Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Sparkling Alternatives to Champagne

"I cook with (sparkling) wine; sometimes I even add it to the food." With apologies to W.C. Fields


Note:  This blog on sparkling wine is a few days early, to allow time for a last minute run to the store for a bottle or two of bubbly to bring in the New Year.

                                Queen Elizabeth Wallpapers - Wallpaper Cave

 At the close of 1992, Queen Elizabeth, recalling the failure of three royal marriages that year, among other troublesome things, said the year was an "annus horribilis."  With 2020 finally in the rear view mirror, this may be a good time to say good riddance to that "terrible year" and toast to a sparkling future in 2021. 

Champagne has been the bubbly of choice to help bring in the new year probably as long as the champenois have been making their renown sparkling wine. 

If shopping for your new year bubbly finds you in your local wine shop, with one eye on your favorite Champagne and the other on your shrinking budget, don't lose faith because there are other quality sparkling wines for that special occasion, such as California Sparkling wine, Prosecco and Cava.

Quality and refinement of all sparkling wine depends on many factors, none more important than the process of the second fermentation that puts the bubbles in the bottle.  In Champagne that is accomplished in the same bottle in which the wine will be sold, while in less expensive processes, such as Charmat (or Cuve Close), the second fermentation is in a tank. 

So, let's look at a few select sparkling wines that are not Champagne, but offer good quality for the price.  

California Sparkling Wine -- Champagne producers are very touchy about the use of the name.  A handful of Champagne houses have been making sparkling wine in California for years, but they understandably choose to not use the name Champagne on their wines.  

An aside.  The Champagne name is protected by the European Union and some other countries. The name is used (some would say abused) in other places such as California and South America.  Some years ago, Champagne producers agreed that grandfathered California wineries (think Korbel) could use the name Champagne so long as it included an appellation, such as "Sonoma Champagne." What is puzzling is why the same champenois allow the use of the name Champagne without a local appellation in South America.

 The problem for California wineries is that no one has ever come up with a suitable name, so the wineries rely on the brand or use a term such as "Sonoma Valley Brut."  There are exceptions, such as Korbel and Gallo, that continue to use the Champagne name but with a local appellation like "California Champagne."

That position makes sense only if you think of it as a marketing decision and accept the argument that dropping Champagne from the wine name would cause buyer confusion and cost the winery lots of money.


Anyway, there are a small number of French wine producers (Taittinger, Moet, Roederer, Mumm) making bubbly in California that are the equal of most Champagne and cost less than Champagne.  They use the same grapes as Champagne: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier. The wines are fermented in the bottle and otherwise treated the same in the cellar and aged the same. 

The bottom line is that the most important difference between Champagne and other sparkling wine that Champagne producers want you to know, is that the outliers, even ones made by a Champagne house, are not Champagne.

California sparkling wines to consider include Domaine Carneros, Roederer Estate, Mumm Napa Valley, Domaine Chandon, Schramsberg, Iron Horse, J Cuvee,  Gloria Ferrer, Robert Hunter, Wente, Thornton.

Charmat -- The cheapest of the cheap bubbly is one where CO2 is injected into an inexpensive white or red wine and then the bottle is sealed with a plastic cork.  

A better way to make budget sparkling wine is a bulk method called Charmat.   The base wine, often less expensive grapes like French Colombard and Chenin Blanc, are put through a second fermentation, producing the bubbles and some complexity, in a large tank. The wine is then racked under pressure into bottles and sealed with a mushroom cork. 

Cava -- Is the name for Spain's best sparkling wine.  Despite a common belief  that has gotten considerable mileage over the years, Cava is not an acronym, but is the Spanish word for "cellar," as in the cellar for aging sparkling wine.

In 1970, under pressure from Champagne producers not to use the name Champana (Champagne), Spanish wineries, mainly in Penedes, Catalonia, settled on Cava to identify their sparkling wine, which is made by the classic Champagne  method.  It's a genius name, instantly recognizable as Spanish, and far better than just sparkling wine.

