SOLANERA’S BEST YET, AND UNDER $10

We never stop looking out for the rare, amazing deal.  These can come at any time, from anywhere, and we have turned more than our share of these kinds of opportunities over the years.  But, frankly, given what is currently available in the marketplace, something has to be pretty spectacular to get our attention.  This one is.

Yes we know we have gone to the well with Solanera  number of times in the past, but the darn wine just keeps delivering, consistently improving and presenting one of the best bang-for-the-buck options out there.

It all starts with Eric Solomon, a consistent source for some of the best wine deals on the planet and his massive portfolio of wines.  Simply put, when you are trying to market some 300+ wines in the marketplace, and transitioning through various configurations of purveyors to accommodate distribution of so many brands, there are times a wine or two can get lost in the shuffle. 

It’s nobody’s fault, but opportunities get created all the same and, when the wine is already a pretty sensational value with a long proven track record, an aggressive deal can make the offer almost laughable.  We have told this story more than once with Solanera, and here we go again with the latest and greatest, the Castano Solanera Vinas Viejas 2015. 

Over the years a lot of Solanera has passed through our doors.  Why wouldn’t it?  You’ve got Monastrell, Cabernet Sauvignon and Garnacha from 40-100 year-old vines in clay/limestone soils at nearly 3000 feet elevation.  It’s ‘always sunny’ in Yecla, and the altitude keeps everything in perspective as the nights cool to preserve sufficient freshness in the wine.  You get a rich, substantial, character-filled red year in and year out and, because the real estate isn’t as famous here in southeastern Spain, you don’t pay a lot of money for the quality of juice you are getting. 

Hey, it might seem like unfair competition, but it’s just the way it is.  It is no wonder that we have sold so much Solanera in our history, and why all thirteen vintages of the stuff that were reviewed in Wine Advocate have scored 90 points or better.  Wine Advocate’s Luis Gutierrez was pretty high on this one  again, handing it a 92 point score with lengthy comments, “The 2015 Solanera used to wear the ultimate Spanglish label, which said “Viñas Viejas of Monastrell” even if it was always a blend (in this vintage, the blend includes 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Garnacha Tintorera)…

“… they used part of full clusters and sourced the grapes from Casa Marta, a nine-hectare, head-pruned, dry-farmed plot on very stony soils in the north of Yecla at the foot of the Mount Arabí. It fermented in concrete vats and open-top barrels and matured in barrique, each variety separately, for some ten months, after which it was blended and bottled. This is the vintage of the big change in this wine, where, as with the majority of its siblings, there is better balance and more integrated oak, more freshness and better balance.

“The nose is quite captivating, especially after some time in the glass, when it starts developing some floral aromas, perfect ripeness, no warmth or alcohol and a powerful, yet terribly balanced palate with concentration and elegance, fine-grained tannins and clean, focused flavors. This is my favorite Solanera to date.” 

Like we said, ours, too.  This is a more refined effort that definitely plays above its category in the glass even more than past efforts.  This jump in quality may have had something to do with the vintage and most assuredly reflects the touch of Jean-Marc Lafage who consulted on this vintage for the first time.  It’s a kinder, gentler, more polished and more engaging bottle of Solanera and for under $10 (the best price in the country), it’s almost like stealing.  Good hunting.

A ‘POTENTE’ DEAL FROM PRIORAT’S NEIGHBOR

One of our greatest beefs about most of the ‘value’ wines out on the marketplace these days, besides the obvious inconsistencies and marginal quality, is the absence of ‘soul’. By the time all of the blending of appellations, wood staving, dilution because of high production in the vineyards, and using additives and/or residual sugar to cover that up is done, what you have can be legally called wine. But it is usually an amorphous glob of fruit with little personality or grace.

If you have wondered why we often go far off the beaten path to find exciting wines to drink, it is because such places are typically unfettered by the influences of ‘control groups’ and ‘market surveys’. They make what the land gives them and, if they have the skills, offer up some of the more compelling and character-filled beverages out there. Apparently, Eva Lopez is of the same mind. She founded a company called Cuvee that is working in Spain to find “… vines, trustworthy wineries and wines that respect terroir, fruit, traditional winemaking and of course exceptional value.” While that slogan sounds like a lot of things you might hear out in the marketplace, the results we have seen are clearly are out of the ordinary.

For this surprisingly pure, authoritative mouthful, she hooked up with a locally owned, accomplished cooperative located south of Priorat called Celler de Capcanes. We have sold wines from Capçanes before, perhaps the most recognizable being Mas Donis (from nearby Tarragona) and Costers de Gravet (from Monsant). They know their business in an area that has been producing wines since the Middle Ages but whose most recognizable appellation, Priorat, was only designated in 1989.

