Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Spain Trip, 18-26 April 2009 - Diary

Spain, Day One - Madrid
Arrived around 10am, took crazy fast taxi from airport to central Madrid, checked in, walked around the neighborhood - the hotel is across the street from the Prado - drank two espresso doble, then took metro to lunch at Tamar. Great lunch - razor clams, cantabrian anchovies, monkfish, terrific queso; Godeval Blanco Old Vines; Mauro 2006; Mauro 2002. Walked back towards hotel, but stopped at Taberna Laredo for a bottle of Champagne - Paul Bara Rose NV. Back to hotel for quick siesta, but walked back through Retiro (Madrid´s Central Park) since the day was so beautiful. Then off to dinner at forgetable restaurant except for great big charcol-grilled steak and freshly cut fried potatoes and Rioja Alta Ardanza ´00 and another RA, forget name but 100% tempranillo ´98. Taxi back to Taberna Laredo for incredible heads-on Mediterranean shrimp, potato croquettes while downing Nellin ´06 Priorato Blanco and Comtes Lafon Meursault ´04 - definitely saved the best for last and that was saying something with the wine we consumed today. The weather was great during the day, rained at night. Long, rewarding day of comraderie, great food and great wine. Time to sleep and recover for tomorrow. Adios!

Day Two – Madrid; to Jerez de la Frontera
After ten bottles the first day, a light second. We woke late, had blunch around noon, then spent the afternoon walking around the city; ducking into a neat little modern museum when it started to rain, finding an exhibition of Vlaminck (fauvist). Sun came out, we kept walking, eventually coming upon the palace before turning back to the hotel to gather our bags and walk to the train station for the trip to Jerez. Jane Ward, export manager of Lustau, met us for dinner in the hotel. We drank mostly sherry (Puerto Fino, Domecq Vinas 25 PX, which Lustau purchased last year along with La Ina, etc.), as well as ’07 Arun Rueda. The meal was ok, but nothing like the food we ate the day before.

Day Three – Jerez, Sanlucar, Jerez, back to Madrid
What a gorgeous day! Got an early start, first driving to Sanlucar to meet Lustau’s Manzanilla producer. We were joined by Ignacio Lopez de Carrizosa, export director of Luis Caballero S.A. (parent company of Lustau, which it purchased in 1990), who spoke English much better than I, not to mention his native Spanish. Pepe (cellarmaster of Bodegas Manuelo Jurado) drew samples of Manzanilla Fina – the youngest, barely fortified, not yet sorted for future development – wonderful slap in the face of sea breeze/salt/yeast/citrus peel; Manzanilla Pasada – more developed, some nuttiness, very leesy; and Manzanilla Amontillado (20 years average age; like great Verdelho Madeira) – sensational, only 21 barrels at any given time, just over 100 cases released annually. We stopped briefly at the beach, where the Guadalquivir river meets the Atlantic ocean, under brilliant blue sky. Amazing.

Then back to Jerez for a tour and tasting at Lustau’s Jerez bodega. About twenty different sherries, from Lustau solera, almacenista bottlings and VOS (Lustau’s twenty year olds) as well as Moscatel, 1990 Oloroso Abocado, brandy and vineagar. The “basic” sherries would be most bodegas’ top of the line, while the almacenistas show great individuality and character. The VOS sherries are both the oldest (with the exception of the Murillo PX, average age 100yrs) and most concentrated, at each level – Amontillado, Palo Cortado and PX.

Lunch in downtown Jerez at the restaurant (name?) in the great building just off the main square. Fantastic! Six courses, all accompanied by sherry. The course to die for was served in a small martini glass – caramelized onions in the bottom, then fresh tuna, then pureed/liquefied potato topped with a sprinkle of paprika and a drizzle of herbed olive oil. Plunging the spoon down to the bottom pulled the paprika and oil through the potato into the tuna and onions in perfect balance – fabulous; paired with Amontillado Escuadrilla, a magical match. Foie gras; pork cheeks; sherry vinegar-laced ice cream – the food wouldn’t stop. Back to the hotel to pick up our bags, and back on the train to Madrid… all of us regret leaving the south so soon. I contemplated staying on, finding a little hotel room in Sanlucar, meeting up with the group at the end of the tour in Barcelona.

Day Four – Rueda and Tudela de Duero
After driving out of Madrid north to Castilla y Leon we visited Belondrade y Lurton in La Seca (Rueda). Modern building, one of the few buildings at all on the mesa, exposed 24/7/365 days a year to the persistent, often ferocious wind that blows across this 700m high plateau. Didier Belondrade came from Bordeaux to make Verdejo in the Bordeaux tradition – that is, fermented and aged in barrel. Early vintages (the first was 1997 or 98) were intensely oaky – as the years go by they have tempered the oak, switching to larger (300L instead of 225L), albeit still mostly new, barrels; using indigenous yeast on about 20% of cuve… the ’07 and ’06 we tasted were distinctly more elegant and balanced than previous vintages, but still, I’m not sure they’re worth the $40-45/bottle they would sell for here. They’ve started making a Tempranillo rosato – no oak, fresh, lively and especially elegant for dry pink Tempranillo. These people know what they want to do, and they’re making progress. We’ll see.

