Archive for November, 2009

Catalonia in Autumn

Posted on: November 19th, 2009 by Andrew 1 Comment

Trip to Spain 22nd -24th Sept 09

Two days in Catalonia in autumn, what could be nicer. Apart from the fact that our weather has been pretty good these last few weeks, an opportunity to head for the sun to visit a couple of suppliers was not to be missed.

So off we went via Bournemouth International and Ryan Air ( The flights are cheap but the beer..)

On arrival at Reus (Barcelona International to the merry folks at Ryanair) we were met by Steve and Emily from Wine Merchant EWGA who had organised the trip. A half hour drive took us to our hotel, a small converted farm down a long track amongst the vines near Montblanc in the Conca de Barbera Appellation.

Montblanc is a classic Spanish fortified town with a high castellated wall looking west and narrow cobbled streets. Picturesque. The barren hills behind are themselves crenellated with windmills which turn lazily in the warm breeze.

The hotel was almost impossible to find – even the satnav only got us to the dirt track and there were no signs. Subsequently we learned the council had forbidden the owners to put one up. Once there however it turned out to be a pretty B&B in the manner of a ferme auberge. We had a delicious meal and far too much wine, turning in around midnight for a nine AM start the next morning.

I slept badly – it was hot -and felt ropey by 7 am. However a hot shower and several cups of coffee later and we were ready to hit the road to San Sadurni D’Anoia, the epicentre of Cava production in Penedes.

The journey took longer than we thought, not helped by not having the full address of Covides, our destination, so we had to ring for help which arrived in the form of a small yellow car which guided us through the town.

Covides is a large co-operative and one of the biggest producers in the area. EWGA take a small amount of their cava under the Casteller label

The two ladies from Export took us on a tour of the winery. It was quite impressive with 8 million bottles in their expansive cellar and a complex state of the art bottling line that can cope with 5000 bottles an hour – all computer controlled of course. It was the largest sparkling wine production facility I had seen.

Tour completed we headed back to the office for a tasting and snack lunch. The wines they showed us were good to very good. First up the Casteller range of dry white and Rose. The white has about 10 gms of sugar dosage and is pleasant but not very exciting. The rose was fine.

Next was a finer selection under their Duc de Foix label. These were a whole lot better. A brut zero at 1 gm of sugar was steely dry but fine and classy and was followed by their classic brut at 4.5 gms. This was the star for me. It had finesse and complexity with fruit and acidity in perfect balance. Finally their reserve with some Chardonnay added to the traditional blend. This was richer and rounder and was heading off into champagne territory, but to my my mind lacked the tipicity of the Brut. Sadly though these wines are not available in the UK although our friend in Export hinted at a future distribution deal. Not with EWGA though.

Various discussions followed about the difficulties posed in the UK market by cheapo cava dumped in the supermarkets. I don’t think its a giant problem for us independents as we can always get our clients to sample before they buy, but it is a problem nevertheless for quality producers in Penedes. My view is that the problem could be solved if the Cava name was tied to an appellation or a quality standard rather than being a catch all name for Spanish sparkling wine. Hard to see it getting past the bulk producers though.

To round off the tasting a trio of still wines that are produced alongside the fizz were wheeled out. Nicely packaged they were rather good. The rosé was a particular hit. A 100% Cabernet wine with depth and some weight but with ripe complex red fruit flavours and good length. This was as good a rose I had tasted from Spain. The white was clean and fresh, from the Xarello grape but was unexceptional whilst the Reserve red had some complexity and Bordelais character from its mainly Cabernet blend. A bit pricey though.

After lunch we had to leg it back to Montblanc as we had an appointment with Antonio at Clos Montblancat 3.00. The scenic route was abandoned for the Péage and we were only a little late.

Clos Montblanc is the largest producer in the DO Conca de Barbera, having once been a co-operative. It was taken into private hands some years ago by one of its members, a farmer turned construction magnate who liked the company so much he had to buy it. The company still buys in the bulk of its grapes but also owns some vineyards from whence cometh its top Cuvees

A quick tour of the winery introduced us to the obligatory stainless steel fermentation cuves with the even more obligatory Oak maturation hall down below. Everything seemed up to date and state of the art, an impression bolstered by some tank sampling of fresh juice from the recently picked Maccabeo and Chardonnay and a recently started Rosé These were already showing some vinous character, especially the Maccabeo which was fresh and already well balanced. Antonio assured us that the white grapes are all night harvested by machine to ensure optimum freshness. Whilst we were slurping, a trailer of Merlot appeared and tipped into the stainless collecting hopper. The grapes were immediately dispatched through the destalker and up into a tank to begin fermenting while we watched.

In the cellar we tried a barrel-fermented Monastrell from cask and a late harvest wine from the same grape. This was extraordinary, like a Madeira in style; despite its extreme youth it already had a pale brown caste and was very sweet.

After this we made our way to the tasting room In the recently completed office suite to watch the sudden rainstorm sweep in and taste through the range.

The company makes four white wines from a range of varieties which whilst not unknown in this part of Spain is relatively uncommon, Spain is not really known for its white wines ( Albarino being a possible exception). We started with the base white, a zesty, surprisingly full flavoured blend of Chardonnay and Maccabeo. This we have sold on and off over the years although recent price increases has moved it out of our House Wine territory. It is however very good and in 2008 was exactly as you would wish – the crisp and quite floral maccabeo lifting the palate with the Chardonnay adding depth and roundness. A great quaffer . Next was a more serious blend of local varieties called Xipella ( everything begins with an X in Catalonia) This had Maccabeo and Perelada in it and had good weight and structure. Less overtly fruity than the first wine, but with subtlety and some style. More of a food wine.

