Pizzato Winery – Waterfalls and Cool Climate Merlot in Southern Brazil

(June 2018) Pizzato Winery is halfway up a very windy road in the Serra Gaucha wine region of Southern Brazil. I had to hold onto the side of the car as we twisted and turned around mountain bends, with long drops into a tree filled canyon below. Finally we arrived at a small tasting room perched on the side of a hill, with a large deck overlooking a magnificent range of mountains with a long white waterfall in the distance. To the left were rows of vineyards stretching out across the hillside and fading into the distance. What a beautiful and magical view!

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View of Vineyards and Waterfall at Pizzato Winery

A Tasting of Twenty Pizzato Wines

A few minutes later, Flavio Pizzato, Chief Winemaker and Manager, arrived to greet us. After spending a few more minute gazing at the view and taking photos, we were invited inside the tasting room to take a seat at a high table filled with over 20 bottles of wine.

“They told me that I should limit the tasting to six wines,” said Flavio with a grin, “but I make so many wines I thought I would show you some of them, and let you decide.  They are all my children.”

Well, how could I respond to that? It was impossible to deny one child over another, so seeing that a spittoon was sitting on the table, I agreed to taste them all. Flavio smiled broadly and launched into an animated tale about the history of the winery.

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Flavio Pizzato (right) with his Father

About Pizzato Winery

Like many of the wineries in Southern Brazil, Pizzato was established by Northern Italian immigrants who came to Brazil in the 1880’s. In the beginning they grew grapes on high pergolas trellises, just like in Italy, and they mainly made wine for their own consumption.  It wasn’t until the 1940’s that they became serious grape growers, planting vitis vinifera vines and selling the grapes to other wineries. However in 1998 Flavio and his brothers and sisters decided to establish a professional winery and today they farm 45 hectares of grapes and produce around 280,000 bottles of wine per year. They make 25 different wines, and impressively sell 15% through their cellar door direct to consumers visiting the region.

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Flavio Telling the Story of His Wines

But Your Sign Says “Pizza Too”

“I like the name of your winery, “I told Flavio. “It is easy for consumers to pronounce and remember.”

“Well, it is the family name,” replied Flavio, “but I found it can be a bit challenging when I’m doing professional tastings at trade shows.  Several times I’ve had people approach me and ask where the pizza is. One time when I explained that I didn’t have any pizza, the person responded, “but your sign says ‘pizza too!’”

A Focus on Cool Climate Merlot

Though the Serra Gaucha region of Brazil is primarily noted for its excellent sparkling wine production, its second most famous wine is cool climate Merlot.  I have to admit that this came as a bit of a shock for me, because traditionally most people don’t plant Merlot in the same place they plant chardonnay and pinot noir grapes to make sparkling wine.

However Merlot from this region tastes nothing like any other Merlot I’ve tasted.  It doesn’t have the ripe plush tannins of California or the concentration of the Right Bank, but instead is bursting with black cherry, anise, earth, crisp acidity, and has a more elegant streamlined mouthfeel with medium body.  In a blind tasting, I would be hard-pressed to guess it was Merlot because it is so different.  However, it is delicious and very food friendly. Perhaps it is a cousin to some of the few Italian merlots I’ve experienced, though these are difficult to find outside of Italy.

Pizzato Winery is famous for their merlot, and I was able to taste several of them that were excellent. The majority had very light oak, but the more expensive ones were aged in 100% French oak.

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Some of Pizzato’s Award Winning Wines

Highlights from the Tasting

The tasting was a lot of fun, because Flavio kept up a non-stop conversation as he enthused over all of his children. In addition to the Pizzato brand, he also produces an entry level wine called Fausto that is more fruit forward, lighter bodied and less expensive. We tasted everything from chardonnay and semillon to tannat and sparkling wines. Following are some of my favorites:

  • Pizatto Semillon 2018 – very fresh with grapefruit, minerality, and a textured medium body. 91 points.
  • Pizzato Merlot 2014 – Black cherry, black plum spice, textured tannins, medium-bodied, with a crisp acid finish and a hint of black licorice. 91 points
  • Pizzato Concentus Gran Reserva 2014 – a complex blend of merlot, tannat, and cabernet sauvignon aged 11 months in American and French Oak.  It reminded me of a tannic red Rioja, and was quite enjoyable. The Latin term Concentus means concert or harmony. 93 points
  • Pizzato Merlot Single Vineyard DNA99 2012 – very luxurious wine with rich allspice nose of toasty oak, black plum, and ripe berry in a very concentrated body with fine-grained tannins, crisp acidity and a very long finish. The wine is perfectly balanced, and is only made in years where this special merlot vineyard achieves a similar ripeness to the vintage of 1999  – thus the name DNA99.  94 points
  • Pizzato Brut Rose Vintage 2016 – yeasty nose with dried cherry, lemon, and complex minerality. 87% pinot noir and 13% chardonnay. Made in the traditional method with 17 months on lees.  90 points
  • Pizzato Nature Vintage 2014 – a sparkling wine with a surprisingly fruity nose of white peach and citrus. Very refreshing with high acid and long finish.  Aged 40 months on lees. 91 points.
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Pizzato Sparkling Wine Line-Up

Last Night in Rio de Janeiro with Pizzato Chardonnay and Lobster

Whenever I travel I always try to drink the local wine. So on my last day in Brazil, I took a 2 hour airplane flight from Porte Alegre (the closest airport to the Serra Gaucha wine region in Southern Brazil) and flew north to much warmer Rio de Janeiro, where I had dinner at Sa Restaurant just across the street from Copacabana Beach. Since it was winter time in Brazil (June), I left the cool mid 50 – 60 F weather of Serra Gaucha to arrive in balmy Rio where the temperature hovered in the mid 80’s F. After a long walk on the beach, a nap, and a shower, I decided to eat at Sa, because it was located in my hotel (Miramar by Windsor) and had good reviews.

After looking at the dinner menu, I decided to order a local specialty called Brazilian Slipper Lobster, of which I had never heard.  It turned out to be absolutely delicious and similar to langostino, and was served with a side of truffle risotto. Given my entre, I searched the wine list for a Brazilian white wine, and found a predominance of wines from Chile. However, since I was in Brazil, I needed to drink Brazilian wine. Eventually I found a half bottle of Pizzato Chardonnay 2017, which was fresh and crisp with bright notes of lemon and green apple, crafted in the style of Chablis. It was a perfect pairing, and a great last dinner in Brazil. I enjoyed the wine and food while gazing out the window at children playing along the sidewalk and the waves gently embracing the sands of Copacabana Beach.

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Pizzato Chardonnay with Brazilian Slipper Lobster and Truffle Risotto

Cave Geisse – Home of Highly Ageable Sparkling Wine and Burrowing Owls in Brazil

(June 2018) We arrived at Cave Geisse in the late morning, when the fog was just beginning to lift from the long green rows of chardonnay and pinot noir vines. Nestled in the Serra Gaucha wine region of southern Brazil, Cave Geisse is one of the oldest and most prestigious sparkling wine producers, with a cellar full of vintage sparkling wines made in the Champenoise method. The winery and it surrounding vineyards are ideally located in the Pinto Banderia GI, which is a cool climate area dedicated to sparkling wine production. It is also an area rich in bird life, as I was soon to discover.

We were met by winemaker, Carlos Abarzua and his son Felipe, Export Manager. Originally from Chile, Carlos relocated to Brazilian wine country in the 1970’s, along with winery partner, Mario Geisse. They established Cave Geisse in 1976, after working several years for Domaine Chandon producing sparkling charmant in Brazil.

A Tour of the Vineyard with Burrowing Owls

Since the vineyard is the source of all high-quality wine, Carlos invited us to jump into his four-wheel drive SUV and we set off driving along a bumpy dirt road into the vineyards. Because June is winter time in Brazil, the vines were bare of leaves and stretched out in long perfect rows, attached to a VSP trellis system with verdant green grass growing beneath. As he drove, Carlos explained that the estate was 70 hectares, with 25 hectares of vineyards, situated at 800 meters above sea level (2400 feet).  They produce around 300,000 bottles per year, with 50% as vintage wine. The soil is primarily loam on top with basalt bedrock.

