ShelfLife Special Tasting: Winter wines from Spain

The Mas Rabell vineyard in Catalonia where Miques Torres produces some fine regional wine
The Mas Rabell vineyard in Catalonia where Miques Torres produces some fine regional wine

Helen Coburn reports from a packed-out Wines from Spain tasting, where she found excellent value for money varietals were plentiful in supply



18 November 2011

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The recent wine tasting held in Dublin by Wines from Spain was as good as last year’s and, just like last year, there were tasters who would have been happy to return for a second day had it been possible. The main problem is getting around everything or, rather, not getting around everything, so that this year, we went for a special focus on reds and sherries.

Ireland is going through something of a love affair with Spain. We drank €18m worth of Spanish wine in 2008 but, in 2009, sales dropped to €13.1m. Spain was one of the fastest categories to recover from recession, however, with sales rising to €15.6m in 2010, and 2011 expected to show another rise. Over two thirds of that wine was red, with Rioja, at €6.46m in sales, being the most important style.


Rioja’s principal grape is tempranillo, found in traditional blends with garnacha, graciano and mazuelo, but also as a solo act. It has the useful characteristic of not being prone to oxidation, even where acidity is low, something that makes it valuable in warm situations where grape acid can drop as harvest approaches. In the late 19th century, French oak was widely used for ageing Rioja wines but, as it became more expensive, makers switched to American. It was a happy accident, as the soft strawberry and leather flavours of the evolving fruit proved well complemented by the vanilla and coconut notes imparted by American oak. Over the last 15 years, some makers have returned to French oak but there’s been a debate as to whether this impairs the character of the wine, making it taste too much like a Bordeaux. Interestingly, some producers who went back to French oak have now swung about again, and a lot of Rioja is now aged in a mix of French and American barrels.

Tasting was a seriouis business at the Spanish Wine Fair

Tasting was a serious business at the Spanish Wine Fair

Other dos can be overshadowed by Rioja but many good value reds are to be found in regions like Navarra, Valdepenas, Carinena, Catalyud and Campo de Borja. The wines of Toro and Cigales are good but some makers have run before they can walk and are charging rather too much for mid range and premium bottlings. Ribera del Duero has a lot of premium wine but there are some very good value mid priced labels as well.

Tempranillo reappears in most of these regions, often under different names. In the south, for example, it’s called cencibel, in Ribera del Duero it’s tinta fina and in Catalonis it’s sometimes ull de llepre. There are other quality varieties, too. Spanish back labels are generally informative and you can find interesting wines made from mencia, monastrell, carinena, and garnacha as well as cabernet and merlot from cooler regions. Syrah is increasingly putting in an appearance and good examples can be found in Campo de Borja, Penedes, Castilla y Leon and Yecla, while it is popping up all over the place in blends.

Value for money

While premium areas such as Rioja and Priorat have lots of highly priced wines, the sheer fact that Spain produces a huge volume of wine means you don’t have to hunt far to find wines that are value for money. In Rioja itself, the Joven and Crianza categories often overdeliver on prices which can be as low as €10, while Reserva wines, at around €12- €22, are generally well worth the trade up for a special occasion. Gran Reserva wines vary and can sometimes be expensive for bottles which, too often, are beginning to dry out.

Wine Consultant Catherine Griffith and Cathryn McNulty of Molloys at the Spanish tasting

Wine Consultant Catherine Griffith and Cathryn McNulty of Molloys at the Spanish tasting

Other regions also have their ageing hierarchy and you can find Reserva wines from areas like Navarra and Campo de Borja from as little as €8- €10. Even more than in Rioja, Gran Reserva labels can too often mean a wine that’s a bit over the hill; but it rarely matters because the price is generally keen, so that it’s worth taking a punt even on a name that’s unfamiliar.  Even if they’re dry, such wines generally have a soft, comforting moreishness and what’s wrong with that?

Switching to sherries, these wines impressed more than ever this year, with strong value to quality ratio. Getting consumers to drink more of them is the problem but Christmas is a good time for such persuasion. With that in mind, we paid special attention to some of the premium labels and sweet wines; even though they are more expensive than regular sherries, they are still well priced for what you get.

So here’s some of the best from the big tasting. Prices are approximately retail.


Inurrieta Sur Navarra 2007 (Searson €13). Beefy and flavoursome with light spice and coconut notes; excellent for venison or duck.

