The Next Era of Spanish Wine Starts Now - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

The Next Era of Spanish Wine Starts Now

When the team behind Oxalis, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Brooklyn, opened Clinton Hill wine bar Place des Fêtes in 2022, beverage director Piper Kristensen knew exactly what he didn’t want to do: re-create the same-old, same-old bistronomy-style French-heavy list. Coming from the cocktail world, with previous stints at Booker & Dax, Kristensen had taught himself about French wine when he designed the wine list at Oxalis, and was ready for a new challenge.

With a blank slate—his only rule was no overlap between the two restaurants—Kristensen landed on centering the list on a new wave of Spanish wine, particularly from Catalonia, as inspiration. One huge benefit: the price. Because of tariffs and inflation, he says, “French wine pricing had gone up 25 percent in a year,” adding around $10 per bottle wholesale, which would have pushed list pricing beyond what he wanted to charge for a casual neighborhood weeknight spot. The relatively unknown cache of Spanish producers offered an opportunity: “Spanish wines punch well above their price point.”

The fresh energy of the producers Kristensen encountered also impressed him. “It’s one of those rare places in the world where there are a lot of old, indigenous vines, and young, ingenious winemakers coexisting,” he says. He describes the winemaking scene in Catalonia, for instance, as mostly newcomers rehabilitating old vineyards, unshackled from the strict traditions in more established regions. Local old vine Sumoli grapes, for example, thrived in the 2022 rains that came after three years of drought, while Riesling that had been planted “when everyone thought that was the move” did not. “[Sumoli wines] are just delicious …it can go big body, it can go crunchy-crunchy tannins, and [it can be a good] chilled red. It can go Blanc Noir, Champagne style, sparkling.”

So far, Kristensen considers his gamble a success, in part because of the way this list makes his wine bar standout. “One of the most fun things about working at Place des Fêtes is that people come in and they’re like, ‘I don’t know any of these,’” he says, noting that the same wouldn’t be as true if he’d gone in a French or Italian direction. “You force them out of their comfort zone, and then they’re experiencing your restaurant in a real way.” But he also credits the rising swell of Spanish winemakers. “There wasn’t that same kind of drumbeat of new winemakers five or six years ago. Now there’s so many,” he says. “[We’re] on the ground floor with a lot of these winemakers who’ve gone on to get really so much better.”

The last 20 years have brought a reckoning, as the dominant international style of winemaking has faded, replaced by a focus on indigenous grapes and winemaking traditions.

Spanish wine—even great Spanish wine—isn’t new to stateside customers. Waves of Spanish restaurant concepts from tapas to molecular gastronomy have swept across the Atlantic—and with it, the country’s wine. But like many established wine regions around the world, the last 20 years have brought a reckoning, as the dominant international style of winemaking has faded, replaced by a focus on indigenous grapes and winemaking traditions. And with a push from savvy importers, knowledgeable sommeliers, and curious customers, that type of Spanish wine is only now beginning to percolate onto zeitgeisty wine lists. (If you’re a fan of Spanish food and wine, see our list of which bars and restaurants should be on your radar.)

“Spain has, in the past 15 years, really made its way into the United States, as far as [being] up there with Italy and France. Some people are actually looking for [Spanish wine] and wanting to spend money,” says Jessica Salyer, wine director of Katie Button Restaurants, including Cúrate in Asheville, North Carolina. Salyer has had a front row seat to this evolution, having worked at the award-winning tapas bar since its opening in 2011. After starting as a server, she now oversees the list at Cúrate, as well as the Cúrate Wine Club and the adjacent wine bar, La Bodega.

While Cúrate might still skew more traditional, highlighting classic examples of the DO system, at Bodega—the first list Salyer built from scratch on her own—she relishes the opportunity to be nimble about fresher, more modern styles. She loves to sell the newer styles of still Palomino, the main grape used in sherry, coming out of Andalusia. “I’m a huge lover of sherry, it’s probably the thing that speaks the most to me. But it’s obviously a hard sell in the United States,” she says. Wines like the Corta y Raspa La Charanga—aged under flor but unfortified—can be a bridge. “It’s bringing that fino style, but in a brighter, more approachable way with a lower ABV, versus sherry. So it’s a reintroduction, and makes people a little more familiar with sherry without taking them all the way there.

“I do seem to go a little bit more ‘Green Spain’ heavy,” she adds about her picks from the northern Galicia and the Basque regions, which can have a cooler, damper climate. “I’m a big fan of the Ametzoi Stimatum, a red Txakoli, which you don’t see very often. It’s almost a Cab Franc style with the fruit of the Lambrusco, which is a really cool summer red wine. It pairs really well with squid, and [in general is] a red wine that pairs well with seafood.”

Raij has a unique vantage point to push the conversation on Spanish wine, and has long championed family farms, women winemakers, and indigenous varietals.

Similarly, chef Alexandra Raij has also found room for more fresh, bright flavors on her list at La Vara, one of a trio of beloved New York City restaurants she co-owns with her partner, Eder Montero. When she opened the Basque restaurant Txikito in Chelsea 15 years ago, it was part of a wave of new wine-savvy Spanish spots, including heavy hitters like Casa Mono and Bar Jamon. They opened La Vara in Brooklyn not long after. Raij has a unique vantage point to push the conversation on Spanish wine, and has long championed family farms, women winemakers, and indigenous varietals.

