So, where were you supposed to go this summer? Grand Canyon? New England? Jolly Old England? Japan?
Personally, I was supposed to travel to Spain for a weeklong, wine-soaked “field trip,” but the coronavirus outbreak had other plans in store for me — namely, sheltering in place. But I am not going to let a little thing like a global pandemic rain on my proverbial wine parade. While I may not be able to soak in the Iberian sunshine in person, my palate can certainly enjoy a brief visit to the country where winemaking dates back centuries.
With more than 2.9 million acres of vineyards and more than 20 different major grape varieties, Spain is now the third-largest wine-producing country in the world, with Italy and France in the top two spots and the USA coming in at a respectable fourth. But many wine consumers are not as familiar with Spain’s amazing reputation for producing world-class wines, many at prices considered downright bargains.
Why is Spain the red-headed stepchild of the old world? Quite simply, politics.
While Italy and France came out of World War II swinging for the wine fences with an aggressive export campaign, Spain was under the control of General (and dictator) Francisco Franco, whose Nationalist government ruled over Spain from 1939 until his death in 1977.
Franco persecuted political opponents, repressed the culture and language of Spain’s Basque and Catalan regions, censured the media, and otherwise exerted absolute control over the country, including the wine industry. In short, while other wine-producing countries were rolling out the barrels, Spain was exporting very little juice.
But today, thanks to substantial capital investments in modern winemaking equipment, and a new breed of young winemakers with contemporary winemaking knowledge, the Spanish wine industry is experiencing a revolution of their own. That combination of money and talent has led to increased exports, higher quality, and a big bang-for-the-buck deal for American consumers who are willing to say “hola” to Spanish wines.
One of my favorite all-weather white wine varietals is Albariño, the lovely white wine from the Rias Baixas region. The 2018 Martín Códax Albariño is a delicate, well-integrated wine that features scents of honeysuckle, jasmine, nectarine and melon. Flavors of orange blossom and white peaches are buoyed by delicate mineral notes and soft acidity. Medium-bodied and highly versatile, this will pair beautifully with a wide range of seafood and poultry dishes. $12
If you’ve never heard of Mencía, it’s not surprising since it is usually only found on the Iberian peninsula. Mencía is special because it has shown the ability to age like a fine wine while keeping a low profile, and therefore, low cost. The 2017 Raul Perez Mencia Ultreia St. Jacques from the Bierzo region offers up plenty of wine for the money, with aromas of strawberry and cranberry that fill the bouquet and rich flavors of jammy strawberry and black raspberry that cover the entire palate. Medium tannins provide great structure and the touch of savory spice on the silky finish. $19
Of course, you can’t talk about Spanish wines without talking about Rioja, made traditionally from the Tempranillo grape. The 2015 Muga Rioja Reserva Unfiltered is superbly balanced and refined with notes of ripe red cherry, cocoa and vanilla on the front of the palate and hints of tobacco and smoke on the elegant finish. $24
Another example of a remarkable value in hand-crafted wine is the 2014 Convento San Francisco Crianza from Ribera Del Duero. The fruit, a blend of 90 percent Tempranillo and 10 percent Merlot, is sourced from a number of vineyard sites around Ribera del Duero, including 50 percent from pre-phylloxera old vines. The wine is aged in a combination of French and American barrels for 14 months and sports a bouquet of black plums and tobacco. Stylish flavors of blackberry, dark plum and cherry dominate the palate. Lovely notes of licorice and tobacco mingle with soft tannins and bright acidity to provide remarkable balance and structure on the lingering finish. All this for $35.