Well, Spanish wine growing regions do include craggy hillsides but that doesn’t rhyme with
Spain. Anyway, while most people may be familiar with Spanish cuisine such as tapas, paella and
gazpacho most don’t realize that there are over 75 wine growing regions in Spain and that Spain
produces about 50% more wine than the United States. Maybe it’s because most Americans were
simply trying to suppress their early memories of that original Spanish sounding wine, Spanada
(which has nothing to do with Spain at all). In any case, Spain produces a lot of very good wine
that’s readily available in the US.
The Wines of Rioja and Ribera del Duero
Since most of us can recognize and pronounce names like Banderas, Aguilera. Mendez and
Iglesias, how about adding two more to the memory bank; Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Rolling
the R’s on your tongue is purely optional. These are Tempranillo based red wines with lots of
black and red fruit qualities, hints of leather and tobacco and pronounced mineral or terroir
qualities. Perhaps it’s the soil that the grape vines are grown in – sand, sand and more sand with
prodigious amounts of stone. If you ever see the vineyards of Rioja, it’s a wonder that anything
grows at all. During the off season, all you see are stumps of grape stalks – not the usual “t-vine”
stalks seen in Napa or Sonoma. However ask any wine grape grower and they’ll tell you that the
vine that struggles to survive usually produces a SMALL QUANTITY of HIGH QUALITY grapes
which usually translates to high quality wine.
The main difference between Rioja and Ribera del Duero is the grape blends used in the final
product. You tend to find Grenache (Garnacha in Spain) and Carignane (Carinena or Mazuelo in
Spain) added to Tempranillo in Rioja whereas Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot might be added to
Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero. In either region you’ll find very food friendly, medium bodied
red wines that pair very nicely with grilled or smoked foods.
There’s No Rat in Priorat
Growing in Catalonia in black slate soil on craggy cliff sides, you’ll find the prized grape vines
that produce the wines of Priorat. In Priorat, Grenache and Carignane are king with a little
Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah blended in some of their wines. Once again, because the soil is not
conducive to productive grape vines, the resulting grapes that do survive produce extraordinary
wines and in some cases, very expensive wines.
Priorat was previously regarded as a region that simply produced big, alcoholic wines. In the past
20 years, better growing techniques, new technology and international interest in the region
have elevated some of these wines on par with the best Grenache based wines of the Southern
Rhone in France.
You’ll find loads of ripe red fruit, a treasure trove of spices along with tar and mineral in the
usual Priorat wine and once again, they pair very nicely with grilled meats from dark poultry up
to the richer cuts of beef.
Slightly More Challenging Than Pronouncing Banderas
Moving toward the Atlantic Ocean lies the Western wine region of Rias Baixas (ree-us bai-
shush) that produces that wonderfully refreshing white wine, Albarino. This varietal produces
wines with lots of citrus and green apple flavors with hints of almonds and mineral qualities.
Slightly East but also grown along the Atlantic are the Chacoli de Guetaria and the Chacoli de
Vizcaya wine regions known for their Txakolina (chak-ko-leena). Made primarily from the
Hondarrabi Zuri grape, this refreshing white wine is low in alcohol, high in acid with lots of
citrus flavors and hints of pears and mineral with a touch of salt water.
Both Albarino and Txakolina have that refreshing acidity that cleanses your palate for that next
bite of tapas or whatever grilled food you’re preparing. However both wines probably aren’t
carried by your average supermarket so you probably need to visit your neighborhood wine shop
to find these quaffers.
Back to the Heartland
Back in the central plains of Campo de Borja and Calatayud, we find delicious Grenache based
wines that will round out your next barbecue sessions. From the Campo de Borja comes the
wines of Bodegas Borsao. Very ripe sweet fruit (though not a sweet wine) with tons of raspberry,
black cherry and boysenberry with a touch of oak and mild tannins. Perfect with grilled sausages
(especially ostrich and dried cherry sausage) though this will pair nicely with braised beef and
even pizza. From Calatayud we find Las Gravas which is also made purely from Grenache but
with more mineral qualities and dried ripe red fruit. The best part is that both are less than $20
so you can fill that cooler at your next barbecue.
Who Needs Fancy Stemware?
Keep the fancy stemware in the cupboard, Spanish wine was meant for tumblers. Especially when
barbecuing, you don’t want to be burdened by the possibility that your expensive stemware may
be broken. Bring out the durable Picardie tumblers or better yet, those recycled green glass
tumblers. If you want to dispense with individual serving vessels totally, just go the route of
ancient Spain with Bota bags or Porron pitchers. Bota bags were originally made from animal
skin and coated internally with pine pitch to waterproof them. Modern versions employ latex or
plastics to waterproof. In any case, these are the original CamelBaks for wine. The Porron
pitchers have a very narrow spout and are tipped so that the wine goes directly from the pitcher
to the drinker’s mouth. It does take a little skill to use these pitchers and whatever dish soap you
save in not having to wash individual glasses; you spend on extra detergent to wash your blouse
or shirt. It does make a barbecue session all the more interesting though.
Therefore, along with grabbing an extra bag of charcoal and matches, I encourage you to try
Spanish wines at your next barbecue. I covered only a handful of possibilities of the vast world
of Spanish wines and didn’t even mention Sherries. But that’s another column.
The Wines of Spain Grow Mainly on the Plain