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On the Grapevine  by Colin Kaye


Update April 10, 2015

From Sea to Shining Sea

The rocky coast of Rias Baixas

And so to Spain. It’s the most widely planted wine-producing nation in the world and in sheer quantity of wine produced it’s up there in the top three. I’m sure you know what the other two countries are. Even my dogs know the answer to that. What many people don’t know is that Spain has at least four hundred native grape varieties and could even have as many as seven or eight hundred. No one seems to know for sure but in reality, most Spanish wines are made from only about twenty of grape varieties. While the most well-known Spanish wine is probably Sherry, there are countless table wines made there. Interestingly, Spain also produces nearly half of all the olive oil in the world.

Although many of the “international" grapes are grown in Spain, to my mind it’s the local varieties that produce the most interesting wines. So this week, let’s look at two wines made from indigenous grapes that couldn’t be more different in character. One comes from the northwest coast of Spain where the cold grey waves of the Atlantic Ocean meet the rugged coastline. The other is made from grapes grown in vineyards nearly six hundred miles to the south, near the coast of the Mediterranean Sea where in the summer the blazing sun literally bakes the earth in the vineyards.

The Albariño (al-baa-REE-nyo) is a green-skinned grape variety native to Galicia on the Atlantic coast just north of Portugal. The grape is popular in Portugal too, where it’s known as Alvarinho and is one of the varieties used to make the famous Vinho Verde. Wines made from Albariño have bags of acidity and fresh aromas of peach, apricot and jasmine and they’re nearly always lively, refreshing and minerally. The Rias Baixas (REE-ahs BAI-shass) region of Galicia is mostly planted with Albariño and if you want to try a splendid example, looks no further than this one. The price tag might look a bit daunting, but quality wines from old-established family wineries rarely come cheap. In any case, this wine is excellent value.

Zarate Albariño Rias Baixas 2013 (white), Spain (Bt. 1,100 @ Wine Garage)

Let’s first decode the label. Zarate is the wine company. It’s a family property located in the heart of Valle del Salnés district of Galicia. The company has been in the same family for seven generations and its origins can be traced back to the early years of the eighteenth century. Rías Baixas is a coastal wine region which produces some of the country's most acclaimed dry whites. And in case you’re wondering, the name means “lower estuaries”. This wine is a pale straw colour, bright and oily-looking. There’s a floral aroma of green apples, pomelo and peaches with creamy overtones. The flavours are sharply focused and the mineral notes are unmistakable. There’s a good dollop of acidity and in some ways the wine reminds me of Chablis in character but there’s somehow a whiff of the sea. On the palate there are touches of peach and apricot in this intense, steely wine and it has a persistent citrus finish which gradually fades gently into the background.

This is a text-book Albariño and as you might have guessed, it would be at its best with food, especially food from the sea. But Albariño also refreshes and cools the palate, making it ideal for spicy dishes including Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese food. It would make a good partner for many chicken dishes, lobster, octopus or mussels.

Barahonda Barrica 2011 (red), Spain (Bt. 890 @ Wine Garage)

Spain’s historical seaside town of Alicante lies right on the Mediterranean and it’s one of the ferry terminals for the Balearic Islands and North Africa. If you were to drive out of town on the A-31 then turn left on to the CV-81 at Villena, a short drive would bring you into the town of Yecla. They’ve been growing vines in the region for over two thousand years and in these parts the winter temperature can drop to -6°C, while in summer there’s often a daytime temperature of 40°C. With more than three thousand hours of sun per year, it’s an ideal climate for Monastrell, a Spanish grape variety first documented in the fifteenth century and known in France as Mourvédre. It produces tannic wines which are high in alcohol.

Barahonda Barrica is an estate-bottled wine made by Señorio de Barahonda, the oldest winery in the Yecla region. It combines the powerful Monastrell with the softer and spicy Syrah, produced in a state-of-the-art winery surrounded by hundred-year-old vines. The wine is a bright cherry-red and there’s a rich aroma of mature black fruit with hints of oak, because the wine was aged in French oak barrels for six months. The Spanish word barrica incidentally, means “barrel”. At 14.5% ABV this is a big wine, full-bodied and as dry as they come, with a pleasing touch of acidity. There’s plenty of fruit on the palate creating an illusion of sweetish overtones. The tannins are soft and firm giving the wine a good sense of structure. Even so, like many other quality wines, it really needs some time to open up. If you pour out a glassful from a newly-opened bottle the taste will probably seem tight and closed. Give it a bit of air and it will open up like a flower revealing more fruit and softer tannins.

Both these wines can be ordered online from Wine Garage, a Bangkok-based company which specialises in artisanal wines. You can pay by bank transfer or PayPal, which makes things ever so easy. They’ll deliver anywhere in Thailand and the QR code shown will take you to their fascinating website.

Incidentally, this wine has won bucket-loads of international awards and this vintage was given 92 points by Robert Parker. It could make a good companion to grilled or roast pork, tandoori chicken, rich veal dishes or rabbit. Or so I am told. And by the way, when the Carthaginians came to the country around 300 BC, they called it Ispania, which eventually became España. It apparently means “land of the rabbits”.

