Feature: Decanted and Decoded: Spanish Wine in a Nutshell
By: Shawn Moksvold
Inside a corner bar in the town of Aranjuez, 50 kilometers south of Madrid, Spain, there is often a round, stocky man with calloused hands and a deep laugh, standing next to his bald friend, a glass of wine held tightly in his hand. He owns 1500 chickens, he tells us, and is the provider of most of the eggs in the restaurants and markets of this sparsely populated area. He forces us to sample the homemade tortilla made from the eggs of his superior hens. It does seem to taste better, in the same way that pie tastes better after you’ve been told it was made with love and whole garden ingredients and the labor of a grandmother’s hands. I nod in approval, and realize that I am talking to a walking anachronism, the antithesis of the faceless, standardized mass production of food in the 21st century. I suspect there is a wealth of local and practical knowledge behind his wrinkled face and blood-shot eyes. I decide to pick his brain.
“We’re out here looking for some vineyards or wine cellars,” I ask. “Something that is characteristic of the area, you know, to take some photos and…”
“No idea,” he says. “What do you think of the tortilla? My eggs are in them.”
His bald friend overhears our conversation, offers his help, and gets out his cell phone. While he talks, he holds up an index finger, a signal for us to wait for some great news. After a short conversation, he hangs up the phone and scribbles an address and phone number on a napkin.
“Speak to this man,” he says, pointing to the napkin. “Tell him you talked to me.”
We recognize that he is proud of his insider information, and we suspect this special invitation isn’t entirely necessary, but we are grateful nonetheless and thank him, stuffing down the rest of the tortilla made of those fresh eggs from happy chickens.
We continue to drive south, deeper into the arid countryside, and arrive in La Guardia, a sad, little town that is the kind of place that people move to the big city to get away from, especially in hard financial times. Strangely, there are bustling groups of people on the move, cars and pedestrians, but the life of the town seems to have been drained, recently and ruthlessly. Between the windblown poplar trees, there are broken windows and abandoned warehouses, construction projects that ran out of money, and a closed car dealership sprayed with bad graffiti. Everywhere there are subtle reminders of the economic crisis that has been a shot in the gut to Spain’s financial health.
But somewhere there is wine.
It is a daunting task to grasp the complexity of Spanish wine as a whole. In fact, to the casual wine drinker, the sheer variety of grape-derived alcohol available at a simple Spanish cafe is just plain intimidating. But everyone has a particular taste, and with a rudimentary bag of background knowledge, open-mindedness, and a healthy attitude of cultural exploration, there is a rich, deeply engrained part of the Spanish soul waiting to be discovered. And as my pendulum of taste swings between pretentious wine snob and simple barfly, I have found the Iberian Peninsula an apt locale to develop my viticultural interests. In general, wine has served me well most often as a complement to food and a catalyst for conversation, but also as a medical relaxant, a surrogate girlfriend, and at times, a simple vice.
Anyone who rubs shoulders with the Spanish, late into the night, whether in Madrid or elsewhere, undoubtedly will have heard certain terms thrown around by their Spanish friends with the confidence of a Sotheby’s auctioneer selling a Fabergé egg. Tempranillo, rosado, albariÃ±o, semi-dulce, crianza, reserva, roble or rioja. And then there’s joven, brut, verdejo and cava. Having a glass of wine is a particular pleasure in Spain, and the Spanish take it seriously. Sometimes the local resident will know the ins and outs of what they are saying, what they are drinking, and other times they won’t. But they always seem to create a sense of curiosity in the mind of the outsider. They somehow expertly allude to the complexity and quality of their wine, without being provincial or snobbish about it. For good reason, they are proud but modest, in my opinion often too modest. But don’t be mistaken, if given the opportunity, a Spaniard will overload you with more than you would ever want to know about wine, whether it be accurate information or not.
After driving through the dusty roundabouts in La Guardia, we find a pretty line of trees that leads to The MartÃºe Winery House, a vineyard set amidst sparse and practical landscaping and the familiar rows of grapevines on rich, red soil. Soon we are talking wine with Pablo Ranilla RodrÃguez, the agricultural director, and he leads us on an impromptu tour of the facilities.
“The hardest part of the whole process,” he says, “is not working the machines or the monitoring the delicate aging, or the bottling and shipping. It’s not even the marketing. We always struggle to get the right grape. And it’s different every year.”
It is not difficult to see, here in the arid terrain of Castilla-La Mancha, that weather can be both an adversary and a savior, a harsh, unpredictable natural force that is out of the control of human hands. Fluctuations in precipitation, temperature, and the duration of seasons all have a direct influence on what pours out of the bottle and onto your dinner table or street side bar. I suspect the “right grape” carries with it connotations of complexity that I may never understand, so I’ll leave the technicalities to the experts.
