One of the difficulties in writing about wine is comparisons. When someone describes a wine, and I'm guilty of this as well, they too often look for something to compare it to. This happens because wine writers, and especially in the U.S., have to find a way to adjust the wine they're writing about to a U.S. drinker's frame of reference. Hence you'll see wines that taste nothing like cabernet sauvignon being compared to cabernet, since that's all we know in this country.
This approach does a tremendous disservice to wines made with unfamiliar grapes from less familiar parts of the world. Case in point is the Castilla (about $14, purchased), with is a Spanish wine made with the verdejo grape. The wine is usually compared to sauvignon blanc, when it actually has very little in common with sauvignon blanc.
Yes, each has a citrus flavor, but that's about it. The Castilla is a much richer, fuller wine, and the finish is almost oak-like (though it doesn't have any oak aging). The citrus is just one part of its appeal; for most inexpensive sauvignon blancs, citrus is the only appeal. The Castilla is far more complex than most sauvignon blanc at this price, and it pairs with a wider variety of food. In this, it's an incredible food wine, as all true Spanish wines appear to be.
Patrick Mata is not only an advocate for Spanish wines, but he is an advocate for Spanish wines that taste like Spanish wines. Anyone who doubts the validity of his argument needs to taste this wine.
The Portal Blanc ($15, sample) is made mostly with the white garnacha grape, which is as little known, even in Spain, as its sibling, garnacha (grenache in this country), is famous. Which is too bad, because winemaker Juanjo Galcera Pi ol has done the grape proud. His effort has produced a sophisticated, yet food-friendly, wine with peach and floral aromas, an almost fennel-like middle, and a long, wonderful finish. It tastes much more expensive than it is.
Drink this wine slightly chilled on its own or with boiled seafood. The Spanish would drink this with all their goofy seafood (barnacles, anyone?), but shrimp will do just fine. Highly recommended; the only caveat is that availability may be limited.
Patrick Mata is the Wine Curmudgeon’s kind of guy, and not just because he’s one of the world’s best wine importers. It’s because he understands the value of a buck.
“Why don’t wine buyers want more for their dollar?” he asked me during a visit to Dallas this week. “What’s the point of that?”
In Mata’s case, that means Spanish wines. He is co-owner of Ole Imports, which not only brings in quality wines, but quality wines that are terrific values. Ole products are often candidates for the $10 Hall of Fame, and they get terrific reviews — not only here, but from people like Robert Parker. Most importantly, they’re honest wines, tasting like they’re supposed to taste. Mata’s producers make Spanish wines, not Spanish wines made to appeal to U.S. palates.
And that’s not an easy sell, he says, given the way the wine world works. “That affects my life completely,” says Mata, whose family has been in the wine business in Spain for 200 years. “The most successful wines from Australia, from Napa, they have very little typicity. They’re one dimensional. They have no sense of place.”
Fortunately, Mata has had great success selling Spanish wines with a sense of place. That the trend towards what Mata calls Hummer wines — showy, over-oaked, and overly fruity — seems to be ending. The Spanish have a term for these wines, in fact — mazarotes.
His other insights:
? Mata has very little use for mazarotes. He calls them baby wines — the kind that are sweet, over-ripe, manipulated and can be spoon fed to consumers.
? The world does not need to live by cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Spain’s great challenge, Mata says, is that its best wines aren’t varieties that U.S. consumers are familiar with, “aren’t the language that most Americans understand. If they understood, they’d get a lot more for their dollar.”
? The wine business is not like McDonald’s, where everything tastes the same. It’s much more complicated, where wines should reflect where they’re from.
? There is a U.S. palate, just as there is a German palate (they prefer oxidized wines) and a French palate and so forth. We prefer wines with more fruit, and younger U.S. wine drinkers don’t like tannins. So, rather than educate consumers that tannins can be good things, we get wines made with as little tannic structure as possible.
? Finally, to anyone who says that Mata’s view of the world isn’t realistic, he points to Australian wine. It dominated the U.S. market by making wines that appealed to the U.S. palate. Now, he says, Americans are tired of those wines, and that is reflected in Australia’s declining market share in the U.S.
The weather in Dallas was quite unseasonable last week — some 12 inches of snow in a 24-hour period Thursday and Friday, or about the same amount of snow that we get in five normal winters. That would have been bad enough, but the Wine Curmudgeon lost power from about mid-afternoon on Thursday until mid-afternoon on Friday.
