Friday, 25 November 2011

Part four – BODEGAS MUGA

We crossed the road from Bodegas Tondonia and were immediately met by winemaker Jorge Muga, who invited us into his family winery.

It was quite a contrast to Tondonia, but what made it extremely interesting was that although they work with the same equipment (100% oak vats and barrels), they use new oak and the winemaking process is very modern, creating a modern style of Rioja.

The Muga estate was created by Isaac Muga Martínez and his wife, Auro Caño in 1932. It was left to their three children who constructed a new winery, a cooperage and a viewing tower (why not?).

We visited the immaculate fermentation and ageing cellars and I was pleased to see that although they were working with traditional equipment, they had – unlike Tondonia – put up some handrails on the vat top walkways!

Like Tondonia, we walked through endless barrel rooms until we reached the cooperage. The cooperage is essential to providing a constant supply of oak barrels to the winery and the meticulous work and knowledge they have from forest to finished barrel is quite impressive.

The tasting of the Muga range was very impressive, as was the food that just kept on coming … but even more impressive was that our request of declining lunch five times was completely ignored: you have to love Spain!

We finally left after a wonderful tasting and lunch and now it was direction France and home to Bordeaux. I certainly recommend a visit to Bodegas Muga if you’re in the area.


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

La Rioja, Spain - Part Three

Rioja is a fabulous region and Tony has been buying from here for almost 40 years. Our very own JMS has his winery Altos here so we’ve plenty of contacts and friends to guide us through the region, the wines and of course; the food.

Spain is often thought of as flat and hot. It isn’t. The Rioja region is actually very picturesque and the rolling vineyards are at a height of up to 800m (2,600ft). The Rioja vineyard growing area is split into three zones: Rioja Alta in the west; the hotter Rioja Baja in the east; and in the north around Laguardia, Rioja Alavesa.

The vineyards hug around the Ebro River and its tributaries such as the Oja which gives its name to the region. The valley is protected from the cold Atlantic winds by the huge wall of the Sierra de Cantabria Rioja. The soils are pockets of clay and limestone with the Tempranillo grape being most at home here, but Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano can be found in the region. Whites are made from the Viura otherwise known as Macabeu in France and the Malvasia. The whites are less well known in the UK, but the tart acidity makes the wines extremely long lived, as we found out in the restaurant.

We were about to find out even more!

Our first visit was to Vina Tondonia in the town of Haro. We were greeted by the owner and winemaker Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia and shown into what seemed at first like pitch black tunnel.

Little did we know but we were about to be transported back to 1880s! This has to be one of the most fascinating wineries in the world. Here, time has stood still and the winemaking is, well let’s say, traditional. It is quite a magical place and once your eyes adjust to the dark, the enormous ancient wooded vats are visible. There is absolutely no stainless steel here and the wooden vats are never cleaned so as to allow the living bacteria and natural yeasts to do the work and create the characters sought after in the wines.

Safety is not number one in this winery and after we navigated our way by walking the planks in between the tops of the vats it was time to go down in to the ageing rooms and tunnels. The wines are aged in some cases up to four years in small, 225-litre barrels as in Bordeaux. The difference here is that they never change the barrels and the in-house cooperage works full time to keep the barrels and the vats in working order. The barrel store is a seemingly endless labyrinth of tunnels and rooms housing some 20,000 barrels (Le Chai has 800). Wandering around is quite challenging for your sense of direction.

Finally a tunnel opened out into the wine cellar full of the old stock going back a hundred or so years. However we did not taste in here and we were guided back up to the surface of the earth to the more modern tasting room.

After a fabulous tour we were not let down at the end. Maria Jose is certainly not afraid to open wine and popped some truly amazing wines! We started with the 1991 Tondonia white, followed by the 1970 reds and the Tondonia reserve 1981, 1991 and 2001.

With the eyes re-adjusted to daylight we crossed the road to our next visit at Bodegas Muga. Read more in part four.


Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Basque Country - Part Two

A Spanish Basque Lunch!

