Our Spanish wine roads, courtesy of Freixenet, led us from the Ribera del Duero to Rioja (named after the Rio Oja) to the Priorat, a land reminiscent of where I live in western Colorado. That is, dry, rolling hills, with generally poor rocky soils and scattered vegetation where water is available, cold winters and short, hot summers. Of course, with the Mediterranean Sea “right over those mountains,” it has a maritime climate, which makes a huge difference in growing seasons.
Priorat also is a Denominacion de Origen Calificada (D.O.C.), one of only two in the entire country (Rioja is the other).
This means the DOC wines are subject to more-strenuous regulations and winemaking standards than non DOC wines. The Priorat is in the southwest part of Catalonia and its language, Catalan, is vastly different from Spanish, which made it impossible to understand to this novice Spanish student.
The Catalonians are justly proud of their separate identities and culture, and the name “Priorat,” which appears on wine bottles, is the Catalan spelling while “Priorato” is the Spanish. Garnacha (elsewhere known as Grenache) becomes the primary red grape here, with supporting roles played by Cariñena, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.
Our first stop was the remote (we switched to a smaller bus just to make the narrow road) bodega of Viticultores del Priorat where associate winemaker Maria-Jose Bajon led us a on quick hike up the hill and a view of much of Priorat, a fairly small region – about 20,000 hectares or less than 50,000 acres, of which about 1,800 hectares are vineyards.
She told us the wines often reflect the unique “licorecella” soil, comprised of black slate and quartz mica outcropping, both of which influence the wines. In addition to the Morlanda red (a 50/50 blend of Garnacha and Caiñena) the winery makes a very interesting Morlanda white (Morlanda is the name of the small peak on whose slopes the winery was built) made of Garnacha Blanca, which Maria-Jose told us almost went extinct before the winery “rediscovered” it and a small percentage of Macabeo.
“We are not a trendy winery,” she warned us, her dark eyes flashing as if we would dare make such a proposal. “We want to make wines that are true to the traditional (grape) strains we cultivate.”
The vines mostly range in age from 25-40 years old although I thought (Hey, my Spanish isn’t nearly as good as her Catalan) Maria-Jose said there were some nearly 60. She also gave much credit to earlier efforts more than 30 years ago by pioneering winemakers Rene Barbier and Alvaro Palacios in establishing the Priorat as a winemaking region.
My tasting notes recall the 2007 Morlanda red (the most recent vintage released) as being quite delightful, having dark cherry flavors and some notes of licorice and dark chocolate. The Morlanda white had hints of white peaches, citrus and fresh apple and crisp acidity.
A remote winery with distinctive wines and an associate winemaker conveying a hawk-like intensity in being true to the land and the grapes it produces.
Wednesday, July 13 — Even though we arrived in Madrid on Monday and now it’s Wednesday, most of the 13 of us on this trip (most of whom are Freixenet employees getting a feel for the home company) consider Monday a day lost to travel, jet lag and a whirlwind introduction to Spain.
A little more about yesterday’s post on Valdubon and winemaker Javier Aladra, who on Tuesday tasted us on his Tempranillo, including the Cosecha, Crianza and his 2006 Riserva. I’ll try not to repeat this several times in these posts but Tempranillo has four styles: Cosecha (or Joven) – young wines ready in their first or second years; Crianza – required by the D.O rules to have two years aging, at least one in oak; Riserva – 3 years aging with at least one in oak; Gran Riserva – exceptional vintages with 5 years aging, minimum 2 years in oak.
Tempranillo, like Sangiovese, is a grape of many faces. Also known locally as Tinto del Pais and Tinto Fino, it can be a light-red, cherry-rich quaffer, a picnic table sort of wine, or it can be rich, deep and highly structured, a serious wine in anyone’s book.
