America drinks more, Italy makes more and France sells more, but nobody grows more wine grapes than Spain. In fact, based on 2012 stats, about 15% of all the world’s acres planted to wine vines can be found in that bulbous stub of land that dangles at the bottom of Europe like a saddlebag and pokes into the Atlantic like the bow of a supertanker.
And they’ve been doing it for quite a while now, too. Wine’s origin in Spain is gauged not by historians but by archaeologists—by all accounts, Spanish vines were planted before the first pyramid went up in Giza; before Noah was so much as a gleam in his old man’s eye.
That places it between 4000 and 3000 BCE, around the same time that numbers were invented and Ötzi the Ice Man was crossing the Alps.
It stands to reason that such a history of grape cultivation resulted in countless varieties being introduced, countless varieties being developed, and—perhaps most interesting—varieties that were there all along.
Of all outposts within the vinosphere, Spain is (arguably) home to the widest array of seductive and savory indigenous grapes. Every time I try to do a deep dive into what’s new in Spanish wine, I keep winding up on a pathway of what’s old, unique and hitherto (to me) unknown.
Take Prieto Picudo, a haunting, black-skinned grape native to Léon, a province in western Spain, just above Portugal. The variety has been a standard here for centuries, but it wasn’t until 2007 that Tierra de Léon was given its own DO status. Denominación de Origen, of course, is a regulatory classification system similar to French AOCs and American AVAs.
“The Sun is Our Enemy”
So, from this spanking new appellation, callow as a barrel sample, I tried an ancient varietal nurtured to splendor by a newish winemaker from an oldish estate.
Clear as unfiltered Port? Hijos de Rafael Alonso is an asentamiento near Valdevimbre—a wine community with a population of around a thousand. The winery has been around since 1949, a mere drop in the wine bucket of history, but the third generation of Rafael Alonso is now nudging the estate into the 21st century; as he says on his site, “Spanish wine is changing at a rapid pace and it’s required that we put a maximum emphasis on quality. I replanted the vineyards and moved to modern farming techniques while maintaining an immovable banner in celebration of Prieto Picudo.”
Except that the web site, translated directly from Spanish, doesn’t say ‘Prieto Picudo’. It says ‘Tight Weevil.’ I took a time-out to do a little etymological (as well as entomological) research, and it turns out that prieto can indeed be translated as ‘tight’ and a picudo is, in fact, a type of weevil.
Tierra de Léon is very hot and very dry, with less rainfall in an average year than Napa gets in a drought year, and at a relatively high elevation between two and three thousand feet, vines may suffer from too much exposure (up to 2,700 hours of sunshine annually), leading Alonso to quip, “The sun is our enemy.”
Still, I’m thinking that Google Translate might be a foe even more formidable to his fortunes.
That said, Pardevalles (Hijos de Rafael Alonso) Prieto Picudo ‘Gamonal’ 2012, is a wine of such startling singularity that a noseful actually painted a mind’s eye image of a cool forest heavy with wild brambleberries; blackberries, boysenberries, etc. Snuggling beneath those fruit scents is a whiff of smoke and pepper and a palate which leads with sweet fruit, settles into a many-layered, silken-textured integration of truffle, anise, succulent black raspberry and toasty oak.
A sister to ‘Gamonal’—named for a local flower with absolutely no connection to the wine—is Pardevalles Albarín Blanco 2013, a white wine that is every bit as complex and luscious, although on another flavor chart altogether. Albarín, you may be surprised to note (I was) has nothing to do with the Albariño of nearby Galicia; the similarity in the name is likely due only to the color of the grapes, both with a root in the Latin word for ‘white’, albus. This is a varietal also native to Tierra de Léon, and the Alonsos grow nearly 2/3 of it. The wine opens with a strata of distinct, separate fruit aromas, beginning with sweet lime and becoming tropical with mango before an explosive peach profile takes over. This carries through in the mouth with a cornucopia of stone fruits with a touch of mint, everything shored by bracing tartness and a long, leesy finish. The wine sees no oak, and shows a beautiful purity; pristine, lean and very ripe and offers a refreshing, extremely light and all-natural sparkle, what the French call pétillant wines, the Germans spritzig and the Italian frizzante.
I’m sure the Spanish have a word for it too, but after ‘tight weevil’, I think I’ll opt out of learning what it is.