THE ROCK STAR WINEMAKER: Telmo Rodriguez
With his dashing good looks and string of hit labels, Telmo Rodriguez is a true rock star of wine. So popular is this Spanish winemaker that before I'd even had a chance to say "hola" at my first attempt to interview him, he was whisked away by his Australian distributor to meet his local fans.
However, unlike in the products of pop, when it comes to Rodriguez's releases, it's certainly not a case of style over substance. And when I did eventually catch up with him, there was no celebrity swagger. Rather, a catchy passion for the wines of his country, which as one of a new guard of winemakers, he's helped elevate to new levels, making make Spain the source of some of the sexiest wines in the world today.
His is a tale of rebellion, passion and discovery. After studying winemaking in Bordeaux, he returned to his family winery in Spain's Rioja in the late 80s to find the country's most famous region at "its lowest moment", while international varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot were being favoured across the country rather than Spain's wealth of local varieties.
"There was very little passion at that time in Spain," remembers Rodriguez. "Rioja was completely dominated by 'managers' rather than wine people who were more concerned with paying less taxes or less for grapes to improve their business results."
What did excite him was the potential he witnessed when driving round his homeland. "I saw there were so many beautiful vineyards that had been abandoned or remained completely unknown," he recalls.
In reaction to these trends he considered so negative, he broke away from the family business to start his own company with fellow winemaker Pablo Eguzkiza through which to champion Spain's own grapes and rejuvenate some of the country's great forgotten vineyards. It now owns vineyards across the country in regions such as Galicia and Malaga, the little known village of Cebreros and also sees Rodriguez back in Rioja, where his aim is to make artisanal wines displaying the region's true personality that he felt had been obscured by the industrialised approach of the big firms.
"You have to have the intuition to know where you are, what you want to do and to do something authentic," says Rodriguez. It's an approach that's resulted in a range of truly distinctive wines, from characterful everyday examples to some of the country's most captivating new classics.
"Everything we've done has been exciting: we're driven by it," enthuses Rodriguez. When quizzed on what's been the most exciting element of all in his winemaking journey to date, it's unlocking the potential in those old vineyards in which Spain is so rich.
"We are bringing to life tastes and references that were always there but had been forgotten," he says. "These special places had been detected 2000 years ago and then abandoned. But now we've got the sensibility and ability to recuperate them and bring back to life some of the most amazing vineyards of Spain and of the world."
THE PASSIONATE IMPORTER: Sophie Cotter
We can say gracias to Sophie Cotter for bringing some of the most intriguing Spanish wines to our shores. After establishing her importing business St Vincent's Cave three years ago, she's been on a one-woman mission to spread the love of vino Espanol across New Zealand.
Cotter got the inside track on the subject after spending eight years in Spain working for wineries and wine distributors. Looking for a new challenges she then decided to start her own company - named after Spain's patron saint of wine - to bring mid-range to premium Spanish wines into New Zealand.
"Spain has such a long winemaking history so has a wealth of experience in seeing what works best where," observes Cotter. "There's also an exciting mixture between tradition and innovative styles that look towards the New World as the country has become more open-minded and forward-looking following the Franco era."
"Spanish wine has always been viewed as good value for money," says Cotter, "but they're increasingly being seen as more than just cheap - the best are up there with top French and Italian wine, so it's an exciting time for Spanish wine."
Cotter brings in a diverse and eclectic selection of wines from the fresh, minerally whites of Rias Baixas in the cooler north and rich ripe reds of Almansa in its warm centre to the vibrant sherry-like wines of Montilla-Moriles in the scorching far south.
Though its is robust reds that are mostly associated with Spain - with its flagship varieties of tempranillo and garnacha - it's also the source of some wonderfully fresh whites, from grape varieties such albarino, verdejo and godello, which have proved a surprise success here.
"I thought Spanish whites may be a struggle to sell so I started with more reds, but am now bringing in increasing amounts of whites," Cotter notes. "You can really taste the rock in the mineral component of many examples and they go really well with cuisine: for instance the French Cafe has been pairing albarino with spider crab risotto."
As a vast nation with the most land under vine in the world and a wide array of climates, Spain offers wine drinkers huge scope for vinous adventure. Cotter is particularly excited by the lesser known region of Montilla-Moriles with its more than 300-year-old history.
"Bottled at 10 to 15-years-old they have so many nuances and are great for matching with food."
If the word sherry strikes fear into your palate, Cotter entreats you to drink again. "Most people think it's the sweet and fortified stuff that your nana used to have, but this couldn't be further from the truth. The best are dry and are great with salty and fried food, as well as seafood. If you're open to new things, you could well be pleasantly surprised."
LOCAL CONQUISTADOR: Steve Voysey
"My passion for new grape varieties started with albarino," says one-time Montana winemaker, Steve Voysey, who's one of a number of New Zealand vignerons who've planted Spanish grapes - such as this super trendy Spanish white - at his new venture Spade Oak in Gisborne.
"We chose varieties that were reputably food-friendly wines that allow me to explore the qualities of our vineyard," explains Voysey, whose vineyard now boasts a cornucopia of new varieties. "I also aimed for red and white varietals that have a synergy and added more depth to our wine story; hence the product range includes two Spanish varieties, the red tempranillo to go with the white albarino.
"Tempranillo as a choice was helped by a love of the wine style and from the first tasting at Riversun nurseries of experimental wines from the new vines where the tempranillo stood out," recalls Voysey.
"A family trip to Spain and Portugal pretty much sealed our resolve to do this. The wine and food with the coastal lifestyle, the tapas bars and seaside restaurants all appealed to us and were reminiscent of Gisborne," he says.
Spade Oak harvested its first promising crop of albarino last year, "not enough to sell, but enough to learn from", says Voysey, with his inaugural release from the 2012 vintage timed for later this year. Fresh and minerally when made in Rias Baixas from where it hails, its New Zealand counterparts are displaying "interesting white currant and nettle notes" according to Voysey. It also appears well-suited to the moist climes of Gisborne, surviving even this year's particularly damp vintage.
Tempranillo has a longer track record in Voysey's vineyard, with is fourth crop harvested this vintage. "The first crop was fantastic, as they often are, but it's been something of a battle since," he acknowledges. However he now feel he has this wily vine in line, and is optimistic it should perform well in the future.
"These Spanish varieties are fun, lively, fruity and varietally expressive," he says. "They seem made for New Zealand."
THE SPANISH WINE AND TAPAS REVOLUTION
While other major traditional wine-making nations have been struggling to increase exports, Spain has been experiencing a boom in recent years. Assisting this success has been the style of its modern fruity wines, clear labelling and the tapas revolution occurring in many of the world's culinary hot spots.
This style of eating is increasingly taking off here too, with the likes of Bellota, Basque Kitchen, and Dida's offering Aucklanders a taste of Spain. There are some great pairings to be had between Spain's dizzying array of wines and the multiple flavours found in tapas. A fino sherry works well with a wide variety of dishes, especially salty tapas such as almonds, olives and anchovies, as well as spicy chorizo sausage.
Cava, Spain's sparkling wine, pairs well with deep-fried dishes such as such as croquetas and fried seafood, while its zesty albarinos make a heavenly match with oysters and white fish. For meatier fare, try a tempranillo, whose gamey flavours are also a good match with mushroom dishes, or a gutsy garnacha that's great with rich stews.
Borsao Campo de Borja Garnacha 2010 $20-$21
Spain is the source of some great value wines, such as this rich and ripe garnacha from a forward-looking co-operative with its juicy and smooth berry fruits and hints of leather, game and violet. (From Caro's, Wine and More, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Scenic Cellars, Glengarry.)
Palacios La Vendimia Rioja 2010 $24.90
Alvaro Palacios is another of the new wave of Spanish winemakers driving quality in the country. This well-priced modern-style rioja has succulent and lifted blackberry and cherry fruit over savoury undertones. (From Glengarry.)
Bodegas Valdesil "Val de Sil" Godello Sobre Lias, Valdeorras $38-$39
One of the exciting whites imported by St Vincent Cave. Made from 30-year-old vines, it's fresh, tight and flinty with subtle notes of nectarine and almond. (From Wine Vault, Village Winery, Accent on Wine, Bacchus Cellars, Wine Direct, Kemp Rare Wines.)
Compania de Vino Telmo Rodriguez "Gago" Toro 2008 $48-$49.95
A top toro from Telmo Rodriguez that combines the power of its rich and concentrated dark fruit, incense-like spice and ripe tannin with an elegant minerality. (From Caro's, Wine and More, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Scenic Cellars, Glengarry.)
Alvear Carlos VII Montilla-Moriles Amontillado $75
After 15 years of aging this amontillado has emerged from cask in all its dry and intense splendour, layering savoury yeasty notes with hazelnut, smoke and caramel. (From Wine Vault, Village Winery, Accent on Wine, Bacchus Cellars, Wine Direct, Kemp Rare Wines.)
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