Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Planeta Vino's Blog has moved!

We've just launched our new website with an integrated blog!

Living in Madrid, and running our wine tasting school here means we have our finger right on the pulse of Spanish wines. Spanish wines are hot right now, but unfortuanetely there are still very few good sources of up-to-date information.

For the latest information on Spanish wine and gastronomy, as well as wine and restaurant reviews, check our new blog:


Planeta Vino is a unique wine school in Madrid, Spain. We offer unique customized wine and food events for discerning travellers and corporate groups.
For more information: http://www.planetavino.net/

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ribera del Duero Wine Country: the good, the bad and the ugly

Ribera de Duero is one of the most well known wine regions in Spain and it is a cinch to visit from Madrid…only 2 hours due north.
We go quite frequently and have taken a few groups there. We often base our visits on what is called the "Golden Mile", which is centered around Sardon del Duero. This area is know for some of the top wineries in Spain: Pingus and Vega Sicila being the most famous. One winery in the Golden Mile is our top recommendation to visit: Abadia Retuerta. Fantastic wines and a beautiful, detailed winery visit to one of the most high tech wineries in Spain. Also included in the visit, and equally impressive, is the ancient abbey on the grounds. Unlike many wineries, visits are welcomed and the reception is both warm and professional. If you are in the area…give them a call and stop by.

This last trip, we decided to go off our beaten track a little and discover the area near Pedrosa del Duero. We visited two wineries whose
Ines I have long loved, but have never visited. The day turned out to be a study in contrast….the two visits were at the opposite end of the spectrum, showing the two extremes, bad and good, of what you find here in Spain. It just goes to show that you don't know what kind of reception you will get in Spanish wine country….but it is always an adventure!

First the bad: Pago de Capellanes. I was very excited to visit this winery as they consistently produce some of my favourite Ribera del Duero wines. I taste them year after year, and the wines never disappoint. They particularly represent excellent value from a wine region that has become very pricey. I consistently include them in my wine tastings.
First the good things: a very professional and friendly staff member gave us brief, but sufficient tour of the premises. The winery is a work in progress, the enotourism part of the project, including a tasting room, has yet to be built. The most impressive area is the barrel room.
The unforgivable thing: no tasting….of any wine! After the brief tour, the staff member bid us farewell. Though this has happened to me several times in Spain, I was still stunned and disappointed! It doesn't matter that I have tried all their wines….there is no substitute for tasting in situ with a person involved in making the wine.
Spain is honestly the only country where this has happened to me. It leaves me baffled that many wineries don't realize the importance of tasting, whatever the situation.
Some wineries, this one I imagine, feel they have to have an elegant space to conduct a tasting….if only they could see the dingy, downright dirty places in the Rhone valley, where I have tasted some of the most sublime wines!
I think the fundamental problem is staff training, that many staff members who receive you do not realize the fundamental role of tasting the wines. Whenever I have been received by the enologist or owner, tasting happens. This is the sad state of enotourism in Spain!
The shock is even greater because we always go as wine professionals, pre-arranged visits in which tasting is even more de rigueur! Let me tell how mad I would be if I came all the way from the US and didn't get to taste a single wine!
Another bad thing: no credit cards accepted! Too bad, because the prices at the winery were way better than in Madrid…

Too bad…I will still drink their outstanding wines, but this is a winery I would not recommend to visit.

Our second experience was of the day was completely different…we visited family-run winery Lopez Cristobal…they make about half the quantity of wine that Pago de Capellanes does. We were received by the son of the founder, Galo Lopez, who is involved in every aspect of the project, but who is particularly involved in the wine-making side of the house. Galo was charming and it was wonderful to tour the facilities with someone who is so knowledgeable. The winery is quite ambitious and has recently purchased the adjoining flour factory. The first expansion will be to built a new wine-making space inside one of the huge flour storage warehouses. Also inherited are some lovely industrial buildings that will enable the winery to expand further and get even more involved in enotourism in the future.
Galo and the team at the winery know how to receive visits and understand what the visitor is looking for: friendly reception, expert tour, and a reasonable introduction to the wines through tasting.
We tasted through two wines with Galo, he wanted to open more, but I picked the two that most interested me. I was not as familiar with Lopez Cristobal's wines, having tasted them only twice before, but I was very impressed with them: great fruit, fine oak and fresh acidity. It is that fresh acidity and the lower alcohol levels that make these wines more elegant that some fo the Ribera monster reds of late. These wines are very pleasant on their own, but match food even better. The value is tremendous for Ribera…at the winery the crianza is 9 euros, incredibly reasonable for a Ribera Crianza of this calibre.
There are just five wines: A Joven Roble with 3 months oak, the Crianza with 12 months, a Reserva with 16 months.
This is the basic range…then there are the two premium wines that also represent great value around 25 euros. These wines are deliberately mad ein very different styels and represent two different trends in Ribera del Duero:
1. Bagus: a specific old-vine vineyard wine or "vino de pago" made only in the best years. The focus in this wine is the fruit, reflecting the terroir. This is a very complex, yet approachable wine, where the oak is the supporting player.
2. Lopez Cristobal Seleccion: this is a coupage of the best grapes of the year. Here, the "crianza" is an equal partner to the fruit…only the finest new French oak is used. This creates a wine in the more "international" Ribera style….a style that is the most trendy right now.
It was wonderful to taste the wines in a charming wine tasting room with such an expert and we lingered a long time over the wines and the wonderful jamon and lomo put out for us. We were at the winery at least 3 hours…Galo was so generous with his time.
I can tell you that his wines are good enough on their own, but in that exceptional setting, they were sublime!

The difference in the visit made all the difference: I highly recommend visits to Lopez Cristobal and the combination of great visit and fine wines have won yet another loyal fan in me.
These two visits represent the two sides of Spain perfectly. Hidden gems that need to be rooted out and reward you many fold. The ugly side is the dramatic improvements that must be made in customer service in all areas of the wine trade here in Spain. I like to focus on the positive….

Monday, June 25, 2007

Tasting: Three Rioja Reservas

This is a subject that I can't avoid….Rioja and its various styles…I love it! I've had a few comments saying that I've been unfair to classic Rioja and perhaps I have. Some have said that long barrel aging does not kill fruit flavors, but enhances them…this I have to disagree with. Classic Riojas are not fruit-driven wines…they have many characteristics that make them attractive but the fruit is often oxidized and faded. The bottom line for me is that I appreciate all the various styles that Rioja has to offer today, but I think it is a disservice to the consumer that you have no idea of what style you might get…especially at the reserva level….maybe style should be indicated on the label. I think having so many styles that are not indicated on the label is also a disservice to Rioja as well…it's hard to project a coherent wine image.

I digress! This tasting was very interesting---it was labeled Classic vs modern Rioja, and it was for a group of 15 Spanish folks. We discussed Rioja characteristics and then tasted five wines blind. The first set was two crianzas, one that was modern in style and one that was classic. The Luis Crianza Crianza was a simple, fruit forward wine (12 months in oak)…the Campillo Crianza was a much more wood driven wine (20 months in older oak), with an attractive but delicate cherry fruit. Overall the Campillo was more complex, a little more expensive, but the Luis Cañas won the group over for being an attractive, easy drinking red.

The three reservas were a lot more divergent in their styles. But it was also a trickier exercise with three wine served blind. I picked a modern style wine, a classic style wine and what I call hybrid Rioja…a wine that tries to take the best of both. The wines were very characteristic of their styles, going from the classic with low alcohol, high acidity, oak driven through the hybrid to the modern with high alcohol, lower acidity, fruit driven.
1. Campillo Reserva 1999: 75% Tempranillo, 15% Graciano, 10% others (Cabernet Sauvignon) – 25 months in French oak - 13% - Classic Rioja
Visual: very fresh color…not showing age much
Nose: Medium intensity. A little funky animal shows first, the older oak notes: toast, smoky. Little fruit on nose
Mouth: Smooth and elegant with wonderful, fresh acidity. Great balance of structural elements…except there is little fruit. A bit of delicate dried cranberry, which seems a contradiction, but the high acidity gives the fruit a pleasant tartness. Smooth light tannins, but the delicate fruit fades fast leaving a woody finish.
2. Finca Valpiedra Reserva 2001: 90% Tempranillo, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Mazuelo y Graciano - 20 months in new oak, 80% French, 20% American - 13.5% - Hybrid Rioja
Visual: medium intensity ruby
Nose: Medium intensity. Cherry fruit hits you first, with lots of attractive oak…a hint of leathery, animal notes as well. Quite complex…crianza (wood aging dominates nose).
Mouth: A burst of intense cherry fruit is followed by more oak complexity. Great length, very smooth tannins, but fruit lingers. Very fresh acidity. Fruit at its peak now. Opposite to the nose: fruit dominates the mouth.
3. Roda Reserva 2003: 85% Tempranillo, 11% Graciano, 4% Garnacha - 16 months in new French oak - 14%
Visual: palest of three wines, youthful color
Nose: at first the most closed nose…a few milky malolactic notes. Later the nose opens up to liqueur cherry notes, chocolate and great French oak notes…needs a lot of air!
Mouth: Though the nose was closed at first…the mouth was intense from the beginning! Spicy fruit explosion! Clove, black cherry, black berry, hints of yogurt, some chocolate. Full bodied, with good acidity (the least acidic of the wines). Very long finish with big smooth tannins and lots of fruit...tannins finally shut it down…they could use some more time in bottle.

