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Spanish wine makes a comeback

Let’s start this column with a little wine history — perhaps a review for experienced oenophiles, but something new for those just now becoming friends of the grape.

In the late 19th century, much of the European wine industry was decimated by a plague of phylloxera, tiny sap-sucking insects considered part of the aphid family. The only thing that saved the European viticulture was the grafting of European vines onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock, a relatively new agricultural technique that was just then coming into vogue.

One area seemingly unaffected by the plague was the tiny Jumilla region of Spain, and French growers flocked to the area to plant vines and continue their enterprises. That was all well and good until 1989, when phylloxera struck the southeastern Spanish region, which had never seen a need to graft its vines to American stock. Wine production fell off by as much as 60 percent over the next five years.

After a slow and expensive recovery, Jumilla and other Spanish wine regions have made an impressive comeback. A new spate of wines that recently entered the market shows an increased sophistication, boasting a more accessible approach for new wine drinkers and flavor spins uniquely their own for veteran consumers.

Central to this renaissance is monastrell, the original Spanish version of the red wine grape that the French call mouvedère. Currently, 85 percent of Jumilla’s vineyards are devoted to monastrell, which is used both in blends and as a standalone varietal in producing some very nice and affordable wines.

Another grape making a splash among Spanish wines is verdejo, a white wine grape indigenous to the northwestern Rueda region. This area was hit by the phylloxera plague along with the rest of 19th-century Europe and long ago grafted its vines to resistant rootstock. Consequently, the verdejo wines emerging today, known for their bright, honeyed fruit flavors, often emerge from very old vines that lend a greater depth to the wine.

Here are some examples of each that deliver some of the best wine values on the market today, as well as a few other Spanish wines of note:

The Honoro Vera Blanco 2013 ($9) may be one of the best places to start for fans of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier looking for a new taste treat. Expect the same soft mouthfeel and bright acidity as the more familiar wines, but with flavors that balance in a slightly different way.

Honoro Vera’s papaya-mango nose gives way to a complementary flavor profile that also is herbal, floral and even a little grassy on the palate. Chilled appropriately, this wine is a nice accompaniment to summer’s waning days.

Expect something similar from the Bodegas Shaya Verdejo ($14), another example of how well the Rueda region manages its native viticulture. Aged partially in French oak, this wine offers a spice and kiwi nose, with hints of peach. The flavor profile is similar, with an excellent balance of fruitiness and acidity that make the wine both flavorful and refreshing.

For something a little sweeter, consider the Juan Gil Muscat ($11), produced from grapes grown in Jumilla by one of the wine houses leading the current renaissance. This juicy wine exhibits a nose of kiwi, melon and peach augmented by flavors of stone fruit and honeydew, with a long finish that helps manage the muscat’s inherent sweetness.

The coming autumn means the reemergence of red wines for many of us, and this is where Spain’s new crop of wine really shines. Bodegas Juan Gil produces a red version of its Honoro Vera ($9), this one made from organic monastrell grapes.

The wine is driven by a light, almost reedy mouthfeel and flavored with bright fruit flavors. Lighter in body than expected, the wine still offers complex flavors with balanced tannins for a distinctly clean finish.

The same grape and same region also are responsible for Juan Gil Silver Label ($15), a monstraell wine aged for 15 months in French oak. Smoky aromas of currant and berry lead to a supple mouthfeel and concentrated flavors redolent of crème de cassis. Solid tannins belie a good structure and lead to a lengthy finish.

Monastrell also plays a role in wines from elsewhere in Spain, including Laya ($10), a blend from Bodegas Atalaya in the nearby Almansa region. Comprised of 75 percent garnacha tintorera and 25 percent monastrell, the dense and savory wine speaks with a voice of espresso, licorice and pepper under an aroma of black fruits. Dark in the glass, the wine offers a surprising delivery for its modest price.

Garnacha plays a small (20 percent) role in Cellars Can Blau ($15), a dark red wine from the Montsant region. Balanced by 40 percent mazuelo (better known as carignan) and 40 percent syrah grapes, the wine builds on a base of smoky essence, with flavors of spice and black fruits. Can Blau is rich and deep, departing with a long, lingering finish.

A visit with Spanish wines would not be complete with tasting a tempranillo, and the country’s signature wine grape delivers once again with Entre Suelos ($15), a bright red from Bodegas Tridente. Produced from grapes grown in the Zamora region, the wine has been aged both in stainless steel and French oak. 

The result is an excellent balance of cherry and blueberry flavors against a backdrop of espresso and spice. Light in body, yet surprisingly complex, the wine is a treat for the palate of experienced oenophile and wine newcomer alike.

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