Rediscovered Ancient Grape Varieties And Natural Winemaking In Modern-Day Spain

Natural wines are having a moment. Grapes farmed without chemicals, cellars worked additive-free — the end results are meant to taste of the places they're made, and for the past few years an unlikely country has been quietly earning attention for their versions. In Spain, a growing number of producers from both well-known areas like Rioja and undersung ones like Tarragona and Murcia are challenging their nation's reputation for muscular (sometimes overly so) bottles,  and focusing on an array of climates, soils, and forgotten local grape varieties for lighter and more complex wines that reflect local terruño — "terroir."

They're not for everyone, but for those who love them — and it's a love that often starts at first sip — natural wines are an awakening to wine as an agricultural product. The aromas of fresh berries (in red wines) and citrus (in whites) leap out, bolstered by earthy, gamy notes and a textural sense of "aliveness" so visceral you wonder if there actually is a little fizziness there. (Sometimes there is: natural-winemakers' insistence on low or no use of sulfites before bottling means it's possible for a little more CO2-producing fermentation to go on before you pull the cork.)

Though a handful of prestigious Spanish producers have stood by their natural credentials for years — La Rioja's López de Heredia Viña Tondonia and Alicante's Primitivo Quiles come to mind — when it comes to everyday bottles, Spain is generally known for its "alta expresión," high-alcohol beverages with strong fruit and oak flavors. That reliance on easy-to-sell, "overripe, oaked, over-extracted wines" was possible "because we have a climate that really allows that," says importer Alvaro de la Viña, whose New York City-based Selections de la Viña deals exclusively with natural-minded enólogos. "But now there's more focus on terroir, on wines that are bright and elegant."

Native varieties like tempranillo, garnacha, and airén are the country's best-known grapes, but Spain's oenological history is a rich and varied one. Along with lighter bodies and lower alcohol levels, natural Spanish wines offer access to the country's abundant grape options.

In the northeastern corner of the country, in Catalonia, for instance, Joan Franquet ferments and ages some of his Costador Terroirs Mediterranis wines in amphora — large clay vessels whose design dates back to ancient winemaking times throughout the Mediterranean. He works organically, relying on vines 60 to 110 years old and on about 20 overlooked grape varieties, grown in the mountains for crops that retain their acids naturally. With compelling textures shaped by both grippy tannins and sharp acidity, his line-up includes the native sumoll blanco grape — only a dozen acres or so of which are planted in the world, he explains, and which he vinifies as an orange wine (white grapes vinified with extended skin contact) that is lush and bracing with flavors of tart green apple, still-green berries, grass, and basil. It is delicious and unforgettable, making it frustrating that his wines, which he poured at the RAW Wine Fair in New York City earlier this month, are not yet imported to the U.S.

But many others already are. Clos Lentiscus, with vines planted in the Garraf mountains, is most admired for its sparkling wines. Grapes like malvasia de Sitges and xarel-lo, plus amphoras, are among their resources, too, and their wines are startlingly light and crisp with savory undertones. Their still wines are revelation, too: a glass of sumoll — a red grape unrelated to the white one of the same name and ignored by many for its light flavor and pale skins — is so clean and bright and lightly fruity that if you were to sip with eyes closed you might think you were drinking a white wine. Tasty and wonder-inducing.

In Andalucía on Spain's southern coast, along the westernmost point of the Mediterranean Sea, Cauzón owner-winemaker Ramon Saavedra farms four hectares (just under 10 acres) of vines. His vineyard sits along the northern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, 3,300 up, in desert conditions near his childhood home in Granada, where his father made wine for the family with fruit from the family's two-and-a-half-acre plot. "I had no experience in the world of viticulture, except the family wine we consumed at home and experience in the vineyard, which my father taught me," Saavedra says.

He picked up further tips from his years working in restaurants, first as a wine-runner then as a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant where "every day with our meals we drank wines that customers had returned as defective but that to us were very good." Wanting a project of his own, he returned home and added seven-and-a-half acres to his father's parcel, planting a mix of Spanish and French grapes, from tempranillo and garnacha to merlot and pinot noir, including some own-rooted ones out of necessity. "I planted more vines without rootstock because I had no money to buy grafted vines," he explains. The sandy soils of some of his plots are a natural guard against the phylloxera threat that requires most of the world's grape growers to rely on grafted rootstocks, and they've rewarded him well. His wines are all fresh fruit, soft tannins, and tingly acidity — lively, delicate renditions of grapes usually vinified into far less subtle wines.

When architects Antonella Gerona and Massimo Marchiori moved to Catalonia's Tarragona region, they stumbled across a history of grape diversity that rivaled that of their native Italy. In search of the high-quality food they missed from back home, and found lacking in their adopted country, they resolved to grow their own and settled on a small property within the Penedès appellation, farming the olives, fruit, and wine grapes — the widely planted macabeu — already growing in the land they'd bought.  

