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Published: Tuesday, 4/5/2005

Some Spanish wines are gems

Although some populated regions of the world are not hospitable to wine grapes, the number of areas that produce relatively unknown good - or even great - wines is endlessly impressive.

I find myself looking at unfamiliar bottles as ambassadors of widely shared and enjoyed pleasure.

Most recently, the novelty of unfamiliar imports has begun to brush aside a curtain hiding Spanish wines and the foods that happily go with them. If tapas, infinitely varied little appetizers, were invented in a Spanish kitchen, what beverage better to go with them than a glass of wine from a Spanish winery?

It's less widely known on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, however, that Spain is a major player in world wine markets, cultivating more vineyard acres than Italy, Germany, or France.

If you think of Spanish wines, you may think of great fortified sherries, a happy meeting of grapes, soil, and a distinctive method of fermentation. Sherries - "much copied," in the classic phrase, "but never equaled" - bear eloquent witness to Spain's place among the world's wine producers.

What is easier to overlook is that Spanish table wines, as remote from the sherries as are, say, the rhones or central coast californians, include splendid reds and whites that can be matched with a bold menu. Regrettable as it is, the obscure place of Spanish wines on American tables seems less the consequence of bias than the myopic focus of exporters/importers to the United States, and as a result the way the market makers have introduced themselves to us. However it happened, we have been missing a number of attractive discoveries.

Where to start? There's a truly great red wine grape that you should know, Burgundy's pinot noir, if you will, or the cabernet sauvignon of Bordeaux. Once you've slowly, thoughtfully savored a glass as you nibbled a succession of tapas, you'll never again overlook it. It is called tempranillo (tem-pra-NEAL-ee-yo), and it is the structure of almost any Spanish red you're likely to come across. Ole!

From the tip of your tongue, there's no question that this is a grape wine, not elderberry or dandelion. In the mouth, the flavors peel off the palate, one from atop the next, and present a kaleidoscopic succession of fruit flavors.

In a row of labels, it's hard to miss a bold Campo Viejo in red and gold. This comes from a winery in the Rioja region owned and managed by an American couple, and it is a big step toward the revitalization of a district - once the most important wine-producing area in Spain - that had been showing signs of fatigue.

Three grades of wine, all tempranillos, are an ingratiating introduction to this great among several great reds. The first grade, for example, sells for about $12 to $14 - a predictable market is fluid, as Italy's was until some 10 years ago. But given the quality and charm in a bottle, it won't take long for a stable availability and pricing to emerge.



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