Wine Review: Virgen del Galir

24 01 2020

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Mencia and Godello.  While perhaps not yet fully household names (in North American households, at least), these high-quality, high-potential vinifera grapes based in northwestern Spain are starting to slide into the popular consciousness on this side of the Atlantic.  Mencia may already be there, after a recent swath of global exposure has seen it grace local wine lists and liquor stores alike; Godello is trailing its white neighbour Albarino in trendiness and recognition factor and has not yet caught on as a viable bottle option in most places outside of Galicia, but its time is coming.  I have wrongly predicted its meteoric rise on a couple of previous occasions, but I am a patient sort when it comes to worldwide taste revolutions.

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One recent hint that these northern Spanish grapes have been pegged for future expansion is the 2017 acquisition of small Valdeorras producer Virgen del Galir by Rioja legends CVNE, which has indirectly led to the introduction of the winery’s offerings into our market.  Virgen del Galir (“Virgin of Galir”, named for the nearby Galir river and potentially for a bit of religious double entendre, as the winery founder’s mother’s name was Mary) was founded in 2002 in a small village along the famed Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail and focuses exclusively on making wines from its 20 hectares of estate Mencia and Godello vineyards scattered across a multitude of plots.  The vineyards are all steep and terraced, planted on soils of slate and decomposed schist, and all hand-harvested.  CVNE immediately invested in significant improvements to the winery facility to allow these local grapes to better tell their story to a world audience.  Here they are, half a world away; let’s see what they have to say. Read the rest of this entry »





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2019: Day 10

10 12 2019

By Tyler Derksen

Rioja and the wines that are produced there will always have a special place in my heart.  A little over a decade ago, when I looked to expand my knowledge of wine beyond the Aussie fruit bombs that dominated my wine-drinking youth, Rioja was a revelation.  Wines that have complex flavour, come pre-aged, and retailed for an amount that I, new to the professional world and balancing my first mortgage and buying my own food and clothes, could afford?  Surrounded by those still buying whatever was on sale that week at the local liquor store, it felt like my little secret.  Turns out, it’s kind of a big deal.

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Located in the north of Spain, Rioja is one of the country’s major winemaking regions, with a history dating back hundreds of years.  Sometimes referred to as the Bordeaux of Spain, the wines produced in this region are often blends, typically dominated by Tempranillo, although it is now not uncommon these days to see single-varietal bottlings of Tempranillo and other grapes common to the region.  Rioja also has a tradition of aging their wines in oak for extended periods of time, often using American wood.  That aging process is an important part of the development and character of wines from the region, and the subject of strict classification laws.  Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva are all indicators of how long the wine has been aged in oak.  Wines with the Crianza designation must be aged for at least two years, one of which must be in oak.  The Reserva designation requires aging of three years, with at least one year in oak, and Gran Reserva must be aged for at least five years, two of which must be in oak, with the remainder of the aging occurring in bottle.

 

Today’s bottle is the 2014 Herederos Del Marqués de Riscal Reserva.  Marques de Riscal is one of the oldest producers in Rioja, founded in 1858 by Guillermo Hurtado de Amézaga, the Marqués de Riscal (hence the name).  The winery sits atop a mini-catacomb of a cellar totalling two and a half miles.  In addition, the grounds of Marqués de Riscal houses a massive complex devoted to wine, including a hotel, spa and restaurants.  The City of Wine, as the complex is called, is stunningly modern and was designed by famed Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry.  Looking more like a museum than a winery (not surprising, as Gehry also designed the Guggenheim Museum in the city of Bilbao, Spain), and covered in titanium, the building shines with the colours meaningful to the winery: pink for the wines, silver for the cap on the bottle, and gold for the mesh wrapped around it (we will get to that in a moment).  To entice Gehry to accept the commission to design the City of Wine, the winery’s proposal was accompanied by a bottle of wine from his birth year, 1929.  

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The City of Wine in all of its modern, Canadian-designed, glory.  Photo credit: Marques De Riscal website

The wines used in Marqués de Riscal wines come from the cooler climate Riojan sub-zone of Rioja Alavesa and are sourced from vineyards owned by the winery and others controlled by it.  The red grapes grown are Tempranillo, Graciano (a curious high-acid, high-tannin blending variety recently coming into its own), Cabernet Sauvignon and Mazuelo (also, as I just learned, known as Carignan).  As I am sure many of you have noticed, some of the wines from Rioja are sold with a fine gold netting around the bottle.  I had always assumed that this was a marketing peculiarity of the region, something to set it apart.  While this is true today, it was not always the case.  It turns out that the mesh was an invention of Marqués de Riscal’s founder Guillermo Hurtado de Amézaga.  One method of wine counterfeiting was for unsavoury folk to put sub-par wine in an empty bottle from a different, more acclaimed, producer.  Amézaga was worried about this and developed the netting, or malla, as a safeguard against such activities, as the cork could not be removed without cutting the netting.  The more you know.  

