Gabriela Davogustto, wine director at Clay restaurant in Harlem, has a thing for Spanish wines. “We know about Spain, but not in the way we know about France and Italy,” she says. “It’s exciting to discover new vineyards and producers. So many talented winemakers — that’s part of the excitement.”
Clay has one of New York City’s most robust lists of Spanish wine, pretty much all of them made with sustainable farming methods and little pressure from the winemaker to influence them. This tends to make guests curious. “People get really excited,” she says. “These are well-crafted wines for a quarter of the price of France or California.”
Her enthusiasm finds fuel in many pockets around the Spanish peninsula and its islands. She praises producers such as Victoria Torres Pecis in the Canary Islands and Raúl Pérez centered in Valtuille de Abajo. Her favorites rely on the character of the vineyard. She hesitates to refer to these wines as natural or clean, or any other buzzword in fact. “It’s so hard to describe wines this balanced and precise,” she says, choosing words like electric, expressive, and pure instead.
“Years ago, when we began introducing wines made with indigenous yeast and little sulfur, some of those wines had faults,” she recalls. “Some people got used to ‘natural’ wines having faults.” But some of the most dedicated winemakers have accepted many years of “learning” and are now producing precise and delicious wines. “This is how their grandfathers were making wine,” she says. “This shouldn’t mean that it’s okay to have faults.” Instead she finds that the best wines, those with an extreme focus on the vineyard, are very precise. “There’s nothing on the list that I wouldn’t drink,” she says.
Davogustto believes that the approachable price point of these wines encourages people to try (or retry) Spanish wines beyond standard familiarity. She notes the availability of “remarkable” bottles for under $100, a threshold that allows for more openness. “I think that people feel that they can experiment and get to know different producers.” She also finds that many Spanish wines will speak for themselves when they arrive on the table because they are so balanced and food-friendly. “I always try to work with wines that I don’t have to explain tableside,” she says.
Born and raised in Venezuela, Davogustto came to her position on Spanish wines not from heritage, but by preference. She interprets the country’s history as one that was historically “close to itself.” In the 1980s there was an “explosion of life” which pumped international influence and ideas into Spain’s wine scene.
Now she senses that the wine culture in Spain has “settled in, and people are more focused.” The international style began to shift, and many producers tended towards wines that reflect the places from where they came, rather than a popular profile. With this comes attention to plot by plot winemaking and more vineyard labeling, which hasn’t been typical in Spain. “When you have great vineyards, you should be able to know that,” says Davogustto. “Even in Spain you can have a huge range of Garnacha.”
Davogustto throws in some praise for Albarino, encouraging people to try both the lean and acidic versions from Rias Baixas as well as those grown inland which can be richer, rounder. “When people taste a good Albarino, they are amazed,” she says. “ When they taste the good stuff, their minds are blown.”