Spain is a late-bloomer when it comes to wine, its renaissance starting significantly after that of Italy. True sherry was well-known, if declining, and Cava was beginning to make an impression, but in red wine, the bulk of it was just that – bulk red.

Italy may have got a head start, but many of its vineyards were part of mixed agriculture and needed to be reworked or planted anew. Spain had, and still has, century old vineyards waiting to be rediscovered.

While there had been an informal recognition of Spain’s wine-producing areas for many years, these moved towards a classification after Spain joined the EU in 1986. As a result, Spain’s classification has similarities with both France and Italy. DO – denominaciones de origen – is the main quality designation. In the same way as in France, this is transitioning to DOP to include protegida. Only two regions attract the top subdivision of DOP, Rioja and Priorat.

The Rioja region is perhaps the most well-known wine region in Spain.
The Rioja region is perhaps the most well-known wine region in Spain.

In the introduction to our last tasting, I mentioned the panel operating with Covid-19’s social distancing. In this incarnation, three of us – educator and writer Peter Bourne, sommelier Sophie Otton and me, winemaking consultant Nick Bulleid MW – met at suitable distance in the magazine’s near-deserted office. We’d sourced second bottles of each wine and these were split between writer and retailer Mike Bennie, fine wine consultant Andrew Caillard MW, writer and author Huon Hooke and wine judge and writer Toni Paterson MW, all of whom tasted separately. As a result, you’ll find I sometimes quote some tasters repetitively. Congratulations to Peter Bourne for devising a
complicated yet workable solution.

The tasting represented what is in the shops at less than about $60. This gave the highly affordable joven style wines, that tempranillo and garnacha do so well, the opportunity to shine alongside the older oak-matured wines.

And once again, our tasting identified great examples of classic, complex regional wines, which, dare I say it, were distinctly more affordable than those from other countries.

Aragón

This lush region is noted for its produce and, these days, wine. Stretching south from the Pyrenees to below Madrid, it is mostly noted for its garnacha-based wines grown in the central parts. Both these wines are from DO Campo de Borja.

2018 Borsao Selección Garnacha (A$13) has plenty of rich, ripe, red berry aromas. I found plenty of weight and depth of flavour that balanced the distinct tannin grip and warmth from alcohol. Hooke thought it more like a joven style: “A bright, fruity aroma of berries and some reductive pong. Unusually grapy for a Spanish red. A very fresh, bright, fruity style that has been impeccably made and is very quaffable. A lovely glass of wine.”

2017 Don Ramón Campo De Borja (A$17) combines garnacha with tempranillo and three months in barrel. It shows fresh, raspberry fruit with a little development adding a hint of leather and charcuterie. It starts supple, then drives through to finish with fine dry tannins. Otton found: “Bright cranberry, ripe raspberry colours. Attractive aromas, lovely fragrant fruits. Juicy palate with good restraint. Elegant and flavoursome. Delicious and well composed.”

Castilla la Mancha

This is a huge region to the south of Madrid that for many years was best known for cheap Valdepeñas wine and being the home of the somewhat maligned Airén grape. The summers are baking hot and the winters frosty.

2018 Mesta Garnacha (A$16) emphasises youthful, exuberant fruit. Otton noted, “an attractive nose with some complexity. Briary, black cherry characters”. I found red cherry also, liking its suppleness, good balance and line. A light cherry-stone crunch cleans the finish. It will never be better than now and is a bargain.

2018 Mesta Tempranillo (A$16) won Otton’s praise. “Floral, fruity aromas, good intensity with a touch of ajika, paprika spice complexity,” she noted. “Fleshy palate, fresh and well balanced. Pippy and juicy with a gentle tannin savoury edge. Deliciously drinkable!” Tempranillo’s dark berry aromas are well in evidence, with more savoury flavours coming through on the palate. There’s good length, too.

