Spain

Old Vines In A New D.O.

7 December 2013

Vega Tolosa 11 Pinos BobalMy favorite neighborhood wine shop, In Fine Spirits, is a small but exciting place in which to simply browse, with nothing in mind other than finding something new and unusual to try. Wine megastores like Binny’s have a much wider selection, but I think every wine drinker needs a store like In Fine Spirits, which presents a curated offering of wines that the owners have tasted themselves and specifically chosen to put on their shelves. Because the palates of the owners align closely with my own, I never feel apprehensive about buying something I haven’t heard of.

Which is why I had no qualms about picking up a bottle of 2011 Vega Tolosa “11 Pinos” Bobal a few weeks ago, even though I’d never tried a wine made from the Bobal variety, nor could I remember sampling a wine from the Manchuela D.O. where the 11 Pinos originates.

Bobal, I read with some dismay in The Oxford Companion to Wine, “produces deep-colored red wines” in certain areas, but in others, it’s used “mainly but not exclusively for bulk wine production.” I didn’t feel any more reassured when I looked up the Manchuela D.O. in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. This region between La Mancha and Valencia generally makes wines of “a quality that is seldom better than an acceptable quaff,” and indeed, “much is a lot worse,” it says, not mincing any words.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. The Oxford Companion goes on to say that Bobal’s “reputation has been growing as producers such as Mustiguillo have managed to fashion velvety reds from high-altitude vineyards in Utiel-Requena,” an eastern sub-region of Manchuela. This high plateau, which was granted D.O. status in 2000, “shows great potential,” the Oxford Companion argues, “but has lacked the investment required to develop it.” It seemed there was hope for Manchuela Bobal after all.

I also felt encouraged by the fact that the Bobal vines in Vega Tolosa’s vineyards have an average age of 80 years, which theoretically means low yields, high concentration and deep flavors. I poured myself a glass as I cooked up some cavatappi with walnut-cilantro pesto, and I was immediately struck by the meaty, dark-fruit aroma. This was a lusty wine, with dark-red fruit, a dash of black pepper and a smoothly tannic finish. It felt rustic, strong and hearty, which was just what I needed on a cold winter’s night.

I’m not sure the 11 Pinos Bobal would win in a blind tasting with a fine Toro or a top Rioja, but then it didn’t have a top Rioja price tag, either. For $12.50, this wine packed a lot of flavor, and I would certainly buy it again. So if you see a Bobal on your wine shop’s shelf, I recommend giving it a try. It’s an ideal choice for a holiday party, where people will be in the mood for something hearty and fun.

Galicia’s Answer To Sauvignon Blanc

2 March 2013

She crab soup with sherryUnadventurous wine lists at corporate parties and weddings tend to read something like this: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon. Sauvignon Blanc tops the list so often because it tends to be fruity and very food-friendly, with fun, juicy acids. But if you’re itching to get out of the Sauvignon Blanc rut — and if you’re reading this, I suspect you are — I’ve got just the white for you: Godello.

This variety indigenous to Spain’s northwestern Galicia region almost became extinct thanks to Phylloxera, and it languished in obscurity for years. It was only “recently re-discovered,” according to the 2001 edition of André Dominé’s Wine, and the Galician region best known for producing Godello, the rainy Valdeorras D.O., now “regularly hits the headlines of the Spanish trade press.”

All my wine books speak highly of Godello grown in Valdeorras. The World Atlas of Wine argues that it “can yield extremely fine wines worth ageing,” and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes that “The best [Valdeorras] wineries have now been modernized and are even better than they used to be, particularly for white wines made from the Godello grape.”

Even so, it can be hard to find this “fine white grape variety” (The Oxford Companion to Wine), because Galician vineyards and wineries tend to be small, with necessarily limited production, and much of what is produced is consumed locally. The Galicians know a good thing when they taste it. I felt very lucky, therefore, when I spotted it on the wines-by-the-glass list at Carter’s Kitchen, a delightful casual restaurant tucked away in Mount Pleasant, a suburb of Charleston, South Carolina.

