Spain in the News

From January 17, 2008
By James B. Stewart
Original Article

"Is Spain the New Bordeaux?"

The question of Spain versus Bordeaux isn't as far-fetched as it might seem. Back in the 19th century, when the phylloxera epidemic devastated France's vineyards, the Bordelais trekked over the Pyrenees to buy grapes and vines from Rioja. Today Bordeaux winemakers are again investing in Spanish vineyards. From issues of aging to the actual grapes, there are startling similarities between Spain and Bordeaux. While most critics agree that Bordeaux wines have never been better, they also agree that Spain has witnessed an explosion in quality in recent years.

So how do the wines differ? A bottle of 2005 Mouton Rothschild, a famed first-growth Bordeaux, is currently $750 at Sherry-Lehmann in Manhattan, if purchased as a future. (The wine will arrive in spring 2008, when, presumably, prices will be even higher.) The 2005 vintage in France is expected to be an outstanding one; the same goes for Spain. But you will be hard-pressed to spend anywhere near $750 on a Spanish wine, with most top wines in the $30 to $120 range. Even lesser Bordeaux are selling as futures for $50 and up.

Given the soaring cost of Bordeaux and the striking price disparity, we wondered: Are Spanish reds a reasonable alternative to classic Bordeaux wines? It was time to reconvene the SmartMoney tasting panel.

The panel has been meeting periodically since 1993. Over the years participants have come and gone, but we try to assemble wine lovers who are not necessarily experts. We're looking for good value, investment potential and, above all, something we enjoy drinking. The panel tasted 12 wines "blind" — wrapped in paper sleeves so we couldn't tell which was which. Ten were Spanish reds; two were Bordeaux. Our mission: to see if we could identify the Bordeaux wines and to rank our favorites.

For the Bordeaux I went to Sherry-Lehmann, which has long had the best selection and some of the best prices in the country. I chose the 2004 Mouton Rothschild as our first growth, which, at $245, is a bargain compared with more recent vintages. Our second Bordeaux: the 2004 Pape Clément, $80.

For the Spanish wines we relied on Mani Dawes, who owns and runs Tinto Fino, an all-Spanish wine shop in Manhattan, as well as co-owns two tapas bar/restaurants, Tia Pol and El Quinto Pino. I explained our project, and Dawes chose 10 wines that ranged in price from $27 to $120 — not inexpensive but a fraction of the cost of Bordeaux.

We got off to a great start with wine No. 1. I immediately thought it was one of the Bordeaux. But then all the wines turned out to be delicious, and I ended up thinking four or five were Bordeaux, which was impossible. The more we drank, the more confusing — and delightful — the comparisons. Wine No. 4 drew raves: "velvety," "very elegant and restrained." No. 6 was a relative disappointment. "Faint bouquet," "bland," "lacks fruit." And on we drank.

After repeat tastings of our favorites, we ranked No. 4 at the top, followed by Nos. 11, 1 (which had gained considerably in stature over the evening) and 8. As for identifying the actual Bordeaux, 11, which we'd loved for its hints of violet and "sweet, seductive tannins," was the overwhelming favorite. So with considerable suspense and some amusement, Dawes unmasked the bottles. The results confounded our expectations. Of the many tastings we've done, this was perhaps the most humbling — and enjoyable.

No. 11, an El Bugader Montsant 2004 ($63), was not only not a Bordeaux, but it was made from syrah, the classic grape of the Rhône Valley and Australia. Our top wine, No. 4, was a Contino Vina del Olivo 2001, a Bordeaux-like blend from Rioja. It costs $120, as does another favorite, No. 1, which is from the Rothschild of Spain, Rioja's Vega Sicilia, whose top wines command prices of $400 a bottle. Quality did indeed seem to correlate to price.

Our other favorite, No. 8, was an actual Bordeaux, identified as such by one of our tasters. But it was the Pape Clément — not the celebrated Mouton. Much to our surprise, that turned out to be No. 6, which drew such a tepid response. There are, no doubt, explanations for this: The wine was still too young, it hadn't breathed long enough — or, dare we suggest, it just isn't that great.

As for value the $27 bottle was No. 12, a Las Gravas, Jumilla 2003, which Dawes says is her top recommendation for value-oriented customers. No. 3, which drew enthusiastic comments and one vote as a Bordeaux, was a 2000 Rioja Alta from Miguel Merino ($35). "Once you get to the $18-and-above range, the value is tremendous," Dawes says.

So are Spain's wines an alternative to pricey Bordeaux? The answer is a resounding yes. These were delicious wines that all of us were eager to try again. We found the Riojas, in general, to be the closest Bordeaux substitutes — but some of the most exciting were from lesser-known regions like Toro, Priorat and Ribera del Duero.

We're not saying to give up on Bordeaux wines; they're still the most collectible and investment-worthy. But why not try your own tasting? For far less than the cost of a 2005 first-growth Bordeaux, you can assemble a case of top-quality Spanish reds. Stow them in your wine cellar (or closet) until they gain some age. Then share them with friends — and see if they don't think they're drinking some of the world's best wines.

And the Winners Are...

Of the 10 Spanish wines and two Bordeaux we blind tasted, the following came out on top. Does Spain rival Bordeaux? The results say it all.

El Bugader Montsant 2004. $63.
Montsant is a relatively new denomination of origin, or DO, adjacent to better-known Priorat. To our surprise this turned out to be a syrah, the same grape as in the Rhône. Its oaky, vanilla-tinged nose, elegant mouthfeel and long finish were captivating. Until a second tasting, it was in the lead as our favorite. Five of six tasters thought it was a Bordeaux.