The Wine Palate
July 22, 2006
Spain’s history in the vine is old. As Hugh Johnson M.W. points out, "The Moors have never been short on wine."
Spain was well under vine in the south by the 10th century. By the 13th century, the northern regions of Rioja, the Duero, Navarre, and Galicia were all planted with native Spanish grapes. Ironically, Spain’s greatest and most powerful age, the 16th century, turned out to be a massive burden on its wine industry. Upon Spain’s discovery and colonization of the Americas, the industry’s focus was drawn toward supplying the colonies with wine. Unfortunately, the 75 day trip across the ocean and massively fluctuating temperatures did not bode well for the quality of the wines and they showed up as barrels of vinegar. The merchants would not buy the wine and most of it consequently was dumped into the Atlantic.
Despite Spanish wine’s initial bad luck, fate would soon offer a great gift.
The Phylloxera louse, a root-eating insect, devastated the vineyards of France throughout the 19th century and by 1885, the classic vineyards of Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy, and the rest of France were rendered useless. Somehow, the Pyrenees Mountains seemed to be a barrier for the pest and Spanish vines thrived. In fact, many French winemakers moved to Rioja and Navarre bringing with them the experience of the world’s greatest wine regions.
The traditional ways of making Rioja wine went out the window and Bordeaux methods of fermenting, crushing, and aging began to take over. Rioja’s wines became so popular that people would often drink them and refill the empty bottles with poorly produced wine from other regions and resell the cheaper wines masquerading as genuine Rioja. The winemakers of Rioja responded by wrapping their bottles in a metal net. Therefore, one would have to cut the net to get to the real deal and thus guaranteeing the product. Many Rioja wines still use metal nets today as homage to their history.
Spanish wines today are varied and unique. Tempranillo is Spain’s dominant grape and is responsible for that spicy, leathery, and earthy flavor that defines Spain’s great reds. Spain boasts bodegas like Vega Sicilia, of Ribera del Duero, that hold as much clout as a Bordeaux First Growth. The crisp white wines of Rias Baixas are full of fruit and mineral expression that rivals any Sauvignon Blanc. Cava, Spain’s most important Brut-styled sparkling wine is often made with as much care as fine Champagne, while still preserving a characteristic flavor that is very specific to the native Spanish grapes Xerello and Macabeo.
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Sherry still stands as one of the world’s finest sweet wines and the vast number of growing regions is staggering. Beyond being varied and unique, Spanish wines are also usually a great value for the dollar and believe it or not, Utah has a pretty good selection.
The Condado de Haza is a greart value Ribera Del Duero at $24 per bottle. It is well constructed with mouth-filling texture and all the leather and smoke you could hope for in a Duero wine. Keep an eye out for the growing number of fine Priorat wines on the market. The Priorat region is so mountainous and difficult to grow vines, that most of the bodegas produce very small quantities. You know what that means . Utah small winery discount. The Clos Fonta is reasonably priced and shows great Priorat character. It is a wine with big body and a strong backbone. Peppery spices and black cherry flavors help this wine make your day a happy one. Have fun exploring.
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .