Beautiful Bierzo: Wines From Green Spain

We’re really loving discovering wines from “Green Spain,” the exciting and fast evolving slice of Spain due north of Portugal, including Galicia and the westernmost slice of Castilla y Leon. Last spring we introduced you to winemaker Pedro Rodriguez and his Guimaro wines – from the dizzyingly steep vineyards of Ribeira Sacra.

1200px-DO_Bierzo_location.svgThis week, we move inland to Bierzo, and the wines of one of Pedro Rodriguez’ mentors, Raul Perez.

Warmer than Ribeira Sacra, Bierzo blends the copious and warming sunshine of central Spain with the cold air and brisk breezes of the nearby Atlantic coast.

Remote and Wild
The best vines grow on sloped, often terraced vineyards like the ones first planted by the Romans when they came here to mine gold more than two thousand years ago. The  grapes here are probably the same the Romans farmed, too – wild field blends that, today, include everything from scattered plants of Bastardo (Trousseau), Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet), Doña Blanca and Palomino to the region’s most important vine: Mencia.

Bierzo is pretty remote and, once the Romans mined all the gold, the region was largely cut off from the rest of the world, except for the Catholic church and regular visits from pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.

Modern Times
The first modern fine wine from Bierzo dates from the arrival of Priorat’s Alvear Palacio in the late 1980s and his founding of Bierzo’s best-known winery today, Descendientes de J. Palacios. Palacio’s wines took advantage of sun, heat and ripeness and introduced new French oak to prove to the world that Mencia didn’t need to be thin, light, or wan.

If Alvear Palacio first brought the world’s attention to Bierzo, then Raul Perez revolutionized everyone’s understanding of what Bierzo (and the wines of Galicia in general) could become.

Raul Perez 2“The Best Winemaker in the World?
Perez made his first Bierzo at his family’s winery in 1994 at age 22, and when he set out on his own in 2005, he quickly became one of the world’s – not just Spain’s – most talked about, admired and inspirational winemakers.

He was named “Winemaker of the Year” by German publication Der Feinschmecker in 2014 and “Best Winemaker in the World” for 2015 by France’s Bettane+Desseauve. And when Decanter profiled him last year, they captioned his photograph, “Is this the best winemaker in the world?”

We’re offering Raul Perez’s Bierzo Ultreia 2016 this week: It’s proof in a bottle that the accolades are deserved. If you like red Burgundy from Cote de Beaune vineyards, Oregon Pinot with plenty of earth to go with the fruit, great Cru Beaujolais, crisp and herbal Cabernet Franc, old-school Rioja – in short any wine that’s all about the combination of perfume, complexity, vibrancy, freshness and amazing flexibility to pair with any kind of food at all…well, this is the wine for you!

But, no need to take our word for it. The Wine Advocate 93 point Raul Perez Tinto Ultreia 2016 will be open to taste for yourself all week long. The wine is fantastic, the pricing the best in the country, and the opportunity all too fleeting. Because only 500 cases or so were bottled and Spain keeps most for itself.

Amarone: A Short History of an Intense Wine

Amarone wine glassAmarone is one of the biggest, most intense wines made in Europe, commonly coming in at 15% abv and often reaching 16% and beyond. It comes from Italy’s Valpolicella region, situated between Verona to the west and Venice to the east, and its history goes back to ancient times.

The Greeks made wine in Valpolicella even before the Romans arrived – and the name itself is thought to be a mash up of Latin and Greek meaning “Valley of Cellars.” The region has always enjoyed strong local demand for its light, aromatic red wines made from native grapes Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella. And, today, the overwhelming bulk of wine made here is still in a light, easy-drinking style for drinking casually and young.

Strong and Sweet to Please the Ancients

amarone grapes

Grapes for Amarone are air dried to concentrate the juice.

A couple of thousand years ago, though, the Greeks and Romans liked their wines strong and sweet – in part because they are better able to withstand storage in porous containers like clay amphora – so they invented a style of winemaking today called appassimento.

Ripe grapes were harvested in autumn and then laid out on straw mats (today more hygienic plastic mats or slatted wooden bins are used) under the roof of a shed. As the cool breezes blew over the grapes, they gradually lost water, leaving sweeter and sweeter juice behind. When the dried grapes were made into wine, they had more alcohol than regular wine and, usually, a big slug of residual sugar as well.

Going Dry: That’s “Amaro!” for Today
Winemakers in the Veneto continued making this strong, sweet wine – called “Recioto della Valpolicella” in modern times – right through the mid-1950s. Then, something strange happened, although no one really knows how. We’ll go with the most popular legend: A winemaker left his fermenting batch of Recioto in the vat for several weeks longer than usual. The yeast in that vat somehow found the strength and muscle to keep working through the heavy sugar load past 12% alcohol, through 13% and all the way to 14% or so. At that point, there was no residual sugar remaining, and when the winemaker tasted it, he declared it “Amaro” – or “bitter” – compared to his normal sweet red Recioto.

This dryer style of wine – called “Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone” at first and today simply as “Amarone della Valpolicella” – found fans and soon became Valpolicella’s most famous and important wine. Usually, it’s so jam-packed with the flavors of dried fruit, balsamic, earth, leather, crushed flowers and more, that it needs to be paired with big, rich, foods (Osso Bucco is a classic match). Or, as is often done in Italy, enjoyed after the main course with strong cheeses and dried fruit.

