Monople Clásico, the return of a Spanish classic

Looking south across Rioja just north of Haro.

I have always had a soft spot for white Rioja, whether fresh and crisp, barrel fermented or aged in oak. Well now there is a new style of dry white Rioja around. I say new, but actually it is an old style that has been brought back to life.

When I was young and just getting into wine I spent a great deal of time in Spain and one of the most widely sold white wines was Monopole made by the wonderful CVNE, Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España. The Monopole had been created in 1914 and was given a French name, because the founding brothers – Eusebio and Raimundo Real de Asúa – loved the white wines of Burgundy, and a German style bottle because German white wines were so commercially important in those days. It was the first white Rioja made in anything like a fresh, lively, modern style. Of course in those days it was partly aged in oak, but it was a complete break with most white Riojas of the times.

Ever since the early 1980s CVNE have made fresher, completely unoaked style of Monopole, which is a very good, just off-crisp wine that is very versatile and pleasurable. However to mark 100 years of Monopole, they have recently returned to making the traditional Monopole as well and it is wonderful to revisit this wine and to experience again what a fascinating – and delicious – wine style it is.

They call this reborn wine Monople Clásico and like the ‘normal’ Monopole it is made from Rioja’s classic white grape Viura, but then it gets very different. Firstly the Viura juice is settled in concrete tanks, then fermented at low temperatures in stainless steel. Then they add a small amount of aged Manzanilla Sherry from the famous Bodegas Hidalgo – yes really. Manzanilla is basically a Fino Sherry from Sanlúcar de Barrameda in the Sherry region and so it is dry and ages with the Flor, or yeast, to give it complexity and that nutty, bready character. Then the blended wine is aged for 8 months in 300 and 500 litre barrels – used barrels so it softens the wine rather than flavours it.

Bodegas CVNE in Haro.

Now, I will have to whisper this and you will have to promise never to mention it to anybody else, but I do not really like Sherry. I appreciate it and am very interested in it, but cannot drink much of it for pleasure. What you have to realise is that Sherry holds the same place in many, possibly most, wine people’s hearts that Alfa Romeo does for petrol heads. You simply have no credibility unless you profess to love Sherry, so this will have to remain our little secret.

So, adding Sherry to a wine might seem strange, illegal even given that Rioja is a PDO / appellation and so the grapes must be grown in the correct area for the term Rioja to appear on the label. That is true, but because CVNE had traditionally made the wine this way, they were allowed to do so again. The idea is strange, but it really, really works. It makes for a truly delicious, fine and complex wine that I loved.

It seems that the management of CVNE were reminiscing about the old style Monopole, as the centenary of the brand was about to happen, so they sent down to the cellar for a bottle and could only find a single example left, a bottle from 1979. They tasted it and it was still in great condition, fresh, lively and so delicious that they decided to resurrect the style. To help them they called on the services of Ezequiel Garcia, the retired CVNE winemaker from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Ezequiel was thrilled to be part of the project and had no reservations in resurrecting this classic wine from the past, indeed I am told that he found it a moving experience. The part of that loves 1940s music hopes that Ezequiel cried!

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view

CVNE, like many of the original band of Rioja bodegas, are based in Haro in Rioja Alta.

2014 Monopole Classico
CVNE
DOCa Rioja
Spain

The nose is very appealing, delicately aromatic and lifted with waxy apples, light custard notes, some spice, wafts of brioche, flakey pastry, rock pools and sea breeze. The palate is very fresh, lively and slightly saline as well sever so slightly succulent with cooked lemons and apple fruit as well as a waxy quality. There is something smoky and haunting about this wine and the flavours build in the mouth becoming slightly rounded and mealy even. This is a beguiling, complex and fascinating wine that is deeply satisfying, bone dry and wonderfully complete with richness and freshness vying with each other to dominate your senses – 93/100 points.

This would be wonderful with some sea bream, sea bass, mussels, clams, garlic prawns, oysters, chicken, pâté, smoked salmon, or anything light.

Available in the UK for around £25 a bottle from: The Wine Reserve.
It is also available mail order from Spain – until Brexit ruins everything – for around €15 a bottle plus shipping – from Decántalo and Uvinum.

 

Wine of the Week – a very different Monastrell from Spain

Vines at Enrique Mendoza.

Just recently I was touring wine estates in Spain’s Comunidad Valenciana or Valencian Community. This is one of Spain’s autonomous regions and includes the cities of Valencia itself, Alicante and Castellón / Castelló de la Plana. From a wine point of view it is a very exciting part of Spain that includes DO Valencia, DO Alicante and DO Utiel-Requena.

It was a wonderful trip, full of wonderful discoveries, great food, delicious wines and memorable characters and I have been very remiss not to tell you all about it before this. Anyway, what set me off on this is that the other day I retried a wine that I had first experienced on that trip and it excited me all over again.

In fact it excited me so much that I am making it my Wine of the Week. I really do think that this wine proves my often repeated claim that Spain is the most exciting wine producing country around today.

