Origin: landscapes and peoplescapes

This post has only one connection with the traditional wines of Southern Andalucía: it is about wine, and top class wines at that. Because a couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to taste the 2020 vintage of single vineyard wines of Artadi in Laguardia and they were exceptional, as were the people involved.

It started with a reception at Las Colonias in Laguardia – a superb, imposing building – at which there were more than a few friends, before a round table discussion between four top drawer speakers. First was Carlos Lopez de Lacalle, taking the baton from his illustrious father and setting up the day with a warm welcome and the introduction of a well chosen theme: “Origen: Paisajes y Paisanajes” (Origin, landscapes and “peoplescapes”), a title drawing together two of the dimensions of great wines: the places they are made and the people that make them.

First to speak to the topic was Aitor Arregui of Elkano. I have written before on here about the restaurants this man is behind (Elkano and Cataria) their exceptional understanding – and communication – of the terroir of the sea, and how much that knowledge and communication contributed to what were two of the best meals of a life featuring quite a few good ones. Well on Monday there was more of the same – simply and clearly communicated, and with an emotion that set the tone for the day. There was also a first glimpse of the bonds of friendship and family that are one of the other abiding memories of the day. A superb start.

His key point was that landscape and time defined the produce of Getaria, near the southernmost extent of the bay of Biscay, but the way that that produce had been interpreted by the local population had defined a cuisine and culture – we fish it, we grill it – (sounds simple but try it) that in turn attuned the population to the patterns of the currents and life cycles of the animals. By stripping away all artifice the culture is one that demands an understanding of the culinary qualities and seasons of the animals in a kind of virtuous spiral, redefining what can be done with a grill one splash of “Lourdes water” at a time.

He was followed by Ramiro Ibañez, beloved of this parish, who picked up the same theme and took it in a different direction from the opposite end of the Peninsula. Ramiro spoke to how the differences in terrain and wine making possibilities of Sanlucar and Jerez had over the centuries shaped first the wines, then the population and their tastes, spurring further specialization not only in wine but in cuisine and again a virtuous circle that had created great diversity in a small area. He also picked up on the social and industrial changes that threatened to break that virtuous circle, as industrialization and 18th century globalization offered winemakers markets and wine drinkers choices, and lead to a blurring and forgetting of that diversity. (In fact he actually started there – even if I remembered it in reverse.)

Ramiro in turn was followed by Rodrigo Gonzalez, director of wine for the Dani Garcia group who picked up what looked like a nasty hospital pass and to be fair he ran on with aplomb. He recognized too the same issues of globalization and industrialization that Ramiro had picked up but rather than denying the market he took their themes of people and places and tied them to the stories of wine that resonate with customers in restaurants and stores. When the client can come from anywhere in a shifting world, and can get their DRC on almost anywhere they go, a wine shaped by a place and a people is an anchor – and a wine and a cuisine borne of the same culture is an anchor upon anchor, a link between the ephemeral pleasure of a glass of wine, a dish. and the centuries, millenia, and more. It was a beautiful way to tie up one of the best round tables I have witnessed at a wine event.

That round table gave way to a debate about the same concerns – how changes in society were challenging the succession of traditional family businesses and prising the most precious real estate from their historic owners, in Rioja and elsewhere. Pretty gloomy stuff, but probably the same debate has been repeated for the last 100 years and the world has not come to an end just yet. More optimistically, the very presence of Ramiro was a reminder that however far a wine region can fall from its tree, consumers will seek out wines that reflect the place and the culture when possible.

Fascinating stuff but the time tends to drag on when you have four empty wine glasses in front of you. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait much longer for the bride and groom and before we knew it the glasses were no longer empty. After a few words on the – pretty challenging – climate conditions and evolution of the vineyards during the 2019-20 growing season it was time to taste the 2020 single vineyard wines.

The tasting had a neat structure because we tasted the wines, more or less, in order of the depth of navigable soil in the vineyards, as captured by a set of “calicatas” – from 60cm to over 2m tall. (You like terroir? Look at those tubes!) This frankly is right up my street – an attempt to understand the wines in the context of the soils, and opens up a dimension I look forward to exploring further. And neither was it excessively nerdy – Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle disarmingly recognized that they were exploring and trying to understand the “what” but still didn’t know “why”.