Roccolo Grassi’s Amarone
Marco at Roccolo GrassiIf you love great Amarone and don’t know the name “Roccolo Grassi” yet, then you’re in for a real treat.

When Wine Advocate first tasted winemaker Marco Sartori’s 2003 Amarone, they called him “one of Veneto’s most promising young producers.” And since then, the praise keeps coming. Now, his 2013 Amarone joins Marco’s 2006 as his second Wine Advocate 95 point red and showcases a distinctive, thoughtful, and utterly delicious approach to crafting this unique Italian powerhouse red.

Like all Amarone estates, the Corvione, Rondinella and Croatina grapes used here are allowed to air dry after being picked, but with an important difference. Traditionally, grapes destined for Amarone are not picked terribly ripe so the drying process is responsible for both most of the wine’s body and much of its flavor. Marco takes a different approach, allowing his grapes to hang on the vines longer to achieve more natural ripeness and flavor and then air drying for a shorter time than most – 90 days vs 120. This means his Amarone has plenty of classic dried fruit and chocolate character, but also an uncommon level of freshness and amazing complexity and finesse.

Roccolo Grassi Amarone della Valpolicella 2013 is going to age beautifully and take on even more savory tobacco/herb and meaty notes over the next 15 or so years. But it’s so delicious now for the ripe fruit that there’s no reason to wait to start digging into it right now – or at least on the first combination of cold night and warm fire you encounter this year. Especially at our best in the USA prices on six-bottles or more while this special offer lasts.

roccolo-grassi-amarone-della-valpolicella_1

History in a Glass: Campi Flegrei Falanghina

Cantine Farro - Phlegraean FieldsFalanghina is an old grape with a bright modern future. Greek settlers probably brought the grape to Italy when Rome was still a fortified village and soon discovered that it thrived on the rocky, volcanic soils of Campania north of modern-day Naples. As first the Republic and then Empire expanded, Romans continued to cultivate Falanghina along with the region’s other most successful grapes, Aglianico and Piedirosso.

The Romans soon discovered that Falanghina vines did best when trained to grow up wooden stakes, called in Latin “falangae,” the source of Falanghina’s name.

The Famed Falernian of Ancient Rome

Cantine Farro - Cup of Nestore

“I am the cup of Nestore from which it is pleasant to drink. He who drinks from this cup will immediately desire Aphrodite with the beautiful crown.”

While not certain, it seems likely that Falanghina was one component of Rome’s most famous and sought-after wine, Falernian. This seems to have been a late-harvest blend of grapes, made with considerable residual sugar, and aged for decades in clay amphorae. As it aged, the got more concentrated and exposure to heat and oxygen probably resulted in a sweet wine much like modern Madeira.

And, it packed a punch – Roman authors frequently commented that Falernian had so much alcohol that it was the only wine that could be set on fire with a match!

The same volcanic soils that allowed Falanghina to thrive spelled doom for much of the region’s vineyard when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, covering both the city of Pompeii and its surrounding farms in lava and ash. The disaster extended down to the vineyards northwest of Naples where Romans had planted grapes alongside the bubbling craters of a second volcanic area called “Campi Flegrei” or “the Phlegraean Fields.”

Replanting in a Moonscape

Camp Flegrei - Cantine Farro

The Campi Flegrei remain active

Over the years, first Roman and then Italian farmers replanted vineyards in the Campi Flegrei moonscape (although an eight-day eruption here in 1538 set things back a bit). The region remains active, with more than 100 identified pools of water and mud still bubbling up gas and steam.

But, the porous, well-drained soils remain excellent for growing top-quality grapes. And, the high levels of sulfur in the soil are toxic to the phylloxera louse, meaning this is one of the few areas of Italy where vinifera grapes can still grow ungrafted on their own roots.

The Farro family had lived in Naples and the surrounding countryside for years before Michele Farro’s grandfather first established a winery in the hills overlooking the Phlegraean Fields in 1926. As Michele assumed control of the estate, he became a champion of the region (he now heads the DOC’s board) and of its classical grapes: Piedirosso and Falanghina.

A Modern Classic
Michele Farro at Cantine FarroOver the years, Michele and his family have carved out vineyards right on the edge of active volcanic craters by the sea and running up to terraces hacked out of volcanic rock up to 1,800 feet above the Fields and also down vineyards covered in talc-like powdered pumice. Where possible, Michele vineyards grow on their own rootstocks, and some of the vines in the lower vineyards are probably 100 years old (or more!).

Throughout the vineyards, Michele farms as naturally as possible and uses modern winemaking techniques with care to preserve the very best features of his Falanghina grapes. His 2018 Campi Flegrei DOC Bianco is a fantastic introduction to both the region and the vine. From first sniff to last sip, it’s clearly a wine of both volcanic and seaside origins – you’ll find loads of rocky, saline, minerality throughout this wine. But it’s also a wine of fine purity and lovely fruit, with plenty of bright peach, apricot and tangy pineapple flavors and a bracing squirt of lemony acidity at the end.

It’s hard to find something better to drink at with a sizzling plate of shrimp scampi or just-fried baby calamari (as my experience on Michele’s porch this summer proved). And, it’s sure to will delight with pasta laced with fresh vegetables or even fennel-spiked Italian sausage.

But we also think it’s pretty darn delicious all by itself, offering a captivating blend of richness and fruit to go with bright, refreshing, acids and minerality. Fine wine, fine value. Get some today!