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The Wine Observor: Independent  Wine Reviews

International wine reviews & recommendations, wine country travel: Spain, France, United States, Canada, Turkey, Italy

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A recent stay in Rome led to two great wine discoveries.
 
First, the production of local Lazio winery Casale del Giglio. We tried recent vinatges of their Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvingon, MadreSelva, Chardonnay, Satrico, and Shiraz bottlings. Nearly all were of excellent quality, especially the reds. The 2005 MadreSelva is superb, balanced with lots of ripe fruit.
 
Second, the grape Lacrima di Morro d'Alba, produced in the region of Marche and also its own DOC.  The unusual  wine name comes from the grape variety of the same name, the Lacrima, a native of the district. It is of extremely ancient origin and is still cultivated only in the commune of Morro d'Alba in the province of Ancona and the territories of neighboring communities. The great diversity of varieties still to be found in the center and south of Italy makes it extremely difficult to trace the pedigree of this breed, which is descended from a family of "vitis vinifera" that is ancient. That descent is so complex that the exact origins of Lacrima may never be established.
 
However, it is somewhere between Pinot and Gamay and a red Gewurtztraminer. We tried production from several different wineries, and all were very good and not expensive. It has had a DOC since 1985.

The Wine of the Week
This Week: Bordeaux, France

Chateau  La Dame Blanche, Pessac-Léognan, (white), 2002 4/5
 
Delicate citrus nose with floral notes, limpid yellow in color, with nicely balanced and structured Bordeaux white, with orange-citrus and rose petal flavors. We liked it much more than Wine Spectator!

Coming soon: A Turkish winery done good: tales from a recent trip to European Turkey.

Wine Reviews
 
France
 
Haut Bages Liberal, Pauillac, 5e cru clasée, Bordeaux, 2003

Pleasant flavors of cassis, cherry, and blackberry; still tannic at this time. Very inviting, fruity bouquet. Drink late 2007-2011. Purchased for around 20 euros in Bordeaux.

Rating: 3/5  Web Site

Chateau La Patache, Pomerol, Bordeaux, 2001 3/5

This bottle could probably use another couple of years, but is nothing exceptional.

Chapelle de Potensac, Médoc, Bourdeaux, 2002 4/5
Very good second wine, nice value.
 
Château Brown, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux (white), 2002 4/5
An excellent, rounded white Bordeaux.
 
Roc Alary, Fitou, , France, 2004 2/5
good value--typical Fitou flavors
 
Domaine Ducoté, Saint-Véran, Borgogne, 2005 4/5
A good representation of Saint-Véran--full bodied, but rounded and with good balance, perhaps lacking some of the minerally finesse of truly great wines.
 
L'Esprit de Chevalier, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux, 2002 4/5
Very good value--the second wine of Chevalier present excellent balance and fruit for around 11 euros (in France).
 
Joseph Mellot, Sancerre, 2005, 3/5
a very pleasant bottle of wine, with soft fruit, melon, peach. Pure Sauvignon blanc.
 
Chateau Mauras, Sauternes, Cru Bourgeois 2001 3/5
An excellent value; typical Sauterne flavors, nicely concentrated with nothing off about it. Pear and melon flavors. Bought for about 11 euros in Bordeaux.
 
Chateau de la Grave, Caractère, Cotes de Bourg, 2003 2/5
A pleasant drink now and for several years. Subdued fruit and a bit lacking in structure.
 
Chateau Crois du Trale, Haut-Medoc, Bordeaux, 2005 2/5
Not a bad wine, but it will not age well.
 
Chateau Sainte-Barbe, Bordeaux, 2003 3/5
A good effort from a revamped Chateau on the Right Bank; lots of Merlot like character and fruit; plum, blackberry jam, pleasant and aromatic bouquet. Drink 2007-2013
 
Chateau La Galante, Entre Deux Mers, Bordeaux, 2005 3/5
A very good wine with pleasant citrus and melon notes, nice bouquet, and several years of life ahead of it. One of our favourite white Bordeaux in the affordable price category.
 
Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Berger Baron, Bordeaux, 2005 2/5
Pleasant and well balanced, but typical Bordeaux white
 
André Lurton, La Louvetier, Pessac-Léognan, 2005, 2/5
Not a bad wine to accompany shellfish or oyesters a la Bordelaise, but nothing special.
 
Chateau de la Louviere, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux, 2001 (white) 3/5
The most pleasant Bordeaux white of this recent tasting: citrus and tropical fruit, well strucutred though still somewhat typically tart. Will age well.
 
Chateau Villa Bel-Air, Graves, Bordeaux, 2003 3/5
Pleasant fruit, strawberry; soft tannins, drinkable now; not a wine to age.
 
Chateau le Sartre, Pessac-Léogan (Graves), Bordeaux, 2001 3/5
This wine currently has soft tannins without loosing structure, nice balance and fruit. Drink now.
 
Chateau Lachesnaye, Haut-Medoc, Cru Bourgeois, 2003 2/5
Pleasant upfront with lots of berries and fruit though the tannins of a young wine remain. Pleasnt bouquet. Fades to not so interesting; too much focus on carbonic maceraction perhaps. Drink now through 2008.
 
Chateau Hautegrave Tris, Listrac-Médoc, Bordeaux, 2003  2/5
A bit more than a plain Bordeaux--some vanilla and spice. Needs time in the bottle, but has the potential to become refined and pleasant. Drink 2006-7.
 
Chateau Piada, Le Hauret du Piada (white), Graves, Bordeaux, 2005 2/5
A sound wine but lacking any excitement or definition.
 
Spain
 
Viña Pedrosa, Ribera del Duero, Reserva, 2001
3/5
We were looking forward to tasting this bottle and were disappointed, given the high price. Average tempranillo flavor--and not much a future in bottle.
 
Altos de Tamaron, Tempranillo, Reserva, Ribera del Duero, 2002
13.5% alcohol by volume
 
Rating: 4/5
 
24 months in American and French oak barriques and another 12 months in the bottle before marketing.
 
An excellent expression of Tempranillo and Ribera: soft, supple, even luscious flavors of plum, jam, and blackcurrant. Good on its own or with aged cheeses, pork, or lamb. Drink now through 2008.

Castell del Remei, ODA, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Costers del Segre, 2003   Pleasant fruit, especially plum. Good structure. Very drinkable now. Do not hold. 3/5

Coto de Imaz, Reserva, Seleccion Aniversario, Rioja, 1998  4/5
 
Capafons-Osso, Masia Esplanes, Montsant D.O., 2002
14% alcohol by volume
 
Rating: 3/5
 
An excellent representation of Montsant winemaking: soft with some tannins, subdued fruit; discernable pepper, tar, and leather flavors. Drink now or age for 2-3 years.
 
Purchased for around 17 euros in the wine store of the Barcelona airport.
 
Turkey
 
Kavaklidere, Vin Art, Carignan-Alicante, 2005  Drinkable but not fantastic. Subdued cherry and plum flavors. Expensive for the quality (within Turkey) 2/5
 
Kavaklidere Narince-Semillon Selection, 2001  Past its prime, this wine fails to  make any interesting representation of the Turkish grape Narince. 0/5
 
Kavaklidere, Okuzgozu-Bogazkere Selection, 2003  Very pleasant wine that shows the potential of domestic Turkish grape varieties.  Cherry flavors and slight tannins. Drink now through 2008.  3/5
 
Kavaklidere, Narince Tokat, 2002 1/5
 
Melen Syrah Reserve, Thrace, 2004  Very nice Shiraz that show potential for this grape in Turkey. Not overwhelming and made in a dry style that showed off good structure and pleasing jammy flavors. 3/5
 
 

Red wine producers from Bordeuax worth considering for value:
Château Gloria
Château Greysac
Château Les Ormes-de-Pez
Château de Marbuzet
Château Meyney
Château Monbrison
Château de Pez
Château Phélan-Ségur
Château Siran
Château Sociando-Mallet

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Casa de la Ermita Petit Verdot

The Spanish wine region of Jumilla is a rising star on the wine scene. Casa de la Ermita, in particular, has excelled at showing off the potential, including with varietals such as Petit Verdot. Giving Ermita's production a try comes highly recommended.

