by Luís Barreto Xavier, Guest Editor

For twenty seven years, a group of friends from college times (Colégio Pio XII, in Lisbon), gathers by the river Douro, during winter season, to celebrate friendship, discuss future plans, and, of course, taste and drink Douro and Port wines. This “Confraria” has had the privilege to learn from some of the new Douro visionaries (Dirk Niepoort being the most prominent) and visit unforgettable Quintas (Vale Mão, Vallado, Noval, Nápoles, Portal, to name but a few).

This January, we were received by Jorge Serôdio Borges and Sandra Tavares da Silva, part of the small group of winemakers who, in the last two decades, have managed to create reds (and later also whites) able to compete with the best in both the old and new world. Their generation inherited tradition, since the Douro valley is home of Port for centuries, with dozens of autochthonous grapes and exceptionally varied terroirs, and made a revolution out of it. There was not red wines at Douro in most of the twentieth century, if you forget about farmers’ and cooperatives’ very poor “garrafão” wines, or Barca Velha, the Portuguese Vega Sicilia, then made at the Quinta do Vale Meão. From tradition, Sandra and Jorge took very old vines with numerous local grapes. But they decided to make table wines instead of fortified ones. Their first essay was Pintas 2001, a concentrated, full-bodied, alcoholic, dark and fruity wine, like a punch in the stomach of Douro traditionalists. It received instant fame and recognition. Through the years, Pintas has been ranked consistently among Portugal’s best wines.

After visiting the cellars at Vale de Mendiz and the Pintas very old vine, we were taken to the paradisiacal Quinta da Manoella, inherited by Jorge Tavares and now producing also amazing wines. The highlights of the visit were the friendly and welcoming reception by our hosts, the beautiful sunshine of a winter Saturday in the stunning mountain landscape, and, certainly not the least, the recent 2014 vintages of Pintas and Quinta da Manoella Vinhas Velhas we had for lunch.

While still very young, these wines show lots of character, complexity and balance. Our informal tasting panel found Quinta da Manoella VV 2014 to be dense, rich, complex (it is made of around 20 different grapes from old vines), subtle and elegant. Pintas 2014 is superlative, sophisticated, noble and delicious. It is no wonder that the Q.M. was awarded the Prémio de Excelência by Revista de Vinhos. Pintas 2014 was the winner of the blind tasting of 195 select Portuguese wines by the Swedish blogger and sommelier Andreas Larsson (blindtasted.com). Entirely deserved was the prize awarded a month ago to Jorge Serôdio Borges at the annual gala of Revista de Vinhos: Winemaker of the Year.

It makes me happy to see the success of nice and decent people, with the vision of creating excellent wines that express the potential of a region and its grapes and terroir, without any concession to shortcut strategies, rather developing a culture of sharing with fellow winemakers and new friends the secrets of renovating the tradition.

After some months of bleak winter I am happy to report that Spring is almost here and that I have found some fantastic wines to write about.

Miguel Maduro visited us and we went to La Bomba, one of the best restaurant in Madrid these days. Unpretentious, perfect cooking, with a great story behind it: the French investment banker who decides to quit, become a chef and open his own bistrot. To honor Portuguese-Spanish friendship, we drank El Castro de Valtuille Mencía Joven 2012, a happy red wine, 100% Mencia grape, that sells for 9 euros, hard to top that.

Life without friends is like life in a desert island, said the Spanish writer Baltasar Gracián. To make sure we did not feel like Robison Crusoe, we have organized some gatherings at home lately. In one of them we were introduced to the new Peter Maurer Pinot Noir 2014, a very Southern wine, from Cadiz. So far it is very a small production, an experiment. But it is so well made -smooth, fruity-, that we hope it becomes soon an important name in the blessed Jerez region.

Another friend brought to our soirées dansantes two wines he likes, Xristo Cru, Douro 2013 and Albamar 2015, Albariño.

