Decanter May

"Spring is sprung

The grass is riz;

I wonder where

Decanter is?"  

<with apologies to Spike Milligan>

Ah, there it <redacted> is, two days before we expected it. Caught us out, this month, it has. But we are rushing to the pumps, as you'll see below.

It's an interesting one this month. Often the lead panel review has quite a narrow focus. A look at, say, Meursault 2018, say, would be lovely for white Burgundy fans but is hardly a wide throwing of the net. If you are not much into Chardonnay and/or big wine budgets, it's not really a review for you.

This month, the panel throws the net across a whole country (Spain) and nearly all its white grapes.

What emerges are some great wines - some lesser-known in origin and nature - at great prices. You can forget needing to spend above £20 for the top wines this month.

Best of all is a huge diversity of styles. It's not a phrase I like, but there really is Something For Everyone (except, perhaps, for Malbec drinkers).

It identifies three 96-point wines that top the panel, all rated as Outstanding. We offer all three of these. They differ greatly, are superb (if highly stylistic, in the case of one in particular) and eminently affordable (£15.50 to £18.95).

There's more detail below. Head straight to the icons and reviews below (click on these) if you don’t want all the pre-amble and scene-setting.

The wines featured this month in Decanter - and that we list - appear at the foot of this page. The reviews for each wine (where we've been able to show them) appear on each product page.


The story

Think Spain, think red??

Many folk still do. The emergence of Albarino and its native region (Rias Baixas) in the last 15 years has acted to spotlight Spain's white wine credentials. Truth is, there are many superb white wines across Spain which a good majority of wine drinkers don't know are out there (it's taken us a while to find them, and we get paid to do it).

Or, as Decanter put it, "Quietly, almost stealthily, Spain is transforming itself into a destination for white wines."

The catalogue of Spanish white varieties is extensive: beyond Albarino, you've Godello, Verdejo, Treixadura, Macabeo/Viura, Xarel-lo, Airen, Tempranillo Blanco, Garnacha Blanca and Palomino. Plus many more. These grapes have not always enjoyed much of a reputation for quality (this is where Albarino broke through). Some are/were grapes used mainly for otherpurposes (eg Airen for Brandy de Jerez, Macabeo and Xaerl-lo for Cava, Palomino for Sherry); the others were, in volume terms, almost all vinified rustically for low-grade table wines that seldom left Iberia. Even those that have seen quality winemaking for many years

Much has changed. The quality revolution is sweeping Spain's white wine scene, and fast. Producers no longer wish to punt out bottles for a few euro centimes. It is not hard to find quality versions of wines from all of these grapes. The best now make it to export markets, and the UK is principal among these. But reputations of that quality - generally/in aggregate - remain hidden, making for attractive prices for the wine consumer.

The trick, then, as is so often the case, lies in identifying the wheat from the chaff. Decanter's review is well-timed and very useful.

No small part of the charm of the review, as mentioned above, is the huge array of varieties in the frame. The regions from which these hail are even more myriad. See the map below of the regions Decanter review in this panel. We've grouped together and located the Highly Recommended and Outstanding wines we offer from the review (the latter shown in red boxes; if choosing wines by regions, you can match the images here to those in the grid at the foot of this page!)

map courtesy of Decanter, www.decanter.com

The review, technically, is of indigenous whites. Not appearing, then, are:

- imported/international varieties (so you can forget about any Chardonnay, Chenin, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Riesling et al);

blends. Decanter specified 100% varietal wines.

It's fair enough, I think, that Rueda's many (if likeable) Verdejo/Sauvi Blanc mixes are not here and that Somontano's Alsace-a-likes don't appear. But it's a bit rough that white Riojas that blend native varieties are excluded.

So be it, there's still plenty to get excited about.


