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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 city.

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 (1861–1931). 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 white wines:

  • 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 (1877–1954)... 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 400–600 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 16–18 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 70–80 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 furniture.

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 – 184.

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.




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