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 Chilean Star is Born

It is early days for Chilean sparkling wines, there are a few very nice examples, but so far they aren’t exactly filling the shelves. Which is a pity as most of the Chilean sparklers that I have tasted are very enjoyable indeed.

Maule Valley Vineyards.

Maule Valley Vineyards.

Recently I showed a lovely one at a really well received tasting of Chilean wines. I have liked it for a long time, but it met with such approval that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

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.

esteladoSanta Digna Estelado Rosé Brut
Bodegas Miguel Torres Chile
Secano Interior
Maule
Chile

This wine is made from País, the grape that was for centuries the work horse grape of Chile. It has been ignored somewhat in recent decades, but the south of Chile is home to some impressively old plantings – over 200 years old in many cases – so Miguel Torres Maczassek, the son of famous Spanish winemaker Miguel Torres and nephew of Marimar Torres, set about giving these long neglected vines a whole new lease of life. The local growers who owned these venerable vineyards had for a long time only been able to sell the grapes at low prices to go into cheap everyday wines, but Torres wanted to rescue it from this obscurity and create a wine that would give the growers a good return. This would also save this fantastic resource of old vine material and put them to good use, it really was a virtuous circle.

The ancient bush vines being tended.

The ancient bush vines being tended.

The resulting wine is a traditional method pink sparkling wine called Estelado. The vines are very old and come from a clutch of independent growers in Cauquenes, Rauco and Curepto in Maule which is well to the south of Chile’s famous wine regions. However, Chile’s south is on the up nowadays and it is the large plantings of old País, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Muscat and Cinsault that is attracting interest and helping with this dramatic Renaissance.

The base wine is cold fermented and after the second fermentation it is aged on the lees for 12 months.

It is a lovely delicate, coral, rose colour with aromas of redcurrant, blackcurrant and leafy, wild herbs. The palate is fresh and lively with a sort of blackcurrant cream character, redcurrant, rose petals, biscuits and blood orange as well as a savoury, herbal, earthy character that is typical of País in my limited experience. This is a really enjoyable and drinkable sparkling wine. I liked it very much as did the people at my tasting – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £12 per bottle – for stockists click here – more stockist information is available from the UK distributor, John E Fells.
For US stockists click here.

Wine of the Week 72 – Chile’s Bush Vine Revolution

One of the great joys about being in the wine trade is that amazing feeling you get when a wine takes you totally by surprise. When a wine startles you and excites you then that is certainly a wine worthy of tasting and discussing, which is wonderful when so many wines are rather workaday.

So many people drink a narrow range of wines, I have banged on about this before, but it is true. People regularly drink a range of wines made from a tiny range of grape varieties and from a relatively predictable range of places. If you try and get people to drink outside this band, as I frequently do, then you often meet an astonishing amount of resistance. Which is such a shame as so many wonderful, fascinating, great and downright delicious wines are produced elsewhere and from all manner of grapes – including many that are pretty rare and that you may not have tried.

Well, the other day I tasted a wonderful and engaging wine from Chile that was very, very different and took my breath away and so I have made it my Wine of the Week.

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.

rogue_itata_tinto_132014 Rogue Vine Grand Itata Tinto
Rogue Vine
D.O. Itata
Chile

Everywhere you look there are maverick wine producers nowadays. In every wine producing country, as long as you steer clear of the big producers, you quickly discover some passionate soul that is nurturing old, historically unloved vines back into production. It is one of the great stories of our times and one that restores my faith in wine every time I come across it. I have been aware for some time that Chile is part of this movement too, indeed I sometimes lead tastings focussing on this trend in Chile’s vineyards, but it is always worth revisiting.

Because Chile has focussed for so long on classic international grape varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, it is easy to lose sight of all the other things that are grown in Chile. What’s more as almost no international vines in Chile predate 1978 (there are exceptions to this, of course), it is easy to assume that there are no true old vines in the country.

Well there are, they just happen not to be the grapes that Chile has traditionally wanted to sell. They tend to be Carignan, Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Pais and Moscatel / Muscat – all vines that owe their place in Chile to the Spanish colonial past rather than nineteenth century fashion as the international grape varieties do. What’s more these vines seem to almost exclusively grow in the tucked away, almost forgotten regions of Chile’s south – Itata, Curicó and Maulé. Unlike the sought after regions further north these areas remain the preserve of small landowners and poor farmers who cannot afford to uproot vines as fashions change. Thank goodness for that too, as if they could Chile might not have these fascinating old vines.

The ancient bush vines being tended.

The ancient bush vines being tended – photo courtesy of Rogue Vine.

This extraordinary wine is a field blend of 95% Cinsault and 5% País, so it really is a nod to winemaking of the past. Back before we all got technical, grape growers had no idea what they grew – vines all had local names and often still do – and so were just picked together and fermented together. That is a field blend, as opposed to the more modern and normal method of fermenting each grape variety and block or site separately, ageing it and then blending the wine. The vines grow as free standing bushes – bush vines – and are unirrigated (it is cold and wet down here, so irrigation is not needed) and ungrafted, so grow on their own roots. The aim was to make something special out of these wonderful vines which prior to the project had just been used to make very basic table wine. 

Winemaker Leonardo Erazo Lynch is a Chilean who has already developed a similar project in South Africa‘s Swartland region, a region that was similarly left behind by fashion. Leonardo keeps to the old ways, using old vines – it seems these are between 60 and 300 years old – organic viticulture, wild yeast fermentations and ageing in old (neutral) barrels.

Straight away this wine seemed like an old friend, the nose was enticing, rich and aromatic with herbs, spices and a gamey, mineral, savoury thing going on, as well as a feeling of freshness and an interesting touch of something medicinal – like iodine – which sounds nasty, but is actually rather nice. The fruit was decidedly red, with cherry and raspberry notes. The palate is medium bodied, but with loads of flavour and soft, light tannins. The red fruit comes through on the palate together with some earthy and mineral characters as well as a fragile savoury note that gives it something of an old world feel. The finish is long and the whole thing feels very fine and complex, which is helped by some nice fresh acidity. If you like Burgundy or Rhône wines then you will certainly enjoy this – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from Honest Grapes and Selfridges for £17-£20 per bottle. For further details contact Indigo Wines.

I would drink this with a casserole, pie or cassoulet if I was feeling adventurous. It would also go very well with duck,, Shepherd’s Pie and all manner of hearty, warming winter fare. In summer it would be lovely lightly chilled with charcuterie.

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.

Sud de France – synchronised wine tasting

Well, this is a first for me. I usually avoid instant blogging or live blogging – indeed I do not really regard my blog as a blog, it is after all not a diary or log. I normally write, what I hope are considered articles. Unusually, today everything on this page is being done in situ at the time.

I thought it would be interesting to take part in the Sud de France Live Wine Tasting. It was arranged to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the establishment of the Sud de France promotional umbrella. This body promotes the region of Languedoc-Roussillon and the food and wine products from those regions. Continue reading

A Taste of the Languedoc-Roussillon

A

Eric Aracil popped over the other day, for a bit of relief from a snow-bound Perpignan and to tutor a tasting about the wines of his native Languedoc-Roussillon.

Eric is Catalan and normally concerns himself solely with promoting wines from the Roussillon region, but he was branching out. The new umbrella identity for the whole Languedoc-Roussillon is now the Sud de France and it includes the Gard and Côtes du Rhône areas as well as the Languedoc-Roussillon itself – although confusingly not Provence, which is what leaps to my mind when I hear the phrase ‘the south of France’. Continue reading