Tasting Notes: Spanish Wine

The first time we went to Rome, we were floored by the amazing and cheap wine we could get by the carafe while dining in Trastevere. In Chamonix, under the watchful eye of Mont Blanc, we walked out of the local supermarket with an arm load of groceries and two bottles of good wine all for under €21. And, we traveled all the way to Porto, Portugal just to learn about port wine. I think it’s safe to say that we enjoy wine.

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Spanish wine is not something I have given a lot of credit. A few weeks ago, Jeff and I went to Vinopolis in London for our two year anniversary. This place is pretty amazing, and unfortunately, now closed. But you walk in and pay a certain amount for “credits” to use on a plethora of wine vending machines. You take your glass, insert your card, and pick a bottle out of the four in the chill chest to get a one ounce taster of. It was so much fun! If you have a chance to do this somewhere, you must.

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The main reason I liked this approach to wine drinking was because it allowed me to try different kinds of wine from different regions without the hefty price tag of each bottle and the entire bottle to somehow drink. Some of the wines I tried were awful (on my palette). The one that has burned itself into my mind was the Spanish Rioja.

It was a Seleccion 8 Rioja of the Tempranillo grape from Marques de Butrago vineyard. I was drawn to the “Christmas” category grape because our host or guide kept going on and on about how amazing the Spanish Rioja was. I took one sip and my smile transformed into a can-barely-hold-the-wine-in-my-mouth frown. Here is what the tasting notes said:

Thirty-six months in oak barrels adds an attractive, mellow, note to the black currant and blackberry fruit flavors. The finish is creamy with vanilla and sweet liquorice spice. 

I can assure you, there were no “creamy” notes and any fruit included must have been off. It tasted like meat or something savory rather than something “attractive.” After that, I was/am a little burned on Spanish Rioja wines.

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While in Spain this Christmas, we wound up ordering several glasses of Spanish white wines because of how they paired with our various tapas of olives, tuna and peppers, and paella. And we were in love.

We were shocked, again, in how well you could drink for so cheap! A glass of a proper pour of white wine cost about £2 or €3. You can’t get a better deal than that! We had a glass everywhere we went–because if not on vacation, then when?–to train and our palettes to remember what we liked.

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Our favorite white wine we had at the first tapas bar in Seville called La Tradicional, just outside the Seville Cathedral. It was from the Muga estate and technically a Rioja Blanco, and we were lucky enough to find the bottle in the local supermarket: El Corte Ingles (direct translation is “The English Court.” If you know why it’s called this, I’d love to know.), which was like a Spanish Target.

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The tasting notes for the Muga Rioja Blanco 2014 state:

Complex and toasted aromas with fresh, vibrant fruits give way to zesty lime, spicy and vanilla in toasted oak flavours, fresh acidity, and a refreshing spicy finish.

To us, it was light, crisp, and paired perfectly well with our tapas and then later with our Christmas meal of roast chicken stuffed with oranges and garlic.

In Seville, there was a little “mercado” called Mercado Gourmet Lonja Del Barranco right at the Isabel II Bridge. We wound up going to this place a couple of times during our three days in Seville, but it was the easiest place to find great food and wonderful wine.

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At the Albero y Vino stand, for €3, you get a generous pour of most of the glasses. But what also caught our attention all around Spain, but in particular, this wine stand, was the choice of sherries.

I’m not a sherry fan. We had two bottles of it at home, but when I tasted it, I couldn’t get the leather “baseball glove” taste out of my mouth. I wound up pouring my glass down the drain and the bottles in my cooking. But with sherry a big deal in the country (Tio Pepe signs cover most of the city like beer ads), and after thoroughly enjoying port wine in the neighboring country, I wanted to give it another try.

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After we asked the bartender if he understood English, we brokenly asked for a medium-sweet sherry. He gave us Nectar, a Pedro Ximenez wine. It was so thick, I’m sure I could have covered the white counter with the brown/mauve color liquid with one glass (which Jeff accidentally did by way of knocking over and shattering his first glass).

Thankfully, it tasted nothing like a sweaty, humid baseball glove. It was on the other far end of the spectrum: sweet, thick, and dense. It tasted like a thick prune juice or liquefied raisins.

Now with two failed attempts at liking sherry, I am determined to figure out this wine. Jeff may have been seduced by port (which I am, too) but I can’t seem to figure out how sherry can possibly be so different. They are both fortified wines from grapes in the similar areas.

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What is sherry? Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes harvested in the Andalusian area of Spain, more specifically, in the town of Jerez de la Frontera. The grapes are primarily the Palomino grape, and the wines range from “table” wines to an oak-barrel aged wine that has been allowed to oxidize. The oxidized wines were the ones that tasted like wood shavings on my palette. Now I know why. The sweeter wines that we tried (the Nectar) are wines made of specific grapes (Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel) and are mixed with Palomino grape sherry.