The last two were more familiar. Their Sauvignon Blanc comes in a frosted glass bottle but don’t let that put you off. This is as serious a Sauvignon as you could hope to meet. Like a bridge between Old and New World this had zip and aromaticity but also the clean flinty depths of a classy Loire. This 08 is seriously good – a point rammed home at lunch the following day where it exactly partnered a range of hot and cold seafood dishes. Finally a barrel fermented Chardonnay which could have come from a cellar in Meursault and at half that price must be extremely good value. Sadly our market for that style of wine is miniscule so we wont be listing it. Good though it was.

So to the reds. Their partner to the Maccabeo Chard is a Tempranillo. We had tasted the 07 at home and after the fleshy, well balanced 06 it was a bit of a disappointment. Unbalanced and tart on the finish it seemed rather unripe and thin. So the 08 was a pleasant return to form, clean ripe fruit was well balanced with soft tannins and a medium weight. Good on its own or with the local cuisine. The 07 meanwhile having sat about in the glass opened up and I revised my opinion a little- I think it will be fine with food but is not as immediately appealing as the vintages either side of it. Next up , a Merlot 05 in their Clos range. This was immediately popular. The wine had the brambly fruit of a St Emilion or Pomerol ( of a minor chateau) and had some grip and length. It had none of the overt fruitiness of many New World Merlots and it was obvious that a more restrained style had been aimed at. A fine example of the variety was the consensus. The Xipella red had local grapes as well as Cabernet and Merlot in the mix. Matured in oak for 14 months it was rather closed up with a slightly unripe finish – It didn’t interest me as much as the white. A Pinot Noir followed from the 05 vintage. This wasn’t as good as I was expecting with the curious coffee grounds taste that I have previously experienced with some Chilean PN. It was lean and tannic and rather ungenerous although with Pinot Noir you never know quite how it will develop.

Their Syrah 06 was back on form. This spends just 9 months in oak and has dry quite steely fruit, not at all like some of the fleshy southern French versions. It was well balanced and rather elegant with layers of soft tannin and spice. A good example I thought, not too compromising and showing the true local expression of the variety.

Finally their Special Reserve Masia Las Comes. From a small vineyard up in the hills ( we visited it the following day – see below) comes their flagship red wine. We had drunk the 2003 on our arrival at the hotel and I had been so impressed that I had rather overindulged. This time we were tasting the 05 and I was determined to be more forensic. The wine didn’t let me down. From a 50/50 blend of 35 year old merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon vines this has depth, class and great vinosity. The ripe fruit is well balanced by mid palate tannins and a dry sinewy finish. It wears its oak ageing quite lightly like a good claret and has a long lingering finish. This is very good and at its projected 12 pound price tag (or thereabouts) is great value

So ended an interesting afternoon at Clos Montblanc and we made our way back to the hotel were we were allowed a rest before the next gastronomic onslaught.

Once again we were joined at dinner by Antonio who this time brought his English wife Louise. Another good time was had by all with a choice of wines including more of the Masia Las Comes and some of the Xipella Blanco and the Sauvignon, all of which showed well with the food.

A quick trip to the airport the following morning to drop off Emily and Steve who were returning to Liverpool meant we were a little late getting to the winery for the next part of our tour. This included a quick detour on the Cistercian trail to the monastery at Poblet in the heart of Torres country . Indeed there is a Torres shop right by the main entrance selling all the wines in their portfolio. The Monastery also boasts a small working winery in which Mammon in the shape of giant Cava concern Cordoniu is a partner. My guess is that it is chiefly a means of extracting the tourist dollar and not a serious commercial enterprise.

Tourist trail abandoned we headed north and east up into the hills to Masia Las Comes. The land belongs to the owner of the winery whose family had supplied the then co-operative for many years. It was very rugged and quite wild, being well off the metalled road and up into the pine forests. On arrival we were treated to a sneak preview of the new guest lodge which had been extended out of an original farmhouse of miniscule proportions. It was striking in an alpine kind of way but bore little resemblance to the original dwelling. As it wasn’t finished and time was short we didn’t linger but headed back to the main road as fast as the Scenic could manage the dirt roads. Stopping only to admire the vineyards ascending the hillside we headed off at high speed towards the coast and lunch.

The above description makes our tour sound rushed. It wasn’t leisurely but we had sufficient time to get an idea of what gives Masia Las Comes the quality factor. The vineyards are on a variety of sloping terraced sites with soil varying from clay with flints through to shale and schist. This allows the winery to select parcels of the grapes from different parts of the vineyard that show the best potential to make the reserve wine. It certainly seems to work. I rather wish I had made more copious notes so that I could pin it down more firmly. Maybe another visit would help!

Lunch when we arrived was at a restaurant in Cambrils, a small village west of Tarragona. This was a personal recommendation of Antonio who accompanied us there as they sold his wine. It turned out to be on the seafront overlooking the small harbour and it was warm and sunny on the terrace. The food was excellent (apparently the owner had rejected his Michelin stars – why?) and was perfectly accompanied by the 2008 Montblanc Sauvignon -still in its frosted glass bottle – which was tasting better than ever – or perhaps it was the near perfect location.

Suffice it to say that lunch lasted until it was time to return to Reus to catch our bucket shop flight back to the UK

Many thanks to Antonio, Paul and all at EWGA for an eventful and interesting couple of days in Catalonia. I will go back.

I’m back

Posted on: November 19th, 2009 by Andrew No Comments

There has been a long hiatus over the summer when I was unable to post and the site was overwhelmed by spam. New filters are now in place and so apologies to those of you who read my previous posts and then wondered why your comment wasnt listed.

Next up will be a brief article on a recent buying trip to Catalonia and I will be posting on our great Christmas tasting next weekend.

Stay tuned!

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