Spain boasts many mysterious varietals

Steve Delaney
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I’ve often written about the many little known and unique vine varieties found in Italy, many of which are capable of producing interesting quality wines. Italy is not the only country with ancient roots in the production of wine, and we can look to many other Old World producers for wonderful wines which are new to us.

Many great wines from all around the world, made from the familiar varietals, can be enjoyed each year. Part of my enjoyment of wines is that each bottle, each vintage, each variation offers the potential for a new experience.

That potential is multiplied when you are trying some grape that is completely new to you.

Spain’s history as an Old World wine producer dates back to prehistoric times, thousands of years before first the Phoenicians and then the Carthaginians made wine in the country.

During the Roman era which followed, Spain was the vineyard for much of the western Empire and its wines were exported widely.

All this is to say that the probability is high that unique varietals developed in Spain, either from wild vines, or from crosses of imported vines adapted to local conditions.

There are hundreds of grape varieties planted in Spain, but most production comes from about two dozen varieties, not including the increasing presence of the “international” varieties such as Chardonnay.

Some of these grapes have become familiar to us, such as Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Monastrell (France’s Grenache and Mourvèdre of the Mediterranean wine regions). We may also be a little familiar with grapes such as Palomino and Pedro Ximénez, which are used in the making of Sherry wines.

Cava, the sparkling wine of Spain, is popular here, but the three grape varieties used in its production are less familiar: Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo.

Other varietals can be found here, but are little known, including Godello, Bobal, Mencia and Albariño. But all of these and a few more we can at least find here and so have the chance to get to know them.

Spain has many unique wine regions and many have specific varietals connected to the region.

This is certainly the case for the Basque provinces of Spain where Txakoli wines are produced. These wines aren’t exactly rare, as millions of bottles are produced each year, but my guess is they are not well known outside of the country.

The Basque country experiences the cool and wet conditions of exposure to the Bay of Biscay.

This area receives three times the rainfall of nearby Rioja, which is protected from the sea by the Cantabrian mountains. Such conditions encourage the production of lighter style white wines with good acidity. In a region where seafood and fishing play such an important role, these wines just happen to fit in quite well.

Grape varieties in Basque country include Hondarribi Zuri, Hondarribi Beltza, and Mune Mahatsa — all unknowns to me, at least before this weekend. Actually, only the Beltza seems to be a variety unique to the region, and the other two have arrived from elsewhere with adopted names.

This weekend I enjoyed two samples of a Hondarribi Zuri wine produced by Txomin Etxaniz in the Getariako Txakolina DO. This wine is not available locally, which is unfortunate because it did make a nice match with seafood.

The aromas of the wine showed minerality and a certain waxiness. Crisp acidity in the mouth helped support a taste which was a little more complex than might be expected. Try some if you ever get the chance!

Steve Delaney is a member of the Opimian Society. Email him at sdelaney@nfld.com

Twitter: @delaneystephen

Organizations: Opimian Society

Geographic location: Spain, France, Bay of Biscay

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  • Wines Inform Assessors
    July 08, 2014 - 08:01

    Nice article. now there is a trend to promote forgotten varieties in Spain. I can add others to your list as Sumoll, Bobal, Garnacha tintorera, Callet, Manto Negro, Caiño,.. (in reds) and Godello, Picapoll, Garnatxa blanca, ... (in whites) ..all this varieties giving spcial and good wines.