Articles

My Article published in the Circle of Wine Writers’ On-line Magazine.

FOLLOWING A STAR IN THE EAST

With some ‘previous’ under my belt (a visit to help judge the IWCB in May 2017), along with the reference book, ‘The Wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova’, by fellow CWW member, *Caroline Gilby MW, plus having some friends in situ, I recently joined a Clementine Communications Press Trip to Romania – the eponymous ‘Star in the East’.

Feted as usual when judging abroad, my colleagues and I in 2017 were taken to various Romanian wineries as well as enjoying dinners with wine supplied by others. Thus began my interest in wines from Eastern Europe, spurred on by Caroline’s excellent book. Therefore when the Clementine offer came in I jumped at it with some alacrity.

The itinerary took in the wine regions of: Oltenia and Muntenia which includes Dealu Mare and Dragasani, home to two each of the wineries we visited; and Banat, Romania’s smallest wine region which in fact houses the country’s largest individual producer, which we visited first.

Our travels enabled us to meet people as diverse as an ex-pat Bristolian, who, with two partners, established their winery only at the beginning of the 21st Century; through to the aristocracy of Austria and Romania, a Baron and Baroness, no less, whose families between them have racked up 800 years of wine making experience!

True stories of persecution under the Communist regime, including imprisonment, even death, escape, eventual repatriation and restitution, as well as continuing frustration with the lack of political will, punctuated our visit. However the common denominator linking all our hosts was, and is, passion! Passion for their craft, for their wines and for further consolidating the wines of their mother country in the wine markets of the world. I admire them all!

The trip was sponsored by the aforementioned Bristolian, Philip Cox, founder of winery Cramele Recas, which became famous, or infamous, depending on your viewpoint, when they launched a cut price Orange Wine on the shelves of Aldi in the UK market. When defending himself against the torrent of criticism he received from many quarters he simply quoted the philosophy of the winery – their intention is to always over-deliver in terms of their price/quality ratio. Punching above their weight!

Cramele Recas produces 60% of the grapes it requires to make the 24 million litres needed for its 68 different labels. For such a large holding, and considering as well the 40% obtained elsewhere, it’s no surprise to learn that there are many different microclimates affecting their vineyards.

Generally speaking the climate is relatively mild with Mediterranean and Atlantic influences. Soils also vary, of course. There is clay with sand and limestone as well as iron rich soils. Wine making in the area goes back to the Romans and Phillip has a document detailing the purchase of vines from 1447. There is a rich history here, which, as always, has been peppered with wars, land confiscation and political strife. However, Cramele Recas is a success story with export sales booming, along with the home market too.

We tasted a total of 19 wines, from entry level through to flagship, made from young vines to those which have seen 50 vintages. Of those that we tasted, approximate pricing was between 2·50€/bottle to the most expensive retailing at about 20€. I think we all agreed that there were no poor wines and that all did indeed offer very good value for money.

There was a very long drive of approaching four hours the next day taking us to Dragasani, firstly to the immaculate and beautiful Avincis winery, and thence to the charming, Prince Stirbey winery, with the smallest production of all wineries visited.

Our hostess at Avinci, Dr. Cristiana Stoica, along with her daughter, Andreea, were as pleased to see us as we were to meet them and visit their stunning location! It was here, sitting in the perfectly tailored grounds over coffee in glorious sunshine, where we heard about the family history and the first of many sad and tragic stories about the Communist era – stories similar to those which were heard everywhere and from everyone we met!

Those who had been banished and/or forced to leave Romania during these times, their lands, houses etc confiscated by the state, were only able to start returning from the late 80s. The Stoica family, like many others, came back and attempted to reclaim the land and property stolen from them. It was a bureaucratic nightmare which is yet to be fully resolved!

Our tour around the grounds, first purchased over 100 years ago, including the magnificently restored mansion, built in 1905, which contained a ‘message in a bottle (a tradition of the time) commemorating the building and its blessing by a priest, was a delight.

So were the ten wines we tasted, with Cristiana and her Head Winemaker, the 24 years old, petite Madalina, who was as charming as her wines. Madalina led us through, certainly my first taste of the indigenous variety Crâmposie, plus another first for me, the Feteasca Regala, which translates to Royal Maiden! I particularly liked this variety, here, and at other wineries to follow. I think that, were I tasting it blind, I might identify it (wrongly, of course) as Viognier – and for me that is a definite plus.

Head Wine Maker, Madalina – as charming as her wines!

