I’ve given it a lot of thought over the time I’ve been in the wine business, and I’ve decided that part of what makes wine confusing to people is all the rules. Rules about making wine, rules about naming wine, rules about labeling – you name it, there are rules for it. (And of course, there are rules about drinking it too, but that’s another story.)
The thing is, the rules aren’t always helpful to you if you’re looking at a bottle on the shelf.
The rules are, essentially, a guarantee of quality. Assuming everyone involved is reputable, if you know the rules, you’ll know what’s in the bottle: what grapes; whether the wine was aged in oak or not; if so, how long; how long it was aged in the bottle afterward; etc. The thing is, those exact words likely won’t appear on the labels.
What you’ll see instead are words and acronyms relating to winemaking regions. The rules of those regions may allow the wine to have the name of the grape it contains, which is helpful. But lots of them don’t.
It took my aging, wino brain a little while to get used to the rules for French wine. (Now the authorities have changed the French rules a bit, so I’m not sure if I’m current or not, but I will blithely carry on.) With my trip to Spain last month, I had to start learning new rules. And “start” is the operative word here. I’m still not sure I have it all down, but I want to give you a flavor for what’s going on. Any and all corrections are welcome.
Spanish wine rules aren’t more complicated than French ones, but they are different. Starting with the most basic wine, France has Vin de Table, and Spain has Vino de Mesa. Vino de Mesa wines can come from grapes grown anywhere in Spain (or elsewhere, too, but if all the grapes are from Spain, it will say so on the label.)
Moving up the classification system, France has Vin du Pays, while Spain has Vino de Tierra. In both countries, those words are followed by some indication of where in the country they’re talking about, and all the grapes in the wine have to come from that specific area.
Once that Vino de Tierra area has demonstrated consistent quality over time, producers can apply for an upgrade to the wine authorities. In France, that means an A.O.C. designation like Côtes du Rhône, Bordeaux Supérieur, Minervois, and the like. In Spain, the promotion is called Denomicación de Origen, or DO, followed by the name of the region. The authorities determine what grapes can go in these wines, the alcohol level, and how they’re made.
Finally, after more years of quality production, petitioning, handwringing, and arm twisting, a region can achieve a higher designation. In France, there can be more than one of these levels, depending on the region, including Cru and Grand Cru. In Spain, there is Denominación de Origen Calificada, or DOC. DOC is like DO on steroids, really, with higher quality and stricter control. Spain has three DOC regions – Rioja, Priorat, and Ribera del Duero (as of 2008).
What makes Spain different from France is that many Spanish red wines have names that tell you more about what’s going on in the bottle. (For red wines, anyway. A lot of the white wines, like Verdejo or Albariño, are named for the grape.) While you might see a DO red wine called Tempranillo (for the grape), you probably won’t see that in a DOC wine. Some winemakers are disregarding the rules because they believe that the restrictions prevent them from making the best wine possible. In those cases, you will see all kinds of words and names on the label. But if you’re looking at a rule-following red wine from a DO or DOC, these are what you’ll find (There may be slight regional variations, but I don’t want to think about that):
Joven means “young” in Spanish, and Joven wines are young, come from younger vines and are not aged too long, and may or may not have any aging in oak. I’ve also seen these wines called Cosecha – literally harvest – or Nuevo (new), but those terms are being phased out in favor of Joven.
Roble wines are aged in oak for less than a year. The vines are generally older than those for Joven wines, and some Roble wines get practically up to the one-year oak aging mark. The wine is aged in the bottle for less than a year before going to market.
Crianzas are aged in oak for a year and then in the bottle for a year. Crianza is where you start to see wines getting more expensive and of higher quality. There’s a lot of difference between a Joven and a Roble, but it can be stylistic rather than just quality-based in my opinion. The difference between a Roble and a Crianza is definitely quality. That doesn’t mean that a Roble from one producer can’t be as good as a Crianza from another, and if you find a Roble like that, buy it quickly!