A very long winding drive from Saint-Jean-de-Pied-de-Port eventually led us to the tiny picturesque Basque fishing village of Getaria, just west of Saint-Sebastien.

We were fortunate to be booked into the renowned Kaia restaurant by Barón de Barbón winemaker Javier. Not does it serve amazing fresh seafood, but the wine list is extensive and prices have not changed since the restaurant owner bought them. Old vintages of top Bordeaux, Champagne and Rioja are a steal and give a rare chance to taste some otherwise-unaffordable wines.

We were served a steady flow of fresh fish dishes but the highlight had to be the whole turbot cooked outside on the barbeque. Wines of the day were Viña Tondonia 1991 (white) and Château la Fleur-Petrus 2004.

It is worth going to Spain just for this restaurant!

Well-fed and watered, we then made for Logrono and the Rioja region to visit two famous wineries; Vina Tondonia and Muga. Read about the visit in Part 3.


Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Basque Country - Part One

The last of the 2011 barrels were sulphured last Wednesday and so triggered Jean-Marc into action by keeping his promise of our end of harvest winemaker’s trip. Every year, JMS organises a trip for the team somewhere using his vast ex-schoolmate network. They all seem to be someone or another in the restaurant or alcohol trade! This year we were off into Basque country starting out with a trip to Brana distillery and winery in the French Basque region of Irouléguy.

We started off early for the long and very winding road to Brana. The usual Bordeaux morning traffic put us an hour behind immediately and all that worried us was being late for lunch! We made good progress down to Bayonne, turning sharply south east and up into the green foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. The scenery is quite stunning and the green fields, cows, sheep and white houses with red shutters give a very Alpine feel.

Suddenly we hit the breathtaking Irouléguy vineyards as we entered the town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Irouléguy wine region is not that well-known but it has a wonderful history of being the original birth of the Bordeaux wine region.

The vineyards are located on extremely steep slopes with inclines of up to 60° at between 100-400m above sea-level. This has led to the development of special growing and terracing techniques by Basque wine-growers to enable the cultivation of vines on these slopes.

Soils are mainly red granite rich in iron called bailara gorri (red terrace) with a few pockets of clay-limestone and of the 15 municipalities in the Irouléguy region, only the following nine grow Irouléguy vines on a total of 210ha: Anhaux, Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry, Ascarat, Irouléguy, Bidarrai, Ispoure, Jaxu and Saint-Martin-d'Arrossa.

The red grape varieties include Bordelesa Beltza (Tannat), Axeria (Cabernet Franc and Axeria Handia (Cabernet Sauvignon), while white wines are made from Xuri Zerratia (Courbu), Izkiriota Ttipia (Petit Manseng) and Izkiriota (Gros Manseng).

The area is also famous for its fruit liqueurs, brandy, Eaux de vie (especially poire a pear brandy). Those from the Brana distillery are – for us – simply the best in the region and possibly the world! JMS had managed to get a rendezvous at Brana and we were welcomed by Martine Brana herself and given a tour of the distillery.

The Poire here is incredibly pure and as soon as we entered the distilling room the aromas of fresh pear were incredible. The pears grow perfectly in the clean, crisp, wet mountain air and the result is dazzling aromatic crunchy fruit. Once harvested, the pears are taken to the distillery, crushed into a pulp and sent as pear slush to vats in the fermentation room.

Here the wild yeast begins the fermentation and transforms the crushed pears into a 5% vol. pulpy pear cider. The whole vat is then transferred to the copper pot still where it is heated by a gas flame from underneath until the alcohol boils and rises (taking all the fruit flavour along with it) as a vapour.

The alcohol vapour is collected in a pipe in the top of the pot still which leads to a descending copper coil pipe immersed in cold water where the vapour condenses back into a liquid and the clear alcohol liquid flows out at the bottom. The first liquid to flow contains dangerously high alcohols called ‘heads’. This is collected in a separate vat until the good alcohol and flavour compounds – called ‘heart’ – arrive.