2018 Solaz Bodegas Osborne Tempranillo Bio (A$20) comes from the largest family-owned vineyard in Europe, the company claims. Hooke thought, “the aromas fresh and clean, if reserved, with raspberry to red-cherry aromas”. He went on: “The palate is medium-bodied and intense, with good depth of flavour and charming youthful fruit. Smooth, supple tannins. Balanced and lovely to drink already – although it will take a few years of ageing happily.” I liked its sweet, juicy fruit and pot pourri fragrance. A light tannin crunch keeps the finish fresh. I’d enjoy this now.

Castilla y Leon

This is a large region that sprawls from the north-west of Madrid across the northern plateau along the border with Portugal and almost to the north coast. It encompasses many prominent DOs. It’s highly continental, with hot, dry summers and frosts in
winter. Tempranillo is by far the most widespread vine.

2007 Dehesa La Granja (A$33) comes from Zamora, just outside the Toro DO. It found Caillard expansive and he wrote: “Mature wine with developed roasted walnut, chinotto and plum aromas with hints of barnyard. Generous with developed red fruits, roasted nuts, seaweed. Finishes long and sweet with some mocha/espresso notes. A flawed beauty but expressive and by no means unattractive.” He rated the wine highly, as did I. My notes read: “Perfumed, cedar, mocha and tobacco. Extraordinary depth of flavour. Good weight and great length.”

2018 Elefante Tempranillo Shiraz (A$16) shows fragrant blueberry and raspberry aromas, matched by good depth of flavour. The palate’s quite vigorous, with an acid and tannin crunch that suggests the wine would be best with food. Otton found: “Good intensity of fruit and charcuterie and dried herbs, paprika. Soft dense tannin and flavour. New oak noted. A touch raw.” It will respond to a couple of years in bottle and is generously priced.

2018 Riscal 1860 Tempranillo (A$18) squeezes in 15% of syrah. It has a fragrant nose of raspberry, other red fruits and a touch of almond. It’s supple and round in the mouth, with beautifully soft tannin balance. I didn’t find it complex, but who cares? Hooke thought the bouquet “raw and primal”. He noted: “Red and dark cherry and raspberry fruit showing. Full-bodied and succulent, loaded with sweet fruit and charming flavour, if not complexity. It’s young and straightforward, with a note of blackberry jam that seemed to grow with time in the glass. Delicious!”

Bierzo

This DO in the high plateau to the north of Portugal is rapidly growing in fame, principally for the local grape mencía.

2017 Brezo de Grégory Pérez Mencía (A$18) shows good concentration. It’s round in the mouth, finishing with fine tannins and a balsamic hint. Otton told us: “ripe, mulberry fruits and fresh stalks. Broody, with good depth. Savoury, on the fresh herb side. Pleasant plummy flavours, not sweet fruit. Pleasantly poised.”

Nothing says Spanish red like tempranillo.
Nothing says Spanish red like tempranillo.

Ribera de Duero

For many years this now prominent DO was known solely for the magnificent Vega Sicilia, however, there were great vineyards waiting to be rediscovered. The wines are concentrated, with more powerful structures than Rioja, to the northeast. The high altitude and continentality account for the high sugar and acidity.

2016 Condado de Haza Crianza (A$48) is a sibling of the famous Pesquera. It shows impressive density, starting with rich dark fruit and oak on the nose. The palate’s strongly built with firm tannins that support dark plum and berry flavours. There’s a hint of chocolate, too. Otton noted an “opaque, inky-in-the-glass appearance”. She wrote: “Intense aromas and concentration. Dense mouth-puckering tannins. Quite raw and chewy in the mouth. Substantial wine, needs time.”

2016 Emilio Moro Tempranillo (A$40) has a youthful, fragrant nose combining red fruits, new oak and a little chocolate. The flavours are complex. Paterson saw darker flavours, too, noting, “Medium weight with dark, juicy fruit. Great balance. The vanilla oak overlay, which is quite strong, complements the intense blackberry flavours. A rounded, well-balanced wine, gentle, soft and fleshy.”

2018 López Cristóbal Roble (A$27) has an impressive deep purple colour, so concentrated dark berry aromas came as no surprise. The palate shows succulent, sweet blackberry flavours yet is only medium-bodied. I thought the oak and tannins well balanced and there’s good length. Caillard had mixed impressions, noting, “Intense mulberry, black cherry aromas with complexing walnut, cedar, herb garden notes. Well concentrated wine with fresh fruits, plentiful sweet vanilla, cedar oak notes, and fresh chalky/gravelly tannins. Finishes firm with pronounced acidity. Very commercial wine with oak blundering through on the palate, but a style that many will like.”