Bodegas Mauro – Tudela de Duero
We spent a large part of the day with Alberto Garcia, son of Mariano Garcia, owners of Mauro. Started with a visit to Vina La Oliva; 25-30 year old vines planted by Mariano in the traditional goblet method instead of by trellis. Then to the new winery up on a hill on the other side of Tudela to do some barrel tasting – ’08 Syrah (which comprises 10-15% of Tinto Mauro blend, and opaque, brilliantly intense fruit like northern Rhone Syrah); ’08 Tempranillo from La Oliva primarily (fragrant/floral/blueberry/almost delicate); ’08 Temranillo marked for Vendemia Selecion (darker, mineral/floral/deep meaty sweet black fruit – wow!).

Then we jumped back in cars and headed down into the old part of town to the original bodega to taste more from barrel – ’07, 50% of final blend including the Syrah (fig/black currants/toasty oak – it will be bottled in May-June - creamy already but with plenty of tannin); ’07 Vendemia Selecion (opaque; lots of wood/black fruit/mineral/bittersweet chocolate, sweet tannic fade); ’08 Terreus (a single block of 100 year old vines we visited after lunch next to a garbanzo bean farm in the middle of other grains – opaque; spicy/meaty/mineral/smoke/floral/sweet black fruit…incredible). Then ’05 Terreus in bottle – to be released this year (opaque; mocha/fig/black raisin/mineral/oak, already thick velvet texture over loads of tannin – extraordinary young wine).

Then a short walk around the corner to the restaurant (name?) – unassuming entrance in the old town, opening to a starkly modern though immensely comfortable interior – for lunch of locally grown esparagus blanco, jamon Iberico drizzled with olive oil, smoke river trout that looked a little like salmon but much more delicate, and 15 day old lamb prepared in the Duero tradition – braized in salted water; micro greens. We drank ’06 Mauro; ’04 Venedmia Selecion and ’04 Terreus. The latter two are simply a couple of the best young red wines I’ve ever tasted. You will see them in the store shortly after I return!

The hotel: Fuenta de la Acena. On the bank of the Duero, in a restored water mill. Astounding renovation – starkly modern but totally sensible, with an addition extending along the river’s edge composed of concrete, wood, limestone and a façade of glass, floor to ceiling, first and second floors. Ate dinner in the hotel – garbanzo negras with squid, octopus and cockles; oxtail from Vega Sicilia’s farm with potato. Drank Bollinger Special Cuvee; ’04 Alion; ’01 Vina Pedrosa Reserva. Whew, crashed finally, around 2:45am. Great day!

Day Five - Vega Sicilia
Vega Sicilia has been owned since 1982 by Pablo Alvarez, but the estate was founded in 1864. It was not only the first commercial winery in Ribera del Duero, it pre-dates the establishment of the DO by more than 100 years. Originally it was a complete farming community, with its own train station, and all of the employees lived on the property. It’s wine was world famous before 1900, and the Bordeaux varieties that make up about 20% of the blend of both Valbuena and Unico were among the original plantings on the estate. Today Vega Sicilia makes three wines:
Valbuena – 80% Tempranillo/20% Malbec/Merlot; aged three years in a combination of new American oak barrels and oak tanks, two years in bottle. Current release is 2004.
Unico – 80% Tempranillo/20% Cabernet Sauvignon; aged seven years in a combination of new American oak, oak tank and stainless steel tank, three years in bottle. Current release is 1999. Not made every vintage – there is a 2000, but no 2001.
Unico Reserve Speciale – a blend of three vintages, about 10,000 bottles released annually.

Vega Sicilia opened its own Ribera del Duero property – Alion – in 1990, where only one wine is produced, averaging about 100,000 bottles annually. It is 100% Tinto Fino (the local clone of Tempranillo).

In 1994 they released the first wine from their estate in Hungary – Oremus. They make a dry furmint, Mandolas, as well as Furmint Late Harvest and Tokaji Aszu.

2004 marked the premiere of their estate in Toro – Pintia – where, as at Alion, only one wine (100% Tinto de Toro – the local clone of Tempranillo).

