by Fred McMillin
for September 17, 1999


Winery of the Week

When Spain Was...
In The Slow Lane



Spain's red wines have not always enjoyed the praise they receive today. For example...

1775—London physician Sir Edward Barry:
["s" is often written as "f"] Cato wrote how some of the Roman wines were maturated by being expofed [periodically] four years to the fun...We find this practice is ftill ufed, to give more firm ftrength and tranfparency to fome of the modern Spanish Wines." [I've put a bottle of wine in sunlight for one month; it lost much of its color and acquired some VERY challenging flavors.] But on to another early appraisal of Spanish wine.

1824—London physician Alexander Henderson:
"Throughout the greater part of Spain, the peasantry store the produce of their vintages in skins which are smeared with pitch; from which the wine is apt to contract a peculiar disagreeable taste, and to become muddy and nauseous. Bottle and casks are rarely met with. A traveller, in the midst of the most luxuriant vineyards, should often find the [wine from them] wholly unfit for use."

Yet, today the reds, particularly of the northern Rioja region, draw praise from the New York Times as "one of the world's least appreciated producers of fine wine." William Massee in his Wines & Spirits, said many of the Riojas "take half a dozen years to develop and continue to be remarkable twenty years after the vintage." Let's have Robert Balzer describe the two major improvements made after Dr. Henderson's appraisal.

Step One—c.1880
"When the plague of the phylloxera [insect] devastated the vineyards of Europe late in the 19th century, it did not reach Spain immediately. Hence, emigres from France poured in steady streams over the Pyrenees to work at the only thing they knew... winemaking."

Step Two—1970s
The great sherry firm of Pedro Domecq moved into the red table wine business with a bang. They bought up some 1,200 Rioja acres, adopted the latest technology from France and California, and turned out wines that the critics called "well crafted with great character." The label was Marques de Arienzo, and before long it was gracing over four MILLION bottles annually. Domecq typified the recent arrival of the most modern methods in Spain. Try their $10, ready to drink, Crianza Rioja. For much more, see the May 7, 1999 WineDay, "The Domecq Trek". Dan Solomon can answer any further questions at (707) 433-8268, Fax (707) 433- 3538.

Note: "Crianza" refers to "aged in oak." Spain used to age too long in wood. It was the legendary U. Of Bordeaux enologist Prof. Emile Peynaud who convinced Domecq to reduce the time of oak contact.

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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