First up were Cuerdamayor and Santa Cecilia – two old vineyards, planted in the 20s and 30s but with only 55 and 60 cm of topsoil. Surface feeding old vines you might call them. And the contrasts started right away: while Cuerdamayor had a bright, floral and fruity nose and a zesty, lively acidity, Santa Cecilia was altogether more mineral, more serious, a touch of the skin of barbecued peppers. Both extremely drinkable but with distinct personalities.

The second flight were three classy wines: La Laguna, San Lazaro, and Quintanilla. Vineyards planted in 1920, 1956 and 1951, respectively, with 105, 145 and 175 cm of topsoil available. Again this flight showed personalities that were different between each other and from the earlier flight. La Laguna was all blackcurrant fruit gums and even a touch of honey on the nose, and then a surprisingly saline and savoury palate. San Lazaro, by contrast was like a punnet of fresh black fruit, or even a blackberry bush on the nose, and had that same freshness and a leafy acidity on the palate. Quintanilla was a further step in that direction, with blackberry jam on the nose and then a palate with soft tannins and a hint of apple seed, nice profile that was full of flavour and compact.

These, by the way, are from my notes, but I wish I had taken better note of what had been said by Juan Carlos and Carlos as they presented the wines because their thoughts and angles on the art of wine tasting and description were fascinating. I tend to think of wines in shapes and textures, but Juan Carlos seems to see them like a combination of architectural blue prints and poetry (and don’t worry, no poetry was recited). Carlos, on the other hand had a more direct-to-the-emotion approach, comparing wines to the feeling of a surfboard on a wave amongst other things.

Anyway the third flight had four wines: Terreras (1960, 1970 and 1990 – up to 2m), La Hoya (1965, 105 cm), la Poza de Ballesteros (1960, 115cm) and San Martin (Laguardia, 1930, 185cm). As you have probably guessed by now, four distict personalities. Terreras is deep ribena on the nose and on the palate, black fruit from start to finish, long, acidic, and with a lovely fine shape to it – fruit all the way to the end, but with tannins that give it a graphite, mineral quality. La Hoya by comparison was light and vivacious, with structure but spark. This was a wine where Juan Carlos’s comment really struck home – he described it as having “living” room, space between lines – and I can understand it – the lightness, brightness of the edge of the profile and the softness of the centre. Very nice. That was followed by la Poza de Ballesteros, again a delightful combination of lightness and meatiness, quieter than La Hoya but meatier too, a very nice balance to it, and then by San Martin, which for me was something else, with a funkier nose, and a richness of palate and texture, chocolatey complexity that I loved. At the time San Martin was my wine of the day, with just an extra dimension that the others did not have – can’t wait to see it all grown up in a couple of years.

The final flight was lead out by Valdegines (Laguardia, 1989 and 1992, 2m), then El Carretil, (Lagurdia, 1930, 1975 and 1988, 2m) and, finally, El Pison, the family vineyard, planted in 1945 on a site in Laguardia with soils of at least 1,50 (and possibly endless). Yet more contrasts. Valdegines was aptly described as a creature of an inhabited mountainside, fruit and leaf but hints or malted barley and stew on the palate and fruit on the finish, with perhaps an outermost covering of charcoal tannins. For a wine from such young vines a real cracker. El Carretil is really a little gem. On the nose it is burgundy-like, has that tension like the strings of a tennis racquet and red fruit, even liquorice. Then on the palate you get a lovely tight profile with those same red fruit flavours, beautiful wine. And el Pisón is a big gem, a massive cucumber as the boys round here would say. Less brightness and tension on the nose than El Carretil and fruit that is darker, but a profile that could have been carved by Bernini, silky and elegant, and not jammy but full – fruit in every atom, and there, long and soft all the way through a long finish.

A really outstanding tasting, superb wines and an unforgettable opportunity to taste 12 wines from different vines together on an equal footing. The sort of tasting that makes me painfully aware of my shortcomings as a taster and writer, even when I take notes and they survive the day.

