If Spanish wine were a publicly held company, discovering it would put some stock analyst's career on a rocket: It's wildly undervalued, with enormous hidden assets, and is now under dynamic new management. Plus, in Jorge Ordoñez, a round-faced, 41-year-old charmer with an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes and a laser-guided palate, it has a one-man distribution and promotional arm. Since moving from Málaga to Massachusetts in 1987—"When the only English I knew was 'Hello! I'm Jorge' "—importer Ordoñez has introduced even experienced American wine-lovers to an Ali Baba's cavern of unknown Spanish jewels.
"Put it this way," says Paul Grieco, beverage director at New York City's Gramercy Tavern: "I obviously knew Spanish wines existed before Jorge Ordoñez came on the scene, but trying his wines was an epiphany."
That's because many of the wines—like the cinnamon-perfumed Viña Alarba Old Vines Grenache (Garnacha in Spanish)—never existed until Ordoñez blended them for export. Or because—like the intensely flavored but weightless white Albariños from Martín Códax—they come from grapes never seen here before Ordoñez imported them. Or because they are produced by a revolutionary new generation of winemakers, such as Vega Sindoa's star, Concha Vecino. Indeed, only a handful of producers in Ordoñez's roughly 40-winery Fine Estates From Spain portfolio, notably the Rioja gems Remelluri and Bodegas Muga, had any international name recognition until Ordoñez ferreted them out and promoted them to an at first apathetic wine world.
There are other well-respected Spanish wine importers, notably Seattle-based Classical Wines, but Jorge Ordoñez, for most American wine-lovers, restaurateurs, and journalists, is the point man for Spain's astonishing one-generation wine revolution. (In 1998 Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate, an early supporter, named Ordoñez one of its Most Influential Wine Personalities of the Last 20 Years.) It is as though vivid, fragrant flowers had begun suddenly and unexpectedly blossoming in remote valleys and along dusty back roads all over the country. And nobody has scoured the boondocks like Jorge Ordoñez.
He began his scouting expeditions shortly after graduating from the University of Córdoba and entering the family wholesale food and wine business in Málaga, selling gourmet food and wine to restaurants along the Costa del Sol. He successfully ran the 45-year-old firm's business for four years, he says, and would happily have continued, except for one insurmountable problem: He was lovesick. His college sweetheart, Kathy, an American, had since returned to her home in the Boston suburbs. After four years of letters, phone calls, and round trips, something had to give. That something was Jorge.
"It was tough to come to Massachusetts from Málaga, a place where tropical fruits grow naturally on the trees," he says. "Only love made it possible, let me tell you."
Nor, he was astonished to discover, was Massachusetts—or the rest of the country—much interested in his vision of bringing the new Spanish wine revolution to America. He was utterly convinced that the wines he'd been finding back home would knock people out: "When I got here I actually thought the whole thing was going to be like a military parade."
Not exactly. English lessons quickly depleted his funds, so he continued his studies by watching TV. But reruns of Starsky & Hutch were a slow road to fluency, as Ordoñez learned when he began cold-calling wine distributors. "Most of them just hung up on me, my English was so terrible."
His office was the dining room table, and the early years were lean. "From the time I came here in June 1987 to around 1993," he recalls, "things were kind of nightmarish." Some of his first customers proved to be shaky ("And then that company went belly up" is a recurring theme), and some were out-and-out crooks. Ordoñez learned how to recognize when a relationship with a major customer was souring: They called the cops when you burst into a corporate meeting in a last-ditch effort to get paid. And you still got stiffed. But all along, Ordoñez had continued to spend hours and months on the road in Spain, tracking down leads, endlessly networking, and turning up astonishing bargain wines for $5 and complex, collector-quality wines for well over $100.
