Tasting the Spanish Priorat Icon L’Ermita Pre-Release with Álvaro Palacios…

Álvaro Palacios arrived in Grattallops, Priorat, in 1989, invited by a group of local producers and intent on extracting the very best from the land of llicorella grey slate soils.

The steep amphitheatre vineyards of L’Ermita extend around the village of Grattallops, where the broken, open slatey llicorella soils bring outstanding clarity to wines. 

The old Granacha and Samso (Carignan) vines receive more than 4,000 hours of sunshine per year and less than 380mm of annual rainfall, leaving a decisive mark on the character of their wines.

The 2016 L’Ermita is comprised of 85% Garnacha, 14% Carignan, 1% mixed Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, and Pedro Ximenez. The people who harvest pick the grapes off the stems one by one and discard whatever is not perfect, resulting in a total production of 2,000 bottles in 2016 from an area of 1.4 hectares.

Tasting Note: The L’Ermita 2016 Priorat is something special, all class and subtlety. The nose is effusive, bursting with dark fragrant parma violets, sweet sun raisined black berries, fig confit, black plums, spicy black peppercorns, and subtle grape jelly nuances. The palate is lush, broad, expansive, coating every inch of the mouth with crunchy, fleshy red and black berry fruits. Such impressive complexity, opulence and dense, sweet, seamless tannins. There is correspondingly massive concentration and intensity, yet flavours never stray to the spectrum of over ripeness. Everything is so perfectly judged. Just lovely precise acids, very fine balance and a real assured feel to the wine. So distinguished… a wine deserving its icon status.

(Wine Safari Score: 97+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Dominio do Bibei – At the Forefront of New Wave Spanish Cool Climate Wines…

This week I attended the highly successful Vinateros Tasting at the Tate Modern Gallery in London along with what seemed like the rest of the entire London wine trade judging by the thronging crowds at the event, where six leading UK importers presented the latest and greatest “New Wave” Spanish producers in their ranges.

One producer that caught my eye was Dominio do Bibei from the Ribeira Sacra, one of the most exciting regions to emerge from Spain in the past few years. Situated in the North-Western corner of Galicia, the area is very remote and the general landscape dramatic and mountainous. The vineyards are steeply terraced and lie at an altitude of up to 680 metres. Vineyards are rocky and barren with vines growing on predominately slate / schist soils. All fermentation and storage is in wooden vats, barrels and concrete. Domino do Bibei’s wines are made by the talented Javier Dominquez, who focuses on using only local varieties in a combination of various blends. The red wines usually include Mencia, Garnacha and Muraton, while the whites use Godello, Albariño and Dona Blanca. 

Today, Luis Romero, the Dominio do Bibei export manager dropped by to see me and we had another opportunity to taste the estate’s largest production wine, the Lalama red blend again in a more calm environment than at Vinateros.

Tasting Note: The Dominio do Bibei Lalama 2013 red is a blend of 90% Mencia, and the remaining 10% from Garnacha, Brancellao and Muraton, has an attractive plush nose with very expressive perfume and fragrance. Soft bruised red cherries, macerated rose petals, violets, crushed forest berries, raisined cranberries, black chocolate and cocoa spice. Fermentation was made in large French oak barrels then transferred to 300 and 500 litre French oak barrels for 13 months, before being moved back to the 25, 35 and 45 Hl wooden vats for another 7 months ageing. Notes of black peppercorns and savoury sappy spice develop on the nose despite the entire production being destalked and destemmed. The savoury, foresty complexity is compelling. The palate is ultra polished and pure with super sleek fine grained tannins, wonderful sweet berry spice, hints of cured meats, sweet plums, all with a most wondrous, harmonious balance. Super freshness and lightness twined with concentration make this wine so juicy and more’ish at 13 Abv. A seductively ethereal red. Production is approximately 55,000 bottles depending on the vintage.

(Wine Safari Score: 93+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

The Art of Oxidation…

At a recent wine trade lunch, we got talking about premoxed white Burgundy and what a pain it was in every fine wine drinkers life. A friend had recently opened about the seventh prematurely oxidised (premoxed) bottle of Comtes Lafon Meursault 1er Cru Charmes 2005 out of a case of 12 and vowed never to buy another bottle of Lafon white again.

While it is unfair to single out any one grower specifically, it is fair to say that Dominique Lafon’s whites have been one of the worst offenders for premox since 1996, when the problem was identified in the mainstream media.