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Chardonnay Vineyards at Cave Geisse, Brazil

Carlos parking the SUV on top of a hill, and invited us to climb the stairs of a wooden platform with a great view of the vineyards. As we approached, I was delighted to see a tiny round burrowing owl sitting on the ground next to his hole. He must have been accustomed to visitors because he continued to stare up at us with round yellow eyes, even after we had climbed to the top of the platform (see photo above). Like many vineyards around the world, wildlife was abundant, and we also saw many pairs of what the Brazilians referred to as “caro-caro,” birds.

Felipe described how they have reduced chemicals in the vineyard by 70%, but explained that it is very difficult to be 100% organic due to the cool wet climate with mildew issues. Therefore they are practicing sustainability, but not seeking certification at this time. Vines are trained at 1 meter x 2 meters, with around 4500 per hectare in density. The oldest vines are 15 years old, and they generally pruned in September (early Spring in Brazil).

Winemaking at Cave Geisse – 100% Hand-Riddling

Back at the winery, we went on a brief tour beginning with the grape sorting area. Carlos explained that they pick the grapes in January at around 19 brix to insure high natural acid for method Champenoise production. The chardonnay grapes go to a vacuum press, whereas the pinot noir grapes are pressed in a basket press. Sixty percent of the juice is transferred to stainless steel tanks for primary fermentation using selected yeast. Next the wine is transferred to bottle for second fermentation, with sugar and yeast added for autolysis. Carlos said they age anywhere from three to fourteen years. “We have studied the wines,” he said, “and we see the best evolution after 14 years in the bottle.”

During the tour we passed by a large hall of bottles in riddling racks, and I was very impressed to learn that every bottle is hand-riddled. This prompted me to ask about human resource policies, and Felipe proudly explained that their workers are all on a monthly salary (around $800 US), with houses provided in the vineyard. Health care is funded by the government, and there is a program in place that encourages workers to return to the land, rather than live in cities. “We have strong unions in Brazil,” Felipe explained, “so we focus on treating our employees very well.”

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Riddling Racks at Cave Geisse

Tasting the Sparkling Wines of Cave Geisse

The tasting at Cave Geisse was very elegant, with seven bottles of sparkling wine. I was impressed with the high acid, elegance, and hint of minerality in all of the wines. We mainly tasted vintage bubbles, but I also requested to taste their 2nd label, Cave Amadea, which is non-vintage and a little fruit-forward. My favorites of the tasting were:

  • Cave Geisse Blanc de Blanc 2015 – a bigger bodied wine with toasty bread notes, green apple, and crisp acidity. 100% chardonnay, 8.5 gpl dosage, aged 3 years on the lees.
  • Cave Geisse Terre Natural 2014 –   a zero dosage wine with brioche, lemon, and a very creamy palate with long finish. Crafted from their oldest vineyard – 15 years of age. 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay. Aged 4 years in bottle. Just released.
  • Cave Geisse Terre Rose Brut 2014 – toasty cherry notes with a hint of bitter cherry on finish. Complex with high acid – delicious. 100% pinot noir with some skin contact to achieve color (not added later).
  • Cave Amadea Brut Rose NV – a cheerful sparkler with notes of strawberry and citrus. Light, refreshing, and delicious. A perfect beach bubbly for Brazil.

Do Cave Geisse Wines Age? The Answer is Yes

Later in the week, Diego Bertolini, with Wines of Brazil, shared a magnificent magnum of the 2002 vintage of Case Geisse Brut as part of a dinner celebration at Valle Rustico Restaurant. We all enjoyed the complex nutty notes, as well as honey, pear, citrus and minerality that shimmered in the wine. The mousse was very silky on the palate, with thousands of tiny bubbles, and the wine had a long elegant finish. It also paired well with the cuisine of Brazil – in this case a dish made from a special local vegetable that reminded me of zucchini. All in all, it answered the question of “can Brazilian sparkling wines age?” The answer in the case of Cave Geisse Brut 2002 was a definite “yes.”

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Magnum of Case Geisse Brut 2002

Fun Facts about Brazilian Wine

If your only reason to go to Brazil is to play on white sandy beaches and drink caipirinhas, think again. Instead consider heading further south to the Brazilian wine region of Serra Gaucha, about 375 miles north of the Uruguay border in a cool hilly region that looks like Northern Italy. Indeed this region was settled by immigrants from the Veneto and Trentadoc regions of Northern Italy in the 1880’s, and, of course, they planted grapes and made wine. This region of Brazil also has many excellent Italian restaurants, as well as Brazilian steakhouses to celebrate the fact that this is indeed gaucho, or Brazilian cowboy country.

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Brazilian Vineyard with Winter Vines and Waterfall in Background

Recently I was invited to visit the Serra Gaucha region for a week by Wines of Brazil, where I toured a variety of wineries and tasted over 140 wines. While there I learned some fun, and rather amazing, facts about Brazilian Wine:

  • 1500’s – Portuguese: Wine grapes were first brought to Brazil by the Portuguese in the 1500’s, but didn’t thrive very well because of the humid climate of Rio de Janeiro. Therefore, they later imported Vitis Labrusca grapes from the Azores, which were resistant to fungus, and used these to make table wine.
  • 50% Grape Juice: Because of the large number of labrusca vineyards, 50% of the harvest in Brazil is used for grape juice production, which is made in a very natural fashion with no sugar added.
  • 1880’s – Italians: It wasn’t until the 1880’s that northern Italian immigrants settled in the cool southern part of Brazil in the Serra Gaucha region that vitis vinifera grapes were planted again to make quality wine.
  • Sparkling Wine is King: Due to the cool climate, chardonnay and pinot noir grapes thrive, and they produce some delicious sparkling wines using the Méthode Champenoise as well as the charmant method. Sparkling wine comprises 80% of the Brazilian wine market.
  • Moscato: Brazilians also enjoy sweet wine, so they make semi-sweet and sweet sparkling Moscato, as well as still and dessert wines with this fragrant grape.
  • Experimenting with Red Grapes: Now other regions of Brazil are beginning to make wine and experiment with red grapes. Highlights include Merlot, Marselan, and Cabernet Franc in the south, and Syrah and Grenache in the warmer north. There are also many types of Italian red grapes used to produce Brazilian wine, such as Teroldego and Ancellotta.
  • Six Major Wine Regions: Today there are five new wine regions in addition to Serra Gaucha. They are Campanha and Serra Do Sudeste further south, and Planalto Catarinese and Campos de Cima de Serra a little further north. Vale do Sao Francisco is in the far north near the equator, where they actually have two harvests per year because it is so warm.
  • One DO and Four GI’s: Brazil is adopting the European quality system of appellations, and has recognized one DO (Domination of Origin) region called Vale dos Vinhedos. This is where the many of the original Italian immigrants settled, near the town of Bento Goncalves. There are four GI’s (Geographical Indicator) surrounding the DO: Pinto Bandeira, Monte Belo, Farroupilha and Altos Montes.
  • 1100 Wineries and 79,000 Hectares: Today Brazil has over 1100 wineries, many of which are small family domains. Total vineyard acreage is around 195,000 or 79,000 hectares of grapes.
  • Fresh, Fruity and Fun: Brazilian wines are produced with a focus on showcasing the fruit and not using too much oak. The wines are also very fresh with higher acidity and lower alcohol – more similar to Northern Italian styles. Due to the sparkling wine emphasis, Brazilian wines are used to celebrate and have fun in life – -just like the Brazilian culture.
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Map of Brazilian Wine Regions. Photo Credit: Wines of Brazil

Getting to Brazilian Wine Country in Serra Gaucha

The major airport in the Serra Gaucha wine region is Porte Alegre (POA). There are several connecting flights each day from the large international airports of Rio de Janeiro or San Paulo. I arrived into Rio on Delta Airlines, and then took their partner airline, GOL, to Porte Alegre – an easy two hour flight. Once in Porte Alegre it is necessary to rent a car or book a driver to take you to Bento Gonçalves, the main city in the Serra Gaucha wine region.  It actually has a welcome wine barrel arch, and has several tasting rooms in the downtown area, including Aurora Winery, which is the largest in Brazil. Bento Gonçalves is a small city of around 100,000 people with good restaurants, friendly people, and wineries and vineyards all around it. The town was named after a Brazilian military leader who was much loved in the south of Brazil.

