Ribeira Sacra – for the adventurous

The Spanish DO (designated wine area) of Ribeira Sacra isn’t at all well-known – even among keen wine lovers. In fact, in Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine (nicknamed the ‘Winelovers’ Bible’ with good reason), it merits just 2 lines. And the Wine and Spirit Education Trust ignores it completely until students reach ‘Diploma’ level. But, based on the wines I’ve tasted from there, it’s certainly an area worth exploring – and not just for the adventurous.

So, where is Ribeira Sacra? Look to Spain’s far north-west where you find the cool, Atlantic-influenced region of Galicia, which is becoming increasingly popular due, in particular, to the high quality Albariño grape. This white variety thrives near the coast but, go just 50 miles or so inland, and it’s a local red grape, Mencia, that dominates in ancient, almost impossibly steep rocky vineyards; you’ll see the words ‘viticultura heroica’ on the label pictured. Growing vines here is heroic viticulture indeed!

MenciaBut, if you’d expect Regina Viarum Mencia (Wine Society, a bargain at £11.50) to reflect this harsh, uncompromising landscape with a wine of a similar character, you’d be wrong. It’s a wine that, for me, had the same silky smoothness of a nice Pinot Noir – interesting as some thought that Mencia might be related to that grape, although apparently not. This classy example is delightfully fresh with lovely slightly bitter cherry aromas and flavours. Completely unoaked, the pure fruit shows through to give a refreshing and very satisfying red wine. Food-friendly as you might guess – but nothing too big or robust: partridge or duck, perhaps.

Ribeira Sacra’s production is tiny and wines from there may be difficult to find but, next door, in Bierzo, they also grow the Mencia grape and Majestic have a good example in Pizarras de Otero (£7.49).

Either way, this is a grape and a region worth getting to know.

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Spain’s Hidden Corners

In my view, Spain is one of the most exciting wine countries in the world today.  Wherever you look, you’ll find dedicated and innovative winemakers working with an array of high quality local grapes.  And it’s not just in the traditional areas – Rioja and sherry – that you find delicious wines.   I recently ran a course at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre concentrating on Spain’s ‘Hidden Corners’ – some of the lesser-known regions and grapes – where you can find wines that are not just very drinkable but, because they are not well-known, they are also great value. 

The bottles I found for the group to taste provoked plenty of discussion – and some very diverse views; indeed, when I invited votes for favourite wines of the day, 11 of the 12 wines attracted at least 1 vote.  But, there were 2 clear winners:

ruedaSan Antolin’s Rueda (Waitrose, £8.99) comes from the Upper Duero Valley in western Spain where vineyards are planted more than 600 metres (1800 feet) above sea level.  The altitude means cool nights, even in summer, which help to retain precious acidity in the Verdejo grapes from which this wine is made, while the heat of the day results in perfect ripening and a succulent, rich but refreshing white wine.  Fine for drinking on its own but even better with some fish in a creamy sauce that reflects the character of the wine beautifully.  I’ve enjoyed this Rueda over a number of years and it was an unsurprising winner.

tempranillo-gran-reservaThe close runner up, however, was, perhaps, a little less predictable.  Not, I hasten to add, due to any lack of quality in the wine, but, I might have expected that the soft, mellow, cooked fruit and spice flavours of an 8 year old red that had spent 2 of those years in old oak casks wouldn’t have had such wide appeal.  Happily, I was wrong and Anciano’s Tempranillo Gran Reserva 2008 landed in a well-deserved 2nd place.  Had this wine been from Rioja rather than from the deeply unfashionable Valdepeñas area south of Madrid, it would certainly have been at least double the £8.99 I paid for it in Waitrose.  A bargain, indeed!

And bargains are what you can expect if you explore ‘Hidden Corners’.  You just have to know where to look.

Tasting Galician Wines

Galicia, in the far north-west of Spain, is one of that country’s most interesting wine regions. But, if you’re not familiar with their wines – and, sadly, many in Britain are not – you need to forget any existing thoughts about Spanish wine. Galicia is different! Its climate is Atlantic-influenced which means that it is wetter, cooler and more fertile than areas of Spain further inland or those facing the Mediterranean. And it grows a clutch of grape varieties rarely seen elsewhere.

As you might guess, I love their wines – and not just since a really enjoyable visit my wife and I made there a couple of years ago. So I was particularly pleased that the Bristol Tasting Circle’s latest monthly event featured wines from Galicia (plus an intruder from Castille y Leon, just over the regional border!) presented by a long-standing friend of the Circle, Raj Soni of local independent wine merchant RS Wines.

BTC Galicia tastingTypical of the world’s cooler grape growing regions, Galicia makes more white than red. Paso de Marinan uses Godello in a blend with other local varieties to produce a wine with good body and lovely tropical fruit flavours (£9), while Crego e Monaguillo’s 100% Godello (£10) is fresh and clean with hints of mandarins on the palate. The one Galician variety that may be familiar to some (particularly Bristol Wine Blog readers) is Alboriño and Pazo de Barantes (£13) make an excellent example: quite rich and fragrantly perfumed, this wine has length, complexity and is simply delightful to drink.

But Galicia makes reds, too, mainly using the local Mencia grape. It gives soft, gently spicy wines – my wife said cumin – and the stand-out for me was the delicately smoky, barrel aged bottle from Joaquin Rebolledo (£15), who is so superstitious that he labelled his 2013 vintage as ‘2012+1’!

For more details of the wines, you can contact RS Wines on www.rswines.co.uk. Or, if tastings like this one appeal, just email the Bristol Tasting Circle secretary, Judith Tyler on judith.tyler@talktalk.net – new members are always welcome.

 

A Shy and Reticent Wine?

The English are often described as ‘reserved’ people: shy, reticent, not very forthcoming.  But the word ‘reserve’ can have other meanings: I can reserve a table at a restaurant or set a reserve – a minimum sale price – at an auction, for example. But what does it mean to wine lovers?

Look along the shelves of your local supermarket or wine merchant and you’ll notice that Reserve (or a local variant such as Reserva or Riserva) is one of the words most commonly found on the labels.  So, does it mean that the wine is shy, reticent and not very forthcoming?  Unfortunately not!  But, what it does mean (if anything) varies a lot, depending on where the wine comes from.

Things are clearest in Spain.  Spanish wine tasting (2)There, Reserva denotes a red wine that has been aged for at least 3 years before being released for sale, at least one year of which must have been in oak barrels.  For whites and rosés, the figure is 2 years (6 months in barrel).  The requirements for Gran Reservas are longer: for reds, 5 years (2 in oak barrel), for whites and rosés, 4 years (6 months in barrel).

Across the border in Portugal, the rules for their Reserva are much less specific, simply requiring the wine to be from a ‘good’ vintage (how do you define that?) with an alcohol level at least ½% above the regional minimum (which varies from place to place).

Italy’s equivalent is Riserva.

41 SelvapianaThis also varies from place to place – as do most things in Italy; it, too, denotes a certain minimum ageing, usually at least a year, although, for Barolo, it is as long as 5 years!  Often, higher alcoholic strength and other requirements are also included in the local rules.

And that’s as far as the regulated use of these terms goes.  Anywhere else and the word has no official meaning.  It might be used to suggest that the wine is of a higher quality, as in the French ‘Réserve du Patron’ or terms like Estate Reserve or Reserve Selection, or has seen some oak ageing, but, outside Spain, Portugal and Italy, none of this is guaranteed.

To my mind, we ought to reserve (sorry!) the use of the word to those places where it does have a legal meaning, but I’m not going to make a fuss about it because I’m English and too reserved!