If you look around the world of wine today, you'll notice that most wine is made with the same grape varieties. Pretty much every 'New World' country produces wines made from grapes native to France; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot... the list goes on. This is no bad thing as stylistically, all the above varieties can be drastically different depending upon climate, soil, viticulture and vinification. The vast majority of glossy, bold Shiraz from Australia is, literally and figuratively, a world away from the savoury, peppery wines of the Northern Rhone, for example. However, in the last 10 years the fashion has been to move away from seeking out the 'best' examples of these well known varieties and instead to look for unique expressions, typically from grapes native to specific countries and regions. This has seen the emergence of some new stars in the world of wine, from the austere, mineral wines of Mount Etna in Sicily to the powerful, racy Assyrtiko of Santorini in Greece. Austria has re-modelled its vinous reputation with the versatile Grüner Veltliner and even as afar as South America, Bonarda and Pais are resurging on both sides of the Andes, in Argentina and Chile respectively.
However, no country has been rediscovered in quite the same way as Spain. There are somewhere in the region of 600 grape varieties on the Iberian Peninsula, the vast majority of them indigenous and regionally specific in production. Despite this, Spain was for decades synonymous with oaky, extracted wines from Rioja, and to a lesser extent Ribera del Duero, with Tempranillo the only celebrated indigenous grape hailing from the country. Short-sighted producers ripped up their old, unfashionable vineyards and replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and anything that was currently selling, not realising that in doing so they were giving up their major point of difference on the international market-place. However, this wasn't true for all producers and quietly, many went about their business as they had done for centuries; cultivating their families vineyards and producing wines of distinction and style, as their vines slowly became older, sturdier and produced better quality fruit. To look at the market now compared to 20 years ago is staggering. Shops in Barcelona are awash with local Catalan wines, Galician field-blends are appearing in top restaurants across the world and even Sherry is making a come-back! To cover the entirety of this resurgence would take a strong liver and a lot of time, but I'd like to share a few exciting varieties from my own little corner of Spain, the fiercely independent Catalunya:
Xarel.lo is arguably the most important white, indigenous variety of Catalunya, providing the weight and power for most Cava as well as increasingly being used as a top quality grape for still white wine. Prior to modern vinification techniques, it was very prone to oxidation leading to widespread criticism and complaints of rubbery aromas in both Cava and still wines, criticism that has since been rebuked and turned around by some of the most stunning wines in the country. Now widely considered to be the key to premium Cava making its mark on the world, top producers across the region are igniting both local and international markets with some truly remarkable wine.
It's hard to pick a single wine but if you want to discover what this grape is capable of, I would recommend finding a bottle of Pardas Aspriu Xarel.lo and settling in for a night of discovery! This outstanding winery was founded in 1996 where they snapped up 30 hectares of old vines, and have focused on small but top quality production ever since. To put it into perspective, only 4000 bottles of this wine are made per year but if you tasted it blind, no-one would blame you for confusing it with good quality white Burgundy. Seriously. Happy hunting!
Grenache is the exception to the rule that Spanish varieties don't tend to do well outside of Spain, with huge swathes of Southern France, Australia and California all growing excellent quality Grenache in both white and red forms. However, not a lot of people know that Garnacha, or Garnatxa as it's spelt in Catalan, is originally a Spanish grape variety and most likely hails from Catalunya and Aragon. Some of the most highly acclaimed red wines from DOQ , DO Montsant and DO Terra Alta are made from Garnatxa, but it's lesser known sibling, White Grenache, is making itself heard across the region. This is particularly true from DO Terra Alta, the southern-most wine producing region of Catalunya famed for its natural beauty and rolling countryside. Garnatxa Blanca seems to thrive here, producing wines with elegance, weight and depth that are starting to catch the attention of wine lovers across the world.
There's magnificent value to be had with this grape and a great expression, as well as being a solid bargain, is Garnatxa Blanca from Herencia Altes in DO Terra Alta. A relatively new winery created in 2010 when Núria Altés bought her family vineyard and started to create a portfolio of excellent wine from indigenous varieties. At €7 a bottle, this fruity, mineral wine is screamingly good value and a bottle commonly found on my own dinner table!
In terms of indigenous red grape varieties in Catalunya, Sumoll arguably has the brightest future. Haven't heard of it? Don't worry, it's still well beneath the radar of most of the wine world but not for long. Already, specialist wine shops in London, New York and Paris are starting to import and sell the niche productions of this grape and it's only a matter of the time before the secret's out. Wines made from Sumoll tend to be medium to light bodied with lovely ripe cherry aromas, and that chalky, mineral sensation that works so well with high acid, refreshing styles of red wine. As there's only 100 hectares or so currently planted in DO Penedes, it's unsurprising to find that production levels are low and you'll have to do some searching to find a bottle. The search is definitely worth it however, and as the wines have proven to age really quite charmingly, there's no danger in picking up a few and seeing how it evolves.
My recommendation, if you can find it, is the delicious Sumoll produced by iconic producer Can Rafols dels Caus in the heart of DO Penedes. A beautiful estate owned by a wealthy family, Can Rafols produces some of the most interesting wines of the region, including some truly excellent French varieties. The Sumoll they make is an excellent expression of the grape and can be found for under €20 a bottle, with bright cherry fruit, light hints of oak and the austere, chalkiness I so love. Excellent with light foods and light enough to be drank throughout the summer; a big advantage for those of us living in the sweltering heat!
Another relatively unknown variety, this is often sloppily thought of as 'Catalan Pinot Noir' owing to its light colour, fruity aromas and propensity to be used in sparkling wine production. The vast majority of it (around 1000 hectares) is in DO Conca de Barbera, a region not many outside Catalunya have heard of before. Whilst the majority of Trepat is still destined for Cava production, it's increasingly common to see producers making excellent quality still wine from it, some of it destined to age and improve for up to a decade.
The young, fresh expressions of this grape are to be found in wine shops across Catalunya but for something a bit more structured, a certain amount of digging is required. My recommendation is to find a bottle of Moli des Capellans, a particularly structured Trepat worthy of some ageing before it truly shows its colours. Packed with dark fruits, earthy notes and a lovely fresh profile, this will pair well with most roasted meats and root vegetable dishes, without being overwhelmed.
Fintan Kerr is the owner and operator of Wine Cuentista. Based in Barcelona, Wine Cuentista offers high quality private wine tastings focusing on the treasure trove that is Spanish wine, as well as organising international wine tastings on a bi-monthly basis. To learn more, or to read more ramblings and ravings about the world of wine on their regularly updated blog, go to http://winecuentista.com/