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One Brilliant Bottle

organic/biodynamic/natural wines in Vinland

Category Archives: Spain

Mas Estela Vinya Selva de Mar

Spain (Empordà- Catalonia)

grenache (50%), syrah (35%), carignan (15%)

Mas Estela Vinya Selva de Mar 2001

Taken with an array of fine Spanish cheeses (Roncal, Majorero Maxorata, San Simón da Costa), there is a lot riding on this wine. It delivers. Garnet red in the glass, with dense, old world aromas. Polished fruit, well rounded tannins, yet never less than fresh, displaying the liveliness of experience, the complexity of its years spent in the bottle. A wine opened in anticipation of spring, that most organic of seasons. $$

There can hardly be a more stunning setting for a wine estate — tucked in the Saint Romà valley in the far northeastern reaches of the Catalonia region of Spain, just three kilometres from the Mediterranean’s Costa Brava.

The estate itself didn’t always suit its surroundings. In 1989, when owners Diego (‘Didier’) Soto and Núria Dalmau discovered the property while on a hiking expedition, it had been abandoned and was in acute disrepair. Although the roots of its viticulture date back centuries, it had been 30 years since it had last seen production. An intense dedication and years of hard work have restored and expanded the property. Today there are 17 hectares under vine, and many more surrounding them, a sloping landscape filled with pines and oaks and a myriad of wild herbs.

Mas Estela has been organic since the start and biodynamic since 1999. The owners, together with their son Didac, are greatly aided in their approach by the strong, dry winds that blow from the north. The moderating influence of the Mediterranean keeps the potentially intense heat of summer at bay. Here the soils are metamorphic brown slate, with a modest amount of chalk. The roots of the vines go deep in search of water, drawing minerals into the fruit, eventually doing much to enrich the wine.

Mas Estela makes a range of seven red, white, and sweet wines. The red Vinya Selva de Mar (named after the nearby village) is one of their signature bottles. Grapes from this 2001 vintage were hand-picked at optimum ripeness, de-stemmed, then crushed, leading to cold maceration in stainless steel tanks. Temperature-controlled fermentation followed, stretching over several weeks. The wine spent 18 months in French oak casks, then, after light filtering, continued to mature in the bottle…before years later the foil covering the cork was sliced away, and set aside, allowing the bottle to welcome spring (even if the tulips, like the wine, are imported).


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Telmo Rodríguez El Transistor

Spain (Rueda)


You know you have an unusual wine in your hands when the label says “El Transistor.” The story goes that to keep away the wild boar at night a transistor radio is set among the vines.

The man behind the radio is Telmo Rodríguez, a pioneering spirit in Spanish winemaking, in many ways a true original. He produces relatively small amounts of about twenty different wines from ten different regions of Spain, and appears to be equally enthusiastic about the wines that sell for $10 as he is for the ones that sell for $80. Above all he brings a passion to his trade, with the goal of taking indigenous varietals and letting them speak naturally of the place from which they have sprung. He seeks to put superior, terroir-driven wine behind his labels and sell it for a reasonable price. It’s no surprise that his wines are so often singled out as great value for their price tags.

Some 40 years ago Rodríguez’s father, an industrialist from San Sebastián, acquired a Rioja estate, Remelluri. The son studied oenology at Université Bordeaux and followed it up with working stints at Cos d’Estournel and the estate of the great Gérard Chave in the Rhône Valley. His father encouraged him to return to Remelluri, which he did, until he struck out on his own in 2001. Not to follow fashion and set his sights on high-priced bottlings using international varietals steeped in French oak, but instead to aim for what he has called “a democratic, original wine.” The first effort was a garnacha (grenache) from Navarra. It sold for $8.

