You can pick up a decent glass of local wine for as little as one euro in Spain's bars, but the country is also home to a number of producers whose wines command some pretty hefty prices.
While Spain isn’t going to lose its "value for money" spot in Europe’s wine hierarchy any time soon, collectors and wine lovers are going nuts over top offerings from Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat, and the relatively unknown Bierzo region.
Many of these wines have a couple of things in common: small production and high scores from Robert Parker. They're unlikely to challenge the prestige of France’s most sought-after regions, but the top Spaniards are finding a place in the cellars of younger, less conservative American collectors – particularly those of Spanish or Latin descent, or who have traveled in Spain.
Chuck Hayward of JJ Buckley Fine Wines believes that top Spanish wines, while relatively undiscovered, have an element of safety due to their European pedigree: “Showing off a wine that has something different to friends and wine enthusiasts is a popular pursuit, and the best Spanish wines allow for that, as well as a safer exploration in the world of wine.”
Here are the top 10 wines on Wine-Searcher’s Most Expensive Spanish Wines list.*
No. 1. Dominio de Pingus, Ribera del Duero
Spain’s most pricey wine comes from a tiny plot of extremely low-yielding tempranillo in the middle of the prestigious Ribera del Duero region.
Robert Parker shares credit with a shipwreck for pushing up the price of this wine. After the first vintage in 1995 was praised by the famed wine critic, interest soared. But in 1997, a shipwreck in the north Atlantic saw the loss of 75 cases of limited-release Pingus. This sent U.S. buyers into a frenzy, and the price nearly doubled.
Today, Pingus (the childhood nickname of Danish winemaker Peter Sisseck) has an average Wine-Searcher listing of $898 and is considered a cult wine due to its elusiveness. You need to have some pretty decent connections to get your hands on a bottle.
Mannie Berk, founder of California's Rare Wine Co., admires the way that Pingus has established itself in just 18 years of production. He believes that iconic Spanish wines such as Pingus “transcend their class, their region, become something different.”
No. 2. Descendientes de J. Palacios, La Faraona, Bierzo
The number-two spot goes to a relative newbie. Descendientes de J. Palacios was established in the little-known Bierzo region in 1999 by the same Alvaro Palacios (see No. 3) who helped put Priorat on the map in the 1980s.
Alvaro’s nephew, Ricardo Perez, traveled through the relatively unknown region of Bierzo after completing his training at Château Margaux and spotted its immense potential. He convinced his uncle to buy land in the area, and the two have been creating highly acclaimed wines from old mencia vines ever since.
Along with its well-known – and more affordable – Petalos wine, Descendientes de J. Palacios makes a selection of high-end, single-vineyard wines. These include our second most-expensive Spanish wine, La Faraona. It is grown on barely more than an acre of land, with the vines yielding just a single barrel of wine each year. La Faraona is listed at an average price of $614 on Wine-Searcher.
No. 3. Alvaro Palacios L’Ermita, Priorat
Alvaro Palacios strikes again. Long before he arrived in Bierzo (see above), Palacios was making wines from the rugged Catalonian region of Priorat.
After studying in Bordeaux at the famed Petrus estate, Palacios decided not to return to his family’s vineyard in Rioja, but to go in search of new terroir in Spain. In the 1980s, he fell in love with Priorat, and acquired a plot of old vines in 1990 which became his Finca Dofi vineyard.
In 1993, Palacios found what is now considered to be the best site in Priorat: the L’Ermita vineyard, planted to ancient garnacha on the side of a steep hill.
The Priorat region has since achieved international acclaim, with Palacios leading the charge. His L'Ermita wine, a carinena/garnacha blend, is to die for: mineral-driven, silky, elegant, with blackberry and red cherry fruit and a fine line of acidity. It has an average price of $587.
Unfortunately, wines to try before you die come at a price. Palacios jokes that he and Pingus owner Peter Sisseck are having a competition as to who can make the most expensive Spanish wine.
© Vega Sicilia |
No. 4. Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva, Ribera del Duero
For years, this was the only Spanish wine that aficionados cared about. Although it has slipped to fourth place in the list of most-expensive Spanish wines, it still sells for an average price of $427 and has not lost any of its prestige.
The historic Vega Sicilia winery was established in 1864, with wine being produced by the Alvarez family since the 1980s. This was nearly not the case. In 1982, when the Vega Sicilia estate was up for sale, Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias tried his best to steal a march.
Unico is aged according to the quality of the vintage and is only sold when it is good and ready. Consumers are perfectly happy to accept this. The waiting list in Spain to receive an allocation of the famous wine is 5,000-strong.
In the world of wine auctions, Vega Sicilia is the only Spanish wine that is regularly mentioned in the same breath as Mouton Rothschild and Domaine de la Romanée Conti. In a Sotheby’s auction in 2009, a complete vertical of Vega Sicilia magnums from 1960 to 1995 fetched $102,000 – five times the pre-sale estimate.
Managing director Pablo Alvarez admits that Spain has not yet attained the fame – or the high prices – that top Bordeaux and Burgundy wines attract in China, but he believes its time will come.
“I think it is normal, when a country starts to be interested in wine culture, they start with French wines," he told Wine-Searcher. "But it is also true that part of those consumers will continue their interest in wine, and they will start trying wines from other countries and region – us among them."
No. 5. Bodegas Hermanos Sastre Pesus, Ribera del Duero
Pesus ($352) comes from some of the oldest vines in Ribera del Duero, and is one of the more traditional wines on our list. Hermanos Sastre is a family owned estate, with only a few additional employees. Patriarch Rafael Sastre acquired the land in 1992, and when he died six years later his two sons, Pedro and Jesús, took over. "Pesus" is a composite of their two names. Tragically, Pedro died in 2002, and nowadays the winery is run by Jesús.
Volumes of this wine are tiny: about 1,500 bottles when a vintage is declared.
© Bodega Contador |
No. 6. Bodega Contador, Contador, Rioja
Contador producer Benjamín Romeo made his first vintage in 1996 in a centuries-old cave hewn from the rock beneath the castle of San Vicente de la Sonsierra. He became a true garagiste after renovating his parent's garage to increase his winemaking space.
The 2004 and 2005 vintages, produced in the garage, shot to fame when Robert Parker awarded both wines perfect 100-point ratings. Romeo describes the scores as "a very decisive moment" in his career. "I was starting to look for the way to build the new winery. The scores helped to have more trust and start to sell in the international markets."
However, there was no 2006 vintage to follow the two perfect years. In Romeo's view, the fruit wasn't up to his exacting standards.
Contador has huge fruit complexity and density that has caused other critics to lament its modernity. It's not a wine that immediately screams Rioja, and Romeo agrees that his wines are different from those that are typical of the region. For starters, there's not a grain of American oak.
As with other wines on this list, it's the combination of limited production and high Parker scores that has led to the current high price (an average $322).
No. 7. Clos Erasmus Clos i Terraces, Priorat
We return to Priorat, to a woman who bought a vineyard on a whim but then went on to produce one of the region's flagship wines: Clos Erasmus. Daphne Glorian, who was then working for an English wine merchant, met Alvaro Palacios and René Barbier (owner of top Priorat estate Clos Mogador) at a wine fair and "we became friends instantly."
While Glorian was visiting the Priorat, the pair took her to see Clos i Terraces. "The place was strikingly beautiful and wild, and I just went for it," she told Wine-Searcher.
The Clos Erasmus wine ($294) is named for this seat-of-the-pants decision: Erasmus von Rotterdam was a Dutch philosopher who wrote an essay entitled "In Praise of Folly."
Building the estate's reputation turned out to be "a wild ride. I had the hardest time to get people to even taste the wine. The Priorat was totally unknown, and Spain did not have that great a reputation in the early '90s."