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Hotel & Spa do Vinho in Brazilian Wine Country

Hotels and Restaurants in Bento Goncalves

A quick check on TripAdvisor will show you a list of over 30 hotels, B&B and specialty lodging in the area. I stayed about 15 minutes outside the town in the very fancy yet affordable, Hotel & Spa do Vinho (see photo above). It has excellent service, is incredibly beautiful, and has a good restaurant and spa. It is also situated in the middle of the vineyards and is across the street from two famous wineries – Miolo and Lidio Carraro. This is a prime location to visit wineries, because the hotel is situated in the Vale dos Vinhedos, which means Valley of Vineyards. It is the first and only DO appellation in Brazil, and is surrounded by some of the oldest and most prestigious wineries.

In terms of restaurants, I was able to enjoy four local restaurants, and they were all excellent:

Ipiranga Steakhouse – classic Brazilian steakhouse in casual setting with great wine displays on the walls.  Open kitchen allowing you to see the meat on the grill – fascinating. The meal begins with fresh green salad (I loved the salads in Brazil) and the “can’t stop eating” cheese bread balls, which are a local specialty.  Then non-stop skewers of meat are presented at the table by professional servers, with beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and even whole stakes of filet mignon (see photo below). We enjoyed the meal with a nice bottle of Casa Valduga Merlot, and dessert was a small glass of sweet sparkling muscato wine called Cave Amadeu from Family Geisse Winery.

Mamma Gemma Restaurant – a very elegant Italian restaurant with white tablecloths and a beautiful view of a lake outside the large picture windows.  Excellent Italian dishes arrive non-stop at the table until you cannot move.  We had the complete menu which includes a fresh green salad (see photo below) several different pasta dishes, along with chicken, beef, fish, Brazilian cheese bread, and grape ice cream dessert with a small cup of chocolate fudge called Brigadeiro (see photo below).

Casa Di Paolo Restaurant – a casual local chain restaurant with simple décor and friendly service. It focuses on Brazilian-Italian fare with non-stop pasta and meat plates arriving at the table, along with fresh salad and breads. They also serve the delicious pasta soup, which is a specialty of the region (see photo below). We enjoyed lunch with wines from Goes Winery.

Valle Rustico Restaurant – this restaurant is a gourmand’s dream with artistically arranged small plates of very fresh, local, organic ingredients. The staff provides an explanation of each plate when they bring it to your table, and describe the many unique vegetables and spices that are used in the dishes. Several include heirloom foods, such as an ancient corn, that they are trying to preserve. The décor is actually rather casual, set in an old farmhouse with wooden beams, antiques, and pottery plates, but the service and food is of Michelin star quality. Truly a unique restaurant, focusing on local Brazilian cuisine – not to be missed. We enjoyed the meal with wines from Don Guerino Winery.

Local Wineries to Visit

During the 5 days I stayed in Bento Goncalves, I visited 9 wineries, listed below. Each of these visits will be described in separate posts on this blog. Driving distance from my hotel ranged from 2 minutes to 45 minutes to arrive at the winery tasting rooms.  All of my visits were organized as part of a business trip by Wines of Brazil. There are many other local wineries near-by with friendly signs stating they are open for tourists to drop in and taste delicious Brazilian wines.

  • Cave Geisse Winery
  • Pizzato Winery
  • Casa Valduga Winery
  • Miolo Winery
  • Lidio Carraro Winery
  • Salton Winery
  • Casa Perini Winery
  • Aurora Winery
  • Luiz Argenta Winery (with great restaurant!)

I have to admit that one of the best parts of visiting Brazilian wine country was getting a chance to taste some many delicious sparkling wines – their icon wine product. I lost count of the number of times each day that we toasted to one another with a glass of Brazilian bubbles! Brazil truly is the land of fun and celebration – and their sparkling wine is a great testament to this.

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One of Many Toasts with Brazilian Bubbles

 

Don’t Shake That Sherry at Bodega Delgado Zuleta

(June 2018) Bodega Delgado Zuleta is located on the outskirts of Sanlucar, Spain in an industrial area with plentiful parking. They are one of the largest sherry wineries in Spain, and are the producer of the famous La Goya Manzanilla brand. Their partner winery, Barbiana, is also housed at this complex. Established in 1744, the winery has over 1,000 hectares of vineyards, and produces millions of bottles of wine each year.

I arrived in the afternoon and was met by Eva Jimenez who is a sherry expert living in the area, and also a great tour guide and educator with perfect English speaking skills. She provided a tour of the complete facility, and I was impressed at the many educational posters and sections they had set up in the winery.  It is a great place for someone who is trying to learn about sherry grapes and production.

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One of Many Educational Display at Bodega Delgado Zuleta

Don’t Shake That Sherry!

Eva told me a funny and tragic story about a barrel of sherry with flor on top that was set-up as a display. She said she was explaining to a group of visitors how flor is a tiny community of living creatures that grows on top of the wine to protect it and provide it with its distinctive taste, when a man came forward and started shaking the barrel.

“I lunged forward and screamed at him to stop,” she said, “but it was too late. He had mixed all of the flor into the wine and it took months for flor community in the barrel to restore itself.”

“How awful,” I said.  “Why did he do it?”

She shrugged.  “I’m not sure, but I think he thought he was trying to help the wine. Now we no longer leave a single barrel on display, and instead use this more contained version with triple barrels.” (see photo)

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Three Contained Sherry Barrels with Flor

Recycling Sherry Barrels with In-house Cooper

One of the fascinating aspects of this visit was the cooperage. I have never visited a sherry cooperage before, and learned that it is a place of the utmost recycling. This is because they must use old barrels to age the sherry. Therefore, they are continually tearing apart old barrels and making new ones. I was able to watch the cooper performing his tasks for a while, and then he stopped and led us to a stack of old dusty sherry barrels in the back of the warehouse.

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Making Recycled Sherry Barrels

Unlocking the Ancient Sherry Barrels

Eva explained that this unique stack of black sherry barrels held the private reserve wines of the Zuleta family.  I watched as the cooper unlocked several barrels, and then using a llenenzia, he deftly subtracted some sherry and poured it into wine glasses. We were allowed to taste an amontillado and cream sherry from these ancient casks. The cream sherry was especially delicious with Pedro Ximenez grapes added to the blend.

Private Tasting at Bodega Delgado Zuleta

At the conclusion of the tour, Eva invited me to sit down and taste several different wines.  She also showed me photos of La Goya, who was a famous singer from the early 1900’s.  Highlights from the tasting were:

La Goya – very fresh and elegant with notes of white flowers, green apple, almonds, and a hint of salt. La Goya is always aged 6 to 7 years in cask.  I was surprised at the yellow color of the wine, and the strong floral notes. It was one of my favorite manzanillas on the trip.

Quo Vadis Amontillado (40 years) VORS – Very Old Rare Sherry. Truly delicious with nutty notes, toffee, great acidity, mouthwatering finish.

Monteagvdo Muscatel – tasted liked white chocolate, caramel apples, and cream toffee. Very much a decadent dessert wine.

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Private Tasting at Bodega Delgado Zuleta in Sanlucar, Spain

The Quaint Seaside Village of Chipiona

On the drive back to my hotel, I stopped in the quaint seaside village of Chipiona. It has a lovely walking trail along the ocean, a lighthouse, and many tiny cobblestone streets filled with shops and restaurants. In the future it would be a nice place to stay for several nights.

