August 2005

Many more Spanish wines to rave…

Olivares Altos de la Hoya 2003 Jumilla is a bright and juicy Monastrell (the French like to call it Mourvedre but it’s not their grape so it’s not their choice) with 10% Garnacha. It’s rather New World-ish but that doesn’t have to be a dismissive descriptor, instead it’s friendly and fruit-laden, dusted up with spicy clove at the end.

Olivares Dulce Monastrell is old school, more like a Fondillon (see below) than a modern wine. And Olivares Panarroz 2003 is nearly as rustic, though that rusticity is exaggerated by the backward nature of the nose at present. It has a toasty note that is almost roasted.

Carchelo Monastrell 2004 is also from Jumilla and this time the ¾’s of Monastrell is ameliorated with Merlot and Syrah. It’s in the style of Beaujolais, but far more interesting than that left-handed descriptor.

And another solid performer in Jumilla, Casa de La Ermita, has a couple of wines to show. The Crianza 2002 blends Monastrell, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo to create aromas of black raspberry, strawberry, with lots of black cherry creating an almost sweet nose, including baking spices and clove. The mouth is juicy and tangy and a little tannic. If the finish is somewhat short, this is pretty throughout, with a hint of raisins.

The tannins step forward expectedly in Casa de la Ermita’s Petit Verdot 2002. But despite the leanness of the 2002 vintage, this is impressive wine with bright red raspberries and cherries. It’s surprisingly fruity for the grape with some barrel derived hints of caramel and baking spices. The wine is juicy, tangy, with blackberry, lots of red cherry and plum and a roasted, toasty oak note. If only because it’s such an unusual success (who does Petit Verdot well?), it deserves attention.

And one of the all-star labels of Jumilla is Finca Luzon. Their 2004, 2/3 Monastrell and 1/3 Syrah, is laden with chocolate and boysenberry and is drinking absolutely the best it could ever drink, I believe.

A Jorge Ordonez label that’s new to me is the Wrongo Dongo, also from Jumilla. This Monastrell is a bit short but very stylish, juicy and jammy throughout.

La Mancha is very much the origin of many of the newest (or at least new to the market) bargain wines arriving from Spain.Campos Reales has a Vino Joven Tempranillo from 2004 that is as easy as pie. Condesa de Leganza 1999 has some plump character to it as well. Finca Antiigua’s Tempranillo 2002 shows a surprising note of overripeness (well, it’s warm there in La Mancha, even in a less than ideal vintage like ’02. More like spiced red currant jelly than wine.

And speaking of crazy bargains, the Eguren family’s Codice is commonplace on every critic’s list of great values. The 2003 is not only tasty, it shows some ability to age. I hope to pop a few of these in a couple of years, because I wonder if there isn’t more to come from this particular bottle. On the other hand, people age perfectly nice wines beyond their best moments. Still, the amount of oak showing on the wine seems to be increasing with this release, and I don’t believe this wine is over-oaked, but I hope that it might show a bit more in a couple of years.

The new Protocolo (also from Eguren) is, of course, just plain drinkable, but not at all plain.

Navarra may be known for Rosado but far more important wines are happening here. Vega Sindoa (Bodegas Nekeas) is a well-known producer of pretty wines, mostly varietal bottlings. Castillo de Monjardin Deyo Merlot 2002 is aromatic and intriguingly well balanced. Palacio de la Vega has a pugnacious Cabernet Reserve 2000, and a still youthful if Brett-ladenTempranillo Reserve 1999.

Senorio de Sarria no. 9 2002 has a very intensely spiced nose from the rather aggressive American oak usage but the fruit itself is rich and plumy, with a finish of cinnamon and sawdust (American oak comes from sawed staves and you can smell that).

Penedes might be famous for cava, but many more styles of wines are emerging from the region. Jean Leon was certainly the first to convince Americans that wines from classic varieties could be made here. Leon first brought Cabernet and Chardonnay to everyone’s attention back in the 1970’s and the Jean Leon name has been continued by the Torres family, but the quality hasn’t suffered.

However, in truth, I would have to argue that Jean Leon wines are not so much better than they were twenty years ago. They are better, but other labels have improved to a greater degree. And the Jean Leon Cabernet Reserva 1998, as well as the super label, Zemis 2000, are just plain brutal. Time will heal things, I’m sure, but I tend to fuss about wines that are willing to demand that much time from its consumers.

The Torres family made the most famous red wine of the region, Torres Gran Coronas, and then in the early 70’s, theTorres Gran Reserva Black Label, set new standards for greatness in Spain. That wine continues to be delicious, but the Torres stable has evolved and brought new wines forward in the last decade.

Montsant truly is baby Priorat, a wine with Priorat intensity, Priorat structure and balance (a remarkable achievement for such a powerful style of wine), and Priorat soil-derived aromas and flavors. Fra Guerau’s 2002 is muscular and well-made.Cellar Capcanes Cabrida is lighter on its feet and just as chockfull.

Casta Diva has a Fondillon, which is an ancient style of wine and an anachronistic manner of winemaking, something that is as much a product of Roman ideas as it is Spanish. Take an overripe and raisinated red and place it in amphorae, calledtinajas in Spain, and let it age far more quickly than it would in barrel or bottle. It creates something that is more like Port than table – something nutty and filled with dried fruits like raisins, figs and dates.

A wine from the modern era, Casta Diva’s 1995 Fondillon is absolutely delicious. It loses nothing in its modernity and gains everything from its illustrious background.

