Spain, a land of wine promises

Should we still present Spain, the world’s largest vineyard in terms of size, with almost 1 million hectares(1)? The answer is : yes, of course ! Despite its imposing size (13% of the world’s vineyards) and its leading position (3rd place in the world rank of wine producers since 2014), Spain is always full of surprises and discoveries.

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In a country with 1,250 grape varieties and more than 60 denominations of origin, no one could pretend to know everything. It is besides, according to me, the country par excellence where you can find the best quality/price ratio wines at less than 6 euros, especially in red. From north to south, let’s discover some winemakers who have surprised us, both by their originality and their typicality. Everyone has a story that deserves a visit.

Txakoli, emblematic wine of the Basque Country

Do you know txakoli?

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Originally produced on the farms of the Basque Country in a traditional way, the txakoli (DO Getariako Txakolina) is above all a friendly and usually a white wine(2), produced from the local varieties Hondarribi Zuri (white) and Hondarribi Beltza (red). Its peculiarity : it is made from grapes harvested slightly green (which gives it some acidity). Also, txakoli wine is slightly carbonated (fizzing).

It is served in a traditional way by pouring long threads of wine from the bottle to the glass, see directly from the tank, as here at Ameztoi!

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Be careful not to splash your feet… it takes a bit of practice…

The finest Spanish bubbles have a name

Welcome to the Raventós i Blanc estate, in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, a region famous for Cava(3). Winegrowers since 1497, Raventós i Blanc has one of the longest documented wine traditions in the world.

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We fell in love with this estate, which decided in the early 1870s during a market crisis, to no longer make still wine, and created the first cava. To differentiate itself from the wines of Champagne, the estate honors autochthonous grape varieties : Xarel-lo (used since 1888 by Manuel Raventos Doménech), Macabeo (introduced in the 1920s) and Parallada, which will all three become the basis for the production of cavas. Today, Pepe Raventós, who represents the 21st generation, assisted by his father Manuel, works the 90 hectares (divided into 44 parcels) without irrigation, using biodynamic methods, horses and other animals (pigs, sheep…).

A beautiful property, 200m above sea level, with fossil limestone and marine soils formed more than 16 million years ago.

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Here sparkling wines are aged on the lees for 18 months to 5 years for the top cuvée. We are absolute fans : the estate undoubtedly produces some of the most beautiful sparkling wines in Spain… or even in the world. Indisputable proof that Spain can produce incredible bubbles.
For the anecdote, the Raventós family withdrew a short time ago from the Cava appellation, not without deep reflection and with a lot of courage, in order to define its own, more strict(4) rules.

Parés Balta, in the heart of the natural park of Foix

Discovering Parés Baltà estate, another green nugget from Penedès.

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From the pollination of the vines by the bees of the estate during flowering, to the sheep grazing among the vines once the grape harvest is over (removing weeds and offering natural fertilization), the Parés Baltà estate is 100% ecological. Its great diversity of soils (limestone, clay, marine fossils), with vines between 170 and 800m above sea level, allows the development of very beautiful wines, such as the Cosmic cuvée, blend of Xarel-lo and Sauvignon blanc.

“Here, wine is exclusively a women’s business!”, Joan and Josep Cusiné Carol, brothers and current owners of the family estate, laughingly told us.

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Indeed, the vinification is solely in the hands of Maria Elena Jimenez and Marta Casas, two talented oenologists… and their wives!

Visiting the vineyard with Gemma Muray, in charge of the oenotoursime, the opportunity was offered to me, on the heights of the natural park of Foix, to sabrage a bottle of sparkling wine with a sword. A big challenge, which I had already tried to achieve three years ago with my friend Jonathan, from Champagne Louis de Sacy, in Verzy. At the time, I completely failed.

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This time, I did it! Thank you Gemma for the lesson. And cheers, a glass of the cuvée Cava Brut in hand!

Ton Rimbau, the winemaker who ages his wine in ceramics

Ton Rimbau, winemaker and founder of the Casa Rimbau estate, in Penedès, is one of the most charismatic characters I have encountered during the project…

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Beyond organic and biodynamic viticulture, Ton Rimbau is a strong advocate of “permaculture”. A method of ancestral and natural culture, with the goal to keep the vines as if they were a forest, with the least possible amount of intervention. This system does not use pesticides or chemicals, as the ecosystem maintains a balance that allows plants to grow healthier and stronger. Spiders – whose vital role in Ton’s vineyard has earned them an effigy on bottle labels – also prevent the proliferation of plant pests, such as cetain types of moths. Finally, the weeds, after being flattened, form a protective layer for the soil, preventing UV from entering and affecting the quality of the soil. All a symbol!

