John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for Jan 19, 2013

Enigmatic Spain (and discovery picks); Top Ten Smart Buys; Best Bet from B.C.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The January 19 VINTAGES release puts the spotlight on Spain. But commercially speaking, the light has yet to really shine on the Iberian Peninsula, at least not a Canadian light. Spanish wines continue to be an enigma for most Ontario consumers and have failed thus far to perform here as they have elsewhere, notably in countries like the UK, Germany and the US, where they enjoy significantly more notoriety. Spanish wines were conspicuously absent from the LCBO’s latest available product trend report (2010-2011), which highlights the fastest growing wine categories, though a spokesperson at the LCBO revealed that more recently, Spanish wines sales are up in the last 12 months.

Considered globally, Spanish wine amounted to just 2% of the total volume of wine sold in the province through the LCBO in 2010-2011, and 2.7% of the total value. But for the year ending December 31, 2012, Spanish wines were up 3.5% by value over 2010-2011, thanks mainly to stronger red wine sales. According to Linda Hapak, the LCBO’s manager of corporate communications, “Spanish wines are performing extremely well for the LCBO WINES category. Spanish reds represent approximately 3.5 per cent of our business and are up 13.8 per cent over last year. There are plans to add some more premium-priced Spanish wines ($12-$15) in the coming year. In VINTAGES, Spanish reds are about nine per cent of the VINTAGES European wine portfolio and are trending up 7.5 per cent.

Wines from Spain (ICEX Image Bank)That’s certainly a positive sign, though despite the recent growth, the figures are still pretty low. Considering that Spain has the world’s largest acreage devoted to grapevines: 970,000 hectares (in 2011), which represents fully 30% of the European Union’s vineyard area, and nearly 14% of the world’s. (In terms of volume of production, Spain sits just behind France and Italy as the world’s third largest producer since yields per hectare are lower on average than in either France or Italy). By comparison, Italy, the largest foreign supplier of wines in Ontario, accounted for over 17% of Ontario wine sales by value and over 16% by volume in 2010-2011. Spain is proportionately under represented in local sales.

And yet, wine is one of Spain’s star export products. Figures from the Spanish government’s Department of Customs and Special Taxes reveal that wine exports were up 13.5% to the end of the first half of 2012, while in 2011, the wine industry posted impressive increases of 26.3% in volume and 16.7% in value. The country has been grinding through the slow and painful modernization of its wine industry, a process that has been ongoing since at least 1986 when Spain joined the EU. And the fruits of this leap into the 21st century are finally starting to be reaped.

Spain is one of the world’s most dynamic countries, what I’ve referred to in the past as the most ‘new world’ country of the old world, that is, a nation in the process of inventing or in some cases re-inventing itself. The 80s and 90s love affair with international varieties has mostly faded, and today, rediscovering native varieties and reviving ancient vineyards is the latest word. This is music to the modern sommelier’s ears, and Spanish wines are being embraced with enthusiasm in cutting edge wines bars in northern Europe and the US. In short, Spanish wines are hot, just not yet here.

I think several factors account for Canada’s lukewarm embrace of things Spanish compared with other nations’. Consider how many Brits and Germans vacation on the Costa del Sol, just a short, cheap Ryan Air or Easy Jet hop away. Citizens of the UK and Germany have developed a cultural connection through proximity with Spain that most Canadians do not have, and people tend to bring their vacations home with them. There’s nothing like reliving that Spanish sojourn with a bottle of Rioja back home.

And south of the border, nearly half of the population of the United States claim Spanish as their mother tongue. Even many non-Hispanics understand or speak Spanish through sheer exposure. Thus there’s a linguistic familiarity around those ñs and double ls that can otherwise intimidate English speakers. And there’s also more cultural heritage linking US citizens with the Spanish world. In Canada, the percentage of the population of Hispanic origin and familiarity with the language doesn’t compare. The fact that Spanish restaurants are few and far between doesn’t help, either. Spanish cuisine is not so neatly branded and doesn’t export as well as, say, Italian or French cuisine.

Such factors, and many more, have conspired to make Canada a ‘low priority’ country for Spanish export initiatives. When export promotional funds are limited (no need to go into Spain’s economic situation here), they’re usually focused on the markets with the greatest potential for short-term return. Consequently, Canada receives very little promo budget for Spanish wines. No industry-sponsored generic ‘fam’ trips to Spain for wine writers or wine buyers, no trade or consumer tastings of Spanish wines in Ontario. This in turn leads to low consumer awareness of Spanish wines, which leads to fewer listings of Spanish wine in restaurants and on LCBO shelves, which discourages import agents from dealing with Spanish wineries in the first place. And so the vicious circle continues. But if the last year is any indication, perhaps there’s a new era of awareness dawning for Spanish wine. And let’s hope so.

January 19 is your opportunity to discover at least the tip of the iceberg of what Spain has to offer. There are 19 Spanish wines hitting the VINTAGES shelves, several of which I’d consider fine examples of some of the marquee regions and native grapes, at reasonable prices, another one of the country’s strengths. Download a Pedro Almodóvar film (don’t pirate it – the Spanish economy needs support), and conduct your own tour of Spanish wines. Here’s a brief run down on nine Spanish wines to consider:


Almirante Marqués Del Real Tesoro OlorosoEl Maestro Sierra Fino SherryTwo of my top scoring picks and hottest values are from the roughly triangular denominación of Jerez, or Sherry, in the southwest corner of Spain. You can find an excellent primer on Sherry from certified Sherry educator Derek Kranenborg on the WineAlign Cru postings – A Manifesto for Sherry. But before logging in, grab a bottle of the El Maestro Sierra Fino Sherry ($17.95) and the Almirante Marqués Del Real Tesoro Oloroso ($16.95), which will make the reading all the more pleasant.