At La Vara, which traces the cultural trails and pathways of the Moorish and Jewish Iberian communities in Spain, the initial focus was on wines from the southern coast, from Catalonia to Jerez, but has since expanded through central Spain into Galicia, and even beyond into Portugal. “One major shift we’ve seen is that we have a much deeper selection of light-bodied reds, clarets [pink wines that are typically a blend of red and white varietals], and field blends, many originating in northern regions like Galicia and Portugal—typically cooler climates not as well known for their red wine production,” says Raij.

La Vara’s current list includes gems like Viña Zorzal Nat Cool Graciano Navarra 2021 and Bodegas Alamar Capitán Xurelo Mencia Galicia 2019. “We’ve also seen a growth in access to amazing quality wines from the Canary and Balearic islands, [and] have been thrilled by discoveries from Ribera Sacra and Gredos.”

When Raij and her team reopened Txikito in 2022 after a 30-month pandemic-related hiatus, she felt compelled to switch things up a bit. While they originally only had wines from Basque regions, including Navara, Rioja, and Euskadi, Raij says, “We thought more about how the Basque region’s relationship to itself and to the world had changed and grown since 2008. So we opened up to more regions, [and] now include wines from places where Basque tendencies are strong and [where they have spread].” To Raij, that meant adding wines from Madrid, Castilla Leon, as well as the islands and Galicia. “Through this process, we’ve happily discovered many of the same changes in wine as at La Vara.”

For Tad Tobey, beverage director at Los Angeles tapas standout Otoño, there’s a necessary tension between staying approachable and pushing boundaries. Tobey views the main thrust of the wine list as “introductory,” picking out the best value-driven wines to represent the regions across the country.

Though the food menu skews Valencian, with plenty of pork and seafood, Tobey chooses selections from around the country—always having a good selection of the familiar Tempranillo and Albariño. But that doesn’t mean being boring or stuck with basics, especially with a savvy city clientele used to natural wines. “A lot of the Spanish wine I’m finding is still done in clay amphoras, so that adds a little bit of funk that goes over really well with the hipster wine scene booming in California,” he says. On the by-the-glass list, he has an orange Txakoli from Blai that’s had skin contact for 24 hours. “This wine has a round mouthfeel with a wheaty, soft peach aroma. [It’s] somewhat funky, but still very approachable and food friendly.”

The beverage menu at Otoño is fun and vibrant, bouncing from wines to smart cocktails that use Spanish ingredients, and including a porrón selection and vermouths. Tobey cites the vermouths as a particular highlight for him. “It’s a bridge between wine and cocktails,” he says, and the vermouth section has more than 10 options. “That’s definitely one of our selling points—one of the things that makes us unique.” Because most of his customers are unfamiliar with vermouth, that allows him to enter more of a dialogue about what they’re looking for. Tobey’s favorites include Atamà from Jerez, which starts out as a Manzanilla sherry before being augmented with spices and fruit. “It has a dry kind of punch to it, but you’re still going to get the cola kind of flavors. It’s very big and robust, and super flavorful and delicious.”

For wine director Emily Blackman, creating the Spanish-inflected list at Los Olivos’ seafood-focused Bar Le Côte may have been an unexpected choice, given the town’s location in the epicenter of California’s Central Coast wine region. But for her, it made perfect sense. Blackman got her start in wine in New York City and worked at the now defunct Mercat, which at the time featured more than 200 Spanish wines. When she helped open Bar Le Côte, she knew exactly what she wanted to draw from. “Rías Baixas has become such an important region for the restaurant because, in a way, it almost behaves in Spain the same way that our little Central Coast corner of California behaves, where we have a little bit more of that ocean influence. It’s a little bit cooler—we’re sort of that little Galicia-style pocket, with a lot less rain.”

Her list is concise but well-balanced, with a focus on acidic whites and lighter reds from coastal regions to match the Spanish-Portuguese-Basque-inspired, seafood-centric menu. Beyond her personal favorite—a Hidalgo Manzanilla sherry on tap—she cites some of the Albariños as wines of note. While Albariño has traditionally had an approachable price point, Blackman is intrigued by producers making outstanding higher-quality bottles. “That’s been a really fun exploration,” shesays. “We have a nice little allocation of Manuel Moldes Albariño, and they almost drink [like] white Burgundy. They’re just so pretty.”

Some of the wines are typicity-bending, such as the Artuke Rioja, which is made in the carbonic method. For Blackman, the wine works in two ways. First, it has an air of the unexpected. “I think it’s a really fun twist on a region,” noting that for many people, “their introduction to Spanish wines was Rioja, but it was those tannic, rich, oaked styles,” she says. “To have something that’s a little bit more fresh and fruity and more lively, I think it’s a nice chance to look at the region in a totally different light—and it goes well with seafood.”

These wines also offer a nice tie-in to similarly made wines from her own Central Coast region. “Down the street from us is the Stolpman So Fresh Garage, where their popular Love You Bunches wine is carbonic—I think that’s just something that people can really understand.”

“Fifteen years ago, when talking to someone about Spanish wines, they’d often know what Rioja was and that was about the end of their knowledge,” Blackman says. “Just mentioning that a white Rioja even exists would blow their minds.” But times have changed, and so has the range of wines that people are willing to try. “If you’re a red wine drinker but you want to have that crispy skin branzino with a little Romesco sauce at lunch with a glass of wine, that Artuke is awesome.”

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