Welcome to the first edition of my “Manly Wine Consumption” series. This series will be catered to men to help them combine their love of wine with whatever manly activity they happen to be participating in. I will also help with some suggestions for appropriate wines for the occasion. Ladies, pay attention too for a look inside the mind of a man. First up: Fight Night.
If you’re like me (and I hope you aren’t… that’s me at the left), you probably don’t have many friends that share your love for fine wine and watching guys beat the snot out of each other. MMA is the undisputed king of combat sports as well as the fastest growing sport in the world. A typical Saturday night for a MMA fan usually consists of driving to a bar, watching the fights, getting plastered, getting in a bar fight and then getting left passed out in their front yard by your “friends”… I mean, their friends. That has never happened to me.
Due to completely unrelated circumstances, I try to no longer watch the fights at bars and have started watching the fights at a buddy’s house, where a handful of guys will share the expenses. Everyone always drinks beer. It’s always Bud Light, the official beer sponsor of the UFC. Unless you are a Brock Lesnar fan, in which case, you drink Coor’s Light. If it devolves into tequila shots, don’t worry, the official spirit sponsor of the UFC is Tequila Cazadores.
There are three ways to approach justifying your bottle of vino to the other guys. First, it’s fight night. Threaten to kick their ass if they say a word about it. The second method is to reason with them about wine being classy, respectable and civilized. This will often shame them into feeling like the sub-cretins they are and often, they will ask for a taste. Deny them.
The third? Bring a wine that they can’t bag on you for. This is where selecting the right wine comes into play. Your thinking must be multi-faceted. My recommended wines for fight night aren’t too intellectually stimulating (you’ll be too distracted by the fights to over-analyze anyway) and go well with most party food fare. They also need to be worthy of respect from your buddies as well as not break the bank. The Pay-Per-Views are $55 bucks now because UFC President Dana White needs another Ferrari.
Anything with a manly sounding name and/or manly looking label is a good way to go. Some examples would be “Sinister Hand,” “The Ball Buster,” or “Boom Boom.” If you have a few extra bucks to spend, check out the wines from Four Vines. With names like “Loco,” and “Anarchy,” and bottle designs to match… your bound to score a couple knockouts with the guys.
If none of those work, try my favorite alternative… negotiate with your wife or girlfriend to watch the fights, just the two of you. Nothing is more romantic then yoked up sweaty guys in speedos making each other bleed all over the place… and drinking an aged Rioja alongside a herb roasted lamb chop.
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!
I’ve had a fascination and fondness for Spanish wines over the last 15 years or so. What’s made the journey even that much more fascinating has been watching the monumental changes that have taken place over that time. I remember being introduced to the newest offerings from Spain in the late 1990’s. You could tell that something was afoot as the quality, style and variety were just exploding.
But, while many wineries modernized their production and vineyard techniques, there were a handful of properties that resisted the change and continued to make the most profound examples of what they call traditional wine. There are a handful of top traditional wineries in Spain and two of the most important are Lopez de Heredia and CUNE, both located in Rioja.
Last year I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon at Gjelina featuring the wines of Lopez de Heredia, presented by Maria José López de Heredia herself. We tasted reds and whites as far back as 1964. If you are a fan of Spanish wines, you know that they set the bar for traditional Rioja; a tasting of their wines will bear it out. They are nothing short of magnificent.
I’ve also been a fan of their next door neighbor, CUNE for many years. But I think I’ve underestimated just how great their wines can be. A few weeks back, I attended a luncheon at Spago with Victor Urratia, owner of CUNE. Along with all the current releases, we were able to taste the Reservas from ’85 and ’79. We tasted the Imperial Gran Reserva’s from ’95, ’90, ’80 and ’76. And finally the Vina Real Gran Reservas from ’87, ’81, ’78 and ’73.
My first smell of the ’85 Reserva nearly made me laugh out loud. It was that good. My notes for the ’87 Gran Reserva read, “Tremendous. Perfect.” I think I liked that one as well. The most interesting note raised by Victor was that great Rioja matures like Bordeaux but once they reach their plateau, they stay there for much longer. Considering how the ’73 Gran Reserva showed, I’d have to agree.
Some of these back vintages will be available for sale. Supposedly, the boat comes to shore in September. But more importantly is how inexpensive (comparatively) these wines are on release. For $40 you can lay down some of the current Imperial Gran Reservas. They’ll grace your cellar for another 25+ years.
Next up, I’m having lunch at Lucques to taste the wines from Bodegas Riojanas. I have much less experience with this traditional producer but hope to have another epiphany. If you’re not collecting these traditional Riojas, you may be making a big mistake. And I’d feel bad for not having warned you. If you’ve had a great old Rioja lately, let me know about it.