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Bravery in the Spanish Wine World - Notes on a Tasting

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Blog: Bravery in the Spanish Wine World

Notes on a tasting 

Just because a wine is limited doesn’t mean it’s great.  Sometimes the  winemaker is bold and innovative but that doesn’t necessarily make the wine outstanding, either.  But when brave winemakers challenge the status quo and turn their grapes into fascinating juice, it bears discussing because they are brave.  Last Thursday I tasted a dozen such wines, all from the Península portfolio, which is a small section from the much larger Olé portfolio of Spanish wines.  

You should start any Spanish tasting with manzanilla or cava.  We began with Totus Tuus, a unique cava I’ve been pouring by the glass in Taberna all month.  The indigenous grapes of the D.O. Cava are xarel-lo, parellada, and macabeu, and they are often rounded out with a bit of chardonnay, pinot noir, or even monastrell.  Totus Tuus, which unabashedly declares “I’m all yours!” in its very name, is a bold cepage of 40% chardonnay, with 18% each of xarel-lo, macabeu, and parellada, and a little smackerel of pinot noir at 6%.  It makes for a rich and almost creamy style of cava, on a base of firm minerals with racy notes of caper and piquant sheep cheese.  Family run, with all estate-grown fruit (in limestone and sand with a clay subsoil), Totus Tuus is left for on the lees for 18 months, making it a Brut Reserva.  Both a lively food wine and a lovely sipping wine.  

The 2013 vintage of Rogo godello (C.V.A, D.O. Valdeorras) is my favorite so far.  The vintage is considered ‘Classic Galician’ which is a euphemism for cool and wet.  When you love cool-climate wines as I do for their grace and acid, the euphemism becomes the highest form of praise.  Fresh fruit and flowers predominate in the wine, but 60 days on the lees give it a shroomy mist that shimmies nicely with the lemon-acid lilt.  Godellos from the D.O. of Valdeorras tend to be rounder and bouncier than their Ribeira Sacra counterparts who drink in much less sunlight and lean more toward truffle, dairy and yeast in their flavor profiles.  The latter are better for aging, and acquire profound complexity (Dominio do Bibei’s Lapola is a fine example).  Rogo godello 2013 will soon become a part of my 320-strong family of Spanish wines!

Whenever I taste Leirana albariño (Forjas del Salnes, D.O. Rias Baixas), which is not as often as Kerin Auth, our articulate Península presenter but still pretty often, I am moved by the oxymorons in my mouth.  How does ripe fruit cut such a swath of acidity across my palate?  How does a windswept granite vineyard just 50 meters from the cold Atlantic Ocean yield a wine that teases the tongue with distinctly tropical notes of passion and star fruit?  How does such a tense and nervy wine, taut with the tug between sand and sea, produce such peace and pleasure? I love what Rodri Mendez and Raul Perez have achieved here: an old-vines albariño, that is fresh and bristling, fermented in (80%) stainless steel and (20%) old foudres.  They harvest 10 days later than everyone else for maximum ripeness, and the ever-so-slightly higher sugar levels mean no malolactic fermentation happens, thus preserving this firm and bracing style that I live for.  The 2013 vintage (remember, classic, cool and wet!) is as lean and expressive as the ’11 and ’12, but with more brine, a bigger mineral sizzle, and a bitter quince skin edge.  I’m equally infatuated with the single vineyard Leirana Finca Genoveva, but this beauty was not on the menu that day.  Both are on my menu, happily.  

Speaking of menus, I must mention that we were fed a sassy little bowl of squid noodles richly sauced and garnished with black-eyed peas, yuzu, clams, and creme fraiche by our hosts West Bridge restaurant.  Delicious with all three wines!!

Producer Forjas del Salnes also makes Bastion de la Luna 2012, a stunning red from the D.O. Rias Baixas that epitomizes my moniker of ‘brave’ in the Spanish wine world.  Created from equal parts of caiño, loureiro, and espadeiro, this red wine is fresh and complex, with tight tannins edging a sophisticated core of exotic things such as dragon fruit and patchouli.  Red raspberry and serrano pepper chime in and add to the wild mix.  Why brave?  Misters Mendez and Perez dare to make a wine from grapes that very few people outside the zone have ever heard of, in a land where everyone expects white (albariño), out of a desolate garage on a nondescript side street in a sleepy town.  They co-ferment the whole grape clusters (that means all stems are included and all three varietals share space) in large eight year old French barrels for 30 to 45 days.  The grapes undergo light foot-treading and little else - no pressing, no racking (removing of the clear wine off the settled lees and sediment), and the wine will even be bottled directly from these barrels! Raul likens these wines to carefully brewed tea, where one must steep long and gentle, never squeezing, never pumping.  I love the marriage of old-time techniques born from lack, to the post-modern practices born from reverence for simplicity, for purity.  It is brave because they may not ever score points and it is beautiful because it eschews the constraints of the establishment.  These Spanish winemakers are my role models to be brave and not cave!

