Tasting the Future (and Past) of Spanish Wine

I hail from the land of butter-bomb Chardonnays and high-alcohol Cabernets. It is a place where numerous winemakers conform to the new norm of producing wine in an effort to gain a rating worthy of the Robert Parker elite rather than create a wine which characterizes the body and soul of the winemaker, the grape, and the land. Yes, I live in California. This is not to say there are not amazing wines being produced here by people with a love for the vine and the process. There are many. The former is just an unfortunate result of “progress”.

For centuries Spain has produced wines replete with character and class. It was a place where wines were (are) a true expression of the unique climate and terroir of the Iberian Peninsula; but something has changed. Enter Mr. Parker again. Many wineries have opted to create wines for the export market (aka American palate) and vie for ratings that will help “put them on the map.” Instead they are creating a mundane and cookie-cutter replication of what is produced here in the States – high alcohol, heavily oaked wines that have lost their soul.

So, is there reason for concern? Possibly, but all is not lost. Much of Spain’s wine reputation has been the result of a surge of popularity from the country’s most famous region, Rioja. However, over the past decade other areas have gained notoriety: Priorat, Ribera del Duero, and Jerez, just to name a few. It is time for them step aside and make way for a new wave of Spanish wines, ones that do not solely kowtow to the ratings gods but seek to produce wines full of character and tradition – wines that are about to take the world by storm.

Enter Gerry Dawes. Gerry is the antithesis of Parkerization. He is a highly opinionated and an extremely passionate Hispanophile who has been living and touting the good life in Spain for decades. He is also just the person I would expect (and want) to champion the cause of the “little guy” (smaller, undiscovered wineries) in the ever-changing and competitive world of Spanish wine.  Fortunately, that is exactly what he is doing with his new venture: The Spanish Artisan Wine Group – Gerry Dawes Selections. The project’s aim is to introduce “Artisanal wines from talented wine makers who respect the delicate balance between tradition and innovation, while remaining true to their unique terruño (sense of place).” It is also an opportunity for him to rail against “sledgehammer” (as he refers to them) wines – heavily (over) oaked, high alcohol wines which many Spanish wineries have now gravitated towards.

A recent trip to New York City yielded an opportunity to taste a vast array of Gerry’s wines at Despaña in SoHo. Armed with a portfolio of unique and amazing wines accompanied by some delicioso tapas our intimate tasting group was about to embark on a ride that none will soon forget. Parading wines from familiar regions such as Rias Baixas, Navarra, and Bierzo alongside the virtually unknown Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Cigales, Empordà-Costa Brava, and Valdeorras our tour through the mysterious wine world of Spain had begun.

The excursion began with a varied collection of red wines from around Spain. An assemblage of Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Mencia (a unique varietal native to areas such as Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo) graced the table from Navarra, Empordà-Costa Brava, Bierzo, Valdeorras, and Ribeira Sacra. Many of the wines are unoaked and lightly oaked and were a refreshing departure from the oak bomb wines produced around the world; and with alcohol contents squarely in the 12.5% to 13.5% range, these are wines that one could envision drinking on any occasion.

Also a nice change from many of the rosados I have tried that taste like a strawberry Jolly Rancher were two that Gerry presented, one from Navarra and the other from Cigales. The first was made from Garnacha while the other consisted of a combination of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Verdejo, and Alvillo. Light and crisp with balance acidity, both of these wines were refreshing enjoyable and extremely approachable.

Finally, we finished our Artisan tour with a range of incredible white wines. Summer in San Diego is right around the corner and the wines of The Spanish Artisan Wine Group will be the perfect complement to a warm afternoon (although I must admit that I really enjoy white wine during the Winter as well) and some cold gazpacho. Paired with some amazing tapas and cheeses our excursion ventured northwest to Galicia, specifically the regions of Rias Baixas, Ribeiro, and Valdeorras. A Ribeiro (one of my all-time favorite white wine regions) comprised of Treixadura, Godello, and Torrontes was followed by a Godello from Valdeorras and then some amazing Albariños from Rias Baixas (all from a group of winemakers who have come together to form the Bodegas Artesanos).

Do I sound like a broken record in my analysis of the wines presented by Gerry Dawes? Quite possibly, but with good reason as these wines are absolutely magnificent and a welcome change from the norm in today’s wine scene. I highly recommend stocking your shelves with as many of these wines as possible as spring and summer promise to provide ample opportunities to enjoy them. You will thank me over and over again.

Life is short. Drink Spanish wine!