Vol 1. No 12 …you can call it Duero or you can call it Douro…

One of the most intriguing wine regions in the world is the Ribero del Duero in Northern Spain at the source of the Duero River in the Cantabrian Mountains (so you won’t think TB is getting senile – he may be – he discussed part of this are in Vol. 1 No 110), which then flows south through Valladolid and into Portugal where it becomes the Douro, famous for centuries for Port wine growing. The major city of the region is Burgos, near the source. It then meanders down past Valladolid where the two most expensive Spanish wines hail from (Vega Secila and Pesquez), and dozens of other fine and reasonably-priced reds and just outside the boundaries of the appellation one of Spain’s best white wines is made, Rueda, a complex and beautiful wine.

The Duero then passes to the north of the university town of Salamanca and into Portugal where it becomes the Douro for the remainder of its 550 mile journey to the Atlantic. It is in Portugal that it becomes navigable and the Port growers used Daδ’s (small lateen-rigged sailboats) to transport the barrels down to the Port Lodges near the sea across from the beautiful town of Porto (I just learned that there are 8 day river cruises up the Douro and the views look incredible).

While TB loves Port (just as he does Pedro Ximénez sherries and Madeira’s), our interest here is on the unknown Reds that come from here (and slightly above it the whites called Albarinho’s which are labeled Vinho Verde – the only similarity to the old Vinho’s is the name as the quality is equal to Albariño’s and they are less expensive – try one, you’ll like it and save some money too!).

TB will revisit the Duero region in October when he returns to finish the northwest edge of the Iberian peninsula (Rias Biaxas, Santiago de Compostello, and Vigo), then down into Portugal to Porto. From their he will fly to Madeira and back to Lisboa to begin a cruise to Marakeesh, Casablanca, and more, then finish in the Canary Islands at Tenerife – one would think it would be easier to fly from there to Madeira but since the Canary’s are Spanish and Madeira, Portuguese, no can do). Can’t wait to take the trip and report back to you.

Last Sunday, TB read a review of a wine named Portada. A 2013 red, that the author said was a $30 wine selling for $10. Intrigued, and anxious to increase his knowledge of Portuguese wine he bought a bottle from a local wine merchant and it is ‘knock your socks off stunning’! What does it taste like? Indescribable – a wine for all tastes as it is chock full of rich berry flavors but with soft tannins to make it a great wine to go with everything from barbecue to ??? But more than that it will even appeal to those of you who are Two Buck Chuck lovers (even though the price is approaching $3!). Don’t misunderstand, TBC has not only enriched the coffers of Trader Joe’s but it has helped eliminate cheap wine from the competition – globally, good wine is forcing out bad because you can’t sell much for under three dollars – that is legal anyway!

That’s all  for now, friends! Stay thirsty? – now why would you want to do that? As an old Navy guy running an enlisted men’s club used to say, “drink up, this ain’t no library!”

TB

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.

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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.

Vol. 1 No. 9 …what is good wine?

(TB is really anxious to report on my trip to northwest Spain but I saw a blog today that just had to be reported in the wake of the arsenic ‘scare’: people are already increasing their price points on wine or as the TV show was called we’re  movin’ on up! Will try to get the Spain articles in this week. TBOW)

Customer: This wine tastes terrible!

Merchant: Really? Parker gave it a 90!

Customer: I’ll take two cases!

Don’t be that customer! Trust what you like, not what Robert Parker, Michel Rolland, or any other critic says is a good wine. For one thing, you  might serve it to friends and they might have the same tastes as you and like the customer, think it tastes terrible. $50 down the drain and worse, perhaps ruining a good meal (putting aside for a later column which wines pair well with food).

First, ‘good’ is a relative term: compared to what? Is a wine ‘good’ for a Cab? Is it good in the $50 and up range? Is it good value? Is it good by itself? …with food?

As TB writes this column those thoughts come back again and again. We have all heard someone tell us that is a good wine,  but then tried it and found it ‘so-so’ – or worse! A few decades ago Gerald Boyd, a prominent San Francisco-based wine writer, wrote an entire column that essentially asked this question.