Aladra everyday faces vineyards of near-barren soil; soil he describes as “very poor” and “with very little organic material.” That doesn’t mean it won’t produce fantastic wines but it does mean the winemaker has to work a bit harder at his art and have, perhaps,some knowledge of grape growing and wine-development not required of other growers in more benign climates and richer soils.
What really surprised most of us was when Aladra, a quiet, unassuming type more at home in the winery than speaking to tour groups, told us he finds it harder to make the young Cosecha wines rather than the bigger, richer and more-defined Crianza and Riserva.
“In the (Ribera del) Duero a young wine is the most difficult wine,” Aladra said, listing the hot growing conditions that lead to fast-ripening, and if you’re not careful, too much ripening. “We use the youngest grapes for our Cosecha.”
It’s all stainless fermentation – no oak on this wine – no more than a week long and soon it’s in the bottle and ready for the consumer.
Aladra grows 50 percent of his grapes, the rest coming from 150 smaller growers with long-term contracts to ensure stability in the supply and quality of grapes. He said Valdubon has 114 hectares (about 281 acres) of grapes and there’s only 23,000 hectares of vines in the entire Ribera del Duero. However, a press kit on Valdubon said there’s 13,500 hectares of vines there, which would be more than 33,300 acres, a big discrepancy and not something I could get immediately answered. But it LOOKED like 114 hectares.
The region is remindful of the wine areas in the Grand Valley of western Colorado. In fact most of the areas we visited in northeast Spain, except for the Mediterranean Sea, reminded me of home. High altitude (Ribera is around 800 meters, about 2,400 feet), cold winters, hot days/cool summer nights and a short growing season. Aladra joked there area has but two seasons – winter and two months of summer. Our group, by the way is comprised of several writers and some of the Freixenet regional reps from the U.S., none of whom had previously visited this part of Spain so it was an education for all us.
Now, back in the bus and off to Logroño in the Rioja.
Day 3, on the train to Tarragona – We leave the somber clouds of north Spain and head to the sunny cast of Tarragon and Barcelona. By the time el tren reaches Tarragona, with a few unexpected delays, we arrive at this Mediterranean beachside resort well into the evening and discover another hotel without the convenience of full-time WiFi or Internet. Through most of northern Spain Internet connections were few, which meant traveling in the 21st century relying on 18th century technology.
It’s too easy in the U.S., where we expect every convenience and rely on them so much we forget how to communicate without the electronic technology taken for granted.
But all is well this morning, the password works and there’s another 20 minutes or so left on this account.
The first part of the day was spent at the Solar Viejo winery in La Guardia, 30 minutes north of Logroño and well into the country of the Basques or Pais Vasco. This is Rioja Alebada, the upper Rioja heavy with Basque and Arabic influences of many years past. Which is why here it’s pronounced “La Huardia”, not the Americanized “La (hard-g) Guardia.”
Solar Viejo has been around since 1937 but only within the last 7 has it been associated with Freixenet. This also is tempranillo country, with a smaller mix of garnacha, masuelo and graciano to round out the D.O. red blends.
PR director Vanesa Dominguez led us through the town and showed us the caves winding under the city, hand-carved through solid rock, underground passages used in millennia past to hide the locals avoiding invaders. Now used in part as natural, perfect temp and humidity wine cellars.
We walked past the old church, looked across the Ebro River valley toward the Sierra de Catabria mountains protecting this part of Spain from the cold north Atlantic, and ate, ate and sipped at wine.
Tempranillo has four styles:
Cosecha (or Joven) young wines ready in their first or second years; Crianza – required to have two yera agin, at least one in oak; Riserva – 3 years aging,one in oak; Gran Riserva – exceptional vinatges with 5 years aging, minimum 2 in oak.
We tried the Vaza Cosecha, the young red with its deep cherry red/purple color and equally fresh flavors; the Vaza Crianza, much darker red color, a hint of the oak with round tannins and long finish; and the Riserva (not yet available in the U.S. but we tasted it to educate the Friexenet team) with its more oak, hints of tobacco and licorice, a deeply structured wine with great elegance.
