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Spain's moment in the sun
The wine world's latest darling is an ancient land that has revived itself with modern methods.
October 8, 2004: 6:07 PM EDT
By Gordon T. Anderson

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Every few years, wine lovers anoint a country or region as their new darling. In the 1970s, it was Napa. Then came Sonoma, Chile, Australia and others from the New World.

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The latest hot spot, however, is as Old World as it gets: Spain.

Energetic young winemakers there are using modern production techniques -- and modern marketing -- to transform the country's once-fusty local wine business into one of the planet's most dynamic. And the wine trade has taken notice.

"Spain has come on faster and further than any other wine-producing country, in terms of improved quality, in the past 15 years," according to wine critic Michael Presser.

The process involves updating traditions, not discarding them. Vintners have embraced the stylistic strengths of various regions -- Rioja's earthiness, or Priorat's powerful intensity -- but altered them to suit 21st century palates.

"Spain has managed to absorb the modern advantages," the Wine Specatator wrote, "without abandoning its inherent distinctive, traditional character."

In other words, they didn't just tear up the old vines and plant merlot.

Now, the happy results of those experiments in winemaking are becoming more widely available. And that has given greater visibility to well-known grapes like tempranillo and garnacha (what the French call grenache), both widely used in Spain.

It also has meant that grapes the Spanish formerly kept to themselves are getting a global coming-out party. The most prominent such debutantes: mencia, used in the Bierzo region, and albariŮo, which forms the basis for the country's best whites, from Rias Baixas.

Unexpected revolution

On the face of it, Spain seems an unlikely place for a revolution, if only because its wine industry is so long established. It's the fourth-biggest wine-producing country by revenue, and No. 1 in terms of total acreage devoted to growing grapes.

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But until recently, it was an industry that pointed inward. Spanish wines had a reputation as unsophisticated and old-fashioned. They sold well at home, but were ignored elsewhere, except at the low end of the market. Producers seemed content to make wines only Spaniards could love.

That began to change about 15 years ago. A new wave of winemakers, some still in their 20s, began experimenting. They wanted to make wines that would appeal to Americans, Brits, and other drinkers in the ever-expanding international market.

Out went the vats made by coopers who knew Columbus. Out went the wines so earthy they tasted like grape dirt.

In their place came new oak and stainless steel vats -- and vibrant wines whose fruity complexity could rival the best in the world. Their efforts grabbed attention, prices started rising, and the pioneers became local heroes.

Today in Priorato, grapes sell for 10 times what they did in the mid-1990s, the Independent of London reported.

Tough day at work

To explore the new Spanish offerings in depth, I attended this week's Great Match in New York, a food-and-wine festival sponsored by the Trade Commission of Spain.

Basically, the day entailed wandering from table to table sampling wine, then nibbling on Serrano ham and Cabrales cheese.

With hundreds of producers present, the event illustrated the depth and diversity of Spanish wines today. I tried Riojas that were lively not dusty, Priorats that exploded with flavors of plum and cherry, and ever-so crisp whites from Rias Baixas.

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It was a marketing function, of course, so producers were clearly trying to promote the idea that a revolution has been going on. Even so, as I left the place I realized at least two things.

One was that Spain's producers have all learned to sing in praise of the new winemaking religion.

And the second? That an afternoon of wine tasting can make you tipsy.

To see some of the Spanish wines I found most appealing -- tasted at the Great Match or elsewhere -- click on the gallery.

The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to:  Top of page

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