He said, how can you accept a wine writer’s recommendation without knowing what he looks for in a wine? Does he like big, bold, tannic wines, like Robert Parker?  At the other end of the spectrum the late Robert Lawrence Balzer who wrote in the Los Angeles Times? An eccentric, pioneer wine writer who accomplished many things in his 99 years but who could talk as glowingly of Gallo Hearty Burgundy or Sutter Home White Zinfandel (they pioneered it in the 1970’s and Balzer wrote a column saying they were ‘on to something’, even though there is no such thing as a white Zin, a red grape that produces what we now know as a ‘blush’ wine), as a first growth Bordeaux.

This is the point of TBOW: you be the judge, not some recognized expert. Two of the most respected wine writers are Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson have had a ‘lively’ debate over which is better: Bordeaux or Burgundy? Since I have a friend who can‘t stand Pinot Noir (it makes him ill, and we have tried to trick him but somehow he always has the same reaction), it proves it is in the ‘nose’ and taste buds of the beholder.

Think of wine as NASA would: the cost difference between 90% reliability and 100%, or even  95%. Wine is not a matter of life or death so a wine that is 90% as good as a $100 wine (very subjective, of course), can cost as little as $25-30. If you want the expensive wine and can afford it, more power to you, but TB would suggest that fewer and fewer people either an afford an expensive bottle of wine or do not have the inclination (there was a time that this writer wanted and collected them but that is in the past having some that were disappointments when he finally drank them).

I want to recommend a great wine blog, www.thewineeconmist.com by Mike Veseth who is an economist who has chosen to study wine. In today’s blog (3.31.15), he discusses the impact of the financial crisis on wine consumption (actually all consumption was impacted). Wineries have seen their wine clubs ‘wither’, and downward pressure was exerted by wineries and wine shops who were finding it difficult to move their inventory,  significant discounting occurred in th ‘dead zone’ of $20 and up wines. As a table in the blog shows, sales of wine selling up to $8.99 a bottle are off (and will likely be more so with the new  arsenic ‘scare’). Meanwhile wines  from $9.00 to $11.99 have had increased sales of 7.2%; contrast this to wines from $6.00 to $8.99 which have declined by 3.2%! Below that level they are off from 0.1%- 1%. More significantly, wines selling for $12..00 to $14.99 are up by 10,6% and wines selling for $20 or more are up 15.7%! This is significant since total wine consumption  for the 52 weeks ended 12/6/14, as reported by Wine Business Monthly, was up just 3.4%! Think about it!

The extreme high end Bordeaux have priced themselves (been priced?) out of the range of all but a small percentage of consumers. Also, new laws in China which prohibit giving gifts (Lafite Rothschild was a favorite), have cut back on Chinese demand and the ‘spec  wine’ buyers have seen the values of their wine consortiums plummet. Also, you will find this hard to believe but there is counterfeiting  out there! No…not wine! Yes, wine and it is as old as Thomas Jefferson’s era. One would be wise to consider wines as consumables and stop gambling on demand and thus prices of rare wines continuing to rise.

In the movie, Red Obsession, the statement was made that the Chinese would buy up all the best wines in the world. TB chuckled at that because in 1989, just before the Japanese economy tanked, the same was said of Japan! Funny how that same year the went into a tailspin and have never emerged from it. The same may be true for China, and take TB’s word for it: no wine is worth even $100, except for the historical value, but do you feel lucky? It might be fake!

TB

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.

Vol. 1 No. 8 ….there’s arsenic in the wine! Say it isn’t so, TB…

TB had intended to write more on his trip and has almost completed on segment but this story is too important and also highlights his theme: there are many good wines produced now around the world that are forcing out the bad. Areas that used to just produce a high volume of wine are now making less and at higher quality…a good thing!

