Wines of Spain II:Southern and Mediterranean


We continue our tour of Spanish wine regions in the autonomous community of Catalunya. That’s the way the Catalans name what they think of as their native country, though you might be more familiar with the English designation “Catalonia.” The Catalan capital is the city of Barcelona, where all the street and other official signs are in both Castellano (“Spanish") and Catalan. This is a point of pride for the locals, though I found that since Barcelona has become one of Europe’s major business hubs, you’ll hear the sound of money in every language of the planet.
Though Catalunya is certainly in the north of the country, right up in the northeast corner on the border with France, I’m including this in the second part of our tour because the major influence here is the sunny and mild Mediterranean. Catalunya has many wine regions in the hills and valleys around Barcelona, including Penedés, home of Cava, the famous “Champagne of Spain” and Tarragona, the home of the Siurana olive oil that we use in our cooking and dressings. But for this episode I want to introduce you to a couple of wonderful red wines from Montsant and Priorat.
Cellers Unió Perlat 2008 (Montsant, Catalunya) Regular Price $16.50/ Feature Price $13.20
The first wine, whose name means “pearl” in Catalan, is a fine example of the fact that wine is the everyday beverage of Spain. This one is an easy-drinking blend of 40% Garnacha , 40% Mazuela (Carignan in French and Cariñena in other Spanish-speaking countries), and 20% Syrah. The Garnacha gives it a ripe “grapey” flavor, while the Mazuela lends deep color and tannic structure, and the Syrah adds a warm note of food friendliness.
Montsant DO (Denominación de Origen) has only borne that designation since 2000, when it was separated from the Priorat region that it completely surrounds . The vineyards extend along the mountainsides among olive groves, forests and rocky outcrops. The climate is mostly Mediterranean, being protected from the harsh Continental winds by the Montsant mountains to the north. The soil is rocky granite and slate that is well-drained and holds daytime heat through the night. It’s a perfect place to allow red wine grapes to ripen luxuriously...which is just the way you should enjoy this wine, as an affordable luxury.
Cellers Unió Roureda Llicorella (Priorat, Catalunya) Regular Price $31.00/ Feature Price $24.80
But if you want to go more truly “luxe,” step up to this premium red from the same producers as the Perlat. You can hardly find Priorat, or Priorato in Spanish, on a map, it’s so small. This tiny wine region covers just 4,151 acres – Rioja, in comparison, is over 150,000 acres – but Priorat’s impact on the world of wine is large. It carries the Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) designation [Denominació d'Origen Qualificada (DOQ) in Catalan]. This makes it only one of three such high ranks in Spain, along with Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Priorat is known for its big red wines that thrive on its unique soil and in its harsh climate (more Continental than the lower altitude Montsant that surrounds it).
The soil is called “llicorella” in Catalan (I can’t claim to be an expert on Catalan pronunciation, and Gringos probably can’t pronounce it properly at all, so after some web consultation, I’m going with “lick-oar-ALE-ya”) and it’s the source of the name of this delicious wine. Llicorella, the soil, is made up of tiny bits of red and black volcanic slate. Like the famous volcanic soils of Italy, this well-drained, rocky ground makes the grapes struggle for their living. Add this to the beastly hot, dry summers and windy, cold winters and you have the formula for growing grapes that make wines of complexity and depth.
At 14.5% alcohol this wine gives the lie to my usual complaint that California wines have gotten too high in alcohol, as compared with their more moderated European cousins. Oh, well. The wine carries its alcohol well, and the blend of Garnacha, Syrah and Mazuela (with Syrah more in evidence than in the Perlat blend) gives it a layered richness that makes it a very fine companion for drinking on its own. This is a great introduction to Priorat and would make a nice bottle to share with a friend.
I first introduced this wine in September of 2009, but we never really featured it, and I think it got lost in the shuffle. Never mind. Now you’ve got a second chance.
Paso a Paso Tempranillo (Castilla-La Mancha) Regular Price $12.50/ Feature Price $10.00
The Tempranillo (temp-ruh-NEE-yo) grape is Spain’s most widely planted red variety. And a straight Tempranillo from a warm region has always been a reliable go-to for great everyday drinking on a budget.
The region of Castilla-La Mancha, on the flat plain of central Spain, produces almost 50% of the wine grapes in the whole country. I’ve driven across it from Jaén to Madrid, and it’s flat, flat, flat...with the occasional large winery looking like a factory in the distance. So we’re not talking about quirky, terroir-driven wines with uniqueness and distinction. Instead, the area is like the dairy farms of Wisconsin, pumping out a very acceptable daily beverage that fits in with the family food budget.
This Paso a Paso (“step by step”) Tempranillo is at the high end of that quality range. Jay Miller of The Wine Advocate gave this little wine a very respectable 89 Pts, noting that it spent six months in French oak and calling it “an exceptional value.” Josh Reynolds of Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar gave it 88 Pts, noting that it “finishes with solid grip and an echo of pepper.” Mary and I agreed. This is a substantial table wine that will go with a wide variety of everyday fare, including the grilled seafood that you think you might want to pair with a crisp white.
So don’t pull a Don Quijote and go tilting at imagined red wine windmills. Try this lively companion from La Mancha...and pass the Manchego cheese!
