Excerpted from Restaurant INFORMER, 2014, Vol. 4, Issue 1
By Lara Creasy
Anyone fortunate enough to travel to wine country will tell you that wine never tastes as good as it does in the place where it is made. This is true for so many reasons. The weather is just right. The food of the area pairs perfectly. The sun feels different there. You can smell the wild herbs on the breeze. You can almost taste the dust that’s on your boots as you sip from your glass.
This experience, once you’ve had it, will forever help you understand the meaning of terroir. Terroir is a French word that, loosely translated, means “a sense of place.” The root is the word terre, which means “land.” But the full meaning involves much more. It’s the full expression of a place through its agricultural products. The geology, the geography, the weather, the climate – the sum total of the effects the local environment has on a product and how those effects are expressed in smells and tastes. These are the factors that bring France and Italy and Spain right into our restaurants through the product in the bottle.
I was extremely fortunate recently to be invited by Olé Imports to experience Spain through the lens of its wine producers. I got a firsthand glimpse into how varied the Spanish landscape is, how the same grape can perform so differently in different regions, and how the gracious farmers and winemakers who produce these wines are making magic in the bottle.
The following are three standout experiences from that trip. The producers of these wines are providing buyers with a unique opportunity to experience their terroir in wines of extraordinary value.
The Cava Denominacion de Origen (DO) in Spain is not centered around a place, like nearly all other DOs are. Rather, Cava is a style of sparkling winemaking that can be produced in many regions around Spain. However, Penedès, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea just south of Barcelona, produces 95 percent of all Cava.
Despite the fact that Cava is Spain’s highest volume wine export to the U.S., each bottle is still made using the Champagne method. Secondary fermentation, the step that makes Cava sparkling, happens individually in each and every bottle, and every bottle of Cava must by law rest for at least nine months.
To keep up with demand, most large Cava houses buy grapes in bulk from growers around the area. But the Cava producer we visited, Navarran, grows all of its own grapes on a 272-acre estate near the town of Torrelavit. The estate, which has been producing Cava since 1901, has separate vineyards for each of the traditional Cava grapes: Macabeo, Xarel-lo, Parellada, as well as Chardonnay and red grapes used to blend their rosés. Many of the vines are over 30 years old, which results in lower yields, more concentration and better grape quality.
Our host, Michel Parellada, has such a family history in the area that one of the traditional grapes used to make Cava, Parellada, was named for his great-grandfather.
Michel vintage dates every Cava he makes, which is extremely unusual. The quality and attention to every detail shows. The top market for Navarran’s Cavas is France. The home country of Champagne buys 85 percent of what Michel produces.
The best value to be had in the Navarran portfolio is the Vintage Brut. At under $12 per bottle wholesale, it makes an elegant and impressive by-the-glass pour for restaurants at an extremely affordable price point.
Rioja may the most readily recognizable Spanish wine region for many people. It was the first region awarded the top honor of DOCa by the Spanish government and still only one of two regions to hold that designation.
Rioja is divided into three zones: Rioja Alta (higher elevation), Rioja Baja (warmer and drier), and Rioja Alavesa (low vine density). We visited a subzone of one of these, the Sierra de la Demanda area of Rioja Alta.
Vineyards here are said to have the poorest soils in all of Rioja. Because of the altitude and the north-facing slopes, the grapes in Sierra de la Demanda don’t fully ripen until November. In fact, this is the very last region to harvest on the entire Iberian Peninsula.
We visited with a farmer named Monchi who owns 40 plots that total seven hectares in Sierra de la Demanda. We could only access his plots by taking four-wheel-drive vehicles up steep and rocky dirt roads, a testament to the difficulty of farming the area. Monchi showed us numerous vineyards that had been abandoned because farming them became too expensive.
Many vines in this area are 80 to 100 years old, some of the oldest in all of Rioja. To conceptualize what that means, picture it in human terms. Grapevines generally start producing usable fruit around age 8. How must that vine struggle to produce fruit after 70 or more years of bearing fruit? How much vitality would we, as humans, have left after working full time for 70 years? Every cluster of grapes is truly like a gift at that point.
Add to this the demanding elevation, the slow ripening and late harvest, as well as the wild boar and deer that roam the vineyards, and it all adds up to extremely low yields for the farmers. To put it in perspective, the average yield per vine in all of Rioja is 2 kilos per vine (about 4.4 pounds). Here in Sierra de la Demanda, the yield is about 700 grams (1.5 pounds). At some point, farming like this must become a labor of love.
The primary grape grown here is Tempranillo de Cardenas, a high acid mutation of tempranillo. It thrives in the poor soils and slow ripening conditions of Sierra de la Demanda. The late harvest gives these hearty grapes an even longer time to develop thick skins, which adds additional richness and tannin to the wines. Graciano and Garnacha are also grown.
Many farmers in the area sell their grapes to large producers, but Monchi partners with CVA, a project of Olé Imports, so that the grape growing and winemaking become one seamless process. The result is two exquisite wines bottled under the label La Antigua, a Crianza and a Reserva. These are true farm-to-table wines if I’ve ever seen them.
Ribera del Duero
In Ribera del Duero, a small town called Quintanamanvirgo has 94 residents and only two businesses: a bar and a winery. That winery is Torremóron. They produce only one wine. Annual production of that wine is only 66,500 cases. And the final cost to us as restaurateurs is only $8 per bottle wholesale. Like me, you probably wonder, “How is that even possible??” If you had seen their 85- to 100-plus-year-old vines, or their gorgeous historic property, with stone wine caves where the wine was produced in the 1800s, you would really scratch your head. Tasting this little wonder of a wine, which has garnered scores of 90-92 from Robert Parker on more than one occasion, may leave you wondering why you ever paid a higher price for other inferior wines.
The climate in this north, central part of Ribera del Duero is continental. It’s cooler here than in the regions to the west, with less annual rainfall, so the grapes ripen longer and develop more concentration. Wines from this area of Ribera del Duero tend to be darker and more aromatic than the wines from the western part of the DO.
Though this wine is definitely ready to drink now, its ripe tannins and good acidity virtually guarantee that it will be even better in about six months. And it will likely even be drinking well in four to six years.
All of these wines are part of the Olé Imports portfolio, founded by Patrick Mata in 1999. He and his partner, winemaker Alberto Orte, scour the Iberian Peninsula for wines that truly express the unique terroirs of Spain. They also search for quality production and exceptional value. Their portfolio has grown to include well over 100 wines. They are all available in Georgia through Prime Wine & Spirits.
Lara Creasy is a consultant with more than 14 years experience in beverage management. She has developed wine and cocktail programs for such restaurants as St. Cecilia and King + Duke through her consulting business Four 28, LLC. Her work has been featured in such publications as Bon Appetit, Imbibe, and Wine Enthusiast.