Gran Feudo Reserva Navarra 2005 (Ampersand €10). Soft berry and plum with decent structure for the price. This works with some hard cheeses as well as with meats.

Marques de Caceres Reserva Rioja 2004 (Cassidy €21). Some accuse this Rioja of being too French in style but I’ve always thought that its French oak is very subtly used, and the fruits are laced with a smooth leather and spice which feels quite traditional. It’s a very elegant wine and would be a worthy Christmas dinner treat.

Muriel Crianza Rioja 2007 (Classic Drinks €10.99). This shows the good value increasingly to be found in the Rioja Crianza category. With soft leather, gentle coconut and tasty red fruits, it also keeps well for a couple of days after opening.

Vina Real Crianza Rioja 2006 (Febvre €14.50). Not quite so traditional but elegant and nicely structured, this is a good wine for lamb and steaks.

Fortius Reserva Navarra 2005 (Gleeson Gilbey €18.99). This tempranillo cabernet blend is expensive for a Navarrese, but it delivers well in the form of firm structure, decent concentration, and tasty flavours of blackcurrant and summer fruits.

Torres Gran Sangre de Toro Penedes 2007 (Findlater €12.99). There’s more than a passing resemblance to southern French styles in this blend of syrah with garnacha and carinena. A lovely wine for casseroles and meat pies.

Beronia Crianza Rioja 2008 (Barry & Fitzwilliam €10.99). Aged in French and American oak, this has flavoursome fruit and decent structure for the price; another good value crianza.

Cepa Gavilan Ribera del Duero 2008 (Febvre €18). Tempranillo with a little cabernet in a nicely structured, elegant wine which would make a great Christmas gift.

Campo Viejo Rioja Reserva 2006 (Irish Distillers €12.90). Most independents are familiar with this consistently good value reserva; this vintage has softly spiced red summer fruits which would be perfect with a turkey dinner.

Museum Real Reserva Cigales 2005 (Mackenway €19.90). The Crianza Museum seemed a little dry at the finish this year and, as sometimes happens, the more expensive Reserva felt like better value for money. With elegantly evolving fruit and nicely integrated tannins, the appealing silver label makes it an ideal gift wine.


Rey Fernando de Castilla Classic Manzanilla (Searson €9 half bottle). Textbook style with nut and mineral flavours, and good spread across the palate.

Garvey Juncal Manzanilla (Gleeson Gilbey €5.50 half). Broader, more approachable manzanilla; enjoyable stuff.

Valdivia Fino (Febvre €10.50). Just as you can get rieslings with overdone diesel notes, so some finos go a bit heavy on the hint of old socks. This one is clean as a whistle, with bone dry white nuts and citrus, and noticeable length. Like all finos, drink it soon after opening.

Valdivia Amontillado (Febvre €13.50). Amontillado is basically aged fino, with darker hue, and hints of walnut and fig. This one is particularly elegant.

Lustau Don Nuno Oloroso (Mitchell €12 half bottle). Rather velvety for an oloroso with rich, nutty, dried fruits.

Emilio Hidalgo Pedro Ximenez (Celtc Whiskey €22). Rich, almost chocolatey, sweet style. Bring on the Christmas pud or pour around ice cream.

Valdespino El Candado Pedro Ximenez (Classic €19.90). This is one for those who don’t want quite such a wall of sweetness as some PXs can be. Not just for puds but a good companion for lighter desserts and fruits.

Williams & Humbert Canasta Cream (Findlater €12). Cream sherry was always looked down on by sherry buffs and even old ladies have found other things to drink in recent years. But it can be a very enjoyable style, once the snobbery is discounted, and this is an appealing example.

Rey Fernando de Castilla Antique Palo Cortado (Searson €38.50). Yes, it’s expensive but what do you expect when a wine is, to put it simply, a triumph? In dry style, yet full of fudge, nut and dry citrus flavours, with great complexity and length. You won’t find a better Christmas present for the sherry enthusiast in your life.

Williams & Humbert Dry Sack Especial  (Findlater €26). This sumptuous Oloroso is an off-dry blend of palomino and pedro ximenes grapes. Complex yet approachable; a lovely gift for someone anxious to push the sherry boundries but who hasn’t yet sampled many drier styles. 



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