I arrived in Haro, La Rioja, for appointments at two of the oldest and most prestigious wineries in the region Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia & Muga. Haro, population 12,261, is located in the northwest of Rioja. Arriving by train from Barcelona (a 5 hour ride), we got off at the tiny station on the outskirts of town. Stepping off the train was like going back in time. Brick buildings & walls surrounded the town which sat atop a hill. Right out the front door of the train station are 4 or 5 brick Bodegas (wineries). On our way to Hotel Los Agustinos (which was once a prison, a convent, & a hospital) we passed Muga, Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia, La Rioja Alta, Cune, and a few others. We wandered into bars and enjoyed glasses of local wine out of small casks. In my broken Spanish I asked the name of each wine but was told only that is was made locally, no producer or particular vineyard. For all I know the owner of the bar could have made it himself: he mentioned owning several hectares around town. After some revelry we were headed (finally) to the hotel but were sidetracked by enormous birds’ nests on top of nearby buildings. These nests were at least 12 feet around. Apparently they are made by gigantic Storks. Amazing.
7 am came around and we rolled out of bed, showered, headed out. Walking into Lopez de Heredia you immediately notice the lack of machinery. One of the oldest and most traditional wineries in Haro, they don’t use any machinery - every thing is done by hand. And when I say every thing I mean everything. They make 100% of their own barrels, employing coopers to take care of everyday maintenance. Each barrel is initialed by the cooper so if it ever needs fixing they know who to call. The winery is absolutely gorgeous and completely authentic, from the ancient hand-dug caves, to the mold growing all over the walls. There is so much history here and the wine, well let’s just say AMAZING!
After our tour we went for a tasting/lesson on why they age all their wines so much longer than any other Bodega in the area with a bit of family history in the mix. Next we were on our way to Muga when I suddenly felt like my pocket was on fire. Weird. Reaching my hand in my pocket I burned my finger tips, and almost a hole in my pants. What the…? I reached back in quickly and pulled out the contents. A word to the wise: putting AA batteries and euros in the same pocket is a good way to create heat. It took about 20 mins for both to cool down.
Every one in the Muga tasting room got a good laugh at my expense especially me yelling “I have a fire in my pants!” After the “hot pocket” shenanigans came to an end we met with our guide and headed off for our private tour. Right away you could see the differences between Muga and Lopez de Heredia. Muga is modern with machines aplenty, remodeled warehouses, forklifts, and pumps to fill barrels. Walking through the large facility we noticed a buzzing hustle of workers filling barrels, racking wine, bottling the 2010 Rose & filling cases for export. After Muga you really start to wonder how Lopez de Heredia does all this manually. We were then escorted into Muga’s private kitchen where a fabulous meal awaited us. We started out with Muga Cava, paired with white asparagus, and moved to a white bean salad paired with their 2009 Rioja Blanco. As we finished up this course, our guide popped another 5 bottles to sample with the enormous lamb dish that came next. I don’t think I’ve ever had such delicious lamb in my life – cooked to perfection and falling off the bone like it had taken hours. What a special way to end a fun-filled and educational day…now off to get tattoos!
After a long, uncomfortable plane ride I arrived in Barcelona. From there we drove another 2 hours to Cambrils, the seafront community of about 33,000 where we were staying for EspaiPriorat, an intensive trade tasting being held in a few tiny villages in Priorat. The purpose of this event is to bring awareness of the region to international buyers, food & wine writers, wine critics, & a few select retail shops.
After checking into the hotel and meeting some new friends, we were off to the races. We started with a buffet style lunch with plenty of wine to pass around, Torres Priorat Salmos 2009, Mas Blanc Pinord Priorat +7 2006, Ferrer Bobet Priorat VV 2008 and a long list of others that I didn’t take notes on. I mean let’s be honest – a long, cramped flight, 3 Estrella Damms at the airport, then a 2 hour drive, I’m lucky to have taken any notes at all. After chatting and eating with a few distributors, food writers, & importers, I decided to grab a few friends and take a walk along the beach. We stopped along the way to enjoy the local beverages, sangria, ice cold beer and the likes.