In general, as with other wines throughout the world, probably the most important distinction between one Spanish wine and another should not be drawn from price, but from the region in which it grew up. The DenominaciÃ³n de Origen (DO) system is a classification ensuring the quality of wines that are made in Spain; it is governed by the Instituto de Denominaciones de Origen (INDO), under the umbrella of the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture. Cured hams like jamÃ³n Iberico, cheeses and olive oil often use the same system of quality guarantee in Spain. There is another, more exclusive classification called DenominaciÃ³n de Origen Calificada (DOC), although there are, for now, only a few wines that enjoy this status. Wines that do not fall under either of these designations are called vinos de la tierra (or table wine). As the purposefully generic label suggests, they are of lesser quality and price, but consumed by many a happy drinker, including me. The denomination of origin is printed on the label of every bottle of wine you see at the store, and it is a logical place to start when looking for a wine to suit your taste.
In Spain, geographical regions have distinct landscapes and weather, which produce a variety of tastes and styles. The range of terrain in the Iberian Peninsula is truly impressive. In the northwest, the rocky and green, rain-soaked coasts and rivers of Galicia and Asturias produce great white wines (D.O. Rias Baixas and Rueda) that complement the famous seafood that comes from there. In the semi-arid, mountainous northern interior, where there are hot, dry summers and bitter winters, you will find some of the best wines in the world, most notably the dry reds, with their wonderful tannic characteristics (Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Navarra). Down in the dry south, near Cadiz, the long-respected Sherries are born (Jérez and Manzanilla). In the southern interior there are more wonderful dry red wines that are growing in popularity (ValdepeÃ±as). And in the northeast region, in Catalonia, there are the famous sparkling wines, which are popular in the United States, and also reds and whites that rival any in Europe (Cava, Penedés, Priorat). Even in the outlying islands of Spain, in the Canaries and the Balerics, there are ten distinct regions of wine production. Overall, the Spanish Department of Agriculture has designated 67 denominations of origin, which means that there are almost 70 areas, listed by law, where wine is produced in accordance to provincial restrictions. But since the 1960’s the most popular and consistent wine-producing regions in Spain have been Rioja, Penedés, ValdepeÃ±as and Rueda. Ribera del Duero is a particular example of a wine that has gained new respect mostly due to recent investment in experienced wine makers and innovative aging techniques. Look for one of these regions on your next bottle of Spanish wine, and you’ll be heading in the right direction.
There are also some basic terms that are applicable to almost any wine in Spain, whether they are red or white. These tell of the age of a bottle of wine and carry clear implications of the manner in which it was produced.
Joven is a humble, non-challenging label, and it means “young” and typically describes a wine that is best suited for immediate consumption. Historically, of course, wine has been meant to sit for long periods of time in wooden barrels, aging and developing complexity and character. These wines don’t get the chance to grow old. They are simple and perfect to share with that date you are not quite ready to impress. They are usually economically priced, and easy to drink for the novice. Given the qualifications I’ve just listed, it should be said that I’ve consumed a lot of this kind of wine.
Crianza is a term that describes a wine that has adhered more closely to standards of quality processing. It has been aged in those oaken barrels everyone knows about, but still has spent most of its time in the bottle.
Reserva tells us that the wine has been aged in oaken barrels for at least a year, and another year or more having been spent in the bottle. Now is when we can start talking about pairing it with foods without sounding completely pretentious. It has characteristics and particular flavors, perhaps those that only a sommelier would be able to express in words, or care about, but those that are there nonetheless.
Gran Reserva is naturally the next step in quality. These wines have been aged for at least five years, two years of which are spent in oak barrels, and at least three years in the bottle. Although these wines are supposed to be the height of quality in Spanish wines, there is a chance that you will find them too harsh, and with a very “oaky” taste (I actually prefer this woody, oaky taste in wine, but then I also sometimes inexplicably ate dirt when I was a child).
Roble literally means “oak” in Spanish. Wood from oak trees has been used to make wine barrels for hundreds of years all over the world. In Spain, this term is often displayed on the wine bottle to accentuate or highlight the use of these oaken barrels in their aging. Most often, roble will indicate a young wine that has spent at least some time in an oak barrel, and it is often confusingly mentioned as a way to differentiate it from Rioja (Rioja obviously having been aged in oak as well), the latter usually being of higher quality. Ironically, if the oak in the barrel is new, without the soaked-in wine of an experienced barrel, the wine can have an overpowering, artificial woody taste, like some sort of flavor additive.
Consistent with the characteristics of wine in general, patience and maturity are essential. Some wine makers actually add oak wood chips in the later stages of their wine processing to give it the initial impression of quality and proper aging, which reminds me of what fast food corporations have done to the American diet. It is fake and contrived. In the spirit of remaining slander-free, these wines will remain unmentioned.
