Reigning Spain

July 1, 2004 by  
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In books from my youth, Spain is described as a colorful place anyone would want to visit: flamenco dancers in red and yellow skirts, natty bullfighters, long-running beaches and whitewashed villages by the sea. Recently, I encountered the modern Spain, which proved to be everything I read about and so much more.

On a 10-day tour, I crisscrossed the countryside – soaking up the fierce sun, a little rain and some choice wines. In the months since my last visit, some of Spain’s elite wines have become available in Houston. Spain’s romance lasts a little longer when you linger over a glass and tell stories with a friend. Indulge in some of these Spanish wines and cavas tonight to invoke some of the country’s vibrant tradition and history.

The heart of Old Castile
A rural region two hours north of Madrid, full of rolling hills and sleepy villages still protected by their medieval fortresses, Ribera del Duero (ree-BEAR-a del DWEAR- o) is one of the hottest wine regions in Spain. Vineyards stretch from the banks of the Duero River to slopes high above the valley floor. Temperatures widely vary (from below freezing to as high as 90 degrees), as do altitudes (1,700-2,400 feet) and soil (from chalky clay to sand to limestone and gravel). Despite the harsh climate, the region has been churning out some of the most internationally sought-after wines, whose hallmarks are deep color, good power and concentration, and a nice edge of spice. Unlike other wines from this region that are sometimes blended with merlot, malbec and cabernet sauvignon, wines from Bodegas Valdubón are made exclusively from the indigenous tempranillo grape. A favorite from this estate is Valdubón Cosecha Tempranillo ($14), a young yet versatile wine that’s a great partner to roasted turkey or a juicy steak. With a light nose of berries tinged with spice, this structured wine reveals flavors of black plum and cherry with a chocolate finish.

The rain in Spain
A surprise to many travelers is the area of Galicia, a cool, rainy northwestern coastal region colloquially known as España Verde, or Green Spain. Here the landscape, with its abundant vegetation and rocky coastline, recalls more the verdant pastures of Ireland than the sun-drenched dry plains common to Spain. Known best for its charming white wines, the Rías Baixas (REE-us BUY-shus) region consists of a small number of low-yielding vineyards whose vines are dramatically trellised up stone pergolas to escape the heavy ground moisture. Wines here are produced almost exclusively from the albariño grape, which yields bright, citrusy wines with a crisp acidity that makes for exquisite pairings with seafood. Vionta Albariño ($15), is a classic example from Rías Baixas. This beautiful white wine is full of vivid grapefruit and green apple notes and can be paired with clams, oysters, grilled fish or roasted chicken.

A vinous legacy
The Mediterranean appellation of the Penedès, located 20 miles south of Barcelona, has been producing wine since pre-Roman times. The region runs down the scenic coast of the Western Mediterranean for 30 miles and extends inland about 25 miles. Regarded as some of the most beautiful landscapes in Spain, the Penedès is the traditional home of cava, the country’s delightful sparkling wine. Cava, produced in the same exacting manner as French champagne by using the native grapes of Macabeo (mok-a-BAY-oh), Xarel-lo (shar-REL-lo) and Parellada (par-el-LA-da), is a natural aperitif but also a great companion to all manner of food. Segura Viudas Aria Estate Brut, with its nose of fresh pineapple and almonds and palate of honey, nuts and hints of pear, will far exceed your expectations of a $12 bottle of bubbly. If you’d like to sample a red wine from this house, try Segura Viudas Mas d’Aranyo Reserva ($15), a rich garnet-colored tempranillo that opens with notes of red cherry, a slight touch of oak and cocoa, and ends with a velvet finish.

Worth the trip alone
Wines from the Priorat, a region dating back to the 12th century and located 100 miles south of Barcelona, are arguably some of Spain’s best. In this mountainous and rugged region of haunting beauty, the terraced vineyards that climb the stony hillsides in Priorat are capable of producing superior, world-class wines for which demand seems to be exceeding supply and whose price tags reflect their growing notoriety. The traditional red grapes of the region, cariñena and garnacha, are often harvested from vines as old as 80 years. Thriving in harsh soil and difficult weather conditions, these grapes make wine that is famous for its inky color, powerful bouquet and delicious flavors. Morlanda Criança ($48), is a voluptuous priorat with touches of raspberry and cherry with earthy undertones, black pepper and spice. Pair it with hearty roasted lamb or spice-encrusted ribeyes, with portobello mushrooms and grilled eggplant on the side.

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