The trio of local grapes that form the backbone of Cava include Xarello, Macabeo and Parellada.  Following the success of Cava as a sparkling wine with Champagne overtones but a budget price, Chardonnay was added to the list of permitted grapes. 


 Mass marketing by large producers such as Codorniu and Freixenet, caused some disenchantment with the Cava image among some small producers. In 2014, a number of them left Cava and started using the new Penedes DO.   

Cava producers to look for include Freixenet, Codorniu, Mas Codina, Miguel Pons, Juve y Camps, Segura Viudas, Naveran, Recaredo.

Prosecco -- is the popular off-dry sparkling wine from northeast Italy.  Prosecco's huge international popularity vaulted the wine from IGT status to DOC in a short time, created Italy's largest DOC zone and established two towns within the zone -- Conegliano and Valdobbiane -- as DOCG.  

It was a testament to the power of wine marketing, especially for a humble, lightly sweet and fruity sparkling wine.

Italy's wine classification system, known as "DOC" or Denominazione di Origine Controllata, is often compared to the French AOC, the basis for all wine classification systems.  In 1963, the Italians added "e Garantita" to DOC to signify the countries highest quality wines.  An important distinction is that DOCG does not mean the "best."  Italian IGT, or Indicazione Geografica Tipica is the equivalent of the French vin de pays.

Prosecco is made mainly from Glera, although up to 15% of international grapes such as Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, are allowed. The wine is tank fermented.  

There is a group of small producers using other local grapes, creating unique blends, bottle fermenting rather than tank fermenting, and releasing the wines with sediment and a crown cap instead of the traditional mushroom cork.

                                                    La Marca Prosecco 750ml

Prosecco producers worth the search: La Marca, Ruffino, Allini, Castello del Poggio, Mionetto, Zonin Cuvee, Da Luca, Bisol.

Whatever your preference for a celebratory sparkling wine, lift your glass high in a toast to a new and safer and more prosperous new year. 


Next Blog: Nebbiolo: Italy's King of Red Wine

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Monday, December 21, 2020

My Life in Wine Episode 9

"It's a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I believe you'll be amused by its presumption."  James Thurber, in The New Yorker

In Episode 8, my Copy Editor and I were nearing the end of our 1979 European trip, with a visit to Barcelona and the Torres winery. We had one more stop, in Alsace, then back to Frankfurt and the long flight to Colorado.

Ever since I had first tasted an Alsace Gewurztraminer, my wine-travel goal was to one day visit Alsace and taste as many Gewurztraminers as I could.  What I didn't know, as we headed north out of Spain through southern France, was how many   Gewurztraminers were waiting for me.

Gewurztraminer is an intriguing wine that you either like or loath.  The scent is high-tone like a heady perfume: rub some rose petals between your fingers and inhale the spicy notes, noticing the exotic back note of lychee.  One taste and your hooked on the texture and freshness of roses, lychee, spice and citrus. For me, it's hard to deny Gewurztraminer, even if I stumble pronouncing the name. 

In German, Gewurztraminer (Geh-vairtz-tra-mee-ner) translates to "spicy traminer," since Traminer is the grape, although nobody calls it that anymore.  Yet, some studies maintain they are two different grapes, with only slight variations.  

A California aside.  Gewurztraminer was once more popular as a varietal in California than it is today.  A lot of the wines then were ponderous, often with too much residual sweetness. Louis Martini was one believer of the two-grape theory for Gewurztraminer.  In fact, the Napa winery once made both a Traminer and a Gewurztraminer and on the front label of the Gewurztraminer, there was a space between Gewurz and Traminer to signify the difference. Eventually Martini yielded to the popular trend labeling the wine Gewurztraminer. 

The charming region of Alsace is wedged between the Vosges mountains and the Rhine river, in eastern France.  On the opposite side of the Rhine is Germany and the fabled Black Forest. Alsace is one place in France you should visit, especially if you like white wine. 

But there's more to Alsace than wine. To say that Alsace is quaint would be an understatement.  You can wander the cobbled streets of Medieval walled villages, like Riquewihr and the nearby Ribeauville, considered one of the oldest medieval towns in Alsace. The charm of these medieval villages can be seen in the preserved half-timbered houses and wine shops, narrow winding streets and multi-lingual people slipping from French, to German to English when the need arises.  

