wine: The Spanish shuffle

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The Independent Culture
France and Italy are the twin giants of wine, so it may come as a surprise to learn that Spain has more vineyards than either. But it still trails a poor third in actual wine quantity. Far from staying mainly on the plain, it is not so much rain as the lack of it in Spain's meseta, its undulating tableland, which contributes to its chronically low-yielding vineyards. Except in experimental vineyards such as the California-style Raimat winery in Catalonia, the ban on irrigation also acts as a brake on production.

This year, it's the strength of Spain's peseta which has been one of the two main worries for Spanish wine lovers. The other is lack of a 1995 harvest. At just over half the normal quantity (about 19 million hectolitres), the harvest was similar in size to that of France's Languedoc-Roussillon. Instead of maintaining its generous contribution to the European wine lake, Spain has been forced to buy a small matter of some eight million hectolitres from Argentina and two million from Chile, most ending up in wineboxes with names such as Don Simon and, presumably, Don Jose.

The price of Spanish wine, it goes without saying, has soared to levels which make the basic stuff look distinctly uncompetitive. Halfway decent Spanish plonk at pounds 2.99 is now a dodo. Even the price of basic rioja, which alone among Spain's major wine regions appears to have escaped the effects of frost or drought, has risen sharply. It will be some consolation to lovers of Spanish wine that smaller estates which control their own production have been more resistant to price hikes.

This double blow takes the shine off Spain's attempts to raise its image from little more than a bog-standard plonk supplier to a producer capable of competing on the world stage. Since Spain's accession to the EU in 1986, and a consequent injection of new equipment, the more forward looking producers have done a good job in shaking the industry out of its self-induced torpor. Traditional styles are being reinvented using new techniques, with an eye to preserving the fruit of the grape rather than losing it in the wood. New regions are establishing themselves, as producers realise the benefits of bottling their own wines instead of selling them off in bulk.

Yet quite how Spain gets the message across of its new wave wines, its emerging regions and more interesting native grape varieties remains a problem (140-plus but can you name six before you read on?). Given the theme "unfamiliar grape varieties" to talk on recently, I was offered, among some genuinely obscure wines, a tempranillo to discuss - an indication of how little-known Spain's quality grape varieties are. Tempranillo, after all, known as ull de llebre (Catalonia), cencibel (La Mancha), tinto del pais or tinto fino (Ribera del Duero), is the mainstay of rioja and Spain's most widely planted quality grape variety.

The struggle for recognition is not made any easier by the fact that the New World has re-fashioned the world wine map in the classic French mould. If tempranillo is obscure, what hope for garnacha, mencia or monastrell? How do you found a market vision on a thicket of obscure grape varieties with strange names? Up to a point with a little help from cabernet sauvignon and merlot, but mainly, with difficulty.

If adding a discreet dollop of cabernet sauvignon or merlot, as the Italians discovered, doesn't detract from the basic style, the judicious blending of Bordeaux varieties, with tempranillo in particular, can add flavour, recognition and, of course, cachet. Successful examples include Palacio de la Vega and Guelbenzu in Navarra, Enate and Vinas del Vero in tiny Somontano in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and Raimat in Catalonia's Costers del Segre.

In the Rioja region itself, where the use of cabernet is controversial and officially only allowed "experimentally", its use is on the increase, too. But producers, rightly, are wary of overdoing it. Most of the best modern riojas are still made from tempranillo on its own or blended with the garnacha, graciano and mazuelo. There's also a degree of hoo-ha surrounding the current vogue for reducing the time rioja must legally spend in oak (a year) before it can be called crianja. But at a time of big price increases, steadily increasing production at the expense of quality remains rioja's biggest problem. Positive news of Spain's resurgent whites would no doubt be a fillip for white wine lovers.

The news is mixed. Given the tendency to blandness of rioja's viura grape, white rioja is generally not competitive enough against the New World, even if the signs of a move towards fresher fruit quality and better oak balance are encouraging. The verdejo grape of Ribera del Duero is promising, but the star whites come from Galicia, where the albarinho grape holds sway. For those prepared to pay the extra for quality, there will be some stunningly delicious 1995s, notably from Bodega Morgadio and Pazo de Villarei, when they arrive in the UK shortly

A selection of Spanish wines

1995 Somontano Chardonnay pounds 3,99, Safeway (from early May). A delicately pure, well-rounded chardonnay from Salas Bajas in the Pyrenean foothills with the emphasis here on refreshing fruit rather than oak

1993 Monopole Barrel-Fermented White Rioja, Cune pounds 5.79-99, Majestic, Safeway. A modern interpretation of a traditional style, this viura and malvasia blend is attractively honeyed with a textured, nutty richness

1994 Conde de Valdemar White Rioja, Vinedo Alto Cantabria pounds 7.75-pounds 8.24, bottle/case, Pavilion Wine (0171-628 8224), Laymont & Shaw, Truro (01872-70545). Pricey, but this rich, almost luscious, dry white rioja subtly combines fruit concentration and richness with the spices of new French and American oak

1994 Berberana Tempranillo, Rioja pounds 4.59, Safeway. Five months in American oak gives this pure tempranillo a distinctive cherry veneer over succulent vanilla fruitiness

1994 Scala Dei, Priorato pounds 4.49 (plus 15% discount for six), Greenall's Wine Cellar; pounds 4.99 Wine Society. Perfumed, youthful garnacha with aromatic blackberry fruit concentration, and warmingly robust backbite

1991 Campillo Rioja Crianza pounds 5.99, Oddbins. Fragrant whiff of maturity and the supple, spicy fruitiness of tempranillo with a genteel, gamey touch of maturity

1993 Conde de Valdemar Rioja Crianza pounds 5.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. This more youthful blend of tempranillo and mazuelo has attractive, sweet raspberryish, lightly peppery flavours and vigorous tannins

1991 Raimat Tempranillo pounds 6.19, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. Spicy oakiness combines with ripe, sweet, strawberry-like fruit in a typically appealing Raimat style

1993 Enate Crianza, Somontano pounds 6.49, Oddbins. From the ultra-modern Enate bodega in Upper Aragon, a new wave blend of tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon with the spicy bouquet of new oak, sweetly ripe red fruits flavours and a firm, dry tannic backbone