It isn’t so! Okay, there is, but an ambulance-chasing law firm in L.A. with the unwitting (?) help of a Denver-based chemical analysis firm (neither shall be mentioned by name so as not to further publicize their heinous actions by creating a scare that is much more insidious than any trace arsenic in wine. Put a stop to it.  Of course they were able to get two couples to file, thus getting class-action status – the Holy Grail of product liability lawyers – but just how have they been harmed? Did anyone suffer injury or die? Wouldn’t it more likely that someone had dies of arsenic poisoning leading regulators to look at wine? Unless the wine industry comes on very strong and proves the suit is without merit, it will probably be settled on the courthouse steps with only the law firm benefiting, and of course, secondarily the chemical analysis firm. I believe there are just four names in the class action. If you have been, or had the opportunity to be, a party to a class-action (most likely through some securities you own(ed), you are well aware of how this works: settled out of court, lawyers and expert witnesses are paid, and in a case against say Ford, for fires in pick-up trucks, the plaintiffs get a $200 coupon to be used on a new…FORD PICK-UP! Why in God’s name would you buy anything from the company knowing that they produced a vehicle that could catch fire (even though the problem was fixed long ago)? In this case, how about if they gave you a coupon for a free case of ‘Two-Buck Chuck’? That’s the ticket.

Enough of the levity, now to the serious side of the issue. The U.S. Food and Drug Agency has decreed that drinking water should not contain more than 10 parts per million of arsenic (this due to a 2013 decree caused by it being in orange juice) that we consume much more water than arsenic…er, wine…a couple of glasses most likely a day, versus a couple of quarts (or liters) of drinking water. The rub is that arsenic stays in your body and eventually builds up (that is the theory of how Napoleon was poisoned, slowly, and without knowing it). How valid is the 10ppm level?

The French drink on average 16.4 gallons of wine per person each year (that’s less than 6 ounces per day or about 9% of their daily intake of water. If the standard there was the 50ppm and assuming their water was right at 50ppm, that would mean the standard for wine could be 500ppm  or higher, with no ill effects. In fact, the results of the lab study here didn’t even exceed the 50ppm level which the lawsuit has labeled.

Yet without saying how many different labels they tasted, they came up with 28 producers and 73 labels, most notably Charles Shaw (Two-Buck Chuck), and some of the others named being sold through Trader Joe’s (talk about defamation!), and other outlets. No one asked them to do this (or so they say), and the wine industry has its own chemical analysis companies that strongly dispute the findings. In their scare campaign they said some of these wines more than 500% of the limit (see they could have said five times which is just 50ppm – hardly worthy of sounding alarms). Even the FDA and EPA said the limit was established for ‘public water systems’ and is not relevant for wine  – how about that?

Back to the 10ppm limit. Canada, conservative Canada (who has to absorb the health costs of their citizens), has a limit of 100ppm. Europe is 200ppm…they too have to pay health costs!

If you aren’t disgusted by our legal system by now, you should be if this case isn’t thrown out of court and the law firm sued for their overblown claims like ‘dangerously high levels’ that are damaging an entire industry.

How did the arsenic get in the wine? It is in all wine and virtually all things including the soil. Diatomacious earth is commonly used to filter wine, with presumably the best filtration methods being used on middle and high-end wines. Sorry, no smoking gun here.

You decide the facts and hopefully this case won’t even come to trial and be dismissed for lack of merit. But is there an upside to this? There just might be. Perhaps consumers will see that for a little more (Two-Buck Chuck now costs $3.50), and Trader Joe’s and other vendors may be able to get people to pay more…there are many steals at all wine shops for under $10, some for as little as $5 (once TB saw a clerk moving a case of TBC and warned him not to drop even one bottle or the profit would be lost). Did you ever stop to think how much just the bottle, label, cork or screw-cap, cost…let alone the cost of growing and processing the grapes? It is hard for TB to contemplate what the wine sells for that allows it to be profitable at less than $10 (we haven’t even considered the cost of production, except by tremendous volume. Try paying a little more and experiment with several wines not just settling for one because it’s cheap.

Happy tasting!

TB

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.

