Let’s be honest: As much as everybody wants one, it’s seemingly impossible to find a great red wine for under $10. You figure trying a new one can’t hurt, but then you get home and strike out with something that tastes like moldy raspberries sprinkled with topsoil – another eight bucks down the drain.
Part of the problem is just how unfriendly European wine labels can be to an American. The information on them is supposed to make us want to drink what’s inside but instead ends up scaring us away. Yet if you learn a thing or two about certain wine regions and their styles of wines, finding a bargain red isn’t as hard as you may imagine.
Spain, the most vine-covered nation in the world, has several regions that produce high-quality, inexpensive red wines, with labels that are usually easier to comprehend than French or Italian ones. There is value to be found all over the country in a variety of different kinds but especially in those wines made from Spain’s signature grape, tempranillo, meaning “little early one.” This black-skinned grape gets its name from its early ripening and is commonly blended with other grapes like Grenache, known as “garnacha” in Spain.
The Spanish love to drink tempranillo all night long because it has a low alcohol content without the tongue-coating tannins that some bigger red wines have. Most have aromas that remind me of what every college guy imagines his future bachelor pad will smell like – a combination of rich leather and fresh tobacco leaves. Typically, the smell of tempranillo is more intense than the fruity flavors of cherries or plums that unexpectedly follow.
This single grape has the ability to grow in the extreme climates of so many regions that most of them have by now coined their own name for the grape. Tempranillo’s aliases can often puzzle many buyers, so it’s important to recognize that they’re all basically clones of the same grape. It is called “tinto fino” if grown in the elevated, rocky region of Ribera del Duero, located in the northern plateau of the Iberian Peninsula, about two hours north of Madrid.
In Toro, the first wine region I ever visited, where the soil is red and the climate is hot, tempranillo is called “tinto del Toro.” This region is home to some of the oldest vines, which yield smaller grapes with thicker skins that produce juicy wines full of bold, fruity flavors. It’s a shame that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board doesn’t offer more wines from Toro in its selection because they’re some of the most affordable.
Luckily, a perfect and reasonably priced tempranillo from the Castilla y Leon region, Bodegas Farina Peromato 2010, should be available soon.
Unfortunately, the many names for tempranillo are not the only confusing part of their labels. Spain has strict laws that regulate the different levels of wine based on how long they’ve been aged. The names of these styles may appear on the bottle as well.
Occasionally, you will find ones classified as “joven,” or young, that are not barrel-aged in oak. Fresh and fruity, they are meant to be consumed early. And if the bottle is labeled “roble,” or oak, it means the wine has spent a few months, but less than a year, in a barrel.
The most widespread style you’ll find is “crianza” — tempranillo wines that have been barrel-aged for a minimum of one year and at least one more year in the bottle. Because crianzas spend more time in the barrel than jovenes or robles, they have a more oaky flavor – a taste that I can best describe as a pleasant and beautiful combination of clove, wood and smokiness. It may sound like this would combat the wine’s fruity flavors, but it doesn’t – it actually helps reveal them.
If you know any wine region in Spain, it is probably Rioja, where many crianzas are produced. Because the name is so well known and respected, wines produced here often do not have tempranillo clearly marked on their labels and instead only include the style. One of the best buys I’ve found from this region is Campo Viejo 2008 Crianza, a bottle marked by its golden-yellow label, which sells for $6.99.
You may also encounter other styles of tempranillo in a wine store. They’re most likely going to be above your price range, but if you see a “reserva” or “gran reserva,” just know they’ve been aged long enough to be super spicy and oaky.
Tempranillo is a team player and pairs well with just about every food made during a backyard cookout or at any fraternity pig roasts. Its low alcohol and high acidity improve the flavors of grilled meats and roasted vegetables and, of course, any small Spanish tapas dishes.
The next time you find yourself searching for an affordable red wine, keep a look out for a bottle of tempranillo, tinto fino or tinto del Toro — whichever name it is given. Finding inexpensive and high-quality red wines may be easier than you think after all.
Emina Tinto Fino Roble 2007
Ribera del Duero, Spain, $7.99
13.5 percent ABV
A classic tempranillo for this region with floral aromas and dark plum flavors in perfect harmony, this wine offers more than you’d expect for the price. It’s also made in a “green” winery that uses solar power and recycles all wastes.
Montecillo Crianza 2007
Rioja, Spain, $12.99
13.5 percent ABV
With leathery and earthy tones on the nose, this wine surprises with smooth fruity flavors that are enhanced by hints of oak. Worth the few extra dollars if you want to know what the wines of Rioja should taste like.
Vina Herminia Tempranillo 2009
Rioja, Spain, $8.99
14.0 percent ABV
A very easy-drinking tempranillo that smells of red cherries and has savory flavors of berries — an excellent value from this region.