Cognac vs. Armagnac

[C]laret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy. In the first place, brandy is most grateful to the palate; and then brandy will do soonest for a man what drinking can do for him.

Dr. Samuel Johnson

I recently attended a tasting of some exceptionally old Cognac and Armagnacs, (which were sublime, by the way) with the owner of the estates where these brandies were made, a fifth-generation Cognac producer who had a few decades ago also purchased an Armagnac estate.  Though he spoke through an interpreter, there was something interesting about his choice of words.  While we would generally describe to these products collectively a “brandies”, he (and his interpreter) consistently referred to them as “wines”.  This is perhaps indicative of the way he thought of them.  Grape spirits are nearly unique in the way the notion of terroir is considered an inextricable part of their identity.   For example, even the finest single malt Scotch these days is made from imported barley, but is no less Scotch; the origin of the barley is not central to its identity.  Cognac, however, must be made from grapes farmed in the designated area.  Using grapes from elsewhere… well, there’s a name for that:  fraud.

The story of brandy begins in the days before wines were customarily bottled for storage, before sulfites and chaptalization and modern driven corks, when very few wines made it far from their place of origin. When they did travel widely enough to acquire Cognac_pot_still_-_20091205a worldwide reputation, it’s hard to imagine in what condition they arrived.  Brandy, from the Dutch gebrande wijn (“burned wine”) was invented by the wine trade as a way of preparing and preserving product for transport from areas that had lots and lots of wine (France, among other places), to places that had very little (the frozen north).  This new product was easy to store and transport, and found a receptive market, instigating the vast planting of grapes such as Folle Blanche and Melon de Bourgogne.  Thin, high acid, aromatically bland grapes such as these are preferred for brandy production, lest the grape’s aromas, concentrated by the distillation process, become coarse or excessively pungent.

Until recently, brandy is the popular consciousness was either Cognac or Armagnac.  Now there are quality brandies distilled around the world.  South African brandy owes its lack of a worldwide market only to the country’s economic isolation under the Apartheid regime.   Armenian brandy is well-known and loved in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.  The production of Brandy de Jerez (from sherry country in southeast Spain) eclipses that of sherry itself, and the Germans and Americans are very fond of their respective domestic brandies, of which many are quite excellent.

2000px-Map_of_Cognac_Regions3.svgCognac, the world’s most famous brandy, is made from grapes grown in the chalky soils of a large, vaguely circular area surrounding the city of Cognac.   The vineyard area is divided into crus, the three most prestigious of which you might see on a label: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, and Borderies.  The first two of these are responsible for the most complex, balanced and ageworthy eaux-de-vie.   The Borderies are possessed of a unique terroir, with a high proportion of flint and clay that gives its spirit a distinctive and intense floral character.   Cognac is the product of two distillations with an alembic charentais (pictured, above), a very ancient type of pot still that has hardly changed in four centuries.

It is important to note that Cognac did not always carry the air of luxury that it does today.  For most of the 19th century, Cognac was an everyday drink, frequently used in cocktails or consumed with water or ice.  Many of our classic American whiskey cocktails, like the Sazerac and the Mint Julep, were originally made with Cognac.  Western France was one of the first areas in Europe to be devastated by phylloxera, which completely changed the landscape of grape growing worldwide.   With the area’s vineyards laid waste, it didn’t take long for the supply of product to dry up, once winegrowers had figured out a way to save themselves (by grafting new vines onto pest-resistant American rootstocks), much of the market had moved on to other drinks, so they found themselves supplying a much more limited clientele.

Cognac production, then and now, is dominated by merchant houses, some of which are owned by huge luxury conglomerates, who buy grapes, wines, and eaux-de-vie in various stages of maturation.  In this way, it mirrors champagne, with grand maisons blending the produce of various vintages and terroirs to achieve a consistent house style, in contrast to the more Burgundian farmer-driven ethos of their neighbors to the south.  However, like grower champagne, single-grower or “estate” Cognac is on the rise.

