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Posts Tagged ‘Spanish Wine’

       I know what you’re thinking. You’re like, “Jeez, Caroline, can’t you use the one most obvious holiday as an excuse to talk about something other than wine?” And I hear ya, I do. I could totally use St. Patrick’s Day as an excuse to talk about craft beers or local whiskeys made from micro-distilleries just a subway ride away. But then I’d be just like everyone else, wouldn’t I?

            So instead, I’m going to use the holiday as a good reason to talk about the wines of “Green Spain.” “Uugghh. Spain? On St. Patrick’s Day. Really???” Yep. Really. For a couple reasons.

A beauty shot of - nope! Not Ireland! Green Spain! Image used under Creative Commons via talliskeeton (Flickr)

The first is that this region of northern Spain is referred to as Green Spain because the area’s combination of ocean influences and rain contribute to lush growth that is reminiscent of Great Britain, Normandy, and – you guessed it – Ireland! Also, a nifty little fact about the area is that it was settled by the Celts nearly 3,000 years ago – the same band of merry marauders who would settle Great Britain and – wait for it – Ireland! One of the Celt’s most enduring legacies in the area is the survival of the Galician language – often spoken and taught in schools of the region right along side Spanish. So in a way, the wines of Green Spain are the closest the Irish have come to producing world-class wine – a fact that makes it the perfect subject for a St. Patrick’s Day post (curious to see what I wrote about last year? Click away).

In particular, I want to focus on the regions of Rías Baixas (pronounced ree-ass bye-shass), known for its white wines made from the grape Albariño; Valdeorras, an interesting up-and-coming region producing wine from an indigenous grape called Godello; and Bierzo, a region where one of my favorite wines, Mencía, is made.

An Albarino vineyard in Rias Biaxas. Image used under Creative Commons via jacilluch (Flickr)

Rías Baixas, as a wine region, really didn’t come of age until the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when winemakers of the region were introduced to modern technologies such as stainless steel tanks. From there, the quality of the region’s white wines absolutely took off and were soon recognized as among the best white wines in Spain. Albariño is a grape that makes a wine with a soft and sometimes creamy texture yet high acidity (making it an ideal companion for sea food) and flavors that can range from zippy citrus, peach and apricot to floral and sweet almond. Some of the best Albariño is also quite affordable – ranging in price from $10-15 a bottle.

Vines planted along the Ribera Sil. Image via Jose Pastor Selections

Valdeorras is further inland than Rías Baixas and Godello is planted in vineyards on the banks of the river Sil.  Godello is an ancient grape with a long storied past in the region, but was only revived and revisited by winemakers in the 1970’s. Godello  can be made in two distinct styles; young and barrel-aged. Young Godellos (Joven) are fermented in stainless steel and taste pure and minerally with lemony acidity and notes of wildflowers. Many winemakers are also experimenting with oak and making Godellos aged in barrels; these wines are more honeyed, with notes of vanilla and the stony quality of the grape coming through on the finish.

Godello grapes just hangin' out, gettin' ripe. Image used under Creative Commons via Asier Sarasua (Flickr)

Bierzo, outfitted with a perfect microclimate for viniculture, is home to the lovely Mencía. Mencía makes a wine that is traditionally lighter in body with a distinctly floral nose, flavors of bright ripe cherries and cranberries, and often a streak of herbs or anise. Just like with Godello, winemakers in the region have become bolder with their use of oak barrels for aging the wine, and its not hard to find a bottle imbued with toasty oak and spice, bigger in body than your average Mencía, but that still captures the grape’s exotic floral notes and lively fruit.

Old gnarly Mencia vines planted on slopes in the Ribeira Sacra, a region, along with Bierzo, that makes some of the best Mencia. Image via Jose Pastor Selections.

So, have I convinced you that the wines of Green Spain are worthy of your attention this St. Patrick’s day? I’ve listed some bottles below that fall below the $25 price point (except for one Mencía) for your perusing pleasure. Cheers!

Albariño:

Martin Codax ($10-15): A great introduction to Albariño, Martin Codax’s examples have gorgeous aromatics, full body, crisp acidity, and notes of pear, passion fruit, and apple on the palate. Clean, bright, and straightforward, you can’t go wrong.

Rosalia de Castro ($11): The Paco & Lola Albariño from this producer offers quite a different take on the grape, but one that is no less delightful. Herbacious and floral rather than fruit-driven, this is a super fresh wine. Full, crisp, and with a persistent finish, this wine would be great with sushi.

Adega Eidos ($22): This producer makes Albariño that is very terroir-driven, usually showing intense minerality that can range from stony to briny. Balanced by bright notes of lemon and flowers, these Albariños are complex and lengthy – great wines to pair with seafood.

Godello:

Bodega Del Abad ($10-16): This is a Godello from Bierzo, rather than Valdeorro (which are, unfortunately, pretty hard to come by stateside). Made in the young style and fermented in stainless steel, this Godello is minerally and spicy with bright notes of grapefruit and green apple. Super fresh but still fairly full-bodied and lengthy, it is a great example of Godello Joven.

