Spring means Phillies, cherry blossoms, warmer weather, and… white wines! Spring is in full swing now - in Philly and Iberia. So, our last session in our Global Vineyard Passport Series was a celebration of white, Springtime wines from the Iberian Peninsula. Specifically, we tasted wines from northwest Spain and its neighbor, northern Portugal. These two regions are separated by a thin, contentious political border and different languages. But, the grapes and the wines share many similarities - as one might expect from their close proximity and similar terroir. Each has ample coastline, mountainous territory, and verdant hills - the Spanish portion is known as Green Spain for its lushness. But, what links the two regions even more is a winemaking style that produces spry, vigorous, youthful white wines. Many of these are meant to be drunk young, and retain a freshness that isn’t often found in wines meant to be aged. So, here we explore wines from the Spanish regions of Cava, Galicia, and Txakolina, and the Portuguese region of Vinho Verde.
We start with Cava. Why? Because sparkling wines are fun and festive and are a great way to start the evening. Cava is one of Spain’s “dénominacion de origen” (D.O.). It is actually a rare example of a non-contiguous “region”. Instead, the
D.O. spans much of Catalonia and is specifically centered in Penedès, where most Cava is produced. Cava is sparkling wine made in the método tradicional (methode champenoise). The grapes used in Cava are traditional Spanish ones: Parellada, Macabéo, and Xarel.lo. These three are the most predominant grapes used to make white Cava - which accounts for the vast majority of Cava produced. However, red grapes can also be used to make a rosado, or rose, Cava. These are generally produced with Carnena, Garnacha Tintorera, or Pinot Noir.
We tried a rosado:
Juvé y Camps Rosé Reserva Brut
This Rosado Cava is made from 100% Pinot Noir from a producer in Penedès It was founded by a husband and wife team, Joan Juvé Baqués and Teresa Camps Farré, whose names were blended to name the estate. While the estate dates to 1912, these grapes that come from a newly acquired vineyard. According to the winemakers, “(t)he free run juice undergoes a cold-soak maceration followed by fermentation in stainless steel. The resulting wine blends the traditional methods of Juvé y Camps with international flair and flavor.”
Did we agree?
Well, I am not entirely sure what “international flair and flavor” taste like, but it is tasty! The wine is a very pretty, deep, pink with fine, pale, pink bubbles. Red fruits dominate, with flavors of strawberries and also some apple. There are also some herbal-y notes on the finish, a bit like raw almonds. Overall, this is an excellent sparkling wine, and a festive one at that. This was definitely liked by our tasters.
Next, we moved on to Txakolina, a DO that is to be found in the autonomía of the País Vasco - itself part of Green Spain. To pronounce it, turn the “tx” into “tch”. As can be deduced from the DO name, the region is in Basque country in the mountains between France and Spain. The name País Vasco is thought to come via the Romans. It translates as the “land of vessel makers”, an homage to the metal-craft skills of the ancient inhabitants. The language spoken here is called Euskara; there are no reputable theories to connect the Basque language to any other, and its origins remain unclear.
The key D.O. in this region is Bizkaiko Txakolina (biz kye koh - chok oh lee nah). The main white grape is the Hondarribi Zuri, while light red wines are produced from Hondarribi Beltza. These are grown in vineyards at sea level that have a lot of maritime exposure from the Bay of Biscay. These wines generally have relatively high acid, strong citrus components, a bit of liveliness and some natural sparkle. Traditionally, a little carbon dioxide was retained in the bottle top give a little spritz, but other versions are becoming popular.
Itsas Mendi Bizkaiko Txakolina
The Bodegas Itsas Mendi is made up of several vineyards that were first planted in 1989. Its name means “Sea and Mountain”, a propos for its setting near Bilbao, overlooking the Bay of Biscay. It is owned and farmed by a small group of partners, and the wines are made by esteemed wine maker Ana Martin.
This wine has no carbon dioxide, though it gives a slight tingle on the tongue. The texture of this wine is very creamy. The medium body leaves a smooth, weighty feel in the mouth. There are definite citrus notes, though they are subtle. It also has fleshy apple, but mostly “cream”. The maritime location adds a bit of salt (lets say “saline”) to the mouth. This is a tasty and very easy wine to drink.
Galicia, in its location wedged between the Atlantic Ocean, the Bay of Biscay, and Cordillera Cantábrica mountains, epitomizes “Green Spain”. It has strong coastal influences, heavy rainfall, and plenty of sunshine.
Winemakers here use much that the ocean has to offer in both creative and traditional preparations for vineyard soils. For instance, sea shells are often pulverized and layered over vineyard soils. This helps reflect sunlight from the white shells back up to the growing vines. It must also lend salinity and minerality to the wines.
