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We be jamm'n

Last Saturday night I visited with friends in Providence as part of a larger weekend of festivities featuring - dum, da, dee, dum! - attending the Newport Folk Festival together on Sunday. Naturally I would bring some wine for dinner. My best friend has an affection for Spanish reds; she and her husband are also fabulously hyper-local, urban farmers, so something from a sustainable or organic producer would be bonus. While I find it is always good to have some kind of direction, this time I was actually at a loss about what would fit my general criteria. And then, just in the nick of time, last Friday afternoon my colleague and I happened to uncork the Honoro Vera Monastrell to evaluate it. Dan had discovered this new project (made from Organic grapes and hailing from Jumilla, Spain!)  from the folks at esteemed producer Juan Gil while I was away at Pinot Camp; it had just arrived on the premises, so he was particularly excited about it - and eager for me to give it a taste. I was excited that he was excited. It doesn't happen like that everyday.

Made from 100% Monastrell grapes, the wine was opulent with succulent black plum, boysenberry and bramble fruit. It stopped me in my tracks. It was as juicy as it was accented with turned black soil, mushroomy earth and spice. Its silky smooth texture (my ultimate vinous pleasure) prompted an immediate high-five to Dan for "finding" it.

Over the weekend my friends were also "Wow'd". (Gotta love when you hit the nail on the head.)

Then, the next day while we were at the Festival grooving to the sound of Brown Bird, my work caught up with me in the best possible way: I nudged my BFF, smiled and said I know I'm a wine nerd, but these guys sound like last night's wine - his voice is rich, seductively smooth and thrilling; hers is the gorgeous, clean-cut note of acidity that brings it on home.

Heads bobbing, we wished we had another glass in hand.

Pairing: Garliky chopped sauteed kale and green beans; Grill-charred Salmon (with grilled sausage accompaniment optional)



Priorat Travels Continue: Clos Figueras

This post was written while I was on the road - Day 2 - in Spain two weeks ago. Now, where was I? Ah, yes... Leaving the car in its ‘hiding place’ and deciding to walk all of 5 minutes from my hotel to my hosts at Clos Figueres earlier this morning, I am happy to be in a quiet town where the only obstacles in my path are not even dog poop (Barcelona), but mama gatos protecting their kittens as I, an unexpected intruder, walk past. I guess on the directionals, hoping my inner compass will guide me to my destination. Luckily, it does.

At Clos Figueres I find Jaume, winemaker extraordinare, who has been at the winery for three years. We speak largely in Espanol, me understanding mucho, pero hablando muy mal. I learn that they use three different fermentation vats – stainless, fiberglass, and barrels. Each has their call of duty, depending whether the intended wine is for a more approachable, fruit forward offering that lends an ‘introduction’ to consumers, or the more complex wines for which the Priorat is famous.

I had hoped to video tape my time at Clos Figueres with the young expert winemaker/Master Sommelier Jaume, and Miguel, the wine manager. But our conversation was largely in animated spanglish; they both nodded enthusiastically at my very rusty Spanish and, thankfully, my Spanish training meant I could understand nearly all of what they were communicating. Was I romanced? Absolutely. Am I always romanced by the Priorat? No. It is historically a region that I quite love, but my love/hate price-point/value rationalism keeps things real.

Clos Figueres, like many of their elite neighbors, produces wine meant to age. Of course, they produce a wine that is more ‘accessible’ or fruit forward, knowing that many do not have the patience or wallet size these wines demand. They also produce a gorgeous white blend (Font de la Figueres) that is largely Viognier – a varietal that was mistakenly sent to proprietor Christopher Cannan when he set up shop in 1997; fortunately, the Priorat proved an interesting and worthwhile testing ground. I’m sipping the 2009’s worthwhileness while I write (my hosts were too kind in allowing me to take a couple of bottles with me to enjoy at my hotel later, to see how they would open, or evolve with a bit of oxygen in their ‘lungs’).

For the sake of argument, I just re-poured the second offering: the 2006 Clos Figueres red. It was a gem, arguably in its prime, even freshly uncorked this morning; now its anticipated chewy black plum and black raspberry (fraboise) fruit, with an edge of strawberry leaf, forest floor (sabroso…), dried herbs, bittersweet chocolate and black pepper spice flourish even more. Yet, I know it will continue to open and deliver even more.