The blender has a variety of additives at his disposal, ranging from innocuous to dubious.  Water is used to bring the spirit to the desired bottling strength and is almost universally used.  Sugar is permitted to increase viscosity and round out the acidity in the final product.  Spirit caramel, basically burned sugar, is used, as it is in the Scotch whisky industry as a color correction.  Boisée, the most controversial addition, is a wood extract made by boiling wood chips in water and reducing the resulting liquid, used to enhance the perception of age in a younger spirit.  All of the above products can be mixed with eaux-de-vie and aged in barrels in order that they might blend more seamlessly into the final spirit.   The presence of any of these additives does not automatically signal a low quality spirit, but consumers should insist on transparency on the part of the producers.

alambic-armagnacaiseArmagnac, France’s other famous brandy, is altogether a far more rustic affair.  From grapes grown in the sandy soils of Gascony a bit further south, it is unique among the world’s quality brandies in that is typically the result of a single, continuous distillation, in a very old-fashioned type of column still.   Here small family estates predominate, and generally consider themselves vinegrowers first and foremost; in many cases they do not even conduct the actual distillation themselves, instead relying on specialist distillers using portable equipment (pictured). The stylistic differences between the two spirits are due to differences in climate and soil types, but also in part a reaction to the present and historical characteristics of the markets for these two products.  The lack of large firms that dominate the packaging and distribution of Armagnac historically mean that it has less visibility on the export market, catering instead to restaurants and experienced connoisseurs in its home market.  This situation is changing somewhat with the rise of boutique importers specializing in artisanal spirits from Europe (a trend that has benefitted small-production estate-grown Cognacs as well).

cognac-armagnac-mapThe historical grape of Armagnac was Folle Blanche, also grown in the Loire (under the name Gros Plant) and as a minor component (less than 2%) in Cognac.  Having to start from scratch after their vineyards were wiped out by phylloxera, the region’s vignerons largely bypassed this grape in favor of others that gave higher yields and didn’t have Folle Blanche’s notorious susceptibility to rot and mildew.  Of these, Ugni Blanc is the most significant, comprising about 55% of plantings.   The hybrid grape Baco Noir accounts for 25% but is in the process of being phased out.  Most of the rest of the vineyards are planted to Colombard (mostly used for table wines instead of Armagnac) and Folle Blanche. Traditionally, these spirits began their maturation in a 400-liter pièce armagnacaise made from local oak, but without the benefit of the careful forestry of Central France’s forests, the supply of this wood is dwindling, and producers are slowly transitioning to using more of the Limousin oak typically used in Cognac.  The additives mentioned above in relation to Cognac are also permitted in Armagnac, but are much more seldom used.  Even water is not typically used in the vintage Armagnacs; the lower distillation proof means that the producer can generally rely on evaporation to bring his products to the ideal alcoholic strength.

Buying Cognac and Armagnac

I think there is a tendency of many of us in the trade to be coy about whether we have a favorite of these two categories, like a parent insisting they love all their children equally.  But even a short conversation reveals that most of us have a preference.

16070852160_4906f4761b_mCognac tends to be softer, more primary in its youth, and have a more balanced integration of wood.  The notes of an aged cognac tend toward butter, spice, ripe citrus and eventually tropical fruit.  Armagnac takes longer to really harmonize with the oak, so can be somewhat tannic and shy in its youth, but finally blossoms into an intoxicatingly intense spirit redolent of tobacco, leather, and dark fruit.  It is the earthier, the more pungent, and the more masculine of the two.   Both Armagnac and Cognac cease to benefit from further maturation in wood after about 50-70 years,  so what little is left by that age is generally transferred to large glass demijohns (pictured) if the producer does not want to bottle it immediately.  This is important to note an age designation (more common in Cognac) refers to the minimum number of years spent in wood. Similarly a bottle with a vintage date (more common in Armagnac) will also carry a bottling date in order to help the consumer determine the actual maturity level of the spirit within.

To find out more, stop by this Saturday for our weekly tasting!   We’ll be pouring four artisanal brandies from estate distilleries in Cognac and Armagnac.  It’s sure to be a blast!

Cheers,

Duncan

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Etna: An Articulate Lover with a Compelling Life Story

Recently I have been pulled into a love affair with Sicilian wines from Mount Etna.   They charmed me with their character, their sense of place, and their spine.  These wines are not afraid to tell you what they think or where they are from. And I love them for it. It is like having a confident, articulate lover with a compelling life story.  Indeed, the amount of talented producers coming out of the Mount Etna region is impressive.  And it kind of makes sense because if you are going to make wine on the side of an active volcano, then the wine better be worth it.  Really worth it.

etna

Etna: “The name may be delightfully easy to spell and pronounce, but it is its distinctively sultry wines that are so memorable”—Jancis Robinson.  

At Le Du’s we have been strong supporters of names like Terre Nere and Salvo Foti. Yet this week, we tasted another producer who has won our hearts, and demands our attention and praise—Calabretta.  These wines speak from their hearts, and what they have to say is rather lovely:

Calabrcalabretta04etta Etna Rosso 2004 $29.99

Greets the nose with a distinct bouquet of dried flowers, earth, truffle, and red fruits. Savory notes of stewed red strawberries, dried tomato leaves, and smoky minerals unfold on the palate.  After eleven years of age, this wine is still fresh and energetic, with a notable acidity to complement the supple and graceful tannins. Savory, unique, and alluring.  Aged 6-7 years in large botti before bottling.

calabretta biancoCalabretta Cala Cala Vino Bianco $17.99

Slightly herbaceous on the nose giving way to intriguing stone fruit flavors.  One of the most memorable aspects of this wine is its beautiful texture, which has a caressing mouth-feel, both round and full.  Hints of shaved almond, hay, and earth linger on the finish. This wine was aged in stainless steel tanks for 4 years. 

Massimiliano Calabretta is the peculiar and brilliant mind behind these unique wines.  A part time university professor, Massimiliano stems from a staunch tradition of winemaking dating back to 1900. His reds are about as old school asmassimiliano wine can get, and macerations can last two months or more. The 2004 is sourced from old vines of Nerello Mascalese with almost a 100 years of age in ashen volcanic soils. In the organic spirit, Calabretta avoids using chemical pesticides or herbicides. Harvest is done by hand and fermentations employ wild yeasts.

Right now Calabretta is crafting some of the most exciting wine in the Mediterranean.  I, for one, am going to keep loving these wines before they blow up in popularity and become too hard to find. Or before the volcano has the last word.

Best,

Matthew

Matthew Beaton

Le Du’s Wines

600 Washington St 

NY, NY 10014

(212)924-6999

matt@leduwines.com

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Château Pradeaux Bandol Rouge 2009

Of the world’s great wine estates, the ones that I have always held dearest to my heart, the ones that continue to inspire me to do what I do, have always the great standard-bearers of tradition.  I mean properties that steadfastly resist the homogenizing influence of today’s global wine market, and continue to make the wines that they want to make, not because they’re the wines that their grandparents or great-grandparents made, but because they’re the best.   Rioja’s López de Heredia is great example, as is Barolo’s Bartolo Mascarello, Germany’s Koehler-Ruprecht, and of course, Bandol’s inimitable Château Pradeaux.

Bandol is a town on the Mediterranean coast near Toulon that gives its name to the region’s most serious and prestigious red wines, based on the Mourvèdre grape (the same grape as Spain’s Monastrell).   In terms of color, texture and general shape, these call to mind old-style Barolo, but with a decidedly Mediterranean aromatic profile, meeting the nose with lavender, rosemary, and even sometimes a distinct meaty quality, in place of Barolo trademark tar and roses.   Mention Provence to most people, and they think of a prime vacation spot, not a major wine region, and even oenologically speaking, the name is more likely to call to mind the crisp rosés consumed in copious quantities by locals and visitors alike.  Even Bandol’s vines have been pushed further and further away from the town itself over the years, and are often planted with a northern exposure; even the notoriously heat-loving Mourvèdre can get a sunburn.

