When I'm in a hurry to get home, I occasionally come to the realization that -- horror of horrors -- we're out of general dinner drinking wine. Yes, yes -- hard to believe, I know. That leaves me with two options. Either I can traipse down to the cellar and snag a bottle from our "occasion" wine stash, or I can duck into the wine store on the way home. The latter is usually the path of least resistance.
At such times, sometimes I don't have a wine type in mind other than general color. Something middle-of-the-road that doesn't get overwhelmed by whatever food's going to be on the table -- yet flexible enough if we end up calling a gustatory audible. There's also that "if it's not a special pairing, I don't want to spend a ton" aspect. When in doubt, I head down the Spanish aisle.
As I've mentioned a few times before, Spanish wine is some of the best inexpensive wine on the planet if you're looking for an easy food pairing. Spain gave us tapas, after all. If you're having wine with tapas, it's got to handle any number of spice, meat, and vegetable combos. Much Spanish wine that you'll find is going to be consistently decent.
Unfortunately, one major inconsistency in Spanish wine is in classification. While typically Spanish wine is named for the region, occasionally it's listed by grape, by bodega (think "chateau"), by winemaker, or just by pretty colored labels. Spanish labels often include a fairly long word salad in Español that I can't make much sense of which describes the quality classification. Let's simplify, shall we? Here's a quick glossary:
Color: Tinto, Blanco, and Rosado are "red," "white," and "rosé" respectively. Of course, you can probably tell this by actually looking at the wine itself. (Before I knew this, though -- I thought "tinto" was a grape.)
Region: There are more than 50 wine regions in Spain. In the States, however, there are a few you'll run into more than others. Rioja, Rias Biaxas, Ribera del Duero, Navarra, and Rueda are in the northern section of Spain. You may also see a few from Priorat or Penedes -- the latter of which is the source of most cava -- Spanish sparkling wine. In the south are Jumilla and Alicante. In the southwest is Jerez, the home of sherry. Most regions produce both red and white wines. The regional differences (outside of sherry and cava, of course) aren't as broad as in Italy or France, so you usually don't need to worry so much about this.
Age: Spanish wines historically were aged for quite some time. This is not always the case, but the naming conventions remain. Crianza means that a red wine has been aged for 2 years with at least 6 months of it in oak; whites and rosés -- 1 year with 6 months in oak. Reserva reds are aged for at least 3 years with at least a year in oak; whites are 2 years/6 months in oak. Gran Reserva reds are aged 5 years with 18 months in oak; whites are 4 years/6 months in oak. Wines with those designations tend to be a little pricier. If you don't see any of those designations, that means that there's probably been little or no barrel aging, and the wine is made to drink young.
Grapes: Spanish wines are made from hundreds of indigenous varietals, but there are a few used more widely. The bulk of red wines are made from either Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), and Monastrell (Mourvedre). Whites are made from Albarino, Garnacha Blanca, Verdejo, or Viura. Among the "everyday" Spanish wines, the reds tend to be medium-bodied with solid acidity, not overly tannic, and at least somewhat earthy. Whites tend to be fragrant and acidic as well (although Albarino tastes like honey), with citrus and melon flavors. For comparison -- the reds are somewhere between pinot noir and zinfandel. The whites are often similar to sauvignon blanc.
Spanish wine really started penetrating the American market over the last decade, and you can find any number of very good $10-20 bottles without trying too hard. Here are a few bottles that we've cracked in recent memory:
Vinos de Terrunos 2006 Esencia de Monte -- This is a big, fruity Spanish red, made from 100% Monastrell. Lots of blueberries and wood shavings on the nose (bigger nose for a Spanish wine), even though there's no oak used in the production of the wine in any way. Also entirely organically farmed. The body is fairly full and there's some more thick dark fruit and licorice that leads to an almost coffee-ish finish. With a beer-braised chicken and lima bean stew flavored with plenty of garlic, thyme and paprika -- an excellent pairing. $15.
Raimat "Vina 24" 2008 Albarino -- Light nose of wildflowers and lemon zest. An acidic body that tastes a little like lemonade made with honey. Finish is lemony, a bit tart, with a little lingering minerality. A very pleasant wine for an aperitif. We also tried it with a homemade veggie pasta -- grape tomatoes, basil, and oregano sautéed in garlic and olive oil and tossed with homemade linguine. Acidity stood up nicely without overpowering some of the fresh vegetable and semolina flavors. Very nice. $11.
Finca Luzon 2006 Altos de Luzon Jumilla -- An interesting nose of plums and figs greets you here. It boasts a full-flavored body of dark fruits like blueberries and a real backbone of earthiness. Finish is spicy and acidic. This is a fantastic wine for pairing with big, rich foods. We had this with a veal & mushroom stew and it was absolutely outstanding. $16.
Vevi Rueda 2008 Verdejo/Viura -- An interesting blend of these two major white grapes. In the spirit of Nigel Tufnel, we asked, "How much more grapefruity could this wine be? The answer is none...none more grapefruity." Any fan of tart sauvignon blancs would really enjoy this wine. It's pleasantly acidic and refreshing, and exceedingly food friendly with light meats or fish. We had it with grilled snapper. For $9, a really solid value.