He's a national hero in Spain, but the name Andres Iniesta might draw blank stares from most people on this side of the Atlantic. Except, that is, for fans of professional soccer. The captain of FC Barcelona, one of Europe's most hallowed teams, he has been an anchor of the country's national squad for a decade and, thrillingly in 2010, scored the late-game goal in a final against The Netherlands to clinch Spain's first World Cup.
Now Iniesta is doing some fancy footwork in vineyards as well. Celebrity vintners are nothing new, but Iniesta comes to the business with more than just bags of money and wine-fueled vanity. He hails from a family of grape growers and, in 2010, helped his father build a winery in his hometown of Fuentealbilla in the southeast. The venture might also be considered a microcosm of the dynamic transforming Spanish wine, an industry that has become a compelling melting pot of tradition and modernity.
Bodegas Iniesta, which began bottling its own wines six years ago from grapes that had previously been sold to co-operatives, was among the highlights for me of a recent Spanish-wine tasting held at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. The wines are not yet available in Canadian stores (note to liquor boards: They're very fine), but they capture the essence of old and new. The flagship offering, named after Andres' son, Paolo Andrea, is made entirely from bobal, a regional grape of little significance outside the country. The variety's harsh tannins and high acidity had confined it to a minority role in blends, but in this case the trademark astringency has been tamed by 12 months in French oak for a chewy, velvety texture.
In an attempt to appeal to foreign markets, the estate – as with countless others in Spain today – also makes several red blends that rely in part on more globally familiar varieties, such as syrah, petit verdot and cabernet sauvignon, which it combines with tempranillo, the classic grape of sometimes-rustic Riojas. "In 2010, the economic crisis in Spain was high and we needed to sell abroad," said Iniesta's export director, Jose Ramon Cuenca Jara. "That's why we needed international varieties."
All were very good, including one named Hechicero, a Spanish term meaning "sorcerer," "wizard" or "illusionist" (take your pick). It's the nickname given to Iniesta for his ability to play with surprising skill in any position on the soccer field.
I also found compelling evidence of Spain's contemporary leanings in the wines of Bodegas Borsao, which, thankfully, enjoy much wider distribution. Garnacha (a.k.a. grenache), a succulent Spanish variety that tends to come across with notes of berry jam and herbs, is Borsao's specialty. The old, mountain-grown vines in Borsao's northeast province of Zaragoza now have their own wizard, too, in the form of Chris Ringland, the winery's consulting winemaker from Australia. Ringland has the distinction of earning five perfect 100-point scores from celebrated American critic Robert Parker for various vintages of his Barossa Valley shiraz from Down Under (as well as two 100-pointers for other Spanish wines). One technique he brought to the table was the use of new barrels that are seasoned and coopered in Australia from American oak, vessels that impart a soft creaminess to the wines. "It works so well with mountain-grown garnacha," Ringland told me.
Another highlight was Pajaro Rojo 2014 from Finca Losada, made from the local mencia grape of the newly fashionable Bierzo region, with its rich texture and savoury undercurrent of licorice and pepper framed by crisp acidity and ripe tannins. Sadly, it's not sold in retail stores. But it's worth scouring shelves for other treasures, such as the modern reds of superstar vintner Alvaro Palacios, as well as bargain reds from Bodegas Piqueras and Beronia. Call them classically styled Spanish wines with a relatively clean, fresh face.
Breca Old Vines Garnacha 2013, Spain
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $22.95
Careful here. This is a whopper, at 15.5-per-cent alcohol thanks to the sweet, concentrated fruit of 70-plus-year-old vines. Weighty but well-balanced, it explodes with blackberry jam, cocoa, pepper and coffee. Who needs chocolate cake when you've got this red? Hides the alcohol well. Available in Ontario at the above price, $21.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $24.75 in Quebec.
Rioja Vega Reserva 2011, Spain
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $22.95
Hinting at old-style Rioja with its pleasantly funky bass note, this blend of tempranillo, mazuelo and graciano moves into modern terrain with buffed tannins and a smooth texture. Medium-full-bodied, it shows good mid-palate weight and spicy, minty tang on a cherry-like core. Available in Ontario.
Barahonda Barrica Monastrell Syrah 2012, Spain
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
A red from Yecla in southeast Spain, the Barrica is derived from 40- to 45-year-old vines and was matured for six months in French oak. Full-bodied and smooth yet tight and disciplined with gently sticky tannins, it offers up a succulent plum-jam core and notes of tar, licorice and pepper. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $18.95 in Quebec.
Borsao Tres Picos Garnacha 2014, Spain
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Ripe and supple, with a jammy character reminiscent of many Australian reds yet dialed back to dryness. Heady herbal aromatics and a note of licorice provide added lift. Smooth, clean and modern. Available Oct. 15 in Ontario Vintages stores at the above price, $24.49 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $22 in Quebec, $28.49 in Nova Scotia. (For bargain sipping, check out Borsao's entry-level, unoaked Tinto Seleccion Garnacha, at $12.10 in Ontario, $13.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $13.20 in Quebec.)
Palacios Remondo La Vendimia 2014, Spain
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
From the family estate of star winemaker Alvaro Palacios in Rioja, made from tempranillo and garnacha. Medium-bodied and crisp, with perfectly ripe, cherry-like fruit, lively spice, polished tannins and well-handled oak. A bargain. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $17.99 in Manitoba.
Vina Zaco Tempranillo 2014, Spain
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
This is tempranillo from Rioja with a clearly contemporary profile (if the screw cap wasn't a clue). Full-bodied and succulent with sweet berry-like fruit, vanilla and chewy oak characters from new American barrels, it has a pleasantly sticky texture (so chew away). Good value. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $18.99 in Saskatchewan, $15.98 in Manitoba, $17.60 in Quebec, $19.78 in New Brunswick, $19.84 in Newfoundland.
Bodegas Piqueras Castillo de Almansa Reserva 2012, Spain
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $13.10
Within six months of its launch in Ontario in 2001 (at $11.95), this became the top-selling Spanish red in the province – and it's remained at No. 1 ever since. Good value? Clearly. A blend of old-vine monastrell and garnacha tintorera with 20-per-cent tempranillo, it's aged for 12 months in large American oak barrels. Old-school flavours meet new, with tangy, cherry-like fruit underpinned by dusty earth and spice. On sale in Ontario for $11.60 till Oct. 9, $13.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $14.49 in Saskatchewan, $13.98 in Manitoba, $13.90 in Quebec, $14.99 in Nova Scotia, $16.89 in Prince Edward Island.