Friday, December 20, 2002

Christmas ideas from Spain, either for your holiday celebrations or as last-minute gifts:

Wine: Any Spanish wine that they bother to import to the United States is going to be minimally decent, except for bottled sangria, which you should avoid at all costs. Spanish reds are generally rich and flavorful; anything marked Rioja is going to be pretty good. Siglo and Marqués de Caceres are two mid-priced good-quality brands that I've seen in the US for around ten bucks a bottle. Penedés reds, from here in Catalonia, are made from the same grape varieties as the Riojas, tempranillo, garnacha, and cariñena. Maybe sometimes merlot. Sangre de Toro, from the mid-market Torres bodegas, is a good solid wine that never disappoints. Should you find any Raimat wines, also made in Catalonia and one rank up-market from Torres, by all means try them. They make an excellent and not too expensive cabernet sauvignon. I've always been pleased with Raimat, and they make about ten different sorts of wine. I haven't tried them all. Ribera de Duero reds are good stuff, usually pricier than Riojas. Priorat reds are very rich and high-alcohol, and getting pricier as their quality improves. I imagine any Priorats that get to America are expensive and good, since it's not an area that produces that much. I don't much care for Valdepeñas wines, but they're popular in Madrid and southern Spain, and you might want to give one a try. They're certainly available in the US, as Valdepeñas, la Rioja, and el Penedés are the three best-known and probably largest-producing wine areas in Spain.

As for rosés, I don't like rosé wine, so I'm no expert. Torres's rosé, De Casta, is drinkable.

Whites: Penedés whites are dry and crisp and not expensive; they're usually made from the macabeo, peralada, and xarel.lo varieties. Torres's brand is Viña Sol and is good stuff. Penedés chardonnays are always good. Galician white wines are light and good with seafood; a cheap one I like is Pazo, from the Ribeiro D.O. Txacolí is another light wine from the Basque Country.

Cavas: Can't legally call them champagnes, and from the about three times I've had good French champagne, I'll agree that there's really no comparison. That doesn't mean that cavas aren't good sparkling wines, though, and available considerably cheaper than the real thing. All cavas come from the Penedés or from some other area of Catalonia. More important than the brand is the category, which depends on the sugar content of the cava. Brut nature, with the least sugar, is the best. Then come brut, seco, and semi-seco. Anything sweeter than semi-seco is undrinkable. If you're not a wine snob and like your bubbly rather sweet, get Freixenet Carta Nevada (in the clear bottle) or Freixenet Cordón Negro (in the black one), a little drier and more expensive. These are the real crowd-pleasers, and people who drink wine once a year will like them. Codorniu, the people who own Raimat, is one cut above Freixenet, and Anna de Codorniu (which includes chardonnay) is a very nice dry sparkling wine. Segura Viudas is also a decent brand. Do NOT drink anything with the Rondel brand name, and do not drink any sparkling wine from Spain marked "sekt" in anything resembling a prominent place on the bottle, like especially right under the brand name--that means it's swill made for the German market, who like their bubbly even sweeter than Americans do. Also do not drink any pink cavas.

If you are a once-a-year wine drinker, there's nothing wrong with that, and you don't have to pretend to like funny-tasting stuff that other people say is great. What you want is Mateus or Lancers, light and slightly bubbly whites and rosés from Portugal, available nearly everywhere at reasonable prices. Wine snobs look down at these mass-market tipples, but ordinary folks like them, and your Aunt Dorothy will say, "I believe I will have another little glass," and get all spifflicated.

Food: Manchego cheese, made from some combination of sheep and cow milk, the more sheep the better, is easy to find in the US and is a rich, tasty dry cheese. You will like it if you like any varieties of cheese that aren't Kraft American singles, admittedly an atrocity against the tastebuds of the world. The Spanish olives available in the US, for some reason,.are generally crappy, I don't know why. California olives are better than those imported from Spain. Spanish olives are perfectly tasty over here, but the ones they send to America suck. If you see a can of olives with the brand name La Española, Carbonell, or Borges, then it will be pretty good, but the no-name ones are all lousy. Many people like La Española anchovy-stuffed olives. Spanish olive oil is hard to find in America but its quality is absolutely top-notch, especially the extra-virgin varieties--the Italians have the US market sewn up, though. I know Borges and Carbonell export to America. If you can find Spanish cured ham, usually called jamón serrano or jamón iberico, you'll like it if you're a pig-eater. It's rather like prosciutto or Virginia ham. You'll also like anything in the way of Spanish sausages you should find in the US, though they're nothing out of this world.

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