A John Szabo Feature: New Spain

by John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Awareness and popularity of Spanish wines in Canada lags desperately behind the US market (and many others), so it was a real pleasure to see the country in the spotlight here in April with two significant tastings, both for the first time in Toronto. The inaugural visit of winery association Grandes Pagos de España presented to a house packed with top trade, while a joint portfolio tasting put on by two of the provinces most serious Spanish wine importing agencies, Derek Kranenborg’s All The right Grapes and Jason Axmith’s Cosecha Imports opened yet more eyes to the quality and diversity now on offer from España. In this report are some in-market wines not to be missed.

Grandes Pagos de España

Translated loosely as “Great Vineyards of Spain” The Grandes Pagos de España is a non-profit association of producers now counting 30 members, representing virtually every corner of the country. It was founded in 2000 by a group of five wineries as a way of promoting their wares from the relatively unknown (in terms of wine) central Spanish region of Castilla-La Mancha. An absence of official Denominaciones de Origen, or D.O.s, reflected the historical insignificance of the area, but ambitious producers like Marquès de Griñon and Pago de Vallegarcía had begun to rock the status quo by producing wines from non-traditional varieties at eyebrow-raising quality, featuring the unique personality of their estates. Parallels here with the Tuscan region of Bolgheri and the emergence of wines like Sassicaia in the 1970s are tempting.

But what began as Grandes Pagos de Castilla, quickly evolved into Grandes Pagos de España, as other producers saw the benefit of banding together with likeminded, quality-focused operations to co-promote their work. And it wasn’t just radical newcomers with non-traditional wines who sought to join, but also producers in traditional appellations like Jerez, Rioja and Cava, whose beliefs in promoting the concept of terroir aligned with the group’s. At the heart of the concept today is “staying close to the terroir, all around Spain”.

I should clarify that Grandes Pagos is not an official designation and shouldn’t be confused by the government-backed D.O. Vino de Pago, similar as they sound. The latter is an official designation – an appellation applied in fact to a single winemaking estate, introduced in 2003, now counting 17 properties.  In contrast, members of Grandes Pagos operate under the legal framework of all of Spain’s wine categories, including D.O., DOCa, DOQ, Vino de la Tierra, IGP, Vino sin IGP, as well as a couple who have also been granted D.O. Vino de Pago status. The association represents 19 viticultural areas in all, farming 20 red, and 22 different white grape varieties.

Adhesion standards are stringent. Wines must be produced from owned vineyards, (no purchased grapes), and all wines are tasted by an external committee before earning the Grandes Pagos seal of approval. Wines can be, and are, rejected, and members can even be ex-communicated, a harsh rebuke that has occurred twice in the association’s history, I’m told. (Two years must pass before an estate can reapply.)

New potential members also pass through an external committee of approval, and must have at least five years of commercial history in addition to big scores from the international press. The similarity to Germany’s excellent VDP producers association is striking, and indeed, Grandes Pagos does take strategies from the VDP playbook. And while associations formed for commercial self-interest are always subject to critical skepticism, I can say that from the 18 wines presented in Toronto, quality is universally impressive. Below are a half-dozen of the best currently available (agents listed).

John Szabo’s Buyer’s Guide: Grandes Pagos de España

White and Fortified

Valdespino NV Fino Innocente, Azureau Wine Agency ($27.95)
Valdespino is the largest landowner in Jerez with some 800ha, divided in 18 vineyards. Their excellent Innocente is spontaneously fermented in cask, the last Sherry Bodega to do so, and brandy of palomino is used for fortification – also unique. Wines in the final blend run an average of 10 years old, 100% from the Macharnudo vineyard, indeed from the highest elevation section of this excellent cru, with 40 year old vines. You’d be hard pressed to find more complexity for less money anywhere in the world of wine. Length and depth are truly exceptional.

Chivite Family Estates 2016 Chivite Colección 125 Blanco, DO Navarra, Churchill Cellars ($70.00)
Founded in 1647, Chivite is one of the oldest family-owned wineries in Spain, now into the 11th generation. The surprisingly moderate climate of Navarra, and the Atlantic-influenced Legardeta estate in particular is well-suited to elegant wines, like this beautifully pure chardonnay made in the reductive style, with minimal oak influence and lots of flinty character. Classy wine.


Pago de Vallegarcía 2015 Hipperia Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, Azureau Wine Agency ($59.95)
One of the founding members of Grandes Pagos de España, Vallegarcía is an expansive, 3,600ha hunting reserve in central Spain, at 900m+ elevation in acid, quarzitic soils, a tough environment for grapevines (but great for the wines they produce). 50ha of vines were planted in 1999, and Frenchman Eric Boissenot consults, (he’s also consultant to 4 of 5 bordeaux grand cru classés, except Haut Brion). The wines are surely among the most polished and classy in Spain. Hipperia is the “Gran Vin” of the estate, a Bordeaux philosophy as well as a Bordeaux blend.