Varieties: Petit Verdot  Ageing: 12 months

Elaboration: Grapes harvested towards the end of October, picked at the best moment of ripening, with very small and loose grain. Macerated in cold during the first days of encubing, the fermentation temperatures up until the date of extraction from barrels set between 28 and 30 degrees centigrade. After the 15 days of encubing, the malolactic fermentation was then undertaken.At this point it has rested in French and American oak barrels for  12 months.

TASTING NOTES 
Colour: Very deep red in colour, almost opaque, with a deep purple rim.
Nose: Aromas of ripe, black fruits such as plum can be detected with floral notes of violet and lavander with an elegant hint of orange.
Taste: On the palate following its initial sweetness, flavours are mainly dominated by over-ripe black fruits, however there are hints of chocolate & coffee. Tasty, sumptuous, strong and elegant with a fresh and balsamic lengthy finish.

Serving temperature: 17 degrees Centigrade
Format: 0.75, 1.50, 3.00, 9.00 and 12.00 llitres
Gastronomy: Roast red meats well-spiced, Castellian roasts, pheasant, duck, deer, venison, oxtail casserole, and harder cheeses.

Mentions and Awards
Gold Medal, 3rd position, «La selezione del Sindaco 2003», Italy
Silver Medal, «Bacchus 2004», Spain
Gold Medal, «Quality Contest D.O. Jumilla 2004», Spain
Gold Medal, «Radio Tourism Awards 2004», Spain
Silver Medal, «International Awards city of Porto 2004», Portugal
Gold Medal, «Nova Scotia Port of Wine 2005», Canada
Silver Medal, «Premios Zarcillo 2005», Spain
Silver Medal, «Decanter World Wine Awards 2005», U.K.
Bronze Medal, «International Wine & Spirits Competition 2005»; U.K.
Silver Medal, «Mundus Vini 2005», Germany
Silver Medal, «Expovina 2005», Austria
Silver Medal, Best in its Category, «International Wine & Spirits Competition 2006», UK
Silver Medal, «D.O. Jumilla Quality Contest 2007», Spain
Bronze Medal, «International Wine Challenge 2007»; U.K.
90/100 points, «Wine Advocate #169 (Robert Parker)», 2007, USA
Bronze Medal, «Decanter World Wine Awards 2007», U.K.
Bronze Medal, «International Wine Challenge 2008»; U.K.
Bronze Medal, «International Wine Challenge 2009»; U.K.
Bronze Medal, «Decanter World Wine Awards 2009», U.K.

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FREIXENET OF CATALUNYA, SPAIN

ELYSSIA PINOT NOIR BRUT

Elyssia Pinot Noir Brut takes the classic Pinot Noir grape and adds a touch of Trepat to create a distinctive new sparkling Rosado.

-- Tasting Notes --This  Brut Cava has an intense aroma of raspberries and blackberries with a fresh and fruity mid-palate followed by a lovely, sweet aftertaste with a soft acidity.

-- Winemaking --The Pinot Noir used for the Elyssia Pinot Noir Brut is grown on the Mas Bernich estate located near the town of Masquefa in the Alt Penedès region, southwest of Barcelona, Spain. The grapes benefit from the cooling fogs rolling off the Mediterranean and the long warm growing season. Freixenet produces only méthode champenoise sparkling wines. The wine goes through two fermentations with the second fermentation taking place in the bottle. Elyssia Gran Cuvee Brut is aged for nine months in a cave.

-- Blend -- Elyssia Pinot Noir Brut is blend of 85% Pinot Noir and 15% Trepat.

foodvacation.com gives this wine a score of 89 and an excellent rating for value

A few other Bordeaux wine tastings:
 
Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Pauillac, 1e Cru, 2005 (barrel tasting)  This is an agreeable wine that will age well, however we were expecing more from the 2005 Mouton. Good strcuture but little subtlety--nice fruits de bois flavors, upfront tannins. Drink 2011 on.
 
