Years ago, before I ginned up the courage to venture into wine shops regularly, I used to pick up bottles of a Spanish red called Sangre de Toro at the grocery store. Each one came with a tiny plastic bull figurine around its neck. It was an effective, if simple, marketing ploy. The name of the wine did stick with me, after all.
I remember liking Sangre de Toro well enough, if only because it was distinct from the California zinfandels and French Beaujolais I was drinking regularly. I wonder, I thought absentmindedly, what else they drink in Spain.
These days, that query is easily answered. Spanish wines are everywhere. Not a week goes by when I don't get a notice of a Spanish wine sale or a Spanish wine dinner or someone pouring tastes of Spain. It's terrific, because so many Spanish varietals are such departures from the expected, and so many good ones can be had for less than $12, or even $10.
This week, I found myself drawn to Durham's Hope Valley Bottle Shop (4711 Hope Valley Road, Suite 4E, 403-5200, www.hvbottleshop.com) by the promise of an interesting Spanish red on sale. I was all set to buy some Luzon Verde at $9.99 a bottle, until I hung out at the shop's tasting machine and had a few sips of Castano 2008 Monastrell from Yecla. It sells for $8.99, which made it cheaper than the Luzon, and I liked it better—jackpot. A deep red wine, it starts with bright flavors of plum and cherry on the tongue, like a California zinfandel but not as big. It finishes with hearty tannins that lend it balance and sturdiness, a satisfying sipper that goes well with typical red wine foods, too.
I asked Hope Valley owner Thomas Thorne what was fueling America's current fascination with the wines of Spain. He explained that one factor is their diplomatic nature. "It's a nice bridge between New World and Old World wines," Thorne said.
Americans, who have proved their affinity for New World-style wines with big fruit flavors, as typified by California zins, can find a bit of that bold flavor in Spanish reds. But Spanish wines are tinged with tannins and complexity, giving them an Old World flair that many Americans are ready to explore.
Thorne also explained how Spain's isolation under dictator Francisco Franco had contributed to its wines' current surge in popularity. Franco would not allow traditional Spanish varietals to be plowed under in favor of more popular grapes that were not indigenous to Spain, so many of the old Spanish vines remained and thrived. "It saved lots of different grapes," Thorne says.
International investment in Spain's wine market came after Franco's death in 1975, long after the French had staked their claim in the United States. But these days, importers and winemakers have hit their strides and finding niches to fill in the American market as American wine drinkers become more curious about what else is out there. Here are three other affordable Spanish wines I've discovered lately. All are excellent starting points for further exploration.
As I mentioned last month, I picked up an Ipsum 2008 white blend at BrandyWine Cellars (6905 Fayetteville Road, Durham, 405-3838, www.brandywinecellars.com). To be honest, I chose it because it was just $10, and its bright yellow label features a rough black-and-white sketch of an antique, large-wheeled bicycle. I love it when a wine's label somehow manages to impart its true nature. In this case, that nature is tasty and laid-back. A verdejo/ viura blend from the Rueda region, the Ipsum has a nose full of vanilla. It then rolls a gentle layer of citrus on the tongue that glows like a warm spring afternoon. I drank it on a cold, gray Saturday and found it the perfect antidote to our miserable winter weather. One note: Don't drink it too cold. If you've had it in the fridge, take it out and let it warm up a little. That's if you don't have a fancy-pants wine cooler that keeps everything at the perfect temp.
Another excellent example of an Old World-New World bridge is El Prado's blend of 70 percent tempranillo and 30 percent cabernet sauvignon, which I found at Total Wine in Brier Creek (8381 Brier Creek Parkway, Raleigh, 293-0362, www.totalwine.com). It feels good in the mouth, with lots of body. Fruit flavors come on strong, followed by good tannins. The finish is kind of messy, but for $5.99 per bottle you can hardly beat it. Be sure to give this one lots of air and let some of the funkiness blow off before you stick your nose in it.
Given my love for rosés, I couldn't pass up the $10.99 bottle of Perelada Cresta Rosa at Seaboard Wine Warehouse in Raleigh (802 Semart Drive, Suite 118, 831-0850, www.seaboardwine.com). It's a wonderful, vibrant pink wine that blooms with floral notes then finishes dry, with just the slightest hint of bubbles to buoy it along. If you have a friend who swears off pink wine, talk him or her into trying this one. It could be a game changer.
While prognosticators are calling for several more weeks of winter coupled with a slow rebound from this recession, I'm keeping my chin up and my eyes out for more great Spanish wine deals. Each one is a miniature escape in a bottle.