The group had a hard time distinguishing between the styles blind…strangely foreign groups tend to do better at this exercise. The group voted for the wine they preferred before the unveiling:
Campillo: 1 vote
Finca Valpiedra: 5 votes
Roda: 9 votes

The Roda is bound to outmuscle the competition in such a blind tasting, but the results are very interesting nonetheless. There was a big gap between the Finca Valpiedra and the Campillo. The one gentleman who preferred the Campillo was the oldest person at the tasting and said the following:
"The wine (Campillo) is what I look for in Rioja…if I want a big, powerful red I go for Ribera del Duero." In my mind he represents an older generation of wine-drinkers in Spain. As we can see from the results the Spanish palate is changing a lot!
For my tastes, the Finca Valpiedra is the wine I would have picked in the moment….the Roda needs more time.
I've done this exercise with quite a few Spanish and foreign groups, and the result is always the same.
The Finca Valpedra for me represents the perfect balance between the two schools. It has that elegant, smooth style that so typifies Rioja, lifted by great acidity…yet it also has that fresh fruit intensity that appeals to the international palate. Some would say that Finca Valpiedra is a well-made classic Rioja! I would disagree….
Some may criticise the Roda for not being Rioja-enough, but it is an awesome wine anyway! What does Rioja mean today anyway?
Honestly the Campillo is a style that I recognize as a well made, elegant wine, but this international palate of mine just doesn't appreciate it….I'm afraid to say I would be joined by many a wine drinker in this. Though it is always enrichening to have multiple styles, we also need to ask….what future does classic Rioja have in a world of modern palates?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Winery: Pago de Larrainzar in Navarra

As mentioned in my article below on Navarra Wine Country, we recently had the chance to visit an impressive new winery project near Estella in Navarra: Pago de Larrainzar.

The project is the vision of Miguel Canalejo Larrainzar, the former president of Alcatel in Spain. It is a real family project: a couple of his children are involved full-time in the winery.

The project is simple yet top of the line: produce a single, top-quality wine using the best grapes and wine-making techniques available. Top quality is the key word here.
The folks at Pago de Larrainzar also believe in the future of enotourism in their region and have built a wonderful winery space to receive visitors. They are also creating a trellis museum, a garden-like vineyard that displays different training systems form around the world. The vineyards are charming, enclosed by a historic wall and overlooking the famous Irache Monastery. The winery has modern and clean lines, with an ample, elegant, and airy tasting/eating area upstairs.
The Director for Enotourism, Marian San Martin, gave us a wonderful tour, including a walk around the walled vineyard and the adjoining forest. Though the winery is a new project, the estate has been in the family for 150 years.

After the tour, we tasted the wine…an impressive wine for a first year effort! See below for my tasting note.

It was our lucky day…Santiago Canalejo, the son of the owner was planning to come to the winery and have lunch. Very graciously we were invited to stay and have lunch with the family and their friends.
What a fantastic lunch…fresh, regional products made into some pure, simple and delicious dishes. Josetxo, the winery chef is a master of this kind of local cuisine.
Our first course was unforgettable! Navarra is known for its famous white asparagus...they were the largest ones I had ever seen (check the picture)! Normally we get the white asparagus in cans, but these were fresh, boiled and served with vinaigrette and some lettuce. Truly amazing flavour….never had anything like it!
Our second course was a typical winery dish for the region…patatas a la Navarra (read Patatas Riojana), Potatoes cooked with chorizo until they have a soup-like consistency….simple, hearty and tasty!
Our third course really surprised me….it was revuelto de mollejas de pato…this translates as scrambled eggs with duck gizzards….but this does not do it justice!
Tender vegetables, carrots, spring garlic, onion, mushrooms sautéed in duck fat (the secret to the flavour), then tender duck gizzards with fluffy, just-done eggs. It was simple yet astonishing! I can honestly say I wasn't a fan of gizzards before!
All these went great with the wine…but the perfect match was the scrambled eggs, whose earthy, intense flavour matched perfectly!

Our hosts were charming and really passionate about the wine and the winery!

Wine: Pago de Larrainzar 2004
Winery: Pago de Larrainzar
Denominacion de Origen (DO): Navarra
Alc: 14.5%
Grape variety: 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 20% Tempranillo
Oak regime: aged 12 months in new French oak, followed by 7 months aging in bottle before release. The oak was 72% new oak and 28% oak of one year. The winery uses two barrel sizes, 225l and 300l.
Price: 24 euros

Tasting notes:
Visual: Quite intense, youthful color
Nose: Intense nose...big fruit, fresh plums and anis. Hint of both green pepper and some black pepper from the Cabernet.
Mouth: More complex and more restrained than the nose. Impressive structure, refreshing acidity. Fruit cooler in mouth, more cherry and cranberry…that's the impressive acidity talking! Loads of black pepper and a touch of green pepper. Very long finish….elegant, but very intense tannins.

Food: See above for the lunch matching

Second look: I retasted the wine a couple of months after the winery visit and already the tannins had smoothed out some….even more impressive in this second tasting. I was also able to decant the wine and taste it through a 4-5 hour period….it continued opening, really improving further with aeration.

Conclusion: Wonderful, complex food, with excellent quality of fruit. A little more time in bottle will smooth out those impressive tannins even more! This is wine that will improve in the bottle for 5 years and maintain its peak form for many more. An impressive first wine…the winery can only go on to even greater wines!

Places: Navarra Wine Country

Though we often go to Basque country, I had never been to nearby Navarra, and I really wanted to visit wine country there. At an enotourism conference in Madrid, Miguel and I met the dynamic Director of Enotourism for the new winery project, Pago de Larrainzar. Marian San Martin not only encouraged us to visit the winery, located near Estella in Navarra, but also agreed to set up a visit to other wineries in the area. Just a week later, we were heading over the vertiginous mountain roads that separate Basque country from Navarra. The scenery in early May is dramatic and very green...beautiful!

Navarra is making some really high quality, exciting, and experimental wines, but has been unable, so far, to project a cohesive image…both in terms of wine styles and a wine region to visit. It also labours under the burden of being right next door to big brother, Rioja, which still dominates the Spanish wine scene. Rioja is the prime destination for wine visitors to the area, and not enough make the extra effort to visit the remarkable wine region just up the road. Though once seen as producing wines similar to Rioja, Navarra is, little by little creating its own wine identity!

Our trip was centered around the lovely town of Estella, a quaint town of 13,000, right on the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage route. Such a small town, yet it has 13 beautiful churches! Estella is mid-distance between Pamplona and Logroño, about an hour drive from either. Marian took us on a wonderful walking tour around the town, which was bustling…locals and pilgrims shared the busy streets.
Next we headed to the Irache Monastery, which is close to Pago de Larrainzar. There is a project afoot to turn this wonderful old monastery into a Parador! When this happens, this will be a real asset to the wineies in the region.
Immediately next to the monastery is the winery, Bodegas Irache, which is known for its good value, easy-drinking wines. It is most famous, however, for its wine fountain, which offers free wine to the passing pilgrims...yes, free wine! They had to put a camera to prevent people coming with gallon jugs and filling them! The wine is a young basic red, but very drinkable, though I suspect the pilgrims more appreciate the neighboring water fountain!
On to Pago de Larrainzaga, an ambitious new winery created by the Canalejo-Larrainzar family. See my separate article on this ambitious, state of the art wine project!
After a wonderful lunch, graciously offered to us at Pago de Larrainzar, Marian took us to a couple of other local wineries in the area.
The first was Castillo de Monjardin, which is especially known for its cool weather Chardonnays. The winery is traditional in its lay out and has an excellent restaurant on the premises, making for a complete enotourism experience!
We were given a knowledgeable tour in English, followed by a tasting of a couple of wines. The un-oaked Chardonnay was particularly impressive…quite full bodied, with intense fruit…a lot of quality for 5 euros! They make an excellent range of Chardonnays…un-oak, aged over lees, and oak….all very reasonably priced.
Our final visit was to one of the largest organic wine producers in Spain...this is not saying a lot…it's actually a very small winery, almost 500,000 liters capacity. Organic has not taken off here in Spain yet. Quaderna Via is also one of the most impressive enotourism projects I've seen in Spain!
The winery is run by a dynamic pair of brothers, who are impressively professional and ambitious. We were guided by the wine-making brother, Raúl, who showed us some of the wineries more unique aspects. Several things struck me….their goal is to produce, inexpensive, high quality wines and to sell most of them through export and directly from the winery. They already received over 5000 visits a year…very impressive in this part of the country! They offer a complete visit: the visit starts in their multi-media organic viticulture display that, step-by-step, describes what goes into making an organic wine. Then, an in depth visit of the compact winery. Finally a wonderful tasting in the huge, rustic upstairs tasting area that doubles as a Basque-style Txoko, or informal dining hall. A group can plan for a wonderful local meal right in the winery if they want to make a full day of it!
Quaderna Via is also the only winery in Spain to offer a hot-air balloon ride over the vineyards. Their tractor operator was sent to balloonist school and now operates the winery's balloon!
The wines are wonderful, juicy wines, made from both local and imported varieties. The value is outstanding! The range runs from a basic joven wine, through crianza, to an excellent reserve wine. The most interesting wine for the wine aficionado is the Quaderna Via Especial, a red coupage of 90% Tempranillo and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, which is barrel-fermented in 300 liter barrels, then subsequently aged in the same barrels. It is unique!
The day we were there, a group of Swedes were spending the whole day, including dinner…they had driven all the way from Sweden by bus!