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Sea Walk at Chipiona in Spain

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Narrow Streets of Chipiona with Shops and Restaurants

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Tapas Bar in Chipiona, Spain

Bodega Hidalgo: A Visit to La Gitana Vineyard and the Tambourine Gypsy Lady

(June 2018) I was thrilled when I learned that Fermin Hidalgo, youngest son and director of the family operated Bodega Hidalgo in Sanlucar, wanted me to meet him at the La Gitana Vineyard. The only problem is that both Google and Apple maps do not know where the vineyard is. When I explained this dilemma to Inma at the Wines of Sherry Office, she said “Just look for Exit 17 on the highway between Jerez and Sanlucar. Then you will see a large building surrounded by vineyards with the words “La Gitana” painted on the side of it.”

She was right. The building was very difficult to miss, with bold red lettering. The small narrow dirt road with deep rain-grooved ruts was a little more challenging though, and I had to drive very slowly so as not to destroy the bottom of my rental car.  But eventually I bumped my way into a large rectangle dirt parking area near the vineyard and large winery building. As I opened the car door, I saw several large friendly dogs, and chickens pecking around in the dirt.

Apparently I was early, because there was no one there to greet me, so I wandered over to look at the vineyard and take a few photos. I was amazed to realize that I could see the blue ocean in the distance, and that many of the neighboring properties were covered in bright yellow sunflowers. Just then a small dusty car pulled up, and Fermin jumped out.

“No one ever arrives on time,” he told me after shaking hands and exchanging business cards.  “I’m glad you found us.  Would you like to see the vineyard?”  I nodded excitedly.  This would be my first chance to see a sherry vineyard.

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La Gitana Vineyard with Ocean in Distance

The White Chalky Soil of Sherry

As we walked down a slight incline towards the vineyard, I marveled at the white-beige soil surrounding the vines that had absolutely no weeds.  Had the vineyard been sprayed with Round-up, I wondered?  But Fermin quickly squashed this idea when he told me they had been farming their 130 vineyard hectares organically for over 25 years, though were not certified.  The reason there were no weeds is because they machine disked. Then he bent down and started digging in the chalky dirt with his bare hands, and within a few seconds I could see the dampness in the soil (see photo).

“This is a very special soil that allows us to grow vines here successfully,” Fermin explained. “It is called “albaretha” and it absorbs our winter rains and allows our vineyards to survive the hot dry summers.”

We then spent some time examining the palomino vines and developing grape clusters, which looked like small green peas. They had finished bloom, and I was surprised to see how long the clusters were.  The vines appeared very healthy and were planted on 8 feet by 6 feet spacing using VSP trellis.  Fermin explained that they use sulfur, copper, and sexual confusion traps to maintain the health of the vineyard. All pruning is done by hand, there is no irrigation, and they machine harvest around 80% of the vines.

“Do you know why manzanilla from Sanlucar tastes a little salty?” he asked.

“Because it is close to the ocean?” I responded.

“Yes, but it is actually the wind blowing from the ocean that brings salt to the vines and soil. That is why the wine can taste a little salty.” He continued, “Do you know what manzanilla means?”

“No,” I responded.

“It means chamomile, because the wines here not only have a slightly salty taste, but a hint of chamomile and the style is often lighter than fino from around Jerez.”

Next we walked across the parking lot to view another vineyard on a hillside with short head-pruned vines. “Those vines are over 70 years old,” said Fermin. “They only produce around 1500 kilos per hectare, compared to our normal production of 15,000 kilos per hectare. The custom here is to remove vines at age 40, but we have decided to preserve ours. We are about quality, not quantity.  The future of sherry is in the past.”

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La Gitana Vineyard with Sunflowers in Distance

Brief History of Bodega Hidalgo and the Gypsy Lady

Bodega Hidalgo started in 1792 and is still family owned today. They are one of the few sherry houses to own all of their own vineyards. Currently they produce around one million bottles per year and are considered to be mid-sized.

Their best known brand is La Gitana, which means “the gypsy lady.” Fermin told me the story of how this brand was born, and it is a little romantic and sultry at the same time. Apparently in the 1800’s the bodega only produced sherry wines in bulk and sold them to other people to bottle and distribute. One of their best customers was a gypsy woman in Malaga.

As Senor Hidalgo, Fermin’s great grandfather, traveled around Spain, he continued to heard about how excellent the sherry wine was that the gypsy woman in Malaga bottled and sold.  Knowing he had produced the wine, he decided to go visit her one day in the 1890’s. Apparently they had an affair that lasted for a number of years and then ended.  However, a decade later when Bodega Hidalgo decided to bottle and sell their own wine, they decided to capitalize on the good reputation of the gypsy wine, and therefore, named the wine La Gitana.  They even commissioned a special portrait of the gypsy lady, which is still on the bottle today.

Winemaking at Bodega Hidalgo

After the vineyard tour, Fermin guided me through the winery where the presses and stainless steel tanks were located.  He explained that they destem and crush the palomino grapes, and use natural yeast. The first fermentation occurs in stainless steel tanks, and when the wine reaches around 5 brix, they transfer it to a second tank and add 15% alcohol using grape spirits.  It is here that the flor community starts developing, covering the wine with a soft white blanket of “flowers” and imparting the fresh taste of chamomile, green apple, and almond.

“The wine stays in these tanks with the flor until December or January,” said Fermin.  Then it is gently transported to their barrel cellar in downtown Sanlucar and pumped into the solera system.

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A Tasting of Bodega Hidalgo from the Solera

After touring the winery at the vineyard, I followed Fermin back to Sanlucar so we could visit the headquarters of Bodega Hidalgo in downtown Sanlucar. I was amazed to see that the ancient building was literally in downtown Sanlucar, but Fermin explained that the city had grown up around them over the years. He pointed to the high ceilings with open ventilation, explaining, “We like being close to the sea so the ocean breezes can come in and cool down the temperature in the hot summer.”

We toured the solera cellars, and I was impressed with the beauty of the architecture, the old black barrels, towering support columns, and high ceilings. There were tree shaded courtyards and bountiful pink bougainvillea tumbling down the walls around the winery.

Using a llenenzia, Fermin extracted wine from various tanks, and I did notice the distinctive salty taste in their La Gitana Manzanilla. He explained that the wine tastes different during the four seasons of the year, because the flor community is different.  “For me,” he said, “the Spring time wine is more crisp and light with stronger notes of green apple, while the Autumn wine is a bit heavier with more almond notes.”

Later he treated me to some very old sherries, including a 40 year old Amontillado, named Napoleon that tasted like old madeira with good acid, caramel, salt, and dried orange peel. Next we tasted a 70 year old Palo Cortado, called Wellington It was fuller-bodied, with distinct notes of vanilla, toffee and salt.

We concluded the tour with a visit to the historical office of the bodega, with a lovely antique tile fireplace and an original llenenzia in a frame on the wall.

“Do you know what this is?” asked Fermin.

“A llenenzia,” I stuttered, trying to pronounce the word.

“Yes,” he smiled. “But this is an antique one made of whale bone.  This is how they used to make them. This is one of only five left in the world.”

“Wow,” I said, gazing at the long delicate dipper on the wall, and feeling a sense of awe over the history of this beautiful old Bodega of the Hidalgo’s and the story of the gypsy lady who inspired their famous La Gitana brand.

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Fermin Hidalgo with Rare Whalebone Llenenzia

“But do you know what this is?” Fermin asked pointing at a strange round object mounted on the wall.

I shook my head no.

“It is supposedly one of the original tambourines from the gypsy lady.”

I gazed at it in admiration. It was obviously old, with a well-used leather cover and tiny bronze bells. I could imagine the gypsy lady playing it for Fermin’s great grandfather.

Later, as I departed with a box of three bottles of wine that Fermin insisted I try, I couldn’t help but be impressed with the energy and dedication of all of the members of the Hidalgo family who worked to keep this famous old brand alive.

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Tasting at Bodega Hidalgo La Gitana

Bodega Gonzalez-Byass: Home of Tio Pepe and the Sherry Drinking Mouse

(June 2018) After circling the cobblestone streets around Bodega Gonzalez-Byass in Jerez, Spain twice, I gave up on finding street parking, and finally descended into the large underground parking lot nearby. At the gates of the winery I was welcomed by Simon Leth-Nissen, International Brand Manager, a fluent Spanish and English speaker originally from Denmark.

As we started our walking tour, a brightly colored red train trundled by filled with tourists. Simon explained that they receive thousands of tourists every year from around the world. This is due, primarily, to the great success of their bread and butter brand, Tio Pepe, which can always be relied upon to deliver a fresh and delicious fino sherry in your glass.  I know when I see it on a wine list that I will not be disappointed, and can expect crisp green apple and almond notes in my glass.

Brief History of Gonzalez-Byass

In 1835, a 23 year old entrepreneur named Manuel González was working as a banker in Cadiz. Each day he saw ships filled with sherry setting sail for ports around the world, and decided it would be a good business to start.  Since he didn’t know anything about making wine, he hired his uncle, Tio Pepe, who had some winemaking experience, to help him start the company. Then little by little, he learned how to make wine himself.

In 1855 he met a successful English wine importer named Robert Byass, and they developed a partnership to export wine to England. Therefore the name of the company was changed to Bodega Gonzalez-Byass. Though Robert’s family sold their share of the company in later years, the brand name of Gonzalez-Byass was so popular by then, that they decided to maintain it.

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Grand Entrance to Bodega Gonzalez-Byass

Production,  Export Markets and Vineyards

Today Gonzalez-Byass produces 12 million bottles, of which 8 million are the very popular Tio Pepe Fino. They export to 114 countries, with the largest markets as the UK, Netherlands, Germany and USA. Production percentages are: 60% fino, 25% oloroso/amontillado, 5% PX, and 10% vintage, old sherries, special releases.

I was surprised to learn that Tio Pepe is actually a vineyard designate wine, because it is always produced from the same two vineyards. The company owns many of its own vineyards, which it farms using a system called Integrated Agriculture in Spain. This is apparently very similar to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) systems in the USA and the environmental portion of sustainable vineyard certifications, in that they only use agrichemicals if absolutely necessary. Gonazalez-Byass also buys grapes from many local producers.

Multiple Barrel Rooms and the Sherry Drinking Mouse

Simon gave me a tour of multiple barrel rooms, included one with barrels named after the apostles, and another with barrels signed by celebrities. He explained that they host many events and weddings in the various rooms of the vast estate.

We paused to take a photo of a beautiful cobblestone street with vines overhead. It has been photographed so many times and featured on Instagram so often, that it is now dubbed “Instagram Lane.”

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The Famous “Instagram Lane” at Gonzalez-Byass

The Tio Pepe Cellar was my favorite, not only because I enjoy the wine, but because I learned the story of the Sherry Drinking Mouse.  Apparently one of cellar workers from the past really liked mice, but mice in the cellar are a problem because they are attracted to sweet cream sherry and try to drink it.  Therefore, the cellar worker always set out a glass of sweet sherry at night and a tiny ladder to the top of the glass so the mice could drink the sherry and not fall in (see photo). He also banned cats from the cellar.  To this day, they maintain this tradition, and always have a glass of sweet sherry with a tiny ladder for mice – and cats are banned from the entire winery complex.

A Private Tasting and Discovery of Handkerchief Wines

The tour concluded with a private tasting with enologist Jose Manuel Pinedo, who had been with the company for decades. He then led me through a tasting of 16 wines, which were all well made and delicious. Some of the highlights were:

Tio Pepe Fino  – a classic consistent value. This sherry never disappoints, and is very refreshing with a nose of fresh almonds and tart green apple on the palate.  15% alcohol

Tio Pepe Fino En Rama – this is the more expensive version of Tio Pepe, which is specially taken from the solera barrels in Spring time.  En Rama means “on the branch” or “raw”.  The flor is more active at this time, making the wine much more intense in lavor, along with a heavier texture on the palate.  A very long finish.

Gonazalez-Byass Anada 1987 Palo Cortado  – a truly amazing wine with orange peel, burnt toffee, spice, and a very long finish.  Rare, because it is vintage.  21.9% alcohol.

Gonazalez-Byass Apostoles VORS Medium – a combination of the Palomino and Pedro Ximenez grapes, this wine had exquisite notes of dried apricot with a nutty, tangy finish.  Quite high acidity.  Reminded me of a Bual Madeira. 50 gpl sugar, 20% alcohol.

NOE VORS Pedro Ximenez – this wine was the color of milk chocolate and had a similar texture – very velvety and intensely sweet, with notes of dates, chocolate, and anise. Absolutely delicious – dessert in a glass, but with a surprising cleansing acidity. 15.5% alcohol

Jose described this as a handkerchief wine. When I asked what he meant, he smiled and said “In the old days, people would use a beautiful Pedro Ximenez wine like this to sprinkle on their handkerchief.  They could then take out the handkerchief and smell the delicious aroma of PX all day!”

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Private Sherry Tasting at Bodega Gonzales-Byass

Bodega Tradicion: Home of Low Interventionist Sherry and Famous Paintings

The entrance to Bodega Tradicion is along an old cobblestone street and then through a  wooden door into a simple tree shaded courtyard with a few welcoming benches. We were greeted by Eduardo Davis, Export Manager, who provided us with an excellent tour and an overview of the bodega’s history.

Bodega History and Production

Originally established in the 1650’s by the Rivero family, the bodega had many prestigious years until it was sold to an investment firm and later fell into bankruptcy. The family was able to buy it back and in 1995 changed the name to Bodega Tradicion to emphasize the fact that they wanted to focus on family traditions. Today they produce 35,000 liters of sherry and 6000 liters of brandy. Unfortunately they lost all of their original vineyards with the transition, but have set up a good network of high quality growers from which they purchase grapes.

Preserving History and Art

The bodega is famous for its beautiful collection of paintings that the family has preserved through the centuries, including works by Velázquez, Goya and many other artists. The Rivero family has also amassed a very impressive collection of winery records, which is considered to be the largest archive from the 1600’s in Jerez.  In order to preserve and share the records with the world, they have hired experts to digitalize the collection, which has become known as the CZ Archives.

Progressive Human Resource Policies from the 1800’s

Eduardo told us a story about one of the family members from the 1800’s who believed in progressive human resource policies for his workers. He actually kept training, promotion and salary records, and when many of his workers and townspeople fell ill, he paid to have a famous doctor brought to the town who saved many lives.  As a gift of thanks, the townspeople gave him a magnificent gold candelabrum, which is featured in the library room.

The Heady Scent of Fermenting Fino Sherry

When we entered the fino solera, with it rows of double-stacked black barrels, I was not prepared for the intense aroma of flor fermentation. It is much more pungent than regular yeast, and took a while for me to get adjusted to the scent. It was especially challenging when Eduardo unplugged a barrel and encouraged me to stick my nose in the hole. The burning sensation was painful, but it did clear up my sinuses for the day.

How the Fino Solera Process Works

We then proceeded to taste from many different barrels to experiment with fino at various ages. Eduardo explained that Bodega Tradicion does everything very naturally, with very little manipulation of the wine. The palomino grapes are picked early when they are fresh with good acidity, and natural yeast is used for primary fermentation in a stainless steel tank.

 “It is not true that palomino has no character,” said Eduardo. “It has freshness, acidity, and fruit when picked at the right time. “

The wine is then transferred to a second stainless steel tank before it goes dry, along with an addition of 15% alcohol. This causes the flor yeast to begin to grow and multiple until they form a community of tiny living creatures on top of the wine. Around December, “when the wine is sleeping” they transfer the flor and wine to the solera. The new wine always goes into the top barrel in the solera. Additional grape brandy is added as needed, but never more than 15.5% or the flor community will die.

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Sherry Fino Cellar at Bodega Tradicion

Eduardo explained that they transfer wine in the solera from top to bottom once a quarter, though some houses only transfer twice a year. A little air is always left in the barrel so the flor community can have some oxygen to survive. The role of the flor is to protect the wine from oxygen, and to give it the fresh almond, green apple, and chamomile notes that make fino sherry so distinctive.

