Friday, March 1, 2019

Exploring The New Frontiers of Spain

Bitten by the Spanish Wine Bug at The V.I.P. Table

It all started with Rajat Parr’s newest book, a real page-turner I must add, The Sommelier's Atlas of Taste.  However, what captivated me most was the very final chapter on Spain.  I’ve read more books about Italy, France, and Germany than I can recount.  However, what I’ve had very little exposure to was a well-written and insightful piece on Spain, and that is exactly what the final chapter of Rajat’s book spoke about.  The best part was that this section didn’t speak about the usual suspects.  Instead, Rajat went on to talk about what was exciting him, which was the new generation of winemakers, some of whom were working in the well-known regions of Spain, but others were exploring new frontiers, terroir, and making the best use of often-forgotten vineyards.

As I’ve come to realize, as soon as someone begins to talk to me about biodynamic winemaking, ancient vines mixed with ancient techniques, forgotten landscapes and unique grape varieties, my ears perk up like a starving man hearing the dinner bell.

I jumped in feet first.  Some of these producers I had already heard of, such as Dominio del Aguila and Nin Ortiz, but others were completely new to me, and I decided it was time to seek them out.  

What I found only increased my desire to explore and learn more.  Each and every example provided me with an entirely new array of aromas, tastes and sensations, things that I had never expected from a glass of wine, such as those from Daniel Gomez Jimenez Landi, where the bouquet of each wine was like touring through a selection of the most carefully curated rose gardens, or a florist shop full of sweet flowers and spices.  Each expression was remarkably different from region to region, producer to producer and grape to grape, yet all of them so inviting, seductive and refined.

Refined is the most important part I must add, because if there a signature for Spanish wine in my opinion, it’s always been about brute power, with only a few producers being able to also obtain refinement.  However, this was a common theme across the range.  In some cases, the wines were incredibly powerful, but also remarkably refined.  In other cases, they sported only 12.5% alcohol, yet had the depth and intensity of a well-muscled stallion.  It became hard to understand how each of them could be so diverse, interesting and off of my radar for so long.

That’s when I decided to go deeper, and I purchased The New Vignerons, by Luis Gutiérrez.  If you don’t know the name, then all you need do is look at the shelf-talkers in the Spanish wine section of any reputable wine store.  Luis heads up the Spanish wine reviews at The Wine Advocate, as well as a number of related regions, and he’s also one of the most trusted and knowledgeable sources on Spanish wine that you could ever hope to find.  The book was amazing, not focusing on the typical data or the same old stories we’ve heard over and over.  Instead, Luis focused on the people, what led them to wine, how they worked, struggled and ultimately the fruit of their labor.

Apparently, Luis had been keen to the swell of new talent and interesting projects around Spain (as we would expect he would be), and he had been following, tasting and trying to get the word out for quite some time.  Granted, in most cases these are mostly small production wines, produced from tiny parcels of abandoned or forgotten vineyards.  One theme that seemed to follow throughout most of the winemakers I had been introduced to was that they searched for and slowly acquired these parcels.  Sometimes they would be located in what appeared to be impossible locations to farm, or were tended to by old farmers who continued to keep them up out of respect for tradition and family.

I think back to my last visit to Spain, and what struck me more than anything else about the country was the amount of old dilapidated and abandoned farmhouses, homes, and wonders of architecture that dotted the countryside.  It added flavor to the landscape, as these sights are often beautiful despite the cold reality. That reality being that poverty or the mass exodus of families from rural areas, in search of making a living, had created these glorious ruins.  

Those are the images that went through my mind as I read through Luis’s book, when he talked about the slow acquisition of vineyards by Descendientes de José Palacios, around the village of Corullon, a village with a current estimated population of 937 inhabitants.  Ricardo Perez of Descendientes had to prove to the people of Corullon that he would take proper care and put their vineyards to good use.  Today, they are more than happy to be a part of his vision, a man who literally lives among his biodynamically farmed vines.