Well, Xristo Cru turned out to be the ultimate red wine to drink, a creature of Luis Seabra. This Portuguese wiseman quited his job at a revered Porto winery to do his thing, very close to terroir, with minimal intervention. He works in very old vineyards in the Cima Corgo area, circa 80 years. This red with only 12.5 % alcohol content is so outstanding that transports you to wine paradise, a subtle, elegant and long-lasting experience. I have looked around for it afterwards in Madrid shops and sells for 35 euros, in this case a well justified price.

Albamar 2015 is a new-new Albariño, made by the Alba family -not the ones you are thinking. These Albas are based near the Atlantic, at the mouth of river Umia. They own a small vineyard, where the son Luis Alba, known as Xurxo, is starting a revolution. He moved to wine making after losing his job. His secret is the passionate way he looks after the grapes, the vineyards -20 to 30 years old- and the soil,in ways never experimented by his parents, who started the project. Xurso is always as friendly as possible to Nature, almost in a moving way. His wine is pure Atlantic, with the right acidity and fruit tempered by the seaside. Albamar sells for around 10 euros.

I hope you can try some these wines while you welcome Spring. Come, walk beside me.

Last November we went to Porto for a family weekend, a special trip we had planned for a long time. It was fun to share a room the four of us, visit the city, walk along the Douro and practice a bit of Portuguese. Santi actually chose to read in this language the new Harry Potter book he bought at the wondrous Lello libray. Blanca made everyone smile, mixing words in Galician and Portuguese and spreading around her sunshine.

On Saturday, we had dinner at a small place near the water. The owner chatted a bit with us and I asked him to recommend  a red from the region that he particularly liked. This is how we discovered Quinta do Pessegueiro Aluze 2010, a fantastic wine at an amazing price, 12 euros, created by Roger Zannier Domaines. This Pessegueiro (“Peaches”) was more fruity and fresh than other Douros we tried that weekend. Back in Madrid I ordered a case for a dinner party with some of our best friends. After trying it we all agreed to plan a trip to Porto soon.

 

October and November have been hectic months, too much travel and work have taken me away from the serene and lazy space of this blog. But thanks to some friends’ presents, I have been able to try three new wines that are now my favorites to celebrate Christmas and New Year.

Juan Gil 18 months 2013 is a Jumilla creature that reconciles you with life, sweet and joyful, lie the Mediterranean sea. It is made with Monastrell, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz grapes (www.bodegasjuangil.com).

Enrique Mendoza Pinot Noir 2011 is a great discovery, a most refined, delicious and smooth red from Alicante, very easy to drink (www.bodegasmendoza.com). I tried it with salted chocolate, also marvelous as a dessert wine.

Pago de Valdoneje Viñas Viejas 2014 is made with Mencia grapes of centennary vineyards in the Bierzo region, one of the most interesting wine places in Spain. It is both fresh and deep, a fantastic wine for long conversations in front of the fireplace. (www.vinosvaltuille.com).

I was born on a summer night, fifty years ago. By coincidence, a few days before celebrating my birthday, I tried Marques de Griñon Vendimia Noctura 2012. This is a white wine that is made with grapes harvested at night. Following the wisdom of the French enologue Émile Peynaud, the Griñón family chooses the best possible moment to start the wine making process, when the grapes are in great physical condition and the night temperature is soothing. Well, you can tell that it is a wine born to be enjoyed, a Rueda Verdejo with more personality and charm that the usual ones. It is not only storytelling -I was born on a summer night…

I had many other moments of celebration around my 50th birthday. At a wonderful dinner in the magical coast of Deia, Majorca, some friends introduced us to Macán Clásico 2011, a super red from Rioja, so smooth that I first thought it was a Ribera. Back in Galicia, we drank Obalo crianza, a fantastic discovery of an every day Rioja (8 euros), thanks to the recommendation of El Ensanche, a restaurant and wine place in La Coruña well worth visiting.