But, says Marchiori, "in a corner there was an old vine plant with strange black grapes with elongated bodies. The gentleman who sold us the land told me it was sumoll, an old local variety that was not worth anything and that was virtually abandoned after being disqualified from the designation of origin." Sumoll had once made up 80 percent of the area's vineyards, ending its reign soon after the Penedès designation was created in 1960. "Once upon a time, people might have been poorer, or even more ignorant, but they were definitely not stupid," he reasoned. "If for centuries sumoll was grown, vinified, and drunk here, it means that the wine had to be good." He set out to learn more.

He began to explore the land nearby. He soon found vines of garrut, the native Tarragonese version of monastrell that had adapted to local soils and climate. Gerona's and Marchiori's project was born: Partida Creus would be a winery dedicated to recovering the region's forgotten indigenous grapes. The duo have planted their own land with local varieties found on abandoned sites; they farm some of those once-neglected sites themselves, and buy from the occasional farmer won over to their side, for a total of 14 varieties across a dozen-plus a.cres. Their first discoveries remain their favorites: Sparkling orange-hued "blanc des noirs" sumoll bottled as BS; and temperamental but always tasty garrut bottled as GT — with rescued natives vinyater and cartoixá vermell vying for top spots, too.

"There was a miseducation," de la Viña says of Spain's past few decades. "But now [the country] is living a very exciting moment, because a lot of young people are now growing up with this. It's been very experimental: a few people were willing to forget all the stuff they had learned to make 'recipe wine'" — the globally safe highly extracted style that counts for much of the country's exports.

Now it's about discarding all that, and to continue experimenting while reaching back to far older times. "Vitis vinifera is a native of the Georgia-Armenia area, and the culture of winemaking is about 8,000 years old," Marchiori says. "This culture came to the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century BC, DO Penedés in 1960, and the Faculty of Oenology in Tarragona in 1988. It would be nice to be able to tell these newbies: 'Welcome to the world of wine.'"

So, with a glass of natural monastrell, tempranillo, xarel-lo, or somoll: A toast to Spain's historic grapes and vineyards, and a welcome to the winemakers who are bringing them back.

Clos Lentiscus Blanc de Blanc Brut Nature Penedès Malvasia de Sitges 2012 ($21)

Made by the traditional (Champagne) method, this bright, bread-y sparkling wine has complex citrus and herbal flavors. It's made from local, biodynamically grown malvasia de Sitges grapes, fermented with native yeasts and aged in bottle for almost two years before release.

Partida Creus "VY" Penedès Vinyater 2014 ($22)

A tart and cider-like white with the tell-tale funk of ambient yeast, and lemon and earthy lilac notes. Made of the local vinyater grape grown in the clay and limestone soils of Massís de Bonastre in the Baix Penedès, it's unfined and unfiltered with no sulfites added.

Finca Llano Rubio Viña Enebro Joven Murcia Monastrell 2012 ($15)

Wines made from monastrell grapes are classic Murcia — a wine region in southeastern Spain on the Mediterranean Coast. Viña Enebro makes only two bottlings, both from monastrell. There's a sparkling wine, and this updated take on the region's specialty, which is made from grapes farmed under biodynamic principles, then vinified with natural yeasts and no sulfites for concentrated dark fruit flavors and noticeable tannins, laced with balancing acidity.

Gonzalo Gran Cerdo Rioja 2015 ($18)

All tempranillo with Rioja's signature richness and depth, and made naturally. The grapes are grown biodynamically in granitic soils, then vinified with natural yeasts with minimal sulfites added for a wine that's clean and juicy with cherry-raspberry and violet flavors and an earthy mineral tone. Winemaker Gonzalo Gonzalo steers away from the barnyard-y touch that gives many natural wines their edge, making this one a good choice for both fans of natural wine and those who aren't.

Bodega Cauzón "Mozuelo" Norte de Granada Garnacha, Garnacha Tintorera 2015 ($22)

A mountain-vineyard take on two native garnacha varieties: fresh, mineral-laden strawberry and raspberry flavors with soft pepper accents. At 12.5 percent alcohol, it's one of the lightest garnacha wines around. It's made with natural yeasts, unfiltered, and has no sulfites added.

Sistema Vinari "Chateau Paquita" Mallorca Callet, Mantonegro, Monastrell 2014 ($30)

A blend of callet, mantonegro, and monastrell grown in the iron-rich clay soils of the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, with fresh fruit and deeper spicy notes from five months of bottle aging before it's released to store shelves. Only 5,000 bottles are made; the wine uses natural yeasts, is unfiltered, and has no sulfites added.