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

Jean León – wine & stardust

Even if you have never heard of him, Jean León is one of those people who enjoyed an infectiously interesting life. He was a Spaniard, from Cantabria, but by way of Barcelona, then France and stowing away on a ship to the United States he lived the American dream and created a legend.

Frankly he was also one of those people who seemed to either have good luck or knew how to make it. He survived with a series of menial jobs before joining the US Army to serve in the Korean War, and it was this service that entitled him to US nationality.

After finishing his stint in the army León got a job as a waiter at Hollywood’s trendy Villa Capri restaurant that was part owned by Frank Sinatra and Joe di Maggio. He must have been an affable and outgoing soul who made friends easily, as he developed a close friendship with James Dean and together they agreed to create a new luxury restaurant in Beverley Hills – La Scala. Dean died before it opened, but León went ahead and the new restaurant quickly became the Hollywood place for celebrity diners.

Jean León later created a boutique winery in Spain’s Penedès region and was the first to use Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay vines there in the early 1960s. This bodega is now part of the Torres group as León and Miguel Torres were such great friends and admirers of each others work that when Jean León became ill in the 1990s Torres bought the winery. His daughter Gigi meanwhile took over the restaurant and runs it to this day.

The view from the Jean León winery

It is a terrific winery and I was very taken with some of the wines I tasted there while attending the Miguel Torres Wine Course, it is that rarity in Spain, a true estate – or pago and the attention to detail shows. They produce some very good Chardonnays indeed, both the top end barrel fermented Jean León Viña Gigi (vineyard named for his daughter) Chardonnay and the fresher Jean León Petit Chardonnay were excellent quality. Continue reading

Miguel Torres – Catalan wine legend

Many of you will know that I have a deep love of Spain, Spanish culture and Spanish wine. Well no one can possibly have the experience of Spanish wine that I have had without coming across Miguel Torres. Indeed some of the very first quality Spanish wines I ever tried were from Bodegas Torres.

I well remember my first taste of the revolutionary Viña Esmerelda, Gran Viña Sol Green Label (called Fransola now) and Gran Coronas Black Label 1975 (now called Mas La Plana). With wines like this Torres were responsible for a real step change in quality and outlook in the whole Spanish wine industry.

I have long been an admirer of Miguel Torres himself, he is a giant of the wine business and holds a place in Spain akin to that held by Robert Mondavi in Napa Valley.

Well, I have been honored by being invited on the 23rd Miguel Torres Wine Course which will run next week in Vilafranca del Penedès near Barcelona, where Torres are based. I am especially looking forward to the sessions led by Miguel Torres himself.

I will blog about some of my experiences there if I get the time and the connection.