Thursday, 18 June 2009

Wine Corner: Spain's quiet, mature wine tradition

Written by Petko Kisyov
Thursday, 18 June 2009

Think of Spain and you immediately conjure up images of the dark-haired senorita, castanets akimbo, or the highly ritualised corridas de toro with lavishly dressed matadors and noisy crowds, or even the sharp tang of warm citrus from the orchards of Seville.

Spanish wine for some reason doesn't immediately leap to mind, which is surprising when you consider that Spain ranks third in global wine production.

The history of viticulture and wine-making on the Iberian Peninsula in what is now Spain started some 3,000 years ago.
Vines were first planted in Spain in 1,100BC around Cadiz, by the Phoenicians.

From the very start of the eighth century until the end of the 15th, southern Spain was under the rule of the Moors, and being Muslims, wine production was not a priority.

This does not mean that the Moors never drank wine. Indeed, al-Motamid, the last Moorish king of Seville, loved wine so much that he publicly mocked everyone who drank water.

Hmmm ... a king after my own heart!

Modern Spanish viticulture started to form in 1490s, just about 30 years before the Spanish planted the first vines in the Americas.

Jump forward to the early 1970s, and Spanish wine had a bad reputation for its mass production of poor-quality bulk wines.

However, as the palate of the drinking public became more refined and markets opened up, Spanish winemakers put their shoulder to the wheel and invested in the production of higher-quality wines.

New technologies were introduced, and the wines, step-by-step, became more elegant. By the late 1980s Spanish wines were being taken seriously.

The ingenious spanish grape tempranillo ... produces fruity red wines with strawberry hints.

Today Spain produces all styles of wine, from sweet to dry, and offers great value for your dollar.

Denominacion de Origen Calificada (DOCa) is the highest grade a wine can reach in Spain.
Denominacion de Origen (DO) is the second grade, and the third and fourth grades are, respectively, Vino de la Tierra, wine which comes from specific area of production but does not meet the quality levels of DOCa and DO, and Vino de Mesa or table wine.

Wine is further described by one of the 14 main regions of production and 26 smaller DO areas.

The DOCa quality status has been granted to only three of the producing regions.

Every wine lover knows the famous Rioja wines, which for so long was the only DOCa wine in Spain, although more recently the neighbouring region of Navarra has joined the "big guns" club.

Actually, the two regions produce very similar style wines from the indigenous Spanish grape Tempranillo, which produces fruity red wines with strawberry hints, velvety tannins and low acidity.

Since acidity contributes to the long life of a wine, Tempranillo is often blended with up to 20 percent of other grapes in order to correct the acidity levels.

The third DOCa region is Priorat, only 20 kilometres from the Mediterranean coast in Catalunya, which is now producing some of Spain's most sophisticated and sought after reds.

Most Phnom Penh restaurants' wine lists focus on products from France, Australia, Chile and Argentina; however, there are those that also recognise Spanish wine.

Sangre de Toro, or Bull's Blood, one of the signatures of modern Spanish wine-making, is available from Lucky supermarket at US$13.50, but if you want to go the extra mile you might try Red Apron, which is offering Salmos ($38) and Celeste ($28), both made by Torres family. On their shelves one can also find "normal range" wines like Tempranillo by Finca Santefe at just $6.95.

A bit of Spain in Phnom Penh
But for a real Spanish experience the right place in Phnom Penh is Pacharan where you can enjoy Spanish tapas accompanied by Spanish wine.

My favourite appetisers are chorizo a la plancha (grilled Spanish sausage), champinones al ajillo (mushrooms in garlic) and patatas bravas (deep-fried potatoes in a chilli and garlic sauce).

The best match for these tempting morsels is definitely Mas la Plana Reserva 1999, an award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon from Penedes DO that is produced by the Torres family.

However, the wine is in the high price margin ($120); another alternative is Pagos de Labarca Crianza 2003, DOCa Rioja, which is currently retailing at a 20 percent discount ($32.80).

Don't forget that sparkling wines can accompany every dish. Reserva Rosado (Rose) Brut (DO Cava) $27.50 can be your perfect companion.

At the end of the meal, if you feel like having a glass of sweet wine to go with your dessert or cheese platter, you will be delightfully surprised.

Since most of the restaurants in Phnom Penh don't offer sweet wines, Pacharan has gone that extra mile. A glass of the sweet Pedro Ximenes at the restaurant costs $8 per glass.

Petko Kisyov is an advanced sommelier with diplomas from the Spirit Education Trust of London, the City & Guilds of London Institute and the MB Institute in France.

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