Green Spain

Verdant, and green, and mild, we’re a long way away, literally and figuratively, from the sangría/bullfight/flamenco/paella Spain that lives in a lot of our imaginations. From the French border on the Bay of Biscay to the fractal Atlantic-facing coastline of Galicia, this is a land of cod fisheries and sidrerías, bagpipes and runes carved in stone. There are minority languages apart from Spanish: Gallego is closely related to Portuguese, and Basque (Euskadi) isn’t longer related to anything.

And, in wine, there are fresh, vibrant, undiscovered treasures that are part of Spanish wine’s new wave.

Basque Country’s indigenous grape varieties are part of a big family tree that connects to Irouléguy and Jurançon and the French southwest. The reds are all distantly related to cabernet france; the whites, to manseng. The local white wine, usually slightly fizzy and acidic and poured from a height in the same way that the local ciders are, can still be legitimately profound in the hands of the right people, cru Muscadet with a Basque accent.

Over in Galicia, albariño (same name different spelling across the border in Portugal) is the most commercially well-known variety. After an explosion of planting in the ’80s and ’90s, it now accounts for 90% of the vines in Rías Baixas, and it’s a reliable alternative for sauvignon blanc lovers looking for something that’s not sauvignon blanc. But there used to be red grapes — there still are, in people’s backyards.

Lineup from last fall’s Children’s Atlas: Atlantic Coast. A dash of manseng joins hondarrabi zuri [zuri = white; the name is actually given to a few completely unrelated white grapes often planted together] in Bengoetxe’s organically certified (brutally difficult in this climate) txakoli. “A Senda Vermella” is a rare example of a Rias Baixas red: high acid, black-currant-y caiño tinto and mencía blended across two vintages; and Tinou’s Jurançon Sec features manseng’s chenin-like honeyed acidity with more lime leaf and salt.

Inland, on dramatic slate terraces that plunge down into the Sil river valley and date back to the Romans, a local red cultivar, mencía, is becoming the dominant favorite. For me, depending on vintage and producer style, it touches aspects of syrah and cabernet franc and pinot noir (a certain peppery/smoky quality, an herbal or oolong tea leaf note, elegance & acidity) while being very much its own thing.

And even for those of you already up on your mencía and albariño drinking, there are still more pockets of old local varieties being looked at again: brancellao, merenzao, caiño tinto to name a few, even varieties with a checkered history that had been used mainly for bulk wine and distilling, palomino and garnacha tintorera.

These were some of the first wines that I fell in love with from Spain. Class was on Thursday, January 7. These were the wines:

How you might see it on a wine list
Adega Algueira, mencía, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain 2019

Who made it? Fabio Gonzalez Riveiro (his parents, Fernando & Ana Perez, founded the estate), and David Pascual (winemaker), as well as, given its medium size (25ish hectares) and intensive vineyard work, I’d guest 4-10 fulltime employees. 
Out of what? 30-80 year old estate mencía vines on steep schist, in Amandi (Ribeira Sacra subzone), farmed according to regenerative principles.
Made how? Native yeasts, fermented and aged in tank
Language Algueira is ‘chestnut tree,’ and a nickname for Fernando (‘tall & slender’)

How you might see it on a wine list
Daterra Viticultores, “Portela do Vento”, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain 2018

Who made it? Laura Lorenzo. (Tiny — 4.5 hectare —estate she works basically single-handedly with her partner; there is some purchased fruit as well.)
Out of what? Mencía and a bit of garnacha tintorera from several south-facing parcels in Amandi and Val do Bibei (Ribeira Sacra subzones) farmed with ‘agro-ecology with minimal impact’
Made how? 4/5ths destemmed, fermented with native yeasts in steel and raised for 9 months in old French 500L barrels
Language Portela do vento means something like ‘window for the wind,’ and is the name of a local mountain pass

How you might see it on a wine list
Bengoetxe, “Berezia”, Geteriako Txakolina, Basque Country, Spain 2015

Who made it? Iñaki & Rosa María Etxebarria (tiny: 3.5 hectares)
Out of what? Certified organic hondarrabi zuri and a dash of gros manseng from a single vineyard on deep clay in Getaria (Basque Country, a.k.a. Euskadi)
Made how? Fermented with native yeasts after pressing in vats, raised with lees stirring for a year, and then aged another year in bottle before release. “Berezia” is only produced in certain vintages.
Language ‘Bengoetxe’ means ‘come home’ in Basque, which is exactly what Iñaki and Rosa María did when they restored this property in 2001; historical documents showed it had been planted to vineyard pre-phylloxera, but they had to fight to get it into the appellation because it’s further inland than modern txakoli vineyards.

What we looked for in the Ribeira Sacra reds:

Structure: Do tannin & body lead, or is the wine driven more by acidity and aromatics?

Variety: What aspects of mencía are showing? Pepper and smoke? Mixed fruit and flowers? Oolong tea, or dried herbs? Something else?

In the Bengoetxe:

Structure: What’s the relationship here between acidity and power? Between how intense and full the wine feels with what the abv is? Is there any astringency, saltiness, or texture beyond the body of the wine itself?

Typicity: Does this remind you (if you’ve had txakoli before!) of a ‘normal’ txakoli?

In all of the wines:

Oxygen: What do air and time do to the smoked hay and bruised, golden quality of the Bengoetxe? To the lifted, slightly acetic raspberry vinegar and rose hip volatility of the Laura Lorenzo? To the acid and tannins of the Algueira? Do these wines taste better at the end of the class?

Place: Do these wines feel like they’re from a green, verdant place? Like they’re looking at the Atlantic? Is there a difference in the shape of the wines between Bengoetxe’s deep clay, Algueira’s schist, and Laura Lorenzo’s slate, beyond vintage and grape variety?

Further Reading

Profiles of Bengoetxe and Laura Lorenzo from their importer, José Pastor.

Profile of Algueira from their importer, Polaner.

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