Spain’s most famous desserts are Sherries. But a huge chunk of Sherry is made in a dry style. The aperitifs are Finos andManzanillas; the Manzanillas achieve a bizarre lightness of being, despite alcohol levels over 15%. The secret is a particular sacchromyces, a sugar eating yeast that provides the wines with a barrier against oxygen as they age in barrels. Most Finos rest under a thin layer of the foam, or flor, produced by the yeast.

Manzanilla is different. It’s aged in the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda, and the flor may be six or more inches, not only protecting the wine from oxygen, but adding more flavor and character: nuts, salt, and earth.

Any Manzanilla you buy will be a fascinating experience, as long as you buy it fresh. Drink it with a chill and consume it with grilled and oily foods, if you like. The tartness and salt note lance through the food.

But perhaps you had a Manzanilla and didn’t like it. Perhaps you’ve tried the big names in Fino, say, Tio Pepe or La Ina, and didn’t get what the fuss was about. One word of caution; if the Fino you tried came from a bottle that was room temperature and open on someone’s back bar for the last two months, forget about it. I’m not sure what you tasted, but it wasn’t a real Fino.

Perhaps Fino, and Sherry, are non pareil; the big brands (such as La Ina and Tio Pepe) are not the least interesting bottles available. If we didn’t know the brands so well, it would proper to describe those two as shockingly good wines. Certainly they are absurd bargains.

For Manzanilla, another enormous house, Domecq, produces a lovely Manzanilla. My personal favorite is La Guitana, but that’s just me. I buy it in half bottles and finish it on the spot. Even the next day, the wine has less of the delicacy that gives it such grace.

Once Fino loses its flor and is aged further in barrel, as in versions called Amontillado, the wine can handle weeks or even months open on a back bar. But not Fino.

Fino’s older iteration is Amontillado. Here too the big names have a lot to offer: Domecq has cheap stuff like the Medium Dry; it’s a good drink. They also have an outrageously extravagant Amontilado called 51-1. It’s labeled as a VORS, which means that the wine is at least (!) thirty years old.

Sandeman’s friendly Character Amontillado is every bit as tasty, if less complex.

Williams & Humbert also makes the ubiquitous Dry Sack. I’ll admit that it’s not particularly compelling. But in comparison to all the other cheap labels of yesteryear, it acquits itself very well.

And there’s a lovely bottle of Dry Sack labeled as a 15 year old; it’s very nice dessert wine.

Harvey’s has that other well-known label: Harvey’s Bristol Cream. It too is better than people assume. Sure, there are far better examples, but you can’t beat the price. I’m serious, taste it blind and you’ll see it’s not a bad wine.

The landmark old wines of Sherry are unrivaled wines. These intense desserts can be made by concentrating the wine through long barrel aging or by other extreme steps. Say, for instance, with Lustau’s East India. It’s aged in hothouse conditions, just as with Madeira, all to mimic the effects of a long ocean voyage to India. Gonzales Byass’ NOE taps the former route to richness, and as a VORS, the youngest wine in the blend is thirty years old. Considering that a barrel would theoretically evaporate all its contents every twenty-five years or so, that should be a very expensive wine. It’s not. It should be.

Romate Cream Sherry is disgustingly rich, more fig juice than wine. The many and grand wines made from Pedro Ximinezor Moscatel that are flying through the marketplace at present are of another world, albeit one in which dessert wine is generally enjoyed as a fruit or pastry condiment rather than something drunk by itself.

Lest it seem like all dessert sherries are sweet, they’re not. Romate also makes an Amontillado, called NPU Amontillado Special Reserve, that is a true classic. Though it too is at least thirty years old, you can still smell the flor that grew upon the wine decades ago.

Finally, a few German wines to report on, starting with a 1990 J. J. Prum Graacher Himmelreich Auslese, which was showing more age than I would have expected. Indeed, I’m guessing there was something wrong with the bottle. J. J. Prum wines are meant to age, and I’ve had thirty-year-old versions that tasted younger.

On the other hand, it was delicious. The nose was mushroomy and truffle-laden, lots of honey and apricot; the mouth was sugary and powerful.

The Graacher Himmelreich 1976 Auslese was up next; it had huge earth aromas. Some call it petrol; in the words ofManfred Prum, the owner, it’s a far too complicated aroma to call it something so simplistic. Firne, the Germans call it. Slate, honey, beeswax, candied lemon zest, baked apples, cinnamon hints, candied orange segments at the end. This was an amazing wine. Most 1976’s are long dead. It might have been the “miracle year” (because it started out so badly and ended so gloriously) but it was always a low acid, short term vintage.

But those who complain about Prum’s insistence upon high sulfur levels and some CO2 in the bottle should drink wines like this. Remarkable.

So, we tried the superior vineyard, Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese, also from 1976. The sugar is higher, this ‘76 is far more complex, and just as youthful. Yes, the sugar is higher here, but it sticks out less. Integration is a good thing. The citrus is more interesting, more lacey, like orange foam, instead of orange candies in the Graacher.

Multiple citrus fruits and long earth. Even more amazing than the Graacher ‘76.

Gunter Kunstler’s ’98 Hochheimer Hoelle Auslese is sweeter than the ’76 but hides it beneath acidic armor – oranges, apricots, tangerines, with earth of a smokier variety. The sugar on this was ridiculous, so was the balance.

A lot of people love these wines, but the wines aren’t as slavishly lusted upon, like a cultish Napa Cab. A lot of wines have sugar, but the deft acidic lift of this wine, even in an area that makes big wines and in a vintage called super-rich, is unlike all but the greatest sweet wines in the world.

Schloss Saarstein Serriger Schloss Saarstein Auslese 2001 – more sugary stuff, and even more acidity. The orange and apricot of the previous wine are built of sterner stuff, hints of unopened flower and drippings of caramel – the flower is from great Riesling, and the caramel comes from botrytis.