Any wine that is transferred is always taken from the middle, with small pumps, so as not to disturb the living flor community. Eduardo explained that they keep their fino alive for 6.5 to 7 years in the solera before bottling. “There is no fining, filtering, or intervention,” he said. “So, in essence, all of our wines are enrama – we just don’t advertise it on the bottle.”

It should be noted that the minimum amount of time to keep fino under flor is 3 years, according to Sherry Regulations, but many houses keep it longer so that the fino can develop more complex flavors.

Tasting Fino from the Barrel with a “Llenenzia”

As we followed Eduardo around the cellar to taste fino from different barrels, he showed us how to gently remove the wine with a “Llenenzia.” This is a special long narrow rod with a thin deep cup to cut gently through flor and not disturb it too much.  It also keeps most of the flor out of the glass when you taste it.

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Eduardo Extracting Sherry Wine From Barrel with a Llenenzia

When the Wine Doesn’t Want to Be a Fino – Amontillado is Born

“Sometimes,” announced Eduardo, as he led us into the separate Amontillado and Olorosa cellar, “a wine says ‘I cannot be a fino’. That is when we make it an amontillado.” He explained that the fino starts to oxidize, perhaps because the flor colony was not thick enough in a particular barrel, so they add a higher level of alcohol (around 18%) and age it in a separate solera system as an amontillado.

Olorosa sherry, on the other hand, was always intended to be olorosa. Therefore, it never grows flor, and is immediately fortified to 18% after primary fermentation, and then placed in the solera.

We tasted several amontillados out of cask, and I quickly realized that the older they were, the more I liked them. The younger ones still retained some of the cheesy yeasty notes, whereas the older ones were nuttier. My favorite was a 42 year old amontillado, which had crisp acidity and notes of caramel, nuts and dried orange – more similar to a sercial madeira.

We concluded our tour with a quick pass through the art gallery, and then thanked Eduardo profusely before heading out of the dark cellars into the bright sunshine of Jerez, and onto the next sherry house on our schedule.

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Art Collection at Bodega Tradicion. Photo Credit: Bodega Tradicion

“Wine That Travels” – A Short History of Sherry

(June 2018) It was so exciting to finally arrive in the land of sherry – that famous fabled wine that has traveled the world. We caught an 11:30 flight on Iberia Airlines from Madrid to Jerez, and by 1pm were already departing the small airport in our Hertz rental car. As we drove towards our resort hotel on the ocean just south of Sanlucar, we passed rolling hills covered in bright yellow sunflowers and green verdant vineyards filled with palomino and pedro ximenez grapes.  The blue sky and warm temperatures in the mid 70’s was welcome after the cooler temperatures of Madrid.

After checking into our resort, the Hotel Elba Costa Ballena, my daughter and I headed to the pool and spa, then later out to dinner at a restaurant along the Bajo de Guia in Sanlucar where I ordered a glass of chilled manzanilla sherry (see below).  Gazing out a the bay, I couldn’t help but think of all of the ships carrying sherry that had departed from this port and further south in Cadiz over the centuries.  The history of sherry is one of the most fascinating wine stories in the world.  Following is a brief timeline, based on the history provided by Wines of Sherry.

A Brief Timeline of Sherry History

1100BC – Vines are brought to Spain by the Phoenicians, who called the region “Xera.” Ancient amphora for wine storage have been found near the city of Cadiz.

138BC– Romans come to the region and rename the area “Ceret”. Lucius Columella, born in Cadiz, writes the famous ancient book “De ru Rustica” about how to plant vines and make wine.

100’s BC – Romans began to export the local wine to Rome and other places. It becomes known as the “wine that travels,”  however it was not because it was fortified (distillation was not invented until 800’s). Instead the Romans covered the wine with different substances to protect it from oxygen, such as olive oil, ashes, honey, and resins.

711AD – The Moors come to Spain, and call the area the “Land of Sherish.” Even though the Koran prohibited alcohol, the region was allowed to continue to produce grapes and wine, which was used for raisins to feed the troops and medicine.

800’s – Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan, an Arabic alchemist, designs the alembic pot still to allow distillation of alcohol into spirits. This allowed sherry brandy to be developed, but in the beginning it was primarily used for medicine.

1264 – King Alfonso of Castille reclaims Spain. Exports of sherry wine to England increase when Henry 1 proposes a bartering agreement to trade English wool for sherry. Around the same time, the major grape used to produce sherry was renamed “Palomino” after a military general.

1492 – Sherry voyages to America with Columbus (along with Madeira)

1519 – Magellean sets sail from Sanlucar with “417 wine skins and 257 kegs” of sherry, making sherry the first wine to travel around the world.

1600’s– Sherry begins to be fortified with spirits (brandy) so it will keep better on long sea voyages. The practice is reputed to have been invented by the Dutch and adopted by the British and Portuguese. Sherry, madeira and port benefit greatly from this method.

1770’s  – The solera system is created, based on British consumer desires for a consistent taste and style each year for the different types of sherries. The system also allows the wine to age much longer.

1932 – Sherry achieves DO (Designations of origin) status in Spain

1970’s – Vineyards are overplanted in sherry and prices plummet

2012 to present – There is a resurgence of interest in sherry wines, as international sommeliers and wine buyers rediscover the excellent quality and value of sherry wines. The wide variety of flavors and styles, ranging from bone dry to extremely sweet, makes sherry a very versatile treat!

 

Vega Sicilia – The Ultimate Iconic Winery of Spain

(June 2018) There are certain times in life when you taste a wine that is so magnificent that it transports you into another century. That is what happened to me the first time I tasted Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva a few years ago. We were attending a pool party at a friend’s house, when one of the guests approached me with an open bottle of 1986 Vega Sicilia. “My company is relocating me to Europe,” he said, “but I cannot bring my wine collection, so I’ve decided to share some of my favorite bottles with friends here tonight.”

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Bottles of Vega Sicilia Unico

Of course, I had heard of Vega Sicilia – considered by many to be the top wine of Spain – but I had never tasted it. “Thank you,” I said with enthusiasm, and watched as he deftly poured one ounce into my glass. It was a dark ruby with hints of garnet on the rim, and the bouquet jumped out of the glass, enveloping me in spice, leather and dried black plum. The palate was electrifying with exquisite acidity, textured tannins, black tea with a smoky note, and a very long mesmerizing finish. That one small taste of the 1986 Vega Sicilia Unico spawned a dream to one-day visit the estate.

Fast forward five years to the Wine Spectator Experience in New York City in the fall of 2017. There I bumped into Elisa Alvarez, co-owner of Vega Sicilia, who kindly invited me to visit the next time I was in Spain.

Arriving at Vega Sicilia

So, it finally happened! On June 13, 2018, I picked up at Hertz rental car at the Madrid airport with my 21-year old daughter, and we drove the two hours north to Vega Sicilia. The drive was beautiful, as we snaked through deep valleys and hills on the main freeway, and then eventually turned west to meander along smaller roads with fields of red poppies and ancient castles dotting the way.

There are no signs announcing the entrance of the famous winery, so a good GPS system is necessary. Making a sharp right turn down a narrow hedge lined road that ended in an iron gate with a guard shack, I wondered, at first, if my GPS had led me to the wrong location.

“Hola,” I said to the guard, “Esta Vega Sicilia?”

“Si.”

“Tengo una reserva para las doce.”

“Nombre?”

So I told him, and he consulted a ledger in the office. “Bienvenido,” he said and slowly the iron gates swung open. I continued to drive along a narrow twisting road, lined with beautiful trees and hundreds of white rose bushes in full bloom. To the right we saw a Japanese garden, while on the left there rose a two-story very long peach colored brick building.

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The Driveway at Vega Sicilia Lined with Roses

After parking in a small parking lot, another guard met us and escorted us to a wooden door in the large brick building. There we were warmly greeted and invited to relax until Elisa and her husband, Pablo, arrived, along with the rest of our group. Once everyone was present, Elisa led us on a three-hour very in-depth tour of the estate, concluding with a tasting in their beautiful old manner house filled with antiques and exquisite artwork. It was there that Pablo joined us again to see how we were enjoying the wines.

