It is normal, on returning from an enjoyable and fruitful trip abroad, to feel overly enamoured with what was discovered. As a wine merchant I used to guard against such emotional extravagance by subjecting any bottles I thought excellent in the field to a trial by blind tasting at home. My most recent trip to Spain (Ribera del Duero and Rioja) has again left me pining for the best of Iberia. There is no doubt that the food was good and the people I met were, without fail, both gracious and hugely accommodating, but it was the quality of the wine that really grabbed me.
We all know that Spain produces some iconic wine styles from Gran Reserva Rioja to the great fortified wines of Sherry and Montilla but it is easy to forget just how damn inexpensive some of these wines can be. The most persuasive argument supporting the title of this piece came on my visit to Juan Carlos Sancha’s home on the edge of the small town of Banos de Rio Tobia that lies within the Rioja Alta. This professor of enology and all round viticultural colossus, has dedicated much time to preserving the rare grape varieties of the region (he will receive the space he deserves in a fully illustrated post later this winter/spring). Juan Carlos’s wines should be much more expensive as he makes so little (often just a barrel or three), but he prefers to share his passion making them affordable to everyone. On tasting, the Garnacha from the barrel was a lesson in purity and profundity – surely the concientious winemaker’s ultimate goal. These wines, called Pena El Gato, can be had for a little over ten quid in the UK or approximately 15 euros on the continent…this might just be the best value wine in the world.
Below are three Spanish wines that demonstrate remarkable value for money.
Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha, ‘Pena El Gato’, Garnacha, Rioja, 2013, 14.5%
Wine-making: Matured in oak but with no malolactic conversion, which helps protect both the purity of the fruit and retains a little more acidity.
Note: Floral, mineral, earthy and strawberry like. Dense yet lively, refreshing acidity and with great intensity. Truly stunning value (and only about 1200 bottles made each year).
Price: Cheap as chips
Available from: Wherever you can find it
La Rioja Alta, Vina Alberdi Reserva, 2008, 14%
Wine-making: Two years in American oak
Note: Vastly different style from the Pena El Gato with a more relaxed persona that has the perfumed, sweet vanilla and strawberry nose that pervades the wines of this great stalwart of Rioja.
Price: Globally between 20 and 25 USD
Available from: Everywhere
Alvear, CB Fino, Montilla, NV, 15%
Grape: Pedro Ximinez (PX)
Wine-making: Produced like fino sherry under a veil of flor (yeast) for five years that both protects the wine and imbues it with that ‘sherry’ like nose.
Note: This bone dry Fino is delicate and salty making it the perfect pre-prandial quaffer. I could drink this everyday.
Price: In Spain about 4.5. A little more in Taiwan
Available from: P9.com.tw
The obstacle preventing the majority from drinking ‘fine wine’ is the price. There is also the issue of time. Many of the world’s regions associated with the apogee of the wine drinking experience (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo), not only require a healthy bank balance but also a decade or so to allow the best to warrant broaching. A region that has always bucked this trend and one that is becoming increasingly popular, according to latest reports from the likes of Armit in Hong Kong, is top quality Rioja.
Unlike many regions capable of producing very high quality, the producers in Rioja do a lot of the ageing for you and release wines that whilst still capable of many years of evolution, often drink well from the get-go. This is a result of the softening effect that the Reserva and Gran Reserva wines experience through the lengthy oxidative maturation in barrel. Rioja is also often very well priced considering the effort that has been expended on its crafting. Historically many of Rioja’s estates have been vast with fruit sourced from multiple regions (Alavesa, Alta and Baja) bringing both consistency of quality and volume that can only be of benefit to those seeking a fine-wine bargain.
Being involved in a rather frightening car crash is not something I’d recommend for the weekend. Yet when this happened to me in 2006 (I ended up with a broken knee and my wife had to be cut free of the wreckage) I was still clasping a bottle of La Rioja Alta Ardanza (un-opened) between my thighs when the car came to a halt. You will forgive me then that this, probably my favourite Rioja producer, is the one I have chosen to represent this weekend’s recommendations. Following such an experience, and my gratefulness at the bottle not exploding in my groin, I feel forever linked to this fine Bodega.
And in case you were wondering what happened to that bottle…my family drank it whilst I was in hospital. Cheers!
La Rioja Alta, Gran Reserva 904, 1998, 12.5%
Grape: 90% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano
Wine-making: Four years in four year old American casks
Note: Fine, elegant, almost delicate with a complex array of hay, tobacco, game and strawberry. The acidity provides wonderful freshness and the finish is long. Fine indeed.
La Rioja Alta, Vina Ardanza Reserva, 2005, 13%
Grape: 80% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha
Wine-making: 30 months in two and three year old casks for the Garnacha and 3 years for the Tempranillo in four year old casks
Note: Intense black and red fruit framed by sweet vanilla and spice from the oak. Well balanced, with ripe tannins.