Wine of the Week 40 – a southern Spanish sensation

As some of you who read these pages regularly will be aware, I love Spanish wine. I think Spain is a great wine producing country that makes exciting wines in all styles. In truth I think Spain is underappreciated given the quality and value that it produces. It pains me that so many people still just think, if it’s Spanish it must be Rioja. Spain is so much more than just Rioja – great wine region though Rioja is and much as I love good Rioja wines.

I really enjoy introducing drinkers to new regions of Spain, as the wines always seem to go down well and it is always fun seeing someone taste and enjoy a wine for the first time – and often it isn’t only just a new wine, but new region and grape variety too!

Well the other day I showed a red that summed up exactly why I find Spain so exciting. It was a lovely, warming Winter wine that is so delicious to drink and such great value that I made it my Wine of the Week.

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

mas-delmera-monastrell-reserva2008 Mas Delmera Monastrell Reserva
Bodegas Mas Delmera
D.O. Jumilla
Albacete, Spain
Historically the Spanish wines that became famous were all from the north where it is cooler and the conditions less wild. In the south the weather is so hot and the land so wild and rugged that in the past it was very hard to make good wine – the exception is Sherry of course which was fortified in order to preserve it. Other wines did not have the advantage of being fortified, so did not keep as well and were generally considered to be less fine than the wines from the north, especially Rioja. I well remember tasting a Jumilla red in the early 1970s, I was very young so my palate would not have been used to red wine at all, but it was foul. Even my father poured it away, and he drinks anything!

Jumilla is a hot region of southern Spain, midway between the city of Murcia and Albacete in Castilla-La Mancha – the wine region (Denominación de Origen / D.O.) straddles the border. In the past the wines tasted dirty and stewed, because the wineries were filthy places and bacteria got into the wine. It didn’t help that in this region of Spain they used to ferment in clay tinajas – these are often erroneously called amphorae and are making something of a comeback, especially in Chile and for natural wine. In Spain these were huge jars, usually buried in the ground and they were impossible to clean properly, so the bacteria in them would have made the wine unstable. The upshot of these problems, and many others, was that by the mid 1970s Jumilla was on its knees as a wine region, with only the locals drinking the wines. Clean, bright, fresh wine was freely available in Spain, usually from Rioja and Penedès – take a bow Miguel Torres, so consumers were put of the hot, brackish, stewed and often murky wine of Jumilla. In fact such were the region’s woes that it was only created as a D.O. in 1996, once the region’s potentially bright future had been glimpsed.

And what a bright future it is. Producers have worked so hard, replacing the aged tinajas with clean stainless steel tanks and making sure the wineries are so clean you could eat your dinner off the floor. The fermentations can now take place at low temperatures, so the wines are fresher and brighter and the clean winemaking ensures they stay vibrant and fruity too. What’s more the growers have worked hard too, by finding sheltered and high, cool places to plant the vines so that the grapes do not turn to raisins in the fierce sun. By doing this they turn the heat to their advantage. The place is so arid that the vines barely grow to any height above ground, but put down very deep roots below ground. This means the vine produces a tiny crop of concentrated, flavoursome grapes, so the finished wines are rich and full-flavoured.

Monastrell vines growing in Jumilla. Photo courtesy of Bodegas Juan Gil.

Monastrell vines growing in Jumilla. Photo courtesy of Bodegas Juan Gil.

Harvesting Monastrell vines in Jumilla. Photo courtesy of Bodegas Juan Gil.

Harvesting Monastrell vines in Jumilla. Photo courtesy of Bodegas Juan Gil.

For me the key Jumilla producer is Bodegas Juan Gil who makes a dazzling range of wines with bright, vibrant fruit backed up by an elegant structure that makes them a real delight – do try some of them if you get the chance, UK stockist information is here, US here, but there are other producers too, as my Wine of the Week shows. 

This wine is made by the wonderful Pamela Geddes, who is a Brit with long experience of making wine in Spain. The blend is 90% Monastrell, which the French call Mourvèdre and the Aussies call Mataro, and there is 10% Tempranillo too, which spends 3 months in oak just to firm up the wine and give it a bit more elegance.

The colour shows it age with a little garnet around the edge, but is mainly a dark, opaque ruby.
The nose betrays the heat of Jumilla, you can smell hot rocks, wild herbs and rich, ripe fruit; blackberry, blueberry, rich strawberry and some deep plum too. The palate is full-bodied and very smooth, with loads of fruit, it has some age now so it isn’t the bright fruit of youth, but the broader flavours of older wine, plums and prunes as well as blackberry. There is some earthiness and leather from the ageing too, as well as some caramel, mocha and espresso from the touch of oak. All in all a lovely crowd pleaser of a wine, smooth, full-flavoured, full-bodied and with some nice maturity on it too, grab it while you can – 87/100 points.

 Available in the UK for £10.50 a bottle from Great Western Wine.

If you have never tasted a wine from Spain’s deep south, then this is a perfect place to start. You will really enjoy them if wines from the Rhône are your thing, or if you like Malbec, or Shiraz, or just good red wines. This delicious red wine would be perfect with roast lamb, a rich casserole or even a comforting shepherd’s pie or a burger.

Wine of the Week 34 – your own personal summer, in a glass

Funny time of year Winter. The weather gets pretty cold, here in the UK anyway and the days swing between being fiercely cold and crisp with clear blue skies, or dark, damp and grim. Those days in particular get to me and spoil my mood, which is especially bad for me as my birthday is in January. The 17th january in case you were wondering and I am 50 this year, which just does not seem possible at all. There I was happily getting on with my life and suddenly I am half way to 100!

Anyway, at this time of year my thoughts often focus on the weather and I find myself hoping for Spring and Summer to rush towards me and make everything seem better. Well, help is at hand. We no longer need to wait for the weather to turn, we can just open a bottle and get our very own personal early Summer in a glass.

I recently tried this delicious white wine made by Miguel Torres in Chile – in many respects it is the partner to the exciting red wine I featured here – and it just seems so bright and enjoyable that I have made it my Wine of the Week:

Miguel Torres Chile, vineyards. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Miguel Torres Chile, vineyards. Photo courtesy of the winery.

DoS2013 Days of Summer Moscatel
Miguel Torres Chile
D.O. Valle de Itata

Miguel Torres is nearly important to the story of Chilean wine as he is to the Spanish. Torres was the first outsider to come to Chile, in 1979 and he was the first to bring true modern winemaking concepts to the country and the results are clear for all to see. He was a trailblazer and his influence can be widely seen in the country. Just as in Spain though, where Torres started out as the standard-bearer of the new – especially of international grape varieties – and has now become the champion of traditional and indigenous grapes, the Torres winery in Chile has changed enormously since its early days. It still produces exemplary Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Cabernet, of course, but the focus has changed slightly to the grape varieties that Chile’s wine revolution has left behind. What’s more he is at the forefront of the sustainable viticulture movement in Chile.

Chile was ruled by Spain for hundreds of years, yet how many of Chile’s wines reflect that cultural past? Very few indeed, yet planting of Spanish grapes do exist in the country and are slowly being brought back into the mainstream. In recent years Torres have nursed Cariñena / Carignan plantings back to life, as well as the long neglected País and now Moscatel / Muscat.

Muscat has been grown in the country since the Spaniards first arrived and I doubt if there is a more Spanish grape than Muscat? Very few Spanish regions do not produce a sweet style of Muscat in one form or another and increasingly some dry examples too.

Map of Chile – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of Chile – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Chile’s so far little known Itata Valley, a long way further south than most of the famous vineyard areas, is home to much of Chile’s old vines material and so tends to have grape varieties that are not as famous r international. So it is here that much of Chile’s Cinsault  – or Samsó – can be found, as well as some of that old vine Moscatel. John Byron, the future Admiral and grandfather of the poet, was shipwrecked off the south coast of Chile in 1741 and wrote about his experiences of leading a group of survivors north to Santiago and a ship home. He wrote glowing reports about the wines of Chile, especially the Muscats / Moscatels (scroll to the bottom of this piece to read a bout a wonderful and very old fashioned style of Muscat of the sort Byron might have drunk) which he compared favourably to the wines of Madeira. Given that it is certainly on the way to Santiago, then it is entirely logical that Byron was in Itata at the time.

This wine is a real delight – and I don’t always like Dry Muscat. The aromas are light, fresh and lively with flowers, grapes, apples and honey as well as a cut of lemon – it smells like wild flowers. The palate is also light and fresh – the alcohol is 12%, but feels lighter – with green apple, grape and the merest touch of tropical fruit – pineapple – too. What really makes this work so well is the acidity, there is plenty of it making it fresh and lively and giving a touch of grapefruit to the wine, whilst a tiny bit of sweetness stops the wine from being watery and inconsequential. Clever winemaking and lots of style and finesse make this a delight. Try it with any light dishes, salads, fish or chicken, as well as with oriental food, spicy food or just drink it as aperitif – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for £9.99 per bottle from Majestic Wine Warehouses.

It has to be admitted that this is a perfect Summer wine, but why wait? A drop of this gives you your own personal Summer in a glass.

Wine of the Week 24 – tasting País without Prejudice

The world is full of delicious wines and fascinating wines. They aren’t always the same ones mind you, but when they are that is when the real fun starts. Chile is quite rightly seen as a source of lovely everyday drinking wines as well as increasingly a finer wine producing country too. Chile’s producers are also starting to fashion good wines from a wider and wider range of interesting grapes. The days of Chilean wine only being made from Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are well and truly over.

It is now possible to get world class Chilean Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Roussanne amongst many other interesting grape varieties.

However, wine had already been made in Chile for hundreds of years before the use of international grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, made Chilean wines more visible on the world market. Ever since the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, Chilean farmers were growing grapes and making wines for local consumption. Mostly this was from a grape that has long been called the ‘common black grape’ and until recently we had no idea what it was, but research has now shown it to be the Palomino Negro / Listan Prieto which now pretty much only grows in the Canary Islands.

Eventually this mutated into the País grape and for two or three hundred years País was, along with Moscatel, the work horse grape of Chile. Eventually it was supplanted, for quality wines, by the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and relegated to an invisible rural existence. In the main País has soldiered on in the more remote areas where the vineyards are smaller in scale and owned by peasant farmers who do not have the resources to follow modern trends.

Miguel Torress at dinner in 2012.

Miguel Torress at dinner in 2012.

Miguel Torres originally arrived in Chile like a whirlwind, breathing new life into the wine industry there in the late 1970s. He brought modern winemaking techniques with him and for 35 years Chilean wine has been mainly modern and cutting edge. In recent years though I have been fascinated to see some producers beginning to hark back to older techniques and times past.

The wonderful De Martino for instance are fermenting some of their wines in huge earthenware vats called tinajas, much as rural Spanish producers did in the past.

Chile Map watermarked

Torres Chile is based in Curicó, rather closer to this rural idyll than some of the other big names of Chilean wine, so they seem to have paid attention to the growers there as well as those further south in Maule. For these farmers it is very hard to make a decent living as they cannot afford to replant their vineyards with the new grapes the market demands. Instead they are left with old vine, dry farmed País like their ancestors used to make the local wine. Miguel Torres Chile saw it as a challenge to turn this into an opportunity rather than a problem. They helped to make sure the grapes were well grown and the vines healthy, they ensured the viticulture was all organic – relatively straightforward in Chile’s dry climate – then they needed to turn those grapes into a great product that would ensure the growers made a decent living. Although the project is run by a large and successful company, it is a fair trade project, so there is something cooperative-like about it and what’s more they use sustainable viticulture – so what’s not to like.

It really is a wonderful and virtuous concept and much in keeping with the ethos I heard whilst spending a week with Miguel Torres a couple of years ago. The first wine they made from these País grapes was a pink sparkler called Santa Digna Estelado Rosé and it really is a great product – try it if you get a chance.

Now they have also made a red wine from these amazing vines and the second vintage of it is my Wine of the Week:

Pais2013 Reserva Del Pueblo País
Miguel Torres Chile
Curicó, Chile
Named for the old village wines, or everyday wines of the pueblos of Chile’s past this is a rare – but not unique – pure País wine and as such gives us a glimpse into Chile’s vinous past. Only a glimpse though as this is beautifully made. 40% of the wine is fermented by carbonic maceration, which tames País’s rustic drying tannins without tipping it over into bubblegum characters.
The colour is verging on deep purple, while the nose is an enticing mix of cooked blackberry, plums, cassis and fragrant herbs.
The palate is immediate and juicy with fresh acidity, deep, sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit that feels fresh and lively, together with a little firmness from the tannins. I had no idea what to expect from this wine at all, but it really is delicious and slips down rather easily. This has something of Beaujolais and rustic Pinot Noir about it, but is more richly fruity and I found it best slightly chilled. It goes with pretty much anything and nothing – 89/100 points. Marked high for the sheer pleasure it gives.

Available in the UK at £7.50 from The Wine Society.
Miguel Torres Chile wines are distributed in the US by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates

País is not often a grape that springs to mind when you are trying to decide what to drink, but trust me, this is a deliciously drinkable wine and a real bargain too.

Torres Viña Sol – 50 Years Old & Still Fresh

I don’t often learn about wine from the postman, but a knock on my door this morning made me  realise that the Viña Sol wine brand, made by Miguel Torres in Spain, is now over 50 years old having been produced in every vintage since 1962.

Viña Sol cannot be underestimated, it certainly put Miguel Torres squarely on the world wine map, showed that Catalunya was an up and coming wine region and proved to sceptic drinkers everywhere that Spain could make bright, crisp dry white wines.

