Strawberry Fields Forever

red soils

Les Freses de Jesús Pobre.

Spain never lets me down. I love wine from all around the world and am passionate about wines from everywhere and about the countries and regions that spawn them, but I always return to my first love – Spain.

I am only in this business because of my misspent youth in Spain and the healthy relationship – I hope – that gave me to alcohol. It certainly made me like wine, but I am not sure that is entirely the same thing.

Over the years I have seen huge changes in Spanish wine. Once upon a time only the reds were really good and even then only from one or two regions – principally Rioja of course. During my 34 years in the wine business the wine revolution has spread out throughout Spain and produced startlingly good results.

Rioja has got better and better and high quality reds are now made in more and more unlikely places and the reds of the south are now at least as exciting as the more traditional regions of northern Spain. Look out for red wines from Valencia and Utiel Requena made from the Bobal grape and wines from Alicante and Jumilla made from Monastrell – aka Mourvédre and Mataro.

Torres led the way with modern whites in the 1960s and ’70s and today the white wines of Spain are amongst the most exciting of all. Galicia, Rueda and Rioja all make world class white wines today, but so too do some much less well known areas like Terra Alta in Catalunya which produces blindingly good Garnacha Blanca / Garnatxa Blanc / Grenache Blanc. Albillo is making some stunning white wines in Castilla y León, while Merseguera is the white grape to watch in the Comunidad Valenciano, especially Alicante.

One of the really lovely things that I have noticed in Spain in recent years is the way passionate people are training as winemakers, working in the industry for a while to gain experience and then buying or renting small parcels of vines in order to craft very personal wines. These projects are really thrilling and you can see them up and down the country, budding winemakers nurturing forgotten vineyards and coaxing them back to life – or sometimes planting them from scratch – and producing wonderfully expressive wines. The classic examples of course are Enrique Basarte and Elisa Úcar’s Domaine Lupier in Navarra and Charlotte Allen’s Piritia in DO Arribes on the Western fringes of Castilla y León, but such micro-wineries can be found everywhere and they often give interesting impetus to regions that in the past have often been very over reliant on the local cooperatives. In much of Spain from the 1940s onwards big production was the thing, so the cooperatives churned out huge volumes of palatable – by local standards – wine to slake the thirst of local workers with almost no regard to quality as we would understand it today. All that is changing of course, but anything that can help that is all to the good and the creation of new, quality focused estates even in unlikely corners of Spain can only help.

Casa-T view

The view from the family home, Casa Tranquilla – photo by Hilary Sadler, my brother. That mountain is the Montgó, you will note that we can see the sea between the land and the sky. Las Freses is perhaps half a kilometre round the terraced hill in the foreground, behind and to the left of the tree in the front and centre of the photograph you can just about make out the road that curves around to the crossroads.

I have family in Spain so visit rather a lot. Indeed my family have had a holiday home in the Xàbia, or Jávea, area of the Comunidad Valenciana since 1965, the year I was born and the year that I first went to Spain. Initially we had an apartment on the Arenal, or beach area, and I well remember standing on the balcony and looking out at orange groves and vineyards as far as my eyes could see. Today all you see is more blocks of flats – thankfully for the view they are all low rise. In the early 1970s my father had a villa built near the tiny village of Jesús Pobre some 12 kilometres or so inland and that is where he now lives.

Spain QS Map incl Javea & watermark

Map of Spain’s wine regions. I have marked Javea and Jesús Pobre.

Last week was my father’s 91st birthday and so I popped out to help him celebrate.

Just around the corner from our house – and down a very steep hillside – is a crossroads. When I was a boy that crossroads was in a deep pine forest. As more and more villas were built, more and more land was cleared for more building, so the pine trees were cut down on our side of the road with a view to putting up some villas. Things move slowly in Spain and permission was not forthcoming, so as a stopgap the owner turned the land into a strawberry farm, which it remained for many years.

In the meantime there were quite a lot of vineyards around that grew Moscatel – Muscat – to produce the local Moscatel de la Marina, – also see here – a lightly fortified Muscat made from overripe and partially dried grapes. Slowly people lost the taste for this wine and the vineyards often fell into disuse, almost never grubbed up, but abandoned.

the winery

Les Freses complete with the Montgó and all that remains of the pine trees behind.

A few years ago the land around our village was declared agricultural land and no new building is permitted. The owner could no longer develop it and sold it to Mara Bañó who from 2009 has transformed it into a vineyard. She has also built a beautiful and superbly equipped micro-winery –  I have seen smaller, but not many – that is just full of the most wonderful new equipment and made me itch to have a go at winemaking.

In order to show continuity with the past Mara named her new estate and winery Les Freses de Jesús Pobre. I assume that les freses is the Valenciano word for strawberries, but Valenciano is usually the same or similar to Catalan and I understand that the Catalan word for strawberries is maduixes – so who knows.

I had wanted to try the wines ever since I heard about them, so dropped in and had a chat with Mara and tried all her wines that were available.

What I found amazed me. This area has no real tradition of producing quality wines at all and almost no tradition of producing dry wine, yet here were world class wines being made in a place that is never mentioned in any of the wine books.

As you might expect from a small estate made in a dry place by a young and passionate wine maker, these are “natural wines grown organically, fermented spontaneously with the wild yeast and have as little intervention as possible and as little sulphur used as is possible.

Mara does grow some black grapes and so a red wine and a rosé are in the pipeline, but the focus is the whites for the moment, which I think suits the region, its food and climate.

Given their diet – this near the coast anyway – it is strange how resistant the Spanish have always been to white wines. They even have a saying “si no es tinto, no es vino“, which means if it isn’t red then it isn’t wine and until very recently they lived by that. Nowadays the sheer quality of Spanish white wines seems to have broken that down somewhat and they are beginning to stock pretty good ranges of white in the shops and supermarkets. Even my favourite restaurant in Valencia, which used to only list 1 white wine, compared to 25 reds, has now greatly expanded its offering.

Les Freses

Young wire trained vines at Les Freses with the Montgó behind – photo courtesy of the winery.

Mara only grows one white grape at the moment, the traditional Moscatel de Alejandría – Muscat of Alexandria –  but she makes three very different wines from it. The estate forms a single, triangular shaped block on the lower, very gentle slopes of the iconic Montgó mountain which rears up very near our house like a huge squatting elephant. It rises to 753 metres above sea level and dominates the area. It runs west to east, so vines on its south face sit in a perfect sun trap. The soils are pretty rocky limestone with rich red clay too.

The wines

the bottles

2017 Les Freses Blanc Moscatell Sec

100% Moscatel, harvested by hand and sent to the sorting table for a rigorous selection and manual destemming. Spontaneous fermentation in stainless steel, with its own yeasts and then aged for 4 months on the lees in 54 litre glass demijohns – that is very traditionally Spanish but usually only seen for rancio wines and dessert wines.

This is the standard wine from the estate and it is very appealing, lively with lifted notes of peach, peach skin, almonds and sea salt.

The palate is pristine, salty, mineral and ever so slightly smoky – those lees? – with a silky texture, taut peach and succulent grape flavours, enough acidity and freshness to balance it and that saline touch on the finish. Perfect with sea bass and much else I am sure – 90/100 points.

€10 per bottle locally.

It is at this point that I should admit that I generally avoid dry Muscat wines. I do not like it as a grape generally, finding it cloying, flowery and low in acidity. That being said I loved this, it really worked and I drank it all up!

Bush vines

Bush vines at Les Freses.

2017 Les Freses Àmfora Blanc Sec

This is the top dry white from the estate with a careful selection of the best fruit and then fermented in a big tinaja, which is like a big earthenware pot like a Qvervi in Georgia. They are very traditional in Spain and were widely used up until the 1970s/1980s. In those days they were usually buried in the ground and fell out of favour because they were usually very old and hard to clean so spoiled the wine in many cases. Nowadays they are much better made and easier to clean.

The nose is less vivacious and more dense but with lovely notes of almond and delicate orange.

This wine is much more about the palate and is more concentrated with a gorgeous silky texture that flows very attractively across your senses. There is dense stone fruit, the acidity feels more vibrant, there is a twist of orange peel, those almonds are toasted this time. It has that salinity and a tangy, vibrant feel that balances the viscosity and richness. This wine is amazingly intense and fundamentally dry, but the intensity of the fruit almost makes you think it is slightly sweet – so it feels sort of sweet and sour. A great wine – 92/100 points.

€20 per bottle locally.

2017 Les Freses Dolç

I actually do not know how this wine is made. It is not fortified, or doesn’t taste it anyway, so I think the grapes are late harvested and slightly dried.

It has a lovely golden caramel colour with aromas of light raisins, dates and figs, rich nuts, buttery caramel and orange peel.

The palate is sweet without being cloying. Caramel, creamy orange, fig, cinder toffee, intensely ripe apricots and fleshy peaches all swirl around the palate. A touch of bitterness and sweet spice keeps it balanced and accentuates the complexity. A stunning dessert wine of great class and complexity – 93/100 points.

€17 per bottle locally.

Carob tart

The carob tart that I enjoyed with the Les Freses Dolç in Pedro’s, the main bar and restaurant in the small village of Jesús Pobre. I had never tasted carob before, except for nibbling on the beans plucked from the trees growing around our house when I was a boy, it was very good and perfect with the wine.

These are wines of the highest order, yet made quite casually by a single passionate person. They are produced in a place long written off by the great and the good of wine production and because they come from my spiritual home I was pretty emotional about them and more delighted to taste them than you can imagine. Do try them if you get the area – and I know lots of people do – you can buy them at the winery and in the local wineshops – such as this one: Vins i Mes, but not supermarkets. Many of the local restaurants – including Pedro’s – have them too.

I was put in mind of this quote by Matt Kramer the American wine writer: “The greatest wines today are not, paradoxical as this may sound, the so-called great wines”. The wines that excite me most and give me the most pleasure often come from the unlikely corners and forgotten places.

Wine of the Week – a Happy Affordable Red

El Lloar in Western Priorat – photo courtesy of Turisme Priorat.

We all love a bargain, I know that I do. What’s more sometimes you just want a nice, drinkable bottle of wine that makes you happy. Well I have just tried a bottle that does exactly that. The fact that it comes from one of the world’s greatest wine regions is just an added bonus. What’s more it is utterly delicious and delivers outstanding value for money.

The wine comes from Priorat, that wild, rugged mountain region of Catalunya in north east Spain. Priorat is a little inland from Tarragona and is one of jut two wine regions in Spain to be awarded the highest quality status of Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa), or more correctly the Catalan Denominació d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ) – Rioja is the other DOCa.

Wine map of Spain, Priorat is the tiny yellow speck near Barcelona – click for a larger view

Priorat and neighbouring Montsant in a little more detail – map courtesy of Turisme Priorat.

Priorat wines are mainly red, although some wonderful whites are made there, and are often eye-wateringly expensive as production is small and there is huge demand. Generally speaking I would urge people to try the neighbouring wines of Montsant – this small region is equally rugged and surrounds Priorat like a doughnut, or nearby Terra Alta. However, unusually this Priorat is an absolute bargain. What’s more it is delicious, so I have made it my Wine of the Week.

The wonderful landscape of Priorat – photo courtesy of the Consell Regulador.

2014 Vinya Carles Crianza
Bodegas Reserva de la Tierra
DOCa / DOQ / PDO Priorat
Catalunya
Spain

As so often the case with supermarket wines that are not established brands, it is difficult to get much information about this wine. The name Vinya would suggest that this is a single vineyard wine, however in truth I know almost nothing about it. I do not even know what grapes are in it. Priorat is normally a blend based on Garnacha / Grenache and often has some Carignan and perhaps some Syrah or Cabernet too, but I have no idea what this is – except that it tastes good.

I do know that it’s a Crianza though, so it has spent some months in oak.

Ok, so it is a bright, purple tinged garnet showing both its youth and that touch of barrel. The nose is crushed red and black fruit, fragrant vanilla and sweet baking spice, while the palate is smooth and velvety. The tannins, such as they are, are so soft and ripe and sweet that you do not notice them. The fruit is generous and upfront like a summer pudding, while a little structure is given by the spices, the vanilla oak and a touch of black pepper.

The rugged terrain and bush vines of Priorat – photo courtesy of Turisme Priorat.

