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Lately of Spain 

A diary of Iberian discovery

click to enlarge One among dozens of strategically placed Osborne billboards that dot Spain's superhighways - PHOTO BY ARTURO CIOMPI
  • Photo by Arturo Ciompi
  • One among dozens of strategically placed Osborne billboards that dot Spain's superhighways

"Rioja or Ribera del Duero?" asks the steward on a train from Madrid to Seville. If I didn't already know I was in a different country, this proved I was in another world!

Vino--and copious amounts of it--is everywhere on this sojourn organized by the indefatigable Janet Kafka, working overtime on her BlackBerry, whose public relations firm led this trip sponsored by Spain's Osborne family. Nine journalists from across the United States spent a week eating their way through Spain with the many wines produced by the Osborne family as our libations. What could be better than this to recharge one's batteries? Leipzig or Vienna would do nicely for musicians, Florence for the visual artist, but for we wine writers, so catholic in our tastes, anyplace that takes winemaking seriously is an expectant destination.

Osborne (pronounced Os-bor-NAY) was founded by a savvy Englishman who headed a busy export business in the 1700s. El Puerto de Santa Maria soon became the center of his justly famous and vibrant winery. The sherries and brandies produced here range, as all Osborne products do, from very affordable, consistent products to highly distinctive reserve bottlings of rarity and uniqueness.

Our visit began in Bilbao on the northernmost shore of Spain, reaching up and out into the Bay of Biscay and just a short stretch from the French frontier. Bilbao is pinning much of its international future on the Guggenheim Museum, designed by famed American architect Frank Gehry and finished in 1997. Now, it's the old surrounding neighborhood showing growing pains, with half the buildings shrouded in renovative gear, and new parking decks, hotels and restaurants springing up within. It feels paradoxical with this massive, jaw-dropping metal and glass paean to art snuggled into a time warp of faded brick, tile and pastel color. I'd love to see the "finished" setting in five years.

We were literally across the road dozing in our hotel as a festive welcome dinner was being prepared in the museum's restaurant. (Some feat to carry off on a Sunday!) It was not only our introduction to each other, but also to the winemaker of Bodegas Montecillo, a 132-year-old La Rioja estate. Maria Martinez-Sierra, winemaker since 1976, eased tired travelers through her lineup as we partook of the first of our twice daily, gastronomically packed four-hour meals. Which begs this question: Does one grow tired of Serrano, Jabugo or Iberico ham served with plentiful alacrity for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Answer: Emphatically no! These cured hams, darker than prosciutto, less melt-in-your-mouth but eminently more flavorful, could easily become an expensive domestic habit and topple the king of Parma from its lofty perch. Some of these delicacies are not yet imported into the United States, but look for them within a year. Jamon Iberico, made from acorn-fed hogs, is an intensely purple, thinly sliced morsel of the most heavenly pork I've ever tasted. Oh, and I didn't mention Iberico Lomo, the dry cured pork loin sausage. This chewy, lean delight was an alternative pleasure that ravenously disappeared alongside the "country hams" of Spain.

Off to Rioja through the Basque Provinces, our bus traversing excellent roads cut through the Cantabrian Mountains. I was fortunate to sit alongside Maria and we discussed not merely her wines, but the life decisions of a regional native, the political sensibility of the Basque separatist movement and, perhaps most touchingly, the vivid memories of Spain's great Civil War of the 1930s. The Spanish are still anxiously dealing with the separation of families, relatives and friends during this horrifying episode (made so famous in Picasso's "Guernica" canvas). Like our own Civil War, the politics of a national unity and the lingering, underlying recriminations still sting deeply.

click to enlarge Constructing the barrels at Bodegas Montecillo - PHOTO BY ARTURO CIOMPI
A woman of solidity, passionate artistic temperament, and sureness in her values and convictions, Maria is a giant of the region notwithstanding her petite physical stature. "Gender is not what matters" is one of her rallying cries as she's bucked a decidedly male-dominated field for the last 30-plus years. In transit, she took two back-to-back cell phone calls. During the first I nonchalantly overheard the most clean, crisp Spanish enunciation, such that it encouraged my hopes that I might understand the language passably well. The second literally had me believing she was singing a song to the person on the other line, so musical and lilting was her phrasing. I soon learned that the first call was strictly business related; the second, checking in with her husband who had recently recovered from surgery, was a touching lesson in romance language.