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Cork Rating: 4/10  (A bit perfunctory for my tastes, but the lack of telephone number and little design on the back adds some points.)

The 2014 Herederos Del Marqués de Riscal Reserva is a blend of Tempranillo (90%), Graciano (7%) and a splash of Mazuelo (3%), which was aged in American oak barrels for 24 months.  The wine in the glass is a deep garnet with only the slightest hint of aging.  The nose, while a bit muted, is characteristically Rioja with notes of cherry, black liquorice, baking spices, vanilla Coke, ball glove leather, and clay dust.  The palate ushers in more fruit, with flavours of black plum, blackberry, and hints of tobacco, more leather, and pen ink.  While certainly not a patio wine, it would pair wonderfully with a good book next to a fire.

88+ points





Spain, Old and New, Part III: The Wines of Vina Real

9 09 2019

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Nearly a year on from the start of this review set, through three different seasons of write-ups, I am closing in on the full story of the Cune wine lineup.  We started with the mothership itself, the Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana (C.V.N.E.), the Riojan stalwart whose expressions cross four separate brands.  We then ascended to Imperial, the Cune adjunct focused on Reserva- and Gran Reserva-level wines from the top vineyards of Rioja Alta, the core of what most people know of Rioja as a wine region.  Tonight we move from the centre of the heartlands to Rioja’s outskirts, and from the centre of attention to a group of producers tired of being overlooked.  Cune’s Vina Real label is rooted in grapes sourced from the ever-ignored yet consistently impressive Rioja Alavesa.

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This least-known Riojan subregion lies in the north-central portion of Rioja, bordered by the Ebro River to the south and the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range to the north, which protects the vineyards from the cool coastal winds above.  It is both the smallest and the most elevated of Rioja’s three sub-zones, its hilly and terraced vineyards influenced by the nearby mountains, its 40 x 8 km surface area a relative pittance compared to its much more expansive siblings Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja.  Being the smallest and most neglected in the family also tends to make you the scrappiest:  Rioja Alavesa has recently, and ever more vocally, been seeking to carve out its own identity within Spain’s most prominent wine appellation.  There has been some talk of leaving Rioja altogether, which has not been all that well-received by the region’s governing body.  Rioja Alavesa is craving respect and recognition, and that is part of what Vina Real seeks to deliver.

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The winery is named for its vineyards’ proximity to the Camino Real, the “Royal Road”, a renowned traditional highway; its relation to the Camino de Santiago walking trail which crosses all of northern Spain is not immediately clear to me, though that pilgrimage road goes right through Logrono, the closest city to the winery.  Much of my discussion of the Cune-brand wines has alighted on that intersection between traditional and modern approaches that they seem to exemplify, but in none of Cune’s labels is this more clear than Vina Real.  The winery is part of Rioja Alavesa’s historical fabric, being among the first in the area to employ barrel aging for wines (which is now a hallmark of the whole Rioja region) and to make Crianza wines for earlier release.  But its present incarnation is unabashedly modern:  the magnificent new puck-shaped winery building, constructed out of cedar and inaugurated by the king of Spain himself in 2004, was designed as one of the first gravity-flow operations in the country and has bored out the surrounding hilltop to create state-of-the-art underground cellars.  Even this cutting-edge operation does not lose sight of its past, however:  the winery’s circular shape (as seen on Vina Real’s labels) is an homage to a traditional large Riojan fermenting vat, a physical representation of the old-meets-new dichotomy that defines this set of producers.  Do the wines follow suit? Read the rest of this entry »





Spain, Old and New, Part II: The Wines of Imperial

14 02 2019

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

This is a belated sequel to my introductory post from last November about the marvellous wines and history of Cune, the Riojan benchmark producer melding the traditional and the modern into perfect balance.  Since that post predated Wine Advent and then Vinebox, it’s about 40 posts back on the PnP timeline, and even though it’s only 3 months old it feels like 30.  Perhaps it has aged enough then to allow to slip in a slight correction.  I mentioned way back in 2018 that the Cune brand was made up of 3 different physical wineries and brands, each with their own winemaker:  Cune itself, Vina Real and Contino.  I also mentioned that the Cune brand “also encompasses the higher-level Imperial bottlings, made only in very good years”.  This is ALMOST entirely true:  the wines of Imperial have been made since 1920, only in great vintages, using Cune’s oldest vineyards in Rioja Alta and selected nearby old-vine sites.  Imperial is also still made by Cune’s winemaker, although the label only releases a Reserva and a Gran Reserva red wine, leaving the Crianzas and the whites to the others.  However, further research reveals that, as of 2005, Imperial has its own separate winemaking premises on the Cune property, as outlined in this highly confusing official graphic; it is now a winery-within-a-winery, its own bricks-and-mortar space.  The 3 Cune wineries are actually 4.

