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Spanish vintners are shaping up

by Felicity Hughes

Ah, Spain . . . land of bullfights, football and flamenco. The current trend to celebrate all things Spanish means that we can be bound a little by stereotypes: Not all Spanish are hot-blooded, football mad, paella eaters. When it comes to wine too, we can be constrained by preconceptions, but there’s more to Spanish wine than the cheap stuff that’s splashed into a glass of Sangria or the country’s most famous top-class tipples of Rioja and Cava.

This month I’d like to step outside the box and explore the growing variety of reasonably priced wines produced in Spain.

Since Spain joined the European Union in 1986, there’s been much improvement in the medium range of Spanish wines, meaning that the amount of affordable quality wine has risen considerably over the past few decades. In addition to the existing regions designated DO and DOCa, which produce some of Spain’s best wines (the latter being the highest quality classification), the Spanish government has recently recognized that individual bodega (wineries) outside these zones are also capable of producing exceptional wines.

In 2003, the DO de Pago designation was introduced. Any winery classified as Vino de Pago enjoys a microclimate that enables it to produce exceptional wines. To date, only nine bodegas have been designated DO de Pago and most of these are in the area of Castile-la Mancha in central Spain.

La Mancha is the famous setting for “Don Quixote,” and when you visit and see how the flat terrain stretches out monotonously, you almost envy the Don his delusions that surely brightened up the rather drab landscape. The majority of wine produced in this area has traditionally been of rather poor quality, intended for mass production. But lots of it gets made.

My husband’s family are from this region and generations of them have farmed the land for grapes that they used to sell to table-wine (Vino de Mesa) producers. Harvesting the grapes is tough, backbreaking work, punctuated with breaks to eat migas: a simple dish made from fried breadcrumbs and pork chunks, which combines well with a few ripe grapes picked straight off the vine.

The land my parents-in-law farm is not going to produce any prize-winning wines any time soon, but there is a bodega nearby that demonstrates the new revolution in quality.

While not a Vino de Pago, wines from Finca la Estacada in Tarancon do demonstrate how a microclimate can lift up wines from the mundane. Situated on slightly higher ground than the surrounding vineyards, the grapes grown at Estacada can escape some of the rigors of high summer temperatures, which can produce overripe fruit. Consequently, the fruit in their wines retains a nice level of acidity and fresh flavor that might otherwise disappear when baked too long in the hot sun.

The main grape variety in La Mancha, as with Rioja, is Tempranillo (locally called Cencibel), an intense fruit that possesses heady plum and tobacco flavors, which can take the palate a while to get accustomed to. These intense deep purple wines age well in oak barrels, making well-made Tempranillo a good investment for your taste buds. These days many winemakers are experimenting with other red-wine grapes such as Cabernet and Syrah with promising results, so by no means limit yourself to Tempranillo.

The Achilles heel of Castile-la Mancha is its hot summers and harsh winters, which mean that the cheap reds can have an overbaked quality and whites are really not worth bothering with. If you’re looking to try some of Spain’s white wines, you have to head north. One region that is producing both reds and whites of note is Navarre.

Navarre’s history resembles Castile-la Mancha: After churning out bog-standard plonk for much of the last century, it has since been improving the standard of its wines. While the wines from Navarre are by no means exceptional, local winemakers excel in making some that are excellent value for money. So, if you are looking for a reasonable Chardonnay or Tempranillo, they’re a good bet.

DO Catalunya in the Catalonian area of northeastern Spain also produces some excellent wines besides the sparkling Cava that has gained the region worldwide renown. You’ve probably heard of Torres’ rather violently named best-seller Sangre de Toro (Bull’s Blood), but recently, it’s not just reds that have gained the region fame; pleasing Chardonnays in a light, peachy style have also improved.

If you’re looking for a white wine that is distinctively Spanish, then try an Albarino, an aromatic grape that is best drunk young, from the DO Rias Baixas in northwestern Spain. Cistercian monks are thought to have introduced the grape to the area back in the 12th century, and since then it has thrived, working well in the cool foggy climate. The verdant landscape of the country, just above Portugal, faces the Atlantic ocean, giving the wines made there a mouthwatering saline quality that marries extremely well with seafood.

The Galicians resemble the Japanese in that they can’t get enough of fresh fish, and the flavors of salmon, trout and langostino match perfumed fresh Albarin~o wines perfectly. Another interesting and summery dish to try with a light Albarin~o is mango, jamon (Spanish dry-cured ham) and rocket salad; the caramelized sweetness of the jamon works well with the acidity of the white wine grape.

Up until recently, history has not been kind to Spanish winemakers. As well as enduring the phylloxera blight, which destroyed many of the vines in Europe in the late 19th century, Spain’s vineyards were again severely damaged in the civil war that tore the country apart between 1936 and 1939. But the fortunes of Spanish wine are definitely on the rise. The underground bomb shelter that my in-laws used during the civil war has been converted into a wine cellar that now stocks an excellent selection of Spanish wines.

It is the jammy flavor with meaty fruits that give this wine a pleasant chewiness. The oak is soft on the nose despite six months en barrique (fermentation in a barrel). If you can get hold of it, the 12 months en barrique is even better, with a fantastic elegance that comes from a good oak and fruit balance. www.v-yamazaki.net

Pago Florentino 2007, ¥3,675

With hints of rosemary and charcoal over a rich licorice flavor, this is a lovely dark, mysterious swaggerer of a wine that sweeps into the room and flashes its seductive eyes at the ladies. The distinctive flavors are in part down to the 50 percent American and 50 percent French oak barrels in which it is aged for 6 months. www.spain.co.jp

Rias Baixas Martin Codax 2008, ¥3,150

If you like tight acidity, this one’s for you. There’s an interesting mustiness too, like discovering on a rainy day an interesting antique tucked away inside a drawer. The wine gives you a sense of rediscovering a buried impression from the past. Available from Nissin World Delicatessen

Cataluna Los Londes, Macabeo Chardonnay 2009, ¥1,260

This young but charming wine has a delicate pink-peach bloom that mixes with a faint saltiness, conjuring up the clear blue of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a little short in the mouth, but at this price it’s a great pick-me-up on a muggy day.

Navarre Ochoa Tempranillo 2006, ¥2,310

This wine has been used in wine schools as a benchmark example of the Tempranillo grape. Indeed, it’s fantastically balanced with a lovely cherry scent and just enough tannin to bite interestingly into the fruit.

Ochoa Viura & Chardonnay 2008, ¥1,890

A mix of 70 percent Viura, 23 percent Chardonnay and 7 percent Muscatel, this has an aromatic nose with delicate hints of litchi. The Muscatel gives off nice floral aromas while the Chardonnay adds weight to balance the lightness of the Viura grape. Delicate and charming, if a little anemic. Available from Nissin World Delicatessen

Este Vino de Mesa (a table wine), ¥1,180

While Vino de Mesa usually indicates the lowest-level plonk Spain has to offer, this little number somehow managed to make a blip on the radar of world-renowned wine expert Robert Parker. It’s got an intoxicating perfume of damson and alcohol and slightly scratchy inexperienced tannins in the mouth. A bit overly passionate but charming all the same. Available from Donki