2016 Celeste Crianza (A$40) beautifully combines red and black fruits with well-integrated oak and a hint of chocolate. It’s full bodied and strongly built, typical of its region. Caillard noted: “Inky textured wine with plentiful fresh fruits and fine, loose-knit, chalky but vigorous tannins. Lovely mid palate buoyancy, and cedar and roasted walnut oak notes. Finishes firm and long with some aniseed notes. The volume builds in this wine giving it persistency, richness and length.”

2016 Valdehermoso Roble (A$31) started a bit closed, but opened to show concentrated dark berries. There’s great depth of ripe, dark plum flavours and plenty of firm, balanced tannin. Caillard was impressed. “Supple and fresh with blackberry, mulberry fruits. Fine, chalky, loose-knit textures and attractive roasted nut, mocha, aniseed notes. Finishes firm, with attractive mineral length. Very much a traditional ‘claret’ style with all the elements in balance.”

2016 Villacampa del Marqués L & B Roble (A$27) is firmly structured with savoury flavours and dark chocolate emerging. It gained top marks from Caillard. “Fresh blackberry, dark cherry, mulberry aromas with vanilla mocha notes,” he wrote. “Generously flavoured with fresh fruits and fine, loose-knit chocolaty textures. Attractive mid-palate volume and integrated mocha oak. Finishes firm with savoury notes and mineral length. Excellent fruit density, balance of elements and attack.”

Toro

This DO lies in almost desolate country to the west of Ribera del Duero and at a lower altitude. The wines have potentially considerable grunt, but when well managed, their generous flavours can be restrained in more accessible structures.

2018 Telmo Rodríguez Dehesa Gago Tinto (A$33) impressed Hooke, who found: “A reductive, sweaty aroma with overlying cherry-pip fruit, straightforward and callow. The wine is very firm and tightly compacted, the tannins grippy with a trace of bitterness. Overall, the wine is raw and primary and needs more time. It has intensity and some persistence, though. A bold and gutsy wine that would stand up well to hearty foods.” I agreed, noting its fresh raspberry and blueberry aromas and the vigorous palate. Despite the distinct crunch of tannin and acidity, there’s suppleness, too. It does need time.

Galicia

Galicia is situated to the north of Portugal, where it is strongly affected by the Atlantic from the west and north. Although better known for white wines made from albariño, godello and loureiro, its reds made from mencía are now more widely admired. Ribera Sacra and Valdeorras are two of its better-known DOs for reds.

2017 Algueira Mencía Ribeira Sacra (A$42) was made with a proportion of whole bunches and had no wood maturation. Caillard wrote: “Light red cherry, strawberry aromas with vanilla notes. Fresh red fruited wine with cranberry. Fine loose-knit slinky/al-dente textures, attractive mid-palate viscosity and integrated mineral acidity. Medium powered but simple, fruit-driven wine with buoyant flavour and plenty of vinosity.” I agreed with “buoyant” and also liked the savoury hints developing. It’s a good demonstration of the joven style.

2016 Telmo Rodríguez Gaba do Xil Mencía (A$37) brought plenty of enjoyment to Bourne, who noted, “Bright plum and maraschino cherry aromas with lots of licorice allsorts in support. The buoyant acidity vies with stern tannins to extend the finish.” I saw those tannins as a stemmy crunch – although I’ve seen no suggestions that any whole bunches were used. The red fruits are accompanied by a hint of almond meal, and mencía’s supple palate is in good evidence.

2017 Valdesil Valderroa Mencía (A$32) for me had quite an exotic fragrance, showing ripe, sweet red fruits and spices. The fruit and savoury spice flavours are intense, and the tannins assist a balanced flow across the palate. This is just what region and variety should be doing together. Bourne agreed, writing, “Bold perfumes of dark berries and sweet mocha/chocolate. Well-structured with plenty of drive, the eager fruit and positive tannins well aligned.”

