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Ask a Somm: Which Country Is Offering the Best Value Wines?

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Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine.

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Soon to hit Chicago is double concept eateries Smyth and The Loyalist, a tasting menu place and a more casual offshoot, respectively, shacking up at 177 N. Ada St. in Chicago's West Loop. Executive chef John Shields and wife/pastry chef Karen Urie Shields are in command, both who have clocked hours at Charlie Trotter's and Alinea prior. They're looking to offer menus that touch on American and Japanese flavors, to which GM and Beverage Director Kelly Coughlin (Grace) shall pair wines. For inspiration, Coughlin is leaning on a mix of classic and forward-thinking producers from the U.S. and Europe. Below, she considers the current wine climate, and which country is offering the best value bottles.

Q: Right now, which country would you say is offering the best value wines, and can you recommend some great bottles?

Coughlin: While I would say you could find great value wines in any country, I think Spain has always been producing excellent wines, with fair and affordable prices. Whether you’re looking for a white, red, or sparkling wine, Spain pretty much covers it when it comes to value.

Whether you’re looking for a white, red, or sparkling wine, Spain pretty much covers it when it comes to value.

Since summer is right around the corner, I initially think of Txakoli from Spain’s northeastern Basque Country. Being slightly effervescent, and offered in white, rosé and red, it is easy, light, and refreshing, with a price to match. Ameztoi ($19) from Getaria has stolen the Txakoli market. Made with the indigenous varietals, hondarribi zuri and hondarribi beltza, the grapes are fermented in stainless steel to ensure the fruit's freshness. It has the brininess of the sea, alongside tart citrus. I fell in love drinking this with Spanish prawns.

One of my favorite rediscoveries this past year has been vintage cava. I have been coming across more and more outstanding and serious bottles that can stand up to the great sparkling wines of the world. Spanish laws require cava to come from Catalunya, in northeastern Spain, and to be made from the grape trio of xarel`lo, macabeu, and parellada. In some cases, the grapes chardonnay, pinot noir, and subirat may be blended. For rosé cava, cabernet sauvignon, monastrell, and garnacha may be included. Since cava was modeled off of Champagne, it is made in the traditional method, meaning there is a second fermentation that occurs in the bottle.

A producer I always gravitate towards is Recaredo ($40), from the Alt Penedès. Everything is organic and hand-harvested, and they only make vintage Brut Nature (driest style) cavas, which they have been doing since the winery opened in the early 20th century. Although, Brut Nature wines are having a moment right now, the winemaker, Josep Mata Capellades, has always believed in this method, saying that is the true way for him to express his terroir.

The Palacios family is synonymous with great Spanish red wine. Their wines range from big, bold, and pricey, to light, silky, and affordable. "Petalos" from Descendientes de Jose Palacios ($20) is perfect. The predominant grape here is mencía, coming from Bierzo in northwestern Spain. You will find lots of dark fruit and purple flowers. Mencía tends to be juicy, with a touch of spice and soft tannins. It is an ideal red wine to go with just about any roasted meat, and always a value on any wine list.

It is much easier to find older vintages of Rioja than almost anything else.

Rioja is the bread and butter of Spanish reds, and their price can reflect that. However, the wines of Rioja Alta can express just as much complexity, with less wallet shock. As the alta ( "high") would suggest, these wines come from higher elevations. This provides brighter fruit and lighter bodied wines than the rest of the region. The most notable grape varieties of the region are tempranillo and garnacha, but you will often find a little graciano and/or mazuelo blended as well, for structure or aging.

A Reserva has been aged at least three years, with at least one of those in barrel. Gran Reserva means that it was aged at least five years, with a minimum of two years in oak. In addition, Gran Reserva wines are typically made in only outstanding vintages. White wines also carry these terms, but are aged for shorter periods, with a minimum of six months in oak.

Another wonderful thing about Rioja is the fact that they don’t immediately release their wines. They are aged in both barrel and bottle for an extended period of time, denoted by Crianza (aged at least two years, at least one year in oak), Reserva (aged at least three years, at least one year in barrel), or Gran Reserva (aged at least five years, at least two years in oak) on each bottle. It is often that you will see older vintages on shelves next to the current vintage from other regions because of this aging system. Therefore, it is much easier to find older vintages of Rioja than almost anything else.

A producer that I find myself coming back to time and time again is La Rioja Alta ($30). This winery started in 1890, and has been consistently making incredible, age-worthy wines. They may be one of the best values in, not just Rioja, but most of the classic winemaking regions as well.

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177 N Ada St, Chicago, IL 60607, USA