Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Vinos of Gerry Dawes: To Some Americans, Mr. Spain by Howard G. Goldberg

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The word “aficionado” was invented to describe my old friend Gerry Dawes. In his veins the blood of Spain flows at perpetual flood tide.

Gerry’s knowledge of Spanish culture is so encyclopedic that Don Quixote paid him a travel consultant’s per diem.  Zurbarán painted his portrait (as a saint, which mystified his  friends). Ferdinand and Isabella allowed him to run sherry, stored in the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, to the New World; all that sherry so impressed Dawes’s first customer, a Jewish merchant named Lehmann, whom the Inquisition had expelled, that he took the whole line and named his store Jerez-Lehmann.

No one is likely to call Gerry a shrinking violet. He is a man of opinion, strong opinion, strongly expressed; he does not tend to invest in understatement. If he had been a matador, Spain would have run out of bulls.

For Dawes, Iberia’s food universe is nearly as important as its multiple wine regions. He has crisscrossed Spain seeking out, relishing, photographing and publicizing small but stellar restaurants and their chefs --- un trabajo de amor (a labor of love).

All this explains why I welcomed spending a few hours in early April tasting Gerry Dawes Selections, imported by his new company, the Spanish Artisan Wine Group, at Despaña, a SoHo cafe and grocery steeped in Iberian specialties aromas, flavors and atmosphere. The 22 wines sampled, all of  character and interest, were well worth the detour.

The Spanish Artisan Wine Group - Gerry Dawes Selections tasting and tapas luncheon at Despana Soho, April 4, 2012. L to r: writer Howard G. Goldberg (The New York Times, Decanter, others), author Alice Feiring (The Feiring Line), James Turney (Parador Selections), Arthur Schwartz (The Food Maven), Paul Vella (Valencian government promtions, paella maestro). Not pictured, author Arthur Lubow (The New York Times), who arrived a few minutes after this picture was taken. In the mirror, The Spanish Artisan Wine Group associates Candela Prol and Dana Staley. Photo by Gerry Dawes©2011. /
As a wine salesman and chronicler, Dawes has been (to put it mildly)  an outspoken foe of the large-scale, ponderously fruity and often highly alcoholic wines that have shaped Robert W. Parker Jr.’s reputation. The overused word “artisanal” has, for the moment, fallen into some disfavor, but those are Dawes’s wines --- reflecting terruño (terroir) and winemaking skills of resolutely down-to-earth grape farmers who ferment with native yeasts and don’t give one hoot about the 100-point scoring regime.        

Dawes hunts for family-owned bodegas in diverse climates; for hand-harvesting; for diversity of style; for low alcohol, if possible; for refreshing acidity; for minimal oak intervention; for true varietal character.

All this comes down to what Ernest Hemingway, no stranger to Spain, called honest wines.

I expected to find -- and found -- high standards and disciplined choice governing the single-varietal wines and blends, whether simple, middlingly complex or subtly intricate. All felt built to accompany food, none to dominate it the way Dawes’s oversize California bêtes noires can.

I particularly liked two cavas. The first, for a quick swig, was an entry-level brut you might find in a tapas bar: the floral, brisk Josep Masachs nonvintage Viña Polo, from Penedès ($11.99). The second was a muscular nondosage Catalonian white with zip: the 2008 Festís Gold Brut Nature Gran Reserva ($22.99), a deft blend of parellada, xarel-lo, macabeu and chardonnay grapes.

My favorite tinto (red) was the sophisticated 2010 Décima made from the mencía grape in the Ribeira Sacra region ($21.99). Beautifully structured,  quietly scintillating, almost poetic, it requires a patient, careful reading.

Bodegas Adrià’s svelte 2010 Viña Barroca mencía, from Bierzo, a basic, unoaked, discreetly flavored wine, invites populist appeal ($14.99).

My pleased five-word tasting note on the 2010 Viña Cazoga tinto ($26.99), from a back-country site “known since the early 20th century as the best vineyard in the Sil River section of Ribeira Sacra,” as Dawes wrote on his tasting sheet, said merely “shades, degrees, sharps and flats.”

