WineLine No. 15
Each year a seemingly "new" wine region emerges offering what oenogeeks call "good QPR" - that's "quality-price ratio", otherwise known as bang for the buck. These bargains often chime the cash register in the $5-15 range, making them excellent choices for everyday drinking. Remember when Australian wines were cheap? (Look around, Oz still offers plenty of bargains; it's just that our sights are higher now that we've discovered what they can do when we offer real money.) Or Côte du Rhône and the rest of southern France?
My candidate for this year's emerging bargain region is Spain, not exactly a "new" wine country but one that is set to raise eyebrows. Some high brows have already been raised by the expensive and expansive wines of Priorat and Ribera del Duero. Lower brows will soon be lifted by bargains from Calatayud, Campo de Borja and La Mancha, among other regions.
Many wine writers attribute Spain's rise in quality to increased plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, away from what one columnist recently called "the ubiquitous Garnacha." It's as if the product's ultimate value is determined more by the selection of grape varieties than by the quality of vineyard and winery practices. Spain is indeed making some lovely Bordeaux-styled wines, but I hope the winemakers don't begin believing their own press and abandon traditional varieties. Besides, I love Grenache by any name; it's a lively and food-friendly grape.
If you've paid attention to Spanish wines before, the name Jorge Ordonez is probably familiar. Or maybe not. Ordonez has been importing a top-notch portfolio for many years, but only recently has he put his own name on the label. (Many people deride this trend, but I'm a fan of the concept: Knowing the importer's name establishes a frame of reference and a mark of quality for the consumer, much as Robert Parker is a reliable palate whether or not we agree with his preferences.)
Ordonez' current portfolio includes a few great bargains from the central regions of Calatayud and Campo de Borja, northeast of Madrid and southeast of the better-known wine areas of Rioja and Navarra. These center on two producers, each of whom offers two bottlings with impressive QPR. And to add insult to injury to the wine snobs, these producers are cooperatives. So there.
From Calatayud, the Bodegas y Viñedos del Jalón offers the Viña Alarba label with two juicy Garnachas from the 2000 vintage. The first is a delightful, fruity and forward quaff suitable for sipping or with almost any food, at least the lighter fare (including fish) most people eat for an average dinner. The second bottling, labeled "Old Vines Grenache," is more austere and lean but no less attractive. It may not aspire to a higher pedigree, but not everyone's relatives came over on the Mayflower. Both these wines are available in the Washington D.C. area for less than $7.
A bit further north, in Campo de Borja, the S.C. Agricola de Borja offers Borja, a spicy beam of raspberry/blueberry fruit, exuberant and delicious. Their Borsao bottling is a bit richer, though still under $7 a bottle, combining the fruit with some of the reductive earthiness of a wine kept as far away from oxygen as possible. It's a style popular now in the south of France for giving a basic red a bit more oomph. Both are from the 2000 vintage.
Ordonez also offers the Abadia de Retuerta line of wines from Sardon de Duero, near the more famous Ribera del Duero district. The entry level wine from this estate, called Rivola, is now in the 1999 vintage with a blend of 60% Tempranillo and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a medium-bodied wine showing restraint and revealing some richness and depth after a few hours in the open air. The Cabernet, perhaps, ups the price a bit, but the quality is well worth the $12 it commands.
From La Mancha, south of Madrid, comes yet another worthy bargain from Bodegas Leganza S.A., courtesy of Palm Bay Imports in Boca Raton, Florida. The Condesa de Leganza Crianza 1998 ($8) is all Tempranillo, quite refined for the price with hints of chocolate and cinnamon overlaying cherry fruit. This strikes me as more "Old World" in style than the Campo de Borja wines and their "international" character, but I don't mean that as an insult. This is not an oxidized wine from moldy barrels but a medium-bodied red with class.
"Bargain That Doesn't Fit the Theme" Department ... unless we stretch the Spanish theme to include Chile. Chilean winemakers were cashing in on the Merlot craze in the early '90s, until some uppity ampelographer discovered their Merlot was actually Carmenère, a forgotten Bordeaux grape. So they decided to make the most of it as Chile's distinctive grape, much like Argentina's Malbec or California's Zinfandel. The Veramonte Primus 1998, a blend of Carmenère and Cabernet Sauvignon is, pardon the pun, a prime example. It features lush cherry/berry fruit with roasted bell pepper aromas, medium-full body and a deliciously long finish. Café Atlantico in Washington, perhaps the only restaurant in the country with a Carmenère section on its wine list, features it for $36.
Dave McIntyre's WineLine is published by electronic mail whenever Dave gets slapped in the face by his muse and whenever his 20-month-old daughter, Emma Mei, lets him move the computer off SesameStreet.org. Subscriptions are free (send e-mail to join: firstname.lastname@example.org), and readers are encouraged to forward WineLine to anyone who may be interested. Dave can be reached at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.