Carter’s Kitchen offered the 2011 Valdesil Montenovo Godello for $8 a glass, one of the least-expensive wines on the list. I needed something with some serious acids to compete with the decadent seafood I’d just ordered, and the Godello proved up to the challenge. It started with some sweet, apply fruit, but this was quickly overtaken by focused, limey acids which carried through to a white-peppery finish. The wine cut right through the richness of a creamy and thick she crab soup (pictured above), and it kept its laser focus against some beautifully fresh fried “doormat flounder” as well.

I wouldn’t hesitate to order it again with seafood, pork, chicken, pasta with cream sauce, risotto… Its juicy fruit and tight acids ensure that it can stand up to all sorts of rich foods, clearing the palate to prepare for the next bite. Keep an eye out for Godellos – if you like Sauvignon Blanc, a nervy Godello from Galicia will be right up your palate.

SUMMARY

2011 Valdesil Montenovo Godello: Fruity but focused, with tight acids that can shine right through a host of rich foods. An excellent escape from a Sauvignon Blanc rut. Chill well before serving.

Grade: B+

Find It: Williams-Sonoma sells this particular Godello for $15, but don’t worry if you can’t find this specific label. Binny’s, for example, lists nine different Godellos on its website ranging in price from $10 to $50 a bottle. Also check out my review of this Godello from Galicia’s Monterrei region.

 

The Hearty Reds Of Toro

26 January 2013

Toro paired with fusilli BologneseI remember the first time I had a wine from Spain’s small Toro region, which straddles the Duero River not too far from northwestern Portugal. My husband-to-be and I were in New York at a delightful tapas bar in the Village (the name of which is alas lost to history), and at the bottom of the extensive wines-by-the-glass list was a Toro. I asked the bartender about it, and he replied, “Oh, I love that one — if you like big reds, you should give it a try.” We each had a glass, and our memories are so fond of that evening and that wine that we served a Toro at our wedding reception.

This Denominación de Origen (DO) was established only recently, in 1987, and the Toro DO only gained international renown in the last 10 years or so. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, “The Alvarez family of Vega-Sicilia fame had been purchasing land [in Toro] since 1997, and after this was announced in 2002, the floodgates opened, so that at last count there were 40 bodegas.” Sotheby’s goes on to say that “the battle for Toro’s true quality has only just begun,” but I say it’s producing some pretty darn tasty stuff already.

Part of the region’s success is no doubt due to what The Oxford Companion to Wine calls “severe” growing conditions, with dry, stony soils and high altitudes. Grapevines need to suffer to produce great wine, the common wisdom goes, and in this “wild and remote zone,” the vines surely suffer indeed. The local specialty, Tinta de Toro (a variant of Tempranillo), has adapted to the Toro terroir, and it produces wines of “exciting quality” according to Sotheby’s, and according to me as well for that matter.

It’s January in Chicago, and I was in the mood, as you might expect, for a big red wine. I browsed the Toro section at Binny’s and discovered that, as usual, most of the Toros were pretty pricey. I picked up a couple of bottles of the least expensive, a 2010 Telmo Rodríguez ”Dehesa Gago,” recognizable by the big white “g” on its black label. It turned out $15 was quite a bargain for this beauty.

When I opened the bottle, I could immediately detect vanilla aromas, which intensified when I poured the deep-purple wine in a glass. Closer up, the wine smelled more like red fruit, iron and earth than vanilla. It felt focused up front — even a little tight — with flavors of vanilla and dark berries. At the back of the palate, however, it became almost rough, with hearty tannins, rustic power and some rowdy spice. It developed how I imagine a typical date in Las Vegas would. Paired with some Fusilli Bolognese, it became even more powerful and spicy.

