Wine Culture Connection
Syrah in Spain
International grape varieties have a long history in Spain. The 19th century saw the classic Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Carmenère and Petit Verdot make there way to a few of the great houses, but primarily on an experimental basis. From that migration the only grape that had significant staying power and was used in more than small percentages of commercially released wines was Cabernet Sauvignon, and mostly in Rioja.
While experimentation has taken place in pockets here and there over the years, the 1960s and 1970s saw another influx of Cabernet Sauvignon as a monovarietal at Torres and also Jean Leon in Penedès—with significant international acclaim for Torres's Mas La Plana Black Label—along with Chardonnay. Marqués de Riscal brought Sauvignon Blanc to Rueda and it has become a mainstay in Rueda, although the indigeneous Verdejo has mounted a comeback and continues to gain increased respect.
While indigenous grapes like Tempranillo, Garnacha and Monastrell continue to be mainstays among red varieties, and Palomino (for Sherry), Verdejo, Viura and Albarino for whites, another wave started in the late 1980s and 1990s, when the Priorat pioneers brought in Bordeaux varietals again, along with Syrah.
Additionally in the start of the 1990s there were efforts to forge stronger identities in a mix of regions that had long labored under the shadow of the Rioja model. Such regions included other parts of Catalunya, Navarra, Somontono, La Mancha and others. And they sought in different ways to distinguish themselves from Rioja and its traditional of long barrel aging of Tempranillo based blends.
Those efforts included experimentation with revived and overlooked indigenous plantings, and also with international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and even Pinot Noir as alternatives that were perhaps better suited to each respective region than Tempranillo. Or at least varieties with better name recognition in international markets than local varieties.
While Pinot Noir has not caught on, even in cooler, higher altitude locations, Syrah has proven a runaway success in terms of hectares of vineyards planted. 25 years ago there was very little Syrah planted in Spain and today, Syrah has become the 10th most planted grape in the country out of more than 600 varieties.
Given Syrah's longstanding success in the south of France, and more recently in hot viticultureal zones of Australia and California, it makes sense for this noble grape to do well in the warm climes of Spain. The styles of Syrah found in Spain range from the more austere and meaty styles of Syrah closer to those found in the Northern Rhône to the jammy, fruit-packed styles of Australia.
Five years ago I attended a blind tasting comparing Spain's emerging Syrahs and Syrah blends with those from the top regions in the world. While the Spaniards included some nice wines, as a group they didn't really stand up to standard barers from around the world.
Earlier this year I attended a reprise of that tasting theme, and the quality level of the Spanish Syrahs was markedly up, showing well and even besting some international standouts in the group's blind rankings. While the Spanish Syrahs clearly held their own, consensus on preferences was split more along the lines of style, traditional/elegant styles versus modern/fruit-packed, than in favor of one region or country.
Spain's Syrahs have come a long way in a short time and now compete with established Syrah regions in quality. Although personal preferences may vary more by style than specific Spanish region, each region has its own character and features.
While Lazarus "Orange Label" is 50% Syrah and 50% Merlot, its rich Syrah character shines through, as do the iron and stoney mineral tones of the terroir. Stylistically, Lazarus "Orange Label" is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, with excellent ripe fruit and hints of bacon fat, but moderately extracted with balanced acidity and chewey, slightly rustic, but well integrated tannins. It's an excellent opportunity to sample how far Syrah has come in Spain, and enjoy one of her best.
The genesis of Lazarus Wine began with the tireless passion of Antonio Tomás Palacios, Professor of Enology at the University of La Rioja, and his time working with a blind winemaker in 1999. Antonio found that his blind colleague was able to detect changes in aromatics and taste earlier than he and other highly skilled, but sighted winemakers. The acute sensitivity of this blind winemaker and his ultra-low threshold for discerning aromatic changes allowed them to react more quickly to promote positive developments in the process and prevent negative developments. And this is how the idea for Sensorial Winemaking was born.
In 2000 Antonio undertook a number of studies at the University, investigating different scenarios of aromatic development of Syrah and Merlot during the winemaking process, and different ways to act on them with the help of blind winemakers. Further studies were started in 2002 on additional grape varieties. The research led to devising more codified ways to build the sensitivities of the blind into the ongoing decision making process of elaborating wine.
In order to make Lazarus Wine a reality Antonio needed additional help and to find the right terroir and a state of the art winery in which to work freely on a small scale. Antonio's former oenology student, Gonzalo Gonzalo Grijalba of Orgullo joined the project as a collaborator. And Bodegas Edra, where Antonio works as consulting winemaker, proved to be an ideal place to launch the Lazarus Wine project.
Bodegas Edra is located in the town of Ayerbe in the province of Huesca near the Somontano DO, which is in the North of Spain, south of France and west of Catalunya. The vineyards are 500 meters above sea level with soil composed of large alluvial stones and calcareous clay, and are subject to a continental climate.
The Sensorial Winemaking method is adapted to each type of wine, and the blind winemakers are constantly tasting wines to identify key compounds of microbial metabolism throughout the process. Detected substances affect decisions on fermentation temperature, degree of aeration, time of maceration with skins and seeds, as well as assessing the quality of the lees and the time and type of barrel to use.
The same methods are also used for tasting grapes to determine the optimal time of harvest and crio-maceration treatments prior to fermentation. Amazingly, as Sensorial Winemaking is practiced today blind winemakers are able to detect incipient problems even before they are discernible through chemical analysis.
Although the process is fascinating and quite technical, the end result is very pleasurable: rich, well-made wine that expresses the terroir and character of the region and the noble varieties of Syrah and Merlot. We are happy to report that Lazarus Wine is also a boon to the blind community in Spain and we suspect eventually across in the wine producing world. We urge everyone to try and enjoy this special wine.
Lazarus Wine "Green Label" 2010 White, VT Ribera del Gállego - Cinco Villas
Lazarus Wine "Orange Label" 2007 Red, VT Ribera del Gállego - Cinco Villas
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