Wines From Spain recently spoke with Joshua Greene, Editor and Publisher of Wine & Spirits Magazine, about his continued passion for Spanish wine. In this interview, Joshua reminisces about his first wine trip to Spain and the incredible classic Rioja vintages available at the time. Moving to present day, Joshua takes us on a verbal journey across Spain, highlighting his favorite modern Spanish wines, such as the exciting whites from Galicia and surprising reds from the Volcanic soil of the Canary Islands.
Wines From Spain is also excited about The Wine & Spirits Top of the List Tasting, which presents the magazine’s Annual Restaurant Poll. If you’re in New York on Monday, May 14 and interested in attending, tickets for the event can be purchased here.
Read our full interview below.
1. You’re the Editor of Wine & Spirits magazine and a longtime fan of Spanish wine. What began your career in wine, and how did you come to fall in love with the wines of Spain?
I often tell people that my interest in wine began during college, when I worked in the wine shop Jim Nejaime had just opened in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
But, in reality, it began in Spain, when I was 12 years old and spent the summer with the Lugris family, friends of my parents who ran El Faro, a restaurant in the West Village of New York. They invited me to their house in Breijo, near La Coruña, where Mark Lugris and I played soccer all morning with the kids in town then joined the family for a long lunch. That’s where I picked up a love of Spanish food and wine—the pulpo gallego, percebes and chorizo were tastes that didn’t exist in the States (it’s only recently that we have access to chorizo and jamón Ibérico here). The txakoli and Rioja, on the other hand, traveled here and traveled well.
2. You have been traveling, tasting and writing about Spanish wine for many years – what are the most significant changes that you have witnessed over that time?
Wines from Spain invited me on my first wine trip in 1985. It was a time when there was a lot of transition as Spain prepared to enter the European Union. Rioja, in particular, still had vast stocks of classic vintages in the cellars at the bodegas, dating back for decades.
Financing those old stocks became untenable for many producers. The banking and monetary systems were changing. Visiting Marques de Murrieta on that trip, I remember the pride of the cellar master, who had tended the barrels for decades. He kept old vintages in those tartrate-encrusted barrels, where the wines were nearly impervious to oxygen, as if enclosed in glass vessels. He bottled them on demand from the market; at the time, the current release of Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial was from 1934. I still have the empty bottle, along with the 1950 Castillo Ygay Blanco, a Gran Reserva Especial Vicente Dalmau Cibrián-Sagarriga recently opened for me at the bodega when we got into a discussion about old Spain.
Under his ownership, the winery and vineyards have been renovated and brought into the modern world, while he’s maintained the classical elegance of the Gran Reserva Especial. Now the current release of the Blanco is 1986, the Tinto 2009, and while he has a library of old vintages, most of the stocks are long gone.
Across Rioja, there are any number of new bodegas promoting a different style and, often, single-vineyard wines. It’s the bold, rich, oak-and-fruit-forward styles that are new, competing against Ribera del Duero. The single-vineyard wines, like Castillo Ygay, or Viña Tondonia from R. López de Heredia, have been around for a century or more. What may be the most significant change I’ve noticed of late is a move away from hyper-extraction, toward what might be considered more classical styles—not only in Rioja, but among many forward-thinking producers in other regions as well.
3. Which regions, varietals and innovations should we be on the lookout for over the coming year or two?
Maybe it’s because my heart is always with Galicia, but I can’t get enough of the wines coming from growers like Luis Anxo Rodríguez Vázquez in Ribeiro, or José-Luis Mateo at Quinta da Muradella in Monterrei. They are sources of some of the most complex and compelling wines coming out of Spain—and I know how easy it is for us to get top sommeliers in to taste when we’re focusing on Galicia. There are awesome, ageworthy whites from Rías Baixas, not only the wines touched by Raúl Pérez, but also some classical producers who hold back stock for late release. And the schist canyons of Ribeira Sacra are Galicia’s fresh answer to Priorat.
Across the country, on the Mediterranean coast, Empordá is making some pretty delicious noise with its latest releases. And I was blown away by the wines we tasted on a Wines from Spain trip this past April in San Martín de Valedeiglesias, in the hills west of Madrid. Patricio Tapia had warned me about these wines—he writes about Spanish wine for Wine & Spirits and had recently reviewed some of the Comando G wines with very high scores.