Quaderna Via's double focus has really worked for them…they export most of their production and sell the rest directly at the winery to the hundreds of tourists that come through their doors!

I was very impressed with the area, these wineries are really forging ahead, creating great quality wines at all price points. Most importantly, they are really focused on enotourism…they are way ahead in their attitude in this area. They understand that wineries in the area must band together to create an attractive viticultural destination for the growing number of tourists visiting Spain to discover its gastronomy and wines!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Tasting: Dominio de Valdepusa Wines

At the winery, we got to taste the whole range of wines, all from 2003. These are some of Spain top-rated wines…for more information on the winery, see the article below.

These are really impressive wines! With careful and high tech viticulture this winery is able to produce balanced wines in an extremely hot area of Spain. The problem in hot weather is that by the time the tannins are ripe the fruit is over-ripe and the acid levels are quite low. These wine all retained a freshness, despite being big intense wines. An outstanding series of wines!

The winery has three main grape varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Petit Verdot. They are starting to introduce Graciano, a grape native to Rioja, which they feel has the potential to make world class varietal wines.

1. El Rincon 2003: This actually a Vino de Madrid, from a different estate near Madrid. The vineyards there are higher in altitude, giving a cooler climate. The wine is 90% Syrah, 10% Garnacha. 10 months in French oak. 14.5% alcohol. 55,000 bottles produced. 19 euros.
Tasting note: Chocolate, mint and mineral, liqueur cherry fruit in the nose. The nose and mouth are very intense. Very potent mouth, mineral with fruit, fresh acidity. Intense tannins could use a little more time in bottle. Very nice Vino de Madrid!

2. Summa Varietalis 2003: This is the considered the everyday drinking wine of Dominio de Valdepusa. It is by far the biggest production at 120,000 bottles. It has the most accessible price at 19 euros. The coupage can change every year but this vintage it was 60% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Petit Verdot. 12 months in French oak. 14% alcohol.
Tasting note: Spicy oak notes in the nose. Complex with cherry jam fruit and vanilla. Herbal with hints of rosemary. The mouth showed similar notes…very ripe wine…shows it's hot origins, yet retains an easy elegance. Very smooth and easy to drink. Tannins less intense than in the El Rincon. Very nice...a lot easier to drink than the Summa 2002, which had been a little more structured.

3. Cabernet Sauvignon 2003: This is the first of the varietal line..there are plans to add Graciano to the line of Cabernet, Syrah and Petit Verdot. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon…12-14 months in French oak. 14.5% alcohol. 25 euros. Tasting note: Blueberry, cassis and black pepper nose…very complex. Perfectly ripe Cabernet nose….not a hint of the bell pepper! In the mouth it is firmly structured but fleshed out with this intense, super ripe cassis fruit and good acidity. Long, long finish with both fruit and tannic components. Very silky mouthfeel. Intense, yet elegant and fresh. My favorite of the day!!!

4. Syrah 2003: 100% Syrah, 12-14 months in French oak, 14.5% alcohol, 25 euros.
Tasting note: Really attractive nose with blackberry and violet but a little simpler than the Cab. Very smooth and fleshy mouth, very pleasant, but alcohol shows more here. Really drinkable, but not my favorite vintage of the Syrah.

5. Petit Verdot 2003: 100% Petit Verdot (one of the few!), 12-14 months in French oak, 14.5%, 25 euros.
Tasting note: Sweet Cranberry, cedar notes with a candy like character and a slight nail polish remover note. Intense, complex nose. In the mouth…very intense! Sweeter fruit, blueberry burst in the mouth then elegant structure. Huge tannins…the most concentrated of the wines. Good balance and fresh acidity. Huge wine! No for the faint hearted. Loved it!

6. Emeritus 2003: This is the top of the line, for now! The winery plans to come out with a new top cuvée in Fall 2007. The coupage varies but is always based on Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Petit Verdot and Syrah. This vintage the CS is 55%. 24 months in new French oak, 12 months separated by variety, and 12 months after the coupage is made. 55 euros.
Tasting note: Fine, elegant oak notes, spice and coffee, with complex red fruit. Very elegant and complex…more restrained nose than the varietal series of wines. Perfect balance in mouth with fresh, elegant fruit support by great structure and oak. Excellent length with super fine tannins. A keeper! Definitely the most impressive wine, but not the one I would usually choose to drink….it's the varietal Cabernet for me!

Winery: Dominio de Valdepusa in Toledo

We just visited The Dominio de Valdepusa Winery in Toledo Province and were really impressed! The vineyards is where the focus is...these are some of the most high tech vineyards I ever seen! They have sensors that detect every miniscule movement and change in the vine….years of analysing this data allows them to know with precision the exact water needs of their vines. They believed that it is very difficult to get good phenolic ripeness without over-ripe fruit and too low acid levels in hot viticultural areas. Their careful use of technology actually allows them to get a perfectly ripe grapes with good acid levels…this gives top quality, intense, yet fresh wines that age well.

The real work is in the vineyards, the winery itself is small and fairly simple. Everythign is small: fermentation area, barrel room, storage and a bottling area. The philosophy is to preserve the natural habitat as much as possible, so the winery is contained in low buildings that are invisible as you approach the historical main building. The main building houses the tasting and eating areas and is both elegant and rustic! The winery is surrounded by a beautiful garden where aromatic plants such as rosemary and lavender dominate.

The winery really has a unique philosophy that they have worked very hard to realize. The visit ended with a tasting of their whole range of wines. I'll rate them in a second article…they were very impressive! See below for more information on the Dominio de Valdepusa.

The winery is not open to visits, but we are fortunately being allowed to bring a small group there on 21 July. We will visit the vineyards, the winery and the olive oil production facility. Then we will taste the whole range of wines and have a wonderful gourmet lunch in the winery. If you might be interested check our website: http://www.planteavino.net/ for more information on the trip. Click on Upcoming Events.

Carlos Falcó, Marques de Griñon gained fame as one of the pioneers in modern wine-making in Spain. He and his famous family also figure prominently in the gossip press here in Spain.
The Dominio de Valdepusa is the Vino de Pago created by the Marques de Griñon near Toledo in 2002. Under this name the Marques had created a unique range of wines considered to be among the best in Spain. These are benchmark wines, among the first to change the reputation for La Mancha wines, proving that world class wines can be made in the area.
Vines have been planted on the family estate for over 25 years and the estate has been in the family since the year 1292!

The primary wine consultant is Michel Rolland, a famous and controversial figure in the wine world, making some of France's most famous wines!
The vineyard consultant was Richard Smart, the Australian famous for his pioneering theories of canopy management. The estate was one of the first in Spain to use advanced trellising system and deficit drip irrigation technologies.

A Vino de Pago is an estate wine that is given a special status under Spanish wine law….Dominio de Valdepusa was the first estate so designated in Spain. They have been pioneers in many other ways: the first vineyard with drip irrigation in Spain, the first experiments in Spain with partial root drying, the first 100% Petit Verdot wine in the world etc.

The winery also makes some of the finest olive oil in Spain under the name of Marques de Griñon. It is a coupage of three olives: 60% Arbequina (gives cut grass notes), 38% Picual (gives high concentration of ployphenols for length and body), and 2% Manzanilla (gives green tomato notes).
It's a wonderful, peppery, complex oil!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Wine rating: La Mancha Red Horn 2004

This is a great example of some of the great value, high quality wines coming out of La Mancha at the moment. Ezekiel Sánchez-Mateos, owner of the great little wine store, Reserva y Cata, makes this wine. He has a wonderful personalized selection of wines in his store and on the days he is there, he can guide you really well, and he can also help you in English! Ezekiel runs one of the few stores in town, where each wine is individually selected with care. Check out the website at: http://www.reservaycata.com/

Love the packaging and name of this wine…made for the export market with its English name alluding to the famous Spanish bull and its catchy label. This is it's inauguration vintage and it is already very good….it will be outstanding in the next few years.

Wine: Red Horn
Winery: Galgo Wines
Vintage: 2004
Denominacion de Origen (DO): LA Mancha
Alc: 13.5%
Grape variety: 90% Tempranillo, 10% Syrah
Oak regime: aged 6 months in American oak
Price: 7 euros in Spain

Tasting notes
Visual: Deep ruby color
Nose: Med-high intensity in nose. Great blueberry and vanilla scents…offers some complexity.
Mouth: Enters mouth with a tremendous burst of smooth fruit…nice structure. Huge tannins, that are somewhat rough. Finish is dominated by tannins and spice.
Food: A big wine that would do best with a big cut of meat.