Château Pradeaux Bandol Rouge 2009 – $35.00 net

Pradeaux-labelClassic Provençal aromas of thyme, licorice, rosemary, and lavender.  A taut and chewy wine, with attractively ripe but detailed black cherry and plum notes, with just a hint of baked character.  Vintage conditions in 2009 have lent a certain immediate charm and accessibility to what might have otherwise been a forbiddingly structured young wine.  Marvelous now but will reward patient cellaring.

barrel pradeaux sheep

Cyrille Portalis, the owner and winemaker, is a descendant of the family who have owned this estate since the early 18th century.  The Portalis were a prominent political family and one of their members, Jean-Marie Etienne, helped draft Napoleon’s Code Civil.   His mother and grandmother were instrumental in the creation of the Bandol AOC in 1941. Very little has changed since then.  The vines are farmed organically, with the only herbicide allowed being a flock of sheep, pictured above.  Winemaking at Pradeaux is about as traditional as it gets.    Harvest starts in early October and is, of course, conducted entirely by hand.   Fruit is fermented in whole clusters at relatively high temperatures of 80-86F with no pumpovers, and the wine is aged in gigantic old casks (no barriques) for four years before bottling.  When the Bandol appellation was established in 1941, it was stipulated that Mourvèdre comprise at least 10% of the blend.  In recognition of its unique ability to interpret the terroir of Bandol’s sun-baked slopes, the minimum was gradually ratcheted up to 50%, where it stands today.  Mourvèdre is a notoriously finicky grape to grow and vinify, and when phylloxera forced Provence’s growers to replant their vineyards, many gave up on it altogether, citing its lack of suitability for grafting to the American rootstocks that were the ultimate save against this pest.  The red wines of Château Pradeaux are always at least 95% Mourvèdre, with the balance coming from a small parcel of old-vine Grenache.  If you visit the estate, Cyrille may have you taste different versions of the wine containing varying amounts of the Grenache to see what percentage you prefer.  One percent?  Two percent?  Three?

Cheers,

Duncan

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Mallorca on the Cutting Edge

paquita1I love Spain for its relentless creativity.  Think of El Bulli, Gaudi, Dali.  Spanish winemaking too exhibits a sense of pioneering ingenuity—especially in the past twenty years. This is the spirit that fueled winemakers in areas such as Priorat and Bierzo to reinvent traditional viticultural practices and craft sensational wines. Now the boundaries have again shifted, this time with an eye toward Mallorca, the largest island in the Balearic archipelago where a few select producers are challenging us to rethink our conception of Spanish wine. The most notable is Eloi Cedó Perelló winemaker of Sistema Vinari (and also 4 Kilos).  Perelló’s creative vision is not a mere rejection of tradition, but rather a desire to honor the environment and indigenous grapes of Mallorca and express them in the best way possible.  As a winemaker, he is retelling the story of his land through a new lens:

Sistema Vinari Chateau Paquita 2013 $28.00 (net pricing)

paquita2The 2013 Paquita greets you with a seductive perfume comprised of red bramble fruits and pebbles washed in spring water. High toned fruit engages the palate with well-defined layers of  red and black berries and suggestions of smoke and slate. Light and nimble, there is a lot of energy here as the fruit is carried along by a zipping joyous acidity.   At 12.5%, this is a light but long lived Spanish red.  A splendid surprise. 

Perelló cut a name for himself as the winemaker of 4 Kilos.  Sistema Vinari is his creative labor of love. The Chateau Paquita sold out last year well before New York importers could get their hands any of it. This year 4900 bottles were produced and only a palette of wine made it to New York.

The 2013 Chateau Paquita is a blend of Callet (45%),  Manto Negro (30%), and Monastrell (rounding out the remaining 25%).  The first two are fermented and macerated with stems while the Monastrell undergoes carbonic. Callet and Manto Negro are both indigenous to Mallorca, and when treated with the right care, they offer fresh wines at a medium level of alcohol.   This is a cutting edge Spanish wine.

Best,

Matthew

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A Superb Value White Burgundy!

Writing White Burgundy and great value in one sentence is becoming rare these days and that’s why I jumped at the opportunity to stock the excellent Macon-Cruzille “Perrieres” 2011 from Domaine Guillot-Broux near Pouilly-Fuissé. We had been carrying this wine for a few months at 38.99 and I thought this was excellent at that price but because of a switch of importer we can now offer this little beauty @ 29.99 (25.49 if you get a case!).

Macon-Cruzille “Perrieres”, Domaine Guillot-Broux 2011 – $29.99

guillot

eRobertParker.com #208
Aug 2013
Neal Martin 92 Drink: N/A (45)
The wondrous 2011 Macon-Cruzilles Les Perrieres comes from 40-year-old vines grown on oolitic limestone with shallow soils. It spends 18 months in oak barrel (10% new) with no fining or filtration. It has an intriguing bouquet with pressed yellow flowers, lemon curd and minerals that are delineated and complex, drawing you in to its charms. The palate is fresh and harmonious on the entry: hints of orange zest and peach with a well-defined, tense, complex finish with grilled walnut lingering on the aftertaste. Excellent.

