23 Jun 2012

The White Stuff (Rueda, Spain)

Not too long ago, there was a region to the south west of the Ribera del Duero that produced a wine very similar to that of Jerez. Just like their colleagues down south they grew palomino, a very fast ripening high yielding variety that they harvested early with plenty of acidity, and then made wine in the flor based solera system in the sun. That was until the Rioja winery Marques de Riscal came in search of a region to produce white wine, and found some very old indigenous verdejo vines. Seeing the potential for the wines here, they cultivated vines and began to produce crisp fresh white wines that captured the imagination and the palates of Spanish wine drinkers, particularly in warmer weather when full bodied reds can be a little unforgiving. Soon the region flourished as more producers began producing wine in the region, particularly important people like Telmo Rodriguez, and suddenly Spain had found its new white wine region. The second wave occurred towards the end of the 1990s as some vintners began fermenting and ageing verdejo wines in barrels, and a new style was created.

The soils and stones of Rueda

22 Jun 2012

The Wild West (Toro, Spain)

Only 30 minutes away from Valladolid is the town of Toro, but the difference is so apparent you would almost guess it was 3 hours away. Driving around the villages in this area almost feels like driving through an old west town from the movies, as it feels the landscape and lifestyle feels very familiar. It actually reminds me of being back in the Salta region of Argentina, albeit on much smaller scale. Life is a bit simpler and tougher here, and it is not an uncommon site to find Toro bulls destined for the bullfighting ring grazing in paddocks by the road. In this area the valley opens up and is significantly flatter as the Duero River approaches Portugal to become the Duoro and flows out into the Atlantic Ocean. The landscape is significantly drier ad tougher for the cultivation of vines, which is part of the reason viticulture was almost entirely abandoned many years ago. Fortunately many vineyards weren’t removed and there are some seriously old vines growing close to the ground in very sandy and sometimes alluvial soils. The rediscovery of this region came during the boom of Spanish wine, when wines like the Ermita and Pingus were gaining attention for their immense power and structure, unlike any other wine made in Europe. All of a sudden the region exploded, and the number of wineries went from six in 1998, to over 50 today. The first winery I visited on my only day in Toro brought attention to the region, and the second confirmed its status as the next big thing. The third winery shows how good and affordable wine can be made even in such a harsh climate.

The biggest church in Toro

21 Jun 2012

Even better than the real thing (Ribera del Duero, Spain – Day Three)

I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about the complexities of communication. A significant amount of the worlds problems can be traced back to a failure to communicate, through misunderstandings, misrepresentations or ignorance. In daily life it can be so difficult to get your message across and understand your opposite within your native language, let alone some else’s. It is my firm belief that the major thing holding wine back in the world is communication, rather than economic, political or social barriers. Wine is such a unique product that it is futile attempting to market it in my opinion, all you can do is communicate it. Some might argue that this is the same thing, but communication is only one element of marketing that is the most complicated in relation to wine. In my experience one of the hardest things to convey about wine is more than quality, it is personality, context and the overall mystery of wine. I have always endeavoured to improve the way I communicate about wine, dependant on the audience, and I will continue to do so in the future. When you consider that in todays global wine market there are hundreds of different language and cultural barriers, this further adds to the complexity involved. On my journey I have had several instances of misunderstanding and miscommunication, but my experience today was one of the most frustrating.

Barrels in the cellars of Vega Sicilia

Moving and shaking (Ribera del Duero, Spain - Day Three)

About 15 years ago Spain became the new frontier for wine in Europe, with a number of emerging regions being discovered by a small group of pioneers not necessarily from Spain. It was a great time to invest in the country, as land prices were still relatively low, the costs of labour and materials was lower, taxes were beneficial and there was growing interest for the wines around the world. Those early pioneers like Alvaro Palacios and Telmo Rodriguez got in at the best time, but had to work hard for very little initial reward. They are now reaping the benefits of their commitment and foresight, and those who followed rode on their coattails (particularly in terms of brand building), but at the same time paid higher prices in general. Unfortunately times are different in the year 2012 as it is well known. Spain amongst other countries is in deep recession, and things aren’t much better in many export markets. The recent controversy of Pancho Campo only served to highlight the growing reliance on media endorsement, and the exploitability of wine businesses eager to get an edge in an increasingly competitive global market. The pioneers aren’t too fazed, as they are well entrenched in their regions and wineries, and their wines are unlikely to fall out of favour, as long as there is rabid demand to pay full price for allocated wines. I was introduced to two projects of another pioneer and modern icon, the Danish-born Peter Sisseck.