Rioja is all gentle hillsides strewn in the spring with poppy and rosemary flowers. Bodegas Montecillo is in Fuenmayor, located in the 100-mile-long valley between the heights of the Rioja Alta (800 meters) and the Baja (at 200-300 meters). Montecillo purchases all of its grapes, with numerous long-term contracts in place. A whopping 60 percent of Rioja's oldest plantings remain available to winemakers' bids. Regardless of ancient vines or prestigious location, Maria has a superior nose and instinct for what she senses in the vineyard. She told us that she decides on the spot at harvest time what each vineyard's grapes will become. Pointing here she'll say "crianza," a fresh and less important bottling. Or she'll declaim "reserva," assuring the grower a better price on his year's labor. Among ourselves we joked that these growers must literally quake in their boots when Maria comes over for the final dispensation! The tempranillo grape is the grape of Rioja, and Montecillo, disdaining any blending, uses it 100 percent. French oak staves are hand-pieced together on site (an efficient and fascinating glimpse of the total control this winery strives for). The oak is untoasted, which allows a more subtle oak influence.

2001 Reserva, Bodegas Montecillo $17-$18
Wondrously deep ripe fruit, spice and "warmth" of French oak where it's a gorgeous, integral element. An autumnal "sensitive" character with totally ripe, but not overdone, flavors. Opens beautifully, enormously sinus-filling in an almost sweet, elegant beverage. Drink now-2011.
91 points

The 2000 Reserva, drunk many times during our trip and which may be still on your retailer's shelves, is also a generously satisfying wine. Tantalizing cherry and spice in a light vanilla frame. Mouth filling, velvety and expertly balanced. I consistently preferred it to the current "Gran Reserva." Drink now-2008. 89

Last month I reviewed the 2005 Montecillo Blanco ($9, 85 points). I found the wine identical when tasted in Spain, only more overtly fresh. This reminds one that any delicate white, even expertly handled and shipped, is never quite that open spray of delight when drunk directly from the producer's own home.

We were privileged to taste rarities, wines available in very limited supply in America: Gran Reserva Seleccion Especial releases. These wines lay contacting their skins an astonishing 28 to 38 days (about two to three times longer than normal). Barrel aged for close to four years, they then spend years further resting in bottle until the winery deems them ready to drink. They are clearly a labor of love, not money, and although expensive ($50-$100), cheap by the quasi unheard of aging standards involved. The 1981 was fully developed, rhapsodic and exultant; the 1987 was more "constructed"--dense, powerful and balanced; the 1991 almost animal in its extracted unctuousness with a smell of saddle soap after cleaning leather--reminding me of a Rhone Hermitage. All three were magnificent wines that I rated 95 points (1981), 94 points (1991) and 91 points (1987). The 1985 (which I, unfortunately, did not taste) is the currently available vintage stateside ($50).

2001 Senorio Del Cid, Osborne, Ribera Del Duero $20
An expressive, explosive new wine, supervised by Maria from this dynamic, growingly popular region. It speaks the rich, direct, fruit-forward qualities of Tempranillo produced in Ribera's warmer climes. Powerful, mouth filling, blackberry scented with spicy nuances of rosemary and walnuts. A bit blunt, but extremely satisfying.
88

The local cuisine, provided by the terrific new restaurant "El Valenciano," had us all scribbling recipes and taking photos, especially of the baby lamb chops cooked outdoors over the vine cuttings from the 2005 vintage. ("No '04 cuttings will do, nor allowed!" we quipped.) It reminded me of that silly restaurant commercial on television these days where young fellows at a restaurant wax poetically: "Beef! Pork! Vegetable medley...?"

