Spain’s Red Wine Revolution: Beyond Rioja

The vast and varied wines of RiojaThe vast and varied wines of Rioja

For decades, Rioja has been the iconic red wine of Spain—the single Spanish wine that foreigners knew by name, even if they knew nothing else about it. Even Spaniards considered Rioja almost a generic term for good red wine. Until recent times, says wine writer Bruce Schoenfeld, you could ask for a glass of Rioja in a Spanish bar and no bartender would take you literally. Instead, Rioja was shorthand for the best available red wine by the glass.

But after the death of Franco in 1975, Spain’s wine industry began to shake off its long slumber. By 1990, a wine revolution had blossomed, with emerging wine regions, new plantings and replantings, and a new openness to modern techniques. During a seminar at the CIA Greystone’s Worlds of Flavor conference, Schoenfeld guided participants through a tasting of eight world-class red wines—all from wineries that did not exist in 1989. As with its films, fashions and food, Spain’s red wines are red hot.

Rioja remains esteemed but is no longer the sole benchmark for quality. And even Rioja wines have adapted. Some Rioja producers are making single-vineyard wines—a new concept in that region—and many are shortening the aging time in oak or altering grape growing and winemaking techniques to produce wines with more color and fruit intensity.

As you shop for Spanish wines, consider some of these other attention-worthy regions:

Ribera del Duero: Situated north of Madrid, in the region of Old Castile, this zone rose to renown in the 1980s with the success of Pesquera. Today it produces “the most profound wines of Spain, at their best,” says Schoenfeld. The primary grape is Tempranillo, as in Rioja, but the wines are more muscular and meaty. For the roast lamb that is the signature dish of the region, “I haven’t come across a better accompaniment,” says Schoenfeld.

Priorat: One of many pockets of Spain with a long and long-ignored winemaking tradition, Priorat grabbed center stage in the late 1980s, when a small group of progressive winemakers jointly invested in the region and began turning out award-winning wines. “We’ve come to accept it as one of the great wine areas of the world,” says Schoenfeld. Garnacha is the principal grape, but many producers blend in Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Cariñena.

Toro: An arid, hot area in the region of Old Castile, Toro produces powerful red wines with considerable tannin, fruit extract and alcohol. The vineyards are at high altitude and planted largely to Tempranillo—known here as Tinta de Toro.

Jumilla: This grape-growing region of southeast Spain doesn’t have the cachet of some of the others, so Jumilla wines remain good value. The favored grape here is Monastrell, known in France as Mourvèdre and capable of producing fine wine in this hot, arid climate. The vineyards are at high altitude, planted amidst almonds and olives. Modern winemaking techniques are helping transform Jumilla from a producer of bulk wine to a respected source for quality bottled wine.

Bierzo: A promising region in the province of Léon, Bierzo is home to the little-known Mencía grape, grown nowhere else in the world. In this moderate climate, farmed by painstaking growers, it produces high-quality red wine of moderate intensity.

“The conditions exist in Spain to make the greatest wines in the world,” says Schoenfeld. For wine drinkers, Spain’s dynamism has yielded a world of new choices.

© 2017 The Culinary Institute of America