This may not necessarily be the best Toro out there, but at $15, the Telmo Rodríguez ”Dehesa Gago” took me on quite a ride. And if this Toro isn’t available at your local wine shop, try another one. I’ve yet to be disappointed by a wine from this newly discovered region.

SUMMARY

2010 Telmo Rodríguez ”Dehesa Gago”:This tasty Toro starts smooth and then gets a little rowdy. Big fruit and significant tannins. A fun ride and a fine value. Chill in the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes before serving, and pair with red meat or strong cheese.

Grade: B+/A-

Find It: I purchased this wine for $15 at Binny’s on Clark Street.

Unusual Pairings At Urban Union – Part 2

5 January 2013

We drank so many tasty and unusual things at our dinner at Urban Union, I couldn’t possibly fit them all into one post. To read about some fine unfiltered/unpasteurized sake, a bright wine from France’s Savoie and a truly odd selection from Macedonia, follow this link.

To venture yet further into the obscure, read on!

Mushrooms and Domaine FilliatreauWhen most people think of wines from France’s Loire Valley – if they think of them at all — they think of crisp, minerally whites like Sancerre. But the Loire produces robust reds as well, most notably from the Cabernet Franc variety. Ex-Sommelier Andrew Algren (he left Urban Union just days after our dinner) selected a wine from the Saumur-Champigny section of the Loire, which produces ”one of Cabernet Franc’s most refreshing expressions,” according to The World Atlas to Wine. According to Algren, it’s “like grabbing a handful of French forest floor and chowing down.” I was intrigued.

To me, the 2010 Domaine Filliatreau ”La Grande Vignolle” tasted eye-poppingly tight, especially after smelling its deep, enticing, meaty aroma. It was very acidic and tannic, with a finish of black pepper. It screamed for food. In keeping with the French forest floor theme, Chef de Cuisine Joshua Marrell presented a course of trumpet, chanterelle and maitake mushrooms foraged, reportedly, by a local comedian. This rather daringly simple dish smelled appealingly like mushroom-topped pizza. Its earthy flavors tamed the punchy acids in the wine, resulting in positively delightful combination.

Domaine RomyBucking convention, Algren moved from a red to pink, pouring a highly unusual Beaujolais rosé (not to be confused with Beaujolais Nouveau, that fruity but usually over-sweet red released around Thanksgiving). Made from Gamay, the variety used in all red Beaujolais wines, the orangey-pink 2010 Domaine Romy Beaujolais Rosé tasted of juicy strawberries, with a firm structure and ample minerals and acids. Delicious. Served with a wonderfully garlicky dish of tender charred octopus, confit of potatoes in beef fat and scallion purée, the wine’s flavor didn’t seem to change all that much. Instead, the wine enhanced the flavor of the food, bringing its savory richness to new heights.

Algren pouring UlaciaAnd then we were back, oddly enough, to a white. Poured theatrically from overhead, as is traditional in Spain’s Basque country, Algren presented a 2011 Ulacia Getariako Txakolina. This tart, apply, slightly fizzy wine comes from near the town of Getaria, a region of cool, rainy summers which The Oxford Companion to Wine calls “hardly ideal grape-growing country.” Nevertheless, the whites, mostly made from the Hondarribi Zuri variety, have “noticeably improved” in the last couple of decades. (Incidentally, there’s a nasty rumor going around that Hondarribi Zuri is a hybrid of a Vitis vinifera variety and some other species of Vitis. Scandal!)

Algren paired the Ulacia with a dish of prosciutto from black-skinned pigs, pickled mustard seeds and crunchy celery root, to marvelous effect. The tart wine cut right through the fat of the prosciutto and became a bit sweeter in the process. A hearty, zesty combination I wouldn’t hesitate to order again. (Marrell graciously credited the inspiration for this dish to Marco Pierre White’s cookbook “White Heat.”)

