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Spanish, anyone? 

"The sun is always shining in Spain" goes the old song refrain, and this nation's carefree image was extended last week by its legalization of gay marriage. It seems the Spaniards simply have more practical things to fret about than people's sex lives. Among these are wine husbandry. Spain came to the rescue of Bordeaux' vineyards 150 years ago. With the plague of the Phylloxera insect decimating northern estates, Spain, and Rioja in particular, was perceived as the best spot to transfer French chateaux skills, and to there produce wines of similar weight and breed. Although Phylloxera eventually overran Spain as well, the passion for producing outstanding wines on Iberian soil was born. Today, there's a peaceful revolution in progress, and renewed investment has turned the quality of Spanish wines into a fountain of excitement and creativity.

I'm the kind of person who hates routine. I get bored with the same brand of toothpaste or shampoo in a matter of days. So imagine the potential thrill accorded by the consumption of Spanish wines. According to the 1983 edition of the Pocket Guide to Spanish Wines by Jan Read, there are more than 136 recognized types of Spanish grape vines--and this is in the one province of Galicia alone!

The overall possibilities seem practically endless. In these past 20 plus years, the number of Denominacion de Origen (D.O.) wine regions--those recognized and demarcated by the government--has grown from 32 to over 50. Imagine 20 new wine regions recognized as warranting this unique status in such a short time. It speaks volumes about the energetic strides taken and the focus on cultivating predominantly indigenous grapes to produce wines of individuality. With modernization of both equipment and wine making techniques, areas that were once simply arid desert (think Man of La Mancha) can now make ripe and heady yet balanced wines that the world is welcoming.

Of the 47 wines I sampled, eight were from one of these new D.O. regions. Spanish winemakers relish having this honor bestowed on their products. Where once only a few Spanish wines were known in America (mostly those of Rioja, Penedes and Jerez), we are now bursting with Ribera del Duero, Toro and Castillo Y Leon. Tempranillo, the staple grape of the Rioja region, also makes delicious wines in other corners of Spain. The monastrell, mencia and palomino grapes may soon become a part of worldwide grape vocabulary as well.

This tasting was a rare pleasure with very few bad or even unpleasant wines. "Disappointing" would be the correct word in describing a wine like Rioja's Faustino VII, with the musty bouquet and funky flavors of outdated methods. (Many Italian Barolos used to be this way.) The Campo Viejo line of Rioja reds was not unpleasant at all, but was a letdown showing only decent, lightish bouquets and thin, lean, unmemorable flavors.

The labeling of Spanish wines is somewhat complicated by the inclusion of a great deal of geographical and bottle aging information. There simply isn't the confidence to scream something like "Chateau Margaux" while placing the other details on a back label or in small print. Occasionally the wine's name is the least conspicuous item on the label! (See photo. ) As a result, the information is a variable hodgepodge where it is hard to differentiate the estate name from the region from the grape. You simply won't find "Navarra Merlot" in bold print. It takes careful perusing and asking questions to break through, but it's well worth this investigation to reap the rewards.

If you are new to vinous Spain, please use some of my selections as a jumping off point.

WHITES
Although fortified, at around 17 percent alcohol, here are three classic dry sherries that double admirably as table wines:

Sherry, Extra Dry Palomino Fino, Tio Pepe, Gonzales Byass $15
Deep, canary yellow color. Striking and forceful with a nutty, oily, cutting orange peel bouquet. Spirited flavors, smooth mouth feel and slightly biting finish. Supple and flexible for sipping, or with mild tapas. 87

Sherry, Dry Fino, Le Ina, Pedro Domecq $16
"Cool" straw color. Well rounded with almonds, ginger and more subtlety in both color and fragrance than Tio Pepe. Perky, cleansing flavors and an energetic, bitter bite on the finish. Fine for richer tapas and salsas. 88

Sherry, Manzanilla, Pedro Domecq $16
Another Fino, this one made in Sanlucar de Barameda as opposed to Jerez. (All three are made exclusively from the Palomino grape.) Overt nutmeats and citrus. Full and yet delicate nuances with an oak barrel/woodsy element. Soft, sappy flavors, lingering and lilting with no bite on the roasted hazelnut finish. Fabulous sipper--supremely poised. 89