But the interesting point of this lunch chat was that the friend in question is also a big lover of traditional styles of oxidised white Rioja as produced by Lopez de Heredia and the older examples of Castillo Ygay white. 

Personally, I remember taking a bottle of expensive Chevalier Montrachet 1999 Grand Cru from a top grower, to a previous blind tasting lunch and everyone thinking it was top white Rioja with amazingly fresh acids, buttery nuanced caramel oak notes, lemon butter and a sweet pithy honied finish. Only, the problem was that it was in fact an expensive premoxed white Burgundy that should have been pale in colour, rapier fresh with taught mineral lemon / lime tension and a clean stoney finish!

So if a wine is eminently drinkable, and meant to taste oxidised, that’s all fine. If it’s NOT meant to taste oxidised, you tip it out and get derided (if you brought it to lunch.) Which made me suggest, in jest, that certain Burgundy producers should diversify and establish a culture of solera wines, that are fresh, zesty, but oxidative in the Tondonia style!

You heard it here first… oxidative solera NV Burgundies. Watch this space!! The sommeliers are going to love this! 

Sunday lunch Toro red rocking da house…

I love Spanish wine. Those vibrant Albariño’s whites from Rias Baixas, white Riojas (oxidised style or fresh styles), Bierzo Godellos, Rueda Verdejo’s, and of course fresh Galician saline whites.

When it comes to reds however, it’s pretty hard to beat the bright magnificence of Rioja. Yes, Priorat has some special offerings but has generally fallen off the fine wine radar more recently as people start to look for fresher styles at lower alcohols. 

First vintage of Mariano Garcia’s Mauro – the 1978

But there is another region that offers some serious wines…Ribera del Duero and its satellite areas of Tudelo del Duero and Toro, all situated alongside the Duero river that flows West to Oporto in Portugal. 

I visited the region again last year to taste new vintages from Pingus, Aalto, Mauro, San Roman and Vina Sastre in La Horra,  and tasted some phenomenal wines. I’m happy to declare a slight scepticism in the overall quality of many top reds from Ribera del Duero, which doesn’t have too many cheaper offerings either.

For me, there are still too many wines showing over-ripe jammy fruit characters, beefy bretty oak, and high alcohol rustic structures. But things are changing. There is a reason Vega Sicilia’s Alion, Valbuena and Unico are so expensive. They offer consistently very fine quality year on year, or don’t release at all.  But there are other wines worth seeking out.

80 year old Tinta de Toro (Tempranillo) vines in Toro

On my last trip, I picked up a few bottles of this phenomenal San Roman 2005 red. A winery owned by ex-Vega Sicilia winemaker Mariano Garcia and his two sons, where they have been on a mission to tame the rustic tannins of Tinta de Toro (Tempranillo) in this region. They may just have done it with this superb 2005.

Archive vintage 2005 San Roman, Toro

Tasting Note: San Roman 2005, DO Toro, Spain – A massively lifted nose gives you much to think about. Layers of sweet caramelised cherry fruits, kirsch, black plum, liquorice, cassis and vanilla pod spice meld beautifully with subtle foresty bramble fruits. The palate is ultra plush showing just what optimally picked old vine Tempranillo can deliver. The 23 months of aging in French and America oak really works, adding soft, fleshy, vanilla spice complexity and creme brûlée hints together with ripe, smokey, graphite-laden black fruits. The oak is now beautifully integrated after 11 years and while there is a hint of alcohol heat on the finish, there is just so much acid freshness and vibrant crunchy black fruit that beckons you back for another sip. Distinguished and very impressive. Drink now to 2025+ (Wine Safari Score: 94/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Threatened old vine Tinta de Toro of 80-100 years old, being pulled up regularly

The lure of Unicorn Rose…

The macho wine collectors and drinkers despise Rose wines. They perhaps tolerate it if sipping on a bottle of Domaine Ott at Club Cinqante Cinq on Pampelone Beach near St Tropez.

But as any true bona fide wine lover will tell you, there are few things more liberating than quaffing, in quick time, a fantastically chilled, fresh, exotic, dry, complex bottle of unicorn Rose. 

It’s not exactly like a bloke admitting to wearing his wife’s dresses when she is away, but more like a chap just reaching out and engaging his more emotional, liberal, sensitive side. Big difference!