My time on the Internet is about up, there’s more words and photos for later. We still have wines and miles to go.
ciao for now.
Not much time right now before meeting the rest of the Freixenet 2011 team for dinner in Logroño. We blew into this Rioja town on the edge of a major storm scraping its way across north Spain, the line of clouds (we’re about 80 kilometers from the Bay of Biscay, North Atlantic) curiously marking the break point between Basque territories and Rioja, with multiple rainbows ushering us along the way.
The morning was hot and sunny and was spent at Valdubon near Milagro, a tiny town in the Ribera del Duero tasting winemaker Javier Aladra’s rich Tempranillos (Tinta del Pais clone).
By noon, though, the weather changed and we walked out into a storm that continued the 220 kilometers or so from Valdubon to Logroño.
July 10 and waiting in the Grand Junction airport for the first of my four legs of flight to Madrid while the fly boys from the naval air base in Fallon, Nevada buzz the airport at Mach 2.
It’s a press trip, and the disclaimer is it’s being subsidized by Freixenet, which claims to be the world’s leaders in making methode champenoise sparkling wines.
It’s not like I doubt they’re No. 3, considering how much sparkling and still wine has their name on it, since Freixenet has wineries in Spain (3 cavas, 8 still), Mexico, Italy, California, France, Australia and Argentina. Whew. This week I hope to find out just how much Freixenet puts in the bottle.
Getting out of fly-over country ain’t easy, pardner. I’m meeting several other wine writers in Madrid along with Megan Duran of the PR firm Janet Kafka and associates. It’s Megan’s daunting task to keep herd on the cats.
Except for Megan (Dallas), most of the others are coming from the East Coast, which means like one or at the most two flights from home to Madrid.
My itinerary reads like this: GJ to Denver; Denver to Franfurt; Frankfurt to Madrid. Elapsed time: about 13 hours, given that Madrid is about 8 hours ahead of home.
And those occasional trips to Vinitaly add another couple of hours of driving from Milan to Verona.
That’s life in the mid-country. Not complainin’, just sayin’.
Here’s the skinny on the trip.
Today (and most of tomorrow), arrive in Madrid (2045 hours on the 11th), late dinner, later bed.
12th – 800 hrs, desayuno (that’s breakfast, might as well get into the spirit now, eh?); 900 hrs, bus to Ribera del Duero and Freixenet’s Valdubon winery, meet with the winemaker, almuerzo (lunch), bus to Lagroño (Rioja), late dinner.
13th – Late breakfast, bus to Solar Viejo winery, lunch, catch the train to Tarragona, check into hotel, late dinnner (It’s Europe, dinner always is late);
14th – late breakfast, bus to Falset (Priorat) and the Morlanda winery, 1700 depart (bus) for Barcelona, wander around Barcelona (fantastic architecture) until bed time;
15th: Head to the Freixenet and Segua Viuda wineries for tours and tasting, farwell dinner (business dress) and one more late bedtime.
16th: Home again, this time the trip is cool, leave Barcelona on Sunday and get home on Sunday. Harry Potter would approve.
And Freixenet is pronounced fresh-eh-net, just in case you were wondering.
Nos vemos en Madrid (See you in Madrid).
“Oh, that’s yummy,” she said, the first truly expressive thing she’s said about the wines I’ve brought to dinner. While there’s not been a week she and her husband haven’t enjoyed the wines that are my share of the meal, tonight the delicate fruit and a sparkling acidity of the Gavi 2009 Principessa Perlante evoked a new response.
“That’s really nice, what did you say this was?” she asked, her dinner, straight out of Alice Waters’ “The Art of Simple Food,” forgotten for a minute. “I really like this.”
