The recent unexpected volcanic eruption in Iceland has relegated me to another several days in Europe, with ample opportunity to reflect on my experiences in Spain. Over the past couple of weeks I´ve discovered that one of the peculiarities of Spanish wine service is that vintage is generally considered irrelevant to most drinkers and wine lists. It is also common to simply see, even at the better wine bars, a list of wines with such elaborate descriptions as “Ribera del Duero” or “Albarino”. Producer and vintage are conspiculously occluded by the basic tradition of drinking wine as a simple accompaniment to food and company. This attitude, to be honest, is overrated for someone trying to actually appreciate wine, even in an unpretentious way. While I agree that wine and food and company are essential pairings, it is also difficult to grow wine culture and appreciation without the details necessary for more thoughtful deliberation. Without this, wine is akin to your basic lager.
As a case in point, when I ordered this 1999 Alion off the bottle list at Madrid´s Tempranillo wine bar (considered one of the best in the city), the following discussion ensued:
Me: 1999 Alion por favor.
Waiter: oh we do not have 1999, only 2003 or 2004
Me: Oh that´s too bad, I like older wine.
Waiter (with quisical look): Oh, this is a crianza, not meant to age. We tried some they tasted like vinegar.
Me: Maybe it wasn´t cellared properly.
Waiter (looking confused): one minute
Another waiter comes back with the 1999 Alion and pours while telling me they generally don´t serve wines older than 2002.
First off, as most likely know, Alion only comes in one form, and is meant to age 10 or more years. Second, this strange attitude towards younger wines is actually not very in tune with the general spirit and tradition of Spanish wines, most of the classics of which are built to age. So why this curious attitude?
I don´t find this anecodote particularly interesting from the perspective of the wine elite or of the great afficionados of vintage; rather, I find it peculiarly insightful into the differences in wine culture between Canada and Spain. In Canada we have an almost religious reverance for vintage and producer – we talk about X wine from the latest hot producer and that X vintage produced some of the best fruit yet seen in the region. In Spain, place is wine. You don´t need to know such things as producer and vintage. What you need to know is the basic symbol of a particular tradition. Albarino and Rueda dominate the white wine scene here for their traditionally crisp and steel fermented styles that accompany seafood with such verve and alacrity. The Rioja and Ribera del Duero wines provide a moment of pause and reflection, with perhaps a chance at a great pairing with some of Spain´s classic Jamon.
So, in the end, it seems that culture and tradition are what focus our attention in wine service. There is no correct mode of serving or highlighting particular attributes of a wine – such endeavors are contextual and driven as much by our hopes and pretentions as by the objective characteristics of a wine.
As for the Alion? It was supple, laden with minerals and graphite and yet still youthful enough to offer exuberance and elegant pleasure. If all crianzas brought the drinker to this level, the reservas and gran reservas would be the figments of mythology. Alion tuly is one of Spain´s great `crianzas´, and I would rate it Excellent.
Look for more to come in the next several days.