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A Wine Lover's Diary, Part 532: Guatemala (February 13, 2015)

Monday, February 2: Up at 5 am to a huge winter storm. Minus 26 C with the wind chill. Pinot had a great romp in the park, bounding through the deep snow. Input my reviews of the February 7th Vintages release, answered a slew of emails and did some tasting:

  • San Raffaele Monte Tabor Soave 2013 ($13.95): pale straw colour; minerally, citrus and white peach bouquet; light on the palate, crisply dry, lemony, green peach flavour. With a touch of bitter almond on the finish. (88)
  • Nobilo Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2014 ($16.95): pale straw colour; minerally, grapefruit with a floral note on the nose; fresh, gooseberry and green bean flavours; dry, medium-bodied with a touch of bitterness on the finish. (88)
  • Wynns Coonawarra Chardonnay 2013 ($17.95): pale straw colour; minerally, pear with a light oak note; dry, medium-bodied, fresh pear and citrus flavours. Good length. (88)
  • Noblio Icon Marlborough Pinot Noir 2013 ($28.95): ruby colour; spicy black raspberry nose with a vanilla oak note; light and playful on the palate, soft mouth-feel; flavours of raspberry and redcurrant; well balanced and lingering. (89+)
  • Costa Mediana Vaplicella Ripasso 2011 ($16.95): deep ruby-purple colour; spicy, raisin and plum nose; dry, spicy, cherry with a minty note; fresh acidity. (88)
  • Santa Alicia Reserva Carmenère 2013 (Maipo – $12.80): deep ruby colour; smoky, minerally, blackberry and currant flavours; dry, medium-bodied with a coffee bean note. Nicely balanced with a savoury finish. (88)
  • Wynns Coonawarra Shiraz 2012 ($22.95): dense purple-ruby colour; cedar, blackberry nose; sweet, spicy, mulberry flavour; fruit driven with balancing acidity. (88+)
  • Wynns Coonawarra Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($27.95): dense ruby-purple colour; cedar, blackcurrant nose with an oak overlay; medium-bodied, dry, surprisingly lean and elegant with a floral lift on the finish. (89)
  • Pascual Toso Malbec 2013 (Mendoza – $12.95 until March 1, then up $1): dense purple colour; cedary, herbal, red berry nose; dry, full-bodied, charred oak and spicy black fruit flavours, soft mouth-feel, easy drinking with mellow tannins. (87)
  • Pascual Toso Malbec Limited Edition (Mendoza – $15.95): dense ruby-purple colour; smoky, minerally, red berry nose; full-bodied, dry, soft and unctuous on the palate with well integrated oak. Nicely balanced. Good value. (88)

Tuesday, February 3: A doctor's appointment to check on my PSA. Packed for our trip to Guatemala to be present at the opening ceremony for a middle school in La Union that was funded by Grapes for Humanity. In the evening, a meeting with a director of Grapes for Humanity to discuss a fund-raising dinner in October with Gaia Gaja. For dinner, steak with Fielding Cabernet Sauvignon 2007.

Wednesday, February 4: Pinot sensed Deborah and I were going away and barked like crazy before we left at 11:30 am for the airport. Pinot will be looked after by her dog-sitter, Valerie, who will take her to Innisfil. Our group, led by Adrienne Rosen and Myra White, met at the airport and flew UA to Houston and then onto Guatemala City. Overnight at the Radisson Hotel.

Thursday, February 5: Woke up to find the lobby teeming with Miss Teen Universe contestants ready for the paparazzi.


A bevy of Miss Teen Universe contestants

Adrienne drove the bus with suitcases lashed to the roof. We passed by fields of pineapple, sugar cane, stands of rubber trees and palm oil plants. The traffic was slowed by huge trucks piled high with cut sugar cane. We stopped in Mazatenango for ice cream before proceeding on to Coatepeque. A four-and-a-half-hour drive.


Adrienne Rosen at the ceremonial opening of the middle school at La Union

A quick change at the Hotel Residentia before driving on to La Union for the school opening ceremony. Our group of Canadians was applauded as we entered the open area with white tents for the parents and officials while the school kids stood around the walls. A local band played, the kids sang "O Canada," and then the speeches started – the Minister of Education, the Mayor and various school officials. Adrienne, whose foundation, Access Education Guatemala, was honoured with a scroll proclaiming her to be an honourary citizen; and she and I (representing Grapes for Humanity) cut the ribbon. We toured the classrooms and the computer room (donated by Telus) and climbed to the second storey to see where the next phase of construction will be.


Students try out their new classroom


Plaque thanking Grapes for Humanity for funding the building of the school

On the drive back to the hotel Adrienne was stopped by the cops. She showed them her scroll as an honorary citizen and they embraced her and sent us on our way.

Before dinner Adrienne and I drove over to the Central Commercial mall to buy some wine at the Paiz supermarket – mainly Chilean and Argentinian wines on the shelves. Dinner at La Rueda restaurant, a steak house. Santa Rita Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2010, Casillero del Diablo Shiraz 2012 and Luiz Felipe Edwardes Cabernet Sauvignon 2013.

Friday, February 6: Slept till 8:30 am. Deborah and I walked through the local cemetery that was like a village of mausoleums. Watched a woman making torillas in what looked like a garage, then back to the hotel for a traditional breakfast of eggs, black beans and tortillas.


Woman making tortillas in Coatepeque

Packed up the bus with the luggage and set out for Lake Panajachel, through the mountains. Passed through a series of Mayan villages. The village of San Marin has a Mayan cemetery with mausoleums painted in vivid colours. We're told that political parties will pay for the painting of your house if you paint it red, green or blue – the colours of the three parties. The same colours are painted on the rocks by the roadside as you go through the mountains.


Xelapan Café's baked goods in Xela

Drove through Quetzaltenango and stopped for lunch in Xela at Xelapan Café, a bakery with a restaurant in the back that faces the Central Square. A Suzuki motorbike convention was being held here and we waited for the parade of bikes to pass.


Mountain view of Panajachel on Lake Atitlan

We continued on through Solala and eventually arrived at our hotel in Panajachel – Hotel Atitlán, a beautiful property above Lake Atitlán sent in formal gardens with caged toucans and a huge parrot. In the dining room is a glassed-in aviary with love birds. The common parts of the hotel are full of antiques and local handicraft masks, figurines and wood carvings of saints. From the gardens you get a magnificent view of the three volcanoes across the lake, Atital, Toliman and San Pedro.


Hotel Atitlán wood carving


Garden of Hotel Atitlán from our terrace


Sunset over Lake Atitlan

A couple of glasses of Concha y Toro Frontera Sauvignon Blanc 2013 in the bar before dinner. I ordered black bean soup and a dish called Camarones Atitlán. The accompanying wine: Cono Sur Merlot Reserva Especial Merlot 2011.

Saturday, February 7: After breakfast our party drove into Panajachel where we took a boat across the lake to an artists' town, San Juan.


Panajachel dock for boats to San Juan (Toliman volcano)


Tuktuk – the local taxi

Our first stop, transported by tuktuk (the local three-wheeled taxi that seats three), was Casa Flor Ixcaco, a women's weaving co-operative where they take raw cotton, spin it into thread, dye it and weave it into traditional patterns. We were treated to a lecture on how they did each step. The dyes are all natural, made from flowers, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices.


Spinning cotton to thread at Casa Flor Ixcaco, the women's weaving co-operative


Weaving the fabric

Next we visited another women's co-operative, The Association of Medicinal Plants, and were shown a range of herbs that are used for homeopathic remedies as well as products such as face creams, soaps and shampoo. Then we toured an art gallery with works by local artist Angelina Quic.


Boy with firewood

Back on the boat for lunch at Club Ven Acá on the north shore of Lake Atitlán. Deborah and I took a dip in the hotel hot tub before settling down for lunch. I ordered pulled pork with a bottle of Torres Viña Sol 2011. The wind came up and the boat-ride back to Panajachel was an adventure, especially the docking and disembarking procedures.


Club Ven Acá on the shore of Lake Atitlán

Dinner at Restaurante Hana in Panajachel, which is owned by an American, John, and his Japanese wife, Mihoko. The walls are decorated with old photos of Mayans. John cooks "gringo" breakfasts here and Mihoko takes over in the evening to prepare a Japanese menu. I brought along a bottle of Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2013 and Stoneleigh Latitude Pinot Noir 2012 (Deborah and I had carried them in our luggage). The menu: pickled green beans and carrots, salad, miso soup, sushi, vegetable tempura and Jamine tea. For dessert, chocolate pudding.


Mihoko and John, owners of Restaurante Hana, Panajachel

Sunday, February 8: Our group drove up to Chichicastenango, a Mayan town nearly 2,000 metres in the mountains that has the largest and oldest market in South America. The town has two mayors, one Mayan who holds the position for life. We were introduced to him, Tomás Calvo Mateo, who greeted us in the local Mayan dialect.


Tomas Calvo Matea, Mayan mayor of Chichicastenango


The covered market at Chichicastenango


Maya masks in a market stall


The steps of Santa Sophia Church, Chichicastenango

There are two churches at either end of the market in Chichicastenango. The more important is Santo Tomás with its 18 stairs leading up to the door, each standing for one month of the Mayan calendar year. The church, founded in 1540 by the Spanish, is built on the site of ancient Mayan shrine. Between the two churches, in the centre of the market, is a 30-foot pole. The Mayans believed that your life is predetermined but you can change its trajectory when you reach the age of eighteen by climbing the pole and swinging down on a rope, expiating your character flaws. To preserve your anonymity you hide your identity in a costume with a monkey mask.

The Catholic priests appropriated Tomás and made him a saint because the Mayans worshipped him as the god of the sun. The indigenous population celebrates Santo Tomás between December 17 and 25, dressing up in elaborate costumes with wooden masks. We visited an artist's studio where they make the masks every year and another atelier where they create the elaborate costumes. We watched a ceremonial dance in the courtyard.


Ancient wooden masks


Ceremonial costumes to celebrate the annual festival for Santo Tomás

Then our guide led us up to the cemetery where a female shaman blessed us (for a fee) – a ceremony which involved the lighting of yellow candles, incantations, smoke to carry the message to the gods and stroking our bodies with a bunch of herbs.


Mayan cemetery, Chichicastenango


Female shaman invoking a blessing


Street food, Chichicastenango

Lunched at the Mayan Inn, the oldest hotel in Chichicastenango, built like a Spanish hacienda and owned by an American. Drove back to the Atitlán Hotel bouncing over tumulos, the "sleeping policemen" to slow traffic. We heard that the Fuego volcano near Antigua had erupted and caused a change in the weather, bringing a heavy downpour.

Dined at the hotel after a glass of Undurraga Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 in the bar. Ordered a dish called Kakik de Pavo – a huge bowl of spicy turkey soup with what looked like half a turkey in it. The wines: Torres Viña Sol 2013, Concha y Toro Trio Reserva Merlot Carmenère Syrah 2013 and Mapu Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2011.

Monday, February 9: Packed up and left the Hotel Atitlán for Antigua, to visit Guatemala's only winery, Chateau DeFay, a three-hour drive. The winery is located in Santa Maria de Jésus on the eastern slope of the Agua volcano. A sign painted on a rock in the village says it's 6 kilometres away. What it doesn't say is that once you leave the village the road is unpaved and you pass a garbage dump that is on fire. You drive up a 650-metre tree-lined driveway and are confronted by German shepherds (six of them). On your right is a bedraggled vineyard that looked as if it's incapable of delivering fruit. Then you see the house that would not be out of place as a small château in Normandy.


Chateau DeFay

Guillermo Alvaro, the manager of the estate, told us the history of the property – how a French banker named Jacques Defay fell in love with Guatemala and in 1996 determined to create the country's first winery – against the advice of the Ministry of Agriculture. He bought land, hired a Californian winemaker, Bruno Coppola (distant relation of Francis Ford Coppola), who selected 25 varieties from Washington State and Napa for his vineyard. But in May 2010 Tropical Storm Agatha flooded the vineyard and they have made no wine since – at least we didn't get to taste anything later than vintage 2009.

The lunch was overcooked – probably because we arrived half an hour late – and then we tasted through the range. They should have listened to the Ministry of Agriculture. I wrote the following limerick in memory of the experience:

Our visit to Chateau DeFay
Took us somewhat out of our way
Their lunch was inedible
The wines were "incredible"
My only review was "Oy vay!"

We drove on to Antigua and checked into the Porta Hotel. Dined at Casa Santo Domingo, a huge former monastery now spectacularly redesigned as a hotel with a first-class restaurant. We had their 9-course tasting menu:

Salad with marinated watermelon, palm hearts, avocado, granny Smith apples, pineapple and smoked pineapple foam.

Pumpkin cream and red bean soup with caramelized curry pumpkin seed, beet foam and small cilantro tamales.

Tuna tartare with baby capers, red onion, cilantro, tomato, avocado arugula emulsion served over mango, brunoise and carbon fried yucca chips, chile guaque oil.

Phyllo pastry rolls filled with shrimp and Napa cabbage served with peach sauce, Thai barbecue and soy-ginger mayonnaise.

Apple sorbet.

Sautéed salmon with guajillo chili "abado" served with sugar snaps, edamame and bok choy, pineapple and fennel purée and carrot chips.

Short ribs sous vide with broccoli purée, caramelled onions, ravioli filled with potato-garlic, confit, ratatouille, crimini mushrooms & reduced veal with Oporto.

Sautéed tenderloin with two varieties of potatoes, cauliflower-asparagus purée, teriyaki-blue cheese cream.

Mini pastry delicates.

The wines: Trapiche Chardonnay 2003 and Undurraga Merlot 2013.


Sautéed salmon with guajillo chili "abado"

Tuesday, February 10: After breakfast our group was treated to a walking tour of Antigua, a World Heritage site, by a local guide, Elizabeth Bell, who has lived in Guatemala for 46 years. She showed us the volcano that had erupted and was still spewing smoke and ash ("Guatemala snow," she called it). She gave us 6,000 years of Mayan history in eight minutes.

The town, once the capital of Guatemala, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1776, and rebuilt in a grid system with cobbled streets. Antigua has become the destination wedding centre of Central America, apparently.


Cathedral ruins, Antigua

We visited a jade factory where I learned that according to the Mayan calendar, my birthdate has me born under the sign of the armadillo.


Polishing jade in a jade factory


Baby Jesus figurines in the museum of Casa Santo Domingo, Antigua


Pre-Columbian sculpture in the Casa Santo Domingo museum

Next we toured the Casa Santo Domingo's pre-Columbian art and sculpture museum. Lunched at Doña Luisa Xicontencatl (panaderia y pasteleria). Ordered chili con carne and a hot chocolate. After lunch walked around town visiting shops and picked up some chocolates as gifts.


Guatemala's best rum


Wine bar sign in Antigua

Dined at Hector's Bistro, a tiny place. Our party of six had to wait half an hour for a table so we sat on a low wall across the road from the restaurant and drank Viña Bujanda 2011, courtesy of the owner. He also gave us a plate of grilled tomatoes with cheese. I ordered Portobello mushrooms in olive oil and balsamic, jumbo shrimps in a spicy sauce and a passion fruit crème brûlée. The wine: Infinitus Cabernet Sauvignon Tempranillo 2012.

Wednesday, February 11: Up at 2:30 am with Montezuma's Revenge. This morning we drove to the airport in Guatemala City and took the UA flight to Houston, followed by the flight to Toronto. Back to the cold weather.

 

 

 

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