Montsant’s official history is even shorter having achieved its designation only in 2001. Priorat is best known for powerful wines grown in rugged, high altitude, naturally low-yielding vineyards covered with a black shale called llicorella (yi-kor-ra ya). Montsant, carved from the broader Tarragona appellation, shares many of those characteristics…the naturally low yields, higher altitude (even a little higher than Priorat), and that unique llicorella terroir. In general, they differ from Priorat by not being as unyielding in their youth and considerably less expensive, both extreme positives.

The Cellar Capçanes Montsant Potente 2016 (potente literally means powerful/potent in Spanish) comes from a unique spot of vines up to 50 years old in Capçanes’ highest vineyards. The blend is of classic regional varietals Garnacha and Carignan (called Samso around these parts), along with Cabernet and Merlot. The grapes are hand harvested, destemmed, and macerated in cement tanks then aged nine months in oak (from new to 5-yr-old barrels).

The resulting wine is quite ‘potente’, particularly for the price. To say that even this jaded Spanish wine-pioneering crowd was blown away would be an understatement. This is not just another face in the crowd. Pure, expressive notes of wild red and black berries that taste like fruit not candy, competing notes of spice and savory, and an underpinning described as ‘crushed rock’ which alludes to the influence of that local slate all buttress this uplifting juice with plenty of stuffing and an abundance of soul.

We are not alone in our enthusiasm for this character-filled beverage. Josh Raynolds of Vinous Media writes, “Bright violet color. Spice-accented red/blue fruits on the nose, along with a suave floral overtone. Lively and incisive on the palate, offering mineral-inflected boysenberry and raspberry flavors that show a Pinot-like light touch. Silky tannins add subtle grip to the finish, which leaves a zesty red berry note behind…90 points.”

From James Suckling, “Very attractive nose of black cherries, sage and chocolate. Ripe and generous with nice, warm tannins that fill out the full body very nicely. Long and very harmonious finish. Drink or hold…93 points”

Given that this wine comes in through the most aggressive importer we work with, and a finger or two in the markup pie are skipped, means we can offer this tasty, versatile Montsant for a song at $9.98. Montsant is still kind of under the radar, though we have been fans of the region for a long time. You will likely never have a better opportunity to find out why.

‘PRODIGAL’ DEAL: 96 points, for $19.98?

Remelluri has been on our radar since the first ‘Spanish invasion’ in the 90s.  We originally became aware of them through Jorge Ordonez who was the importer at the time.  Two of the WInex team visited the property separately about four years apart on an importer tour and the notes were consistent.  First, it was way up the hill.  Remelluri’s vineyards are located along the slopes of the Sierra de Toloño mountains in the valleys of Valderemelluri, Villaescusa and La Granja  at the highest elevation in the region.

Second, we were treated to something we had never experienced before.  People from the winery brought out bundles of cut grapevines and built a bonfire in the courtyard.  They then took the smoldering sticks, spread them out on the ground and proceeded to cook dinner over them.  It was a great show, the meat was delicious, and the wines were spectacular.  We still remember the event some two decades later, although we have seen this meat-cooked-on-sticks elsewhere in Spain since then.  But you always ‘remember the first time’ and none of that would be relevant if we didn’t really like the wines. 

We were big fans back in the day, though there were some distribution changes and a few wines that were a ‘walk on the wild’ side in the years that followed.   Remelluri became a solid option but not a slam dunk, and then we didn’t see it at all for a while.   Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, one of the emerging hot winemakers of the era, and someone that was followed by enthusiasts thereafter, was a guy named Telmo Rodriguez.  His story, in a sense, is similar to the one we have told about Alvaro Palacios. 

Telmo, like Alvaro, left his Rioja home (Remelluri) to learn and create his own name.  He has achieved something of a ‘rock star’ status among Spanish winemakers, advises on a number of project all over Spain, and has a number of his own labels (Gago, Basa, and Lanzaga among them).  Like Palacios, Telmo Rodriguez has returned to his family’s winery after years of perfecting his craft and gaining international recognition for his winemaking abilities.

