March 28, 2011

9 Spanish Wines with New Wine Club, Part 3

Time to finally wrap up the Spanish wines! I've already written about the Monastrell from Jumilla last week, which was the final wine of the evening. But before that, we had three wines made from Tempranillo - what you think of when you hear Spanish Wine. I put together three very different styles of wine to show the range of wine making practices and regional characteristics, two Rioja's and one Ribera Del Duero.

I love the wines of Rioja because they offer a great diversity of styles, based primarily on one grape: Tempranillo. Though some of the young, or joven, wines are made from Garnacha, the one I selected was 100% Tempranillo. These are the wines being poured in Tapas bars for 75¢ a glass; bright, fruity and usually lively with acidity. Much of what I cam across I the cafés and bars while in Spain were these joven wines, but the reputation of Rioja is built on the quality and character of Crianzas or Reservas, and the grand-daddy wine of them all are the Gran Reservas. What makes these so special is the long aging period both in oak barrels and in bottles. Indeed, what makes Spain such an interesting wine producing country is the tradition of long aging of wines before release, and Rioja, as a DOCa, has more stringent aging requirements than the rest of Spain.

Unfortunately, there has been a shift in style with some houses in Rioja. Complaints have been issued that producers are pandering to critics and internationals tastes, instead of making more traditional styles. Catavino recently wrote a lament to the change in tone of Reservas. I avoided this mine-field by choosing a wine from a benchmark producer - the oldest continuous producer in Haro - known for exceptional wines. I am always surprised that wines like these, showing impressive secondary and tertiary characteristics due to aging on the part of these producers, sell for less than $20.

Imagine for a moment if Bordeaux, instead of selling their wine before its even done, would hold their wines back, age them in bottle until after the wines mellow and drop their rip-your-face-off tannins. Imagine further if they didn't sell for rip-you-off prices. Lets hope that the love for Tempranillo does not corrupt the long held practices of Spanish bodegas in to the insanity of Bordeaux.

The final bottle of Tempranillo came from Ribera Del Duero. The Duero river flows into Portugal, where its known as the Douro and boasts a hot climate to make Port. But while in Spain, the banks of the Duero are more moderate and can be challenging due to their altitude. Still, some of the greatest wines in Spain, Vega Secilia among them, hail from here. Riper fruit and stronger tannins prevail in these wines which show us the brawny side of the grape. I had to grab my decanter and try to wake this wine up, but I suspect that it could have used another 5 years of sleeping in the bottle.

(+) Mencos, Rioja Joven 2008 $16.50
Straightforward, fruity with a touch of pepper and spice. A classic youthful wine for quaffing and conversation at a boisterous bar. Worth picking up a couple of bottles for a fun evening with friends. Available at Cork, imported by De Maison Selections.

(++) Marqués de Riscal, Rioja Riserva 2005 $18
A true benchmark Rioja. 5+ years aging shows on the nose with some blue cheese funk, but beautiful soft fruit underlying it all. Amazing value at under $20, and a chance to see what patience can do for tannins - why don't more people by old Rioja instead of cabernets? Available at Liner & Elsen and Fred Meyer, Imported by Shaw-Ross International

(+) Torrederos, Ribera Del Duero Reserva 2004 $29
The most obvious contrast between this wine and the Riscal is the structure - this wine is loaded with tannins, and more expressive fruit. Could have used more time in the decanter, or in the bottle. A big wine for sure with a dark fruit and present oak - use with meat! Available at Storyteller Wines, imported by Estelle Imports.

March 16, 2011

#WBW71 - South African Memories & a Jumilla Monastrell

I've long had a love of Mouvèdre. In my house, growing up, Rhone wines were king. Just get my Dad started and he'll swoon over Vacqueyras or Gigondas, and of course he has a soft spot for Bandol, France's home of Mouvèdre. So, along with my fathers good looks, I inherited a love of these rich, complex, heady wines.

The wine that got me hooked on Mouvèdre though, was a varietal bottling from Spice Route of South Africa. Several years ago, while I was living in Cape Town, my parents came to visit over Christmas. We took them out to the winelands near Stellenbosch and Paarl, and stopped into the regions most widely known estate, Fairview - responsible for Goats do Roam, and a leading producer of not just wine, but goat cheese in South Africa. Fairview Winery owns several different labels, producing wines in diverse regions from Hermanus to Swartland.

The Spice Route Mourvèdre hailed from the latter, and was the last wine we tried that day, after a line up of Pinotage, Cabernets and Chenin Blancs; it was the one that stood out, and the one we walked away with. What was appealing about it was its meaty, sweaty, dark and seductive core that jumped out and grabbed you. But it was packaged in a svelte and balance body. The taste resonated with the spicy borewors sauasage that is a mainstay of the South African braai. I know that Pinotage is the country's claim to the wine world, but Mourvèdre seemed to resonate more with the diverse, rich and spicy food and Mediterranean climate of Cape Town.