Bunches in mid-flower in the vineyards of Quinta Sardonia

The source (Ribera del Duero, Spain - Day One)

As I've probably already said, my trip isn't just about wine. Naturally the most important thing for me is to travel to the regions and visit wineries to learn about the places, people and processes behind the many and varied wines of the world. As I have also probably said, wine isn't just about what is in the glass and the facts about how it was made. So many things influence wine that it is hard to have one without the other. Cuisine for example, or culture. The previous weekend I went to San Sebastian to indulge in the former, and this past weekend I went to Bilbao to indulge in the latter. Specifically I wanted to visit the Guggenheim, and add it to the list of iconic galleries/museums I have visited in the last year, which include the Louvre and Musee d'Orsay in Paris, the Uffizi and l'Acedemia in Florence, and the Met in New York. After visiting the Guggenheim in Bilbao I have now visited all three (the others are in New York and Venice respectively), but the Bilbao was probably the most impressive in terms of architecture and collection. Having got a bit of a culture fix, I journeyed to the eastern part of the Ribera del Duero region, which lies in the next valley south from Rioja. On my first day I ventured deep into the very mouth of the river to visit two producers who are doing things a little differently.

Outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao

19 Jun 2012

A bit different (Getaria, Spain)

One of the big problems I have with the globalisation and homogenisation of wine is that unique and traditional wines for uncomplicated consumption with food are lost. The first really different and regionally-specific wine discovery I have made in Spain was made in San Sebastian the previous weekend. During a tapas bar crawl I was introduced to Txakoli (pronounced chakoli), which is a wine made on the coast only 30 kilometres west of San Sebastian on the way to Bilbao. The vineyards are planted moslty in pergola trellising systems, on the steep slopes of the coast. The wines produced are 95% white wine with a slight spritz to it, as a small secondary fermentation happens in the bottle. To encourage the bubbles when it is poured it is done from some height, something I had seen in San Sebastian. The high acids and slight fruit residual sugar matches beuatifully with fresh salty pinchos. I'm not sure it would taste the same if drinking it anywhere else, but I was intrigued to find out more. Carlos from Artadi very kindly set me up with an appointment at the most important Txakoli producer in Getaria.

In case you forget which way the Atlantic Ocean is

17 Jun 2012

The Spanish wine Renaissance (Navarra, Spain)

More than any country I have been to in Europe, Spain seems to be going through a profound and significant evolution. In the distant past viticulture was pretty widespread across many parts of the country, but due to various reasons (Spanish Inquisitions, revolutions, civil wars, phylloxera) vineyards were left abandoned until the 1960s. Since the 1970s with the global increase in demand for premium wines, often in new markets like North America, Asia and Eastern Europe, a lot of investment has gone into establishing and reestablishing viticultural areas across the country. There are many large companies spearheading this, such as the Torres family, but there are also a number of smaller producers that are developing in new areas after gaining reputations in other areas. One of these producers I had visited the previous day, and I got the chance to visit their estate in the Navarra D.O.

High above the village of Artazu in Navarra

16 Jun 2012

South by South-East (Rioja, Spain - Day Four)

It's funny how everyone's concept of quality is different. In New World wine producing countries the only laws and restrictions we have on our wines relate to labelling, whereby if we label our wines as being from a variety, region and/or vintage, they must be a minimum level (e.g. a minimum 85% in Australia). This doesn't mean we have to use these minimums, we can always not indicate any of these things on the label. In Europe on the other hand, most of the wine regions and countries have established sometimes complicated systems and laws governing viticulture and wine production to maintain and in some cases guarantee quality. Take the Rioja Denominacion de Origen Calficada (DOCa, the only one in Spain not including the Priorat DOCQ) for example. The classification relates to red wines, and limits the maximum yield per hectare to 6.5 tonnes, and only allows tempranillo, graciano, garnacha tinto and mazuelo. There are then four quality designations that are determined based on the barrel and bottle ageing, from the young/Joven wines, to Crianza (minimum one year in oak, total two years before release), Reserva (minimum one year in barrel, total three years before release), and Gran Reserva (minimum two years in barrel, minimum three years in bottle). This comes back to my initial comment, that quality is partly subjective and somewhat controversial, as many producers forego the system in favour of less oak ageing, and they would be considered far superior in quality compared to others. Simply labelling a wine as Gran Reserva is no indication of quality at the end of the day. Like any wine (or product for that matter) regardless of origin , all you can do is trust the producer, but unfortunately you can't tell the quality of a wine when it is the bottle.

