Serving Hearty Fare? Uncork a Spanish Red.
Spain devotes more of its land to growing grapes than any other nation on Earth. In recent years, its 4.5 million acres of vineyards have been producing wines of unprecedented quality, with impressive values to be found among them. With so many of this season's stews and roasts crying out for a nice bottle of red, it's an ideal time to pick up a few from Spain.
Many of the country's best wines are based on tempranillo, Spain's most important red grape, which traditionally is brought to its highest expression in the famed region of Rioja. Spain features a classification system much like France's and Italy's, with Rioja established as the first of only two DOCs (highest-quality wine regions) in 1991. However, our recommendations this week focus on wines from DO (the next-highest category after DOC) regions outside the glare of Rioja's stardom, where better bargains can be found.
Although you'll find a broad range of styles both within and outside Rioja, tempranillo typically features red berry and cherry flavors with earthy notes (often suggesting cured meat, leather, tobacco and/or spice) and an elegantly smooth drinkability.
Tempranillo is often blended with garnacha. The world's most widely planted grape behind airen, it's known elsewhere as grenache and brings bright acidity and fresh-berry fruitiness to blends and to 100 percent garnacha wines.
The unfamiliar terminology on Spanish wine labels can be frustrating for newcomers. So we'll try to simplify things for you with a question: Do you typically prefer lighter-bodied and fruitier pinot noir, or fuller-bodied and bolder-flavored cabernet sauvignon?
Those who answered "pinot noir" might also prefer younger Spanish reds that have spent no more than one year on oak. (Lucky you: Those wines typically are less expensive than wines that spend more time on wood.) Some regions' labeling makes it easy for you to find them: Look for the term "joven," which means "young" and indicates that the wine has spent no more than a few months on oak, if any at all; or "crianza," which indicates it has been aged for two years, at least six months of which were spent on oak.
Those who answered "cabernet sauvignon" might want to seek out Spanish reds that have spent more than one year on oak. Look for "Reserva," which indicates wines have been aged for three years, with at least 12 months on oak, or the even pricier "Gran Reserva," wines that have been aged for five or more years, with at least 18 months on oak.
Tempranillo is also known by many other aliases throughout Spain, including "tinta de Toro" in Toro, the DO created in 1987 that boasts the strongest sales growth of any wine region in Spain and is developing a growing reputation for its full-bodied and boldly flavored reds.
Toro is also the origin of Andrew's pick this week. The 2005 Monte Toro Joven ($12) is a young red wine with tart red berry flavors made from tempranillo, with peppery spice notes adding complexity without the benefit of oak.
To aid in identifying your preferred style, here are our other recommendations in increasing order of time spent on oak:
Unoaked: From the lesser-known Calatayud DO, we loved the 2006 Cubero Tinto Calatayud ($9), made from 75 percent garnacha and 25 percent tempranillo, whose red fruitiness with cinnamon spiciness made it a beautiful pairing with stronger cheeses. The 2006 Cubero Vinas Viejas Calatayud ($10) is made from 100 percent old-vine garnacha, which adds to the wine's impressive complexity, especially at this price point.
Aged five months in American and French oak: The 2004 Monte Toro Roble ($16), made with 100 percent tempranillo from 45-year-old vines, showcased intense, jammy and spicy red fruit flavors.
Aged eight months in French oak: The 2005 Sexto ($14) is a red blend from the Terra Alta DO in northeastern Spain. Its name means "sixth," as it was the sixth grape -- the relatively obscure lledoner pelut noir -- added to the blend of garnacha, carignon, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and syrah that winemaker Laely Heron credits with "adding an extra layer of complexity" that "made all the difference." This wine was our favorite with cheese; its generous red fruit was heightened by both of the Spanish cheeses -- manchego (sheep's milk) and valdeon (blue) -- we tasted with it.
Aged one year in American and French oak: Karen's pick from Sardon de Duero, just west of the Ribero del Duero DO, should appeal to adventurous lovers of Bordeaux-style reds: The 2004 Abadia Retuerta Rivola ($17), 60 percent tempranillo and 40 percent cabernet sauvignon, has a black-cherry and strawberry bouquet that is echoed with similar fruit flavors along with spicy notes, balanced tannins and a long, smooth finish.
Aged 20 months in American and French oak: From the Cigales DO known for its impressive rosé wines, this elegant red-fruited 2003 Museum Crianza ($20), made of 100 percent tinta del pais (yet another name for tempranillo), featured vanilla notes from the oak.
Along with the specific foods mentioned above, all of this week's recommendations were such a delightful match with red meat dishes -- from braised pot roast over egg noodles to roasted lamb chops -- that it turned the recent cold spell into a celebration of winter and Spain.