Sunday, July 31, 2011

Adegas Manuel Formigo Grand Cru Quality Treixadura-based White Wines from Ribeiro (Galicia)

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Adega Manuel Formigo
Cabo de Vila, 49
32431 Beade (Ourense), Galicia

by Gerry Dawes*, Founder
The Spanish Artisan Wine Group
*Spanish National Gastronomy Prize 2003

Agustín Formigo Raña, his wife María del Carmen de la Fuente de la Torre and their son, winemaker Manuel Formigo de la Fuente, the Formigo family of viticulturists and winemakers, has been closely connected with wines from the Ribeiro for many generations in the village of Beade.   Beade is in Ourense, one of the four provinces of emerald Galicia in northwestern Spain just north of the border with Portugal and  is just a few kilometers north of the ancient town of Ribadavia, which has one of the best preserved medieval Jewish quarters in Spain (see slide show below).

(Double-click on the images and go to Picasa, then click on "slide show" and F11 for a full-screen view.)

Adegas Manuel Formigo makes primarily white wines of character and quality,  reflecting the greatness of his family’s  vineyards and the arduous and meticulous work that the Formigo family performs the whole year in their small winery and in their five vineyards scattered around Beade.   Formigo means ant in Gallego and some of their wines display an the silhouette of an ant on the labels, symbolic of the family name and their propensity for hard work. 

Formigo means "ant" in Galician language.

I have photographed María del Carmen  as she moved with a group of other women (aunts moving like ants?) around the Formigo’s prized Miño Teira vineyard up and down the rows, sitting on a chair  at each spot, thinning vine leaves so that more sun can reach the grapes. 

Thinning leaves from vines at Adega Manuel Formigo's vineyards at Beade (Ourense), Galicia.  Manuel In the slide show, Formigo's mother is one of the women thinning leaves.  Photo: Gerry Dawes©2011 /

The Formigo family’s diligence in tending their vineyards, grown on stony soils containing granite and blessed with a perfect climate for growing their  unique native white wine grape varieties translates into superb unique, well balanced white wines that can satisfy the most exigent palates.
The main grape in the Formigo’s vineyards is the Ribeiro region’s benchmark treixadura.  Treixadura accounts for as much as 65-70 per cent of their White wines.  The remaining varieties used in varying percentages in Formigo’s wines are godello, which may be one of the five greatest white wine varieties in the world; albariño, Galicia’s most famous wine grape; another Ribeiro standby, loureira; and traces of alvilla and the once nearly disappeared torrontés.  The Formigo’s  also grow  a parcel of native red grape vines planted eight years ago to make vinos tintos, now mostly for local consumption, but with an eye to making a quality red wine in the future.

Treixadura grapes, the main grape of Ribeiro. 

Photo by Gerry Dawes ©2011.

The weather in Ribiero combines the freshness of the Atlantic-influenced rainy periods that alternate with Spain’s Continental-Mediterranean warmer influences (the región gets 1915 hours of sun per year and day-time temperaturas in July  and August can reach the high 90s, but like most of mountainous Spain, the temperatura drops at night giving the grapes a respite).  This combination of oscillating weather patterns creates a plethora of unique micro climates, making the Ribeiro an ideal place for producing white wines of elegance and balance like those found in France’s Burgundy and in the Loire Valley.

The Formigo family’s vineyards consist of a great deal of ancient granitic materials in the form of large stones and gravelly rocks that contribute greatly to the stability of the  soil, provide good drainage in this Atlantic Ocean-driven climate and have a refectivity that helps hold the warmth of the sun in the vineyards during cool Galician  nights.  Even though these rock-strewn soils also include alluvial stones in some places, Manuel Formigo de la Fuente, the family’s 30-something winemaker, says it is primarily “granite-based viticulture,” which means loose, well drained and oxigenated soils that provide good acid to the wines and contribute to their aromatic qualities, freshness, elegance and  finesse on the palate and a persistent, compelling minerality in the finish. Manuel Formigo’s wines have a terroir-laced intensity, excellent fruit balanced by fine acidity and alcohol levels that seldom top 13%.   In other words, the wines are eminently drinkable and great companions to food!
The Formigos have three distinctly different principal vineyards, each of which adds important elements to the complexity of the wines.

