PICARO: RIBERA GONE ‘ROGUE’

We go out of our way to taste as many things as we can.  But for us Spain is a particular penchant.  We taste a lot of remarkable wines in the course of our research, as well as the usual percentage of clunkers and other offerings that are getting a lot of critical attention that we simply don’t ‘get’.   Ribera del Duero is seen as a more ‘serious’ appellation with the neighborhood harboring such heavyweights as Vega Sicilia, Hacienda del Monasterio, Pingus, and Pesquera.   There are plenty of discussions about ‘old school’ and ‘new school’, but one of the wines that lit our fire from a discovery perspective last year didn’t seem part of any school.

Jorge Monzon and Elizabeth Rodero founded the winery only in 2010 after Jorge spent years selling his produce to ‘several high profile neighbors’.  They have definitely separated themselves from the pack in a very good way and we can only marvel at their successful new approach and how Aguila takes such a stylistic diversion and makes you wonder why more people haven’t done this.

The wines are the brainchild of Dominio di Aguila, and he labels them ‘Picaro del Aguila’, the term Picaro making reference to someone as a ‘rascal’ or a ‘rogue’.  The playful nature of the program belies how serious these folks are about what they do and the clarity and purpose of their vision.  The winemaking is purposeful and innovative, but ultimately all of the serious winemaking goes to produce wines that are, ultimately, ‘fun to drink’

We first profiled Domino del Aguila last year with the tasty and rather eye-opening 2015 version. The ‘recipe’, if you will, relies heavily on the appropriate clone of Tempranillo.  But he has chosen some rather unusual bedfellows for this part of the world including Grenache, Bobal, a varietal we associate more with Valencia to the southeast, and Albillo, the rare, indigenous white of the Ribera.  Put them all together (del Aguila actually co-ferments them) and what do you get.  As we described the 2015, you get a Ribera with its ‘party hat’ on.  The 2015 went on to get 92+ points and a small novelette from Advocate’s Luis Guttierrez.

The 2016 walks the same line, scored higher and is clearly an even more complete effort.   There’s plenty of richness here, but there is also a lift to the flavors that is unlike anything else we have tasted from the area, probably due to the inclusion of the white grapes in the fermentation a la Cote Roties in the northern Rhone.  Gushing mulberry and cassis flavors abound but there’s a streak that is like a marinated black cherry and more expressive floral elements to the aromatics that announce this is no garden variety Ribera.

The viticulture and winemaking here are more than serious.  The vines, somewhere north of 50-years-old, are farmed organically/biodynamically,  The grapes are trodden by foot before being put in French oak for malo-lactic fermentation and a sojourn in wood (though there is no obvious wood in the flavors).  The vineyards here are north-facing, which give the wine a little cooler profile to begin with and affords the grapes a little more hang time.  The fruit  notes have a certain ‘wild’ character, a more lifted personality that doesn’t sit heavy on the palate, and an effusive spiciness.  The Dominio del Aguila Picaro Ribera del Duero Vinas Viejas 2016 is a gregarious, slippery, tasty and, yes, fun beverage.

Advocate’s Gutierrez went off again, “The youngest of the released wines I tasted is a red—the 2016 Pícaro del Águila Tinto. It is from what they consider to be one of the best and freshest vintages in recent times. This is produced with the vines from the warmer parts of La Aguilera, a cold place to start with (and in a cooler year). The old vines are planted with a mix that is dominated by Tempranillo but also contains some 5% other grapes. All the grapes are picked and fermented together with full clusters and natural yeasts in concrete and stainless steel vats. It matured in oak barrels for 13 months.

“This is fragrant, expressive, open, aromatic and really attractive. The palate is really balanced, with great freshness, fine tannins and a very pleasant mouthfeel—supple, balanced and with great depth. This is the best version of this bottling so far…”   Juicy, well-meshed (it was quite engaging on day two as well), well-priced and versatile, all done in a style all its own, the eagle (aguila is Spanish for ‘eagle) has landed.

 

 

AN ALBARINO STORY

*This is a little unusual for us, but something we might start doing a little more often.  In the course of our ongoing research to support the emails and writeups we do, we try to include as much information as we can without every article looking like “War & Peace” or something ‘Micheneresque’.  Occasionally we do run a across a story done by somebody else that has great information or teaches a lot about some aspect of the world of wine.  We are of a mind to publish them for your consideration.

This article was written for the importer for Raul Perez’ new Albariño project (Atalier) by Andrew Mulligan, the Spanish portfolio manager for the company.  Naturally, it is a bit of a sales pitch but we thought the history aspects, etc. are pretty cool here.  Yeah, it’s geeky stuff, but pretty informative.    We’re going to do a more concise email offering on this outstanding new Albariño moving forward.  But we couldn’t possibly include this much detail and this is an article that few consumers would ever find, or even know to look for.