Fernando García, a partner in that venture, is also working at Marañones, a new project with old-vine garnacha, the kind of ancient vines that also provide a remarkable asset at Bernabeleva, where Mark Isart is making delicate, beautifully structured garnacha, and Las Moradas, with more powerfully built wines, from ancient vines Isabel Galindo farms under biodynamics. It’s great old-vine garnacha with a completely different voice than in Priorat.
4. Wine & Spirits’ annual event, Top of the List, is coming up Monday, May 14 in New York City. For the first time ever, a non-American wine, this year from López de Heredia, tops the charts. Tell us more about the process by which Wine & Spirits determines the Top 50 wines on restaurant lists.
Our poll focuses on what’s trending in the top dining rooms around the countrỷ. We ask sommeliers at more than 3,800 of America’s most popular restaurants to provide a list of the ten wines that sold best in the fourth quarter of the year. This year, 231 responded—restaurants like Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Spago in Beverly Hills, Manresa in Los Gatos, Daniel and Le Bernardin in New York, Pappas Bros. in Houston.
We build a database around their top-selling wines and sort them by variety, country and style. The wineries that make the Top 50 list earned the most mentions overall. In the first 28 years of the poll, California wineries always topped the list, driven by the popularity of their chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon. When we found an imported winery at the top of the list this year, we did a double take, re-checked all the data, and verified it was correct.
López de Heredia had placed at number four last year and had been working its way up the list. Even so, it was a remarkable achievement for an imported winery, and for a Spanish winery.
5. Over the years, have you seen more and more Spanish wines make the Top 50 List?
When we started the poll in 1989, few, if any, Spanish wines sold outside of Spanish restaurants. And if we included a list of producers in the early reporting, it was all from respondents with purely Spanish wine lists. The work the Spanish wine trade associations did in the 1990s helped those wines find a foothold on lists without a Spanish theme.
But it may have been the recession of 2008 that triggered Spain’s rise in the poll. In the aftermath of the recession, sommeliers at top restaurants were forced to rebuild their lists, dropping cult wines and expensive brands for wines that delivered equal pleasure at lower prices. It opened the door for a lot of experimentation by their guests. The food culture of Spain—the fame of its top chefs—also gave the wines a boost.
Spain consistently held a four percent share of all the wines mentioned on respondents’ lists until 2015, when that share nearly doubled, and has held in the seven percent range. This year, Remelluri rose to 17th on the Top 50 list, and La Rioja Alta came in at 24. In addition, it’s the depth of Spain’s overall presence in the poll that is significant: For the past two years, the list of the Most Popular Spanish wines has been deeper and more diverse than ever, with fifteen wineries making the cut this year, eight of which will be pouring at our Top of the List event in New York on Monday, May 14: sparkling wines from Raventos i Blanc and Avinyó, whites from Ameztoi and Do Ferreiro, and Rioja from R. López de Heredia, La Rioja Alta, Compañia de Vinos del Atlántico and Muga.
6. You recently returned from the Canary Islands and Madrid. What were some of your highlights from that trip? Any favorite wines or producers across those regions?
Several friends, including Patricio Tapia at the magazine, Nadia Fournier at the Phaneuf Guide in Quebec and Keven Clancy at Farm Wine Imports, all have told me that I had to get to the Canary Islands. And no matter how clearly they described the wildness of the place, I wasn’t prepared for it.
For me, the highlight was the land itself, how it had attracted so many different cultures—from Africa and Europe—and managed to layer them into its own, distinctive wine and food culture. There is no other place in the world that grows vines in the same way as the varied islands of the Canaries—even if you see photos, you can’t really grasp the remarkable strangeness of it unless you see it for yourself.
We tasted a lot of great wine on the trip, including the crisp malvasía volcánica Los Bermejos produces on Lanzarote. But the standouts for me were several reds, single-vineyard field blends from Suertes del Marques and Envínate, on the north side of Tenerife. It was the elegance of these wines that caught my attention. In the past, I’ve loved the refreshing edge of the light reds from the Canary Islands and associated their rustic tannins with the volcanic soils and salty ocean air.
There is nothing rustic about these latest field blends. They show an evolution in both viticultural and winemaking decisions that raises the bar, not through power, but through precision. They speak of Orotava and Táganan with a clarity that may soon earn these regions the renown they deserve.