Above Rioja Orientale vineyards near Alfaro

What's the deal? (Rioja, Spain - Day Three)

Despite the fact that the Rioja region only runs for about 130km, it is an unbelievably diverse region geologically and climatically, not to mention the fat that it actually crosses three political regions of La Rioja, Basque and Navarra. The region follows the Ebra River and which sits between the Cantabrian Mountains to the North-East and another range to the South-West, and has a wide valley ideal for the cultivation of a range of agricultural products. The climate is quite interesting, as it is a combination of Atlantic, Mediterranean and Continental. They are protected from rain coming from the north so it is very dry, and as they have cool air sucked up the valley from the Mediterranean so it is relatively cool at night. The micro-climate depends on a number of factors, including elevation, aspect and soil, the latter of which varying significantly from alluvial, to calcareous, to clay, limestone and chalk. The fact that most wine in Rioja is blended from a great range of these individual terroirs means that you are losing a lot of the nuances, but luckily there are estates like the three I visited today who are focusing on village and single vineyard wines in the future.

Rioja Alavesa as depicted by an artist that lived at Remelluri

A healthy mix (Rioja, Spain - Day Two)

So here it is; Rioja is a big deal. With over 14,000 vineyards across 65,000 hectares it is the largest producing region in Spain. It is by no means the largest in area though, only stretching for 130km from Haro to Alfaro, the vineyard planting is possibly the densest in Spain. Although there are 14,000 vineyards, there are only 583 business with a license to bottle, meaning there are many more growers than producers, not unlike Champagne. Also like Champagne there are quite a few large producers, but large here means for than one million cases. Vineyards are spread across the three viticultural sub-regions of Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Orientale, and generally wine is blended across the three in different volumes. Rioja wine is the most exported and consumed around the world, and would most likely be the first region that comes to mind when considering Spanish wine regions. The three appointments I had on my second day in the region were in the three main type of winery; one large commercial winery, one mid-sized modern negociant, and one iconic super-premium producer.

Above Rioja Alavesa

14 Jun 2012

The rain in Spain (Rioja, Spain - Day One)

What a shame that the weekend I happened to be in one of the best beach towns in Spain - during June (aka summer) I might add - and it was raining. This was particularly disappointing considering how hot it was the past week in Priorat and Penedes; why couldn't I have brought it with me? Adding to my luck I then took it to Rioja with me the following Monday morning, but I'll come back to that. I managed to get over the poor weather in San Sebastian by hitting the bars (a bit hard), and also the tapas (even harder). There is a good reason why this town is considered to be one of the best to visit in Spain, as the old town has a very extreme concentration of night spots. I sampled a range of pinchos from various bars, and also popped into one of the top wine bars in town, A Fugo Negro, where I tried some wines from a number of regions in Spain, as well as a sensational ceviche dish. On the Monday I hit the dusty (more wet actually) trail for Rioja, less than two hours south-west, for my first and second appointments in the icon region of Spain.

Ceviche with pomegranate seeds and strawberry foam at A Fugo Negro

10 Jun 2012

It's a bubbles thing (Penedes, Spain - Day Two)

After spending the night at Raventos i Blanc, I spent my second day in the region meeting a few of the most important people in cava production in the heart of the production area, Sant Sadurni d'Anoia. The first person was the owner of the winery I stayed at, Manuel Raventos himself. Over breakfast Jose introduced me to the history of his forefathers and their impact on wine in the region. He is an amazingly modest man considering the contribution he himself has made to lift the profile of cava wine around the world. Back in the early '90s he innovatively decided to purchase a chateau in Bordeaux in an effort to secure more placements for hi cava. He completely changed the business from selling the fruit and wine, to bottling the wine entirely. After he realised that having a bordeaux wine didn't help his cava he decided to sell the winery, and the new owners promptly upped the price off the back of the growing acclaim the winey had received. Manuel continues to chip away at creating larger markets for terroir-driven vintage cava, and he is lucky to be supported by a number of other producers like my other hosts for the day Agusti Torello Mata.

In the relocated library of the Raventos family, the Intrepid Wino with Manuel Raventos

Cava country (Penedes, Spain – Day One)

Cava is to Spain what champagne is to France. Way back in the 19th century the area in and around Penedes to the south of Barcelona there was a lot of grapes growing, but they weren't known for quality wines. The indigenous grapes were macabeu, xerello and parellada, grown for their yields and ability to ripen but provide plenty of acidity. In 1872 after a visit to Champagne, Josep Raventos Fatjo returned to his estate in Penedes and had the revolutionary idea to begin producing traditional method sparkling wine, from the indigenous grape varieties which as I mentioned had plenty of acids ideal for the wine. This proved to be a wise decision and changed the entire wine industry in the region. His son then wanted to protect the reputation they were gaining for high quality sparkling wine, and thus created one of the first DO classifications in Spain to protect the name and area of production. As the Spanish government weren't particularly interested they went to Brussels to get the protection, but the problem was that they could't agree with the area of production, only that it must be made in the traditional method. The Denominacion de Origen area covers Penedes, areas to the south near Valencia, and even as far west as Rioja, however 95% of the cava produced comes from the Penedes region.

