The popularity of brand Rioja shows no signs of abating and is single-handedly supporting Spain's stronghold in the UK.
However, the last few years have seen the emergence of intelligent, quality-driven producers who have turned their backs on the traditional extended cask ageing, in favour of a shortened rearing in barrel that allows the wine a slower and more even maturation in bottle. The New World will have to hope that the drip of modern Riojas and Tempranillos seeping into the UK market does not turn into a flood. For, in the best instances, they offer the alluring, generous flavours the likes of Chile and Australia have been seducing the public with for the last ten years, whilst boasting their own unmistakable identity and sense of origin.
One of the pioneers of high quality modern style Rioja is the Eguren family. Based in the delightful town of San Vicente de la Sonsierra, they produce an impressive array of wines from the engaging unoaked Joven, semi-Crianza and Crianza Saigoba wines, to the exquisite single vineyard Señorio de San Vicente and Amancio wines.
Though it could be considered dangerous that Spain's profile relies so heavily on Rioja, there are so many new and exciting wine-producing areas sprouting up throughout the country that these fears can easily be allayed. Spain's well-documented potential for the production of first class, exciting and modern wine is being realised by areas such as La Mancha. Here, the Eguren family produce their succulent Épico Tempranillo that offers a value for money that is unmatchable anywhere else in the world. A deeper, darker sibling of Tempranillo is the Tinto Fino, a variety being exploited to great effect by the now renowned Ribera del Duero region. In fact this high-altitude, continental valley is home to some of Spain’s most exclusive and sought after wines. One of these is Aalto, a joint project between Javier Zaccagnini and Mariano Garcia, as Vega Sicilia winemaker for over 20 years he is one of Spain’s legends. Their Aalto and Aalto PS are polished, intense and complex wines; whilst full-bodied and serious they nonetheless display the great finesse and generosity that the world’s best wines exhibit. Toro, next door, is an exciting region quickly gaining recognition for the quality of its wines. Here too a close relative to Tempranillo, Tinto del Toro, is the grape of choice. With great terroir and extremely old vines the Eguren’s Teso la Monja estate are making three of the region’s leading examples – Almirez, Alabaster and Victorino.
There is also more to Spain than Tempranillo – Priorato, a region in Spain south of Barcelona whose great potential is only just starting to be fully exploited. Its slate ‘llicorella’ quartzite soils, sheer slopes and altitude make it not only one the country’s wildest and most picturesque but also one with the greatest quality potential. The blend varies according to the producer but is usually based on Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignan). Three of the regions leading exponents are Vall Llach, Mas Doix and Mas Martinet. The wines boast, style, ripe generous almost Mediterranean flavours with a defining, and tempering mineral complexity that eminates from the strong slate component in the region’s soils.
Spain is experiencing a period of welcome change that might finally see it catch up with the likes of France, Italy and Germany. For too long it has been on the back foot, hampered by poor quality, big brands and overly extracted reds. Thankfully life has been breathed in to even the most unloved of Spain’s wine regions over the past five years and the wines are all the better for it.