The Formigo’s consider their 2.2 hectare (5.5 acres) Miño Teira terraced, north-south oriented vineyard to be their best.  Two of the terraces in this vineyard have 35-year treixadura white wine grape vines that may be the oldest in the región.  In addition to old vines treixadura, there are also godello, torrontés, loureira, albariño, alvilla and a small parcel of native red grape vines.

The one hectare (2.5 acre) Portela vineyard, also with a north-south orientation overlooking the village of Beade is the Formigo family’s second  largest and is planted in 15-year old treixadura, albariño and loureira, all white wine varieties.

The Formigo’s .7 hectare (1.75 acre), 8-year old Pousos vineyard is planted in native Galician red varieties—caiño tinto, tintilla, ferrol, sousón and brancellao—from which the family hopes to make high quality red wines in the future.

In and around the village of Beade, they also work with grapes from five smaller plots: Pereiro, Barbaña, Badengua, Barcas y Rebodego.

The Adegas Manuel Formigo winery (adega is Gallego for the Spanish bodega, or winery) is situated beneath their more than 200-year old ancestral family home, which was built with double-thick stone walls.  Those old walls allow the Formigos to store  their  bottled wines under naturally cool conditions until they are ready for shipment.   Even though the Formigo family respects tradition, their techniques have evolved  from  once using large wooden  vats to ferment and store their wines to employing temperatura-controlled stainless steel tanks.

At The Spanish Artisan Wine Group, we consider the quality of the Formigo vineyards to add up to the French equivalent of Grand Cru* and Premier Cru**.  That’s how good the wines produced from those vineyards with a mínimum of intervention are.

The Wines of Adega Manuel Formigo:

Finca Teira Blanco 2010** (D.O. Ribeiro), 12.7%  alcohol, $19.95 per bottle SRP.
Production:  1100 cases, 100 available for the United States, just 50 cases on the first order.

Grape Varieties:  Treixadura (65%) , Godello (20%), Torrontés (15%).  Exclusively from free-run must from selected grapes from the Miñoteira y Portela vineyards. 90+ points.

Brilliant, profound green-gold.  Impressive, expressive nose of honeysuckle and peach.  After ten minutes, the wine opens up to show a beautiful, spicy sweet fruit reminiscent of honeysuckle and white peach, bracing acidity and a long mineral-laced finish.   

Teira X Blanco 2010* (D.O. Ribeiro), 13% alcohol;  $28.95 per bottle SRP.

Production:  335 cases of which 35 cases are available for the U.S. market.  We are getting 10 cases on the first shipment.

Grape Varieties:  Treixadura (60%),  Alvilla (15%),  Albariño (15%), Loureira (10%)

Made from  grapes from selected 30–year old Treixadura vines, along with alvilla, albariño and loureira grapes, all from the Formigo’s top vineyard, Finca Miño Teira.

Flashes of deep green-gold.   This simple had only been in bottle for two months and was still somewhat closed, but showed hints of stone fruits and minerality.   Tiera X has excellent structure and acidity with hints of tropical fruit, honeysuckle and coconut that expand in the glass with aeration and are underpinned with that haunting granite minerality.    93 points.

Manuel Formigo with his Teira X white wine.

Made from  grapes from selected 30–year old Treixadura vines, along with alvilla, albariño and loureira grapes, all from the Formigo’s top vineyard, Finca Miño Teira.

Flashes of deep green-gold.   This wine had only been in bottle for two months when tasted and was still somewhat closed, but showed hints of stone fruits and minerality.   

Tiera X has excellent structure and acidity with hints of tropical fruit, honeysuckle and coconut that expand in the glass with aeration and are underpinned with that haunting granite minerality.    93 points.

