A few weeks ago, I attended a fancy lecture and tasting of Spanish wines sponsored by Wines of Spain, the grapey arm of Spain's trade commission. Educator Steve Olson introduced the liquid bling to the media, reps, and buyers in the audience and delivered a passionate pitch that was almost Anthony Robbins in nature—but he was preaching to the choir. Spanish wine is the simplest of all European wines to sell. Even the most expensive juice of Spain costs less than the prized bottles of other countries, and Spain has been synonymous with "value" to U.S. consumers for years.
However, the tasting hit at one of my personal prejudices about Spain, which produces so many cheap, delicious wines. As great as the expensive cult wines I tried at the tasting were, I often ignore them in favor of the "I can't believe that only cost $15" crowd. Here are three Spanish regions and a few tasty delegates from each.
Of the pricey wines I tasted, the one that knocked me out of my chair was from Vall Llach in the Priorat region just south of Barcelona. Priorat wines taste like an intense blackberry-plum-licorice chutney with a healthy dose of alcohol. The vines here are so precariously perched that some vineyards require trained climbers to pick the grapes. Because of huge scores from major critics, Vall Llach wines can be impossible to find, and prices are as steep as the vineyards. However, surrounding the Priorat is Monsant, a region that strikes similar but less extravagant chords. The land in Monsant is cheaper and easier to work, and companies are falling all over themselves to get in on acreage. The Can Blau and Fra Guerau labels (the latter especially has decent presence around Seattle) show some of the tangy plum and trademark sweet licorice of their high-class neighbors.
Coming from the Toro region, a powerful San Roman made from the local tinta del toro grape tasted like an exotic version of a fine cabernet-syrah blend from our own Eastern Washington. The wines of Toro have amazing spice, ripeness, and concentration, but enough backbone and acidity to stay friends with food. On the more inexpensive end of the spectrum, a bottle of Viñaguareña is one of my go-to wines for meat off the grill, and winery Abadia Retuerta has been Toro's poster girl for years, especially its "Rivola." Both pull off just the right balance between ripe fruit and structure.
Wines of Spain also showed off the "Clio" from Bodegas del Nido in Jumilla. Made in partnership with Aussie wine star Chris Ringland, Clio was one big purple slut, with an almost indecent amount of dark fruit, spices, and heat. Everyday wines from Jumilla trump even those from Australia with their dollar-per-fruit ratio. Casa de la Ermita, Casa Castillo, Bodegas Juan Gil, and Bodegas Olivares all make wines with complex, juicy fruit, all for $10 to $18.
Calling the inexpensive wines knockoffs of the superstars gets it backward: The expensive vintages are like a $75 T-shirt, beautifully designed but irrelevant to most shoppers. If you can't locate these specific gems, finding respectable alternatives should be a Mediterranean breeze. Just look for the above regions on the label, and Roberto es su tio.