Palacio Quemado 2016 La Zarcita VT Extremadura, Family Wine Merchants ($22.95)
From deep, southwestern Spain hard on the border with Portugal, a position reflected by the blend of touriga nacional, trincadeira, and alicante Bouschet, this delightfully fresh and pretty red, aged in a mix of unlined concrete and old (2nd and 3rd fill) 500 litre cask, is hard to resist, especially at the price. Made by the Alvear family of Montilla-Moriles and the fashionable, low-intervention Envínate winemaking team.

Mas Doix 2016 Salanques DOQ Priorat, Rogers & Co. ($74.95)
You can virtually taste the struggle these vines went through to produce this exceptionally dense and compact, concentrated red blend (65% garnacha (80 year old vines), 25% carignan, 10% syrah young vines.) It’s a wine for the ages; I’d cellar until 2026 for the maximum expression. Like a great southern Rhône red but with higher acids, a textbook example of the natural balance brought by old vines.

Aalto 2016 Ribera del Duero, Noble Estates ($85.81)
A joint project founded by Mariano García of Bodegas Mauro in 1999, this exceptional wine stems from very old vines of local clones of tinto fino (tempranillo). No expense is spared in its production; it’s a wine of evident class and pedigree, not reliant on the crutch of winemaking artifice.

John Szabo’s New Spain Buyer’s Guide: All the Right Grapes And Cosecha Imports

A throng of excited sommeliers swarmed wine-filled tables at Peter Pan Bistro in downtown Toronto, where Spanish wine specialists Derek Kranenborg of All The Right Grapes, and Jason Axmith of Cosecha Imports had joined forces to put out the most impressive collection of Spanish wines – some 70-80 – under one roof that I’ve seen in the city. The crowd was clearly appreciating the efforts of the mostly new wave producers, the “next gen” of the Spanish wine industry, blazing new stylistic trails and shaking up the establishment. Following are my top picks of those currently available in consignment. Contact each agent for more details.

White & Rosé

Celler Comunica 2018 Foxy Lady Syrah Rosado, Montsant (Cosecha, $18.50)
Importer Jason Axsmith worked with Celler Comunica and principals Pep Aguilar and Patri Morillo to create this delicious dry rosé. Aguilar and Morillo who worked as consultants throughout the Mediterranean, settled in an old farmhouse estate on the border of Priorat and Montsant, where old vine garnacha and cariñena are complemented by a little piece of syrah, the origin of this wine. Savoury and delicious.

Barco del Corneta 2017 Cucú Verdejo (Cosecha, $22.50)
Unlike typically tropical-fruit salad-flavoured verdejo, this is restrained, lean, bright, tight and sharp in the best way – cut above the average.

Fedellos do Couto 2017 Conasbrancas White Field Blend, D.O. Ribeira Sacra (Cosecha, $40.00)
The story of Fedellos do Couto reads like the prototypical next gen Spanish wine story, an updated version of the story of Alvaro Palacios and friends in the late eighties. Here, a group of young friends with winemaking roots (Luis Taboada, whose family has owned the Couto manor for generations, and winemakers Curro Barreño and Jesús Olivares), rent a few hectares of ancient vines in a place where few want to work (steeply terraced vineyard along the slopes of the rivers Sil and Bibei in Ribeira Sacra), planted grapes so old and unknown they’re cool again. Then, collect an old field blend together, apply wild yeast and old wood, and voilà, terrific wine, like a meadow of flowers and sweet herbs, and an orchard of apples and white peaches, richly textured.

Rafael Palacios 2017 As Sortes Godello, D.O. Valdeorras (Cosecha, $100.00)
Yes, this is expensive wine, but included here because it is worth it. Palacios is another leading figure in new Spain, and is top end godello is simply magical with impressive weight and density without heaviness – genuine extraction from old vines in a prime site.

Cellar Pardas 2017 Rupestris, D.O. Penedès (Cosecha, $27.00)
A cleverly composed blend of mostly Xarel-lo with 15% aromatic Malvasia de Sitges, which really pumps up the volume. A pretty wine, tropical fruit-flavoured, with great balance.

Honorio Rubio 2014 Rioja Crianza Lias Finas Viura (All The Right Grapes, $40.00)
Honorio Rubio is a small, family-run winery on the minimalist side of the style spectrum, with vineyards in Cordovín, high-up in the Rioja Alta subzone. This is a new school white Rioja, absent the intensely woody flavours of tradition (it’s concrete-fermented then wood-aged, but only 20% new), very sapid, salty and savoury, delicate yet substantial, with superb length.