Now the taps are switched and the ‘heart’ is diverted to a second vat. As the ‘heart’ weakens, the last to arrive is the ‘tails’ containing unwanted flavours. The tap is switched back and adds the ‘tails’ to the ‘heads’. This process is then repeated with the 100% ‘heart’ to collect an even more pure ‘heart’, this process being called double distillation. The amount of heart collected is tiny compared to the amount of pears harvested but the resulting ‘poire’ is fresh, pure and has an incredible aroma!

Martine’s brother ‘Jean’ then arrived to take us up to the vineyards and the winery high in the green hills surrounding the town. We followed Jean up the winding road until we reached the stunning winery building, beautifully constructed from the local red granite … and what a stunning view!

The winery itself is fully underground and the top visible red granite part is a tasting/dining room and accommodation. The stairs led us down to a naturally climatised cellar full of top-notch stainless steel vats made by the highly rated vat maker in Castillon … exactly the same as Le Chai!

We headed back to the distillery for a tasting of the wines, brandy and liqueurs. The wines were like none other I have tasted (legendary Petrus winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet – who is originally from this area – consulted !) They’re stunningly aromatic and the reds have great finesse but need age.

We waited patiently for the Poire but not before an Eau-de-vie de prune brandy, the Brana’s cry! Very good it was too, so fruity with lovely oak-barrel ageing. Finally the ice-cold Poire was poured and superb it was. Time for lunch! But only JMS would book a restaurant 300 miles away and in another country! We were off to the famous fish restaurant Kaia in Getaria in Spain. Bon appetite and lunch will be in part two!


Monday, 7 November 2011

No travelling for us winemakers last week …

… but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been busy! It is another crucial point in the winemaking process when the wines are now dry, ferments have finished and the natural protective CO2 has disappeared leaving the wine very vulnerable to oxidation. So we have been in the cellar all week, moving wines off their sediment, adding protective sulphur, cleaning out barrels and vats and putting everything back!

It is at this stage that the wines start to show their potential and reveal the true quality of our work and the vintage. It is quite a worrying time as all the initial fruit and aromas have been masked by the fermentation. So it’s a relief to taste and smell all those beautiful fruit characters that were present in the grapes way back in early September.

Nothing is blended or finished yet but here are some of my thoughts on the 2011 whites so far:

Grenache Gris (GG): Lovely aromatics, fresher white fig fruit, less tinted colour and lower alcohol this year, still in barrel.

Chardonnay ‘Cailloux Vineyard’: fresh vintage down in Carcassonne and I selected only the Cailloux vineyard this year to make a single-vineyard wine. Lovely acidity with bright tropical fruit.

Vermentino ‘Vent de Folie Blanc’: really good this year. Beziers missed most of the rain and the heat at the end of August and early September allowed for big ripe flavours. Again, good fresh acidity.

Limoux Chardonnay ‘La Voute’: outstanding year for finesse. I went even higher into the Haute Vallee this year resulting in a very classy Chardonnay which has perfect balance and will age beautifully. Currently on lees in barrel: new and one-year-old.

Carignan Blanc ‘New Wine’: this year’s all new Chai wine. Very hard to get hold of, but I managed to prise this rarity from my friend Laurent in Maury. It’s a lovely balanced wine with a unique character of tropical and citrus fruit.

Sauvignon Blanc ‘JMS’ and ‘Le Grand Chai’: good work from Kiwi James on a difficult year but he picked in the right window and plenty of classic grassy aromas and good palate weight.

Sauvignon Gris ‘Le Coin’: superb this year with ripe tropical fruit, very distinctive perfumed flavours

Viognier: absolutely stunning varietal character and I’m really getting to know this vineyard now in Carcassonne, violets, honey and apricot.

Dry Botrytis Sémillon: another new Chai wine. A brilliant Tony Laithwaite idea brought to reality this year in the cellar. And it worked; worked very well indeed. Lovely aromas of marmalade and dried apricot, but with a lifted citrus note. Fantastic palate, rich with another lovely limey acidity keeping it fresh.

Still lots to do in the cellar but the results of our meticulous selection in the vineyard are proving the worth of all the long days (and nights) and many miles in the car!