Wines of the Month

March, 2000

Spanish Summer

Around this time of year, most of us (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) are looking for a break from winter. Even if the weather has been pretty good so far, as it has in the Boston area, some sun and warm temperatures would be very welcome. Unfortunately, you can't always count on nature to bring you a taste of summer. However, I find that a worthy, reliable alternative is to drink some bold, flavorful wines that capture the spirit of warm summer days. Now, I'm not talking about refined, elegant, pricey wines -- I'm talking about wines that have a few rough edges, but that have the heady flavors that transport you to a picnic on a warm July day, sitting on a riverbank under a brilliant summer sun.

And where can you find these wines? One excellent place to look is in the Spanish wine section at your local wine shop. Sure, some Spanish wines have become quite trendy over the past 3 or 4 years, and their prices reflect the heightened demand. But fortunately for those of us who don't need to hoard cases of some trendsetter's "Wine of the Year" (or decade, century, or milennium), there are still plenty of great wine bargains left in Spain. You just have to look a little more carefully.

At least in the USA, Spanish wine seems to get only a small fraction of the attention given to French, Italian, or domestic wines. When most people think of Spanish wine, they probably think of Rioja, and possibly the Ribera del Duero. Some old-timers might think of Sherry, and some folks just might come up with Cava. But beyond those, few people can even name a Spanish wine, much less tell you what it might taste like. Sure, if you sampled enough people, you might find a couple who are aware enough of the Spanish wine scene to name a few other regions, but I'll bet it would take a while.

If you were to take the same kind of survey about Spanish red wine grapes, and if you managed to find a few people who could come up with any at all, they would probably get stuck after Tempranillo. But there are a lot of other important grapes in Spain, and one of them, the Garnacha (also important in France's Rhône Valley, where it is known as Grenache), is responsible for both of this month's selected wines. Beyond the various native varieties, Spanish winemakers are also experimenting with international grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, often with very promising results.

So where should you look for good value Spanish reds? All over the place. It might actually be easier to list the regions where you can't find a bargain, but just to give you a head start, I'll list a few. Believe it or not, there still are some excellent values in Rioja and Ribera del Duero, but many have disappeared in the past few years, as the world has begun to take notice of these regions again. However, there are still some excellent values from less well-known regions. Right next to Rioja is the region of Navarra. Although prices have been creeping up, there are still some very good fruit-filled wines at good prices. Garnacha is by far the most widely planted grape in Navarra, though the amount of Tempranillo has been increasing, and some producers have been experimenting with international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Just south of Navarra, you come to the somewhat obscure region of Campo de Borja, source of this month's first wine. Go a little farther south, and you come to the Calatayud region, which produced the other wine of the month. Garnacha is very important in both of these regions, though Tempranillo is slowly increasing in Calatayud.

If you want to venture farther afield (with the exception of the Ribera del Duero, all the other regions discussed above are within about 60 miles from the Rioja border), your options increase. Travel mostly east to the Mediterranean, and check out some of the good values from Penedès, which, although perhaps best known for the sparkling Cava, produces some good wines from Garnacha, Tempranillo (local synonym: Ull de Llebre) and Cabernet Sauvignon. Head straight north, and you come to Somontano, at the foot of the Pyrenees. Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon are both grown here, and you can still find some very good wines for $10-15. Another region with some excellent values is Jumilla, where Monastrell (the local name for Mourvèdre) produces some interesting, inexpensive wines. Garnacha is also grown here, and some international varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, have found their way into the mix.

I could keep going, but rather than reading a laundry list of regions, I think a better approach to finding Spanish wine values is to head to your local retailer and check out what's on the shelves. Pick up some inexpensive bottles (Don't forget to ask for suggestions -- good wine merchants love help enthusiastic customers!) and give them a try. Take a sip, close your eyes, and imagine the warm summer sun that produced these lush, heady wines.

Viña Borgia Campo de Borja D.O. '98 -- Very rarely can I wholeheartedly recommend a $5 bottle of wine, which makes this bottle a real treat. Made from Garnacha, this wine offers bold fruit aromas of black cherries, blackberries. It serves up lots of lush cherry and berry fruit in the mouth, with a touch of menthol. Lightly tannic, with my only complaint being a slight bitter edge on the finish. Complex and profound? No. But it's a fine mouthful of bold fruit flavor, and a good wine to drink at any occasion when you want to be reminded of the warmth of summer. And at $5 per bottle, you can afford to be reminded as much as you want.

Viña Alarba Old Vines Grenache Calatayud D.O. '98 -- Another Grenache from Aragón, but from a different subregion. This wine is a little more polished and complex than the Viña Borgia. It's also a little more expensive, but not much more ($8 on sale). A very different expression of Grenache, with plum, leather, and spice aromas, along with a slight touch of alcohol. The palate is dominated by plum, earth, leather and spice flavors. Medium tannins on the finish, but it still has a lush mouthfeel, with plenty of plum and leather flavor.

More coverage of Spanish wines will be coming later in my reports on the Tempranillo and Emilio Lustau Sherry seminars from the Boston Wine Expo 2000.

As always, comments are welcome.

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Copyright 2000 by Marcel Lachenmann.