Emperador de Barros Macabeo (Viura) 2009 (Ribera del Guadiana, Extremadura) Regular Price $12.15/Feature Price $9.72
Macabeo (ma-ka-BAY-oh), also known widely as Viura (vee-OO-rah) is the most widely grown white grape in Spain. It is blended with Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca for the white wines of Rioja and is the principle grape for the blend that makes the classic sparkling Cavas of Penedés.
So I could have picked a Macabeo wine from almost anywhere in the country. I was intrigued, however, with this one because it comes from a region I hadn’t run into before...Ribera del Guadiana. And I was even more interested because I know from my study of Spain that the region called Extremadura, in the far west, along the border with Portugal, has earned its name. It is a land of extremes, a place that bred many of the hard and persistent conquistadores who roamed and pillaged the New World. The tip-off in how there can be a wine-producing area in such a harsh environment is in the name of the DO. We’ve run into the word “Ribera” already in this blog, in Ribera del Duero - the basin of the River Duero. Here the Rio Guadiana produces a flat plain that is well watered and moderates the Continental extremes of the climate.
Bodegas Viticultores de Barros was set up in 1983 at a time when a group of vine growers from the Tierra de Barros sub-region of Ribera del Guadiana felt they needed to unite their efforts in order to be able to compete in the international market. This was a way to leverage their strong attachment to the area and their generations of experience in the region’s vineyards with modern techniques made possible by an influx of capital investment. This is what I think of as “industrial winemaking” at a high level. Some tradition-minded little guys get together in a sort of cooperative so they can purchase equipment and expertise and make wine that can hold its own on the world market.
The wine is a very nice everyday white. It is light and refreshing, with a good, clean finish. Nothing special, but very solid and reliable.
Botani Moscatel Seco 2008 (Sierras de Málaga, Andalucía) Regular Price $23.25/ Feature Price $18.60
And if you want something truly special in a white wine, follow me down to the southern tip of Spain, to Axaquía (ah-sha-KEE-ya), a mountainous area to the east of the coastal city of Málaga. This high altitude area has the typical well-drained gravelly soil of white wine country, along with a year-round temperate climate and one of the lowest rainfall levels in Spain. The area is making its name growing Muscat of Alexandria, a grape that is usually associated with sweet, flowery wines. But Muscat has been around for a long time. Indeed DNA studies suggest it is one of the parents of many of the Vitis vinifera wine grapes we use today, so it should be no surprise that it is very adaptable.
British wine writer Jancis Robinson is very excited about this wine, and as she says, “successful dry Muscats are few and far between.” That’s what so astounded Mary and me when we sampled this wine with Sarah Stewart. It smells like Moscato, and you think it’s going to be sweet, but then there’s a fresh mineral note on the mid-palate and it finishes dry and herbal. Amazing! The grapes are fermented 60% in stainless steel and 40% in oak, a decision that gives this wonderful wine a complexity and richness that are completely unexpected. You could pour this wine, well chilled, as an aperitif or patio sipper, or serve it with spicy or fruity dishes. It is very versatile. Don’t miss it!
Hartley & Gibson Amontillado (Jerez, Andalucía) Regular Price $16.50/ Feature Price $13.20
We finish our Spanish wine tour on the southern coast, near the city of Jerez (HAIR-rez), from which we get the name we call the fortified wine of the region... Sherry.
When I was a callow undergraduate, one of our English professors used to have students over for “Sherry on Friday.” We put on our best imitation tweeds and stood around in Dr. Mates’ living room drinking this fortified wine (I think it was Taylor’s Cocktail Sherry) that tasted OK to me at the time. And its high alcohol content did the job of loosening student tongues to hold forth on various topics while leaving the Persian carpeted floor littered with dangling modifiers. It was a long time ago.
Along with Port and Madeira, Sherry is considered one of the great fortified wines in the world. There are basically two types of sherry - fino (FEE-no) and oloroso. Fino is light and dry because when it is fermented, it develops a cap of a peculiar yeast called flor. Flor protects the wine from oxidation as it ferments, so it is clear and tangy. Served well chilled, a good Fino Sherry is a great hot weather accompaniment to salty tapas. It’s a hard sell for American tastes, though. We carry Tio Pepe Palomino Fino at both stores, and if you’d like to try it, just ask.
More familiar to Americans are the Sherries known as Olorosos. These start out as Fino, but the cap of flor is removed and they are put into oak barrels. As the barrels are traditionally filled only five-sixths of the way to the top, air gets to the wine and the process of oxidation begins. This imparts the golden color and rich, nutty flavor of a good Oloroso. In order to stop the oxidation and preserve the wine for long storage, grape brandy is added to bring the alcohol level to around 20%. That’s why they are classed as “fortified.”
This Amontillado is named after the Montilla region of Spain (between Jerez and Jaén), where it was originated in the 18th Century. I’ve chosen this one to feature because it is very adaptable. You can serve it chilled in the summertime, and its dry flavors of nuts and raisins go great with cheeses or olives or salty ham. But you can also take advantage of the rich flavors by cooking with it. Similar to the famous Marsala of Sicily, it can be used in any cuisine that calls for sherry or dry white wine.
So now we’ve hit the coast and can look across the Strait of Gibraltar toward North Africa. It’s only been a small taste of the wines of Spain, though. Another trip will be in the works soon.