Good heavens, there’s yet more to come? Loosen your belts, ladies and gentlemen; we’ve got three courses left to go.

Up Next: A stellar cru Beaujolais, a Lagrein from Italy, and for dessert… vermouth. Hey, this is Odd Bacchus, folks. Were you expecting Port?

A Thoughtful Gift

28 November 2012

Not too long ago, my friend Will brought over a bottle of wine, and he chose something right up my alley. Knowing my preference for the unusual, he purchased a 2009 Can Blau Montsant, a blend of 40% Mazuelo, 40% Syrah and 20% Garnacha (Grenache).

What? A Mazuelo-based blend from Montsant?? Be still my obscure heart!

The Montsant D.O. (Denominación de Origen), I discovered, came into being only in 2001. It was carved out of the Tarragona D.O. in Catalonia, Spain, in order to “highlight its superior quality,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. It can apparently produce wines “similar in style and quality” to those crafted in neighboring Priorat, which is pretty high praise as far as I’m concerned. And it’s no surprise. According to the map in The World Atlas of Wine, the Can Blau winery is barely a kilometer outside the Priorat region. So close!

Now, Syrah and Garnacha I’ve heard of and sampled, but Mazuelo? Well, it turns out I’ve tried that too — “Mazuelo” is the term people in Rioja use for Carignan (also spelled “Carignane”). But why a winery in Monstant would label its wine with a term from the Rioja region instead of the locally used “Cariñena” is a mystery. Or is it?

I realized that though I’d tried wines made from Carignan before, I didn’t know all that much about the grape. I read the entry about it in the Companion, and it began to make sense why Can Blau wouldn’t necessarily be anxious to announce the Carignan component in its wine. The Companion praises old Carignan vines, but calls the variety in general “the bane of the European wine industry…distinguished mainly by its disadvantages.” Varietal wines from this rot-prone grape tend to be ”high in everything — acidity, tannins, colour, bitterness — but finesse and charm.” Which boils down to wines that are too rough to drink young but are also “unworthy of maturation.” Ouch.

But if late-ripening Carignan is going to do well anywhere, it seems, it’s in sunny Catalonia. I have no idea how old the Carignan vines of Can Blau are (the website of its parent company is only in Spanish), but I suspect the Companion might not entirely approve. The wine was big and a little unpolished, but it was great with a bowl of hearty vegetable gratin on a cold Sunday evening. An appealing deep magenta, the Can Blau had fragrant aromas of jam and vanilla. On the palate, it started with a zing of black pepper before moving on to dark fruit, big rustic tannins and expansive acids. It finished with some sweet notes; a bit of anise and a quick reprise of vanilla.

Well, I suppose this wine didn’t exactly scream “finesse!” It was more of a robust farmer than a refined city type, but I very much enjoyed it nevertheless. After all, robust farmers can be a lot of fun every now and then.

SUMMARY

2009 Can Blau Montsant: Big, fragrant, fruity and a little rustic. This wine might be a little much for some tastes, but I thought it was great fun. Chill in the refrigerator for 20 minutes before serving.

Grade: B

Find It: Binny’s carries the 2010 vintage for $16, which is not at all a bad deal considering the wallop of flavor this wine packs.

Philadelphia Degustation – Part 3

1 August 2012

COURSE 5: Tinto Fino

I’d read a few reviews touting the “Pulpo” at Tinto, a tapas restaurant owned by Iron Chef Jose Garces, and I couldn’t resist popping in for a quick snack. Unfortunately, I accidentally popped into Village Whiskey instead. Their doors are right next to each other, and, well, it had been a long day. I didn’t realize my mistake until I checked in with the hostess, sat down at the bar and requested a menu from the bartender.

“Wow, this menu doesn’t look like tapas,” I thought to myself. Finally, finally, my befogged brain apprehended the situation. I decided the most graceful way to make an exit would be to feign an important phone call. ”Oh hi, Sweetie. How are you? What? What’s the matter? Oh dear! Oh dear oh dear. Are you serious? No! Now, calm down.” I gestured helplessly to the hostess as I walked past. “Alright, now everything is going to be fine. Just slow down so I can” get myself into the right frickin’ restaurant.

