Spanish Wine — Ole!

Even though I lived in Spain for a year or so, it was before I’d been awakened to wine…and before Spanish wines had made much of an impact on the world market.  Back then, we celebrated special occasions with a $3 bottle of Marques de Riscal.  The everyday stuff cost about 60 cents a liter, and to this day I’m convinced that it may have looked like wine, but was really water, alcohol, and food coloring.

Times, of course, have changed.  These days, Spain is producing great wines, and not always from the best-known regions.  Places like Yecla and Monsant are bringing bargain bottles to the market that offer tasty treats at very reasonable prices.

Speaking of Monsant, my new discovery is Besllum Monsant 2008.  This blend of Garnacha, Carinena, and Syrah spends some time in new French oak, which imparts a slight smoky note.  At first, there’s not much on the nose.  In fact, the aroma was a bit funky, but that cleared up, so it obviously needs some time in the glass.

On the palate, there’s blueberry and sage, with a velvety mouthfeel.  The tannins kick in on the finish.  The second glass was definitely better than the first (usually is…), reveal more toasty oak, and fuller fruit.

I think I paid maybe $12 for it, which is a steal, considering the quality.  When I go back to buy more, I have to promise myself to let it sit in the cellar for a couple of years…or decant it for several hours before drinking.  WW 90-91

What year is it, anyway?

One of the biggest puzzles an aspiring wine lover encounters is the question of vintages.  I’ve mentioned before that the label on a wine bottle doesn’t tell us much, but it does tell us the year in which the grapes were harvested.  But so what?

The truth is that the vintage of a wine is important sometimes, and sometimes not.  Here’s why.

Nature is fickle, bestowing beautiful weather one day and tornadoes and hail the next.  As Mark Twain so astutely observed, everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.  Add to this the other sad fact that, of all fruits, wine grapes are the most sensitive to where and how they’re grown, which gives winemakers a lot of sleepless nights.

In some years, the weather is perfect for grape growing.  There’s just the right amount of sun, of temperature variation from day to night, the fog rolls in on cue and cools the grapes, the rain falls exactly when it’s supposed to, and the vines bring out their buds and flowers at the perfect time.  And sometimes not.  So what does this mean?

It means that you need to worry about the vintage of a wine only if you’re buying the really good (that usually means expensive) stuff.  High-end wines come from specific areas, and specific vineyards.  Sometimes, even from only certain blocks or rows of vines within a vineyard.  The more specific a wine is to a place, the more premium it’s likely to be.  Weather has a significant effect on these grapes, because the difference in quality between fruit grown over here and fruit grown over there (maybe 20-30 yards away) can be enormous.  So the year they’re grown, and the weather in that particular spot, can be extremely significant.

On the other hand, higher-production wines that sell in the under-$25 range are made from grapes blended from several different vineyards, often spread over a very wide area.  So if one vineyard has a bad year, the winemaker will buy grapes from someplace else, where the weather was better.  The specific place doesn’t matter as much, and the wines are more consistent from year to year.

But there can still be differences.  One of our favorite everyday wines is Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand.  It’s made in huge quantities and sells for around $12, but the 2009 vintage was nicely acidic and zippy, while the 2010 edition was a bit softer and sweeter.  Both good, but different.

Long story short, if you’re buying wines in the $50-$100 range, a bit of vintage study will definitely pay off.  Vintage charts for all winegrowing areas of the world are available online, and Wine Spectator publishes one every year that you can pull out of the magazine and tuck in your wallet.

One other thing:  Vintage years have strangely different effects on wine.  For example, the 2000 vintage in Bordeaux was considered “legendary,” because every single element of the weather fell into place, magnificent fruit was produced, and the wines are of surpassing elegance.  How good are they?  A bottle of Lafite Rothschild that cost $200 on release now sells for over $2,500.  These wines were made to be laid down in your cellar (you have one, right?) and aged until your great-grandchild’s Bar Mitzvah, because that’s how long they take before they’re ready to drink.

Same is true with the big California Cabernets, the ones that sell in the $80+ range.  Except for the 2007 vintage, which were drinking beautifully as soon as they came out.  So go know.

That’s the story.  Now, here are my recommendations for the month.

Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay – A great coming-home-from-work wine, this bargain Chardonnay (around $13 at Costco) offers a nice balance of oak and fruit, with a smooth, buttery mouthfeel.

Newton Red Label Chardonnay – Also available at Costco for around $16, this is Newton’s entry-level offering.  Their upper-end bottles go for around $55, but this is a good place to start.  Another nice everyday wine, with floral notes on the nose, and grapefruit and tangerine on the palate.

Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier – Viognier isn’t all that popular, but it should be.  The flavors are immensely evocative and floral, with honeysuckle, pear, and lemon notes.  It takes a bit of the edge off the Chenin Blanc, providing a smooth, round mouthfeel.  Around $12.

Sample widely!

Bargain Bottles — Starting the collection

When I first started collecting wine,  I realized one fact right from the git-go:  anybody can buy a really good bottle of wine for fifty bucks.  It’s also possible, much to my surprise, to buy a really bad bottle of wine for fifty bucks.  The trick, of course, is to find nice everyday drinking wines for a decent price…especially if you drink wine every day.  And who doesn’t?

So the search began, and continues on a daily basis, to stock the cellar with something besides collectibles:  bottles that don’t cost a fortune, or take forever to get drinkable.

One thing that good budget wines have in common is that they’re relatively consistent in quality from year to year.  This is a good thing.  Makes ‘em dependable.

When it comes to easy-drinking white wines for the summer, it’s hard to beat Sauvignon Blanc.  The ones that come from New Zealand are terrific bargains.  If you forced me to pick out one favorite from among many, I’d have to go with Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc. These people make wines that get 90-92 points every single year, and they charge around $12.  Aromas and flavors of grapefruit, pineapple and white flowers, supported by zingy acidity.  And remember the “Lemon Law.”  If you can put lemon on it, you can drink Sauvignon Blanc with it.  Shrimp, oysters, just about any kind of seafood really sings when accompanied by a bottle of this favorite white.

On a more structured extracted note…have you noticed what’s happened to the price of California Cabernet lately?  When prices start going into lunar orbit, it’s time to look for a different varietal or different winegrowing region.  My choice is Cabernet from Washington State, especially Columbia Crest Grand Estates. Now, Columbia Crest, part of the gigantic Stimson Lane winemaking conglomerate, makes a whole line of wines, and several varietals.  Make sure you look for “Grand Estates,” and make sure you don’t pay more than about ten dollars.   For the money, you’ll get hints of milk chocolate, spice, dark berry, and currant.

Watch this section for more suggestions to come.  I hate to spend money as much as you do.

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