The Decanter review - results

  • A bumper 149 Spanish whites went under test.
  • The number of grape varieties and regions in play is almost too numerous to count. Rely on it being well above 20 on both fronts.
  • Vintages: no specific year was specified by Decanter, to throw the net as wide as possible. They are mainly 2017, 2018 and 2019 (for the majority of styles and grape varieties), but stretch back all the way to 2008 for some of the more ageworthy, oxidative and oaked styles (white Rioja being principal among these).
  • Most of the wines actually seem to be available. This is not as daft or trivial as it sounds. As we've said here before, producers and importers can have an annoying habit of advancing top-vintage 'library' wines (ie that are no longer available) to secure a good score. It seems the hope is that those scores will radiate across later, perhaps-weaker vintages. We saw a fair bit of that with the Rioja Gran Reserva panel back in the March edition. It's good to see very little of that here, much prompted by Decanter specifying current-release wines only.
  • Seven wines were rated at 95 points or above, thus being identified as OutstandingThree of these were awarded 96 points. We offer all three.
  • There were another 77 wines that score 90 or above (Highly Recommended). We offer 10 of these.
  • Prices of the 95+pointers (and indeed the Highly Recommendeds and category overall) are excellent: the six that are UK-available average just over £17 a bottle (that's a figure that applies to the top three, too). There is, as said above, much great value to be seen in Spanish whites.
  • White Riojas do well in the review; surprisingly, no Albarino scores above 93 points (we offer that one).


The top wines

Enough pre-amble. Let’s tell you about the top wines. We've conducted our own tastings of all three, described below and also turned into video tastings.

In no particular order, the first 96-pointer is an aged white Rioja from Bodegas Muriel in Rioja Alavesa, made from 100% Viura. Perhaps most interestingly, it is a 2013. This is no aged release gimmick or library stock. To the great credit of Muriel, they release their white Reserva late, and (stating the obvious perhaps) it has almost 8 years on the clock now. It is a fascinating and brilliant wine; to my mind, at least, Decanter have it right here. It's superb value at £18.95. A few key points, though, follow after you've seen the review. NOW OUT OF STOCK UNTIL LATE MAY.

- Set aside any immediate notions about Muriel. True, their wines are often seen on the shelves of Asda, Tesco etc. But that is true of many of Rioja's finest producers (and never forget that Krug is in supermarkets these days...). Those wines are Muriel's entry-level wines; this is from the higher-level Vina Muriel range. And it shows.

- White Rioja has a reputation among many folk. That reputation is of old, possibly fading, highly oaked, woody and often quite oxidative/oxidised wines. That reputation is not unfair of many historic white Riojas. But the game is changing. And that rep is not true of this Muriel.

- Our video tasting is here (new with added cat).

- What it essentially says is

  • Here be ripe fruit - this isn't citric and unripe. Think peach, apricot, nectarine. I even got some mango.
  • It's deep gold in colour, which speaks of that ripeness.
  • It also speaks of the oak in play. This was barrel-fermented and aged in the same barrels, all of French oak. Muriel don't say, but there is a proportion of new oak going on, I'm sure (there's a bit too much vanilla apparent for there not to be). White Burgundy fans (and fans of Chardonnay where oak is a factor) will like this (I struggled not to thnk it was a Chardonnay from the nose alone).
  • The oak is really well brought to bear. Oak and fruit are in great harmony.
  • It has great texture; this is no thin acid-zinger.
  • The age is apparent but not greatly. Despite those almost-8 years, this is a wine still on the upslope of its development curve (although it drinks beautifully now). It's still youthful in nature, which it draws from the high concentration of fruit and plentiful acidity.
  • Key point: dryness. That acidity just mentioned is much higher than for an oaked Chardonnay (using that yardstick again). The residual sugar is low (I'm guessing 1-1.5 g/litre max). So the acid:sugar balance is high. Which means: this is a very dry wine. On its own, and despite the oak and fruit, it's on the edge of being slightly austere. Current wine parlance might use terms like "saline" (I note one reviewer does). It does not have the 'soft dryness' of much white Burgundy.
  • Dont over-read that warning, though: with food (extensively tested), this wine is fabulous. It's a vino gastronomico. The acidity matches it to fish, but but has the texture and richness to match to white meats and cheese.
  • To me, it fully merits the 96 points. It's rare to find an aged Rioja this vibrant. It's a wine that rivals white Burgundy double the price.


Outstanding Wine #2 is maybe even better. It's certainly more of an immediate crowd-pleaser, lighter on oak and an obvious glass on its own (but still goes very well with food).