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Imperial is a focused and quality-driven enterprise, producing around 200,000 bottles in the vintages good enough to merit its creation, in contrast to Cune’s 5 million.  As of 2004, all fermentations now take place in new oak barrels, as a back-to-the-future nod to history — the Imperials of the pre-1940s were all produced in this fashion, and after decades of dalliances with first concrete, then steel, Cune made the very Riojan determination that sometimes the old ways really are best and went back to its roots.  The winery name comes from a unique historical bottling release for the UK market, the “Imperial pint” size (which is roughly 500mL, a highly underrated and remarkably useful size for a bottle of wine that we should see more of nowadays).  The Imperial brand made more recent history when its 2004 Gran Reserva, an utterly spectacular wine that it pains me to say I have no more of, was named the Wine Spectator Wine Of The Year in 2013, the first such global pinnacle designation for a Spanish wine.  If you ever have the chance to acquaint yourself with the Imperial lineup, do not hesitate.  The current releases continue to showcase the magnificent pedigree of the estate. Read the rest of this entry »





12 Days of Vinebox: Day 3

27 12 2018

By Peter Vetsch

I was not expecting to pull a rosé out of the Vinebox collection, let alone (1) one from Spain that (2) is made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, but here we are — this box is already full of surprises.  The 2017 Castillo de Benizar Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé hails from the large dead-central Spanish region of La Mancha, the bullseye of the Spanish map.  It is an area known mostly as the workhorse of the Spanish wine industry and a generator of unspeakably large volumes of wine every year, thanks in particular to the Airen grape, the most prolifically planted grape you’ve never heard of, which makes up the largest acreage of plantings in the country.  But La Mancha is starting to be about more than just quantity, and the friendly climate allows for almost anything to be successfully planted, including King Cab.  Gems can be found.

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Castillo de Benizar is a brand of producer Bodegas Ayuso, whose massive new 15,000 m2 production facility allows for fermentation/tank storage of up to 35 MILLION LITRES of wine at once.  But this particular bottling (er, vialling) isn’t a mere commodity.  The Cabernet Sauvignon vines from which this rosé is created are planted on a separate plot specifically and unusually dedicated only to rosé production, making this no saignée afterthought or vinous byproduct.  Old-school Spanish rosé tends to be mellow and earthy and (intentionally) oxidized, but newer renditions buck that trend and focus on the freshness and fruit purity that are currently making rosé a universal global language.  This one follows suit.

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Castillo de Benizar’s pink Cab is a striking bright watermelon-flesh colour and gives off cool minty and herbal aromas (spearmint, chlorophyll, sage) along with mineral-laced bath salts and soft pink lemonade and raspberry fruit.  Even expecting a more modern pink take based on its colour, I was still unprepared for the level of perkiness and brightness that seeps into every pore of the wine.  There is zero hint of rustic Old World earthiness, which has been wholly eradicated and replaced by turbo-charged acid and vivid Pop Rocks, Thrills gum, strawberry smoothie, pink grapefruit, green apple Jolly Rancher and Welch’s white grape juice notes.  It continually jumps around on the tongue, making all neural synapses fire in rapid sequence.  Despite the confectionary nature of its flavours, the rosé finishes clean and comes across as fairly dry, although the piercing acid probably covers some dose of residual sweetness.  Look at that colour!  Not your grandfather’s rosado.

88 points

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Spain, Old and New: The Wines of Cune

20 11 2018

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

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Welcome to Cune. Er, CUNE. Er, CVNE.