29,182 Alsace Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock
Saint James church in Hunawihr

 A short side trip from Ribeauville to the hamlet of Hunawihr is worth a visit to see the fortified church of St. James surrounded by a 13th century wall.  Behind the church is a cemetery with the remains of village residents who fought in both WWI and WWII. When we visited the cemetery in 1979, it was surprising to see enamel medallions marking the graves of men who served in both the German army and the French resistance during World War II.

For a mono-lingual American, watching the Alsatians deftly ease from French to German to accommodate German wine shop customers who cross the Rhine to load the trunks of their Mercedes with drier Rieslings than what they might find at home.  And being multi-lingual helps when dealing with the thousands of tourists who put a strain on the fragile quaintness of Alsace.

A person can only poke around so much before developing a thirst for a glass of cool Alsace wine, like Riesling and Gewurztraminer, the region's leading white wines. And there's Pinot Gris (once known as Tokay Pinot Gris), two kinds of Muscat, Sylvaner and Pinot Blanc (also called Klevner).  

The most common Alsace wine is Edelzwicker (German for "noble mixture"), available in most tasting rooms and restaurants.  Edelzwicker is a pleasant blend of Pinot Blanc, Chasselas and Auxerrois. 

There are scores of wineries to visit in Alsace, but we concentrated on Hugel and Trimbach, the two most widely available then in Colorado and both are major brands today.

Expanding a winery at a site protected as historic means structures cannot be removed or altered without permission from the historic commission.  So creativity and design innovation must be applied to any changes and additions in winery operation.  During our visit to Hugel & Fils, in Riquewihr, Etienne Hugel showed us a few special stainless steel tanks that were designed to tuck into a niche in an ancient wall and a circuitous network of stainless steel pipes, between two buildings, that had to bypass a protected building.  As if wine making doesn't offer enough challenges.

An astonishing remembrance -- Later at lunch, Etienne asked me what I did in my leisure time and I mentioned that I had recently taken up baking bread. To my amazement, he said, "How would you like to be our baker here in Riquewihr? The baker has retired and we need someone to take over." 

I couldn't think of anything to say, so I stupidly blurted out. "Are you serious!"

"Yes, you like to bake bread and we need a bread baker, so the job is yours," he replied without missing a beat. 

It was one of the strangest things that ever happened to me, but obviously I turned him down...I don't even speak French!

Hugel wines are full and flavorful.  The standard Riesling and Gewurztraminer are packed with true varietal flavors, and I was especially impressed with the Hugel Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive, a supple late harvest wine with just enough natural sweetness to make the wine a treat on its own or with a light dessert.

A few miles to the north we stopped in for a scheduled visit with Hubert Trimbach at his family winery in Ribeauville.  Trimbach wines are known for their pure varietal flavors and impeccable balance.  In the late 1970s and early '80s, Hubert traveled a great deal, especially in the United States, so it was lucky to catch him at home in Alsace.

                           Alsace wine stands apart from the sweet trend | Agweek

We spent a pleasant afternoon at Trimbach, tasting the wines and learning more about the history of Alsace.  But my Copy Editor had a bladder infection and needed to see a doctor.  Hubert put us in touch with a young doctor in Ribeauville and we said our goodbyes.  

It was early evening and the doctor's waiting room was empty except for a nun who sat patiently with her hands crossed in her lap.  Her patience was tested further when the doctor motioned to us to follow him to the treatment room.  He completed his examination, proudly using his limited English, wrote a prescription and we departed without paying a single franc (it was a pre-Euro time).

The medicine helped so the following morning, after breakfast, we climbed in to our rental car and headed back to Germany and the flight home.                                       

In Episode 10, we arrive back in Colorado to a big surprise.  The next couple of months were busy with a flight to San Francisco, resulting in a permanent move to San Diego and the beginning of the next exciting chapter of My Life in Wine.




