Chris Wilford's 2006 Travel Log
I arrived in Barcelona for the first of what I hope will be many trips to the wine regions of Spain on the afternoon of March 9th. An Importer who I work with, André Tamers and his company De Maison Selections organized the trip.
After gathering all of the troops together it was off to our private bus – very swank. The bus had room for 14 though we were only 10 so there was a bit of room to spread out. Our driver, Jose Miguel was quickly dubbed “Ice” due to the shape of his hairstyle (which oddly resembled the shape of our bus) and the meticulous grooming of his eyebrows.
In minutes we were off to our first destination, Penedès – Cava country!
After a painless 2-hour drive south we arrived at Avinyó. Based in a farmhouse that dates back to the 16th century, the Esteve Nadal family has been making still and sparkling wines for over 40 years. In addition to wine, the estate also produces traditional Catalan four pigment ceramic tiles and houses an impressive collection of antique Porrons, the traditional Catalan drinking vessel (more on these later).
The vineyards, planted between 15 and 50 years ago, consist of Paralleda, Xarel-lo and Macabeo for the Cava, and since then additional plantings have been made of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Petit Grain Muscat. The clay-calcareous vineyards are all non-certified organic. All fruit for the Cava is 100% de-stemmed and free run. The Brut is aged for 18-22 months on the lees (which technically makes it a Reserve as Cava only requires 9 months of aging). The Cava is made in stainless utilizing méthode traditionelle (formally known as méthode Champenoise until them uppity Champagne guys got their knickers all in a bunch about it). A number of small frame (approximately 1 palate each) riddling machines are utilized in the winery prior to dosage. The Brut receives a dosage of 6 grams of sugar per liter while the Nature receives only 2 grams.
The Rosado is made from 10 year old Pinot Noir grapes in much the same fashion as the Brut. It is a medium bodied wine with great depth of fruit and balance.
The Grand Reserve is aged for 30-48 months on the lees, giving it greater depth, a richer mid palate and great balance. It receives no dosage, making it a Brut Nature level in terms of dryness.
One interesting note was the disgorging machine on the bottling line. Rather than utilizing the traditional method of freezing the lees in the neck in a solution prior to disgorgement, this machine has the bottles loaded in flat, 2 bottles at a time at which point as the bottles rise to vertical, the machine pops the cap, expelling the capsule of lees, and is immediately disgorged prior to entering the final corking. All this happens in a second or two.
After our tour of the winery we were given a little treat. As it turned out it was Calçots season. These are baby leeks that have been charred over a bed of vine clippings. After being wrapped in newspaper to steam, they are served with a Romesco sauce (a red sauce of primarily roasted peppers, garlic and spices). We were all given bibs and given a demonstration on how to eat these delicacies. You hold the leak up in the air by its base, and pull the inner leaves from the bottom, essentially sliding off the charred outer layers to reveal only clean, steamed (and smoky) center, which you then dip in to the sauce. After getting the thing good and sauced, you raise it over your head and gobble up the bottom half in one greedy bite. This is where the bib comes in, as the little buggers tend to drop Romesco all over you if you’re not careful or quick.
To go along with this treat were a few Porrons filled with Cava. A Porron is a sort of fat bottomed pitcher with a small pointy spout on one side. You’re not supposed to let your lips touch the spout. Lean your head back, open wide and pour a stream in to your gullet. As you get better you start extending your arm as straight as you can to get a nice long stream going to impress all those around you. As always, the trick is in the dismount. As you bring the Porron back in close you want to compensate for the fall off of stream angle as you right the pitcher lest you pour thy Cava down thy chin and chest.
After far to many Calçots and far too much Cava we were told it was time for dinner. We would soon learn that this was a theme to be repeated often on this trip. Apparently there is no Spanish word for “moderation”.
Dinner consisted of chorizo, Serrano Ham, grilled Lamb and very little veggies (this also would become a bit of a theme). Over dinner we were treated to some of the Estate’s still red wines. A 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, barrel sample. This has spent 12-months (so far) in 3 year old French Demptos barrels. Solid core fruit, ripe with good balance and acidity though a bit one-dimensional at this stage of development (or lack there of). This was followed by a Magnum or two of the same wine from 2000. This example was much more expressive showing nice notes of tobacco and meat. A bit softer and more settled.
After lunch, er dinner, oh who the hell knows, we headed to our lodgings, a nice two building complex nearby that housed us all quite comfortably. We all sat around a fire sipping wines and beers and basically decompressing from the long day of travel, food and fun.
The next morning we headed further south to Monsant. On the bus during the drive it was announced that due to my impressive ability to peel paint from the walls with my snoring, no one would room with me in the future. For the rest of the trip I would have my own room. Mission accomplished, Sweet!
The Monsant Denominación is a sub region of Taragona. Many wines labeled as Monsant were formally labeled as Taragona prior to it getting it’s own D.O. in August of 2001.