Traditional method bottle of cava

6 Jun 2012

Slow down (Montsant, Spain)

Life is pretty different in this part of the world, and things move just a little bit slower. There is something peaceful about driving along the winding roads between Priorat and Montsant, and as the valley opens out into the gentler rolling hills it makes for very nice driving in a pretty decent car that I was upgraded to. Meandering about through the lanes of medieval villages perched on hills, sitting down to a long lunch, enjoying a cold beer with some local cuisine, life couldn’t be easier. If you have a closer look around the villages here however, you see several of the problems not only with Spain but much of Europe. The first is that it is a rapidly ageing population in the country, with most of the young people gone to work in the larger cities and live more modern cosmopolitan lifestyles. There are a lot of difficulties with the bureaucracy here and red tape is a constant annoyance of the people. Apart from Falset, if you drive through most of the villages they are essentially ghost towns, which may also have something to do with the afternoon heat this time of year. There just isn’t enough work for young people (not that there is much more in the cities), and many of the people who do work here commute in, such as from Tarragona only 45 minutes away on the coast. So shops close at odd hours, restaurants may not open several days of the weeks, I haven’t seen many petrol stations or supermarkets, it is a little bit more difficult than most of the other places I’ve been. It really does remind me of the Salta region in Argentina, except at least you aren’t far from other places here, whereas you can run into serious trouble if your car breaks down in Salta. Don’t let it happen to you!

Nice view into the Capcanes valley

Like a rolling stone (Priorat, Spain – Day Two)

Spending eight weeks travelling through Italy visiting wineries can be pretty challenging. As if it isn’t difficult enough that outside of the cities and towns there are no street names - and in many cases addresses are simply designated as an area which includes a great many roads - there is little to no directional signage. Add to this the poor quality of the maps on my navigation software, and you get a situation where I was rarely early to an appointment, and in one case couldn’t find the winery at all. After the first few days in Spain I am concerned that this will be the case again. Some countries do wine tourism a little better (Australia, USA, France), some less so (Argentina, Germany), and some have almost none at all (Chile, Italy). The good countries have directional signage towards a region, and then within the region they have directional signage to every winery that welcomes visitors. Some regions are more advanced than others, and include such information as distances, but at a minimum they have signs at every major turn. It goes without saying that at the wineries they have signs indicating that ‘yes, the winery is here and we are open for business’. This is less common in Europe, perhaps as they are considered a little flashy, but they are in fact a necessity. The issues of addresses seem similar in Spain to that of Italy and thus knowing and providing GPS coordinates is almost the only recourse to avoid potential visitors getting lost. To any winery I am visiting for the rest of my trip who may be reading this, I urge you to send me the GPS details so that I am not late and we can make the most of our time together.

High above Priorat

Welcome to Spain (technically) (Priorat, Spain – Day One)

After a brief hiatus I am now back in wine country, and an entirely new country has welcomed me with open arms. The question is, what country is that; Spain or Catalunya? The Catalan people are convinced that they should be separate from the rest of Spain, as they speak a different language and have their own unique culture. As it is the first part of Spain I am visiting or have ever visited, it is difficult for me to say whether or not there is a big difference, but much like Italy I am excited to find the differences between each part of the country. I am spending the next six weeks in Spain and Portugal, mostly working in a clockwise direction, and thankfully I seem to have a very reliable, fuel-efficient car that is not too small and drives very nicely (a Citroen C4). I arrived in Barcelona last week and spent the weekend there. It is a lovely city, and is one of those modern cosmopolitan cities that everyone should visit, but I did get the distinct impression that it is more a reflection of Europe rather than Catalunya or Spain. There is certainly a fantastic night life, and the beaches are great, but prices seem to be a little higher and it is harder to find good authentic regional food there, as a lot of the (particularly young) inhabitants want more international food. Anyway, on Monday morning I headed south-west to Priorat to discover one of the most talked about wine regions in Spain.

Easter all over again

1 Jun 2012

Neither here nor there (Rhone Valley, France – Day Seven)

After seven days in the Rhone Valley I feel much more comfortable with the wines, people and terroir. Of course there were a number of very cult producers that I would have liked to visit, but they are notoriously difficult to get appointments with. I think it is more important that I visited a number of key producers that work across many appelations, so that I can see how interpretations may differ or be similar. I’ve certainly had my fill of syrah and grenache based wines, but would like to get more experience with the white, rose and sweet wines of the region. It is so interesting to see how different philosphies and approaches can both produce outstanding but different wine. Take the last two appointments I had in the region; the first was with a producer that not only has vineyards in both the Northern and Southern Rhone Valley (quite rare), they also have vineyards in other regions in France, Portugal and even Australia, producing millions of bottles each year; the second producer is a much smaller cult producer only working with fruit from three appelations in the Northern Rhone Valley.

Hermitage vineyards above Tain l'Hermitage