We rushed back to Bilbao, grabbed a plane to Madrid and then a bus to Malpica de Tajo, home to Osborne's new $50 million venture: the Solaz line of everyday table wines. Here in Castilla, just north of the famous desert plains of Don Quixote's La Mancha, Osborne has established a showcase oasis, erecting marvelous indigenously inspired buildings and two reservoirs feeding off the nearby Tajo River. International varietals are being planted in a searching effort to bring satisfying, terroir-laden table wines to the world. Small rows of just about every grape variety imaginable are being planted for future consideration.

Boyishly exuberant, Solaz' slender, youthful winemaker, Cesar Fernandez, seemed genuinely interested in our feedback and suggestions as he poured the winery's lineup. This hot, barren land of thick clay soil produces super ripe grapes with rather low (for drinking pleasure) natural acidity levels. Some of these wines seem to show an exaggerated twist; the acidification process used is often too high, leaving a tart sharpness as the wines' final flavor component. Yet some are right on and their pleasure factor is easily doubled by the eminently fair pricing.

2005 Viura, Solaz Blanco $8.50
The viura grape produces a soft, tropical, pleasantly engaging nose. Has easy to understand creaminess in the mouth. Relaxed texture seems better suited to casual afternoon sipping than serious dinner table accompaniment.
83

2004 Tempranillo/ Cabernet Sauvignon, Solaz $8.50
The "original" Solaz red blend (80/20 percent). Fresh, smooth fruit with a fully surrounding aromatic profile--a touch pinot noir-like. Roses upon leather nose leads to a drink that's a touch sharp yet presents a fine match for your outdoor grilling.
84

2004 Shiraz/ Tempranillo, Solaz $8.50
Nice but uneventful bouquet; warm, engulfing and peppery. A 50/50 blend. Generous, big-hearted flavors, somewhat tannic, but drink now with spicy kebabs or charbroiled skirt steak.
85

2004 Merlot/ Tempranillo, Solaz $8.50
A 65/35 percent dark and fairly intense blend. A nice ethereal edge to the bouquet with high toned, lilting sensations. "Tightly grained," well-structured mouth feel, holds together for pinpoint pleasure. A poultry perfect choice. (Available in September.)
86

2002 Dominio De Malpica Cabernet Sauvignon $16.50
Solaz' most expensive export to America. Smells cabernet-like all over, possessing the slightly weedy overtone of this grape when young. Rather Bordeaux-like (St. Estephe-ish), with direct, powerful flavor and an iodine concentrated richness. A tiger red.
87

A bus ushered us back to Madrid and our centrally located hotel. An hour later, as we were blearily leaving for another marathon culinary excursion, we ran into the heavy metal band Guns N' Roses checking in for a following evening's concert engagement. Axl Rose and crew grunted pleasantries our way as both of our groups seemed to be feeling some similar vibes; a bit much of a good thing on too little sleep, yet ready to roll when the clock strikes the appointed hour. For my part, Spain's dramatic beauty, original wines, baker's oven roasted lamb quarters served on 2-foot-long plates, and a few Havana Puros along the route turned this trip into an extended dream sequence that I'm tenaciously holding onto.

Look for Arturo's Indy Wine Pick shelf talkers at your favorite local wine retailers.

Arturo's column appears the second Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at deal5@earthlink.net.

CIOMPI'S GRADES

91-100: Wine that seems to give all it is capable of, offering terrific complexities and memorable attributes. Wines at 95 points or greater are extraordinary and worthy of a special search.

83-90: Good to extremely good, with genuine flavor interest and highlights constituting a fine wine.

77-82: Average to quite decent. No true defects, but minor problems hinder charm or excitement. The wine is recommended.

70-76: Irritating flaws and weakness take away pleasure. The wine is drinkable.

69 and under: Undrinkable. Aberrant bouquet and flavor. A turnoff and a failure.

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