Wine Party: Spanish Reds

Skip the Forest, Focus on a Few of the Most Typical Trees, and You May Finally Feel Comfortable in the Fabulous Jungle of Spanish Red Wines

How old is Spanish winemaking? It's so old that when someone told it to act its age, it died. Well, that's something that could have been said about Spanish wine 20 years ago, when Europe's oldest grape-growing area (since around 4000 B.C.) was making wines the same way it had for centuries--strong and oaky. (Spanish wine is even mocked in Chaucer's Tales for being strong.) Nowadays though, huge infusions of European capital, and the accompanying vast quantities of modern technology, have reinvigorated Spanish wine, and the shelves in every local wine shop are groaning with countless Spanish options.

Yes, I said countless. And I meant countless. With the largest acreage in Europe under vine, and more than 50 official wine regions where some 60-plus varieties of grapes are grown, trying to get a quick handle on "Spanish wines" is like trying to come to terms rapidly with "animals." There are a lot of them. Usually wine writers deal with this by picking, say, the top five areas of origin, describing their various geographies, and watching their readers' eyes glaze over. We are not a culture that thrives on written descriptions of foreign soil composition.

My idea is a little different. I believe that the most sensible way to get a grasp on Spanish wine is to get a handle on what it tastes like, and what it's supposed to taste like. Can you do this in one night? Pretty much. Spanish reds are countless, come from a winemaking tradition that is beyond ancient, and are built from dozens of grapes, but they are different from French reds and Australian reds in a very specific way, and an evening's tasting can get you to understand this in the only way that matters--deep in your bones.

So, what's the deal with Spanish red wine?

 

TEMPRANILLO

First, let's talk Tempranillo, the main grape variety of Spain. Most European countries or regions have a wine grape ideally suited to their geography and climate. In Burgundy it's Pinot Noir, in Italy it's Sangiovese, and in Spain it's Tempranillo. (Tem-pra-nee-yo.) Because Spain is a very old place with a truly ancient winemaking tradition, the grape goes by different names in different regions: It can be called Tinta Fino, Tinta del Pais, Tinto Toro, Cencibel, Ull de Liebre, and Ojo de Liebre.

(Some people say that these grapes are not exactly all the same, but in fact slight genetic variations of one another, more like brothers than identical twins. But this slight genetic variation theory has been floated regarding other grape varieties in the past--like Zinfandel and Primitivo--and genetic analysis has eventually proved this not to be true. So until someone proves otherwise, it seems likely that all of the grapes are in fact Tempranillo, planted in different locations and gaining their slight variations from climate, soil, and the effects of generations of time. More like twins raised apart. Does it annoy you that Tempranillo might be labeled Tinto Toro or Cencible? Well, tell it to a Spanish grape grower the next time he asks you why it's called pop in the Midwest, soda in the East, and Coke in the South.)

In any event, Tempranillo is the basic building block of Spanish red wine. It's the main wine grape of the best-known wine regions, including Rioja, Penedés, and Ribera del Duero, and is most commonly blended, usually with the second most important red wine grape, Garnacha (covered next), or with other native Spanish varieties like Mazuela, Graciano, or international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and even, recently, Syrah.

The Spanish like Tempranillo for several reasons. It's got tons of spine, tends to be very concentrated, and offers essential spicy, tobaccoey, leathery, and strawberry elements, all of which, like those in another dark grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, lend themselves very well to aging in oak. And the Spanish love the taste of oak.

So now's a good time as any to open up two or three different pure Tempranillos to try to get an idea of what the grape itself tastes like. In my experience, any good liquor store should have at least half a dozen pure Tempranillos under $12. And any two will do, though it would be ideal if they were from different producers and different regions so that you would get the widest range of flavor possibility. For my tasting, I opened these two:

 

Manyana, Bodegas San Valero Co-Op, Carineña, 2003, $7

One of the most reliable of the good Spanish cheapies on the market, the 2003 Manyana Tempranillo is particularly peppery and cinnamon-dry. *Carinena is a region in the state of Aragon known for its cold winters and dry, hot summers, made even drier by the northern-blowing wind cierzo. So what you're tasting here is Tempranillo's dark-fruit character in its driest, least irrigated aspect--driest in the agricultural sense, anyhow. There isn't much detectable oak, which is nice because it gives you a sense of the true varietal character of the grape: dark, spicy, subtle, dry.

 

Heretat Vall-Ventós Vina Belldaura, Raventos Rosell, Penedés, 2002, $8

Made from 100 percent Tempranillo from *Penedes, a region southwest of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast that gets lots and lots (and lots) of hot, hot sunshine, this wine showcases what happens to Tempranillo when it gets some water and is allowed to bake in the sun: It becomes truly intense. This wine is dark as sin and offers all of the manly scents of bare-chested horseback riding: It's got notes of saddle-leather, barnyards, cigars, cedar, and is as concentrated as a blackly furrowed brow. It's well balanced, has a very good peppery finish, and just about smacks you across the face with its fierce gloves demanding you serve it with something well charred from the grill. (It's also a phenomenal value: Everyone I tasted with wanted the name of the wine written down; you never see wines this intense and this well balanced at this price.) Try it and you'll get an excellent sense of the potent side of Spain's greatest grape.

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