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'Splaining the wines of Spain 

Learning to drink Spanish is as easy as A, B, Si

For those raised on California and French vinos, the wines of Spain can seem like a mystery. Sure, you've probably heard the word "Rioja," before, but what exactly is in those dark, expensive bottles? Nowadays, to decipher Spanish labels all you really need to know about Spain is a few regions, producers and grape varietals. Then you can dive into a world of inexpensive and yummy wines.

You're from where?
Regions like France, Spain frequently only lists the region on the label. There are 50-plus regions in Spain, but here are a few highlights. Wine from Rioja, a region in northern Spain, comes from red Tempranillo and Garnacha (Grenache) grapes, and can be both light-bodied and fruity as well as dark and complex. Penedes, in northeastern Spain, is famous for its sparkling wines called cava, made in the same method as French Champagne. Ribera del Duero, near the northern Portuguese border, is praised for its long-lived, tannic Tempranillo wines.

And though Spain has never been known for its white wines, an area called Galicia (specifically an area called R'as Baixas in the northwest corner) turns out some inexpensive, kick-ass whites called Albarino, similar in style to lighter and fragrant Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio.

Varietals are the spice
Tempranillo, the main grape in Rioja, is probably the most famous and most versatile native grape. It's found in simple reds, as well as those meant to age for decades. Garnacha, a blending grape, gives Rioja more body. White Riojas are made mostly with the Viura grape (alias Macabeo), and are refreshingly acidic and low in alcohol. Monastrell, the Spanish version of France's Mourvedre, is popping up more often on labels, and is light and fruity for everyday drinking (and usually a great deal). Small amounts of familiar grapes Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec and Pinot Noir are also planted, but you don't see them very often on Spanish labels.

A touch of classification
Like France, Spain is divided into districts (aka appellations), classified by the government's Demominación de Origen (D.O.) system of quality. It's like a good-better-best scale: Vino de Mesa or VdM (Table Wine); Denominación de Origen or D.O.; and Denominación de Origen Calificada or D.O.C. (mostly reserved for Rioja). Bottom line: Look for D.O. or D.O.C. on the label.

Old enough
In addition to the district classification, on each Spanish label you'll see designations like Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. These designations refer to the amount of time the wines are aged, starting with Crianza, which means two years of aging, and ending with Gran Reservas that have a minimum of four years of age (at least two in oak).

Now that you know the basics, get to drinkin'.

Recommended Wines
Faustino de Crianza 1997, D.O.C. Rioja ($13) : A New World-style red made from Tempranillo grapes. Spicy, with a smooth balance of oak and fruit.

Condado de Haza 1999 Ribera del Duero ($18) : Earthy, big, fat red wine. The oak shines through like a beacon, but works well with fattier foods like red meat and cheeses.

Vionta Albarino 2000, D.O. Rias Baixas ($17) : An aromatic white with great aroma and nice acid. This would be great with oysters!

Aria Brut, Segura Viudas, Cava ($10) : A tad on the sweet side, this cava sparkler is smooth and tasty. Great for the price.

Tina Caputo is a San Francisco-based wino who supports her nasty habit by writing for wine publications. Comments? E-mail

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