--Tasting notes by Gerry Dawes.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

God and Men (Godello and Mencía) in Ribeira Sacra: Winemaking in Spain's Most Exciting Wine Region for Terroir-Driven Wines

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José Manuel Rodríguez, Consejo Regulador de La Ribera Sacra President (and producer of his own Décima wines) and a visitor on a tour of Spain to visit members of The Spanish Artisan Wine Group, at vineyard overlooking the Sil River.  Photo by Gerry Dawes ©2011.
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Article by Gerry Dawes
(First published in The Wine News, Fall 2009)

Over the past few years, La Ribeira Sacra, a barely accessible, exquisitely rural wine region in northwestern Spain's mountainous Galicia (some 350 miles northwest of Madrid), has begun to show the most exciting potential I have encountered in more than 40 years of traveling the wine roads of Spain. Here God and men, using primarily godello for white wines and mencía for reds, are creating such irresistibly delicious, enticing, often profound wines that the Ribeira Sacra is rapidly becoming one of the most compelling wine regions on earth. In the bargain, Ribeira Sacra just may be the most strikingly beautiful wine region in the world with its terraced vineyards of dry farmed, old vines indigenous grapes that plunge precipitously hundreds of feet down the slopes of the majestic damned-up canyons of the Minho river, meandering from the north and defining the western zone, and the Sil, flowing from the east and marking the southern tier. Ribeira Sacra is one of only two areas in Spain--the other is Priorat--that practice "heroic viticulture," the laborious care and harvesting of vineyards from such steeply inclined terraces.

(Slide show on Ribera Sacra.)

Although lost in time until recently, Ribeira Sacra has been making wine since the Roman occupation (and possibly longer). In just the past five years, the region has awakened from its centuries-long backwater slumber and appears poised to make a major and possibly long term impact on the Spanish wine world--including becoming a major moderating force for a wine culture that has allowed itself to become obsessed with a predilection for overblown, overripe, overly alcoholic, inky monster style wines. At last a Spanish region has emerged whose terruño (terroir) can rival the ethereal, sublime qualities of the great French Atlantic-climate influenced, terroir-driven wines such as red and white Burgundies and the cabernet franc-laced reds of the Loire Valley.

Stephen Metzler, President of Classical Wines (Seattle, WA;, who represents Ribeira Sacra's Adegas Cachín (Peza do Rei and Finca Millara) says, "My view of Ribeira Sacra is as a Northern European terroir whose wines have structure and acidity, so the pursuit of extract hereBbut not overripeness--is advisable. It is the opposite of most of Spain, where they need seek acidity to provide support for their fleshiness."

However, Roger Kugler, former wine director of New York's Sula and Boqueria and a Spanish wine specialist, does not agree about "the pursuit of extract." He says, "There is a tendency to over-extract some of these Ribeira Sacra reds at the moment, but I think that will pass as the winemakers catch up with the trend against such over-extracted wines which is now gaining ground all over the world."

More than any other place in Spain, the wines of Ribeira Sacra are being produced by people trying to get it right in the vineyards rather than manipulating the juice once it is in the cellars. Dominio do Bibei owner Javier Domínguez told me in March at his winery, "We began by working the vineyards, cutting yields and getting them into the right conditions to make good wine."

Ribeira Sacra winemaking indeed often seems to be a dramatic departure from the practices that have been characteristic for the past fifteen years of the rest of Spain, where winemakers have too often relied on overripe fruit, which produces fat, jammy wines with high alcohol content and low acidity. And winemaker-driven cellar techniques such as extended macerations, barrel fermentation, battonage (stirring of the lees), barrel toasting and extended aging of new oak have been used to achieve a formulaic flavor profile designed impress wine critics. In fact, Ribera Sacra red wines, when produced without cellar gimmicks may be the longed-for antidote to some of the more grotesque types of wines that have characterized Spanish winemaking for the past fifteen years. In August, while drinking his Lalama 2003 with me at New York's Boqueria Soho tapas restaurant, Javier Domínguez made a statement that many fine wine lovers and Spain aficionados fervently hope is true, "I think we are beginning to see a group of people in Ribera Sacra trying to make wines with a stamp of authenticity. I believe this is totally contrary to what has been going on in the rest of Spain for many years, over-ripeness, over-extraction, over-oaking, too much alcohol, etc."