=========================AN ALBARINO STORY (Andrew Mulligan)

We are very pleased to announce the arrival of the 2017 vintage of ‘A Cruz das Ánimas’, the Albariño from Atalier by Raúl Pérez. While this is the second vintage produced under this label, it should be considered the first vintage in which the vision of the project has been fully realized. The 2016, while terrific, was cobbled together from myriad sources, whereas the 2017 comes from three dedicated coastal sites that were specifically chosen to carry the project into the future.

The Rías Baixas is an unusual appellation in that it is not geographically contiguous. In the north, around the town of Cambados, there is the Val do Salnés sub-zone. In the south, along the Miño River (which forms the natural border with Portugal), are O Rosal and Condado do Tea. Less well-known and more recently established are Soutomaior, located between Pontevedra and Vigo, and Ribeira de Ulla, which lies to the south of Santiago de Compostela.

In the past, there was a tremendous amount of varietal diversity in the region. Indeed, there are twelve authorized varieties in the appellation – a half dozen each of white and red. Since the establishment of the D.O. in 1988, however, Albariño has risen to near complete dominance, now accounting for 96% of the planted acreage.

The origins of Albariño are not universally agreed upon, either by ampelographers or winegrowers. Some believe that the variety is native to this corner of the Iberian Peninsula (insomuch as any grape can be considered truly “native” to Western Europe). Others believe that it was brought over by French monks in the 11th and 12th centuries via the Camino de Santiago. Still others believe its origins to be Germanic. “Alba” is a Latinate root for “white” and ”Rin” is the Rhine River, so it’s possible to interpret the name Albariño as “White of the Rhine”.

Wherever it came from originally, there is no dispute as to Albariño’s ancestral home in Spain: the Val do Salnés. The southern zones of the appellation were historically planted more to red varieties like Caiño Tinto, Loureiro Tinto and Espadeiro, and white varieties like Caiño Blanco, Treixadura and Loureiro Blanco (the latter two of which are still widely planted just over the border in Portugal), but the vast majority of those plantations were pulled up to make way for Albariño over the last three to four decades. With very few exceptions, Albariño vineyards that are referred to as “old” in Condado do Tea or O Rosal top out around 35-40 years of age. In Val do Salnés, however, it is still possible to find some very old parcels. Owing to the predominance of sandy soils in the coastal areas, there are even some plots that survived the phylloxera crisis of the late 19th century, thus making them some of the oldest un-grafted vitis vinifera plantings in the world. The 2017 Atalier comes from a trio of such vineyards, all within a kilometer of the coast in the village of Dena.

These 150-year-old Albariño vines are trained in the traditional pergola style.  Rodri Méndez, the unofficial conservationist-in-chief of the Salnés Valley, is the person responsible for scouting the vineyards and establishing the agreements with the owners, whom he has known all his life. Rodri’s bonafides are rock solid: he’s a member of the family that founded Do Ferreiro, one of the first commercial wine brands in the Rías Baixas. Its founding pre-dates the formal establishment of the D.O. by at least fifteen years, and it remains a reference point domaine, not just in the Rías Baixas, but in all of Galicia. Rodri has since split off to launch his own projects, but he remains almost religiously committed to seeking out, recuperating and preserving historic sites such as the ones that go into Atalier. You see, old vines are not very sought after in this new world of commodified Albariño. Most folks these days want to farm for kilos, and old vines are notoriously miserly with their yields. Almost every year, parcels of un-grafted, pre-phylloxera Albariño vines are either abandoned by people of advanced age or plowed under to make way for new plantations. My colleague Max and I got to visit the largest of the three sites this past month, and it was, without a doubt, one of the most moving vineyard visits of my career. I have certainly visited more visually arresting sites: Knights Valley in the shadow of Mt. St. Helena; the bleached and blasted moonscape of Santorini; the vertiginous slopes of Amandi in the Ribeira Sacra. But this visit was different. The vineyard lies exactly at sea level and is totally flat, so there’s no real drama to the landscape. It was what this site represents that was at once both inspiring and poignant.

Vicente has worked this plot his entire life.  We didn’t ask Vicente, the vineyard’s owner, his exact age, but I’m guessing he lands somewhere between 80 and 90 years old. He has looked after this vineyard for his entire life, like his father and grandfather before him. Though he’s not entirely sure, he surmises that the vineyard was planted before his grandfather was born. Rodri Méndez estimates that the Albariño vines are somewhere around 150-160 years old on average, based on the breadth of the trunks and the paucity of the yield. There is at least one vine on the property that is an order of magnitude older than that: a single Caiño Tinto vine with a trunk as wide as a dogwood’s and limbs that extend far and wide enough over its trellis to provide shade for a large patio. Vicente’s children chose other vocations, leaving him without any heirs to carry on the family tradition of cultivating the vine, so Rodri now takes responsibility for the vineyard management and pays him for the agreed-upon share of the grapes at harvest. Vicente keeps a small portion of the yield to make a wine for home consumption.