5-6 drinks later, a large group of us were hanging out on the hotel patio and suddenly realized that dinner was only 45 minutes away. We scattered and scrambled into showers and nice clothes. Dinner was held in a amazing restaurant, Club Nàutic in Cambrils, where we were served a spread of food prepared by four of the region’s finest chefs: Diego Campos (El Rincon de Diego), Joan Bosch, (Can Bosch), Manel Morell (casa Gallau) and Joan Pedrell (Joan Gatell). Diego Campos and Joan Pedrell each boast one Michelin star. To start, we all had a glass of local Cava and a ton of Priorat wines to pass around. As dinner came to a close, everyone looked ready for a good night’s sleep.
The morning brought a huge breakfast buffet followed by an hour and a half long bus ride into Torroja del Priorat. The event at the Cal Compete was an enormous walk around tasting featuring at least 95 wines – a daunting task for even the most experienced taster. We spent most of the day tasting & talking about these wines, which were all new to me. I hadn’t seen many of them in the US. Dinner at El Balcó del Priorat in Morera de Montsant followed. The long drive up the mountain gave way to breathtaking views.
After dinner we were dead tired and ready to sleep till noon. Unfortunately we had to be up at 7 AM to get the day started. After another great breakfast we were on our way to Scala Dei where the last tasting of the event was held. At this tasting were some wineries from the previous day as well a several others that had just joined. 12 rows of 6 foot tables lined the room from end to end, 6 deep. That’s a lot of wine . After tasting through about 25–30, I was ready for a cold beer. Sitting back, watching the sea of tasters, I relaxed till it was time for our final lunch which again featured fresh local products. There were different gazpachos, fresh fish dishes, artisanal cheeses, and a montage of meats. After the closing ceremony we were all off to either the hotel, vineyards for visits, or the airport. As for me I headed to Barcelona for the next leg of my journey…
In preparation for my first trip to Spain I decided to revisit some of my favorite Priorat & Rioja wines. Knowing that I would be spending time in Priorat at the first annual EspaiPriorat followed by a few winery (Bodega) visits in Rioja , I decided to get together a line up and taste through them with a few friends. In the first round we decided on Priorat. The traditional grape variety grown in El Priorat is the red Garnacha Tinta . Also authorized are the following red varieties: Garnacha Peluda , Cariñena , Cabernet Sauvignon , Merlot and Syrah . Four white varieties are also authorized: Garnacha Blanca , Macabeo , Pedro Ximénez and Chenin .
The first wine in the lineup was Pasanau Ceps Nous Priorat 2007: made up of 58% Garnacha, 19% Mazuelo , 10% Syrah, 7% Cab, & 6% Merlot. This wine stood out as a cocktail wine to me (easy drinking, not needing food). On the nose: jammy, spicy, with hints of dried fruits. Hitting the palate it was full of fleshy powerful fruit with a nice finish of toasty vanilla and a hint of sweetness, but not overpowering. Next we moved onto a declassified wine from Mas Doix “Salanques” Priorat 2006. This wine is made by barrel declassification: 65% Garnacha, 15% Cariñena, and the balance Syrah, Merlot, and Cab. This wine proved over the (Priorat) tasting to be one of my top picks. On the nose, elegant cedar, anise, dark cherry and a hint of black currant. Hitting the palate with dense rich flavors that linger for what seems days. A killer wine to crack with your special lady for a date night at home on a school night. Moving on to Ripoll Sans Closa Battle Gratallops Priorat 2005 (a mouthful to say the least) 65% Cariñena, 22% Garnacha, finishing with Cab, Merlot, and Syrah. While a young wine (needing a few years of a aging or a v igorous decant) it showed a great nose of, cedar, dried flowers, dark fruit and a bit of cookie spice. On the pallet, light tannin full flavors and a silky finish. Last up in the Priorat tasting was my other top pick (bang for your buck) Cellar Cal Pla Black Slate Porrera Vi de La Vila Priorat 2008 60% Garnacha and 40% Cariñena. This wine comes out swinging, great nose of smoky dark fruits, dried flowers that lend a certain elegance. On the palate, bitter sweet chocolate, bold dense raspberry and a touch of vanilla.