A few years after that, as I was searching for interesting Mourvèdre in the Vancouver, B.C. market, it was revealed to me that Spain also produced Mourvèdre. In fact, it was home to it, only there named Monastrell. I stored this information away, knowing if I couldn't find any Bandol, or re-live my Cape Town days, I could always look towards Spain. So when I recently had the idea for a Spanish themed tasting (here and here), I was eager to share at least one Monastrell with the group.

Gladly, I came across the Juan Gil 2007 Monastrell from Jumilla at a local shop, Vino, just in time to share it with the group. Jumilla is in the Murcia region of south-eastern Spain (for beautiful video and insight into the region, check the videos produced by Grape Radio), and this wine comes from 40 year old vines. That familiar rich, seductive array of aromas pulled me in to the glass, full of red and dark fruit, spice and meat. You can taste the Spanish sun, and rocky earth in the full body; This wine is definitely powerful, at 15% ABV, but carries its weight gracefully. This wine was a big hit with the group, as proved by the empty bottle test. And just as the Spice Route Mourvèdre would pair beautifully with Borewors or a Potjie, so to would this Monastrell pair with the grilled pork chops and grilled garlicy-mushrooms I had in Spain.

9 Spanish Wines with New Wine Club, Part 2

I was happy to see this weeks NYTimes column focus on the remarkable wines of Priorat, one of the great wine regions in Spain. I was sad, however that none of the wines we tasted last friday were from Priorat. But we did taste some awesome wines from Rias Baixas and Bierzo - two of my favorite regions in Spain.

One of my favorite challenges is to get people who claim they like only red wines to drink, and like, if not love, a white wine. Sometimes it a tough game, especially for someone who has such mixed feelings about one of the great white grapes: chardonnay. Well, Spain has relatively few white wines out there, aside from cava, and they can be hard to track down here in Portland. I was certain thought to find a good Rias Baixas and share the pleasures of Albariño with the group.

What I came up with was the unique Do Ferreiro Rebisaca, a blend of 75% Albariño and 25% Treixadura and aged on lees for 9 months. Not the typical Rias Baixas, but a nervy, vibrant wine that got the point across; Albariño can be a complex and interesting white, and has earned its reputation one of the greatest seafood wines. This wine may not have convinced everybody of the pleasures of white, but it turned some heads and brought back memories of fresh seafood dinners in Europe.

Next up was a pair of 2008 Bierzos, both 100% Mencía. The first, La Mano, was a rather simple, light bodied expression reminiscent of the red table wines common along the Camino. In contrast, the Pétalos from J. Palacios, was richer, more complex and ended up being one of the favorites of the evening. The contrast of these two wines was clear when tasting them side by side.

(+) Do Ferreiro Rebisaca, Rias Baixas DO 2007 $20
Bright and crisp with lots of lime peel, touch of melon and mineral character on the nose. This wine seemed to have the weight to handle a variety of food, but the general conversation leaned towards seafood. Refreshing with a medium finish. Available from Storyteller Wines, imported by De Maison Selection.

(-) La Mano Mencía Roble, Bierzo DO 2008 $10.50
A straightforward wine that showed the basic profile of Mencía; red fruit, bramble and herbal notes followed with good acidity, rough but light tannins, and light alcohol. Not a bad red table wine for lighter meals, hot summer nights, or days of walking 30 km, but nothing to get excited about either. Available from Great Wine Buys, imported by Axial wines.

(++) Descendientes de J. Palacios, Pétalos Bierzo DO 2008 $23
Perhaps the most interesting find of the night for me. This wine comes from old vines (40-90 years) with very low yields, then spends some time in French oak barrels. I loved the full expression of Mencía with ripe brambly raspberry, blueberry pie, complex herbal notes and baking spice. The tannins were refined like a nice black tea, and balanced with the crisp acidity. Not quite full bodied with a long finish. Although this is Palacios entry level Mencía, it shows what this grape is capable of, and is very much worth picking up. Available at Cork and New Seasons, imported by Rare Wine Co.

Although this post is a week late to be included, its worth checking out the Wine Blogging Wednesday roundup of posts on Spainish wines, and the awesome map produced.

March 13, 2011

9 Spanish Wines with New Wine Club, Part 1

Friday marked the inaugural meeting of my new tasting group here in Portland. I was really excited to see everybody who showed up and share a great set of Spanish wine that I put together over the past month. The attendees, as a whole, were no strangers to wine, but we did go over a bit about tasting, what to look for in wine and how to differentiate between elements, as well as an overview of Spain. Overall, I was really impressed with the group for their comments on the wine as well as the interesting questions they had about Spain and wine in general.

In addition to the line up of wines, I put together a few typical Spanish snacks: Tortilla Española, Manchego and Patacabra cheeses with Membrillo and olives from Whole Foods, and Chorizo from Olympia Provisions, and some homemade bread.

