One reason for Spain’s staying power has been its uncommon viticultural diversity. Spain has over 100 of its own native wine grapes, which represent over 90% of the country’s plantings by area. “Exports to the U.S. are dominated by Spanish varieties, whose proven track record of quality have earned them name recognition – such as Tempranillo, Garnacha and Monastrell among reds and Albariño, Verdejo and Viura among whites” says Katrin Naelapaa, trade director for Wines from Spain USA. “However, there are dozens more lesser-known Spanish grapes that are ripe for discovery.”
This is not simply the case in the value tier, but at the prestige level as well, driven by on-premise enthusiasm for authenticity and adventure.
“The movement hasn’t completely spilled into mainstream wine stores, which are primarily stacking bolder, more affordable reds from warmer regions,” says Patrick Mata, co-founder of Olé Wines. “But interest in high acid wines from old vines in cooler climates is clearly growing.”
Eight Spanish Grapes to Watch
BOBAL – Spain’s second most widely planted red grape is Bobal from Valencia, which resembles Zinfandel in more ways than one – not simply for its powerful punch and jammy fruit, but for its recent redemption story. The grape’s generous yields and concentrated color led to its dominance in the south. Bulk shipments for deepening paler wines from cooler regions, many made in the ripasso-like method known as doble pasta. However, like so many workhorse grapes, Bobal has shown it can make noble wines when treated with respect, most notably in appellations like Utiel-Requena and Manchuela.
GARNACHA BLANCA – Best known as the main grape of white Chateauneuf-du-Pape, this green-skinned grape is a variant of the superstar Garnacha grape native to Aragón. While it’s unclear where this mutation first emerged, over 80% of its Spanish vineyards are located in Cataluña, where its wines were historically made in a nutty Sherry-like ‘rancio’ style. Today, leading vintners take advantage of traits this white variety shares with its red cousin to make both unoaked and oaked wines, whose heft and tactile richness can rival that of Chardonnay. The Terra Alta appellation just west of Priorat and Montsant makes some of this grape’s most opulent and compelling wines.
GODELLO – Galicia’s next darling grape is undoubtedly Godello, which makes more richly textured white wines than Albariño and performs best further inland in appellations like Valdeorras, Ribeira Sacra and Ribeiro. While these wines are invariably dry and still, they nonetheless echo the Chenin Blancs of the Loire in many ways, from their apple-pear flavor expression and mineral-tinged acidity to their chameleon-like variations of character and complexity based on vineyard site, vine age and degree of ripeness.
GRACIANO – This intense red grape is Rioja’s answer to Petit Verdot: a powerhouse grape traditionally used in a minor blending role for adding color, tannin and fragrance but that is now earning rave reviews as a standalone varietal wine. Widely cultivated in Rioja and Navarra prior to phylloxera, this variety lost ground to Tempranillo and Garnacha due to its frustratingly low yields. Most varietal bottlings are premium wines from Rioja, but the grape’s potential in warmer zones has led to increased plantings in places like Castilla-La Mancha as well.
MALVAR – Less than 700 acres are planted to this quirky Spanish grape, almost all in the Vinos de Madrid appellation south of the capital near Guadalajara. However, this white variety certainly deserves attention for its lively and refreshing unoaked wines. Malvar’s flavors have a passing resemblance to those of Argentina’s Torrontes and Italy’s Friulano, in that they pleasantly combine a subtle touch of Moscato’s seductive floral perfume with the bracing herbal tang found in Sauvignon Blanc.
MENCÍA – Once thought to be related to Cabernet Franc, Mencía has proven to be native to northwestern Spain. It is well adapted to the cool, moist Atlantic-influenced zones better known for white wines, thanks to its ability to make appealing wine even at low degrees of ripeness. The widest range of styles can be found in the Bierzo appellation of Castilla y León, from strawberry-scented young Mencías in the Beaujolais mold to more complex and earthy premium versions that taste more like a mashup of Chinon and Lagrein. However, higher-acid offerings from Galicia’s Valdeorras, Ribeira Sacra and even Rías Baixas are acquiring a cult following among sommeliers.
PRIETO PICUDO – This rare red grape from northern Spain, named for the “dark” and “pointed” appearance of its berries, makes wines whose bright acidity, red fruit and herbal aromas will appeal to Pinot Noir drinkers. The variety was long exploited for volume in the relatively new Tierra de León DO just south of the ancient capital city of the same name. Prieto Picudo has only recently begun to experience a revival driven by a few true believers in its quality potential, especially when sourced from bush vines planted in the early twentieth century.
TEMPRANILLO BLANCO – One of Spain’s rarest grapes is also one of its newest – a green-skinned ‘albino’ mutation of Tempranillo that appeared first in 1988 and was not approved for inclusion in Rioja wines until 2007. Very little of this variety exists and most is used to enhance blended Rioja Blanco wines, but a handful of bodegas do produce a varietal bottling. These sleek wines show great promise for Tempranillo Blanco as a distinctive variety in its own right, with a refreshingly citrusy fragrance reminiscent of pink grapefruit.