Italian and French reds have gained global recognition over the years, as they have been competing on the international market for much longer than Spanish “tintos”. This is despite Spain becoming the biggest wine exporter in 2014.
Although Australia did not make it into the top 5 list of Spanish wine importers, we - sometimes even unknowingly* - can also get our hands on some lovely reds from famed regions such as Rioja. The most likely reason for not seeing shelves being flooded with them to date is that 55% of Spanish wines are sold in “bulk”, which means before the wine is bottled.
France is the top importer of Spanish wines as it's actually more economic for them to buy the wine from Spain and then label it, rather than growing the grapes and making it themselves. So the fact that on their own they've bought 5.8 million hectolitres of Spanish wine last year alone shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. *There have even been cases of the of the French cheekily passing off Spanish wines as their own, without clearly identifying the origin of their re-exports.
But back to real Spanish wine, where there’s absolutely no shortage of quality. If you want to take a break form the typical international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and our most loved Shiraz, Spanish reds are definitely a must try. Tempranillo, Grenache and Mourvedre are the preferred varieties when it comes to reds from prominent regions such as Rioja and Ribera del Duero in Castilla y Leon, although all seventeen administrative regions of Spain produce wines on some level.
Tempranillo without a doubt makes some of the finest red wines in Spain, offering a wide range of aromas and deep colour suiting the demands of the modern wine consumer. The lively fruit-driven flavours typically range from strawberries, blackcurrants, and cherries to prunes with notes of chocolate and tobacco.
Back home we’re more familiar with the tasting notes of the other two main varieties, Grenache and Mourvedre from Australian GSM blends. In Spain, both Garnacha and Monsatrell (as the locals call them) exhibit rich, spicy, berry flavours. These potent and distinctive characteristics with strong tannins make them the perfect blending wines.
It seems though that the Spanish don’t particularly care about the grape variety as much as they do about the origin. By comparison with wine labels in Australia, rather than state the grape variety on a bottle (e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, etc) emphasis is instead placed on the region (e.g. Rioja). If you've ever visit the country and head to a supermarket to pick up some wine, you'll notice that it's all categorised according to region of origin as well.
Rioja is arguably Spain’s top wine region, home to many bright, berry scented, oak aged red wines made from mainly Tempranillo and some Grenache. Rioja was the very first region to be awarded DO status in 1933 (indication of origin, style and quality) and is now one of the only two regions in Spain holding the highest quality classification DOCa title alongside Priorat. Most top-end Rioja reds are matured in new American oak barrels, which give Rioja’s Tempranillos their distinctive notes of coconut and vanilla.
I have found a pretty good deal on a Rioja at Vintage Cellars, they've currently got the best price on one by Aradon at $9.99 a bottle, or just $8 if you buy two of them. That's a decent price even in Spanish terms, where many natives would raise their eyebrows if you pay more than 7€ ($10) for a bottle. Some of the most common labels in Spain include Marqués de Cáceres and Marqués de Riscal, which you can also find on the Australian market. The less aged Crianza by Marqués de Cáceres is selling for $17 at First Choice, meanwhile the oak matured Marqués de Riscal Reserva is priced at $30 a bottle at Dan Murphy's. However, you could try a less known yet award winning 100% Tempranillo Rioja by Finca Monica, which at $167.88 for a dozen ($13.99 a bottle) is a great value buy from Cellarmasters.
In Ribera del Duero, winemakers prefer to use French oak, keeping the region’s Tempranillos fruity characteristic while adding a subtle, spiced oak flavour to the wine. Ribera del Duero is entirely devoted to red wine, producing deeply coloured, structured and complex Tempranillos with firm tannins and aromas of mulberry and blackberry. You can note that on the 2013 Ebano Tempranillo, which would cost you roughly $150 for the case of six (minimum order quantity) at Dan's. If you don't feel ready to go all in on an entire case, you can also try Damana 5's Tempranillo blend from the region, which sells for $18 a bottle at First Choice Liquor.
Priorat is a region in Catalonia, which recently became known for it’s full bodied Grenache blends displaying concentrated aromas of liquorice, tar and brandied cherries. Reds from Priorat are aged for at least 12 months in oak and are amongst the world’s most expensive wines. Indeed, a dozen case of the 2007 vintage Clos Mogador Priorat would cost you no less than $2000 at Dan Murphy's. However, I did manage to find a bargain on a 2008 vintage Priorat by Vega Escal at Cellarmasters selling for $107.94, where the per bottle price works out at $17.99 vs. Dan's $168.26 for the Clos Mogador. To be honest, I doubt that the latter priced 10x more is a 10x better wine.
As you can see, maturing wine in oak barrels is not unheard of in Spain, quite the contrary. Oak and Tempranillo in fact go very well together, and the amount of time the wine has spent ageing plays a very important role in the final results. Many Spanish wines are categorised and labeled based on the time they've spent in barrel. Those intended for consumption within two years of vintage spend little or no time in oak and are labeled Jóven, which means "young" in Spanish.
Crianza wines on the other hand are aged for one year in barrel and one year in bottle. These are overly popular amongst the Spaniards, perhaps due to the Crianza (especially from the regions of Rioja and Ribera del Duero) being a quality yet very affordable choice of red. Wines which spend more time in oak are the world famous Reserva and Gran Reserva reds, aged for at least one and two years respectively in oak. They also need to mature for a total of three to five years after vintage before they can be sold. If you want to know more about oak aged wines, have a look at my previous Weekend Warrior Wine Deals blog on Deliciously Healthy Oak Aged Wines.