I managed to find my way into Tinto, plunked myself into an equally comfortable bar stool and perused the wine list. I needed something a little hefty with the Pulpo (grilled octopus) that was coming, and I spotted a 2009 Bodegas y Viñedos Valderiz ”Valdehermoso” Tinto Fino Joven from Ribera del Duero, Rioja’s lesser-known (but nevertheless formidable) competitor. Not unlike Arizona’s Page Springs, this region stretching along the Duero River north of Madrid regularly brushes almost 100° during the day before plunging into the 50′s at night. According to The World Atlas of Wine, “The light and air here have a high-altitude dryness and brightness about them, as do the wines, which have particularly lively acidity thanks to those cool nights.”

And Tinto Fino? I discovered that this variety, also known as Tinto del País, is simply a local variant of Tempranillo, albeit a variant particularly well-adapted to the rather extreme climate of Ribera del Duero. This Joven (young) Tinto Fino had dark, dark fruit on the nose and palate, expansive spice and attention-grabbing tannins. It really brought out the savory flavors in the snack of Mahon cheese crisps. With the slightly charred, moderately spicy octopus, the spice in the wine became almost too much. But paired with non-spicy red meats or even pork, a Tinto Fino should keep its cool deliciously. I recommend keeping an eye out for them.

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A Drop Of Britain In The Mediterranean

20 June 2012

Although Great Britain controlled the exquisite island of Menorca off and on for less than a century between 1708 and 1802, its influence can still be felt in the local cocktail culture. The traditional tipple isn’t sangria or sherry, but gin. In fact, Menorca is one of the few places in the world with its own gin D.O., Gin de Menorca, because of the unique local distillation process.

British soldiers stationed on this small island off the coast of Spain longed for a taste of home, and residents obliged, distilling gin mostly from local wine rather than grain, in the manner of Dutch genever. I’m not sure how many distillers were crafting gin 200 years ago, but now the production of Menorcan gin is now dominated by one company, Xoriguer (sho-ree-gair), owned by the Pons family, which traces its lineage back to the very first Menorcan distillers. Xoriguer still uses wood-fueled copper pot stills to craft its gin, much like the first gin makers on the island.

I had my first opportunity to taste Xoriguer gin when I visited Menorca in late April. In need of a little refreshment after touring some of the island’s mysterious megalithic sites, we climbed down to Cova d’en Xoroi, a bar and club inside a spectacular cliffside cave overlooking the Mediterranean. It felt a little too early to drink the gin straight, so I opted for a classic Pomada cocktail. Traditionally, a Pomada is a mix of Menorcan gin and lemonade over ice, but at Cova d’en Xoroi, the bartender substituted lemon Fanta. It still tasted great — cool, refreshing, aromatic and just a bit tart. Of course, the flavor wasn’t hurt by the stupendously scenic setting.

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The Tasting Room – Part 2

7 March 2012

The Slovenian Furmint may have left me a little flat at The Tasting Room (see the previous post), but a Portuguese red blend certainly got my attention. The fun 2009 Quinta de la Rosa “douROSA” from the Douro Valley enticed me with its aroma of dark fruits, and sealed the deal with flavors of bright, ripe red fruits and a spicy finish. ($5.50 for a three-ounce pour, $11 for six.)

Quinta de la Rosa occupies what looks to be a spectacular piece of the Douro River’s bank in northern Portugal. This family-owned vineyard and winery seems to be known more for its port than its unfortified wines, but certainly the douROSA can hold its own. A blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesca, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Roriz (varieties also used in port), the douROSA is aged in stainless steel, which perhaps accounts for the delightful brightness of its flavors.