Rodri and Marcial Dorado, another scion of an old northwest Iberian vine-growing family, accompanied Max and I for the visit. Though it was immediately obvious to us Americans, they still took great pains to emphasize how special a site this was. “This is the real thing, Andrew! This is the way of our ancestors! Look at this! Look at it!” Their inarticulate exhortations were fitting for the moment. Anyone who works in this business long enough will eventually become at least slightly desensitized to the wonder that a visit to a vineyard can occasion. Some will become downright cynical. But while we’ll never get back to the state of mind we enjoyed on those early trips, when we were seeing everything for the first time, we are still occasionally privileged to feel that wonder break through again.

“When these vines were planted,” I thought to myself, “My mother’s ancestors were breeding horses for the Polish cavalry and my father’s ancestors were being greeted in America by NINA signs.” How much has changed for my family since then! And how little has changed for Vicente’s. These vines we were walking amongst – after all these years, with their famines and diseases and wars and scourges; their marriages and births and innovations and poems and songs – they would still produce fruit! And my friend Raúl would turn that fruit into wine, and my other friends and I would get to sell that wine to yet other friends, and those friends would sell it to friends and strangers alike…when you take the time to reflect on it, this is remarkable!

With raw material like this, there’s not really much to do but stay out of the way, and despite the abundance of accolades Raúl and his wines have received, staying out of the way is probably the thing he does best. There are two key decisions, however, that affected the way the wine came to show the character it does. The first concerns malic acid. There are certainly counterexamples, but the vast majority of Albariño on the market goes through at least partial malolactic conversion. The grapes have a very high level of naturally-occurring malic acid, so when picked at the usual time, they need a little bit of that conversion to avoid coming out shrill. Raúl, however, eschews malolactic in Albariño. In order to naturally lower the malic acid levels in the grapes and obviate the need for even partial conversion, he waits to harvest for as long as two or three weeks after most everyone in the zone has finished. This is not so much time that the grapes raisinate or arrive at unreasonable levels of potential alcohol (the finished wine is around 12.8% or 13%), but their malic acid levels do drop considerably. Raúl and Rodri like to say that they pick on the same day every year: “The day before it rains.”

The other decision is to elaborate the wine in oak, standard practice for all the wines – white and red – that Raúl produces. These days, oak fermentation and aging are often disparaged out of hand as “modern” techniques, representing what the great Robert Haas would call “some tragic falling off from a first world / of undivided light” – some ideal of purity that is almost entirely apocryphal. This is especially true for white varieties that are expected to be made in a fresh, reductive style. But as with any polarizing issue in the wine world – sulfur comes to mind – context is of paramount importance. Putting Albariño into a new French 225L HT and racking it after six months into another one is modern (and sounds gross). Putting Albariño into large, used foudres to stimulate oxygen exchange during élevage is something that’s been done for generations. The style we think of now when we think of Albariño – fresh, easy, fruity – is actually quite new. The first stainless steel tanks didn’t arrive to the region until the 1980s! The prevalence of reductively raised Albariños in the market these days is almost purely a function of economics: stainless steel élevages save time, money and labor – simple as that. And the commodification of Albariño wines over the last twenty or thirty years has led to a philosophy of “pick, crush, ferment, bottle, sell” that has all but relegated this noble variety to the “cheap and cheerful” bin along with Verdejo.

The 2017 ‘A Cruz das Ánimas’ from Atalier by Raúl Pérez is an example of the ecstatic heights that old-vine Albariño can reach when treated with the respect, care, and patience it deserves. It is also is something that is becoming vanishingly rare in the world of wine today. Sites like these represent an ever more endangered piece of the cultural patrimony of Galicia. When I speak of the poignancy of visiting a site like this, it’s not simply about un-grafted vines. Apart from the vines themselves, it’s the tradition of passing jealously guarded parcels of land from generation to generation that is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain in the new global economy. A wine like this provides us with an opportunity to partake of this legacy and play a part in keeping what’s left of it alive.

 

 

 

 

LA RIOJA ALTA’S BRILLIANT 2009 GRAN RESERVA 904

It doesn’t take a lot to convince us about the quality of wines from this producer. As you probably know, we’ve been fans for a long time.  It’s hard for us to even imagine why wines like La Rioja Alta aren’t the first choice of most wine drinkers.   We have worn our affection for Rioja on our sleeves for, what, a couple of decades?  La Rioja Alta has been a house favorite for a long time as well and is one of the bastions of quality juice in the ‘traditional’ style.  They perform well at all of the price levels at which they play, from their Reserva Viña Ardanza and Viña Alberdi to their super-premium Gran Reservas 904 and 890.   You’ve got high quality, very modest prices relative to similar examples in other genres, and those wacky Spaniards even throw in a bit of bottle age at no extra charge.  Where’s the down side?

