WINE & SPIRITS
THE LAND OF PRONOUNCED FLAVORS AND BOLD COCINA PRODUCES BOTTLES TO MATCH
Riserva Seating | Bodegas Sierra Salinas is one of the Valencia region's top producers; critic Robert Parker awarded many of their bottles 90-point scores.
As the season changes, I begin my quest for top-notch medium-bodied reds, the right wines for the weather. The transition led me this year to Spain. In Valencia, a Mediterranean city, I discovered wines so expressive they stood up proudly to the region's eye-popping larder. In one extravagant meal after another, these spicy reds (as well as some aromatic whites and sparkling cava) washed down platters featuring, among other ingredients, snails, cod roe, duck, chorizo, oxtail and Galician octopus.
The emerging wine region around Valencia on Spain's arid southeastern coast is the spiritual homeland of the monastrell grape, which produces wines fragrant with the aromas of sage, thyme, lavender and other Mediterranean herbs. These light reds have a fresh acidity and bright finish that makes them a perfect match for everything from seafood to earthy meat dishes.
The king of monastrell producers is Bodegas Sierra Salinas in the Alicante appellation south of Valencia. The winery, perched 2,100 feet above sea level, is an oasis of cool on its high plateau. Mighty critic Robert Parker put its wines on the map a few years back when he awarded a number of them 90-point scores. Mo, their entry-level wine, is a delightful bargain at just $10 a bottle (it represents half of the winery's 140,000-bottle production). Puerto Salinas, a more complex red blend, was a luscious match for arroz seco con caracoles (rice and snails). Mira, another monastrell marvel, is spicy, while the top-of-the-line Salinas 1237—released in limited editions of 2,500 bottles—is a true knockout red that's like velvet.
While Bodegas Sierra Salinas has become one of the region's top producers, Alicante's undisputed wine pioneer is nearby Pepe Mendoza. This chateau-style winery, also set on a high, scenic plateau, began making age-worthy wines in sturdy French oak barrels back when everyone else was still selling their grapes to bulk-wine producers. Today, the winery grows grapes organically and employs the latest technology to rid the vineyard of moths. I was taken with both its bold Shiraz and its Estrecho, made from 100 percent monastrell grapes.
Choza Carrascal, a family-run winery on the Iberian Peninsula's central plateau produces 120,000 bottles and specializes mostly in non-native French varietals. The Lopez family, who owns the property, enlisted famed French wine consultant Michel Poudou to help craft the line. Las Tres, a blend of three white varietals, was lovely and aromatic with notes of white flowers, citrus and tropical fruit. Las Ocho, a blend of eight red varietals—four Spanish, four French—is aged 14 months in French oak. It's a powerful wine with round tannins and hints of coffee and chocolate. Its Cabernet Franc, which the Penin Guide declared the best in Spain, is a beautiful mouth-filling red with violet aromas and pronounced toasted notes.
The region around Valencia also produces some exceptional sweet wines, both white and red. When Spain's Prince Felipe and Princess Doña Letizia were wed, boutique winery Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega supplied the sweet moscatel. Its Casta Diva Reserva has a beautiful honey flavor balanced with citrus notes.
Having experienced red, white and sweet wine establishments, the only thing left to do was hit a sparkling-wine house. No Spanish wine visit is complete without a visit to a cava producer. These Spanish bubblies are usually made from blends of macebbeo and chardonnay. At Dominio de la Vega, set along the ancient Roman road connecting Madrid to Valencia (in a stone house dating back to 1735), I gazed in awe at the thousands of bottles of cava aging away. The bodega uses the methode Champénoise, resulting in finer bubbles and a more elegant finish than most cavas.
One evening at a hilltop restaurant overlooking the city of Alicante, I sipped de la Vega's remarkable three-year aged riserva cava, which earned a 93-point score from critic Parker. From the terrace, flute in hand, I watched as bonfires burned in the streets below and fireworks exploded in the clouds overhead. The festivities were to celebrate the Fallas festival, an old pagan holiday that consumes the city every summer. The locals celebrate by setting elaborate papier mâché statues alight. I thought of that dramatic flaming sight recently as I filled my cellar with cava and spicy reds from the Spanish coast. They're the perfect accompaniment to fall.