At this point I was truly hooked.  These new frontiers of Spain were providing me with the whole package, a unique and diverse set of wines from rugged, forgotten terrain, made by true passion-driven artisans, most often through 100% natural winemaking techniques. Call it organic or biodynamic, but in the end these are people who want to put the best, most natural product into the bottle.  They want to communicate terroir.  I was in a beautiful haze of new experiences, and the best part is that the experience has no end in sight, and there are still so many new producers to explore.

I find myself with a growing collection of Spanish wine in my cellar, consisting of names that many people have never heard of.  I also find myself longing to return to Spain so that I can see these locations, meet these people and taste new vintages for myself.

So yes, I have officially been bitten by the Spanish wine bug, and I don’t think there’s any going back. The best I can do now is to share some of my findings with you, because in the end, anyone who’s made it this far through today’s blog truly deserves to know what’s out there.

Daniel Gomez Jimenez Landi

So I’m starting with one of the most interesting projects that I’ve had the fortune of stumbling upon, Daniel Gomez Jimenez Landi.  Daniel is a partner of another project that’s turned my head, yet is even more limited: Comando G.  The best part about these wines is that the word is already out about Comando G, and allocations disappear quickly.  However, very few people realize that these vineyards are managed, the grapes vinified and the wine finished, by the exact same team.  They aren’t cheap, but if you’re looking to better understand what the region of Gredos is capable of, then this is the best way to get informed.  What’s more, I remember when first starting to explore this range that I read that the main inspiration for these wines was Chateau Rayas, and I will say--they have nailed it.  This is a Spanish Garnacha like you have never tasted before and worthy of the tariff. 

2015 Daniel Gómez Jiménez Landi Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León Las Iruelas El Tiemblo - The '15 Las Iruelas pulled me in with its gorgeous and beguiling bouquet of dried flowers, exotic spices, stone dust, moist undergrowth, licorice, hints of pepper and spicy black fruits. On the palate, I found soft yet lifted textures with a sensation of dry fruit and floral extract that immediately coated the senses in a violet-infused menagerie of wild berry, raspberry and blueberry fruits, with savory minerals, saturating spice and a cheek-puckering tug of acidity; all while remaining warm, savory, seductively textural and truly unique. The finish was long... and I mean long... spicy, and with a note of fine tannin. (95 points)

2016 Daniel Gómez Jiménez Landi Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León Las Iruelas El Tiemblo - The nose opened with a mix of savory wild herbs and spicy floral tones, as notes of white pepper, crushed stone, animal musk, dried orange, and bright strawberry developed in the glass. On the palate, I found enveloping textures like pure silk, which were quickly offset by layers of wild red berry, saturating minerals, savory smokiness, masses of inner red florals and a tart twang of acidity. The finish was long, grippy, mineral-laden and promising, as tart wild berry lingered among exotic spices. A note of hard red candies could still be recognized on the palate over a full minute later. There’s a wild and exotic persona here, deserving of a good deal of time to truly absorb what is going on in the glass. (95 points)

2016 Daniel Gómez Jiménez Landi Vino de la Tierra de Castilla El Reventón RV - The nose was slightly restrained yet very, very pretty, showing fresh, ripe strawberries off the vine, moist earth, dusty sweet spices, a mix of exotic florals, stone dust, and hints of white pepper. On the palate, I found silky-soft textures, with an almost creamy feel, delivering a sweet yet peppery display of ripe yet also savory cherry, raspberry sauce, confectionary spices, minerals and wonderfully balancing acidity. The finish was long yet subtle, with pretty red fruits, red licorice, spice, and masses of tactile inner florals, as I felt a warming yet pleasing sensation of heat going down. What a crazy wine, and it’s so easy to like already. (96 points)

2016 Daniel Gómez Jiménez Landi Vino de la Tierra de Castilla El Reventón RVL - The nose was darker, moodier as well, then the RV, displaying peppery-spiced, black cherry, strawberry, dusty dried florals, and savory herbs. On the palate, I found a finessed expression with silky textures lifted by cool-toned acids, as the RVL coasted effortlessly across the senses with pretty strawberry and cherry tones, followed by filigree sweet spices, saturating minerals and inner florals. It was feminine and caressing, as the finish evolved more toward mounting structure than fruit, with a twang of zesty spices, lingering acids and minerals. The RVL really comes to life about an hour or two after opening, and it hints at serious cellar potential. (94 points)

