Vol. 2 No. 18…getting ‘closure’

One of the blogs I subscribe to is The Wine Economist by Mike Veseth. In his latest, he did a great piece on cork this week. It got me to thinking on several counts.

While the situation is improving cork taint continues to affect wine. What if one out 12 bottles is infected with it (probably less than that but who knows)? That bottle may come back to the retailer and then up the chain to the producer, and it might have been perfectly good.  Like the way diners send back their dinners as not tasting right to get a free meal, usually after they have eaten a substantial amount of it.

On my recent trip to Spain and Portugal (yes, Portugal, cork capital of the world), more than one winemaker told me they would like to see corks go away. Why?

Let’s consider this: do you know the difference between a Vintage Port and a Late Bottled Vintage Port? If you said the Vintage Port is aged longer you would be wrong. It is only in barrel for 1-2 years. Where a good Tawny or Late Bottled Vintage, or Colheita (single vintage), will be aged for 10,20, 40, 50 years (I tasted a Graham’s 1972 Single Harvest Port at the winery and it was truly special), the Vintage Port is naturally aged in the bottle. Also, it more or less has to be drunk within 48 hours, whereas a Tawny or LBV could last up to two weeks.

What is the point? The point is other than the affectation, it could just as well have a screw cap known as a Stelvin closure. The Aussie’s and Kiwi’s used it first, but it took Randall Graham at Bonny Doon to dare to use them in the United States. It is now becoming acceptable to use the Stelvin for white wine but if its a red and you aren’t going to lay it down for five or ten years you want cork. But seriously, is there a difference?

Consider that capsule that encases the cork. Just how much air transfer to you think is going on? My guess is ZERO. However, over time the cork can shrink, get dry, and let air in. Why take the risk IF you know that the wine is released late.

Two examples: Chateau Belle-Vue, a Bordeaux style red from Lebanon. It is a beautiful wine. Guess what the current release is? 2007! In Portugal I bought a bottle of Douro table wine at Quinto do Infantado. Vintage, 2010! Then, in Priorat, Spain, three bottles of Clos de l’Obac, different varietals 2005 -2007. In Ibiza I bought a bottle of a local wine I liked with a 2002 vintage.

Get the picture? These wines don’t need aging, they can be drunk for any special occasion. So who needs a cork? Only someone who needs to show off their somme skills with a waiter’s corkscrew. One last point: how many of you have actually had an old vintage wine? You only have a few minutes to enjoy it and then it might taste like tea. Ah but the romance. You know the answer of what to do when the somme hands you the cork to sniff after he has, right? Throw it across the room!

 

 

Vol. 2 No. 9 Lisbon to Penafiel

The trip is on! Left Monday and arrived Tuesday morning in Lisbon (Lisboa). Picked up our car and drove to Salamanca, a beautiful old city with a famous university and history. We stayed in a small hotel in part of the buildings surrounding the huge Plaza Mayor, The Petit Palace Las Torres. Highly recommended for location, location, location and uber modern. Being a university city the Plaza is constantly alive…and can be noisy at night. We tried to find a restaurant but it was almost 5pm so they were all closed…except we found a bar that served tapas (pintxo’s in the Basque country and sometimes called pinchos – phonetic for the Basque spelling). the bar was at the opposite end of the plaza from us and  called Tapas de Gonsalas. The tapas were excellent and the server friendly, but what was really impressive was the wine (none price over €3.50 a glass!). We started with a Rueda which is made from Verdejo grapes in a region along the Duero River but not quite in the Ribero del Duero region. This is my favorite Spanish white wine..if you find one make sure it says Verdejo on the label as some in the region are made with inferior grapes. It is a beautiful wine with some minerality and a slight lemony finish. Talking with the barkeep, I was going to order a glass of La Rioja but noticed two wines on the board I had not had before. They were Toro’s. I have never seen one in the U.S. They are produced in an area just to the west of Valledolid (from Salamanca head north to Zamorra, then east to Toro). It is a quaint old town. We walked into a bodega (wine shop), and found there were dozens of the these wines which are produced in small quantities and mostly drunk in the region. It turned out the two we had at the bar (Romanica and Primo, priced at about €12 a bottle!), weren’t the best and bought two others at about €20 each to bring back). After a nice lunch of tapas we drove to Vallabuena which is situated in the Ribero del Duero district. There we stayed in an incredibly hard to find old hotel (but worth it!), and the next day had an appointment at Pesquera, (the Duero’s Vega-Sicilia is the most expensive wine in Spain), then to drove to the town of Pesquera and on to Penafiel which is the heart of the Duero region. It is a beautiful town with a huge limestone castle at the top that can be seen for miles. After driving around for a while we got hungry but once again, everything was closed until at least 8pm. Frustrated, we asked everyone we saw for a restaurant and had several false leads, and finally after driving for a couple of hours found one that was open about 15 miles away! It was mainly a bar with a dining room but since we were the only customers the barman set up a table in a corner and we met a really nice Spaniard named Dino, who swapped stories on wine with us. The dinner was lamb chops and they were good but be advised that very few people speak English in this region, even fewer than in the Basque Country. We left Dino at the bar and drove back to our home base and went to bed exhausted at 11:30pm!

