Adeu Barcelona. Fins aviat.

November 5, 2009

Barcelona CathedralMy time in Barcelona has just flown by. My internal compass has kicked in, at least for Bari Gotic and La Ribera with small parts of Eixample as well. Like a Gaudi design, there are few straight lines except for major streets (Carrer o Passeig). Generally, in only a few twists and turns, you can be back to a familiar avenida o placa, but you might not know how you got there!

Today I started out on a hunt for the final Gaudi representation, Casa Calvet. I was not successful. This recommendation wasn’t on the DK “top 10” list, so I am assuming it is one of the more subtle and ubiquitous modernista buildings.

Back to the original list, I walked to the Palau de la Musica Catalana. At first I thought the guidebook must be mistaken. My approach from what was clearly the entrance to the building was a combination of new construction – creative, spiritually connected, but modern – and a glass encasement completely covering the visible part of the old building. I felt duped until I continued a walk around the building and discovered intact and in plain view the original ceramic tiles and carved stone decorative elements. It was an excellent way to close the Gaudi experience, even though I didn’t take the tour in favor of the Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat.

I almost ignored the Ciutat, but once again, Donald to the itinerary rescue. It is essential an archeological dig with a new building as its sombrero. By walking along a series of metal and plexiglass catwalks, it is possible to see many centuries of Barcelonan life. I think I may be getting some of the info mixed up, but I’m pretty sure the dig goes back to the 1st century. Barcelona was originally a settlement of the Iberian “culture” (their term) in 600 BC, and then a Roman settlement called Barcino, founded in 15-10 BC. This extensive complex includes living quarters, an “episcopal” cathedral and basilica, laundry and cloth dying facilities, shops (tabernas), and an enormous wine-making operation. I wasn’t aware that the origins of wine included adding honey, herbs, nuts, fruits and other natural foods to the wine. Maybe that’s the origin of the wine aroma wheel!? I was also confused by the term episcopal. Wasn’t that the Church of England many centuries later? Perhaps episcopal is generic for christian.

A short walk around the shops in the area, and it was time for lunch alfresco on a hot, sunny day. I wanted to try a rustic dish, butifara, described as a “farmhouse” sausage served with white canelli beans. It was outstanding, very salty unlike other dishes. I really wanted to try paella, since it is a regional specialty on Thursdays, but I didn’t dare take a chance of any mussels in the dish. What a terrible thing to be allergic to!

Next, the Picasso Museum. I’ve been to the Picasso Museum in Paris as well, and recently saw a Picasso/Cezanne exhibit in Aix-En-Provence. In fact, one of the pieces from Barcelona was in that show, “Natura Morta” or still life. This museum is devoted mostly to the time when Picasso’s family moved to Barcelona from Malaga when he was about 12 or 13, and other periods during his life when he lived in Barcelona. His schoolboy drawings and paintings show a talented budding artist, aspiring to portraiture and realism, moving at the turn of the century into modernism, and later to cubism and ceramics. One of his paintings, “Mujer con Mantilla,” echoes the ceramic shards used by Gaudi in his designs from the same period.

In the two minutes it took for me to walk from the museum to a deli to buy some water, my wallet was lifted from my bag. I have no idea when or how it happened. These bandits are good! The policia said that the library (book shop) area of the museum is particularly bad. I guess it’s because people are shuffling wallets and purchases, it’s easy to lessen caution. Fine time to learn this… And I had just written to Janie this morning that all was well. Gratefully all I lost was credit cards (now cancelled) and about €50, and I had enough $US to change for the taxi tomorrow. Room service isn’t exactly how I imagined my last night in Barcelona. I guess I will have to come back to see/do the things I missed.

Thanks for letting me “talk” to all of you throughout this journey. It’s been a joy to share the experience twice, once for real and again in thoughts/words!

Strolling (with a purpose) and Shopping

November 5, 2009

Today I decided to devote my day to Gaudi (and his modernista disciples), and to any shopping opportunities that might appear along the route. Using DK’s “top 10” as my guide, I saw 8 today and will see 1 more tomorrow. On Monday I had attempted to tour Palau Guell, which was closed, so I just got external photos of that one.

