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.

 

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.

 

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.

You could try the really top-of-the-heap, critical darlings of all of Spain, and see how they fit into the rainbow of reds you've already tasted. By doing this you will understand the real difference between Spanish wines and German or Australian ones; that the stars in the Spanish sky are different than the ones you're used to. That they're not trying to be Babe Ruth, they're trying to be a mountain, if you know what I mean. Happily, unlike the wines of anywhere else on earth, some of the best-reviewed wines in all of Spain are priced in the mere double digits.

 

Flor de Pingus, Dominio de Pingus, Ribera de Duero, 2001, $50

The entire Spanish wine revolution could, perhaps, be traced to a Bordeaux-influenced Dane, Peter Sisseck, who, in 1996, showed a wine made with 60-year-old Tempranillo grapes, a wine about which a famous wine critic, Robert Parker, said some famously complimentary things. Thus began a land rush and stampede of importers, and here we are. Pingus, the cult wine that started this all, is too rich for our blood. But Flor de Pingus, the second-most-prestigious wine from the winery, usually retails around $50 (though you can often find it on sale for less). It's a Tempranillo wine offering a bouquet of barnyards, coffee, chocolate, saddle leather, currants, cedar, raspberries, and rich, wet earth. In the mouth it's deeply plummy and layered, thickly knit, and the overall impression it leaves is of a profoundly intense gentility. Tasting it, I felt like I learned an invaluable lesson about the grace Tempranillo is capable of achieving. Although interestingly, everyone I tasted with preferred the good Riojas, finding the Flor de Pingus show-offy--power and spice over grace.

 

Roda II, Bodegas Roda, Rioja, Reserva, 1998, $50-ish

Another sister to a dizzyingly priced Spanish cult wine (called Cirsion), Roda II is probably one of the best Riojas you can easily buy. The 1998 is 73 percent Tempranillo and 27 percent Grenache, all from vines more than 30 years old, aged for 16 months in French oak, 60 percent of which is new, after which it spent 20 months in bottle. I was impressed with the nose of caramelized meat, roasted eggplant, and cinnamon raspberry pie that wafted from the glass. It was balanced by a delicate, pretty body with just enough sweetness to lilt on the palate--a truly elegant little song.

The Roda II was, to my surprise, the hands-down hit of our tasting, with everyone jockeying to grab a full glass of it once they were freed from constraints of small tasting portions and spitting. I had imagined that everyone would go for the more international style Flor de Pingus, but I guess after all that tasting of Grenache, and a firsthand examination of the benefits, subtleties, broadness, and finesse you get from the classic Spanish blend, everyone had learned to appreciate Spanish wines on their own terms. Heavens! That was quick!

VOILA!

You now know more about Spanish wines than 99.9 percent of your fellow Americans. You know whether you like Tempranillo, Grenache, Rioja, or what. If a sommelier asks you what you like in a Spanish wine, you should be authoritatively be able to tell her you like more leathery and oaky wines, or fruitier and softer ones. You'll know whether the various Spanish cheapies people keep pressing on you at parties are indeed any good, or just cheap. If you go forward in your life drinking Spanish wines, they'll all fit into a framework you understand. You will, in short, understand Spanish reds just like a very, very old Spaniard.

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