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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

Spain: The Secret is Out

Until recently, the outstanding quality and the amazing value of Spanish wines has been a well-kept secret in the United States. Certainly, Sherry - especially fino and manzanilla styles - has always had a small cadre of fortified aficionados, and some adventurous red wine lovers swear by the reserva and gran reserva wines of Rioja, but even the most wine-stained wretches among us have had little if any experience with Spain’s finest wines.
Well, now the secret is out, and the American wine market has been flooded with great Spanish wines. Consumers are beginning to pay attention, as wine merchants and sommeliers can hardly contain their infectious enthusiasm for the sparklers, whites, rosés, and reds of Spain. For anyone who is bored by the trying trinity of Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot, and who seeks a new sensory experience, the days of a wine world awash in predictable and over-priced plonk are – happily - coming to an end. And Spain is perfectly positioned to inhabit this exciting new world with wines that are compelling, delicious, food-friendly, and that deliver excellent value.
Currently, Spain has 63 regulated wine regions (each a denominación de origen (DO), the equivalent of a French appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). Two superior regions – Rioja and Priorato – are entitled to the denominacion de origen calificada (DOC) designation. Five to ten years ago, perhaps a half-dozen denominacines were represented in the American wine market – Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Penedès, Rías Baixas, Cava (for sparkling wines), and Jerez (Sherry). Today, these wine regions have even stronger representation in the US, but are joined by wines produced in Alicante, Bierzo, Jumilla, Montsant, Navarra, Priorat, and Rueda, Toro, and Valdeorras, among many others.
Spain is, after Italy and France, the world’s third-largest wine producer, and has more acres planted with vines than any other country. The vines are stressed, due to poor soils and a rain-starved climate coupled with no widespread use of drip irrigation technology. Vines must dig deep to find the water and other nutrients they need to survive. This is all good news for making good wines. Vineyard grape yields are naturally low, and the vines, especially the thousands of acres of old vines, produce berries with complex flavors and good sugar-to-acid balance.
While Spain is best known for Sherry and red wines, part of its “secret” has always been that dry Spanish rosados, especially those produced in the Navarra DO and made from the Garnacha (Grenache) grape are among the finest rosé wines in the world. And Spain is the largest producer of sparkling wine in the world. Cava is produced almost entirely in Catalonia, the Spanish province anchored by Barcelona, and is 100% méthode champenoise. Cava is wonderful as an aperitif or with food, and is one of the single greatest values in sparkling wine – or any wine, for that matter. It is easy to find fine Brut or Rosé Cava for under ten dollars (with vintage wines and special bottlings just a few dollars more). The largest producers are Freixenet and Cordoníu, but also seek out Segura Viudas (especially its elegant Reserva Heredad and Aria Estate bottlings) and Cristalino, Marqués de Monistrol, Paul Cheneau, and Sumarroca.
Spanish whites can be a revelation. The Rías Baixas DO, located in the cooler Atlantic province of Galicia, produces the dry, medium-to-full-bodied varietal-labeled Albariño. A perfect match with intense fish stews – cioppino, zarzuela, bouillabaisse, zuppa di pesce – Albariño is a singular wine, only somewhat reminiscent of a bone-dry Riesling from Alsace. Look for Morgadio, Vonta, Martin Codax, Nora, Condes de Albarei, and Santiago Ruíz, among others ($14 – 25).
The Rueda DO focuses on the Verdejo grape and produces lovely aromatic dry whites. Sauvignon Blanc is the new grape on the block here, and Rueda does it justice, with varietal labels and 100% of the grape in the bottle. Look for the delicious Verdejo-based Naia, as well as selections from Marques de Riscal and Valle de la Vega ($8 -15).
Penedès, a region that has found great commercial success largely due to a considerable part of the Cava DO resting inside its borders, also produces fine white wines from Spanish as well as French vinifera, and blends of both. White wines run the gamut from the familiar - Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Muscat, and even Gewürztraminer – to the previously unknown – Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo (the three basic grapes of sparkling Cava, but also used for still whites). Look for Miguel Torres, Can Feixes, Parès Baltá, Segura Viudas, René Barbier, and Cavas Hill ($6 - $20).
Sherry may be an acquired taste, but once bitten by the Sherry bug, it becomes an itch that must be scratched. There is just nothing better with tapas and other “small bites” consisting of fish or veggies, or cheese, or pequillo peppers, or whatever – than dry Sherry. The three basic types – fino, amontillado, oloroso – are elaborated by individual artisans making proprietary Sherries in a wide variety of styles. Just try a chilled fino with a plate of olives and a young Manchego cheese, and from that day forth you’ll always have a bottle in the fridge. Popular producers: Tío Pepe, Osborne, Lustau, Domecq, Sandeman, Barbadillo, Hidalgo, and many more ($8 and up).
The red wines of Spain. Where to begin? Classic reds come from Rioja (DOC) and Ribera del Duero (DO), and are based on the noble Tempranillo grape. Tempranillo is as important to Spain as Cabernet Sauvignon is to Bordeaux or the Napa Valley, as Syrah/Shiraz is to the northern Rhône/Australia, as Pinot Noir is to Burgundy, as Malbec is to Argentina. The beauty of Tempranillo is that when the grape is made into a fine wine, it oxidizes (ages) slowly, due to healthy doses of skin tannins, alcohol, and juicy acidity.
