TASTING NOTES: Wine writer David Lawrason discovers some lesser-known reds on a trip to Spain
Wine & Spirits

TASTING NOTES: Wine writer David Lawrason discovers some lesser-known reds on a trip to Spain

What reigns in Spain: Heart-warming Spanish values for the dead of winter

By David Lawrason

One of the great revelations on a recent trip to lesser-known wine regions of Spain was the value of the wines I encountered. At every price point, I found shockingly good wines selling for much less than wines of equivalent quality from France or California. Being known as a “value wine region” can be a double-edged sword, attracting the budget-conscious consumer but often, at the same time, pigeonholing a region as cheap or somehow incapable of producing top-quality wines. Spain continues to walk that thin edge, with many of its wines currently at the LCBO selling for $10 or less. That said, in my view, Spain has recently become much more focused on making fine wine.

Illustration by Alan King.

Most of Spain’s quality red wine comes from the north, with Rioja being the best-known and largest region. As Bordeaux is to France, Rioja is to Spain — both having huge market presence and a deeply rooted tradition of aging wines a long time in barrel and bottle. But modern tastes have moved to fruitier, earlier-drinking wines, and while Rioja has embraced this trend to some extent, lesser-known regions such as Navarra, Ribera del Duero, Toro, Bierzo, Penedès, Priorat, Montsant, and Cariñena have moved faster.

Of those, Ribera del Duero (on the banks of the Duero River, which flows west into Portugal, where it becomes the Douro) is the best established, with some big-name houses, such as Vega Sicilia, Alion, Pesquera, and Aalto, commanding luxury prices. But elsewhere, countless small, new wineries are blooming on the arid steppes, many of them boasting young but well-travelled winemakers at the helm. In each of three small appellations I visited last fall — Rueda, Toro, and Bierzo — the number of wineries has grown from about a dozen to over 50 in the past decade. These new wineries are focused on the export market and are making very good wines styled for international tastes.

The dominant grape in this region is tempranillo, a bit of a chameleon that makes medium-to-full-bodied reds that vary greatly depending on where it is grown. I have always found cheaper, mass-produced tempranillos to be indistinctive, undistinguished, and coarse. But the quality of basic Spanish reds is on the rise, with winemakers taking advantage of lower yields, shorter aging in French oak, and skilful blending with other varieties, such as local garnacha (grenache) and cariñena (carignan) and French varieties like cabernet and merlot. Here are some of the better examples at the LCBO — wines that will transport you to sunny Spain in the dead of winter without wearing out your wallet.

Marqués de Cáceres 2007 Crianza
$16.95 • Rioja • 88 points
A crianza designation requires a minimum of 18 months aging before release. This mid-weight, fairly dense, fleshy, and dry rioja shows off complex, fragrant cedar; leather; dark chocolate; meatiness; and dried fig fruit aromas. It’s mid-weight and well-balanced, with some tension and very good length. Best 2012 to 2015. LCBO 69294.

Montecillo 2006 Reserva
$18.45 • Rioja • 88 points
This is a traditional Rioja classic, aged to smoothness with complex leather, lead pencil, coconut, ripe dates, and cigar notes that will appeal to fans of older Euro reds. It’s medium-weight, dense, and silky, with a dry finish. Best 2013 to 2015. Decant 30 minutes. LCBO 621003.

Viña Zaco 2008 Tempranillo
$14.95 • Rioja • 88 points
From the traditional house of Bilbaínas, this new listing is generous, upbeat, smooth, and easy-drinking. Shows typical American oak, coconut, and weathered wood, along with plummy/fresh fig fruit. It’s medium-weight and mellow, with good density. Best now to 2015. LCBO 243097.

Beso de Vino 2009 Selección
$9.95 • Cariñena • 87 points
Great value at $10 from a small appellation in the northeast. It’s an 85 percent syrah, 15 percent garnacha blend that pours dark purple-black with New World-style flavours of blackberry jam, peppery spice, char, and cola. It’s full-bodied, rounded, and fleshy, with chalky tannin, considerable heat, and a tarry finish. Best 2012 to 2014. LCBO 231787.

Castano 2009 La Casona Monastrell
$8.75 • Yecla • 87 points
The monastrell grape grown in the southeast offers dark, thick, and juicy reds. From a leading producer focused on reviving this variety, La Casona is a full-bodied, soft edition with typical monastrell blueberry/blackberry pie notes, plus pepper and lavender. It’s juicy and rich, with firm tannin. Best 2012 to 2014. LCBO 143743.

Castillo de Monseran 2010 Garnacha
$8.95 • Cariñena • 87 points
Huge value in a modern, old-vine garnacha. It is unoaked, unabashedly simple, and exuberantly fruity, with flavours of hot raspberry/blueberry pie. It’s almost a wine smoothie, with sweetness, soft tannin, and nicely contained alcohol (only 12.9 percent). Now to 2013. Chill lightly. Enjoy with burgers, ribs, and wings. LCBO 73395.

Milcampos 2009 Tempranillo
$9.85 • Ribera del duero • 87 points
The label of the 2009 vintage sports a 92-point Robert Parker medallion. It is indeed a very good modern Spanish red but, in my opinion, doesn’t have the depth or complexity to strike beyond 90 points. The nose pre-sents dark chocolate and ripe blackberry fruit, with nicely sewn nuances of herbs and leather. It’s medium-to-full-bodied, fairly dense, and rich, with a dry, sour-edged, and slightly earthy finish. Age it a year. LCBO 173625.

Chivite 2009 Gran Feudo Edición Tempranillo
$11.95 • Navarra • 86 points
Chivite is the dominant exporter from the verdant province of Navarra in northern Spain, a higher-altitude region that captures some finesse. This new listing has generous chocolaty oak, ripe cherry/prune, and leathery flavours that follow through to good length, with some mouth-watering acidity and dusty tannic bitterness. Best 2012 to 2015. LCBO 255877.

Torres 2009 Infinite Tempranillo Cabernet Sauvignon
$12.95 • Penedès • 86 points
From a large, innovative winery that introduced cabernet and other French grapes years ago, this is a young mid-weight blend with grapy, yeasty/bready notes around the dried raspberry/goji berry fruit. It has some poise, richness, and vibrancy, with lively acidity and moderate tannin, but it needs age. Best 2013 to 2016. LCBO 231795.

HOW WE DO IT: Prices are for 750-mL bottles unless otherwise indicated. Private-order bottles are generally bought by the case from the agent.

SCORES: are assigned on a 100-point scale and reflect a wine’s overall quality, but don’t consider price. A rating of 95 to 100 means outstanding; 90 to 94 excellent; 85 to 89 very good; 80 to 84 good.

This article appeared in the February 2012 edition of Ottawa Magazine.