Our panel tasted  a selection of joven-style and oak-matured wines.
Our panel tasted a selection of joven-style and oak-matured wines.

La Rioja

Rioja is the best-known province and vineyard area in Spain thanks to its long history of bottled wines. Sherry producers might argue. Tempranillo dominates the higher country, with a splash of graciano, while garnacha becomes more important in the warmer, lower lands to the east. The wines vary from the traditional, more obviously oaked and oxidatively handled styles to modern wines with denser colours and structures.

2015 Arnegui Crianza (A$32) appealed to Bourne, who told us, “A buoyant bouquet of raspberry pastilles, sarsaparilla, wild thyme and fresh clove. The palate is tightly woven with abundant red berry fruits and a singular tannin thrust to drive the finish.” I found it initially more reserved, although I liked the combination of red fruits and oak.

2013 Biga de Luberri Crianza (A$40) has concentrated dark fruits with a hint of chocolate on the nose. It’s full-bodied, with a wonderful depth of developing, savoury flavours and even a hint of cardamom. Bourne was impressed too. “A wonderful rich and complex bouquet of sun-baked bricks and damson jam with hints of beef-stock in the background. The palate is quite graceful with lots of Iberian flair. A kick of tannin enhances the finish.” This shows considerable strength and life for a seven year-old crianza, with powerful flavours and firm tannins in impressive balance.

2018 Telmo Rodríguez LZ Tempranillo (A$34) found favour with Bennie, who noted, “Savoury perfume with really attractive dried flower, rose petal, game meat and dried cranberry scents – such a nice start. Generous in texture but feels transparent and delicious in its softer spread of flavour. Red cherries, currants, dark chocolate and faint game meat play a part.” While approachable with even, fine tannins, there’s no lack of rich, dark cherry/berry flavour. It’s rewarding, but not challenging.

2012 Campo Viejo Gran Reserva (A$40) is fabulously complex, with leather and cedar in its bouquet, yet it still has sweet fruit and even a suggestion of honey. Rich, sweet and spicy flavours combine beautifully and there’s mouthcoating, fine tannin and a long finish. Paterson was equally impressed. “Warm, soft fruit. The tannins and acidity are mild and integrated into the body of the wine. There is a pleasing intensity to the fruit on the mid-palate and finish. It is soft, approachable, balanced and appealing with an engaging savoury thread. The texture is refined, and the wine is composed and harmonious.”

2014 Campo Viejo Reserva (A$22) is a delicious example of its classification. The nose is beautifully fragrant and complex, with bottle gradually replacing the primary fruits with spices, cedar and mocha. There’s a beautiful line through the palate, with plenty of fine tannins. Bourne was enthusiastic, writing: “An intense savoury bouquet of dried sour cherries and licorice. These lead to a mid-weight palate that brings together a generous swath of dark berried fruits and a firm tannin backbone. Deserves a good paella.”

2016 Finca Nueva Vendimia (A$25), with just three months in oak, is described by the winemaker as his “fun wine”. It was better than just fun, gaining top marks from Bourne. “A rich, savoury bouquet of wild thyme and fennel seed with oodles of blueberry flavours and a shot of chocolate-coated bullets,” he wrote. “Quite international in style with plenty of depth and power to propel the finale.” I liked the way development added further complexity its red fruits and cedary oak. It’s round in the mouth with good depth of flavour and fine, powdery tannins. An impressive package!

2014 Valenciso Laderas de Cabama (A$38) was one of my top wines. It’s highly complex, with great depth of ripe, dark fruit and cedary oak on the nose. The rich, round palate continues this, adding hints of chocolate and spices. It has balance and line through the mouth. Paterson described it as: “A well-composed wine with fragrant, concentrated fruit and lively, integrated acidity. The savouriness, and the soft, bright fruit is a delicious combination. Intriguing layers and delicious savoury complexity. Vibrancy, intensity, purity and balance.”

2016 Biga de Luberri Crianza (A$47) is the younger sibling the Biga de Luberri above, but loses little in comparison. Red fruit flavours and smoky, vanilla oak combine well, development adding hints of roasted nuts. Paterson wrote, “Black cherry and mulberry flavours with a faint earthy overlay. The palate is plush and fleshy, with a defined edge of acidity. It opens beautifully with air, revealing boysenberry, liquorice and musk notes plus a hint of cocoa nib and a little new oak. I enjoy the aromatic complexity, the flavour depth and graphite notes on the back palate.”

2015 Marqués de Murrieta Reserva (A$40) also appealed to Paterson, who found, “captivating, aromatic dark fruits with hints of chinotto”. She concluded: “Excellent depth and richness plus good length, energy and balance. A satisfying, flavoursome wine.” I liked the way the wine combined red plum and spice flavours with oak and a little chocolate. It’s full-bodied and complex, with nicely balanced tannins.

2018 Palacios Remondo La Vendimia Garnacha Tempranillo (A$41) gained top marks from Bennie, who found, “A pretty perfume with floral notes, red cherry, raspberry, all quite subdued and all very pleasing, Just shy of medium weight, silky in texture, gently sweet fruit flavours with a gentle weave of tannin and plump, plush finish. Very easy to drink and pleasant all up without delivering extra complexity.” I liked the bright red fruits on the nose and touch of cedar. The palate’s quite brisk with a nice line of acidity and cherry-stone tannins.

2017 Artuke Pies Negros Tempranillo (A$35) appealed strongly to Bennie, who thought it, “outstanding red wine”. “Sinewy and fine, almost pinosity here. Fragrant red berry and spice perfume. More of the same to taste, with a light amaro note running through. Sleek and tightly wound but with a yielding, light juiciness that feels seductive and moreish. Superb, restrained, fine and finessed, with just a little wild streak in the mix.” That wild streak for me was a little reductive, but the plum and berry concentration shows through, with darker fruit emerging. There’s a nice chew to the tannins, too.

2018 Sierra Cantabria Selección Tempranillo (A$28) is a highly complex wine with cedary oak and a little development adding to its red fruits. There’s good depth of flavour, with roasted meat and pan juice characters joining the melange. The savoury flavours linger well and tannins are fine and balanced.

Bennie got the savoury too, adding, “Dust and old spice cupboard scents over dried red berries. Gloss and chew to texture, brighter feeling in the palate, more primary, red berry fruitiness, supple tannins, lots of peppery and woody spice. Old-school kind of feel with a new-school bent. Very nice drinking.”

2016 Telmo Rodríguez Corriente (A$41) combines tempranillo with graciano and garnacha. It has a beautiful fragrance, with sweet red fruits on the nose, and vanilla from well-managed oak. The ripe fruit and oak marry nicely on the palate, which finishes with balanced, firm tannins. “Big, ripe scents and flavours, but doesn’t carry huge weight”, thought Bennie. “Sour-sweet cherry, pomegranate juice and a raft of sweet and savoury spice. A sumptuous feel in the palate. Long, soft and lovely to drink, but framed in a bigger spectrum of Rioja wine.”

2011 Conde Valdemar Reserva (A$35) is wonderfully complex although it does move into chocolate and fruit cake characters. There’s nonetheless sweetness to the rich berry fruit. Otton told us, “Smoky, earthy aromas and bold oak characters. Savoury, sooty, wood-ash, dry leaves, autumnal but still very dark. Licorice and briar. Carob and cola. Dry, puckering tannins to close.” It will take further bottle-age.

2015 Ramón Bilbao Reserva (A$45) is a concentrated wine in all respects: deep colour, plenty of dark fruit and oak flavours and mouthcoating tannins. Barrel and bottle age have added complex mocha flavours, too. Paterson thought it, “Quite oaky. It needs air to let the fruit rise and bring the oak into balance. Excellent fruit density with a gentle tannin frame. There is an attractive juicy character to the palate, a charming cedar element running through the palate. Strong, plush dark fruit. Good length.”

Murcia

Although in the warm, south-east corner of Spain, many of Murcia’s vineyards are at altitude where it snows in winter. Garnacha and monastrell are prominent, although there is an invasion of international varieties. Jumilla and Yecla are well regarded.

