Rediscovering Spain's indigenous and local varieties
“There is a newfound confidence in what Spain, and Spain alone, can offer today’s wine lover.”
Jancis Robinson MW
Despite Spain having the largest area under vine in the world, producers are still unearthing forgotten regions, vineyards, and varieties across the country. Spain is experiencing a revolution, in which indigenous varieties and old vines are king.
Well adapted to their local climate, soils and topography, these vines produce wines with distinctive aromatics and a strong sense of place. Many of our producers are celebrating the quality of their local grapes to produce ambitious and characterful wines - a selection of which we share below.
Situated in the Atlantic north-west corner of Spain, sub-regions such as Rías Baixas, Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, and Valdeorras have established a reputation for refreshing and crowd-pleasing whites from local varieties Albariño and Godello, as well as more idiosyncratic grapes such as Treixadura and Doña Blanca.
With a pronounced maritime influence, the region’s wines are expressive of their Atlantic origins, with bright acidity and a saline edge. Granitic and decomposed schist soils also impart a characteristic concentration, while local varieties lend herbal aromatics, palate weight and pithy texture.
Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Loire Cabernet Franc aficionados may also appreciate the restraint and complexity of Galicia’s cool-climate reds. Varieties such as Mencía produce wines of finesse with crunchy red fruit, floral perfume and complex spice, while smaller plantings of Brancellao, Mouratón and Sousón provide further intrigue and depth.
Since starting his own winery in 2004, Rafael Palacios has fast become one of Spain’s pre-eminent producers of white wine. His 32 parcels of Godello, which are spread over 19.5 hectares in the Val do Bibei in Valdeorras, Galicia, produce some of Spain’s most interesting white wines. The vines cohabit with the rocks and stones that define the landscape. Sandy soils, derived from decomposed granite, limit vine vigour and the high altitudes (from 580 to 720 metres above sea level) ensure marked diurnal variation and a long growing season.
"This is one of the best white wine-only projects in Spain." Luis Gutiérrez, The Wine Advocate
Rafael Palacios ‘Louro do Bolo’ Valdeorras Godello 2019
The ‘Louro do Bolo’ is made from small parcels of Godello with an average age of 25 years, grown at over 600 metres above sea level. Fermented in large French oak foudres, followed by four months on lees, it has a lovely flinty character on the nose that gives way to a fresh note of wild mountain flowers. On the palate, it displays taut, saline fruit and a satisfying, oily texture.
“Very good freshness, plus a very salty finish and the granite sensation that gives it an electric touch, complex, powerful and with a profile of a serious wine...This has to be one of the best vintages of Louro, a clear step up from previous vintages.” Luis Gutiérrez, The Wine Advocate
Gallina de Piel, `Manar dos Seixas` Ribeiro 2018
A blend of 81% Treixadura, 10% Albariño, 8% Godello and 1% Loureiro, ‘Manar dos Seixos’ is the latest wine produced by the travelling winemaking team at Gallina de Piel. The grapes come from a single vineyard in the Miño river valley, where morning fog and cool valley breezes promote slow ripening and delicate aromatics. One of the principal grape varieties in Portugal’s Vinho Verde, Trexiadura provides wonderful palate-weight. This has lifted aromas of chamomile, jasmine flowers and fresh green apple. There is a wonderful pithy texture both from the variety and eight months on lees, tempered by zesty acidity.
“Manar is authoritative, extremely complex and tightly-wound...It is one of the most ‘grown-up’ and exacting Spanish white wines I have tasted in years and it is a classic David [Seijas, winemaker] creation in that it is designed to drink with epic cooking.” Matthew Jukes
“A textbook, fresh Ribeiro with classical aromas of moss and herbs, white fruit and a slight bitter twist in the palate. Clean and precise.” Luis Gutiérrez, The Wine Advocate
Alter, Ribeiro Tinto 2018
Alter’s Ribeiro Tinto is a blend of Sousón (60%) and Brancellao (40%), of which they have less than one hectare planted. Sousón lends deep colour and structured acidity to the blend, while the more ethereal Brancellao provides floral perfume. The grapes are grown 45 kilometres away from the Atlantic Ocean, where the Mediterranean climate is cooled by mountain breezes allowing the grapes to retain their freshness as they ripen slowly. The palate is expressive with vibrant cherry tones, and notes of liquorice and spice. Lively acidity and chalky tannins lead to a refreshing finish.
Javier Dominguez’s Dominio do Bibei has been widely acknowledged as the driving force behind the emergence of quality wines in Spain’s historic Ribeira Sacra. Attracted by the region’s old vines and untouched Jurassic landscape, his family bought land in the Bibei valley, Ribeira’s most easterly sub-region. Since then, he has worked tirelessly to revive the region and its indigenous vines.