Conclusion: A big, robust wine that offers a lot in its price point. It needs a few more months to smooth out the tannins, but the fruit is definitely robust enough to take some aging too. A perfect, inexpensive wine, to go with a wonderful "chuleton", one of the huge, bone-in, steaks so common in northern Spain!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Unique Wine Vinegar

I've been very remiss in posting…we've been crazy busy with tastings. But I'm determined to get back into it!

There is a huge variety of wine vinegars available now….choosing a vinegar is just as complicated as choosing an olive oil. Besides the usual line-up of aged balsamic vinegars and herb-infused wine vinegars, my new favourite is one I discovered recently at a wine store. This is a company that is known for its excellent olive oil...and it's latest release is an unusual and delicious wine vinegar. It's not just a regular wine vinegar it also has sweet Pedro Ximenez dessert wine and some fresh grape must. It is certainly the most unique vinegar I have tried.

Anima Aurea
PX vinegar

Made from old sherry wine vinegar, PX wine and grape must

Acetic sweet smell. Touches tongue sweet, continues wine-like, doesn't hit like vinegar until end, sharp and raisiny finish. It's so complex, bitter.sweet, I could practically drink it alone!

It's like a fusion product: partially vinegar, partially dessert wine!

Doesn't work so well with normal salad...it's almost too delicate to stand up to olive oil. It's gets lost in the mix. You could almost use it alone on an avocado or shrimp salad, or on any delicate salad…without oil.
It's also great for cooking…I used it to make a reduction to go on duck breast and it was amazing!

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Tale of Two Duck Breasts

Terroir: Does it Apply to Everything?

The growing number of appellations for every type of agricultural product in Europe would suggest so. There are appellations for salt, olive oil, cheese, beef and wine, amongst others.

I decided to do a small experiment in the influence of origin on ducks.

When we are in France, usually in the St Jean de Luz area, I love to go to Carrefour. There is Carrefour in Spain but obviously the products are quite different…sometimes to a surprising extent. This time I picked up some local duck breasts recommended by the butcher.

Sunday, I decided to make duck breasts for lunch. I defrosted one Spanish duck breast and one French duck breast to do a comparison. This is their story….

Act 1: Raw
The French duck breast is bigger, thicker, with a much thick layer of fat under the skin. The meat is red and bright, with a fleshy texture and the fat is wobbly and soft, with a pale pick tinge. The Spanish breast is neater looking, better trimmed. Its meat is a paler red, almost bluish and is very firm. The fat is pale white, thin under the skin and quite hard.

Act 2: In the pan
Both go I skin side down, with only some salt and pepper. The French breast immediately starts to release fat and lots of it! The Spanish duck takes and while and does so sparingly. The Spanish duck does not have enough fat to last the entire cooking process, the skin looks a little tough by the end. Both shrink considerably, but the French duck breast does so more in proportion

Act 3: The sauce
For the sauce I start by caramelizing onions in butter, with a touch of honey and lots of salt. When they are meltingly soft, I add some insanely good wine vinegar, Anima Aurea, which is both tart and sweet. I also add some crème de cassis liqueur for a good kick. After I remove the duck breast from its pan, I add the sauce to so it can soak up some duck flavour and duck fat. The sauce is the perfect blend of savory and sweet for the duck. So many duck sauces are insipidly sweet.

Act 4: On the plate
I try both duck breasts without the sauce. The French breast is easier to cut and is rarer, despite equal cooking times. The thicker layer of fat protected it longer. It is very tender, meaty, with a strong gamey flavour. The fat is perfect…a small layer remains under the crispy skin, a blend between smooth and crunchy
The Spanish breast is slightly harder to cut. It is tender enough though, with nice texture. The meat is milky and smooth, delicate in flavour. The fat and skin do not play much of a role, having been mostly melted away during cooking.

Act 5: With the wine
The wine is from Argentina: Bodegas Norton Malbec Reserve 2003. It is a nice wine, with a fresh nose and a surprisingly liqueur-fruit mouth. Fruit dominates, the oak plays a secondary role, mostly vanilla tones. Tannins very present but smooth.
Better match with duck alone (without sauce), and a better match with the more delicate flavors of the Spanish duck. Perhaps a bigger wine for the French duck? Overall not bad though...even with the sauce.

Act 6: Bottom line
I liked the French duck better: I like strong, gamey meat. But I totally see how the Spanish duck is more in line with the Spanish palate, which prefers a milder meat. The two breasts were very different…there are many factors that likely contributed, but we could probably sum it up as terroir!

Places: Taberneros Wine Bar

Calle Santiago, 9
Hours: from 1300-1600 and 2030 to 0000, closed on Mondays
Tel: 91 542 2160

If Casa Lucas is my most favorite wine bar in Madrid (see my previous article), Taberneros is definitely in my top three.
I hadn't been there in a while so I was happy to return there a couple fo weeks ago. We don't get there enough….it's located close to Plaza Mayor, but on the opposite side of the Cava Baja area, where we most often go.
The first nice thing you notice about Taberneros is its size, which is much larger than most wine bars. They don't take reservations, but as long as you arrive by 9PM, you should be fine.
The food is very good, as is the wonderful wine list. The by-the-glass wine program is excellent, though we almost always end up getting bottles.
We had a typical sampling the other night:
1. Salmorejo: a thick type of gazpacho with garlic. Very nice version…good consistency and rich tomato flavour…it had an appealing touch of sweetness.
2. Scallops: Scallops are expensive and hard to come by in Spain L! Taberneros offers a very nice dish, finely diced vegetables, sautéed until very soft…topped with slices of barely cooked scallop with a smooth béchamel sauce. Light on scallops, but intense flavors.
3. Cecina: This is cured beef…a super elegant version of beef jerky. The cured beef is sliced paper thin, arranged on platter, sprinkled with sea salt and topped with top notch olive oil. Wonderful combination! Cecina is often horrible, tough, dry…really like beef jerky, so this is a treat.
4. Grilled venison loin with berry sauce and pumpkin. Very nice preparation, though deer is not one of my favourite meats.
5. Rice with clams and crawfish: a soupy rice with tiny clams and chuks of crayfish. Very nice but very subtle.
6. Fried eggs with Galician potatoes and truffle. This was my favourite of the main courses. Gourmet comfort food. The Galician potatoes have a slightly firmed consistency and paired beautifully with the runny, farm-fresh eggs. The chunks of truffle, some great olive oil and sea salt brought it all together. Outstanding…

I always try new wines in Taberneros…they know their wines and can easily recommend something.
The first wine we had was a favourite from DO Cigales, a little known Denominacion near Ribera del Duero…north west of Madrid. The wine was Traslanzas 2001. The winemaker, Ana Martin, is one of my favorites, a "driving winemaker" who makes wines around Spain. Translanzas is one of the top wines in a region that is still up and coming. It is made from old-vine Tempranillo and comes across initially as closed in the nose. Later plums and black cherry shoes through. Intense mouth, huge structure…big tannins. Needs lots of air, but rewards you.

The new wine that night was a really original Garnache (Grenache) from the winery Parés Baltá in DO Penedés, Catalunya. It was called Hisenda Miret 2005. Very fresh nose…almost put me off at first. Intense cranberry, cherry and anis. Lean and fresh mouth, with bracing acidity and tight cherry fruit. Really long finish with smooth tannins. Didn't show its alcohol level of 14.5% at all! Really original!
Really original…I'm liking more and more of those Penedés reds!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Places: Etxebarri Restaurant--Innovative Grilling in Basque Country

Axpe, Vizcaya
Basque Country (near Bilbao)
Tel: 91 365 0804

Etxebarri is hot at the moment! It seems to be everywhere I look. It has been featured all over Spanish press recently as it's owner/cook Bittor Arginzoniz has been voted one of the top chefs in Spain this year. It has also made its way into international press, featuring in both Food and Wine magazine and most recently Time magazine.

I had no idea this restaurant was going to become so high profile when we picked it early in 2006 as the reception site for our September 2006 wedding. I just knew I didn't want my wedding in a hotel setting, but rather in a more authentic Basque setting. I also wanted outstanding food and wine. We found all those things at Etxebarri.

The restaurant had been since the early 90s and ahs been a local favourite for some time, but it is only recently that Bittor has been recognized for his innovative cooking techniques with the grill. The grill is the heart of the restaurant…it is specially designed to allow for perfect grilling control. Bittor grills everything…and I mean everything! He even invented special grill instruments to allow him to grill tiny things such as caviar or elvers (baby eels)!

The setting is magical, nestled in Axpe valley amongst the Basque hills. The location seems completely remote, yet it is only a 20 minute drive from Bilbao. The restaurant is beautiful, a traditional 300 yr old Basque caserio converted into an elegant restaurant where modern and traditional elements fuse perfectly. The décor is elegant and simple, yet warm and inviting. Most importantly the basic stemware is Reidel!! The new line of stemless glassware "O" is used for water glasses (much better than for wine!) The service is outstanding, efficiently managed by a team of highly professional ladies who have worked at the restaurant for years.

The overall experience is top notch, but the real top reason to make the trip is the incredible food!

Recently we returned again to Etxebarri and were again blown away by the cuisine. One new dish we tried this time was grilled oysters: a delicate and exquisite version fo this dish. The ouster are shucked and removed form the shells. All membranes are removed so just the perfect core remains. The oyster juice is reserved in a spray bottle and is used to keep the oysters moist as they grill for just a couple of minutes each side. Tender seaweed is also grilled until it gets a smoky quality and the oysters are presented on a bed of these. Totally simple, but at the same time shockingly original. The delicate, briny flavour of the just cooked oysters blends perfectly with the smoky grilled notes. The contrast in textures between the melt-in-your-mouth oyster and the seaweed is also surprising.