Jaume used his pepito (plastic theif) to “steal” a bit of wine from each of the 2010 barrels enjoying their siesta (pre-aging/bottling) in barrels below the alfresco tasting porch so I could taste them each au natural. What an experience! This is the sort of opportunity that drives home the essence of varietal expression. Grenache is uniquely Grenache, with natural variation depending on the vineyard site; but at the end of the day, a Granny Smith apple is too tart to be called Macintosh just like Grenache is too red-berry fruited to be called Mouvedre, a more smoked meat, gamey, blueberry/redberry fruit flavored varietal. How varietals work together is what makes a particular Clos stand out in their efforts (aka when to pick, in what vessel one should ferment each varietal, and later, what balance of grapes will comprise the final wine).

Clos Figueres delivers an authentic expression of the Priorat. Their reds are structured but elegant, chewy but savory, juicy but teeth-sinking. If you can get your hands on a 2006 (or have one in your cellar) this is the time to uncork!



"Lower Priorat" - Part 1

This post was written while I was traveling in Spain last week. To say the Priorat expresses itself on the drive in, up and curving painstakingly through the mountains is one thing. Certainly. As I write (after a day of exploring this part of the Priorat and tasting at Clos Figueres – more on that later), I’m perched in my semi-private patio, overlooking life as the 240 person town of Gratallops knows it – children (all of them?) playing on the basketball court below not more than 100 feet from me, the quiet office of my hotel and the cellars (Onyx) they run, and the “parking lot” – a lucky plot of land not more than 1200 square feet with a place for you to turn off the engine without worry one of the narrow former cow path roads will lend itself to some sort of collision while you rest in the dormitory more or less above.

Purple flowers are in bloom while the vines are still largely dormant, with just a few buds appearing in the fairly warm, temperate spring air. The ground is a bright green, that is where grass is poking through, hanging in there for just a few weeks before the ever-warm sun cooks it to browness in the absence of rain.

Whereas Penendes was an amalgam of soil types, the Priorat is nearly completely (frighteningly, re: drive) terraced licoricella, or a sandy/rocky slate. Here in the lower Priorat at least, it is largely Grand Canyon orange-red. Olive (dark green) and almond (lighter green) trees are scattered throughout the vineyards. Visually they add a natural texture and romantic call to the landscape.

A vinous comparison? There is not really one. You could stretch to the complexity and arguably ‘fierce’ structure (well balanced but more tannic) wines of Bordeaux, but the fruit forward, teeth-sinking, chewy wines of Chateauneuf du Pape (last year’s trip) are perhaps better comparisons – at least one of the primary grapes used in both their reds is one in the same: Garnacha/Grenache.

The most fascinating thing – the thing that becomes particularly self-evident once you visit a wine region such as this – is that you can taste the terroir. It is visceral, it is not really something you can put your finger on, but it is very apparent. You “see” the red slate as you taste, the texture (fine tannin) is as animate as touching the soil, the olive and almond trees, the purple flowers…. The downright freshness of this place is alive in the wine. The best wineries (I think, humbly) capture this local essence no matter where you are. In Priorat you gather a survival of the fittest, but a sleepy-town (quiet) elegance as well.....



Tasting and traveling - and the two in tandem

Wondered where I've been? March was largely spent downtown or throughout Cambridge at various venues set up for trade folks to taste hundreds of wines, both those entirely new to market and also and equally important, newly released vintages of old friends. It was a more rigorous spring tasting season on "the circuit" (as we wine professionals call it) than last year, I hate to admit it. Meanwhile, I was preparing for my trip (now in motion...) to Spain, where I have been visiting what I call Cava Country, more formally known as Penedes, and also the Priorat.

My travels began a couple of days ago with Marc Picon at Pares Balta, which  proved more than I could have imagined, even knowing in advance that this is a fourth-generation run estate that has embraced organic viticulture since The Beginning, well before it was of interest or marketable to do so. They also operate in what is now a national Park.

When I arrived, Marc, my congenial on-sight host and the estate’s Export Manager, explained that Pares Balta's main priority isn’t showcasing the “music” behind their work in the winery when they are introducing people to Pares Balta (and yes, they make many, many different wines); rather they are focused on the land. I smiled and nodded a bit when he said this, because if you’ve taken a trip to any winery worldwide, I’m sure you, too, have heard the owner, winemaker or staff talk about the importance of terroir. Not to undermine their work or the sincerity of these statements, but I have to say, Pares Balta really does relish the earth and the natural course of things in an extreme way (and the result is extremely tasty!).