Chateau Margaux, Margaux, 1e cru, 2001   An extremely pleasant, subtle, and well-blended wine. Soft tannins caress the tongue; excellent fruit flavor and inviting bouquet. Will age well, but not like the absolute best vintages. Drink now to 2015.
 
A favorite picked from 3 weeks of tastings:  La Dame de Malescot, Margaux, 2003
The second label of a very fine Margaux chateau, this 2003 displays everything good about the vintage in Bordeaux: complex berry and cherry flavors, good structure, seductive bouquet, and enough earthiness to make you feel the wine.  Drink now through 2010 at least. An excellent vale.

 Bordeaux Today

Awash with wine, present-day Bordeaux betrays its commercial reincarnations rather than its finer and yet more humble aspects as a center of noble human viticultural endeavor. Having passed more than 8 weeks here over 4 months, the conclusion is that Bordeaux—as a region from which to select your bottles for everyday drinking—is best left alone or approached only with the greatest of personal knowledge.


Is this because Bordeaux, as one of the greatest of the world's wine regions, can only be fathomed and appreciated by the cognoscenti (to use an Italian term)? No! This is to say that Bordeaux is a place of commercial agriculture devoted to wine production, and that the vast majority of Bordeaux wines are far from great, and many only half passable. In addition, though Bordeaux has its style, a great number of the supposedly finer wines also fail to meet expectations.


The world has changed since 1855 (the year of the renowned classification of Medoc wines).


While we are not unhappy drinking Bordeaux every night, the list of “wines we like and buy for everyday drinking” is short, very short. We have sampled over 200 wines from all areas of Bordeaux within a short time, and the results are less than impressive.


Having lived almost contemporaneously in Spain and France, the value and quality of Ribera or Rioja vintages calls out like a foghorn in the mists of Barsac.


In yet, all is not lost. The City of Bordeaux itself is experimenting a renaissance of grand proportions—largely under the leadership of once-again Mayor Alain Juppé—and the Bordelais know, as do the French in general, that they have to change. Both augur well.


Change in viti- and vini-culture, however, occurs at a necessarily measured pace. Just trying to please the wine palates of the biggest world markets will not serve Bordeaux either. The problem lies not with the Chateau Margaux in the world, but with the economically more approachable wines that represent the vast majority of Bordeaux production—the wines that will sell in the United States for $9 to $90 at retail. Why buy Bordeaux? Right now, there's not much reason to do so.

All content copyright 2009, Abel, Perret, & Leary, LLC

WINES OF THE TIMES; Riesling, the American Way 

By FRANK J. PRIAL
Published: September 4, 2002

FOR winemakers in this country, the riesling renaissance has been under way for 30 years, but wine drinkers have become aware of it only during the last decade. Chardonnay, it seems, is a hard act to follow.

These days, there is enough buzz, and enough praise, about the notoriously difficult riesling grape to make it the right time for the Dining section's tasting panel to take a look at some domestic riesling wines.

The panel -- Eric Asimov; Amanda Hesser; our guest, Joshua Wesson, co-chief executive of Best Cellars Inc., which owns several retail wine shops; and I -- zeroed in on 15 United States rieslings, with 6 from New York State, 5 from California and 4 from Washington. Needless to say, overall opinions varied.

''I would drink most of these and not complain,'' Mr. Wesson said. Both Mr. Asimov and I agreed that California should not waste time with riesling, and that the Finger Lakes rieslings were closer to what rieslings should be. And in fact, the top two rieslings for the panel were from the Finger Lakes, with a third tied for third. Ms. Hesser thought that many of the 15 we tasted were pleasant, though not thrilling.