Comando G

The word is out on Comando G, and all we can do now is hope to grab an allocation.  I’ve had the pleasure of tasting these with the distributor over the last few years, yet there is something about the last two vintages that have totally made me a believer.  The 2015s and 2016s show a whole new level that Garnacha can reach on the high altitude vineyards of Sierra de Gredos.  The inspiration behind these wines comes from Daniel Landi and Fernando Garcia, who are entirely responsible for putting the region on the map.  Having tasted the wines of Landi alone, I would say that Comando G adds a dark, animal nature to the exotic florals and spice. They are inspiring to say the least.

2015 Comando G Las Umbrias Las Rozas de Puerto Real - What an incredible bouquet on the 2015 Las Umbrias. I would think I was visiting a mix of a florist shop and confectionary boutique before thinking that I was nosing a wine. A gorgeous mix of florals, both fresh and dried, were joined together with exotic spices (clove, cinnamon, ginger... on and on), a sweet dusting of powdered sugar, crushed strawberry, green olive and saline minerality. On the palate, I found a wonderfully fresh, silky expression, as it glided effortlessly across the senses, showing notes of ripe strawberry, with floral and mineral hints, as fine tannin and brisk acid tugged slightly and pretty inner florals developed. The finish was long, showing the first hint of promising structure, along with dried cherries, clove and sweet lingering florals. Wow. (96 points)

Familia Nin-Ortiz 

I’ve sung the praises of Ester Nin in the past, and so I won’t go too deep here.  However, what Nin Ortiz has accomplished in Priorat is nothing short of remarkable.  Today they spend much of their time teaching biodynamics and vineyard management to producers throughout the region. They have, without a doubt, reinvented the region of Priorat.  If you thought it was all about power, oak influence and overripe wines, then it’s time to check out Nin Ortiz.  They will bring you back to Priorat. 

2016 Familia Nin-Ortiz Priorat Planetes de Nin - Amfora - Sitting with the 2016 Amfora really put this wine into perspective. The bouquet was a dark and savory mix of crushed stone and smoke, with brown spices, blackberry, raspberry, hints of animal musk, savory herbs and floral undergrowth. On the palate, I found soft textures with medium-weight, offset by zesty acidity and spice, displaying dried cherry, herbs, saturating minerality and slow mounting tannins. The finish was medium-long and incredibly fresh, resonating on tart red fruits and spice, with lingering acids that made the mouth water. (93 points)

2015 Familia Nin-Ortiz Garnacha Priorat Nit de Nin Coma D'en Romeu - So maybe I don't get it, but this comes off to me as a very, very good, yet not the 98-point experience that The Wine Advocate has attached to it. The nose was dark and intense yet fresh, showing a mix of crushed blackberry, black cherry and plum, with crushed stone, hints of provencal herbs, smoke and exotic spice. On the palate, I found silky textures, showing violet-floral infused black fruits, saturated with saline-minerals and spice with zesty acids adding a mouthwatering contrast. The finish was long, as youthful tannin tugged at the senses and crunchy, mineral-encased black fruits slowly tapered off. (94 points)

Descendientes de José Palacios

Now we’re walking off the beaten path. Descendientes is probably the most exciting project in Spain today (maybe tying Comando G).  It all started with Alvaro Palacios, a name you should know if you’ve ever delved into the top wines of Priorat. The fact is that Alvaro was in no small part responsible for the region’s rise to fame. He spent years in the region, seeking out the perfect vineyard locations to create his dream wine, before ultimately setting to work. The result was the creation of L'Ermita and Finca Dofi--to this day, two of the most iconic wines of the region.

However, during the time that he spent surveying vineyards and seeking that perfect location, there was another region that he fell in love with, even though Priorat won out in the end, and that was Bierzo. It was the combination of steep hillside vineyards, complex schist-dominated soils, and ancient Mencia vines that intrigued him, but the opportunity had been missed until his nephew, Ricardo Perez, took interest. Ricardo had been cutting his teeth in Bordeaux, at the likes of Chateau Margaux, when his uncle’s desire to explore Bierzo piqued his interests. Together, they formed Descendientes de J. Palacios and began to buy up the best parcels they could find around the town of Corullon.