The year 1993 proved to be a turning point, as Ordoñez's wines started to make inroads into restaurants, and the press began to take notice too—although it must have been hard to see at the time. "In 1993," he says, "I spent $70,000 traveling and promoting my business, and I made a profit of $3,000 that year. That brought an immediate investigation by the IRS, who thought, 'This guy is either pulling a fast one or he's just nuts.' "
It is impossible not to be impressed with the way Ordoñez, his back against the financial wall, stuck to his idealism. He sought out wines of personality and insisted whenever possible that they be bottled unfiltered to preserve their character; that they be transported in refrigerated trucks and shipped in refrigerated containers across the Atlantic (except in the coldest months to northern destinations). These methods were revolutionary for Spanish wine, but then the wines themsel veswere the products of a revolution.
"The viticulture of Spain has changed more in the past twenty-five years—since Franco's death in 1975—than in the previous century," says Ordoñez. "Yet it still isn't changing at the speed I'd like to see to be a complete success story."
This is partly because Spain has such generally infertile soils and low crop yields, and partly because there has not exactly been an international clamor for its wines.
Spain, according to Ordoñez, was on the right track to compete with France and Italy toward the end of the 19th century when everything derailed. First came phylloxera, the root louse that ate Europe, or at least Europe's vineyards. But if phylloxera was a disaster elsewhere, ingenerally poor, rural Spain, with its thousands of small plot holders, it was devastating. "Bodegas [wineries] simply disappeared, and many areas were like dust bowls," notes Ordoñez. "In Málaga, where I'm from, fifty percent of the population left the area in ten years, because everything they had was in wine."
About the time the phylloxera epidemic subsided (1925), Spain was already experiencing the social unrest that would culminate in the civil war (19361939). When the fighting was over, the right-wing general Francisco Franco, himself a teetotaler, was firmly in power, and the country's wine industry was in ruins. Franco looked out on that wreckage and saw tiny slivers of vineyards subdivided by generations of inheritance laws. "His goal at that time was to feed everybody," remarks Ordoñez, "not to make Château Margaux or Vega Sicilia."
What Franco did was create cooperativas, growers' cooperatives that would purchase tractors and other heavy equipment. The system promoted agricultural survival, but it also made wine crudely and in bulk—as Ordoñez says, "like you'd produce asparagus." Despite having the largest plantation of wine-grape vineyards in the world, the country regularly produced less wine than either France or Italy.
"These very large cooperativas would do millions of liters of wine in huge concrete tanks and have one winemaker to look after fifteen million, twenty million liters," Ordoñez says. "And in most cases he was not even a winemaker, because there was only one winemaking school in the entire country, in Madrid. So many of these people would be pharmacists or chemists, people who made wine by formula, like you'd make Coca-Cola. They just prayed that ten million liters of wine wouldn't somehow go wrong.
"Nothing changed for forty years. It was as regimented as Chinese agriculture. Those years are a major disadvantage even today for Spanish wine in the world market."
With the death of Franco, everything opened up. Aspiring winemakers began to travel and study in Bordeaux, California, Australia. For the first time, foreign wine became readily available in Spain, so its winemakers could taste, compare, learn. Spain, which had exported wines since Phoenician times, found itself playing catch-up with the rest of the wine-selling world at the end of the 20th century. Fortunately, there are plenty of willing players.
"A new generation of winemakers is arriving in the vineyards of Spain right now," says Ordoñez. "It's a changing of the guard, from people who are fifty and sixty years old to people who are thirty and forty, and who are internationally oriented."
These rising stars are the pride of Fine Estates From Spain, and no one has done more to find and nurture them than Ordoñez. Says Paul Grieco, "I happened to go on a trip with him to Spain, so I saw and experienced firsthand the relationships he's established with his producers. It's not strictly business at all, but personal, as if he is a partner with the owners and winemakers in the making of the wines."