Telmo Rodríguez wants his wines to exude their Spanish heritage. He is not interested in producing wines that taste as if they could have come from anywhere. He spends a lot of time seeking out abandoned vineyards whose old bush vines still carry the essence of all that is good about traditional Spanish winemaking. Our bottle at hand is a case in point. From the Rueda region (the central town of the same name is 170 km northwest of Madrid), it is made solely from the traditional, often undervalued, white varietal, verdejo.

Rodríguez places as much attention on his white wines as he does his reds, refreshing in the Spanish context. Soundly organic, he is moving all his vineyards toward biodynamics.

I have always been struck by the artistry of his labels. They come from a man keenly interested in visual art and literature and who is a presence on the cultural scene in Madrid. “Life is a lot of things,” he has said. “Not just wine.” My kind of winemaker. I look forward to sampling many more of his wines. Good to know they all lie within a reasonable price range.

So let’s turn down the radio and pour a glass.

Telmo Rodríguez El Transistor 2008

A straw-coloured glow emanating from the wine glass. And from its surface the subtelty of stone fruit laced with smoke and minerals. On the palate a wine to be savoured, showing a textured complexity. Smooth yet with a wry herbaceous note. But much more than that — lemon rind seasoned with a peppery, spice overlay. A salt wash kickback leading to a lingering finish. An intensely interesting wine. Definitely not bo(a)ring! Now turn up the volume and enjoy!  $

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Bodega Sierra Norte Pasión de Bobal

Spain (Utiel-Requena)


Hearts come to lie among the branches of our dogberry tree.

Surprisingly little known, bobal is in fact the third most planted grape by area in Spain. For years it has been looked upon as something of a black sheep, directed to blending with other varietals. (It is especially welcomed for its colour intensity.) But in recent years several independent producers have brought the grape to the forefront, with some very promising results.

Bobal is native to the province of Valencia, where it accounts for roughly 80% of the vines under the DO Utiel-Requena. Its sloping vineyards (with dark, limestone soils) lie between the Mediterranean and the high inland plateau of Central Spain. Summers are hot and dry, winters (by Spanish standards) cold. Late frosts in April and May are not unusual. Its climate is one of the most extreme in Spain, and requires a tough grape.

Bobal is just that, a tough-skinned, bull-headed grape. (Its name is derived from the resemblance of a cluster to the head of a bull.) The wine produced is high in both tannin and acidity. The vines are generally low, stand-alone bushes, cultivated without supports, and are broadly spaced within the vineyard.  They endure extremes of weather much better than most varietals.

Bodega Sierra Norte holds 60 hectares of vineyards and has been bottling a variety of whites and reds, under various labels, since 1998. It is one of the only organic bodegas in the region. Bobal has always played an important role in its bottlings, but only recently has the production of a 100% bobal wine been undertaken. The vines used for Pasión de Bobal are 25-60 years old and cultivated at 600 metres above sea level. A later maturing grape, the bobal harvest for 2011 will have taken place over the past couple of weeks. Maceration will be long and procede at low temperatures. Fermentation will start at similarly low temperatures, then gradually rise. The wine will spend 6-8 months in French oak.

The result – a much undervalued varietal given a new market presence. I was thrilled to find it at a recent wine show, imported to my Island home by Pesantez and Segovia, an importer who can always be counted on to bring something special to the table.

Bodega Sierra Norte Pasión de Bobal 2009

A racy, deeply fruited nose arising from the dark ruby red surface. This wine has energy and history. A raw, red fruit spiciness and hint of smoke deliver notes of rustic charm. It sets the drinker back in time, to when native varietals were the mainstay, when wines had an affable robustness, and hearts seemed to grow on vines.  $

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Albet i Noya La Milana

Spain (Penedès)

merlot (35%), tempranillo (35%), cabernet sauvignon (25%), caladoc (5%)

The Swift Current leaves have turned. There’s a need to fortify myself for the winter months ahead.

