Barcelona Wine Tasting: The Sweet Wines of Spain

Nearly every European country with a long wine-making tradition produces at least a few sweet wines, some of which have survived the ages and are still considered to be some of the worlds greatest expressions. To this day some Tokaji wines from Hungary, Sauterne from the south of Bordeaux, Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany and others command premium prices, despite the world drinking less fortified and sweet wines than ever before. Spain joins them in the production aspect, if not the price, with a plethora of sweet wine styles from Sherrys, sweet Muscats, Pedro Ximenez, Monastrell and others, and indeed has been making ‘rancio’ style wines since the beginning of our wine making history.

As with all sweet wines, the historical significance is really related to the practical issues of getting them around the world in one piece; going back even a little over a hundred or so years ago, moving a table wine from one country to to another was a good way to risk turning it into unpalatable vinegar. Sweet wines, on the other hand, with their stronger, headier flavours, higher levels of sugar and often higher levels of alcohol due to fortification were the drink of choice, as they would arrive at their destination more or less intact. This was particularly important in warm countries such as Spain, where a single hot day in the baking Mediterranean sunshine is enough to turn your fresh, fruity red wine into something quite dull and uninteresting.

However, with the advent of modern technologies, sweet and fortified wine sales have fallen through the floor over the last 40 years, with most modern consumers opting for lighter, drier wines that are usually a little easier to pair with food. Wines no longer need to be powerful and sweet to survive before being consumed and as a result, the market for sweet wines is dwindling away. One silver lining of this, of course, is that it’s generally the best producers who are left making the remaining wines, and they’ve been recently joined by some ambitious attempts to recreate different styles, often using very new technologies such as cryo-extraction in places not previously renowned for these styles of wine. It was my pleasure to introduce 5 such wines to our tasting last week and showcase the depth of options available in Spain alone, which whilst may not become the mainstay of an individuals collection, certainly have their place at the dinner table.

Gramona “Vi de Glass” Riesling 2011: We kicked off the evening with probably the least traditional style of fortified wine made in Spain; ice wine made not be the natural elements dropping down well below zero, but using a chamber designed to artificially freeze the grapes prior to pressing. This has been a technology used in France since the late 1980s but was started to be used by Gramona in 1997. The premise is identical to that of the natural production of ice wine in both Germany and Canada; freezing the water in the grapes and squeezing out a thick, viscous juice from the resulting press with a lot of varietal flavour, sugar and acid. However, doing this artificially gives a great deal of control over the process as you can choose at which temperature you’d like to freeze the grapes. The higher the concentration of sugar, the lower the temperature needed to freeze the water in the grapes themselves, and the less juice you receive per ton. Therefore, winemakers can now choose the quantity of the icewine they need and adjust the temperature accordingly; lower temperatures mean that only the ripest juice is allowed to leave the press, but lowers quantity substantially. In France the common practice is to freeze grapes at -6ºC. Gramona by comparison choose to make their wine at -15ºC. I was surprised at how good this was, retaining both the youthful fruit and minerality of the Riesling in a good balance with the sugar levels. The bottle is a little difficult to store, but makes for a wonderful centre piece!

Jorge Ordonez №2 Victoria 2015: We went from perhaps the least typical style of Spanish sweet wine to perhaps its most; sweet Muscat from Malaga. DO Malaga is interestingly the only DO in Spain to focus entirely on the production of sweet wine, having been influential in the courts of Medieval Europe and peaking in popularity in the 19th century with its recently revived “Mountain Wine”. Muscat de Alexandria, the ugly ducking to Muscat a Petit Grains, is rife here with its grapey, floral aromas, naturally high sugar and delicate nature. Jorge Ordonez has a range of 4 in total, all made in a naturally sweet style from over-ripe grapes, increasing in sugar level and flavour intensity. We went for number 2, Victoria 2015 which is a lovely, softly honeyed wine with a very approachable 10% ABV and a lovely light, delicately floral character. Of all the wines poured over the evening, this probably lasted the least amount of time in the glass!

Perelada Garntaxa de 12 Anys: Our first meeting with a fortified wine and we went for a sweet Grenache from the Emporda, a region in the very north of Catalunya bordering France. In fact, this proximity to France goes some way to explain the style of this wine, made as it is in a Solera system. The south of France, Roussilon in particular, is home to a great deal of appellations famous for producing sweet wine and the effects are felt in the north of Catalunya, where many of these old constructions still exist and are making top quality wine to this day. This is actually my favourite style of sweet wine from Catalunya, combining the lovely dried red fruit character of the Grenache with the long, slow 12-year ageing process of the Solera system to provide a complex, sweet and very endearing wine as a result. Perelada are a big company producing a lot of very good, and some decidedly average, wine, but I’d be happy to have a few bottles of this lying around at any given time!

Castaño Dulce 2013 — We headed down to the Levant for wine number 4 and a chance to try perhaps the least obviously sweet wine of the day. I say this because the sweet Monastrell, made from grapes dried in the sun and often fermented in open wooded vats, is more akin to a structured red wine with a lot of sugar than a traditional sweet wine. The Castañofamily have been revolutionary in DO Yecla, from helping win the DO regulatory system to investing heavily into opening international markets for the region and with the quality of the wine they’re producing now, I can safely say that it’s been a successful drive for a still relatively unknown area. Bold, bright and tannic, this would be a delicious pairing for medium-strength cheeses, light chocolate desserts and almost anything with red fruit in it.

Don PX Toro de Albala Gran Reserva 1986 — It wouldn’t be a sweet wine tasting if we didn’t dip our toe into the sweetest of them all; Pedro Ximenez, made in DO Montilla-Moriles with almost 380 grams of sugar a litre. Pedro Ximenez is one of the worlds naturally sweetest grape varieties, accumulating sugar rapidly, encouraged by exceptionally late harvesting when they’re essentially raisins on the vine. These dry grapes are then picked, pressed and fermented to a few degrees of alcohol before being fortified to retain this incredible level of sugar. PX, as it’s more commonly known, is still used to sweeten certain wines, often Sherry destined for ‘Cream’ status of some sort, but more often is aged in a Solera system for an incredibly long time, becoming deeply oxidised, concentrated and dark in the process. There are also single vintage PX wines like the above, aged in oak barrels for a staggering 28 years before commercial release. My personal preference is to drizzle this over vanilla ice-cream with walnuts and almonds, but a small glass is also a hedonistic pleasure from time to time!

This was certainly not a tasting for the faint of heart, but a real treat to try so many sweet wines from across the country. The general feeling before the tasting was one of “I don’t really drink sweet wines, so I’m interested to see how they fare.’ Based on the evidence, I hope we’ve converted a few more lovers of dessert wines, the industry certainly needs a few more! If you’d like to learn more about Spanish wine and attend a tasting in Barcelona, make sure to check out the options here, from private tastings to our weekly published tastings. Until then, salut!