The tiered slate and/or granite bancales, or terraces, some dating to the Roman occupation nearly 2,000 years ago, have a great deal to do with why Ribeira Sacra wines can be so profoundly terroir-driven, intriguing and delicious. The old vines, which are driven deeply into the fractured stone of the terraced hillsides, impart a marked minerality to the wines, depending upon the stone composition, which can range from mostly granite in Chantada and a granite-slate mix in Ribeiras do Minho in the west to Amandi, where the terrances are mostly slate, to some slate-and-granite in Ribeiras do Sil and slate- or schist-laced clay in Quiroga-Bibei.

The inclines of most Ribeira Sacra's vineyards are usually from 30 per cent to 80 per cent but, in some cases, Denominación de Origen (DO) Regulatory Council President José Manuel Rodríguez says is "even steeper at 100 per cent or more!" (Germany's famous Bernkasteler Doktor vineyard in the Mosel is on a 100 per cent incline.) The steepness of Ribeira Sacra's riverside slopes allows graduated harvesting because of the differences in altitude, which can vary as much as 500 to 600 feet from top to bottom in the same vineyard area, with the earliest ripening vines being in the lower, therefore warmest, rows nearest the river. The vendimia (harvest) continues for ten to fifteen days until the uppermost vines are picked. The climate varies from the more direct Atlantic weather influences in the western Minho, which receives some 35.5 inches of rain annually, while the more southern and eastern Sil areas only get 20 to 27.5 inches per year. The Minho's median temperature is 56 degrees Fahrenheit, while the Sil is one degree warmer, but can reach temperatures of 95 to 100 degrees at midday in summer.

The grapes in the old vineyards of Ribera Sacra are often field blends of mencía or godello mixed with little-known ancient Galician red varieties. The Ribeira Sacra Regulatory Council has decreed that the "preferred" varieties for red wines are mencía, brancellao and merenzao, but also authorized and tolerated are caiño tinto, mouratón (also called negrada), sousón and the inky garnacha tintorera (gradually being eliminated as an authorized variety) and the seldom-encountered tempranillo (so widely grown in the rest of Spain). The preferred white wine varieties are the predominant godello, plus albariño, dona blanca, loureira, torrontés and treixadura.

Many Ribeira Sacra wines already have a clear identity: Their persistent terruño (Spanish for terroir) minerality is more readily evident here than in any other region in Spain, including Catalunya's Priorat, whose wines' inherent minerality is often obscured by new oak. Many Ribeira Sacra red wines exhibit the haunting, slate-driven, graphite flavors that characterize the best Priorat wines (whose pre-dominant varieties are garnacha tinta and cariñena), but Ribeira Sacra's qualities are derived from distinctly different grapes, primarily mencía, often blended with small percentages of the other unique indigenous varieties. And, because Ribeira Sacra's grapes are grown in a cooler Atlantic-influenced climate rather than a hot Mediterranean one, the wines achieve lively fresh fruit flavors from grapes that almost never attain over-ripeness.

Some Ribiera Sacra wines still offer unique, rustic country flavors from a bygone era. But, each year Ribeira Sacra wines have become increasingly sophisticated, often without totally losing that charming rustic touch, which imparts a authentic sense of place that is considered a virtue, rather than a flaw, by many admirers of these wines. The reds are usually quite delicious with a depth of ripe, juicy red and black currant, red berry and/or pomegranate-like fruit, that haunting minerality and moderate 11.5 to 13 per cent alcohol levels, all integrated beautifully and balanced by a fine acidity. Plus, the wines are often un-oaked or so judiciously oaked that the wood doesn't become a pre-dominant or even noticeable factor. All of these factors contribute to making these wines eminently drinkable, exquisitely well balanced and seamless in the best examples, which gives them an exceptional affinity with a wide range of foods.

White wines, made predominantly from godello, comprise less than seven per cent of Ribeira Sacra's production, but some also show exceptional promise. There are also some delicious blends of godello with albariño, treixadura and other native Galician white varieties. One wine in particular, Pena das Donas Almalarga Godello from 80-to-100 year-old vines, stands out and shows the potential of Ribeira Sacra whites. Almalarga has all the complexity and minerality of a fine white Burgundy such as a Puligny-Montrachet, but with the marvelous godello grape and mixed granitic-slate mineral flavors, instead of chardonnay from calcareous soils. Thus far, Pena das Donas has not resorted to the current vogue in Spanish white winemaking--fermentation in new oak barrels and frequent battonage--both of which can obliterate the lovely fruit and haunting mineral tones that are so enticing in this wine.