We also enjoyed the opened wines over an excellent, gourmet lunch, cooked on site. We noted that there are also rooms here, with various activities to enjoy, like tennis and others, as well as the wine and dining!

It was a relatively very short drive to the Prince Stirbey winery, where we  were honoured to meet owners Baron and Baroness Jakob and Lleana Kripp-Continescu. The former, from a 500 year dynasty of Austrian winemaking, the latter with a mere three hundred years of their family winery!

Those who have flown into Bucharest will have landed at the Henri Coanda airport, named in fact after the man who, secretly smuggled out the Baroness when it became too dangerous to stay under a Communist regime, intent on expropriation of all private property, and heaven help anybody who stood in their way. Indeed, some of the Baronesses family were imprisoned, one losing his life!

The bucolic winery is the same as when it was built in 1913 and is surrounded by the unchanged beautiful rolling hills, leading eventually down to the river and lake, that are home to the Prince Stirbey vineyards. Stunning!

The contrast between this winery and the first we visited, Cramele Recas, couldn’t be more marked. The production here is a mere 100,000 bottles (a percentage of which, though, are found in the cellars of The Wine Society and Oddbins!). Wines are made exclusively with indigenous Romanian varieties and all of the oak barrels, that’s 225 litres, 300 litres and 500 litres are Romanian too.

It’s true that there is some fermentation done in French oak foudres, but essentially this is a thoroughly Romanian enterprise, excepting also the winemaker, Oliver Bauer, a German who fell in love with the area, and a local girl too! There are also some small stainless steel tanks, from Slovenia.

There is no racking when the wines are in barrel, gravity takes its course during the year that most of the red wines stay in oak. There is as little intervention as possible, with spontaneous fermentation provoked by the home yeasts.

Classy sparkling wines with lengthy ageing on lees, whites, reds and a dessert wine, all made from their own local varieties. A super array!

Next morning, our last full day in Romania we visited the first of two wineries in the Dealu Mare (meaning Big Hill) wine region, whose temperate continental climate and iron rich red/brown soils are behind some of Romania’s finest wines. We were delighted to find that the young winemaker, Silviu, of the S.E.R.V.E. winery was to travel with us from the hotel. It was largely their Cuvée Charlotte (which we tasted!), using Romania’s most famous variety, Feteasca Negra, in the blend, that persuaded critics to start to believe in Romanian wines!

The winery opened its doors in 1994 and is now making 700,000 – 800,000 bottles of wine, 40% of which are for export, to countries such as Canada, Belgium and Germany, with Silviu and his colleagues hoping to break into the ‘very difficult’ UK market too.

International varieties, including Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay, (amongst others) rub shoulders with indigenous grapes, in the vineyards and in bottle. Our tour took us to the hills which eventually climb to form the Carpathian Mountains, which in fact protect the vineyards from the very worst of the weather. When we were there however, and this at the end of October, sun tan lotion was the order of the day, for me at least, and shade was often sought – testimony to the factual reality of Climate Change, postulated Silviu!

After tasting we were treated to a virtual banquet of local dishes for lunch, accompanied by whichever wines we liked most – exceptional hosts, a pleasure to visit.

Finally, to the south of the Dealu Mare region we visited the second largest of the wineries on our itinerary, Budureasca, one of the most modern in all of Romania. A huge investment (that’s 15 million Euros, 9 million of which came from the owners) has put this winery in the centre of the home market in terms of sales. The limestone, Calcium rich soils here give rise to a current 2·5 million litres of wine, with a maximum capacity of 3·6 million with 90+% sold within Romania! The approximate 3% – 8% in export sales is something on which the winery is now focussing.

55% of production is red wine, the rest is white, and our hosts, Dumitru and Laurentiu are pleased with sales of the sparkling wine, started only two years ago, largely because they could see the worldwide rise in fizz sales.

There is a confidence about the whole winery and no wonder considering sales such as these and indeed the quality of the fifteen wines we enjoyed at an impressive tasting, which included the variety Tamaioasa Romaneasca. This variety, thought to have originally come from Greece, has a remarkable likeness, in aroma and taste, to Gewurztraminer, making it, for me, an ideal partner to Oriental cuisine, along with South East Asian dishes.

An excellent, eye-opening trip!

It was interesting that our colleague, Jürgen Schmücking, whose taxi collected him at 03:30 hrs for his flight back to Austria, and I (at 6 am) were rushing back (myself to UK via Dublin!) to make it in time for the same reason, our respective wives’ birthdays. There are some things more important than wine! 

*With thanks to Caroline Gilby MW for her book, ‘The Wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova’, which I have used for reference purposes for this article.