Not long ago we wrote an offer for the sensational 2009 La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza Reserva.  The pitch was pretty straight forward.  How about a 96-point (from James Suckling) Rioja in a plush, ripe style (2009 was a warm vintage), with a few years of bottle age, for under $30?  Pretty compelling, no?  Correspondingly, we sold quite a bit of it.  No surprise there.  In the piece we wrote about the fact that we tasted two wines that day, the Vina Ardanza 2009 and  the Gran Reserva 904 2009.  It was one spectacular day of ‘research’.

It was also a little bit of a surprise.  Alongside the 2001, 2004, 2005 and 2010 vintages in Rioja, the 2009, while certainly no slouch, simply isn’t thought of as an elite vintage.  Apparently La Rioja Alta did not get that memo because both of these wines were among the most engaging out of the gate that we had ever had from these folks over great number of releases. Plush, packed with supple but substantial cassis, black cherry and spice character, ripe tannins and well tucked in supporting acidity,  If you were going to ‘design’ a super sexy Rioja, this pair of 2009s would be great models.

La Rioja Alta is one of Spain’s greatest and most beloved wineries.  It produces classically elegant and polished Rioja wines that are always released after quite some time aging in their cellars. They do all the work, you don’t pay the price.

The variety of vineyards La Rioja Alta has to work with allows them to maintain the vintage’s unique imprint on the wine while still maintaining a simply ridiculous level of quality for the money.  As far as hedonism goes, the bodega hit home runs with these two.  Hey, we’ll gladly admit that we would drink either one of them with relish.  We know that many of you out there prefer to buy at the top-level, in which case the 904 is the clear choice.

The 904 is a complete, engaging, stylish beverage with enormous food versatility yet a roundness and complexity that will reward those that just want to haul off and drink it.  The reviewers seem to share our excitement with this effort.   James Suckling wrote, “This is a driven and super tight Gran Reserva with dark berries and hints of spice and cedar. A spicy red-pepper undertone and some dried flowers. Full to medium body, integrated tannins and a superb finish. A great wine.- 97 Points!”

Wine Advocate’s Luis Gutierrez was, as usual, a bit more loquacious.  He offers, “Time flies, and the 904 for sale is already the 2009 Gran Reserva 904, as they didn’t bottle it in 2008. They are only going to bottle their top wines in very good and excellent vintages, so there will be a 2010 and 2011 but no 2012, 2013 or 2014. This super classical cuvée showcases the wines from Haro, silky and elegant after long aging in oak and a good future in bottle. 2009 was a powerful vintage, ripe but with good balance. The blend is approximately 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano, fermented in stainless steel with a 78-day natural malolactic. The aging was in four-year-old American oak barrels crafted by their own coopers; the wines aged from April 2010 until April 2014. During that time, the wine was racked every six months, to be finally bottled in November 2014. This is usually my favorite wine from the portfolio, where the balance between aging and youth reaches its highest point. It’s developed but it keeps some fruit character, plenty of spices and balsamic aromas. The palate is polished but has some clout, with clean, focused flavors and a long, spicy and tasty finish. This represents good value for the quality it delivers…95+ points.”

The only question left to answer is for the ‘numbers’ set who would say that, since the Ardanza got 96 from James Suckling and 93+ from Advocate, as opposed to the 97 and 95+ respectively for the 904, why would one spend the additional funds for a point or two?  We could unleash a lengthy argument on several fronts but, for time’s sake, because it’s better.  It is from a different vineyard, with older vines (60 years as opposed to 30).  It’s also a different blend (90% Tempranillo/10% Mazuelo in 904 compared to 80% Tempranillo/20% Garnacha in Ardanza).

There’s more complexity, structure, and a different profile in the 904, plus it is a different expression of Rioja.  It is simply not, in our minds, an either/or proposition.  Ardanza is one of the best $30 wines in the world, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything in 2009 La Rioja Alta Rioja Gran Reserva 904’s price category that was better for the fare.  You need both! It’s a wonderful ‘problem’ to have.

 

 

 

PEDRO BARQUERO AMONTILLADO: CLASSIC STYLING, 95 POINTS AND UNDER $30!

One of the things that differentiate us from the majority of the wine sources out there is our breadth.  A long time ago we realized that just selling ‘mainstream’ stuff wasn’t quite stimulating enough to do all the time, so we expanded our search, and our product line, to include dozens of different genres in the world of wine.  Yeah we can sell Cabernet, Chardonnay, Bordeaux and Burgundy well enough, but feel remiss if we don’t try and introduce new options for consumers to consider.

