When Luis Gutiérrez’s book The New Vignerons was published back in 2017 I sat up and took note, but although I can stretch to struggling through wine books in French, I know my Spanish would not have got me past the first few sentences of the Introduction. When a second edition came out, in English , in May 2018 I trawled the usual bookshops (Foyle’s etc) known to have a decent Wine Section, but never saw it, and so it receded from my mind, because I’m always buying new wine books. However, when I saw it for sale at Viñateros London in February this year it was fairly easy to buy a copy, as indeed it was to collar Luis and cheekily get him to sign it.
Luis’ book was timely on first publication and has proved even more so in the years since. When I wrote my articles about that Viñateros Tasting I was at pains to stress how exciting Spanish Wine is at the moment, endorsing comments that Spain is “the new South Africa”. I’ve been drinking a lot more Spanish wine lately, which will filter into my “Recent Wines” articles in due course, so now seems a good time to write, if somewhat belatedly, about this enthralling book.
Almost every piece you will read on Spanish Wine will likely begin by stating that Spain has the most vines of any country worldwide. The history of Spanish viticulture is relatively simple, allowing for two exceptions (Rioja, and for different reasons, Jerez). From modern man’s earliest recollection Spain meant, to the majority, red plonk, probably poured from the spout on an animal skin several feet above the receiving orifice. In the late 20th Century a number of producers set about to change that perception, but perhaps looking over the mountains towards Bordeaux, they felt the best way to achieve things was certainly with lashings of new oak and bottles the weight of which would put a man’s back out. Maybe throw in some international grape varieties for good measure.
That main exception (in that it had achieved some renown for quality), Rioja, had become pretty much a generic anachronism by the time I met it. I had no idea that gems existed, Lopez de Heredia being the prime example. The ones I tried if I’m honest tasted as if someone had emptied a number of those cheap tiny plastic bottles of vanilla essence into the vat. And when the so-called modern Riojas came along, I had no issue with their quality. It’s just that why would someone who was not Spanish buy them over Bordeaux, Burgundy and Barolo? Especially at those prices.
As for Ribera Del Duero, well aside from a lucky encounter with Vega Sicilia Valbuena in the 1990s, they were so oaky that it put me off for years until I came across Goyo Garcia Viadero (which wasn’t actually until 2017, when these wines stood out head and shoulders above anything else at a Consejo-organised London tasting). Oh, and let’s not forget Priorat. I was in early and bought some Scala Dei 1988, in the days when it was known as “Priorato”. That was a reasonable 13.5% abv, but when they started appearing at 15%, well even in my youth I baulked. Thankfully the Fredi Torres Priorat I bought this week is back to 13.5%.
Some of the producers now among Spain’s finest were part of this “Modern Spain” movement, but their winemaking was always more nuanced than those who saw a commercial opportunity, perhaps the same type of businessmen who saw fit to downgrade Cava to a generic supermarket sparkler for the masses, from which it has taken until now to recover from. That nuance, coupled with an appreciation of Spain’s great terroirs and great autochthonous grape varieties, is what has informed the next generation of Spanish winemakers. I think it has also informed, and given confidence to, those creating a revolution in Spain via low intervention and natural wines.
Gutiérrez is Robert Parker’s man in Spain. Now I think many of you will know that “post-Parker” began for me around the 1989 Bordeaux vintage, when I opened a wooden case of Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classé to see it registered 14% abv, a far cry from the 11.5% attribution on the labels of Médoc châteaux I had begun to worship the god of wine through from vintages of the mid-to-late 1970s, with all their savoury goodness. But Luis is the man. In fact he was co-author, along with my friend Jesús Barquin and Victor de la Serna of what I had always rated by far the best book on Spain previously (The Finest Wines of Rioja and Northwest Spain, Aurum Press 2011, still well worth a purchase…sadly we never got Jerez and Southeastern Spain). Most importantly, Luis is in the game.
