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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 10, 2006

RAISE A GLASS
Swirl through the many excellent signature wines of Spain

 •  Lost in translation

By Todd Ashline

Spain is a wine lover's dream! It offers great-quality wine to fit any taste and budget. From light, crisp, refreshing white wines from the albarino grape in Rias Baixas in the Galicia region to huge juicy reds from the monastrell grape (also known as mourvedre) in Jumilla, and the succulent sweet wines made from moscotel in Alicante. And let's not forget the full range of sherries from Jerez, ranging from bone-dry to rich and sweet.

Spain has a very long history of winemaking. Vines have been cultivated there as far back as 4000 B.C. In 1100 B.C., the wine-growing Phoenicians founded the city of Cadíz on the southwestern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, making it an important trading post on the Atlantic Ocean. It's been a major player in the wine world ever since.

Modern-day Spain offers the history and knowledge of centuries of winemaking melded with modern practices and techniques. Spain is third in the world in total wine production and has more vineyard holdings than any other country. Vine yields are naturally kept low by the arid climate, and irrigation is a limited practice. Low yields simply equal better wine.

Wonderful young winemakers such as Alvaro Palacios from the Priorat region (or Priorato, as it's sometimes known), about 60 miles from Barcelona, are changing the way we think about Spanish wines. Palacios learned enology at Chateau Petrus in Bordeaux, France, and ventured back to Spain to start a winemaking revolution in Priorat with four other winemakers. Today, the quality of the wine from the region is soaring, as are the prices.

As Palacios and friends have been improving the reputation of Priorat, importer Jorge Ordonez has been scouring Spain for the best wines it has to offer. Today, Ordonez imports wine from more than 40 wineries across Spain.

Throughout his travels, Ordonez shared his knowledge of winemaking techniques and ideas, consulting at a large number of wineries, leading to better wine for all of us. Having had the privilege of sampling most of the wines he imports, I can safely say that if you see the Jorge Ordonez label on the back of the bottle, it's a good purchase. The quality and value of his portfolio is outstanding.

The main difficulty with learning about Spanish wines is knowing which grapes are in which wine. Unlike most New World wineries, Spain does not label the wine by grape variety. You have to know which grapes are grown in each of Spain's wine-growing areas to know what's in the bottle. This is not as difficult as you may think, as most regions are dominated by one grape.

Rias Biaxas is dominated by the white albarino grape. The tempranillo grape predominates in Toro (known locally as Tinta de Toro), in Ribera del Duero (known locally as Tinto Fino or Tinta del Pais), and in Rioja (although in Rioja it can be blended with up to six other varieties). And monastrell is most commonly used around Valencia. Priorat can be kind of tricky, as the wines are often blends of several grapes. There is no standard blend, but most include some or all of the following grapes: garnacha (known as grenache in most other countries), cabernet sauvignon, carinena, syrah and merlot.

A few wonderful Spanish wines I've seen around town recently:

  • Nora, Rias Biaxas 2004, $15. This is 100 percent albarino with lots of citrus, peach and white flowers, and a hint of minerality; a delicious wine for spring.

  • Luzon, Jumilla 2004, $10. Luzon is 100 percent monastrell with rich, ripe, dark berries, a hint of chocolate, supple tannins and a long finish.

  • Lastly, a huge red from Cellar Vall Llach, Embruix de Vall Llach, Priorat 2003, for $38. A blend of carinena, cabernet sauvignon, garnacha, merlot, and syrah, it's a big, firm red, with black cherry, plum, vanilla, a hint of smoke and firm tannins.

    Todd Ashline is manager and sommelier of Chef Mavro restaurant; www.chefmavro.com. The Raise a Glass column, written by a rotating roster of beverage experts, appears in this section every other week.