John JuergensSomething new from Spain

We have heard a lot about the globalization of wines, as well as concerns about traditionally distinctive wine producing regions of the world losing their unique character, which gives them their identity. But there is a new appellation in Spain that I believe is showing good potential for bucking this trend toward homogenized wines. And what is even more interesting is that it is a region that we don't normally associate with fine wine: Madrid.

Vinos de Madrid is the newest appellation in a country that has been growing vines and making wine for at least a thousand years. As with most other wine producing countries, through a process of trial and error the locals learned which types of grapes would produce the best fruit, in which parts of the country, and on which parcels of land. And modern viticultural and wine making techniques have greatly expanded the potential for producing high quality wines to many other regions.

Vinos de Madrid is composed of three major sub-regions just to the south and southwest of the capital city of Madrid: Arganda, Navalcarnero, and San Martin. While each sub-region has its own terroir characteristics, there is a very noticeable common tread running through most of the wines from the appellation. More about this later.

As can be expected in any developing wine region - and even within some well-established regions - the wines of Vinos de Madrid showed a bit of variability in the level of quality and sophistication. In addition, there is a wide range of wine making techniques, with some wineries using older, traditional methods and others using state of the art equipment and processes. But as we know, modern technology is not an automatic guarantee of quality. So much of it depends on the skills of the vineyard managers and the wine makers to work that magic of turning fruit juice into high quality wine.

What I found in the process of tasting maybe 300 wines from all of the sub-regions was the full spectrum of quality and sophistication. Certainly, some wineries are still finding their way and just need exposure to the greater wine world to locate the path that leads them to the best quality they can achieve with their fruit and terroir. Others are much further along and are producing if not world-class wines, then very close to it. But all of the wine makers have that one, single most important element for making good wine: passion.

Many of the producers are still fairly small, family run operations, but they have as much pride and commitment to their wines, and maybe even more than some of the large corporate producers. But from what I saw and the people I met, I am convinced that this passion combined with the collaborative commitment of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Regulating Council for the Designation of Origin Vinos de Madrid (I think the Spanish sound much more poetic -- Consejo Regulador de la Denominación de Origen Vinos de Madrid) guarantees that the region eventually will be ranked up there with the other notable and well-known regions such as Rioja, Duero, and Navarra. In fact, in many respects the quality control monitoring by the independent Regulating Council is far more stringent and rigorous than what we find in the other regions and places like France and Germany. The commitment to quality is that important to them.

But what about the actual wines?

Similar to the other regions of Spain, Tempranillo reigns supreme. But what seems to be more common in the Vinos de Madrid region are different blends of Tempranillo with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Garnacha (Grenache). As in most other European wine producing countries, this allows the wine makers to adjust each vintage to get the most character from what Mother Nature has provided. In other words, wine makers are able to focus more on the regional character of the wine rather than simply emphasizing the grape variety as is the case in most New World countries.

As I mentioned above, I found a distinct character thread running through just about all of the wines I tasted, and that was a nice, clean mineral or earth quality backing up some bright, up-front New World style fruit flavors. This is what sets them apart from the other more well-known wine regions of the country, which sometimes can seem a bit stodgy in style. Some of the red wines possessed more of the earthy, barnyard character than others, and other common characteristics included wet wood, tobacco, coffee, chocolate, plums, black cherries, and smoky oak. The tannins were very interesting as well. Many of the wines I tasted were fairly young so they had some very bright tannins up front, but they usually subsided as the wine ran the gauntlet of my palate.

The nemesis of most wines is the issue of oxidation, so it was interesting to find many examples of its counterpart, that is, reduction. We don't hear much about this in New World wines, but I have found it to occur in some Pinot Noir wines from Oregon. It typically is caused by the presence of certain types of sulfur-based compounds that can build up during the fermentation process. The result tends to be a smell of tar or burnt rubber, but, unlike oxidation products, these reductive characteristics often can be reversed and will blow off with decanting.

Another thing I noticed was that many of the wines had fairly high acidity, which seemed to be a stylistic trend across producers. Consequently, the combination of bright, young tannins and high acidity made for some fairly puckery red wines. But I tried to look past these youthful excesses to evaluate the true backbone and structure of the wines, and what they might become as they matured. And, for the most part, I saw good potential. Of course, we have to keep in mind that these wines are still being made to go with food rather than to serve as cocktail wines. And just as you might expect to find in classically made French or Italian wines, the wines blended marvelously with a wide variety of foods, which tamed the acidity and tannins.

As for the whites, Malvar and Airen are dominant, but there are others as well such as Albillo and Moscatel. Both Malvar and Airen grapes have a fresh, aromatic floral quality with bright acidity. They range from very light and delicate with fragrance of white flowers to more robust aromas and flavors of ripe green or yellow apples. As with the red wines there was a distinct mineral quality to many of them similar to what we find in the Vouvray wines of France. Some of these wines also were fairly acidic, and had a hint of smokiness, but they were very drinkable. For reference purposes, I would place these wines in a category somewhere in the region of dry Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling, but lighter in body.

As I mentioned, I always try to look into the heart of every wine I taste to get a sense of its core structure. As far as I am concerned, the Vinos de Madrid appellation is worth keeping an eye on because it has both the heart and soul of the region, which is refreshing in the trend toward global homogenization of wine character. Sure, they might have a way to go before they consistently achieve "Wow" status, but I definitely saw it in the future of the region. As they progress I am certain they are capable of developing greater finesse and depth of character across the board.

As of now there are only a handful of wineries that export their wines into the major markets of the U.S., but this will be changing in the near future. Introductory tastings will be occurring in the spring of 2008 in various parts of the country, so check with your local wine shops to see if any of the wines will be coming to your area. A couple of names to look for that are already here are Qubél and Tagonius, but when browsing the Spanish wine section be sure to look for the appellation designation prominently displayed on every bottle from the region, Vinos de Madrid.


January 2008

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