Spanish red wine is virtually synonymous with the Tempranillo grape, which imparts its bright colour and cherry taste to most of what is drunk between the Pyrenees and the Rock of Gibraltar. It is the foundation of wines from Rioja, Valdepeñas and Ribera del Duero, three well-known regions represented in this month's offer from Corney & Barrow.
Tempranillo sometimes undergoes a profound change when kept in oak casks, producing that extraordinary synthesis of cigar smoke, bitter chocolate and sweet vanilla that is the glory of old Rioja.
Old Rioja, like old everything, myself included, represents a great investment. The three grades of the "higher" Rioja - Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva - require progressively longer periods in the cask and in the bottle before they can qualify for their etiquettes, and now that the wine trade is being taken over by the supermarket conveyor belt, these wines seem costly to produce. There is a bad side to this and a good. The bad side is that those rich, meditative, old Riojas are increasingly hard to come by, disappearing from Spain as rapidly as the Catholic faith on which they ultimately depended, and disappearing also from merchants over here. The good side is that the fresh, inviting young Riojas receive much more attention from producers, who no longer treat them as second best.
The Lar de Paula Rioja Joven from 2007 illustrates the point excellently. A wine full of fruit and charm, rejoicing in its youth yet gentle in its strength, it proved to be the perfect accompaniment to a dish of spicy sausages, and provoked no protests as it slid down the tube.
By contrast, the Crianza Rioja from the Bodegas Alavesas struck us as harsh, quick to take offence, and suffering from a dose of injured machismo. Its time in the cask has clearly not softened it, and we sipped warily, lest it should burp its way back on overhearing our comments and take the kind of revenge that has been obligatory in Spanish conflicts since Prosper Mérimée's Carmen taught the Spaniards how to behave if they are to win the respect of the French.
I am not a Valdepeñas fan on the whole, but have no complaints about the Reserva - cheap for what it is - from the Bodegas Navarro López. Even when it achieves Reserva status, Valdepeñas remains bland and functional, and this wine is no exception: the perfect accompaniment to a long lunch with tedious family visitors, which will produce no additional headaches of its own.
The Ribera del Duero, by contrast, has real character. This is an organic wine that presents itself as clean, honest and local, like a bumpkin looking for an office job. It is with a glass of this wine that I raise a toast to my New Statesman readers, and say a fond farewell from your two eccentric wine critics, myself and Sam the Horse.