After a couple hours drive we arrived at the vineyards and winery of Joan D’Anguera. The family run estate dates back 200 years. The family owns 80 acres of vineyards that produce incredibly low yields. The majority of the Syrah and Cabernet plantings are now more than 20 years old, and the Grenache and Carignan are more than 50 years old. The D’Anguera’s were the first to plant Syrah (U.C. Davis clones) in the area as well as being the first to Estate bottle. They also led the charge for the establishment of Monsant as it’s own D.O. The vineyard soils are clay sand with stones underlying, which allow for good drainage and lie at elevations of 200-300 meters above sea level. All the vineyards are north facing to mitigate the strong sun found in this area. There is some irrigation but only in the driest of years. Sustainable agriculture is utilized in all the vineyards.
There is a prevailing wind, which comes in to the valley by way of a gap between two mountains. This also helps to battle the heat of the area. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the Mistral of the Rhône valley as this area and its wines already tend to remind me of the Rhône.
The original sections of the winery date back to 1820 but most has been re-built and modernized. Gravity flow is utilized throughout the winery. The fruit goes through a 25-30 day maceration with 2-3 pump overs of about 2 min per day. This is to ensure soft tannins. After fermentation the wine is pressed of which only free run and first press is utilized, the remainder is sold off for bulk wine. After malo in tank the wine is transferred to barrel. For the last couple of years the D’Anguera’s have shifted away from American oak and now use only French.
While they do make a Vino Joven (young wine) it is only sold locally. The predominant wines from this estate are La Planella, Finca L’Argata and El Bugader.
The 2004 La Planella is a blend of 50% Carignan, 20% Grenache, 15% Syrah and 15% Cabernet of which approximately 2500 cases are produced. It is aged for one year in all older barrels left over from the other wines. The wine is fresh and deep showing the expected notes of dark berried fruit. Smooth mouth feel with a satiny finish and soft dusty tannin. There are some herbaceous notes reminiscent of some dry herbs that grow naturally around the vineyards.
2005 La Planella – Barrel Sample. Same blend and vinification. This will be bottled in Sept. I found this to be a touch softer with slightly more pronounced acidity.
The 2003 Finca L’Argata is a blend of 45% Syrah, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Grenache. It ages for roughly 12 months in 1/3 new, 1/3 one year and 1/3 two year old barrels, 20% of which are American. This is the last vintage to include American oak. Rich notes of red and black fruit burst forth on this full-bodied effort. Creamy black cherry notes balanced by solid minerality and a long finish.
The 2004 Finca L'Argata is still in tank waiting to be bottled in two weeks. The blend on this is 40% Syrah, 40% Grenache and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. As with the Planella sample, this bottle showed a bit brighter fruit and more pronounced acidity, probably due to the fruit being a bit dumb. As mentioned before this was aged for a year in all French oak of the same age range as the 2003.
We finished with two bottlings of their flagship wine, El Bugader, starting with the 2003. A blend of 70% Syrah and 30% Grenache. Aged in all French oak for 18 months, of which 70% is new. 250 cases produced. The nose showed notes of jamon (ham) which Josep D’Anguera said is typical of Monsant. Great balance for such a big wine. Great depth and purity with a long lingering finish. It should be noted that 2003 was not overly hot in these areas as it tends to very hot here every year.
The 2004 El Bugader is 100% Syrah. The fruit hung for two extra weeks on the vines. The nose again showed notes of ham and cured meats with a bit more spice than the 2003. The palate was consistent with the nose albeit showing a bit more smoke. The wood was noticeable at this point but not distracting. Far from spoofed out. You can also taste a bit of almond, which makes sense as there are almond trees all around the vineyard as well as lining the driveway to the winery.
After a nice lunch of cured meets, tortilla (potato pancake sort of dishes, not to be confused with the Mexican variety we are more accustomed to), and a wonderful sardine tart followed the tasting and we were back on the bus off the Priorat.
Priorat lies inside the D.O. of Monsant. Encapsuled so to speak. It is a mountainous area as opposed to Monsant, which has more of a western plains sort of feel.
Jordi Rotllan Torra founded his winery in 1982 after years of working in and around the bodegas of Penedes. He produced his first wine two years later in 1984. The street the winery is on is very much representative of the region as it is an incredibly steep slope. It would not be fun to walk up this street late after a lot of wine (as I would do in an hour or so). After touring the winery, which was housed in an old monastery, we hoped into a beat up 4x4 for a quick jaunt out to the vineyard. This was like something out of a movie. Hanging on for dear life as the wheels just passed over the edge of the path with nothing but a steep drop over the side. We all at least felt comforted by the fact that there was no roof on the back and if it got too hairy we could just bail out, so long as we jumped out on the right side of the jeep. Once we reached the vineyards it became quite clear that this is some pretty difficult land to work. The slopes are unreal; the vineyards just drop off before your eyes. The elevations are in the neighborhood of 2000 feet above sea level. Needless to say, the thought of any sort of mechanical assistance is not only impractical, it’s impossible. Many of the vineyards are around 100 years old and are composed mostly of slate. The dry, hot climate forces the vines to extend down many meters for water. Because of these factors, yields tend to be very low. All the vineyards are farmed with sustainable agriculture techniques. The trip back to the winery was equally harrowing as the sun was going down and visibility was declining.