Over the past decade, I had seen glimpses of excellent potential in Antonio Lombardia's Pena Das Donas, José Manuel Rodríguez's Décima, Javier Seoane's Pradio, Primitivo Lareu's Sabatelivs, Dr. José María Prieto's Regoa and even such rustic wines as Viña Cazoga, Cividade and Os Cipreses. And, in restaurants elsewhere in Galicia, I have often ordered wines from some of the region's larger wineries--Vía Romana (Chantada), Abadia da Cova (Ribeiras do Minho), Rectoral de Amandi (Amandi), Ponte de Boga (Ribeiras do Sil) and Val de Quiroga (Quiroga-Bibei)--which produce very drinkable, inexpensive wines, primarily for Galician consumption. In March at the Chantada wine fair, I encountered several little-known, but very promising wines: Diego de Lemos, Pincelo, Quinta de Albarada, and Terras Bendaña. And, at lunch at Chantada professor's small "hobby" bodega in the middle of vineyards overlooking the Minho, we drank an unlabeled red wine that was gorgeously rich with only 12 per cent alcohol! At the Castro Caldelas wine fair in July, I tasted Adegas Costoya (Alodio and Thémera), Peza do Rei and Chao do Couso (Alcouce and Soutollo), all available in the U. S., and several more such as Sollio, Adega Vella, Bellaleira, Viña Pederneira and Solaina worthy of consideration.

In the past few years, several winemakers from outside the region--Bierzo's Raúl Pérez (several wineries; see below) and Gregory Pérez (Regina Viarum), Priorat's husband-and-wife team René Barbier, Jr. and Sara Pérez (Dominio do Bibei), Rías Baixas maestro Gerardo Méndez (D. Ventura) and Dominique Roujou de Boubee (Ponte da Boga), a French consulting enologist living near Barcelona, have all appeared to help refine Ribeira Sacra wines. And, just this year, significant articles about Ribeira Sacra's wines and winemakers have appeared in The New York Times, Gentleman's Quarterly and The Wine Advocate, which is having an explosive effect. Even in today's market, in which, one of Spain's leading wine websites, reported this summer that Spanish wine exports were down by a staggering $55,000,000 and Catalunyas INCAVI (Cava Institute) is reporting the equivalent of nearly 19,000,000 bottles of unsold wine, Riberia Sacra wines sales are up 35 per cent in the past year, according to Regulatory Council President José Manuel Rodríguez.

Recently, some very promising, even exceptional wines (see Tasting Bar)--some made by these carpet bagging winemakers, have appeared in the American market. Gerardo Méndez, the owner-winemaker of top-rated Rías Baixas Do Ferreiro Albariños, advises Ramón Losada on his D. Ventura Viña do Burato, Pena do Lobo and Viña Caniero, three truly superb, very reasonably-priced red wines from an organically farmed vineyard in Ribeiras do Minho and two more in Amandi. The wines, from organically farmed grapes fermented with native yeasts, are among the most fruity, balanced, terroir-driven and gloriously delicious wines in Spain, yet none rises above 13 per cent alcohol, and they are un-oaked. Also in Ribeiras do Minho, from sharply inclined vineyards overlooking the Sil River (the Minho, Sil and Bibei meet nearby), Antonio Lombardia and his partners at the Pena Das Donas produce Almalarga Godello, one of the greatest white wines I have tasted in Spain, along with a first-rate Mencía, Verdes Matas.

