txakoli (pronounced Chacolí) is a fresh, crisp, light white with a hint of spritz and a lick of salt from the Atlantic Ocean comparable to Portugal’s Vinho Verde.

Produced in three DOs in the Basque Country: Bizkaiko Txakolina to the south-west of Bilbao, Getariako Txakolina, which borders the Cantabrian coast, and Arabako Txakolina, the furthest inland, the trio form one of Spain’s smallest but most hyped wine regions with around 600 hectares under vine dominated by flagship white grape, Hondarrabi Zuri.

While small in stature, the region has recently caught the eye of both consumers and critics. Keen to up their game, producers are turning their backs on the sharp whites of the past to embrace modern styles that offer freshness and restrained alcohol around the 11% abv mark.

While vines have been growing in the area as far back as 1649, production across the three sub-zones remains small. At popular London tapas bar Donostia, Txakoli is poured Basque-style from a height into glass tumblers adding a dash of theatre to proceedings and helping to aerate the wine in the process.

The US has also developed a thirst for the gently sparkling white, which is gaining a legion of followers in New York, spearheaded by Manhattan restaurant Txikito, which hosts an annual Txakoli fair, Txikifest, showcasing Basque food and the latest Txakoli releases from a number of key producers in the region.

Manchuela

Formerly part of La Mancha, Manchuela lies in southeast Spain between the central sprawl of La Mancha and the coastal city of Valencia. With co-operatives accounting for over half of the production in the region, Manchuela is still a work in progress.

And while Syrah is showing great promise, indigenous variety Bobal has been singled out as the region’s flagship grape and now makes up half of Manchuela’s red grape plantings. Cultivated in low-yielding bush vines, the often fickle and long unloved Bobal is proving rewarding in the right hands.

Renowned Spanish wine writer Victor de la Serna is the best known name in the region with his Finca Sandoval estate putting Manchuela on the Spanish wine map. He considers Bobal one of the three most important red varieties of southeastern Spain, along with Garnacha and Monastrell, and describes it as having “a rustic, spicy, black fruit character and lovely freshness.”

One of the most exciting producers to watch in the region is Antonio Ponce of Bodegas Ponce, who is taking a natural approach with his biodynamic, foot-trodden Bobal. His white effort – El Reto (meaning “the challenge”) is made from 100% Albilla and boasts, according to Jancis Robinson MW, notes of honeysuckle, apple skin and preserved lemons.

Malaga

While more commonly associated with sun, sea and Pablo Picasso, winemaking in Malaga can be traced back to 600BC. The DO has experienced a winemaking renaissance of late, with wine writers and consumers waking up to the charms of its sweet wines made from Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez.

Blazing a trail in this department are the aforementioned Telmo Rodriguez and Bodegas Jorge Ordoñez. The former, who calls his creations “mountain wines” after the 17th century English expression for sweet wines from Malaga, is making a name for himself with Molino Real, made from Moscatel grapes left to dry in the sun for two weeks. Over at Bodegas Jorge Ordoñez, Jorge’s sister, Victoria, is in charge of making sweet elixirs from Moscatel.

Founded as a joint venture between Ordoñez and Hungarian sweet wine guru, the late Aloïs Kracher, the estate in Axarqui up in the Malaga mountains produces four dessert wines of varying sweetness in miniscule amounts – under 4,000 bottles of each.

Once tasted, never forgotten, their unctuous palates burst with tropical fruit, from mango and peach to papaya and apricot, balanced by crisp acidity and a mineral core. Meanwhile, in the Sierras de Ronda, red grape Romé is showing great promise for Andalusia.

Ribeiro

East of Rías Baixas in the northeastern corner of Galicia, Ribeiro is experiencing a revival, with innovation and investment evident throughout the DO. Here, the late-ripening Treixadura reigns supreme, with its delicate floral aromas, high acidity and textured mouthfeel.

Richard Bigg, owner of London-based Spanish restaurant group Camino is seeing strong sales from a “gorgeous” old vine Treixadura by Casal de Arman. Another producer carving a niche with a single varietal Treixadura is Inma Pazos with Ailalá; a collaboration between Pazos, Javier Gonzales of Casal de Arman and Xosé Lois of Coto de Gomariz, where the wine is made.

The trio form part of the Ribeiros do Avia association, a collective of small producers in the region who have come together to promote quality Ribeiro wines made from indigenous grapes. Olly Bartlett of Indigo Wines believes Ribeiro whites offer a different take on Albariño from Rías Baixas due to the DO’s inland location.

