There are some famous exceptions that prove the rule – such as the inclusion of Cabernet Sauvignon in Vega Sicilia – but for the most part Spain’s top wines are based on indigenous varieties: primarily Tempranillo, with Grenache, Monastrell (Mourvèdre), and Graciano. A tasting from the Grandes Pagos d’Espana, covering single vineyard wines from all over Spain, suggested that the trend may be changing: a third of the producers (especially those outside of the classic regions of Rioja and Ribera del Duero) showed wines including “international” varieties, typically Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Few of the wines here could really be called “traditional,” but there was a real contrast between those from traditional varieties (most often 100% Tempranillo, sometimes with some Grenache included) to international varieties. I formed a strong impression that there’s a reason why Tempranillo has succeeded in Spain: it produces interesting wines from many places.
It was often hard to see the advantage in blends with Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon, where I could see neither the typicity of the Tempranillo nor a clear contribution from the blending components, and the wines to my mind had less character than those from traditional varieties. It was difficult to relate wines that were exclusively new varieties (100% Syrah or a Bordeaux Blend) to those from their more customary habitats.
Geographically, interest was spread all around, with the rising regions just as interesting as the old traditions of Rioja or Ribera del Duero. In fact, grape variety and winemaking style seemed to have more effect than region of origin.
Wines from traditional varieties extended from those with lashings of new oak (most often French but sometimes including American oak), where often the sweet vanillin of the oak simply obscured the fruits, to wines with a lighter, more elegant balance. There were wines from Toro or Priorat conforming to the stereotype of raw fruit power (Termanthia from Toro), but there were also wines with more pleasing restraint and even subtlety (Mas Doix from Priorat).
Whenever a producer had a wine that was 100% Tempranillo to compare with a wine blended with the new varieties, I preferred the former (Abadia Retuerta’s Pagos Negralada, which is 100% Tempranillo, for example, versus Seleccion Especiale, which includes Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon).
I don’t think the flirtation with Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon is improving the top wines of Spain (maybe there’s a case for it at lower levels). The sum is not greater than the whole of parts when Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with Tempranillo, and I appeal to the producers: go back to Tempranillo, at least for the single vineyard wines, it makes more interesting wine, better balanced, with more flavor variety, better expression of the terroir, and greater potential for interesting aging.