Ahead of our Three Amigos Tasting with Wines From Spain on Tuesday 31st March, Oz Clarke brings to life Spain’s array of fantastical white wines.
I didn’t know I was so far ahead of my time when I stopped at a restaurant called ‘The Man with the Hat’ at the top of a mountain pass in Tenerife and said – ‘I want to drink what you guys drink’. They brought out a remarkable crackly, juicy red. And what about white, I said? They looked a little sheepish and said it was a work in progress, but brought me some anyway. It was cloudy and prickly, and a bit cidery to the tongue. But it also had an amazing stinging streak of mineral purity, just like I imagined the rock of a brute, gale-pummelled cliff face might taste. I said it was fantastic and they smiled. A young guy with a liquorice-black beard said – one day, Spanish whites will be famous.
Ah, that was a while ago, but I still remember those wines – like you do when you taste something truly original for the first time. And in 2020 that white Tenerife grape, the boring old Palomino, now re-christened Listán Blanco, is making wines far finer, far more sophisticated than that first mouthful I downed.
Tenerife is a fantastical, mountainous island way to the South West of mainland Spain. Its wines are rare and amazingly trendy, and deservedly so. But the Spanish mainland is where the current flood of original and exciting white wines began, and the star region was, frankly, an unlikely success.
Rueda is a wind-swept, raw, famously infertile swathe of pebbles and sand on the Duero river banks north west of Madrid. You’d expect it to make great grunting reds – but it doesn’t. The altitude – 800 metres – tempers the heat and cools the nights, and there’s rarely a moment the winds don’t blow, massaging the hot gloss off the relentless sun.
And Rueda has the Verdejo grape – high in acid, almost slightly chewy, and able to hold on to its grapefruit and green apple flavours in all but the hottest years. We might never have discovered how good Rueda Verdejo was if the great Rioja producer Marqués de Riscal hadn’t been keen to produce a tangy white in the 1970s and taken a punt on Rueda, which rapidly became one of the snappiest dry whites in Europe. It still is.
Riscal went to Rueda because they felt the white grapes in Rioja were too flat and neutral to make interesting wines. Well, they may have been in the 1970s, but they aren’t now. Viura has shown itself to be extremely suited to carefully controlled cool, stainless steel fermentations and produces bright, crisp whites. It also produces a barrel-fermented style as soft as custard yet scented with orange blossom quite unlike any other European white.
And Rioja is a hotbed of experimentation at the moment. Old, forgotten or discarded grape varieties are being dusted off with great excitement, and White Tempranillo is proving to have fantastic fruit and depth when made as a varietal wine.
But it was none of these regions which introduced the concept of fresh white wine to Spain. It was Catalonia. There had been a trickle of light, lemony white called Alella made north of Barcelona, perhaps to slake the thirst of the Costa Brava tourists. But in 1963, the great Miguel Torres made his first Viña Sol. He then went on to pioneer the planting of grapes like Chardonnay and Sauvignon in the relatively cool hills of the High Penedès. But it was Viña Sol, made from local Catalan varieties, that, within a generation, would be found, chilled and enticing, behind every bar in Spain
The area which has benefitted most from this is Spain’s North West, above all Rías Baixas, with its Albariño grape. Rías Baixas is a rainy, blustery, lushly green area that manages to have as much rain as Manchester, but a good deal more sun. The seafood here could well be Europe’s finest. So it’s only fitting that it is Albariño wine, full in body but streaked with lemon zest and the spray of Atlantic squalls that has become a worldwide star. President Obama saying he thought Godello was a really cool grape didn’t do the neighbouring regions of Ribeiro and Ribeira Sacra, where it grows, any harm either. From being a forgotten backwater tacked on to the shoulder of Spain, Green Galicia is now as exciting as any other wine region in the country.