Pablo leads us downstairs to a dimly lit place where the oak barrels are kept. The temperature drops a few degrees and there is a wonderful smell of wine-soaked wood and fermenting fruit sugars. The place is impeccable and clean, the concrete floors are swept and perfectly placed barrels are lined up with particular attention to order, a simple clipboard hanging from each different group. To me, this is the stage of wine making that leaves the strongest impression. It is where fruit and wood work together over time not to putrefy or degrade, but to age and mature into a consumable part of culture much more relevant to the soul than any TV show or electronic gadget. In the corner of the cellar there is a table with a white cloth over it, a giant candle at the center, and several bottles of wine stashed on shelves nearby. The area looks used and experienced, like an old worn chair.
“This is where we, shall we say, try the wine,” Pablo says, with a smile. It seems a perfect scene for an intimate party, surrounded by a few hundred oak barrels and seven or eight close friends. I shudder to think of the damage I could do at this table. He explains to us that each of the different lines of barrels in the room contains wine of different qualities, vintages and grape species. I’m surprised to learn of the variety that MartÃºe produces. Included are standards like Tempranillo, but also those not particularly known as Spanish grapes: Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Chardonnay. I am getting very thirsty.
Naturally, implications of age are an advantage for wine. Terms like viejo and aÃ±ejo bring to mind concepts like wisdom, age and maturity, and they look good on a label. But I suspect that often these are merely words that act as marketing tools, technically only a concise statement that the wine is at least three years old, aged for varying periods of time in either a bottle or barrel. Fino is a word commonly found on labels of bottles. It may create the impression of exclusivity and quality, but is only a is a term used to describe a specific kind of sherry in which the yeast is left to ferment freely on the surface of the wine, creating a delicious, and particular taste.
It is important to understand the difference between the type of grape a wine uses and the particular manner in which a wine is produced. Pablo explains to us that MartÃºe Bodegas utilize many different types of grape to produce their impressive range of wines. At this point, his passion for the business begins to overtake his initial attempt to remain within the limits of the layman, and he launches into an informative lecture on viticulture, undoubtedly difficult for me to follow in English, much less in his esoteric Spanish. Standing in the dark cellar, amidst oak barrels, I listen and try to absorb as much as I can, knowing that most of what he is saying is probably very important.
Perhaps the most well known type of grape used in Spanish wine making is Tempranillo, but there are others, like AlbariÃ±o, Graciano, Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Verdejo. Colloquially, a particular wine is often known for what makes it special. This is often a source of confusion. When ordered at a restaurant or at a bar, some wines go by the type of grape itself (AlbariÃ±o, Tempranillo) others use the region in which they were made (Ribera, Rioja or Cava). Still others are mentioned according to the method of aging (Roble). So it is possible to be asked, in the hum of a crowded Madrid bar, if you’d like either a Roble or Rioja, and the hurried bar tender probably won’t have the time or inclination to explain to you the difference or why they aren’t really related. But as any observant traveler knows, local customs, labels and jargon often do not follow logic or reason, but rather find the easiest path to common use. In other words, you’ve just got to roll with it.
The season is over at the MartÃºe Winery, or at least the harvesting. Today, there are now only two or three workers, in overalls and rubber boots, spraying down equipment and writing down figures on clipboards. The wine sits in barrels, bottles and boxes, in various stages of development. Now, the bottles that are ready to be sent away are stacked on palates. I am curious where it’s all going and I ask Pablo to whom he sells his wine.
“Thirty percent of our wine is sold overseas,” Pablo says. He looks at me with the eyes of a salesman about to launch into a pitch. “We’d love to break into the California market, give Napa some competition.” I smile, aware that I am in one of those strange, passing moments that a foreigner has when a there is a clarification of one’s own identity. It can only happen in an unfamiliar place, when someone looks at you and suddenly you are a manifestation of your home culture, as if momentarily a microcosm of another world. I am a representation, a projection of where I come from. This is why I travel. When Pablo seems to associate me, strangely, with wine making in California, I remain silent and nod my head in a pathetic display of posturing.
There is much to be learned about wine in many settings, and here I have taken a mere cursory look at a complex and important part of Spanish lifestyle. Seeing a small vineyard first-hand has brought the whole process to life, more than in any book, magazine or documentary. And in the recent economic recession that seems to have enveloped all of Europe, Spain has suffered tremendously. But this country has at least one economic muscle that simply needs to be flexed. In the business of making and selling wine there seems to be a sleeping giant in Spain, whether on the Meseta plateau or near the green coast of Galicia, and it is one of pride and immense potential. And as I find myself digging deeper into the culture of food and drink in this country, I suspect I have a lot of work to do, as does Spain itself.
Special thanks to Pablo at Bodegas MartÃºe for taking the time out of his day to show us around and open up the world of wine making to us. For more information on Bodegas MartÃºe La Guardia S.A., visit:
Shawn Moksvold is a freelance writer with particular interests in travel, food and wine, and Spanish culture. He graduated with a BA in Creative Writing and Linguistics at Northern Arizona University, and currently teaches English to elementary school children. He writes for his blog,A Casual Notebook, and currently lives in Madrid, Spain.
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