The country was still caught in the social, cultural, and political repression that characterized the Franco dictatorship. Though Francisco Franco died in 1975, it took more than a decade for Spain to get used to him being gone. One of the hallmarks of the Franco regime was the permiso marital -- wives were forbidden from almost all economic activity, including working, owning property, and even traveling without their husbands' permission. In fact, when Martinez became Montecillo's winemaker, her mother stopped speaking to her for 12 years. Spanish women were not supposed to do those sorts of things.
Some three decades later, Martinez has become an icon of Spanish -- and Rioja -- wine. She has firm opinions about how wine should be made, about Spain's role in the wine world, and about what's wrong with the modern wine business. More, after the jump:
Martinez is one of the Wine Curmudgeon's favorite people in the wine business, and not just because she believes in low alcohol wines that reflect terroir. She acts on her beliefs.
Last November, Robert Parker appeared at a wine conference in Rijoa that featured the garnacha grape. This was heresy to winemakers like Martinez, since Rioja is famous for the tempranillo grape. It would be akin to going to Burgundy, known for pinot noir, to hold a conference about cabernet sauvignon.
"In a democracy," she told me, "if you don't like something, you say no. So I said no. I didn't go."
I can't do her story justice on the printed page -- Martinez tells it with eyes flashing, hands moving this way and that, and righteous indignation in her voice. How dare Parker come to Rijoa and snub her life's work? So she snubbed him.
Martinez is just as outspoken about the rest of the wine world. Not all wine needs to be made to age, but fine wines, like hers, do. She has little use for New World techniques that produce over-ripe wines that appeal to critics and few others. We tasted the Montecillo Gran Reserva 1985 (about $75, sample) and it still had lots of life left. (Full disclosure: We drank the wine at a lunch given by Janet Kafka, whose public relations company represents Montecillo's parent company, Osborne. I've known Janet for almost 10 years, and did a press trip to Spain with her.)
Martinez's current vintages -- the 2001 Gran Reserva (about $25, sample), the 2003 Reserva (about $18, sample), and the 2006 Crianza (about $12, sample) -- are each classic Rioja wines, with an earthy aroma, a bit (and no more) of cherry fruit, and tell-tale Spanish acidity. Do they taste like California merlot or Australian shiraz? Nope, because they're not supposed to.
Martinez doesn't like high alcohol wines, and made it a point to note that the 1985 was just 12 1/2 percent. She also has no use for irrigation, which is now allowed in Rioja, because she says it doesn't produce the long-lived, quality vines she needs to make her elegant wines. And oak chips, oak staves and any other attempt to use technology to replace skillful winemaking? Don't get her started.
But Martinez is no fossil. She uses screwcaps, and her white wines are fresh and lively -- a far cry from the traditional style that gave Spanish white wines such an uneven reputation. The best winemaking, she says, is about combining tradition and new ideas. Tasting her wines shows that.