I’ve always loved the wines of Rioja. Most of all, I’ve loved the traditional styles of red wine, the reservas and gran reservas that are aged for years in American oak barrels. Wines with the kind of mellow, hazy, savoury loveliness that the late, wine-loving philosopher Roger Scruton compared, in one of the arresting descriptive passages he used to interweave with his frequently troubling invective, to a “vision into a candlelit crypt, where gaudy archbishops doze among vessels of gold”.
For all my affection for the wines and the old-world atmosphere they conjure, I do sometimes despair at the hold Rioja maintains over the world’s perception of Spanish reds. Rioja still dominates exports (just have a look at the lineup in your local offie or supermarket). While not all of it is “traditional” by any means, that oaky style is still the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of vino tinto español.
If I were going to personify the best of the contemporary red wine scene in Spain, I wouldn’t reach for Scruton’s weary cleric. Instead, I’d go for some kind of composite of Pep Guardiola and Ferran Adrià: wired, intense, a whirl of perfectionist energy always on the lookout for the next obscure variety, the next abandoned vineyard, the next ancient winemaking technique to revive.
The figure I’ve come up with here may not exist in that precise form. But he is close in spirit to any number of winemakers – male and female – who have between them transformed what used to be seen as the peripheries of Spanish wine, in much the same way (and with much the same obsessive intensity) as their peers in the culinary world have transformed Spanish fine dining.
These winemakers share certain approaches. They like to work with old vines (50 to 100 years old) and with traditional local varieties, many of which may have been scorned, their vines abandoned, in favour of more recent “international” imports. They are not fans of the sweet, alcoholic power of super ripe fruit or the obvious toasty or vanilla flavours that come with oak barrels.
What might sound like a recipe for standardisation is in fact the best way of making wines that are defined by their sense of place. From the hauntingly perfumed garnachas of the Sierra de Gredos near Madrid, to the edgy, trade wind-buffeted volcanic listán negro of Tenerife; from the Mediterranean herbs and spices of giró in Alicante or carinyena in Catalonia’s Priorat, to the lipsmacking brightness of mencía from Galicia and León, you can find them almost wherever vineyards are planted in the country. That includes – in often-thrilling style these days – Rioja.
Six of the best Spanish red wines
Celler del Roure Vermell
Valencia, Spain 2020 (£16.30, nywines.co.uk)
Noel Young, the Cambridge-based independent wine merchant who has one of the best selections of Spanish wine in the UK, calls this “a Valencian Beaujolais”. Which sums up the fresh, racy, sappy prettiness of this excellent red from the always stylish portfolio of Pablo Calatayud.
Vitícola Mentridana Las Uvas de la Ira
Vino del Pueblo El Real de San Vicente, Sierra de Gredos, Mentrida, Spain 2021 (from £27.90, thesourcingtable.com; nywines.co.uk)
The great Daniel Landi was one of the first to mine the old garnacha vines of the Sierra de Gredos for perfumed, pinot noir-like reds. He’s recently passed the making of this gloriously expressive example to his friend, Curro Barreño, whose elegant wines from Galicia’s Ribeira Sacra are well worth investigating.
Telmo Rodríguez Al-Muvedre
Alicante, Spain 2021 (from £14, shrinetothecine.co.uk; philgas-swiggot.co.uk; vinogusto.co.uk)
It’s difficult to overstate the influence of Telmo Rodríguez on the current character of modern Spanish wine. He’s been making stylish wines in all sorts of previously unfashionable places for 30 years now, with this succulent, subtly meaty take on monastrell (AKA mourvèdre) a consistent, good value standout.
La Garnacha Salvaje del Moncayo
Aragón, Spain 2020 (£11.49, or £9.99 as part of a mixed case of six bottles, majestic.co.uk)
Garnacha is the poster-variety for modern Spanish winemakers, a native grape that was deeply unfashionable in the late 20th century, but with plentiful stocks of old vines left for the new generation to turn into wines of brambly succulence and energy in places such as the Moncayo mountains of Aragon.
Raúl Pérez Ultreia Saint Jacques Mencía
Bierzo, Spain 2020 (£14.68, justerinis.com)
Highly photogenic with his wizard’s beard, Raúl Pérez is a supremely talented and prolific winemaker who makes some of Spain’s most elegant red wines from the local mencía variety in Bierzo in León, up near the border with Galicia. With its vivid, floral-inflected red cherry, this is an excellent entry point to his range.
Spain 2021 (£12.95, leaandsandeman.co.uk; justerinis.com)
Rioja has an exciting small-producer scene alongside the traditional bodegas and commercial heavyweights, and Artuke, run by brothers Arturo and Kike de Miguel, is one of the stars, with this youthful fresh blast of earthy plummy fruit the result of blending the region’s star red tempranillo variety with a little splash of the white viura.