My first trip to Spain, in the 1990s, was as eye-opening as it was delicious. The architecture, people, and terrain are all easy on the eyes. Add to that the diversity of the food and wine and you’ll fantasize about how to leave New York to reinvent your life in Iberia. Seville and Granada were obvious contenders as the country’s “most mesmerizing” cities, but what was more touching were the lesser-known places, like Ronda and Parauta. My visits to these places, along with the memory of getting sweaty palms as a spectator at a bullfight after drinking copious amounts of Malaga and eating copious amount of cheese, won’t be forgotten, either.
As the buyer here at Astor Wines & Spirits, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to enhance my understanding of Spanish wines through trips all over Spain. Let me show you some of the wines I came to know and love on my travels, both initially, as a novice wine drinker, and also years later, as a wine buyer, when I became fully immersed in the trade.
Angulas are eels, or, more specifically, baby eels, and they resemble tiny strings in the whitest of white, and are a type of Tapa. I had them doused in olive oil and garlic over crusty bread, paired with bone-dry Cava. Cava, Spain’s national sparkling wine, can be made in any number of regions, but it most often comes from Penedès, the region surrounding Barcelona. Cava is different than a lot of alternative sparkling wines. The mineral aspect is distinct, as are the aromas that come from the grapes, which are typically a combination of local varieties: Xarel-lo, Macabeo (Viura), and Parellada. The Xarel-lo adds complexity to the mix, the Macabeo a floral nature, and the Parellada delicate, white fruit aromas. The Spaniards like their Cava dry, bone-dry, in fact. In Spain, you’ll find more dry styles than what you see exported. There’s something about that dry, clean finish that reminds me of a good, chappy, dry European lager, something that can work with more than just seafood and Tapas. If you’re into very dry Cava, try something labeled “Brut Nature.” If you prefer a slightly less dry sparkler, stick with a “Brut” style. I find that Cava, Prosecco, and even Lambrusco pair very well with assertively spiced foods. You’ll see how the bubbles mimic the function of beer and work with even the hottest of cuisines.
NV Bujonis Reserva, Brut Cava (Magnum bottle)
While Rioja is Spain’s most well-known region for red wines, Albariño is equally well-known as the champion of Spanish white wines. Albariño is the name of the grape as well as the wine, and it always comes from Galicía, in the northwest of Spain. In its finer versions, you’ll find peach fruit aromas, intense minerality, and vibrant acidity. The Xión from Bodegas y Viñedos Attis is especially dense with stone fruits. It comes from vineyards planted in the oldest sub-region of the Rías Baixas D.O., Val do Salnés, and is located high up the along the west coast. This is one of those rare European wines that you can enjoy alone, though it gets even better with food. This wine works wonders with anything from the sea, from fresh oysters, to steamed razor clams, to ceviche or bouillabaisse.
There are plenty of incredible red wines from Galicía. Look out for the wines of Ribeira Sacra, Monterrei, and Bierzo and you’ll not be disappointed. One of my favorite purchases this past year comes from a tiny grower I met in January, Xavier Seoane from the Prádio winery. His estate is tiny, with just five hectares planted high up in the stunning, terraced slopes of the region. He cultivates a trio of local vines—Mencía, Merenzao, and Brancellao—and makes several bottlings based on Mencía, the best of which are unoaked. The “Inquedo” bottling is made from pressed grapes, whereas the “Prádio de Vintage” is made from free-run juice. The difference is notable, and each has individual merit. These are each in my collection of “house wines” this year. Sparkling wines from the region are next to unheard of, but Xavier is dabbling in this sector as well and will release his first bottling of sparkling Mencía rosé in the spring of 2014.
Valencía is nestled in the southeast of Spain. Think of Valencía in two ways: first, as the port city, and then as the mainland that spreads west of the port city, where viticulture thrives. The city itself is hustling and bustling with a lot of activity at port. Valencía is the birthplace of paella, Valencía oranges, and turrón, and is known for its abundance of seafood dishes that will hypnotize the most demanding of fish lovers.
The viticulture of Valencía has evolved greatly over the past 50 years, and for the better. It was once the region of ordinary, everyday, simple wines that didn’t provoke much thought. Today, it is home to fewer wines, but, from a quality perspective, these wines are much better and are coming from artisanal growers who are dedicated to making wines based on autochthonous grapes. If you’re drinking a red wine from Valencía, it’s likely that it’s based on the Monastrell grape. Monastrell is better-known as Mourvèdre, the red grape that thrives in Provence, France. It’s a high-quality, heat-loving, dark-skinned grape variety that is prized for its structure. On a recent buying trip, I stumbled across a Valencian gem of a winery, Dominio los Pinos. They are one of just a handful of wineries left in the area of Fontanares, and are very well-known in Europe for their zero sulphur practices. Sulphur acts as a preservative but, used in excess, will mask the true nature of the wine. What you’ll find revealed in the Dominio los Pinos is a pure, full-bodied, rich red wine, where the tannic quality of Monastrell shines.
Photo: Bodega Los Pinos