The word “sherry” comes from an English translation of Jerez, making the town literally Sherry of the Border. And much like Port, Champagne, and Scotch Whisky, sherry is protected and can only be called sherry if it comes from the “Triangle of Sherry” in Spain.

An area in the province of Cádiz between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María.

The process of making sherry sounds very similar to the process of making port. But here is the process in simple terms.

After fermentation is complete, the base wines are fortified with grape spirit in order to increase their final alcohol content. Wines classified as suitable for aging as Fino and Manzanilla are fortified until they reach a total alcohol content of 15.5 per cent by volume. As they age in barrel, they develop a layer of flor—a yeast-like growth that helps protect the wine from excessive oxidation. Those wines that are classified to undergo aging as Oloroso are fortified to reach an alcohol content of at least 17 per cent. They do not develop flor and so oxidise slightly as they age, giving them a darker colour. Because the fortification takes place after fermentation, most sherries are initially dry, with any sweetness being added later. In contrast, port wine is fortified halfway through its fermentation, which stops the process so that not all of the sugar is turned into alcohol.

I can’t say for sure I will continue my exploration of sherry tasting, but I will definitely be more open to it in the future. Without more research, it’s like playing Russian roulette with my tongue.

If you find yourself in Madrid and curious about sherry, check out The Sherry Corner. I can’t personally vouch for it, but it sure looked interesting for the sherry novice.

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One wine we wanted to experiment with in Spain but could never find was Madeira. At Vinopolis, that fateful night of eliminating regions to admire, we tried a Madeira wine. It was a Alvada 5 year old wine from the Madeira Wine Company on the tiny island off Portugal (which may explain why we couldn’t find it in Spain). But I will take a quick second to tell you what I remember from tasting the fortified, tropical island wine.

It tasted like vinegar.

This is what the tasting notes said:

Blandy’s threw away the rule book when they thought of this fresh twist on Madeira wine. Blending two of the ‘noble’ grape varieties of the island for the first time, before maturing on ‘Cantieros’ in the attic of the winery for five years. The Bual gives dried fruit and apricot flavours, and the Malmsey weight. 

Maybe the bottle was off? Maybe I just found another wine that didn’t suit me. It had a tangy “wang” that had me switching glasses with my husband. And if you know me at all, I am not one to switch glasses.

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Madeira wine has a very similar story to port and sherry in that it’s made from local grapes and fortified with grape spirits, so the wine wouldn’t spoil on long voyages. Something that makes it quite different is that it is heated for preservation.

Today, Madeira is noted for its unique winemaking process which involves heating the wine up to temperatures as high as 60 °C (140 °F) for an extended period of time and deliberately exposing the wine to some levels of oxidation. Because of this unique process, Madeira is a very robust wine that can be quite long lived even after being opened.

So, while ours is a port house, I am willing to take any and all suggestions on where I should go for Sherry and Madeira tastings. I’m all ears.

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I know that Vermouth is not Spanish, (it’s actually Italian) but as we wandered around Seville and Granada, I kept seeing Vermouth advertised as a proper drink in most bars. I have only ever known it as a mixer or exclamation point in a martini. On its own, I didn’t think it would be served. But, on our last night in Granada, I finally decided to try it in a little tapas bar near the Alhambra. Served with a heavy pour and a slice of lemon, I was actually pleasantly surprised with the subtle and floral taste. It wasn’t overpowering with alcohol nor was it sharp like most additions used in cocktails.

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What is Vermouth? It’s a fortified wine originally made in Turin, Italy and flavored with botanicals. That’s why it pairs so well with gin. It was originally used as a medicine, but it slowly became something to serve in cafes as an aperitif.

Vermouth is produced by starting with a base of a neutral grape wine or unfermented wine must (or juice plus pomace). Each manufacturer adds additional alcohol and a proprietary mixture of dry ingredients, consisting of aromatic herbs, roots, and barks, to the base wine, base wine plus spirit or spirit only – which may be redistilled before adding to the wine or unfermented wine must. After the wine is aromatized and fortified, the vermouth is sweetened with either cane sugar or caramelized sugar, depending on the style.

I won’t go into much more detail since we’re focusing on Spain here rather than Italy, but I will say that Vermouth on the rocks with a Twist served with a plate of Spanish olives and jamon y melon was the perfect dish for our last night in Granada.

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I hope I enlightened you a bit on drinking your way across Spain. I’d love any and all suggestions on things to try and maybe some suggestions for someone looking to like Sherry and Madeira but with bad luck so far.

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3 thoughts on “Tasting Notes: Spanish Wine

  1. good article on my favorite subject;but for the “El Corte Ingles (direct translation is “The English Court” is not court but cut, the English Cut ,style of dressing as the store was open.corte de cortar in Spanish. Cheers

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