Fermentation takes place in the usual manner, temperature controlled Stainless steel tanks. At which point the wine is transferred to barrel via gravity flow. All of the wines are aged in new oak with the exception of the Reserva, which is aged in the same barrels after their first use. The barrels are topped off every fifteen days as they can lose up to two liters per month to evaporation through the pores of the wood.
While Jordi makes a number of wines, we tried to focus on the four dry wines and one dessert that are more commonly exported to the US.
We started with the Reserva 2000. This is a blend of 50% Grenache, 25% Carignan and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, all of which is 30 to 50 yr old. This is intended to be a more traditionally styled wine and it shows. The wine is nicely balanced without being at all over the top. It is medium bodied, something most of us don’t associate with most of today’s modern Priorats. Quite drinkable with currant notes and good length.
The 2001 Reserva comes from a riper vintage and it showed. The wine was more forward, but none the less quite balanced. I preferred it slightly to the 2000.
Next Came the single vineyard bottlings.
2000 Balandra is a blend of 34% Grenache, 34% Carignan and 32% Cabernet Sauvignon. The vines are 50 yrs old. Jordi believes the Carignan gives the wine color, the Grenache-roundness, and the Cabernet-ageability. This is the only wine aged in American oak. (100% American, 100% new). I personally found the oak to be to prevalent on this wine, though I’m sure it would be just right for many other people. I tend to be a bit oak sensitive. The fruit though, is equally prevalent and balance the vanilla and dill notes of the oak somewhat, yet not enough for me.
Next we tried the 2002 Amadis. This made up of 35% Grenache (70yr old), 25% Carignan (70yr old), 25% Cabernet Sauvignon (15 yr old), 10% Syrah (15 yr old) and 5% Merlot (15yr old). These vines produce a miniscule 10 hl/ha. This went through extended maceration with punch downs every two days and spent a year in 100% new French oak (Allier). The wood is much more integrated on this wine. The fruit is lush and vibrant with notes of black raspberries, sweet cassis, blackberries and steely crushed rocks. Even though this was considered a difficult vintage I found this to be one of my favorite wines of the tasting.
The 2003 Amadis was a more intense wine, jumping out of the glass. This was a barrel sample that I think will benefit from a little time to settle down. It’s a bit disjointed right now but should develop into a monster.
Jodi’s top wine is the single vineyard Tirant. The 2002 is 30% Grenache (80+ yrs old), 30% Carignan (80+ yr old), 25% Cabernet Sauvignon (15yr old), 10% Syrah (15yr old), and 5% Merlot (15yr old). The alcoholic fermentation for this wine takes place in foudre, followed by malo in barrel. Aging takes place for one year in 100% new French Troncais barrels. This wine is a touch more tannic and austere than the Amadis, showing slightly softer fruit, but this may just be a phase it’s going through.
The 2003 Tirant (barrel sample) is a blockbuster. The fruit is right up front again and while still a little chunky it should come together over the next couple of years into an exceptional wine. This, along with the 2002 Amadis, where the clear crowd favorites.
We finished with Jordi’s Moscatell dessert wine. This is made from 90% Moscatell and 10% Pedro Ximenez. The vines are about 35yrs old on alluvial / slate soils. Fermentation is stopped by dosing the wine with neutral spirits at a level of 4% residual sugar. The nose shows classic Muscat notes of orange peel and tropical fruits. Reminiscent of a Beaumes de Venise from the Rhone. Funny how everything around here reminds me of the Rhône.
We went back to our gigantic lodgings in Monsant and made a home cooked group feast. Assorted meets and cheese, grilled Sardines, baked Trout (I think?) and I made a Sliced Beef shoulder with a red wine sauce. We sampled a number of local wines, none of which was as good as any of the wines we had that day and topped the evening with a Mag of 1998 Cims de Porrera “Classic” Priorat I had picked up earlier that day. This was followed by cigars and dancing. Little did we realize that we would have to be on bus and on the road in less than 4 hours.
Photos can be found here.
After an evening of a wonderful group home cooked meal we woke up after our short 2-3 hour sleep to pile on to the bus for the next leg of our journey – 48 hours of Txakoli!
With a six-hour drive north behind us we arrived at St. Sebastian and the Ameztoi winery, way up in Basque country. This is in the province of Getaria (Getariako Txakolina) which along with Araba (Arabako Txakolina) and Bizkaia (Bizkaiko Txakolina) makes up the three major regions within the Basque country for Txakoli. The regions here add KO to the end of the regions for the different D.O.’s, similar to Germany that adds ER as in Wehlen (Wehlener) or even New York (New Yorker). It simply implies “of”. Txakolina is also simply Basque for Txakoli. For those unfamiliar with these wonderful, crisp and refreshing wines you could view them as an alternative to Muscadet. They have some similar flavor qualities and the food pairings are congruent.
