Traditions die hard, especially in European wine growing countries where wine-making techniques are steeped in history. In Spain, for instance, the quality of its Rioja is distinguished by the time it spends in barrels. A gran reserva, for instance, must spend at least 18 months in oak and commands a higher price. But does that guarantee it is better than a reserva that spends 12 months in oak or a crianza that spends only six months in barrels?

Rodolfo Bastida, winemaker of Bodegas Ramon Bilbao Vinos y Vinedos, doesn’t think so. His Limited Edition and Mirto, which we tasted during his recent visit, are stunning wines, and neither is classified gran reserva.

Bastida joins other Spanish winemakers in producing some fabulous wines that don’t fit neatly in the government’s three categories. This diversion from tradition is not that different from the path taken by Italy’s Angelo Gaja and France’s Michel Chapoutier. In each case, the wines showed that the gamble was worth the effort.

Rioja is just one of several regions represented in Ramon Bilbao’s portfolio. Other regions include Rias Baixas, Ribera del Duero and La Mancha.

Bastida has his greatest challenges in the expansive La Mancha region, known most for its drought-resistant airen, an undistinguished grape variety that is best used for making brandy. Spain’s largest and driest grape-growing region, La Mancha is seen as an experimental testing ground for more-recognized white grape varieties like sauvignon blanc and viognier — once heresy for traditional winemakers to grow.

Rias Baixas, a much smaller region in northwest Spain, has exploded in popularity, thanks to its aromatic albarinos. Somewhat like a cross between sauvignon blanc and viognier, these exquisite wines marry well with seafood.

Rioja and Ribera del Duero are more well-established and recognized for their quality wines. Both have adopted tempranillo as their primary grape variety and neither have had much success with the traditional white grape varieties.

Quality-driven winemakers like Bastida have had to persuade growers to change their ways and adopt new world standards that often mean lower yields in exchange for better wines. A cleaner environment, the use of less sulfur and an expanded knowledge of viticulture have slowly brought badly needed improvements to Spain’s tradition-bound wine industry.

Bastida says that winemakers have focused on fruit-driven, low-alcohol wines to appease critics and consumers, but the future is in making more balanced wines. We are encouraged.

Spain has more land devoted to vineyards than any other country, but it ranks third in wine produced. Much of that is attributed to low yields that have lead the way to better grapes. Irrigation was permitted after 1996, and that has been a significant change in areas that cannot rely on rain.

On some of its labels, Ramon Bilbao uses a thermo-sensitive label that changes color to indicate the optimum drinking temperature. However gimmicky, it reminds consumers when they are drinking their white wines too cold and their red wines too warm.

Here are some of our favorite wines from the Ramon Bilbao portfolio:

Ramon Bilbao Crianza 2005 ($12). A great value, the crianza tempranillo offers juicy fruit flavors, a soft and creamy texture with the classic licorice and cherry notes.

Mar de Frades Rias Baixas Albarino 2008 ($25). We adored this wine for its exquisite character, aromatics and intense fruit. Expressive tropical fruit flavors of grapefruit and pineapple packaged in a blue bottle to symbolize the ocean water off its coast. It has a thermo-sensitive label to indicate the proper serving temperature. Frades is “sea of monks” in Spanish and indicates the history of the wine trade in this rain-soaked region. Bastida tells us that the grapes come from very small vineyards of many people who grow grapes as a second profession. As the men head off on boats to fish, winemakers negotiate with the wives who stay behind.

Ramon Bilbao Reserva Rioja 2005 ($20). Absolutely delicious, this tempranillo has a rich texture, ripe cherry flavors and hints of chocolate. Made in a new world style, it is a truly enjoyable wine we highly recommend.

Ramon Bilbao Limited Edition Rioja 2006 ($17). Made entirely from tempranillo, this special wine does not fall neatly into one of Rioja’s classifications. But it expresses the winemaker’s talent and his conservative use of oak to create a well-balanced wine made from grapes grown on 40-year-old vines, It is a fist in a velvet glove and abounds in fresh berry aromas, ripe cherry flavors and a hint of mineral, coffee and licorice. Very long finish.

Ramon Bilbao Rioja Mirto 2005 ($68). Made in limited quantities and probably hard to find locally, the Mirto extends the talents of the winemaker. It has great cellar potential, serious tannins and intense blackberry flavors. It is the most complex wine in the portfolio.

Cruz de Alba Rianza Ribera del Duero 2006 ($25). Totally different in style from a Rioja tempranillo, this big wine has chalky tannins, ripe black cherry flavors and hints of coffee, mineral and the quintessential licorice. Good body with 14.5 percent alcohol.

Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr have visited vineyards all over the world and have been writing a newspaper wine column for more than 20 years. Contact them at: [email protected]

– Relishmag.com