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The most successful wines in every price category are red, primarily those made from the Tempranillo grape, which dominates the regions of Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Navarra and Toro. Cabernet Sauvignon has begun to make an appearance, often blended with Tempranillo, while obscure local grape varieties contribute to the distinctive character of wines from Penedès, Priorato and Somontano. Spain's wine laws are similar to those of the French appellation system, with the best vineyard regions delimited and regulated.
Spain has always been proud of its national traditions, and its wineries have staunchly resisted the international style of oaky Chardonnays and tannic Cabernets. This Mediterranean country's top wines continue to be made with native grape varieties in traditional styles. They reward exploration by adventurous wine drinkers.
Most bodegas (wineries) offer reds in four quality levels, which correspond to the amount of aging (in wooden barrels or in bottle) the wines receive before release. In order of increasing age (and price), they are: sin crianza, crianza, reserva and gran reserva.
Wines labeled "sin crianza" are released in the year after harvest; often made, at least in part, through the carbonic maceration method also responsible for Beaujolais Nouveau, they are light and rarely leave Spain. For the best values and the freshest fruit, look for crianza and reserva red wines, which spend at least one year aging in oak barrels. Gran reservas must spend two years (and often stay much longer) in oak, and are commonly released only five to seven years after harvest. Even though they are intended to be the very best wines of their vintage, they may be overly mature for American tastes when they finally reach retail shelves.
Rioja's modern wine industry emerged under the guidance of Bordeaux winemakers fleeing the ruin of the phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th century. Their legacies include the practice of blending different grape varieties and aging the wine in small oak barrels. However, Rioja is based predominately on the local Tempranillo grape (with Garnacha as a secondary component used to add body and alcohol; Mazuelo and Graziano are also authorized), and the barrels are generally made from American rather than French oak, so the resulting wines have a distinctive character all their own.
Traditional Riojas emphasize balance and elegance; top producers in this style include Cune, La Rioja Alta and Vina Tondonia. However, responding to international demand for rounder, fruitier wines, several bodegas have turned to new viticultural techniques, French oak and shorter barrel aging to make wines with more concentration. Leaders in this modern style include Bodegas Martinez Bujanda, Contino and Bodegas Breton. Rioja's two oldest wineries, Marqués de Riscal and Marqués de Murrieta, are still leaders, making outstanding wines that manage to incorporate benefits of both schools.
But despite the breadth and depth of Rioja's wine tradition, our tastings in the past few years suggest that Spain's most exciting red wines are now being made in Ribera del Duero, located about 100 miles to the southwest. Though granted DO appellation status only in 1982, Ribera has benefited from two powerful dynamos: Bodegas Vega Sicilia, Spain's most prestigious winery, founded in 1846, and Alejandro Fernandez, an eccentric visionary whose Tinto Pesquera, made only since 1972, has drawn international attention to the region.
Notable reds from other regions include the robust Navarras from Bodegas Julian Chivite, the Torres winery's classic Mas La Plana, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Penedès and René Barbier's Priorato Clos Mogador, an inky giant made from intensely concentrated Garnacha grapes. But these only scratch the surface; Spain produces a wealth of distinctive red wines, and most sell for well under $20.
Sparkling wines, made by the classic Champagne method but using indigenous grapes, also provide good value. Called "cava," these come primarily from the Penedès region, near Barcelona. Don't worry too much about special designations or vintages; the non-vintage cuvées offer the best value and a hearty, straightforward taste perfect for parties or punches.
Whites are hit or miss in Spain. White Riojas and Ruedas, made largely from Viura, are fresh and clean, while reservas, aged in American oak, are voluptuous and herb-scented. Chardonnay and other varietal wines have few advantages over competitors from other countries, but a few indigenous grapes make distinctive wines from northern regions such as Penedès and Galicia. White wines made from the Albarino grape in the northwest region of Rias Baixas offer an appealing mix of ripe fruit and refreshing acidity.
And don't overlook Sherry. This fortified wine from Andalusia has largely been forgotten, despite its centuries of fame, yet quality has never been higher, and in an age of increasing wine standardization, Sherries are like nothing else in a bottle.
Their flavor spectrum is enormous. Manzanillas and Finos are pale, dry and delicate despite their 15 degrees of alcohol; drunk well-chilled, they are delicious aperitifs. Amontillados, with more age and alcohol, can be redolent of walnuts and honey, and are made both sweet and dry. Finally, the best dessert Sherries, made largely from supersweet Pedro Ximenez grapes, resemble prune syrup transformed into nectar; try Osborne's Oloroso Abocado Solera India for an unforgettable taste sensation. If proof were needed that Spain's wine producers are fearless in pursuit of flavor, here it is.
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