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

 

GARNACHA

On to the second grape. The wine bottles you see in your local liquor stores might be labeled Grenache, Garnacha, or old vine Grenache, but in wine books the full name of the grape in question is Garnacha Tinta, in Spain, or Grenache Noir, in France. In France, Grenache makes the biggest part of the famous deep red wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and the dry rosés of Tavel; in Spain it plays a co-starring role in the spicy red wines of Rioja, stands alone, or is used for their dry pink wine, called rosado (see "Barbie's Revenge"). The distinguishing characteristics of Grenache are that it grows well in hot, dry locations and produces a fair amount of sugar as it does so (which allows for a fair amount of alcohol) and has the basic flavor profile of "fruity"--think cranberries, strawberries, and cherries, in its fresher incarnations, and black cherries, plums, and jam in hotter areas. You should be able to find a few 100 percent Garnachas in local stores, and any two will do for this tasting, though if you can find one labeled "old vine" and another one, that would be ideal. Here's what I opened:

 

Artazuri, Bodegas Y Viñedos Artazu, Navarra, 2003, $8

Navarra is just east of its more famous sister Rioja, a little inland from the section of the Atlantic coast where Spain and France meet. It's good agricultural land, with enough cold weather to moderate the Spanish sunshine, so the Grenache planted there gets as ripe as can be, without becoming baked and jammy. This Artazuri is an eye-opener for anyone seeking to know the bright cranberry, super-strawberry, sweet, high-acid face of a happy Grenache grape. It gets my vote as the wine most likely to decant itself into a Kool-Aid pitcher and burst through your walls, cheerfully quenching thirst. A lot of my tasters had disdain for this happy fellow, but I think it would be a great party red, slightly chilled, because it works on its own, but would also work well with whatever fruits, cheeses, seven-layer bean dip, or Cool Ranch Doritos you threw at it. Try it and you will be able to trace the presence of Grenache in most blends you encounter: cranberry and strawberry, lilting and cheery.

 

Viña Alarba Old Vines Grenache, Bodegas Y Viñedos del Jalón, Calatayud, 2003, $7

Part of the Spanish revolution of the last decade has had to do with the fact that scads of really, really old vineyards have just been languishing everywhere, their excellent grapes simply blended the last 50 years with whatever else grew anywhere near them, for the cheapest possible table wine. Lately though, folks with fancy new Euros have been sweeping through and convincing growers of the wisdom of bottling the good stuff separately. The results are wines like this old-vines Grenache, which the makers say is made entirely with grape vines that are at least 50 years old. The older the vine, the less juice it produces, resulting in better juice. This wine is well-balanced and nicely acidic; it tastes of strawberry jam and dried plums, with a bit of cocoa and cinnamon in the nose. It would be a great Thanksgiving wine, paired with cranberries, ambrosia salad, and turkey, but it also efficiently shows off the deeper possibilities of Grenache: Strawberries like dusk.

 

BLENDS

I was at a food event once and got to hear a restaurant critic tell a bartender that she wanted a glass of wine, but wouldn't drink "blends," only single varietal wines. It was one of the goofiest things I've ever heard, like saying you only like violins or violas, but not string quartets. You only like shortstops or pitchers, but not baseball teams. Let me assure you, you can admire both beans and cassoulet, without one detracting from the other. The reason grape varietals are blended together is, in fact, for just that balance of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

What do I mean? Simply this: A vineyard owner might find that on half of his land Tempranillo achieves only leather and spice, and on the other half his Grenache achieves mostly cranberries, strawberries, and lilt, but when he puts the two together, in oak, he may end up with something big, deep, dark, spicy, and fruity, with a bit of vivacity and a hint of smoke--a far better wine. For my tasting I was lucky enough to find two Spanish Grenache-Tempranillo blends where one was three-quarters Grenache and one-quarter Tempranillo, and the other was just the opposite. If you can find that, be very happy, it's going to make things incredibly clear to you.

 

Albaliza, Bodegas Tikalo, Tierra de Castilla, 2004, $9

This wine is oh-so-conveniently 65 percent Tempranillo and 35 percent Garnacha and just as you might expect from your experiments with those two grapes, it smells like a cigar--a sweaty, cherry-cranberry cigar. The two grapes together combine to offer the nice spice and weight of Tempranillo with the bright acid and hint of fruit from the Grenache. When I led a group through a tasting, these two wines provided a pure Eureka moment: That's why winemakers blend grapes! Exactly: Salt is good, pepper is good, but salt and pepper together are better.

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