Daniel Landi 2015 Las Iruelas Garnacha, D.O. Tierra de Castilla y León (Cosecha, $112.00)
All right, very pricey, and not currently available, but I had to include it; if you are a fan of pure transparent wines, say top red Burgundy, Alto Piemonte or Valtellina nebbiolo, high elevation Etna reds, then you need to know Daniel Landi and his exceptional single vineyard garnachas. He’s a master of the variety, literally re-defining it, farming exceptional parcels of high-altitude old vines, up to 80 years old, biodynamically, in the scrabbly granite rocks of the Sierra de Gredos. Winemaking, naturally, is low intervention; a percentage of stems are used. “We make landscape wines from the vine without any make-up. Three basic ideas guide our work: minerality, freshness and elegance.”  Las Iruelas is from a 1.5 hectare vineyard in the village of El Tiemblo in the Valle del Tiétar, outside the Méntrida D.O.,a steep east facing site at 1000 metres above sea level. This is pure finesse, ethereal, yet saturated with flavour, really quite sublime.

Commando G 2016 La Bruja de Rozas Vino de Pueblo, Sierra de Gredos, Vinos de Madrid D.O. (Cosecha, $32) If the Iruelas above is out of reach, an excellent introduction the genre/style of Dani Landi is through this wine under the Commando G label, made alongside partner Fernando García. It’s by no means a discount label; on the contrary, La Bruja is the entry point into the Commando G portfolio, which hits even higher prices, one of the most sought after ‘cult’ producers in Spain today. But here’s where you find maximum value. This Vino de Pueblo, or village wine, a pure garnacha, is sourced from several vineyards in the vicinity of Las Rozas de Puerto Real, yet all on the granitic sands typical of the Sierra de Gredos. Up to 80 year old vines offer genuine depth and flesh, a silky, supple but firm mouthfeel anchored on sandy tannins. Length and depth art exceptional in the price category.

Joan d’Anguera 2016 Finca L’Argata Garnacha, Montsant (Cosecha, $48.00)
Exceptional organic/biodynamic garnacha from Montstant next to (surrounding) Priorat). Joan and Josep d’Anguera have re-defined the old family bodega, established in 1820, with lovely new wave (read: elegant) garnatxa, the way it used to be. This is a wine of significant depth, and length, in a competent, confident, natural style.

Sierra de Toloño Villabuena 2016 Rioja ‘Raposo’ Vino de Pueblo Villabuena (Álava) (All The Right Grapes, $44.00) This was my first experience with the wines of Sierra de Toloño, it was a happy occasion. Old vines and high elevations (650+m), plus small batch winemaking with a delicate and honest hand equals purity and finesse, but also substance and depth. Rapos is a ‘single village’ wine (vino de pueblo), pure tempranillo. Aged in large, old wood. Try after 2021, or hold into the late-20s early 30s. Lovely wine.

Bodegas Puelles 2014 Rioja El Molino (All The Right Grapes, $33.00)
Another old family bodega re-imaging the image of Rioja, in this case a ‘vino de finca’, or estate wine from vines surrounding the old mill over 20 years old, with sulphur added only at bottling. I love the dusty and earthy, tea leaf flavours, but also the juiciness. It’s one very savoury bottle of Rioja.

Bodegas Pirineos 2016 Principio Moristel, Somontano (All The Right Grapes, $22.00)
A joint venture between the Barbadillo family of Sherry fame and the cooperative winery of Somontano established in 1993. Bodegas Pirineos single-handedly put Somontano on the D.O. map. II doubt you know much about moristel (who does), a variety indigenous to Aragón, but if you love those low tannin, crunchy red fruit, rhubarb, hibiscus and savoury herb-flavoured reds (i.e. Beaujolais), this is for you.

Bodegas Pirineos 2017 3404 Red Blend, Somontano (All The Right Grapes, $17.00)
The infinitely drinkable, attractively priced picnic red from above-mentioned winery. Chill and crush.

Bodega Marañones 2016 Treintamil Maraviedes Vino de Pueblo, Gredos, Madrid (All The Right Grapes, $30.00)
The area around the Sierra de Gredos less than an hour’s drive from Madrid has become the mecca of new wave Spanish wine makers, especially for garnacha. High elevations and desperately poor granitic soils, and a wealth of ancient vines, is the recipe. “Our philosophy at Marañones can be summed up by two concepts viewed as one: ‘respect’ and ‘commitment’”, says owner J. Fernando Cornejo, referring to the land and the people, and the traditions and varieties of this almost lost region. Here’s another garnacha-based rd of particular beauty, so pretty, delicate, fine-grained, transparent.

Vinergia 2015 Lo Tros, Priorat (All The Right Grapes, $38.00)
And for all of you who want less flimsy finesse and more power, here’s your wine: bold, ripe, forward, typically very ripe in the Priorat style, satisfying, fleshy, highly extracted, though not clumsy or overdone by any means. (55% Carignan, 45% Garnacha.)

And that’s a wrap on Spain. For Now.

See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS