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WINE

Spain's Undiscovered Revolution

August 03, 1995|DAN BERGER

During the past decade, Spanish wine has evolved from erratic to excellent, though few American wine consumers have noticed.

The problem was that many of the wines weren't available here. Now more are starting to show up. The question is: Will anyone be adventuresome enough to try these wines?

Excluding its Sherry, which doesn't sell much anyway, Spain is one of the last wine-growing countries that wine lovers think of when great wine is mentioned. Ironically, Spain has more vine acreage than any other country.

However, until recently, Spain hasn't sold much wine away from home, for two related reasons:

First, for decades, less than modern vine-growing methods made for a lower per-acre yield of grapes than in most wine-growing countries. Second, Spanish wine consumption was so high that the Spanish drank nearly all they made.

There was no need to create an export market, so most Spanish producers kept their wine-making style traditional. Wines offering unusual tastes were made from grape varieties unfamiliar to French wine lovers. And the techniques produced wines that can taste dull and oxidized to the American palate, as if they've been aged too long in old barrels.

Such styles are an acquired taste. Those who like traditional Spanish wines are fascinated by the earthy/barky smells, the almost sherried taste they call rancio . It's a style of wine that ignores the fresh fruit of the grape for the broad, mature tastes and soft texture the Spanish like so well.

But in the past decade, the face of Spanish wine has changed. A decline in domestic consumption, combined with updated farming methods, has led to more wine than Spain itself can consume. This prompted the Spanish government in the mid-1980s to create subsidies for growers and wineries who export.

Because the Old World style of Spanish wine wasn't widely liked here, Spanish producers who had an oversupply of grapes worked diligently in the campos and bodegas to move toward a style that the rest of the wine world would appreciate.

The results, now on shelves at your local fine wine shop, are exceptional offerings. They strongly indicate that the quality of Spanish wine may soon match its volume, and prices are shockingly low.

True, a few of these wines are made from grapes we're not intimate with, yet the winemaking is so good these days that the wines please us anyway.

Take, for example, the 1994 Carchelo Monastrell from Bodegas Agapito Rico. A daunting name for the uninitiated, to be sure--but just taste this delightful, intriguing, luscious wine.

It is made from the red grape Monastrell, which is the same as the Rho^one's Mourvedre. In the Rho^ne, this grape can produce a heavy, coarse wine, but here it's rendered harmless by being made in the Beaujolais manner, which sheds some of the tannins. The wine is then blended with enough Merlot to give it the fruit and juiciness to go with Monastrell's spicy, earthy, peppery notes.

Particularly at its price ($6, occasionally less), this wine from southeastern Spain, where the climate is tempered by the nearby Mediterranean, represents a great example of the Spanish wine rebirth.

But this isn't the only wine I found in a three-week search of the West for good wines from Spain. Many of the best were in the $20 price range, a bit steep for first-time explorers of Iberia. Among wines at lower prices, however, I recommend all of the following to anyone who wants to see what's happening in Spanish wine today:

* 1992 Onix, Bodegas Collita ($8): Deeply scented of ripe, spiced plums; trace of toast and rich fruit, leading to a long finish. A wine made by famed enologist Jorge Ordon~ez.

* 1990 Rioja Vega, Bodega Muerza ($10): A more traditional aroma of earth and dusty plums, with a vanilla finish. The maturity is already here, giving the wine a supple texture.

* 1992 Guelbenzu Tinto, Bodegas Guelbenzu ($10): This wine, from the Navarra region in the cool north of the country, is the perfect synthesis of new and old. The front end is Cabernet Sauvignon (60%), while the back end (35%) is Tempranillo, the most popular red grape in most regions of Spain.

The fruit here has true Cabernet character--herbal, cherry-like and clove-scented. There is ample new oak for intrigue, a dose of pepper for complexity and a lovely texture (perhaps from the Tempranillo). A superb effort.

Barry Herbst of Red Carpet Liquors in Glendale, who has fallen in love with the red wines of Spain and carries many, admits that the revolution in Spanish wine hasn't been discovered by most of his customers.

"I gotta keep pushing people on it all the time," he says, "but when they buy a bottle, they usually come back for more."

Wine of the Week

1994 Vin~as del Vero Gewurtztraminer ($8)--For those who think that Spain can't make excellent white wine, this will be a surprise. It's marked by an exotic spicy, floral aroma, a soft but not sweet taste and a grand, gentle aftertaste. It's great with spiced Asian foods.

Vin~as del Vero is a new winery founded less than a decade ago in the depressed area of Aragon, in a region called Somantano in the Pyrenees foothills.

Some producers here focus on the local grapes Moristel and Tempranillo; Vin~as del Vero chose to plant the more traditional French varieties, aiming at the U.S. market, and early results have been exceptional.

Look also for another delicious white wine, 1994 Duque de Azara ($6), a crisp, fresh, sprightly wine with hints of melons and lemons in its aroma.

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