We have long devoted space to more extensive selections in less ‘popular’ categories like Germans, Madeira, Austria, and Sherry.  These categories have some spectacular examples to consider. But most of the public isn’t familiar or comfortable with some of these genres, in part because the typical wine merchant devotes zero time to educating buyers to categories that might fall ‘outside the lines’.  We have never stopped trying to teach people about new wines and road-less-travelled categories, but are careful to pick our spots.  This very special wine from Montilla definitely needs to be shown to people and it impressed us with its performance.

They make what people refer to as ‘Sherry’ in both the better known Jerez and the lesser known Montilla regions.  Though Montilla isn’t as famous as Jerez, the area is definitely on par qualitatively with notables like Barquero and long time house favorite Alvear among the fold.  Pedro Barquero, founded in 1905 and still possessing soleras dating back to that time, makes the traditional styles of wine, Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, and Dulce PX, in the traditional manner, blending various aging barrels to establish a cuvee for bottling.

What makes them pretty unique among sherry producers is that they do not employ any of the predominant commercial grape variety, Palomino (which can make up a substantial or entire portion of most Sherries out there) in their cuvees.  They are all made 100% from the noble grape variety of the region, Pedro Jimenez.  Pedro Jimenez is the prized grape of the region from the standpoint of depth of flavor and quality, no question.

But over the last few decades the amount of Pedro Jimenez, a variety with low yields and a somewhat fussy demeanor, has been substantially replaced by the lesser but far more predictable and higher-yielding Palomino.  If you are a regular fan of Sherries, that information should be very exciting, and you should be all over this one.

In terms of style, Amontillado is the top of the list of dry styles, with much more body, deeper color and more pronounced nuttiness.  The use of the more substantial Perdo Jimenez yields a wine that has more layers and complexity vis-à-vis most Amontillados out there (actually almost every one we have tasted over the years).  You’ll notice that depth right away with the Pedro Barquero Amontillado Gran Barquero, and see a lot more unfold as you settle in with a glass.  A great aperitif, a superb accompaniment to a variety of tapas (sardines, chorizos, manchego, and especially olives), soups and a surprising number of other lighter finger food type courses, this is no ‘one-trick’ sherry.

One of the additional benefits of sherry (and Madeira while we are at it) is that you can serve yourself a glass, put the cork back in and it will be the same tomorrow, next week or next month.  We actually poured a lost bottle of Amontillado that had been open for three years and it was remarkably engaging and virtually unchanged.  These wines have been intentionally oxidizing in barrels for years so they are pretty bullet proof and are one of only a handful of wines that can function in this way.

Our broad message, then, is to drink/explore the historic beverage known as sherry.  Our specific message is to drink this one, as exciting an ambassador for the genre as we have come across in a long time.  We could go the glamour route like the winery did and talk about a piece on the subject of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe or its part in the film Babette’s feast.  But that doesn’t say anything about this Amontillado.

This excerpt from Wine Advocate does, “The NV Amontillado Gran Barquero is an impressive 25-30 years old. It wears a dark amber robe and a subtle, elegant and focused nose. It’s an Amontillado of finesse, with biological, salty notes and roasted almonds, close to the Fino character. The palate shows a medium-bodied wine of a velvety texture, fine acidity and clean, focused flavors, It represents superb value for the quality it delivers….95 points.”  Serve with a slight chill, salud!

 

THE BEST LAUREL EVER?

Sometimes it is interesting to go back to the beginning.  In 1988 Daphne Glorian, at the time employed by an English Master of Wine in his Paris office, decided to spend her life’s savings on 17 terraces of hillside vines just outside the village of Gratallops.  Newly minted friends René Barbier and Alvaro Palacios encouraged her and together with Carles Pastrana and Jose Luis Perez, they pooled their talents and resources to make a new style of wine in a region rich in history but that had only really produced sturdy wine for the local markets.  In 1989 the modern Priorat was born.

Fast forward to today, and Clos Erasmus is considered one of the elite producers of the Priorat.   Their body of work is impressive and includes 98 (twice), 99 (three times) and 100 (twice) point efforts as reviewed by Robert Parker. The problem with Clos Erasmus through the years has definitely not been quality, but quantity.  There has been precious little to go around. Old vine Grenache, Carignane and a little Cabernet fruit make magic in Priorat in the right hands, and Daphne, along with her current super-star winemaker, the diminutive, dreadlocked Ester Nin are at the top of their game.

These rustic hillsides produce wines of great power and character, yet in Ester’s hands also retain a surprising elegance.  Bordeaux had something like a three century head start and one has to appreciate how far Priorat has come in a mere three decades.  Like Bordeaux, one of the best values in exceptional wine comes from the second wine of Clos Erasmus called Laurel. From the younger vines on the property, plus some declassified Clos Erasmus, this is the Catalan equivalent of Chateau Margaux’s Pavillion Rouge or Lafite’s Carruades. It is also another poster child for our mantra of buying little wines from the very best producers.  Typically Laurel is a pretty sensational drink, but Ester and the gang have outdone themselves this year.

