Playing the name game

Spanish wines are popular here, but how many know which regions they come from? Christine Austin goes exploring.

There is one region we know from schooldays – Aragón. Catherine of Aragón was the first wife of Henry VIII and she managed to hold on to her head even though she lost her crown. She was the daughter of Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand II of Aragón whose marriage in the late 15th century brought together two large areas of Spain. The main city of Zaragoza is home to one of Spain’s oldest universities and a magnificent basilica as well as some of the best tapas bars I have eaten in.

As a wine region, Aragon splits naturally into three – Campo de Borja, Cariñena and Calatayud. All of these sub-regions have produced grapes and wine for centuries and while other regions overtook them in quality terms a few decades ago, now they are back, making a range of wines from simple easy gluggers to serious wines that can challenge some of Spain’s best.

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Campo de Borja is the main volume-producing region and if the name sounds familiar, this is where the Borgia family came from. Alphonso de Borja, formerly an adviser to King Alphonso of Aragón, was made Pope in 1455 and moved to Rome where he founded the Borgia dynasty. Campo de Borja lies north west of Zaragoza and is really an extension of Navarra. It occupies the lower slopes of the Moncayo mountains, providing locations for vineyards at various altitudes and its loamy limestone soil is perfect for grapes. The weather here is typically continental with cold harsh winters and hot dry summers, but because there are sources of water underground, vines don’t struggle in summer drought. The main grape variety is Garnacha which occupies 75 per cent of the vineyard area, and many of these vines are decades old, although some of them go back almost a century. Other grapes such as Tempranillo, Cabernet and Syrah are grown as well as some whites such as Viura. I visited Bodegas Borsao which has undergone e12m of investment in recent years and is definitely a name to look out for.

Made up of 650 farmers who work together to produce a range of quality wines, this winery bristles with modern equipment and bright ideas. It also produces about 30 per cent of the region’s total output and is determined to keep standards up.

Tesco has the lively, juicy Gran Tesoro Garnacha which comes as a rosé and as a red. Both offer great value for money at around the £4 mark, with lively raspberry fruit in the rosé and soft, bramble flavours in the red. There are very few wines at this price that I would recommend, but these are good.

Further up the quality scale, The Halifax Wine Co. (www.halifaxwinecompany.com) has the Borsao Tinto Selección 2009 (£6.95) which is one of the juiciest, vibrant, lively tasting reds I had during the trip. Its blend of Garnacha and Syrah with a splash of Tempranillo provides cheerful, clear red and blackberry fruit.

Close by, the winery of Santo Cristo produces a Tempranillo/Garnacha blend which sells as the great value Gran Lopez Tinto 2009 at Waitrose (£4.99). There is no need to spend more than a fiver for a Wednesday night wine when there are lively flavours like this chunky, fruit-packed wines on the shelves. Trade up to Marqués de la Cruz at £6.99, also at Waitrose, for more elegant Friday night drinking.

Asda also buys some of its good value wines from this region. Campaneo Old Vines Tempranillo Merlot 2009 is listed at £6.98 which is somewhat challenging for the easy, glugging fruit it offers, but when it goes on three for £10 it is a bargain. Tesco’s Old Vines Garnacha 2009 gets frequent mentions in this column for its deep bramble fruit with a long juicy finish, especially when it comes off its regular price of £6.99 and drops to about a fiver.

While Campo de Borja is providing good value wines for immediate drinking, a short drive away, the two regions of Cariñena and Calatayud are concentrating on higher priced wines, which are not making an impact on our shelves, but from the quality I tasted, that must change soon.

The heat of Calatayud is moderated by planting vineyards on the hills and again Garnacha is the main grape variety with old vines, some over 100 years old, playing their part to create deep, complex wines. Ripe, full bodied wines from producers such as San Alejandro and Ateca suggest this region might be a Priorat in waiting, with old vines, new enthusiasm and the potential to tackle the market at affordable prices.