Ordoñez calls himself "a makeshift wine consultant." At times he's designed new labels for his clients; advised them on purchasing cork, barrel suppliers, and winery equipment; and even made sure they have proper glassware for tasting. Often the wines he sells in America are his personal blends from the various wineries—perhaps aged in the particular barrels he has selected, or harvested from a plot of vineyard that he's most interested in, or bottled without filtration. His input is especially prized because most of his producers are family-owned enterprises, frequently operating out of the commercial mainstream, even in Spain.
Though much of the post-Franco-era winery investment has flowed into the established Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions, Ordoñez realized that the wine revolution was quietly revitalizing vineyards around the nation, remaking places whose ancient reputations had been wiped out by phylloxera. Toro, for example, a vineyard region near Spain's medieval capital of Valladolid, was once Spain's best-known winemaking area, producing the only table wines stable enough—thanks to their naturally high alcohol content—to ship around the country.
But, states Ordoñez, "I began tasting in Toro nine years ago, when nobody came there to try wines, and there was nothing that was even decent. Now that situation has changed so much. Today it's becoming the hot area of Spain—and believe me, it will give Rioja and Ribera del Duero a run for their money." Fine Estates From Spain has begun importing a 100 percent Tinta de Toro (a clone of Tempranillo) from Bodegas Mauro. Its maker is Mariano García, who for 30 years has produced Vega Sicilia, the darling of connoisseurs.
In Galicia, tucked away in the country's northwest corner, Ordoñez came across Bodegas de Vilariño-Cambados, a group of growers founded in 1985 and dedicated to resurrecting the lost reputation of the white grape Albariño. High in acid and perfect with seafood, the Albariño wines made here under the forceful direction of winemaker Luciano Amoedo (and trade-named Burgáns and Martín Códax) pack an almost impossible-seeming flavor punch given the elegant, medium- to light-bodied frame. When Fine Estates From Spain imported its first Vilariño-Cambados wines in 1988, they were perhaps the first Albariños ever seen in the United States. Now, just a dozen years later, Albariño is alive and thriving in Galicia, and 12 brands are sold in America.
By taking on this obscure winery and grape variety, Ordoñez played a powerful role in its success—as he has with producers of such grapes as Godello and previously neglected patches of old-vine Garnacha. In a world that is monopolized by Merlot and Chardonnay, Spain is a mother lode of alternatives. Unfortunately, it's also a place in which progress can veer out of control like a runaway elephant.
"We have a tremendous genetic pool of grapes in Spain," Ordoñez notes, "but regrettably we're trying to recover the glory of our vineyards in too short a period of time, and using shortcuts rather than spending money on research into local varieties. I'm not saying that every local variety is superb, but I'd just like to see investigation and research before we can't find these grapes anymore.
"Look, there are over a hundred and twenty grape varieties in Galicia alone. It's hard to believe that only Godello and Albariño are good enough to make great wine. Shall we say that perhaps another five could be very good, just using probability? And that's being very tough!
"When you taste the Godello [from Viña Godeval], that is a grape that was almost gone, and they recovered it. But somebody had to try. There are so many grapes that nobody has had the guts to try, and they're disappearing."
For Jorge Ordoñez, who brought America its first widely sold Priorato, its first appellation Borja, and its first Canary Islands Malvasía, the story of Spanish wine is an unfolding saga of discovery and recovery. "Not everything has been found yet," he says. "It is like going into the jungle and finding an old Mayan city. That's the beauty of dealing with Spain—I never know what is going to be next."
Teeing Off Tips
An Ordoñez Dozen
Basa 1998, Rueda (Cia. de Vinos de Telmo Rodriguez) $7.
A blend of Sauvignon Blanc with local grapes Verdejo and Viura, from the proprietor of Rioja's wonderful Remelluri. It's a smoothie, with the Sauvignon predominating, notes of citrus, herbal spice and peach, and a fine, lingering aftertaste.
Vega Sindoa 1998 Chardonnay, "Cuvée Allier," Navarra (Bodegas Nekeas) $11.
