- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Spain, the long-slumbering giant of the wine world, is awake and on the move. Though it has more vineyard land than either France or Italy, it produced inferior wine

for most of the last century.

Twenty years ago, Hugh Johnson, one of the world’s leading authorities, declared that very little Spanish wine warranted international interest — “and much of that only for its formidable strength combined with minimal character.” How things have changed.

Spain today is home to some of the most exciting wines anywhere, many of which offer exceptional value. As Mr. Johnson noted recently, no other established winemaking nation has witnessed such thorough and rapid improvement.

Spain’s slumber is as easy to understand as its awakening. During the Franco years, the country was isolated politically and economically from the rest of Europe. Its standard of living was low, so most wine was produced in large volume and sold in bulk. As a result, when the global market for fine wine began to grow in the 1960s and 1970s, Spain was just an afterthought in the minds of consumers.

Only sherry from Jerez, wines from a few producers in Rioja, and one Ribera del Duero estate (Vega Sicilia) merited attention.

Spain joined the European Community, now the European Union, in 1986, and the wines began to improve almost immediately.

While many producers continued to make cheap wine in bulk, many others began to take an artisanal approach to both viticulture and winemaking. Their efforts were inspired and then rewarded by international demand, and before long, even the inexpensive cooperative wines started to improve.

These changes occurred at a dizzying rate in traditional regions as well as in newly revitalized ones. As vintners began to use modern, state-of-the art equipment, they and their customers gained new respect for the country’s grapes and vineyards. All of a sudden, it became clear that Spanish wine did not have to be coarse and clunky. When that word got out, the pace of improvement escalated. Aspirations increased because no ambitious vintner was content to play second fiddle — to his neighbor, let alone to a competitor from abroad.

By the dawn of the new millennium, Spanish wine had taken a quantum leap in overall quality. Some of today’s new-wave Spanish wines are internationally styled.

Fashioned with global grapes such as cabernet or chardonnay, they are designed to emulate, if not echo, wines from other countries. Yet many others remain true to their roots. Made with local grapes or a blend of native and international varieties, they are modern — meaning clean, fruit-driven, and unoxidized — so they taste delicious and distinctive.

These new traditionalists are full of personality and constitute thrilling discoveries. Among whites, almost all of which used to taste ghastly, albarino from Rias Baixas in Galicia has emerged as a star, while wines made from verdejo grapes in Rueda, and the trio of macebo, parellada and xarello in Penedes are waiting in the wings.

The reds, however, are propelling Spain onto wine’s center stage. These wines are stealing the limelight not only from France and Italy, but also from many New World nations. Tempranillo, the country’s most notable indigenous red grape, is producing excellent wines all over the northern half of the country.

Grenache (garnacha in Spanish) and carignan (carinena) have returned to prominence in much of the east, while mourvedre (monastrell), widely planted in the south, has begun to yield interesting, sometimes even compelling wines.

Previously neglected indigenous varieties such as graciano and mencia are being handled with care and attention, resulting in intriguing, individualistic bottlings.

As a bonus, many of Spain’s finest offerings are value-priced. To be sure, the country produces a growing number of expensive reds — more than $50 a bottle.

Though these can compare favorably with similarly priced wines made elsewhere, they prove too costly to serve as viable introductions to the glories of contemporary Spain. However, at less than half that price (and often much less), a host of enthralling choices awaits any adventurous wine drinker. They have the fruit flavors to entice contemporary palates but taste distinct and so, unlike many comparably priced wines from elsewhere, do not seem at all derivative.

The following 15 reds represent the best from a series of recent tastings featuring Spanish reds that sell for no more than $20 a bottle. They are listed in a rough order of preference, with importers identified in parentheses to assist retailers and restaurateurs.

Perlat Unio, Montsant, 2003, $13. From an up-and-coming region in the hinterlands of Catalonia, this soft and supple blend of grenache, carignan and syrah tastes rich and evocatively spicy, with an enticing bouquet and a long, lingering finish. The same producer’s slightly more expensive 2000 Montsant Crianza ($15) tastes equally good, with perhaps even more nuanced subtlety. (Imported by Country Vintner.)

Joan d’Anguera “La Planella,” Montsant, 2003, $18. A similarly styled Montsant, this wine has multiple layers of flavor and aroma. Complex but seamless, it offers bright fruit reflecting Mediterranean sunshine, with sweet rather than peppery spice in the finish. (De Maison Selections)

Llicorella Roureda, Priorat, 2001, $20. Priorat, a wild, remote region in the hinterlands of Catalonia, is home to many of Spain’s most exhilarating wines — penetratingly flavorful, concentrated reds sourced from low-yielding vineyards.

Most are priced beyond the parameters of this column, but this cooperative rendition more than hints at the reason for all the excitement. Marked by black and blueberry fruit, spice and dried herbs in the finish, and a seductively supple texture, it should age well for five years or so but tastes wonderful right now. (Country Vintner)

Clos del Pinell, Crianza, Terra Alta, 2000, $14. If, like me, you think of grenache and carignan as grapes that yield rustic-tasting wines, this Terra Alta should both surprise and excite you. A blend of those two varieties, along with a dollop of syrah, it tastes smooth and sophisticated — a black-tie, not a blue-jeans red. (Country Vintner)

Consensus, Mencia Bierzo, 2001, $15. A medium-weight red with a faintly herbaceous edge that adds interest to the raspberry-scented fruit, this would be a great partner for roast chicken or turkey. Made from mencia grapes, it tastes extremely distinctive — vaguely akin to a classy Chinon from France’s Loire Valley, but very much its own self. (Luneau USA)

Valdubon, Ribera del Duero, 2002, $13. An entry-level Ribera del Duero, this wine is well-balanced and satisfyingly rich. The aromas and flavors are not as nuanced as those in the finest wines from the region, but the price is more than right. (Freixenet USA)

Solar de Sael, Mencia, Bierzo, 2003, $20. The antithesis of the mencia from Consensus recommended above, this wine is powerful and muscular, with deep extract — very much something to drink with a grilled steak. How this obscure grape variety can yield two such different bottlings is what makes Spanish wine so fascinating. (Country Vintner)

Dominio del Arenal, Crianza, Utiel-Requena, 1998, $11. This wine, from the obscure region of Utiel-Requena in Valencia, tastes rich and concentrated. A blend of equal parts tempranillo and syrah (inexplicably called shiraz on the back label), it displays soft tannins as a result of six years of aging since the vintage. (Country Vintner)

Marques de Caceres, Rioja Crianza, 2000, $15. Very true to type, with dark cherry fruit flavors and sweet spice from barrel aging, this Rioja is widely available — and well worth buying. (Vineyard Brands)

Fra Guerau, Montsant, 2001, $15. Another delectable Montsant, offering straightforward but sumptuous red and black berry flavors, with intriguing hints of spice in the finish. (Freixenet USA)

Faustino VII, Rioja, 2002, $13. A very light wine, the sort of Rioja that merits comparisons to red Burgundy. Subtle, delicate and surprisingly elegant. (Palm Bay Imports)

Vina Mayor, Crianza, Ribera del Duero, 1999, $14. Bottle age has softened the tannins in this appealing, easy-drinking wine, which displays dark berry fruit accented by plenty of spicy, toasty oak. (Bacchus Importers)

Javier Asensio, Navarra Tinto, 2002, $11. Internationally styled, meaning very fruit-forward, this attractively priced blend of cabernet, tempranillo and merlot would go great with burgers or other casual fare.(Country Vintner)

Condesa de Leganza, Crianza, La Mancha, 1999, $10. Made from 100 percent tempranillo, this wine tastes of dark cherries and plums, with a vanilla-tinged backbone from oak aging. At 5 years old, the fruit is beginning to dry out, so drink it in the near term. (Palm Bay Imports)

Penascal, Tempranillo, Castilla y Leon, 2001, $8. Straightforward and direct, with full fruit flavor. No misprint on the price. (Bacchus Importers)

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