Red, Red (Spanish) Wine
Education Experience 4.5 Wine Courses

Red, Red (Spanish) Wine

Saturday 27 October 2018

Experience: 4.5/5

It’s at this stage of a Diploma Module that things come quick and fast. Day 2 was just a fortnight ago, there are 2 Assignments to complete, and the 3-hour Theory exam within a month. The final Module day always starts with a single lecture and a ‘Tutored Tasting’ to finish. Today, we were in the very capable hands of Dave March.

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Quantity or Quality? So they say. You can’t have it both ways is the popular maxim. Many a Japanese car manufacturer might disagree. Spain is the world’s largest wine producer by vineyard area. It lies behind Italy and France for volume and thereby hangs a story. Vine density is one of the lowest in the world, due to 4m x 4m vine spacing. This averages out at 900 to 1,600 vines per hectare. Compare that with 3,000 to 3,500 in South Africa or 9,000 and 10,000 in Bordeaux and Champagne, respectively. Yields, Dave explained, are low too due to the very hot summers and traditional lack of irrigation as reliable power has been unavailable, especially in inland rural areas. It was only in 1996 that the authorities officially allowed irrigation. Many winegrowers can still ill afford. It is no surprise too that the major wine regions face the Atlantic or Mediterranean or border rivers, for the moderating influence of the large bodies of water.

‘The Spanish wine, my God, it is foul, catpiss is champagne compared, this is the sulphurous urination of some aged horse’ wrote English author D.H. Lawrence. I can’t confirm the date but I suspect he wrote this around 1920 during his ‘savage pilgrimage’ exile from Britain, during which he travelled extensively in Europe and beyond. Spain has traditionally been viewed as a bulk producer using obsolete equipment which, together with the hot climate, means it is impossible to make the fresh, fruity wines that the drinker today wants.

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Fortunately for the consumer, the Spanish wine industry is going through a renaissance. Two major factors have contributed to this. As with the rise of the Super Tuscan in Italy, it took a maverick to begin. Miguel Torres was Spain’s answer to Italy’s Marchese Mario Incisa del Rochetta. Miguel, like Mario, planted many French cultivars in Penedès in the 1960s and so began 5 decades of innovation and experimentation to modernise the industry. The world had to sit up and take note when, in 1970, his Grand Coronas Reserva Cabernet took 1st Prize at the Wine ‘Olympics’ in Paris, ahead of Chateau Latour and the other Bordeaux cru classé wines. Torres is now one of the world’s biggest wine brands – exporting 75% of its Spanish wine and selling 32 million bottles to 120 countries – with interests in Chile, California and China. Who then says that you cannot have both quantity and quality? Perhaps, quantity has a quality of its own?

The second driver to modernise the Spanish wine industry, overlapping this period, is geo-political and historic. Democracy was restored in Spain in 1975 and Spain joined the EU in 1986. Stabilisation of the country and subsequent EU investment in modern equipment and practices in both vineyards and cellar – vine analysis and monitoring, irrigation, temperature-controlled fermentation stainless steel tanks, commercial yeasts, shorter ageing time in French rather than American oak – has led to a ‘new wave’ of Spanish wine production. Poor reputations age slowly, as any South African Pinotage lover will know, and Spain has not fully turned corner. Some regions are producing excellent wines (Priorat, Penedès and Cava, also in the Rueda and Ribera del Duero regions) but progress is patchy. There are still the challenges faced by ‘cheap’ Rioja and ‘maiden aunt’ Jerez sherry.

As is customary, Dave walked us through the Spanish climate, wine law (fortunately, simpler than in Germany, Austria or Italy) and wine terms, together with the common grape varieties. I knew the drought-resistant white varieties of Verdejo and Albariňo, together with the Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Monastrell (Mourvèdre) and Cariňena (Carignan) red cultivars even if not all by their Spanish names. These grapes, I have no doubt, will be planted in greater amount in South Africa to cope with the dual challenge of climate change and water shortage. I knew neither Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada, used to make Cava, nor white Pedro Ximénez and red Mencia and Graciano.