It was hard to get up the next morning but we did in time to make an 11:30 appointment at Pesquera, but when we arrived were told it would be at 12:30, so we went down the road to Emile Mora where I went in and had a short tour. It is one of the better Ribera’s.

Our tour consisted of eight people and our guide Alejandro (not the owner, just the same name), did an excellent job of explaining about the winery in English followed by Spanish. As we were about to start the walkaround, in came Alejandro Fernandez, the founder, in 1982, of the winery. I have only met a few other people with as much passion for winemaking as him. He greeted us and talked for awhile then we began our tour. First stop was the original wine press which dated back to the 1800’s and was used by Alejandro in making his first two vintages, before building to the  current winery which is adjacent. Then we toured the modern winery which has about 30 stainless steel fermentation tanks, a huge crusher and de-stemmer, and underground tanks that have small hatches on them to pump the hoses from them to the tanks after about a week of fermentation. From there the must (wine after being pressed and fermented) is put in oak barrels and depending on the wine aged for one to three years before being bottled. Note that every four months the wine is transferred to other barrels so the sediment can be removed and the barrels washed for reuse.

Alejandro’s (the owner not the guide) philosophy is pure and simple. First, he believes in using 100% tempranillo grapes (Vega-Sicilia uses 80-90% tempranillo and the rest either cabernet sauvignon and merlot – they are the only one who blends Bordeaux grapes with tempranillo while others here use garnacha and a few other grapes). He uses only natural yeasts and no pesticides or herbicides are sprayed. He also believes wine is best without filtration so decanting is required before serving. This man, like Robert Mondavi in California and Alfredo Currado in Piedmont, Italy, was responsible for a revolution in Ribero to make quality wines. I was fortunate enough to meet both men. Before him, there were few wineries here and quality was miserable due to unclean conditions and equipment. Now, Ribero’s are a recognized and respected name in the world of wine. Alejandro was born in 1932 and is still active and energetic in the winery’s operation. His career began as a carpenter and then he started a business making and repairing farm equipment until he saved enough to pursue his dream. He started making wine in 1982 with his first vintage in 1985.It and the second vintage were pressed in the old winery but then everything shifted to the modern facility. Consider the accomplishment when California’s span as a respected region along with La Rioja’s is just 50 years.

Following a tasting, we then had lunch in Penfiel at Meson de San Jose, a asiada, or restaurant the specializes in roast lamb, especially a dish called lechazo which is cooked until it is falling off the bone…amazing with a glass of Ribero, and a specialty of the region.

We are now back at our hotel relaxing before long drive tomorrow to León and Santiago del Campostella and A Coruña on the northwest coast of Spain.

Adios, amigos y amigas!

TB

©Copyright 2016 TBOW, all rights reserved.

Vol. 1 No. 11 …on the road to La Rioja…

…the title of this post may seem strange but as Jack Paar would have written it: a funny thing happened on my way to La Rioja.