Javier Domínguez, a native Galician, is the owner (with his wife, Maria) and artistic inspiration behind the striking Domino do Bibei hidden in the tortuous mountains of the Quiroga-Bibei area. Domínguez hired Priorat husband wife team, Sara Pérez (Clos Martinet) and René Barbier Jr. (Clos Mogador), to consult on his critically acclaimed wines, the godello-based Lapena and three reds, Lapola, Lacima and Lalama. Domínguez also employs local in-house talent--Suso Prieto Pérez and Laura Lorenzo Domínguez--who diligently manage the vineyards and monitor the development of the wines. Moving steadily away from overly long macerations and avoiding a surfeit of new oak, they are using upright, epoxy-lined cement ovals and larger wooden tanks for their wines.
When I visited Domino do Bibei in 2009, Domínguez told me, "Even if I don't make any money for ten years, what concerns me more is making the greatest wine possible from these grapes and this land." One of his wines, approved as "experimental" by the DO, is Lalama, a blend of mouratón and garnacha tintorera (an inky grape reminiscent of Alicante bouschet), with no mencía. Domínguez is also very enthusiastic about the propects for his brancellao, a grape which he says "produces pretty light-colored, elegant red wines that remind me of Burgundy."

Raúl Pérez, a diminutive 38-year old, is the quintessential flying winemaker, who "flies" around northwestern Spain in a Mini-Cooper, making or consulting on more than a dozen wines. Pérez began making wines--now critically acclaimed--from his family's vineyards in his native Bierzo. He also makes several wines in neighboring Galicia's Monterrei, Rías Baixas and Ribeira Sacra, including Fernando González's Algueira, Chao Do Couso (Alcouce, Soutollo), Guímaro and El Pecado, which in Spain was first sold as Guímaro Barrica (barrel aged). El Pecado, which recently received an astronomical score from a famous American wine newsletter, is described as 100 per cent mencía, but is actually 85 per cent mencía with 10 per cent caiño tinto and 5 per cent brancellao, with the two latter grapes imparting a rustic, exotic touch.

Pérez told me, "soy enólogo de viña" ( I am a vineyard enologist), but it could easily be said that he is also enologist de prensa (meaning either a wine press or a printing press).  Recently, Pérez has received some serious press attention from major European and American publications and his fame has skyrocketed. Pérez does believe that great wine begins in the vineyards and he prefers barrels to be four-to-five years old with no discernible toasting, since believes charring adversely affects the taste of the wines. Pérez's wines can be quite good and his rise to fame has helped spotlight the region, but his individualistic winemaking approach seems more about making denomination of origen "Raúlista" wines rather than exemplary representatives of any one region.

The Ribeira Sacra is divided into five subzonas which, because of climate, soil differences and vineyard orientation can produce wines that are markedly different in character, so much so that DO President Rodríguez says, "There might as well be 20 different DOs." From northwest to southeast, the subzones are Chantada, whose magical vineyards line the Minho in northwestern Ribeira Sacra; Ribeiras do Minho, with awesomely beautiful vineyard sites south of Chantada; Amandi, with strikingly steep vineyards in the center of the region whose southern boundary is the Sil River; Ribeiras do Sil, running south of the Sil from Minho in the west along the deep Sil canyons to Castro Caldelas; and Quiroga-Bibei, in whose eastern zone around Quiroga there are some non-terraced vineyards, but along the Sil and Bibei rivers in the southeastern reaches are some more majestic, steep, terraced vineyards.

Dominio do Bibei's Javier Dominguez, told me, "One thing I like about the Ribeira Sacra is the differences between the subzonas. For instance, the wines of Chantada are much more fruity. The wines of Bibei, where I have my vines and bodega, have much more minerality and the fruit is not as exuberant. I am not fond of wines with pronounced fruit, what I prefer are the mineral components."

Roger Kugler, also a fan of wines with mineral terruño, says "many Ribeira Sacra red wines are showstoppers. Because the steep vineyards and slate soils of Ribeira Sacra produce mencía with a deeper minerality and richness than can be found in Bierzo, for instance, and the region has been called the next Priorat, for good reason."

It is important to understand that Ribeira Sacra wines are unique originals that should be judged on their singularly distinctive merits. Even though the wines naturally may exhibit certain characteristics reminiscent of Burgundy, the Loire or Priorat and a few producers seem to be trying to imitate some of those styles, Ribeira Sacra wines are usually quite unique. Because of the region's historic isolation, indigenous grape varieties and climate, the style and provenance of these wines may take some getting used to because they are indeed a river of wine unto themselves, a wine river well worth exploring in depth.


About Gerry Dawes

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià.

In December, 2009, Dawes was awarded the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award in a profile written by José Andrés.