The Remelluri Farm itself has origins that date back to the 10th Century, and there are local documents that make account of winemaking here since 1596. Labastida Town Hall has records of pitchers of wine made by the Nuestra Senora de Remelluri Farm for every year up to the last century. The modern winery was established in 1967 when Jaime Rodríguez Salis purchased the vineyards at the heart of the former estate.  Poor, stony soil, with layers of clay help to retain freshness, with the Atlantic influence providing adequate rainfall and lower temperatures than there are in the rest of the region, this is a great environment for Tempranillo.  Remelluri also uses an integrated system of agriculture with great respect for the environment and is currently in the process of gaining organic certification.

With Telmo, of course, comes ‘Telmo’s way’.  He is a great proponent of terroir and terroir based bottlings.  Remelluri’s newest project is Lindes de Remelluri which means “the borders of Remelluri.”   This is one of two specific bottlings now produced, this one from San Vincente and the other from Labastida.  The overall plan is for the sites themselves to be the primary focus, with winemaking, trellising, and even varietal decisions based entirely on the best expression of the vineyard.  We’ll see how that manifests down the road, but in the meantime this current offering is a screamer and, because of our acquisition scenario, a remarkable buy.

The Remelluri Rioja Lindes de Remelluri Vinedos de San Vicente 2014 is a striking Rioja that toes the line between traditional and modern.  You’ve got outgoing, lifted, ripe, insistent plum, currant, and mulberry fruit that exudes freshness but also classic notes of dusty spice and damp earth.  It is simply a beautiful, versatile bottle of Rioja .  James Suckling was pretty taken with it as well writing, “Some richer, darker and deeper fruit character with plums, blackberries and a dark, earthy streak. The tannins are more upright, more elevated, and the fruit is richer and darker than in the Labastida. This has real presence, grip and energy…96 points.”

Because we purchased this in a way that eliminated a good chunk of ‘extra’ markup, we are able to offer this $32 list wine at a substantially lower fare and post one of our best price/review interplays (referred here as ‘the delta) so far this year.  The name is kind of long, as is the story though it is one that needed to be told.  Thanks for reading, but we probably had a lot of folks just with the ‘numbers’ at 96 points for $19.98! We bought all there was but we expect it will fly.  Good hunting and welcome back Remelluri.

THE ‘SAC’ IS BACK

It seemed like only yesterday (it was actually November, 2017) we were excitedly jabbering on about the return of one of our favorite go-to Riojas after a long absence from the marketplace.  At the time, probably a decade or so ago, we were presented with the Valsacro Dioro 2001.  It was love at first sip and we kept a few bottles back for ourselves (though not enough) that we consumed with gusto over the next few years. 

Our reunion offer that aforementioned November involved the 2010 Vinsacro Dioro (which had subsequently been renamed Vinsacro for reasons unknown to us).  The 2010 was a most pleasant déjà vu because it was the same fruit driven, polished, creamy, supple, hedonistic red we had remembered from our first experience all those years ago. 

The first time around (the 2001) we don’t remember seeing any press at the time.  But the 2010 had also caught the attention of Wine Advocate’s Luis Gutierrez who launched a rather detailed piece describing this unique estate in Rioja Baja that had been owned by the same family for four generations.  The short story is that the vineyard is up to a century old and the grapes are planted to a field blend that the family refers to as ‘Vidau’.  The fruit is hand harvested into small crates and the Dioro goes through four separate steps in the selection process, ending up as a ‘best barrels’ cuvee. 

Luis’ notes say, “The 2010 Vinsacro Dioro opens to an explosion of flowers and ripe blueberries that is very perfumed. It feels quite modern and aromatic with well-integrated oak and a luscious palate. This is produced from a field blend they call Vidau, which, in their case it is approximately 50% Garnacha, 30% Tempranillo and a myriad of other grapes like Graciano and even Monastrell…92 points.”   Yeah it’s that whole explosion of berries and ‘luscious palate’ that keeps us coming back, plus we were selling at more than 50% off Luis’ stated ‘retail’ price. 

Good times were had by all then, and when we waltzed through a slug of the winery’s 2015 Vinsacro Dioro in August of the following year.  Similar story, 92 point, shamelessly engaging, supple Rioja redolent with dark plum/blueberry fruit tinged by spice, lead pencil, notes of cocoa being sold for a fraction of its original retail.  Again, here’s an extremely pretty wine from a clearly committed producer, from a great vintage, for pennies on the dollar?  We love the story line…it’s so Winex!

But mostly we love the wine.

So when we were approached with the 2005, another great vintage (this one was still labeled Valsacro), the choice was easy.  Where had this wine been for the last decade plus? No clue, but it is in a verygood place now.  Thanks to the additional time in bottle the 2005 Valsacro Dioro is a harmonious, hedonistic marvel.  We found reviews from back in the day, dueling ‘92s’ from Vinous’ (then IWC) Josh Raynolds and Advocate’s reviewer at the time Jay Miller, significantly different palates.

From Jay Miller, June, 2010, “The 2005 Dioro was produced from a stricter selection and was aged in new French oak for 12-14 months. A saturated purple color, it displays a brooding bouquet of wood smoke, pencil lead, espresso, truffle, and blackberry. Dense and loaded on the palate, it has gobs of ripe black fruit, excellent balance, and a lengthy, pure finish. It will continue to blossom over the next 3-4 years and have a drinking window extending from 2014 to 2025…92 points. (list $57). “

From Josh Raynolds, September, 2011, “(aged in new French oak): Glass-staining ruby. Extremely perfumed, oak-accented nose displays cherry-vanilla and blackberry preserves, with a sexy floral note and building spiciness. Full-bodied and velvety, offering palate-coating flavors of macerated cherry, dark berries and vanilla bean. Finishes very long and sweet, with persistent spiciness and a hint of smoke. An extremely attractive and balanced example of the modern style92 points.”

The plush, creamy texture, integrated fruit and terroir components, superb balance, and silky finish are like few wines in the marketplace at any price.  We have consumed a good bit of this already and have plans to do a lot more. Once again we are able to offer this absolutely delicious wine, bottle age included, for under $20! 

We have stocked a bit more for ourselves this time around because the stuff doesn’t seem to last long in the cellar (not that it wouldn’t if we left it alone).  The 2005 Valsacro Rioja Dioro 2005 one to buy by the case.

The same could be said for the 2015 Vinsacro Rioja Dioro, of which we recently got a reload. The short story here is that this is another offering from this very appealing house that was a Wine Advocate 92 for this wine, at a list price of $65, only we are also selling it for a ridiculous$19.98!

SIERRA CANTABRIA UNICA 2014: MUY TASTY

The Eguren brothers have their fingers in a lot of pies including Dominio de Eguren in Manchuela, the single vineyard estate Senorio de San Vincente, and Teso la Monja, an estate they started after they sold their previous Toro project, Numanthia. Yeah the boys are busy (they currently operate six wineries), but it all centers around the original property founded five generations earlier in 1870, Sierra Cantabria. They started as growers that for decades sold their grapes to other wineries and they still see themselves as viticulturists first. But they clearly know what to do with the juice.

Sierra Cantabriamakes a number of different wines but this series (which started in 2008 if memory serves) has been perhaps one of the best performers all things considered. Made from vines planted in 1985 in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, the wine itself is made from 98% Tempranillo with a pinch (2%) ‘older vine Grenache’. The wine sees 24 months in 60% French and 40% American oak, 30% of which is new. There’s no pretense at ‘traditional’ styling here even though it qualifies under the law.

This is a big, ripe mouthful of plush, ripe black fruits, spice cake, earthy minerality and hints of smoke. The bottle age is clearly sufficient to take whatever edge off this wine it might have had, and it now presents itself as an open, fruit driven wave of flavor. It’s very well put together but in a more ‘bottoms up’ style that doesn’t require a lot of thinking. In other words lush, easy to like stuff. The critics seemed to like it well enough. Both Vinous’ Josh Raynolds and Wine Spectator hung 92s on this one. Raynolds said, “…Sappy and focused on the palate, offering juicy raspberry, cherry and spicecake flavors that put on weight with air. Shows excellent precision on the clinging finish, which features sweet red fruit liqueur and floral elements and harmonious, silky tannins.”

Wine Spectator’s Thomas Mathews offered, “Vanilla, sandalwood and cedar notes lend a spicy accent to the cherry, tangerine, underbrush and licorice flavors in this round red. Shows good density, with well-integrated tannins and lively acidity imparting focus. Tempranillo and Graciano. Drink now through 2026.”

The highest praise, and a bit of explanation, came from Jeb Dunnuck, “The 2014 Sierra Cantabria Reserva Única is a cellar selection of the best barrels of the Reserve, selected with the idea of making a big, rich wine that can drink well in its youth yet also age. Blackberry, blueberry, violet, peach pit, graphite, and lead pencil notes all flow to a rich, medium to full-bodied, beautifully balanced red that has good acidity, fine tannin, and a great finish. This sexy, decadent, layered beauty shouldn’t be missed! …94 points.”

It is absolutely “big, rich wine that can drink well in its youth” which will definitely make a few new friends for Spain but not at the exclusion of long time fans of Rioja.

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!