“Ribeira Sacra has one of the most amazing vineyard landscapes not only in Galicia or Spain but also in the world! There are hardly any new vines there; it’s an old region with incredible potential and local varieties to produce unique and characterful wines.” Luis Gutiérrez, The Wine Advocate
Dominio do Bibei, `Lapola` White Ribeira Sacra 2018
‘Lapola’ is a blend of 88% Godello, 10% Albariño and 2% Doña Blanca fermented in large format oak and concrete eggs. The vines are aged between 13 and 100 years old and planted at 400 to 750 metres above sea level, where the Atlantic climate, high altitude and north facing aspect ensure bright acidity and freshness. This is a truly distinctive wine with aromas of wild herbs, orchard fruit and spice, leading to a long and salty finish.
Dominio do Bibei, `Lacima` Red Ribeira Sacra 2016
Dominio do Bibei’s top wine, ‘Lacima’, is a blend of 68% Mencía, 22% Brancellao, 5% Mouratón and 5% Sousón from the peak of the hillside. Fermentation took place using indigenous yeasts in open 500-litre French oak barrels with daily punch-downs. Lifted aromas of rose petal and pomegranate, from the proportion of Brancellao, complement Mencía’s crunchy red fruit and herbal tones. On the palate there is a wonderful tension and balance of earthy spice and refreshing acidity.
“It has fine, sophisticated tannins and a seamless mouthfeel. The nose is floral and expressive, elegant and nuanced, with detail and complexity. This is stunning. It has to be the finest vintage of Lacima to date—a vintage of great balance and freshness, with all it takes for a long and positive development in bottle. It should make old bones. Bravo!” Luis Gutiérrez, The Wine Advocate
Not long ago, Garnacha was Spain’s most-planted black grape variety, but now represents around 6% of plantings. While much of the region has been replanted with international varieties on the flat plains, Domaines Lupier’s husband and wife team Enrique Basarte and Elisa Ucar have sought to salvage and restore native old vine Garnacha at altitude. Their oldest site was planted in 1903, while their approach in the winery is ‘hands off’, performing one punch down, if any, to ensure a delicate extraction.
“Enrique Basarte and Elisa Ucar...continue to learn about their vineyards with each new vintage and have been producing the same two labels since they started in 2006. They are part of the new association of winegrowers called Futuro Viñador...committed to preserving the landscape, old vineyards, traditions and local cultures, producing wines that reflect all these things and planting new vineyards to prepare for the vigneron future...Enrique spends his days working in the vineyards, where work is organic and biodynamic. He is one of the few true 'viñadores'. Their home is the winery, and the winery is their home.” Luis Gutiérrez, The Wine Advocate
Domaines Lupier, `El Terroir` Navarra 2017
‘El Terroir’ is produced from deep limestone soils. The name is a nod to the area’s soils, which Enrique and Elisa believe define the wine’s earthy profile. The wine was aged for 12 months in a mixture of 500-litre to 1,500-litre French oak (only 8% new), with aromas of juniper, wild herbs, pepper spice and a juicy core of raspberry fruit. The combination of high altitude (600-750 metres above sea level), Atlantic influence and limestone soils imparts an innate freshness and acidity to temper the intense concentration from the low yielding vines.
Castilla Y León
Tempranillo is grown throughout Spain’s most recognised wine regions, but Cigales (a small zone in northern Spain, north of Valladolid) offers its own interpretation with superb depth and value. The conditions are extreme with a harsh continental climate, poor soils composed of gravel and sand, and old bush vines resulting in very low yields. In this heat, old vine Tempranillo (known here as Tinto del Pais) produces small berries with thick skins and impressive concentration, while altitudes of 700 metres above sea level ensure fresh acidity and balance.
Finca Museum, `Museum` Cigales Reserva 2015
The ‘Museum’ Cigales Reserva is 100% Tempranillo, aged for 22 months in French oak barrels and a further 15 months ageing in bottle. It is vivid ruby, with intense aromas of cassis, red cherry and roasted hazelnut. There is a rich density on the mid-palate, with velvety tannins and opulent fruit perfume, complemented by bright acidity. The oak is well-integrated.
Valdespino, `Viña Macharnudo Alto` Barrel-Fermented Palomino 2019
Traditionally reserved for sherry production in Jerez, ‘Viña Macharnudo Alto’ is a 100% Palomino white. The fruit is sourced from Valdespino’s famed Macharnudo single vineyard. It is one of the highest sites in the area, reaching 135 metres above sea level, and benefits from both the Poniente wind and good exposure to the sun. Fermented in sherry barrels, it displays delicate white stone-fruit character supported by soft brioche notes. This is a dazzling expression of Macharnudo’s albariza-driven, low-yield intensity.