Luis Gutiérraz makes you want to catch the next plane to Spain to explore the country’s exciting wine developments. He’s the author of a 2016 book in Spanish (English version recently out, e-book available), The New Vignerons, A new generation of Spanish wine growers, that forces you to question all the marketing bumpf you’ve happily swallowed about Spain and its wines.
I tasted several new-style Spanish wines with him and about 20 others in a master class in Zurich 24 February, part of Robert Parker’s Matter of Taste event. In person Luis, who writes about Spanish wines for Parker’s Wine Advocate (and previously did for Jancis Robinson), is lively, voluble, with such depth of knowledge of Spanish wines and very fun – his book reflects his personality, which makes it easy to read. The new vignerons, in Spain as elsewhere in Europe, are all about terroir, sustainability (read: organic or biodynamic), recovering remarkable old traditions before they are lost, and people whose hearts are poured into their wines.
The label “new” applies to a group that includes older winemakers as well as young ones.
I think I knew he was my kind of wine writer when, after a brief technical explanation about some wines made in the Canary Islands he insists we get back to the spectacular photos in the book, writing, “Anyway, with these landscapes it sounds almost obscene to talk about fermentation times, temperatures or aging. I think they should stick a photo of the vineyards on the back label of the bottles and they won’t need to say anything else.”
The photos by Estanis Núñez are wonderful, from the astonishing dreadlocks-style (Luis’ term) pruned vines in Tenerife and the very steep slopes and gullies where many vines seem to grow wild, to the salt-encrusted seashells covering a bottle by Rodriguez Méndez in northwestern Rías Baixas after it’s spent months underwater in the Atlantic.
The portraits of the producers themselves make you want to get to know them, the result of Núñez and his old rock ‘n roll and now-writer buddy Gutiérrez spending chunks of time with these people over the course of two years.
The wines vary enormously, but a common thread is that the people who produce them are looking for a purity that lets the wines speak of the places they come from. This means there are often surprises, and I’ll be honest that I’m not sure I’ll like all of their wines, although I will respect how they are made and the quality of the finished products.
Spain is far more diverse than is generally acknowledged, Gutiérrez argues, and so are its wines – or they should be. The world needs to appreciate that not all Spanish wines are big and red or crisp and white from coastal areas.
I agree, and the unusual master class tasting session backed this up, but I would put in a word of caution: please don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. There is too much of this going on; as organic and lighter wines become trendy, wine industry snobbery can make you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing if you love older style wines, such as what we’ve come to know in the past 30 years as Rioja and Ribera del Duoro wines. In Switzerland, I recently disagreed with a wine business friend who pooh-poohed Ticino Merlots as overly extracted, concentrated in wine drinker-speak, and you’ll be close, with producers unaware of market trends.
Trends and tech talk about wines is for the industry, whose main goal is to sell wine. For those of us who are more interested in drinking it and simply enjoying it, one of the joys of our wine lives is diversity, the ability to wonder at the variety that wines from different regions, made in different styles, are able to offer us. So while I love a good white Swiss Chasselas, low in acidity and delicately fruity and dry, I also really enjoy a full, rich Merlot – as do many people who live there because it works with much of their food. So there is and will continue to be a market for this kind of wine as long as it is well made.
This week I did a bit of mismatching while serving wine at home. We had a Priorat from northern Spain in the cellar, Tros Negre 2011 from Trossos/Alfredo Arribas, a wine I had tasted in Zurich, where I had a 2013, and I was keen to share it. We had it with roast chicken, although the label suggested roast lamb or oxtail, which should have been a clue, and the poor little bird was quite overwhelmed by this very big wine. We ate the quite good chicken quickly, then happily lingered over the wine after dinner, with a roaring fire, good music and good books.
I compare this to some of the wines I tasted at René Barbier’s in Priorat last May. He is one of Luis’ new vignerons, and while I liked some of his wines I was less keen on others. Yet he and his wife Sara Pérez – they are each notable producers of their own wines, and children of Priorat pioneers René Barbier senior who founded the now-famous Clos Mogador and the Pérez family at Mas Martinet – are pushing the frontiers, as did their parents.
And this is what Luis’ book is all about, and I love it for this: people who are listening so carefully to the land and soil and grapes and wind and sun and perhaps their ancestors that they are showing us we still have so much to learn about wine, so many more ways to enjoy it. Luis wants to make sure we don’t get into a rut about Spanish wines, and he is right to do so.
There are many aha! moments in the book. The story of Equipo Navazos amontillado sherry, which comes from chalky, rocky soil that looks like white ash from a distance. Jorge Monzón’s efforts to save scrappy little village plots in “austere” Ribero, where he makes startlingly good fresh wines in a truly tiny winery that I visited in 2014 (a highlight of my visit to the region), the story of La Fonda and its revival of 97 buried amphoras.
The book is about the future of Spanish wine but, really, it is about the future of wine, with diversity matching our varied terroirs. The Earth is not flat, nor does it provide us with just one kind of wine, or even just 10. What fun lies ahead!