A recent tasting trip proved an epiphany for James Suckling, reminding him that spain’s top reds hold their own against the best in the world
bout a month ago I enjoyed a seven-day tasting tour through Spain. It was an incredibly exciting voyage into the tradition and excellence of the country’s winemaking culture. The trip renewed my enthusiasm for Spain and its wines, which I tasted extensively during visits in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Wineries such as Pingus are truly at the top of the game, making reds that compete with the best in the world. It’s the La Tâche of Spain. It was awe-inspiring to be in the Ribera del Duero region and taste a vertical of 10 vintages of the tempranillo-based red. I will publish my tasting notes next month.
I had so many epiphanies in Spain, along with everyday moments of enjoyment, such as the typical breakfast of toasted bread covered in flavourful garlic and tomato sauce, and a hearty piece of meat or dried cod with a glass of young Rioja for lunch or dinner. It was magical one morning walking through the stony soils of Toro, northwest of Madrid, visiting a number of ancient vineyards. The manager showed such detailed knowledge in describing the uniqueness of each vine in the various parcels. And it was wonderful roaming once more through the dark and damp cellars of López de Heredia in Haro, northern Spain, and experiencing the distinctive smells of wine, mould, dust and old wood.
I can recall that smell now as clearly as when I first visited the Rioja winery in 1983. And I can almost taste the refined, delicate and sweet fruit character of the 1958 and 1964 vintages of Marqués de Riscal that I tasted. This is what great Rioja tastes like, underlining the fact that old great Rioja can resemble old great Burgundy. And it sells for a fraction of the price.
Tasting firm and steely reds from the hillsides surrounding Madrid a month ago was equally memorable. Most were made from garnacha, or grenache, and I loved their vividness and bright, drinkable style. There was something so honest and real about them.
Perhaps more than anything, realness is what strikes me about Spain. I was afraid at the beginning of the trip that I would find too many of the jammy, high-octane wines popular about 10 years ago. This style was particularly admired by US wine critic Robert Parker, but most of the wines lost their Spanish and local character through overextraction, high alcohol content and excess wood. I was thankful that I found very few of these behemoths of the past; I really don’t like them, and fewer and fewer people do, even the winemakers themselves.
Instead, I found genuine wines that showed the true character of their origins, whether they were from terraced vineyards in the best areas of the Rioja or dry vineyards on a mesa in Toro. Spain now, as in the past, provides wines that are beautiful accompaniments to any meal due to their balance, richness and freshness. The wines age wonderfully and have a track record as good or better than the output of most wine-producing countries. I will return to Spain at least once a year to taste the best, so stay tuned.