Flavors of currant, black cherry, coffee, cocoa and an insistent minerality from the llicorella (yic-o-raya) black slate soils makes Priorat a very special place for grapes.  The 2015 Clos I Terrases Priorat Laurel screams of its class and breeding. In fact this version is the best we have tasted.  It is aromatic, inviting, layered and remarkably engaging.  It delivers plenty even if you aren’t feeling cerebral and just want to relate to it on a purely hedonistic (sensual) level.   If you need some numbers, this second wine has received 93 points or better in every vintage since 2004 save one (2010, curiously enough the only vintage reviewed by Neal Martin during a very short stint as Advocate’s Spanish reviewer).   The wine in question, this lovely 2015 Laurel, registers at 95 points with Advocate.

Clos Erasmus and Laurel are not vineyard designations, but they do begin to take shape in the vineyard. Meticulous farming and observation take place throughout the year so by the time fruit starts to reach the cellar in autumn, most of the blends have already been mapped out by Daphne. When the primary fermentations are winding down these decisions begin to coalesce and wines intended for Laurel are racked into a combination of 20hl wooden tanks, second- and third-fill 228L French oak barrels and clay amphorae. It rests for 16-18 months before final blending and bottling.

At this point we’ll defer to Luis Gutierrez, whose review supplies most of the relevant technical information as well as well as a rousing endorsement, “The 2015 Laurel is the second wine here, and it has evolved with time. It’s a transparent and bright blend of Garnacha with 20% Syrah and some 5% Cabernet Sauvignon from vines between 11 and 22 years of age. The blend is different each year, as the vines are becoming older and wiser. It shows extremely aromatic and expressive, open and elegant. It really does not show any heat; on the contrary, it feels quite fresh. It’s not a muscular wine—it’s very elegant. Part of the wine matured in amphora, and there’s no more pigéage (since 2012), only very soft pump overs just to keep the cap wet. The extraction is a lot lower than in earlier years. This is nothing short of spectacular. ..”

Jeb Dunnuck provided an early revieew on this one as well, “ … it boasts a deep purple color as well as perfumed notes of resinous herbs, blackberries, liquid violets and pepper. It’s rich, concentrated, and voluptuous, yet pure and elegant on the palate. It’s undoubtedly the finest vintage of this cuvée I’ve tasted …95 points…”.  Amen to that.  This is a release we have looked forward to every year since we first ran across the 2005 some years ago (we’ve been following Erasmus since the late 90s), and this one is special.  Do not miss it!

Mauro’s Very Special V.S.

As has been obvious over the years, we are huge fans of Spanish wines.  We love the dusty plum fruit of an old Rioja and the opulence of an old vine Garnacha that tastes like a new twist on Chateauneuf.  But we also understand that these are unique flavor profiles that might take a little getting used to for someone accustomed to the straightforward, in-your-face blast of fruit from a top flight Napa Cabernet.  Well here we are going to present an immensely impressive wine that not only will pander to the hedonists who like a lot of engaging flavor up front, and purists who don’t mind modern styling provided the wine still has the trappings of classic Spanish reds, but save folks money who think you have to pay $150+ to get something truly special.

Mariano Garcia, winemaker at Vega Sicilia for about a couple of decades, is the force behind Bodegas Mauro.  This is an exceptional performer in the somewhat less defined Tierra de Castillo y Leon, sort of the outskirts of Ribera del Duero.  His ‘regular’ bottling were one of the eye opening efforts that really got us into Spanish wines back in the early 90s, and some of his reserve bottlings have been epic for their genre in the same way that certain producers have become iconic for Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Napa Valley.

This particular wine is a ‘modern’ reserve, meaning that the eye here is on making the best wine possible while no being confined to the guidelines of traditional nomenclature which carry certain rules that winemakers might find a little confining.  This wine is not made every year and comes mainly from two plots of older vineyards.  The wine was bottled in March, 2017 after spending 26 months in a combination of French and American oak.

The scents of smoke, vanilla, and chocolate harmonize beautifully with the classic cassis and plum fruit character of this 100% Tempranillo.  The entry is cool and authoritative with the intensity and dimension of the oak fused with the sleek, polished palate.  This is on par with any Classified Growth Bordeaux and we’d make the comparison with a ‘trophy’ Napa Cabernet except that the Mauro Tierra de Castillo y Leon V.S. 2014 is more harmonious and refined than most New World reds we can think of.  Packed with flavor, this plays on many levels.  You can delve into the wine’s sweet and savory complexity for an engaging intellectual exercise, or you can just sit back and let the intense, layered, toasty, chocolaty flavors roll across the palate.

