Wine Pleasures visits Chozas Carrascal (Utiel-Requena)

28 07 2009

Chozas Carrascal 1Everything about Chozas Carrascal exuded heat, literally and figuratively. It was 37o C in early June, but only the vines were standing up to the blazing sun. While we conversed in the cool of the shaded patio and main house, I felt the passion the family had for their vineyard and business, and their natural warmth towards guests.

Chozas Carrascal is a family effort which began about 17 years ago when the Lopez-Peidro family purchased forty hectares of land in San Antonio Requena. They dedicated eleven years to planting and cultivating before deeming the grapes good enough to offer under the Chozas Carrascal name. Their patience and care have begun to pay off – Las Tres, their blend of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and macabeo, was a finalist in a sommelier competition (La Nariz de Oro 2009); Las Dosces, their young red, and Las Cuatro, their young rose, have been listed as two of the best Spanish wines (Guia de Los 300 Mejores Vinos de Espana, 2008-9, Vino y Cata Magazine). Their attention to detail is evident on the grounds of the vineyard and winery, from the rose bushes planted at the end of each row of vines, to the sparkling cleanliness of each room used in the winemaking process.

Their main house, tasting room and cellar are also enhanced with several stylistic features and details – a beautiful chandelier lights the way to their cellar, bottle corks are playfully set into the restroom flooring, and a tour of the partially excavated old wine cellar beneath the house highlights the rich history behind the land. Their cabernet franc is an example of the family’s labor of love and attention to detail. Each bottle is signed by Julian Lopez or his wife, numbered by Julian’s father, and hand labeled by his children.

During my visit I met most of the members of the team, or family, and Chozas 2quickly saw how uniformly motivated they are by their love for Chozas Carrascal. Julian Lopez, owner and manager of the business, was clearly energized by the subject of the vineyard and his plans for the future of the business. Pieter Whaley, their export manager, translated Julian’s quick words and added his own serious sense of enthusiasm. Francesc Giron, or Xesco as he is affectionately called, is the winemaker and answered all our technical questions with good cheer. (The family was proud to tell us that Xesco is also the author of a winemaking manual, “Credenciales de Chozas Carrascal”.) And as Julian is the head of the business, Maria Jose Lopez Peidro, Julian’s daughter and marketing manager, may be its heart. She was our tireless hostess and guide, and passionate about the family’s efforts and her own individual studies to obtain an advanced degree in oenology.

During my visit I met an important guest of the winery’s, Bernadette Gerth of Qualyvines. A Dutch importer of niche and “unusual” wines, she was making her first trip to Chozas Carrascal with her team of interns and half-jokingly making large reservations for several of the wines. Aside from the importance of the quality of the wine, both the family and Bernadette emphasized the importance of the quality of their relationship. Julian is focused on developing longer term relationships with distributors that are also emotionally invested in the winery. Bernadette looks for quality, “different” wines with “style”, but also only partners with wineries that are interested in helping her promote their wines in the Netherlands.  The pair met two years ago at the Wine Pleasures Workshop Buyer meets Spanish Cellar now named Buyer meets Iberian Cellar for 2010 – a match made in wine heaven, you could say perhaps.

Chozas3We had the option of trying the wines with a light repast in the airy tasting room or charming outdoor courtyard. After touring the house, enjoying the wines and light conversation, and leisurely dipping our toes in the pool, we were on our way back to Valencia. We discovered that Maria, a young and native Valencian, is an authority on local information and city hot spots. Sadly, we didn’t have time to try her recommendations for sights and nightlife, but my friend and I enjoyed a great paella negro at one of her favorite paella restaurants.

Luckily, for those of us in the States, Chozas Carrascal’s wines are available in a few specialty shops and restaurants (i.e. Jean Georges in New York City)!

Visits are 5 euros per person, and includes a tour of the vineyard, the winery, the main house, wine tasting and light (Valencian) refreshments. You’ll want to allot at least two hours to view and enjoy the premises, wine and company. 

Anne Shih. Wine Travel Writer for Wine Pleasures.

Here’s a video (in Spanish) on how to make a paella from Requena as opposed to one from Valencia. The latter claiming superiority in paella making. What’s your experience with paellas?


Parés Baltà open for “extreme wine tourism”

16 07 2009

Second part of a Wine Pleasures winery visit programme I was lucky enough to witness. 

extremeOur visit to Parés Baltà was the complete antithesis to Rimarts. For starters, Parés Baltà is an older (established in 1790), much bigger winery with a staff of over fifty and five estates. Rather than wandering around the depths of the cellar, a visit to the grounds and vineyards was the order of the day. Piling into the sturdy and muddy landrover, we went around one of the five estates, seeing innumerable types of grapes as well as some breathtaking vistas. Some of the sites of the vines had been vineyards for thousand of years, since pre-roman times. 

As we travelled around the estate, our guide Sylvia let us into the silivia1secrets of grape growing. There are many factors that effect the grapes. The first, and most important, is climate. Sylvia explained that though it can sometimes rain heavily, often there are long periods of little rain. When this happens they don´t water the grapes and just let nature take its course. This seemed counterintuitive until Sylvia argued that by watering the grapes you are influencing the wine and so the wines no longer reflects the environment it is grown in. Pares Baltà want their wines to be completely natural, a philosophy that is assuredly organic. The second important factor is the soil type. Over the estates the soil quality varies hugely. I picked up many soil facts as we went, for example with clay, colour doesn´t matter to the grapes. The clay colour is the result of mineral make up and the key factor with clay is the lack of water. 

silviaMany of the grapes we saw were being grown for experimental reasons, to see how they´ll turn out and if they can improve their wines. Many of them are not yet on the wine list: as Sylvia puts it- grapes need to learn to make good wine. She claims to have caught the winemakers talking to grapes, giving them advice and encouragement. Some of their grapes are grown on land that is protected, meaning they have to work around the forest, using the land around the trees. During Eagle nesting time they can´t make any noise and have to wait to carry out any work on their grapes. Luckily the eagles weren´t nesting while we were there so up we went to investigate. The terrain by this time was getting rockier and rockier, the car lurching about as Sylvia attempted to get us to the peak. After a couple of tries we managed it, but it was a real taste of extreme wine tourism. Nestled at the top were the company bees, which were angered by our tour. Safe in the car, we learnt that the bee´s have an influence area of 10km. This means they can track their hives close to patches of rosemary and thyme and the bees will carry the aromas down to infuse the wine as they pollinate the grapes. The bees are not the only animal workers on the vineyards; sheep are also kept purely to eat the leaves after harvest and keep the plants healthy. 

As Sylvia chatted about her work and her home I really got a sense of wine as a way of life. Or, as Sylvia puts it “Everyone round here has wine in the veins.” Sylvia has worked at Parés Baltà for three years and has lived in the area all her life. Her childhood experiences are entwined with the area and the wines, with an open bottle of cava always on the table and the summer highlight of going through the grapes after the pickers had gone and bringing home brimming baskets of leftovers. 

AmyBy the end of the day I felt that I´d had a real back to nature experience and a reminder that the wine you see in a bottle has a natural beginning. And talking of wines you see in a bottle, we fit in the time to taste a few bottles before heading to the restaurant for a feast of a lunch. We tried Absis (2003) a 88% tempranillo, 12% cabernet sauvignon mix. There was a sense of caramel on the nose, smokey. The finish was subtle and complex. Oaky spicy yet chocolately, with a tanginess at the top of the lip. This wine is eighteen months in the barrel and solely hand harvested. The soil where the grapes are grown is poor and stony so the grapes are concentrated and have a low yield per acre.

We also tried the 2008 Calcari, made from a native and typical grape variety- Xarel-lo. With a grassy quality on the nose, it was creamy and tasty. Not as fruity as many of the wines I´d tried.

Amy Wilkerson. Wine Travel Writer for Wine Pleasures

Here is a video taken during part of the extreme wine tour visit. Enjoy!

Wine tasting in Parés Baltà with Sylvia and Joan:

Cycling tours in Spain’s hallowed wine regions.

14 07 2009

Wine Pleasures Wine Country Bike Tour in Spain

09.00 Arrive Wine Pleasures in the High Penedès (Alt Penedès)

Bike tour1We set off at 9:30 am to miss the hot midday sun. The sky was blue already so we knew we had a gorgeous day ahead of us. All kitted out with helmets, water bottles and bikes and after a few adjustments we were on our way. Familiarising ourselves with the gears on the winding road we headed off-road onto bumpy track where the suspension came in very useful. After our first hard hill climb we came across a beautiful house (Mas de Pontons)mas pontons2 surrounded by grape vines which was so glorious in the sunshine. The house had been a ruin and was converted back to its original glory which Anthony explained to us. We had a look at the grapes which were too small to eat so we set off again back onto the road heading for the village of Pontons.

The ride was a mixture of steady hills followed by long periods of free cycling along the beautiful winding countryside which was a great relief from the hot sun. Second stop was at church, just a few km from the village. This was beautiful as was a typical Spanish building and within the gardens were shaded areas which we rested in.

Once in the village we sought out a local bakery from which we bought some “Coca” which is a local bread that has a slight sweet sugary topping which was a welcomed sugar rush. We then visited the gorge that ran through the village, a magnificent drop beneath us so we held onto our sunglasses tight as we peered over the edge.

bike tour2Back on our bikes for a long steady climb out of the village we climbed higher and higher and the views became more and more spectacular. We were able to see the village below and everywhere we had seen along the way in the distance which was so great and motivated us to ride on further. With Anthony setting the pace, we each cycled in a line along the winding roads waving at the friendly locals who drove past and waved back.

News of the next stop, a local bar, meant we picked up our pace. NATURE_SOMBRAJust one more km hill to tackle and we would be rewarded by a 3km downhill cruise allowing us to enjoy the beautiful surroundings and just think about which way we were steering. On arrival we were rewarded with a crisp and fresh glass of Emendis Brut Nature and were able to laze and take in the journey we had completed. From the restaurant (Can Cuguls) we were able to see the entire route we had taken and in the near distance was the Wine Pleasures base so we knew we were nearly home.

On reflection we had a very enjoyable day with Wine Pleasures and felt so happy that we were able to experience the real Spanish countryside and local villages and the tour was so easy and enjoyable. We will certainly return and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend wine & bike as a holiday option.  

Alice, Georgina, Trish & Madelene.

Here’s our video at Mas de Pontons:

Rimarts. Degorge “en directo” for wine tourists

11 07 2009

Wine Pleasures – wine tasting tours.

RimartsToday we were joined by two Canadians to visit a couple of wineries, Rimarts and Pares Balta. Lois, a sommelier for Nyood Restaurant and Kultura Social, and her partner Joel were touring Spain and contacted Wine Pleasures to organise a one day winery visit programme to experience some superior Spanish cavas & wines. With that thought in Rimarts gran reservamind, we headed straight to Rimarts to meet Ernest Martinez and try some of his cavas. More of a wine maker than a seller, Ernest took us straight down to the cellar to inspect the cavas and explain some different aspects of cavamaking. 

More than any of the other producers I have visited, Rimarts put a huge emphasis on handcrafting, watching carefully over every step to ensure the highest quality possible. This dedication was seen especially in the disgorging process, a 24 day endeavour that sees them turning each bottle incrementally, one eighth each day until the bottle is fully upright. Seeing as the winery is solely run by Ernest, his mother and his brother, this requires a lot of dedication from the trio. This commitment was also seen in the corking process, which involves 60,000 bottles being corked by hand. Ernest demonstrated the corking for us, which was a bit nervewracking, purely because to get the cork on he had to first get the original top off, something that he had to do incredibly quickly and then jam his finger on to stop the cava all fizzing out. Corking wasn´t something I had ever considered but it was quite elaborate and time consuming process. After the excitement of corking, we tried four wines varying in price between €8 and €23. Starting with €8 Brut Cava, my taste buds were clearly unrefined as I preferred this one to all others. 

Amy Wilkerson, wine travel writer for Wine Pleasures.

Watch the video and see how the degorge is done in “seco” ie without freezing the neck of the bottle. Only Cava producer to do the degorge in this way for his range of cavas.

Wine tasting tours in Catalonia’s Cava region, Spain

8 07 2009

Before today, I had not realised that some 95% of all cavas are produced in the Penedès region. Armed with that knowledge, it was with mounting excitement that I looked forward to my visit to one of the renowned cava producers of the region, Pages Entrena. Joan Pages Entrena met us as we exited the car and took us along with him whilst he shared with us the benefit of his experience as a winemaker. 

pages entrena 4On first sight, Pages Entrena is an impressive mixture of the rustic and the sophisticated. The premises are an old 18th Century paper mill, now filled with state of the art wine making equipment. With Ivy creeping up the walls and dogs milling in the yard, it comes as a shock to enter the wrought iron doors and be greeted with a plush, high-tech and professional environment to learn about wines. It is a small operation, with a staff of only four, but nevertheless produces a large amount of wine. A huge emphasis is put on quality, to the extent that although they grow their own grapes, they bring in other grapes if they believe their own not to reach the standards they have set. Owing to year on year differences in climatic and other factors involved with grapes, each year the highest quality is selected for their wines. 

pages entrena1We move straight past the stainless steel fermentation tanks, familiar to me from previous winery visits, and downwards to the cellar. Cava wine has a second fermentation once the wine is in the bottle, which takes place in the cool environment of the cellar. The wine is left to ferment in the bottles with sugar and yeast for months in the dark, whilst the winemakers wait patiently. Juan took me downwards, explaining the process of fermentation and holding the bottles to the light to elucidate his statements. All the while, my attention was partly on my surroundings, the atmospheric and gloomy rooms with dim lighting, stacked with thousand and thousand of cavas. The temperature is always kept between 18 and 21 degrees, a cool and refreshing change from the constant summer heat of Spain. The cellars smelt incredibly welcoming, aged and balmy; exactly what I would expect from a well stocked wine cellar. Some of the Cavas in there, for example the Gran Reserva, will have to wait at least 40 months until they see the light of day again. 

Emerging from the cellar, we took a tour of the grounds, seeing the tasting rooms, the  lab where they test quality of wines and an old, separate building, where Joan voiced long term plans for conversion into a hotel, as a retreat for visitors to Barcelona. horseWith the property surrounded by vineyards and attached to a stable with 12 thoroughbred horses, it was easy to see it as a haven against the vibrant bustle of Barcelona. I went up to have a quick peek at the horses and stroke their noses, and was slightly overawed by their obvious quality.

pages entrena2Finally, it was time to try one of the cavas, I´d heard so much about. We tried the Cava Pages Entrena Rose, made of 60% garnacha and 40% monestrell grapes. To earn the title of Cava, it must be aged for at least nine months. However, all the cavas they produce are aged for an absolute minimum of twelve months. Unlike the wines you buy at a supermarket, the bottles are dated from when they have completed second fermentation, ensuring that you always know precisely how old the Cava you are drinking is. The nose was aromatic and intensive and upon drinking it I found it fresh, cool and fruity. The taste was pages entrean3definitely that of a summer wine, for drinking on balmy evenings outside. I was favourably impressed by the overall experience of the Rose. 12,000 have been produced.

Amy Wilkerson Wine Travel writer for Wine Pleasures

Vijazz, Vilafranca del Penedès wine & jazz festival

6 07 2009

logo vijazzThe Vilafranca jazz festival, Vijazz, is in its third year and has gone from strength to strength. This year the organisers are expecting 45,000 people to descend on Vilafranca to take advantage of this free festival to see performers that would normally be charging €50 a ticket. 

We arrived in the square in Vilafranca and were immediately greeted by the enthusiastic jazz fusion of Spyro Gyra spyro gyrawarming up for their evening gig. Amid the bustling hive of activity as they prepared for the events of the night, we were lucky to bump into Francesc Palau who was free for an interview. It was from him that I learnt of the attempts of the Penedes region to establish itself as an important wine tourism destination. The jazz is used as an enticement to bring visitors and the wine is the reason they stay; hopefully once the visitors leave, they´ll take with them a new appreciation of the wines of the Penedès

As well as being an opportunity to taste a huge range of cavas and wines, the festival was a social atmosphere that allowed me to get to know the personalities of the winemakers and personal stories behind some of the wines. Earlier in the day I had inquired after the meaning of the name of one of the Parés Baltà wines to be told ´Mas Elena´ translates from the Catalan into ´House of Elena´ in honour of one of their winemakers. The personal story helped to link the winery to the people that work there and establish it as a family business, despite its larger size. This impression of Parés Baltà was furthered when I had the chance to really talk to some of their staff at the festival. For example, Marc, who was talking me through some of the wines they had on offer, had just completed a masters degree in wine management. On top of this, Marc had spent 22 weeks travelling through the primary wine making regions of the World (both old and new), spending time in, among other places, Italy, France, South Africa and Australia. The enthusiasm he had for wine was evidently not just a job, but a passion. Even if I did not like the wines, I would have been won over by the passion shown by those who make them. 

Gente vijazzMoving onto the Emendis stall, I tried the Nox wine, named for the latin word for night. As might be expected by this rather gothic name, the grapes (90% merlot, 10% pinot noir) are picked only once the sky is dark, the theory behind this being that the lower temperature allows the flavour of the grapes to come out. The smell of the Nox would seem to bear this out, with a strong and distinctive aroma of sour fruits; of strawberries and raspberries. On the tongue it had a strong body with a bitter aftertaste. Overall it was a complex and enjoyable wine. But with so many stalls still to visit, I had to move on. At the Loxarel stall I tried the Petit Arnau with a cherry aroma on the nose, and a bold, dry taste. Whilst chatting to the owner Joseph, I got to meet Petit Arnau himself, Josep´s young son – I snapped a shot of Arnau with his wine, but he seemed bemused more than anything by all the attention!

Navigating my way past the jazz brass band promenading the streets, I Street jazz bandarrived at the Oriol Rossell stall to try their Brut Cava, which came across as a well rounded cava, bubbly and alive with a taste of almond and honey. However, by this time, my impressions of the wines began to blend in much the same way as the grapes and I could no longer trust my tongue to differentiate between the wines. It was time to leave.

Amy Wilkerson Wine Travel Writer for Wine Pleasures

Video interview with Francesc Palau with Spyro Gyra rehearsing in the background: