A Wine Lover's Diary, part 14 (December 20, 2004)
Friday, December 10: The KLM flight from
Toronto to Amsterdam is full. Our party, Sheila Swerling-Puritt, Jeff
Davies of Wine Access and Edward Finstein (the Wine Doctor) are
seated in the "bubble," where our travel agent says it's quieter.
The wine list in Business Class has been put together by Hubrecht Duyker,
the most prolific wine writer in the world. The Wine Atlas of Spain,
which I'm carrying reluctantly since it weighs a ton, was written by him.
His list features Christina Collovray and Jean-Luc Terrier's Saint-Veran
Les Personnets 2002, Mulderbosch Steen op Hout 2003, Chateau Franc-Perat
2002 (Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux), Leasingham Bin 61 Shiraz 2002, Piper
Heidsieck Champagne (which Air Canada carries), Noval LBV Port 1997 and
Avondale Muscat Blanc 2003 from South Africa. Also featured is Norton
Malbec Reserve 2000 from Argentina. The selection is more interesting
that the menu. I opted for grilled veal strip loin over the grilled chicken
brochette and salmon pinwheel. It was tough. The leek and camembert frittata
to start was inedible. Watched The Bourne Supremacy which I did
not understand since I had missed the first ten minutes of the movie.
Lots of cars getting smashed up in Moscow. The best thing about the flight
is that KLM serves freshly squeezed orange juice in Business Class.
Saturday, December 11: Arrived early
in Amsterdam and had to wait over two hours for our connecting flight
to Barcelona. Stuart Tobe, a wine writer and educator from Vancouver,
joined us there. We arrived in Barcelona in bright sunshine although the
internet forecast was for 8 Celsius and rain. It's wonderful to see palm
trees at the airport although a haze of brown pollution hangs over the
Barcelona downtown has majestic boulevards and ornate facades. We're
staying at the Hotel Condes de Barcelona. My room is comfortable and very
brown with wood paneling behind the bed matching the floor and the door
and mirror trims. Slept for an hour or so and then downstairs at 4:30 pm
to meet the rest of the group. We walked from the hotel down to La Rambla
and into the covered market. Wonderfully colourful displays of fruit,
vegetables, fish and pork products. Barcelona is a pedestrian city
really designed for walkers. The buildings are magnificent, especially
the dreamlike Gaudi structures along the Passeig de Garcia with their
flowing concrete lines, whimsical balconies, wrought ironwork and turrets.
At night they're illuminated. The street lights are extraordinarily elaborate
designs of curved metalwork of finely wrought leaves and vines. Stopped
for an espresso and a pastry before continuing the walk.
The buildings are hung with sheets of light for Christmas. On La Rambla
there are lots of flower stalls selling poinsettias of such a deep blood
red I have never seen before. Buskers everywhere including a man dressed
as Santa sitting on a chimneypot with his pants down. This, apparently,
is the way Catalans satirize celebrities and politicians by depicting
them in little statuettes with their pants down defecating. Dinner at
Cerveseria Catalana, a tapas bar that specializes in imported beers. The
walls are lined with bottles. We ordered a variety of tapas plates, ham,
artichokes, white bait, mushrooms, cheese, shrimp and razorback clams.
Sunday, December 12: From the roof garden
of the hotel is a spectacular view of the Gaudi apartments on the other
side of the street north of the hotel. Walked to the Cathedral. In the
square outside the main doors is a market with dozens of stalls selling
only Christmas stuff trees, mistletoe, crèches and figurines.
Walked back to the hotel in time to meet Miguel Torres, who had arranged
to show me Barcelona and have lunch at his house in Vilafranca. First
we drove to Gaudi's unfinished cathedral a monumental construction
beyond imagination. Gaudi hated straight lines and took his inspiration
from nature. Next we drove to Sitges, a coastal town twenty minutes away
that looks like a more intimate version of Cannes. Sitges is an old Arabic
term for wheat silos and is the gay capital of Spain, the home of the
annual wine harvest festival and an annual fantasy movie festival (in
early December). Here we visited the Museu Cau Ferrat, the home of the
artist and writer Santiago Rusinol (18611931). A compulsive collector,
he bought two fisherman's houses and combined them into what he called
"Cau Ferrat" Cau means a den or hideout. He used it for
his collection of wrought iron objects he had assembled since his youth.
Rosinol's paintings are dark and brooding which is in contrast to the
quality of light in this seaside town. On the way to Miguel's house we
stopped for a beer and some tapas (fresh grilled sardines, octopus and
deep-fried calamari) in a neighbouring seaside town, Vilanova.
The Mas La Plana vineyard is adjacent to the winery complex and Miguel's
house. His son Miguel and his American wife Sarah and Miguel's daughter,
Anna, a plastic surgeon, joined us for lunch. We had a Milmanda Chardonnay
2001, Manso de Velasco
Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 from Chile, a Carmenere 2000 Reserve from Chile
followed by a new wine in the Torres portfolio, Clos Bellaterra 2002 (a
blend of Garnacha, Syrah, Carinena and Cabernet Sauvignon from their Priorato
vineyards except they can't call it Priorato because they have
no winemaking facility in the D.O. and therefore have to style it Catalunya.)
The brand brought back memories for me since Bellaterra was the name of
the oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc that Miguel and I were drinking in Curico
when the 1985 earthquake struck in Chile... Miguel had kindly booked a
car to drive me back to the hotel in Barcelona for 6 pm. At 7 pm
we all met in the lobby with Maria Arana, the Director of Wines for Spain
at the Spanish Consulate in Toronto, who organized the trip. We walked
over to Tapa Tapa, a tapas bar not far from the hotel. We had three of
the dishes Miguel and I had had for lunch and much more to the
point where the waiter had to add an extra table to accommodate the dishes.
We drank Vina Albina Reserva 2000. After dinner we went back to the hotel
bar for a 10 Year Old Torres brandy.
Monday, December 13: A bad night's sleep.
Woke up at 2 am and could not get back to sleep. At 6:30 am
the people next door turned on their radio, playing Christmas music. We
leave at 9 am for Freixenet in Sant Sadurni d'Anoia. The bus was
late because of traffic and when we arrived at Freixenet we were told
we should be at Segura Viudas, a winery the group owns about fifteen minutes
away along winding mountain roads through stands of fir trees and pockets
of vineyards and olive groves with red soil. The mountain range of Montserrat,
like jagged grey teeth, formed a splendid backdrop to the Segura Viudas
property which Freixenet bought in 1982. Freixenet is the world's largest
producer of sparkling wines, selling its products to 159 countries. It's
the ninth largest winery company in the world selling 15.6 million cases
(60% sparkling, 40% still) and all owned by one family. There are
274 cava producers in Spain but 90% of the production is owned between
Freixenet and Codorniu. We tasted eight still wines from companies owned
by Freixenet (the best was Morlanda Vi de Guarda 2001 a Garnacha,
Carinena, Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Priotato) before sampling four
sparkling wines. Freixenet Brut Nature 2001 proved to be the best with
a lovely hazelnut, yeasty nose and a dry, toasty, apple flavour with a
lemony finish. Then back on the bus to Jean Leon in Vilafranca, an estate
winery that Torres had purchased in 1994. Jean Leon traveled extensively
in France before going to the States and joining the American army. An
aspiring actor he moved to Hollywood where he befriended the stars of
the day, particularly James Dean, with whom he opened a restaurant in
Beverly Hills called La Scala. His restaurant became a hang-out for the
Hollywood crowd, including politicians including John Kennedy and Ronald
Reagan. Jean Leon returned to Spain looking for land to buy to create
a winery. He settled in Penedes and imported Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon
vines from France in 1969. The 8 hectare La Scala vineyard is the oldest
planting of Cabernet Sauvignon in Spain and today the oldest Merlot and
Cabernet Franc on the property are blended with fruit from this vineyard
to make a wine called Zemis. The 2000 vintage (60% Cabernet Sauvignon,
30% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc) is deep ruby in colour with a rich
nose of cedar and blackcurrant; dry and savoury on the palate, it has
a spicy black plum and blackcurrant flavour with good length. A lovely
wine. We also tasted a winery's second label Terrasola Sauvignon Blanc
2003 (with 15% of the local Xarel.lo). A delightful wine with a creamy
green plum and cut grass flavour. The 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon that followed
is going through a dumb phase with awkward oak projecting but with bottle
age should be good because the fruit is well extracted.