From Concha Vecino, a woman winemaker (still very unusual in Spain) in the mountains of Navarra. A junior Meursault, wafting an aroma of nutmeg, lemon custard, and vanilla, with a touch of cinnamon. Amazing at this price.
Viña Godeval 1998, Valdeorras (Bodegas Godeval) $13.
The outgrowth of a project to save the local Godello grape in this area of Galicia, this wine is estate-bottled from the grounds of a 12th-century monastery of the Knights of Malta. Light but with a palate-refreshing acidity and an assertive flavor intensity reminiscent of juicy apricot.
"Gallaecia" Special Selection 1996, Rías Baixas (Bodegas Martín Códax) $17.
The first-ever Albariño vinified after being affected by Botrytis cinerea, the "noble rot" that makes the great Sauternes. It comes across as semisweet but supercharged with a big, perfumed aroma that combines stone fruits, vanilla, and caramel. A wine of sophisticated simplicity.
Borsao 1998, Campo de Borja (Agrícola de Borja) $5.50.
Is there a better wine deal around than this? Ordoñez personally selects the blend of Garnacha/Grenache and Tempranillo from the winery, and for the most part it comes out like this one: ripe, lively, and full of juice and spice, with notes of tart raspberry, wild strawberry, and marinated cherries.
Prado Rey 1998, Ribera del Duero (Real Sitio de Ventosilla) $11.
A complex, exotically perfumed wine from a local version of Tempranillo. The bold, super-ripe rendition of cherry- and blackberrylike fruit—somehow all contained in a medium-rich frame—is riveting. Simple and, in its way, perfect.
Remelluri 1996, Rioja (Granja de Nuestra Señora de Remelluri) $20.
An extraordinary bottle of Rioja from Bordeaux-trained winemaker Telmo Rodriguez, whose family winery, which was founded in 1968, was the pioneer of estate-bottled Riojas. From low-yielding vines of Tempranillo complemented by Garnacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo, this wine has layered notes of oak-tempered berrylike fruit and a touch of herbal character. Medium-rich yet somehow delicate.
San Román 1997, Vino de Mesa de Castilla y León (Bodegas Mauro) $30.
From Toro, the hot new/old wine area in north-central Spain. This is the first release from a new venture by Mariano García, the longtime winemaker of Vega Sicilia, perhaps Spain's greatest winery. Dark, deep, and succulent with a fine, ripe, fruit-sweet aftertaste.
Anima Negra 1997, Mallorca (Pla i Llevant de Mallorca) $31.
The hottest and hippest wine on the island of Mallorca, blended from Cabernet Sauvignon and the local grape Callet. This wine is cheek-filling, elegant, and distinctive—an exotic twist on blackberry/plum fruitiness.
Clos de l'Obac 1996, Priorato (Costers del Siurana) $53.
A little of everything goes into this monumental wine—Cabernet, Garnacha, Syrah, Merlot, Cariñena—but it comes out as a harmonious, tooth-purpling whole that's shot through with flavors of wild cherry and juicy plum.
Torre Muga Reserva Especial 1994, Rioja (Bodegas Muga) $55.
The second vintage of a "Super Rioja" created by Isaac Muga, who otherwise presides over one of the most traditionalist cellars in Rioja. Blended from Tempranillo, Mazuelo, and Graciano and aged for 24 months in a combination of American oak vats and new French and American barriques, it's super-refined but plenty muscular with a luscious taste of ripened plum. (Ordoñez says that it's "like a nuclear explosion" when decanted for an hour.)
Abadía Retuerta 1996 Pago Valdebellón, Sardón de Duero (Abadía Retuerta) $100.
A silky, fruit-sweet, almost confectionary Cabernet Sauvignon from a deep-pocketed winery presided over by Pascal Delbeck, formerly of Bordeaux superstar Château Ausone and now winemaker at Château Bel Air. The wine's complex plum, currant, and vanilla aroma seems to stream out of the glass—there is a sense it could easily fill the whole room.