This is just a small example of the type of elaborate, yet simple cuisine at Etxebarri. For those of you not tempted by what I describe above…there are also some of the best grilled steaks in all of Spain!

The menu changes frequently, especially the starters. The main courses are always based on simply grilled fish and steaks. Other outstanding dishes we've tried there include:
Grilled monkfish (actually any grilled fish)
Lobster salad (tender lobster over bitter greens and tomato marinated in orange vinaigrette)
Txangurro (crab done Basque style, with brandy and cream)
Home-made chorizo (really home-made and really excellent)
Grilled herring fillets with zucchini (perfect to convert those who think they don't like herrings!)
Anchovies with fire-roasted peppers (another dish so good that it can convert anchovy-haters!)

The wine-list is short, but well-selected. With our last meal we had Roda II, the second wine from the Rioja winery Roda. A very modern Rioja: big cherry fruit, lively acidity and excellent French oak. Really nice with our perfectly grilled steaks!

The desserts are excellent and elaborate, but my favourite is one of the most simple: A wonderful sweet cheese ice cream made for the local Idiazabal cheese, served in a puddle of perfect sweet-tart wild berry coulis. Outstanding!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Two Vintages of Bierzo or...tailoring wines for export

Confusing title perhaps, but I want to give tasting notes on one of my favourite Bierzo wines in very different vintages and also describe how that same wine is being altered for export to the US.

Bierzo is producing many outstanding red wines from the excellent indigenous grape Mencía. The region is very hot…producers from all over Spain are buying vineyards there. The top end wines are winning recognition from national and international wine critics. The prices, though still reasonable, are rising quickly. There are still a few great bargains…one of them is Cepas Viejas from the winery Dominio de Tares.

I have a soft spot for this wine...it was one of the wines at our wedding last September. The wine in the wedding was the 2003…now the 2004 is on the market.

Cepas Viejas is 100% Mencía and is aged about 9 months in American and French oak. It costs about 10€ here in Spain. 2003 was a very hot year…quite difficult in many parts of Spain. 2004 was generally a better year, dry but with less heat.

We only have a few bottles of the 2003 left and I like to put it in tastings against the 2004. The other day, the 2003 won again…it seems to be in its perfect moment for drinking now. It is at its peak and will not improve significantly, but it is holding on very well. The 2004 is still a brute, powerful and intense, but with some rough edges. I have already seen it improve in bottle since its release in fall 2006, but it still has a ways to go. The 2003 vintage made a lot of smooth, fruity, easily approachable wines, but many are not aging well. The Cepas Viejas 2003 is following that pathway, extremely pleasurable now, but definitely with a shorter lifespan than the 2004. The 2003 was far more approachable 8 months after release than the 2004 is today.

Cepas Viejas 2003: Vanilla cherry yogurt nose. Smooth mouth with cherry-vanilla, a hint of celery, clove. Tannins provide just a touch of grip but are very rounded. Very long fruit finish, like a cherry pie. Not a sharp edge. Still holding up well after 2 hours in glass.

Cepas Viejas 2004: milky, closed nose. Mineral with some cherry notes as it opens. Intense mouth, impressive structure, with very present tannins that are good quality, but need some polishing. Fresh cherry fruit in mouth. All angles still, but has lots of potential. With some time in glass…opened a lot.

The winery, Dominio de Tares, was one of the trendsetters in Bierzo, and has received acclaim form many international critics. Some of their other wines include:
Entry level wine with a few months of oak: Baltos (5€)
Reserva level wine: Bembimbre (20€)
Alta Expresion or Designer wine: P3 (45€)

All are very good.

The Cepas Viejas has been exported for some time to the US, but since 2003, the winery has done a separate label for the export wine….see the picture to the right! What a difference!
Even the name is changed: Exaltos instead of Cepas Viejas! Since 2004 the wine inside the Exaltos is actually different. Many wineries in Spain are now tweaking their export wines to better suit American palates. The Exaltos has 9 months in 100% French oak while the Cepas Viejas has 9 months in a mixture of American and French oak. Studies have shown that, ironically, the American palate much prefers the flavour French oak!!! If only those "Freedom Fry" people knew that!

When I get my hands on the 2004 Exaltos…I'll contrast it with the 2004 Cepas Viejas!

So remember when you taste some of those great Spanish wines arriving on American shores, you may be getting a different wine than what we are tasting here!

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Exciting Spanish wine in unconventional categories

I've been tasting so many great wines...it's been hard to keep up! Today I wanted to talk a little about some unconventional Spanish wines that fall into 2 categories: Vino de la Tierra and Vino de Mesa. In theory these two categories are not quality wines and should be inexpensive, lower quality wines….but in reality, there are some very premium wines being made under both categories!

1. Vino de la Tierra is a very hot category today in Spain. By EU law it is not considered a "quality wine". It actually falls under the Tabel wine category along with the lower sub-category "Vino de mesa". Vinos de la Tierra (VdT) are subject a to fewer rules and regulations than Denominacion de Origen (DO) wines. They cannot put the aging categories of Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva on their labels, but they can put the vintage on the label (unlike table wine). There are 41 areas that are designated Vino de la Tierra. Two of the hottest are VdT Castilla Leon and VdT Castilla (La Mancha), but there are many great wines coming out of other areas as well.
Some wineries make this category because their vineyards are not within a designated DO area, others are making it because they don't want to deal with the DO bureaucracy and want more freedom in making their wines.

Examples of very well known and excellent VdT wines are: Mauro, Leda, and Abadia Retuerta, all from Castilla Leon. Recently I had an excellent one that was VdT Iles Baleares. It's called Son Bordils Negre and is made of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Manto Negro, Callet, Tempranillo, Monastrell, and Syrah! It was a 2003, had 12 months in French, American, and Hungarian oak and costs only 12 euros. It was one of the favourites of my class that evening…beating out some blockbuster wines. The only wine that scored higher that night was the Santa Cruz de Artazu 2004 from Navarra (100% Garnacha…awesome!)
The Son Bordils Negre was a lean elegant wine with cherry, mineral (wet stones), and anis. The nose was closed at first, but kept getting better over 3 hours. In the mouth is was medium bodied, elegant, with refreshing cherry fruit and great acidity. It had some smoky oak notes and a long finish, with a refreshing bitterness. Tannins were very present, but smooth. A very original wine from the islands!

2. Most recently my biggest wine surprises have been in the lower category of Vino de Mesa. I was so focused on Vdt, that I had neglect the hot wines cropping up here! These wines have very few rules, but also some serious limitations…for instance you cannot put the vintage on the label. Wineries, therefore, have to get creative about it…one winery puts it on the top of the cork and puts no capsule on…another puts a simple 02 on the label….
I'll mention three different wines:
  • A Vino de Mesa from Murcia from Bodegas Lavia. Lavia is made from Monastrell and Syrah and is aged 6 months in new French oak…10€. Very mediterranena..high alcohol, with plum and anis. In mouth a very candy-like fruit…red licorice? Very full-bodied and a little hot, smooth with a nice finish. Nothing to blow you away…but very nice. 10€
  • A Vino de Mesa from Penedés (Cataluña) from Heretat Mont Rubí. Durona (2003 on the cork) is made from Sumoll, Garnacha, Cariñena, Shiraz, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. It has to be a Vino de Mesa because of the inclusion of Sumoll, an indigenous variety that's not allowed under DO. Powerful, yet elegant…with bright cherry fruit. Very persistent in mouth…this wine was very easy to drink and kept getting better with aeration. 15€
  • A Vino de Mesa from Madrid! This one was recommended by the excellent folks at Casa Lucas…you can check out the review I did on this fantastic wine bar. This was called Montazo and is made of the Garnacha grape by one of the wine gurus of Spain: Telmo Rodriguez. It had a pale color and a very mineral nose: graphite. Very complex, but closed initially. Later it became floral with plum and anis. Great acid in the mouth…I usually don't mention refreshing with many Madrid wines! The mineral mouth lingered a really long time. Unique and original, thoroughly challenging, yet original! 15€

Bottom line: Check out some of these new wines in these lesser categories...this is the cutting edge of Spanish wines!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Tasting: Two bad Riojas

Somewhat of a sensational title…but there are many Riojas I just don't get!

1. Traditional Riojas: Long oak aging in older barrels, higher acidity, lower alcohol.

I can appreciate the last two, but the first one just kills all the fruit in the wine. The type of wood notes it gives are both overwhelming and unpleasant. The best ones can be attractive in an elegant, mellow sort of way. Most are just thin and unpleasant.

Lately I tasted one of the most popular Riojas in the world: Marques de Caceres Crianza 2003.

It had been a while and it will be a long while again!

The nose was not unpleasant…very simple raspberry jam (after all this is the extremely hot 2003 vintage) and a few notes of older wood and oxidation.

The mouth was the big disappointment: thin and vegetal…very little of the fruit from the nose showed in the mouth. Bracing acidity was out of balance with the lack of fruit. Extremely short…died out in a bitter, fruitless way.