We left our beautiful hacienda in Hernani, just five miles from San Sebastion, or Donostria as the Basque’s call it, heading up the autoroute to France where we had to drop my sister-in-law at the train station. Afterwards, feeling hungry, we decided to drive around beautiful St-Jean-de-Luz and saw a little bistro, Le Madison, with a few tables outside. We parked, bought a parking ticket, and went to the restaurant. It was a beautiful day so we sat outside. I noticed a well-dressed elderly woman (who is TB to call someone else ‘elderly’?), at the next table with her dog lying beside her. The owner brought us a chalkboard listing the specialties and while we were trying to decipher it, the woman, in perfect English with a distinct Spanish accent, asked if she could help us. After we ordered, we continued our conversation with the woman. She asked where we were going to visit and I told her we were going to La Rioja the next day. She then asked, which bodegas we were visiting and I told her we had reservations at Muga (which I had made more than a month ago). She said, “don’t go there, go to CUNE (pronounced coon-ay).”

I was taken a bit aback by this but she continued, “my family once owned that bodega, one of the oldest in La Rioja, but sold it to CUNE (a large corporation owning several bodegas in Spain: Compañia Vinicola del Norte España), Muga buys grapes from us.” That got my attention, as she added,”I still own 6% of the bodega”, and proceeded to write a letter of introduction (whenever you can get one of these, from your hotel or anyone, they are like gold as you will get priority treatment. She said her name was Sophia Vallejo, and I had to ask if she knew there was a town in California by that name. She said, “yes, Robert Mondavi took me there years ago when I stayed with him.” How about that!?! We said our goodbyes to a lovely woman and drove off to explore the French Basque country and visit St-Jean-Pied-Porte, where the pilgrimage trail, El Camino (made famous in the Michael Douglas film The Way) to Santiago de Compostello, nearly 500 miles away begins. Near St. Jean, which is a lovely town, we were told of a good winery nearby. It is called Iroully, and was a very good wine, which is only sold locally I believe. Worth stopping at! I bought one of their big reds and a bottle of a Cava Rosada, which we enjoyed when we got back to Hernani.

The next day we drove, the long way as it turned out, to La Rioja. We arrived in Haro (pronounced ‘arrow’) and noted that there were actually five bodegas together at the bottom of the hill where the old town sits. They are Bodegas Muga, La Rioja Alta, R. Lopez de Heredia, CUNE, and one other one which I didn’t know and we didn’t have time to visit. Why were they clustered together? Because in 1880. a railroad link between Bordeaux and Haro was completed so it was the only efficient way to transport wine. Later, one was built connecting Haro with Bilbao, opening the way to shipping. That is what made Haro the ‘Napa’ of La Rioja, and both continue as the centers of those regions. I might add that the important part of La Rioja (Alto – centered in Haro, Alevesa – Lograno, but excluding the lesser important, Baja – which extends southeast to Zaragosa),is only slightly larger than Napa Valley and reminiscent of it in the 1960’s with the bodegas space far apart with vineyards in between. The most desirable are is Between Haro and Lograno, especially a town called La Guardia where the Marqéuz de Riscal’s Bodega, designed by Frank Gehry, architect of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, is located. Most of the Rioja’s are blends of the two regions. If you think of La Rioja, dilineated on both sides by the Ebro River, as an arrowhead (Harohead?), with the Cantabrian Mountains at the head, and just past them, Haro, you will see that the breezes blowing off the Bay of Biscay, cool it and it gets warmer as you move down towards Lograno, and ultimately to the scorching hot Baja which is on the flatlands. Rising to the north are the Pyranees which makes for a stunning backgrounds for the incredible bodegas which are all uber-modern and put any I have seen in California, or anywhere for that matter to shame.

Now that you have my take on the region, it’s time for some tasting. There are three main classes of Riojas:

Crianza – reds must be aged at least two years, one of which in oak barrels: whites must be aged for six months in oak barrels. Interestingly, most of the oak is American, although some use French Limousin Oak, and Muga, for one has its own barrel makers. More on the effects of oak later.

