Spanish wines have made tremendous advances in the past two decades. Famous regions like Rioja and Ribera del Duero have rethought their winemaking to make tremendous advances in quality and style, while newer and lesser-known regions have leaped out from obscurity and into the spotlight. Winemaker Ana Martín has had her hand in this mix since 1987. And while she has had some measure of fame in her native country, more and more of her wines are now reaching us here in the States – hopefully a trend that will continue.
Ana was born in the Basque region of Spain and caught the wine bug during her chemistry studies at the University of Pais Vasco. She went on to study viticulture and enology at the University of Madrid. Much of Ana’s early work was in collaboration with Jose Hidalgo, another well-known and respected winemaker. Together they worked in a number of different DOs (Denominacion d’Origen, the basic unit in Spain’s appellation system) including Cigales, Ribera del Duero, and Mancha. Much of their work was in the white wine regions of Rias Baixas and Rueda. This was an exciting time for these appellations, as modern facilities made possible by EU funding began enabling Spanish whites to attain a freshness and vibrancy completely at odds with the image of fat, oaky white Rioja that had dominated international perceptions previously.
During the early 90s Ana supplemented her winemaking with teaching and tasting committee work, enabling her to share her ideas and keep up-to-date on progress being made throughout Spain. She even did some marketing work for the Rias Baixas winery, Terras Gaudas, giving her the chance to learn more about the public’s perception of wine.
In 1995 Ana began working on her own, starting at Grandes Bodegas in Ribera del Duero as well asItsasMendi in the Txakoli de Bizkaia DO. The latter is in her Basque home province; ItsasMendi is shortly to be released in the U.S. – her only white wine available here - having already received an enthusiastic response from Spanish consumers. The region as a whole has enjoyed a great growth in reputation in the past ten years, evolving from a cheap wine for locals and summer tourists into an export-worthy and appreciated style. Just as in Rias Baixas and Rueda, Ana was part of the transformation.
Good Txakoli is a summery, medium-alcohol white wine, made from two local grapes, Hondarribi Zuri and Hondarribi Beltza. Unlike many Txakoli wineries, ItsasMendi is fortunate enough to own its own vineyards – about 69 acres – scattered on hillsides throughout the region. This prevents any arguments with growers about treatment of the vines and grapes in the vineyard. The winery was specifically designed for these properties and grapes, and Ana takes advantage of this well-planned setup to make a wine of grace and style. The 2003 ItsasMendi Berezia is a minerally wine with an herbal nose of sage and anise. It’s medium-bodied, with high but smooth acidity - refreshing, but not strident.
Ana has two other wines available in the U.S. Since 2000 she has been the winemaker for Castillo de Cuzcurrita, in Rioja. Their small vineyard lies within the walls of a 15th-century castle (hence “Castillo”) in the town of Cuzcurrita del Rio Tiron. At 600 meters above sea level in Rioja’s Alta district, this is the coolest and highest microclimate within the DO. The castle’s newest owner, an automobile and truck importer, not only renovated the building and grounds but also decided to make a wine from its 80-year-old Tempranillo vines, just to have something special he could share with business clients. Their first vintage was the 1999; its great success prompted him decided to release the wine commercially. My first taste of the Senorio de Cuzcurrita 2000 brought to mind black cherry ice cream, with its creamy roundness and rich fruit. This impression was fleshed out by silky tannins and savory spices which wrapped around the fruit as they evolved together into a long finish. This is not a powerhouse wine, but a refined Tempranillo, with breeding and style that suit its castle upbringing. Most Riojas are made from a blend of grapes from vineyards throughout the region; producing such a classic example from a single vineyard is a rare accomplishment.
Nonetheless, the wine that made Ana famous in Spain’s domestic wine world is the Traslanzas. While interning at a local cooperative Ana met Maria Pinacho, whose family owns the vineyard of the same name. Together they realized the value of the property’s 60-year-old vines and decided to form a partnership. In 1998 they released what was to be first red wine to come from the Cigales DO, which had previously produced primarily rosés. Although using Tinto del Pais grapes – the local name for Tempranillo – the iron-rich soils of Cigales produce wine of a very different stripe than that of Rioja. Emphasizing the contrast, Ana decided to age the Traslanzas in predominantly American Oak instead of the French Oak that she uses for the Cuzcurrita. On the nose and palate, blackberries, licorice, vanilla, and a slight smokiness embellish a rich base of wet earthiness. The high acid that characterizes the Tempranillo grape is apparent and serves to balance the firm tannins. This full-bodied wine is remarkably consistent from the first whiff through its slowly fading finish.
The contrast between these three wines exemplifies Ana’s ability to understand what the grapes of a specific vineyard are offering her. Once she has studied her raw materials, she applies judicious and gentle treatment to shepherd them into wines of great individual character and interest. Spain, like many of today’s wine regions, is afflicted by winemakers who seem rushed and intent on making the same wine in whatever region or country they happen to be in. Ana is a happy exception, and it can only be hoped that others will follow her lead – and that American importers and distributors will bring us the opportunity to experience the fruit of their labors.