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Spanish Wine: Great Values for Ready Drinking

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Spanish Wine Cellar trade show in San Francisco

A few tastings of current Spanish releases in recent weeks, including the Spanish Wine Cellar trade show last month, have driven home for me two facts: Spanish wines are not only great bargains, they are also ideally suited to the American palate.

Spain is the world's third largest wine producer, after France and Italy. In 2010, Spain produced 13.6 percent of the world's wine. By comparison, the U.S., the world's fourth largest producer, was responsible for 10.6 percent of world production.

Wine production in Spain is somewhat unique in several respects. The wineries there tend to be bigger than wineries elsewhere, owning much more vineyard acreage than the average producer in other countries. Yields are also lower in Spain than elsewhere. This is due both to the advanced age of many vineyards, as well as to the relatively arid conditions in many wine regions, which led them to be more sparsely planted, at least until vineyard irrigation was legalized in 1996.

vineyards in Rioja

Vineyards in Rioja, photo courtesy VibrantRioja.com

Spanish producers also traditionally age their red wines much longer, to ensure they are ready to drink when purchased. Finally, the proportion of American oak barrels used for aging tends to be much higher than elsewhere, where more expensive French oak has become the norm. Increasing amounts of French oak are, however, also being used in Spain.

One can buy sparkling wines, refreshing dry whites, mature reds that are ready to drink, and sweet wines from Spain for a fraction of the cost of similar wines from most other countries -- we're talking wines ranging from $7 to $17. And due to the extensive aging, American consumers who typically want a red wine they can enjoy with dinner right after they bring it home can count on that kind of maturity with a Spanish wine, especially at the Reserva and Gran Reserva levels, as explained below.

Yes, there are more expensive wines from Spain too. Most of those tend to be modern, international style wines that have received high ratings from Robert Parker, or his Spanish critic for awhile, Jay Miller. Those wines are generally flashy, highly concentrated, fruit forward wines, virtually indistinguishable from the kind of wines Parker has rated highly from everywhere else.

The bargains can be found in the 98 percent of everything else that Spain produces, including wines from indigenous varieties found only in Spain.

In selecting Spanish wines, it's important to know something about the predominant grape varieties, the leading regions, and the classifications -- both those that indicate the amount of barrel aging as well as those intended to indicate quality levels.

Although Spain claims to have over 600 indigenous grape varieties, 80 percent of production is based on only 20 varieties. The red grape commonly associated with Spain, Tempranillo, is only the second most widely grown grape, after Airen, a white grape whose production is largely for brandy. Other major red grapes are Garnacha (known as Grenache in most of the rest of the world, but originally from Spain), Cariñena (known as Carignan elsewhere), Monastrell (known as Mourvèdre elsewhere) and Graciano. The primary white grapes that produce the dry, flavorful, good white wine values from Spain are Albariño, Verdejo and Macabeo (also known as Viura).

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A selection of Cavas

The sparkling Cavas are traditionally made from a combination of Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada, although some Chardonnay is also being used these days. The grapes that are the basis for Sherry, fortified wines from southern Spain that range from very dry to intensely sweet, are Palomino and Pedro Ximénez.

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Sherry

International varieties have also been increasingly planted in Spain in the last two decades. The most important of those are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.

The leading wine region traditionally in Spain, where many of the largest and most important producers are still to be found, is Rioja. Rioja got a boost from a lot of French investment and advice in the late 1800s, when the phylloxera louse began to devastate French and other European vineyards decades before it reached the middle of Spain. Tempranillo blends, long aged mainly in American oak, continue to dominate production here, and lots of good values can be found.

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Great older Riojas

Ribera del Duero is another major region known primarily for its Tempranillo and Tempranillo blends. The Priorat is a newer wine growing region where Grenache dominates, often in blends including international varieties.

The great sources of white wines are Rías Baixas in the cooler, northwest region of Galicia, and the Penedès in Catalonia on the northeastern coast.

Two indications of quality are the classifications DO, for Denominación de Origen, and DOCa, for Denominación de Origen Calificada. There are now 66 regions with DO status, but only two DOCa's so far--the newer category for DOs that have a consistent track record for quality. The two DOCa's are Rioja and Priorat.

Most of the DOs have their own controlling bodies that dictate regulations for that DO, governing everything from viticultural practices to the minimum requirements for barrel and bottle aging. The primary categories established by law indicating the amount of barrel aging, however, are Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.

"Joven," meaning young, are white, red or rosé wines sold the year following the vintage, with little or no time in oak. These tend to be lighter, fruitier wines made for drinking within a year or two. Some producers may add the term "Roble," meaning oak, to indicate when such wines have spent some time in barrel or cask, but less than the six months required for Crianzas.

The "Crianza" label on red wines indicates they have been aged at least 24 months, at least six months of that in oak and the rest in bottle. In Rioja and Ribera del Duero, the regulatory authorities raised that to at least 12 months in oak. Crianza whites and rosés require at least 12 months aging, at least six of that in oak.

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One producer's Gran Reserva, Reserva and Crianza

Climbing up the ladder of cellar aging, and usually quality, are "Reserva" wines. Reds with this labeling must be aged at least 36 months, at least 12 of those in oak. White and rosé reservas, which are rarer, must be aged at least 24 months, with a minimum of six in oak.

"Gran Reservas" are made only in the best vintages, or from the best selection of grapes in a given vintage. Red Gran Reservas will have spent at least five years aging, at least 18 months of that in oak. Many producers age them for considerably longer than the minimum required time. Gran Reserva whites and rosés require only four years of aging, at least six of which are in oak.

For recommendations on great producers and wines from Rioja, see my report here on a tasting last year of nearly 200 wines. For recommendations on producers from throughout Spain that were represented at last month's Spanish Wine Cellar Trade Show in San Francisco, see my full report here.