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Posted: Friday, October 5 2007. 1:00 PM

Guest Feature : Best of Spanish Wines

Text & Photographs by Gerry Dawes copyright 2008

When our Guest writer Gerry Dawes was asked by a magazine editor to write about the Top Thirty Spanish Wines, you can rest assured that our 'Wine Taliban ' would not be talking of the powerful and bold Spanish wines with a lot of oak. Here are his picks of the Alternate Top Wines instead .

Top Thirty: When my editor at Santé asked me to do a piece on some thirty top Spanish wines, I immediately realized that among the top thirty wines according to conventional wisdom were few wines that would make my personal top thirty list, which includes wines ranging from Catalan Cavas, whites from Galicia and Rueda, Navarra rosados, unoaked young reds from Bierzo, a few of the more restrained new-wave red wines and a blossoming genre of dessert wines from the Mediterranean coast, Navarra, Andalucia and the Canary Islands. Furthermore, my recent experiences with Spanish wines suggest that most wine drinkers are much happier drinking the wines on my list, than doing mortal combat with so-called blockbuster monsters that reap all the kudos in both the American and Spanish press.

But, before I get to the wines I will be recommending, most of which will be well worth the wait, a long simmering rant is in order. Over the past several years, I have developed a love-hate relationship with Spanish wines. I love drinking Spanish wines that show elegance, nice ripe (but not overripe) fruit, balance, style, charm, and even terroir and go very well with food; I hate tasting and, especially, drinking many of the new wave of opaque black, jammy, low acid, alcoholic wines that are often lashed with enough new oak to start a lumber yard.

The Wine Taliban: The latter, if anecdotal evidence from many sommeliers, restaurateurs, veteran wine writers and even winemakers is reliable, many of these wines, despite their hefty price tags, are often left with a third to half a bottle on the table when the meal is finished. After tasting such wines for articles, I continue sipping them with dinner. I usually find that myself, my tasting companion, my assistant and many of my friends can barely finish a glass, if that, before switching to a wine that is more harmonious not only with the food, but with promoting good humor. I have been accused of being a wine Taliban, defending every last Spanish classic to the bitter end. Not so. I merely like good, well-balanced wines that are not overwhelmed with overripe blackberry jam, alcoholic heat (and its accompanying effects) and palate-scouring new oak. The wines I like complement food, be they modern styles or fifty-year old jewels from the Rioja

I am not alone: There is a growing body of evidence, much of it anecdotal, but nevertheless valid, considering the sources, that many of the world's saner palates are turning away in increasing numbers from the inky monster, over-oaked style of winemaking, what the Spaniards often call Parkerista wines. In January at Madrid Fusión, the annual roundup of the world's top avant-guardia chefs (Ferran Adría, Juan Mari Arzak, Charlie Trotter, Tetsuya Wakuda, etc.), I had two remarkable experiences.

One came on a panel discussion at which I was one of the speakers. First came a young woman sommelier from a two-star Michelin restaurant . She extolled virtues of the over-hyped, new-wave school of wine appreciation, in which every new darling wine and winemaker that surfaces is given a send-up in the Spanish press akin to the second coming. This approach does not take into account that the winemaker is inexperienced and/or the autopista (tollway) consultant kibitzing on the wine often takes a formulaic approach to winemaking. Also to be factored in is that neither the winemaker nor the consultant has real experience with the vineyard sites they are working with or the brand-new winery, both of which have their own often very steep learning curve. And, above all, most new wineries are loaded with new start-up oak, which often makes many of these wines undrinkable to civilized palates from the git-go. For the aforementioned reasons, I am always very skeptical when I read about the lastest "nuevo milagro"– new miracle wine.

I was second up on the panel at Madrid Fusión and I lambasted the powerhouse approach to winemaking in my inimitable, no-holds-barred style, fully expecting to catch flak from the three other male members of the panel: Fernando Gurucharri, the head of the Spanish Union of Winetasters; the editor of a Spanish wine magazine; and a well-respected Italian wine journalist. I was surprised to find that all three more or less agreed with me. The Italian journalist even said that wines from his country were in a profound crisis and called for a return to elegance and restraint.

Over the Top wines: A day later, I happened to coincide at breakfast with the American publisher of a top American wine magazine and a well-known California wine journalist, who is the author of a best-selling wine book and a major wine educator.. They both complained about a tasting in Madrid of some thirty top Spanish reds, most of which they found to be over the top.

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