Natty Girls-in-Training: Week Eight of the WSET. Southern Rhône and Spain, finally a different country 🙄

by Megan Jones

Hola amig@s!

You may be able to sense from my greeting (and the exclamation mark) that I’m excited to move on from France this week. Don’t get me wrong, we still have to go there one last time. But then we’re leaving and we’re not coming back. Au revoir!

But first: the Southern Rhône, the last stop on our never-ending tour.

Climate-wise, the Southern Rhône is significantly toastier than its Northern counterpart. You might even say it’s Mediterranean, and in fact you should say that, and so should I, on the exam. It’s still got its problems though – that pesky mistral wind of last week’s fame, meaning the vines here need a little extra help to stay grounded, whether they’re trained low (Grenache) or propped up by trellising systems (Syrah). There’s another wind to contend with in Southern France, the tramontane (lit: through the mountains), but that’s another region, and I don’t want to go there. I want to go to SPAIN.

But not yet. The blends in the Southern Rhône are complex, sometimes comprising up to a dozen different varieties. The main players here are the aforementioned Grenache and Syrah, plus Mourvèdre (king grape in Châteauneuf-du-Pape) and Cinsault, which plays a supporting role in both reds and rosés, where it’s blended with Grenache to make the wine all fresh and fruity. Speaking of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it’s the biggest cru in this region, and has the variety to match, thanks to the myriad soil types that can be found here, and the fact that there are 13 grape varieties you can legally chuck into it. The best ones are full-bodied, richly textured with concentrated spiced red fruit and high alcohol. Apparently a small quantity of white Châteauneuf is also made, but whenever the textbook says ‘a small quantity of’ I assume it won’t be on the test so I just breeze on past. Here I go, breezing.

Had enough of France? Good, me too. ¡Viva España!

The textbook doesn’t love Spain as much as it loves France, given it only gets one chapter for the entire country instead of ten thousand chapters, one for each specific region. But I love Spain, so I’m gonna give it the time and attention it deserves. Let’s start with the grapes.

Tempranillo, which I imagine you’ve heard of since even I had, is the big dog in northern and central Spain. You can do all sorts with Tempranillo, like use semi-carbonic maceration to make a nice strawberry flavoured ‘Joven’ (young) wine, or mix it in to a more ageworthy blend with Garnacha, Graciano and Cariñena, or even introduce it to international superstar Cab Sauv. Garnacha Tinta (or Grenache as you might know it) is widely used for rosado (or rosé as you might know it. Can't escape France even now we're in Spain) and is also a big deal in Priorat, where old, low-yielding vines produce some gnarly, complex reds. Monastrell has a thick old skin and needs hot, sunny conditions to ripen (enter: Spain), and when it does, it comes out swinging with high tannins and ripe blackberry flavours. There are more black grapes, but who has the time?

White grapes abound as well, like Verdejo, which used to be made into sherry-like wines until people figured out that if you treated it with a little kindness you could make a solid light-bodied, peachy wine as well. Albariño is mostly grown in the north-west, and is nice and thick-skinned and pretty disease resistant (take note, Pinot Noir). Airén is the most widely planted grape in Spain and is found mostly in La Mancha, where it can be made into ‘acceptable’ (WSET shade for 'lame') white wine or otherwise for Brandy de Jerez. Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeu join forces to make Cava, mostly from Catalunya. Such variety, Spain! Love that for you!

Back to that ‘Joven’ word. Spain has a classification system for different ages of wine. Joven (as discussed) is young wine, not normally meant for an export market, meant instead to be plonked on the table at lunch and sucked down as fast as possible. Recently producers have cottoned on to the fact that if they take ‘Joven’ off the label and put ‘Rioja’ on instead, it’ll sell better. So watch out for that one. Crianza (meaning literally ‘upbringing’, or maybe adolescence? Idk) is the next level up, still an everyday drinking wine, but a better one. The ageing requirements for red Crianza are at least two years, with at least one in oak, and six months in oak for whites. Inching towards the top of the table, we have Reserva, which must be aged for at least three years, one of which in oak for red, and one year ageing with six months in oak for white. Reserva is made from high quality grapes from selected vineyards, and has complex layers of earth, dried herbs and leather, with a lush smoky finish. In first place we’ve got Gran Reserva, which is crazy hard to come by – only 9% of the wines produced each year get that badge of honour. I just did a quick website search and looks like Dan doesn't even have any, that's how hard it must be to get. Apart from this fortified wine, but that's a chapter for another week. And it's sold out. Anyway. Reds must be aged for a minimum of five years with two in oak, and whites must be aged for four years with six months in oak, but for some producers that’s nowhere near enough and they keep it underground for eight years at least. Patience is a virtue. Gran Reservas are complex, elegant and balanced, with a finish you’ll still be thinking about when you land back on the tarmac at Stansted Airport.

We went to Portugal this week too but I just don’t have the word count. Sorry Portugal. Do you see how much I have to learn?? If you come to the bar in the next few weeks please buy me a drink, I’m stressed.

How will we de-stress? I know!

Pick yourself up a bottle of this. Ull de Llebre is the local name for Tempranillo, as if I didn’t have enough to remember, but I love Partida Creus anyway because they used to be architects in Turin and sacked it off to go make wine in Spain instead, legends. Or perhaps a Monastrell rosado (wait, what?). Or an Albariño from Rias Baixas, aka the only place you want to get an Albariño from? Or all three, you do you. All I ask is that you raise a glass to what’s left of my brain when you do.

Where are we going next week? No idea, haven’t done the reading yet. Somewhere with lots to remember though, I bet.

Cya then xoxo


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