Albariño & Mencía – Spanish Delights

Many of you know of my deep fascination and love of Spanish wines. Of late I have become especially excited by the wines of Galicia, which is a place that appeals to me immensely. Sadly I have yet to visit but I intend to put that right soon, as it looks so beautiful and very different from the rest of Spain.

The region has a cool, rainy, Atlantic influenced climate and as a consequence is known as Green Spain. It produces every style of wine, but is renowned for its dry whites and,  although the region uses many different varieties, Albariño is their most famous and is the grape that has really brought this region to the attention of discerning wine drinkers.

To the South Galicia borders Portugal’s Minho / Vinho Verde region and the two places are not dissimilar in that they are wet and cool, so wine producers have to be very clever indeed to beat nature. Historically that has been a problem in both places, but over the last thirty years or so viticulture has improved almost beyond recognition – as has wine making – and it really shows in the wines.

No longer a land of subsistence farmers making a little wine for themselves and their friends, where quality barely mattered and wasn’t questioned – Galicia has become a region of confident, ambitious, thoughtful grape growers and wine makers whose wines are highly sought after and can command a very high price. This is especially true in Spain itself where Galician whites are considered to be amongst the country’s finest. They certainly tend to be the Spanish white wines that have the most purity and minerality and as such are quite superb with a bit of fish.

Map of the Wine Regions of North West Spain including Galica – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

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A tapas crawl in Logroño, Rioja

I have always had a soft spot for Logroño. Most of it isn’t pretty, but it seems to have everything I require from a Spanish city – wide streets lined with cafés and shops, fountains and comfortable hotels, while at its centre is the wonderful old town or Casco Viejo. This delightful pedestrianised zone is a higgledy-piggledy area of narrow alleys lined with bars and over the last 20 years or so it has become a mecca for tapas lovers. In many ways, as the landscape is so unforgiving and the pueblos – wine towns – small and quiet this is the heart of Rioja.

Funny stuff tapas. It is one of Spains great gifts to the world and as much a cultural icon of the country as Paella, bull-fighting and Miró, but in truth I think the story of tapas is more like that of Pizza in Italy. Yes, Pizza is Italian, but it was popularised and made special elsewhere and then returned triumphant to the land if its birth. I remember 1960s Spain. There was precious little tapas then, unless you went to the really big cities or Andalucia. That is where tapas is supposed to have originated as a cover or lid (tapa) to keep flies out of your sherry glass. Originally it was simply a piece of jamón, chorizo or bread, but as the competition hotted up they became more complex and interesting – although I for one always find jamón interesting. Tapas existed in the cities and Andalucia and possibly the Basque country, but in the past it was a simple nibble with a drink. It took the tourist boom to make it famous and to turn it into something creative and gastronomic with groups of people sharing lots of little dishes instead of dinner.

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Exciting drinkable and affordable wines

It has been quite a couple of weeks for finding new and exciting wines and I find that is what makes wine really interesting. It might seem strange to some people, but to me wine is only partly a drink, it is also a constant voyage of discovery into places, people, culture and traditions – as well as seeking out delicious flavours.

Most of the time that does not mean that the wines are weird, whacky or odd in any way, just that they are slightly off the beaten track, made in places and from grapes that are a little less well known than they ought to be. It is for those very reasons they often reward trying as they can frequently offer better value than more well known wines, as well as an enormous amount of pleasure.

I have written before about how the majority of consumers seem to only drink wines from a very narrow range of wine styles and grape varieties, which is a real shame when there is so much good wine out there that often passes people by.

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Viva Paella – National Paella Day

The real thing at Vintara in the Plaza de la Reina in Valencia

Paella is one of the great dishes of the world. It captures Spain on a plate and is bright, evocative and exotic. It speaks of a place and tradition and although it is an absolute classic anyone can make it and even use a bit of creativity and substitute some of the ingredients.

It is a very old dish with roots going back at least as far as Moorish times and although it is now available all over Spain it actually originates in the rice fields of southern Valencia - see map of the Valencia region here.  The field workers – like barbecue Paella is even now usually cooked by men – would make a casserole of rice mixed with whatever was available – water-rat, rabbit and snails were the original classics. Local fishermen also developed seafood versions and once the popularity of this wonderful dish spread outside Valencia then people started mixing the two forms together and Paella Mixta – perhaps the most famous version – was born. The dish became more and more famous until by 1840 the word Paella had become the name of the recipe rather than the pan that was used to cook it in.

Historically paella is the Valenciano / Catalan word for any cooking pan and derives from a Latin root and the Old French word paelle – the similarities between Catalan and French are often striking. Today the pan is generally known as a paellera.