Next blog: Sparkling options for the New Year

Is there a wine or grape you are curious about?  Email me at




Friday, December 11, 2020

French grapes head west

"Now wines are wonders; great wines are magical; and winemakers are mad. Like horse fanciers, they are always trying to improve the breed."  William Massee, American wine writer.


Discovering something about the grapes in your wine can be a mundane and disappointing experience, or it could be magical, as William Massee says. 

There likely is no magic involved, but I think it is noteworthy how interest in  Malbec has dropped off in Bordeaux, while finding new interest far from home in South America. 

On the other hand, Tannat, not exactly a well known grape, continues to maintain  strong interest in southwest France, but like Malbec, Tannat has found a second life in South America.

By now most wine consumers know that the traditional Bordeaux blend consists of five grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. And it is generally known that the blend was eventually narrowed down, more or less, to just Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

That leaves these questions: What happened in Bordeaux to Malbec and Petit Verdot; Why have fewer chateaux opted to go with just the three grapes; and why are new plantings of Malbec and Petit Verdot static there?  Historically, there are some chateau that never added Petit Verdot and Malbec.

Before we move on, here are a few words on the status of Petit Verdot. The grape did not disappear bur has lost favor in Bordeaux because it ripens later than Cabernet Sauvignon, a major late ripening variety, and thus is susceptible to frost.  Petit Verdot has seen moderate success in Spain, Italy, the Alentejo region of Portugal and Napa and Sonoma counties. 

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Healthy cluster of Malbec grapes

Malbec -- In 1956 there was a devastating frost in Bordeaux that wiped out vineyards across the region.  Malbec was especially hard hit due to its susceptibility to disease and rot.  When the threat of frost had past and replanting began, many chateaux replaced Malbec with Merlot, a heartier variety that is less problematic in the vineyard.

It was the beginning of the end for Malbec in Bordeaux, although the grape still has a strong presence in Cahors, where Malbec produces a dense wine with deep color, no doubt the reason the English referred to it as the "Black wine of Cahors."

Wine has been made in Cahors since the Middle Ages, where the grape is known as Cot.  Old timers believe that Cot is the true name of the grape rather than Malbec.  

Traditional Cahors is a full bodied, deeply colored red wine with a rustic edge that still has a faithful market. However, the trend is toward lighter wines today, with  the older concentrated style of Cahors still being made, notably by Ch. du Cedre,  Ch. Lagrezette, Georges Vigouroux and Cosse  et Maisonneuve.  

Malbec is widely grown throughout south west France, notably in Bergerac. In the mid Loire, Malbec is commonly blended with Cabernet Franc and Gamay, for a lighter wine with forward fruit flavors. 

Although Malbec has a well-traveled record in France, in 1852 the variety found a new home in Argentina, where conditions were more suited to the grape.  Curiously, the vine cuttings brought to Argentina were from Cahors not Bordeaux, although Argentine Malbec is smoother and not quite as robust as Cahors; more like Bordeaux in flavor but not texture.

Malbec is predominate in Mendoza, especially the southern Uco Valley region and Lujan de Cuyo and Las Compuertas in the north.  Argentina's second biggest wine growing region is San Juan, just north of Mendoza, on the border with Chile. While not as fashionable (yet) as Mendoza, San Juan Malbec is gaining on Syrah the region's best known red variety.

There is an Argentine Malbec priced for all budgets, from $15 to more than $50. Here are just a few of the many currently in the U.S. market: Siete Fincas Mendoza, Luca Uco Valley, Susanna Balbo Mendoza, Catena Lunlunta, Famili Zuccardi Mendoza, Finca Adalgsa Lujan de Cuyo. 

California Malbecs range in price from $16 to $120: Francis Ford Coppola Diamond California, Chappelet Napa Valley, Chateau St. Jean Reserve Sonoma County, Firestone Santa Ynez Valley, Concannon Reserve Livermore Valley.  

Growing Grapes: Varieties, Planting Guide, Care, Diseases, and Harvest |  Grape plant, Grapes, Grape trellis
Tannat grape cluster

Tannat -- Madiran, in south west France, is Gascony's best-known red wine. Made from Tannat, traditionally the wine is rustic, big and astringent, but there is an ongoing effort to make the wine more approachable. 

Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, two red varieties not known for softer tannins, are blended with Tannat. If that wasn't enough tannin, some producers add a little Fer (or Fer Servadou), another tannic red variety grown in Gaillac and Madiran.

Maceration and micro-oxidation are then used to soften Tannat's hard edges, with the wine finally aging for 20 months in small oak barrels.  All of this cellar work in the winery is an effort to bring Madiran into the international market where the demand is for softer, more approachable wines, ready to drink earlier.   

Micro-Oxidation, or commonly "micro-ox," is a complex technique that allows for the delivery of precise and controlled amounts of oxygen to the wine during wine making. Micro-ox also helps to control reduction during aging in the barrel and to moderate greenness in the wine from under ripe grapes. Reduction is the presence of off-elements in a wine near the end of fermentation or in closures sealed with a cork or a screw cap. For more on reduction and micro-oxiddation, Google the terms or consult a wine encyclopedia.

Tannat is probably Basque in origin. In the 19th century, Basque settlers from Spain, took Tannat vine cuttings with them to Uruguay where it is the most important grape for fine wine. 

The Uruguayan government initiated a program in the 1980s to improve the wine industry, which at that time was making wines from hybrids and North American grapes, mainly for local consumption. The nascent fine wine industry moved quickly and smoothly to European varieties and improved wine making.

But wine export in Uruguay has moved slowly, mostly to Brazil. The Uruguayan wine industry is looking at other export markets, promoting fine wines like those made from Tannat, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the main whites. 

Prices and selection of Uruguay Tannat are limited, with a price range of $13 to $36.  Look for these Tannats: Noble Alianza Tannat-Merlot, Bodega Garzon, Bouza Reserve, Pizzano Family Estates and Deicas.

Malbec and Tannat are presented here as alternatives to other more popular red wines. There are many valid reasons why Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are popular, but I encourage readers to try different wines.  Who knows, you may find a new favorite!


Next Blog: "My Life in Wine" Episode 9

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Tuesday, December 1, 2020

A Trio of Rhone Whites

"The study of astronomy is wonderfully facilitated by wine."  Herman Melville 


Someone once said that they would drink any wine so long as it's red. Wine drinkers that subscribe to that pronouncement agree that red is the only color for a wine, while others say such absolutism is narrow minded. 

For me, the question is how can we just dismiss white wine altogether?

Perhaps lovers of French wine have the answer, by never refusing a glass of Bordeaux, Burgundy or Rhone red wine. There are times, though, when even the most hard-core red wine drinker enjoys a white wine of character and flavor.

Consider that in France, there are wine grapes grown specifically to be used as supporting varieties, to add different flavor nuances and grace notes, or perhaps give additional color or structure to a wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is the main grape of a Bordeaux red blend that is filled out by Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec. 

Guigal Cote Rotie vineyard in Ampuis, France. Ampuis, France - October 22, 2016: Guigal Cote Rotie vineyard. Guigal is a winery and negociant business situated royalty free stock images
Terraced vineyards in Cote-Rotie

In the Northern Rhone trio of white grapes, Viognier is the main variety, while  Marsanne and Roussanne, fill out the blends. These three wines are packed with flavor and character, but truth be told, only one of them ever established a reputation as a "rock star" varietal wine, while the other two never rose further than members of the rock band. 

Viognier -- In the late 1990s, Viognier captured the attention of wine lovers, becoming a fashionable grape and wine, mainly in France, California and Australia.  Like many trends in the United States, the rise of Viognier was rapid and seemingly unending.  By 2012, California boasted the largest plantings of Viognier in the world, with more than 3,000 acres planted, mostly in the Central Coast.  And for white wine lovers, Viognier had reached rock-star status.

Chardonnay, of course, had already commanded a major hold on white wine sales, while Sauvignon Blanc had yet to reach its full potential as a challenger to Chardonnay. So, wine drinkers began looking for something different and along came Viognier. 