This is very serious wine that, while it is true to its genre, doesn’t expect you to cross the line to appreciate the context.  There’s plenty of well-heeled but intense flavor to make quite an impression.  Yeah, 2014 was a problematic vintage in some parts of Europe.  But clearly not in the Ribera/Castillo y Leon or a wine of this magnitude would not have been possible.  This to us is that ‘crossover wine’ that will give Bordeaux and Cabernet drinkers a whole new perspective.  Killer juice here, this wine just arrived and, while this has not been reviewed, this series has averaged 95 in Wine Advocate over the last several vintages.  This is definitely one of the best versions of the V.S..

Spanish Immersion, Part Three: Jumilla Value ‘Home Run’

When we first started getting serious with Spanish wines in the mid-’90s, we learned a lot about the areas that previously had little presence in the U.S. market.  These places in the warm climes of southeastern Spain were new to us, and Casa Castillo was one of the definitive wines from the then-unknown (to us) region of Jumilla.  Their property looked a lot like the southern Rhône, with gnarly old vines sitting in a chalky soil, the vineyard covered in stones. Like most of the Jumilla producers we tasted back then and have come to know since, this bodega (what the Spaniards call a winery) had a gutsy, well-priced value wine that was impressive for its substance.  Casa Castillo has impressed ever since.  Even in Spain, it is hard to find something this compelling for this kind of price.

While their “Las Gravas” reserve offering gets plenty of media attention these days, it is the Casa Castillo Monastrell Jumilla 2016, essentially their everyday red, that moved us to write this piece.  There are two factors in play here.  Casa Castillo, the amazing little estate, is one of them.  They have been for a while.   But the 2016 vintage touched this part of the world in a way that made this wine even more impressive than usual (see also Piedmont, the Southern Rhone, etc.).

There is ample ripeness and a surprising poise to this wine that typifies the kind of work this producer does.  But as we have found with so many of the 2016s, there is a lift to the flavors and a tenderness and polish to the palate.  Simply put, we have been tasting Casa Castillo wines for a long time and this one just seems to have another gear over and above the long line of quality predecessors.  When you consider that this is an $11 wine, it was hard to believe what was in our glass.

The Casa Castillo Monastrell Jumilla 2016, not surprisingly, is predominantly Monastrell (the local name for Mourvedre), which performs in this region like nowhere else, along with an 8% blend of Garnacha and Syrah.  It is fermented with native yeasts and sees 8-9 months in neutral barrels.  The flavors run from dark berry and cassis with flecks of earth, stone, chocolate, wild herbs and a nicely proportioned ‘rotie’ character that is quite subtle in this version.

Luis Gutierrez of Wine Advocate was a fan as well, “…from a more continental, cooler and dry vintage. …Juicy, primary, incredibly fresh and with a vertical palate, longer than wider, like a hypothetical blend of 2013 and 2015, cool but dry. This is always a great value, even more so in 2016….91+ points”.

Amen to that.  Stylish and ample, even as consistently surprising as this little Monastrell has been for the money over the years, the 2016 stands alone.

 

Spanish Immersion, Part Dos: Ravishing Rioja

It is pretty easy to buy Spanish wines ‘by the numbers’ these days.  There seems to be no end to the parade of well-priced, aged reds from places like Rioja that are getting great notes from the media, and deservedly so.  But every once in a while one comes along that is so accommodating and delicious that reviews aren’t really a factor.  Simply put, we have an outstanding selection of Spanish wines that fall into that big score, little price category already.  We didn’t need this one, but bought it anyway with an eye to our own consumption.

The Lealtanza Rioja Gran Reserva 2010, is, by classic Riojano definition, the top traditional bottling from this house.  What impressed here, besides the obvious depth of quality to the fruit as expected from a gran reserva in one of Rioja’s benchmark vintages, was the plush, ample, velvety palate feel that was a cut above the crowd even for this typically crowd-pleasing genre.

The wine is packed with cassis, black raspberry and other dark berry fruit laced with cocoa, spice, a hint of pepper and a whiff of tobacco, all served on a bed of nicely ripe, mellow tannins.  But what really sets it apart is its fleshy sweetness on the palate, engaging roundness, and soft core of fruit as it rolls across your tongue.  Yes, Riojas aim to please.  But this wine simply does it a bit better.  The reviews will likely come.  We haven’t seen any yet.  But in truth, we’re already pretty smitten with this one.  Deliciousness trumps everything.  As Gran Reservas go, it’s pretty attractively priced as well ($22.98).  All the better.

 

Spanish Immersion, Part One: Alluring Albariño

Given how much enthusiasm we have shown for the white wines from this part of the world in 2016, it should not surprise anyone that it is a very good year for Spain’s West Coast and it’s classically styled Albariños.  Palacio de Fefiñanes has been one of the blue chips from the area, as well as a personal favorite, and the 2016 is quite the beauty.