I mean, what’s not to love about Grand Cru Rose from Domaine des Lambrays, 100% Mazuelo from Marques de Murrieta, or a unicorn Rosato from Biondi Santi, made exclusively for drinking at the domaine. 

These super quaffable gems give you a tantalising sniff of the estates’ famed red first wines … even if it’s just subconsciously. The smaller the production the better. One tank? Nah, one barrel. No… one demijohn!! One Amphora…!!! You get the picture. Time to  indulge! 

Striving for vinous perfection after 30 years…

How do you measure history in a glass of wine? Well, pour a glass of Castillo Ygay 1986 Blanco Gran Reserva Especial and perhaps you will steal a snapshot of a bygone era.

Tonight’s seduction was not only vinous but also of the culinary kind. Five courses cooked by Heston Blumenthal’s kitchen “Dinner” at the Mandarin Oriental to overload the senses, and matched with the latest releases from Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay.

No Heston meal would be complete without the famous Meat Fruit course from circa 1500, made from mandarin, chicken liver parfait, and served on grilled bread. This was matched petfectly with another new(ish) Murrieta release… the Marques de Murrieta Primer Rose ~ a heavenly, fragrant, meaty wine with a meagre 5,000 bottle production.

But of course the night was not about the food, but certainly about the wines, and the star headline act was the Ygay Blanco 1986, which shone brighter than on any previous occasion I had drunk it in the past 2 years!

So many 100 point tasting notes have been written about the Blanco that I’ve decided not to bore you with yet another. What I will say is that this wine typifies the future of fine wine… showing rarity (8,000 bottles), scarcity, quality, accessibility and longevity. The perfect 100 point recipe for aspiring winemakers.

An honourable mention needs to go to the backing band, who made the night all possible – the Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial red. The 2007 vintage was poetic, fragrant, lush and perfumed, with real gravelly, sappy minerality starting to develop after all these years! 

A majestic evening like this can only be ended by a proverbial bad boy… the Dalmau Red Blend 2012.

Underrated, and under appreciated for years, the Dalmau clocks in as a gem waiting to be discovered. The highly intelligent child yearning to show the world its true talents! But tonight was not the night. That privilege belonged to the Ygay Blanco 1986! 

More than diamonds, more than gold…What price vinous history?

On Monday night, the 3rd of October, I’ll be having dinner with Vicente, the Count of Creixell, at Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant ‘Dinner’ to celebrate the launch of Ygay’s 100 point white Rioja. 

However, there has been some, perhaps unjustified (?), controversy surrounding the release price of this ultra rare wine. To private clients, they would expect to pay around £275-£300 per bottle underbond ex-taxes… with a shop recommended retail price of between £400 to £450 inc taxes.

Even Luis Gutierrez, the Spanish Wine Advocate reviewer, who awarded the perfect 100 points to the 1986 Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial Blanco, ended his review proclaiming that despite his score, he would not be taking his own personal allocation of this wine “due to the high release price.”

The whole saga kind of reminds me of the press and industry storm when Stellenbosch producer De Toren released their maiden Book XVII 2010 Bordeaux blend at circa £180 per bottle in the UK… a price never before seen for a South African current release wine.

Whether or not you like the Ygay 1986 or the Book XVII, are these producers being unfairly singled out for critisicm or should they be applauded for pushing boundaries? De Toren certainly led with glass ceiling breaking pricing, where many more producers in SA now follow today.

Every year, mass produced Bordeaux growths are released at eye watering prices while small scale production white and red Burgundies are regularly released at 3 figure prices…with not even a murmur from the market or consumers. The market has obviously become used to these ultra premium levels for certain regions, but not for others. 

The top wines from the finest producers in Spain, many with extended aging for ‘historic releases’, have long been under priced and the market is finally waking up to this fact… and so prices are rising fast, both for ‘new’ producer releases like Ygay 1986 and in the secondary broking market for back vintages of rarities like those from Castillo Ygay, Vega Sicilia and Lopez de Heredia.

With regards to the very top Spanish whites and reds, I predicted this impending siesmic price shift years ago. On the day the Cape Winemaker’s Guild Auction in Cape Town broke R13m rand (£750,000) for the first time, could this be the first tremors of real change in the pricing of SA’s top wines? I reckon it’s certainly the beginning… whether end consumers like it or not.