Going organic was easy for Pierre Guillot in 1954: He was allergic to sulfites and herbicides! Since then the estate has never used any foreign products in its soils or cellar and was certified biodynamic in 1991.

The terroir of Perriers consists of hard to work layers of limestone slabs covered by a thin topsoil. It’s porous, providing good drainage but these vineyards were abandoned in the late 19th century after phylloxera because they were too hard to farm. The Guillot-Broux family finally replanted these parcel in 1978. It is considered the best parcel at this estate.

maconAfter harvest, the wine is aged in mostly used barrels and bottled without fining or filtration.

This has been my house white Burgundy for the past few months and it drinks way above its paygrade.

It has fresh citrus and floral aromas, lively acidity that offsets the inherent richness and excellent length. A great candidate for everyday drinking but also one wine that will develop in the cellar for 3-4 more years.

Pairs great with roast chicken, grilled white fish and fresh seafood.

Cheers,

Jean-Luc

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Barrique, Your Weekend Wine Read: Contemporary Spain

spain

My love affair with Spanish wines dates back to a rainy Christmas Eve in Barcelona over four years ago.  I was on a shoestring backpacking trip after studying abroad in Morocco, and I had a few days to kill in Barcelona before meeting some friends in Eastern Europe.  So there I was alone during the Christmas holiday in a Catholic country.  To lighten my spirits, I decided to treat myself to some wine and tapas before my favorite cafés closed for the holiday. I found a small joint where I was warmly greeted with a few glasses of house vino tinto.  And that was it. Nothing sumptuous or exquisite, but it did prick my ears to the soulful joy of Spanish wines.  Since then, my time in the wine industry has turned my abroad fling into a full-blown love affair with the diversity and breadth of Spain’s varieties and regional climates.  And while I have been fortunate enough to taste truly profound and sophisticated Spanish wines from all around the country, my favorite wines have always reflected a similar spirited and soulful nature I found in that vino tinto.  Sure I have had far better wines, but I hold that refinement should never erase a wine’s expression of soul and heart.

For that reason, Spain has a lot to offer today’s oenophile. It is at once a frontier for rediscovery, but it is also a place of staunch tradition. From Rioja’s illustrious past to Bierzo’s nascent success, contemporary Spanish wine (when at its best) is a blend of the new and the old, the classic and the avant garde. The tension between these two poles, I believe, is the corazon or heart of Spain’s wine culture. This week’s barrique will give an overview of the country’s viticultural history and key wine producing regions, but it will also focus on how certain producers are able to strike a remarkable balance between traditional winemaking and modern taste.

The Roots of Iberian Vines

The cultivation of vitis vinifera on the Iberian peninsula reaches all the way back to the Phoenicians who peddled and traded wine in the city of Gadir (now modern Cadiz in southern Spain) circa 1100 B.C.E. The Moorish invasion in the 8th century brought with it the perfection of distilling.  While Islamic Law generally opposed the cultivation and trade of wine, this was more of an abstract creed. Many Moors turned a blind eye to viticulture, and there is evidence to suggest that some tended vines. Fast-forward over five hundred years and we find wine as a key commodity in the Spanish empire, as Spaniards shipped rancio (rancid, oxidized) wine to their territories in the New World. It was not until the 19th century, however, that Spain cut a name for itself in the world market of fine wine.

By the mid 1850’s French producers began to notice the vital potential of wines made from La Rioja, a wine district in the center north of Spain. At the time, Bordeaux winemakers struggled with the effects of a powdery mildew (Uncinula nector), which pummeled their vineyards. To make matters worse, phylloxera, a louse originating in the United States, struck French vineyards in 1867. In the face of disastrously low yields they turned to La Rioja as an alternative. This sparked a renaissance in La Rioja and in Spanish winemaking in general. Notably, growers began aging wines in oak casks before shipping. And so the famous style of mature Rioja was born, and many of the today’s great bodegas are still thriving and crafting wine almost in the same manner as they did over one hundred and thirty years ago.