You’ll find the format of the book easy to understand because it is simply fourteen producer profiles of some of the most innovative, forward thinking, and indeed game changing names in Spanish wine. You can see all the names in the photo below, but they include the Envinate quartet, Dani Landi/Fernando Garcia, Eduardo Ojeda (Equipo Navazos), Rafa Bernabei, Sara Pérez/René Barbier and, of course, Telmo Rodríguez finishing it all off.
Eduardo Ojeda with Jesús Barquin (Equipo Navazos)
The book is published in, well I’m not sure of the size but it’s just a little smaller than A4, so it lends itself well to the beautiful photography of Estanis Núñez, who turned from photographing musicians to wine in his later years. In my opinion his photographs rank alongside Mick Rock (Wink Lorch’s books) and Jon Wyand (World of Fine Wine stalwart) as among the best in the business, and the photography certainly adds to the book.
I think Gutiérrez gets it right in his selection of names. Of course as I said, Luis is the man, and were I to write the same book I’d be writing about Partida Creus, Ambiz, Purulio, Victoria Torres Pecis, and so on, but then again, I am a big fan of Envinate, Señor Jiménez-Landi, and my all time Spanish heroes, Equipo Navazos. It was also nice to see people like Pablo Calatayud (Celler del Roure) included. But if one person really exemplifies what this book is all about, perhaps it is Telmo Rodríguez.
I first came across Telmo in the 1990s. That pioneer of true wine bloodhounds (UK Chapter), Simon Loftus, began to import the wines via the Adnams Brewery’s wine arm, which this young man was making around Spain’s (at the time) lesser known regions. I can’t recall the first Rodríguez wine I tried, other than his family’s Remelluri (in fact, their white Rioja). It may have been Al-Muvedre from Alicante, or possibly Dehesa Gago from Toro.
Both regions were wholly unknown in the UK at the time, and perhaps almost unknown in Spain, yet Telmo saw the true potential of the old bush vines. His foresight has been repeated and echoed down almost three decades as the stars of the New Spain seem to have sought out the same. I’m reasonably certain that if it were not for this man of action, ironically with a family ensconced in Spain’s most conservative (at the time) wine region, we might not have seen a true revival…of Galicia, Andalucia, Catalonia, and regions such as Toro, Bierzo, Sierra Nevada and more. His influence may be indirect in some cases, but he was the man who showed others the way.
It’s fascinating that Telmo discovered a lot of these old vineyards in his wanderings with Pablo Eguzkiza, with whom he works, along the old sheep trails (we call them droveways). They had been planning to write a book on the lost vineyards of Spain but never got around to it. That’s rather like me because I planned to write a book on the lost vineyards of France at the end of the 1980s. You know, Marcillac and the rest of Aveyron, the Ardèche, Jura, Bugey, Jurançon and Irouléguy. Back then even Condrieu was totally unknown to most people and only a very select few really knew Auguste Clape’s Cornas, Jacques Puffeney’s Arbois or Elian da Ros’s Marmandes.
But thankfully Telmo began a winemaking company and the rest is history. I get the impression that Telmo Rodríguez is in some ways the muse for this book, but I’m so glad he is. Instead of merely telling us about what had been lost, he began bringing some of it back to life, and in doing so he became an inspiration, with a small band of others (like René Barbier Ferrer, the founder of modern Priorat), for the new generation that is finally pulling Spain into the 21st Century, in the prominent position it deserves. This prominence is achieved by looking back at tradition, both in the vines and in the winery. Old values and methods reevaluated by people who can balance modernity with the past and in doing so produce such exciting wines.
Does the book have any flaws? Well the main one, no let’s be honest here, its only one, is it’s length, but that is merely me being greedy. I loved reading it, and I would have loved it to have gone well beyond its 270+ pages, and its fourteen producers. Maybe we need a second volume for the “young guns, but I’m not completely sure Mr Robert Parker would be writing the Foreword to that one. Highly recommended and timely.
The New Vignerons (sub-titled A New Generation of Spanish Wine Growers) by Luis Gutiérrez (2nd Edn in English) was published in May 2018 by Planeta Gastro (32,95€/£39.99 RRP.
Luis’s book with Barquin and de la Serna – The Finest Wines of Rioja and Northwest Spain (2011)