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Doug Frost MS/MW http://dougfrost.com

Spanish Wine gets Real in London

Real Wine Fair“In the end we will conserve only what we love. Love only what we understand. Understand only what we are taught.”

- Baba Dioum

The line of Spanish wine tables stood proudly in the centre of the room. The combined annual production of these 15 wineries wouldn’t keep the smallest Madrid tapas bar in wine for a month, yet here they were representing their country at The Real Wine Fair in faraway London.

Why?

Because it seems that despite the British obsession with discounts, despite our cynicism for the term ‘Natural Wines‘, and despite the competition from all over the world, Britain is still a haven for wine mavericks. These wineries are here fighting for their survival in large part thanks to the work done with the trade and consumers by Les Caves de Pyrenne and Indigo wine, including events like The Real Wine Fair and also RAW. I also hope that we can find a way to do our bit by offering some profile at the EWBC – Digital Wine Communications Conference.

The interest in ‘Natural’, or sometimes ‘Real’, wines has become associated with the zeitgeist for things authentic, green and local. Yet here were 15 wineries, marketing and promoting their wares, having spent considerable amounts of money with significant carbon footprints to do so, far from home. There was an obvious disconnect in the message in my mind, so I approached these Spanish offerings with some caution. I feared that they might have a dream of leaving their small local markets behind and being “discovered” so as to live a life of luxury in the wine world’s limelight.

The sad truth was not that these wines were here in addition to their local markets, but because their local markets did not exist.

Spanish grape - Natural wineTime after time I heard how the grape varieties, the styles of wines, the regions, the vineyards and even the techniques that these producers were using, were largely ignored or rejected by local consumers. They were here, like they also travelled to New York and Japan, because they wanted to survive and continue their work, by reaching consumers who already had a taste for unusual wines, who ‘loved’ their styles of wine.

So where’s the problem?

Firstly, these wines were often made from local, indigenous grape varieties that are hard to grow, require specialist knowledge and are harder to sell to consumers. Grapes like Albillo, Albilla (a different grape, apparently), Bobal, Tintilla, Merseguera and others are not recognised by many wine drinkers yet they offer the potential for some welcome variety in our wine appreciation.

In addition, these wines were made with minimalist intervention, resulting in styles that are either considered ‘rustic’ and unworthy of attention, or taken as faulty. Local drinkers in many wine regions readily associate minimal intervention with the wines made for personal consumption by their family and neighbours. These would not, in their minds, be wines worthy of analysis, never mind high price tags. In truth, most consumers in the UK would agree, but at least the competitive UK market has created a significant niche market for such wines, one that is constantly seeking new products.

On top of these challenges, these wines were also often made from small plots of older vines, some recovered from abandon, in more challenging locations, tended by hand without chemical inputs, by small, dedicated wineries. An idealist might hope that consumers in a winery’s local area would value this, but the reality is that this cannot work for everyone and that most people can’t afford the luxury of taking these risks.

The results are therefore unusual, challenging and often expensive wines, but because of their struggle, at least worthy of our attention, if not our love. Without support, the wine world could easily become a culturally poorer, more uniform and less interesting place. This doesn’t just affect the wine drinkers, but the livelihood and cultural legacy of the wine producing areas, something which we often take for granted.

Spain has rightly built a reputation on the history and success of regions and wines such as Rioja, Jerez, Cava and Ribera del Duero. However, more recent interest in Albariño, Mencia, Godello, Monastrell and other varieties have proven to the wine world that there is still much more to learn about one of the world’s largest wine producing countries. There are still hundreds of stories to be told about grapes, regions and producers, and the time to do this is today, before the harsh realities of Spain’s economic crisis deprives us of them.

I’m hoping that, with the idea of exploring the true ‘flavour’ of Spain, that we can entice a selection of these adventurous producers to show their wines at the upcoming EWBC – Digital Wine Communications Conference that will take place in Rioja in October. If you have suggestions, contacts or simply want to support the idea, leave me a comment below.

Some notes from the tasting:
Celler Escoda-Sanahuja, Conca de Barbera – a fully biodynamic farm in this enclave of Cataluña. I would pick out their Els Bassots 2010 (Chenin Blanc), a beautifully rounded wine with ripe, almost tropical fruit marmalade flavours and a spicy complexity that still manages to have a razor sharp and clean finish.

Bodegas y Viñedos Ponce, Manchuela - probably a region and winemaker more famous for its reds made from Bobal, I picked out a white wine by Juan Antonio Ponce, called El Reto. El Reto 2011 is made from Albilla (apparently, I’m told, NOT related to the Albillo variety) and is incredibly bright, with a tangy, red-apple skin and bubble gum fruit style but also a surprising length.

Guimaro Finca Capeliños bottleBodegas Bernabe Navarro, Alicante - the selection was from his Viñedos Culturales (Cultural or Historic Vineyards), wines made with minimal intervention only from grapes from a single estate growing local grape varieties. I loved the El Carro 2010 (Moscatel), a highly unexpected style of wine made from Muscat of Alexandria grapes, where the white wine stayed in contact with the skins for an extended period to produce a dry wine that has a wild flower nose, tastes dry, crisp and floral, yet rounded and approachable, with a hint of tannin to give it a bit of structure. This is a wine for raw fish dishes!

Zarate, Rias Baixas – a small family operation in Albariño country, looking for older vines and looking to make wines with added complexity from extended ageing on lees. My pick was the El Palomar 2011 (Albariño) which had the lemon/citrus you might expect from the variety, but then also managed to add a lemon curd note for added complexity, and some wild flower aromas for delicacy. This was delicious.

Bodega Alfredo Maestro, Ribera del Duero – though apparently he prefers the flexibility of bottling under the more general ‘VdlT Castilla y Leon’. Here I would pick out the Viña Almate La Guindalera 2011 (Tempranillo). It had a noticeable oak influence at first, but the ripe, dark fruit then comes to the fore with an almost floral hint and smooth tannins. Rich, very good, but still very young.

Adega Guimaro, Ribera Sacra – lots of interesting wines from this cooler climate region and its vertically challenging vineyards. I loved the Finca Capeliños 2010 (Mencia), a delicious wine. The first impression is ‘ripe’ with an aroma of fresh, ripe tomato on the nose. The fruit is dark, ripe and full, but my notes also say “alive” with freshness and balance and a pleasure to drink.

  • http://vinosambiz.blogspot.com Fabio (Vinos Ambiz)

    Great post Robert, I agree with your analysis. It is indeed a sad fact that there is not much of a local market for natural wines here in Spain. For example, here in Madrid, there is only 1 (one) bar/restaurant that exclusively sells natural wine. A significant quantity of these wines are exported.

    You can count on me to be at the EWBC with my wines and even give a talk if it suits :)

  • Andrew Halliwell

    Great post. Thanks for putting this movement out there and drawing attention to their fight.