Vol. 1 No. 7 …a visit to La Rioja

Of the six major wine regions in Spain, La Rioja (from the river Rio Oja, a tributary of the Ebro river that flows through the region), is by far the most important, although many others are developing. As mentioned in the prior blog, there has been improvement in Basque wines, and quality is up throughout the region.

Spain owes its fame and pain in the wine industry to phylloxera, the parasite that destroyed the vines in Bordeaux, causing the winemakers to try to find similar places to grow their wines. These included both the west and east of Spain, and even Portugal, but the most successful was La Rioja. But when grafting the shoots to American rootstock created phylloxera-resistant vines, the French returned to Bordeaux and eventually the bug moved into Spain forcing the growers here to do the same. It was both costly and time-consuming and many growers abandoned business.

The next ‘shockwave’ came when Generalissimo Franco (don’t say that name in Basque Country), ordered the vines to be replaced – with wheat – due to a famine. Somehow, some way, the wines were eventually brought back and while lacking the elegance of French wines they were soon sought out. Just as in other parts of the world, modern techniques improved the quality of the wine and today, the best riojas command high prices.

Rioja’s might never have become popular had it not been for modern tastes that caused a transformation not only in Spain, but Chile, Argentina, and even Portugal. These wines remain less expensive (except the very top lines which can cost as much as $100), and are exceptional value.

As my readers know, TB is, and has for long, been opposed to ‘wine snobbery’. Why should we ‘accept as gospel’ what Robert Parker, or Michel Rolland, or any other wine critic says is best? I asked this question at several of the wineries and was greeted with nods and smiles. At Muga, of all places, Carmen, my host, complained, “Everyone asks me ‘what is your best wine?’ I always tell them this, it is the one that you like best.” No one has ever made that statement to this writer before, yet he feels it is prevalent and it sums up exactly the point of this blog and what wine enjoyment should be about. Would you dare to ask a mother which of her children is her favorite? If you don’t have a wine cellar, why do you want to buy a wine capable of aging for ten years or more? Under improper storage conditions it will likely be ruined by the time you get around to drinking it.

Think of it this way: wine is about pleasure and passion. Passion is not being able to tell your friends, “Parker gave this wine a 90”, it is about offering them a wine that you love and most likely they will be drawn to it as you were. Here is a simple test: try a bottle of wine…in your mind rate it, then visit a winery (or Bodega, or Pazo, or Chateau), and if you are lucky enough to meet the winemaker or someone else who is a full-time employee – not a student with a part-time job –try the wine again. Most likely you will rate the same wine different. See, their passion comes through just as yours does when you talk about wine with your friends. That is the anti-wine snob.

Visiting wineries in Spain as in most countries outside the United States requires a reservation. A tour can cost as much as 25 euros, but a trick to learn, especially if you have visited wineries elsewhere, is to reserve a tasting instead. This will not only save you money but precious time.

I had scheduled a tour of Bodegas Muga in Haro (pronounced ‘arrow’), but when we met the woman in St-Jean-de-Luz, who was an owner of Cune (actually CVNE and pronounced ‘coon-ay’ as it is the initials of the company that also owns other properties in Spain), Sophie Vallejo, she gave us an introduction to Cune, so we were admitted without a reservation and cancelled the tour at Muga which would have been difficult to make as we were coming from two hours away. We tasted six of their wines, including a white wine made from Viura grapes that is high in acid and a very pleasant wine for an aperitif or with fish. In addition, we had five different Rioja wines made primarily from Tempranillo, with varying amounts of Garnacha, Mazuela, and Graciano (one was 100% Graciano, a very temperamental wine of high quality, which I liked best.

The older style wines, like Imperial, which was their most expensive and most highly regarded are aged longer in oak, both French and American, this was a result of the cost of French oak so they bought the wood from America and had their own coopers make the barrels.

Today, only Muga still makes its own barrels, both French and American. Their more modern wines are sold under the Contina label and are much more forward as most people now prefer. The aging time has been reduced to three to four years in oak (the American imparts vanillin flavors to the wine, while French has more spice), then another three to five in bottle. While there are many wines produced here, it is the Crianza’s, the least aged and less complex, while the Reserva’s and Gran Reservas that are the most sought after for the longevity.