Today, Descendientes de J. Palacios creates a mix of single-vineyard expressions that garner stratospheric scores from the press, but also demand Stratospheric prices. Yet, this isn’t where the savvy collector should focus. In my opinion, it’s the Villa de Corullon that communicates the terroir of the region mixed with the house style. It’s essentially a village-level wine, sourced from old Mencia and Palomino vines from around the town of Corullon, and vinified in a similar fashion to the single-vineyard expressions that win critics’ hearts.  Also of serious note is the Petalos, their “entry” level wine that punches well above its price point.

2016 Descendientes de José Palacios Bierzo Pétalos - The nose showed a mix of dusty cherry and strawberry fruits, with savory smokiness and admirable richness, as notes of sage and floral undergrowth developed.  On the palate, I found soft yet vibrant textures giving way to zesty acids,  with spicy red and black berries, violot-tinged inner florals and saturating minerality.  The finish was long, spicy, and staining to the senses, with notes of mineral-soaked raspberry and hints of fine tannin. To think that this is their entry-level wine is amazing. (92 points)

2016 Descendientes de José Palacios Bierzo Villa de Corullon - The nose was spicy and pretty, opening more with time in the glass, displaying mineral-infused raspberry, strawberry, crushed violets, lavender, a dusting of clove, moist dark soil tones, and hints of animal musk. On the palate, I found creamy, silky textures which seemed to glide effortlessly across the senses, leaving pure red and hints of blueberry fruit, saline-minerals, a mix of inner rose and lingering violet florals. The finish was medium in length with a twang of zesty acidity, tart red fruits, and a coating of savory minerals. This was such an enjoyable experience, with its lively persona mixed with depths of aromatic complexity, purity and persistence. (93 points)

Dominio del Águila

This is another project that I’ve been getting excited about for a while.  The funny part is that I would hear their names spoken by some of my most trusted contemporaries, always in hushed tones.  The comments would also be similar: “Have you heard about Dominio del Aguila?”, “Do you think they are really the next big thing from the Ribera del Duero?”  I believe that we are firmly at the point where the latter can be answered with a resolute “YES”.        

My detailed piece on this exciting projected can be found at “Exposing Terroirs of Ribera del Duero,” but I will go into some small detail here to get your juices going.

Jorge Monzon of Domino del Aguila has been exposing the unique terroir and native varieties of Ribera del Duero for the last decade, while working for some of the most prestigious properties in the area. Let’s keep in mind that Tempranillo is as closely tied to the Ribera as any variety can be to a historical region. In fact, a wine can not be included in the Ribera del Duero designation without being at least 75% Tempranillo. The problem is that much of the recent plantings are using high-production clones, plus adding more Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot in the place of old-vine, less productive, Tempranillo.

These are vineyards from another time, when different varieties were interplanted to create field blends. When these vines were first planted, the wines they created may have been simple, easy-drinking, farmers’ wines. However, today these ancient vines are 80-150 years old!!! What’s more, they are planted in locations that may not be ideal for modern-day farming, but perfect for the artisan who works by hand.

Jorge identified these locations and slowly acquired them over the course of ten years while working for Arzuaga-Navarro. Throughout that time, he nursed the vines and soils back to health using organic principles, while selling his production to the who’s who of the region. Jorge was basically biding his time to be able to launch Dominio del Aguila in 2010, when he was confident in the fruit he was producing and how to properly vinify them into the style of wine he envisioned.

Today, eight years later, these are officially the most exciting wines being made in Ribera del Duero.