It's only about 7€, but there are far better wines it Spain at that price.

Quite unpleasant….I don't get the popularity of this wine…the Yellowtail phenomena I can understand…this I cannot!

I feel bad that so many people's experience with Rioja is based in this wine.

2. Gran Reservas: This is the most elite level of the traditional reservas. You rarely find any modern Riojas in this style. Why? Because the minimum oak aging period is 18 months…this was recently lowered from 24 months in an effort to improve the category. But in reality this is invariably a traditional style where you most often see from 28-35 months in oak! These wines can be elegant, but fruit they do not have!
All the new wave, elite Riojas are uber-reservas, never Gran Reservas. Reserva is the category that requires a minimum of 12 months in wood.

Many people sing the praises of this style as representing a finer time in Rioja, but I personally think that time has passed. I still have a lot of them to taste and I remain open to changing my mind….but there is work to be done!

There is a huge range in prices....from 20€ for the lower end versions to 159€ for Vega Sicilia (obviously a category apart). The cheaper versions have no fruit, but are mellow and smooth. The higher versions, around 70€ have more fruit…but still the oak dominates.

Recently I tasted one of the lower end Gran Reservas: Viña Alarde Gran Reserva 1997 by Bodegas Berberana. 36 months in American oak..and all for 12 euros!
The wine was not unpleasant: gentle vanilla nose with oxidized notes. Mouth seemed alcoholic, despite 12.5% alc! This is because there was no fruit, just strong vanilla and woody flavors. This is a light bodied wine, with a thin mouthfeel. The finish was pleasant, medium long. Not unpleasant, but not attractive either.

As I said I don't get it…

Maybe I have an overly modern palate, blasted to insensitivity by extraction and alcohol…a plate that can't appreciate the subtleties of these wines….but it seems a crime to pay a lot for a wine that has absolutely no fruit and is dominated by older wood aromas. If you want a cheaper wine that has no fruit, go for a lower end Gran Reservas or a traditional Rioja Reserva.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Wine Rating: Portugal Esporao Reserva 2002

We recently returned to La Cumbre, a great tavern in Pozuelo, that has all sorts of traditional food. My favourite thing there are the torreznos, which is freshly fried pork rinds. Calling them pork rinds is not doing them justice. They are juicy, thick bits of pork skin, with bits of sea salt…crunchy, moist, salty, and greasy all at once. Who knew something so disgusting in theory good be so sublime in your mouth!

They have a nice wine list in La Cumbre and we had a coupe of great bottles. A wonderful Ribera del Duero that we have often: Emilio Moro. Also the great wine that follows: Esporao Reserva.

We visited the winery a few years ago…it's not far off the freeway between Madrid and Lisbon…soon after you pass the border into Portugal. It's a hot region, both in weather and in terms of wines. Some of Portugal's most expensive red table wines are made here. The area took off 10 years ago, leading the way in Portugal's wine revolution. Since then, rivals have sprung up throughout Portugal, but Alentejo still makes some great wine. They can be pricy and hard to find in Spain, but this wine is inexpensive and very easy to find in Spain!

Wine: Esporaõ Reserva Tinto 2002
Winery: Herdade do Esporaõ
Appellation: DOC Alentejo Reguengos
Alc: 14%
Grape variety: 30% Trincadeira, 40% Aragones, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon
Oak regime: 1 year in American oak followed by 1 year bottle aging
Price: 13€

Tasting notes:
Visual: Fairly pale garnet color…showing quite a bit of evolution for a 2002
Nose: At first a little closed but then tons of sweet blueberry and vanilla. Fairly simple, but so appealing!
Mouth: So smooth with tons of sweet blueberry and vanilla…good acidity. Perhaps a little mono-dimensional, but very attractive. Soft tannins…finish is super long, with the blueberry dominating it.
Food: This wine goes great with all sorts of food. It stands up to many things, but is so smooth that it dominates none. We had eggs with asparagus and shrimp, peppers stuffed with fish and shrimp, grilled vegetables etc.

Conclusion: If I think about this wine too much, I realize that it is not a very serious wine. But this is not a wine to be thought about. It offers a purely hedonistic experience….sexy and smooth…so seductive. It is great on its own or with lots of foods. Even the label is appealing...the artwork changes every year! Not for aging…perfect now…though it will maintain for a while. A couple more recent vintages are already on the market.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Wine and Food Matching: Chocolate and Champagne

This is a matching I had to do for El Mundo newspaper here in Spain. They picked 5 champagnes and five chocolates and had me match them. Four of the pairs matched up naturally, the final one was a bit trickier, mainly due to trouble matching any of the chocolates with the Piper Heidsieck. Following is the rite up I did for them…with a few modifications!

Matching chocolate and champagne has often been considered a classic. In my experience, this is a generalization and, in fact, matching champagne and chocolate can be a real challenge! This tasting was a fascinating experience, opening my eyes to new matches I hadn't considered and confirmed some of the excellent matches I expected. Each champagne and each chocolate brought an exciting depth of flavors to the table.

Some basic conclusions: simple chocolates and simpler champagnes are easier to match, and they match well together. Rose champagnes, very fruity and vinous, are easier to match with most food, chocolate included. White chocolate is easier to match than others, especially dark, bitter chocolate. In general, matching is quite complicated…the easiest thing is to drink a champagne you love and eat a chocolate you love!

Pair #1

Champagne: Ruinart Brut Rosé
Chocolate: Serenity Milk Chocolate with bitter orange, lime blossom and rice crisps

Two very complex products that match each other perfectly! The champagne's strawberry and toast notes, and great acidity matches wonderfully with the complex, orange and herbal flavors in the chocolate. The vinous roundness and full bodied mouth of the champagne pairs wonderfully with the crunchy texture of the puffed rice crunch in the chocolate. Generally loved this chcocolate!

Pair #2

Champagne: Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque brut 1998
Chocolate: Crujiente blanco y coco

This is a match made in champagne and chocolate heaven! The toasty coconut and smooth, milky white chocolate flavors pair perfectly with this complex and subtle champagne, where toasty crianza notes dominate. The fresh citric fruit of the champagne also helps tame the very sweet nature and crunch of the white chocolate.

Pair #3

Champagne: Billecart Salmon Rosé
Chocolate: Cacao Sampaka Dark Chocolate 70%

Dark chocolate can be a challenge to match as it is so bitter and intense, but this complex rosé champagne is up to the task! The pleasantly bitter cocoa notes match wonderfully with the acidity and raspberry notes in the wine. Both the chocolate and champagne have subtle smoky notes that complement each other beautifully.

Pair #4

Champagne: Mumm Brut Cordon Rouge
Chocolate: White Chocolate Fondu

The most pure and simple flavors often match really well! The candied lemon fruit and great acidity of the champagne contrast yet compliment perfectly the very sweet, smooth and creamy flavour and texture of the white chocolate fondu. A strawberry or other fruit dipped in the chocolate fondu would enhance this match even more!

Pair #5

Champagne: Piper Heidsieck Brut
Chocolate: Lindt Milk Chocolate

This one match was my least favourite, though it wasn't bad...my least favorite chocolate too! The sweet, milky and caramel notes of the milk chocolate match with the baked and fresh apple notes in the champagne: like a candied apple! The chocolate is very sweet and the good acidity in the champagne contrasts nicely.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Tasting: Syrah around the world

I have a great new tasting group: all of them are studying for the WSET Diploma or Master of Wine exams. Technically I am not…I have finished the WSET, but I don't plan on trying for the Master of Wine for a couple more years. It's so great to find a group that knows so much and who wants to do some serious tasting!

Syrah is such a great grape: native to France, a very important grape in Australia, and a growing in popularity in numerous other countries. Twenty years ago it was very unfashionable, but now it is all the rage. Generally Syrah makes very dark, peppery, spicy, and tannic red wines. They are also known for smoky and floral qualities. Depending on provenance and quality, there are huge exceptions to this rule. It needs warm sites, but too warm and it loses some of its aromatic qualities. France makes a wide range: from mono-varietal wines in the marginal northern Rhone to very warm sites in Languedoc, where Syrah is multiplying rapidly as a top quality blending grape. Australia, second in acreage after France, makes an even wider range, including some very nice port-style wines and some great red sparkling wines!

We tried 11 different Syrahs blind from around the world...a huge challenge in Madrid where the selection of foreign wines is tiny. I also tried to get a wide range of styles and quality levels.

Overall, I was very disappointed with the top end French wines, blown away by our one Australian top-end wine and very pleasantly surprised by the Argentinean and Spanish Syrahs. The one Californian wine was nice, but forgettable and the South African was distinctly South African, with bretty, animal notes that I often see in Pinotages. The cheapest wines, whether from Australia or France, were pretty simple, but drinkable. We saw a lot of the typical qualities of Syrah in these wines, but the tasting also confirmed that provenance and style can greatly alter the grape variety.

Below the best and the major disappointments:


Jean Luc Colombo - Saint Joseph Les Lauves - 2001 - 25€ (Spain)
Comments: Really disappointing…apple, pepper, smoke, but really thin and extremely evolved in appearance and flavors. Most of the tasters thought it was much older.

