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!