Ignacio Ameztoi is the seventh generation of his family to make Getariako Txakolina. Made from 90% Hondarribi Zurri and 10% of the red grape Hondarribi Beltza. The vineyards are farmed using sustainable agriculture and are 20-25 year old vines. The soils are sand and clay. The vineyards are high up on the mountain looking down on St. Sebastian and the Atlantic Ocean. Trellising is quite high here, around four plus feet, to allow for the winds to keep the grapes dry in the fairly wet climate.
Two bottlings are produced. The normal bottling which is fermented in stainless steel and bottled with a touch of residual carbonic that gives the wine a natural petulance, and the Ameztoi Upelean Hartzitua, which is fermented in large oak foudre of varying size. The latter is what the older generations of the region traditionally drank before the advent of jacketed stainless steel tanks. Oddly today’s modern wood tanks actually are water cooled as well to control fermentation. Both go through a cold maceration. The steel tanks are capped to trap in some CO2.
Now these Getaria guys do things a little different. For one thing, every year many of the local restaurants and buyers will come to taste and decide which foudre they would like to buy from. It’s essentially a big tasting party with much eating drinking and well…..more drinking. Guess which day we went on? Yup. Needless to say we picked up a few new jovial additions to our little group as the day went on. Next, they use a glass more akin to a large rocks glass rather than a traditional wine stem. We soon learned why. It would be difficult to “catch” your glass of wine with a simple stem. You see they don’t just pour out of a little spout or pipette. No, that would be too easy. The tanks have a valve or nozzle about four feet up the face that shoots a stream out at a 45 degree angle towards the floor. The trick is to place your glass up near the floor and start filling it up. As you are doing this you slowly move your glass towards the spout so the next person can come and put their glass behind yours so that when you pull your glass away, the stream will start filling their glass. And so it goes person after person. It’s the last guy’s job to raise his glass closer to the nozzle as they fill it while the operator shuts off the valve so as to not lose too much wine on the floor.
We started with a few tanks of the standard 2005 Txakoli. Most were fairly consistent from tank to tank. The wines have a bracing acidity and nerve with a bit of a salty note from their proximity to the ocean. The fruit is bright but dense and just balances the acids while retaining just enough bite. I have to admit this stuff is easy to drink. This is helped by it’s naturally low alcohol, roughly 11%.
Next we moved on to the barrels. We tasted through a number of the large beasts. Overall the 2005 Ameztoi Upelean Hartzitua were a touch smoother texturally and had less petulance. Some of the different barrels showed more aromatics, some more zip and acidity and after much discussion we came to a consensus on which barrel Andre should take his allocation from (#5). “Big time Basque barrel selections!!”” Whoo!!”
Lunch was at a local restaurant, a favorite of Andre’s, Talaipe. We sat in a second story windowed room overlooking the docked fishing boats in the bay. It was rainy and gray. Perfect for feasting and drinking! And feast we did. Plate after plate of little shrimps were served followed by plates of whole fish and many bottles of Txakoli. One delicacy we were served was kokotxas - cod sweelbreads as they called them. It is not actually sweetbreads but part the throat section that runs from the under the chin to the neck. These were extremely rich and flavorful. We all ate far too many. Then, cigars and Pacharan! This is a sort of elderberry (or Sloe Gin) after dinner liquor. We actually sampled a number of different bottlings of this as well. I guess since we had been comparing all day, why stop now.
After completely gorging ourselves it was on to the bus and back up the mountain to our slightly scary Basque B&B. The rooms were cold and dark, and the only sound was that of the many local dogs occasionally barking. It was the perfect setting in which to finish my book, Capote’s classic, “In Cold Blood”. Every now and then when you would go to the bathroom you would catch a glimpse of someone just turning a corner or closing a door. I couldn’t help but think to myself “I see drunk people…”
The next morning we were off to Bilbao for lunch with another Txakoli producer. It was around this time that someone, it could have been me for all I know, started singing (to the tune of Dana Carvey’s “Chopping Broccoli”);
And my lady, she went downtown
She bought some Txakoli
She brought it home.
We’re drinking Txakoli
Drinking Txakoli (repeat ad nauseum).
Soon we were pulling in to bustling down town Bilbao. We were meeting a winemaker at a local restaurant, Iruña. We were a little early so we sort of wandered around in the rain for awhile until the restaurant agreed to open the doors and let us in a little early. Once in we piled in to a long table and were met by Roberto Ibarretxe Zorriketaand his girlfriend Isabel. Roberto and Isabel make Bizkaiko Txakolina Uriondo. Roberto Actually makes his wine in a garage, which I guess makes him one of, if not the first Basque Garagist! He also believes that Hondarribi is an inferior grape and will not use it in his wine. Even though he has some growing in his vineyards, he prefers instead to use Mune Mahatsa and Txori Mahatsa. The Hondarribi is sold off to other wineries. His 6 acres of vines are 15-20 yrs old and are on sandy clay soils.