To understand what it means to turn 50, I re-read a fantastic essay written by my friend Javier Gomá: “when you have already encounter the bitterness of life but you know very well how to direct your energies”. His advice is re-discover forms of idealism, to keep alive enthusiasm for the good things ahead and to avoid becoming blasé or cynical about everything. Wine tasting and writing are clearly among the activities that I intend to pursue further in that spirit of healthy naivety.

We have been lucky this year: rays of sun and glorious weather have blessed so far our lunches and dinners in Monterroso and La Coruña, two of our favorite spots in the island of Galicia.

In mid-June we gathered friends to enjoy a day together in the countryside. Some of them had ben our hosts in Egypt. To reconnect with our Nile trips we took a walk along the ultra-cool first milles of the Ulla river. Then we went back to María’s family house in Monterroso and tried D-12 Lan 2012, recently invented by the Lan vignerons of Fuenmayor in La Rioja,www.bodegaslan.com. “D-12” is the name of their favorite tank or crate where they nurse this marvelous creature, incredibly balanced, with a very interesting and long finish. For 12 euros, it is hard to find a better new-new Rioja.

In early July I came back with more friends to the island, this time to La Coruña. We drank Casal de Armán 2015, a white Ribeiro, at the famous family-owned Lois tavern, siting outside on a cool night. I love the revolution that is taking place in this part of Orense, mixing Treixadura grapes with Godello and Albariño ones. Casal de Armán is a very full, intense, rich white wine that connects you with the best dreams of summer. It sells for 11 euros.

At the beginning of August I bought a wine called “Rayos Uva” (UV rays) just because I liked the hip bottle design and thought it was a very appropiate name for a midsummer wine. I did not realize I was picking a true Stratocaster wine, according to María’s appreciation (see “Stratocaster wines”, https://iberians.wordpress.com/2010/09/24/stratocaster-wines/).

Rayos Uva 2015 comes from Rioja, but it is really a garage wine, 50% tempranillo grapes and 50% graciano grapes, full of personality, wonderful to drink and affordable (11 euros). It has been invented by Olivier Riviere, who has moved from Bourdeaux to develop wines in the regions of Navarre, Arlanza (Burgos) and Rioja. He happily preaches “the new world in the old world”. We toasted with his UV rays to family and to more summer days like these. Just like Mark Twain’s beseech, “Warm summer sun / Shine kindly here.”

Thanks to the suggestion of my friend Bill, I decided to try the new reds from the island of Tenerife. He mentioned Canary wines while we were in Ronda, Málaga. Apparently, his wine tasting group of friends in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, had discovered some very good ones. A great example of the sunny side of our interconnected and global lives.

By chance, I had to travel to Tenerife a couple of weeks later and his recommendation stayed with me. Well, I am now grateful, since I have discovered Calius 2012, of the Valle de Güímar area in East Tenerife. Made with local grapes, it is an amazing wine, intense, mineral and with a very long finish. It sells for about 13 euros.

I have read in the Calius webpage that the US founding fathers in Philadelphia toasted with a wine from the Canary Islands after signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, a clear step in the pursuit of happiness. I just hope their wine was as good as Calius, a red that calls forth Mark Knopfler’s song “Sailing to Philadelphia” and his homage to pioneers and natural beauty:

Now hold your head up, Mason
See America lies there
The morning tide has raised
The capes of Delaware
Come up and feel the sun
A new morning has begun

May is a good time to escape for a long weekend to the islands of Ibiza and Formentera. We were very lucky to be invited the first day by great friends to one of the most beautiful houses and gardens there, in the mountains near Es Cubells. From this high altitude oasis different capes and bays could be seen, one after the other. In just an hour the colours of the sea and the sky changed and caused even more amazement on us. It was hard to believe we were a few kilometers away from extreme night adventures and the most curious forms of beach life. Afterwards, we had dinner at Can Pau, a traditional Catalan restauran. I asked for Can Rich Selección, a red wine from San Antonio, in the West of the island, not knowing what to expect. It was the right move, the wine was smooth, flowery and easy to drink. We toasted to friendship in front of one of the burning fires that kept the farmhouse warm.

