In vino veritas, part XXI: A campaign for Spain

Focusing back on another European behemoth this month, let’s shine a magnifying glass on Spain. Why the title? First, it rhymes. Second, in North America at least, Spanish wines and grapes are perhaps not as widely known as their French or Italian counterparts, in addition to the more internationally renowned and cultivated varietals — merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and so on.

This sentiment is quite understandable when you consider that until the mid-1970s, Spain, under the Franco regime, didn’t have a governmental body in place favorable to modernization nor the capitalist fervor needed for competitive winemaking. Prior to the country’s emergence as a free-market economy, most of the alcoholic produce was locally consumed and, frankly, jug wine at best. Nowadays, however, Spain is still a top consumer, but it’s also the third-largest exporter, and their bottles are arguably able to contend with the best of the world, both old and new.

When it comes to introducing the specifics and peculiarities of Spanish wine, largely because of its relative isolation from the rest of the world through the post-WWII trading boom, there may be dozens of unfamiliar grape and appellation names, not to mention the Iberian Peninsula’s wildly diverse geography. If you’ve ever tried to teach or lecture, then you know that too much too soon results in blank stares and an information retention rate of close to zero. So, the campaign for Spain requires a slow introduction. For now, I’ll discuss only the wines that most distinctively embody the nation’s output and, more importantly, the ones most likely spur a sale on premise.

Looking at Spain from a satellite point of view, its features are quite remarkable. The Iberian Peninsula is sliced by a series of mountain ranges, creating substantial rain shadows around the river valley systems where grapevines like to prosper. These cordilleras, as they are called, protect Spain’s interior plateau, the Meseta Central, bestowing the lands with a continental Mediterranean climate (think extreme heat with sporadic droughts in summer) as well as those quixotic images of endless golden fields with brown and ochre mountaintops in the background. Indeed, these volcanic-rich soils have been recognized for viticultural purposes even before the Roman conquests, first undertaken by Phoenician and Carthaginian colonists.

Appellations dot the entirety of the Spanish countryside, save for the most arid regions of the Meseta Central. In the spotlight are two within the watershed of the Ebro River — Rioja and Priorat — near or in the Catalan province that stretches from the Iberian coast up to the Pyrenees. Like other Mediterranean-facing countries, Spain has a regulatory body for good wines (Denominación de Origen — DO), but both these appellations are of such renown that they have earned a superior classification (DOCa or DOQ) for you to look out for as well as the “DO de Pago” for internationally celebrated estates or wineries (bodegas, as they are locally called).

La Rioja sits more inland, immediately south of the Cantabrian Mountains that separate it from Basque Country and some rather fierce Atlantic storms. The vineyards atop this limestone and sandstone plateau are best known for growing tintos (red grapes), especially tempranillo. To the layman, this varietal can be described as a lighter, fruitier merlot, delivering a burst of leathery cherries from its intense, but not wholly opaque, crimson color. Tempranillo is popular throughout the north of Spain, and it is usually the dominant grape in a blend with garnacha tinta (grenache noir) or monastrell (mourvèdre).

If most regions are making tempranillo, what makes Rioja so special? Or, what makes its wines worth the higher price? The appellation has its own internal categorization system, and you should strive for Rioja Reserva or Rioja Gran Reserva markers because they denote a minimum number of years aging in American or French oak barrels — a process that reduces the harshness and adds flavor, specifically a smoky vanilla.

At this point I have to admit that I’m biased towards red wines, and even though Spain has some delectable whites (airén, albariño, macabeo or verdejo), my experience has mostly been with their darker counterparts. Moving on to the Priorat region, which lies directly southwest of the Catalonian coastline, the big red on campus is garnacha tinta where, again, blending is the order of the day. Elsewhere in the world (mainly the Rhône River valley), grenache is usually the runner-up in a grape mix, but in Spain it takes center stage, delivering a heavy body of sweet, black fruit and spicy tannins — perfect for the adventurous oenophile.

To finish off, what would a rambling about Spanish wine be without mentioning sangria? A summer delight, a pitcher of sangria is an easy medley of red wine, a bit of syrup, chopped fruit and a clear, carbonated soda. If you offer Spanish reds by the glass, you might as well add this simple concoction to the menu, especially during the warmer months.