Below are my tasting notes from the first two wines we tasted; two Cavas. Perhaps it wasn't fair of me to start with sparkling wines, since I find them hard to analyze in part due to their bubbles. Still, everybody loves sparkling wines, and cava is one of the best thing that Spain has going for it. I picked each wine for different reasons. The first wine is ubiquitous here in Portland; I've seen it in Whole Foods, New Seasons, and Vino, and I'm sure a few other places are carrying it. It represents a straightforward, inexpensive cava. The other, bought at Liner & Elsen, was designed to show that cava is also a serious sparkling wine, with the ability to challenge Champagne. Well, hat didn't happen - although it was different and good, I wont be running out to buy it again. In fact, most people preferred the first wine in our side by side tasting. I had to admit, when I revealed the prices, that I was a bit let down by the second wine.
I'll be posting more notes from the rest of the tasting in the coming days, but here's the first set.

(+) Torre Oria, Brut Cava $9
Niether cava tasted got me really excited, but I will say that this one showed extremely well for a $9 sparkling wine. Given sparkling wine's image of a celebratory drink, you could be celebrating for a long time and with a large crowd by stocking a few cases of this. What I did like about this, aside from its hit you-in-the-face value, is that it's a very clean expression of creamy citrus and yeasty. Its 100% Macabeo, and thought its crisp, it is also balanced in body. Available at Whole Foods, New Seasons, Vino; imported by Casa Bruno

(-) J. Esteve Nadal Avinyo, Reserva Brut Cava $16
I give this Cava a pass. Its a very nice wine, with a soft round character, more fruit expression than yeast and bread. In fact, I preferred it to the other, but I was let down a little, thinking that a Reserva Cava would deliver a little more punch. This blend of Macabeo, Xarel-lo, Parellada seemed a little flat. Peril of tasting side by side and not stand alone? Perhaps. Or maybe its just that I've been tasting lots of sparkling wine at this price point recently that are more memorable. Available at Liner & Elsen, Imported by De Maison Selections.

March 7, 2011

Rosé Not-Champagne

I celebrated my 21st birthday while living abroad in France. Since I was able to drink anyway, getting drunk was not a priority. Instead, my host family generously hosted a dinner for me and some friends. I knew by then the pleasures of both Champagne and rosé wine, but thanks to my hosts I learned the glories of Rosé Champagne. The lightness of the fruit and the complexity of the secondary fermentation are pleasure I still remember, if not the name of the producer.

Alas, so many times since then I have been disappointed with rosé sparkling wines. It seems rare to find one that offers a balance between fruit and verve, like homemade jam on fresh bread. More often they are insipid and uninspired. I asked my WSET instructor after a very disappointing example of Laurent Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut why so many rosé Champagne sucked. His answer said that it had more to do with Champagne houses and their wine making philosophy then the style of wine. Consider this: Champagne houses make a lot of wine. Oceans! And the majority of it is non-vintage. What distinguishes one Champagne from another is not the specific vineyards it comes from (thought in rare cases this can be spot-lighted) or the vintage, but the brand and stylistic choices that brand makes to differentiates its wine. Thus the majority of Champagne is looked at as a commodity, much like grain or beef is here in America. Consistency and image are of prime importance because these are what ensure brand loyalty. So, if you have to churn out millions of bottles of sparkling rosé year after year, you need it to look, smell and taste the same more or less. Its not hard to see how this pushes towards the lowest common denominator. A brand focusing on their image might be more concerned with achieving consistent color in their wine then complexity and interesting aromas. After all, the image of champagne is one of partying, celebrating life's big moments, falling in love all over again - who's going to complain about the wine when their in love!?! Who's going to complain about a wine when the cost of entry to this club is so high. Not me! I don't want to be wet blanket who is then accused of being a wine snob. No, I'd rather sip the lackluster wine and shout Congratulations in spite of it. But this, in my opinion, is the major failing of Champagne: they have built a brand image that has nothing to do with the quality or interest of their wines, and everything to do with lifestyle and artifice. Sure, they make some pretty tasty juice there, but apart from superlative examples like Grand Cru or vintage wines, there seems to be little discussion about the quality of these wines. The exciting talk around Champagne these days revolves around Grower Champagne, which strive to high-light terroir. And these small time producers are gaining ground, thanks to importers like Terry Theise who champion the underdogs. Every year there is more variety on the shelves.

But that not what this is about. This is about the joys of Rosé Champagne, or rather Rosé Not-Champagne. Thankfully Champagne does not hold a monopoly on rosé sparkling wines. All over France there are great sparkling wines, like Crémant de Loire and Crémant de Limoux. But it is in Alsace, where a small amount of Pinot Noir is planted, that Lucien Albrecht makes some fantastic Rosé Crémant d'Alsace. My wife brought home this bottle as a Valentines Day treat. Having already made other plans, we left the bottle in the fridge for another occasion. I decided to open it the other day to serve with saurkraut and chicken sausages. It had enough stuffing to go up against the food, an acidity that paired well with the saurkraut and just a touch of sweetness to lift the fruit and bring out the charm from the apples in the sausage. Here's the review:

(++) Lucien Albrecht Rosé Brut Crémant d'Alsace NV ($25)
Opened beautifully on the nose with strawberry and red current, complimented by lemon curd, yeast and fresh bread aromas. Bright and mouth-filling body with a pleasant long finish. 100% Pinot Noir. Highly recommended.