Spanish Reds: The Rest of the Story
Once you know Tempranillo and Grenache, most of the reds of Spain will be your oyster. Still, a solid 20 percent are made of other grapes. What's a shopper to do? First, count your blessings; this is what makes it all so much fun. Second, know that a growing number of Spanish bottlings make use of the international varieties--Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and, sometimes, Merlot. There are no blanket statements to make about those grapes in Spain; it's a big country full of different climates and microclimates, so you're on your own.
More generally, however, you'll see four other red Spanish grapes in Minnesota wine shops: Bobal, Mencia, Carinena, and most importantly, Monastrell. Here's all you really need to know about them to lead your life without fear:
Bobal lives under the radar. It doesn't even get a peripheral mention in most of my wine reference books, and when you do see it, it will tend to be a blending grape from the big-production, hot-agriculture regions of southeastern Spain, including the Alicante and Utiel-Requena. Its predominant characteristics are that it's dark--really dark, as in hard to see through without a flashlight--cherry-round and kind of smoky. If you see some Bobal around, it's likely to have made a wine that is easy to drink, soft, and a little lower in alcohol than most of its Spanish brethren. One Bobal-based wine in Minneapolis is Rozaleme, Bobal/Tempranillo, 2003, $15. It's very well balanced, a nice food wine with lots of concentration, Bobal's typical dark color, a good shot of tannin, and a sort of cocoa-and-blackberries finish.
I've read that people once thought Mencia, grown in the northwestern corner of Spain, right close to Portugal, was related to Cabernet Franc. But this is a puzzle to me because I associate Cabernet Franc with soft, pretty wines, and every time I've tasted a wine made with Mencia it's been dark, intense, and rustic as a barnyard. One 100 percent Mencia in Minnesota is Dominio de Tares, Bierzo, Mencia, 2001, $14. It's tannic, rustic, has scents of leather, horses, and smoke on a decently round and well-knit body, and ends with a bit of fire in the throat.
The Oxford Companion to Wine begins by noting that this grape--also known as Carignan, Carignano, Mazuela, or Mazuelo--"could fairly be called the bane of the European wine industry," and goes on to note that, "It's high in everything--acidity, tannins, color, bitterness--but finesse and charm. This gives it the double inconvenience of being unsuitable for early consumption yet unworthy of maturation." Finally, and relievedly, concludes the encyclopedia, "The Carignan era is surely long past." Well, not quite. You'll see it blended into Grenache- and Tempranillo-based cheapies sometimes, but all you really need to know about it is that it is traditionally blended in as a filler. Also, please note it is not the main grape used in the region Cariñena; Cariñena wines are not Cariñena, they're mostly Grenache. Got a headache yet?
Known as Mourvèdre in France, Monastrell is an important Spanish grape--so important that there are about a dozen 100 percent Monastrells in the Minnesota market. Since most cost less than $10, you could easily assemble a tasting on your own. Basically, I think of Monastrell as the Syrah of Spain: It's a little fleshier, softer, and plummier than typical Spanish wines, but still has plenty of spine, and stands up to typical Spanish oak.
One of my favorite Monastrells in Minnesota is Casa Castillo, Jumilla, Monastrell, 2002, $10. It's a clean, tobacco and raspberry wine with a perky spine of tannin and a clean finish. A great choice for grilled meats or even roast pork or chicken done with rosemary and sage.
Another interesting one: Daniel Belda, Ponsalet, Valencia, Monstrell Jove, $6. Why no vintage? The "jove" means young, which also means it hasn't been aged, which should make it a 2004. Without the age and oak, this wine is soft, grapey, sweet, and a little grape-skin tannic. It's an interesting marker for what Monastrell tastes like straight out of the field, and it's definitely drinkable and likable. In fact, I bet if it had a cute cartoon animal on the label, it would be really popular.
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