Colin Harkness

Tasting wines from Grandes Pagos de España

GRANDES PAGOS DE ESPAÑA

I’m not sure of the year, nor, for certain, the location (Alimentaria, I think, but it could have been Fenavin?) but these are simply details. Nor can I recall, without looking though reams of tasting notes as well as all my archived Cork Talks, the actual wines I tasted when I attended my first tutored tasting of several (it might have been all, at that time) of the wines made by bodegas which were members of the association, Grandes Pagos de España.

However, what I can remember with absolute clarity is the impression they made upon me as I tasted, made my notes, listened to the address and then went to the press room, fortunately quiet at the time, to reflect on something of a revelation. Each and every wine was outstanding!

Readers can imagine, therefore, my delight at receiving an invitation to attend another tasting of wines made under the auspices of this now even more prestigious association. The fact that it was to be held just down the road from where I live, at one of the founder members’ wineries, Bodegas Enrique Mendoza, made it even better!

So, as this new year, 2019, starts I would like to thoroughly commend all the wines that go under the banner of Grandes Pagos de España – and that doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot! The samploes we tasted were priced between 11€ – and admittedly expensive 68€, but look around and you’ll surely find some that suit your budget.

Firstly, as testament to that which I’ve been saying for several years now, of the 11 wines we tasted, 6 were white! Secondly, as many regular Cork Talk readers will know, we certainly do not have to look for wines emblazoned with the words Denomonación de Origen on their labels when searching for quality in wine shops and supermarkets (note the order – please go to the former first, when seeking to buy wine!).

Of the 29 bodegas admitted into the association there are wines being made under DO auspices, but also Vinos de Pago, Vinos de la Tierra, IGP, DOCa, and sin-IGP. Also, with all the wines submitted for assessment for entry there is rigorous control of quality, with a minimum of four independent tasters tasting and scoring each wine, and these assessments happen continuously throughout the year.

Once one vintage gas been passed and accepted, it certainly does not mean the the next vintage will be approved automatically – the whole process starts over! (sadly I wasn’t able to accept the offer, just before Christmas, of being one of the judging panel members because of a prior commitment – but I’m told I’ll receive another this year!).

From this tasting I have three white favourites, though I loved them all, in fact! DO Montilla-Moriles is an area about which I’ve written a little before – right next to DO Jerez, it’s actually this DO that provides (legally, I should add) almost all the PX grapes for it’s more illustrious neighbour! Bodegas Alvear makes their 3 Miradas Vino de Pueblo 2016 using Pedro Ximenéz grapes, which, once fermented, spend 8 months in cement tinajas (similar in shape to ancient Greek amphorae) under the ‘magic’ layer of flor, as I Sherry producton. Lovely, very dry white wine, with a mineral aspect to and, in fact, the leaste expensive of all wijes tasted!

I have to admit that the most expensive wine, Pago Arínzano’s Gran Vino Blanco 2014, made with Chardonnay, growing in the Navarra area, and having 11 months in French oak, resting on its lees, was also a favourite. Expensive, yes, but what a wine! Harmonious wine showing exemplary balance between fruit and oak – stunning!

However, it didn’t at all outshine the ‘local’ (Utiel-Requena area) Finca Calvestra 2017 made from the often denigrated Merseguera variety. Bodegas Mustiguillo has almost brought this wine back to life, chaning it from an also-ran, in fact hardly used, blender, to a white wine of the finest quality! 18€.

It wasn’t just the fact that Finca Moncloa 2014 uses a variety I’d not tasted before(Tintilla de Rota), grown in the VdlT Cádiz area of production, that made this wine stand out amongst such an excellent red selection. It was the sheer joy of drinking it! Cabernet, Syrah and Petit Verdot join the party, which also has a mineral quality to it. Excellent, and please note – VdlT, not DO!

I recommended Signo Bobal from Finca Sandoval in the DO Mannchuelo area as a fine wine for Christmas and I was in pretty good company doing so, Jancis Robinson MW, has also singled out this exceptional wine, made by one of the Spanish Wine Sector’s Movers and Shakers (as highlighted in Cork Talk very recently), Victor de La Serna. Elegance, virtuosity, depth and fun too!

Also, though I’ve mentioned it here before, please, check out Bodegas Enrique Mendoza’s Estrecho, such a wonderful expression of the variety Monastrell! And, from DO Ribera del Duero, a wine so enjoyed once at our Cata Chez Nous, the Aalto 2016, is fantastic!colin@colinharknessonwine.com Facebook Colin Harkness Twitter @colinonwine www.colinharknessonwine.com

Top Spanish Wine Cork Talk Influencers 2018!

