Tag Archives: Spain

Judging Bacchus

Bacchus is Spain’s most important wine competition and this year Lenka and I were invited to be part of their judging team. More than 50 judges gathered at the grand Casino de Madrid in March for the competition – a mix of Spanish winemakers and sommeliers as well as a large number of international judges, including 18 MWs. And over the 4 days of the competition we sipped, spat and scored over 1700 wines between us from 21 different countries.

Judges at Bacchus

The Bacchus judges. How many MWs can you spot?!

I have judged at a number of different wine competitions now (see my previous post on judging at the IWC) and have to admit that the OIV system used at Bacchus is not exactly my favourite. Unlike other competitions where wines will be presented in flights by region and variety, with OIV the only information you are given on each wine is the vintage and residual sugar. Wines are also presented individually rather than in a flight– so you don’t have the opportunity to benchmark against other wines.

Bacchus scorecard

The OIV scoring sheet at Bacchus

Theoretically this is supposed to mean that each wine is judged solely on its quality which is certainly an admirable thing to aim for, but the reality is that wine is a product of its place and variety and it can’t be separated from them. It is how we all buy wine, and what gives us an idea of what to expect when we open a bottle. You’d be pretty surprised to open a bottle of, say, Pinot Noir and find it tasted more like a Shiraz. And so when judging wine, knowing the origin and variety gives you vital clues as to what you would expect – for how can you judge typicity (which is one of the factors in the OIV system) when you don’t know what it is meant to be?

Judging Bacchus at the Casino de Madrid

The grandest of judging locations

Gripes about the judging system aside, it was a real pleasure to judge Bacchus. Unsurprisingly the vast majority of wines were Spanish, but looking at my crib sheets I was surprised to discover we also tasted wines from as far as Mexico and Peru, as well as France, Portugal, Italy and Slovenia amongst others. By the end of the competition we awarded 529 wines with a medal – 332 Silver, 179 Gold and a mere 18 received the top gong of Great Gold Bacchus. You can see the full results here.

Whilst judging can be a lot of fun, it is also hard work so all of the judges really appreciated the extra activities and dinners that were organised around the judging. These not only gave us the chance to taste more wines in a relaxed environment, they also allowed us to get to know our fellow judges – and explore the beautiful city of Madrid. The three masterclasses that were organised were particularly interesting – with the Palo Cortado masterclass by Gonzalez Byass’ master blender Antonio Flores being a real highlight. Watch out for Lenka’s blogpost reporting on that soon.


Discovering the wines of La Rioja Alta

La Rioja Alta is one of the best known wineries in Rioja and this year it is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Founded by five families, it is still family owned and managed and now owns 450 hectares of vineyard in Rioja Alta – considered the best sub region of Rioja.

The wine of La Rioja Alta

The wines of La Rioja Alta

They are considered to be one of the few remaining wineries producing ‘traditional-style’ Rioja – meaning the wines are aged for long periods of time in American oak barrels. Interestingly, to make the barrels, they import their own wooden staves from various states in the US and then craft barrels to their specifications in their own cooperage – not something you come across very often.

Last week I was invited along to a dinner, hosted by Adam Wander and Kiran Curtis of WanderCurtis wines, to taste a range of wines from La Rioja Alta – all presented by the export manager, Francisco Corpas.

But before the Rioja started flowing and to get us in the mood before dinner, we were treated to a duet of Champagne, brought along by the importer Tim Hall from Scala Wine. Both were from small growers and they made a fascinating comparison.

Vazart Coquart

First up was Vazart Coquart & Fils Extra Brut – a Blanc de Blancs NV from the Grand Cru of Chouilly on the Cotes des Blanc. The high proportion of reserve wines, coupled with low dosage of 3g/l, made this a really vinous style of Champagne. Rich yet delicate with a lovely creamy texture and soft mousse. Really quite impressive. The second Champagne, Lacourte-Godbillon Premier Cru NV was a Pinot-dominant blend with more standard 9g/l dosage and showed bags of red apple and red fruit character. A more classic aperitif style, but I have to admit to preferring the creamier Vazart Coquart.