Roberto’s 2005 UriondoTxakoli is very different from Ameztoi. It has no CO2, so it is completely flat. In addition, it is a much softer style. One could say more refined, though certainly not bland. Apple skins intermingle with notes of wet stone and minerals. It would be fair to say that it is a pretty wine.
After lunch, the highlight of which was an incredible garlic / chorizo soup, we went on a walk through Bilbao to one of the main squares. We wandered through an outdoor flee market and in and out of a number of Tapas bars nibbling on this and that and downing a few beers. Many of the vendors were selling old vinyl records and we couldn’t but laugh at all the old 70’s and 80’s albums being offered in fairly good condition. Grand Funk or Simple Minds anyone?
We walked back to our bus that was meeting us in front of the Guggenheim Museum. The Frank Gehry designed building is truly a wonder to be seen. Even though we didn’t have the time to go in it was enough just to see it.
From Bilbao it was off to our final Txakoli appointment, Arabako Txakolina Winery in Alava, also known as Araba in Basque (Alaves is Spanish for Arabako). There is a portion of Alavesa in Rioja as well. Yes there is a Basque region of Rioja. Didn’t think you’d get away from this Basque stuff that easy did’ya! Arabako Txakolina (the winery) was founded in 1989. The Arabako D.O. was founded in 2002. Twelve growers decided to pool their resources and establish the denomination. They created a wine and named it Xarmant which means charming in French and reflects the nature is this wine.
After a little coffee we lit up a couple cigars and headed out to the vineyards on foot. Consistent with all of the properties we visited, there are no pesticides used in the vineyard and sustainable agriculture is practiced. The vines are 10-20 years old and are planted on gray chalky clay. The grapes grown are the traditional Hondarribi Zurri variety that is indigenous to the Basque region and it is blended with Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, and Petit Courbu. Here the vineyards lie in a valley, cradled by mountains, one of which features huge natural waterfalls. The wet climate, be it the influence of the ocean or this waterfall is another consistency between all of the Txakoli vineyards. The vines are trained lower here, about 3 feet off the ground. They also curve the shoots in an arc up out and back down. This is said to slow the flow of sap and help stress the vines. All cuttings are tilled and re-introduced to the vineyard as mulch. There is an irrigation system but it is only used in winter to create an ice igloo of sorts over the buds to insulate the vines from frost. While production levels are fairly high, yields are comparatively low considering the potential of these extremely vigorous vines.
Xarmant, like Uriondo, makes only one wine. The 2005 Xarmant Txakoli is different once again and it became clear why it was important for Andre to import a wine from each of the three D.O.’s. Xarmont is almost the middle ground stylistically between the prior two Txakolinas. It is more full-bodied and robust than the Uriondo, but the petulance is much more subtle than the Ameztoi.
After the tasting we were all given bookmarks that featured a rather dark and ominous picture of the mountains with a close up of the waterfall with a sort of “dark tower” sort of feel to it. Not that these guys weren’t nice, but there is a certain intense seriousness to the people here that quite contrasted the happy go lucky feeling at Ameztoi. We asked if they ever used Porrons and they just looked back at us very solemnly and dismissively shook their heads in a way that said “Porrons are for those children in Catalonia.” They actually explained that while Porrons are used in some Txakoli areas, it is mainly to help dissipate the excess (as they see it) CO2 of lesser wines. They also gave us some very nice Swiss Army knives with the Xarmont logo on them.
We all found it funny that we went up to the Basque and they armed us.
Photos can be found here.
Feeling confidant and masculine having been freshly armed with knives by our Basque comrades we headed south to Rioja! After checking into the first actual hotel of the trip (oh glory be, I have my own bathroom!) we walked up the road to Bodegas Ostatu.
The Bodegas Ostatu winery is located in the heart of the Rioja Alavesa region in the town of Samaniego. The Saenz family began producing wine in the 70’s. Primarily young wine (vino joven) was produced at first, utilizing carbonic maceration for early consumption but the philosophy has changed since the mid 90’s when Hubert de Boϋard de Laforest of the famed Chateau Angelus in St. Emeilion came and saw the vineyards. He felt, given the age of the vines and the unique orientation of the vineyards that exceptional wine could be produced and expressed interest in collaboration with the family. Over time they began to produce more important wines ultimately culminating in the new flagship wine Gloria de Ostatu, made in conjunction with Ch. Angelus.