Leaf And Grapes Of White Viognier Stock Photo, Picture And Royalty Free  Image. Image 8287999.
Viognier leaf and cluster

Compared to Chardonnay, Viognier is exotic and lush (honeysuckle, peach, apricot), especially when grown in the warmer parts of California.  And unlike Riesling, a grape with some of the same exotic flavors, Viognier has a softer mouth feel, while lacking Riesling's sharper acidity. 

A few words about young wine.  Just after fermentation or when young wine hasn't been touched by oak or given time in glass, it's not easy to tell the difference between, say, young Chenin Blanc and young Chardonnay.  The same honied and stone fruit aromas are often seen in both young wines.  Then, with more time, varietal definition becomes apparent, and the differences between wines are more noticeable. 

In France, Viognier is at home in the Northern Rhone, where it is the exclusive grape of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet, the latter one of the few appellations with a single owner.  Since its founding in the 18th century, ownership of Ch. Grillet has been in one family.  In 2011, Grillet changed owners and style; the "new" Ch. Grillet is less perfumed and more restrained than the storied Ch. Grillet.  

Condrieu is a small appellation in the Northern Rhone, producing limited quantities of white wine made exclusively from Viognier.  The wine has a heady aroma and full body and may be oaked or not.  Guigal and Vernay are the best known producers of Condrieu. 

Viognier has also taken root in Virginia, Texas, Oregon and British Columbia.  But outside of California and France, Viognier has been successful in Australia, mainly  the Barossa Valley where Yalumba is the Viognier specialist.

Marsanne and Roussanne --  These two Northern Rhone white grapes are mostly unknown outside the Rhone Valley, but they are valued parts of the white versions of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph, three noted Rhone reds based on Syrah.  Roussanne is also allowed in white Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the popular Southern Rhone red. 

Pierre Viala , Victor Vermorel , Traite General de Viticulture.... News  Photo - Getty Images
Roussanne leaf and cluster

What Roussanne adds to the white versions of the Northern Rhone reds is a distinct herbaceousness that appeals more to the senses than the herbal notes sometimes found in Cabernet Sauvignon. Some find ripe pear as well, along with a marked acidity, due mainly from under ripe grapes.

Marsanne grape Stock Photos and Images | agefotostock
     Marsanne leaf and cluster

Most of the wineries in the regions mentioned above prefer Marsanne over Roussanne in their white blends.  Marsanne has a flavor profile similar to Viognier, with notes of ripe peach and honey.  With age, both Marsanne and Roussanne take on a nutty character that gives the impression of barrel aging. 

For reasons, probably known mostly to growers and winemakers, Marsanne is not one of the grapes in the multi-grape blend of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but Roussanne is.  Both varietals, however, are grown throughout the southern France regions of Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon. 

Outside France, both Marsanne and Roussanne are grown in small quantities in Spain, Italy, Australia, Virginia and California.  

Northern white grapes offer a different taste experience and an opportunity to free your taste buds from the Chardonnay lock step. If you like Viognier, or haven't tasted one yet, try Condrieu.  To sample Marsanne and Roussanne, look for Hermitage Blanc, or the slightly less expensive St. Joseph Blanc. 


Next Blog: Malbec and Tannat in South America

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Saturday, November 21, 2020

"My Life in Wine" Episode 8

"When it comes to writing about wine, I did what almost everybody does - faked it."   Art Buchwald


In Episode 7, my Copy Editor and I lingered in Burgundy, whiling away the afternoon at Maison Joseph Drouhin, then returning to our room at Le Cep, for an early dinner with more wine to build up our courage for the long drive to Barcelona the following day, while preparing for the culture shift from Burgundy to Catalonia.  

Once the car was loaded and we set off, I was hoping my calculations were correct that the 500-mile drive, from Beaune, France to Barcelona, Spain would take about eight hours.  

No such luck.  Driving anywhere in Europe, in these times, means sharing the roads with hundreds of trucks that look much bigger than the semis on U.S. highways.  The only trucks I saw longer than those in Europe, were the "road trains" that barreled along at high speed across the flatland of Western Australia.

I had underestimated the driving time and hadn't accounted for the long backup at the Spanish frontier.  No matter what country you're in, it seems that customs and immigration agents treat you like you're an international smuggler.  

