Spain’s international varieties

Indigenous grapes may be the hot topic in the cooler quarters of the trade, but let’s not forget that Spain has long made a broad range of highly enjoyably, very characterful and often good value wines from varieties that are widely-planted around the globe.

Moreover, a majority of these so-called ‘international’ varieties have been established in Spanish soils for a very long time. This is especially true of the vineyards in the cosmopolitan northeast, where proximity to France, an incredibly varied mix of soils and micro-climates, plus something of a New World-style attitude that embraces diversity, makes for an incredibly abundant viticultural tapestry.

All of which means rich pickings for buyers looking for something familiar yet a little different for the list, recognisable varieties but with a bit of a story, and wines that will certainly stand out as points of difference on the list.

One of my favourite and most pleasant examples of this cosmopolitan flavour came as a surprise on a visit to the beautiful, mountainous heart of Aragon’s Somontano region. Indigenous varieties abound there, as do international varieties, including finely-structured Cabernet Sauvignon, surprisingly good Pinot Noir and poised Chardonnay.

What really caught the eye (and palate) though, were exquisitely perfumed yet restrained Gewurztraminer from labels such as Viñas del Vero and Cojon de Gato – a variety which might come as something of a surprise for any that tend to think of Spain as one big, hot landmass.

It’s not, of course, being the second most mountainous European country after Switzerland, with climatic conditions that range from warm, generous Levantine sun to the rain-lashed greenery of the Atlantic coast in Galicia, with pretty much every other climatic and altitude variation in between. And that’s why Gewurztraminer has been able to find a more than suitable home.

Elsewhere there’s much to impress that’s ‘international’. For those that haven’t tried, the world-class Cabernet Sauvignons of Marqués de Griñón near the atmospheric city of Toledo should impress, as too will the straight Petit Verdot from this aristocratic property in the very heart of Iberia.

Edging back east and north, there are many DOs spread out across Catalonia, where moderate growing conditions and vineyards tucked away in hilly locations positively encourage diversity.

On Raimat’s vast and high-tech estate in Costers del Segre it long ago became apparent that cool climate international varieties were as well suited to the climate as Catalan grapes, with memorable Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay much in evidence both as single variety and blended wines.

In nearby Conca de Barbera, too, there’s juicy Cabernet and Merlot to be found, while the coastal Penedès and Tarragona regions are so littered with differing micro-climates that pretty much anything and everything – from Cabernet Franc to Riesling by way of Chardonnay, Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc – has found a suitable home.

It’s a similar story in Navarra, long one of the most varied and cosmopolitan of Spanish region when it comes to hosting a medley of grape varieties, with some very stylish Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons (along with Cabernet-Tempranillo blends) coming out of this diverse region – and often with a favourable price tag attached too.

The list could run and run – and let’s not forget that some of the leading Cavas are also either wholly made from or blended with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the mix – but the point to take away is that Spain has had ‘international’ varieties in its vineyards for a couple of centuries and there is no question that these less indigenous sounding grapes perform as well here as they do elsewhere in Europe, or for that matter the southern hemisphere.

If there is a generalisation that can be made, though, it would be that there is often a purity of varietal expression, along with a generosity of fruit and character at the heart of these wines, plus a general drinkability that lies somewhere between Old and New World. And it’s a winning combination – regardless of a given variety’s origin.