After touring Alion and Vega Sicilia, we had lunch at Fuente de la Acena (including langoustines and wild mushrooms in cream sauce; jamon Iberico, a cured beef which I believe came from Vega Sicilia’s own beef (it is still a working farm which also grows alfalfa and a few vegetables); as well as Vega Sicilia raised beef cheeks. We drank:
’06 Oremus Mandolas – 6 months in new oak; honey/citrus peel/floral – creamy texture, dry, but soft. 14.2% alc.
’06 Pintia – fresh and fragrant (see notes on ’06 Mauro…maybe it’s a characteristic of the vintage) – v. pretty.
’05 Pintia – Wow – intense, meaty/black fruit – lively, rich, concentrated, elegant, especially for this DO.
’05 Alion – Wow – fragrant and pure and so young, but so damned drinkable – you want to gulp down big glasses of it. Terrific.
’03 Oremus Mandolas – Citrus flower over honey – lively and fresh, and a wonderful surprise. 13.5% alc.
’04 Vega Sicilia Valbuena – The wine of the trip to this point – notes can’t do it justice…deep, pure, persistent, intense, endless fruit. One of the greatest things I’ve ever tasted.
’99 Vega Sicilia Unico – Balsam/spicy fruit/velvet texture over massive tannin – so impressive but so freaking young… considering Vega Sicilia recommends drinking the Unicos from the 1960s for current consumption, that should give you an idea of what I mean. As impressive as it is, give me the Valbuena.

Then we piled into the van and drove to Haro (2.5 hours), tonight’s destination. Tomorrow we visit two Rioja estates – Rioja Alta and Vina Herminia, then a long (5-6 hour) drive to Falset. So, we’re calling it an early night – might hit the pillow before 12:30am!

Day Six - Rioja
La Rioja Alta - Founded in 1890, and essentially the first winery in
Rioja Alta, or at least the first to appreciate how special its
location happens to be. The buds on the vines around the bodegas in
Haro and Las Bastida are nearly ready to open. La Rioja alta is a
traditional producer, in the best sense. They have 9 million bottles
aging in their bodegas, along with some 75,000 barrels. They grow 75%
of the grapes they require, covering 1,100 acres of vines. They also
own Lagar de Cervera in Rias Baixas; Baron de Ona in Rioja Alavesa and
Aster in Ribera del Duero.

We tasted (sorry, too tired for more detailed tasting notes):
Lagar de Cervera Albarino '08 - Rias Baixas
Aster '03 Crianza - Ribera del Duero
Aster '01 Reserva - Ribera del Duero
Baron de Ona '04 Reserva - Rioja Alavesa; this was neat...the vineyards
sit at 600m, nearly the highest in Rioja. Lively sort of vivid red
fruit, concentrated, still elegant.
....took a short break, then tasted,

all from La Rioja Alta:
Vina Alberdi '02 Reserva (by the way, all La Rioja Alta wines are at
least Reserva); 100% Tempranillo; spicy red fruit and creamy oak.
Vina Arana '01 Reserva - Tempranillo with some Mazuelo (aka Carignan),
2 years in barrel, one year in bottle. delicious; balanced , ripe and
spicy and seamless.
Vina Ardanza '00 Reserva - 20% Garnacha; more spice and red fruit in a more
compact framework, but long and elegant.
904 Gran Reserva '97 - 10% Graciano; 4 years in barrel, 6 years in
bottle - current release! Orange peel, almost candied and spicy,
intense but elegant. Neat.
890 Gran Reserva '95 - 5% Mazuel/5% Graciano; 6 years in barrel, 8
years in bottle - current release! This was the bomb - elegant but
rich, sweet, concentrated fruit. Remarkable freshness for 14 year old

Vina Herminia, Rioja Baja
Run by Antonio Palacios, this is in some ways the mirror image of Rioja
Alta. No estate vineyards, they purchase all of their grapes from
Rioja's biggest cooperative (which is also Rioja's largest single
landowner), but Palacios, being a veteran of the region and highly
respected, gets his pick of the best lots available. He blends freely
across the different zones of Rioja, looking to make wine with intense,
fresh fruit, doing less barrel aging. This guy has a clear vision, as
do all of the estates we've visited on this trip. All of the wines
tasted showed pure, fresh flavors, fine balance and style - they're
extremely well made.