Much of the renewed interest in the riesling grape has centered, as it should, on German and Alsatian examples, but contrary to most expectations, Americans have begun to turn out fine versions of our own. There is some question as to who started the riesling renaissance, but there is little doubt what happened to the variety that made this comeback necessary. It was those Californians. They took a perfectly good grape and for a century made really bad wine with it. People forget now, but in its earliest days, the Northern California wine country had a Teutonic air to it. Winemakers with names like Dresel and Schram and Gundlach imported German grape varieties in the 1850's and 60's and made what they called riesling from them. Most were failures; California was simply too hot for the grape. The ''rieslings'' that survived were often blends of a touch of riesling and lots of sylvaner, folle blanche and other California-friendly varieties.

By the 1950's, California riesling was little more than jug wine, scorned by anyone who had tasted the real thing. Today, there are some good California rieslings -- by Smith-Madrone in the Napa Valley, by Navarro in Mendocino, and a handful of others. But the grape is unlikely ever to play an important role on the California wine scene.

The real excitement these days is in New York State, specifically in the Finger Lakes region. The father of riesling in New York was Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian immigrant, who planted his first grapes above Keuka Lake in the 1960's. Before him, the only commercial grapes grown in the region were native varieties and hybrids. Dr. Frank wanted to grow pure vinifera, the grapes of Europe and California. Whether they were cabernet sauvignon or riesling was secondary.

Dr. Frank proved his point. Today various vinifera varieties are grown in the region, but the only one to catch on has been riesling. In fact, the climate, the soil and the topography of the Finger Lakes are close to that of the best German wine regions. Dr. Frank's work is carried on by his son Willy and grandson Fred.

It was a 2001 dry Johannisberg riesling from the vineyards of Dr. Frank that was tops in our tasting, with three stars. At $12, it was also the best value. A clear winner, this Frank wine had good fruit, Mr. Asimov said, while Mr. Wesson liked its balance and ''sense of place'' and Ms. Hesser its elegance. I thought it was true to type.

In second place, with two and a half stars, was another Finger Lakes wine, a 2001 dry riesling from Chateau LaFayette Reneau, on Seneca Lake, at $13. Ms. Hesser thought this wine had ''all the qualities of a classic riesling,'' citing its complexity and rich floral aroma. I liked its understatement.

Tied for third were a 2000 Smith-Madrone Napa Valley riesling, at $18; a 2001 dry Johannisberg riesling from Hermann J. Wiemer, $13; and a 2001 Eroica for $20, a wine from the Columbia Valley in Washington, produced jointly by Chateau Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen, a prominent German producer. Mr. Asimov thought the Smith-Madrone had real riesling character, and liked it better than did the rest of us. As for the Wiemer, Mr. Wesson thought it was ''almost too quiet,'' while Mr. Asimov found it ''light and graceful.'' Everyone found the Eroica, in Mr. Wesson's words, ''easy to drink.''

Mr. Wiemer, whose winery and vineyards are on Seneca Lake, is as well known as the Franks. A native of Bernkastel, in Germany, he is descended from many generations of winemakers in the Mosel region. He makes prize-winning rieslings and also runs a nursery that supplies grapevines to vineyards all over the United States.

The rise of riesling in the Finger Lakes is only a modest victory over hybrid grapes. Hybrids still occupy some 80 percent of all the vineyard area. Riesling is a difficult grape to grow and, for a newcomer to wine, equally difficult to appreciate. It can be austere and steely, with breathtaking acidity to match its intense fruit. A good riesling hits you right away. Only in the sweeter versions can it be considered user-friendly. For occasional drinkers, a great riesling can be a turnoff. For its committed fans, however, it is the finest grape in the world.

In recent years, Washington wineries have been experimenting with riesling, while one well-known California winemaker, Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon Vineyards, is blending his own riesling with wine from Germany. His 2000 Pacific Rim dry riesling, $11, scored one and a half stars. We questioned whether a half-American, half-German qualified for a domestic tasting. There were no strong objections. I liked the Pacific Rim as a food wine, but Ms. Hesser thought it was ''chewy and tough.''

Two other New York State rieslings made the Top 10 -- a 2000 by the Peconic Bay Winery on Long Island, $13, at one and a half stars, and a 2001 from the Red Newt Cellars of the Finger Lakes, $14, one star.

