|The first flight: Five of the eight wines evaluated by Omniboire’s January panelists.
So that all tasting can be done “blind” (even your columnist won’t know ahead of time what’s to be tasted, and glasses are identified only by number), each monthly session will have a guest “curator,” usually from the wine-and-spirits trade. The inaugural session was admirably engineered by Ian Gutierrez of Dreyfus Ashby, an importer whose portfolio includes the equally admirable wines of Torres and Drouhin. His theme was Unsung Spain (my title, not his) due to the country’s recent extraordinary strides in winemaking and the explosion of interest in Spanish wine regions little-known in a country (ours) that at best might be aware of Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Spain, in short, is hot — and it’s priced all over the map. Gutierrez’s selections spanned a gamut from $9 to $37 retail.
The panel, composed of Joe Baker from Gabriel’s and Seazar’s, Philippe Placé of La Mansion del Rio’s Las Canarias, avid wine collector L.J. Schrum, and me, found something to like in almost all of the wines. The two most controversial contenders, the 2002 mencia-based, all-stainless Bodegas Pucho Bierzo and the 2000 An Negra from Majorca, were the most divergent geographically (the Bierzo Denominación de Origin is in far northwestern Spain, Majorca in the Mediterranean), varied significantly in price, and shared the lowest scores — but also the widest spread in opinions. One taster called the Pucho “intense, but not an intensity I like”; another gave it points for its vibrant nose and big cherry flavors; and yet another fantasized freely on what he would cook to serve with it. “Briny” was a term attached to the An, a bottle with the tasting’s sexiest, and least-informative, label. We only assume it’s made from the local manto negro grape.
Controversy also arose over wines that were appealing but not at all typical of their region — a discussion that could only take place around one of Spain’s better-known regions, of course. Gutierrez had thrown one such Rioja ringer into the pot, the high-scoring, 100-percent tempranillo from Cortijo — at around $9 the clear value leader of the day. The purists among us downrated this wine as being atypical in a New World sense (potentially leading to consumer confusion of what to expect from more-traditional Riojas). Others simply liked it for its “filly-like” freshness and berry-cola qualities. It’s a “feminine” wine that “would make a lot of people happy” — especially with patés and terrines, claimed a food-focused panelist.
Two wines came from the Jumilla region on the mid-Mediterranean coast, and neither rated near the top. “Should be served a little cooler,” said one taster of the Casa Castillo monastrell (mourvedre), all the while imagining olives and sausages. “Tastes like a Bandol” from Provence said another, who liked it a lot — and, in fact, Bandol is primarily mourvedre. The Altos de Luzon, on the other hand, is a blend that includes cabernet, “designed for the American market,” and “as close as they can get to a thick, viscous Aussie wine” (also for the American palate) in the words of the wine pros present.
Less big and brash, but still a blend of cabernet and tempranillo, was the wild-yeast fermented Logos II from Navarra, a cool region that often produces acidic wines. Does the cabernet help here? The question conjures up a continuing controversy in the wine world: Should old-world regions with established, indigenous grapes rush to plant popular varietals to suit the emerging world market, or should they simply tweak tradition with cleaner winemaking and more restrictive vineyard practices? This panel came down (largely) on the side of tradition.
Nevertheless, a blind tasting panel can be seduced by a well-made Spanish wine from a grape considered French (and now Australian). Besting the second-rated wine by a full two-and-a-half points, the Finca Sandoval from the Manchuela region is 97-percent syrah, has “a luxury wine presence,” and offers either kerosene, the somewhat classier road tar, or crème brûlée notes — maybe all the above — on a “well-made” frame that delivers both “body and complexity.”
Returning to a local grape, the 2001 Toro El Albar unfiltered Excelencia is produced by Jacques Lurton in the newly recognized Toro region spanning the Duoro, and is made from the tinta de toro grape, a variant of tempranillo. At 15-percent alcohol, it’s at the high end of the permitted scale for the region yet “you don’t get the heat … it doesn’t come across as over-extracted.” “My taste buds remember the `wine` before,” claimed another panelist, revealing the kind of split that can still lead to a decent average score.
Other wines from Toro, such as the lauded Numanthia-Termes and projects by the peripatetic Michel Rolland and Spain’s Telmo Rodriguez, suggest that the region is one to watch. But why stop there when you can observe an entire country in transition? Your purchase is your vote in the trend vs. tradition struggle. l
The Omniboire will appear in the last issue of each month. Value Vino appears in the second issue of each month.
Unsung Spain, top to bottom
Balanced, beautiful, complex
Fresh, new-world style tempranillo
Angular tannins yet lots of body for region
Thick, viscous, jammy
Allspice, saddle leather, racy yet Port-like
Plum and herbal notes, fleshy, bouillon-like midpalate
Big cherry flavors, vibrant acidity
Lively with still-prominent tannins