Albet i Noya La Milana 2005

Black cherry in colour, vibrant on the nose. Aromas of spicy fruit, steeped in earth. Lovely. Mature tannins, pleasant acidity, with tobacco and a warm hint of oak. Lively fruit with a longish finish. Delightful! on an autumn day.  $$

The name La Milana is derived from a seven hectare section of the Albet i Noya’s estate, a bow to the wife of the farmer who owned that part of the property in the mid 19th century. Four grape varieties (in the same proportion as the wine) make up the 20-year-old, 350-metre-high vineyard. The soil here is a mix of clay and sand set on calcareous stone.

Altogether Albet i Noya has 101 hectares, 76 of which are under vine. They lie on the western slopes of the Ordal mountains, southwest of Barcelona, for the most part set in man-made terraces. Although the growing of grapes here dates back hundreds of years, it was just a century ago that the Albet family assumed control of the estate. In 1978 present-day owners Josep Maria (left) and brother Antoni Albet started on the road to organic conversion, the first in Catalonia to do so. Today it is widely seen as the foremost organic winery in the country, with over 20 different wines and cavas in production.

A distinctive feature of Albet i Noya is its program to recover lost varietals, some likely dating back to the pre-phylloxera era. It is estimated that in Penedès as many as 30 varietals fell out of favour and were lost. The initial project (with one hectare of land dedicated to it) saw seven ancient varieties reclaimed, from old and abandoned vineyards. Following the planting of 500 vines of each, the grapes were vinified and sample wines sent to 165 individuals (in 24 different countries) working in various aspects of the wine industry, including wine critics and sommeliers. From this experiment has emerged three wines (a red and two whites) deemed worthy of commercial production. The red will be known as Belat. A second phase of the project (with seven additional varietals) is already well underway.

Josep Maria has just been appointed as president of the Regulatory Council of the Denominación de Origen Penedès. It looks like the D.O. is well on the way to increasing its profile as one of the most interesting of Spain’s wine growing regions.

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Artadi Viñas de Gain

Spain (Rioja)


The stage is Battle Harbour, on the coast of Labrador. Centuries ago much of the codfish dried on these platforms made its way to markets in Spain. Likely a few fish were exchanged for Rioja.

The bottle is from Alavesa, in the northern reaches of Rioja, just south of the Basque country.  More specifically, from the lower slopes of the Cantabrian Mountains, near the village of Laguardia. The grape is the iconic Spanish varietal tempranillo, harvested from Artadi’s 70 hectares in the region. The high altitude vines used in the making of Viñas de Gain are at least 25 years of age, grown in poor mountain soils made up of chalk, gravel and clay. The climate is both Atlantic and Continental in nature, rounding out the maturation of the grapes in diverse ways.

The owner and winemaker is Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacaille (assisted now by his son, Carlos), very well known throughout Spain for his way with tempranillo, and increasingly with other varietals. He is said to be ‘the man who has changed the face of Rioja wines.’ His reputation is based on his innovative approach, while respecting the traditions of the past and the unique character of tempranillo. He has cut back considerably on vineyard yields, made more use of French oak (in the case of the Viñas de Gain, 12-14 months in 40% new French oak), and bottled his wines earlier than has often been the case in the region. He works organically, and that in itself is a step away for the majority of wine producers in Spain.

Artadi started out as a cooperative but in the early 1990s came under the sole ownership of Juan Carlos. He expanded operations into Alicante and Navarra, and took on new varietals, monastrell (mourvèdre) and grenache. The worldwide interest in his wine steadily increased. (100 Parker points for the 2004 vintage of his top Rioja, ‘El Pison’, helped.)

Artadi Viñas de Gain 2006

Viñas de Gain, at considerably less in price than the El Pison, is a stalwart of his modern Rioja style — smooth, self-assured, yet earthy and with mineral verve. The colour in the glass is dark crimson. To the nose it offers smoky black fruit, nicely contained. It opens into the mouth with flavourful black cherry elegance. Well-balanced, with rounded tannins. I like the sumptuous polish. Not the Rioja of old, but very attractive, very drinkable.  $$

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