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The Fatal One-Size-Fits All Tag For Wines From Spain

RiojaIt’s good to be back on these pages. While failing to come up with contributions for Catavino over the last several months I have been mentally filing away things that caught my attention, or most often just got my goat – and in my defence, I’ve also been contributing articles to the old-fashioned world of print, of which more later. I’ll try not to bore on with a list of moans, but there is one bit of wine journalism that I’ve been meaning to engage with. It concerns a piece in the Daily Telegraph by wine correspondent, John Ray, back in the dark days of February. The article is written against the topical background of the economic crisis, and looks at the bargain basement wines available in his local lo-cost stores, Aldi and Lidl. Without repeating the contents of the article, I’d like to focus on Ray’s top Aldi red, Viña Decana crianza 2004, which as it happens is from the substantial Coviñas cooperative in Utiel-Requena. He quotes Aldi’s wine buyer, Danny Gibson, “I order big volumes which allow me to sell cheaply. For example, I take 400,000 bottles of our Spanish red, Viña Decana, and another 400,000 of their rosé, which is a significant amount. We cut the price to the bone and rarely discount; what you see is what you get. One of my pet hates is seeing a wine ‘reduced’ from £7.99 to £3.99. How can consumers judge its real value?”

These are wise words in my book. However, my mood of benign agreement was broken by Jonathan Ray’s comment alongside his selection of Viña Decana as the top choice, “Everyone at my tasting applauded the soft gentle fruit of this bargain alternative to Rioja.” OK, so this tempranillo-cabernet sauvignon blend has just 10% cabernet, but Utiel-Requena is a long way from Rioja, with a distinctive topography and climate. Aldi’s own description conveys something of this difference, “Hot and high, the vineyards of Utiel-Requena inland from the city of Valencia, produce extremely clean and ripe grapes.”.

Now it may be that this wine has somehow been shoehorned into a more northerly Rioja style, but I think it is more likely that Mr Ray has almost without thought given it the UK wine journalist’s one-size-fits-all tag for wines from Spain. If it isn’t actually Rioja, it must somehow be presented with reference to Rioja. Nothing about how the extra ripeness obtained in Utiel-Requena brings a lot to the party, and not only at the cheaper end of the market, nor about the possibilities offered by Spain’s less well-known regions. No, back we go to Rioja. This is not to knock Rioja itself – but UK wine merchants are always saying how hard it is to get the UK consumer to look beyond the region.

Hombre, it’s not even as if Rioja is some sort of act of God. Wine has been produced a lot longer on the Mediterranean coast, and exported too. One of the commissions that I mentioned at the beginning was for a substantial but, it must be said, obscure cultural journal from Alicante, “Canelobre”. This 2009 issue goes by the proud title of “La vid y el vino en Alicante” (Vine and wine in Alicante), and my brief was to write about English references to Alicante wine. I was delighted with the earliest reference I could find to the wines of Utiel-Requena’s neighbours to the south:

Whan that Bacchus, the Myghti Lord,
and Juno eke, by one accorde,
Hath sette a-broche of myghti wyne a tone,
And after wardys in to the brayn ran
Of Colyn Blobolle, when he had dronke a tante
Both of Teynt and of wyne of Alycaunt,
Till he was drounke as any swine

This is from “Colyn Blobol’s Testament”, a satirical poem written around 1500. Centuries would pass before Rioja would exert its apparently unbreakable hold on the English-speaking wine world. Similarly, in the newly-established American colony of Virginia official wine prices were fixed thus:

The price by the gallon for canary, malaga, sherry, muscadine, and allegant (Alicante) was fixed at thirty pounds of tobacco; for madeira and fayal, at twenty pounds; for French wines, at fifteen

(Philip Alexander Bruce, Economic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century)

There’s no need to look beyond Rioja only when you’re slumming it. Our forebears knew a thing or two, and Jonathan Ray isn’t doing his readers any favours with his tired old categorizations.

Cheers,

John Maher

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  • http://www.springboardconsulting.ca Ivan

    John,

    While I agree with you on many points – mainly that Riojivitis is a terrible affliction – I do have to question your seemingly boundless enthusiasm for the wines of Valencia. Yes, there are great wines being produced there, but we do have to acknowledge that not all of them fall into that category.

    Perhaps the wines of Alycaunt were highly prized half a millennium ago: does that mean that they were of what we today would judge as superior quality? Maybe that kind of romantic justification of value is best left to the first year poetry students as they gulp back the bulk bobal wines on offer at the local cash and carry…

    I don’t mean to be harsh (but it always works out that way…) it’s just that I don’t think that the modern attempts and successes in the arena of Valencian viniculture need to rely on this type of historical hype. What’s more, they do rely on a certain modernity of spirit and operation that negates the value of this ancienct acclaim.

    The one notable exception is the Raspay that you introduced me to. When is the post coming on that?

    • http://www.winesofvalencia.com John Maher

      Good to hear from you, Ivan. Evidently not all wines from the region are outstanding – name me a wine-producing area that isn’t true of. I’m also aware that the most highly-prized wines of centuries ago are not necessarily at the forefront today (though the resurgence in the wines of the Canary Islands and Greece is heartening). However, rather than “historical hype” I was highlighting the tendency by commentators in the UK, at least, to see everything through the prism of Rioja in a way that is not helpful to other Spanish wines. After all, it was Ray and his tasters who gave the thumbs up to Viña Decano, not me. Some modern Valencian wines are consciously tapping into a tradition (such as Miguel Velázquez of Los Frailes, whom you also met), others may want an unencumbered clean slate. I think it adds a lot to know about the traditions of this part of the Mediterranean, which has embraced new techniques and grape varieties while building on a history that is highly distinctive and much more than just a romantic reconstruction. You may disagree.

  • http://www.extremsud.blogspot.com/ J.C. Marti

    Dear Mr. Mayer
    I am a Catalan linguist and an English language lingust as well. I’m from Elx near Alacant (Alicante) and I am preparing an essay on the Alacant vineyards.

    I would really appreciate the full bibliographical reference of the poem you mention. I would, of course, be delighted to mention your name and to send you a copy although it will be published in Catalan.

    I must say that regardless of the quality the Alycant or Allegant wines were highly valued in 17th century England. For the rest I fully agree with the comments hre made.

  • http://www.winesofvalencia.com John Maher

    Many thanks for your comment. You can find more references to the wines of Alicante in the article by me in “Canelobre” (Invierno 2008-2009, num. 54) that I mention. This particular reference to “Colyn Blowbol’s Testament” is from W. Carew Hazlitt (ed.), “Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England” (John Russell Smith, 1864), pp. 92–109. The verse is also available on the web at http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/53962-Anonymous-Olde-English—Here-Foloweth-Colyn-Blowbols-Testament.

    Un saludo.