Five years ago, I predicted in this column that Spain would enjoy dramatic gains during this decade in consumer appreciation of its wines.
This prediction is faring quite well at this point, but Spain must now respond to a major new challenge.
In 2004, total Spanish wine sales in the United States were 72 percent higher than in 2000, according to U.S. Department of Commerce figures. A major obstacle has arisen, however, in the form of a steep decline in the value of the dollar against the euro. This has inevitably translated into higher shelf prices for all European products. Particular Spanish wines that looked inexpensive a couple of years ago now look notably less affordable.
Even with the price increase, though, the value offered by Spanish wines has not necessarily decreased. Quality continues to rise at an impressive pace across many growing regions such as Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro. But that is not the end of the issue. Since continuing growth requires that new consumers be attracted to Spanish wines, and because newcomers tend to be more price-sensitive than devotees, the question for Spain is clear: As these regions' wines increase in price, will other regions fill the breach and offer attractively priced alternatives?
The short answer is yes. Moderately priced Spanish reinforcements are arriving here in ever-increasing numbers.
The most important vineyard sources lie to the south and east of Madrid. Spain's capital lies in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula, and though most of the country's best-known regions are to the north, remarkable improvements have been made in the south.
Vines are planted in many places running southeast from Madrid toward the stretch of the Mediterranean the ports of Valencia and Alicante. The legally delimited vineyard regions (Denominacion de Origen or "DOs," explained in "Winespeak Lexicon," see inset) form two recognizable clusters. The first of these begins on the outskirts of the capital and includes Vinos de Madrid, Mentrida, Mondejar, La Mancha and Valdepenas. The second (which I'll profile in two weeks) extends all the way to the sea and includes Almansa, Utiel-Requena, Valencia, Jumilla, Yecla, Bullas and Alicante.
Wines have been produced from all of these areas for centuries, but other than a few exceptions from Valdepenas, export-quality wines have emerged only in the past few decades. The primary reason for this involves the interrelation of climate and technology. Most of Spain is hot in the summer, but southern Spain is scorching. It is not impossible to make fine wine in hot climates, but it is exceedingly difficult without modern equipment (such as temperature-controlled fermentation tanks). Technological advances have enhanced wine quality in cooler parts of Spain, but in the south their impact has been revolutionary.
You'll see that a few of the reds recommended below are not inexpensive, but I think they are important indications of the heights of quality that can now be attained in this part of Spain. The wines are reviewed in order of preference, and you won't need to look far down the list to find some delicious wines at eye-poppingly low prices. Regions of origin and approximate prices are indicated in parentheses, along with the names of the importers and Washington area distributors:
El Vinculo (La Mancha) Reserva 1999 ($40, Classical Wines/Henry Wine Group): This property is owned by Alejandro Fernandez, principally known for Pesquera from Ribera del Duero. For many observers of the Spanish wine scene, his presence in La Mancha would stand as proof that this part of Spain can make great wine.
This bottling will offer sufficient proof on its own, as it features wonderful aromas and flavors of ripe cherries and berries, accented with complexities including roasted meat, vanilla, toast and spices. The standard release of El Vinculo from 2001 ($25) is also quite good, but the Reserva 1999 is the bottle to buy, even at the higher price.
Finca Antigua (La Mancha) Reserva 2001 ($18, CIV USA/Henry): Polished and refined, this wine is a marvel of softness. The red cherry fruit is ripe but not sweet, and though the wine is deeply flavored, the lush, rounded texture will make it a great crowd pleaser.
Marques de Moral (Valdepenas) Tempranillo Crianza 2000 ($7, J&D Selections/Kysela): If there is a better wine currently available from anywhere in the world for the same price, I am unaware of it. Perfectly mature, it shows superb balance and integration, with subtle notes of smoke and spices accenting a core of soft cherry fruit.
Vina Rey (Vinos de Madrid) Tempranillo "70 Barricas" 2002 ($9.50, Billington/Country Vintner): This lovely rendition of the Tempranillo grape features fresh, soft fruit with just the right touch of spicy oak.
Finca Antigua (La Mancha) Tempranillo 2002 ($10, CIV USA/Henry): With ripe, vivid, sweet-seeming fruit and soft texture, this is an ideal wine for the summer when lightly chilled and paired with moderately robust meats such as grilled pork or veal .
Pedro Pergolas (Valdepenas) Old Vines Tempranillo Crianza 2001 ($7, Kysela/Kysela): This wine shows the sort of richness, ripeness and stuffing one might expect from a wine sourced from a hot climate, yet it also shows the complexity and sophistication one would expect only from a much more expensive wine made in a cooler region. Its dried cherry fruit is very appealing and nicely accented with notes of toast and wood smoke.
Pedro Pergolas (Valdepenas) Gran Reserva 1998 ($9, J&D Selections/Kysela): Those who love the complexities of aged Rioja Reservas but don't love their prices will probably regard this wine as an extremely competitive substitute at an attractive price. Although it shows the telltale notes of dried cherries and vanilla that mark mature Spanish wines, there is also a lingering layer of primary fruit that lends an impression of purity and freshness.
Corcovo (Valdepenas) Crianza 2001 ($7, J&D Selections/Kysela): The soft, ripe fruit at the core of this wine is augmented by agreeably earthy scents and just enough smoky oak to lend structure and complexity without becoming distracting.
"DO" is the near-universal abbreviation for "Denominacion de Origen," which can be translated into English as "Denomination of Origin." Like the word "appellation," DO refers both to a region and the region's name. There are 64 legally delimited DO zones in Spain. Each has a regulatory council with authority to oversee all aspects of production and to withhold use of the region's name (and official back label) from any wine deemed substandard. DO is the Spanish equivalent of AOC for French wines and DOC for Italian ones.