We also visited another top producer, La Rioja, which provided us with a beautiful and complex Albariño (not produced in La Rioja but Rias Biaxas which we were unable to visit due to distance). We also tasted their Rioja’s which also are produced under various labels with their best modern style wines as Torre de Oña. The quality of all the wines we tasted at the various Bodegas was amazing.

Later we returned to Muga, which had been closed and Iasted another eight wines, two impressive Cava’s: a brut and a Rosada, both beautiful, especially the latter. Then six more wines including a white made from Viura grapes, and reds from Crianza to Gran Reserva.

A bit of history on Haro. Due to rail access required by the French vintners it established rail service to Bordeaux and Bilbao in the 1880’s, and two years later it was the first town in northern Spain to have electricity, early in the 1900’s. The town is beautiful with Baroque architecture, the vineyards below, mountains in the background, and winding narrow streets (as in most of the north, the streets are almost all one way which is confusing until you understand the plan, and even more so in the larger towns and cities like San Sebastian and Bilbao). Today, only a handful of the ‘old’ bodegas remain situated in Haro, which is at the northwest corner of La Rioja (Rioja Alta). Most of the others and the new wineries are now near Logrono, primarily in another beautiful hill town, La Guardia. As mentioned previously, the new ones are designed by world-renowned architects, and stand out against the mesas with the mountains in the background

La Rioja is in three parts, with Rioja Alta producing the best wines due to a higher elevation, the best soils, and the breezes that come through the canyons of the Cantabrian Mountains from the Atlantic Ocean. The bottom of this region is Rioja Alvesa, still good but drier, and to the south Rioja Baja, which produces grapes with lower acidity, higher alcohol and are coarser due to the more sandy soils.

The regulations for producing Rioja and other wines are strict under the Denominación de Origen Calcificada (DOC). Among these are the length of time required for aging in the barrel and in the bottle which increases from a Crianza, Reserva, and a Gran Reserva. Historically, wines were aged much longer than required…some for twenty years or more! This aging caused the tannins to build up and lose the fruit characteristics. The three producers discussed here and many others, especially the newer bodegas have shunned these requirements for some or all of their wines. Why? Because they feel, and the public would agree judging from the price, makes them better. This follows in the footsteps of Italy’s Piero Antinori, who in 1971 decided to use smaller barriques instead of the huge barrels required under the DOC for Chianti. Both have have been generously rewarded for this by the buying public. Rioja’s may only be made from three grapes, Tempranillo, the mainstay, Garnacha, known in France as Granache, Graciano, and Mazuelo. Most have at least 70% Tempranillo. Some producers are now making single grape wines from Garnacha. CUNE is making a Graciano that was a favorite of mine (the joke, because it is so difficult to work with is that taking the Spanish word for thanks, gracias, they say “gracias, no gracias” Some single-vineyard Tempranillo’s are now being produced such as Contina’s (CUNE) Viña del Olivo, which is very intense…and expensive!

Only recently have I began to appreciate Cava, a sparkling wine made in the traditional méthode Champenois in the Penedes region south of Barcelona. In the 1860’s they imported French champagne-making equipment, usually a Brut or Rosada. It is now being produced in other areas and I particularly liked the Muga Rosada. The prices for these range from 10-20 euros.

I am taking the time today to write as it is raining out – the first day of the entire trip (10 days), relaxing in our beautiful hacienda just outside Donostrio (San Sebastian). The name comes from the Basque (Don a sign of respect for the saint, and Ostrio, for where he died in Italy). Signs are mostly in Basque (Euskadi) and Spanish, but IF you use the Basque you will do better. As for Spanish’, good luck as in the north it is all Castilian (Catalan), so they don’t understand you except in pigeon. That said, these are warm people, and we have had people spend a lot of time assisting us. Once in the Basque restaurant/Cidery (Sidra), by us and a woman at the post office who stayed for half an hour to help us. The clerks were useless. Imagine over an hour to mail a package home!
Adios, mi amigos…
TB

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