The second wine we discovered in this getaway is called Ophiusa, the Greek name of Formentera, a different red. We sat down for lunch overlooking the white beach of Es Pujols. Maria, from the hotel where we were staying, explained proudly that she used to work at this winery. They are better known for a stronger red, Cap de Barbaria. Ophiusa is the young brother, made with cabernet, merlot, fogoneu and monastrell grapes, and dressed in a beautiful pale blue label. The sun warmed it up in our glasses and soon it was outstanding. We tasted a bit of the sea in its opulent silence.

I have found near my office a cheese shop that I particularly like, called Queseria Cultivo, http://www.queseriacultivo.com. They only sell cheeses made by artisans from all parts of Spain, each one with a story and a human face. This idea of a creating network of fromageres, proud of their names and of what they do, and no longer part of a production chain, got me thinking about some of the last wines I have encountered.

We have tried recently Lagar do Cervera 2014 with friends. We celebrated its green and yellow colors and enjoyed it greatly with seafood and conversation. María loved it, also because she knew and admired the original owners of this albariño wine from the Rosal terroir, her preferred “coin perdu” of Galician wineries.

A friend brought me that same day a bottle of De Raiz 2013, a new ecological red wine from Vejer de la Frontera, Cadiz, made by Peter Maurer in association with his father and other vignerons. De Raiz combines syrah, merlot and petit verdot grapes and is wonderfully easy to drink, a young creature that has already learnt to turn its own complexity into elegance.

I also got a very special bottle from another very good friend who came to our next dinner party, Señorio de Sarria, Reserva especial 2010, a serious wine from Puente la Reina (right in the Camino de Santiago, near Pamplona). It is one of the best cabernet sauvignon one can find in Spain, so well made it has got me interested again in wine from Navarre.

Two weeks ago I went for dinner to Meating, the restaurant where Sonia Vendrel acts as sommelier. She always offers great wine recommendations, while she pretends she knows not so much as her clients. That day she was not there, but knowing we were coming she had left for us a fantastic wine, Forlong Assemblage 2013, made with merlot, syrah and tintilla de Rota grapes. Forlong is another ecological red wine from Cadiz, created  by Rocío Áspera y Alejandro Narváez not far away from Puerto de Santa María and Jérez. They are two very young local entrepreneurs who already know a lot about wines and storytelling -a great cow with mustache and tie stands out in the well designed blue label.

Two wines made me long for Spring last week. In Barcelona it happened in Mon Vinic, the eccentric restaurant that offers 3000 different wines. Just the visit to the cellar was worth the night, a space with amazing lighting and architecture, an art gallery in itself. After some deliberation with my dear friends Antonio and Nely, we chose Las Gravas 2012 as the main wine for our dinner. This is a red from the Jumilla region, beautifully made by Casa Castillo with Monastrell grapes and also some Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. When I walked around the city the next day the smell of pine trees and the sea breeze brought me back to this perfect Murcia wine, full of Mediterranean wisdom.

During the weekend we tried Ramón do Casar 2013, a white from Ribeiro, made with albariño, treixadura and godello grapes. It was the end of a perfect family day in the region of La Vera, a unique countryside south of the Gredos mountains. We were seating around the fireplace in Bocaloso, the estate of our wondrous hosts Fidel and Lydia. Bocaloso can be roughly translated as “The Tavern of the Bear”, probably because bears picked the overripe fruits of strawberry trees (“madroños”) in those fields and they made them tipsy. Well, our modest white wine from Castrelo do Miño proved to be very subtle, perfect with goat cheese and good conversation. I want to come back soon to La Vera, the Spanish region with the most famous Spring. When the cherry trees blossom there you experience E.E. Cummings’ powerful image: “flowers pick themselves”.

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