Reserva – reds must be aged at least three years, one of which in oak. Whites, six months in oak but aged for one year.

Gran Reserva – reds at least FIVE years, two of which must be in oak, and three in bottles.

Naturally, due to storage costs the prices ascend in that order. But it begs the question; which is best? Certainly at the time the appellation was established, that seemed sensible, but with today’s tastes it ‘ain’t necessarily so’. The modern trend is to less oak flavoring which enhances early drinkability, and to my surprise (at three different tastings of at least eight wines), I found that i like the Crianza best. That is not to say with more aging the reservas might taste better. Like all wine, it is, and should be a matter of personal taste. The plus to the crianza’s is they are less expensive! The white Rioja’s are very good but have to compete with so many other good whites – including Rueda, from nearby Ribera del Duero, and which I prefer – make them less likely to be seen in wine shops outside of Spain.

As for the grape varieties, recall that when the phylloxera struck Bordeaux, the French vignerons moved south to La Rioja, but when it was cured by grafting to American rootstock, they returned, and production plunged. As the locals tried to regain the reputation, but with much less profitability, along came the 1930’s and Generalismo Franco, who, because of a famine, decreed that half of the vines be torn out and replaced with grains (this is the same Franco who in 1938, ‘allowed’ Hitler to bomb and destroy the town of Guernica, which for the Fuehrer was a prelude to the concentrated bombings soon to be done throughout Europe. Needless to say, Franco is still a dirty, obscene, name in Euscal Herria (Basque Country).  

The grapes used today are (thanks to Karen McNeil and her tome The Wine Bible, which took ten years to assemble and was published in 2000, and while it omits some new wine regions, the information it contains is reliable to date, including contact numbers for the bodegas which proved both accurate and a necessity since you don’t just ‘drop in’ to wineries in Europe. Hopefully a new revision will be out soon…note: it can be purchased in paperback for about $5 on Amazon):

Reds: tempranillo (the main grape of Rioja, and used for aroma, flavor, delicacy, and aging potential), garnacha (grenache, for alcohol and body), graciano (for flavor and aroma), mazuelo (a ‘seasoning grape’), and viura (used by a few vintners for acidity)

Whites: Viura (main grape with mild fruit flavors and acidity). garnacha blanca (blending grape for body), and malvasia (for aroma)

With the advent of the automobile and modern trucking, Haro, was no longer necessary to ship wines, so Longrono grew both in size and importance, but continues to be the ‘heart’ of the wine region.

We left Haro, and drove down the southern side of La Rioja, crossing to La Guardia, then up the northern side, and returned to our hacienda. It would have been much easier to just continue to our next stop, La Ribera del Duero, but we preferred the warmth and convenience of staying in one place, which was also easy to get to San Sebastian from. If we had spent more time in the wine regions we would have loved to stay at the Gehry hotel that is at the Marqéuz de Riscal’s bodega near La Guardia, and priced accordingly.

next: Burgos and La Ribera del Duero

Adios!

TB

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.

Vol. 1 No. 10 …the wine in Spain isn’t mainly on the plain

Mea culpa…I am a week late with this post. A lot of things going on plus I had the allergy attack of the century and that was not conducive to writing – or tasting wine! Here goes…

There are six main wine regions in Spain. Only one, Jerez (Hereth), is in the south, nearly at the southernmost part of Europe. It is famous for sherry. While we didn’t visit the region, we were fortunate enough to be told of a wine festival (Feria de Vino), in Durango, which is between Bilbao and Donostria (Basque name for San Sebastian and the one the locals use). The owners of the beautiful hacienda we were staying at were kind enough to tell us about it so we drove the fifty or so miles hoping to taste some local wines. Wrong! Admission was 15€ and it gave us access to a dozen tables of food samples from jambon to Spanish cheeses. We were also given the best wine glass I have ever seen at this type of event and access to over 15 exhibitors and nearly 80 wines – some local – but others from all wine regions of Spain including Jerez. The program listed each exhibitors name and all the wines he had brought to sample plus the price per bottle in euros which simplified the choices. Most were in the 4-9 euro range (currently $4.40 to $9.90 thanks to the strong dollar, 1.1:1), while about 20% were priced over 20€.