The snowflakes started to tumble as we warmed ourselves to the taste of Elo 2011 (C.V.A., D.O. Yecla), a decidedly Mediterranean red wine with the color of old Rioja and the fragrance of fine cherry confit.  Grown in rocky limestone at 2,526 feet of altitude, these monastrell grapes are uniquely harvested and vinified.  To keep alcohol levels low (13%, which is low for this piece of Spain), picking happens in late August and early September.  The whole clusters are fermented in open concrete tanks and the wine is aged for 12 months in 3 year-old 500 liter French barrels.  The goal was to express the fruit and warmth of the zone with a wine that was lighter and more nuanced  than the usual point-scoring, raucously big-fruited and tannic styles typical of the zone at lower altitudes.  Success!  Both reds in this flight, Elo and Bastion de la Luna, were perfect with the tilefish, potato, and broccolini dish sauced with whey.  I am partial to red wines that play nicely with fish!

Back to the Atlantic, to yet another example of bravery, this time in the south of Spain.  From the land of Sherry comes a red wine made from an all but forgotten grape called tintilla de rota, called Atlántida (2012, by C.V.A., single Vineyard, Vino de la Tierra de Cádiz).  Winemaker Alberto Orte, co-owner of Olé Imports, shares a passion for resurrecting old and indigenous grapes just as his counterparts in Galicia Raul and Rodri do.  In the 1800’s Jerez had over 20 red varieties planted as well as over 50 white.  Lamenting the dependence on virtually one grape variety today (palomino, joined by a bit of moscatel and an even smaller bit of Pedro Ximénez), Alberto is now methodically planting and studying 80 strains of palomino as well as various clones of tintilla de rota.  The goal of Atlántida was to make a classic dry tintilla table wine, which hadn’t been done in 300 years!  Brave indeed.  The 2012 is only the second vintage, and is a stonier and fresher example than the 2011 which I was lucky enough to taste in the winery back in 2013.  I love the rich panoply of aromas - blood, ripe plum, black pepper and chalk.  The wine is macerated and fermented in oak vats, then spends 16 more months in French oak (12 months in 500 liter, 4 months in 225 liter).  Powerful, worthy of long aging, and thoroughly delicious.

Let’s go back up north, to the D.O. Bierzo, the land of mountains and mencia.  And Raul Perez.  Produced by La Vizcaina in the Valtuille zone, three wines called Las Gundiñas, La Poulosa, and La Vitoriana, each from 2012, reflect the terroir of small places within the zone.  All are made with whole cluster fermentation and inoculated with vineyard-specific yeast.  They actually bring a small container of the macerating grapes out to its mother vineyard and allow the hungry yeasts to alight and do their enviable, magical job of gobbling up sugar and leaving behind alcohol.  The container is brought back into the winery and its contents are distributed among the vats of grapes from that particular vineyard.  Very brave, as a lot can go wrong in Mother Nature’s wild, wild west of a world.  Yeasts don’t bend to the will of anyone, ever.  

The mencia grapes in Las Gundiñas 2012 all hail from eastern-facing slopes from a few hillsides in Valtuille, as the descriptive name ‘Lomas de Valtuille’ on the label clearly states.  Clear if you know that lomas are hills! The aromas of morcilla and tart cherry yogurt are actually tantalizing, and the wine is full-bodied and confidently meaty and tannic in the mouth, with an extremely long finish.  

La Poulosa 2012 also bears the ‘Lomas de Valtuille’ identifier, but these particular lomas are at the base of the hills, with more clay and sand, and more southerly exposures.  The wine is juicy and rich with superlative tannins and the characteristic blood and cherry one-two punch.  It is not overripe, because the low-land location means that the sun is not always generous with her time!  

La Vitoriana  2012 Lomas de Valtuille is made from very old vines that were planted in 1922, in a north- and south-facing parcel.  The northern side is harvested 10 days later than the southern, and the rich clay soil of both sections is apparent in the exquisitely ripe and round wine.  Almond and black cherry dominate the nose, with smoke and hickory wafting through.  Broad and expansive on the palate, muscular and youthful, promising to age gracefully.  