The chalky clay vineyards average 50 years old and are protected from the elements by the Sierra Cantabria mountain range. There is no spraying of pesticides and only minimal fertilization is used. The rolling hills of vineyard have been planted to vine for over one hundred years as opposed to many other locations that have only recently been converted from wheat or grains. Green harvests are performed to intensify the fruit as well as to allow air to better circulate around the remaining fruit and eliminate the need to spray. In addition, clusters that touch each other are trained apart. The vines used in the Reserva and Crianza bottlings will have about 25% of their fruit dropped while the Gloria de Ostatu will have 40% of it’s fruit dropped from its 60-80 year old vines.
The winery itself employs gravity flow and natural pressure to move the wine from place to place and some wines still utilize the stomping of grapes by bare feet. The fruit is 100% de-stemmed. Both punch down and pour overs are used, though they are leaning more towards punch downs to get softer, finer tannins.
After touring the vineyards it was time to go back to the winery and sit down to lunch and taste some vino! We started with the 2005 Blanco. This wine is a blend of 90% Viura and 10% Malvasia (60-70 year old vines). Made entirely in stainless steel, I found the wine fruity with medium body, round and balanced with a crisp mineral finish.
This was followed by their Vino Joven, a simple wine still made in the carbonic method. It was nice but we were just getting started.
Next came 2003 Crianza. This is a blend of 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano for acidity. Fermented in stainless then aged for 12 months in 70% French and 30% American oak, less than half of which is new. The Saenz family feels that the 2003 is as successful as the 2001, even though it was a hot year. While the wine is a bit tight right now it shows great concentration with soft tannins in the finish.
The 2001 Reserva is the same blend and barrel regiment with the exception of 60% of the barrels being new. The oak is better integrated on this wine. It is very well balanced, long and rich with abundant dark fruit.
We followed this with the 2002 Reserva. While this was a more difficult vintage, the wine is more approachable now than the more dense 2001. It is showing great complexity and depth. I would drink this while cellaring the 2001. A little over 1000 cases were made of the Reservas.
We finished lunch off with the stunning 2003 Gloria de Ostatu. 60-80 year old vines, 95% Tempranillo and 5% Graciano. While also a bit tight at this stage, this is clearly an important wine. The 100% French oak (purchased from Ch. Angelus) is sitting on top right now but will surely settle in with more time in the bottle. There are subtle hints of anise as well. This wine was first produced in 2000 and RP gave the 2001 94pts claiming, “This is clearly a winery of which to take note, and the influence of the brilliant Hubert de Boϋard de Laforest can not be discounted.” A little over 600cs were produced.
After lunch we walked back to our hotel to nap before heading out to dinner at Luberri.
Luberri is in Aleva, which is in the Basque region of Rioja. I know, you didn’t know there was a Basque region of Rioja didja’. Aleva is in fact Basque for Alevesa. Owned by Florentino Monje Amestoy, Luberri has been producing wine since 1992. Prior to that Florentino was the first winemaker at the famed Artadi winery. He farms 35 hectares of old vines ranging from 15-70 years old. All the plots are farmed with minimal treatments to the soils and vines as evidenced by the grass growing between the vines.
After a quick tour of the vineyards it was back to the winery for a little dinner and tasting. We were joined at dinner by Roberto Ibarretxe Zorriketa and his girlfriend Isabel from Txakolina Uriondo. Luberri produces five wines, not all of which make it back to the states. These include a Vino Joven, similar to the one made at Ostatu, and four more serious wines.
We started with Seis de Luberri 2004. 100% Tempranillo from 15-25 year old vines that has been fermented in stainless steel and transferred to French and American oak for six months. The wine showed bright fruit with medium body and a clean long finish.
This was followed by the Biga 2003. This again is 100% Tempranillo from vines ranging from 25 to 30 years of age. While also fermented in stainless steel, this wine ages for a year in French and American oak, consistent with its Crianza designation. I liked this wine quite a bit. Not over the top, but well balanced without too much oak influence and solid fruit.
Next came the M.A. 2001, which of course stands for Monje Amestoy. This wine has 12% Cabernet Sauvignon blended into it as well as having been aged for 16 months in barrel. The vines for this wine are 50 years old. This is a nicely complex wine showing the class of the vintage. While slightly modern in tone I was not put off at all and enjoyed this wine a lot.
I should mention that all the while wonderful plates of food were coming out of the kitchen compliments of Monje’s wife. I failed to take notes on the food, but I do recall having an incredible stuffed pepper that was one of the best dishes on the trip. Oh yes, there was also lamb. There was always lamb.
The last wine was one of my favorite Spanish wines from before I went on this trip, the spectacular Finco los Meriños 2001. This comes from Monje’s best vineyards. The vines are 70 years old and it shows. The purity and depth of this wine is tremendous. The sixteen months of all French oak has integrated beautifully in this youthful wine. While I do enjoy drinking this now, I feel it will be even better in a couple more years. RP also liked this wine giving it 94pts.