We’ve been working with Albariños in general for probably two decades or more and have seen all kinds of incarnations…aged ones, barrel fermented ones, etc.  To us, Albariño is best served naked with all of the freshness, subtle tropical fruit, pear, tangerine and hint of honey flavor profile, great tension between the high-pitched fruit and the bright acidity, and that whiff of the sea and hint of salinity to the finish.  Any other aspect that man introduces gets in the way of that core personality.  Keeping it simple allows the wine to shine and deliver mouth-watering sip after sip that plays beautifully with seafood or merely as an eminently quaffable beverage on a warm afternoon.

Of course, as we have discussed many times, when a wine is served naked, you have to live with whatever Mother Nature gives you.  Albariño, in a way resembles Viognier, though it is a much crisper beverage.  If it is too ripe, it lacks the zing that makes it such a lively quaff.  Without enough ripeness you’ve basically got a lean, acidic wine.  Fefiñanes is usually one of the consistent stars of the region year in and year out.  But like everyone else, they can only work with what they were given, which is usually pretty good.

In 2016, Nature was very good to them.  The Palacio de Fefinanes Albarino Rias Baixas 2016 strikes the perfect balance with a certain tenderness to the expressive fruit, enough mouthfeel to engage the palate, and then the perfect cut of refined acidity.  Fefiñanes is usually a ‘go-to’ in good vintages but this effort is a cut above and  reminds us fondly of some of those brilliant efforts from this region in the last benchmark vintage, 2010.

RAUL PEREZ ULTREIA 2016-ANOTHER SUPER VALUE EFFORT

We’ve been telling the Raul Perez story for a while now.  If you haven’t heard it, think of it as one of those ‘local guy makes good’ as long as that locale is northwestern Spain.  The Raul Perez ‘legend’ has grown over the years and, thanks to some ‘market changes’, the prices have come down a bit.  Meanwhile Raul is making some of the best wines he has ever made.  If it all sounds like a pretty advantageous situation for consumers, it is!

While his portfolio is chock full of stunning examples made from the native grape of Bierzo, Mencia, some difficult to tell apart because the label nomenclature is so similar, we have chosen to focus on his entry-level bottling called Ultreia.  Why?  Well it might be one of the most amazing red wine values in Spain, if not the world.

Raul has been working at a high level for quite a while now and certainly the raw materials play a part in the wine’s success. The Mencia grapes for this cuvee are grown in clay soils in the village of Valtuille de Abajo and were harvested from vines that were planted between 1900 and 1940. The Raul Perez Bierzo Ultreia St. Jacques 2015, which we sold last year, was the wine that gave Raul a spotlight like none of his previous, brilliant efforts ever had.

The 2015 vintage was perfect for Raul’s style. The flavors ranged from ripe cranberry to dark cherry. Weight-wise this Mencia plays like a hefty Pinot from the Santa Lucia Highlands flavor-wise, but with more florality to the nose, more lift and freshness to the palate, and striking harmony. Sometimes Mencia can be a little inward and unyielding at first, but there is none of that here! This is a beautifully proportioned and surprisingly sophisticated red for the fare.

It got plenty of attention from the critics including 93 points from Luis Gutierrez of Wine Advocate with comments, “…The 2015 Ultreia St Jacques …is amazingly good for the price. Produced from old vines, this is a serious wine, with juicy fruit, a fine palate and good freshness…”.  James Suckling tossed a 91 on that ’15 saying, ” …Cherry and floral accents sing through the finish. Energetic…”

We finished our comments on that at the time by saying, “We are sure there are more reviews to come but we suspect they will arrive a little late.”  Sure enough, the Wine Spectator came along and not only gave it a 91 point score but included it in the Wine Spectator Top 100 (#51) for 2017.

We’re reminding you of all of that to tell you this.  The Raul Perez Bierzo Ultreia St. Jacques 2016 just hit the floor and it is another striking effort.  Plenty of explosive red and black fruits in the mid-palate, maybe a touch less fleshy at the moment but with tremendous drive through the back palate, this is quite aristocratic for something in this price range.    We’re finding that 2016 is making its own mark in Spain as a vintage.

Once again the wine features mostly Mencia, with touches of other indigenous varietals Bastardo (Trousseau) and Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet).  This wine was done via 80% whole cluster fermentation in large oak vats then aged in a variety of vessels from 225L and 500L barrels to upright vats to cement. It is bottled unfiltered and unfined.  Expressive and attention-getting, with a slightly cooler edge, it is once again an incredibly impressive beverage for a modest fare comfortably under $20 ($17.98).

We haven’t seen any press yet (3/12/2018) but given the performance here, and Raul’s recent track record, we are pretty confident there will be plenty.  We love the stuff.  Meanwhile we have ours, get yours.