Of the world's Top 3 wine superpowers, Spain remains, I suspect, the relative terra incognita for most drinkers. Any grape nut worth his cinsault will have the basic geography of France and Italy at hand. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, Tuscany, Piedmont and Sicily are easily tacked on the map. But apart from Rioja, Spain's diverse and dynamic regions are about as blurry to most of us as a shaky news clip of Pamplona's running of the bulls.
May I humbly offer a brief and highly selective value-oriented tour? Spain has been bursting with activity thanks in large part to a new generation of devoted producers who are delivering remarkably complex wines at reasonable prices. That word "value" inspires me in the notes below to skip the most noteworthy region of modern Spanish winemaking, the Priorat. They make great reds on Priorat's parched hills southwest of Barcelona. Sadly, though, Priorat prices can be almost as shocking as Spain's national debt – several hundred dollars in the case of Alvaro Palacios' marvellous l'Ermita, a wine as dense and contemporary as anything out of Napa.
The quality revolution, which began in earnest in the 1970s and has accelerated in the past 15 years, extends well beyond splurgeworthy Priorat. Farther south and inland lies Jumilla, for example. The region's star grape, monastrell, is better known as mourvedre, a full-bodied, astringent variety popular in southern French blends that feature peppery syrah and supple grenache. Casa Castillo El Molar, reviewed here, is a shining introduction to Jumilla's recent transformation.
Monastrell also figures prominently in the reds of nearby Alicante to the east, where the Mediterranean shore points out toward the topless beaches and vodka-fueled nightclubs of the sunny island of Ibiza. The traditional star in Alicante is Fondillon, a sweet red with a tangy, oxidized quality reminiscent of sherry. Yet the new dry wines, increasingly bottled by small producers rather than large co-operatives, can be sumptuous and striking – and not just for their alcohol content, which can reach as high as 16 per cent in the hot inland growing areas.
After Priorat, the Ribera del Duero, not far from Rioja in the central north, is the place generating the most buzz among score-chasing connoisseurs. The best wines, typically made largely from Spain's noblest grape, tempranillo, can be expensive, alas. That's the case with venerable Vega Sicilia, believed by many to be the country's greatest and most cellar-worthy red. But $25 or so can land you a gem, like Buro de Penalosa Crianza (also reviewed here).
If your budget's tighter than that, consider exploring the much-improved reds of Toro and the crisp whites of Rueda, both located west of Ribera del Duero toward the border with northern Portugal.
Navarra, another standout region for quality at a fair price, lies on the foothills of the Pyrenees in the extreme north, close to the border with France. Until recently distinguished for rosés and (rather undistinguished) bulk wines, it has come on strong with higher-quality estate-bottled reds. But the grenache- and tempranillo-based wines of Navarra have a way to go before they overshadow a more striking red fluid for which the region regrettably earns more attention. Navarra's capital is Pamplona.
The wines here, featured in Saturday's Spanish release at Ontario Vintages stores, would be suitable for most hearty red-meat dishes, particularly lamb and beef.
Casa Castillo el Molar 2011 (Spain)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $17.95
Substantial (at 15-per-cent alcohol), smooth and structured, this Jumilla red comes across like espresso and chocolate drizzled over dark berries. Perfect for pan-seared duck breast. Various prices in Alta.
Buro de Penalosa Crianza 2009 (Spain)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $23.95
The bottle I sampled came with a strange designation: "Product of Canada." Clearly that was a labelling error by someone in the winery's export office who must have relied on Google Translate. I love the spicy, leathery quality and dash of coconut running through the dried-cherry-like fruit. Leg of lamb would be a nice partner.
Vinessens Sein 2011 (Spain)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $17.95
It's a blend of monastrell and syrah, and it's the syrah that tends to dominate in this excellent Alicante red. Intense, chewy berries get a lift from nuances of spice and licorice. It tastes like a lavish Crozes-Hermitage. Wild boar sausages, anyone?
Dominio Dos Tares Estay Prieto Picudo 2011 (Spain)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95
Here's an oddity to stump your friends with in a blind tasting. I'd bet they'll never guess the grape: prieto picudo. It's a crisp, perfumed variety grown almost exclusively in Castilla y Leon in the northwest. This concentrated gem, from vines aged more than 90 years, smells of marzipan, while the succulent, rich palate hints at cherry. Try it with roast duck or boar sausages. Various prices in Alta.
Abelis Carthago William Selection Crianza 2011 (Spain)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $23.95
The winery, and the locals in Toro, call the grape tinta de toro. But that's a synonym for tempranillo, the great red variety widely used in Rioja, among other regions. The variety can be especially thick-skinned and tannic in Toro, and that's the case here, a delectably sticky yet smooth red with intense blackberry and backing-spice characters and an aromatic nuance of barrel cellar. Lay it down for five years or uncork it now over grilled steak. Beware the alcohol content: 15.5 per cent.
Alceno Premium 50 Barricas Syrah 2012 (Spain)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $13.95
Yes, syrah from Spain – Jumilla, specifically. But it's just a jaunt up the coast to southern France, where the red variety rises to its greatest glory in the Rhône Valley. The wine starts almost sweet, with a chewy core of plum and blackberry balanced by black pepper and lively acidity. Braised red meats, such as short ribs or lamb shanks, would do it proud. $17.99 in B.C.
Gotin del Risc Mencia 2010 (Spain)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95
Mencia is the grape, Bierzo the region. This is concentrated for mencia, with a core of dark-fruit preserves set against a solid tannic spine and crisp acidity. Try it with grilled pork chops or sausages.
Alceno 12 Meses Monastrell 2011 (Spain)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
A rounded mid-palate of berries gets strong support from a woody-spicy quality, licorice and vibrant acidity in this Jumilla red. Try it with grilled pork sausages or roast lamb. $14.99 in B.C.
Magana Dignus 2009 (Spain)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95
What's Manchego cheese doing in my wine? Or is that Gruyère? Seriously, the nutty, lactic essence leaps out, though not in an entirely undesirable way. A Navarra blend of tempranillo with French varieties merlot and cabernet sauvignon, this displays a liqueur-like core and then gets a tad funky. Try it with cheese? Various prices in Alta. $18.50 in Que.