And there was plenty left for them to survive because the festival didn’t finish there. After a brief stretch of the legs in the sunshine we were back for lunch at the hands of Aitor and his crew from Elkano and it was, again, thrillingly memorable, with antxoa, txitxarro, lobstr, kokotxas (on the grill and pil pil), potxa a lo pelayo, the world famous rodaballo (turbot) and a dessert that, if it isn’t famous yet, really ought to be.

It was a lunch that on another day would have been the highlight of the year, and again it was washed down with more outstanding Artadi wines: Izar Leku 2017, the fourth generation of their really excellent sparkling txacoli, a superb Viñas de Gain Blanco 2014 that stands comparison with many much more famous Rioja whites, and then four reds that were a happy reminder of what the years would bring the wines of the morning: Viñas de Gain 2011, La Poza de Ballesteros 2012, Grandes Añadas 2000, and El Pisón 2004. You don’t need me to tell you that those last three, in particular, are absolutely world class, but by this stage of proceedings my note taking had dwindled from note taking to non-existent, and as the afternoon wore on and bottles came and went, the dancing and singing started and my memory becomes increasingly cloudy.

Not enough to obscure the memory of a wonderful, unforgettable day, and it would be incomplete and unfair too to sign off without mentioning the warmth and fun of the company from start to pretty late finish. The bonds of friendship and family were evident throughout the day and it was a pleasure and a privilege to be a part of it.

Larga vida y muchas gracias a Artadi, Elkano, sus paisajes y paisanajes!

Verdejo, pero viejo

Of the many joys that this blog has brought me undoubtedly the greatest has been the possibility of trying things that otherwise I would not. I have been spoilt by sommeliers, invited to events, been able to visit wineries and meet winemakers, and generally been very fortunate indeed. And there was a new example this week as a colleague from the firm where I work shared something really unique with me.

His family own a winery, Bodegas Otero. up in Benavente, one of five wineries in one of Spain’s least famous DOs, where they make some very enjoyable reds and whites from prieto picudo and verdejo. Unusually for this blog, we are not talking a new winery: they were founded in 1906. Also unusually for this blog, the wine was not a new one either, quite the contrary.

The bodega has the typical “sala de visitas”, with old barrels on every wall, many of them signed for family members, recently decided to take stock of the wine in those barrels, and what they have found is quite extraordinary.

The barrels were filled with verdejo in the 1980s and then they, and their contents, literally became part of the furniture. The angels took more than their share and the barrels became a little less full, allowing a veil of flor to form for a few years before a decision was taken to fortify around 15 years ago, since when they were left to grow old as gracefully as possible. Until last year, when the barrels were emptied into two deposits, from which a few bottles – no more than tasting samples – have been produced.

And this is where my luck comes in because I was fortunate enough to be given a couple of those bottles and asked if I thought it was worth bottling the rest. Even before I opened them I was intrigued – who wouldn’t be – and I couldn’t think of a better place to do so than Angelita, with its cooking based on the produce of the same zamoran fields.

And the wines didn’t let anybody down – a lovely golden colour, clear as a bell, and aromatic, with barrel, sawdust, wax and brandy there but also old old apple. On the palate too: nice acidity, mellow flavours, not at all heavy on the palate despite their 19 degrees and a long, mouthwatering finish with that same aromatic profile. The two wines – we had a bottle from each deposit – were also full of character. One finer, all barrel and mellow, and the other brasher, with more volatile acidity and the juicier, spirity profile and nose that that brings.

I was impressed enough, indeed, to want to compare them with some of the many sherry wines on excellent list and they really stood their ground admirably – finer and maybe less potent on the palate due to their lack of solera, but no less aromatic and flavorful and maybe even more elegant.

So a lovely discovery all told, no doubt at all that these need bottling – in fact they will be a couple of wines that will be well worth hunting out when they are finally available (and I am glad to say you should be able to find them in Angelita). My sincere congratulations to Bodegas Otero and my thanks to them for sharing.

Bodega y Viñedos Balbaínas – Part II

Went to a sensational tasting this week organized by the Union Española de Catadores. Peter Sisseck and his wines, including two vintages from each of Chateau Rocheyron, Flor de Pingus and Pingus itself. And of course, wines from each of his soleras in Jerez (I am not sure how many of us were there for the fino.)

You don’t need me to tell you that these wines are top drawer. The 2009 Pingus in particular is one of those wines that I can still feel on the palate the best part of a week later – superb richness and a solid, elegant structure to it, like a sculpted and polished block of fruit and spice. But the 2015 Pingus was also a beauty – similar elegance, a bit more brooding power and just a little bit less polished. As for the Flor de Pingus and Rocheyrons, well, it is a pretty good tasting where these wines are not the pick of the bunch.

Neither will it be any surprise to you to learn that Peter Sisseck is a winemaker with both a wide field of vision and a very clear idea of what he likes. It was fascinating to hear him on the relevance of ph, the types of soil (he enjoys a bit of calcium down in the rootstock) and the methods of replanting – his thoughts on training vineyards as far afield as Saint-Emilion and Balbaina, and vines as distinct as palomino and merlot.

But what struck me was his vision of the wines of Jerez. Because when he spoke about Jerez he didn’t speak in the same way about the vineyards, where they were, how they were planted and tended. Neither did this winemaker’s winemaker talk about unfortified white wines or fermentation temperatures or deposits. Rather, he spoke with something like veneration about what makes a fino, – and in his words, Spain’s great gift to the world’s wine heritage – the truly unique wine from Jerez. His thoughts were surprisingly classical but with an interesting twist, and resolved for me one of the great recent mysteries.

You see after acquiring a solera making one of the great finos – Camborio – Peter and his colleagues decided not to continue Camborio as such but to make two different wines, and I must admit being puzzled as to why you would buy Camborio if what you wanted to make were new wines (other than the fact that Camborio was for sale and would give you a pretty handy headstart of course).

The answer is the fascinating part, because your man explained that for him the top finos of Jerez gain their unique character and structure from one of the less glamourous sources: las cabezuelas. The dead lipids, the remains of the flor, tiny proteins that having given their all fighting off the oxygen and eating alcohol, sugar and glycerol from the wine but then die and sink to the bottom where they create a bed of madre that, much like lees in a white wine, gives the old finos and manzanilla pasadas a silky, buttery mouthfeel. Camborio and the other botas in the bodega had, in addition to some high class wines, a treasure trove of character and personality settled on the bottom of the barrels that would otherwise take years to accumulate.

He is certainly onto something. There is no question in my mind that those old solera finos have a fatness, solidity and clarity of profile that the single vintage wines, without those years of accumulation, lack. (In fact I was struck later by his comments on the importance of ph in his merlot and tempranillo because, as I understood it, he was thinking on the same lines – the importance for mouth feel and the sensations that the wines could give you.)

And the wines are good too. The Balbaina is a haybale heavy fino, plenty of aromatics and benefits from that age it has – the Macharnudo wine is also aromatic but raw by comparison – if the Balbaina is a swimming pool the Macharnudo had a touch of incontinent feline about it. But both are seriously interesting finos already with that structure to them. I cannot wait for next year’s first release.

But those Pingus, good grief …

Miracles in the mountains

I have in the past used the expression “miracle” when referring to wine making but the more wine makers I meet the clearer it seems that it is a miracle in the same way that Lee Trevino was “lucky”: the miracles are the result of a lot of very hard work.

This week I was treated to a staggering vineyard visit by Sabino and Isabel of Orujo de Liebana S.A. and was able to see first hand, from the back of a fifty year old jeep, pottering along on a track that most mountain goats would have simply refused to contemplate (and at an angle of almost 45 degrees), the sheer amount of work and passion that can go into making wine in the mountains.

As we made our way up to the vineyards we passed field after field of vines that had been lost to some ailment or other, and learned that 2018 had been quite literally a wash: so much rain in July that 2 hectares produced only 300 liters of wine. It felt like a miracle to find any grapes at all up there – but there they were, bracing themselves for the final assaults by birds and boars as they tried to make it the last week of September.

It was really humbling stuff, no surprise that this was officially recognized “heroic winemaking” (to be honest it was pretty intrepid just visiting) and although you could not find a friendlier, sunnier or more cheerful bloke than Sabino to show you around there was no mistaking that serious hard work was involved – red flag phrases like “by hand”, “14 hours” and “before dawn” were slipped in with alarming regularity (and considerable relish – to be fair your man Sabino seemed to genuinely love it).

But after a couple of hours of near vertical mountainside we were back down in the distillery. Sabino and Isabel’s main business is the Orujo distillery they inherited from Isabel’s grandmother – Justina de Liébana. It is widely considered to be Spain’s top distillery of orujo or anything else, with a beautiful array of 24 copper stills that slowly bubble away to allow for the most artisan distillation you could think of. (It really is as if they had just brought all the stills in the village under one roof.)

It would have been rude not to have a little tipple and while a fella is occasionally misunderstood he has never been known to be so rude as to refuse high class booze. And this was really high class.

To start with the wine – Pum de Pumareña – was as fresh, aromatic and fruitful as you would hope and had a lovely feel to it – we only had a snifter but it was enough to produce sadness at the cruelly curtailed production (only three hundred litres!) There were a good few more litres of orujo and good news there: wonderful lightness to the aromas and a smooth, straight to the chest heat in the orujos, along with beautifully integrated flavors in the liqueurs and cream.

Best of all for the parishioners of this blog were two little barrels of top quality orujo aged in sherry barrels – pedro ximenez and oloroso – in which those sherry characteristics really shone through on the nose and palate – deliciously dangerous stuff.

They told us they were in thirty Michelin starred restaurants that they knew of and it is absolutely no surprise. It was superb stuff, and the few bottles we bought didn’t make it back even to Madrid.

But the lasting memory will be of the kindness of Sabino and Isabel, inviting us into their home (and in Sabino’s case driving us up the mountain) to share what is clearly a passion for them. They could not have been better hosts and it could not have been a greater pleasure. I would raise a glass of orujo to them, but since I am temporarily out of stock this fino will have to do!

Encrucijado 2015

This is fantastic. A year in the bottle has really brought it on – cleaner lines and a sharper profile.

A rich buttery gold in colour on the nose you have dried apricots and just a hint of almonds, then on the palate it has a sharp, acidic start, and buzzy acidity all the way through, with a lovely middle palate of almonds and apricots and a fresh, mouth watering finish.

Lovely stuff and a little bit different than your standard palomino fino. Which is as it should be – this is perruno, uva rey and just a small dollop of palomino – a blend of varieties from the days of yore that make this the only true palo cortado.

You often hear that a wine from Jerez is “history in a bottle” but it generally only means it has been in the bottle – or the barrel – a long time. This really is history.

Bull Fight Sparkling Wine, by Manuel Gil Luque in Angelita Madrid

There are so many reasons to go to Angelita Madrid, and one of them is the chance to try your hand at blind tasting. I would challenge anyone, however, to identify this thing blind – was dark in color and had the pine resin aroma I associate with some old pxs, but a touch watery on the palate and a bit of burnt barrel in flavour – like the old burnt bread “tea” sailors apparently used to drink. I was thinking some kind of medium but it turned out to be an ancient sparkler of all things.

Once I saw the bottle I was only more curious. Cracking name – “Bull-Fight” – and it is by a bodega I had never heard of, Manuel Gil Luque, which the magic of internet informs me has been around as a brand since 1912. No sign of any new wines and certainly not much Bull Fight currently on sale. If anyone does have any information would be very interesting to hear from them.

Atamán Vermouth

In Jerez old is now the new new. Just missed out in the unveiling of this in Madrid this week. A newly relaunched vermouth under an old Barbadillo brand resurrected in 2017 after 40 odd years.

As I say, I missed the unveiling, and indeed I only made it to La Fisna before closing by the skin of my teeth and as a result have next to no actual information, other than that it is an old recipe with a manzanilla base and an amped up dosage of quinine.

The resulting potion is powerful stuff and not at all what springs to mind when someone says “vermouth”. The manzanilla base is dry as dry can be and there is no hint of sweetness. For me it is more reminiscent of an amaro, with burnt caramel bitterness, but saline. (You get the feeling that a martini made with this would be filthy rather than dirty.)

Serious, grown up, drinking.

Terrazze dell’Imperiese Bianco 2013

If you are only interested in sherries, look away now, because as its moniker suggests this is not a sherry. It is not even a palomino, or a vine grown on albariza. Unlike an increasing number of wines from around Spain it hasn’t had any flor, or spent any time in an old oloroso barrel. On the contrary, it is a 100% vermentino that has spent 19 months on its lees.

But it is slightly oxidized and doesn’t half smell and act like some of the palomino wines – it was suggested to me by Victoria in La Piperna (Madrid’s premier Italian restaurant) for precisely that reason and I am very glad she suggested it because the similarities and differences are very interesting. (After all, what do they know of sherry, who only sherry know? As a great man nearly said.)

Aromatically it is very similar – on nose alone I would have called this palomino, without question. As you would expect, the flavours on the palate are not dissimilar – maybe a bit more towards ripe fruit and plums than white fruit – like a palomino there isn’t much acidity and there is that touch of oxidation, to which palomino seems very prone. Having said all that, it lacks the distinctive salinity of the albariza wines, which leaves it feeling a little blunt at both ends, and for me the palate over all is less defined – less discernible herb.

Would be a good one to sneak into a blind tasting for all the new sherry experts (unless of course they read this blog).

De Alberto Dorado

You know that the guys in Jerez are doing something right by the number of would-be Jereces that are appearing. These days it doesn’t matter what region you are making wine in, you aren’t anyone if you aren’t making something under “flor”, something oxidated, something does with palo cortado or at the very least something aged in a barrel that was once used for fino, manzanilla, oloroso or similar.

Now the guys in Rueda have an answer to this. Their “dorados” are oxidated and are in some cases from soleras, but are no recent invention: if you know your history you will know that they are in fact backed by a long tradition.

Even so, it is surely no coincidence that after fifteen years in Spain I only start to see them now, with the “sherryrevolution” at full steam. And indeed in just a couple of weeks I had my first during a spectacular lunch at Alabaster and this, my second, during a cheekier lunch at Angelita. (Unless we include Beatriz Herranz’s Bruto, but that is 100% palomino so doesn’t seem to fit the bill.) Since then I haven’t stopped seeing them all over twitter, and although you never know whether it is the same 6 bottles in all the pictures it certainly seems like they are making a splash.

This one is 100% verdejo (it says here) and was very interesting if not to say quite curious. As you would imagine there is fruit in the nose but whereas your oxidated sherries give you an impression of sweetness on the nose here it came across as bitter fruitiness, like an orange marmalade. Then on the palate it had a bite of acidity and then again that fruity bitterness. To be honest I found it difficult to get into, but if twitter is anything to go by it won’t be long until my next opportunity.

Dorado Carrasviñas

Was given this blind by Fran, the sommelier at Alabaster, at the beginning of what turned into one of the all-time great lunches, and didn’t get anywhere near identifying it. To be fair, while I had read about “Dorados” from Rueda, until now hadn’t had my hands on one. (The nearest was probably For this is the verdejo and palomino answer to the solera aged wines of the South and it was very interesting indeed.

You can find a ficha here in Spanish and as you will see that it is an unfortified blend of palomino and verdejo (proportion not revealed but order of varietals suggests more verdejo) that have been separately fermented in inox before coupage. Then it is stored in 16L glass demijuanas for 18 months and subjected to the extremes of the Castilian summer – which leads to the oxidation – before being finished in oak barrels. (Although it all sounds like a single vintage process I couldn’t find a date on the label or bottle.)

The resulting wine is pretty interesting. As you can see it has a deep old straw color to it, which in my mental processes it had me heading manzanilla pasada or old fino. Then the nose had fruit – much more like a manzanilla pasada than fino, but even more fruit than that, very bright nose. On the palate it had quite an acidic start, which on top of all the fruit had the alarm bells ringing, and then that fruit, then a turn to sour fruit bitterness and a deepish groove of salinity. Quite a long, fiery and mouthwatering finish.

I might get pelters for this from the guys down in el marco but I really enjoyed it – tasty and complex, and a reminder of how much fun it is to taste wines blind. May have been a bit of the element of surprise involved but will have to see if I can get some to try against the real thing at my leisure. Nice one Fran!