Ancient Spanish grapes make a comeback

We in Australia like to think we have some of the oldest vines in the world, with our Barossa Shiraz and other Rhone varieties (grenache; mataro) dating back to the mid-1800s. I just drank a sensational 2010 Langmeil The Freedom 1843 Shiraz (tasting) (that’s the date the vines were planted) and thought it very fairly priced at $100. Many wine geeks would think it worth that, for the age of the vines alone. It’s a rare slice of history, after all.

But Spain has a lot of ancient vines as well. Indeed, Spain has only recently re-discovered many of these vines, lurking in such forgotten regions as Bierzo, Priorato and Montsant. Some of the vines now producing extraordinary red wine priced at hundreds of dollars a bottle were until relatively recently feeding their grapes into factory-like co-operatives where their juice was blended in with swill.

For decades, no-one cared. Now, the world is thirsty for great wine, especially wine with a story. Along came the likes of Alvaro Palacios, who ferreted out neglected, clapped-out old vineyards and restored them to health. Like the Barossa, the vines include grenache (garnacha) and mataro/mourvedre (monastrell), but also carignan (carinena or samso), the ubiquitous tempranillo, and mencia. It’s a sign of how recent this Spanish revival is, that even the most travelled wine-loving Australians hadn’t even heard of the mencia grape until just a few years ago. Its reputation was ordinary. But, thanks to the hard work of believers like Palacios, we can now taste these wines and blink unbelievingly in wonder that they aren’t as famous as syrah or cabernet sauvignon.

This time last year, I was lucky enough to attend a tasting where four single-vineyard 2009 mencias under the Descendientes de J. Palacios (tastings) label were served. (Named after Alvaro’s father, Joseph Palacios Remondo, but often shortened to DJP for convenience!) Named Villa de Corullon ($130 – tasting), Moncerbal (tasting) and Las Lamas (tasting) (both $345), and La Faraona (an eye-watering $1,350 – tasting), they were a revelation. I’d half expected the kind of syrupy, overripe, over-oaked wines that I’d tasted from expensive, reserve-style Spanish bottles previously. But these were great wines.

Massive, powerful, concentrated, even opulent? Yes, but also brilliantly balanced, vibrant and complex. All are pure mencia, grown at high altitudes in the Bierzo region, on the eastern (inland) side of Galicia. Photographs showed the tiny plots of vines: scattered old, gnarled stumps – untrellised ‘bush’ vines in winter. On steep hillsides. Moncerbal is 1.74 hectares and yields 1565 bottles on average; Las Lamas is 1.48 hectares and yields 1594 bottles, and La Faraona is 0.55 of a hectare and squeezes out a piddling 703 bottles. No wonder it’s pricy.

A few weeks ago I went to a trade tasting hosted by the man who brings these amazing wines to these shores: Scott Wasley, the face behind an unusual Melbourne-based importing company called The Spanish Acquisition. Wasley has done more than anyone for the cause of fine Spanish wine in Australia. He is an energetic promoter, a tireless generator of all-important information about the wines he represents, and possesses a seemingly limitless vocabulary of wine descriptors. Some may find some of his adjectives fanciful, but there’s no doubting he makes the wines sound interesting.

Wasley’s sherry range (from Sanchez Romate and Delgado Zuleta) is spell-binding, but that’s a story for another day. He poured a bevy of Spanish reds, most of which I found superb and several, great. The DJP Moncerbal from 2010 (tasting) was again outstanding; the Corullon (tastings) less-impressive but also very good, promising, and it is much cheaper, after all. Under the Alvaro Palacios label there was 2010 Les Terrasses (garnacha blend – tasting): spicy, earthy, old-viney, elegant and profound, $95; 2010 Vi de Gratallops (garnacha blend – tasting): oaky but extraordinarily powerful, a touch rustic but wonderfully soft, $129; and, under the Palacios Remondo label, a 2009 La Montesa tempranillo-garnacha (tasting): plump, jubey, fruit-sweet, delicious, $42.

The best introduction to mencia is probably DJP’s Petalos (tastings). The 2010 is $45. I haven’t tried it, but have found earlier vintages of Petalos deliciously soft, juicy and medium-bodied, with floral and peppery aromas.

Great things have been happening in other Spanish regions: Rioja is making better reds than ever, and Ribera del Duero has risen to rival it. Wasley says: “In 1990, Ribera had 9,000 hectares of vines, mainly for rosado (rose); today there are 22,000 hectares and the clones are better.”

This month, the winemaker of one of Wasley’s best Rioja estates, Artadi, is visiting Australia and holding masterclasses. Artadi (tastings) makes a bevy of great reds, again from old vines, peaking with the cult wine El Pison, at a breathtaking $700. You don’t need to spend quite that much for the Artadi experience: its 2010 Vinas de Gain tempranillo ($65) is a great wine for my money (tasting): amazing density and power, great structure and balance: a grand and complete wine. Regarding El Pison: I was lucky enough to taste a 1996 two years ago, and it was still quite youthful: a lavish, extravagant wine (tasting).

Also making great tempranillo – in Ribera, Rioja and Toro – is the justly famous Telmo Rodriguez, a powerhouse of creative winemaking energy. Try his 2011 Gazur ($35; all cherries and grapiness – tasting) or 2009 Gago ($65; dense, essency, cherry-liqueury – tasting) or 2008 M2 de Matallana ($69; charred oak, big structure and power – tasting). Then there’s the 2010 PSI Tempranillo, “a mini co-operative of old guys with very old vines which used to make rose”, in the high-altitude Ribera valleys, once neglected, now rejuvenated. A superb wine, solid and structural with cherry and coffee aromas.

Spain: it’s a very exciting vinescape.

Key stockists for the wines mentioned are Five Way Cellars, Paddington and Delicado Foods, McMahons Point

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 18 June 2013.

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