The wines of Spain are well made, plentiful – and a bargain. So why aren’t they better known?
Most Americans know, thanks to Messrs. Lerner and Loewe, that the “rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain,” but they may not know the largest country on Europe’s Iberian Peninsula is awash with wine. In every region – from Alicante to Galicia, from Catalonia to Jerez – Spanish wineries produce enough wine annually to rank third in the world in total production, after Italy and France (the United States is fourth). Spanish wines deserve your attention.
One good place to begin is with the wines of Rioja. They are as universally food friendly as the wines of California, are available in most U.S. markets, offer a variety of options for the consumer, and are, arguably, the best wine bargains in the world.
Located in northern Spain, the city of Logroño (south of Bilbao) is the capital of Rioja, and wine has been produced here for centuries. The principal grape grown in Rioja is tempranillo, and most of the best red wines are produced from that grape, sometimes completely and sometimes as a dominant grape in a blend. Even though tempranillo may have come from France centuries ago, for all practical purposes, the grape now qualifies as a Rioja native.
Other grapes used in red wine production include garnacha tinta, mazuelo and graciano (another uniquely Spanish grape). And while Rioja is best known for its red wines, the region also produces some delightfully refreshing whites from viura, malvasia and garnacha blanca grapes.
While location and grapes contribute to the quality of Rioja wines, it’s the wine laws here that provide consumers with very useful information and true value. By labeling their reds either crianza, reserva or gran reserva, Rioja winemakers quantify the minimum aging of the wine that’s in the bottle. To earn the label “crianza,” the wine must have spent a minimum of one year in wood barrels and one year in bottle before it’s shipped to market. “Reserva” wines must spend a minimum of one year in barrel and another two years in barrel and/or bottle. “Gran reserva” wines must spend a minimum of 2 years in wood and three years in bottle before they show up in your neighborhood wine shop.
And that’s where the best bargain for the buck comes into play. Crianza wines are easy on the palate and the pocketbook, usually retailing for around $15 or less a bottle. Reservas and Gran Reservas, while carrying higher price tags, offer even better bangs for the buck, and all because the wineries have taken on the responsibility of doing the bottle aging for the consumer. When you buy it, it’s ready to drink. Consider that a 2011 gran reserva won’t be on the market until, at the earliest, 2016, when it’s five years old. Try finding a five year old cabernet from California that’s still on the shelves.
I once asked a Rioja bodega owner how the wineries could afford to hold on to that inventory, in essence sitting on a lot of capital they won’t see for years. His response was that tradition in Rioja was the reason the wines were so successful, and I got the impression that he would have no more considered changing that than he would dumping his wine into the nearby Ebro River.
Some 200 Rioja wine brands are available in the U.S. market, and these are just a sampling of some I suggest you try (you won’t be sorry): Conde de Valdemar, Bodegas Ontañón, Bodegas Muriel, CVNE (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España), Bodegas Muga, Marqués de Murrieta, Marqués de Riscal, Marqués de Cáceres, Bodegas Lan, Bodegas José Palacios, La Rioja Alta, Bodegas Bilbaínas, Bodegas Beronia, Bodegas Riojanas and Bodegas Baigorri.