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We tasted our first wine as Dave began a whistle-stop tour of the major wine regions. The wines did not always match the region being taught at the time but did that really matter? Cava is Spain’s answer to France’s Champagne and Italy’s Prosecco, Asti and Franciacorta. Almost all is made in 7 communities in Catalunya in North-East Spain. It is made using the same method as Champagne, the Méthode Traditionelle or rather Método Tradicional, but as mentioned above, using different cultivars. Macabeo makes up the base wine (½ the blend) and is neutral tasting and sharpish; Xarel-lo brings an earthy flavour and higher alcohol; whilst Parellada contributes finer, floral flavours.

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I learned that the remuage (riddling) is automatically done using a gyropalette (girasol) a machine that was invented in Penedès, Spain. Meanwhile, the Brut Cava was very refreshing. The dry, sparkling wine was textured, with yellow stone fruits, warm lime and mineral hints, unlike smooth and fruity Champagne. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it cost just R80 a bottle and equally unsurprised that new, tighter DO classification and single-estate Cavas have recently been introduced (2017) to rid Cava of the ‘cheap and cheerful’ image. Meanwhile, Dave waxed lyrical on another white wine that we sadly did not taste. It was the delicate, crisp, complex, lively and delicate Rias Baixas (ask him to pronounce!) that is made from Albariňo in the Galicia region in North-West Spain, the smallest of Spain’s wine areas.

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The second wine for tasting was a Rioja from the Ebro Valley in North-Central Spain. The region has a wide variety of wines and styles due to the differing soil types and climate together with length of ageing. I should have listened to, and learned more about, the characteristics of each of the 3 sub-regions. I had thought that Rioja might feature in the 3 hour Theory Exam but hadn’t paid enough attention to them. The wine contained classic thick-skinned Tempranillo with a sweet cherry, plum, red berry nose with dry spice. The sweetness came from American oak. Some new producers are using French oak to give more texture and structure.

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Wines 5, 6 and 7 were Rioja too, of different ageing to compare. The Crianza (aged for at least 2 years after harvest, minimum 6 months in oak) showed its 12 years of age with a tertiary development ‘pong’ of stewed, gamey, almost overripe, plum fruits. I preferred the fresher, smoother and better balanced Rioja Reserva (minimum 3 years ageing, 1 year oak). The Marqués de Valdueza was another Crianza that contained 14% Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It was ripe and fruity.

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Next, Dave took us south on our wine journey to the regions of Rueda and Ribera del Duero. Though inland, the altitude of over 800 metres moderates daytime temperatures and brings significant diurnal temperature variation (35°C in day, 6°C at night in August). This, together with the cooling affect of the River Duero (which becomes the River Douro in Portugal as it flows to the Atlantic Ocean), combines to make wines with ripe summer fruits and fresh acidity. The Rueda is known for dry, aromatic Verdejo but is it’s the reds of Ribera del Duero that are better known.

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Mention Ribera del Duero and the name Vega Sicilia will come to mind. The estate was the only producer of significance in the area until the 1980s when American wine critic Robert Parker awarded 100 points for Alejandro Fernández’s Tinto Pesquera. The area since has seen a large expansion (50% by vineyard area) that poses a challenge to maintain wine quality. Tempranillo, known locally as Tinta Fino, must form at least 75% of any blend. Some of the best wines are made from grapes grown in bush vines and with a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon to add cassis complexity and structure.

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We tasted 2 wines, both of 2011 vintage. The first, the Valbueno, showed classic sweet, ripe strawberry, cherry and red berry aromas. Mid-weight on the palate, the wine showed some mushroom flavours consistent with ageing, together with silky tannins and good balance. The Pintia was excellent too, showing some blue, mulberry fruits for added complexity.