Update April 4, 2015

Falling Stars

Vineyards near the Andes (Photo: © Chakana Wines)

A few days ago I was surprised to discover that the constellation known as the Southern Cross was visible to the Ancient Greeks. In the fourth millennium BC it could even be seen in Great Britain although today it’s visible only in the southern hemisphere and a bit north of the equator. So what happened? Well, the earth wobbles slightly on its axis (a phenomenon known as the precession of the equinoxes) with the result that the constellation gradually disappeared below the European horizon. Over the centuries it was eventually forgotten by people of the north. It wasn’t rediscovered until the sixteenth century by João Faras, a Portuguese astronomer who accompanied Pedro Álvares Cabral on his first Brazilian voyage of discovery. The Southern Cross is mentioned by name in the national anthems of Australia and Brazil and appears on the flags of several countries including Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and - I bet you didn’t know this - Samoa.

You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with wine. (The thought had occurred to me - Ed.) It’s because the two wines this week come from Chakana Wines, and chakana is the name for the Southern Cross in the language of the indigenous people of the Andes. They inhabited this mountainous region for more than five thousand years and their agricultural calendar was based on an understanding of natural phenomena and the positions of the sun, moon and stars. The Southern Cross held the key to finding the perfect timing for cultivation and harvesting. For this reason, Chakana Wines was founded on 2nd May 2002 when the constellation had reached a vertical position, marking the beginning of a new farming cycle. It must have worked, for the company has achieved international success with their exceptional wines.

From the beginning, Chakana Wines set out to create wines to honour the wisdom of the ancestors of Argentina. Their winemaking consultant is Alberto Antonini who came to Argentina in 1995, after making significant contributions to the so-called Super-Tuscan movement in Italy. He sensed the potential of Malbec and devoted most of the following fifteen years to the re-discovery and perfection of this grape. He’s also a consultant for over ten other wine projects in Argentina, and his winemaking philosophy is focused on using modern technology to express the potential of the terroir by making high-end wines that respect the true character of the grape.

Chakana Malbec 2013 (red), Argentina (Bt. [email protected] various outlets)

For years, Malbec has been Argentina’s signature grape but at one time was more closely associated with France, where it was the most commonly planted vine throughout the south-west of the country including Bordeaux. Unlike its French cousins, Argentinean Malbec is invariably a deep red, rich wine with what wine-writer Jancis Robinson describes as “exuberant juiciness and … an almost velvety texture.” This wine is a dark, purplish red with long oily-looking legs coating the inside of the glass. It has a big, jammy sort of aroma with black cherry, violets and a dash of mint. Give it time and you’ll get faint hints of chocolate in the background.

It’s completely dry on the palate but laden with ripe plum, red berries and intense savoury flavours. The wine has great depth too, an attractive framework of firm tannins and a satisfying long, dry finish. The texture is typically smooth and velvety and there’s a pleasing touch of acidity to the taste. At 14% ABV, this is an outstanding wine and if you enjoy big, firm and fruity reds you’ll certainly find a great deal of pleasure in this one. If these things interest you, this wine achieved 86 points from Wine Spectator and 89 points from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. More importantly perhaps, earlier vintages won prestigious awards at the International Wine & Spirit Competition, Mundus Vini, the International Wine Challenge and the Argentina Wine Awards. To my mind it’s very much a food wine and would make a fine partner for grilled meats or duck.

Chakana Estate Selection Malbec 2013 (red), Argentina (Bt. 1,290 @ various outlets)

It’s almost like taking a magnifying glass and somehow enlarging all the features of the previous wine, making it bigger, bolder, more authoritative and more majestic. This seductive wine was aged for twelve months in French oak barrels. It’s a dense, purple colour with bluish hints and exceptionally thick syrupy legs which coat the sides of the glass like a liqueur. It has a powerful floral aroma of plum, blackberry and black cherry with overtones of coffee and peppery chocolate. There’s a fairly heady aroma too and the staggeringly high 14.5% ABV might make your nose start to twitch.

The wine is big and full-bodied, powerful and assertive but also has a sublimely silky texture. The tannins are rich and firm and there’s a kind of earthy, elemental quality that emerges after the wine has been in contact with the air for some time. It’s a wine of great structure with an exceptionally long and dry finish. There’s no doubt about it; this is a superb wine and will appeal if you like dry, powerful, authoritative wines which are packed with fruit. The Wine Advocate awarded the wine 90 points and it won gold medals at the Decanter World Wine Awards and the Hyatt Wine Awards. This wine, as some people like to say, has a huge “wow” factor, which is exactly what one of my friends said when he first tasted it. Try it with rich smoked and grilled meats or a big peppery Argentinean steak.

Anyway, I’ll stop there if you don’t mind, because I want to search the horizon for the Southern Cross. Incidentally, I hope that you are not too worried about the wobbling earth because it wobbles very slowly indeed. And you know, for this reason the Southern Cross will eventually become visible once again in the night skies of Northern Europe. Don’t bother to change your holiday plans though. It won’t happen for another twenty-six thousand years.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

From Sea to Shining Sea

Falling Stars