Fast forward to a week later and on to our Rioja tasting. In Rioja the most commonly used Tintos (red grape varieties) are Tempranillo , Garnacha Tinta, Graciano , Mazuelo , Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The most common Blanca (white grape varietals) are Viura (also known as Macabeo) Malvasía , Garnacha Blanca.
We started the night with a 2010 Muga Rioja Rosado composed of 60% Garnacha, 30% Viura and 10% Tempranillo. Showing an elegant salmon color the wine bounces flavors of light cantaloupe, pears, and surprisingly, star fruit. It’s full rich mouth feel but still dry, a great start to the night. The first Tinto of the night was Allende Rioja 2005. This wine has a great color and is even silky on the palate. Flavors of spicy smoke, dried cherries and a bit of orange zest and licorice. Great finish and a definite group favorite. Next up was the 2007 Cune Rioja Vina Real Crianza, made up of 90% Tempranillo, the rest a blend of Garnacha, Graciano & Mazuelo. In the glass the wine gives off glimpses of ruby, leading to a palate of spicy red berry compote not overpowering but firm, lively and long on the finish. Last but not least we decimated the 2004 Lopez de Heredia Rioja Vina Cubillo Crianza, 65% Tempranillo, 25% Garnacha & 5 each Graciano and Mazuelo. Deep red in color with aromas of macerated cherry, raspberry and baking spices. After taking my first sip it was clear that we had a new front runner in the tasting. Reaching for another taste I realized that the entire bottle had been taken down by my “tasting panel.”
Yeah right more like the thirsty sailor panel.
I recently had the pleasure of attending the Ribera del Duero tasting at the fashionable SLS Beverly Hills Hotel. It was a small but unique tasting focusing on this up-and-coming region in north-central Spain, not far from Rioja. With the maritime influence of the not-too-distant Atlantic and lots of sunshine, Ribera del Duero provides ideal conditions for its mainstay grape, Tempranillo (also known as Tinto Fino.) Those who are not familiar with Spain and the quality and value of its wine output need look no more. Ribera del Ruero is on the rise.
The first wine that caught my attention was Pago de los Capellanes Reserva Ribera Del Duero 2001. Winemaker Paco Casas has won many awards in European tasting challenges, including Gold Medal at 2005 Premios Zarcillo, Burgos, Gold Medal in the 2005 International Wine Challenge London, and Gold medal in the 2005 Concours Mondial de Bruxelles. This wine has flown under the radar in the States for far too long. I really hope to see the wines of Pago de los Capellanes start to get the recognition they deserve. Aromas of vanilla, minerals, and smoke complement the berry notes. This fresh, firm, well-balanced bottle of wine screams out for pot roast, or a nice juicy grilled steak. And the price of this bottle is only $44.99, not bad for a 2001 reserva.
The second bottle that caught my eye and tingled my palate was the Aalto Ribera del Duero 2007. This wine is young and tight, but once it’s been decanted for an hour or more all the aromas begin to reveal themselves delicately. Black cherry, blackberry, and pain grille round out a nice spicy bouquet. On the palate the wine is pure, dense and opulent with a long-lasting finish. This wine will evolve well over the next 10 years and seems a good addition to one’s private cellar. It’ll go great with ribs, or sausage and bell pepper pizza. Priced at $39.95, it’s an excellent value for such a high quality bottle of wine.
So next time you are thinking of grabbing a bottle from Spain, think Ribera Del Duero. It’ll take you there.