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Part of our Group with Elisa and Pablo Alvarez

The Green Land of Saint Cecilia

Elisa began our tour by explaining the mean of the name “Vega Sicilia.” Apparently the term “Vega” means “green vegetation or green land,” whereas the term “Sicilia” is in honor of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians.

“Many people think our winery is located on Island of Sicily in Italy,” explained Elisa, with a smile. “But as you clearly know, we are in the Ribera del Duero DO of Spain.”

The winery was established in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, who trained in Bordeaux and wanted to start a great winery in Spain. He selected the Ribera del Duero region because it was warmer and at a higher altitude than Rioja. The winery sits at around 750 meters and has a continental climate. The area achieved DO status in 1982.

The Vineyards of Vega Sicilia

Vega Sicilia has a total of 1000 hectares, with 200 hectares planted to vines. There are 50 separate vineyards, with 90% planted to tempranillo. The terrain is quite diverse with 19 different types of soil, including some limestone. Elisa told us they have been practicing organic farming for the past 15 years, but are not certified. The vines are on a combination of different trellis systems, including small bush vines and some VSP. There is no irrigation, unless it is a new vineyard – in which case, it is only irrigated for the first year.

The estate used to be a self-sufficient farm with many crops and workers living on the property. They still maintain a poly culture, with more than 50% of the property covered with forests and a collection of 300 different types of trees.

Interestingly the best vineyards, including Unico, are situated on north facing slopes, so they receive less sunlight in the hot afternoons and also have better drainage. The word Unico means “Unique,” and the Don named the wine this because he felt it was very unique for Spain, because it usually has some Bordeaux grapes in the tempranillo blend. For example, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, and merlot are often part of the blend. We were told that the Unico vineyard blocks have more limestone and less organic material than other vineyards.

Major challenges in the vineyard include “esca,” which is an extreme form of eutypa. Elisa said they are using 41B and 110R rootstock to help combate this as well as other types of rootstock. They have also created and patented a spray made from garlic, vanilla and other ingredients to spray on wood cuts to help alleviate esca. Frost is also an big issue, and so they have purchased large wind machines at 50,000 euros each.

They do not harvest the vines until they are 10 to 12 years in age. “Vines are like kids,” stated Elisa, “and we believe it takes about 25 years before they are good quality. At 65, they are very good quality, but less quantity.” Harvest is usually around 22 hectoliters per hectare (approx. 2 tons per acre), but Unico is only one ton per acre.

There is also a small plot with vines that are over 100 years old. These are primarily a mix of different varietals, and they are trying to preserve this block.

State of the Art Unico Winery

We took a walking tour of the estate, and I was surprised to see how big it is. Elisa told us there were five different wineries there to produce their various wine brands. We toured the winery where Unico wine is made. The cellar was spotless with very expensive, top of the line equipment.

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Impressive Wooden Foudres at Vega Sicilia

All grapes are hand-harvested in 12 pound white plastic bins. They use a Pellenc to crush and destem, and then the must gently transported to French oak foudres with double insulation. They allow natural yeast to carry out the fermentation, but have a back-up batch ready just in case of a slow or stuck fermentation. Temperature ranges from 26 – 28 degrees C, and the whole process takes about 10 – 14 days, with gentle pumpovers.

After fermentation, they use a basket press and then transfer the wine to 100% new French oak 225 liters barrels for 18 months. Next the wine is moved to used oak barrels for another 18 months, and then, finally to large used oak foudres. Altogether Unico spends four years in oak, and then another 5 to 6 years bottle aging. Unico is always released 9 to 10 years after harvest date, and is considered to be one of the longest aging red still wines in the world.

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Barrel Cellar at Vega Sicilia for Unico

Onsite Cooperage – Toasting the Barrels

We also had the opportunity to visit the cooperage onsite and to witness one of the coopers toasting a barrel. It was fascinating, and smelled wonderful. Elisa gave us each a small piece of barrel stave with the imprint of Vega Sicilia.

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Toasting a Barrel at Vega Sicilia’s Cooperage

Grand Tasting in the Manor House

The wine tasting at Vega Sicilia was one of the most elegant I’ve ever experienced. Once we were all gather in the beautiful old mansion near the fire place, Elisa opened a bottle of 2008 Pol Roger champagne and we all enjoyed a toast together. Later Pablo stopped by to see how we were enjoying the wines.

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Seated Tasting at Vega Sicilia Manor House

Next we tasted several wines from their other properties, including Oremus in Tokay, Hungary, Pintia from Toro and Macan Classico from Rioja. All were excellent, but I was more interested in the wines from the property – and they were amazing:

Vega Sicilia Alion 2014 – 100% tempranillo aged in 100% French oak for 12 – 14 months. Savory palate with spice, chocolate and red cherry. Quite enjoyable. 92, $65

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2013 – balsamic, black fruit, earthy and savory. 95% tempranillo and 5% merlot, 70% American oak. Very long and delicious. I continued to enjoy this wine at several locations in Spain. Always good. 94, $200

Vega Sicilia Unico 2006 – 94% tempranillo, 6% cabernet sauvignon. 6 years in barrel/vats, 4 years in bottle. Black cherry, tar, tea, earthy notes. Great acidity; well integrated oak, very long and luxurious. Truly mesmerizing, and one of the great wines of the world. 96 points, $570

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Vega Sicilia Wines Heavily Allocated

As we tasted, several guests asked Elisa about their marketing and sales strategy. She explained that they sell via distributor and to some private clients. The wine is completely allocated, and they require advance payment before shipping. Currently they are in 102 countries, with 40% allocated for Spain. They also distribute DRC and Petrus in Spain, and partner with Gaja in Italy.

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Vineyard in Ribera del Duero with Red Poppies

As we departed, I look around the beautiful property and felt a great sense of gratitude for Elisa and Pablo in welcoming us to their winery. They are carrying on the tradition of one of the truly great and extremely special wine estates in the world. In doing so, they are offering employment to many people, preserving the land, and creating great works of art in their wine.

Postscript: Several days later, I  discovered that my iPhone made a video of the day. Here it is below:

https://youtu.be/HbET2nkXs_E

Visiting Marques de Riscal – A Bucket List Item Achieved

(June 2018) For many wine lovers a visit to Marques de Riscal Winery in Rioja is a bucket list item.  It definitely was for me, and not just to taste the delicious wine, but to stay overnight in their masterpiece hotel designed by Frank Gehry. With swirling patterns of pink, purple and silver, the famous architecture feat appears to be a decadent piece of salt water taffy floating on a sea of green vineyards.  The chance to stay in such a magnificent location, now operated by Starwood as a luxury resort, compelled me to consult my SPG loyalty points and book one night after the conclusion of the 2018 MW Symposium in Logrono.

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The Marques de Riscal Hotel in Rioja Designed by Frank Gehry

Alas, I should have also consulted the symposium schedule, because the organizers decided to hold the gala dinner at the Marques De Riscal winery.  This not only allowed us to take many photos in front of the Frank Gehry masterpiece, but also to be treated to a riveting flamenco show with great Spanish guitar and ravishing dancers.  At the same time, we had the opportunity to taste wines from many of the famous Rioja wineries and enjoy delicious appetizers.

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Flamenco Dancers and Spanish Guitarists at Marques de Riscal Winery

Next we were treated to a four-course dinner prepared by Chef Francis Paniego, holder of three Michelin stars (see menu at end of post). During the meal, the President of Marques De Riscal, Alejandro de Aznar Sainz, gave a toast with a 1955 Gran Reserva. Everyone appreciated the spectacular opening of multiple dust covered bottles with a burning tong ceremony. The evening continued with dancing and a full open bar until three in the morning.  I only made it until 1am, and somewhere between the winery and the bus, I lost my high heel shoes.

