Obscure Grapes, Small Growers Give Soul to Spanish Wines

Paco Dovalo and Gerry Dawes
Paco Dovalo, Spanish winemaker, with wine expert Gerry Dawes. Dovalo is founder and president of the Association of Bodegas Artesanas in Spain. Source: Gerry Dawes via Bloomberg

Wine writer and importer Gerry Dawes is nothing if not highly opinionated about Spanish wines.

In 2003 Dawes was awarded Spain’s prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomia, and Spanish superstar chef Ferran Adria said of him, “Spain wouldn’t be as known to Americans without the stories Gerry tells and writes.”

So, when Dawes summoned me to New York’s Le Cirque restaurant for tastings of his Spanish Artisan Wine Group-Gerry Dawes Selections, I expected to be as delighted by the wines as by Dawes’s opinions.

True to form, he began by lashing into how so many contemporary Spanish wineries are making wines in an international style.

“These big wineries are losing their souls,” he said. “Their wines are deliberately made in that overripe, high alcohol style that the wine media like Bob Parker applaud. The wines are all starting to taste the same and they give you no sense of their terroir at all.”

“The wines might as well come from anywhere in Spain. Don’t get me started on what’s happened to most of Ribera del Duero, Rioja, and Navarra,” he exclaimed.

Obscure Grapes

The 20 wines Dawes was pouring came from small growers, some of whom just began bottling their wines, grown from their own clones of unfamiliar grapes like espadeiro, tinta hembra, hoja redonda, and godello.

There was a remarkable array of whites, and an extraordinary rosado from the region of Cigales, Hermanos Merino Vina Catajarros ‘Elite’ 2011 ($14).

With its dark rose color and a blend of 80 percent tempranillo, five percent garnacha, 10 percent verdejo, and five percent albillo, the wine really turned heads at our table of wine media and sommeliers.

“Absolutely delicious,” I wrote next to a rich 100 percent albarino, 2010 made by Adegas Avo Roxo ($25) on just 1.5 hectares of land in O Salnes. Its Burgundy-like power was achieved without oak aging.

Another white wine (it’s actually golden with a hint of pink) lush with fruit and dense with minerality was a 2010 Cabaleiro do Val Albarino ($25).

The wine is made by Francisco “Paco” Dovalo Lopez, founder and president of the Asociacion of Bodegas Artesanas, who makes his vino de autor (signature wine) in an old granite farmhouse dating from 1834.

High Vines

Were I enjoying a shellfish lunch on the harbor on Mallorca, I could find no better match than O Barreiro A Silveira 2010 ($20). It’s made from 100 percent godello from 30-year-old vines grown at high altitude in the mountain village of Seadur above the Sil River Valley.

We tasted five wines made from the mencia grape, which, “is to ribeira sacra as gamay is to Morgon or syrah is to Cote Rotie, a grape perfectly matched to its terroir,” said Dawes.

“A few years back mencia showed a lot of promise, but too many vintners went the high alcohol, in-your-face route, which is unnecessary because mencia is a big wine with a lot of character on its own and a distinct aroma,” he said.

Indeed, some of the mencia bottlings had a little funkiness on first whiff and taste, but they showed varietal distinctions: the Bodegas Adria Vina Barroca 2010 is very well priced at $15; the Adegas D. Berna 2011 ($20) had a pleasing minty flavor; and Don Bernardino Tinto Joven 2011 ($17) reminded me of syrah, with rich fruit and a slate-like minerality, yet it has only 12.5 percent alcohol.

Flavor Levels

Most impressive of the mencias, Vina Cazoga Tinto 2010 ($27), was a blend with other varietals, whose bouquet was really quite beautiful, followed by layers and layers of flavors and a strong, long finish. It was the best wine of the day for me.

I also loved the 2007 Aliaga Garnacha Vieja ($20) made from old vines whose garnacha grapes undergo a 20-day maceration that gives it a gorgeous nose, color and depth, without depending on any oak or high alcohol (the percentage is under 14).

Similar, but with more complexity, was a 2009 Terra Remota Camino ($29) made from 40 percent garnacha, 30 percent syrah, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, and 10 percent tempranillo.

Local Consumption

The irony with these artisanal wines is that few ever reach Madrid, Barcelona or the rest of Spain, and are available only to local people and restaurants in their respective regions.

Dawes, however, has edged them into the U.S., at notable Manhattan restaurants like Picholine, Porter House, and Tertulia, and outside the city at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, and Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua.

“There aren’t a whole lot of these wines being made,” said Dawes over a closing glass of Aliaga Moscatel. “Many of these guys are farmers who only made wines for the locals. But if you want to taste the Spanish terroir and the handiwork of the artisans, they are well worth seeking out.”

(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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