The perfectly cooked duck breast, garnished with beet, dates, almonds, and spaetzle, was a stunning foil for the four big but refined reds we drank.  I mean tasted.  With only a few bites left of this memorable bird,  we zipped back across big wide Spain to the Mediterranean again to taste the wines of Pinyolet made by C.V.A. in Montsant, using the indigenous garnacha and cariñena (technically samsó since 2011) grapes.  Pinyolet is the local word for the slate, blue quartzite and schiste soils, and the 2012 is a heartwarming  nose-full of dried fruit spiced with cinnamon, allspice, licorice, smoke and tar.  A lovely expression of garnacha, with about 6 months of French oak during its rearing. The 2011 Pinyolet Selección is the more powerful sibling, made from very old garnacha vines with 20% cariñena/samsó blended in.  The wine spends a full 12 months in French oak and expresses large and lovely.  There’s a bit more terciary funk on the nose, and the fruit glows with ripe intensity.  Both are smooth, rich specimens from this zone that surrounds Priorat like a horseshoe and became its own D.O. in 2001.  

Also from Montsant are the lovely yet powerful wines from Orto Vins, whose wines will be featured in a Wine Seminar at Taberna de Haro next Tuesday 3/3 at 7:00 pm.  Five Orto Vins wines will be paired with five Catalán courses for an unforgettable dinner and learning experience!  ($65 per person, plus tax and gratuity.  Call to reserve and pre-pay at 617-277-8272).  The winemaker is Joan Asens who left Alvaro Palácios’ employ back in 2011 after 2 decades of dedication to all of Alvaro’s Priorat wines but in particular to Finca Dofi, a favorite of mine.  At Orto Vins the commitment to biodynamic winemaking is complete.  The word ‘Orto’ means that moment of transition during the sunrise or the moonrise, a mystical moment we should all stop and witness more often!  

Impeccable vineyard management is Joan’s gift.  Three weeks before harvest, all the vineyards are subject to thorough scrutiny for unripe or raisinated grapes, the latter being used in their sweet but wonderfully balanced Dolc wines, one red and one white.  The absence of anything underripe or overripe ensures Joan and partners of brilliantly clean and focused wines that grip you with their depth and length.  The wines are macerated for 28 days, a full lunar cycle, in barrique.  The Orto 2012, a blend of young-vines samsó, garnacha, ull de llebre and cabernet sauvignon, is a bold statement on the potential quality of the zone with its black raspberry clarity and its broad texture.  The Les Comes D’Orto 2011 is made from much older vines of garnacha, samsó and ull de llebre and has a more settled feel, smooth like the gently sloping but solid hills - ‘comes’- of its home.   It is large and vibrant, throbbing with black currant and damson plum, regal in its embrace of a fine leather armchair.  Ever changing, still unfolding, Les Comes D’Orto is a wine to enjoy over the years as well as now.  

All Spanish wine tastings should also end with cava or sherry.  We ended on an Osborne note, a sherry house founded in El Puerto de Santa Maria in 1772.  First we tasted their Oloroso Solera India, a blend of palomino and pedro ximenez which are co-aged.  Although India soleras by definition contain pedro ximenez, they are usually blended at the end of the aging period, sometime before bottling.  When you co-age the grapes, the integration is palpable, and the result is harmonious, lithe, and dewy.  (Emilio Lustau’s East India Solera does a bit of both.  The oloroso and pedro ximenez are aged separately for ten years and then blended to age together for another five with delectable results). Here in the Osborne Solera India, the sweetness is seductive, but it is exquisitely balanced by glints of bitter orange acidity and a lusty presence of salinity. It glows with the aromas roasted Brazil nuts and light caramel, and you feel the venerability of this solera which started back in 1922!  Average age at bottling is 25 years.  

We were also privileged enough to taste the Palo Cortado Solera P∆ P,  which comes from a solera started in 1911 and boasts of an average age at bottling time of 30 years.  (Remember, sherry is fractionally blended, so there are minute amounts of extremely old wine with each bottling, depending on when the solera was founded). The palomino grapes (92%) were grown in the prestigious Balbaina Pago, where some of the purest albariza (chalk) soils are.  The pedro ximenez (8%) is also co-aged and the wine is supple and seamless, a sleek acrobat on your tongue.  Redolent of coffee, burnt orange peel and tobacco, the P∆ P is also salty like gourmet toffee and bitter like walnut husks.  

Finally, the Pedro Ximenez Viejo, from a solera founded in 1905.  The aromas are beguiling, and I feel like I have a perfect little demitasse of expresso before me, one laced with butter, molasses, and brandy.  In the mouth this black sherry is sweet and thick, but downy, not cloying.  There is a note of tomato paste and another of tobacco, and all coffee should be this intriguing!  

It bears noting that all three bottles of sherry had been open since last October, an incredible feat of staying power.  The completeness of this special bottling of Osborne sherries, the playing of all the notes of my palate’s scale - sweet, acidic, saline, and bitter - make them enormously pleasurable.  The company was smart enough to simply hold back their old wine in those big old botas  (sherry casks) and not sell it during the boom years when sherry was plentiful and in high demand but not especially valued.  They waited, bravely.

By Deborah Hansen

Chef-Owner-Sommelier

Taberna de Haro


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