The Hogue Cellars of Columbia Valley appealed to Ms. Hesser and me. Mr. Wesson noted enigmatically that it smelled like Topps bubble gum and made him nostalgic, presumably for more bubble gum.

Spain's Rioja Wines Span Traditional to Avant-Garde (first published by Bloomberg) 

By Elin McCoy

Nov. 21 (Bloomberg) -- With its curving roof of gleaming titanium, the futuristic, Frank Gehry-designed hotel that opened last month at Marques de Riscal winery in Rioja announces a new era for Spain's most famous wine region.

Alejandro Aznar, chairman of Herederos del Marques de Riscal, calls it ``the chateau for the 21st century, part of our new image plan.''

This once-sleepy region, which produces some 800 million bottles of mostly red wine, is in a state of flux.

You can see it in the wines: At one pole are the old-style, earthy-oaky red reservas and gran reservas, reliably smoothed to mellow elegance by longer years of aging before release than any other wines in the world. At the other are the new, intensely fruity, higher-alcohol wines that people call ``vinos di alta expresion'' (high expression wines), which began appearing a decade ago. Dozens of new, small bodegas are firmly in this modernist or international-style camp.

The initial reaction of the traditionalists was to cry heresy, claiming these avant-garde wines weren't really Rioja. Yet some of the old-style vintners are changing.

On a visit to the region last month, I discovered that even large producers like Marques de Riscal, which makes about 4.5 million bottles a year in Rioja, play it both ways. Nowhere is this more evident than at Riscal's $100 million ``City of Wine,'' the integration of the Gehry-designed hotel complex with Riscal's recently renovated 1858 stone winery, the oldest in the region.

Hotel, Restaurant, Spa

The 43-room ultra luxury hotel -- a small project by Gehry standards -- includes a restaurant with one Michelin star managed by Spanish chef Francis Paniego and a vinotherapy spa. To persuade Gehry to take on the job, the family invited him to spend a weekend in Rioja and pulled out a bottle of gran reserva from his birth year, 1929. That sealed the deal.

In the cellar, Riscal uses 21st-century winemaking technology but remains reluctant to give up the grand old style completely.

Until the mid-1980s, Rioja's classic reds were blends of several varieties -- raspberry-tart tempranillo with small amounts of mazuelo and graciano -- harvested from vineyards throughout the region's three zones. Now single-varietal wines and luxury cuvees from single vineyards are becoming common.

Star winemaker Jesus Madrazo of tiny Bodega Contino, an estate co-owned by giant CVNE, pioneered 100 percent graciano, once thought to be good only for blending. At a stone table overlooking vines turning red and gold, he and I shared the fruity, easy-to-drink 2001 Graciano ($105) and the delicious, violet-scented, single-vineyard 2001 Vina del Olivo ($125).

Producers used to age wines only in old American oak, classifying them by time in barrel and bottle -- crianza (the youngest), reserva and gran reserva, made only in exceptional vintages, aged for eight to 10 years or more, and released only when ready to drink.

Targeting U.S. Market

Now these producers are adding modern bottlings, often aimed for the U.S. market. In Riscal's historic cellar, alongside delicious traditional reserva and gran reserva, I tasted the dark, intense, smoky-mocha 2001 Baron de Chirel Reserva ($50), a cabernet-tempranillo blend, and the super-concentrated, velvety, all-tempranillo 2001 Frank Gehry Selection Reserva ($192 at the winery).

The first celeb wine named for an architect features a label designed and with an original sketch of the hotel by Gehry, who also sat on the tasting panel for the final blend. Marques de Riscal intends to produce and commercialize the wine in exceptional years.

Modern Classic

At family-owned Bodegas Muga, Jorge Muga uses old-fashioned technology to make his surprisingly fresh, balanced 1995 Prado Enea Gran Reserva ($35), aged for seven years before release. His New World-style Torre Muga, created just over a decade ago, is a modern classic ($50 for the dark, thick 2001). He recently introduced the even more concentrated Aro ($150 for the 2001), aged in new French oak.

``Tradition is not the only right way,'' Muga says, ``but behind the style should be a culture and personality.''