After dinner came the home made grappa and obligatory puros (fine Cuban combustibles). We stayed and drank and smoked for quite some time, finally heading back to our hotel sometime around midnight. Patty, Michelle and myself got a ride back to the hotel by Roberto and Isabel. By this time we were feeling pretty jovial and insisted on sharing our song of the moment, “Sim Simma” by Beenie Man. You know the one, “Sim Simma……Who’s got the keys to my Bimma!” Well, they quickly dismissed it as Rap. Oh Well.
Back at the hotel it was time to go to bed…
Or not . Instead some of us gathered in Patty’s room and after relieving the hotels kitchen of its entire beer supply (we confessed in the morning to the management) happily drank and sang bad 80’s tunes well into the night.
The next morning we rolled onto the bus and drove off to the town of La Horra in Ribera del Duero, home of Jesus Sastre and his winery, Viña Sastre. Suffice to say we had no idea what we were in for.
Jesus is a slightly larger than life personality. He’s sort of a cross between a Bulldog and Tony Soprano (or at least James Gandolfini). The family-run winery has been growing grapes for three generations. They started making their own wine in 1996. Prior to that they sold their grapes to other producers including the famed Vega-Sicilia. For the last three years the Spanish government has chosen their wines for the “El Corazón del Duero” program which are generically bottled wines for government and diplomatic affairs that they feel best represent the quality of the region.
The winery is quite modern, employing gravity flow, individually temperature controlled steel tanks and temperature controlled subterranean barrel aging rooms. Punch downs as well as pour overs are employed and only indigenous yeasts are used. The grapes are all de-stemmed and only free run and a tiny amount of first press is used for wine. All remaining juice goes into grappa (more on this later). With the exception of their top wine Pesus (which has a small amount of Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Verdot) only Tempranillo is used.
The vines range from 15 to 80+ years old. Organic and Biodynamic practices are employed though they are not certified as such. Parcels are separated by the age of the vines. Both American and French oak is used. After bottling the bottles are left upright for a few days so the corks can settle, after which the palates are placed on their side so the bottles can be inspected for any closure failures.
Now I have to tell you, in all honesty, I was feeling pretty ripe after our long night. After entering the barrel room and being thankful it was so cool I immediately started scanning for a spot that might come in handy in case of any unexpected um, emergencies. One of the first things I noticed was a gated cellar wall full of large format bottlings of among other things, Pesus. Pesus is a pretty ridiculous wine. I mean this with all due respect. It is the Harlan of Spain. And at $450 a bottle it should be. Named after Jesus and his late brother Pedro, the wine is in every way a tribute. To Jesus’ brother as well as to what the region can accomplish. Parker gave the 2001 98pts. Just the site of the 5lt bottle was enough to get me on the track to feeling better.
After heading back upstairs we gathered on an outdoor patio to taste the full line, starting with the 2003 Roble. This wine spent 10 months in two-year-old American oak. Solid dark fruit notes, medium bodied and elegant. Some oak notes, but not at all overpowering. Nice minerality interplays with notes of tobacco on the finish. My notes on this are enhanced by the fact that this is what I am sipping as I type this.
The 2003 Crianza spent 16-18 months in a combination of both American and French new oak. The vines are 30 years old. This wine showed great integration, with notes of truffles, and rich fruit.
Next came the impressive 2000 Reserva. In this vintage they decided to declassify many of the old vineyards and simply blend them into the Reserva. The wine was matured in 100% new French oak for 24 months. The wine is quite complex and did wonders for my hangover.
Feeling energized I moved on to the single vineyard 2001 Pago de Santa Cruz. This is made from 65 year old vines and is aged in all new American oak. One interesting observation is that most traditionalist winemakers in other countries use French oak on their wines while the modernists use American oak. In Spain this has been reversed, as American oak has long been the standard. The oak on this wine is certainly more present, as evidenced by the hints of dill I keep getting, but given the amount of fruit it seems to balance out. It also strikes me as remarkably smooth.
The wonderful 2001 Regina Vides followed. This also comes from 65+ year old vines, but this time it is aged in all French oak (Yeah! Modern Wine!). This wine is only produced in the very best years. It is packed with dense fruit and some oak notes have yet to settle in. Chewy is a good term for this wine.
Last but certainly not least came the stunning 2004 Pesus. Wow! That’s actually written in my notes. Wow! Incredible nose, tremendous complexity and depth. Tinto Fino (Tempranillo) Cabernet, Merlot and just a hint of Petit Verdot. This wine is massive. Now I’m not one for the big Cult wine thing but this just plain rocked. And just to prove it, a group of us put our money where our palates are. We offered cash to purchase another bottle to drink. Unfortunately this seams to have gotten lost in translation and was answered only as “talk to Andre”. Oh well, we tried. Some, including myself, left some of this in the glass to see how it developed over time. Suffice to say that even given the price, I will be buying a couple bottles for my cellar.