I’ve long thought Portuguese wines represent some of the best values out there, and this wine certainly did nothing to change my mind.

We moved a little further east with a 2009 Finca Tobella “Negre” from Spain’s Priorat region. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “One of Spain’s most inspiring red wines”comes from this “isolated DO zone in Cataluña inland from Tarragona.” And who am I to argue? This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane and Grenache (Garnacha) smelled of blackberries and oak, and tasted simply delicious. Powerful but restrained, this Priorat presented an elegant balance of tannins and acid. ($6.75 for a three-ounce pour, $13.50 for six.)

The sparkling 2010 Villa M Brachetto from Piedmont, Italy, disappointed, with pleasant but simple and too-sweet flavors of tart strawberries. ($5.00 for a three-ounce pour, $10 for six.)

I had eyed Stratton Lummis’s “The Riddler,” a red Napa blend of undisclosed varieties, but avoided it as not unusual enough. Let that be a lesson to me: I tasted my dining companion’s glass, and it was delicious. A big and tasty wine, with rich flavors of cherries, tobacco and cocoa. $6.25 for a three-ounce pour, $12.50 for six.

This probably isn’t news to you, dear reader, but sometimes I have to remind myself that unusual does not necessarily mean better.

Some Holiday Sparkle

11 December 2011

I recently had the fortune to receive a complimentary tasting sample of three bottles of Cava, the world’s second-most famous sparkling wine. Catalonia, that feisty, autonomous region around Barcelona, produces the vast majority of it, and two companies, Codorníu and Freixenet, dominate this production.

Ordinarily, I’m biased towards the little guy, but in this instance, it seems wiser to go with the big boys. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “The best Cavas tend to be produced by the larger firms who control their own vinification rather than those producers who buy in ready-made base wine from one of the large but often outdated co-operatives that continue to flourish all over Cataluña.” (“Cataluña” is the Spanish spelling, “Catalonia” is the English spelling, and you may also encounter “Catalunya,” the Catalan spelling.)

Freixenet (pronounced “Fresh-eh-net”) Cava may not seem especially unusual or obscure, but these three Cavas were all pink. Rosé Cava really came into its own only in the late 1990s, perhaps hindered until then by Cava traditionalists who “…for some bizarre reason always considered black grapes in a white Cava to be sacrilegious,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The Encyclopedia goes on to describe how Manuel Duran, then chairman of Freixenet, experimented with black Spanish varieties, producing a notable Monastrell-Xarel·lo sparkler in 1997.

I looked forward to seeing what Freixenet had been up to since then, and organized a little party to find out.

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The Rain In Spain Falls Mainly In Galicia

30 November 2011

I love when out-of-town friends come to visit, giving me an excuse to splash out on a fancy restaurant or two. It’s especially fun when those visitors happen to be from New York — a city known for thinking it has the best of everything — because Chicago’s culinary scene officially rocks.

Mercat a la Planxa, an upscale Catalan (tapas) restaurant in The Renaissance Blackstone Hotel, has been on my list for a couple of years. The food and wine from Catalonia in northeastern Spain almost never fail to impress me, and I wanted to see if Mercat did this region proud. The food indeed delighted us both, particularly the eye-rollingly delicious rabbit-filled agnolotti topped with roasted chestnut purée, brandied cherries and brown butter (pictured). But I must admit I failed to order a single Catalan wine from the by-the-glass list.

Only two were offered, one of which I already knew and loved, the floral Viña Esmeralda by Torres. I opted instead for a 2010 Finca Os Cobatos Godello from the Monterrei D.O. (Denominación de Origen, or Orixe in Galician). Completely unfamiliar with either the Godello variety or the Monterrei wine region, I had no idea what to expect. The wine had a fresh, green aroma, and it tasted juicy and a bit floral, with food-friendly acids. Had I been served it blind, I might have guessed it was a fun Sauvignon Blanc from some New World appellation.

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