First, there were several Cava’s, and no that is not like Asti Spumante. Cava originally came from the Penedès region near Barcelona (Barthelona), where the wine was so bad that in the 1870’s, Don José Raventós, owner of Bodega Codorníu went to France to see how Champagne was made – at that time, even their grapes weren’t the best but the wine was in high demand. He bought some equipment there and had it shipped home, and when he arrived announced to the owners that from now on all they were going to make was sparking wine, and it proved to be a wise choice. But Cava is not wannabe knock-off of Champagne, it is its own character. It is made in exactly the same manner (methóde champenois), and uses the same terms for dryness as in France, ranging from Brut Nature to Sweet. Freixenét is the only one brand allowed by the French to have ‘champagne’ on the label…it was grandfathered in before the French clamped down on the use of the name. Instead of a Rosé however, they call it Rosada. It is reminiscent of a Provencal Rosé, only sparkling, and now made in several areas of Spain. In La Rioja, I had both Brut and Rosada from such well-known names as CUNE (pronounced Cuné), Muga, and La Rioja Alta. I also had some from the French Basque country in both styles. They sell for 12-18€, and are better than most champagnes in that price range. Sadly, I have been unable to find the high quality ones here, only the major producers like Cordoníu and Freixenét.

I went to several tables and found what the Basque owners of our hacienda wanted us to try; Txocoli  (the name of the grape is Txocolina but they say: Choc-o-le since ‘tx’ in Basque is pronounced ‘ch’ – once you learn that reading signs is much easier). It has a slight fizz which they amplify by holding the bottle above their head and pouring it into a large tumbler on the side of the rim (the same way they pour their cidre (sidra). It is a refreshing and lower alcohol wine.

There were several worthy Brandies too. That is what brought me to Ximenéz-Spínola’s booth (‘xi’ is pronounced like José Jimenéz). A tall, well-dressed man, José Antonio Zarzana, was behind the booth and we began to talk while he made sure I had tasted all three of his sherries and two excellent brandies! As with every person I meet that is in the wine industry the ‘ice’ was quickly broken, and we became ‘buddies’. The label on their wine is absolutely beautiful: black and gold lettering on a white background – stunning!). I told him that the only ‘pedro ximenéz’ (the name of the grape which was brought to Spain by Roman soldiers who were responsible for spreading most of the grapes in Europe), I had seen in the U.S. was ‘PX’ and asked if that was theirs…wrong question! There are perhaps six good producers of pedro ximenéz, If it has that name on the bottle it means that the grapes were allowed to dry in the scorching sun for two to three weeks until it shrivels as the water is dehydrated. It is then very concentrated and aged for as long as twenty years before releasing it.

Sherries are made using the Solera method where barrels are stacked in rows and bottles are filled from the bottom row and replenished with the one from above until they reach the flavor that is desired from dry to sweet (Mansanilla to Pedro Ximenéz).

José is the viticultor (winemaker), and a descendent of one of the original family of producers in Jerez. They use ‘px’ grapes exclusively. When he took over as winemaker he introduced a new sherry in which he added some juice from the ‘px’ and created a very rich, semi-sweet sherry. We purchased a bottle of it (Exceptional Harvest), and consumed same in a couple of days. Yummy! We also bought a bottle of the Pedro Ximenéz, which I brought home and would have bought a Brandy if I could have brought that back too. These are expensive wines ranging from the ‘Old Harvest’ (20€), the ‘Exceptional Harvest’ (40€), and the PX at 45€….and worth every penny!

By the way, you don’t drink a glass of PX. It is so rich you drink less than an ounce. Despite the high price, in Spain they can be seen pouring it over ice cream. Later in the trip, at a terrific restaurant in Burgos (Restaurante Rincón de España). the owner, as a gift, poured each of us a glass from a just unopened bottle of 1996 PX. Nectar of the gods!

Next: a visit to La Rioja and a chance meeting with a bodega owner.

TB

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.