2017 Casa Castillo Monastrell Jumilla (A$33) shows how well this grape, which we know better as mourvèdre or mataro, suits southern Spain. Bourne noted, “Lush red plum and blueberry aromas with a whiff of mocha and star anise. Generous flavours and gentle tannins with an upfront, new world charm and a high drinkability quotient.” The wine’s full-bodied, with plenty of rich red and black fruits and a hint of dark chocolate. For flavour, balance and value, this is hard to beat.

Valencia

This is a relatively small area to the south of Madrid. Tempranillo and garnacha are the predominant grapes here, along with an invasion of French varieties.

2016 Bodegas Marañones 30,000 Maravedíes (A$35) gained an admirer in Paterson. “An attractive aroma with sour cherry aromatics”, she began. “The palate has delicious flavours as well as an engaging savoury undercurrent plus finely textured acidity. It is light in palate weight although there is excellent depth of flavour. I enjoy the way the flavour builds as the palate progresses and also the way the tannins frame and define the palate. Lingering strawberry flavours on the finish. A food-friendly style.” This is a classic garnacha/grenache. I agree with Paterson – it’s delicious!

Top Spanish Reds

★★★★★
96 2012 Campo Viejo Gran Reserva, La Rioja, A$40
95 2016 Finca Nueva Vendimia, La Rioja, A$25
95 2016 Telmo Rodríguez Corriente, La Rioja, A$41

★★★★
94 2007 Dehesa La Granja, Castilla y Leon, A$33
94 2016 Celeste Crianza, Ribera de Duero, A$40
94 2016 Valdehermoso Roble, Ribera de Duero, A$31
94 2013 Biga de Luberri Crianza, La Rioja, A$40
93 2014 Valenciso Laderas de Cabama, La Rioja, A$38
92 2018 Palacios Remondo La Vendimia Garnacha Tempranillo, La Rioja, A$41
92 2018 Telmo Rodríguez LZ Tempranillo, La Rioja, A$34
92 2018 Sierra Cantabria Selección Tempranillo, La Rioja, A$28
92 2017 Artuke Pies Negros Tempranillo, La Rioja, A$35
92 2011 Conde Valdemar Reserva, La Rioja, A$35
92 2018 López Cristóbal Roble, Ribera de Duero, A$27
92 2018 Solaz Bodegas Osborne Tempranillo Bio, Castilla la Mancha, A$20
91 2016 Villacampa del Marqués L & B Roble, Ribera de Duero, A$27
91 2018 Radio Boka Tempranillo, Valencia, A$15
91 2014 Campo Viejo Reserva La Rioja, A$22
91 2018 Mesta Garnacha, Castilla la Mancha, A$16
90 2018 Riscal 1860 Tempranillo, Castilla y Leon, A$18
90 2016 Biga de Luberri Crianza, La Rioja, A$47
90 2018 Mesta Tempranillo, Castilla la Mancha, A$16
90 2016 Condado de Haza Crianza, Ribera de Duero, A$48
90 2018 Borsao Selección Garnacha, Aragón, A$13
90 2017 Don Ramón Campo De Borja, Aragón, A$17
90 2017 Brezo de Grégory Pérez Mencía, Bierzo, A$29

★★★
89 2016 Bodegas Marañones 30,000 Maravedíes, Madrid, A$35
89 2015 Ramón Bilbao Reserva, La Rioja, A$45
89 2015 Marqués de Murrieta Reserva, La Rioja, A$40
89 2017 Algueira Mencía Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, A$42
89 2018 Telmo Rodríguez Dehesa Gago Tinto, Toro, A$33
89 2017 Valdesil Valderroa Mencía, Galicia, A$32
89 2016 Emilio Moro Tempranillo, Ribera de Duero, A$40
89 2015 Arnegui Crianza, Galicia, A$32
88 2016 Telmo Rodríguez Gaba do Xil Mencía, La Rioja, A$37
88 2018 Elefante Tempranillo Shiraz, Castilla y Leon, A$16
88 2017 Casa Castillo Monastrell Jumilla, Murcia, A$33