The next visit, Torres. In the visitors' centre we sat through a video
showing the history of the company. It's the 50th anniversary of Sangre
de Toro and you can have your photo taken by sticking your head through
a large wooden replica of the bottle, if you so desire. Then a short drive
to a restaurant that Torres built for the 1992 Olympics, part of a fourteenth
century farm called Mas Rabell. The chef Sergi Millet who had worked at
El Bulli had prepared a splendid meal which followed a tasting of Torres
- Vina Sol 2004 (Parellada)
- Gran Vina Sol 2003 (85% Chardonnay, 15% Parellada)
- Fransola 2003 (90% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Parellada)
- Nerola Xarel.lo Garnacha 2003
Then lunch with the following red wines:
- Sangre de Toro 2003 (the 50th anniversary bottling)
- Gran Sangre de Toro 2000
- Mas La Plana 1981 (like a wonderfully aged St. Julien)
- Coronas 2002
- Gran Coronas 2000
- Mas La Plana 1999
- Grans Muralles 1998 (a blend of local varieties)
- Atrium 2003 (Merlot)
- Nerola Syrah Monastrell 2002
And finally, with the cheese, Milmanda Chardonnay 1995.
We rounded off the meal with a 20 Year Old Torres Brandy and ultimately
the top of their brandy production, Jaime ,I with its bottle based on
one of Gaudi's turret designs.
No time for a siesta, unfortunately, because it was back on the bus to
a tasting of cavas and red wines from Penedes. The cavas were not very
inspiring, nor were the reds, apart from Cellers Puig & Roca Cabernet
Sauvignon Merlot 2000 a smoky, medicinal wine with black fruit
flavours, full-bodied, blackberry and black olive with a tannic finish.
It was 8 o'clock by the time we reached our hotel La Nina in Sitges and
now at 9 pm it's time to join the group for dinner. We walk over
to La Nansa, a seafood restaurant in a side street off the main coast
road. I order a clam and bean dish which is delicious. The wines are Alvaro
Diez Mantel Blanco Rueda Sauvignon Blanc 2003 and Segura Viudas Mas d'Avanyo
Tempranillo 2001. Avi Habbaba, our Syrian-born, chain-smoking rep from
Instituo Espanol de Comercio Exterior, tells me that in Seville they drink
a concoction of Manzanilla sherry, 7-Up, lime and ice. Bed by midnight.
Tuesday, December 14: Having taken melatonin,
I have a good night's sleep and wake to the alarm at 7:30 am. A beautiful
sunrise over the Mediterranean that shines through the palm trees. After
breakfast it's back on the bus to Codorniu for a tour of this cava facility
that dates back to 1551. It's all about figures 30 kilometers of
underground cellars (there's a motorized train for touring) on four levels;
70 million bottles laid down; Codorniu owns eleven wineries including
Artesa in Napa, Septima in Argentina, Raimat, Scala Dei, Rondel, Masia
Bach, Nuviana, Legaris and Bodegas Bilbainas all in Spain. We taste three
cavas, Clasico Brut, Cuvee Raventos and a Pinot Noir Brut before four
table wines which turns out to be something of a disaster since
two bottles of Raimat Chardonnay are corked and Nuviana 2001 has a bad
case of Brett. Felicia the PR woman rustles up a bottle of Jaume Cordoniu,
the prestige cuvee of their cavas, which is very nice.
The bus takes us to Pares Balta, a family company that owns five organically
farmed estates in Penedes totaling 170 hectares. The three generations
still work there; the wines are made by the wives of the two brothers.
We taste in the cellar which is colder than the outside temperature. Beginning
with two cavas, the better of which is Cuvee de Carol, 100% Chardonnay
fermented and aged in new oak and then given its secondary fermentation
in bottle. It's deep yellow in colour with a toasty, yeasty nose; the
flavour is rich and full-bodied, creamy pineapple with a long dry finish.
The first white is Blancs de Pacs 2004, made from a blend of cava grapes
Macabeo, Xarel.lo and Parellada grown at a high altitude and left
to ripen on the vine and given the full Burgundian treatment (barrel fermentation,
lees stirring, etc.). The nose is hay and peach pit, the flavour yeasty
orange but fresh and lively. Then Electio 2003, 100% Xarel.lo from the
Camp d'Aviacio vineyard yellow straw colour, spicy, creamy apple
nose, elegant, mouth-filling caramel flavour with a toasty, citrus finish.
Eight reds followed with prices ranging from $11.75 to $480. Hisenda Iret
Garnacha 2003 is the first varietal Grenache grown in Penedes: deep purple
in colour with a herbal, raspberry and vanilla nose; jammy raspberry flavour,
well balanced and firmly structured. The most expensive wine is Domino
Cusiné 1996 a blend of Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon
and Syrah. It's dense purple-black with a nose of soy and drying fruits,
like an old Rhone; the flavour is rich sweet black fruits, wonderfully
balanced with a cocoa-like finish. We finished with a new wine from Priorato
called GrataVinum V 2003, a blend of Garntxa, Carinyena (there seem to
be several different spellings of this grape in Spain depending where
you are), Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot that smelled and tasted
like a California Zinfandel with an enticing floral note.
A late lunch at Masia Aran a rustic restaurant in Sant Marti Sarroca.
I ordered a bean soup to start followed by barbecued duck breast, both
of which were delicious. The wines were Jove y Camps Cabernet Sauvignon
1997, Cau Feixes 2002 (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Ulle de Levre) and
Pinord Chateldon Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2000.
Slept on the bus during the drive to Mas Passamaner, a luxurious hotel-spa
set in a hazelnut orchard. The 1920s building has been restored and painted
in a riot of colours with ultra modern room furnishings and stone and
marble floors. Each room is dedicated to an Catalan architect or designer
with framed pictures of their works on the walls. Mine is named for Manuel
Joachim Raspall (18771954)... A tasting in a private room scheduled
for 7:30 pm of Priorato wines in the company of the President of
the D.O., Salustia Alvarez, who is also the mayor of Porrera and the winemaker
at Vall Llach. Except he is late so we start without him. Two white wines
followed by seventeen reds, all at least 14 per cent alcohol... Priotato
(in Catalan they call it Priorat) is one of the smallest D.O.s in Spain
and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. There are 64 wineries registered
in the region, which is mountainous and remote. The soil is very poor
and mainly rocky slate. It's very hot during the day and cold during the
night. The major grapes are Garnacha and Carinyena with Cabernet Sauvignon,
Merlot and Syrah also grown. The best wines of the tasting are the 2001
vintage of Mas del Camperol, Clos Fonta Mas d'en Gil and the 2000 vintage
of Scala Dei Cartoixa... The president arrives at 8 pm and, following
the tasting, we repair to the dining room with our favoured bottles. Gnocchi
with mushroom and scallop in a white wine sauce, then veal tournedos.
Slept like a log.
Wednesday, December 15: Drove to the
village of Porrera in the fog, which is dense in the mountains and hangs
around all day. The twisting mountain road runs through steep slopes with
hazelnut trees, olive trees and vines, usually terraced. Porrera has a
population of 500. Here we leave the bus for two 4-wheel-drive jeeps to
visit the vineyards, which are up brutally steep slopes and shrouded in
fog. The soil is so poor that the vines produce only 400600 grams
of grapes. With such low yields and the labour-intensive nature of vineyard
work and harvesting, small wonder the wines are expensive.
Our Jeep Cherokee, driven by a young vineyard worker, gets stuck negotiating
a hairpin bend and spins its wheels in the broken slate. We have to abandon
it and wait for another car to rescue us. Once down at the Vall Llach
winery we taste the three red wines they produce. The winery is owned
by the protest singer Luis Llach the Bob Dylan of Spain
and his lawyer Enric Costa and produced its first wines in the 2000 vintage.
The three wines we tasted were all from the 2002 vintage: Embruix, Idus
and Vall Llach in ascending order of quality. The latter has a dense purple-black
colour with a floral, chocolate and black stone fruits nose; lovely rich
mouth feel, elegant and spicy with a black licorice finish and fine structure.
It sells for 50 euros... Up the road is Cims de Porrera, a co-operative
that buys the grapes from some 20 growers. The winery has a pervasive
smell of smoky tar from a heater that is fueled by hazel nut husks. We
taste three wines Solanis 2001, Cims de Porrera 2000 and the best,
a wine as yet unnamed a 2000 vintage of Carignan made from 90 year-old
vines aged 1618 months in French oak. Then down into the cellar
to taste some 2004 from the barrel... Back in the bus to drive to Gratallops
to visit Alvaro Palacios, the acknowledged "King of Priorato"
whose top wine, L'Ermita, costs $620 a bottle in Toronto. I had tasted
his wines in Toronto in January and was very impressed, so I was looking
forward to this visit. His winery is ultra-modern in design, a gravity-feed
facility on three levels with a stunning barrel room whose ceiling in
ribbed concrete is shaped like a gigantic clam shell. The winery is beautifully
sited across from the hill town of Gratallops. Alvaro exudes enthusiasm
and confidence. He never stops talking or moving and is passionate about
every aspect of his wines and the region as a whole. His wines are richly
extracted and powerful. He lived in France and prefers French style wines
that are harmonious and elegant. 2002 he calls "the anguish vintage"
but his Les Terraces, Finca Dofi and L'Ermita don't show it. We also tasted
the L'Ermita 2003 the best wine I've tasted in Spain and
L'Ermita 2004, which might be even better with a little bottle age...
We lunched in a restaurant in the village within view of Alvaro's winery.
Irreductibles is owned by Rene Barbier's son Rene; originally it was a
winery, Clos Mogodor. To get to the cellar they lift a metal hatch and
you descend an iron staircase into a vault. The chef is a young Japanese-Brazilian,
Ricardo Siginoire, with blond streak hair and a vivid culinary imagination.
We start with frozen duck liver balls crusted with black sesame (horrible)
followed by calamari tempura with soy and honey sauce; then a delicious
creamed corn soup and squid stuffed with diced vegetables decorated with
cubes of black ink jelly. The main dish is lamb and beef meatloaf with
mushrooms wrapped in cabbage... I count the number of wines we have tasted:
103 so far... We drove back to Sitges towards the airport in Barcelona
and instead of fighting Barcelona traffic we spent an hour walking around
the shops in Sitges... Flew to Valencia. We are met by the bus that would
take us to the hotel and it smelled like toilet cleaner. Checked in to
the hotel at 11:30 pm and to bed.
Thursday, December 16: A new bus has
been arranged to take us to Utiel-Requena but it smells as bad as last
night's transportation. We drive to the town of competently made but not
very exciting. Requena is the second largest appellation in Spain after
La Mancha. The dominant grape here is Bobal, responsible for 70% of the
production. Thirty kilometers west of Valencia we start to climb off the
coastal plain through sudden, steep hills leaving the citrus groves and
vegetable fields behind. The soil is rust-coloured here and there are
huge new vineyard plantings. Our first stop is a co-operative, Covinas,
that produces wine for thirteen other co-ops in the region. They produce
50 million litre, which is over one-third the total volume of the region.
Only some 10% is bottled, the rest sold as bulk. The wines are competently
made but not very exciting... Next stop: Bodegas Murviedro, which makes
wine from three different D.O.s: Valencia, Utiel-Requena and Alicante.
Their Las Lomas Bobal 2004, made by carbonic maceration, is perfumed cherry
with a floral note and a firm acidic finish. One of the fine partners
is Alvaro Faubel Frauendorff, who sports a ponytail. "Wine should
be made by winemakers, not carpenters," he's fond of saying. And
"we work with the parcel rather than the variety. Our working unit
is the parcel." The winery was originally built in 1735 and went
through a number of transformations including housing a vinegar
factory after the civil war. They make an excellent cava Cava Reserva
Especial 2002 (from Macabeo and Chardonnay), creamy and nutty with a green
apple finish... Next stop: Domino de la Vega, a small family-owned bodega
in Requena. Their top wine is the 2001 Reserva dense purple-black
with a gamey, cedar, dark chocolate and mint nose, a dry savoury flavour,
full-bodied with a rich plum, black cherry and cinnamon finish.
We then drive to Utiel through miles of vineyards on both sides of the
road to have lunch with the export manager from Bodegas Sebiran at Restaurante
Castillo. Jeff Davis had asked if we could have a traditional Valencia
paella and Maria had called ahead to arrange it. But we had so many tapas
blood sausage, ham, chorizo sausage, lean and pork, mashed potato
and cod fish that by the time the paella arrived we could hardly
eat it. The traditional Valencia paella is made with rabbit and chicken,
green beans and artichoke but no seafood. The wines were disappointing...
Our next stop is the modern Hoya de Cadenas Gandia plant for a tasting
of eleven wines. Their warehouse-like barrel room holds 14,000 barrels
and in the next few years they say they will double this capacity. The
wines are well made, the best of which is Vincente Gandia Generaccio 1
2003, named in honour of the founder who started the winery in 1885. It's
a big wine, full of dry plum and dark chocolate flavours, earthy and tannic...
By this time the group is really tired, but we have one more tasting to
accomplish before bed. We drive to Yecla to Bodegas Castano, a family
winery run by a father and three sons. They own 415 hectares in 15 different
parts of the region which supply half the grapes for their total production.
The indigenous variety here is Monastrell (Mourvedre in France). On the
7000 hectares of the D.O. 85% is Monastrell and Garnacha. Thirty years
ago Monastrell was considered an inferior grape, fit only for bulk wine
to add colour and strength to enrich the wines of other regions. Yecla
has the lowest rainfall in Spain. The northern part of the region is 850
metres above sea level with limestone and rocky soils; the southern part
is 600 metres above sea level and mainly clay. We start the tasting with
Castano Macabeo-Chardonnay 2004, a fresh white, spicy and full-bodied
with a pineapple flavour, followed by Monastrell Rosado 2004, fruity blood
orange and cherry flavour (a lovely wine), then the 2003 and 2004 Monastrell,
which are both very good. But the real surprise is the Hecula Tinto 2003,
made from the oldest Monastrell vines: dense purple-black; tea leaf, spice,
vanilla and ripe black cherry nose; full-bodied earthy chocolate and cocoa
flavours, with a dry finish. Better still was Colleccion 2003 made from
the oldest irrigated bush vines (with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon). Similar
style to the Hecula but more concentrated with a handshake of tannin on
the finish. A terrific wine. After the tasting, down to the cellar for
sinner where we had the Colleccion 1999 out of magnums, a very elegant
wine, very much in Rhone style. Followed by one of the best wines we've
had on this trip Casa Cisca 2003, produced from 7080 year old Monastrell
vines grown at 800 meters in northern Yecla, aged in French and American
oak. Leather, oak and blackberry nose, sweet, concentrated chunky fruit,
full-bodied, dark chocolate, meaty and intense with spicy black fruit
flavours and a firm finish. Daniel tells us the Yecla, in spite of having
no trees, is an important city for furniture manufacture. When the agricultural
sector went into decline 40 years ago, the large immigrant population
of Ecuadorians who arrived as fruit pickers turned their hands to making
Drove 11 kilometres to our hotel, a lovely old farmhouse that has been
converted into a hotel, set in its own vineyards with a backdrop of mountains.
Finca Luzon, the winery aspect of the operation, owns 500 hectares of
vineyards in Jumilla, the largest holding in the region.
Friday, December 17: After breakfast
we have a tasting of the Finca Luzon wines. The 2004, which has yet to
be bottled, is a blend of Monastrell, Merlot, Syrah, Tempranillo and Cabernet
Sauvignon dense purple with a medicinal, peppery blackberry nose,
richly extracted juicy fruit with a floral top note, full-bodied, chocolate
flavour with good length. Three other reds followed all equally good,
Finca Luzon 2003, Castillo de Luzon Crianza 2001 and Altos de Luzon, ending
with a sweet red Dulce Marie Jesus 2002 (made from Monastrell), port-like,
sweet raspberry flavour with a hot alcoholic finish (17% alcohol)... Our
next stop is Casa Castillo, a white farmhouse painted with broad bands
of blue around the doorways and windows and a red-tiled roof. The Sanchez
family own 200 hectares on the Jumilla high plateau. The father was a
lawyer, the winemaker son was studying architecture in 1991, when they
decided to switch professions and get into wine. Wise move. The son visited
wineries in the Rhone and Portugal to learn how to make from the best
(Chave, Clape, Beaucastel, Domaine Tempier and Quinto do Crasto). The
wines are rich and full extracted. The best is Valtosca V' 2003, a Syrah-based
wine, smoky, licorice nose with ripe blackberry and spicy flavour; soft
ripe tannins. This wine and another single vineyard wine Las Gravas are
made in open vat fermenters. Pie Franco is made in port style foot-trodden
in a lagar. All three are very fine.
The landscape around here is arid with scrub and sage brush punctuated
by the odd olive grove before the hills and mesas. It's remarkably windy,
which accounts for the presence of a line of wind turbines on the hilltops.
Final stop of the day is Casa de La Ermita, a modern winery founded in
1998 producing its first wine a year later. Pedro Martinez, with the backing
of a Portuguese bank, created the winery on property his grandfather owned.
His grandfather built a cave on the slope behind what is now the underground
cellar dug into the side of the hill. The old man used to live in the
cave which has three rooms including a kitchen with a baking oven
hence the winery name, La Ermita. The garden in front of the contemporary
building has a large garden of aromatic herbs and wild lavender and a
96-year-old vine growing on top of a rock mound. The valley is bowl-shaped,
a preservation area and Casa Castillo is the first certified organic winery
in the region. To the left of the winery is an experimental vineyard with
30 different varieties. Petit Verdot was so successful that they planted
a block and now make a varietal Petit Verdot (2001) that is absolutely
delicious, with a flavour of lychees and rose petals. They also make a
varietal Viognier. The soil here is rocky, reminiscent of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
The view from the tasting room on two sides is spectacular. When we arrive
(early for once) we have to wait for out hosts to get in from Jumilla.
We amuse ourselves by watching an old bricklayer create a wall in herringbone
pattern in the reception area, walling part of it off for a shop. By the
time we leave he has almost finished it a work of art. Here we
taste eleven wines; the best are Valle de Salenas 2003, Domino de la Peseta
2001, and Casa de La Ermita Petit Verdot 2001... We drive to Alicante
to catch the plane to Madrid, arriving at 9 pm, and take taxis to
our hotel. It feels strange to be in a big city with bumper-to-bumper
traffic after days when the country roads were completely free.
Saturday, December 18: At 4:30 pm
someone started rolling bowling balls across the floor above my room
at least that's what it sounded like for twenty minutes. After breakfast
we all walked over the El Corte Ingles to shop. And the lunch at Restaurante
del Cid having tried to book a place recommended by the hotel (it was
fully booked). We arrived at the restaurant at 1:30 pm and were the
only people there. By 2 pm the place was full. Ordered a bread and
ham soup with an egg that had cooked in the broth, followed by lamb chops
and fried potatoes with a 500 mL bottle of Prado Rey Roble 2003 from
Ribera del Duero. The last tasting of the trip was in a contemporary wine
bar-restaurant called De Vinis. Final wine count, 184. We arrived there
at 7:15 pm. Maria Antonia Fernandez-Daza, a wine consultant who worked
at the Toronto consulate twenty years ago, led us through eleven wines
from regions we had not visited. Three whites, the best of which was Jose
Pariente Dos Victorias Verdejo 2003 from Rueda. It had a lovely passionfruit
nose with hints of guava and red grapefruit in the taste. Of the reds
I liked Fernandez Groupo Pesquera El Vinculo 2002 from La Mancha, a real
fruitcake of a wine with floral, pencil lead, black cherry, chocolate
and red licorice flavours; Bodegas Alzania Seleccion Privada 2002 from
Navarra cedar, ripe red berries and blackcurrant and very elegant
and the best of the night, Blecua 1998, a Cabernet Sauvignon and Garnacha
blend from Somontano, a spicy, meaty wine with a rich blackcurrant flavour.
The last wine was a sweet dessert wine called Molino Real 2001, a Moscatel
from Malaga. It was the best dessert wine I have tasted from Spain
a lovely mix of honey, tangerine, passion fruit and crème brûlée
with great balance and length and a toasty finish. Then a seven-course
menu with some of the wines we had tried during the tasting. The sommelier
who had paired the wines to the dishes served a sweet and cloying Pedro
Ximenes with the dessert, Torrija (like French toast with crème
anglaise, almond ice cream and cinnamon). As he put the plate down in
front of me, he said: "An Inniskillin Icewine would be perfect with
this dessert." We left the restaurant at 12:15 am.
Sunday, December 19: Another bowling
match above my room at 4:30 am. Packed at 7 am and managed to
get five bottles of olive oil in my computer case. Final wine count
Conclusions: Spain has a bewildering
number of D.O.s (appellations) 64, some say 67 because local governments
have recognized them before getting the national association's approval.
The new regions are using more French oak than Rioja and Navarra, either
by itself or in combination with American oak. Some of the best wines
are coming out of regions that have hitherto produced gallons of plonk.
The revival of such D.O.s as Jumilla, Yecal, Priorato, Utiel-Requena,
La Mancha is reminiscent of the quality revolution in Languedoc-Roussillon.
The pricing of the new wines is similar to what happened in Italy with
the Super-Tuscans; wines made disregarding the local appellation regulations
are ultra-premium in price. And most important, Spain is conserving its
indigenous varieties Monastrell, Bobal, Garnacha, Macabeo, Verdejo,
etc. and resisting in the main the siren call of international varieties
like Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet.