Friday, March 30, 2007

BNO’s Spanish Night

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Our BNO (boys’ night out) tasting group’s recent Spanish theme was an accidental riposte to Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate’s current coverage of the wines of Spain. The wines we drank were more from the old Spain, which is to say elegant, lighter-bodied, higher acid, and finesse—rather than fruit—driven.

Although this kind of wines is fast disappearing in Spain, being replaced by big, opulent contemporary versions, they offer incomparable pleasure and enjoyment on the dining table. So (ahem) with the kind assistance of Marguerite, Kevin prepared food that evoked Iberian home cooking, consisting of bounties from the mountain and the sea.


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Our aperitif wines started with a 2005 Rias Baixas, Santiago Ruiz, an Albariño-based wine from the coastal northwest region of Spain. Bright with floral, citrus scents; this dry, light-bodied wine packs intense pear, lime, and mineral flavors that easily make one’s mouth water with delight. Wow! What a terrific starter. Tapas-style garlic shrimp cooked in olive oil and wine was the perfect antidote to the raging taste sensations awakened by this unpretentious white. 2 ½ puffs.

Bob brought a selection of cheeses, which included Manchego and Mahon, that proved to be tasty with the next white that followed, 1994 Rioja blanco Crianza “Vina Gravonia”, R. Lopez de Heredia. This is a white Rioja mainly from the Viura grape that is made like a red wine. Vinification involves aging for four years in cask before bottling. This extended aging in cask, somewhat similar to sherry, gives the wine body and allows it to be aged further in bottle. It is a unique wine with a sublime character; one that does not readily gratify a fruit-driven palate, but a taste worthwhile to acquire. The color is pale yellow with a slight green tinge. Initially the nose is sherry-like, but it soon blossoms to grilled toast, minerals, and floral scents. “Sweet honeysuckle” says Eric. On the palate it is bone-dry and the flavors are subtle and a bit tangy with herbal and mineral tones. After some time in the glass, the flavors softened and became more nutty and almondy. To the initiated an aged white Rioja is one of Spain’s rare treats. 2 ½ puffs.

Although there was no stated regional theme to our Spanish tasting, everyone seemed to be thinking of the same thing, as everyone brought a Tempranillo-based wine from the classic winegrowing regions of La Rioja and Ribera del Duero. And that, of course, was great. The first red was the 1987 Rioja Crianza, Conde de Valdemar. A well-evolved, elegant red that shows charming fruit and good finesse; but the excessive brett somewhat mars the delicacy of this otherwise delicious wine. 2 ½ puffs.

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Around the dining table is really where all the magic happens, as one would never understand or appreciate these classic wines by merely tasting them. As I was saying, Kevin, er Marguerite, prepared a splendid Spanish la cena of paprika-glazed baby back ribs, roasted stuffed pork loin, and saffron rice. With the lineup of old Spanish wine treasures awaiting us, we were about to be transported back to Old Castile.

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Along with R. Lopez de Heredia, the other two oldest wine estates in Rioja are Marqués de Riscal and Marqués de Murrieta. All three pioneers were established in the latter part of the 19th century mainly as a result of the outbreak of phylloxera in France, particularly in Bordeaux. Sensing an opportunity, the founders of all three estates invested considerably in emulating Bordeaux. They studied Bordeaux winemaking techniques, employed cellar masters from Bordeaux, and even planted Bordeaux grape varietals to augment their Tempranillo vines. This period in Rioja, as well as in the nearby region of Ribera del Duero, saw the transformation of Spanish wines into world class quality.

The next flight pitted wines from the two venerable bodegas in Rioja: 1961 Rioja Reserva, Marqués de Riscal and 1986 Rioja Reserva “Ygay”, Marqués de Murrieta. The ’61 Riscal was just glorious. The nose exhibited an almost indescribably complex bouquet. “A touch metallic and hints of caramel”, said Steve. And Matt kept getting flashbacks all night as he described the fragrance of old Tempranillo as smelling “like the nape of a 16-year-old (chiquita)”. The scent is indeed intoxicating and can make one feel young again. On the palate it is just as lovely, with its lush, fleshy dark fruit flavors of cassis and herbs. Its finish is not quite long, yet on the palate it has lots of energy. Tempranillo doesn’t have big tannins like Cabernet Sauvignon, but it has good acidity which is why this 45-year-old wine tastes wonderfully fresh. 3 ½ puffs.

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The '61 Riscal with corroded label in front of the 2000 version

Although it is a much younger wine, the ’86 Murrieta tasted more evolved. Its main appeal is a more explosive bouquet of flowers, red fruits, and cherry liqueur. On the palate, the attack delivers a good hit of fruit—“cherries and plums” says Gary—but the mid-palate soon turns tart and the finish is short and a bit hot. 3 puffs at first, but later the consensus was downgraded to a still respectable 2 ½ puffs. By the way, keep in mind the retail price of both the Riscal and the Murrieta was in the range of $20 to $30 a bottle.

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The next flight featured two different styles of wines. The first bottle of 1996 Ribera del Duero “Alenza”, Condado de Haza (Grupo Pesquera) was unfortunately off. Good thing I brought a second bottle which was fine. A very young wine from a great vintage, its quality level is equivalent to a Gran Reserva as it is made only in the best years from the oldest parcels, and is aged for up to 30 months in American oak and further aged for several more months in bottle before release. Alejandro Fernández of Pesquera is also the proprietor of Condado de Haza. In Alenza he wanted to create a high quality Tempranillo wine using old winemaking technology. This is made of pure Tempranillo, with grapes picked from the oldest vines in the estate. Extraction follows traditional techniques of crushing whole grape clusters by feet. Tannins are already well-resolved and the texture is lush, with very good fruit concentration that tastes of bing cherries and sweet licorice. It’s still compact and needs at least another five years of aging to show its potential. 2 ½ puffs.

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Without question the wine of the night was the 1964 Rioja Gran Reserva “Viña Tondonia”, R. Lopez de Heredia. This is the flagship wine of this uncompromisingly traditional estate in Rioja, and 1964 is one of its greatest vintages. Archaic long cask aging in French oak is still practiced here—a minimum of six years for Gran Reservas, sometimes up to ten years (the legal limit in Rioja) for truly exceptional years like this 1964. Anyway, what makes this wine great to this day, notwithstanding the extreme winemaking involved, was simply the beautiful fruit it started out with. Mostly Tempranillo, but blended with some Garnacha and a little bit of Mazuelo and Graciano. The Garnacha helps give the wine a lighter red color, while the addition of the two latter grapes was for acid backbone to give the wine more elegance and greater longevity. It is a wine of supreme elegance and finesse. Its bouquet is well-developed exuding fresh cherries, dried flowers, herbs, and even a bit of sous boise. On the palate it showed freshness and marvelous concentration, impressive for a wine over 40 years old. Its complexity is very good, but not great, revealing flavors of ripe black cherries with underlying spiciness and earthiness that turn a bit tart on the finish. It is smooth and focused, but I wish it had more grip so I can hold it longer. The delicate and fragile beauty of this wine is breathtaking. 4 puffs (with some minor dissent)

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The next flight pits a wine again from the venerable R. Lopez de Heredia against an upstart that seeks to redefine traditional Spanish wines. It is clearly unfair to follow the 1964, but unfortunately another wine has to do it, and in this case better another wine from the same producer. The 1981 Rioja Gran Reserva “Vina Bosconia”, R. Lopez de Heredia turned out to be a very pleasing wine, save for its pronounced tartness in the finish. Wonderful aged Tempranillo floral aromatics (ah, it’s the fragrance from that “nape” again) and juicy cherry fruit. Quite a wonderful match with the spicy sweetness of the baby back ribs. 3 puffs.

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Whereas Bodega Lopez de Heredia takes pains to mute the robust character of Tempranillo, preferring an airy style filled with bright tones, Alejandro Fernández of Grupo Pesquera hits the “LOUD” button determined to emphasize the bass chords and driving midtones of Tempranillo. Fernández, of course, succeeds. His method is completely the opposite of Lopez de Heredia. He picked a relatively new and unknown winegrowing region far from Rioja called Ribera del Duero to plant Tempranillo vines. Instead of blending with other grapes, he uses 100% Tempranillo picked riper and aged for a shorter time in wood (usually up to two years) using only American oak. His first release of Pesquera was from the 1975 vintage. At that time, Ribera del Duero was not even a DO classification and many were skeptical about what Fernández was doing. Ah, this night is really special because we had before us the first release of Pesquera’s flagship wine, the 1975 Pesquera de Duero Reserva “Pesquera”, Bodegas Alejandro Fernández. The label does not even say “Ribera del Duero” yet because the release preceded the creation of the DO after 1982 (it will be elevated to DOCa in 2008). How Kevin snagged this pristine bottle as it was never officially exported outside Spain is amazing! At over 30 years of age this energetic wine is successful proof of Fernández’s new approach in Spanish winemaking and the nobility of pure Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero vineyards.

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The nose has an earthy, herbal old Bordeaux-like bouquet—filled with scents of dried leaves, bay leaf, mint, eucalyptus, and sous boise. On the palate the well-integrated flavors of fresh red cherries, cassis, licorice, mint, and minerals combine deliciously and persist through the lengthy finish. As in all the other wines we drank this night, this is a satisfying wine to drink not just for sheer pleasure but also for the bit of Spanish winemaking history that came along with it. 3 ½ puffs.

The next flight featured the two most powerful wines of the evening. We have another incredible wine from Alejandro Fernández, just as historic as the 1975 Pesquera but even more special. The 1982 Pesquero de Duero Reserva Especial “Janus”, Bodegas Alejandro Fernández was the result of Fernández’s and his brilliant winemaker’s, Teofilo Reyes, pursuit of higher quality. 1982 produced landmark quality wines, and they thought of experimenting and doing something special in that vintage. Pesquera employed traditional winemaking, which means crushing whole clusters in stone lagars and pressing them with an old wooden press. But they also started making wines for export using the modern approach of destemming the grapes and fermenting them in stainless steel vats. Fernández and Reyes decided to blend a small batch of the two different wines 50-50 and aged it for 3 years in American oak. The result was spectacular, and the first vintage of this experiment was the1982 Janus, a bottle of which was standing on the table and a healthy pour was in my glass.

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Hands down, the 1982 Janus had the most incredible fragrance of all the wines this evening. Its floral perfume soared from the glass bringing with it scents of crushed cranberries, even tropical fruits. On the palate it was profound with layers of fruit, exotic spices, and herbs. I was close to hallucinating (did Steve mention “Timothy Leary”?). And when I blurted I smelled papaya everyone stared at me and I knew I lost all credibility at that point. But it gives you an idea that this stuff is potent and I was in Tempranillo heaven. 3 ½-4 puffs.

Among Spanish wines Vega Sicilia is like Yquem, it has no peer. First established nearly 150 years ago, not in Rioja but in Ribera del Duero, Vega Sicilia became famous in the 1960s due to some legendary vintages. But Spanish purists, especially from Rioja, decry its foreign influence. From the outset it was an international wine and its main audience was abroad. It owes a lot to Bordeaux winemaking as a significant portion of its flagship wine’s blend, the Unico, consists of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec. And, of course, the Unico is priced like a Bordeaux First Growth, about ten times the price of a top Rioja Reserva! Aside from being a Tempranillo-based wine, where it mainly differs from Bordeaux is its winemaking approach of long cask aging, a minimum of seven years, and long bottle aging, usually four years or more, prior to release. The long elevage, or elaboration (as the bodegueros like to call it), matures this big, powerful, high-acid wine perfectly. But even after release, the wine is still dense and youthful, and really could use another 10 to 20 years of cellaring before the full potential shows!

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So here we have the 1994 Ribera del Duero Reserva "Unico", Vega Sicilia. “Dense, highly extracted” said Steve. “35 to 40 second finish” timed Gary. This was high-toned, rich and opulent in the mouth, but seamless and beautifully balanced. It had massive extracts and a solid structure, but it was soft and not aggressive at all due to its perfect balance. Its depth, though amazingly profound, was still hard to plumb at this point as the wine is still compact. After some time in the glass it started to open up a bit, offering glorious layers of black fruits, earthy spices, mint, and licorice. A brooding wine that is a real treat to taste even in its youth. While it was clearly years away from being ready, it deserves special honors in this tasting. 3 ½-4 puffs.


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As usual cigars followed after dinner. At this point we were overwhelmed by the experience of all the wines at dinner that it became impractical to take notes or even discuss the three wonderful sherries we had with the cigars. The first one was a pungent and dry Rare Palo Cortado, A.R. Valdespino. Next was a massively sweet and unctuous 1927 Pedro Ximenez “Dulce Viejo”, Alvear. And thirdly, a rare P.X. Vin de Liqueur, Michel Couvreur, a decadent but exquisite PX from Jerez that was aged in cask in a cold, humid cellar near Beaune in Burgundy.

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