The 2010 godello ($24.99), a white from the small-production Bodegas D. Berna, in Valdeorras, was splendid. Pointillistic, lithe, long, delivering visceral and cerebral pleasures, it was reminiscent of white peaches.  The property, Dawes wrote, is advised by “a great local, enologist, José Luís Murcía, who may know more about godello than anyone in Galicia.”  Murcía, he went on, “advises nine wineries” but “does not mark the wines with a one-fits-all winemaking stamp.”

 You ask about rosé?  Blended from tempranillo and garnacha (red grapes), verdejo and alvillo (white), the Hermanos Merino Viña Catajarros rosado ($13), from the Cigales region, was seamless and displayed a certain seriousness under its flirtatiousness. (I tasted the 2010; you may find the 2011.) 

Gerry’s 2010 albariños, from Rías Baixas, were notable, especially Manolo Doval’s Rozas ($26.99): a great floral aroma, feather-light, grace, a swirl of subtleties.   When Gerry discusses his albariños his voices rises and his enthusiasm goes into high gear, as does the prose in his tasting sheet on albariños from members of the Asociación de Bodegas Artesanas.

The association, he relates, is  “A group of small grower-producers who rebelled against commercial wine styles in Rías Baixas and produce their own unique wines using native yeasts.” He continues: “Each wine is distinctly different from the others.  There are 14 members of this association.  I have six of  them, with probably four more to come. Why? These wines are among the greatest white wines of Spain, that’s why.”

I am not knowledgeable enough to say whether they are the greatest or not, but I loved the scintillating, complex 2010 albariño from O’Forollo ($23.99); enjoyed the lush, flavorful 2010 Avó Roxo ($24.99); and admired the lithe, fresh 2010 Cabaliero do Val ($24.99).

I wish I had drunk these wines with seafood, as Gerry did, in Rías Baixas, a marine paradise. They would have been accompanied by ostras (oysters), almejas (clams), cigalas (langoustines), nécoras  (little crabs), vieiras (sea scallops) and zamburiñas (bay scallops, sort of).

Then I would have bought a Havana cigar, copies of El Mundo and El País, both dailies,  and returned to my cool hotel lobby for a quiet evening of trying to read a language I don't know. The next morning I’d have an appointment to have my portrait painted by Velázquez.  I hear he takes American Express.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Viña Barroca Mencía Tinto 2010 Bierzo 13.5%

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Sunset in the vineyards of Bierzo. 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2011 / / 

Northwestern Spain. Bierzo is mostly north of the small city of Ponferrada, just outside of the entrance to Galicia.  
Bierzo is often referred to as "The Fifth Province of Galicia."

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Bodegas Adriá Viña Barroca Mencía 2010 Bierzo

Bodegas Adrià Viña Barroca 2010 ($15). A dark, juicy, lively mencia from Bierzo. The wine is unoaked, which lets the intense fruit shine through very nicely.  - - Colman Andrews, The Daily Meal.  Read more: Spanish Wines — A Seductive New Crop: Godello, mencia, and other less-than-famous Iberian grapes shine in a new selection from Spanish wine expert Gerry Dawes

The grapes for Viña Barroca come from 25 hectares of 30-60 year old goblet-pruned vines grown on steeply inclined sloped in the areas of Vilafranca del Bierzo, Valtuille de Arriba and Pieros that are owned by growers who strictly follow the criteria required by Bodegas Adriá.

The soil composition of the vineyards is quartz, clay and slate, the altitude ranges from 450 to 100 meters above sea level, the rainfall in this Atlantic-dominated climate is 722mm per year (about the same as Bordeaux) and the average high temperature in summer is about 80 degrees.

The bodega, which faces northwest and overlooks a stretch of the Camino de Santiago with its perpetual parade of pilgrims treking across nothern Spain, is in very close proximity to the vineyards, so during harvest the grapes arrive at the winery shortly after being picked. 

Diego Losada, winemaker at Bodegas Adria. 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2011 / /

Viña Barroca is made by young Diego Losada, who apprenticed under renowned winemaker Gregory Pérez (Bodegas Mengoba), himself a disciple the great winemaker, Mariano García, who made the wines at Vega Sicilia for 30 years and now owns Bodegas Mauro, Paixar in Bierzo and other wineries.  Gregory Pérez is also a contracted advisor to Bodegas Adriá and developed Viña Barroca Mencía with Diego Losada. They are also working to develop a Viña Barroca Godello, which will be available soon. Gregory Pérez is showing himself to be maestro with white wines at Mengoba. 