Domaine Clusel Roche - Cote Rotie - 2000 - 100% Syrah - 32€ (Spain)
Comments: Much more complex than the St Joseph, with tobacco, smoke, carnations, but still disappointing, quite vegetal and light bodied, very evolved already.

Auguste Clape - Renaissance - 2003 - 33€ (Spain)
Comments: Better here, but very atypical in mouth, especially for a Cornas. Nice nose of cranberry, raspberry, and molasses. Huge, fruit bomb mouth, big tannins, fruit, good acid…very new world mouth. Confused tasting group.


Mount Langi Ghiran (in the Grampians area of Victoria) - Langi Shiraz - 2000 - 34€ (Spain)
Comments: This was the winner by a mile! Stunning wine…I was blown away…it's been so long since I had top level Aussie Shiraz! Eucalyptus, smoke, anis, spice, and cherry nose. Great mouth: tobacco, fresh acids, super long finish, nice tannins. Very youthful. I tasted is many hours later and it kept getting better!


Bodegas Salentein - Syrah - 2003 - 16€ (Spain)
Comments: Really nice fruit…liqueur plum and anise, with spice, high alcohol. Fairly simple mouth, but very pleasant, smooth…very drinkable.


Viñas del Vero (Somontano) - Las Coronas Syrah - 2004 - 12,50€ (Spain)
Comments: Very nice….I am not always a fan of Spanish Syrah! Very new world, with gobs of fruit, vanilla, spice, oak. In the mouth, the oak perhaps dominated a little, but nice, very long.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Wine dinner: Ribera and Aragon

We just joined a new wine tasting group and Monday, we went to our first dinner. This group has a fun format: once a month dinner with a chosen wine theme. Each person brings a bottle and they are served blind to the group. We vote at the end on the best wines and then they are unveiled. The owner of the winning bottle doesn't have to pay for his dinner! Great motivation!

This iteration, the theme was Ribera del Duero and Aragon. I knew everyone was likely to bring Ribera, so one of our bottles was from DO Campo de Borja in Aragon.

We didn't win with the Aragon wine, but it came in a respectable fourth among seven bottles. It also did better than our Ribera wine, Cepa 21, which has a great reputation, but fell very flat on this night.

The food was merely a backdrop, but was quite nice: several starters, then fish (Bacalao and Merluza), some nice steak and a great cheese plate.

The format is a lot of fun and I look forward to next months version: Toro and Bierzo.

On to the wines…in order of victory. These wines are all between 18 and 30 euros.

1. The winner was a wine I had never had: Astrales 2003. It's from a cooler zone of Ribera del Duero and the benefits of that showed in the hot and difficult 2003 vintage. It has 17 months in oak and the wine showed very well done, but very present oak notes. It also had great acidity that felt really refreshing…the fruit was a little closed at first, but with air started to open up.
This wine is from one of the hottest wine families here in Spain: Mariano Garcia. This family is responsible for some of Spain's top wines: Mauro, San Roman, Leda, and Aalto. This is an impressive, by far the most complex of the evening and the only one that tasted better at the end of the night, after lots of exposure to oxygen. 100% Tinto Fino (Tmepranillo)

2. Second place went to the Rento 2000 from Bodegas Renacimiento de Olivares in Ribera del Duero. This wine was delightful, totally smooth tannins and nice liqueur cherry fruit….perfect right now. The downside is that it was showing a lot of age for a 2000, and I doubt is will last much longer. So it did well in the moment, but it's not one for the long haul. By the end of the night it was already fading…fading gracefully! 100% Tinto Fino

3. Third place to the famous Alion 2002, Ribera de Duero. Quite a good wine in a difficult year, though it didn't make my top 3…I put it 4th. I found it a little woody…impressively so, but lacking enough fruit to balance it. The fruit it did have was a little lean and almost metallic to me. Sounds pretty bad, but it was actually quite nice. 100% Tinto Fino

4. I am very proud that our Aragon wine came in fourth. This is a 100% Garnacha with lots of American oak and it's pretty hard for it to stand up to so much Tempranillo and French oak. It was a completely different wine form the others and I picked it out right away blind amongst all the Riberas. The wine is Fagus de Coto de Hayas 2004, from Bodegas Aragonesas in Campo de Borja. This is one of the top wineries in this very obscure region and this is one of their top wines. I've always liked it…it certainly stood out as original amongst the Ribera monsters! Lots of vanilla and soft, liqueur cherry fruit, strawberry. In mouth, really smooth, tannins present but barely. Very quaffable…good acid, but perhaps a little soft on structure for some tastes. For me it represents the region and the grape very well….so many of the Riberas are entirely international in style.

I won't go into the other wines too much:
Ribera del Duero: Victor Balbas 1998
Ribera el Duero: Comenge 2003
Ribera del Duero: Cepa 21 2003
Generally quite disappointing. Lots of oak…lacking acidity…flat fruit. Too simple for the price range.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Wine Rating: Tinto Villeza 2004

Lots of tastings this week…so hopefully I'll get a few interesting posts up!
This was a very interesting and original wine I tried last week. Prieto Picudo is a little known indigenous variety from Leon that is becoming fashionable among winemakers. It is not allowed in Denominacion de Origen (DO) Wines, but is sometimes blended with the more well-known Mencía in lower category wines. I've only tried it twice so far, but both wines had a lot of similarities in aromas and flavors. The grape certainly has a very strong and unique aromatic profile. Some winemakers consider it the next, great grape of Spain…the two I've tried, though extremely interesting, have not completely convinced me of that.

As to the category of wine: Vino de Calidad de Tierras de Leon…it is neither a Denominacion de Origen nor a Vino de la Tierra! It is a fairly new category VCIG (Vino de Calidad con Indicacion Geografica), that is in between the two. Vino de la Tierra is not actually quality wine or VCPRD as defined by the EU, but rather a table wine. The VCIG is seen as a stepping stone to become a DO, and a region must wait five years as a VCIG to request DO status. Castilla Leon has been one of the most proactive regions in creating these new areas.
Part of me thinks it is a good idea to make areas wait to get DO, but another part of me thinks this is just another way to confuse the consumer!!!! Though these lesser levels often offer good wines at very inexpensive prices, the number of categories of wine in Spain is now overwhelming!

Wine: Tinto Villeza Doce Meses 2004
Winery: Bodegas Villeza
Appellation: Vino de Calidad Tierras de Leon
Alc: 13.5%
Grape variety: Prieto Picudo and Mencía
Oak regime: Six months in French and American oak with six months bottle aging
Price: Inexpensive

Tasting notes:
Visual: Quite dark color
Nose: Very complex, quite unique nose! Medium intensity…with violets, blueberry and ripe banana. There as also banana in the other Prieto Picudo I tasted! Very nice nose
Mouth: A bit disappointed…quite different from nose. Lots of structure and tannic…too tannic, intense vegetal notes, very little fruit. Interesting, but quite rustic.
Food: no food

Retaste: No retaste

Conclusion: Very interesting and unique wine. Really great nose, but too rustic in mouth and is not a wine I would recommend to easy drinking friends. Though any wine geek would appreciate it a lot! This grape has a lot of potential but I have yet to be blown away!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Wine and Food Matching: Cheese

Another great tasting to give this weekend: Matching wine and cheese. A classic, but a difficult classic as they can actually be quite challenging to match! I picked five wines from different categories and five very different cheeses. The wines were as follows:

1. DO Cava - Bodega Raventos i Blanc - Elisabet Raventos - Reserva - Brut - 2000 - 60% Xarel.lo, 30% Chardonnay, 10% Monastrell - 4 years aging on lees, 6,5g/l residual sugar - 12% - 18 euros

One of my favorite cavas! Very champagne like: elegant toasty fruit and very subtle, fine bubbles. Has some chardonnay which is very trendy in many cavas right now, but also has some Monastrell (Mourvedre), which is very unusual.
This cave is very wine-like, very versatile to match and great value.

2. DO Cava - Bodegas Cordoniú - Cava Rosado Brut - NV - 100% Pinot Noir - 24 months of aging on lees, 6-8g/l residual sugar - 12% - 10 euros

Rosé cava is so versatile with food! This a simple, but very bright cava, with nice strawberry fruit and some little toasty lees notes. For drinking I much prefer the complexity and elegance of the Raventos, but for the cheese matching I have to give it by a league to the Cordoniu! It matched so well with so many of the cheeses.

3. DO Rueda - Bodegas Aura - Aura - 2005 - 100% Verdejo - no oak - 13.5% - 5 euros

This is a great example of what Rueda has to offer: Lemon and gooseberry fruit with great acidity and a refreshingly slight bitterness on the long finish. All that for 5€! I really think Verdejo is a fantastic grape, whether in this un-oaked version or in some of the fantastic oaked version that are becoming all the rage. A high quality, low-priced Rueda is available in every bar in Spain: I love that! This wine was the easiest of the match of the five wines: it went really well with four of the five cheeses.

4. DO Bierzo - Bedegas Dominio de Tares - Cepas Viejas - 2004 - 100% Mencía (a wonderful local grape) - 9 months in French and American oak - 13.5% - 10 euros

This is one of my favorite Spanish wines at this price range…we put the 2003 version in our wedding! The 2004 is even better than the 2003, but last night I was a little disappointed. It seemed overly oaky when matched up with the cheeses….hopefully it was just a phase. Didn't realy match well with any cheeses, other than the goats cheese! Mencía is a fantastic grape and some great wines are coming out of Bierzo.