To explain better, Marc and I jumped in his SUV and began our “15 minute” journey up into the mountains where the Pares Balta vineyards are located, as I mentioned, now in a National Park. Yes, it is that serious. And yes, the ride was even more colorful than one of those Super Bowl SUV ads where you see trucks bouncing along easily over fallen logs, up cliffs and over boulders. If I could have taken a picture of it, I would have – but we were literally bouncing too much for me to capture the moment and video would have made any viewer nauseous.

Our first “stop” up the vigorous terrain was to the Pares Balta beehives. A costly undertaking, no doubt, PB has a beekeeper on staff to further support cross-pollination of the vines of course, but not just so they flourish; rather, so that the entire community flourishes, imparting natural, enhanced flavors in the wine. For example, the rosemary bushes growing alongside the trail flower. This flavor profile is gently communicated to the vines as the bees carry out their natural work. Brilliant. Nature helping nature help us.

Marc employed a terrific approach to best share both the Pares Balta way and what makes Penendes unique. We didn’t just bound up the mountain and look out the window. Instead, we stopped at various, specific vineyard sites to taste certain wines alongside the river in one case, and at the top of the mountain, in another. At each stop you could literally feel the change in climate, the quality of “freshness” in the air, the amount of (or lack of) wind, etc.. What makes Penendes so special was poignant and palpable: the varied terrain (a vivid mix of plots of clay literally across the path from plots of chalk) and microclimates.

What was perhaps most compelling to me was the hands off/hands on approach PB employs. They fully embrace what nature delivers on its own, and yet they don’t hesitate to employ (or encourage nature along?) either. Case in point, they use pheromones at the edge of the vineyards site as a natural ‘turn off’ to butterflies (the wind carries the "off-putting" scent down the rows), encouraging them to go ‘play’ in someone else’s vineyards. It’s one way to avoid pesticides and let the fruit mature unhindered by pests.

Tasting through many of Pares Balta’s wines was its own experience. Their range is from traditional Cavas, to rare single varietal bottlings that capture both the essence of the grape and also, critically and as expected, of the vineyard site’s terroir and aspect. As a case in point, Marc enthusiastically offered me a tasting of one of their rarest wines, a dry Gewurtztraminer. It was possibly the most varietally expressive Gewurtz I have ever experienced. (Yes! This grape is incredibly rare to Spain and more often found in Europe’s Germany and Alsace; the spice in the wine literally poked at my taste buds! But no, their production is ever-so-small, and therefore will never reach our New England shores.)

In addition, Marc enthusiastically designed a taste-off between two pairs of wines. The first was of two Garnacha’s from two different vineyard sites. Their flavors were of like family, but certainly of distinct breeding: 2008 Hisenda Miret, a more rugged, gamey beast that tamed willingy as it opened; and the 2008 Indigena, a fruit forward, approachable Garnacha with the flare of a rosey-cheeked flamenco dancer.

The second taste-off was between two Tempranillos hailing from two different clones, one wine was made from the local Penendes grape Ull de Lebre, and the other from a Pares Balta project in a much farther region, Ribera del Duero. The Absis is a Tempranillo-based wine that delivered a surprising helping of stewed plumbs, golden raisin, orange rind, blackberry and brighter raspberry fruits, with intense herbs and purple flowers, while the Ribera wine showed more masculine muscle, wet soil, fine dried herbs and baker’s chocolate flavors.

Long story short, I could have stayed all day! But appointments in the equally world-reknowned Priorat region beckoned….



Spain is on my table: Montsant's Magic

We're having schizophrenic weather (again) here in Beantown this late fall/early winter. Monday it was 53 degrees. Today we're capping out at 25, and it was bitterly cold last night. Someone said they heard it was "March weather" because it is all over the map. Whatever. It's Boston. It's always all over the map. But this year I can't complain, since we've had an absolutely ridiculously terrific weather year. Besides, I'm happy shopping at Wilson Farm for all the gourds and root vegetables that are prolific this time of year. Stuffed squash? Check. Pork tenderloin with Port-glazed brussel sprouts? Check. Hearty chicken soup? Check. In the wine scheme of things accordingly, it's true, I've had a good run in the Languedoc finding wines for "warmer" Fall days and that go easy on the wallet. But with the smell of winter in the air, I'm thinking more and more about Spain. It's a winemaking nation that’s impossible to synopsize because it is a country that has a great history in wine production, but today is one that looks to modern times (and palates) for guidance. As a result, it is arguably the Old World Mecca for innovation.