These are other whites:

2004 Rioja Blanco, Marques de Caceres $8.95
Lemon lime zest. A grassy, hay component. Very dry palate with an abrupt, almost numbing, cleansing finish. Would match simple shellfish well. 84

VidaNueva Blanco, Rueda (non-vintage) $10
Melon and citrus overtones. A zingy yet calm, full barreled bouquet. Fresh, flavorful fruit lingers on the palate even after its decidedly dry finish. Good with goat cheese or sardines. 85

2003 Rueda Blanco, Marques de Riscal $10
Inviting citrus and banana aromas. Flavors are dashing and crisp with lingering fruit but a slightly harsh, drying component. Another shellfish natural. 85

2003 Rueda Blanco, Marques de Irun $12
Lovely ripeness and calm substantial bouquet; almost a glycerin sense in the nose. Fresh textured and mouth filling. A sharp attack on the finish. Forget chardonnay at this cost and drink Rueda. 86 GOOD VALUE

Cava Brut, Mediteraneo, Marques de Monistrol $9
This tasting's only sparkler was a winner. Clean, lively and fruity with a small persistent bead. Simple, dry and clean as a Hilton Bridal Suite. Good, brash acidity is energizing and it goes down easily. New to me and nice. 86 GOOD VALUE

2003 Albarino do Ferriero, Rias Baixas $25
Overt, flowery, blood orange bouquet. Summertime breezy, enticing and lithe. A palate that makes your mouth vibrate and salivate, inviting oysters in abundance. 89

2003 Albarino, Morgadio, Rias Baixas $19
Beautiful, "waxy" almost semillon like nose. Luscious peach, banana and kiwi essences. "Icy" freshness. Lovely long flavors and a perky clean aftertaste. Brisk and brilliant. Couldn't be better for an afternoon picnic with cold cuts, fish or fowl. 91 SUPER WINE

REDS
A quick primer on the aging of reds:

  • Sin Crianza--no wood used for aging
  • Crianza--6 to12 months of barrel age
  • Reserva--1 to 2 years in oak; held back until ready to drink
  • Gran Reserva--2 to 3 years in oak; also held back until its prime; the finest (in theory) and the most expensive

    2000 Marques de Riscal Reserva, Rioja $18.89
    Light, emerging classic Rioja fruit; dry, leathery and ethereal. Sinewy sensuality in an Audrey Hepburn way. A touch of volatile acidity. Flavors lack follow-through. Well bred, stylish, but promises more than it can deliver. 85

    2003 Fin Del Rio, Farina $7 (1 liter)
    From Castillo Y Leon, a blended fruit and almond bouquet. Country-style table wine with soft, forward berry fruit. Smells a bit (not unpleasantly) of sour oak. Light bodied yet satisfying wine; a style that would go with endless everyday dishes. Rustic and nicely so--it's the kind of wine you remember fondly after a trip to Spain. "Remember that red we drank at the roadside cafe?" This is it! 85 BEST BUY

    2003 Monastrell, Castillo del Baron $10
    Bursting bright cherry and spice, combined with an earthy, dark chocolate character. (Monastrell is Spanish for the better known French name--Mourvedre.) Crisp acidity, dry and peppery. Let it breathe and chill slightly. From Yecla. 86 GOOD BUY

    2002 Crianza, Ostatu $20
    Rich, romantic bouquet. Clean tempranillo with saddle leather in a vanilla blanket bouquet. A bit tough, but a super wine that needs some time. From Rioja Alavesa. Drink 2007 87

    2003 Mencia, Dominio de Tares $17
    Dark, ample perfume of pomegranate and plum. Needs coaxing out. A fascinating, unique quality from the native mencia grape. Has a lightness that hovers above the underlying, full structure. A bit lean and raspy on the palate, but solid tannic flavors promise a fine future. From Bierzo. Drink 2008. 86