My love affair with the wines of Spain’s premier wine region of Rioja goes back almost to the time when I first started taking the contents of bottles seriously.  The area, located in north-central Spain and without question the spiritual homeland of the Tempranillo grape, is somewhat unique among the classic regions of the world for producing two very distinct types of wines, depending on the producer in question.  The traditional take on Rioja is more old-school than almost anywhere else, where both reds and whites spend near-shocking lengths of time maturing in flavour-heavy American oak barrels and even more time in bottle before release, leading to a mellowed-out, oxidative, nutty expression of regional identity.  The modern Riojas reduce barrel time (or even eliminate it for whites), focus more on riper, purer fruit and aim for immediate impact as opposed to patient complexity.  I admit to being a total sucker for the former style, largely because it’s unlike anything else produced in the entire world, a whole era unto itself, frozen in time.  That said, it is easy to see how browned, decade-aged, air-exposed wines don’t attract a universal following in this age of pristine winemaking and carefully controlled everything.  Sometimes it can be hard to reconcile the two different sides of this same regional coin.

Cune does the best job of simultaneously representing both the traditional and the modern epochs of Rioja of any winery I’ve ever come across.  Their wines harken back to the old soul of the area and feature many of its wizened delicate characteristics, while still retaining some of the vibrancy and primacy displayed by the region’s vanguard.  They are themselves part of both the history and the new blood of Rioja, founded in 1879 and now run by the fifth generation of the founding brothers.  Cune’s cellars were designed by a famed French architect by the name of Eiffel…perhaps you are familiar with other taller Parisian works of his.  The name “Cune” is more accurately “CUNE” (an acronym), which itself is more accurately “CVNE”:  Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana, or “the Northern Spanish Wine Company”…calling it Cune (Coo-nay) for short (and giving yourself a nickname) is borderline questionable, but they make it work.

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The Cune universe is actually comprised of 3 different brands, each of which has its own winery and winemaker.  The Cune brand is based in the Rioja Alta subregion and also encompasses the higher-level Imperial bottlings, made only in very good years; the Vina Real label is based in nearby Rioja Alavesa, as is the Contino bodega, which makes wines only from its own estate vineyards.  Tonight’s Cune introduction is focused on a trio of bottlings from the original label’s portfolio, each of which gives a hint of the heights that this marvellous producer can reach. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Winter Warmers, Part 2

27 02 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Red or white? Before wine became a serious subject of study for me, I gravitated towards whites, and not premium quality ones either, a preference that was likely the product of early learning (e.g., that box of German plonk that was a nigh-permanent fixture on the kitchen counter) coupled with an irrational phobia of such mythological creatures as “tannin-induced hangovers”. As it turns out, there is a general trend in humans towards a greater appreciation for bitter flavors and pucker-inducing sensations that comes with age and experience. Years later, I adore red wine while continuing to appreciate characterful whites. At this point the distinction between red versus white is but a minor factor in my choice of which wine to consume at a given point in time, one that can sometimes influence me at the very early stages of decision-making (“is it a red or a white night?”), but that ultimately carries less weight than varietal, region, style, or what’s for dinner. The Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada webpage indicates that at the national level, Canadians prefer red wine to white, with the exception of British Columbia, where whites are more popular. Heedless of the overall trend, many (myself included) continue to associate winter with hearty reds. Without further ado, let’s launch into part 2 of our robust red reviews, following Dan’s introduction from late last week.

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2011 Montecillo Rioja Reserva ($18)

Spain has more area under vines than any other country and is the third largest producer of wine in the world. Spanish wine on the whole was considered rather rustic and ragged until a major shift towards improved quality occurred in the mid-20th century, before which time it was not unheard of to dilute the wine with lemonade to increase palatability (!). Rioja remains the best-known area for red wine production in Spain, although recently a few upstart regions have made inroads. Tempranillo is Spain’s top indigenous variety, with plantings doubling across the country over the past decade, and is the dominant grape in almost all Rioja reds. I found a great quote from a top Rioja producer in Benjamin Lewin’s book “Wine: Myths and Reality”: “Everywhere in the world, people want to make wine like Burgundy. But it is not in our history, we have  always blended”. Historically, Rioja’s very warm vineyards resulted in full ripening of any given grape varietal, such that blending was necessary to achieve the desired complexity. In a traditional blend, fruitiness came from Tempranillo, while Garnacha (Grenache) provided more color, body, and alcohol, with relative rarity Graciano providing acid to offset the softness of the other two. This classic blend often yielded wines featuring what Lewin calls “savory, almost animal notes of mature red fruits”. Use of American oak for aging has also led some to conclude that Tempranillo is rather neutral flavor-wise, with vanilla and char notes from oak constituting Rioja’s “true” distinctive flavor profile. Regardless, much Rioja is now made in a soft, fruit-forward style. Some producers have decided to split the difference and offer both traditional and modern bottlings. Read the rest of this entry »








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