Spanish finds

The best Spanish reds have some of the softest, most sublime and earthy flavors of any wines anywhere

KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE

By the age of 30, I had visited every major wine-producing region in Spain and had, in general, fallen completely in love with Spanish flavors ― vinous and culinary. One whiff of the savory aroma of paella cooking on the stove and there I am again, a young American in Spain, on a mission to find the greatest paella and the greatest Spanish wines to go with it. Spain had been (and continues to be) the best-kept secret in Europe.

Taking paella as my inspiration again this month, I've given some thought to what a wine lover should know about the wines of Spain now: First, that the best reds have some of the softest, most sublime and earthy flavors of any wines anywhere. That gentleness is due in large part to the fact that Spanish wines are aged for comparatively long periods of time in oak barrels ― especially reds from the two top regions, Rioja and Ribera del Duero. In both places, wines are made mainly from the red grape Tempranillo (called Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero).

Among the dozens of Spanish white wines, the two to know about are cava and Albariño. Cava, Spanish sparkling wine, is fresh, crisp, and wonderfully inexpensive. Spaniards don't wait for special occasions; they drink it at the drop of a hat. Albariño is quickly gaining a cult following in the United States. Snappy, sassy, citrusy, and gingery, it's an enchanting white wine, sensational with seafood.

So what would a Spaniard drink with paella? Depending on the season and what's in the paella, any of the above. In Spain, rules are less important than discoveries.

IBERIAN STARS

Morgadio Albariño 2000 (Rias Baixas), $17. Pure and citrusy, with hints of almonds, apricots, and ginger.

Bodegas Bretón "Loriñón" Reserva 1997 (Rioja), $17. Nuanced and earthy, with coffee, vanilla, and leather notes.

Hacienda Monasterio 1998 (Ribera del Duero), $30. Scrumptious chocolate and wild blackberry flavors, with a plush texture.

Muga Rioja Reserva 1997 (Rioja), $17. Supple, with hints of blackberry and mocha.

A SIP OF TRADITION

In Valencia, paella might be matched with either of two hauntingly dry, breathtakingly crisp styles of sherry ― manzanilla (light and elegant) or fino (powerful). Try Vinícola Hidalgo "La Gitana" Manzanilla (about $12) or Tio Pepe Palomino Fino (about $13).

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