A Tapada ($20-$24) From Valdeorro, this Godello is made much more in the new barrique style. Waxy, firm, and full in body, with notes of citrus and flowers, this creamy Godello has a slightly nutty character, too.

Mencía:

Benaza Mencía ($10-15): I’ve written about this super wallet-friendly Mencía before, so its no secret that its one of my faves. Light, earthy, and with a tartness that brings to mind cranberries, it also has wonderful balance and a dry finish that makes it go well with food.

Luna Beberide ($12.99): A more medium-bodied Mencía that spends some time in oak -giving it soft tannins and a touch of smoke and vanilla. This producer’s Mencías have consistently made numerous “bang for your buck” lists, and with good reason. It’s a thinker’s wine that evolves in the glass.

Guimaro ($15): If you love Cru Beaujolais as much as I do (and that ain’t no secret), then this is a great Mencía for your introduction to the grape. Violets, cherries, and some slightly smoky, earthy qualities all make this light-to-medium bodied wine delightful.

Gancedo ($19-25): A thoroughly modern Mencía, made with plenty of exposure to oak, this is a full-force wine. On the nose, notes of blackberry, liquorice, and stones lead into a wine that tastes of dark fruit and chocolate.

Descendientes de J. Palacios Petalos ($23): This is one of the most widely available bottles of Mencía in NYC. I see it all the time, so I know it’s fairly accessible. A floral nose of roses with some pink peppercorns, bright and earthy, plush and silky, this is a pretty decent price, too, for such an elegant expression of the grape.

Raul Perez Ultreia San Sacques ($30): Raul Perez is a groundbreaking winemaker in the region. Not only does he produce complex, intense wines that redefine everything you thought you knew about Mencía, but he also works with a number of other winemakers in the region as a consultant. This bottle is his most accessibly priced and a wonderful introduction to Perez – his wines can cost upwards of $90.

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On a cold rainy night last week I was introduced to the wines of Toro – incidentally, a very dry and warm winemaking region of Spain. Not only had the day’s rain dissipated into the kind of steady mist that makes you feel silly for hiding under an umbrella yet leaves you annoyingly wet without one – to make matters always worse, I had to navigate Times Square.

Eager for a drink after my damp and frenzied rush through the worst four blocks of Manhattan,  I was none too happy to find myself settled into the corner of a retro-chic red leather booth at The Lambs Club. It was my first time attending a winemaker’s dinner, and this was a much more intimate affair that the one I’d imagined. There were only seven of us seated around the table: the winemaker, Manuel Louzada of Numanthia, the lovely publicist who had arranged the dinner, an executive from Moet Hennessy (the company that owns Numanthia), three other journalists, and little old me.

It’s no wonder that we were introduced to Numanthia by way of its charming winemaker, Louzada. Born and raised in Portugal to a family that had been making wine for generations, Louzada likes to tell people that winemaking is in his blood. His is an interesting career path for a wine maker – he started off making Port, which in Louzada’s own words is all about the sheer power of nature, before moving to Argentina to work in sparkling wines – which, he said, are all about delicacy and detail.

When Moet Hennessy purchased the Numanthia label in 2006, the company invited Louzada to Spain to be the winemaker for their newest property and he fell instantly in love with the small region of Toro. The Estates & Wines division of MH is interesting all on its own; a collection of small wineries that span four continents from Napa to New Zealand. Because all of the wineries in the division are located in “New World” locations (also in Australia and Argentina), I had to ask – why Numanthia? Why Toro, Spain?

The answer was that MH snapped up properties in burgeoning wine regions – places they believed would yield unexpectedly great wines and were on their way to becoming the “next big wine region.” Also interesting, I thought, coming from such a large and globally recognized company, was the focus on smaller-scale production and the attention to detail that Louzada expressed. Several times the words artisinal  and hand crafted popped up when Louzada discussed his wines.

At the time of his move to Toro,  Louzada said he had little idea of the region’s potential or history. In fact, Toro is an ancient wine making region located in the northeast near the Castille-Leon region of Spain, just across the Douro River from the Portuguese border. In an interesting turn of fate, Louzada said that the Portuguese had a habit of looking out towards the sea rather than in towards their own country and that in a way, moving to Toro was bringing Louzada full-circle and back to his roots.

Toro is a region with a fascinating history; it is said that Columbus took Toro wine with him on his journey to America in 1492 because its immense structure and body made it suitable to survive long journeys. Though the vineyards of Numanthia don’t yield vines quite that old, there are 150-200 year old vines still growing in the area. These Toro vines are a rare and direct link to the wines of Europe before the phylloxera plague of the late 19th century destroyed about two thirds of the continent’s vineyards. The region is largely made up of a sandy soil that kept the Phylloxera at bay and protected the vines from the devastating plague.

The only red grape grown and used to make wine in Toro is called Tinta de Toro. The wines of the region are known as massive and powerful red wines and Louzada regailed us with stories of painfully losing his sense of taste for weeks after he had conducted barrel tastings of his first vintage –the tannins of the wine were so powerful. Louzada, with his background in sparkling wines and his penchant for detail set out to create wines that maintained the freshness of the fruit while using the tannins inherent to the grapes to sustain them and give body and structure.

Louzada said time and again throughout the dinner that his goal was to balance the concentration and intensity of the wines with elegance. He was inspired, he said, by the tastes he found in the vineyards themselves and aimed to give an impression of each vintage. The terroir of the region, Louzada said, was so massive and so concentrated that it had to be reigned in.

The first wine we tasted was the yet-to-be-released 2009 Termes. According to Louzada that year was riper, slightly warmer, and made a lighter and fruitier wine that was suitable for drinking now. This was not the first time I’d heard this from winemakers (remember the 2009 Bordeaux that could have been a fruit-bomb California Cab?).  In the glass, the wine was gorgeous and dark, the nose had the slightly sweet smell of toasted oak, liquourice and a whiff of eucalyptus. The wine was paired with a beef carpaccio drizzled with a fruity olive oil that had an amazing conversation with the wine – the olive oil’s musky and melony flavors brought out the fruit in the wine and the wine spoke back with echos of olives and dust.

It was really amazing, and when we all nodded in pleasure, proclaiming that we liked the wine, Louzada gave a shy boy “aw shucks” shrug that couldn’t have been more endearing.

Next up, we drank the 2007 Numanthia, which smelled like wet dirt, earth and cherries. This wine had big tannins and tasted of leather, coffee, and toasted oak. Paired with succulent medallions of veal, the wine’s unctuous flavors spoke to the sweet gaminess of the meat.

Last on our tour of Numanthia was the 2008 Teremanthia with a nose of baked blackberries that made it seem heavy and dark until it arrived on the palate where it was plush with dark fruit but supported by lots of tannin.  That was the wine, Louzada claimed, the stars had aligned to make.

While we drank each of these wines, Louzada emphasized that he was driven by his desire to achieve balance. Louzada wanted his wines to, he said, seduce in the nose and pleasure on the palate – making him a sort of oenophile’s Casanova. By the end of the dinner we’d all fallen in love with Louzada’s wines – rich, complex, powerful and elegant.

After last week’s tasting, I can see why all eyes are on Toro as Spain’s next big region – though I’m wary that just anyone should try to coax a wine with mass appeal from the region’s sandy soils. Indeed, this must be a region that  is as challenging for the vines as it is for the winemaker who tries to tame them. A winemaker looking to conquer the wines of Toro must have just the right blend of pioneer and perfectionist – such as can be found in Numathia’s Louzada.

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Pinot Noir is a tricky little grape – and to write about the wine, I’d need to have an entire blog solely devoted to it. Pinot Noir is one of those wines that attracts uneasy wine drinkers and connoiseurs alike. For the former it’s a “lighter” red wine that is infinitely more drinkable than a challenging glass of Cabernet or Syrah and for the latter, a good glass of Pinot can be a revelation. However, this blog is for the former, and after so many glasses of Pinot Noir, enough is enough.

Its true that Pinot falls on the lighter end of the spectrum. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have complexity and character – it wouldn’t be one of the most sought-after wines in the world if it didn’t have both of those qualities. Pinot Noirs come in as many styles as there are places it is grown – from California to South Africa and lots of unexpected places in between. Pinot Noir can be a fruit bomb in a glass – an explosion of ripe red fruit that will knock you off your bar stool. It can be delicately floral or funky with hints of mushrooms and earth on the nose. A bad glass of Pinot is either syrupy sweet or so light it goes down like water with just as much of a finish.

All that having been aired out, if you find yourself confronting the fact that maybe just maybe you don’t actually love Pinot Noir as much as you think you’re supposed to the good news is that you have options. There are plenty of wines out there that are still “lighter wines” and easy to drink without all the politics behind Pinot Noir.

Mencia: Spanish

Grown mostly in the northern region of Spain known as “green Spain”, this is a semi-obscure grape that makes a truly delightful little red wine. It’s similar to some Pinot Noir’s in its flavor profile of rich red fruits and nice acidity. These wines, like the best Pinots also have a nice long finish that’s easy-going and smooth.

Try: Benaza Mencia  2009 at $9 a bottle at The Wine Buyer

Plavac: Croatia

Plavac is an ancient grape that is grown widely in Croatia and is rumored to be a distant cousin of the Zinfandel grape. Plavac is a grape that can pack some nice spice and tight structure that holds up a bouquet of strawberries and raspberries. It’s got more grip than your average Pinot but its still firmly in the lighter column. Not to mention its from Croatia which gives it a little bit of that Eastern European romance and intrigue…

Try: Dingac Plavac 2007 at $13 a bottle at Plonk

Dolcetto : Italian

Ah, Dolcetto. This was one of the first wines that I ever drank and thought was simply delicious. It’s the table wine of Piedmont, one of Italy’s most revered wine making regions that also produces Barolo and Barbera. Although the name implies sweetness, Dolcetto is a light and spicy little grape with ripe fruit, silky tannins, Moand a juicy quality that makes it especially amenable to accompanying a meal.

Try: Cascina Degli Ulivi Monferrato Dolcetto “Nibio” 2006 at Astor Wines

* Also, see my post on Beaujolais!




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