Galicia has several D.O., including those of Rías Baixas and Valdeorras.
The D.O. of Rías Baixas is located in the southern coastal area of Galicía, just north of Portugal. The name “rías baixas” translates as “low estuaries”, which aptly describes the landscape and its many beautiful rías or flooded coastal valleys. Albariño is famously and historically produced here. Wines labeled “Albariño” from this D.O. must be 100% of that grape. The resulting wines are fresh, flavorful and zesty. The once-held notion that the grape was somehow related to Riesling (given the zesty zippiness) has been dis-proven.
Finca de Arantei Albariño
Finca de Arantei is 100% Albariño from a single estate. It comes from one of the oldest wine-making zones within the D.O - Condado de Tea. The vineyards get a lot of sunshine, and are planted in fairly poor, rocky soils. Great, intense wines can come from such hardship conditions, which help to concentrate the grape juices. The same is true of older vines, and those from which this wine are made are now 26 years-old.
This wine tastes very much like its setting: it has strong brininess from the estuaries and sea, mineral and stone, and a punch of rocky, “mountain” fruit, like apricot. It is highly aromatic - to a fault, for some of our tasters - with white flowers, tropical fruits, and peaches. The wine has a nice zip and intensity, plus a bit of citrus to offset the tropics. Overall a very nice wine, though this was not universally enjoyed.
Valdeorras (“Valley of Gold”) is another D.O. in Galicia. Vineyards here are found along the Sil River, an alluvial source of gold for the Romans from which the D.O. gets its name. Now, the gold in the valley is the grape. This is Galicia’s most inland region. The best vineyards here get a lot of sunshine and heat in the growing season and produce the highest-quality wines. The whites of Valdeorras, produced from Godello grapes, are particularly well known, with plenty of varietal characters of citrus fruit, herbs and mineral/earthy notes.
Bodegas La Tapada Guitian Godello
Godello wines are often slightly oxidized (intentionally) and this was no exception, surprisingly, our two bottles showed considerable variation in oxidation levels. The first was considered unpleasant in its higher level of oxidation - reminding at least one person of “soy sauce”. The second bottle, however, had the pleasant nuttiness of a well-produced, slightly-oxidized, white. Like all the wines we tried, this also tasted of the sea. The “soy sauce” became “fish sauce” (yes, that is a positive!). Like most wines of this style, florals in the nose and fruits in the mouth became stronger over the course of tasting. Both had fresh, honeyed notes accentuating the green nuttiness (think raw almonds or green walnuts). We think this would taste absolutely wonderful with Thai food. The wine can handle heat and the “fish sauce” nose would be a great addition to many Thai dishes. And - look at that great label!
Our final destination was to the other side of the border - Portugal. Vinho Verde is the country’s largest demarcated region, and its plantings account for roughly 15% of total wine area in Portugal. The Vinho Verde D.O.C. region borders Rias Baixas to the north and the Douro region to the southwest. The region is an elevated granite plateau with rivers running in deep furrows throughout. This part of Portugal - like its neighbor - is also quite green, verdant, and agriculturally abundant, qualities it owes to the abundant rainfall. "Vinho Verde" translates as "green wine", but the green does not refer to the countryside or the color of the wine. Rather, it refers to the wine’s early drinkability. "Green" in that context can mean underripe, but these wines are not tart or harsh.
Grinalda Vinho Verde
Like many Portuguese wines, this is a blend. The grapes are all indigenous to the Vinho Verde region: Alvarinho (Albarino, in Spanish), Trajadura, and Loureiro. This wine is aromatic, fruity, and slightly effervescent. It has mint and eucalyptus on the nose, as well as some flowers and orange. The zippy body has apple notes, along with more orange. It really prickles the tongue, which contributes to its long finish. This is a really, really tasty Vinho Verde, on one that is a bit more complex than average. Nonetheless, it retains the “green” freshness of the varietal and style of the region.
After the white Vinho Verde, Bob surprised us with a red example. Most of us had never had a red Vinho Verde, or even knew of their existence! The wine we tried was… interesting.
Quinta de Gomariz
This red wine is made from the Vinhao grape. The wine had an overwhelming nose of sulfur. It tasted of iron and lead, and was a bit sparkly. It is sort of like drinking effervescent corrosion. But, it was oddly compelling to me, personally, and I finished my taste. Most of our tasters did not like this particular red Vinho Verde.
Stay tuned for our next session on May 1st, when we will taste wines of the Pacific Northwest!