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And that is not all. Add to that the fact that wines are exclusively aged in ceramic bottles… And that the (superb) sparkling wine of the estate is aged under water for two years (!), in Ton’s garage. Here you have a more complete overview of the unique style of this unclassifiable character. To better understand the cuvées of the estate, exclusively white, Ton Rimbau invited us to consult the lunar calendar. Lucky for us, our visit fell on a “fruit day”. I am an absolute fan!

Enric Soler, the quintessence of Xarel-lo

We met with with Enric Soler, in the Penedès – one of my favorite regions of Spain, as you may have noticed – for a lesson in winemaking with the Xarel-lo grape variety.

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Mainly known for cavas, Xarel-lo has only been vinified as a still wine for about ten years. “It’s a misunderstood variety, with extraordinary qualities, that can give great results as a still wine, when you know how to take care of it”, Enric explained.

Professor of oenology at the University of Barcelona, Enric Soler is a winemaker as we like them: discreet, always smiling, humble and so talented. When his grandfather passed away, he had the opportunity to take over his small vineyard, with 70-year-old Xarel.lo vines.

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A real treasure, which once in his hands, was bound to become a revelation. With 2 hectares cultivated biodynamically and with 3 different micro-cuvées (from soil of sand and clay, different altitudes and aging between stainless steel vats, concrete eggs and barrels) as original as it is delicious, Enric produces spectacular wines of complexity and elegance, which invites meditation.

Bodegas Moraza, a different approach of the Rioja

In Rioja Alta (north-central Spain) we visited the Bodegas Moraza, a family estate of 18 hectares, full of charm.

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Why a visit to this beautiful and famous Spanish region? Because the winemakers Julia Moraza and Patricio Brongo, goes against the current of what is being done in the region. “Our cuvées are made in concrete tanks for the reds and in stainless steel tanks for the white wines, to keep the freshness and typicality of the terroir”, Julia explained. An alternative to encourage, in a sunny region where harvests are more and more precocious, year after year, with the risk of over-matured grapes.

A beautiful story, started six generations ago by Julia’s family, in the village of San Vicente de la Sonsierra, a border area between the legendary kingdoms of Castile and Navarre.

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Located at the foot of Mount Toloño, their vineyard, spread over eleven plots between 400 and 650m above sea level, is mainly composed of clay and limestone. An ideal playground for the native varieties of Rioja such as Tempranillo, Grenache and Graciano, or Viura, in white. Another face of Rioja… that conquered us!

Sanlúcar de Barrameda, paradise of manzanilla

To the question “what wine would you take to a desert island?”, I could answer: a bottle of manzanilla, among my three favorite wines. Served very fresh, this delicious dry white wine, with its aromas of fresh walnuts and its incredible salty taste, bewitches me every time.

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Made from the Palomino grape variety, it is produced exclusively in the cellars of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, in the province of Cádiz. Why? Because the particular location of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, on the estuary of the Guadalquivir River, offers cool temperatures (very windy) and high humidity, conducive to the development of flora. This yeast develops in the form of a thick veil on the wine, aged in 3/4 filled barrels. The action of flora? It naturally protect the wine from any contact with the air, giving it a unique fresh and delicate aspect.

Let’s discover two wineries that excel in the production of manzanilla. Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana, founded in 1792 by Don José Pantoja Hidalgo, has been managed by the same family for eight generations.

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The estate uses grapes from its own vineyards, located in the plains of Balbaina and Miraflores, considered as the best terroirs of the appellation. “The criadera consists of a stack of barrels at several heights. The first level, on the floor, is named solera. The other levels are named first and second criadera…”, Fermin Hidalgo explained.

A very technical part, but essential to understand the evolution of the wine. Adding : “at the end of aging, the wine is withdrawn from the solera.

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The quantity of wine removed is replaced by that of the two barrels above. And so on until the maximum height which is filled with young wine. This system enables, besides aging of the wine, good homogenization of the production between the vintages and each one of the barrels of the criadera”. Result : non-vintage wines, blends of many harvests. The Spaniards like to say that with this system, the old wine educates the young.

Visiting the cellars of the Bodegas Baron was another rare and unforgettable moment.

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Located in the upper area of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, facing the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, the caves are directly exposed to the Atlantic breeze. Welcome to Bodegas Baron, where the Rodriguez Carrasco family has been making wine with the same family roots for 400 years. A very special iodine fragrance bathed the atmosphere, making it almost mystical.

Exactly what we needed to be in the right mood to taste manzanilla from the barrel. Unfiltered, the wine is served directly using a venencia, the traditional tool consisting of a cylindrical container attached to a long stem (formerly made of whalebone).