2014 Dominio del Águila Clarete Pícaro del Águila - The nose was remarkably pretty, showing fresh crushed strawberries, with hints of dusty earth, sweet herbs and minerals. On the palate, I found soft textures with pure red fruits, a stunning mix of acid and minerals with hints of citrus. The finish was spicy and medium-long finish with lasting minerality. (91 points)

2010 Dominio del Águila Ribera del Duero Reserva - Here, I found a seductive bouquet, mixing sweet, savory and floral, with a burst of roses and violets giving way to a combination of earthy minerals and animal musks, with crushed strawberry, sweet spice, white pepper and a hint of vanilla. On the palate, silky textures gave way to depths of dark red and blue fruits, plums, sweet herbs, and tobacco, along with zesty minerals and acids to balance, as fine tannin slowly creeped in. The finish was long, lifted and structured, showing citrus-tinged red berries, with exotic spiciness, sweet florals and lingering fine tannin. Where is this wine going? I’m not sure, but I’m very excited to find out. (94 points)

2014 Dominio del Águila Viñas Viejas Blanco - The nose was incredibly spicy, with a burst of hot green peppers and curry leaf up front, giving way to wild herbs, crushed stone, lemon rind, and hints of fresh green apples. On the palate, I found silky, deep textures with minerality up front, as young pit fruits and wet stone came forward, complemented by brisk acidity adding verve and lift from the mid-palate through the finale. The finish was long with saturating minerals, wet stone, wild flowers and spice. Wow. (95 points)

2014 Dominio del Águila Ribera del Duero Gran Reserva Penas Aladas - The nose was dark and intense, showing animal musk, crushed stone, and dark soil tones backed by notes of herbal-infused blackberry, blueberry, wild flowers, and hints of tangerine. On the palate, I found silky, creamy textures with zesty spiced red fruits, lavender, inner herbal tones, saline-minerality and inner soil tones. It was as if the nose transposed perfectly to the palate. The finish was long, showing saturating black cherry and lasting minerality with a coating of fine tannin. I was amazed by how intense and layered, yet fresh the ‘13 Gran Reserva was. (96 points)

Suertes del Marques

Now it’s time to go completely off the beaten path, to a selection of wines that are truly meant for the explorer, the taster looking for an almost intellectual experience, and a portfolio of wines that are so unique that it may set the average wine drinker aback.

The subtropical climate in the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the coast of northwestern Africa, is something you don’t often find in a wine-producing region.  However, that’s exactly why these wines are so unique.  They are produced using a mix of lesser-known varieties, from vines that grow along sheer cliffs, with vines that are like tentacles, snaking 30 to 40 feet in each direction.  No average winemaker would tell you that this mix should work for creating a create wine, yet it does, and the results are quite special.

The two wines listed below are both what I would call, “experience wines”.  The Los Pasitos hosts a total of only 12.5% alcohol, yet it shows a depth and elegance that I would never expect, coupled with a wild bouquet that seems like something you would expect to find in a well-curated garden before a glass.  It’s produced from 100% ungrafted Baboso Negro; ungrafted, because Phylloxera never made it to the Canary Islands.  Meanwhile, the El Ciruelo, comes from old-vine (90 years old) Listán Negro.  Topping out at a whopping 13% alcohol, it is showing a structure that may well make my current score look low over time.  Keep in mind that I don’t have a baseline for wines as unique as these.  They both come from volcanic soils, farmed and produced through a hands off approach, with minimal racking and sulfur.  Like I said, these are “experience wines.”

Suertes del Marqués “Los Pasitos" 2016 - The Los Pasitos had a gorgeous perfume that wafted up from the glass with an array of spicy florals, roses and wild herbs, backed by pepper, crushed stone, sheer black rock, moist soil and hints of crushed wild berries.  On the palate, I found soft textures with energizing acidity that carried it effortlessly across the senses, leaving tart wild berry fruits, offsetting peppery spices and inner floral tones. The finish was medium-long on fruit, but lasted for minutes with spices, wild herbs, pepper and minerals. (94 points)

Suertes del Marqués “El Ciruelo” 2016 - El Ciruelo seemed to pull me into the glass, at first coy and withdrawn, but the closer I came to it, the more it blossomed, showing dusty minerals, smoke and crushed stone up front, giving way to dried flowers, bright strawberry and hints of violets.  On the palate, I found finesse, lifted textures with pure red berry fruits, wrapped in savory minerals, with spicy inner florals, hints of pepper and a slight tug of tannin.  It was so pure and almost juicy, yet with a tart twang that made it tactile and memorable, as the El Ciruelo finished clean, peppery and with a lasting tug of young tannin.  (92 points)