Then onto dinner. With our first course of tuna carpaccio we were served not Rioja, but a Albariño from Rias Baixas. La Rioja Alta first bought vineyards in Galicia in the 1980s and they are now the largest single vineyard farmer in the region. We tasted their Lagar de Cervera 2013 – a fresh and zesty style with lots of green melon and red apple fruit. The wine usually undergoes malolactic fermentation to reduce the total acidity – but 2013 was such a great vintage that they didn’t need to.

And then finally we were onto the Riojas, what we had all been waiting for, accompanying a delicious dish of Welsh lamb loin, slow cooked lamb croquettes and cavolo nero. We tasted through the range of different labels and it was really interesting to see the contrasting styles produced.

First up was Vina Alberdi Reserva 2008. 100% Tempranillo with 2 years ageing in American oak – the first year being in 100% new oak. This wine split opinion around the table. Some people really enjoyed the soft, oaky style with lots of sweet coconut and toasted vanilla notes. Personally I found the soft oak slightly out of sync with the spiky red fruit character. A simple enough wine and certainly inoffensive – but when compared to its bigger brothers it didn’t quite stand up.

Vina Arana Reserva 2006 was up next. This has 5% Mazuelo (Mourvèdre) and 95% Tempranillo and has had 3 years ageing in 3 year old American oak, plus a further 2 years in bottle before release. For me, this was much more classically Rioja than the Alberdi. Mid bodied and refreshing to drink with more savoury tobacco notes along with the red fruit character and lovely, silky tannins.

The Vina Ardanza Reserva 2005 proved an interesting comparison. 80% Tempranillo and 20% Garnacha with similar ageing time, this showed more juicy red fruit as you might expect from the Garnacha with a real spicy edge too. Again, mid bodied with notes of sweet oak adding complexity. A lot of people preferred this slightly more opulent style, but the savoury notes and delicacy on the Arana made that the pick for me.

Finally, we moved onto the two stars of the portfolio: the La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 2004 and La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 890 2001.

The 904 is 90% Tempranillo with 10% of the lesser known Rioja grape, Graciano and is aged for 4 years in 3 year old American oak and a further 4 in bottle. In contrast, the 890 is 94% Tempranillo, 3% Graciano and 3% Mazuelo and is aged for 6 years in 4 year old American oak plus 6 in bottle. According to Francisco, the 2001 is the best vintage they have ever produced of 890, and so they have given it the extra epithet of Seleccion Especial.

Whilst Francisco professed that La Rioja Alta only release wines when they are ready to drink, in reality these two wines are still babies – and whilst you can drink them now, you’d do better to hang into them for a while as they will age superbly.

The 904 was very expressive with bags of dark fruit and a lifted, floral note from the Graciano. Lots of spicy oak giving complexity, but needs time for this to integrate more fully into the wine. A classy wine.

In contrast, the 890 showed a touch more evolution but also needs time for the oak to settle in. It deftly accomplishes that oxymoronic feat of showing both incredible concentration and intensity of flavour, but also great balance and elegance. Fascinating to taste now, but I would love to try this again in another 20 years – when it will probably barely be reaching middle age: this wine has a very long life ahead.

All in all this was a great insight into the wines of La Rioja Alta. It really highlighted the styles of the different labels and also underlined just how surprisingly refreshing Rioja is to drink. And whilst lamb is the classic match for Rioja, as Francisco said, “we drink Rioja with anything”.

Now, it’s probably time for me to get my hands on some bottles of that 890 to lay down for a couple of decades.