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A pure moment of joy and emotion.

Ximenez-Spinola, the new face of Pedro Ximenez

We met with José Antonio Zarzana, owner and winemaker of the Ximenez-Spinola estate, a family winery that has been making Pedro Ximenez wines since 1729.

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Recently, José brought a radical change to the region. First of all by planting 22 hectares of the eponymous Pedro Ximenez grape variety around his cellar (he is the only one to have his own vineyard in the region). Secondly, by introducing a new style of wine to the region: a 100% dry Pedro Ximenez wine, aged in new French oak barrels (Pedro Ximenez is usually known for the production of sweet wines of the same name, made from grapes dried under the sun).

“Everyone took me for a madman, even my family, from whom I had to buy the shares to realize the project of my life”, José confided.

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As a result, we discovered a delicious and complex white wine, with a real typicality and crazy charm. A pure delight!

As a culinary conclusion to this wonderful Spanish trip, we wanted to introduce you to the Pata Negra! A fantastic product that marries incredibly well with dry wines from the region, like manzanilla.

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We had the chance to stop in the Extremadura region to visit an Iberian pig farm. Here, pigs are raised freely for the production of the Maximiliano Jabugo Pata Negra. The peculiarity of the diet of this unique breed: the « bellota” (acorns), which gives the meat a unique nutty taste. The hams of Maximiliano Jabugo are then produced in Jabugo.

As we entered the building of the company, the smell of ham in the air was fascinating. I was literally salivating. The production of Pata Negra is as simple and natural as it is respectful to the product : after spending a few days in a salt bath to tighten the flesh, the hams are cured (dried) for about 30 months, depending on the weight of the piece.

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And that’s all. To be tasted for any occasion…

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Raventós i Blanc, Parés Baltà, Casa Rimbau, Enric Soler, Bodegas Moraza, Ameztoi, Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana, Bodegas Baron and Ximenez-Spinola estates for their warm welcome. Thank you to our friend Bertrand Nouël for having opened the doors of this fabulous world of Pata Negra to us, as well as for his valuable advice and help in visiting wineries in the Cádiz region. Thank you to Maximiliano Portes, director of Maximiliano Jabugo, for having received us so well. Finally, thank you very much to my friend Benoît, for recommending to meet Enric Soler.

 

(1) 975,000 hectares en 2016 – source OIV 2017.
(2) Today you can find a pink version, only created for the export (USA).
(3) Cava (meaning cellar in Catalan and Spanish) is a sparkling wine produced in Spain (mainly in Catalonia), made according to the traditional method.
(4) Although Cava is predominantly Catalan, several Spanish municipalities – sometimes located at almost 1,000km – could get the right to mention the Cava appellation for their sparkling wines, sometimes made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.

For more information on Maximiliano Jabugo : https://www.maximilianojabugo.com/fr/ 

Cyprus, an island full of (wine) treasures

Legend has it that Cyprus was called “the island of love” after Aphrodite was born from foam at the point where the sea throws itself on the rocks of the coast of Paphos… The reality, in fact, is just as idyllic on the wine side.

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Located on the easternmost part of the Mediterranean Sea, in the Levantine basin(1), the island is full of wine treasures : a history rich in traditions, indigenous varieties as varied as interesting, and the production of Commandaria, the oldest wine still in production. There was nothing more needed to sharpen our curiosity.

A plurimillenary wine tradition

Welcome to Cyprus, an island of just 1.3 million inhabitants, with around 60 estates(2) spread over 7900 hectares of vineyards, producing about 81000 hl per year(3).

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Our focus was on four essential wine producers, along with Manon Perramond, a young (and talented) photographer who accompanied the Wine Explorers at this new destination.

“Did you know that the wine-growing history of Cyprus is 5000 years old ?!”… It was with these words that we were receive with an enthusiastic energy by Mrs. Loannides, who was smiling from ear to ear. She and her husband – an 85-year-old doctor, still active – are winegrowers and the owners of the Ayia Mavri estate in central Cyprus.

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A wonderful meeting, full of humanity and positivism, where passion was more palpable than ever. Like her husband, she speaks about wine with stars in the eyes. Started in 1983, the estate produces 50,000 bottles and has been nicknamed “the sweet vineyard” by the locals, thanks to its specialization in the production of world-class sweet wines. They even have some Xynisteri vines (a delicious white indigenous grape) 100 years old… To be discovered urgently!

An island under the sign of the sun

On the way to our second visit, we were surprised to discover a lot of water heaters on the roofs of the buildings of the island.

