If the words "Spanish wine" conjure up only images of flamenco dancers and sangria, then you have failed to make an important discovery: Spanish wine are some of the best wine values around.

Imports from Rioja, Spain's best known region for quality wines, have risen dramatically in recent years. More and more table wines from Spain's other wine producing regions are coming into the market, and the search for good sparkling wines has led us to San Sadurni de Noya, the Epernay of Spain. Meanwhile, imports of prepared sangria have fallen by half.

There are many reasons for the growth in Spanish table wine consumption here. Prices of Spanish wnes have remained low. The climate is much less capricious than it is farther north, the peseta has fallen faster than the dollar, and wages remain among the lowest in Europe. Also, quality has been improving.

Modern vinification methods are being used to produce lighter and fruitier whites and roses, which are more popular than those in the traditional Spanish style. The Instituto Nacional de Denominaciones de Origen (I.N.D.O.), through the consejos reguladores (regulating councils) of the regions, has begun stricter enforcement of its regulations in order to guarantee better quality.

This article will focus on the wines -- still and sparkling -- of the Penedes region near Barcelona. The location, between the important trading centers of Barcelona and Tarragona, has made it one of the oldest wine regions in Europe.

Today, the Penedes wine industry is centered in two old towns, Vilafranca del Penedes and San Sadurni de Noya. Vilafranca, a town of 30,000 is southwest of Barcelona and only a few kilometers from the coast. It contains 60 bodegas (wineries), as well as distilleries that produce brandies, rums, gin, Cointreau and Cinzano vermouth. Vilafranca'a large wine museum in its central plaza attests to the long history of winemaking in this region. There are Roman amphora, early wine presses, and elaborate bottles and glasses from all over Europe.

San Sadurni de Noya, only 9 kilometers north, is much smaller, but the town and its environs contain 80 cavas producing sparkling wines.

The vast majority of these bodegas and cavas are small, and their production is consumed in Catalunya, or in the rest of Spain. Some export to Eurpoe or South America, but only a few, the largest, export to the United States.

The largest producer of table wines in the Penedes and one of Spain's leading exporters is Bodegas Torres, a family firm dating from the 17th century in Vilafranca. U.S. sales have reached 60,000 cases annually.

Torres has made two important innovations in recent years. The traditional style for whites and roses included a year or two in oak barrels, and a number of years of bottle aging before being released. Torres uses cool fermentation techniques to maintain the freshness and fruitiness of the grapes in their whites. Their Vina Sol, 1978, made from the Parellada, a native grape variety, as a fresh, fruity bouquet, a light fruity taste, with a nice dry finish.

Another Torres innovation was the introduction of French varietals into their vineyards. They have planted pinot chardonnay, sauvigon blanc, muscat d'Alsace, gequrztraminer, riesling, cabernet sauvignon and franc, and pinot noir.

The Penedes' three distinct geographic and climate zones allow all of these grape varieties to be grown. The Lower Penedes, where grancho and carinena are grown, stretches along the coast. Cabernets, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay are grown in the Middle Penedes, an area of foothills and valleys at an altitude of 500 to 1,500 feet. Gewurztraminer, riesling, and muscat d'Alsace, grow along with the Parellada. Other whites of the Penedes on the terraced mountains of the Higher Peneds, at altitudes of 2,000 feet or more.

New releases of Torres wines contain substantial amounts of the French varietals. The Gran Vina Sol 1977 Green Label has 30 percent chardonnay. vIt has a pale straw color, a lot of oak in the nose, a good clean crisp flavor, but lacks the richness of white burgundies or good California chardonnays. In fact, I prefer the 1976 vintage of this wine, which has less chardonnay. The Gran Vina Sol 1977 has a completely different style. It is very fruity and has a very flowery bouquet.

Torres has begun to make premium red wines from its vineyards of caberent sauvignon. The Gran Coronas Black Label 1971 contains 75 percent cabernet. It has a varietal nose, and a nice touch of oak. It is a little light, particularly in comparison to its predecessors, but is very well balanced.

It was customary for Spanish wineries to select their best barrels of wine, and allow them to age for an extra year or two in the cask. After bottling, these gran reserva (special reserve) wines would be tucked away in a dark corner of the cellar for ten years of bottle aging. This practice is nearing extiction. Only two years ago Torres released their 1962 and 1964 vintages of Gran Coronas Black Label. Now in quick succession they have released the 1970 and 1971 vintages.

The Gran Coronas 1973 also contains some Cabernet, along with Tempranillo and Monastrell, native varietals. A very pleasant wine with a nice fruity nose, well balanced, with just enough flavor from the oak, it is very drinkable now. The simple Coronas 1976, from native varietals is an excellent value, similar in style to many light Rhones.

Torres' best known wine is probably Sangre de Toro, Bull's Blood. It is a big, robust, wine, medium dry, with 13.3 percent alcohol.

Shortly after Torres began growing French varietals, another vineyard devoted solely to producing wines from these varietals was begun by Beverly Hills restauranteur Jean Leon. His winery labels its wines in the California style, by the name of the varietal of the current production, about 25,000 to 35,000 bottles, 85 percent is cabernet sauvingnon. The rest is chardonnay.

With the success of these varietals in the Penedes, it would not be surprising to see other small wineries specializing in their production open in the future.

In San Sadurni, Cordoniu is in a league of its own. It claims to be the largest cava of sparkling wine in the world, with annual sales of 33 million bottles aging in its 40 kilometers of underground galleries.

The sparkling wine of San Sadurni is very different from that of Champagne because the Spanish use different varietals and a sparkling wine reflects the characteristics and quality of the wine it is made from. In San Adurni, sparkling wine is made from a blend of three native varietals, Parellada, Xarello, and Macebeo -- all white grapes.

The Spanish methode champenoise produces a wine that is not a full-bodied as French champagne. The Parellada and Macebeo grapes provide fruitiness, but the wine lacks the austerity chardonnay imparts. They are clean and crisp, probably due to the fact that the soil of the Higher Penedes is chalky, like that of Champagne, and the wines are correctly vinified.

All good sparkling wine producers differentiate their wines on the basis of when the juice left the press. For example, Cordorniu uses the first 10 percent of the juice to make their premier wine, Gran Codorniu, up to 20 percent for Gran Corday. The last half of the juice from the press is sold for table wine.

Codorniu Blanc de Blanc 1975, Brut, had a nice stream of small bubbles, a clean fresh bouquet, fruity flavor, and a dry clean finish. The Gran Codorniu, 1973 Brut, the top of the line with five years of bottle aging, was similar, but had a little more character and was dryer. Cordoniu also produces a Non Plus Ultra (four years in bottle), Extra and Gran Corday, their extra dry (each two and a half years in bottle). The Blanc de Blanc is given three years.

Another producer gaining popularity in the U.S. is Freixenet, imported here by Central wines. Their Brut Nature 1971, had a steady stream of pinpoint bubbles, a good fresh, fruity nose, and a little more body than the Gran Cordoniu, but was a little less dry. Freixenet also has a Cordon Negro Bruit and a Carta Nevada, Brut or Semi-seco.

Some of the smaller cavas of San Sadurni may begin to be found here. One that I discovered at Capitol Hill Wine and Cheese was a Cava Juan Miro, named after the famous Catalan painter. The Brut, a nonvintage, had fewer bubbles than expected, was very fruity, and had a strong hint of the oak the wine was aged in.

As the price of French champagnes continue to skyrocket because of world demand and the small harvests of 1977 and 1978, these sparkling wines provide a less expensive alternative, prices range from $5 (for the Cava Juan Miro) to $8 a bottle.