Wine map of Spain Villena is right on the border between Alicante and Almansa – click for a larger view

2014 La Tremenda Monastrell
Bodegas Enrique Mendoza
DO / PDO Alicante
Comunidad Valenciana
Spain

I have long admired the wines of Enrique Mendoza and have actually sold them in the past – their Moscatel de la Marina in my view remains the best of its type, far finer than Muscat de Beaumes de Venise for instance. They are in Alicante, not far in distance from the beaches of Benidorm, but a world away in every other regard. They grow their Muscatel near the coast and the black grapes further inland and much higher up. This region is traditionally a place where red wine is made – and the local grape is Monastrell, whereas in Utiel-Requena and Valencia itself they use Bobal.

I should point out though that modern knowhow is starting to mean that the whites look pretty good too, particularly from the little known Merseguera grape.

The Bodega was founded in 1989, but now Enrique’s son José, known as Pepe, runs the property and he is a larger than life, very funny man who loves his vineyards and really understands them. Pepe trained at Raimat and then unusually gained experience outside Spain first, by making wine at Grove Mill in New Zealand, as well as in Argentina.

He grows other grapes, but the focus here is Monastrell, which is known as Mourvèdre in France and often Mataro in other places. The range has changed out of all recognition since I used to sell them. In those days the wines were more international in character – I sold their delicious Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir blend – while now the wines seem to be much more clearly about the place they are from.

Pepe Mendoza with his beloved ‘bonsai’ vines.

Monastrell is not an easy grapes grow. It needs a lot of heat and also a fair amount of water. Added to which it is susceptible to all sorts of mildews, is very vigorous and can easily get overripe. Add all that together and it is not surprising that it had to wait until modern times and squeaky clean wineries and skilled grape growers for it to become a grape with a following that was not just local.

Mendoza has a winery and showroom in l’Alfàs del Pi,very near Benidorm, but most of their vineyards are around 40 km – as the crow flies, much further to drive as this is mountainous country – inland at Villena. This place is between 370 metres and 650 metres above sea level, so gets cooling breezes in the summer – Pepe claimed that they need to wear seaters even in August in the evening – it was certainly very cold in December when I was there.

This place with its winds, extreme heat in summer, cold in winters, low vigour, stony soils and only enough water makes the vines struggle and suffer and so they produce small crops of very flavourful grapes. The vines themselves remain small and hug the ground, making them Pepe’s ‘bonsai’ vines. The contrast with Marlborough in New Zealand, where the vines grow like trees, could not be more marked. Pepe farms around 200 acres and makes several different wines from pure Monastrell, or as he puts it, ‘paints plenty of pictures from the same grape’.

An old Monastrell vine at Enrique Mendoza.

This wine is his starting point, or calling card wine. It’s a single vineyard red from the La Tremenda vineyard, which is at around 600 metres above sea level and comprises well drained sand and limestone soils. The grapes are grown organically and biodynamically and are fermented using indigenous yeasts. The wine is then aged for 6months in used American oak barriques – 225 litre – this is intended to soften the wine , but not to flavour it too much.

It has an enticing  medium purple colour, almost plummy. The nose offers fresh red cherry and plum together with a smattering of black plum, sweet spice, Mediterranean herbs and a little cocoa from the oak.

The palate delivers lovely freshness with herbs, dried grass, succulent red cherry and plum, cooked cherry and smooth, silky tannins. A succulent, fleshy and juicy wine with that wonderful freshness making it feel very elegant. Very drinkable and quite lovely, this is a very bright wine, which shows that Pepe has successfully tamed the wild Monastrell grape, but underneath all the succulence and elegance there lurks a deeper, wild, dangerous note. A terrific wine that carries its 14.5% alcohol very well and shows the elegant side of Monastrell at a great price – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £10 a bottle from: Simply Wines Direct, Ultracomida, Christopher Piper Wines, Christopher Keiller and Ministry of Drinks. More information is available from the UK importer, C & D Food & Wines.

For US stockists, click here.

This is a very versatile wine, with enough freshness to partner pretty much everything and to be enjoyable without food. However, it really comes into its own with casseroles, jamon and lamb.

Pepe also produces two more single block Monastrells, Estrecho and Las Quebradas. These were both planted in the 1940s and so produce wines with amazing concentration. They are great, but sadly not available in the UK, although they are imported into the US by the Winebow Group.

Ribera del Duero – a great wine region

As many of you will know, I have a deep love and passion for the wines of Spain. Taken as a whole I think Spain is one of the most exciting wine producing countries in the world. Of course the most famous region – other than Sherry – is Rioja. I like Rioja, I admire Rioja. It is a wonderful region, a lovely place and it produces many fabulous wines, I have written about it often. However, there is much more to Spain than just Rioja and it pains me greatly that so relatively few wines from other regions of Spain are widely available to UK consumers.

Although I will carry on writing about anything and everything that I find interesting in the world of wine, I thought that every now and again I would share some thoughts about Spain’s wine regions with you. Recently I have been tasting quite a few wines from Ribera del Duero, which have reminded me just how good a region it is, so I decided to start there.

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

As you can see from my map, Ribera del Duero is in Castilla y León, or Old Spain. In many ways this region to the north west of Madrid is the original heart of Spain, the original home of those that ‘reconquered’ the peninsula from the Moors. Of course it is also home to the language that we usually call Spanish, but is more properly called Castellano or Castilian.

