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Spanish wines offer outstanding values from the shadows


Maybe if more immigrants had come directly from Spain to the United States, American wine enthusiasts would be as familiar with Rioja as they are with Chianti.

Maybe if there were a Spanish restaurant in every town large enough to attract a Wal-Mart, Ribera del Duero would be as revered a name in wine circles as Barolo or Barbaresco.

Alas, there are no nationwide chains of Paella Huts, so Spanish wines are likely to remain underappreciated by the masses. That doesn't mean we have to share in that folly.

For decades, Spain has provided American wine consumers with some of the best values on the market, as well as some expensive rarities for the handful of collectors aware of their existence.

But, except for the products of a few large firms, the distribution of Spanish wine has generally been spotty. And once Spanish wine does get into the stores, they are often relegated to a dusty corner next to the Bulgarian wines.

In recent months, there has been an upsurge of interest in Spanish wines, thanks largely to the efforts of a handful of importers who are making a determined effort to bring Spain's finest wines to these shores. Devotees of Spanish wine are learning to look for such names as Kysela Pere & Fils, of Winchester, Va.; Classical Wines from Spain, of Seattle; and Fine Estates from Spain, of West Roxbury, Mass.

A recent shopping expedition found an abundance of fine Spanish wines -- many at excellent prices.

Many of these wines come from the northern Rioja area, one of the world's most underrated wine production regions.

Some veteran wine-sippers might still be a bit gun-shy of Riojas because of bad experiences in decades past. For many years in the 1970s and early 1980s, the most widely distributed Riojas were those of Federico Paternina, which was making awful wines at the time.

Not all Riojas are the same

But those wines are no more representative of Rioja than Thunderbird is representative of California wine. Need evidence? Lay your hands on a bottle of 1989 La Rioja Alta Vina Alberdi ($15), one of the most silky, sexy, elegant and compelling red wines you could ever pray to taste. It is packed with layer upon layer of black cherry, black raspberry and herb flavors, and it's finish just keeps on going.

There are also many impressive values from Rioja under $10. For instance, the 1990 Bodegas Montecillo Vina Cumbrero Rioja ($7.49) is a full-bodied, beautifully structured wine with spicy, earthy, black currant flavors and excellent aging potential. The 1990 Lorinon Rioja ($9) holds similar promise, but is a bit more closed at present. Consumers who want a more mature, ready-to-drink Rioja should keep an eye out for the 1989 Sierra Cantabria ($10).

Rioja does have severe vintage variations, which often track those of Bordeaux. As in Bordeaux, the best recent years were 1989 and 1990, and there are high hopes for 1994.

There's a lot more to Spain than Rioja, though, as anyone who has ever tasted one of the massive reds from Ribera del Duero can attest.

At one time the only winery in Ribera del Duero to be exported to the United States was Vega Sicilia, which produces a wine called Unico that retails for about $150 a bottle.

Now, from the same producers, comes Alion, which retails for a mere $25. The 1991 is huge wine, extremely concentrated and very much in need of cellaring. But below the rough tannins lie a wealth of earth and fruit flavors. Five to 10 years of patience could yield something magical.

Vega Sicilia's most serious rival in Ribera del Duero is Alejandro Fernandez's Pesquera, which has produced a string of impeccably made, concentrated red wines since the 1970s. Unfortunately, that string is broken with the 1992, which lacks the grip and length of the best vintages. It's pleasant, but it doesn't live up to its $19 price tag.

Some of the most exciting Spanish wines of today are coming from the hinterlands. And there are no lands more hinter than those of the Extremadura, tucked away near the Portuguese border, where is grown an extraordinary red wine called Lar de Barros from Bodegas Inviosa. Like every other vintage I've tasted the 1990 is a gripping, complex, unique wine with flavors of black cherry, exotic spices, anise and pine. The $8.49 price is absurdly low for a wine of such quality.

Red for summer

From the southern region of Jumilla comes a wonderful summertime red, the 1994 Carchelo Monastrell ($6), made from an excellent grape the French know as mourvedre. In France, mourvedre yields powerful, full-bodied wines, but in the Carchelo the result is a dead ringer for a top-notch Beaujolais. Its sprightly, exuberant raspberry flavors are a pure joy. Drink it up this summer with grilled chicken or tuna.

For simpler fare, such as burgers on the grill, the ideal Spanish wine is a deliciously simple, grapey 1993 Campo de Borja Borsao ($6). It is a wine of absolutely zero intellectual interest -- just cheap thrills.

One truly unusual wine is the 1990 Penascal Red Table Wine from Castilla y Leon ($6.49). Its color is so pale that one might suspect it's over the hill, but it's actually stuffed with ripe, earthy, cherry and strawberry flavors. What it lacks in body it makes up for in intensity.

One reliable producer of red wines is Bodegas Farina, whose wines from the region of Toro are the kind of coarse, hearty, peasant wines that go perfectly with stew or even chili. Out of three wines tasted, by far the best was the 1987 Gran Collegiata Tinto Reserva ($11), a spectacular blend of grace and power. The 1993 Toro Tinto ($6) was a good value, but the $11 1987 Dama de Toro Reserva didn't offer enough additional complexity to justify the price difference.

There were some disappointments from one of Spain's finest producers, the giant house of Torres in Penedes. The 1988 Gran Coronas Reserva ($13.49), normally an excellent wine, was overly herbaceous and lacked its usual grip and persistence. The 1992 Torres Fransola ($16), usually an excellent blend of sauvignon blanc and native Spanish grapes, was bland and tired, with a puny finish. Has something gone off track here?

Spanish white wines generally are not an exciting category, but occasionally you find a sleeper. One is the 1993 Lorinon Rioja Blanco ($9). This creamy, flavorful wine, which was fermented in oak, has a flavor profile much like chardonnay, only with more of a mineral element, Unlike many white Riojas, it has retained enough acidity to balance out its ripe fruit flavors. An excellent value, it's one of the rare white wines that could actually stand up to a paella.

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