Four of the most important buildings are within 2-3 blocks of my hotel. Three were residences (two open to the public), and one a fondacion. Two were designed my Montaner, one by Cadalfach, and one by Gaudi himself.

(As far as I can tell, the use of the term “fondacion” is similar to the US charitable and educational arm of another entity – not a grantmaking foundation.)

Unfortunately, Casa Lleo Morera is closed to the public, but I got some good exterior photos. I stopped in the gift shop of Casa Amatller to purchase a book on Gaudi’s works in Barcelona, and discovered some sort of connection with chocolates from South America. After sampling una petit copa de xocolata calent [Tanya, I assume this sounds familiar even though Catalan words are a bit different than Mexican?], which I think was mostly melted milk chocolate with a wee bit of extra milk, I was tempted to buy mountains of it for my friends. But it seemed more of a marketing gimmick than a genuine local product. If I find out differently, trust me, there will be chocolate in many futures!

I decided to spring for the outrageous €16.50 price to tour Casa Batllo, considered to be Gaudi’s most significant residential work. It is 7 stories tall, a remarkable structure with very few straight lines in the interior. Well, actually, except for the frame of the building itself, there aren’t many straight lines on the exterior either. I took many photos, because in this case especially, one photo is worth at least a thousand of my words. It would be difficult to do justice verbally to Gaudi’s many uses of wood, glass, ceramics and metal to create unique environments in this home. I promise this will be a travelog worth watching (especially if I pour some Spanish wine for you).

A short break for Pinxtos and a glass of wine is worth describing. I had four “small bites” selected for me by the waiter, all served on small slices of a multi-grain baguette (which was a new twist): the now classic jamon iberico with pimientos, a delicate cured ham (I couldn’t identify it on the menu) served with no other ingredients but olive oil on the toast, sardines on a roasted pepper, and cured salmon with eggplant and zucchini slices topped with chopped egg. It is so pleasant to eat this way.
Oh, and did I mention that I have already purchased shoes and a wallet? These items were part of my shopping mission. I gulped at the exchange rate, but there isn’t much I can do about it. Everything costs 50% more than the marked price.

Continuing en route toward the Sagrada Familia, for which Gaudi is most famous, I viewed La Padrera (also Gaudi), which is an entire block taken up by this apartment building, and Casa Terrades (Cadalfach) – unclear regarding current use since it is closed to the public and no info in my guide book. Finally, the Sagrada. I was warned that the real thing might not measure up to all the hype about this being the “8th wonder of the world.” I have to agree. I think it’s just a complicated, difficult building. The locals can’t blame the 100 year construction schedule of La Sagrada on my scaffolding curse. (Scaffolding was the predominant feature today…) It was only partially completed when Gaudi died in 1926. During the past 80 years, other architects and sculptors have added their own marks to the facade and design. Visitor entry fees are (primarily) financing the building process, which is estimated for completion in another 20 years, about 2030. The source of financing may explain why this is taking so long. I did not contribute to the construction budget. I am guessing that La Sagrada will always be undergoing construction or renovation.

The last stop, on Donald’s recommendation, was the Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau (architect Montaner). This vast complex, which occupies a significant area within the neighborhood called Eixample, is undergoing a complete restoration, again confirming my personal scaffolding curse theory. My energy was flagging after 5+ hours of walking, so I only briefly toured the old campus. (A new hospital has also been built to continue medical service.) Mosaics, stained glass and sculptures will all be preserved as the buildings are modernized using “vert” standards.

Aching feet = a necessary subway ride back to the top of the “chic” section of La Rambla, at Carrer Diagonal, and a chance to look at the high-end shops – only looking!.

A short break, no siesta, during which I finished reading Julia Child’s “My Life in France.” (Thanks, Kath, I finally NEEDED to read it.). I found her story profoundly inspiring, especially after seeing “Julie and Julia” twice. I resonated deeply with her planning and organization, her passion, and her dedication of purpose. Anything is possible, si?

Back to the market for some marcona almonds. (Success!!) One little shop actually had some red salt, which I was searching for after yesterday’s lunch, but it turns out that it is from Hawaii, not Spain. Instead I was tempted via tasting to buy some wine-infused salt from France along with a small bottle of Spanish olive oil. At this point, I can’t fit any more liquids into my already heavy bag to be checked! This tasting will be outstanding with our wines.

I set out to shop briefly through the tiny streets of Bario Gotica, and in search of another Donald recommendation: Les Quatres Gats (4 cats). After quite a bit of searching for a very small street, I found it. The architecture is definitely modernista. At about 20:00, the place was already filling up. Perhaps it was all non-locals? Now it is 21:45, and the place is completely full. The sound of the piano player pounding out “NY, NY” is all but drowned out! As a solo diner, I had only the option of “house” wine if I wanted to sample both blanco y tinto. Too bad, it was disappointing. (OK, I can hear the stateside “wine snob” remark all the way over here! Touche.) But the meal was interesting. I started with croquetas. I’ve seen them on every menu. They were the color of tuna, the consistency of salmon, and the flavor of neither. I have no idea what fish these were made from! My second course was Mediterranean sea bass, very different from the Chilean version we are used to in the US. It was delicately veined in the way that excellent, truly fresh, fresh-water fish looks when it is cooked, almost like a sole or perch or white trout. It is hard to believe this fish was from the sea, even if it was fresh today. (John, Tim, help me out here.) Let me say that this restaurant lets the food speak for itself – no discernible salt, and none on the table. Very simply presented. And for dessert – I need to do this once – Crema Catalunya. It’s basically creme brulee with almond biscotti. Two bites was enough. Muchas gracias para la idea, Donald.

Only one more day…just when I’m getting the hang of speaking (haltingly, basically) in yet another language from the 2009 travel adventure line-up.

Torres, Montserrat and Sitges

November 5, 2009

I decided, with some trepidation, to book a group tour with strangers of the area outside of Barcelona. My motive was as much to avoid four days on my own as it was to see more of Catalunya. Well, bowl me over with surprise, this tour was outstanding. OK, there’s the crowded bus full of strangers thing, but otherwise the experience was diverse and deeply gratifying. Out guide, Hector, is excellent, especially because he has to repeat everything in English and Spanish. In case any of you readers decides to tour Barcelona, I can commend the BusTuristic company for a quality experience.

First stop, Bodegues Miguel Torres. This winery is a huge producer, now in 5th generation of family operation since 1870. It is situated in Villa Franca, the capital of Penedes (a department and DO wine region) in the province of Catalunya. Torres may well be the largest producer in Spain. I’m not aware of one larger. Recent expansion into Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorato is unparalleled among Spanish winemakers.

The winery itself is amazing, but in a weird way. It is so large that the intro program for visitors is aromatherapy meets Imax theater in Disneyland. Let me explain. Upon arrival, each person receives headphones. Then the group is ushered into a long room that smells vaguely like burning vines. Guess what? Exactamente! A wide-screen show with ethereal seasonal sounds flows along in triptych format while the aromas change from winter pruning/burning to spring rain, to summer flowers, to fall harvest, and finally to the familiar lovely smell of musty oak barrel aging red wine. Then the doors magically open and a Disney-style tram pulls in for a drive around the compound. At two different points, we pulled into other buildings for a history lesson about monks making wine in the 13th century and to view the modern caves used for barrel aging. This is nothing if not an uber-modern winery!

At the end of the tour, a small taste of Gran Vina Sol (chardonnay 85%, parellada 15%) was followed by the opportunity to taste other offerings. Their signature wine is Mas La Plana, also the name of the family homestead. Although Torres grows some indigenous grapes, it is best known for international varieties. The Cabernet (2004) was outstanding, smooth and voluptuous. When I asked which wines were NOT available in the US, the answer was only one: Perpetual, made in Priorato from traditional old vines of Garnacha and Carignano. Of course, I bought one. But it will be a few years before this bottle is ready to drink.

On to Montserrat. But not before I overheard some of the guests complaining that they thought we could have skipped the winery tour because we can see the same thing in the US. Hmmm…not exactly true. I might have been the only very happy camper.

Montserrat is mostly a religious place perched high atop mountains from which you can see forever on a clear day, to the Pyrenees mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. This was an almost perfectly clear day, so the vistas are grand but not quite to the sea. We were deposited at the base of the mountain to take a train to the top. For the adventurous, there are stone paths carved into the mountainside, accessible from the top. I was half adventurous, walking down far enough to take photos, and then hustling back up to the village to a standing room only moment of prayer and song by the monastery’s boy choir. It was short, but very sweet. The priest offered brief prayers in Spanish, French, German and English. There is also a tiny “black madonna” cloistered in an alcove at the peak of the church. People stand in line for hours to pay homage to her. I’m not sure why she is so very important. So far the guide books only say that she may have been made by St. Luke and discovered by Peter. There is a big time gap before she was discovered again near where the Montserrat monastery now stands. The modern nuance is that honeymooning couples make pilgrimages to her on two specific dates each year. Why? To a virgin? Unclear :).

Lunch at the only Catalan restaurant, Hotel Abat Cisneros named for the monastery’s founding abbott. Actually, there are only two restaurants, otherwise self-service cafeterias. Bach Extrimiso seco 2008 was lovely. It is from Penedes, a combination of Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Chardonnay.

[As a side note between courses in this meal, I am growing quite fond of white wines across the entire spanse of northern Spain, from west (Galicia/Alberino) through Rioja and to the east (Penedes/Parellada, Macabeo and Xarel-lo which are conveniently the trio of grapes of Cava).]

So, the meal. The waiter said that all dishes were Catalunyan specialties, so I put this to the test with two dishes I consider to be Italian. First, Caprese. Here’s the spin: red salt (I MUST find this product!), vinegar made from cabernet, and hazelnuts! There was some sort of olive oil reduction as well, but it was the other ingredients that made this dish special. Second course, risotto con gamba. A pequenyo serving, beautifully presented with a single shrimp wrapped in a spaghetti-like pastry atop a timbale of risotto, then plated atop a sauce of tomato and shrimp reduction. I could totally taste the shellfish in the sauce. If it wasn’t yet obvious to me, let the clarity bell ring now. Spaniards love their tomatoes prepared every possible way! My lunch was so pleasant that I ran out of time to ride the funicular to the very top of the mountain, and concluded the visit with a short walk about the teeny village.

From the mountains to the sea, about an hour’s drive down a few hairpin turns in a big bus.

Sitges is a curious place as a result of several significant historical areas. First, it’s only about 20 minutes west of Barcelona. Second, it has 17 beaches. It is still warm enough here for vacationers to be basking in the sun. It’s probably off season, but no crowds!! Third, the Romans named Sitges a zillion years ago. Sitga is the word for amphora, in this case for measuring grain rather than storing wine. (This description makes me wonder if I heard this factotum wrong and it was the Greeks who named the place. Not sure now…) Fourth, Sitges has always been a major attraction for artists and architects, making for quite a range of interesting buildings spanning multiple centuries and styles. Finally, the people of Sitges suffered terrible timing in the mid-1800s. They decided to cast their fate to vines and wine a mere 10 years before phylloxera devastated Europe. The twenty-somethings who needed work departed for Cuba and Puerto Rico, then Spanish colonies. One of them, Senor Bacardi, needs no further introduction. In the 1930-40 period, the next gen entrepreneurs came back home along with people from the West Indies. These returned native sons were dubbed “americanas” and the immigrants “indianas.”

So now Sitges is mostly a tourist destination for going to the beach, shopping, drinking and eating with a good local historical preservation bent thrown in for good measure. By the time we left to return to Barcelona, we had been touring for 10 1/2 hours, but it would have been fun to enjoy the social evening that was just beginning to unfold.

Walking tour of Barcelona

November 5, 2009

My scheduled trip called “Modernism in the Mountains” was cancelled, so I decided to spend the day getting acclimated to the cultural center. I walked for the better part of 6+ hours. Most of the museums closest to my hotel and walking route are closed on Monday, so I mostly just walked and literally saw the sights. I traversed La Rambla from top to bottom. I’m pretty sure that once is enough for this activity. The paseo – a wide boulevard for strolling in the middle of two streets lined with shops – was itself lined with buskers, human statues (very popular here), portrait artists, flower vendors, bird vendors and assorted touristy stuff. Quite a bustling place!

