Spanish reds (and more and more of their whites) appear to be an all-time great value option, with fantastic oak-aged wines showing nice complexity & smooth mouthfeel, available in your local supermarket for peanuts.
If a lot of their wine is for “fiesta” drinking, Spain also produces very fine wines and once again, often on the good side of value, compared to their European neighbours. Spanish winemakers seem to be more modern, more aware of the reality that most of their clients live in. That’s why they will very rarely sell you a bottle of wine knowing that you’d have to age it yourself in perfect conditions (underground cellar, consistent temperature and humidity…) for 10 years before you can drink it, like us French & the Italians do. If there is someone that is more likely to have access to a good quality cellar, it is definitely the winemaker himself, so they age the wine on site and release it when ready. That’s why their wines always seem so open, so complex, so round… they usually avail of the few years ageing before you can even buy them.
This idea set the foundation of Spain’s wine classification, which is a relatively simple and uniform system across the whole country. If some local differences can be found, overall, it is often divided into the same categories: Vino Joven, Crianza, Reserva & Gran Reserva. For argument’s sake, I’ll focus on the red wines here as they are still the major part of what’s exported at these 4 levels:
Vino Joven (“Young Wine”): To fully understand what it means, you have to
understand the way Spanish winemakers look at wine. They consider wines to be a lot like kids, and the longer they stay under their parents’ roof, the more they cost them. These young wines have left home before they even turned 15 months old, and while they were there, they haven’t seen any oak at all. The result is a youthful, fruity & slightly lighter style of red, made for drinking early. While it could be delicious under the local Spanish Sun, it tends to travel poorly and should really be drank close to where it came from.
Crianza (“Raised”): About the same way as the French use “Elevé”, the Spanish use
“Crianza”, which also translates as “Raised” (just like kids, see…). One step more mature, they are like the teenagers of the lot. By law, these wines have to be “raised” for at least 24 months, of which at least 6 were in oak. Some regions that are famous for their oaky wines, like Rioja, push these minimum requirements further with a minimum of 12 months out of 24 that have to be in oak. The result here is as confusing as any teenager: with a wine that looks like an adult, smells a lot like an adult, but who really is just a kid on the palate. The fruitiness is well preserved, with an additional subtle layer of oak & vanilla/mocha/toffee aromas hovering on the background. It is old enough to travel on its own but quite often, unlike what it’s trying to pretend, it still is too young & fragile to be laid down! Enjoy them young & fresh.
Reserva: Well that’s a pretty transparent name alright, this one was kept for a while. It
is a young adult with all the charism, calm & length that go with it. These wines enjoyed the warmth of home for a little while, only being released after a minimum of 3 years ageing, of which a full year at least was in oak barriques. Clearly, the oak starts to dominate the terroir notes with the very seductive aromas of the more commonly used American oak. There’s vanilla, cinnamon, baking spices, chocolatey hints with a caramel-like scent that make it very attractive. However, Spain’s fantastic weather often allows for a full ripening of the grapes, leading to a pleasant jammy fruit character, soft and ripe on the palate. Therefore, unlike most Bordeaux or other wines with similar ageing in them, it can quite often be enjoyed on its own, but also loves food pairings. Locals in the Rioja match a lovely oven-braised lamb with it, but from cured Manchego cheese to Iberico ham, it is very food-friendly! Technically, these wines are released when they have reached their peak, but they can still do with a longer ageing and if you have a couple of bottles in the cellar, no need to rush through them…
Gran Reserva: From the impressive name to the common golden stripes around the
bottle and shiny golden labels, it clearly is the one for special occasions. This wine is not a kid anymore, it’s a grown-up man. The minimum ageing is 5 years including 18 months in oak (24 in the Rioja) and 36 in the bottle, and bear in mind that these are only minimum requirements, quite often it is much more than that. To add to the prestige of these wines, unlike the others, they are only produced in greater vintages. That is to say that you can’t spend your money on them and find out later that you, uneducated wine virgin that you are, bought the wrong vintage (happened to…hmmm…a guy I know…friend of a friend…you know...). Gran Reserva wines were born to deliver, and that’s quite often what they do if you are into big, oaky, complex reds. They can lack a bit of the freshness that makes the beauty of the previous styles, like listening to your grand-dad’s war stories for the 50th time, knowing exactly when the next joke is gonna hit you… Nothing new or surprising there, but the gentle reassuring sound of that familiar voice wrapping you like a hug.
If a lot of the attention and focus were given to the winemakers’ know-how, Spain is currently going through a bit of a revolution and the Natural aromas of its fantastic terroir are given more and more credit. Some wineries, in the Rioja and other regions, have put themselves in the bad books of the Denominacion de Origen regulators, fighting for the recognition, not only of the mens’ craft, but also of their land’s unique profile. So, wait and see, but so far, the above info should help you big time…
Certified Sommelier (CMS)