Spain’s top wineries use old vines, limited yields, and high-quality winemaking procedures to make the country’s best wines.
By Irene Moore
In the past few years, a handful of Spain’s wine regions have catapulted to international recognition for producing wines rated 95 or higher by critics.
Spanish wine regions are split into a number of appellations called Denominacións de Origen (D.O), ensuring that the wine is certified by a regulatory board and that it complies with high quality standards. On Spain’s northern plateau, in the community of Castilla y León, the Ribera del Duero D.O. is producing refined wines that are among Spain’s greatest reds — deeply concentrated, fleshy, ripe, and structured.
In a small region in the northwestern corner of Castilla y León, the remote Bierzo D.O. was unknown in the international wine market until recently. It is now one of the country’s rising stars, producing one of Spain’s most in-demand red wines.
In northeastern Spain in Catalonia, the Priorat D.O.Q. is known for its dark, inky reds. (The D.O.Q. wine category is only conferred to those wine regions that have adhered to high standards of quality for a long and sustained period of time.) Priorat has recently emerged on the international scene with a proven track record of consistently high-quality wines. Here are our picks for the best wines from these noted regions:
2011 Dominio de Pingus, Ribera del Duero
Dominio de Pingus is one of Spain’s most exclusive wines. Because of its inaccessibility, it is considered to be a “cult wine” — a wine for which dedicated groups will pay large sums of money. The annual production of Pingus is typically less than 500 cases. The wine comes from a small vineyard planted with 70-year-old vines that have never been fertilized or treated with pesticides. The vineyard’s terroir is sandy and chalky, which means the vines have to struggle to survive, resulting in the production of small quantities of very high-quality wine. Ruby/purple in color, this voluptuous wine offers an opulence of fruit — dark currants, dried plums, and berries. It is big and powerful in the mouth with a flavor of dried fruit, black cherry, and toasted oak. The finish is rich and very long. Critics rate the wine at 95 points. Average price, $873.
2013 Alvaro Palacios L’Ermita, Priorat
Alvaro Palacios is recognized as one of Spain’s most talented and visionary winemakers. Palacios’ L’Ermita is widely considered to be one of the most important Spanish wines of the modern era and is one of the most prized and most expensive wines in Spain. L’Ermita wine made Palacios the superstar of the region, helping to bring him international fame. In 1993, he discovered what is now regarded to be the crown jewel of Priorat, a precipitous hillside vineyard that was planted between 1910 and 1939 with old-vine Garnacha grapes. On the nose, this bright, ruby-red single-varietal wine has black fruit and floral notes. In the mouth, red fruit notes are accompanied by notes of minerality, graphite, and ripe tannins, ending with a long and impressive finish. Critics have rated the 2013 vintage as the best available among Spanish wines and reviewed it at 100 points. $700.
2013 Descendientes de J. Palacios, La Faraona, Bierzo
After the praise for Priorat’s L’Ermita, Alvaro Palacios remained intrigued by a lesser-known wine region he felt had great potential — Bierzo in Northwestern Spain. In 1998, Alvaro and his nephew, Ricardo Perez, created a tiny domaine in Corullo and named it for Alvaro’s father. Their vision was to make great wines from old vines with an average age of 65 years. On the nose, La Faraona has notes of violets, lavender, crushed rocks, and forest floor. In the mouth, it has ripe fruit flavors and smoky oak notes, with minerality making it fresh. The long finish shows the many nuances of this exceptional wine. Critics score the wine at 98. $1,000.
2003 Bodegas Hermanos Sastre Pesus, Ribera del Duero
Volumes are very small and prices very expensive for this in-demand red wine. Only 1,500 bottles are made in the years in which the best vintages are obtained. Produced from some over-80-year-old vines on the slopes of the Duero River, it is among the top ten most highly rated Ribera del Duero wines. It is made from Tempranillo grapes, with a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It has a deep ruby color with a complex nose of stones, black currants, and dry herbs. In the mouth, its dense texture has layers of black fruit, berries with oak, meaty and smoky notes, with a structure very high in tannins. Critics score the wine at 98. $350.
2007 Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Riserva, Ribera del Duero
There is a waiting list in Spain for this wine. Vega Sicilia usually holds its Unico vintages 10 years before releasing them, but the 2007 Gran Reserva was recently released as “drinkable now” by managing director Pablo Alvarez. Produced from mostly Tempranillo grapes with small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec, it has an intense ripe cherry color. It is elegant, silky, complex, and refined. On the nose, it has hints of wood and touches of hazelnut from the oxidation of years in the cask. In the mouth, it tastes of old, but clean, oak with dry tannins and a long finish. Critics have scored this vintage at 95. $250.