I have to warn you, this wine just slips down and bottles empty willy-nilly. It is in the end a pretty simple wine, but very, very drinkable and delivers a great deal of enjoyment for not much outlay. It’s very versatile and soft enough to drink on its own or with easygoing dishes like sausage and mash, pies, pizza or pasta. I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s the best sub £6 red wine around right now and what’s more it gets better if let open overnight too – 87/100 points. I have marked it up a bit because it delivers such pleasure and deliciousness at a low price.

Perhaps it doesn’t exactly show you very much about Priorat, but it is a very nice glass – or 3 – of wine.

Available in the UK from Lidl for £5.99 per bottle.

If you are after trying Priorat’s more ambitious wines then a good starting point could be the rather lovely Salmos made by Torres at their relatively new, dedicated Priorat winey. It is a legal requirement that Priorat wine must be made and aged within the boundaries of the DOQ / DOCa. This wine on a completely different scale and is a terrific example of what the region does really well.

Wine of the Week – a sumptuous and great value Rioja

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Looking south across Rioja just north of Haro.

I love red Rioja. Spain has much more to offer the wine enthusiast than just Rioja, but Rioja can make very fine wines indeed – hence its fame.

The trouble with Rioja is the question of what you are going to get. They aren’t all good, some are downright ordinary in fact, so you must be wary. However, red Rioja can deliver a great deal of pleasure and many very high quality wines.

As far as good value is concerned though the picture is also mixed. I generally hold it to be true that cheaper Reservas and Gran Reservas, from bodegas that have no fame or are just made up brands for the supermarkets, are normally not worth drinking. For me the reliable, value category of red Rioja is the Crianza level, which spend the shortest time ageing in oak.

However, one of the great joys of wine is that every now and again a wine pops up that confounds our beliefs.

p1030336

Vineyards near Haro in Rioja.

Recently I presented a very well received tasting of the wonderful wines of CVNE, one of the truly great Rioja houses recently. All the wines were really good, but for me the absolute star wines were the magnificent 2012 Imperial Reserva, ready to drink and wonderfully refined and elegant – stockists here and here – and the quirkily delicious 2014 Monopole Clasíco white.

Rioja Map 2013

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

I showed a fabulous Crianza from CVNE’s Viña Real estate in Rioja Alavesa. It offered rich fruit and lots of character and showed just how good a Crianza wine can be. However, good though it was, another wine stood out for the mix of quality and amazing value for money. Indeed I liked it so much that it is my Wine of the Week.

CVNE GR2011 Cune Gran Reserva
DOCa Rioja
Haro
Rioja
Spain

Founded in 1879 and still owned and run by members of the founding family, C.V.N.E. – the Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España – is one of the great Rioja houses. I love showing their wines at tastings because they have such a wide range of styles, quality levels and labels as their stable includes the famous Monopole range, the great classic Imperial wines and the two single estate wines of Viña Real and Contino.

The wines labelled as Cute – CVNE in old copperplate script – are their base level wines, but still very good in my opinion. The Barrel Fermented white is a wonderful example of getting the oak just right, while the Crianza is a great value gem and the Cune Reserva is, to quote my friend Tom Canavan, a ‘proper wine’. 

However it is this beauty that currently represents the most amazing value for money and it is a really lovely wine.

The blend is 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo – no Grenache – from vineyards around Haro in Rioja Alta. It is aged for ged for 2 years in mainly American oak, but some French oak as well, and 3 years in bottle. The French oak allows for a little tingle of tannin that suits the wine.

p1030286

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

This is an unashamedly rich Rioja, the lack of Grenache allows the dark fruits to hold sway. It has spice, vanilla, dark plums, blackberries and blueberries on the nose with a light dusting of fresher red plum and raspberry too. The palate is soft, silky, refined and deeply upholstered – sumptuous in fact. There are some savoury, leather notes, a little bite of tannin and some nice freshness all giving definition. It has wonderful concentration – the vintage was very good – with loads of ripe fruit and good length and could have a long life ahead of it if you can resist. Whether you drink it or keep it, I would recommend that you grab some now – 92/100 points.

Drink it with lamb, beef or roast pork, but above all, drink it.

Available in the UK @ £12.50 per bottle – yes £12.50! from Tesco and Tesco Wine by the Case.

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.