We tasted:
Irun Verdejo '08 - Rueda. In screwcap. From the first whiff, it is
obvious this wine has some Sauvignon Blanc. Good wine, great with
lunch, but I'd rather they let the Verdejo stand on its own.
'08 Tempranillo Joven - Rioja. Vivid and sassy - yummy.
'06 Excelsus - Rioja. 40% Garnacha, some oak aging. The least identifiable as Rioja,
but plenty tasty.
'05 Crianza - Rioja. 15% Garnacha. V. pretty - modern but clearly Rioja
in structure and overall character, just a particularly fresh
'01 Reserva - Rioja. Balsam/toasty/spicy/ more red fruit - polished and
ready to drink but plenty fresh and lively. Delicious wine.
'99 Gran Reserva - Rioja. Lovely ruby color; fragrant, floral (dried
roses)/leather/red fruit/cinamon smells and seamless, elegant, charming

Then we had lunch, with the above wines to drink:
stuffed piquillo peppers
Navarra DO white asparagus
potato, chorizo and tomato/red pepper stew
baby lamb chops grilled over vine cuttings
baby lettuce wedges with arbequino olive oil
red wine-poached pear and black currant ice cream

Fat and sassy, we hopped in the car and drove some 300km to Falset, checked into
the hotel and walked over to the restaurant La Vi-zzeria, a wine
restaurant that makes distinctive pizzas reminiscent of our good
friends in Bmore (Iggies!). We ate more...

croquettes with tuna and black olives
salad of greens, marinated wild mushrooms, "bacon" and their own
house-made arequina olive oil (one of the best olive oils in my
pizza with tuna, black olives and parmesan

We drank:
Nelin '06 Blanco - Priorat
Martinet Bru '05 - Priorat
Clos Martinet '04 - Priorat
...all three were extraordinary, but I'm out of energy and adjectives...time for bed.

Day Seven – Falset/Montsant/Priorat
We tasted some great wine today (and you know me – the better the
wine, the fewer the words), but what made this day the best of the trip
was the time we were fortunate enough to spend with Sara Perez and her
father-in-law, Rene Barbier. Rene is one of (along with Sara’s Father)
the driving force behind the creation of the modern D.O.s of Priorat
and Montsant and Falset. In the late morning Sara drove us up to the
heights of her Clos Escuricons vineyard and spent about two hours
explaining her philosophy and methodology. After lunch in Gratalops we
spent the next four+ hours with Rene Barbier – first he drove us to the
top of his home vineyard – Clos Mogador – then, after a tasting, he
drove us to one of the highest points in all of Priorat, planted to
100+ year-old Grenache, which makes a wine he calls Espectacle. We
learned the difference between schist in Martinet – loaded with iron –
and schist in Mogador, pure and dark; and the granitic soils that
produce Espectacle. The point is, these are some of the world’s great
red wines (they made terrific whites as well), and we spent the whole
day with two of the greatest winemakers in the world. And they thanked
us for being there! Incredible. What a fantastic week! Much more on
Priorat when I return. For now, a little sleep, then off to Barcelona
for a day to relax before the flight home on Sunday. Buenos Noches.

Day Eight – Barcelona
The Boqueria. Barcelona’s fresh market is one of the bigeest in the
world. Since we arrived at the hotel before rooms were ready, we walked
down the Boqueria and had blunch, or brunch, or whatever you want to
call it. Todd has been here several times, so he knew where to take us:
El Quim. This is a tapas bar with about fifteen seats surrounding the
kitchen/bar in which four men maneuvered in a space of about 30 square
feet. Watching them was part of the fun, but the food was kept us
sitting there until we could barely move, so stuffed were we with
navajas (razor clams); huevos con cipirones (fried eggs with baby
squids, and another huevos dish with those baby eels, the name escapes
me); fried green peppers; asparagus with sea salt; chorizos; blood
sausage; many cervezas… all so fresh and perfectly prepared and served
with smiles…a great meal. Then we accompanied Todd on his annual trip
to the salt-cured fish stand where he buys pails of anchoa de seca
(whole Mediterranean anchovies cured in salt).

We walked back to the hotel, dropped off the anchovies and headed back
out for a quick visit to the Gaudi-designed apartment building a few
blocks away, then stopped in a bar for a quick refreshment – cava with
tapas – but left after just a couple of plates because we felt less
than welcome. Perhaps it was the fact that the waiter didn’t know how
to properly open a bottle of cava and the flying cork just missed
Todd’s face – or perhaps it was because, even though we risked danger
by ordering another bottle, the guy just didn’t seem interested in
getting it for us. On the way back to the hotel, in search of another
bar, we came across a cheese/delicatessen/wine shop, and we put
together our own tapas to have back at the hotel. It was great, and it
didn’t stop us from heading out to our last dinner in Spain, at a place
called Can Pineda, for honest Catalan fare which turned out to be
another terrific experience. The bottle of note was ’04 Terreus –
amazing. The food, whew. Besides more great anchovies and white
asparagus, and monkfish with wild mushrooms, etc, two standout dishes –
a tomato/strawberry/onion/
ventresca tuna/anchovy salad; and a carpaccio of baccala that nearly brought me to tears. And so it ended, another great meal, more great drinking, great company – what a trip!

The Travelers:
Phil Bernstein
Rod Carleson
Colin Gent MW – European contact, driver, vinous genius
Mitchell Pressman
Todd Ruby – team captain, organizer, joke-teller
Matt Wood