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Opening the 1955 Marques de Riscal Grand Reserva with Tongs

Checking Into the Frank Gehry Masterpiece

After the conclusion of the MW Symposium the next afternoon, I drove the 20 minute distance from Logrono to Elciego, in the south of the Rioja Alavesa, where Marques De Riscal Winery and Hotel is located. My daughter and I checked into the Spa wing, also designed by Frank Gehry, with larger rooms and an opportunity to gaze across the vineyards and out at the magnificent architecture masterpiece.  The hotel is rather small, with only around 40 rooms in total, and 3 restaurants.  We were told it was full when we checked in.

A nice aspect of staying there is the fact that you can use the spa facilities free of charge, and receive an invitation to tour the winery and taste some of the wines. Every room also has a complementary half bottle of the Marques De Riscal Reserva.  Therefore after exploring our very large room and even larger bathroom, we headed to the tasting room for a private tour, kindly arranged the evening before by PR Director, Cristina Perez Martin. We met with Francesca, who is studying to become a winemaker, and therefore, made a perfect tour guide to answer my technical questions.

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View of Town from Inside Marques de Riscal Hotel

Overview of Marques De Riscal Winery and Vineyard Operations

Francesca informed us that the winery was established in 1858 by Guillermo Hurtado de Amézaga, who was living in Bordeaux and came to Rioja to start the winery. The oldest section of the winery was completed in 1860, built out of the local sandstone. Today the enterprise is owned by four families, and they produce around 5 million bottles of wine per year, with 16 different labels.  There are around 130 full-time workers, which swells to nearly 300 during harvest, when seasonal employees from Portugal and Eastern Europe arrive to help harvest the grapes.

They own 500 hectares of vineyards and also purchase grapes from local growers in both Rioja and Rueda. The Rioja vineyards rest at around 500 meters (1500 feet in elevation) and are composed of clay and limestone. Rioja has a maritime climate, being relatively close to the sea with a frequent cooling fog layer in the morning.

 

Frank Gehry Was Hired to Build the Corporate Headquarters

I was surprised to learn that, originally, Frank Gehry was hired to build the corporate headquarters for Marques de Riscal.  However, when the building was finished, the design was so spectacular that they knew they had to share it with the world. Therefore, it was converted into a hotel. Since it had so few guest rooms, they commissioned Frank to also design the Spa wing, where we stayed.

The spa includes a massive indoor pool overlooking the vineyards, along with a steam room, dry sauna, Jacuzzi, and pebble foot massage section.  I visited twice – after our winery tour, and also the next morning. It is decorated in a red and black theme, with a black bottom pool, red walls, and grape vine branches.

Winemaking Process at Marques de Riscal

Francesca led us to the older part of the winery where the high-end wines are made. Gehry Collection, Barón de Chirel, Gran Reserva and Finca Torrea . The evening before, we had seen the newer section of the winery, filled with hundreds of stainless steel tanks where the Reserva wines are made. She showed us where they set up the sorting tables, and also explained the optical sorters they are employing in order to insure that only the best grapes go into the top cuvees.

All of the high-end wines are fermented in large French oak foudres, with natural yeast.  They use pigeage by climbing into the tanks to help start fermentation.  After it begins, they use gentle pumpovers.  Fermentation temperature is maintained at 25 – 26 C for 8 – 12 days. Then they use a gentle basket press to select free run and some pressed juice to transfer to small 225 liter barrels for aging.  The remains are sold to a distiller.

Next the wine spends 2 to 3 years in French and/or American oak barrels, depending on the brand. It is racked 3 to 4 times per year the first year, and then 2 to 3 times during second year. “It is a lot of work for our cellar team,” said Francesca, “and we lose a lot of wine to evaporation, but the process of very good for natural filtration, so we do not need to fine or filter much.” The very clean and modern bottling line is actually located under the hotel, and there are massive cellars to store the unlabeled bottles for the required time for Gran Reserva and specialty wines. They also have a locked library cellar with old wines dating back to the 1860s.

Marketing of Marques de Riscal Wines

Marques de Riscal wines are sold in 110 countries, with 65% of production exported. The major export wine is the Marques de Riscal Reserva, with its signature gold net enveloping the bottle.  They also conduct direct to consumer sales at the winery tasting room, where they receive over 100,000 visitors. They have a variety of tour and tasting options, and have become the most visited winery in Rioja.  Visitors flock there not only to taste the wine, but to take photos in front of the famous hotel.  They can also dine at the one Michelin star restaurant and schedule spa appointments.  The small town of Elciego that surrounds the winery is very picturesque, with a beautiful stone church, cobblestone streets, tree-lined plazas, and several restaurants and small shops.

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The Small Town of Elciego

Tasting Notes on Marques de Riscal Wines

I was fortunate enough to taste through the majority of the Marques de Riscal wines – some at the gala dinner the evening before and others at the tasting room.  Following are some of my notes on the wines.

Marques de Riscal Sauvignon Blanc Rueda 2017 – Fresh and crisp with citrus, grass and minerality. Great acidity, very refreshing. 100% stainless steel. Great value. 89, $9

Marques de Riscal Limousin Rueda 2016 – 100% Verdejo aged 6 months on oak. Heavier body with more complexity, toasty, dried pear, citrus. 88, $16

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Marquis de Riscal Reserva 2014 – their bread and butter wine, exported all over the world, with its classic label and gold netting.  Always a safe bet to order.  Made in a consistent style with red cherry, spice, vanilla, and powdery tannins. Aged two years in American Oak barrels. I ordered this many times in Spain by the glass for around 3 euros, and it always satisfied. Made from the 3 classic varieties of Tempranillo, Graciano, and Mazuelo.  They also give you a complimentary half-bottle of this wine if you stay in the Hotel. 90 points, $17

Finca Torrea 2015 – made from tempranillo vineyard next to the hotel. Black cherry, spice, and soft tannins.  Lighter and more elegant on palate with fresh finish. Has a cool looking label, that is supposed to represent the vineyard, and looks like a Picasso painting. 90 points, $25.

Marqués de Riscal 150 Aniversario 2010  – this was served with our dinner and paired very well with the filet mignon served by Chef Francis Paniego.  Massive structure and tannins with generous French oak and notes of balsamic, dried cherry and spice. Classic red Rioja varieties. 32 months in French oak. 94 points, $55

Marqués de Riscal Gran Reserva 2004 – classic aged Rioja with dried black cherry, tea, savory notes, vanilla and spice. Smooth and velvety tannins. 92 points, $70

Barón de Chirel 2005  – Made from old vines in a Bordeaux Style, with tempranillo and cabernet aged in French oak. Still very fresh with good structure. Dark cherry, earth, spice, and toasty oak. 93 points, $75

Barón de Chirel Verdejo 2016 – explosive acidity, 8 months in oak. Citrus and wet stone, savory. 91 points, $42

Marquis de Riscal  Rosé Viñas Viejas 2016,– aged on Sauvignon Blanc lees. Grenache and tempranillo. Nose of rose and watermelon. Bone dry on palate with some cherry notes. Very long , elegant and refreshing.  Very much like a high-end Provence rose.  93 points, $26.

Frank Gehry Collection  – we did not taste. Only released in certain vintages.  Priced well over $300.

The Bucket List Item Achieved

So in the end, I had two magical days at Marquis de Riscal. I definitely think it was worthwhile staying at the hotel, because the architecture is so beautiful both inside and out.  Unless you stay there, you cannot explore all of the nooks and crannies, and enjoy how the light plays upon the angles and metal at different times of the day.  Walking across the bridge from the main hotel to the spa wing is quite mystical – especially at night.

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Inside the Frank Gehry Bridge at Night

Though we did not dine in the Michelin star restaurant there (mainly because I had been treated to Michelin dinners the previous two nights and was seeking something simpler), we did eat at the 1860 Traditional Restaurant next door on the second floor. The views of the surrounding countryside and vineyards were delightful, the service was impeccable, and the food excellent. I ordered the hake fish with a glass of the Rueda verdejo, and it was perfect. Perhaps the most surprising aspect was the bright red toilet paper in the bathrooms – really!