The majority of the 20th century was far less glorious for Spanish wine. The civil war left the country ruined, and Franco’s “closed society” made trade with other European countries virtually nonexistent. The only fine wine on the world market hailing from Spain during the 1960’s and 70’s was Sherry.  The winds changed as Generalísimo Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 brought forth a rebirth in Spanish wine production, trade, and culture.  The fruits of this rebirth are blooming throughout the country today. From “Green Spain” in the northwest to the quintessential Mediterranean island of Mallorca, Spanish wine is on the rise.

Galicia

Our journey throughContemporary Spain the key wine producing regions of Spain begins in Galicia, the Northwest corner of Spain. This is “green Spain,” humid, verdant, and cool.  The environment here gestures to its Celtic heritage.  In Rías Baixas, Atlantic inlets called rías, resemble small fjords, and provide a spectacular landscape for the vines. Here you will find myriad plantings of old Albariño vines, some even 200 years in age. The thick-skinned white grape is in its element here as its skin is an effective barrier against mildew and rot.  That said, vigilant viticulture is necessary and most of the vines are trained on granite posts in widely spaced rows to attenuate the negative effects of humidity. Albariño from this area is incredibly fresh and racy, and typically introduces itself notes of peach.  While some trends have seen the use of new French oak, many excellent producers eschew oak influences, striving for more fresh, tart, and slightly “leesy” wines. For a definitive expression of Albariño, try the wines of Do Ferreiro. More inland is the Ribera Sacra where fresh expressions of the Mencia grape are cultivated along with the aromatic white, Godello.

Castilla y Leon

Just inland from Galicia is Bierzo, perhaps one of the most trendy and exciting areas in Spain’s winemaking scene today. This is the home of “beguiling red wines” to borrow from Eric Azimov.  With a daring topography, the region is a treasure chest packed with old Mencia vines. Vines as old as 50 to 80 years appear to be a standard here. Partially continental, but also with an Atlantic influence, Bierzo’s climate attests to the finesse of Spanish reds.   Mencia is planted on steep terraces with granitic slate near the top of the slopes, and more sandy soils found near the riverbeds.  The variation in vineyard sites offers a lot of experimentation with the variety. Some expressions are fruity, graceful, and aromatic, whereas others showcase dried herbs, smoky minerals, and dried black fruits.  Key producers include LosadaRaul Perez, and Descendientes de J Palacios, a venture by acclaimed winemaker (Alvaro Palacios of Rioja and Priorat). Recent vintages have been promising here, and 2013 was rather cool.

If you drive three hours southwest of Bierzo, you’ll find yourself in what Jancis Robinson calls the “modern red wine miracle of northern Spain,” the Ribera del Duero.  This is Tempranillo country, and legendary producers such as Vega Sicilia have put the region on the map with intense long-lived reds that can age for decades.  Tempranillo here is expressed in a much more concentrated fashion that contrasts greatly with the selections of Rioja (less than 60 miles away).  These wines can be remarkably intense and lively.  And at their best, their character reminds me of the same feeling I get when I read Cormac Mccarthy’s prose.  Pingus and PSI, both produced by Peter Sisseck are good labels to have in your cellar.

La Rioja

If I could drink one Spanish wine for the rest of my life, it would have to be a traditional Rioja. First and foremost, mature Rioja speaks to region’s extensive winemaking culture and history.  Secondly, I live in a tiny Manhattan apartment and I have absolutely no room for ageing wines.  Many of the best Rioja wines are already ten plus years old by the time they hit the shelves, hence why I can enjoy wondrously aged wine without having to cellar it—a rare and beautiful thing in our world.  When aged properly a bottle of Rioja’s original primary fruit characteristics give way to deep nuances of dried fruit, leather, pipe tobacco, and oak spices.

In order to understand Rioja, it’s important to first go over the ageing requirements used for classifying the wines. Rioja is all about maturity, and the prized wines are therefore those that stem from great vintages and are able to age for decades if not scores. must be aged for 2 years (including 1 year in cask), 3 years (including 1 year in cask), and 5 years (including 2 years in cask). Traditionally, aging occurs in . These, however, are just the minimal requirements and many producers go well beyond these regulations. As with Bordeaux, Rioja is typically a blend rather than the offering of a single varietal. Tempranillo normally takes center stage with Mazuelo (Caringan), and Garnacha (Grenache) singing backup vocals.