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 

Mr. Dawes is currently working on a reality television series
on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

John Gilman on New Oak Barrels

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John Gilman, Author-Publisher of A View From the Cellar
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2007 /* * * * *

New, Small Oak Barrels

"Contrary to my reputation in some circles, I really do not mind wines with a lot of new oak. A perfect example are the Burgundies of producers such as Henri Jayer and Domaine Dujac. Both estates make (or made in Monsieur Jayer’s case) their wines almost entirely in new oak, and yet they are two of the finest producers of wine that I have ever had the pleasure to taste.

But it is extremely hard to use a high percentage of new oak well, and it takes any extremely skilled artist in the cellar to be able to consistently pull this off. Unfortunately, there are not a whole lot of producers with as much skill as Monsieur Jayer had during his lifetime. 

Too often, new oak dominates the other characteristics of the wine, both on the nose and the palate, producing in a best-case scenario a one dimensional wine that derives many of its flavors and aromatics from the wood.

And the worst-case scenario (all too familiar to those of us who taste a wide range of wines these days) is that the new oak has been imperfectly cured, and has leeched raw, resinous tones into the wine, which come across as sawdusty or resinous on the palate, and add so much raw wood tannin to the wine as to upset its balance. This condition is usually terminal--as the wine is too tannic from the wood to drink with much enjoyment when young, and spends its life stillborn and rigid from the oak, and eventually withers, with the fruit giving up the ghost while the wood tannins remain obstinately present

For those who are familiar with the New York subways, wines from the worst-case scenario camp are like two riders getting onto separate trains at Grand Central Station, with the fruit getting on the Express and the oak getting on the Local. After a short time, they are never going to come together again, and the fruit on the Express is going to be long gone by the time the oak arrives at the mutually agreed upon destination." - - John Gilman, author of the newsletter A View from the Cellar:  (From an interview with Gilman on the Dr. Vino website.)

John Gilman's observations are brilliant.  Like John, I know few who can pull off using all new oak and fewer still who can do that and produce great wines with alcohol levels in excess of 14%.  Basilio Izquierdo, the former winemaker for thirty years at CVNE in La Rioja who made some of the great vintages of CVNE Imperial and CVNE Viña Real Reserva and Gran Reservas, makes both a small production Rioja white and a red that are some of the best wines I have ever tasted in the modern era in La Rioja.  The Spanish Artisan Wine Group will have some of his wines shortly.  --

Down with synthetic corks! Jancis Robinson

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10 Jun 2006 by JR
"Wine producers of the world, please, please, please stop using plastic corks. They are utterly infuriating." -- Jancis Robinson,
Jancis Robinson interviews Portuguese winemaker Dierk Von Di Niepoort at the WineCreator conference in Ronda, 2008.  Photo by Gerry Dawes©2008 /

John Gilman on High Alcohol in Wines versus Sound Acidity for Ageing

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John Gilman, Author-Publisher of A View From the Cellar
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2007 / 

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Wine Over 14% Alcohol

"If you had said fifteen percent, this would have been easy! In general I think it is important to realize that history has not been kind to wines put in the cellar with high levels of alcohol, other than fortified wines, but that is another story. 

For non-fortified wines, high alcohol usually translates into either a short cellar life or a less than positive evolution in the bottle- or both. There are of course exceptions- Henri Bonneau’s brilliant Châteauneuf du Papes immediately come to mind- but these are exceptions. 

For the vast, vast majority of wines, lower alcohol wines have traditionally aged longer and better. Part of this equation of course is that lower alcohol wines, having started with lower sugar levels in the grapes, generally start out life with higher acidity. I have been drinking wine a long time now, and it is pretty clear to me that acidity is the cornerstone to a wine’s ability to age gracefully for a long period in the bottle and remain fresh and vibrant. And wines that age well are the ones that interest me the most. 

The transformation that a wine undergoes with bottle age is still one of the mysteries of wine- how it improves, what chemical reactions are taking place- all of these things are still unknown even with our advanced levels of science. But if the key fundamentals are in place in the wine when young, we do know that the wine will change and evolve and become more beautiful with age. And one of these keys is sound acidity.

