Spanish wines, among many other sensual pleasures of that great nation, became well known to the world in the writings of Hemingway. ("This wine is too good for toast-drinking, my dear. You don't want to mix emotions up with a wine like that. You lose the taste." -- The Sun Also Rises) And Papa certainly had good taste. In addition, since October is Hispanic Heritage Month -- Spanish wine becomes a natural fit for this week.
Spain is the world's third largest wine producer. Spain has a long, storied history of wine production -- but only in the last ten years or so have these wines really started to gain a solid foothold around the globe. The Iberian Peninsula has historical evidence of wine dating to around 1100, but if you're a Biblical scholar, Noah supposedly planted the first vineyard 5000 or so years ago.
"Modern" winemaking came to Spain in the 1850's and 1860's. As longtime readers will astutely recognize, that was the approximate time of the phylloxera outbreak in France. (For my new readers -- phylloxera is a species of louse that wiped out huge portions of the European vineyards over 150 years ago. Jump back to my article on Chilean wine to read more.) French winemakers, fleeing the devastation of our little pest, crossed the Pyrenees in droves, bringing grapes and know-how with them. Spain's vineyards were largely spared until the turn of the century, when phylloxera eventually made the migration across the mountains. The vineyards made it through in much better shape, and the techniques were in place to craft wonderful wine. In the last 30 years, Spain has also benefited greatly from the technological Renaissance that has done so much for South American wines.
Spain started producing a great deal of quality, easy-to-find, easy-on-pocketbook wines in the last ten years or so. The winemaking tradition in Spain was to age wines for a long time in oak before bottling -- creating a number of mediocre wines where the subtleties were overrun by the wood. Spain has been quicker on the trigger to release wines in recent years -- although Spanish wines do tend to improve with a little aging. If you see "Crianza" on a bottle of Spanish wine, it's been aged at least two years. "Reserva" indicated three years aging, and "Reserva Especial" is at least five years old.
Spain has two major red varietals -- Tempranillo and Garnacha. Garnacha is the same grape as Grenache, which is the backbone of many of the best French Rhone wines. Also from France comes the nomenclature -- as many Spanish wines are named after their locale. The best known region for French red is Rioja, although Peñedes is another big producer. Navarra and Campo de Borja are also up and comers. Spanish reds are often earthy and fruity, and you'll rarely find a red that doesn't at least have some wood with the tannin.
Among whites, the two most common varieties are Albariño and Verdejo. Albariño creates very perfumey, wonderful whites -- much like viognier. Verdejo is a very interesting grape -- like a less-acidic sauvignon blanc with some pepper thrown in. It's often blended with sauvignon blanc. There is also a wonderful sparkling wine, cava, made in Spain -- but I'll come back to that later.
Historically, Spain is best known for Sherry. Sherry is a fortified wine (often upwards of 20% alcohol) that's made from a neutral grape brandy added to wine after initial fermentation. Another fortified wine from Spain is Madeira -- which was used by George Washington to toast the Declaration of Independence. These wines certainly deserve further study…
For this week, three wines -- ranging in region, variety, and color.
Artazuri 2005 Garnacha -- As I mentioned, Garnacha is the same grape as Grenache -- backbone of many of the big earthy French wines. In Spain, however, Garnacha delivers a very different character. Rather than the earthy smell of this varietal's French cousins, the Artazuri, grown in Navarra, comes straight at you with bright, fruity character. The nose of this wine is wonderful -- while there's a touch of earth, the overwhelming scent is of black cherries and plums. The medium body of this wine is peppery and fruity -- zinfandelesque. The finish is long and a little spicy, with the cherry flavors from the body hanging around a good while. While I probably wouldn't pair this with a steak, barbecue would go fantastically well with this, as would, I think, a curry that's got some potatoes or other earthy veggies in it. This wine would be extremely food friendly, so you can't go wrong -- as long as the food has a little bit of heft to it. And for $9-11, anyone at a party would be happy with this. I also think you could buy several and easily hold on to this for six months or a year, and you'd really have something.
Borsao 2005 Rosé -- I've been long overdue for a rosé review, and I figured I might as well look at one since there's such good red grape stock here in Spain (and since I enjoyed my last Spanish rosé so much). Borsao's rosé is made from 100% Garnacha grown in the Campo de Borja region. This dark pink entry greets you with a floral nose that includes some easy peach scents. This wine's gentle first taste is very light and includes more of that nice ripe fruit. The taste lingers briefly before spreading into a long, citrusy, slightly spicy finish that includes some hints of cinnamon. While this would be a perfect summer wine -- as the weather starts to turn colder, pull out some Mediterranean style recipes and do some roasting: whether it's a slow-cooked chicken, an earthy chickpea and eggplant dish, or some marinated pork chops. There's a braised monkfish recipe I once put together that I think would go wonderfully here, and you can find a bottle of Borsao for between $6-8. A good, flexible entry.
Las Brisas 2005 Blanco -- Might Las Brisas is from the Rueda region, and -- while it's getting a little late in the year to discuss a wine this light -- keep this one in your memory banks until next year rolls around and the weather starts warming up and you can kick back outdoors again. The lively Las Brisas is one of those aforementioned blends of Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc, and has a lot of the recognizable character of the latter. The grapefruitiness of a sauvignon is certainly present on the nose, but it's somewhat mellower, balanced by a mangoish scent. It's a very light wine -- a little tart and lemony, but the acidity mellows quickly into a fruity peppery body and a strong, flavorful finish. This would be a wonderful aperitif or poolside wine, but if you have any kind of fish dish -- I had this with a baked cod -- you're going to be in business. You could also consider a cheese tortellini, or most any kind of Spanish dish that doesn't involve beef or pork. Probably plan to spend $8-10 on this very easygoing, happy wine.
So lift a glass of Spanish wine this week, and until next time…Arriba!