In order to understand Rioja, it’s important to first go over the ageing requirements used for classifying the wines. Rioja is all about maturity, and the prized wines are therefore those that stem from great vintages and are able to age for decades if not scores. must be aged for 2 years (including 1 year in cask), 3 years (including 1 year in cask), and 5 years (including 2 years in cask). Traditionally, aging occurs in . These, however, are just the minimal requirements and many producers go well beyond these regulations. As with Bordeaux, Rioja is typically a blend rather than the offering of a single varietal. Tempranillo normally takes center stage with Mazuelo (Caringan), and Garnacha (Grenache) singing backup vocals.

In order to understand Rioja, it’s important to first go over the ageing requirements used for classifying the wines. Rioja is all about maturity, and the prized wines are therefore those that stem from great vintages and are able to age for decades if not scores. Crianza Spain Riojamust be aged for 2 years (including 1 year in cask), Reserva’s 3 years (including 1 year in cask), and Gran Reserva 5 years (including 2 years in cask). Traditionally, aging occurs in American oak. These, however, are just the minimal requirements and many producers go well beyond these regulations. As with Bordeaux, Rioja is typically a blend rather than the offering of a single varietal. Tempranillo normally takes center stage with Mazuelo (Caringan), and Garnacha (Grenache) singing backup vocals.

Geographically, La Rioja can be subdivided into three regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja. Soils in Alta and Alavesa showcase calcareous, limestone, and iron that gives the wines its acidity and liveliness, where as those of Baja are more alluvial clay based which lends body when blending wines from different sites.   The leading bodegas, though, are based in Haro, Rioja Alta.

One of the most striking things about Rioja is its battle for identity. Traditional bodegas like CuneLópez de Heredia, and La Rioja Alta are crafting wines that in today’s world might be seen by some as anachronistic.  They still employ their own coopers to craft their American oak barrels.  Then they age their wines for years before release. Forget presales, these Rioja producers can wait ten years before they start moving their stock.  Notably, López de Heredia still makes wine without temperature-controlled fermentation—a practice that would utterly baffle any recent U.C. Davis graduate.  In contrast a number of newer bodegas such as Lan or Valsacro produce more modern styles.  The modern techniques may vary from label to label, but general trends include aging in new French oak, producing vineyard designate cuvees, and a younger release. I will let the kind reader make their own judgments about which style they prefer, but I will add that the “line they don’t make them like they used to” does not apply to the old school artisanal offerings of Heredia, Rioja Alta, or Cune. Vintages to look for include the incredible wines of 2001 and excellent offerings of 2004 and 2005.

Catalonia

It was indeed here where I first fell in love with Spanish wine. It was an amazing place to begin the journey.  Cava is a real thing here, and for more information on it read JT’s barrique back in December.  For still wine, the most exciting story actually begins in Rioja, where a young and tenacious winemaker, Rene Barbier, was working at Palacios Remondo and convinced the young and impressionable Alvaro Palacios to join him in Priorat, a small region south of Barcelona.  The area takes its name from the local 12th century Carthusian monastery called Priorat de Scala Dei (the priory of the Staircase of God), where monks tended vines and, just as in Burgundy, made wine.  Barbier and four other visionaries banded together for a key harvest in 1989 and effectively resurrected the region. Its modern success is due to the plethora of old Grenache and Caringan vines that struggle for life on steep terraced slopes comprised of llicorella soils (a composition  of slate and quartz). Wines from Priorat are not in the least bit shy.  They have an   undeniably commanding presence, and are layered with rich fruit and mineral driven notes of smoke and stone.  Yet these wines are not merely an opulent offering to the gods of fat overripe fruit.  In contrast, they can be deeply complex and driven by a compelling acidity.  I would highly recommend trying Clos Mogador, Dolfi, Finca, or Terroir AL Limit.  Priorat is actually enveloped by another up and coming wine region, Montsant.   There are a few key distinctions between these two regions, but the most important is the soil variation. While Priorat is composed almost entirely of slate, Montsant’s soil is not as monolithic.  Thus quality greatly varies, and often wines from Montsant lack the concentration found Priorat wines sourced directly from old gnarled vines.  Familial connections are important here, and some of the more exciting projects in Montsant stem from members of the Barbier family working with local growers and single vineyard sites.