The first is a somewhat atypical fino, more deeply coloured than the norm, and more oxidative in style – almost into amontillado territory, but in any case, it’s a rich, powerful and complex wine with masses of flavour and terrific finish – really remarkable at the price. I’d serve this with a piece of 12 month aged Manchego cheese for a fine experience.

The second is a more typically nutty and oxidative oloroso, reminiscent of dried hay, toasted walnuts, old coffee grounds, and caramel, with a full, dry palate and amazing umami-laden finish. As is so frequently the case with sherry, this offers astonishing complexity for the money.

Spanish Reds

Get tuned into the rich, substantial reds of the Priorat DOQ with the 2008 Planets De Prior Pons ($22.95). Prior Pons is a small, family operation in the heart of the denominación with vineyards planted in the prized fractured slate soils called locally “licorella”. They make just two wines; Planets is the less expensive, a blend of both young and old vines that’s both generously alcoholic and mouth filling. Fruit is dark and brambly, with slightly raisined/dried/baked character, while spicy wood notes and wild herbs add an extra flavour dimension. It’s a fine introduction to the region at an attractive price.

Planets De Prior Pons 2008Solar De Sael Crianza MencíaAlbret Crianza 2009Fans of the old school style of Rioja will want to pick up the 2004 Don Jacobo Reserva ($17.95). It’s arch-traditional, dripping with American oak-derived flavours of melted butter, cedar, sandalwood and toasted coconut alongside tart red berry/sour cherry fruit, juicy acids, fine-grained tannins and lingering, savoury finish. It’s fully ready to enjoy; Spain is one of the few countries where wines are often cellared at the winery until they’re ready to drink – all the ageing has been done for you.

2005 Legón Reserva do Ribera del Duero ($23.95) offers a more modern interpretation of tempranillo, widely considered Spain’s flagship red grape, even if it’s not the most planted (that distinction belongs to garnacha tinta). This is intensely dark fruited, savoury and earthy at once, well structured, with good to very good length. It’s ready to enjoy or hold short term.

One of my favorite Spanish regions is Bierzo in the cooler, northwest corner of the country often referred to as “Atlantic” or “green” Spain. The 2007 Solar De Sael Crianza Mencía ($15.95) is a decent entry-level, if awkwardly oaky (Spain is still getting over its love affair with oak flavours), example of mencía, the principal grape. Leave this another 6 months to a year in the cellar; there’s sufficient depth and structure to ensure positive evolution, which is rare at this price.

And rounding out the reds, 2009 Albret Crianza ($19.95) is a forward, fruity, nicely structured wine made from a blend of tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and merlot in the modern style. Navarra has long been on the forefront of innovation in Spanish vineyards thanks to the fact that the country’s most important viticultural research station is located in the region, and experimentation with international varieties has been going on for decades.

Spanish Whites

Cuatro Rayas Viñedos Centenarios VerdejoSeñorio De Rubios Albariño 2011Classy whites are more of a rarity in Spain, but two regions stand out for their unique contributions to the realm: Rias Baixas and Rueda. The former shines with albariño, the latter with verdejo. Try the fine 2011 Señorio De Rubios ($17.95) for an example of the lively and fruity character of albariño, with its lemon-lime, blossom, apricot and pear aromas that reminds one of viognier on the nose, and the taught, tight structure and underlying minerality that brings to mind Riesling on the palate.

Verdejo can often slip into the (unpleasant) Delmonte tropical fruit cocktail spectrum of flavours that’s reminiscent of sauvignon blanc grown in the Sahara, but the 2011 Cuatro Rayas Viñedos Centenarios ($15.95), made from over 100 year-old, pre-phylloxera vines is well worth discovering. Cuatro Rayas is the largest producer in the Rueda DO, accounting for 20% of the total production, proving that big is not necessarily bad. But to be fair this wine is described as a “whim” of winemaker Angel Calleja, made in limited quantities from the company’s most prized parcels. You’ll find intriguing incense and dried spearmint leaf aromas on the nose, with citrus-lemon-grapefruit notes underlying, while the palate delivers considerable flavour impact carried by sharp acids and above average concentration. A fine, pre-phylloxera vines cuvee for under $16? Welcome to Spain.

If you’re enticed to discover more after this tour, visit the Spanish Trade Commission’s website, Winesfromspain. To find more Spanish wines in Ontario contact the following consignment agents who carry a solid range (variable availability):

B&W Wines (Especially the Spain Only One Portfolio)

TWC Imports (including excellent Cava from Agustí Torelló Mata, Bierzo from Finca Losada and Pittacum, Rias Baixas from Terras Gaudas, godello from Bodegas Valdesil, Rioja from Bodegas Tobías)

Recommended Toronto Restaurants with a good selection of Spanish wines:

Cava (Yonge & St. Clair) and Edulis (King St W & Bathurst)

Top Ten Smart Buys

This week’s top ten smart buys include a mesmerizing marsanne from Mendocino, a terrific teroldego blend from Tuscany, a bloody good baga from Portugal, and a pair of impressive local wines. See them all here.

Best Bet from BC

Mission Hill Quatrain 2008

British Columbia is the mini theme of the release, with five wines on offer. Of these, my top pick is the 2008 Mission Hill Quatrain, Okanagan Valley ($41.95). This is a nicely evolved, polished, bold, modern red with better than average class and depth (a blend of merlot, syrah, cab franc and cab sauv).

From the January 19, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Spanish Releases
All Reviews


 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

Rosehill Wine Cellars