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“The weather is so beautiful all year round that people provide their hot water needs with the sun”, Mrs. Sofroniou, from the Ministry of Energy, Trade, Industry and Tourism of Cyprus, who accompanied us during the visits, explained. “We do not use electricity from April to October, only solar panels, to supply our homes with hot water”.

Rendez-vous at Vlassides estate, a very pretty property of 18 hectares, located on the plateau of Koilani, at 700m above sea level, in the center of the island – established by Sophocle Vlassides in 1998.

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At the time, Sophocle already had the vision to transform the small shop of his grandfather to produce “garage wine”. He studied oenology at the University of Davis, California. In 2012, the success was there and the team moved to a new, more modern cellar, with a cave dug 9 meters into the rock, to preserve the freshness of the wines. As you will have realized, it is hot in Cyprus.

We visited the vineyard at 8am… at 27°C. Panos Magalios, the assistant oenologist, explained to us that Vlassides produces 120,000 bottles a year, mainly from the grape varieties Xynisteri, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. In recent years, the estate has experimented with some indigenous Cypriot varieties such as Maratheftiko and Yiannoudi (red), and Promara and Morokanella (white).

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“We need to experiment more to see which grape varieties are best suited to the heat, as well as to the high humidity present during summer time”, Panos said.

Kyperounda, one of the highest vineyards in Europe

During the discovery of Kyperounda winery, we were accompanied by Minas Mina, a fantastic and passionate Cypriot winemaker! Built at the end of the 1990s, Kyperounda belongs to more than 40 shareholders, whose control and management are placed in the hands of the Photos Photiades group.

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The estate was built on three levels, in order to use gravity to move the grape juice in the gentlest way possible.
The cellar, located in the region of Pitsilia, 75 km from Nicosia and 50 km from Limassol, is magnificent. With an altitude of 1,400 meters above sea level (one of the highest in Europe), the schist and loess soils (very poor), are fantastic for the production of deep and precise wines. Add to this low yields and cool nights – unique in the region – this combination makes the Kyperounda estate one of the jewels of Cyprus viticulture…

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A special mention for its Commandaria (100% Xynisteri). A unique type of sweet wine exclusively found in Cyprus, developed at the foot of the Troodos Mountains. This is the oldest wine in the world still in production, and is made from the grape varieties Xynisteri (white) and/or Mavro (red), whose clusters are dried in the sun to concentrate the grape berries into sugar. The juice from pressing is then fermented naturally in stainless steel vats (even sometimes in terracotta jars), then fortified(4) to reach an alcohol level of about 15%. The wine is then brought to the cellars of Limassol, where it is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years. The result : concentrated sweet wines with an amber color and a perfume of resin, pine, dried fruit and nuts. A delight…

Yiannoudin, (red) favorite grape

We ended our stay by visiting Tsiakkas winery, in the village of Pelendri, in the south of the island.

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Perched at an altitude of 1000m, it is probably one of the most beautiful vineyards in Cyprus, with its northern exposition and amphitheater shape. Costas Tsiakkas, the owner of the estate and a former businessman (he was a banker in a previous life), started in 1988 with only 5,000 bottles. Today, with a production of 150,000 bottles, his success is impressive.

His secret? The search for unrecognized or forgotten indigenous grape varieties. “I like to focus on local grape varieties : they are more resistant to diseases and are the future of Cypriot winemaking, both in terms of taste and identity”.

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Here we discovered Yiannoudin, a red grape with very fine skin and berries, and concentrated juice. And a special mention for the cuvée Yiannoudin 2014, a generous red wine full of depth and freshness, with notes of wild black fruit, leather, spices and cigar. We loved it!

We departed from Cyprus with stars in our eyes… A (wine) destination of great interest. And a country full of authentic people and wine treasures. Our last meal on the beach, a plate of Halloumi (the traditional cheese) and a glass of Ouzo.

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Another facet of the rich local gastronomic heritage.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Vlassides, Ayia Mavri, Kyperounda Winery and Tsiakkas Winery for their warm welcome. Thanks also to the Trade Office of the Embassy of Cyprus in Paris and to the Ministry of Energy, Trade, Industry and Tourism of Cyprus for having organized and supported this visit in such a beautiful way. Finally, thanks to the young and talented photographer Manon Perramond for participating in the trip.

 

(1) The Levantine Basin is a subdivision of the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea and corresponds to its easternmost part (Southern Turkey, Cyprus, Middle East).
(2) The island has about 60 commercial domains, as well as many small domestic plantations intended for private consumption.
(3) Production 2016 – source : Cypriot Ministry of Energy, Trade, Industry and Tourism.
(4) Following fermentation, the wine is fortified, either with a wine brandy containing 95% alcohol by volume or a distilled wine containing 70% by volume of alcohol.