It has been wonderful to see Spain’s development over the past two decades. No longer just the home of Rioja, Cava and sherry, the country now teems with interesting wines. In whites, Galicia has two-star grapes in the form of the aromatic Albariño, at its best in the wines of Rías Baixas, and Godello, found in the wines of Valdeorras which can resemble some wines from Burgundy. Try shellfish with the former, sturdier fish dishes with the latter. Equally fine is Verdejo grape, which in the district of Rueda produces wines in a fleshy Sauvignon-esque vein.
Next door to Rueda is Ribera del Duero, where Tempranillo is used for intense deeply coloured reds that rival Rioja for the title of Spain’s top reds. Also, in contention are the bold, spicy wines of Priorat west of Barcelona, made with grapes from old plantings of Garnacha and Cariñena combined with newer vineyards of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Similarly, wild and fruity are the Mourvèdre-based reds of Jumilla near Alicante. For something, a little fresher, but just as lamb friendly - Spain excels with roast lamb - head back to the northwest, where the Mencia grape produces wines akin to a blend of Cabernet Franc and Syrah in Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra. And do not forget Cava, Spain’s renowned sparkling wine that ranges from a simple, everyday type of wine to something with class and complexity found in good Champagne.
For many people, Rioja IS Spanish wine, and its mellow vanilla-tinged strawberry fruitiness is hard not to like. That mellowness is the result of aging the wines, usually made from Tempranillo with small amounts of Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano in support, in American oak barrels for a lengthy period. Indeed, the wines have traditionally been graded according to how long they’ve been aged. The scale running from Joven (literally ‘young’) to Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. Some producers are now bypassing this sort of classification, and instead labelling their wines according to the vineyard the grapes come from. Rioja whites vary from unoaked to very oaky - the deeper the colour, the stronger the oak impact.
Sherry - real sherry as opposed to the numerous dubious sweet concoctions that once bore the name - comes only from vineyards between Cadiz and Seville in southern Spain. Fino and Manzanilla are the lightest, crispest styles, with alcohol levels typically around 15%. Treat them as you would a dry white wine – serve them chilled, and don’t let the bottle hang around once opened. Their fresh, almost salty bite makes them perfect for tapas. Oloroso is a richer, darker wine, higher in alcohol (~19%) and with more of a nutty dried fruit character, while Amontillado sits between the two in style. Both are dry wines – drink them with savoury foods rather than puddings. Sweeter styles such as Cream Sherries are made by adding grape juice to dry wines. Sweetest of the lot is Pedro Ximénez, made from grapes that have been left in the sun to dry. Rich and raisinny, it’s brilliant with good vanilla ice cream – drink some, pour some over the top!