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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Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Spanish white wines Part 2

 "I must have a drink at eleven, It's a duty that must be done; If I don't have a drink at eleven, then I must have eleven at one."  Anonymous


The history of wine grape cultivation in Spain goes back millennia, with records of some varieties known for 300 years. In the collection are native or indigenous grapes like the white Alcanon and international varieties such as Riesling. 

In the late 1960s, the taste for white wine in Spain was for wines that had lost their freshness months ago, if not years and become oxidized wines. The cause was due to the wines being left too long in old oak tanks, before bottling. 

It was an alien experience, similar to tasting a Chilean wine that had been aged in a local evergreen beech called rauli, or a California wine rested in redwood. In both cases these woods were what was available locally when the more desirable, and more fashionable, French oak was too expensive. 

In the latter part of the 20th century, the world wine market began to contract and a new phenomenon, called the "international style," began to emerge. Some saw this as an homogeneous expression of wine (i.e., there was little detectable difference between an inexpensive Chilean Chardonnay, a California Chardonnay and a Chardonnay from the South of France).

There has always been an objection to the "international style" at the higher end of the market, where styles move more slowly.  Recently, though, Spanish winemakers have been experimenting with skin contact for whites, like Macabeo, a technique that helps add more body and texture to the wine, while hopefully putting the "international" wines to rest.    

Wineries were faced with the decision to continue to satisfy the local market, or change the way they matured their wines.  Large wineries had the luxury and funds to keep some of the production in wood tanks for local sale and bottle a part, with no or little wood aging, mostly in small barrels, for export.

Of the hundreds of grapes that are grown in at least one of Spain's 17 autonomous regions, most are red.  But interest in Spanish white wine is growing. In the first of a two-part series on Spanish white grapes and associated wines, posted on Nov. 2,  the focus was on Palomino, Moscatel, Macabeo and Albarino. 

In this part: Xarel-lo, the foundation of Cava wines; Pedro-Ximenez, a classic grape in Spanish sweet wines; Parellada, another important part of Cava; and Verdejo, once a problematic grape that now promises greatness. 

                                          Xarel.lo uva - | Vin

Xarel-lo -- One of the gratifying things about following wine for so many years is to see grape varieties get a second chance.  Such is the case with Xarel-lo, a common grape in Catalonia that suffered for years from oxidation, but was rescued from certain obscurity by research advances in the vineyard and winery. 

It can be aggressive in flavor, even herbaceous and must be grown with care to keep these characteristics under control. It is this strength of character that, along with Macabeo and Parellada, form the blend for Cava sparkling wine.

                                                          grapes on a vine stock photo © Juan Moyano Mangas (nito) (#4445427) |  Stockfresh

Parellada -- Grown throughout Spain but mainly in Catalonia where it is valued for its contribution to sparkling wine. Parellada is a cool-climate grape with good aromatics. 

Parellada contributes a soft, creamy base to the blend for Cava.  It is also occasionally made as a varietal still wine.

Traditional Way Of Sun Drying Of Sweet Pedro Ximenez Or Muscat.. Stock  Photo, Picture And Royalty Free Image. Image 129988120.
Sun drying PX grapes


Pedro Ximenez --  PX, as the grape and wine are commonly known, is grown in the southern Spain region of Andalucia and more specifically in the sub-regions of Montilla-Moriles and Jerez.

Growers in both areas sun-dry PX to concentrate the grape sugars into a very sweet sticky liquid that resembles treacle. Sherry and Malaga producers use PX from Montilla-Moriles in blends, as well as varietal wines in Jerez.

In Jerez, Sherry bodegas have cut back on PX plantings due to the grapes tendency to be disease prone. And PX is lower in acid and alcohol than Palomino Fino, the predominant grape of Sherry.   

Varietal PX has an opaque dark brown/black color, sweet molasses nose, sticky texture and a very sweet taste with hints of spice and molasses. PX and Malaga are highly valued by lovers of sweet wine as dessert or an after-dinner drink.

                                                              Verdelho | Verdelho, Vinho, Uvas

Verdejo -- This is one of the most fashionable white grapes in Spain, especially from Rueda, a popular wine region along the Duero river in Castilla y Leon, just west of the famed red wine area of Ribera del Duero. 

In 1970, the noted Rioja vintner Marques de Riscal, recognized the potential of Verdejo in Rueda. The appeal was the grapes highly aromatic aromas and clean, crisp acidity. 

Verdejo is often blended with Macabeo and more recently Sauvignon Blanc, producing a wine with slightly herbal flavors that transform to nutty with bottle age. 

The take away for Spanish white wine grapes is versatility. Most of the eight grape featured in the two essays are considered important to growers and winemakers for their use in blends. However, more white grapes like Albarino and Verdejo are building popular reputations as varietals in their own right and most are still better values as wines with food than Chardonnay.                                                    



Next Blog: "My Life in Wine" Episode 8 

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