SPANISH WINE’S MOVERS & SHAKERS 2018

Why, oh why do I annually set myself these difficult tasks? Christmas Day Wines, the Cork Talk Top Ten, Recommended Christmas Presents, Cork Talk Highlights – and more!

Well, on the one hand it’s enjoyable to review the year and use the 52 Cork Talks I’ve written as research for the above; nevertheless it’s also a veritable agony to include some, whilst leaving out others! Plus, there are many other Spanish Wine influencers, about whom I’ve read, but whose wines I’ve yet to taste and whose stories I’ve yet to write for Cork Talk. So, here I am again writing a list, of people, knowing that, because of space restrictions, I will have to omit some of the eponymous Movers and Shakers, who really should be included!

I make no apologies for mentioning once again here in Cork Talk, Pepe Mendoza, who took over the winemaking reigns of the family owned Bodegas Enrique Mendoza several years ago, whose HQ is, believe it or not, but a few of kilometres from Benidorm. When Pepe and other family members succeeded their father, Enrique, along , he continued with the wines that had established the winery as one of the best in Spain.

But, that wasn’t enough for the man who, in the space of just two years, was voted the best winemaker in Valencia and then the best young winemaker in Spain! Pepe added to the portfolio, including two further flagship wines, Estrecho and Las Quebradas, both of which have appeared in Cork Talk, and continue to do so in my cellar!

Well, he’s at it again, and that’s why he can certainly be called a Mover and Shaker in the Spanish Wine World! Casa Agricóla is Pepe’s personal project: where only Mediterranean organically grown grape varieties are used; where the limited production is sustainable; where there is total respect for the soils and environment; and where there is as little intervention as possible I don’t need to, as I’ve tasted his first three wines in this range, but I wish him the very best of luck in his new enterprise!

Regular readers will also have seen mention of Sarah Jane Evans MW more than once in Cork Talk. An award-winning wine writer, journalist and speaker at conferences worldwide, Sarah Jane qualified as an MW in 2006, and was presented with an award for the highest mark in the theory section of this exacting exam, and was subsequently appointed Chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine!

With regard to her specialist subject, Spanish Wine, Sarah Jane Evans was made a member of the exceedingly prestigious Gran Orden de Caballeros de Vino in 2010, with a number of similarly impressive appointments to various Denominaciónes de Origen throughout Spain. Thus, she is already established as another major influencer, but that’s not all!

Her recently published book, The Wines of Northern Spain, has been given glowing reviews by expert and novice alike and with, we understand a sequel (perhaps to be titled The Wines of Southern Spain?) in the offing, there can be no doubt about her eligibility for this list!

Victor de la Serna is the person I go to first when I need some information about Spanish Wine. Described, accurately, by Wikipedia as a journalist and writer, Victor is in fact so much more! A winemaker himself (award winning and Parker+ high pointer, Finca Sandoval, DO Manchuela) he is co-founder of the prestigious Grandes Pagos de España.

It’s really helpful to have someone like Victor readily available, as he always is, to answer any questions I have about Spanish wines and the Spanish Wine Scene in general. Victor uses Twitter often and I always receive notifications when he has something to say. He is one of the best respected Spanish wine commentators, and as such, a Mover and Shaker!

I’ve been following Andrew Halliwell on Twitter ever since we were in contact about a wine project on which he was working in DO Terra Alta. Andrew is a consultant winemaker with fingers in (not literally!) a few bodega pies here in Spain. Having tasted the wines which he helped make with owner, Andy McLeod, at Celler Alimara it became instantly clear to me that here is a guy who knows how to make wine!

Andrew travels around Spain consulting, and learning too, I’m often in contact with him, he always has a view on whatever aspect of Spanish wines I’m considering for Cork Talk, and he’s thus a valuable influencer!

I also came to know and follow Fintan Kerr through comments he and I made via Twitter – it’s an excellent resource for me, and I like to think I make a contribution too! Fintan qualified with honours in the Wines and Spirits Educational Trust (WSET) Diploma and is now on the long, arduous and very expensive road to Master of Wine status. I’m sure he’ll make it!

Fintan’s all round wine knowledge, experience and expertise is already excellent, but he keeps studying. Living in Barcelona he certainly contributes to the Spanish wine scene, as well as that of world wines!

colin@colinharknessonwine.com Facebook Colin Harkness

www.colinharknessonwine.com Twitter @colinonwine