When one thinks back or reads about the legendary Bordeaux wines of the first half of the twentieth century--the 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, the 1928 Palmer, the 1929 Latour or the 1900 Margaux--one of the glaring things that so many commentators fail to mention is how low in alcohol these wines were back then--probably between eleven and twelve percent, and they came from ripe vintages in those days! One of the chief reasons that they lasted so long was specifically because they were lower in alcohol-balanced wines that were able to stand the test of time. 

As Monsieur Bonneau has emphatically proven, it is not impossible to balance your wines at high degrees of alcohol, but it is a hell of a lot harder to do it, and for every Monsieur Bonneau who has been able to succeed with his formula, there are thousands who have tried and failed miserably. A perfect example of the differences between higher and lower levels of alcohol are the 1947 and the 1949 Cheval Blanc--both great wines, but the headier, almost Port-like 1947 is nowhere near as interesting to my palate as the lower alcohol, hauntingly ethereal 1949. I have been fortunate to drink both wines on several occasions, and even once had them served side by side in the same flight at a memorable dinner, and I would be willing to argue that the beautiful 1949 will in the end prove to be the longer-lasting and ultimately more interesting wine. And let me be the first to tell you, not every high alcohol wine is a 1947 Cheval Blanc in the making- no matter what you read elsewhere! 

I think that today high alcohol is one of the worst plagues in the world of wine, as it virtually guarantees that the wine in question will not stand the test of time in bottle. A lot of people might say “so what”, I want to drink my wines younger anyway, so what do I care about higher alcohol. Other than driving home from the dinner party, they may have a point. As long as there remains plenty of cellar-worthy, lower alcohol wines for those of us who want to age our wines, then it should not be a problem. 

In other words, if each individual wine exists in a vacuum, outside of the temporal world in which we live, then there is plenty of room for both kinds of wines. But the reality is that the new car in the driveway of the vigneron who let his grapes hang out on the vine until they were ready to fall off, and consequently was able to get a higher score (and more money) for his wine because some critic was suckered in by the black-purple color and the sweet, warming effects of alcohol on the palate which gave the wine a consistency of motor oil, then the odds are that a few vintages down the road, all of the nieghbors will be vacationing in September and picking their grapes in late October to try and make the same money and drive the same cars. - - John Gilman, author of the newsletter A View from the Cellar:  (From an interview with Gilman on the Dr. Vino website.)

John Gilman of A View From the Cellar on Indigenous Yeasts

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John Gilman, Author-Publisher of A View From the Cellar
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2007 / 

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Indigenous Yeasts

"The longer I drink, taste and write about wine, the more I am convinced that indigenous yeasts are a key fundament of great wine. It is not that it is impossible to make great wine with commercial yeasts, but these have to be strains that are engineered to be as unobtrusive and “transparent” as possible, so that the natural beauty of the wine that originates in the vineyard can be reproduced as faithfully as possible. 

But even the cleanest and clearest commercial yeast is not, in my opinion, going to quite match the complexity that comes with using indigenous yeasts. And most commercial yeasts these days are not engineered (or selected if you prefer the term) for their transparency, but rather to deliver specific flavor or aromatic spectrums in the wine, or more and more often, to be able to survive at higher levels of alcohol before dying off and ending the fermentation. 

It used to be that no yeasts could survive in solutions with alcohol above fifteen or so percent, but when you are trying to make a black-purple wine so that you can buy a new, black-purple Mercedes SUV, you need a “Rambo” yeast to do the job- one that can keep the fermentation going to sixteen and a half or seventeen percent. 

Otherwise, the winemaker is going to end up with more residual sugar than he or she desired (one of the dirty little secrets of the high octane school is that they are always looking for some residual sugar in their ostensibly “dry” wines), which may or may not effect which model of Mercedes they can buy when the new scores come out." -- From an interview with the great John Gilman, Writer-Publisher of A View From the Cellar, on the Dr. Vino website.

As usual, "The Professor" aka John Gilman, hits the native yeasts on the head.  Most of the small producers of The Spanish Artisan Wine Group use indigenous yeasts to ferment their wines.  That is what makes each wine so distinctly different from the other. - - Gerry Dawes, Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel.