For Seafood, Spanish Winemakers Finally Getting It White

Spain has the largest per capita consumption of seafood – after Japan – according to David Parker, Export Manager of Castillo Perelada, one of Spain’s leading wineries.  But when I think of Spanish wines, it is the great reds from that country – Rioja, Priorat, Ribera del Duero – that leap to mind.

Unlike France with its grand white Burgundies, a bevy of whites from the Loire Valley, and alluring Alsatian wine, Spain’s white table wines don’t command worldwide attention.  (Cava, Spain’s unique and refreshing bubbly, and Sherry are another story).

But thrilling Spanish white wines are just around the corner as a new generation of winemakers challenge the accepted dogma and explore new frontiers.  As a part of the explosive renaissance in Spain’s wine industry, this new wave of winemakers is willing to experiment with foreign and indigenous grapes and new winemaking techniques to produce balanced and complex white wines at prices ranging from $10 to more than $50 a bottle.

While many are not yet available in the United States because of limited production, often less than 1,000 cases, these are still names to remember because the wines are distinctive, unique and, judging from these early versions, sure to capture the wine world’s attention.

In the past, part of the problem with Spanish white wines was the traditional approach of winemaking that called for extended barrel aging, which imparted arancio or sherry-like oxidized component to the white wines.  Temperature controlled stainless steel fermentation and aging have replaced old oak barrels for aging, leading to fresh, lively white wines.

The government has recognized two regions – Rias Baixis in Galicia in Northwest Spain and Rueda, just west of Ribera del Duero in north central Spain – that excel with white wines (reds are either an afterthought or do not exist) and have awarded them coveted Denominación de Origen (D.O.) status.  But a recent trip to Catalonia (aka Catalunya), the region surrounding Barcelona on Spain’s northwest coast, proved that superb white wines are popping up outside of the two traditional areas.

Peter Sisseck, the man behind Pingus, a wine from the Ribera del Duero that some believe is Spain’s best red wine, is consulting at Clos d’Agon, a property near the coast — seemingly in the middle of nowhere – northeast of Barcelona not far from the French border. This region was just incorporated into the D.O. of Empordà, an area known in the past for large quantities of low quality wine that, like so many traditional Spanish regions, is starting a wine renaissance.

He told me that one of the reasons he accepted the challenge was to make great white wine. After just a few years, the whites, made from a blend of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne grapes that are new to the area, are impressive.  Sisseck employs methods the area has not seen until now.  He ferments only about 10% of the white wine in barrels, but ages them on the lees (the dead yeast) in stainless steel tanks to gain complexity and limit oxidation.

Nearby, Celler Esplet, a large family owned winery, is making sensational bargain-priced white wines from native (Garnacha blanc, Macabeo, Xarel-lo) and foreign (Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat a Petits Grains) grapes. The family has been in the wine business for decades, but just started serious winemaking and bottling under their own label in 2000.  They currently own about 500 acres, making them the largest vineyard owner in Empordà.  Keep your eyes out for their Mareny, an inexpensive blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat (not yet available in the US).

Further inland, halfway between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, is another emerging D.O., Pla de Bages, where Xavier Sánchez, the Commercial and Marketing Director of Abadal, notes with pride, ‘we intend to be different.’  And their white wines are. They work with a unique white grape, Picapoll – not to be confused with Picpoul de Pinet in nearby Rousillon – and make a finely textured, creamy wine of the same name with a refreshing bite and expansive finish.

Winemakers in Priorat, an area that has gone from a forgotten hinterland to Spain’s most expensive red-wine-producing area in only about three decades, are now experimenting with white wines.  René Barbier, Jr, whose father’s Clos Mogador was one of the five founding wineries of Priorat, is making a white wine, Nelin, from Garnacha Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne, Macabeo and a touch of Pinot Noir, which he says adds acidity and structure.

He is still searching for the right fermentation container for the whites.  Barbier, who says stainless steel is ‘too clean – you always need a little oxidation’ and barriques are ‘bad’ for the style of white wine he wants, has come up with a new unlined cement tank, called an egg because of its shape.  Unlike stainless steel, which doesn’t ‘breath’ at all, the unlined cement tank allows for a little oxidation, which lends character to the wine.  The 2004 Nelin has a Rhone-like floral fragrance and apricot skin-like nuances without heaviness.

Carles Pastrana, another of the Priorat’s founding fathers, has fashioned a stellar white wine, Kyrie at his Clos Obac estate, from a blend of Garnacha blanc, Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Muscat a Petits Grains.  The 2004, which spent five months in new oak barrels, is aromatic and intense without a trace of heaviness. You feel the effect of oak – a rich spiciness – without tasting any.

Producers in Montsant, an up-and-coming D.O. that virtually surrounds Priorat and is known for its red wines, are turning out noteworthy white wines.  The local cooperative, Agricolà Falset-Marçà sells a bargain-priced refreshing white made entirely from Garnacha Blanc, under their Ètim label.  Their modern methods prevent the oxidative flavors that this grape and wine are prone to develop.

Mas Perinet, whose wines are as stylish as their new winery – and that’s saying something – make an alluring white wine, Clos Maria, from Garnacha Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Muscat a Petits Grains.  Although their vineyards span the border of Priorat and Montsant, grapes for Clos Maria come from the Montsant portion of the property and the wine carries the Montsant D.O.  The 2004 (only about 500 cases made), fresh and creamy, has a penetrating citric finish.

Although many Spanish reds go remarkably well with paella and other seafood preparations, soon you’ll be faced with the question, do you want a Spanish white wine with your fish?

July 25, 2006