Ever heard of Samso? That’s ok, it’s just an alternate, local name for Carignan, which comprises the full 100% of fermented juice in a wine made by Clos de Noi. These folks are based in Montsant, one of my favorite nooks in Spain (and one I plan to visit next year). Carles Escolarhas is the winemaker behind this floral, intensely concentrated, fruit forward, teeth-sinking red. Ripe blackberry, black raspberry and bramble fruits, are accented with a touch of spice and Montsant’s increasingly sought, slatey minerality. Personally, I love the Clos de Noi all the more for its long, seductive finish.

There are plenty of places in Spain (Rioja, for example) that will warm you up this winter. But if you are a particular fan of big, bold reds with plenty of nuance - or even Priorat, Montsant's better known (pricier) neighbor - than this is an area for you to explore this winter.

What wines are you enjoying as our temps drop and we head into winter?



June Wicked Wines are... GOAL!

And…. We’re off! The World Cup games have started so it is definitely time to uncork a few bottles and celebrate the games. Of course there’s no better way to do that than traveling the world a bit. This month our Wicked Wine tour starts in France, travels to Italy, then comes back to Portugal and ultimately flies south of the equator to the home of the games: South Africa. Who are you rooting for? Which of these picks gets the most points on your tally sheet?



October's Wicked Wine Picks!

Oct 09 Wicked Wines - 3 of 4 shownOctober poses a cliche opportunity to pick truly wicked wines. But rather than picking “scary” (seriously out of the ordinary) wines for this month’s line up, we’ve gone a different route. October's wine picks reflect a greater need for something familiar and comforting in a climate-changing time. Better yet, they serve as an escape from the same-old-same, just in case you’ve gotten too set in your back to school routine or forgot to take a vacation over the summer. October is a month to mix it up! And so we have. Pop on over to Wicked Local today to see what fabulousness we've stirred up!



September's wicked wine picks!

Poland, OH : Poland Little Red School House Museum care of much as we may hate to admit it, the smell of autumn is in the air. September offers a great opportunity to embrace wines of all shapes and sizes, regardless of a specific need to celebrate. Sometimes simply unwinding at the end of a long day is the way to go. This month we offer some bubbly for just such an occasion, as well as a cool white that could fly under the radar screen if not given proper attention and a dynamic duo of opposing, but equally enticing reds. School may be back in session, but September is absolutely not a month for “Time Out” in the wine world! Pop on over to Wicked Local for this month’s roster of recess-worthy picks.

What else are you sipp'n on this month?



July Wicked Wines Uncorked!

July Wicked Wines July can be one of the most exciting months to enjoy wine. BBQ’s, baby showers, open roof decks and the joy of summer office hours (aka “early release” Fridays) coupled with one of the most versatile and delectable produce seasons gives you every excuse to pop a few corks. No surprise then, this month’s Wicked Wines reflect the need for a dynamic line up. Get excited to sip solo, toast the dog days of summer with friends or break out your inner-chef with these wicked good choices! Check them out here!

Then tell us... what's your take on Pinotage?



Wine in the summer is easy...

Cape Cod photo via:'m really excited. Not only is June but days away (and a trip to the beach imminent), but the wine community is just bursting with enthusiasm and anteing up with boucoups opportunities for you to taste their wares. And when I said a trip to the beach was imminent... I meant it! Starting this Sunday, Cape Cod Life is breaking out the vino and fabulous fare for one whole week! Each night a different cultural venue hosts a soiree of sorts - and most events are only $20. Check out the schedule to make your plans and then grab your sunblock to make a day (or two) of it!

If you don't have your sights set on the Cape just yet - or if you just like an excuse to stick around Boston's South End on a Monday night - Michael Dupuy from the boutique importing/distribution company Genuine Wine Selections will be pouring some pretty sexy stuff at Estragon.

When? This Monday night, 6/1/09 from 5 -7pm.

What? Some terrific, aged Riojas from Lopez de Hereria. When's the last time you tasted a 1999 Gravonia Crianza white? Or a 1989 Tondonia Reserva white? Or a 1998 Tondonia Gran Reserva rose? Let alone a 2002 Cubillo Crianza or 1999 Tondonia Reserva red?

For those of you heading to the hills or some such this summer, don't forget your bladder. Er, uh... your wine bladder, that is. Check out this little bit of wine wizardry!

Which wine adventures are you heading out on to celebrate the first week of June?