After the tasting it was time for lunch. By this time the thought of food had stopped being offensive and I was ready to eat. And eat we would. Blood sausage and twenty day old suckling lamb that was grilled over vine clippings, accompanied by two double mags of Regina Vides 1999. Oh boy! These guys sure know how to eat. Now one of the members of our group who shall remain nameless does not eat meat. When this was brought up Jesus simply gestured to the blood sausage. When she (come on, you knew it had to be woman right?) repeated that she did not eat meat he replied very matter of fact, “it’s not meat. It’s rice and blood.”
Jesus, as it turns out, was seated between this guest and another who did not eat lamb. He spent the entire meal with a look of “what the hell is wrong with these people?” Some of the guys tried to make up for this by gamely eating the brain, jaw and eyes of the poor lamb. Way to take one for the team guys. I was feeling better by then but not that much better.
After lunch came the after dinner drinks and of course cigars. While lighting up my Montecristo Edmundo I noticed Eugenio, Sastre’s export manager, bringing out what looked like limoncello. He explained that while similar, it was not limoncello. He poured a few glasses for the woman and started to walk away. When Bootleg asked if he could try it Eugenio simply shook his finger at him. Apparently this was just for the women. We men would drink grappa!
After a few Grappas we were feeling no pain. Now it was time to jump into the 4x4’s and head to the vineyard. Jesus cranked up Spain’s’ latest answer to Brittany Spears and off we went, bouncing towards the horizon. Once at the hillside vineyard we jumped out of the trucks followed by Jesus with two porrons and three bottles of the winery’s private stock of Rose. As luck would have it I was again wearing a white T-shirt, as I have been every other time the porrons have come out. As Jesus talked about the vineyards we happily passed the porron around and reveled at the beauty that surrounded us. It was pretty awesome standing out there, porron high overhead, surrounded by some of the greatest vineyards in all of Spain. It was surreal.
Then things started to get wacky. Jesus held his porron up and fired the rosy stream of wine directly on to the tip of his nose. While doing this, he stuck out his lower jaw, further enhancing his resemblance to my Bulldog, and slurped up the wine as it ran down the sides of his shnoz and in to his mouth. After much laughter and applause we piled back into the trucks.
We came to the next vineyard site and hopped out only to be greeted by the porrons again and another two bottles of rose. No problem, we’re professionals, we can handle this. All earlier thoughts of being hung over long since forgotten we happily leaned our heads back and lapped up the cool juice. It was around this time that some of the gang decided to try their hand at the porron / nose trick. Andre valiantly dyed his shirt with wine while Damon and Bootleg actually managed to get some wine from their nose to their mouths. David gave it the old college try but I think his nose was better shaped to disperse the wine to other area than his mouth.
At this point we were getting pretty goofy. Somewhere along the line someone came up with the idea of all the guys pulling their shirts up from their waists to their chests. This was what we referred to as “Basques Gone Wild”. We all lined up for our group shot and actually got both Eugenio and Jesus to join in the fun. Tears were shed, wine was spilled and many laughs were shared.
As we pilled back into the truck we were all looking forward to getting back to the hotel.
No such luck.
We jumped out at another vineyard and were again greeted by the now familiar site of rose being loaded in to the porrons. What the hell, when in Spain right? Seeing as how a couple of our crew had gotten the hang of the whole wine off the nose trick, Jesus decided to raise the bar. This time he fired directly in to his forehead. Miraculously the wine obediently ran down his face, around his nose and into his outstretched mouth. This was a feat not to be matched by anyone, though this didn’t stop some from trying. Let me just say that many a good photo opp came out of this. By this time the sun was going down and we were all pretty worn out. As we were piling in to the trucks I heard Andre and Jesus talking.
Jesus “So, should we go back to the winery or to the bar for Vodka and Tonics?”
Andre “No man, I think these guys are wiped out, lets just go back to the winery.”
As we drove down past a stretch of vineyard Jesus slowed to a stop to point something out to us.
To our right was a vineyard that appeared to be only half pruned. The right half had been pruned while the left had not. Other than that there was no separation between the two. Simply pruned and not. Jesus pointed to the left and announced “Pingus”, then pointed to the right, “my Crianza!” Now I had seen some pretty disparate vineyard shifts in burgundy but even there it was a 1er Cru separated from a Grand Cru by at least a stonewall or a tractor path. Never a $500 wine and a $30 wine. Needless to say I was pretty impressed.
As we pulled in to town, Jesus stopped in front of a fruit stand and got out of the truck. When Andre asked what he was doing Jesus replied, “getting lemons. For the Vodka and Tonics, back at the winery.”
Jesus may love everyone but I cant help thinking that he was quite possibly trying to kill us.
Once at the winery Jesus slipped behind the bar and got started on the Vodka and Tonics while some of us simply grabbed a beer and ran outside to hide.
All things considered this was one of the most fun days of my life. The views, the food, the wine, the company and of course the laughs were beyond compare. It is a day I will never forget.
The day I drank with Jesus.
Photo can be found here.