It began a tentatively, a little like re-igniting an old romance after drifting apart. Rioja was one of my first (vinous) loves, so there was an element of familiarity that made access easier.
When I was a student, Civil Service Wine & Spirit Store (now defunct) imported Marquis de Romerol. The 1959 vintage – fifteen years old at the time – was the current stock on hand and it sold for the princely sum of R1-08 (just a little less than a Nederburg Cabernet). It was hard not to fall in love. About ten years later I secured the agency for Marques de Riscal, pioneers in the region and pretty much founders of the appellation in the aftermath of the late 19th century catastrophes which almost wiped out the French wine industry.
I was struck by how dedicated they were to wine quality (in the most modern sense of the word) but how old-fashioned they were when it came to commercial relationships. I saw someone hand-bottling 187ml bottles from a cask, and asked why this wasn't done by machine. I was told that they had only one customer who still ordered that size and it didn't make sense to include it in the automatic bottling line. “Why don't you tell them you've discontinued the pack size,” I asked. “It wouldn't be right,” they replied, “they've been ordering it for the last 120 years.”
This pretty much sums up my experience of the wine business in Spain, and which in turn has made getting involved with different producers and different appellations much easier. Three trips in less than a year saw several additions to our wine list. These include Cosme Palacio from Rioja, whose top cuvée won the most coveted award at the Salon des Gourmets I attended last year. We've also included a Rioja selection from Berronia, now a subsidiary of Gonzalez Byass, source of many of Spain's most fabulous aged sherries.
The Ribera del Duero, once home to some of the most admired bacterially-infected wines in the world, is now a treasure trove of tempranillo-based reds which are often softer and a little richer than the wines of Rioja. We didn't intend to have two suppliers from the region – but unable to decide which of the two on my shortlist we preferred, we solved the problem by bringing in both Arroyo and Viña Mayor. No Spanish range today would be be complete without a few examples of Albariño from Galicia, which is what brought us to discover Villarei, with the their single cultivar wines, as well as a fabulous white blend (Altos de Torona Rosal). Once you're that far to the north and west, you may as well add Bierzo to your itinerary – and discover the extraordinary reds made from the Mencia grape, and the Meursault-like whites produced from Godello.
Finally, any true romance with the wines of Spain would be incomplete without an intimate knowledge of Sherry – one of the oldest appellations of the modern world. Gonzalez Byass – best known for its Tio Pepe brand – is home to single cask bottlings of great Finos, tiny releases which are never fined and never filtered, as well as a range of aged Amontillados, Olorosos, Pedro Ximenez and Palo Cortados.