But Glorian grabbed the challenge with both hands: "While founding was sparse I was not short on tenacity, and the advantage of having pretty much nothing to lose is that you do not compromise with what is your idea of quality. Before I knew it, the wine was receiving accolades and the Priorat went from remote and destitute to one of the wine destinations in the world."
Glorian describes Clos Erasmus as "rich, complex, with layers of black fruit, spices, licorice, fennel, ripe tannins. But most important is the dense minerality, which is very distinctive and the backbone of the wine."
© Clos i Terraces |
No. 8. Remirez de Ganuza Gran Reserva, Rioja
Another Rioja, but this one is actually a gran reserva. Fernando Remirez de Ganuza set up his estate in 1989, and being a long-time vineyard broker he knew exactly where all the best spots were.
Ganuza now has more than 80 hectares of vines, spread over six vineyards in the Cantabrian mountains. He is a meticulously fussy producer; only the grapes from the shoulders of each bunch are used in the Gran Reserva blend, because they have more concentration and color than those on the tips (which are reserved for his lesser blends).
Ganuza is thrilled by the recognition awarded to his wines. "A winemaker wants to reach the best possible in the winemaking," he told Wine-Searcher. "100 points are a big motivation to gain another 100 points."
Ganuza describes his Gran Reserva as "refined, powerful and lovable, an attractive color with fine addictive aromas." Explaining his catchphrase, "loyalty to the grape," he says: ”Each region of the world has to grow the grape that adapts to the best micro-climate. In in our case, it's tempranillo."
The wine now fetches an average $251 a bottle and is said to be a favorite of the Spanish royal family.
No. 9. Artadi Viña el Pisón, Rioja
Artadi winemaker Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle is described by London fine-wine merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd as "one of the greatest wine names in Spain ... a punctilious and gifted craftsman." Artadi owns 83 hectares of biodynamic vines in the heart of Rioja Alavesa, including a 2.4-hectare walled vineyard where the grapes for Viña el Pisón are grown.
Artadi was originally founded, in 1985, as a grape-growers' co-operative, but de Lacalle turned it into a private concern in 1992. "We keep alive the viticultural traditions of our grandparents," he says, "fighting against the destructive advances that chemistry has introduced into disrespectful agricultural management."
Artadi adds: "We aim to preserve the production and the enjoyment of a 'living' wine, with feelings and spirituality."
Not many U.S. aficionados will get the chance to taste this $250 wine, as only around 600 bottles make it across the Atlantic every year.
Because Artadi eschews most of Rioja's strict rules and regulations, his Vina El Pison does not even make it to the crianza classification, let alone gran reserva, yet it's a collector's item. The reason? All together now: tiny volumes plus a 100-point Parker score (for the 2004 vintage).
No. 10. Martinez Lacuesta Reserva Especial, Rioja
This estate has been producing wine since 1895, when it was founded by Félix Martínez Lacuesta, a 21-year-old lawyer, and his brothers. A politician and businessman, he laid the foundations of today's Denominación de Origen de Rioja.
Still a strictly family run business, in 2009 the estate moved out of the town of Haro to a new, 16,000-square-meter bodega designed by leading San Sebastián architects Fiark Arquitectos. It houses an underground winery along with offices, tasting rooms and a laboratory.
The company's general manager, Luis Martinez Lacuesta, says that building a new winery was "an important strategic decision. It meant a resounding architectural change, but our philosophy and our way of making wine remain the same, out of respect for our ancestors."
For Lacuesta, the inclusion of the Reserva Especial ($210) on the most-expensive list is recognition of the winery's "effort and enthusiasm to improve every day." Made only in excellent or very good vintages, the wine is a "soft, elegant, subtle and perfumed wine, with tannins and oak aromas very well assembled." Lacuesta cites "clayey calcerous soils, the Atlantic climate, and the nobility of the tempranillo grape" as vital components.
© Martinez Lacuesta |
* Compiled from the average prices of wines that have been produced over five consecutive vintages, and which have a minimum of 20 different offers on Wine-Searcher.