The Duero River – it becomes the Douro in Portugal – cuts through the region and gives the place its name, bank of the Duero.

For centuries this was border country and was defended by castles which are a common sight to this day and explains why it is called the land of castles – Castilla. There are records from about 800 of the Moors calling it Al-Qila, or ‘the castled’ high plains.

As far as wine is concerned, for millennia there must have been wine made here, as there was all over the peninsula, but it must have been fairly rudimentary and just for drinking rather than thinking about.

It was not until Don Eloy Lecanda y Chave returned to his native Castilla y León from Bordeaux, where he had been trained as winemaker. His family owned an estate near Valbuena de Duero, about as far west as you can go on my map and still be in Ribera del Duero, and he returned brimming with ideas of how to transform the wines. He brought French grape varieties, oak barrels and modern French know how and set about creating wines on the Médoc model. He called his wine Vega Sicilia and it remains one of the finest, most expensive and sought after of all Spanish wines. Rioja was being developed in a similar way at the same time and this article about the history of Rioja might help.

For decades Vega Sicilia was all on its own as the sole fine wine of the region and it was not until the twentieth century that others saw the potential for quality wine here. Firstly the Protos cooperative in Penafiel was created in 1927, but it was not really until the 1980s that the Ribera del Duero revolution took place, with new vineyards being planted and wineries built.

Penafiel Castle dominates the wine making town.

Penafiel Castle dominates the wine making town.

What happened was that modern knowhow had allowed these new pioneers – chef amongst them Alejandro Fernandez of Pesquera – to craft wines that were quite different from Vega Sicilia. More modern, with less oak ageing, more ripe fruit characters and more focus on the the local grape instead of the French varieties.

That grape is a clone of Tempranillo – the grape that made Rioja famous – but in Ribera del Duero it is traditionally called either Tinto del Pais (country red) or more fancifully Tinto Fino.

The wines – and the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) /Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O.) only allows reds and rosés – have to contain at least 75% Tinto Fino with the remainder being Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Garnacha or even the excellent local white Albillo grape.

The climate is one of extremes, with hot, short, summers and pretty hard winters. Basically the place is a high plain and the vineyards sit at around 750 to 800 metres above sea level. The cooling benefits of this altitude are very useful with summer temperatures often reaching over 40˚C. Then there are really big night time drops in temperature, often as much as 20˚C. This Diurnal Temperature Variation allows the vine to rest overnight and preserves acidity and freshness in the grapes, which can make the finished wine more elegant and fine. It also slows down the ripening process, so you have a better chance of producing balanced ripe grapes, rather than overly ripe, alcoholic, raisin-like grapes.

Historically these cool conditions made ripening the grapes very hard indeed and would have produced pretty thin wines. So in the main it had to wait for modern viticulture and winemaking knowledge and techniques for the region to reliably produce wines that could take their place on the world market.

Vega Sicilia is a style and type of wine on its own and has very little in common with most of the red wines of the region – much like Château Musar being quite different from the rest of the wines of Lebanon.

What I like about the region’s wines is how unlike Rioja they are. They may technically be made from Tempranillo, but they never have that dry, savoury tinge that is the hallmark of Rioja to me. No, a good, Ribera del Duero should display concentrated, dark fruits. They should be vivid and rich, with sometimes an almost new world softness to them. However, running through them there should be a backbone of acidity – but not to Sangiovese or Nebbiolo levels – that makes them excellent with the rich, fatty meat dishes that are normal in these parts.

There are a great many wines from Ribera del Duero available. Some are great, many are good and a few even disappoint, but I think there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from this exciting region’s wines.

Technically they use the same labelling system as Rioja; Reservas are aged for at least 12 months in barrel, Gran Reservas are aged for at leat 12 months in oak barrels and a further 2 years in bottle, while wines that do not mention either of those terms are considered to be joven / young wines and would have either no oak ageing, or less that a year.

Here are a few of my favourites from the region, so are very affordable, while others are more expensive, but I think they all offer value for money.

fincaresalso2015 Finca Resalso
Bodegas Emilio Moro
This is the entry level wine from Bodegas Emilio Moro which is one of the very best producers in the region and I think the pedigree really shows. It is relatively light and fresh, but the fruit is nice and ripe, the tannins are smooth and there is a little vanilla and spice from 4 months in oak. 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for £10 a bottle from:
Majestic – £8.99 as part of mixed half dozen.

legaris-roble-8695482014 Legaris Roble
Bodegas Legaris
I really like this estate, they make deliciously drinkable, velvety smooth wines that are always enjoyable. This is the baby of the range, but no less enjoyable for that. This 100% Tinto Fino wine is aged in American oak barrels for 3 months and has big, soft ripe fruit, some spice and smooth tannins. 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £10 a bottle from:
Hennings Wine & Ocado.

b_alta_db_ecologico2015 Dominio Basconcillos Ecológico 6 Meses en Barrica
Dominio Basconcillos
I only discovered this producer recently, but was really impressed with this, their entry level wine. Aged for 6 months in new French oak, this vividly deep purple wine is big, chunky and richly fruity and has silky tannins. 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from £12 a bottle from:
Vinceremos, Vintage RootsOrganic Wine Club & Abel & Cole.

valdubon-roble_hi2014 Valdubón Roblé
Bodegas Valdubón
The Valdubon Estate really do make some lovely, polished wines and this is a deliciously straightforward example with loads of fruit, smooth tannins, creamy ripeness and a light lick of rather nice mocha tinged oak – it is aged for 4 months and Roblé, meaning oak, is an unofficial category that is used to make it clear that it has some oak ageing. 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £12 a bottle from:
Marks & Spencer & Ocado

pago_de_los_capellanes_roble2015 Pago de los Capellanes Roble
Pago de los Capellanes
One of my favourite producers, this artisan estate (Pago means estate) never fails to excite me. This Roble wine spends 5 months in French oak and is juicy and sumptuous, yet smooth. The tannins are nicely integrated as is the oak. The fruit is rich and concentrated, but a little glimmer of red fruit makes the wine fresh and elegant. 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 a bottle from:
Great Western Wine.

crianza2014 Emilio Moro
Bodegas Emilio Moro
Yes, I could not resist another wine from this great producer – they have many more too, but you get the picture. This full bodied red spends a year in French and American oak and you have the coconut and the spices to show for it. It is plush and rich with deep black cherry fruit, chewy tannins and some mocha and dark chocolate too. 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for £16.99 a bottle from:
Majestic – £14.99 as part of mixed half dozen.

sainsburys-condado-de-haza-ribera-del-duero2014 Condado De Haza
Bodegas Alejandro Fernández
This second label from the great Pesquera estate is 100% Tinto Fino aged for 18 months in American oak and it is always something of a blockbuster, full-bodied with big, bold fruit and something of a Napa Valley style. There is some freshness though and and elegance too. 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for £15.00 a bottle from:
Sainsbury’s.

tinto-pesquera-crianza-20132012 Pesquera Crianza
Bodegas Alejandro Fernández
Further up the range from Pesquera, you really begin to see why wines from this estate put the region on the map in the 1980s and were frequently compared to the wines Pomerol by wine critics of the time. I still think it is more Pomerol meets Napa, but either way this is a plush, concentrated, hedonistic wine, full of deep ripe, almost creamy fruit, smooth tannins and seductive milk chocolate. 18 months in oak has given it some vanilla, cedar and mocha notes. 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £21 a bottle from:
Roberson Wine & Tanners.

pago-de-los-capellanes2014 Pago de los Capellanes Crianza
Pago de los Capellanes

This 100% Tinto Fino wine is aged for 18 months in French oak and is even more opulent, concentrated and delicious than the Roble. It’s a little young, but nothing decanting a few hours in advance won’t solve – or you could age it for a few years. 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £22 a bottle from:
Great Western Wine.

v_0392572011 Pago de los Carraovejas Reserva
Pago de los Carraovejas

Another producer that I really admire. This is Tinto Fino aged for 12 months in French oak and blended with little dollops of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The extra maturity shows in the nose as it offers rich fruit together with smoky and balsamic notes. The palate is still very lively and has lots of dark fruit together with something nutty and seductively savoury. 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £30 a bottle from:
De Vinos.

pago-de-los-capellanes2013 Pago de los Capellanes Reserva
Pago de los Capellanes

Good though their Roble and Crianza wines are, this Reserva is on a different level of richness and concentration, but elegance too. It is aged for 18 months in new French oak barrels and that riches shows with cedar, spice and mocha, while the fruit is dense and plush. The tannins still offer a little bite, but nothing too astringent.  93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £38 a bottle from:
Great Western Wine.

vega-sicilia-valbuena-5-2009-es-bl-0199-09a2011 Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5˚
Bodegas Vega Sicilia

This is often described as the ‘second wine’ of Vega Sicilia – the ‘grand vin’ is called Unico – but I think it is really just a different wine. For a start it is 100% Tinto Fino, whereas Unico is a blend, and secondly it is only aged in oak for 3 years – and then a further 2 in bottle before being released in its 5th year – hence 5˚. This is a brilliant wine from a fabulous vintage, it is complex, fine and perfumed too. There is a lot going on and the tannins are just beginning to be silky, serve it with lamb. 95/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £84 a bottle from:
The Wine Society.

As you can see, there are is a great variation in price, but all these wines are very good examples at their different levels. I am absolutely certain that any serious red wine drinker would enjoy these wines, indeed I could have included a few more, but I had to stop somewhere! So the next time you are choosing a red to go with that special dinner, give one of these a go.I am sure it will be just the thing.

Wine of the Week – a great, great value Rioja & a couple of real treats for Christmas

Looking south across Rioja just north of Haro.

Looking south across Rioja just north of Haro.

Rioja is – I think – one of the great wine regions of the world. However, there is plenty of pretty underwhelming Rioja – and I am talking about red Rioja here, I have written about white Rioja here – produced. Increasingly there is reliable, but unexciting Rioja at lower prices, while the more exciting examples – and here I really mean the Reservas and Gran Reservas – cost a bit more than most of us can justify for an everyday sort of wine. I have written extensively about the history of Rioja and you can read the piece by clicking here.

Rioja Map 2013

Map of Rioja – click for a larger view. Non watermarked maps are available by agreement.

Vineyards near Haro in Rioja.

Vineyards near Haro in Rioja.

Well the other day I tasted an affordable Rioja Reserva that was quite delicious, full of character, full of flavour and full of fruit. I kept coming back to it to check, but it really was very good. So I have made it my Wine of the Week.

cune_reserva2011 Cune Reserva
DOCa Rioja
Bodegas CVNE
Haro
Rioja
Spain

CVNE, or Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España (The Wine Company of Northern Spain) was founded in 1879 by Eusebio and Raimundo Real de Asúa and is still controlled by their direct descendants. CVNE was written as Cune in the old days, so that became the brand and is pronounced ‘Coon-eh’. Over the decades other labels have been introduced, Monopole, Imperial, Viña Real and Contino, but the Cune wines themselves remain the core of the range and provide the more everyday wines and the midweek treats.

Bodegas CVNE in Haro.

Bodegas CVNE in Haro.

As such an old established and still family run producer, CVNE are often regarded as being very traditional. However, I am rather of the opinion that this is not entirely the case. There are traditional aspects to them certainly, but having been familiar with their wines for many decades now, I think the wines are richer than they used to be, with more emphasis on fruit – which for me is a very good thing.

This Reserva comes from the stunning 2011 vintage which is officially classified as ‘Excelente’ or excellent. It is a classic Rioja blend of  85% Tempranillo, 5% Garnacha, 5% Mazuelo and 5% Graciano. The grapes were hand picked and then fermented in stainless steel and the wine was aged for aged for 18 months in American oak barrels and some French oak barrels too. The wine was aged for a further year in bottle before release.

The colour is deep and bright and the nose has lifted, fragrant fruit, cherry, plum, blackberry all mingle together with vanilla and spice and coffee together with a touch of something leathery and savoury. The palate is rich, concentrated and rounded with supple tannins, intense dark fruit, spice and a little touch of welcome, balancing freshness. It finishes pretty long and is very satisfying.

I have known this wine for a long time and often show it on my courses, but it was nice to reacquaint myself with it and to realise what a very good wine it actually is. It also delivers a huge amount of pleasure – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for £11-£13 per bottle from Majestic, Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar, Ocado, Asda Wine Shop and Bargain Booze and many others – click here for more stockists.
Available in the US for around $20- $25, for US stockists click here.

Recently I have also tasted a couple of other wines from CVNE, the Imperial Reserva and Gran Reserva. Launched in the 1920s as a premium Rioja the wine was originally aimed at the UK market and bottled in Imperial Pints, hence the name. They were both magnificent wines and would be wonderful to enjoy over Christmas:

Wines ageing in the Imperial barrel cellar at CVNE. This cellar was designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Wines ageing in the Imperial barrel cellar at CVNE. This cellar was designed by Gustave Eiffel.

imp_reserva2010 Imperial Reserva
DOCa Rioja
Bodegas CVNE
Haro
Rioja
Spain

Another stellar vintage, this 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo blend was aged for 2 years in American and French oak casks and another 2 years in bottle.

The nose is rich and powerful with ripe black and red fruit, vanilla, spice, herbs, coffee and leather. The palate is pretty full and silky with that rich fruit and the herbal, spice, earthy tastes giving an almost sweet and sour character. A complex and delicious wine that drinks very well already, but that touch of chalkiness to the tannins will soften and it would get more complex with age – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £20-£24 per bottle from Majestic, The Wine Reserve, The Co-operative, Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar, The Wine Society and many others – click here for more stockists.
Available in the US for around $32- $38 – for US stockists click here.

imp_granreserva2008 Imperial Gran Reserva
DOCa Rioja
Bodegas CVNE
Haro
Rioja
Spain

2008 was not rated quite as highly as 2010 and 2011, but CVNE still got some fabulous results. This 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo blend was aged in American and French oak casks for 2 years and in bottle for another three years before release.

This is a big wine still, but beginning to show a little maturity. The colour is more ruby and the fruit is more strawberry with a touch of richer blackberry. There is also vanilla,  spicy, toasty oak and a real savoury note. This follows onto the palate with umami, balsamic characters as well as the rich fruit, leathery and earthy flavours, dried fruit, spice and supple, silky tannins. All in all this is a real treat and a fine Rioja – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £20-£24 per bottle from Tanners, The Wine Society (2010 vintage), The Wine Reserve and many others – click here for more stockists.
Available in the US for around $70 – for US stockists click here.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I do sometimes do some work for CVNE, but the views expressed here are my own and I was not asked or paid to write the piece.

Wine of the Week – a touch of Spanish tradition

rio-vino-tondonia-copyRecently I led a tasting of wines made by Bodegas López de Heredia in Rioja – it was at the West London Wine School, check out more of their tastings here. All the wines were excellent, but even in such exalted company, some stood out from the pack. The undisputed highlights were the astonishing 1994 Viña Tondonia Gran Reservas, both red and white, which were wines of incredible finesse and beauty. As you might expect, wines of that quality and age are not cheap, but there were some stunning wines at lower prices that offered superb value for money too. I loved one of them so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Rioja Map 2013

gravonia2005 Viña Gravonia Blanco Crianza 
Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia
DOCa / PDO Rioja
Haro
Spain

Bodegas López de Heredia was only the third bodega to be founded in Rioja after the wine revolution began there in the 1840s-1860s. They were founded in 1877, so really were at the forefront of making Rioja the great region that we know today. Rioja’s development was a slow process in truth, you can read a history of Rioja that I wrote by clicking here, it is a story worth reading as it might not quite be what you expect.

López de Heredia was founded by Don Rafael López de Heredia y Laneta and it is still owned and run by his family to this day. A visit there is always worthwhile as it widely regarded as the most traditional Rioja producer there is. Rioja actually took quite a while to develop its style and to formulate its ‘traditions’, even López de Heredia. Oak ageing was used from the beginning, it was what set Rioja apart from the rest of Spain, but the use of the terms Reserva and Gran Reserva was not established until the 1920s at the earliest and the ageing regulations were not established until the 1940s. So whether the wines are traditional or merely idiosyncratic, I couldn’t really say. I just know they are very good.

The wines are very unusual, especially the whites. They undergo long ageing in wood and develop very complex characters as a result. This ageing leads to a note of oxidation in the white wines that is not totally unlike a Fino or Manzanilla sherry. This resemblance can be over stated though, I do not really enjoy Sherry, but I love these wines, so don’t let that idea put you off.

f2_lh_vinedos_27

López de Heredia’s vineyards, Viña Tondonia is contained within the loop of the Ebro River in the foreground, Viña Gravonia is just behind – photo courtesy of the winery.

They make their most famous wines from their  Tondonia vineyard, which is why Viña Tondonia forms part of the company’s name. Tondonia can be either red or white and are labelled as Reserva or Gran Reserva. They also produce red Reservas and Gran Reservas from the nearby Viña Bosconia vineyard, while their red Crianza is called Viña Cubillo and comes from the Viña Cubillas vineyard. Their white Crianzas come from the Viña Laconia vineyard and are labelled as Viña Gravonia.

ldh-mapa-vinedos-vineyards

Map of López de Heredia’s vineyards – courtesy of the winery.

All of these wines are aged for a lot longer in wood than the regulations require. Gran Reserva reds spend 9 years in barrel and the whites 10 years. Reservas spend 6 years in barrel, while red Crianzas are aged for 3 years in barrel and the whites for 4.

López de Heredia stick to using American oak, as is traditional in Rioja – you can read why here. However, it is American oak with a difference. They buy whole trees and ship them to Spain where they are split, seasoned outside and turned into barrels. This contrasts with American oak barrels made in America which are sawn – which cuts the grain allowing more flavour to come out – and seasoned in a kiln, which concentrates the lactones to give that creamy, sweet vanilla character so typical of American oak and Rioja. So although López de Heredia age their wines in American oak for a long time, it is a more subtle process than you might expect. Also the wines are aged for a short time in new oak before being racked into old, neutral barrels for the extended ageing.

Barrel ageing at López de Heredia - photo courtesy of the winery.

Barrel ageing at López de Heredia – photo courtesy of the winery.

The Viña Gravonia Crianza Blanco is 100% Viura, the Tondonia whites also have 10% Malvasia to make them a little richer. It was fermented in big wooden vats with a spontaneous fermentation of the wild yeast and then aged for 4 years in barrel.

The nose is extraordinary, with that touch of Fino sherry, toasted almonds, olives, a note of the sea, honeysuckle, beeswax, gentle spice, orange pekoe tea, firm white peach, quince and orange peel. The palate is dominated by the acidity and mineral character together with cinder toffee, honeycomb, dried apricots, caramelised orange, waxy lemon and almonds. There is even a very subtle feel of tannin on the long, long finish. It is an extraordinary wine and has a little more weight, concentration and fat then the more widely available 2006 vintage – 2005 was the better year.

Try it with classic fish dishes like sole meunière, or grilled Dover sole, but I expect it would be great with just about any fish dish, anything in a creamy sauce and roast chicken too – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £19 per bottle – for stockists click here.
For US stockists click here.

It won’t be for everyone, but this wine is a delicious example of a really rare style of wine. It certainly excited me at the tasting and thrilled everyone else there too. What’s more it gives an idea of what these great old style Rioja whites are like without having to pay a fortune. Do try it or a Viña Tondonia white if you can.

 

Wine of the Week – Txakoli and a final fling of summer

Ameztoi with Getaria in the background.

Ameztoi with Getaria in the background, photo courtesy of the winery.

I have just returned from a wonderful trip to Australia and New Zealand and will be telling you about some of my experiences over there in the future.

In the meantime, I have returned to some very warm weather and so sought out some lovely fresh white wine to enjoy with some seafood so that I could properly celebrate this last fling of summer.

The wine I found was a Txakoli – Chacolí in Castilian Spanish – which comes from the País Vasco, Spain’s Autonomous Basque Region. Txakoli is a wine style that I love and have written about before, but until recently it has been considered somewhat obscure. Well now it is becoming much better known and easier to find and I discovered that Marks & Spencer carry a rather a good one. In fact I liked it so much that I made it my Wine of the Week.

Wine map of Spain, see Montsant in the north east - click for a larger view

Wine map of Spain, see Getariako Txakolina on the Atlantic coast to the east of Bilbao – click for a larger view.

txacoli2015 Alaia Txakoli
Amesguren
PDO / DO Getariako Txakolina
País Vasco
Spain

There are three Txakoli DOs, but, much as I like some other Txakoli wines – especially the great Itasas Mendi 7 from DO Bizkaiko Txakolina near Bilbao, try it if you can – UK stockists are here, US stockists here – I am especially drawn to the Getariako Txakolina that is grown on the wild coastline around the beautiful fishing village of Getaria 30km west of San Sebastian. Getaria is a wonderful place almost totally dedicated to hedonism, bars and restaurants line the streets. Much of the cooking is done outside, so the smell of grilling fish is a constant and guaranteed to make you hungry. In many ways it works to go there on your way to San Sebastian as it prepares you for the delights to come.

Getaria harbour.

Getaria harbour.

Fish being cooked in Getaria.

Fish being cooked in Getaria.

One of the great pinxo bars in Getaria.

One of the great pintxo bars in Getaria, note the sea urchin and octopus.

If you are a hedonist and like food and wine, then San Sebastian – Donostia in Basque – is a place you must visit. It is teeming with bars and life, the best tapas in Spain – they call them pintxos – and loads of Michelin star restaurants too, if that is your thing.

Txakoli should really be poured from a great hight into a tumbler – get a Txakoli pourer if you can.

My Txakoli being poured in San Sebastian, note the Txakoli pourer.

My Txakoli being poured in San Sebastian, note the green Txakoli pourer in the end of the bottle, it helps to aerate the wine and they also use them for cider in the Basque country.

For more detail on Txakoli, read the piece that I wrote for Catavino a few years ago, by clicking here.

This particular wine is very clever sourcing by M&S, because the producer, Amesguren, are actually the people who make Ameztoi, which along with Txakolin Gorria, is considered the best producer of Getariako Txakolina. So we know the provenance of this wine is good and this wine has a better label than Ameztoi!

This wine is made from the local Hondarrabi Zuri – I wonder why nobody grows that anywhere else? – and has a light natural fizz from the fermentation, which makes it taste really fresh.

And that is the secret with this stuff, keeping it fresh, light and zesty. The nose is floral and citric and has a touch of the seashore and something saline about it. Then it just dances across your palate, light, fresh, zingy, spritz and yet with waves of flavour, lots of light flavour. Green apples, grapefruit, nettles, lime, blackcurrant leaf are all there, but in a sort of sketched in way, rather than in a fully formed picture. Instead this wine wins with a thrilling mineral and crisp acid finish that just whets your appetite for more – more of this, some seafood and anything else. What’s more it only has 10.5% alcohol, so won’t addle too many brain cells either.

A swankier pinxo bar in San Sebastian.

A swankier pintxo bar in San Sebastian.

Try it with grilled prawns, scallops, oysters, sea bream, sea bass, sushi, a Chinese takeaway or on its own, anyway you have it, it’s a lovely wine – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for £10 per bottle from Marks & Spencer – right now, September 2016 it is only £8 a bottle.
As far as I am aware, Alaia Txakoli is not available in the US, but Ameztoi is well distributed – for stockists click here.

La Cepa, perhaps the classic pinxo bar in San Sebastian.

La Cepa, perhaps the classic pintxo bar in San Sebastian.

 

Wine of the Week – a delicious Vermouth from Rioja

The Vermouth display at La Casa del Abuelo in Madrid.

The Vermouth display at La Casa del Abuelo in Madrid.

Until recently I could not remember the last time I had drunk any Vermouth. In my early years I used to sell it and it was so fashionable that it was positioned right at the back of the shop, next to the equally popular Sherries and Tonic Wines – ah the early 1980s really were another country.

Recently though I have started becoming aware of Vermouth being much more visible than I can remember for a very long time – I suppose it might be because of the big trend for Gin and Martinis, whatever the reason it is fascinating to see this old favourite having a resurgence, however modest.

A Vermouth is a fascinating wine style – even if you don’t like them. It is both a fortified wine and an aromatised wine.

There are four components in the making of Vermouth:

Base wine

Sugar syrup or a mistelle (fortified grape juice)

Spirit

Herbs, roots, plants and spices to give the flavouring – the most historically important flavouring is the wormwood shrub, wermut in German – pronounced vermut – from which the drink gets its name.

It is worth noting that like gruit and hops in beer, the herbs and spices were originally meant to act as a preservative and to have medicinal purposes too, not just to be a flavouring, in the distant past they probably covered up the smell and taste of some pretty rank wine too!

How you make Vermouth:

The base wine is sweetened with the sugar syrup or the mistelle. The herbs are macerated in the spirit and this flavoured alcohol is blended into the sweetened wine – it can then be aged for complexity or left as it is for freshness.

