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Spain's Special Select
By Ha-Kyung Choi

If you’ve ever dismissed Spanish wines as being too high in alcohol, heavy, or just plain simple, it’s time for another sip. With its commitment to adapting new technology and implementing new growing concepts, Spain has steadily produced some very impressive and diverse wines. You would be hard pressed to find another winemaking country with such a wide spectrum in style and quality. Whether the occasion calls for an international styled Cabernets or an indigenous grape variety, Spain has something for everyone – and every dish.

Spectacular food matches stem from Spain’s tapas tradition. Hot and cold, sweet and salty, multi-flavored, surf and turf: tapas demand that its red wines and sherries accompany a dizzying array of challenging combinations, giving them a versatility that matches the dynamic bounty of springtime dishes but with the fruit and acid balance to showcase, not overwhelm, different flavors.

Consider this a back-pocket guide to some of Spain’s Star wine producing regions, with StarChefs’ Star Picks of Wines and Wineries.

Ribera del Duero

Best known for the fabled Vega Sicilia winery, the Ribera del Duero is enjoying a growing reputation for producing excellent red wines with deep colors, rich concentration of fruit and tannins, and bright, ripe flavors. Situated north of Madrid along the Duero River, the basic grape of the region is Tempranillo, or under the local name Tinto Fino. If you like the spicy character of Tempranillo, but also approachable power, structure and ripe fruit flavors, then Ribera del Duero is the place to look.

Varietal composition is just one of the many variables that shape individual Ribera wines. The soils within the region vary considerably—from chalky, limestone-laced clays to mineral-laden gravels to deep sands. Most wineries in the region draw upon vineyards planted on a mix of soil types and blend the wines together for a more consistent product.

A good example of a winery reflective of the history and the distinct terroir of the region, at the same time one that actively embraces innovation and modernization is Abadia Retuerta in Sardon de Duero. With a $20 million investment from Switzerland-based Novartis, this winery epitomizes the country’s metamorphosis from old to new. A 12th-century monastery with vineyards, Abadia Retuerta produced wine for much of its existence, yet had its vines pulled out in the late 1970s. Today it is back in action and bigger than ever, with state of the art winemaking technology and a stellar winemaking team. There is a great deal of effort that is being made to make top quality wines, at all price ranges. From the everyday Primicia and Rivola to the single-vineyard Tempranillos, the wines reflect Abadia’s attention to the nuances of winegrowing, vine selection and careful planting.


What to try:

For a night of culinary delights, uncork the Abadia Retuerta Sardon del Duero 1999, $22.95(60% Tempranillo, 40% Cabernet). It’s classy, full-bodied, and nicely textured. Its complex bouquet of flowers, black currants, raspberries, cherries, and vanilla will work nicely with Robert Donna’s Roasted Lamb Loin with Black Ligurian Olives and Sausage served with Potato, Artichoke and Parmesan Cheese Tort.


Priorat

Despite Priorat’s long history of winemaking, only recently has it reached its current reputation for fine winemaking. Up to ten years ago Priorat was considered the poorest area in Catalonia and given the scorching heat, virtually impossible to cultivate. However, things began to turn twenty years ago when a small group of individuals, some of whom had no training in winemaking, set about restoring and repairing some of the old neglected vineyards and started planting the poorly regarded Garnacha and Carinena varieties. They also introduced new varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot, and in some places installed drip irrigation systems to help establish young vines in the difficult terrain.

One of the original pioneers of the region was Carlos Pastrana of Clos de l'Obac in Costers del Siurana. Despite skeptics he initiated a major renovation program, replanting new vines and reworking 50 year old Carinena vines. By combining the traditional varieties of the region with grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, he produces uniquely concentrated, dense wines yielding a distinct palate of tastes and flavors reflective of the region. One of the things that make Clos de l’Obac special is the exceptional care taken over the selection of the grapes and of the wines during ageing. Different parts of the same vineyard are picked at different times to ensure that every grape is picked at its peak and therefore maximize the quality of the fruit.


What to try:

The Clos De La Obac Piorato 1999 - Costers del Siurana, $55.95 (35% Garnacha, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 10% Syrah, 10% Cariñena) is a perfect example of the excellence this producer is capable of. This medium bodied wine has a complex nose that combines red berries, cherry and mint. It has a distinctly elegant style with harmonious acids, firm tannins and solid structure. Create an equally elegant spring menu by preparing Barbara Goodman’s Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Orange-Chile Glaze which will complement this amazingly juicy and classy wine.


Penedes

The Penedes district, south and west of Barcelona, is one of the most important in Spain for a handful of excellent table wines that have established it as one of the world’s finest wine-producing areas. There is a good deal of experimentation and innovation taking place with plots of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, most notably from the likes of Jean Leon and Miguel Torres. It is research, backed by a willingness to experiment and go beyond traditional methods that has brought the wines of the Penedes so far in so short a time.

The driving force behind Penedes’ transformation into a globally recognized wine region is Miguel Torres. Torres is largely credited with being the leading innovator for the modernization of Spanish wines as well as for planting non-indigenous grapes, such as Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir. Torres produces a range of wines from the popular branded perennials such as the benchmark Viña Sol, Sangre de Toro and Viña Esmeralda, in addition to the more premium Reserva brands.


What to try:

For a full bodied cabernet, representative of Torres’ crème de la crème of reds, try the Torres Mas la Plana Black Label 1997, $41.99 (100% Cabernet Sauvignon) With a deep, dense cherry color, the wine has a wonderfully intense bouquet, with hints of cranberries, cherries and truffles, elegant and pronounced finish. The tannins and textures scream for rare red meat, which can be made using Chris Schlesinger’s tips on how to prepare a perfectly grilled steak.

Alternatively, for lighter fare, try the Torres Fransola Green Label 2000, $22.99 (90% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Parellada). Fresh and deeply aromatic with tropical fruit-flavors, this wine can be paired with spectacular results with Daniel Boulud’s Crab Salad with Apple Gelée.


Others

And don’t forget about Sherry. There’s nothing like a cool, clean fino as an aperitif, with a handful of olives to work up an appetite. If you want to go all out Spanish, try it with cured ham or any tuna-based tapas.


What to try:

Celebrate spring by gathering a few friends and preparing a tapas menu of mixed olives, Norman VanAken’s Grilled Marinated Shrimp and Chorizo with Spanish Sherry Vinegar, Michael Schlow’s Octopus with White Bean Salad, and Anna Sortun’s Circassian Pilav for Dolma.

Chill a bottle of the dry and stainy Alvear Fino en Rama Vintage, $9.99. Serve and enjoy!

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