    2000 Crianza, Museum $13.79
    From Cigales, roasted cherry fruit, Amarone like with cocoa, coffee, brown sugar on ripe, extracted imposing fruit. Full balanced flavors but rather stolid, four square with little nuance and a bit ponderous in the mouth. Tremendous size and substance for the buck. May soften. 86

    1998 Bodegas Montecillo Reserva, Rioja $20
    A dusky smell of saturated fruit compote. Cherries in charred oak. Like being in a satiny tunnel of wine. Full, fine flavors tend to dry up against a wall of tannin. A fine experience, but I doubt it will soften. 87

    1998 Marques de Arienzo Reserva, Rioja $16.85
    Iodine, black cherry, clove and dark wood. An atypical Rioja with its powerful earthy character. Sappy, distinctively strong fruit flavors. Passionate stuff for lamb. 87

    2003 Monastrell, Altos de la Hoya $10
    A gamey, full textured red with a touch of saddle leather and violets. Like a top French Languedoc wine. Swell depth and genuineness. Soulful, powerful fruit. Hearty but not heavy. From Jumilla. 88 BEST BUY

    2001 Costers del Gravet, Les Vinyasses $16
    From Monsant, a really Bordeaux like wine blended with cabernet sauvignon, grenache and carignane. Remarkably supple and gregarious tending toward leanness. Licorice overtones and new oak background. A delicious surprise. 88

    1999 Reserva, Rotillan Torra $20
    Magical warmth and texture from the Priorat region. Soft, velvety nose--ripe, "stay with you" elements. Flavors are a touch hard and harsh, but it doesn't detract from its cornucopia of complexity and style. May improve for 2 to 3 years. 88

    1997 Conde de Valdemar, Gran Reserva $23
    A tarry, big nose of direct power. Fascinating fruit that's "juiced up." A transformed liquid. Excellent texture, not heavy but richly flavorful. Spicy leathery complexities. Comes up a bit short and acid, but still a thoroughbred. 88

    2001 El Albar, J.F. Lurton, Toro $21
    Open, gamey, ripe hot climate fruit. Zinfandel like--licorice, spicy berries and chocolate. Great stuff in an unsubtle style. Sassy, slap on the back flavors cut a delicious figure and beg for grilled foods. 89

    1998 Coto Real Reserva $44
    An excellent Rioja estate. Fresh, boisterous textbook Rioja; vanilla extract, deep, wood imbued fruit, herbs and spices could be from no other region. Flavors are beefy and power-packed with lively acids. A lean finish lowers the score. 89

    2000 Bodegas Montecillo, Crianza, Rioja $11.25
    Gorgeous cherry and tantalizing spice in a light vanilla frame. Mouth filling, velvety texture. Fine, round and perfectly balanced fruit. A terrific wine. 90 SUPERB VALUE

    2002 Les Terraces, Vinedo de Ladaras de Pizarra $28
    Light, airy with delicious melded fruit. Young, flowery, high toned; a pinot noir like essence and mouth feel. Excellent weight, depth and balance. It has a remarkably upbeat and scintillating character--supple and agile. Will never tire your palate and will improve for 3 to 4 years. From Priorat. 90

    2001 Herencia Remondo, La Montesa, Palacios Remondo $18
    From Rioja, lush, silky fruit, beautiful ripeness with black current, cedar and smoke. Persistent, elegant flavors, medium body and supple, long finish. 91 EXCELLENT VALUE

    2002 Pesquera, Bodegas Alejandro Fernandez $28
    A grand statement from the Ribera del Duero region. Powerful, earthy, "look at me" bouquet. Smoky, tobacco scented fruit. Roasted, nutty, fabulously opulent with notable depth of bouquet. Saturated, smooth and delicious. Goes on and on. 92

    1995 Baron De Ley, Gran Reserva $33.50
    When they're right, Gran Reserva Riojas are a dream. Dark, supple, relaxed and very smooth, large nose. Like a wise slumbering oldster, all in place. The deep cherry, plum and oak gently fill the nostrils. A marvel of balanced gorgeous fruit that silkily caresses your palate. Perfect harmony. 94 BEST OF TASTING

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