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.

Vol. 1 No. 2 …do I care what Parker/Rolland think?

I’ve looked at wine from both sides now,
from up and down, and still somehow
it’s wine’s illusions I recall.
I really don’t know wine at all.

– with just a tad of literary license from Both Sides Now, by Joni Mitchell

If the above causes you to ask if he doesn’t know wine, why write a blog? TB would answer, “I know something about wine but I don’t know what you, dear reader, like. Neither do the guru’s: Robert Parker, who gave us the 100 point grading system back in 1978, and which is now copied by at least half a dozen other wine writers/critics; or Michel Rolland, who consults for over two hundred wineries, and whose goal is to bring the same attributes to all of them. Rolland was immortalized in Mondovino, as a Tiparillo-smoking, jovial fellow being chauffeured all over France…and elsewhere in the world, along with the Mondavis (not to be confused with the MonDAVIES – Bob’s estranged brother). Interestingly, Mondavi was at its zenith when the documentary came out in 2004, but then was sold to Constellation, and has lost its aura…and when you lose your aura in wine, the fall from grace – Can be a long plunge.

Let’s get this straight: if you like Two Buck Chuck (now $3.89 by the way), or Gallo Hearty Burgundy, who is Parker, or Rolland, or Trader Bill, or anyone to set you ‘straight’? What a boring world it would be if everyone liked exactly the same wines…oops, the wine snobs already do which has escalated the price of those 90-100 point wines as speculators, not consumers, buy them and trade them among one another further driving up the price. Some people have never even seen the wines they own and never will.

In Red Obsession, it was said that the Chinese could become the buyers of all the Bordeaux in the world. Flash back to about 1988 and the same was being said about: the Japanese! Arigato! If you don’t believe this, go to this link, just published today: Lower wine prices, less Chinese demand

The above is as negative as you will see in this blog and it is not intended to harm anyone named, but when TB saw this cartoon (sorry, unable to find it so will just have to quote it), at his 50th birthday on the Napa Valley Wine Train, it became indelibly printed in his brain:

Customer tasting at wine shop: “This wine is terrible!”

Clerk: “Really? Parker gave it a 90…

Customer: “I’ll take two cases!!!”

That epitomizes the wine snob who knows little about it but thinks he can look smart by serving and pointing out, “this is a 90-point wine.” It brings about the question: when is the last time you saw a wine displaying a rating below 87 in any store?

In Sideways, Miles was the epitome a wine snob (by the way, it was more disgusting than funny in the book). He loathed Merlot – as if there were no good Merlots, only plonk. He had obviously never tried a Duckhorn, especially the Three Palms, or any of the other wines not produced for the ‘cocktail’ crowd. Instead, he loved Pinot Noir, especially Burgundies. Yet his favorite wine was Cheval Blanc, a beautiful St. Emilion, which is…100% Merlot (in the book he only mentions Chateau Petrus, also 100% Merlot)! For all you France haters, how do you think they feel about us for all those ‘burgundies’, and ‘chablis’ we sold for a couple of bucks a bottle?…not to mention Champagne!

One of TB’s favorite wine writers in San Francisco…sadly, he can’t recall the name…once spent a column on wine writers. He posed: how can you use someone’s wine recommendations without knowing if what they like in a wine is the same as what you look for? Good question…any takers?

Also in Sideways: it was amazing how Miles always brought out the best and most expensive wine when he was trashed! By the way, TB has had this happen after several glasses of wine at a dinner and had that urge to (and satisfied it), bring out some of his best bottles…with little or no recollection of how they tasted with the palate numbed. There’s a lesson here!

TB observed ‘the Sideways effect’ almost immediately when in wine shops the Merlot came down from the eye level shelf to the bottom, changing places with the Pinot Noir…and TB has had some not-so-well -made Pinots. Note that Robert Veseth, now professor emeritus at Puget Sound University, observed the same thing and wrote a paper on it from an economics point of view, the impetus for his blog The Wine Economist and a new career.

Let’s go back to the Parker/Rolland paradox: for all the good they did in improving the quality of wine – globally – they have homogenized it…like buying one brand of milk over another…ok, maybe buying Coke (the drink) over Pepsi. What is missing is something found in the best wines: terroir (tere-wahr).

Terroir is the summation of all that goes into a wine from the soils and climate, to the way the vines are planted. It is what distinguishes a Heitz Martha’s Vineyard from other Cabernets, or a fine Chablis with its flintiness, from any other Chardonnay.

Now for the consequences: imagine a farmer growing corn, and some ‘expert’ comes along and says he is rating your corn an 87? What would he do? Escort the guy off his farm…and probably not in a pleasant way. But take away all the romanticism and wine is just that: farming, and farming means you can do everything right and still have a bad crop…you hope, (pray ?), for the best. But the farmer doesn’t see the price of his wine double or more with a 100 point score, instead the independent wine buyer who does his own research pays for it. Relief may be in sight as this 2015 prediction states: 2015 wine predictions

On this you don’t need to take TB’s word. He was told this by none other than Joe (Joseph) Heitz. TB, with a group of friends, which included Joe’s nephew from Reno, Nevada, was invited to lunch on the Heitz’ deck and enjoyed some of their Riesling and wonderful sausages on a beautiful Napa morning. This was followed by a tour, in which, Joe said that vineyard land could not go any higher and still allow the buyer to make money. I bought a case that day of the 1974 Martha’s Vineyard Anniversary Cabernet…$40 a bottle, I believe. Remember, Heitz was the most sought-after Cabernet Sauvignon in America. At that time Mondavi Cab was about $7.50 a bottle (don’t laugh, TB bought the 1972 with $4.95 price tags). In 2000, TB put some of his older wines up for auction, including his last bottle of the Heitz: it sold for $400 – is any wine worth that much? It’s WINE, not art, and meant to be consumed…and don’t forget old wines don’t taste anything like they did when young.

If you want proof of just how much impact Parker and Rolland have had consider this article published on Aug. 6th 2014 – my 45th wedding anniversary by the way – remember 1976 was pre-Parker AND Rolland, then came the conversion (capture?); are we about to go round trip? You decide…1976 Wine Judgement: then and now

Maybe you should just trust your own taste buds. If you like a wine, buy a case of it and drink it over the next 3-5 years…be able to serve it a dinner when it might be worth 2-3 times what you paid for it. That is the fun of wine…not ‘hoarding’ it, right?

If you can find it, Jancis Robinson wrote a book, Vintage TimeCharts, which graphs how wines she tasted lasted over the years…it is extremely valuable in knowing just how long most wines will keep, and how long the best can keep. It tracks wines from as far back as 1989 to 2000…some of the best! Highly recommended, and here’s the good news if you are interested: you can buy it online for $4.95 or less! A wonderful addition to any wine library. TB would add that Jancis is one of the great wine writers, long on fact, short on ego.

Well, dear reader, hope you found this as interesting as the trip down memory lane was for TB. Ah, but there are a million wine stories in the Naked City…this is just one of them (anyone remember?).

TB

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.