There are obviously other regions in Spain that deserve attention, and some topics like Sherry and the islands deserve their own barrique blog. That said, the above key regions do attest to the diversity and rebirth of Spanish wines in areas like Priorat, Bierzo, and Galicia. But this is not the whole picture.  La Rioja grasps together both the modern spirit of the country and the best whispers of the past.  This appears to be the ethos of contemporary Spanish wine: to look forward, but at the same time honor what has been passed down.

Best,

Matthew Beaton

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Priorat: Mysticism, Beauty, and Passion

“Since the beginning, our project in Priorat has been a combination of passion, mystics and beauty.”  Alvaro Palacios

Priorat 3

 The Staircase of God.  One of Spain’s greatest wine regions began as a small priory of Carthusian monks.  The landscape is at once extreme and spectacular.  Here old vines of Grenache and Carignan struggle for life on steep terraced slopes of slate and quartz.  But it wasn’t until a singular vintage in 1989 where a small group of dedicated and modern winemakers banded together and put Priorat on the world’s wine map.

Inspired, the pioneers soon set up bodegas of their own.  So why are these wines so special?  It is its particularly unusual soil, llicorella, a dark-brown slate whose jagged rock faces sparkle in the sun with their sprinkling of quartzite, that makes the best Priorat the almost chewable essence that it is.”  Jancis Robinson

 At Le Du’s, there are actual samples of the famous topsoil from L’Ermita vineyard in the glass of our check out counter.  Priorat deserves a mention in the same breath as any and all of the great regions of the world.  It also happens to be a perfect antidote for a freezing wind and the winter blues!

Buil & Gine Joangine Priorat Blanc 2012  $24.99

GineBright yellow-gold. Sexy, mineral-laced pear and melon aromas are complicated by floral and ginger nuances. Juicy, penetrating and perfumed in the mouth, offering lively orchard and citrus fruit flavors and suggestions of honeysuckle and fennel. Fleshy but dry on the back end, with a refreshingly bitter lemon pith quality bracing the long, focused finish. – Josh Raynolds

Buil & Gine is small family estate a stone’s toss away from the famous L’Ermita vineyard.  Their vineyards showcase the typical steep Priorat slopes, comprised of slate. Here we have a blend of 40% White Grenache, 36% Macabeo, 20% Viognier and 4% Pedro Ximenez, which is aged six months is French oak barrels before bottling. Until 1996 the family was involved in the grocery business grocers with winemaking ancestry.  They returned to their family tradition in 1996 and are now a leading bodega in Priorat. This is a fantastic wine for when the temperatures drop.

Alvaro PalacDofiios Finca Dofi 2010  $79.99

Greets the nose and palate with intense notes of bramble fruit interlaced with smoky minerals, violets, and Asian spices. Rich notes of blackberry and dried fruits coat the mouth and are further sustained by a racy acidity and edgy mid palate minerality.  Going further, candied and supple tannins guide the fruit, but are not overpowering. Layers of minerals, sweet ash, and dark fruit  unfold for a lasting finish that will convince almost anyone of the sex appeal of old vine Grenache.–Matthew Beaton

 Palacios is one of the biggest names in Spain, and his Finca Dolfi label reminds us of how and why he earned such a venerated reputation. It’s a taste of brilliance.

Clos Mogador 2011 $95.00

Opaque ruby. Captivating aromas of black and blue fruits, smoky minerals, incense and sexy oak mogadorspice. Impressively sweet and seamless, offering an array of berry fruit and floral pastille flavors underscored by juicy acidity. Finishes with smooth, palate-dusting tannins that fade quickly into the wine’s plush, mineral-accented fruit. This wine continues to show more finesse and freshness of fruit that I recall from a decade past, with no loss of flavor intensity.
— Josh Raynolds

 

 

Best,

Matthew

 

Matthew Beaton

Le Du’s Wines

600 Washington St 

NY, NY 10014

(212)924-6999

matt@leduwines.com

 

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