That wine is a Godello from Bierzo (in Castilla & Leon where it meets Galicia; I erroneously mention it as a Galician wine in the video tasting). One of the most remarkable and traditional winemakers there is Raul Perez (links there to his website for more details on the man himself; remarkable).

Godello is something of a newcomer to the international scene. Personally, I think it a superb grape. Use this model carefully, but, for me, it combines the richness and texture of Chardonnay with the tension and zing of Sauvignon Blanc, yet has ageability approaching that of Chenin.

This is actually one of Perez's entry-level Godellos (being, as he is, a maker of some very low-production, boutique wines), but you'd not guess that. Here's the Decanter review:

Again, the video tasting captures it, but a potted text reads:

  • great fruit again - ripe (stone fruit, even some more tropical than that, but with a definite grapefruit hit, too; I don't the orange/lemon/lime/marmalade sensation as much as the Decanter reviewers);
  • great acidity and tension - vivacious without being mouth-puckering or overly-dry;
  • great texture - really quite viscous and mouth-coating - delicious. Prob not truly full-bodied this (the vibrant acidity just offsetting that perception) ... but going close to it;
  • There's a delicious honey(ed) effect in this;
  • <I can just about see the 'minerality' claim, but it's not a lead sensation to me>;
  • there is oak here - from both fermentation and ageing in larger vessels - but it is soft, subtle and attractive;
  • it's a very fine all-rounder in the way it combines all of the above ...
  • ... and, being so, it's perfect without food (in a way that the Rioja above, in my view, isn't) but great with it (tested with fried garlic squid, being quite a kitchen adventure in itself);
  • Godello is often talked off as an affordable alternative to good white Burgundy (that wine being, again, a great all-rounder). This wine only furthers that claim, but, for me, also adds some extra elements (honey, extra zing). Is this even better? You decide. What's not in doubt is that, as for the Miuriel Rioja above, at the price (£17.35 here), you are here getting masses - masses - more than £17.35 would buy you in Burgundy.


Which takes us to Outstanding Wine #3.

Ah. This now gets interesting.

It's an oddball, for sure, made by one of Andalucia's finer Sherry producers (Valdespino - we carry some of those Sherries). The grape is Palomino (Fino), the same grape used for those Sherries. It's a grape reknowned for its inconvenient ability to oxidise, and is seldom used for still/light (ie unfortified) wines for that reason. But Valdespino have made a cask-fermented, unfortified (13% ABV) version, made in old Sherry casks (here, in distillery country we are used to such things...).

Note: the version tasted and rated by Decanter was the 2018 vintage. This ran out in the UK months ago (the tasting itself was held back in the autumn ad its release held back owing to COVID). The 2019 is just arriving now, and this is what we offer.

The Decanter judges loved it (the 2018), viz:

<coughs awkwardly>

Now, they did like it.

I do not.

I get what they are saying. It is complex, flor-y, iodine-y, almondy, buttery, Marmite-y, nutty, saline and all that. Which sounds lovely.

But here's the thing: it tastes like (weak) dry Sherry. It is very very very dry. Whether that is inherent in the Palomino grape, or a result of the cask infusing (into) the wine, I can't tell you. I've not drunk enough unfortified Palomino to know (has anyone?). But that's the taste and effect, for sure.

If you like dry Sherry, this is for you. Come buy it by the case, as it is great value.

I do not like dry Sherry. It is not for me. Pity me, if you will: many aesthetes of the wine trade tell me I am a philistine for this view.

But I have also learned that dry Sherry is not (at all) popular with friends, family ... or among Exel customers. It's actually something of a running joke.

So, I warn you - strongly - of this. It's pretty much the essence of this, our video tasting.

Please do, buy it and enjoy it if this is your thing. I'm not trying to criticise for the fun of it or be a killjoy. I/we just don't want folk to misunderstand this wine: you get a sense of what's to come from reading the Decanter review but

  • not completely (on that distinct dry Sherry feel, anyway); and
  • it's easy to get swept away on that tide of praise.

There are many (very) honourable mentions just behind this leading pack, including:

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