A smile and a "Welcome to Spain!," would have been nice. 

Nevertheless, we were happy to finally arrive in Barcelona, but not happy to find  that driving in Barcelona, while not as manic as driving in Paris, is unsettling, especially when you don't know where you are going.  GPS was not even on a wish list in those days, so we hoped we were going in the right direction and  to our great good luck, discovered we were.  

Our booking was at the Hotel Colon in the Gothic Quarter, and as luck would have it, there were helpful signs on the way into town directing us to our destination.  In the distance, we could see cathedral spires, towering above the buildings, acting as helpful directional beacons.  

Then, a few lucky turns and we were there.

Discover La Sagrada Familia, the jewel of modernism in Barcelona
La Sagrada Familia

Entire guide books are devoted to the sights and pleasures of Barcelona, so I'll  just say that we walked a lot, especially to see  from the outside, Antoni Gaudi's famous and amazing Sagrada Familia basilica; tours of the interior were still in the future.  Lunch was "Barcelona style," meaning late for an American, at Los Caracoles, Barcelona's oldest restaurant in the Gothic Quarter, famous for its extensive seafood menu, spit-roasted chicken and bread rolls shaped like a caracole, or snail, and to walk it off, a stroll along the famous La Rambla.  

A remembrance -- I first visited Spain in the early 1950s, as a passenger on a USAF C-41 (DC-3) out of Germany.  Spain was under the grip of Francisco Franco then, but since Spain and the United States were allies, we were given permission to land at an airfield operated by the Spanish Air Force outside Madrid.  The field would later be known as USAF Torrejon Air Base. 

As we taxied to our parking place, I remember passing a row of WWII German Luftwaffe transport planes, some still with the faint outline of the iron cross on the fuselage, painted over with Spanish markings.  During the war, Franco was not exactly a Nazi sympathizer, but he was a profiteer.

A short drive to Vilafranca del Penedes was scheduled for the following day, so we still had a few hours for a late afternoon stroll. The Gothic Quarter is a warren of   narrow winding streets and closely packed shops, that accentuate the sights and smells of the neighborhoods.  

Nearing the Ramblas, crowd noise mixed with sirens, grew louder.  The end of the street we were on opened onto a chaotic scene of riot police in full body armor clubbing demonstrators, trying to get away while shouting at the police. It was like walking out of a quiet room into a large riotous crowd.

Quickly, we turned and ran back toward our hotel and only later, found out the demonstration was for gay pride.

Dinner that night and a good night's sleep and we were ready to visit Torres the next day. The concept of winery tours and tastings in Europe were just catching on in the late 1970s in Europe, but as a visiting wine writer, covering the introduction of Spanish wine in an expanding U.S. wine market, I was able to arrange a private tour and tasting.

Over the years, Torres grew from a large winery in Penedes, to a mega-operation with vineyards and and wineries throughout Spain, in Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat and Rueda. The Torres reach extends outside Spain, to Chile and California. All of this expansion can be directed back mainly to the efforts by the extended Torres family, with Miguel as president, who with the help of his sister Marimar and brother Juan-Maria, along with the younger generation, are maintaining the diversity and quality of Torres wines worldwide. 

Torres opens restaurant at Mas La Plana winery
Mas La Plana for two

 Before other Spanish wineries began to export non-native varieties, especially to the United States, Torres was making a Gewurztraminer called Vina Esmeralda, a Chardonnay with the descriptive name of Vina Sol and a world beater Cabernet Sauvignon known as Mas La Plana.  

There is so much more to the Torres story, but my memory from those days when my Copy Editor and I were in Catalonia in the late 1970s is a little dim.  Also, I'm a pack-rat by nature, thinking that someday I might be able to recycle a tasting note or observation, but a few moves over the last 40 years has meant jettisoning piles of paper.  

So, it's time to say goodbye to the excitement of Barcelona for the more staid experience of Alsace, France, almost at the end of our road trip. Following a few days visiting wineries in Alsace, we'll cross the Rhine river, to Frankfurt and then home.


Next Blog:  Northern Rhone Whites

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