Apparently the first Vermouth to be bottled and sold was created by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in Turin, Piemonte, in 1786. His invention was the first commercial red Vermouth and a form of it is still available as Carpano Classico Vermouth, while a newer recipe, called Antica Formula Carpano caught my eye recently and that has gone for a bigger flavour and the artisan look, so much so that you could be forgiven for assuming that it is the older product.

All other commercial styles – as opposed those made by farmers for their own consumption – seem to have been based on what Carpano created and white, rosé and drier styles followed over time. White Vermouth was apparently created by Dolin in Chambéry in Savoie in 1821. Interestingly Chambéry is just over the Alps from Piemonte and in 1932 Chambéry was created an appellation contrôlée, or PDO, the only one for Vermouth. In my youth I remember enjoying Dolin’s Chamberyzette – available here and here, this is their white Vermouth blended with wild Alpine strawberry juice – I used to love, perhaps I still would if I tried it?

The wonderful menu mirror at

The wonderful menu mirror at La Casa del Abuelo.

I bet you are wondering where this is leading, well recently I was in Madrid and was having a happy time in one of the great bars of that city of great bars, La Casa del Abuelo the original one at 12 Calle Victoria. This Madrid institution has been around since 1906 – it seems that Ernest Hemingway was a frequent visitor during the 1920s and ’30s, but then every bar in Madrid claims that, and he drank so much they may well all be right – and it only serves prawns. The other branches have bigger menus, but the original one only serves gambas done six different ways. The classics are Gambas al AjilloGambas a la Plancha, Langostinos con Gabardina (big prawns in batter – hence gaberdines or overcoats! They rather wonderfully translate it as muffled shrimps) and their Croquetas de Gamba Roja (red prawn croquettes – they’re really good).

They have a small wine list nowadays, but the first time I went there – some 30 years ago – they only served 2 drinks, both of which are still available, a sweet red wine or a red Vermouth.

Well on my recent rip I ordered the Vermouth because a friend had mentioned this particular drink to me – he actually ships it into the UK, and I was intrigued. I tried it and really enjoyed it, so have made it my Wine of the Week.

VermutVermut Lacuesta Rojo
Bodegas Martinez Lacuesta
Haro
Rioja
Spain

I have long been an admirer of Bodegas Martinez Lacuesta. Founded in Haro in 1895 they have quietly got on with making superb wines ever since. They produce four different wine ranges, the classic Martinez Lacuesta wines and the somewhat funkier Comprador range which have more Garnacha in them than Tempranillo – Garnacha is usually very much in the supporting role in Rioja. Nowadays they also make make some excellent speciality Riojas and a couple of white Ruedas.

‘Vermut’ is a real speciality of the bodega – they have been bottling it since 1937, but I bet it has been made since the beginning. Nowadays they actually produce five different Vermuts, Blanco (white), Reserva Roble Francés (Reserva aged in French oak), Reserva Acacia (Reserva aged in acacia wood barrels) and a Limited Edition – Vermut Edición Limitada – which is aged in barrel for 14 months.

However, it is the Rojo, or red Vermut, that is the mainstay of their Vermouth production. It is all hand made in small batches from grapes grown in Martinez Lacuesta’s own vineyards. The twist here is that the botanicals, herbs etc, are added to white wine and then aged in American oak barrels for three years – this also introduces sweet vanilla flavours that show up in the finished Vermouth. This mixture is then added to the base red wine along with sugar, caramel and alcohol and aged in French oak barrels for another three months.

The nose is very complex with spices, herbs, dried fruit, toffee, vanilla and camomile. The palate is mellow with sweet dried fruit and an attractively herbal and medicinal character. There is plenty of richness and sweetness, but that is balanced by the herbs and touch of bitterness.

I actually found it really appetising, invigorating and unexpectedly satisfying. I don’t think it went with the gambas, but it was a good drink. I drank it neat with ice, but I am willing to bet it would be delicious with a slice of orange and a splash of sparkling water or lemonade, or even some orange juice – 88/100 points.

In the meantime, Vermut Lacuesta Rojo is available in the UK from Basco – formerly Greys Fine Foods – for £13.50 a bottle.
For US stockists click here.

Stop press:

Since returning from Madrid I have discovered that Vermut Lacuesta Rojo makes a superb Marianito cocktail – simpler recipes are available:

Ingredients: 8 parts of Vermut Lacuesta Rojo well chilled
1-2 parts of gin
1-2 parts of Curaçao orange
1 touch of Campari
1 touch of angostura
orange or lemon juice at will
ice
1 green olive

Preparation: Put all the liquid ingredients in a mixing bowl with ice. Mix without shaking and serve with more ice and remember to add the olive, although I prefer a slice of orange.

Wandering around Madrid I quickly realised that Vermouth is now big in Spain and is produced right across the country. There are plenty of examples from Catalunya, even from Priorat, some from Jerez, including those made by Bodegas LustauCruz Conde Vermouth made from Pedro Ximenez in Montilla-MorillesRibera del Duero and there is even a Galician Vermouth made from Albariño grapes and I intend to taste as many as possible in my forthcoming visits to Spain.

It is amazing to think that this drink that I had almost forgotten about is enjoying such an exciting renaissance and giving so much pleasure. If you are open to interesting and complex drinks, do give one a try soon.