Not everyone is embracing the 21st century. My last stop is the ultra-traditional Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia SA, where wines rest in cellars for decades and wax is dripped on the top of the corks to seal the bottles. In the spooky, 200-foot-long cellar, 150 feet below ground, cobwebs swing so low that they brush your face.

Visiting `the Cemetery'

We taste wines in ``the cemetery,'' the underground vault where the very old vintages are kept. Of current releases, my favorite red is the 1981 Vina Bosconia ($75), now smoothed out to silky elegance.

Later, with dinner in Ezcaray at Restaurant Echaurren, holder of one Michelin star, we taste even older vintages: the raspberry-scented 1968 Vina Bosconia Gran Reserva ($245) and the complex, layered 1964 ($290), with its heady spice and mineral scents and flavors.

``There are a lot of great wines in Rioja now,'' managing director Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia concedes. ``But it would be a sad, lost world with only young, modern wines.''

For more information about Rioja wines, see http://www.marquesderiscal.com , http://www.lopezdeheredia.com , http://www.cvne.com and http://www.bodegasmuga.com ; for Restaurant Echaurren, see http://www.echaurren.com .

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Elin McCoy at emcwine@aol.com .

Last Updated: November 21, 2006 00:06 EST

Spanish Wines (originally published by Forbes)
Nick Passmore

New York -

Nowhere is the revolution that has swept through the world of Spanish winemaking in the last 20 years on better display than at the vineyards and winery of Museum, in the region of Cigales.

On a recent visit there, my hosts first took me to see one of the vineyards. It consist of 60-year-old bush vines, and pretty unimpressive they are too. These are vines that, rather than being trained up on wire trellises, as is common in most of the wine world, are left to grow naturally, and they resemble nothing so much as, well, scrawny bushes. The reason for this will become clear in a minute.

Then there's the soil, though the term really is a misnomer, as it consists of nothing but broken, crumpled rock. It is so devoid of nutrients, and there is so little rain, that more than half the vines have died, leaving ten or even 15 feet between each one.

Click here for the slide show.

It was these unpromising conditions, however, that, in 1999, attracted the interest of a company called Grupo Baron de Ley, and caused it to invest €15 million ($17.7 million) building a spanking new winery. Just how this unlikely development came about is a microcosm of recent changes in Spanish winemaking.

The company already owned two successful wineries in Rioja--Baron de Ley and El Coto and wanted to expand into the increasingly popular region of Ribera del Duero. But by the time they got there, they found that the land had become too expensive. Then a Spanish wine writer, Andres Proensa, suggested they take a look at the then-undiscovered area of Cigales, a few miles to the northwest. The traditional wine had a terrible reputation, but he told them to forget about the wine and look at the grapes because he thought they were as good as anything in Ribera del Duero. And he was right.

What so excited him, and convinced the Baron de Ley people to open their checkbook, is the fact that these ancient bush vines produce extremely low yields--one-twentieth of those in California--of intensely flavored fruit, which in turn results in intensely flavored, more complex wine. And, in a strange quirk of history, it is these very same low yields that account for the continued existence of these bush vines.

Most of the land is held in tiny plots by city dwellers. They are weekend farmers whose grandparents scratched out a living from this hard soil but whose current owners have no interest in such unrewarding work as tending an old vineyard producing wine that nobody wants--nobody, that is, until the arrival of Museum.

And the reason the vines are so old is that the money the farmers got for their grapes was so minimal it wasn't worth replanting. If Cigales had been a more viable wine region, the old vines would have been ripped out and the vineyards replanted years ago.

The whole world of wine has been changing, nowhere more so than in Spain. No one wants the cheap, bulk peasant wine anymore, but there is an ever-growing demand for quality wine. Baron de Ley thought that if it combined modern winemaking technology and know-how with the fruit from these ancient vines, it might be on to something.

Baron de Ley made an experimental vintage in 1999, and the results were so good that it immediately signed 120 long-term contracts with local growers to ensure a supply of this fine fruit and set out to build its state-of-the-art winery.