“Ribeiro whites have a lot in common with Vinho Verde, sharing their freshness and minerality, which makes them amazing food wines,” he says. On the red front, María José Sevilla, director of Wines from Spain, believes we have yet to see the best from Ribeiro’s “spirited” reds.

Madrid

Interesting developments are underway with old vine Garnacha in the centre of Spain, spearheaded by Madrid and Méntrida. Late to the DO party in 1990, Vinos de Madrid is divided into three sub-zones: Arganda – the largest of the three, accounting for 50% of vineyard plantings; Navalcarnero, which makes up 35% of plantings; and San Martín, accounting for the final 15%.

Soil in the Madrid DO is largely formed of clay and limestone over granite. Best known for its lightly perfumed, early-ripening white variety Albillo, old vine Garnacha from San Martín has recently been turning heads.

Fernando García of Bodegas Marañones is leading the Garnacha revival, along with Daniel Jiménez-Landi from Méntrida’s Bodegas Jiménez-Landi. Together with Bobal king Juan Antonio Ponce of Bodegas y Viñedos Ponce in Manchuela, they form the “Chicos de Terruar” – a forward-thinking collective of soil-obsessed terroirists.

Inspired by their idols Château Rayas in the Rhône, García and Jiménez-Landi are making tiny yields of pure, red-fruited, old vine Garnacha. García is also showing Albillo some love in Madrid with Picarana, made from old vine Albillo grown in four organically farmed parcels in San Martin, which, according to Jancis Robinson MW, shares the “weight, complexity and finesse” of a good white Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Mallorca

Across the Mediterranean, achingly hip winery 4 Kilos, established in 2006 by four winemakers, is helping to put Majorca on the wine map by championing the island’s little-known Callet variety, employing a different contemporary artist each year to etch its latest label.

The island boasts two DOs: Binissalem, which was officially recognised in 1991, and Pla I Llevant, which upgraded to DO status a decade later in 2001. In the 1990’s, a number of producers in Binissalem decided it was time to invest in their businesses in an effort to improve the quality of their wines.

Local variety, the medium bodied and fruity Manto Negro, accounts for over half of red gape plantings in the region’s lime over clay soils, while indigenous white, the fresh and citric Moll, makes up 70% of the DOs white wine output.

The DO stipulates that reds from the Binissalem must contain at least 30% Manto Negro and at least 50% of Moll in its whites. Pla I Llevant meanwhile, has similar clay and limestone soils to Binissalem and is gaining recognition for indigenous red grape Fogoneu, which is similar to Gamay in character.

Arribes

Credit P. Medina
Credit P. Medina

Made a DO just five years ago, Arribes lies on the westernmost tip of Spain in the southeast of the province of Zamora, where Spain meets Portugal along the banks of the Duero River. The name Arribes derives from ad ripam, meaning “on the banks” in Latin. The region, which enjoys a Mediterranean climate with Atlantic influences and sandy soils formed of loose granite and quartz pebbles, is getting the attention of the media due to indigenous grape, Juan García.

Keen to unleash the untapped potential of Arribes, which boasts a bounty of old bush vines and yet is still in its winemaking infancy with just 750ha under vine, a small group of producers, spearheaded by English-born Charlotte Allen, have invested in the region and are championing Juan García, bringing out its varietal character through a combination of low yields and modern winemaking techniques.

Juan García produces fragrant, terroir-driven wines with notes of cherry, raspberry and spice. Super-premium producer, Bodegas Ribera de Pelazas, is making interesting reds from old vine Juan García, while Arribes is also making a name for itself through the production of native red grape Rufete.

Tierra de León

An exciting new DO that sprung up in 2007, Tierra de León can be found 900 metres above sea level to the south of the Cordillera Cantábrica mountain range in the southern part of León.

Boasting a continental climate with hot, dry summers and cold winters, the region is fast gaining international recognition for its indigenous grape, Prieto Picudo, which thrives in Tierra de León’s alluvial soils and has been tipped as Spain’s answer to Pinot Noir.

With just under 1,500ha under vine, Tierra de León’s ever growing band of producers are doing interesting things with the up-and-coming aromatic variety; one of the most promising of Spain’s native grapes.

Meaning “dark pointed” and often partnered with Mencía in blends, Prieto Picudo accounts for half of the region’s red grape plantings.

The grape’s style seems to suit its name, producing wines with an earthy, red fruit character mixed with crisp acidity. Producers in the region to watch include Bodegas Fernandez Llamazares and Bodegas Gordonzello, which makes a number of oaked and unoaked examples in its Peregrino range.

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No