When you go higher up the quality scale, there’s Reserva and Gran Reserva. Reserva wines are aged for two years and oak and a year in the bottle. Gran Reserva wines are aged for two years in oak and three years in the bottle before release, and some producers age them longer than that. These are the “oh my goodness” wines, the ones that really show their complexity. And they’re harder to find, because production is smaller.
I got to taste a lot of those wonderful wines last month at the expo in Valladolid. In my next post, I’ll talk about some of the producers and their wines, but for now after all those rules, I think we need a drink – at least I do!
This week I’m recommending first vine’s first Spanish wine, Bodegas Fusión Lara O Crianza 2006 ($19). It’s from Ribera del Duero. A big wine, made from 100% Tempranillo, with lots of great fruit flavors, also some tobacco and spice.
And what to serve with it? A great steak on the grill, if you’ve got the steak and the grill. But for something less primal, try these anchovy and pepper-stuffed olives with orange. I’ve had them at Jaleo, one of José Andrés’s restaurants, and they’re good – but they’re also too sharp for my taste. So I looked for ways to tone them down a little. Roasting the olives gets rid of some of their bite, plus you can flavor the oil you roast them in and in turn, flavor the olives even more. Soaking the anchovies gets rid of some of the salt. I also go easy on the vinegar, which reduces the acidity so that the wine pairs beautifully.
A couple of things about the ingredients: I find that large garlic-stuffed green olives are great here (Divina makes them, and you can find them in jars at grocery stores). Just remove the garlic stuffed in them and you’re good to go. Plus the garlic adds a little residual flavor, too. If you can find salt-packed anchovies, go ahead and use them – they’ll hold up much better than the ones in oil. But if you have to use anchovies in oil, look for the rolled fillets. They’re wound around capers, and for some reason, they fall apart less than the flat fillets. And you can save the capers as a snack for the cook!
Serves 4 as hors d’oeuvres or snacks
16 large pitted, brine-cured green olives (see the commentary above)
16 salt-packed anchovy fillets, or 2-3 cans rolled anchovy fillets packed in oil
1 large orange
One small jar of roasted yellow peppers packed in water
The leaves from two sprigs of thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 garlic clove, peeled and cut in quarters
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
Freshly-ground black pepper
Using a vegetable peeler, peel off two long strips of peel from one orange. Using a citrus peeler (the kind that makes long thin strips), take the remaining peel off the orange and set it aside. Juice the orange and set the juice aside.
Take a couple of the yellow peppers from the jar and pat them dry with paper towels. Cut 16 strips of pepper two inches long and about a quarter-inch wide and set them aside.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Rinse the olives in cold water and dry them with paper towels. Get an oven-safe pan that’s just big enough to hold the olives in a single layer, and lay the herbs, the garlic cloves, and the two big strips of orange peel in the bottom. Add three tablespoons of the olive oil, mix everything around, and put the pan in the oven for 5 minutes. The herbs and the peel should start to sizzle. Take a look at the garlic and if it’s brown, take it out and discard it. (If it’s still pale, leave it in, but be sure to check it while you’re roasting the olives so it doesn’t burn.)
Take the pan from the oven, add the olives, and roll the olives around in the oil mixture. Put the pan back in the oven and roast for 15 minutes or so. The olives should look a little shriveled. Take the pan out and let the olives cool off enough for you to handle them.
While the olives are roasting, start on the anchovies. For the salt-packed ones, rinse the salt off and soak them in a big bowl of cold water for 20 minutes. For the rolled fillets, gently rinse off the rolls and then let them soak in a big bowl of cold water for 20 minutes. Drain the anchovies and pat them dry. Unroll the rolled anchovies – you’ll need two pieces for each olive.
Cut a slit lengthwise in each olive through to the middle but not through the other side. Put a piece of pepper in each olive, and an anchovy fillet (or two pieces if you used the rolled fillets). Put the stuffed olives on a serving plate.
Mix 3 tablespoons of orange juice, the teaspoon of sherry vinegar, a little ground black pepper, and 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl. Pour it over the olives, then sprinkle the reserved orange peel on top. You can let them sit for a half hour or so for extra flavor, or serve immediately.