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Jan 30, 2007 02:47 PM

Searching for Spanish/Portugese reds - cheap and light

The article on reds from the Priorat region of Spain by Jordan Mackay

read like a very tasty dream, but sent me spinning off into my own. I started spieling in a comment after the article, but realized I'd be better off posting here.

Where are recs for cheap, really cheap and lovely Spanish and Portugese wines? With raisiny tones and oak. When I traveled around the Iberian peninsula for a month or so, I _really_ liked how I never got a migraine from any red, never got too looped after quite a few glasses, and yeah, it cost next to nothing. I know with USDA they have to add preservatives and junk that all adds to potential for migraine, but where oh where is that great raisin wine we had in the hill town of Arcos de la Frontera? (near Cadiz, Andalucia)...

I did a search at a local BevMo near my hometown of Berkeley. We tried all the Spanish and Portugese reds (okay, not all but MANY) that were $6 and under. We did find a Portugese red that was close, but the more recent vintage, out now, is too tight and puckery. I think, what we used to love is Alianca Foral Reserva '00...

Anyone got good ideas? I'm cheap. I don't need a five star wine. I want a light drinkable red I can have a glass or two of 3-4x/week. I'd even up it to $8 if it was glorious.

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  1. Bunky,

    First of all, go to Vintage Berkeley (it's on Vine St., at Walnut, across from the original Peet's). Tell Peter that Jason sent you, and that you're interested in Portuguese and Spanish wines. Under $8 may be a stretch, but under $12 is definitely "do-able." I buy a lot of my Spanish and Portuguese wines here.

    The Spanish Table on San Pablo also has a good seleciton, but generally more on the higher end -- though they do carry inexpensive wines as well. (I buy most of the rest of them here.)

    However, I also need to correct a few things in your post:

    "I know with USDA they have to add preservatives and junk . . . "

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture has *nothing* to do with wine. It's the TTTB (Tobacco, Tax & Trade Bureau), former the BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), which is a "tax-collection" agency of the Treasury Dept., just like the IRS. They govern wine, winemaking, and what goes into wines.

    An overwhelming majority of wines (like 99.99%) produced outside the United States have *nothing* different done to them when they are exported from their country of production -- whether it's to the US, Japan, China, Kenya -- whatever.

    The label of the wine will often change, depending upon the wine's destination. Indeed, it will almost certainly had additions to it, if not be a different label entirely. But what is in the bottle is the same.

    28 Replies
    1. re: zin1953

      Thanks zin, I didn't know that about wines essentially remaining the same when exported, and it was sloppy thinking about the USDA. Appreciate the tip - I'll def. try Vintage Berkeley, that's my 'hood. Will let you know what I find.

      1. re: zin1953

        True, but there are other reasons one's experience drinking wine in Spain might differ from their experience drinking Spanish wines in the U.S.

        Most wines produced outside of the U.S. are not shipped here, particularly light wines made for local drinking within a year of release. I almost never come across any of the wines I drank regularly in Italy and France here in the U.S.

        Also, a significant percentage of wines imported to the U.S. are made specifically for export. For some years, Riunite was the best-selling wine in the U.S., outselling all other imported wines put together. It was formulated specifically for the U.S. market and never sold in Italy.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          What Robert says is true . . . both "coming and going." Approximately 65-70% or so of California wine is consumed in California . . .

          Think of all the small producers that sell only in California or CA plus a few other states; now think of all the big wineries and how much they sell here in California. There are thousands of European wineries which do not export their wines to the U.S.; and thousands more from outside of the EU which don't ship here.

          FWIW, Lambrusco *is* sold in Italy; the Riunite brand of Lambrusco was not.

          1. re: zin1953

            Most California wines are known only in California, but those that are exported are roughly representative of what people drink in California.

            Riunite and its imitators were conceived by Banfi, an American company, for the American market, and have never been sold in Italy.

            "... one must distingush between the Lambrusco consumed in its native Emila-Romagna and the export variety. The first is indeed a wine; the second, a beverage. ... Export Lambrusco is ... vinified in a substantially different style, boosting sweetness through the addition of concentrated musts. ... It would be difficult to imagine drinking it at the table, unless one is already accustomed to dining with cola or ginger ale."--Victor Hazan, "Italian Wine"

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              "Most California wines are known only in California, but those that are exported are roughly representative of what people drink in California."

              Not sure that's true, #1, and #2, not sure the relevance even if . . .

              * * * *

              A very similar quote can be cited from both Alexis Lichine and Anthony Hanson re: Beaujolais.

              1. re: zin1953

                I've rarely seen any of my favorite California wines in Europe, but those I do see are roughly the same type of wine.

                In Italy and France, I mostly drink light, straightforward wines with no oak made for consumption within a year of harvest. Wines of this type are unappreciated and virtually unknown in California.

