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A Little Spanish

Part 1

About a dozen years ago I was lucky enough to go to Spain on a week long vacation/wine tasting adventure. To my mind it is important to visit the wine producing areas of the world, that way the enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for a particular area and it’s wines, are real and do not come from looking at pictures, or purely having tasted through a bunch of the wines at a big trade tasting.

I arrived in Madrid, mid June, and it was hot, 42 degree Celsius in the early afternoon kind of hot. After a few days in Spain’s most populated city we left for a circular tour of three of the countries’ most renowned wine producing areas … Ribera del Duero, Navarra and Rioja. I had done my homework in Canada and had arranged a couple of visits with some producers in each area. The heat wave had subsided as we reached the midpoint of the trip and were visiting a medium size winery in the area of Navarra, which is probably best known by its proximity to the city of Pamplona, where every year a few Spaniards with insufficient foot speed get smaller or larger injuries while evading agitated bovines.

Navarra is in the north east of Spain, less then 80km away from the French border, and the climate is heavily influenced by the Atlantic just to the north of the vineyards… as such the reds that are produced never quite had the weight of the other hotter regions of Spain, but were mostly known for rose wines for the domestic market.

The winery we had an appointment with was a large land owner, consisting of 8 wine growing families, who had pooled their resources and build a production facility, but it shall remain nameless. The wines were soundly made and well priced, of the all the usual suspects, which included Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tempranllio (which is Spain’s national grape) and Chardonnay and Viura for the export markets that demanded a white option.

But before we tasted the wines with the Sales Director, he had driven us around the hilly property, and shown us the lay of the land. We looked at the trellised vineyards of Merlot and Tempranllio from the jeep, an impression that could have been anywhere in the vinous world, but what stood out were these small plots of free standing bush vines which had grown on the property for over 50 years… these in fact were old vines Grenache and they made my favourite wine of the entire Iberian trip.

Grenache originally comes from the south of France, and is known especially as the main constituent of Chateauneuf du Pape, the standard bearer of the southern Rhone Valley.

The resulting wine from these old bush vines from winery x was lovely: medium bodied, with the colour of Pinot Noir, fragrant and silky with soft raspberry aromas and flavour, turning more towards dark plums on the long finish. In short, a great wine and very well priced. I bought a bunch of it.

Part 2

I had in fact almost totally forgotten about my visit to Navarra, and my love of the Old Vines Grenache, until one day I saw a very familiar bottle in the arsenal of a wine importer in early 2012.

Could it be my favourite Spanish bottle of so many years ago? In fact it was, same winery, same Old Vines Grenache, some bottle shape…I was excited to taste it …it was like seeing a long lost friend.

The agent opens the bottle and pours the wine. Instantly something is wrong.

The colour is much darker then I remembered it. It could have been any full bodied red from anywhere in the world. Then the sniff test… much more punch and a slight whiff of alcohol, dark macerated raspberries. And finally a taste: huge, dark fruit, astringent tannin and alcohol, no balance… the fragrance and silkiness of my memory gone. I did not buy a single bottle.

What had happened?

A beautiful medium bodied red had become an international coca cola wine…made to appeal to a palate which appreciates weight and sweetness more then fragrance and subtleness.

The recipe for his change is easy, lots of new oak barrels, let the grapes hang until they shrivel and pump the fermenting must over lots to extract colour and tannin. If the wine is not oaky enough after the requisite slumber in its wooden enclosure, more oak flavours or tannin is added by way of powder or liquid. This is how all coca cola wine is made.

Wine is entirely subjective. I just hope years from now there is still the demand for beauty in wine.

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