The Principessa Perlante ($13-$18) has great fruitiness but it’s super-dry with only 12.5 percent alcohol, both attribute my hostess looks for in a wine. My once-a-week hostess/chef loves dry whites (her husband drinks it all but prefers Italian reds) and last week we all gladly sipped the Principessa Gavia Gavi, the still version of Italy’s wonderful white grape, the Cortese di Gavi from Piemonte.
The wines are very pale straw in color, with a nose of pineapple and apples and a plate hinting of green apple and tropical fruits, perfect for these warm summer nights and lighter meals. Both wines are produced by Vigne Regali, an 18th-centure winery in Strevi, Italy, now owned and operated by the importers Banfi Vintners. The grapes are sourced a few kilomters away at the Banfi’s Prinicipessa Gavia Gavi estate, which exclusively grows the Cortese di Gavi grape.
“Perlante” signifies the light perlage (the ribbon of bubbles from the bottom of the glass), and while I’ve read the Principessa Perlante described as a “frizzante” (compared to the heavier ribbons of bubbles in a spumante), the Principessa seems lighter and more delicate than a frizzante. Even the bottle, a heavy, slope-shouldered version of a classic sparkling wine bottle, evokes the pleasurable anticipation of something special.
Summer fun inevitably means friends getting together enjoying light meals and similar wines. So when a vegetarian friend announced a pool party built around the theme of spicy Mediterranean-based cuisine, the challenge was set.
Baba ganoush, hummus, tomato-and-jalapeño salsa, pita bread and lots of fresh veggies to slip into a yoghurt and dill dip. And spicy?
It’s not the searing hot of Thai or Vietnamese food but there were plenty of tongue and lip-warming spices and peppers to liven up the meal.
Thanks to having recently listened to Mark Oldman, author of “Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine, talk about pairing wines with hot and spicy food during the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, I was ready for the challenge. Spicy food calls for a low-alcohol wine with little or no tannin, said Oldman, recommending sparkling wines and still whites (Reisling, Gewurztraminer, Torrontes) and lighter reds such as pinot noir and carmenere.
“You want something a little bit sweet or sweet seeming,” Oldman told his appreciative audience. “Think in the terms of heat. Not too much alcohol or tannins and certainly nothing too expensive.”
By coincidence, I had just opened a box of wines from the good folks at Montinore Estate, the Forest-Grove, Ore., winery of Rudy Marchesi and found a selection of white wines perfect for the evening. There’s a fascinating story behind how Marchesi, the grandson of Italian immigrants, took over Montinore and built it up using biodynamic farming techniques to one of the stellar bio vineyards in the Willamette Valley and on the Left Coast. There’s a fine story about Marchesi in the Portland Oregonian here.
Among his white wines are the 2010 Almost Dry Riesling ($14, SRP); 2009 Pinot Gris ($16) and the 2009 Riesling Sweet Reserve ($16). The last one, because of its high residual sugar level (75 grams per liter), is found on the Montinore website under the heading “Dessert Wines” although it’s not as sweet as many dessert-type wines which may.
Oldman’s suggestion was to match sweet or “sweet-seeming” wines with spicy food, the sweetness in the wines off-setting the spiciness in the food. But he cautioned a sweet wine can become undrinkable without sufficient acidity to balance all the residual sugar and clear the palate.
Both the Almost Dry Riesling, with its slightest touch of sweetness and a citrusy, Granny Smith apple fruitiness, and the Pinot Gris, with highlights of melon, pear and apple, stood up well to the assortment of tantalizing dishes. They both had the body and the finish to marry well with the meal and both bottles disappeared well before their time.
The Sweet Reserve, though, was the crowd’s favorite, both during the meal and for sipping later around the pool as the moon rose. Dessert wines, as was noted, can be tricky to pull off, but Montinore white-wine maker Stephen Webber has managed to capture the essence of white flowers with flavors of tropical fruit and orange peel, well balanced by enough acidity to sparkle on the palate.
The fact it’s only 9.7-percent alcohol (the Almost Dry Riesling is 11 percent) makes it driver-friendly, too.