Midway I stopped at Mercat de la Bocqueria. It is a significant market house packed tightly with rows of fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, fish, meats (iberian hams and sausages primarily), and a few bottled items such as olives and oils. Unlike the markets in some French cities (and Montreal) where you can munch and lunch as well as shop, there were no prepared foods or cafes. I did sample a fresh strawberry/coconut juice drink – a wonderful, tasty bargain for 1 euro.

I also attempted to visit the Palau Guell, an intriguing residence designed by Gaudi for a count who wanted to distinguish himself from others. I would say that the strategy worked for both parties. The Palau was one of Gaudi’s earliest commissions and sent him on his way to fame, if not fortune. P. Guell was also closed on Mondays, so I can’t report on the interior. (I think Wednesday will be my designated Gaudi day, so more later on that subject.)

From La Rambla, I headed to the port, passing the Barcelona yacht club and several large cruise ships on my way to the Olympic Port. There must be a section of working harbor, but the part nearest the central cultural district was entirely leisure craft, mostly sailboats. The nearest part of the Olympic Port was pretty disappointing unless you like to gamble. The walk wasn’t terribly scenic, I was surrounded by casinos, and I was getting tired/hungry, so I reversed course to Barceloneta. This area is a quaint little waterfront community, a fishing village of sorts. The only area for tourists is along the western edge where a long string of restaurants make deciding where to stop a real challenge. I chose one offering ensalada de la llagosta (lobster salad) as a specialty. It went nicely with a glass of Cava.

After lunch, I strolled down to the beach to enjoy the sight and sound of the Mediterranean by the water’s edge. The day was quite warm, but somewhat overcast and windy, so the water was dark and the waves crashing. Quite a change from Cassis in July! There were actually quite a few people on the beach, which is publicly accessible, but no swimmers.

I chose a winding route through the Barri Gotic for the walk back to my hotel. The majestic Barcelona Cathedral is at the center of this area. I think I must be a magnet for scaffolding! It seems that so many of the world’s treasures I have visited were undergoing renovation at that time. One of its most important features is an amalgam of architectural styles spanning 700 years. It’s tough to see them through the building materials. I will need to stop back for a proper tour inside.

Tomorrow I tour Montserrat, Sitges and the Torres winery. This a new wine region, the Penedes, so that will be most interesting to compare.

Off for tapas and a glass of vino!

From Sipping to Strolling

November 5, 2009

Logrono • Bilbao • Barcelona. All in a day. Actually two days at this point. And this could be a long one — I’m by myself now with more time to reflect and write.

The drive from Logrono to Bilbao was spectacular. The mountain range that forms a natural northern border separating Rioja from Navarra is a relatively low craggy wonder. At its highest point, it is only 1,000 meters above sea level. The limestone, occasionally quarried and making bright white gashes along the mountain side, looks like snow on the peaks from afar. In the morning, the mountains bank the fog, which hangs in soft layers like a gentle collar until nearly noon. This geological and climatic phenomenon is what provides Rioja with so much sunshine for the grapes – it literally holds back the rain and cold air. Driving through it returning to Bilbao was a spectacular sight.

Then there is Bilbao. I’m trying to decide if this is city stalled or on the rise. Perhaps because it was Sunday and nearly everything was closed, Bilbao just seemed sort of “blank” to me. Not distinctive. Its historic character has been battered by too many apartment buildings that I think of as Vintage 1960-70 Americana mistakes. I’m always surprised by this in Europe. I don’t know why I think the Europeans should show more design sense than we have. There appears to be lots of construction going on, especially around the Guggenheim – unclear if it is all on track or stalled because too many ambitious projects were started at once. I guess time will tell