Gregory Pérez, Bierzo. 
Photo: Gerry Dawes©2011 /

Chosen because of its exceptional price-quality ratio, Viña Barroca Mencía 2010 is one of the relativity few wines from the Bierzo that not fallen into the high alcohol, over-oaked fashion that predominates in the region. 

Tasting Note

Viña Barroca Mencía 2010 Bierzo

This still very young wine, which spends 4 months on its lees in stainless steel and 4 months in bottle before release, benefits from contact with air and continues to improve over the course of the bottle.  Good with grilled and roasted red meats, charcoal-grilled lamb chops, chorizo, rice dishes, pasta dishes, pizza and cheeses

The color is deep pomegranate-like black ruby.
The nose shows pomegranate-cranberry fruit typical of Mencía-based wines.
On the palate that depth of pomegranate fruit battles for prominence with striking minerality, which makes this wine very reminiscent of a serious Loire Valley cabernet franc-based Chinon, though the minerality comes from quartz and slate, not calcareous soil as in the Loire.   

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Blind Tasting: Fool’s Teflon by W.R. Tish

Blind Tasting: Fool’s Teflon

Posted on  | April 6, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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As wine judgement goes, this technique is overrated and unrealistic.
Read the other day that a wine critic was going to taste at Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate in Napa, but that he would be scoring either “since they chose not to let me blind taste.” Huh? I was not sure whether to laugh or cry.Since when is not knowing what’s in the glass a prerequisite for officially assessing quality? For now, let’s focus just on the notion that putting on a wine-tasting blindfold is the equivalent of, if not Superman’s cape, at least a shield of Teflon.

In my experience, blind tasting is inescapably circumstantial. Its value should be couched in the context in which the wine was sampled, especially when presented in a “flight.” I was reminded of this recently when Casa Lapostolle staged a blind tasting of “luxury” Cabernets. My favorite (and the media group’s) was the Lapostolle 2008 Cuvée Alexandre (SRP $25).

But I am hesitant to believe that one such tasting is definitive. It is what it was. Indeed it raised my assessment of Casa Lapostolle, but I am not going to write it off as vintage-schizophrenic, nor am I dumping Chateau Montelena (one of my lesser favorites) off my list of Napa classics. Most of all, it served to reinforce the fact that any wine is so much more than its impression in one glass on one day in one situation. Wine is a package deal: its origin, production details, price and, yes, its packaging all matter.

Tool for Discovery

My take is that blind tasting is most valuable when it is conducted extremely casually—as in a mystery bottle amid a sampling of known wines, yielding a fun “aha!” moment, shared by a group of people—or when it is conducted extremely rigorously. I witnessed the effectiveness of the latter context recently as a spectator during the Ultimate Spirits Challenge (see page 58). Quite simply, the combination of expert judges, airtight secrecy and a multi-panel, multiround format that ensures checks-andbalances yields results that stand reliably above single-critic reviews.

The basic flaw inherent in most wine critics’ blind tastings is the fact that people + wine is a recipe for imprecision, no matter how experienced the taster. Even Robert Parker, who at least has the courage to occasionally taste blind in public, has demonstrated that he cannot reproduce his impressions with statistical reliability. Plus, wine itself does not stand pat; it changes, both in the bottle over the long term and in the glass for the short term. And, oh, there’s that little thing called food, which is ultimately part of almost every wine’s final destination (at the table).

Sure, there is a place in the world for blind tasting. It is a tool for discovery. But making it a requirement for judgment is unrealistic, and deeming its results sacrosanct is just foolish. So why does the wine industry vest so much clout in blind-rated reviews conducted by middle-aged men sampling 20+ wines at a pop without a crumb to eat? The only logical answer is that the “blindness” built into their evaluation process theoretically yields objectivity, whereas knowing what’s in the glass unleashes bias.

Me? I’ll trust the judgment of an eyes-open taster any day of the week.

It takes relatively little effort to plow through a blind flight of wine. It takes a lot more conviction to be a real-world judge—selecting wines, labels and all—and then standing behind them to re-sell at specific prices. Retailers and restaurant wine pros make the tough decisions, paring down a universe of options to a finite set of wines, and for that they deserve more credit than any wine critic hiding behind the Teflon of a tasting blindfold.