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

 

Borsao, Bodegas Borsao, Campo De Borja, 2003, $8

With 75 percent Garnacha and 25 percent Tempranillo, this wine is just a perfect flip side to taste with the Albaliza: It's got a pronounced cranberry juice, cherry, and sweet vanilla Grenache core wrapped with a Tempranillo veil of pepper, tobacco, and spice. If you go back and forth between the Albaliza and the Borsao after tasting two Grenaches and two Tempranillos, you will be granted an instant understanding of one of the mysteries of the universe: How wine grapes work together to make a wine stronger than the sum of its parts. My group got into a big discussion about whether Tempranillo was like the tuba and bass drum in an orchestra, while Grenache was the flutes and bells. This could have been six bottles of wine speaking, but you might see if the thought has any traction for your group.

 

OAK

Why do the Spanish love oak so much? Probably for the same reason Mexicans love hot sauce, Thais love lemongrass, the Scots love oak on their whiskey, and Americans love oak on our Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon: culture plus tradition equals love. But the Spanish love it more. Consider this: Just as the Germans have a whole system to scientifically judge the sugar content of grape juice, with the sweeter wines being the most expensive and desirable, the Spanish have a whole system so that you can know how much oak you're getting, wine with the most oak being the most desirable and expensive.

(The Spanish are also the only people I know of to tangle with something they call "200 percent new oak," meaning they put some wine in new oak barrels, leave it for a bit, and then drain it out only to move the wine into a whole new batch of brand-new oak barrels. This is the oak equivalent of painting flames on your Lamborghini: Indeed, yes, message received.)

The Spanish oak classification varies slightly from region to region, but is, basically, as follows. The lightest oak is found in "Crianza" wines, which cannot be sold until their third birthday, before that they are usually aged for a full year in wood, after which they spend a year or so in their bottle or tank, maturing. "Reserva" wines cannot be released until four years after their harvest, and, depending on region and varietal, must spend at least a year in cask, and another two years in bottle or tank. Some regions even specify that the wine must spend six months in new oak. "Gran Reserva" red wines must not leave their winery until the sixth year after vintage, before which they will have spend at least two years in wood barrels--again, some regions specifying new wood--and another full three years resting after that.

If you can find the Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva run of a single producer, it makes for a fascinating tasting. I found those for the Campo Viejo Rioja wines listed below, but decided to omit the Reserva since this tasting was getting goofily long, and because when I tasted it, the Reserva tasted like nothing so much as a slice of an oak tree.

 

Campo Viejo, Rioja, Crianza 2001, $10

In my initial tasting notes for this youngish Rioja I wrote "friendly, likable, smooth," about three times each before I even noticed I was repeating myself. It is just worth repeating, this stuff is very smooth and likable--especially after tasting a bunch of feisty country Spanish wines. Made with 75 percent Tempranillo, 20 percent Grenache, and 5 percent Mazuelo grapes, as well as both American oak, for vanilla and toast, and French oak, for sharp spice, the wine is velvety without being heavy, has lots of blackberries, dark cherries, and vanilla, without being cloying, and good amounts of acid and complexity, without being aggressive. It's a remarkably harmonious and tidy little bargain. It also teaches you a thing or two about winemaking: Here's what happens when the raw ingredients we've been sampling meet no-expense-spared winemaking.

 

Campo Viejo, Rioja, Gran Reserva, 1997, $20

A very prettily built wine, Campo Viejo's Gran Reserva reminds me nothing so much as light seen through a dozen layers of gauze: Everything about it is soft and nice, delicate and mellow. It offers subtle scents of banana bread, coffee ice cream, and paprika-stewed tomatoes, and is very soft in the mouth, not exactly velvety, but gentle and elegant, leading to a long, soft finish. If you know someone who thinks of Spanish wines as hard and dirty, you could change her mind forever with a glass of this gauzy charmer. Made of 75 percent Tempranillo, much of which comes from 25-year-old vines, 15 percent Grenache, and 10 percent Mazuelo, and aged in both American and French oak casks, this is a wine which shows what happens when you take the no-expense-spared winemaking mentioned above, and pair it with the best grapes and a truly old-world amount of sheer, unadulterated time.

 

THE BIG GUNS

You could stop the tasting with the good Rioja above, and go forward in your life with a strong sense of the basic building blocks of Spanish red wine.

But you could also take it one step farther.

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