The Boston Phoenix
January 1 - 8, 1998

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The reign of Spain

Rioja and beyond: discovering Spanish wine

Uncorked by David Marglin

Right now, Spanish wine (along with Chilean wine) is the next big thing. And if you're like me, you've heard a lot about these bottles, but you haven't tried many. Well, now I'm raving about Spanish wine, and though there's a lot out there to steer clear of, there is also an abundance that is super-affordable and of exceptional quality.

Wineries in Spain are known as bodegas, which means, roughly, a storehouse for wine, or a small shop that sells wine. Elsewhere, it's common for wine producers to grow their own grapes; in Spain, more often than not, independent growers sell grapes to the bodegas, which make and sell the wine. In Rioja, Spain's best-known winegrowing region, only a handful of bodegas claim to be self-sufficient in terms of both growing grapes and making wine; according to one estimate, bodegas own around 8 percent of the planted vines in the area.

When most people think of Spanish wine, they think of Rioja. The wine's image has been that of a fairly heavy, oaky, wood-aged red; but nowadays many Riojas are fruitier and more approachable, and hence can be enjoyed with less aging. All the rage right now are crianzas, three-year-old Riojas made primarily with the tempranillo grape (Spain's finest red grape), and aged for at least one year in oak barrels. They're popular for good reason -- their versatility means you can drink a crianza with pizza or chicken. And though they can be a tad tart, they pack plenty of juicy flavor, more than enough to cut through a lot of spicy foods and even tomato-based sauces. I'm particularly fond of Sierra Cantabria, a lush wine that smells of figs and drinks like pear juice, with an appealing, lively wood flavor that lingers pleasantly in the mouth. (Riojas aged longer are labeled as Riservas and Gran Riservas, and are accordingly more expensive.)

Rioja may be a good place to start, but there are many other Spanish wines worth drinking. And given how exceptionally good 1994 was ("the perfect year" for Spanish winemakers, said Bodega Breton's winemaker, Miguel Angel de Gregorio Sanchez), it's hard to go wrong with any wine from that year. Many 1994s will need more time in the bottle to mellow, but a number of the better wines were built for speed, ready to roll down your throat right now.

Besides Rioja, the hottest wines come from the next region over to the west, the Ribera del Duero, right now the most interesting Spanish region for red. These wines are stunning, less oaky and with more fruit up front. Good Ribera del Dueros include the renowned Tinto Pesquera and Balbas Tinto Reserva. Another Ribera del Duero wine, Teofilo Reyes from Bodegas Reyes, was mind-boggling in 1994, and young and untamed in 1995 -- but alas, according to Lindy Campbell of M.R.R. Traders, which owns Merchants Wine and Spirits and imports a lot of Spanish wines, a whole shipment of the 1995 was lost at sea when a huge wave lopped off the front of the ship carrying it. So if you see any (and Bauer Wines on Newbury may have some left at $24.99 a bottle), just grab it. Then see Titanic and think about the power of the sea.

When it comes to white wines, I am rather underwhelmed by Rioja's offerings, finding them too thick and musty, with lemony overtones and a cloying feel in the mouth. The Spanish white-wine grape to look for is albariño; Burgans may be the label most readily available ($10.99 at Merchants, Bauer, Brookline Liquor Mart, the Wine Cask -- who isn't selling this wine?). One of my friends, though he doesn't usually like white wines all that much, commented, "How can you not like this? It's most excellent!" So go get some, and serve it with a paella, oysters, or even a nice Bertucci's pizza. This is a seafood wine, though, and it definitely belongs in Boston.

**1/2 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Crianza 1994 ($10.99, Bauer Wines, Boston; Merchants Wine and Spirits, Boston)

The best $11 bottle of wine I've had this year. Just superb. Lightly oaky, with plenty of blackberry flavors showing through its burnt-caramel façade.

*** Bodegas Reyes Ribera del Duero Teofilo Reyes 1995 ($24.99, Bauer)

Although the 1994 was significantly better, the '95 will come into its own. With huge tannins and tons of ripe fruit bursting out at the seams, this is a massive and concentrated red wine that shoots sparks of cherry.

*** Conde de Valdemar 1990 Rioja Gran Riserva ($19.99 , not yet released)

I bought a bottle of this in New York; though the 1989 is available at Merchants, I prefer the 1990, with its deep ruby-red color and flavors of fig and black currants, plus a ton of oak. Lively on the mouth, this wine will overwhelm anything that ain't meat, so serve it alone or with some serious heavy sauces. A powerhouse. It rules.

** Bodegas de Vilarino-Cambados Burgans Albariño 1996 ($9.99, everywhere)

This wine has an almost banana-ish taste to it, with lot of zest and lemon. Don't be put off by its pétillant (faintly sparkling) qualities, because that hint of CO2 keeps the wine fresh.

*** Pazo De Barrentes Albariño 1996 ($17.99, Bauer)

A smooth and silky wine, with enticing vanilla and honey accents and a crisp finish. A hint of pétillance gives it good bite. A winner!

David Marglin can be reached at wine@phx.com.


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