Exploring Spanish Wines

The Theme

“Spanish Wines” is a great theme – serve a variety of different wines from Spain, along with some Spanish cheeses and tapas-style side dishes, and introduce your guests to a wine region known for delicious value-priced wines as well as bold, flavorful reds. 

The Angle

A tour of Spain via the grape.  The angle of your tasting is to show off the range of Spain’s wine bounty – starting with bubbly, moving to some whites, and finishing with a variety of different reds.  Spain uses different grapes than you’ll find in other parts of the world and you want to teach your guests about this.  Highlight some well-known and widely distributed producers that your guests can remember for future reference.

Sample Lineup 

  1. Mont-Ferrant, Rose Cava Brut
  2. Do Ferreiro, Albarino 2007
  3. Bodegas Ostatu, Rioja Blanco 2008
  4. Marques de Caceres, Rioja Crianza 2005
  5. La Rioja Alta, S.A., “Vina Ardanza” Reserva 2000
  6. Pesquera, Tinto (Ribera del Duero), 2006
  7. Parmi, “L’Infant” (Priorat), 2006

 

 

The Wines

Start with cava, Spain’s bubbly answer to champagne.  You can pre-pour this into flutes to make a festive welcome by greeting your guests with a glass of bubbly.  Then with new wine glasses, move to a Spanish white or two – definitely an Albarino and maybe a white Rioja.  Then move to reds and focus first on the tempranillo grape and the region that made it famous: Rioja.  Start with a crianza (a younger Rioja) and then display a “reserva” to show off the same grape/region but to explore what carefully selected vines, a few more years of age, and a few more dollars gets you.  Finish with two other reds – first a Ribera del Duero (also tempranillo, but different region/style) and finally a Priorat, which is Spain’s answer to the full-bodied red blends of France’s Rhone Valley. 

 

Music

When the first guest rings the doorbell, get the music rolling with “The Best of the Gipsy Kings,” a fantastic party background music album that is perfect for the Spanish wines event.  Then transition into Shakira’s Spanish language album “Fijacion Oral – Vol. 1.”  Your party just got cooler. 

From here you’ve got two options.  If you want the party to get out of hand, go straight to Shakira’s English-language hits (Hips Don’t Lie and Wherever, Whenever) and from there you can transition to your favorite dance party mix.  Or, for tunes that keep the music fun but in the background, go from Fijacion Oral to Santana’s “Ultimate Santana” collection before winding the party down with Los Lonely Boys’ self-titled album.

Pairings

Spanish cheeses are great – a cheese plate with Manchego, Drunken Goat, Iberico and Zamorano will complement your red wines beautifully.  Manchego might also just become your favorite cheese.  Set out some olives too, preferably spicy green olives or mixed Mediterranean olives.

If you want heavy apps, serve some Spanish-style tapas.  If you have a good Spanish restaurant near you that delivers, order up some Spanish meatballs (albondigas), chicken croquettes, and gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp), and put some toothpicks out to turn them into finger foods.  All will pair really well with your wines and reinforce your Spanish theme, without breaking the bank.

 

 

Tasting Notes

This is a tasting where, in our view, the actual winemakers / wineries you pick are less important than making sure you find good examples of the varietals & regions.  Work with whatever your local wine store or favorite online merchant has & recommends at your price point.  The more important takeaway from this tasting for you and your guests – besides what a great time you’ll all have! – will be learning what Spanish wines taste like whether you like them.  If you like cava, it’s often a less expensive way to uncork some bubbly.  If you like Albarino – ditto to that, an inexpensive and delicious white wine for a spring/summer picnic.  And if (like me) you find you’re a huge fan of the tempranillo grape, you can spend all the time you want discovering a favorite winemaker from Rioja and the Ribera del Duero. 

Spain is a serious wine-drinking nation, with more acreage of land planted with grapes than any other country.  The country’s wine is most closely associated with Rioja, an area spanning more than 120,000 acres across a 75 mile stretch on the banks of the Ebro River.  The Rioja region is best known for reds based on the Tempranillo grape that are supple, earthy, spicy and have notes of vanilla as a result of long aging in oak barrels.  Rioja wines are classified into “crianza” (youngest), “reserva” (made from the best grapes & vineyards in very good years, and aged at least three years before release) and “gran reserva” (even better, only made in the best years, and aged at least five years before release).  Flavors associated with rioja include: vanilla, saddle leather, tobacco, chocolate, plums & prunes, currants, spiced tea…

Interestingly, though, Spain’s most famous (and most expensive) wine isn’t from Rioja, but from the Ribera del Duero region.  Vega Sicilia makes a wine called “Unico” that is considered Spain’s greatest wine and which costs just shy of $500/bottle.  (Their second wine, “Valbuena,” is less pricey but still retails for more than $100/bottle…)  The Unico alone makes Ribera del Duero a region worth knowing for the wine-lover getting acquainted with Spanish wines.  Ribera del Duero wines are made from a grape varietal called “Tinto” which is a more rustic variation on tempranillo.  Pesquera (mentioned above) is the second most famous wine made in Ribera del Duero and their relatively affordable basic Tinto and Crianza are a great way to get introduced to the region’s propensity for amazing wine.

We recommended starting the tasting with Cava, because really, how can you go wrong starting a party with a flute of bubbly?  There are some interesting talking points when you’re introducing your guests to Spain’s answer to champagne.  First, Cava uses different grapes than the French and Americans use in their champagne and sparkling wine (respectively).  Traditionally bubbly is made from chardonnay (white) and pinot noir (red), together with some pinot meunier.  Spanish cava instead blends the white grapes Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada, along with Chardonnay on occasion.  Rose cavas (like the one we recommend above) are less than 1% of all cava and can be made from Garnacha and Monastrell.  Despite using different grapes, however, cava is made virtually identically to the “methode Champagnoise” that governs whether a French bubbly can officially be called “Champagne.”  The Spaniards are just as rigorous, and not every Spanish bubbly earns the “Cava” designation.

Spain is a nation rich in history and culture, and you can help add to the life of your Spanish wine tasting party by weaving in some of these references.  Ernest Hemingway loved Spain, its wines and its bullfights.  Definitely mention to your guests how he specifically references Rioja in “The Sun Also Rises.”  Ribera del Duero is the region in Spain where Miguel de Cervantes first started writing the epic masterpiece “Don Quijote.”  Spain is also a land of intense heat, and the intensity of flavor of Spanish wines can be attributed in part to vines gaining strength & character from the mighty struggle to find water underneath the parched landscape.  And the Spanish people apparently all long to retire some day and open a Bodega (winery) – it’s a very intrinsic part of the Spanish culture.

Last fun fact – Rioja is a delicious wine to serve with Thanksgiving dinner!  It’s light enough not to overwhelm the turkey (as, for example, a cabernet might) but it has enough richness, spice and depth to stand up the creamy flavors in most Americans’ traditional Thanksgiving feast.  The classic pairing for Turkey Day is pinot noir, but if you’re not a fan of pinot then definitely keep Rioja in mind.

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