5. DO Malaga Transañejo - Bodegas Lopez Hermanos - Don Juan Pedro Ximenez - NV - 100% Pedro Ximenez - at least 30 years aging in barrel, 300g/l residual sugar - 17% - 18 euros (375 ml)

I appreciate intellectually the great Pedro Ximenez (PX) wines of Spain, but I actually don't like them that much. They are often too syrupy and cloying for me. Give me a dry 30 year old Oloroso instead any day! But this PX from Malaga is very nice, with a bracing streak of acidity to balance what is still a whoppingly sweet wine. Very nice coffee, fig, and raisin nose. Obviously was fantastic with our blue cheese, but wasn't too bad with some of the other stronger cheeses. In fact, here in Spain, I've discovered that Amontillado sherry matches extremely well with aged Manchego cheese.

For the cheeses I picked a varied international selection…most of the customers were Spanish, and I wanted them to try some new cheeses for them. Spain has wonderful cheeses, around 100, but cheese is not part of the culture here as it is in France. Cheese (almost always Manchego or a similar cheese) is served as an appetizer, usually over-shadowed by the fantastic cured ham products. Some high end restaurants are offering artesanal cheese plates, but most Spanish people are not even familiar with the rich variety of artesanal Spanish cheese, let alone international ones.

1. France: Coulommiers - Ile de France (Paris) - no AOC - raw cows milk - 4-6 week curing period

Nice substitute for Brie de Meaux, which was not available. Virtually identical to Brie, with a wonderful creamy, mushroomy texture and flavor. Customers really appreciated it, though some found it too strong...preferering the snatized supermarket Brie. Matched really well with the rosé Cava and the white Verdejo.

2. France: St Maure - Touraine (Loire Valley) - AOC cheese - raw goats milk with ash rind - 2-8 week curing period

Blew everyone's socks off…it was the majority's favorite cheese of the night! Spanish goat cheese is best in Catalonia, but it can't compete with the Loire goat cheeses. Sharp, acidic goats milk contrasted perfectly with the ultra-creamy texture. It also was the most easily matched cheese, matching weel with almost all the wines.

3. Spain: Idiazabal - Basque Country - DO cheese - raw, smoked sheeps milk - minumum 3 months aging

I wanted to put a smoked cheese and Idiazabal is one of the best. A nice smoke, not excessive, balances with the buttery, nutty flavors of the cheese. Very difficult to match…the best match was the white Verdejo, but it wasn't ideal.

4. Switzerland: Sbrinz - various cantons in central Switzerland - AOC cheese - raw cows milk - minimum aging 16 months, but usually 24 to 30 months

A lovely mellow nutty cheese, that resembles Parmesan, but is less strong in flavor. Quite challenging to match, the rosé cava is the only one that did it for me.
5. Spain: Valdeon - Castilla y Leon (Picos de Europa) - raw mixed milk (cow and gota) - minimum aging of 3 months in caves

I love this blue cheese, an artesanal, very small production blue cheese from northern Spain. It so mellow and complex, earthy, creamy, with only slightly sharp blue notes. It is the perfect blue to convert people to blue, yet also complex enough for cheese lovers. Ideal with the PX wine, not bad with the red and the white too.


We had a surprising consensus on many of the matches. A lot of the traditional matching rules went out the window. The most matching wines were: the white Verdejo, the rosé cava, and the white cava, in that order. Many people focus on red with cheeses, but in tasting after tasting, I've found aromatic whites and rosés of all types to be the winners. Older cured cheeses are the hardest cheeses to match by far.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Wine Rating: Carravalseca Reserva 1996

We usually bring the wine when we go to Miguel's family's house. This time we brought a Gran Elias Mora, a blockbuster wine from Toro. While it was aerating in the decanter, Uncle Constancio offered up an older Rioja. We cleaned out a bunch of old Riojas at Christmas…most of them were way gone…so naturally I was a little dubious.
However this wine is a top end single-vineyard wine from a bodega I know well. It's also from 1996, not as old at the over-the-hill 92s I was drinking over the holidays.
A pet peeve of mine is that people often keep their wines too long...it seems the word reserve on the label encourages it. The beauty of the traditional reserva system in Spain is that the winery doesn't release the wine for many years. It is already ready to drink upon release…yes you can keep a reserve for many more years….but it is only the absolute top wines that are drinking well ten years on.
This wine was still drinking well ten years on! It was fading a little, but still ahd lots of elegant, delicate fruit left. It was a pleasant surprise….

Wine: Carravalseca Reserva 1996
Winery: Bodegas Primicia
Appellation: DOCa Rioja
Alc: 13%
Grape variety: 50% Tempranillo, 50% others (Cabernet Sauvignon)
Oak regime: 27 months in oak
Price: Around 24 euros in Spain

Tasting notes:
Visual: Elegant brick color, very bright
Nose: Lots of terciary aromas: earth, mushroom, tobacco. Some oxidation notes, but some nice delicate cherry fruit still showing nicely.
Mouth: Elegant older Rioja. Great acid and elegant, but fading fruit. Super smooth, tannins all mellow, a little bit of barnyard. Extremely long finish with wonderful dried cherry fruit.
Food: It was very nice with some of the milder appetizers, the tempura veggies, for example. Too delicate to go with stronger flavors.

Retaste: No retaste…

Conclusion: A nice example of an elegantly aging Rioja Reserva. It is on the downward slide but is still drinking nicely. Not for the modern palate, but I would love to taste more of these aging Rioja beauties…unfortunately many of them have not fared so well as this one.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Places: Casa Lucas Wine Bar

Calle Cava Baja, 30 (near Plaza Mayor)
Tel: 91 365 0804

Though there are many great tapas bars in Madrid, there are a few that stand out. This wine bar is one of our favorites. It not only offers a very high quality wine list, but they also offer some amazing tapas. These are not your average tapas: some of them are quite unique.
There 12-14 wines by the glass on a chalkboard, and different wines are rotated in a on a regular basis. If your party is larger, the bottle wine list is quite outstanding. The staff is knowledgeable and can recommend wines with some confidence. Some of the staff speak English, but whoever you get, they are relaxed, friendly, and very helpful. These are the type of guys who remember you after a few visits!
The place is tiny…just a few tables and standing room...and it gets packed! If you want to sit and more comfortably try some of the tapas…go early! Early here means between 8 and 930 PM. They are open for lunch except Wednesdays, but I don't know how the crowd is...probably less.
As all tapas places in Spain…if you take one of the few tables, they expect you to order tapas, not just drinks.

We were in Casa Lucas with some friends last night. We had a couple of our usual tapas and an exciting new one.

The Cariñena tosta:

One of the regular tapas we always recommend is called Cariñena. It is toasted crusty bread topped with caramelized onions and a slice of grilled pork loin. Sea salt tops it off…so simple yet the flavors are perfect together.
This is a tapa you can find in other places…but Casa Lucas makes one of the best!
The pork in Spain is outstanding…very different than most of what we eat in the US. Try both the fresh and cured varieties. One breed of pig, the black footed Iberican pig, offers the best cured hams, as well as fresh pork cuts that are the other red meat! They have the same color as beef and are best cook either rare, or at least pink in the middle: yes pink pork!

Arroz cremoso con boletus, foie y huevo (Creamy rice with egg and foie):

I have yet to taste anything quite like this any where else!
The Boletus infused creamy rice is topped with a slide of fresh pan-seared foie and a soft-poached egg. They are topped by a drizzle of basil oil and a red fruit coulis. To serve you cut up the foie and the egg in little bits and mix it into the rice thoroughly. The combination of flavors is stunning!
Sometimes when we bring new people there, they are initially put off by the foie and egg, but when they taste it…instant converts!
Boletus is a type of wild mushroom that is one of the most expensive and coveted in Spain. It is almost always served alone, apart form other mushrooms, done in a very simple preparation. The flavors are very intense, earthy and smoky...love it!

Carpaccio de pulpo con revolconas y bacon
(Octopus carpaccio with mashed potatoes and bacon):

This was anew one for us…a seasonal offering on the chalkboard…I hope it stays for a while!
This is creamy mashed potatoes with loads of smoky Spanish paprika topped with ultra-thin slices of tender octopus. Over the top, olive oil and fried bacon bits. The combination of flavors, smoky bacon, paprika, with the great texture of the chunky mashed potatoes, was tremendous. The octopus was a subtle, succulent high note.
This original dish is a modern take on a very traditional Spanish dish from Galicia. Pulpo a Feira is sliced boiled potatoes with octopus slices topped with paprika, olive oil and sea salt. Octopus was something I ate with moderation before coming here, but Spanish octopus is so melt-in-your mouth that I eat it whenever I can get my hands on it!

The wine we had with all this was a Vallegarcia Syrah 2003. It is a Vino de La Tierra de Castilla wine…in other words: La Mancha. Syrah in Spain is just picking up and I have yet to be impressed. Most of them are quite alcoholic with a simple Mediterranean fruit. This was no exception! Good length, but too simple for such a big wine…big was all that came across!