Chestnut flowers

Walking through Greenwich park on Saturday afternoon, I happen upon a familiar scent. No, it is not sweaty teenagers playing football in the heat or the smell of fresh dog on the pavement. It is a smell that, in the past, I found hard to describe, but now recognize instantaneously: slightly sulphurous, touch swimming-pooly (in a good way), dusty cement and lime-like (as my hubby describes it) – quite like Bordeaux-mixture, you could say. This fathom smell, which is much more pleasant than it sounds, is the smell of chestnut blossoms. And just like that, I feel myself being transported to Ribeira Sacra in Spain. You see, there are a gazillion chestnut trees growing in Ribeira Sacra, and when I visited this stunning Galician wine region a few weeks ago, they were very much in bloom. Now, said few weeks ago, upon arriving in Spain and as yet unawares of what it was I was smelling I remarked on how disagreeable it was how much sulphur was being sprayed in the vineyards by the growers. Even staying by a river in a canyon (Canon do Sil) we could not get away from this sulphur-like smell! I am forever grateful to Rafael Palacios, who when driving us through his vineyards in Valdeorras, pointed out that his top wine, As Sortes Godello, sometimes has the scent of chestnut flowers. This received quizzical looks from both myself and the hubby, as we’d never smelled chestnut flowers before. Not for a lack of chestnut trees in our local park! The car was promptly stopped and Rafael climbed out to pluck a couple of said flowers from a nearby tree. What a revelation! And just like that, I added another aroma to my list of tasting descriptors.


Whilst some people might find talking about scents in wine a chore, I find it quite interesting. Whilst where the MW exam is concerned I generally avoid off the wall descriptors, I do occasionally enjoy letting the nose roam free. I’m always smelling things, looking to identify more scents for the smell library. Whether I’m on holiday or at home, no flower remains unsmelled. The way I taste wine, I spend much more time going by the nose than the palate. I do this in the exam as much as when I drink for pleasure. There are certain smells that immediately make me want to drink a wine: lavender, violet and wild blueberry are particular favourites in reds. Often found in cool vintage Northern Rhones, some red Burgundies (certain 2009 Vosne-Romanees), a few Italians and in top Priorat, these are ultimately my favourite wines to drink as a result. I am less fond of smoke, unless it’s woodsmoke or the type that comes from roasting chestnuts (that reminds me of cozy winters). Cutting my finger and tasting the blood sometimes makes me think of Nerello Mascalese from Etna. Whites are even more delightful…..mostly as I often find them more aromatically complex than reds, with red Burgundy perhaps the one exception. Whites with a heady perfume of meadow flowers are just heavenly. I can’t eat a white peach and not think about drinking Albarino in the park on a hot summer’s day. Putting Vaseline on my lips sometimes makes me think of Semillon.

I’m stating the obvious here but one of the joys of wine is that it does not just smell and taste of grapes. Show me another beverage, alcoholic or not, that can remind you of a time, a place, a flower, a tree, a fruit or a vegetable, an animal or even a person. And if you often have wine on your brain, like me, sometimes this also works in reverse….places, people, animals, trees and food remind you of certain wines. It doesn’t help get the wine out of the brain, granted, but it’s a jolly nice feeling. Sometimes, being reminded of a wine through scents reminds you of time, a place and a person you drank that wine with.  The smell of chestnut flowers will now always make me think of Galicia, Godello and driving through a violent thunderstorm between wineries in Valdeorras and Ribeira Sacra. So let’s keep on smelling and let scent and wine help us create memories.

Lenka (Evil Monkey)

The magic of old vines – one for the geeks

I was lucky enough to attend an Old Vine Seminar put on by the Institute of Masters of Wine last week. It was interesting on many levels, the speakers were engaging and the 13 wines spoke volumes about the sort of complexity and intensity that one can expect from old vines. The moderator, Nancy Gilchrist MW, set criteria for inclusion as being wines made from vines 80 years of age or older.  The speakers were from South Africa, Spain, California and Australia and so (with the exception of a Greek Assyrtiko) were the wines.

So, what is it about old vines that makes them produce such high quality wine? According to Rosa Kruger, viticulturist from South Africa, it is their structure rather than their root system (the thick stems and wood provide apt reserves to keep them going) and the fact that the vines produce only the amount of grapes the climate allows them to. Old vines are generally better at preserving acidity and don’t rely on irrigation much, therefore are able to thrive in dry climates such as we can see in the Barossa in Australia. Their leaves don’t wilt as easily, which is better for photosynthesis and the vines stay fresher and greener and also build more disease resistance. Although how disease resistant a vine is depends very much on the variety, also. Australian winemaker Dean Hewitson has a great example of this – his 160 year old Mourvedre is thriving in his Old Garden vineyard whilst neighbouring Shiraz vines of a similar age suffer from eutypa dieback and botrytis.

There is no doubt that old vines are capable of producing serious, dense, mineral wines but, to be honest, the budding MW in me was looking for a counterargument. It never came. The seminar was an ode to old vines. And whilst this is completely on my wavelength and I definitely worship at the altar of old vines, I can’t help but mention some examples of where ‘quality equals old vines’ does not compute. There aren’t many, but some high profile producers have differing opinions. Vega Sicilia, Spain’s most famous winery, famously rip out and replant vines once they’ve reached 60 years. This is because these older vines become more susceptible to disease and produce bad fruit. Equally, the average age of vines that comprise Chateau Lafite is 45 years. Considered a baby by Barossa standards. Much like Vega, Lafite replant vines once they’ve reached 80 years, for similar reasons.  Some of the greatest and most famous wines ever produced were made from young vines. Take the example of the famous 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet which won the Judgement of Paris tasting 1976 and put Californian wine on the map. It was made from 3 year old vines. And, from what I am told, it is still going strong.  I haven’t tried it though we do have the ‘74 in our cellar, which I look forward to trying soon!

Here are some interesting notes and observations I made, some you may know and some you may not:

          The oldest vineyard in the world is in Maribor, Slovenia and the vines are 400 years old

          The oldest vine still living in South Africa was planted in 1781 and produces 20 litres of wine

          Old vines don’t necessarily mean low yields – there are 80 year old Sultana vines in South Africa that yield 40 000 tonnes/hectare

          Old vines don’t respond well to shoot thinning and green harvest so this is often not necessary

          Spain, which has the highest amount of old vine Garnacha in the world, has gone from

189 000 ha in 2000 to 69 000 ha now, thanks to the EU vineyard grub up schemes.

In 1912 there were 44 varieties grown in Rioja, now there are only 7.

The wines shown at the seminar were:

1.       Assyrtiko de Mylos, Domaine Hatzidakis, Santorini 2011 (here the vines are woven into a basket to protect them from the fierce winds). I prefer the 2012 vintage of this wine, sampled recently at Vinoteca with my fellow monkeys, but I do love its saline, nutty, volcanic goodness and chalky texture.

2.       Soldaat Grenache, Eben Sadie, South Africa 2012 (100% whole bunch, completely unoaked and made without additions aside from a small amount of SO2). Very elegant and restrained wine with lovely red fruit expression.

3.       T’Voetpad Field Blend white, Eben Sadie, South Africa 2012 (Semillon, Semillon Gris, Palomino and Chenin, 108 year vineyard). This blew my mind with its aromatic, mineral and chalkboard nose and beautiful juicy mouthfeel with a touch of maltiness and a cantaloupe melon and waxy finish.

4.       Boekenhoutskloof, Marc Kent Semillon, South Africa 2004 This was quite evolved already with butterscotch and nuts, though still had the waxy lemon and lanolin texture. Probably my least favourite wine though.

5.       El Puno Garnacha, Calatayud, Spain 2009 Made by the flying Scotsman and one of the speakers, Norrel Robertson MW, I liked its sweet spice and strawberry scented fruit, fresh acidity and granular tannins and the anise finish.

6.       Pena El Gato Garnacha, Rioja Alta, Spain 2011 (14 m in large oak) This was cedary and savoury in the mount with a bitter chocolate tone and some fennel on the finish. Food wine for sure.

7.       Flor de Silos, Cillar de Silos, Ribera del Duero, Spain 2005 I am biased as I did vintage here in 2011 but this is made by lovely people and it’s ridiculously complex and young still. There is very little evolution here showing this has miles ahead of it with its finely grained tannins and fresh ,plummy fruit.

8.       Numanthia, Toro, Spain 2009 (recently bought by LVMH) This wasn’t my bag, big with with a dried fruit character, liquorice and a lot of oak evident. Concentrated though very ripe with a fig and date character and high alcohol.

9.       Old Hill Zinfandel, Ravenswood, California 2008 Pleasure in a bottle. Not ashamed of itself and we all loved it for it. Quintessentially American flavours with cherry cola notes , sweet liquorice but this beautiful raspberry chocolate note that carried through to the finish and gave it freshness.

      To Kalon I Block Napa Fume Blanc, Robert Mondavi, California 2010 For someone, who doesn’t like Sauvignon Blanc unless it’s oaked, this was a delight with its lemon butter and passion fruit cream flavours  with a little vanilla and subtle grassy overtones.

11.   Elderton Command Shiraz, Barossa, Australia 2009 Made by the lovely people from the Ashmead family from vines planted in 1894. This has vibrant acidity and a spicy, peppery profile with blackberry juice flavours and the sweetness of American oak.

12.   Hewitson Old Garden Mourvedre, Barossa, Australia 2010 Best vintage of Old Garden I have tasted to date and it’s the vintage we have this to thank for. This is normally very  intense and black-fruited but the 2010 has beautiful, seductive perfume and a red fruit profile with a touch of Chinese five spice.  Gotta put some away!

 Lenka (Evil Monkey)

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

February and March are mercilessly the busiest months in the UK wine trade’s diary. I say mercilessly as whenever you think you can take a deep breath and let it out slowly, you gasp and choke instead. Because hey, there’s ANOTHER tasting to organise or go to. Some tastings are more fun than others. The ones that involve Spaniards are, in my book, the best. With them come associated food, laughter and that elevated state of mind called ‘being pissed’.

I’ve been fortunate enough to exchange laughs and several glasses of posh booze with Spain’s two arguably top estates. Last week saw the arrival of Los Dos Palacios, namely Alvaro and his nephew Ricardo, who have properties in three regions of Spain: Rioja, Priorat and Bierzo. They were in London to show us their 2012s and boy, were they good. Ricardo is the hippie, biodynamic winemaker in Bierzo. I am a little in love with Bierzo, it’s one of those regions that, when you go there, makes you go ‘OMG!’ if you’re American, ‘Strewth!’ if you’re Aussie or ‘Oh my!’ if you’re English. I am none of those so I had a ‘Wowza!’ moment instead. I’ve been to Bierzo a few times, I’ve worked vintage there (I nearly said I made wine there but one should not be so presumptuous, I am not a winemaker after all!) and made vegetable juice. People often say that a wine should reflect the place where it comes from. The Mencias from Palacios really do. Bierzo is wild, untamed, real, earthy and smells wonderful – of wild herbs: thyme and lavender. And so do the wines.  They are ethereal, perfumed and earthy. Kinda amazeballs, really. You need to get some. Seriously. Right now. I’ve put myself down for a case of 2012 Las Lamas (tiny 1.7 ha vineyard on a ridiculously steep slope). I’ll have to wait a year or so to get my hands on it so I shall have to exercise patience, something I have never had much of.
Now, the second outstanding producer I have been hanging out with this week is Vega Sicilia from Ribera del Duero. THE most famous winery in Spain. And deservedly so for their wines are also amazeballs. If I were really mean I’d tell you a lot about the 26 vintage vertical tasting of their top wine, Unico, I organised last summer but that would be really, really mean. Even for me. Sadly we did not taste (drink) 26 vintages of Unico but rather we launched the 2003 vintage as well as 2008 Valbuena, 2009 Alion and 2009 Pintia (Toro). Now, you really wouldn’t be using such words as ‘elegant’ or ‘fresh’ with regards to wines from the hot 2003 vintage. So I was quite surprised my notes said exactly that. I was reminded by Javier, the winemaker that Spain is kind of a warm country anyway so in a vintage like 2003 the temperatures went up by 1-2 degrees, not much more. The wine had vibrant acidity! Yay! I love acid. Of the vinous kind, anyway. I was also mightily impressed by the new release of Pintia from Toro. This is by far the most elegant, perfumed, supple Pintia with rather fine grained tannins. Yawn, wine-speak. I know, I know. I should mention the excellently fat lunch that followed this particular tasting where we couldn’t find a decanter big enough to pour a jeroboam of 1990 Unico into but that would also be slightly mean.
I’m getting boring now, I know. So I shall stop, I don’t want to turn into Sauvignon Blanc! Those who know me will understand this reference. As for the rest of you, well ‘Savvy’ deserves a post of its own so watch this space!
Lenka (The Evil Monkey)