What makes this decision so important is not just the intriguing contrast between the ancient vineyards and the shiny new winery with its rows of gleaming stainless-steel tanks and computer-controlled operations, but the fact that the story is far from unique. In fact, it has been repeated all over Spain as ambitious, well-financed winemakers are discovering how to make wonderful, high-quality wine in regions previously known only for undrinkable plonk.

Two decades ago, quality Spanish wine meant Rioja, and that was it. (And even that was often pretty rough stuff.) Then along came Ribera del Duero and Priorat, and now there are dozens of regions--Toro, La Mancha, Rias Baixas, Jumilla, Rueda, the list goes on and on, with many I haven't even heard of--producing super wines.

Last winter, Wines From Spain, the wine promotion arm of the Spanish Trade Commission, held a big symposium in New York titled Five Superstars of Spanish Winemaking, and nobody thought it was a joke. This would not have been possible ten, or even five, years ago, because the quality just wasn't there.

Spain is an ancient wine-producing country and today makes roughly as much wine on average per year as do both Italy and France. In 2003, according to Wines From Spain, Spanish wine accounted for 17% of world production; by comparison, the U.S. accounts for only 9%.

But through much of the last century, Spain was stuck in a 19th-century mode where wine was just another agricultural commodity produced in large quantities for local consumption, with little or no regard for quality. Cigales writ large, if you like.

It was only with the death of Franco in 1975 and Spain's admission to the European Union in 1986 that the country's winemakers were exposed to both the new international market for wine and the new approaches and technology that were changing the way wine was made.

But now they are catching up with a vengeance.

Between 2000 and 2004, Spanish wine exports to the U.S. grew from 2.5 million cases to 3.9 million, an increase of over 55%. In terms of value, they were €101 million in 2000 and €145 million in 2004, an increase of 45%. The difference between these two numbers is due to the current strength of the euro, not an indication of a decline in the quality of the wine sold.

Quite the reverse, in fact. For years, outside of Spain, Spanish wine was primarily known for its good value and largely consumed at home or in a limited number of Spanish restaurants. Now all that has changed. Spanish wines are showing up on the wine lists of the very best restaurants, and wine lovers are discovering that Spain is making some truly outstanding wines, whether they are a ten-year-old dark and earthy Rioja for $30 or an intense and concentrated cult wine from Cigales for $100.

This brings me to the only sore spot in the amazing story of Spain's wine revival--the emergence of these cult wines. For this article, I tasted many hundreds of wines and found lovely bottles at every price point between $10 and $50.

But once you get north of $50, the wines' characters change. They lose much of their Spanish authenticity and become the sort of rich, hugely concentrated wines that win high ratings points and attract the attention of consumers who follow such things, but they don't taste particularly Spanish. This is especially true of the highly fashionable wines of Priorat.

Now don't get me wrong. These are fabulous wines, and I am happy to drink them--I just don't see paying $70 and up for them, especially when there are so many fine Spanish wines at far more sensible prices. They have become collector's items, and their stratospheric prices have as much to do with their scarcity--many of them are made in very small quantities--as they are a reflection of their quality.

The same situation also applies, though to a lesser degree, to other emerging regions, especially Ribera del Duero. These are wines that offer enormous visceral pleasure, but when I am paying $100 for a bottle of wine, I expect something with some intellectual complexity to it as well.

Now I don't suppose those responsible for the promotion of Spanish wine would regard this as a handicap, and the publicity generated by the phenomenon certainly helps all Spanish wine. In fact, they could claim with justification that it is a sign that Spanish wines have arrived. And indeed they have. There are dozens and dozens of wonderful examples on the shelves of your local wine shop, and I have collected 25 of my favorites in the accompanying slide show. So print it out and start experimenting, and as you sip and taste, think of all that dry, rocky soil and those old bush vines.

BELLAGIO WINE  Bellagio - The Beautiful Life. Bellagio wines blend tradition with a twist, combining traditional methods of wine making with state-of-the-art technology. The result is a wine that appeals to the new and increasingly more curious consumer.

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