                One spring some years ago distributor imported Isole e Olena's, I think I was the only person to buy more than one bottle at my neighborhood wine shop. They still it on the shelves a year later, when it was way over the hill. Needless to say I haven't seen that wine around here since.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Hmmm . . . Mike Temple at Grape Expectations used to bring in a LOT of wines from Isole e Olena -- Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva, Cepparello . . . even Vin Santo, IIRC.

                  The same type of wine is hardly the same wine -- for example, Wente exports more than 50% of their total production, but is their (e.g.) Chardonnay the same type of wine as (e.g.) Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Chardonnay simply by the fact both have the word "Chardonnay" on the label? If that's true, then I guess you are correct. But it's rare to find a Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay, for example, or a Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir -- lots of "California" appellation wines, also "Napa" and "Sonoma." California wines exported to Europe tend to be the lower end and the higher end of the price spectrum.

                  That said, I've brought containers of high-end California Cabernets, Merlots and Bordeaux-styled blends BACK from Europe because they sit there in warehouses unsold. Wineries generally don't mind this as a) they can claim they export their wines to Europe, and b) by the time they come back, they are 1-3 vintages old, and so create more interest in the wine.

                  1. re: zin1953

                    Yeah, you can find probably all of Isole e Olena's other wines in the U.S., which buys something like 30% of their output, but the "di pronta beva" (maybe it was called Antica Tenuta?) came in only once, in the late 80s or early 90s. I'm not sure they even make that wine any more.

                    I rarely came across first-rate examples of California wine in France or Italy. In Germany I did.

                2. re: zin1953

                  I've NEVER even seen a California wine where I live (in Spain). Perhaps in non-wine-producing countries there might be a decent sampling from the US, but not here.

                  1. re: butterfly

                    Victor de la Serna, the Deputy Editor of El Mundo in Madrid, tells me he can get California wines in Madrid. Not the biggest selction -- to be sure -- but . . .

                    1. re: zin1953

                      When I lived in Rome, I'd see California wines at only two or three of the biggest wine shops. Sort of like looking for Croatian wines in San Francisco.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Croatian wines *not* imported by Mike Grgich, you mean . . .

                        1. re: zin1953

                          Most of the Croatian wines I've had were imported by Blue Danube.


                      2. re: zin1953

                        Certainly you could sniff a few out if you looked for them (which I haven't really felt the need to do). This is a big city, so you can find nearly anything here if you look hard enough. My point is that I have never seen California wine at a wine bar or on a menu or at any wine store where I normally shop. There's no real market for it. I'm talking about the sorts of places where, in the US, you could easily find quite a few Spanish wines from several different regions without making any effort.

                        (And de la Serna is a winemaker himself. And as erudite as anyone when it comes to gastronomy and wine. He has a vested interest in keeping up with what's going on in the rest of the winemaking world.)

                        1. re: butterfly

                          Sure. Spain has no compelling reason to import California wine except as a novelty, since they have a wide variety of in all styles and price ranges.

                          El Bulli has 46 California wines on its list, mostly expensive cult items:


                          1. re: butterfly

                            True, but I've known Victor for a while -- PRIOR to Finca Sandoval -- and, as a private individual/consumer, he was still buying California wine in Spain.

                            1. re: zin1953

                              I'm not sure I get your point... Are you suggesting--based on this anecdote--that there is indeed a demand for California wines in Spain and that they are widely available? That just isn't the case.

                              Even El Corte Inglés--the Spanish supermarket with the most global perspective--has 0 California wines listed (though I think the may have a handful available at certain stores). This is out of hundreds and hundreds of wines (186 listed just from La Rioja).

                              1. re: butterfly

                                Like I said, they have no reason to import Califonia wines except as a novelty.

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  Robert, I'd hardly call some 96 million gallons (364.8 million liters) of California wine exports in CY2005 "a novelty."

                                  Then again, I have no doubt whatsoever that *some* stores and/or restaurants DO carry them for the "novelty" factor, but that wouldn't account for all 40.5 million cases, would it? I don't think so.

                                  1. re: zin1953

                                    That number is total exports shipped worldwide.

                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      Yes, Robert, total exports shipped from California worldwide . . . forgive me if I'm wrong, Robert, but I think the EU is a bigger market than Polynesia.

                                      I don't know why we're splitting hairs. If 40.5 million cases of California wine are being exported from the US, isn't it logical to assume that *someone* is drinking it? I have found lots of low-end California wine in the UK. I've found a lot of high-end California wine there and elsewhere within EU. (I haven't looked in Polynesia.)

                                      Whether the high-end stuff actually sells is another story, of course. I've brought back lots of Shafer, Matanzas, Caymus, Dunn, Ridge, Bryant Family, Harlan and other (mostly Cab-based) wines from the EU -- "re-importing" them and selling them to retailers here. But I know that I haven't brought back every single bottle, so I presume some sells there, to Europeans.

