The barcos rabelos that were once used for transporting the wine from the Upper Duoro to the Port lodges
In modern times, the red wine of Spain in particular has been the symbol of a Mediterranean sunshine holiday. The wine consumed in that country and brought back home has become a symbol of a good time abroad and an introduction to wine , for many the first tastings.
That has proved a double-edged sword, as the wine consumed in most cases has been delivered to the table or bar without much, or any knowledge of what is being put in front of them and as the majority little care either, so for many Spanish holiday makers, the first impression formed about wine can go in several directions and determine future wine drinking for good or for bad.
Spain has got away with foisting some pretty awful wines on unsuspecting holiday makers for what seems like forever simply because they either don’t know or care enough to discriminate, and it’s all unnecessary as good wines abound in the country if you can be arsed to make a little effort, for they are all around.
Advertisement on the side of a building Oporto
Even the big producers and co-ops that sell wine in bulk from the barrel to customers who turn up with 20ltr plastic containers can be a bargain for everyday plonk if you bother to taste – and you can – something above the 50p leel. lt’s stuff that everyone makes a beeline for, a few pence extra will normally suffice in getting a perfectly drinkable red.
The one name that everyone knows when Spanish wine is mentioned is Rioja – it has been the mainstay of the country’s wine industry forever, but suffered years ago from marketing barrel aged wines long past their sell by date. It still goes in many supermarket half price offers as Gran Reservas of ten years or more age.
Seems like a good deal, and in fairness a few are but many as in the past have seen better days. It’s a shame because some very good wineries are responsible for putting these out on the market.
Nonetheless the silky smooth Rioja that everyone desires is readily available and you are less likely to get a “wrong un” than you were a couple of decades ago. It was the international discovery of Rioja in the early eighties that started the change.
Up to that time, sherry was the only internationally recognised Spanish wine, and with that recognition came the opening up and rise of Penedes in Catalonia. Rioja’s rivals were a scattered number of estates which began to produce wines that in many cases surpassed Rioja.
Changes in the regulatory controls’ improvement in techniques have all gone a long way in improving the wines, controls as in France with its appellations whilst guaranteeing origin and content do not, as in any country, guarantee quality.
With the upsurge of these regions, the big La Mancha area south of Madrid and its neighbors have suffered and this became another of those areas filling up the European wine lake with its over-alcoholic offerings that fewer and fewer people wanted and now in its slimmed down form still has a long way to go.
Vineyards on the Upper Douro
So broadly, the north produces the quality wines, the middle area the bulk wines and the south apertifs and dessert wines – sherry being the foundation wine. Sherry is still in slow decline, its best offerings are now a snip in the league table of the world’s best wines.
A recent auction showing a wine list from the pre-war Cunard Queen Mary shows a good sherry listing at more money than a Ch Lafite – how times have changed.
With sherry, its worth remembering that the Finos and Manzanillas which can be consumed with tapas in Jerez and Sanlucar de Barrameda should always be consumed young. Manzanilla in particular should not be kept and in the case of Fino, it changes to another form of sherry in time.
Variety in sherry, with its declining popularity, is not easy to come by on the high street. The sadly now defunct Oddbins used to stock a huge range of Finos and Manzanillas at one time, with the company Barbadillo alone having a range of about ten on offer, but Oddbins and all it stood for, the best of the high st outlets by far, with staff to match, was ruined by the last owners Nicolas the French wine chain and went under – a classic case of the accountants coming in and failing to grasp the reason for a company’s success is not just the bottom line, but I digress.
A modern winery at Evora Portugal
In line with international market wants, Rioja to a large extent has lightened its wines with many Bodegas – less time in oak and more time in bottle before release and this has widened their appeal.
Catalonia, as the people there keep telling everyone, is really another country. The wine region is influenced by France with whom they share a border. Spain is like Italy in having a huge range of indigenous grape varieties, Catalonia has supplemented these with a growing number of classic French and German grapes, with the Torres family leading in the blending of the old varieties and with the new imports having great success.
Catalonia also produces around 90% of Spains sparkling wines, with Codorniu being the biggest sparkling wine producer at the last count in the world.
Other regions of note include Navarra to the east of Rioja. At one time rated to become a high class exporter of wines using more international grape varieties but seems, after a promising start to have stalled, Valdepenas in the south of La Mancha that seems to be raising itself above the bulk producing areas around it, and the Rueda and Duero area that includes the sublime and hugely expensive Vega Sicilia estate, again using Bordeaux grape varieties with the native ones.
This is Spains most prestigious winery.
Bodegas of Muga in Rioja Spain
I haven’t mentioned white wine for a very good reason. Very little of it except for the products of Torres and a small number of others makes it worth the effort. The old oxidized and frankly awful wines of the past have gone but the majority of the successors are quite average but better value and wines are available elsewhere.
Yes, I know somebody out there will defend a wonderful Alvarinho or such he found to be the equal of anything available on the planet and yes good whites do exist but not so as one would notice.
Portugal has gone its own way. Even up to the end of the 20th century, they were growing and making wine as they had always done to suit themselves and the country.
The Douro is ideal wine growing land, Dao and Bairrada areas are well established and good wines are found there but the area south the Ribatejo is where its all happening at this time with the Tagus river and areas south being the focus of new development.
In many of these areas, it’s the non demarcated wines that are where the stars are unshackled by the laws governing the traditional make up of demarcated area rules. Wines that meet approval world wide are appearing in increasing numbers.
White wines in Portugal are not dissimilar to Spain’s when it comes to world approval, apart from a small number of increasingly good vinho verdes and new plantings of French grapes plus the very rare appearance of an indigenous grape from a producer who cares.
It’s easier to forget than to promote them.
Port of course is a different matter all together, made by the running of partially fermented red wine, while it contains half its grape sugar and putting it into a barrel a quarter full of brandy.
The immaculate cellars of Vega Sicilia
Port is made in the the upper Douro but not kept there, it is transported soon after it is made to complete its processing in the Vila Nova de Gaia area of Oporto. Anyone who has been to Oporto cannot but see the port lodges with the owners names above in huge lettering rising up the hillside on the opposite shore and I can recommend this is well worth a visit should you be there.
Portugal is reaching the stage where, if it keeps going in its current direction, it will start to make inroads on Spain’s domination of the peninsula’s wine production, not in quantity but quality, at all price levels.
The days when Mateus rose was the only Portugese wine that anybody knew of is not yet over but things really are getting better.