Wine: Viva España

For quality, balance, texture, and low prices, Spain has been pouring it on — in reds, whites, and sparklings

If there’s a wine industry that deserves raves for being the “most improved” in a relatively short amount of time, the wines of Spain get the applause.

Across the board, from white wines to reds, to cava sparkling wines, to sherries, ports, and brandies, Spain, more than any other winemaking country, has maintained a slow path to excellence and high quality — at low prices.

This has happened while neighboring European regions  — particularly in France and Italy — have damaged themselves by chasing that elusive butterfly: the emerging young wine drinker, especially in the American market. In so doing, they compromised what they did well and what had been appreciated as unique in the first place.

The result has been that French and Italian wines have become harder to differentiate from many stylistically similar wines of America and Australia, where winemakers had already pointed their proverbial wine spigots at their proverbial feet — and pulled the trigger.

Spain, however, may have had a very odd advantage in that it started so far back, in a very bad, low place with an industry that still reflected winemaking in the 1800s, and had managed to ignore much of the vast wine-growing and winemaking strides of the mid-1900s, as well as the science and chemistry of wine now available.

We reported here in a recent issue on a lawsuit filed by Roederer, the French Champagne house, charging that Spanish cava maker Jaume Serra’s use of the name Cristalino for its $10 cava was too similar to Roederer’s Cristal, which sells for $220 a bottle. Roederer won the case.

It seems quite doubtful that, 20 years ago, any French Champagne house would have cared much what a Spanish cava maker called itself. But today, the underlying and unstated testament here is that the quality of Spanish sparkling wine, among others, has improved enough to become viewed, at worst, as a threat, or, at least, as enough to cause discomfort to Roederer.

Many, if not most, of the Spanish wines of yesteryear could collectively and kindly have been described as erratic, heavy, and unbalanced, with a quite large percentage of them suffering from fungal and other winery cleanliness problems. All that has disappeared, with the exception of a handful of old-guard red Rioja makers.

In a reversal of the pattern, while many wines from other regions of Europe have become heavy and indistinguishable, the Spanish wines have become lighter, more delicate, and more balanced and textured. They have moved comfortably and competitively into the space of low- and mid-priced categories, offering quality wines compatible, in many cases, to upper-priced wines from elsewhere.

Spanish wines are today among the best food wines around for the price. In reds, there is a plethora of wines from such grapes as garnacha and tempranillo that are unique and pleasant without being blazingly ripe and alcoholic.

In whites, there are floral, almost green-tinted light wines made from such grapes as macabeo, albariño, parellada, and xarel-lo. And the cava sparkling wines are now competitive with non-Champagne region sparklings from Burgundy, Alsace, the Loire Valley, Northern Italy, and Germany.
Here are three nice reds to consider:

> 2009 CASTILLO DE FUENDEJALON CRIANZA ($10): Grenache-grape based, characterized by bright, fresh cherry notes and tobacco and leather undertones. Lean, agile, great balance and acidity. A bargain.

> 2009 GARNACHA DE FUEGO OLD VINES, SPAIN ($9): Grenache grape, very ripe. Raspberry aromas followed in the mouth by deep cherry-anisette notes and good acidity. Value plus.

> 2006 MARQUES DE RISCAL ($17): Bright ruby-red, dried cherry and cedar aromas, ripe fruit and vanilla on the palate, complex and balanced.

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