                                      1. re: zin1953

                                        Nobody claimed there wasn't lots of California wine in Europe as a whole. butterfly's post below has the detailed breakdown.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          Then, Robert, please (against my better judgement) enlighten me. What exactly do you mean when you write, "Like I said, they have no reason to import Califonia wines except as a novelty."

                                          1. re: zin1953

                                            "They" in the context of the post I was replying to was Spain.

                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                              OK, I'm not doing this anymore. You can find Montelena, Ridge and others in Madrid.

                                        2. re: zin1953

                                          hello, thank you for the fascinating details of the trade. If I'm interpreting correctly, the exporters to the EU speculate on a big enough margin to cover large lot purchases, transport, and storage, and if the stuff sits unsold long enough, you're able to outbid the distributors over there. Is the transport (cleverly arranged I'm sure--I got a deal on Italian stuff declared as olive oil) across the Atlantic to eastern U.S. ports significantly higher than trans-U.S. from CA to the east coast(or not)? cheers

                                  2. re: butterfly

                                    OK, let's not put words in my mouth. I have never said they were WIDELY available, have I?

                                    You said you've never seen them. I said they were there, but "not the biggest to be sure . . . " You are now asking if there is a demand and that they're widely available?

                                    No. I'm not saying that. All I said was that they're there. Period. Not the biggest selection, certainly, but they're there -- throughout the EU.

                                    California wines sell better in the UK than elsewhere in the EU. Generally the low-end wines sell, the high-end wines sell, but are overpriced, and those which don't eventually come back here via the grey market.

                                    The reason the UK leads the EU in sales of California wine is precisely because -- a few Kentish Pinot Noirs aside -- the UK is not a wine producing country. The more wine the EU nation produces, the less California wine (and the more of their own wine) the people of that nation consumes.

                                    1. re: zin1953

                                      Yes, I didn't say the EU. I was specifically referring to Spain--because that's where I live. It doesn't surprise me that the UK imports a great deal of California wine. I've also seen a larger selection of California wine in France, Italy and Germany than I have in Spain. It's not hard to find it there. Aside from my own anecdotal experiences, it's fairly easy to back up what I'm saying...

                                      Take a look at this chart from the International Trade Administration. In 2005, the US exported 82,059 liters of wine to the UK, 24,511 to Germany, 6,053 to France, and 231 to Spain:


                3. Check out the 2005 Bodegas Tintoralba SCL Higueruela Grenache, Almansa at K&L Wines.
                  You mentioned oak. These are made without oak. Someone on Cellar Tracker! compared them to Beaujolais and that's apt. I disagree with Parker's assessment that it's like a Chateauneuf du pape.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: SteveTimko

                    I think oak is not the best word, since to most wine drinkers that means barreled in oak. I meant woody, smoky, with a touch of leather. Don't know how it was aged, presumably not much since most of it we bought in small corner groceries, the most memorable we decanted from a small wooden barrel into thoughtfully provided used, but washed plastic soda bottles. I think a 2 liter bottle was about $1.50. ahhhhhhhhh...

                  2. Check out Odd Lots. More French and Italian but an increasing percentage of Spanish, and his focus is on bargains. That was where I discovered Mas Donis, which was $7 a bottle (before case discount) when he started carrying it.


                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      thanks Robert! I'll check it out for sure, as well as Vintage above, per zin1953. I have friends who only buy from Odd Lots, and I thought it was only French, but then mayhap I'm going by my friends cellar and drinking choices, not the store. I'm relatively new to reds - so there's a beginners fear of stores that seem highbrow. Like eating - I'll take dive with amazing food _any_ day of the week over a place where people rave about the service. It's all about the food. Or what's under the label. (Calvin Trillin had a wonderful essay a few years back about only buying wine with labels that featured "a mountain, preferably in the middle distance". yep.) thanks.

                    2. At least around NY, entry-level Spanish wines are now aggressively priced and marketed (contra Australia). Many are internationalized (high alcohol-fruit) tempranillo and blends, often under or at $10. I find most forgettable. A favorite at about $9 is the Borsao Garnacha Tres Picos or a Portugese red from the Bairrada, Luis Patos Baga, a smooth steal at $8.

                      1. On the cheaper side you've got a lot to choose from.

                        Trader Joe's has a fantastic Rioja from Finca Solana for $4. It's unfiltered and organic. It's probably not as "raisiny" as they can get, but it is a dark, tarry brew. I've noticed a fair amount of bottle variation, but for $4 you can buy a bunch.

                        Cost plus has a Grenach from Prioriat called Tres Picos (I think... tres something). It's $7 or something low like that. It's a peppery, chewey wine with plenty of raisins.

                        There should be some articles about Spanish wines on this site, but I think they focus mostly on Burgundy and the Rhone.

                        If you're in San Francisco, a store with a larger-than-most selection of spanish wines is the Wine Club in Soma.
                        They've also got locations in Southern Cali.