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Spain started with Cava as an apéritif and so it was fitting to complete the wine circle by travelling to the sherry country of Jerez to finish. It was the British who coined the term ‘sherry’ as they could not pronounce Jerez. I’d like to think they were drunk at the time! Sherry, like (vintage) port is a fortified, heavily blended wine that is aged in barrels and has many different styles. Here the similarities end. Sherry is made using the solera system. In simple terms, freshly fermented white Palomino wine is made in batches and fed to nursery barrels that, in turn, supply the tiered solera system. One third of wine from the lowest barrels is drawn off annually with the older barrels topped up by the younger wine from above. The trick lies in the blending.

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Additionally, the final style of sherry depends on how the base wine, containing 11-12% alcohol, is fortified. Wine that is fortified with grape spirit to 15.5% is allowed to grow flor yeast on the surface, which prevents contact with air. These wines make the biologically aged, paler and lighter Manzanilla, Pale Cream and Amontillado sherry. Fortification to 17-18% kills off the flor yeast to make oxidatively aged, darker Oloroso sherry, together with the medium and sweeter, cream styles. Sweetness (and final colour) is adjusted using additional fortification, blending in sweet wine, adding sweet randy (mistela), grape concentrate (arrope) or fresh grape must.

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We didn’t taste sherry but so ended the theory teaching of Module 3, the biggest of them all (and with some 190 pages of notes to learn). We broke for coffee before returning for one final burst from Dave. It is custom that the final lesson of every Module is a Tutored Tasting. This is a chance to recap on the varietal differences, the stylistic characteristics of country and region, and exam technique. The lesson thus has my full attention. It was good to taste SA v NZ Sauvignon Blanc – the one with more weight and good fruits (Boschendal) and the other with focused, purity of fruit (Marlborough)  – and to compare with a precise, lean, mineral Sancerre from the Loire Valley in France.

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De Wetshof Chardonnay is always my favourite so good too to compare with a Côte de Beaune from Burgundy. I learned that a Meursault has flavours of ‘buttery popcorn’. After, Dave outlined the possible countries and regions for each of the 8 exam cultivars: Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Shiraz. Each have their own character: Riesling is ‘aromatic’, the other whites are not; Vouvray has aromas of quince (I brought one to the class as many hadn’t smelled the fruit before); New Zealand Chardonnay smells of gooseberries; Merlot is shyer than Cabernet Sauvignon on the nose; Chile Pinot Noir has flavours of black wine gums; and more.

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We ended with 2 Pinots Noirs, one from De Morgenzon (another favourite South African producer) and one from Marlborough in New Zealand. We discussed every attribute of the wine – the appearance, depth and colour; the aromas on the nose and their intensity; and the fruit flavours, texture, tannins, acidity, oak, maturation and structure of the palate.

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Last, one of the real successes of Module 3 has been the setting up of a student tasting group. Everyone of us knows the benefit of a regular Tasting Group: the shared costs; the learning from each other; the mutual support; the camaraderie. It’s a ‘no brainer’ but it somehow took us a year (Module 1 and Module 2) to get our tasting act together. Perhaps it was the thought that our blind Tasting Exam is in June next year, or I picked a good moment to motivate the class. It matters not as we now have a superb Tasting Group that meets every Monday in geographic rotation and with the host deciding a theme and selecting the wines. It means that we can continue, among ourselves, the Tutored Tasting – and I say ‘Cheers!’ to that.

Wines tasted:


NV Gran Castellflorit Brut Cava (Spain)


2016 Nautilus Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand)
2016 Boschendal Sauvignon Blanc (South Africa)
2014 De Wetsof The Site Chardonnay (South Africa)
2012 Pernand-Vergelesses Louis Latour Chardonnay (France)


2011 Valenciso Rioja (Spain)
2011 Valbueno Ribera del Duero (Spain)
2011 Pintia Ribera del Duero (Spain)
2006 Hacienda Grimon Rioja Crianza (Spain)
2000 Lealtanza Rioja Reserva (Spain)
2006 Marqués de Valdueza (Spain)
2015 De Morgenzon Pinot Noir (South Africa)
2013 Opawa Marlborough Pinot Noir (New Zealand)

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