A Taste of Spain

Even people who never made it 30 pages into Proust's "search for lost time" know that it begins with a crumb of madeleine soaked in lime-flower tea. Most of us overlook that Proust wasn't describing a unique experience but one that nearly all of us have had: a vivid sensory assemblage that opens a door for us into another dimension of existence. I got blasted by a beauty just the other day when I opened a chilly bottle of a Spanish wine new to me, a straw-colored white made entirely from the ancient verdejo grape strain. One sniff and I was no longer in my kitchen. The time became late-summer sunset, with the tang of dry brush and dust hanging in the still air. Spain was in that bottle, and not all Spain, but a particular, inimitable patch of north central Spain, the Duero River Valley between Toro and Valladolid. There are other white wines that capture the experience of a particular place with exquisite precision, and somehow, most of them seem to come from Spain and Portugal: the lemon-colored vinho verde of Portugal, as delicately flavored as mineral water, but water transfigured; the more robust herbal albariños/alvarinhos of the nearby pluvial Rias Baixas region; the viura of Rioja, cheerfully quaffable when young or of staid nobility when properly aged; the Xarel-lo, which contributes to Catalonia's sparkling dry cavas and the unpronounceable varieties only now emerging from their native Basque country. Why such an abundance of individuality in this one corner of Europe? In large measure because beginning in the 17th century, Iberia lagged ever farther behind the rest of the continent on the relentless road of Progress. When the dictatorships that controlled Spain and Portugal finally fell in the 1970s, the Iberian economies and societies found themselves a generation or more behind the rest of Europe, but also a generation or more short of the homogenization and standardization in every aspect of life that was overcoming more "progressive" neighbors. God knows the peoples of the peninsula have been playing catch-up at a terrifying pace, in the world of wine as well as that of food, couture, industry, etc. But thanks to some farsighted individuals and regions, some of the modernization has come through refining the best of the old rather than ripping and replacing it with something more fashionably new. When you drink a good Spanish white, you rediscover what "handmade" can mean in a wine. Spanish Whites The sheer variety of Spanish whites available in the marketplace defies comprehensive listing. The four following bottles, along with one generic varietal recommendation, should please almost everyone, while serving as an introduction to the kaleidoscope. 2003 Marqués de Cáceres For simple summer drinking, there's hardly a better wine to be had: The viura grape, native to Spain's Rioja district, yields a wine clean, juicy, and flavorful, round enough to sip with cold shellfish or a dinner salad, and agreeable enough on its own to while away a summer evening. Buy more than one bottle at a time; at $8, you can afford to. Famega Vinho Verde If mineral water could get you tiddly, it would taste like this pale, fragrant nonvintage quaff from Portugal. $8 or less and widely distributed. 2003 Marqués de Alella Parxet The "x" should tip you off that you're in nonhispanic Spain here: This one is from the Catalan region near Barcelona and is made from the indigenous Xarel-lo grape, which lends the wine a rich, herbal fragrance and flavor. A wine for sipping, considering, and sipping some more, but perhaps not for everyone. $10 2003 Naia Verdejo An absolutely classic white, light enough for easy drinking, characterful enough to evoke the whole atmosphere of summer. Drunk along with classic tapas accompaniments like toasted almonds, olives, and manchego cheese, it's like a vacation in Castile. $12 2002/03/04 Albariño Also known as alvarinho (the Portuguese spelling) this grape variety, like Austria's grüner Veltliner, has turned from wallflower to international beauty queen in just a decade or so—with rises in price to match, unfortunately. But you can still find good ones well under $20. It's a noble, food-friendly grape, and you don't have to worry about finding it too sweet as a table wine. Get your wine merchant's advice when buying. Some expensive bottlings don't deserve the premium, while more inexpensive (usually Portugeuse) ones are bargains. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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