At dinner with Miguel Torres in Vilafranca del Penedés in 20011.

At dinner with Miguel Torres in Vilafranca del Penedés in 2011.

The wine is still good and at the very least provides a well made and reliable wine to cling to when all else fails. Nowadays the grapes are sourced from  Denominación de Origen Catalunya which covers the whole region, but the quality remains high. Made from the local Parellada – also one of the key Cava grapes – Viña Sol is bright, crisp, fresh and lively and at only 11.5% alcohol is light and very drinkable indeed. Above all I always think of Viña Sol as a fresh wine, so I was amused to read the slogan in the leaflet that was also in the box: “Fifty years of freshness“.

It is no mean feat for someone to have created a wine that is still popular and respected after 50 years of production, but of course that is just one of the things that Miguel Torres has achieved. During that half century he was also one of the people most responsible for modernising Spanish wine with the introduction of modern wine making techniques including the use of stainless steel and cold fermentation. He also brought French grape varieties to Spain to help produce a more internationalised range of wines in the 1960s, before championing Spain’s native grape varieties in more recent times.

All that of course would be more than enough for most of us, but from 1979 he did all this all over again in Chile and was at the forefront of modernising the Chilean wine industry and it’s outlook too. Not many people can claim to have anything like the level of influence on the world of wine that Miguel Torres has and continues to have with his strong brands and wide range of very good quality wines.

The box containing 2 bottles of Viña Sol & decorated with replicas of Viña Sol labels through the ages.

The box containing 2 bottles of Viña Sol & decorated with reproductions of Viña Sol labels through the ages.

I know that Viña Sol is 50 years old because this morning my postman thrust a parcel into my hand – always an exciting event. When I opened it I found it contained a wonderful gift box decorated with photographs of Torres wine being made and loaded onto trucks. These pictures have no date on them, but do have that unmistakable feel of the 1960s, that look of a world very alien to our own and yet not totally different either.

The 2 bottles, snug in their box. The current label is on the left, “Spanish Chablis" on the right.

The 2 bottles, snug in their box. The current label is on the left, “Spanish Chablis” on the right.

Nestling inside the box are 2 bottles of 2012 Torres Viña Sol, one with the current label and screw cap, while the other is dressed in the traditional style  that I remember from my childhood. It is complete with a real cork and rather bravely the label even proclaims itself to be “Spanish Chablis” just as Viña Sol used to be labelled back in the ’60s when wine was still considered to be a “French” thing, by British drinkers anyway.

I am thrilled by this gift box, happy memories spent drinking Torres wine came flooding back, but it has given me a real problem. Do I keep the lovely special edition bottle with the old style label, or simply drink it and enjoy it as wine should be?

Whatever I decide I will wish Viña Sol a very happy birthday.

Torres Viña Sol is widely available in the UK from Waitrose, Majestic, Tesco, Ocado and Wine Rack among many others.

Chile – experimenting and perfecting

As readers of these pages will know, I have long been a fan of Chilean wine and although it has been too long since I visited Chile I love the country too. It is a very beautiful place with wonderful sights to see and the people are a delight.

At Luis Felipe Edwards in the Colchagua Valley 2003

If I have had any problems at all with Chilean wine it was that they have for too long relied upon a narrow a range of grape varieties. I am sure that is not a commercial problem for them as consumers usually drink from a very, very narrow range of grape varieties. However for someone like me it can get dull if everyone only makes their own versions of the same old thing. There is only so much Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay I want to drink – however good they are.

Which is why I am really delighted to find that of late Chile seems to be pushing the boundaries further than ever before, finding new grapes, new styles, new blends and new grape growing areas. As a consequence I have recently been able to taste some wonderful new wine styles from Chile, so if you are getting bored with the same old, same old and want to drink something exciting you should give Chile a go. Continue reading

Give País a Chance

Grande Descabezado volcano in Maule Valley

Recently I have been lucky enough to try two very different examples of País, it is not exactly the most important grape in the world, but it is crucial to the history of wine in Chile, as well as being interesting in its own right.

It seems that País (pronounced Pie-ees) – along with Argentina’s Criolla and California‘s Mission – is directly descended from the grape that the Spanish Conquistadors took with them when they stumbled across the new world. The original grape has for long been called the ‘common black grape’ and until recently we had no idea what it was, but it seems that research has now shown it to be the Palomino Negro / Listan Prieto which now pretty much only grows in the Canary Islands. For two or three hundred years País was, along with Moscatel, the work horse grape of Chile, but was eventually supplanted by the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and relegated to an invisible rural existence.

Continue reading

A week with Torres

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

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

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