Rioja is in many ways the perfect choice for serious red wine lovers. Three basic styles – Crianza (aged at least two years after vintage, released in the third), Reserva (aged at least three years, released in the fourth), and Gran Reserva (aged at least five years, released in the sixth), reflect the respective powers bestowed upon the wine by vintage selection and age. Because all Riojas wines must be tasted and approved before release by the provincial consejo regulador (Rioja’s regulating council), the savvy wine lover gets a wine that is always close to ready-to-drink, and in the case of Reserva and Gran Reserva wines, can improve a bit with a few more years of bottle aging. Fine Rioja marries well with hearty dishes – lamb, beef, stews; the lighter Crianza bottlings make a comfortable match with white meats and grilled fishes. Rioja, whose prices are on the rise, is still one of the great values in classic red wines, with bottles starting at about $8 for Crianza, $12 for Reserva, and under $20 for Gran Reserva wines. Some labels to look for: Montecillo, Martinez Bujanda “Conde de Valdemar,” Faustino Martinez, Campo Viejo, Cune, Contino, Marqués de Arienzo, Marqués de Cáceres, Marqués de Murrietta, Marqués de Riscal, Muga, and La Rioja Alta, among many other estimable producers.
Ribera del Duero, where Tempranillo is known as Tinto Fino, is thought by many to produce the finest red wines in all of Spain. Certainly, the wines can be great. The most famous wine made here is Vega Sicilia (founded in 1864), whose “Unico” bottling – a blend of Tinto Fino, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec - is aged for 12 years before release, and sells for about $300. per bottle. The 1970 Unico is drinking perfectly right now, but Ribera de Duero also produces a myriad of fine reds at much more reasonable prices. Led by Alejandro Fernandez, who established his Pesquera winery in 1972, the wine growers of the region have proven that they can make incredible wines and gain a foothold in the ultra-premium world wine market. Look for the Crianza and Reserva bottlings from Alejandro Fernandez/”Pesquera,” Valdubón, Antonio Barceló/”Viña Mayor,” Teòfilo Reyes, and Condado de Haza. Prices start in the low teens, and can rise steadily, until you get to the stratosphere for Vega Sicilia and the very new, very pricey, very hard-to-find Dominio de Pingus, which is made by a young, Danish-born winemaker, Peter Sisseck.
I mentioned the whites of Penedès, but this DO produces great reds as well, again made from both Spanish and French vinifera vines. The various microclimates of Penedès allow wine producers to grow pretty much any grape they like, and make good wines from those grapes. Tempranillo is a very important grape here, but so is Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Garnacha (Grenache), Monastrell (Mourvèdre), and Cariñena (Carignan). In the US market, Miguel Torres represents Penedès with great aplomb, with a wide variety of reds. Coronas (85% Tempranillo/15% Cabernet Sauvignon) is a tasty red for white and red meats at under $10. Gran Coronas flips the blend (85% Cabernet Sauvignon/15% Tempranillo) for about $20. Mas la Plana - single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon – is an extraordinary expression of the grape and the terroir of Penedès, for about $48. Also, look for the value-driven wines of René Barbier, and the exquisite Cabernet Sauvignon from Jean León.
The truly “New Spain” speaks to denominaciones with which few of us are familiar. Bierzo (DO), led by the innovative artisan, Alvaro Palacios, produces extraordinary reds from the Mencia grape. The red wines of Jumilla (DO) focus on the Monastrell grape (the Mourvèdre of the southern Rhône Valley), and are great values. Priorato (DOC) has become the home to some of the most sought-after Spanish wines ever produced. The group known as the “Gratallops Pioneers,” again led by the peripatetic Alvaro Palacios have focused on judicious blends of Garnacha, Cariñena, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Palacios’ biodynamic Clos l’Ermita, at $350 per bottle, is thought by many to be the best wine ever produced in Spain. His Las Terasses and Clos Dofi are somewhat less steep in price, but still extraordinary. While you can find fine wines from Priorat for under $20, the best can be quite expensive. Look for Clos Magador ($90), Morlanda Crianca ($48) and its “Prior Terrae” bottling at $200. Prices come back down to earth with Scala Dei “Negre” at $15., and its “Cartoixa” bottling at $27, as well as Acapella from Cellars Gratallops for $25. And here’s a hint: look for reds from Priorato’s neighboring tiny DO, Montsant, still undiscovered. I have fallen in love with the 2001 Fra Guerau from Viñas del Montsant, a full-bodied blend of seven grapes, dominated by Syrah and Garnacha. An amazing wine at an amazing price: $12. Also look for Isis ($20) and Laurona ($28).
No discussion of Spanish wines would be complete without at least a mention of a “secret” that has been hiding in plain sight for centuries – Brandy de Jerez. Once you have tasted the best of these fine spirits, Armagnac and especially over-priced Cognac will seem almost wimpy by comparison. Rappers and hip-hoppers may never sing the praises of Brandy de Jerez, but you will. For $30 to $50 you can have the great Gran Reservas, including Cardinal Mendoza, Carlos I, Conde de Osborne, Gran Duque de Alba, and Lepanto.
Right now you can find Spanish wines from at least 25 denominaciones in the US, and it is hard to go wrong with any of these wines. Every style of wine is represented at every price point, and in almost every wine you choose, you will get both extraordinary quality and extraordinary value.
Spanish wines: the secret is out…spread the word.


Orce Serrano Hams said...

Very detailed and accurate article, I agree Spain has some very good wines, including local bodega wines some of which never see beyond Spain itself.

Debbie said...

i have acquired a bottle of cavas hill gran toc 1985 private reserve. can you tell me anything about it please as i am a complete novice thop willing to learn from an expert. thanks.

Steven Kolpan said...

Since you did not leave a profile with an e-mail address, I'll answer your question here. The Gran Toc is a very fine wine, but I cannot guarantee that with more than 23 years of age, it isn't over the hill. On the other hand, there is a slight possibility that the wine will be glorious. Only one way to tell: have a great dinner and serve the wine, but make sure you have a backup wine in case the Gran Toc has faded. My best guestimate is that this wine was at its peak between 1995-2000. Good luck and I hope you enjoy! sk