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My Favourite Wines, Top Discoveries and Experiences of 2011

I feel like a respite from all the self indulgence that the Christmas holidays force upon me and feel my thoughts turning back to wine. As the New Year is coming up fast I thought that I would attempt to tell you about my wine highlights for the year.

Most of my top wines have been written up here on my Wine Page, but some have slipped through the net and are new today. Please always remember that this is an entirely personal list, but I hope you enjoy it and that it gives some food for thought.

Sparkling Wines

I was really spoiled for fizz this year, 2 Champagne tastings stand out in particular:

Champagne:

Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut Non Vintage based on the 1953 vintage
This whole tasting was extraordinary and provided a wonderful insight into a type of Champagne that it is all too easy to take for granted – read about it here.

1995 Perrier Jouët Belle Époque
In February I was lucky enough to taste four different vintages of Belle Epoque out of jeroboams, the 1995 was the standout wine for me, but they were all superb – read about it here.

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How I love You Chardonnay*

Frequent visitors and the observant amongst you will notice that recently I have been writing less frequently than normal. This is simply because of the hectic pace of my work during the build up to Christmas – bah, humbug!

However I have had a good many wine experiences of late and will be writing about some of them as soon as I can.

In the meantime I thought that would share a thought and a few wines with you.

Reappraising Chardonnay:

It saddens me that so many UK wine consumers limit what they drink to such a narrow range and what I mean is illustrated by a common reaction to Chardonnay. If I had £1 for every time someone told me that they used to enjoy Chardonnay, but now drink Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio, then I could easily afford a new car! Some people start shaking their head at the mere mention of Chardonnay, as though to even consider it will make them liable to arrest by the taste-police.

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This Might Be the Last Time…

Catavino, the Iberian wine web site is closing its doors for the last time at the end of the month and coincidentally the other day I drank my last bottle of something that I might never see again. Not just because of vintage changes or time moving on, but because it is from a winery that no longer exists, which is a terrible shame as it it one of the most fascinating sweet wines that I have tasted and the very best example of its type that I have come across – so I thought that I would tell you all about it here

This will be my last piece for Catavino and, unless I stumble across an ancient stash of bottles somewhere, almost certainly my last bottle of Scholtz Hermanos Solera 1885.

Catalan élan

The wines of Codorníu

Recently I presented a tasting of some wonderful wines from Spain. I know that I bang on about Spain and Spanish wines, but really I do believe that country makes wonderful, wonderful wines and can boast one of the most vibrant and exciting European cultures as well.

Regular readers will be aware that earlier in the year I spent a week with Miguel Torres, a giant of Spanish and Catalan wine whose importance to the development of wine in Spain cannot be underestimated. However he is not alone in being a leading producer of good wine in Catalunya. All my adult life I have been a fan of Codorníu which is famous as the leading brand of Cava – Spanish quality sparkling wine made by the Champagne method/Traditional method. However Codorníu is much more than a Cava producer, they have been growing grapes since 1551 and making Cava since 1872 – indeed they created it – but over the last 100 years they have expanded their portfolio and production to include most of the important wine regions of Spain – and beyond. Unlike Torres though they leave each winery as a stand alone brand and you will look in vain for the name of Codorníu on the labels.

Instead they have either created new estates from scratch or bought leading producers and the results are startlingly good. I presented some of these wines in a tasting recently and everyone was hugely impressed by the quality, variety and value for money that the wines represented. Catalans see themselves as the dynamic Spaniards, the busy creative Spaniards with modern ideas, a sense of chic and no manaña mentality, so perhaps Codorníu have brought that drive and sense of élan to their outposts in other regions?

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A Gluttons Guide to Spanish Culture

Los Caracoles in Barcelona, you enter the restaurant through the back of the bar...

...and go through the kitchen to your table

I love Spain and am passionate about Spain’s food, wine and history, so I wrote a very personal piece about Spanish food and some very traditional restaurants and I think you might enjoy it, its published on Catavino.com and you can read it here

A week with Torres

I recently spent a week on the Miguel Torres Wine Course in Vilafranca del Penedès and Barcelona, so thought I should pull my thoughts together and tell you about the experience.

One of the highlights was meeting Miguel A Torres, he really is a giant figure in the wine business. Perhaps as my early experiences of wine were all in Spain he looms larger to me than my British counterparts, but I well remember my first taste of Viña Esmerelda and being astonished by how very different it was from anything else in Spain – still broadly true.

It is impossible to exaggerate Torres’s influence on Spanish wine. He helped introduce all sorts of modern techniques that we all now take for granted – stainless steel tanks, cold fermentation and the use of international grapes were all either introduced by him or helped on their way by him. It is impossible to be sure as he is genuinely very modest and  seemed to always deny being the first at anything, saying that someone else did it before him. However, I have noticed that the genuinely successful are often not the first to do something, but are usually the first to perfect it – which would be very Torres. Continue reading