Wine: Secrets of Spain
Spanish wines have an image problem, thanks to a wine industry that works to satisfy a demand for basic cheap wines and favours volume over quality. Currently, you can buy Spanish wine in Irish supermarkets for less than €4 a bottle (€3.19 of which is duty), while in the next aisle you will find grapes for €5.40. It takes considerably more than a kilo of grapes to make a bottle of wine.
There's a perception, too, that Spanish wines are over-oaked, at a time when wine fashion and the public palate has moved on.
If he wasn't by nature an optimist, Rafa Salazar, of wine importer Vinostito, might give up. But he's a man on a mission to encourage Irish wine drinkers to explore the world of Spanish wine that exists beyond the big brands - and he's confident that they will like what they find.
"Industrial production methods do not stimulate quality," he says. "There is no incentive to grape growers to increase quality and control yields when they are paid by the kilo regardless of anything else. And oak is like make-up: if you use a lot, the chances are that you are covering something up, that the wine is inferior. But, geologically and climatically, Spain has the natural resources to produce the best wines in the world."
The issue, says Salazar, is getting consumers to abandon their preconceptions about Spanish wine and progress to the next level. That means spending a little more, to get a much better wine (read his top picks, left). Once you spend more than €10 on a bottle of wine, he says, every 50 cent is meaningful in terms of quality.
"In the €12-13 bracket," says Salazar, "start with simple, young wines from Rioja or Ribera del Duero. Don't buy crianzas or reservas because it's not possible to have good-quality oak, or to age wines for three or four years at that price point, without ending up with a dusty, over-oaked taste that to me is quite artificial and responsible for giving Spanish wine a bad name."
Many of the wines that Salazar imports are organic, biodynamic and natural, all made on the "human-sized" scale that he says is essential to interesting wine. Some are by female winemakers who are blazing a trail in a traditionally male- dominated world.
He is excited about the emergence of new wine regions such as Madrid - which produces wines that are light, aromatic, and Pinot Noir in style - and Tenerife, an island microcosm, where old grape varietals that have remained phylloxera- free and volcanic soil combine to produce distinctive terroir wines.
"The change is being led by young wine- makers - some of them from old families with names well known in the world of wine - who have worked abroad at good wineries in France, Australia and the US, and are bringing back their skills and knowledge. Change will take generations but this is an exciting time. Spain is in the same moment that Italy was in the 1980s: history is happening.
"The transformation is down to gastro- nomy. We now have places to sell expensive wines, with all the Michelin-starred restaurants that there are in Spain. People come to Spain to eat, and they are looking for more interesting wines."
In Ireland, you'll find Salazar's wines in some of the country's best restaurants, including Etto, Heron & Grey and Chapter One.
"I seek out wines that could only have come from that particular place. Pure Atlantic wines, for instance, have an austerity that is different to Mediterranean wines, which have more volume and exuberance - and usually more alcohol."
In taking chances on young wine- makers, Salazar says that he sometimes buys wines that are imperfect - though not flawed - and that those imperfections contribute to the character of the wines.
"I used to be a lawyer and if I made a mistake in that job, there could be serious consequences. But what's the worst thing that can happen if I sell someone a bottle of wine that I've convinced them to try? That they don't like it?"
As part of Spanish Wine Week, Rafael Salazar will be hosting tastings and tapas on Tuesday 25, at 64 Wine in Glasthule, Co Dublin, and on Wednesday 26, at L'Atitude 51 in Cork. See spanishwineweek.ie
4 wines to try
Veronica Ortega, DO Bierzo, €19, from selected independents.
Grape: Mencia. "Made by a female winemaker, Veronica Ortega, who, for me, has one of the best CVs in winemaking. This is a wine that takes from its terroir and is expressive in style of the Bierzo region, one of the best in Spain for red wine."
LA COMEDIA 2015
Celler Comunica, DO Montsant, €17.50, from selected independents.
Grapes: Garnatxa Negra and Carinyena.
"Organic and biodynamic, verging on natural and very low in sulphites. If you're a fan of wines from the southern Rhône or Languedoc, then you will enjoy this pure, clean wine with lovely freshness."
Suertes del Marqués, DO Valle de la Orotava (Tenerife), €24.90, from selected independents.
Grapes: Listán Blanco, Pedro Ximénez and Marmajuelo.
"Made in the north of Tenerife, where the soil is volcanic and the vines are very old, this is the most interesting white wine at its price point. Sommeliers love it for its texture and minerality."
12 VOLTS 2015
4 Kilos, Vino de la Tierra de Mallorca, €26, from selected independents.
Grapes: Callet, Fogoneu and Syrah.
"These winemakers are famous for rediscovering local varietals in Majorca. This, their entry-level wine, is part-aged in oak but the oak is very subtle. If you like Bordeaux, you will like this - it's a classic, good red wine with a touch of uniqueness."