Spanish vines

They were growing wine grapes in Spain long before the Romans came; in the central province of Castilla y Le�the earth beneath ancient cities like Toro and Aranda is honeycombed with tunnels where the vintage was fermented and stored against the blazing heat of plateau summers. The cultivation of the vine in these parts is so intimately entwined with history that it takes a visitor a while to realize that winemaking, too, has been transformed by Spain's headlong rush in the last 25 years to catch up politically, economically, and culturally with the rest of Europe. Spain produces an awful lot of wine, most of it lousy, fit—at best—to be distilled into brandy only marginally less lousy. Spain's "wine lake" is one of the perennial headaches of European Community planners trying to pare back the agriculture subsidies that keep food and wine prices across the continent artificially high. The solution they've come up with may not reduce subsidies but has already improved quality. You can't plant a new grape vine in Spain unless you rip an old one out; new premium varieties are replacing old and inferior ones, and regions geographically and climatically fit to produce only plonk (like Don Quixote's old stomping ground, La Mancha) are losing acreage to others better suited to viticulture. In Castilla y Le�egions are lined for miles with acre after acre of new plantings. New bodegas are being built as fast as grapes can be harvested to crush in them. Bright young venture capitalists in Prada suits are huddling with oenologists, each dreaming of cashing in on the boom. Booms have a way of going bust, and it's likely that in 10 years' time some of these bodegas are going to be as empty, though not as picturesque, as the ones built a thousand years ago. As a region, Castilla y Le�s coming late to the party; the big red wines of the Rioja region to the east were the first to teach the international markets that Spain could produce something better than sangr�base. Rioja produces a lot of wine, and since its new competitors to the west make their wine in pretty much the same style using pretty much the same grape varieties, these new wines face a real problem establishing a distinct identity in the marketplace. But riojas command a higher price every year, so courageous bargain-hunters may yet provide the Castilian winemakers the buzz they need to break into the export market. Taste these wines and many others at "The Great Match," making its first Seattle visit this year. Sponsored by the Spanish government, the event offers over 100 wines accompanied by patrician snack food catered by top Seattle chefs. Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine, 866-468-7619. Tickets $65. For additional information, go to 6:30-9 p.m. Wed., June 9. Rioja, anyone? E-mail

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