Uncorked: Indulging in the culture of Spanish wine

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Spain’s viticultural history goes back more than 3,000 years, when Phoenicians arrived by boat. The Codorníu estate in Catalonia has been active in wine production since 1551. Spain’s long history in grape growing and winemaking has been well established.

But the narrative of what Spain produces and what the wines are like is very limited, in regard to what the American wine drinker consumes. It’s generally summed up by one word: Rioja.

Rioja is a region in north-central Spain that produces, red, white and rosé wines, with the tempranillo-driven reds leading the way by far.

Beyond Rioja, the most identifiable Spanish wines stateside are probably the floral and fruity albariño of Galicia, and the oceans of sparkling wine, called Cava, produced in seven different Spanish regions, but mostly in Catalonia’s sub-region Penedès.

After that, it’s a lot of humble places with often wildly-different wines. And wow, they are worth drinking.

One common grape is garnacha, known as grenache in France, and Sindicat La Figuera’s 2017 “Vi Sec” grenache is impressive. Hailing from Catalonia’s Montsant, there are heaping notes of cherries, flowers in bloom, leafy and earthy notes dominate this $15 gem destined to be consumed with burgers and barbecue.

Garnacha/garnatxa/grenache is often seen as a gateway from California wines to European wines, precisely because of its ability to produce ripe wines with a moderately hefty amount of alcohol. I agree 100%. This should land at about $24, but it drinks like it’s $40.

Montsant borders Spain’s best garnacha region, Priorat, where prices for the best wines can get pretty steep. It’s been my experience that Monsant as a whole is a place to find deals.

Heading to southern Spain, and still near the Mediterranean, is the region of Valencia, which we have to thank for the beauty that is known as Paella.

The 2018 Estenas bobal is a treat at $15, from the tiny place of Utiel-Requena. Bobal? What’s that? It’s a valid question. Plantings of bobal vines outside of east-central Spain are virtually zero.

The wine is soft and mildly lush, with violet-like accents and a compelling depth of plumlike fruit. If you’re mostly into the red blend, big-production juggernauts, this will likely be a disappointing wine. But if you dig on French and Italian red wines, this is assuredly in your wheelhouse. 

Off to near the Atlantic Ocean is a gloriously interesting (and tiny) region called Ribeira Sacra. These are steep-sloped vineyards, comparable to Mosel, Germany or Douro, Portugal.

So it follows that these have to be hand-crafted wines. It’s impossible to make a wine more affordable through mechanization when your vineyard is at a 45-degree gradient. Seriously. Google this place. It’s nutbars.

Anyway, Guímaro is one of the regions two or three best producers, now about 30 years into the business. The 2018 Vino Tinto (made entirely from the mencia grape) is funky — smoky, herbaceous, generous amounts of red fruits and subtle spicy notes. And the acid and tannin complement each other quite well.

It’s not a stretch to say this $25 wine could very well please adventurous drinkers who prefer subtlety over bombast.

Heads up on these wines though: If you want to dig in, seek them out through the better wine shops in the area. There is absolutely no shot these wines will land in corporate sets. And that’s probably just fine by the producers.

Justin King is an Advanced Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, and owner of Bridge Street Social, a wine and cocktails-focused restaurant in DeWitt, and Bar Mitena, a Spanish winebar coming soon to Lansing’s Eastside. He can be reached at justingking@gmail.com

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