Needless to say, I was crankier than usual (and lucky, since many parts of Dallas were without power through this morning). Making me even crankier? No heat, and I was quite cold, despite two heavy shirts, two pairs of socks, sweatpants, a bulky sweater and a scarf.
When the power returned on Friday, just in time for dinner, I knew what had to be done. It was time to drink my final bottle of Solaz.
Three cheap wines stand out in my two-plus decades of writing about cheap wine — a French red called Jaja de Jau, which was about $6 in the 1990s and then disappeared from the Dallas market; Hogue’s fume blanc, about $8 and as good a sauvignon blanc as you’ll find, which is still around but nowhere near what it was after several corporate acquisitions; and the Solaz. And now, all three are gone. The Solaz has been phased out in one of those business decisions that make sense to the people who make them but to no one else. I had picked up a bottle in December during a closeout, and was waiting for the right time to drink it.
I don’t remember when I first tasted the Solaz, but I remember what I did. I went out and bought more, and I have been buying more for at least a decade. I have been recommending it to friends, readers, and wine drinkers for years, and no one has ever complained. It was a fixture in the $10 Hall of Fame.
The Solaz may have been the quintessential cheap red wine: enough fruit to please an American palate, but also some Spanish acid, decent tannins, and a beginning, a middle, and an end. How often can one say that about a $7 wine? (Full disclosure: I visited Spain on Solaz producer’s Osborne dime, but that was several years after I started raving about the wine.)
Osborne made several versions — a white, a rose and three reds. The most common was the tempranillo-cabernet sauvignon blend, my favorite was the rose, and the tempranillo-syrah blend might have been the most interesting. But they were all fantastic.
So I savored my final bottle, the cabernet blend, on Friday night (which I drank with perhaps the best takeout chicken in Dallas — thank you, Cowboy Chicken). The wine and food paired well; one of the Solaz’s strengths, like so many Spanish red wines, was that it was food friendly with more than just red meat. And the wine was what it had always been — and then some. Even though this bottle was a 2006 and not the current vintage, it was still fresh and lively. Most other cheap red wines would have lost their character by now.
And then, suddenly, the bottle was empty. I cleared the table, put the leftovers away, and washed the dishes. The bottle, unfortunately, was still empty. So long, Solaz. I’ll miss you.
The Wine Curmudgeon, as is well known, is a huge fan of Spanish sparkling wine, known as cava. In fact, my enthusiasm for cava, and especially Cristalino, annoys more than a few retailers of my acquaintance.
One of them, in fact, insisted that the Casteller cava (about $10, purchased) was so much better than the Cristalino brut rose that I would stop nagging her about it. I wouldn't go that far (and what would the Wine Curmudgeon be without nagging?), but it's a solid, dependable, value-oriented wine.
Look for a lot of bubbles, some raspberry fruit and all the minerality that cava is known for. It's not rich or creamy like Champagne, but it's not supposed to be. I drank this on Thanksgiving and it was more than fine. It will pair with most holiday foods, and can also serve as the sparkler of choice during the New Year's season.
The Wine Curmudgeon has always been ambivalent about the Las Rocas, a Spanish red wine that is one of wine guru Robert Parker's favorite wines. It wasn't so much the quality of the wine as the hype and the price. In Dallas, it's almost never less than $12, and, frankly, for $12, I always expected a lot more than the Las Rocas delivered.
The 2007 vintage is mostly more of the same, though I found it for $10 (purchased) as an increasing number of local retailers are trying to clear out inventory. It's fruity and extracted (think very dark berries that coat your mouth), high in alcohol at 14.5 percent, and has lots of oak, especially for a wine at this price. No doubt those qualities are why it appeals to Parker.
I don't think it's a better value than Osborne's Solaz, but if you drink the Las Rocas with grilled beef or something similarly hefty, which will match the fruit, oak and alcohol, you'll understand why so many people enjoy it.
The first great cheap Spanish red blend to to get noticed in the U.S. was Osborne ?s Solaz. Since then, there has been an almost unending stream of red blends, many of which taste like they came from Australia and that they are cheap is about the only thing in their favor. And some of them aren ?t even cheap.
Fortunately, the Dis Tinto (about $10) belongs to the cheap and well made category. It ?s a tempranillo and syrah blend from Valenica (known for bulk wine, if not always quality wine) from Ole Imports, which has made a habit of bringing in these kinds of wines.
The Dis Tinto is dark and Spanish in nature, not as fruity as the Solaz syrah and tempranillo blend, and a bit higher in alcohol. I had it with chicken and rice seasoned with chili power, paprika, cumin and coriander and it was a terrific fit.