We dropped our luggage at the hotel where Fred and Vicky (Philly couple) planned to spend the night for an early Monday am flight. We then set out immediately for the Placa Nueva – an interesting name for a square in the oldest part of the city. We bid Nick (Brit) farewell over a glass of wine (or 2 – hey it was noon!) and then walked to the Museo de Bellas Artes. We only had about an hour to see the galleries due to closing time, so we concentrated on late 19th – early 20th century Spanish impressionista. It had never occurred to me that Spain might have its own art rock stars from that period. For those of you who might want to learn/see more, here are five artists I thought were very interesting (listed in my order of preference): Jose Arrue, Dario de Regoyos y Valdes, Francisco Iturrino, Juan de Echevarria y Zuricalday, and Eduardo Zamacois. I think a side-by-side exhibit of French and Spanish painters from the period ~1890-1915 would be quite fascinating. The echoes are beautiful.

A search for comida was impossible except for the bistro/cafe at the Guggenheim. After an ordinary institutional lunch, we had a less than wonderful experience at the Guggenheim. We had been warned that the museum is much ado about nothing except the architecture. Maybe the 5-story cat made of flowers that stands guard was a bit interesting too.

A little more than 1/3 of the museum was closed to change exhibits. The entire second floor will be devoted to a Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit in October. I would have enjoyed that immensely, and might have come away with a different view of the place. As for the rest, my impression is lots of video art and wasted space. The largest gallery was given over to an exhibit of large steel mazes and shapes, the purpose of which (according to the artist) was to reveal contrasts of perspective. As I sit here by the ocean in Barcelona, his original childhood insight comes to mind: if you walk on the beach, stop, and look back at your footprints, they appear to be completely different. What was right is left, what was left is right, what was up is down etc. You get the idea. Well, this idea now amounts to an installation the size of a football field, or nearly so, with huge, heavy steel representations of the artist’s perspective. I’m thinking my skeptical eye has perhaps come through in my words. You too can see this wonder. It is a permanent exhibit by Richard Serra.

I was quite pleased to arrive at my very hip hotel in Barcelona. Called the Petit Palace Museum, it is part of a chain called HiTech Hotels – not a group I was familiar with. My tour guide recommended and booked it. For starters, the bathroom is as large as my entire room in Logrono! French doors, new windows on the inside and historic shutters on the outside, open onto a quiet street just off of Passeo de Gracia. Each room comes with its own laptop! It is wonderfully lit and appointed. The hotel is two blocks from Placa de Catalunya and the top of La Rambla. Apparently I missed the end of a significant fiesta. As were arriving, I could see scores of white tents, and at about 19:30 there were fireworks.

The Prism of Wine

November 5, 2009

Today is the last day of the Fiesta de San Mateo. Logrono was quiet this morning, all but for a few remaining loud inebriated revelers. I still don’t know for certain the provenance of San Mateo, but I can tell you that this fiesta is a sort of “thanksgiving” for the fruit that will soon be harvested, a week to celebrate intensely before nearly everyone in the city works basically 24/7 to pick the grapes at the perfect moment and to get them immediately into their designated vessel for first fermentation.

In the spirit of story connections rather than sequence, skipping ahead to the evening’s festivities, the closing ceremony was quite meaningful. Penas are regional village associations whose sole purpose appears to be fiesta participation throughout the province. Last night about a dozen Riojan penas played music – classic band stuff – and danced the night away between floats and huge papier mache figurines of various Spanish characters. Tonight they formed a continuous parade along Calle Portales to city hall where the final ceremonial act was to burn the cuba (barrel) symbolizing the launch of harvest. (We had actually seen the first grapes arriving at the wineries yesterday and today, so the familiar process is right on time.) There were thousands of people lining the Calle, cheering on the penas, singing and dancing along quietly and respectfully. It was almost a religious experience! Of course, now the streets are lined with people ten deep at tapas bars and the Saturday night din is pretty wild.

Back to the day of wine touring… This was another day of interesting contrasts, from one of the oldest and largest wineries to one of the smallest “producer” wineries.

Our first stop was Marques de Riscal. Fans of Frank Ghery will recognize this as the winery that commissioned a high design hotel as the centerpiece of its “project 2000” winery expansion and modernization. One of the coolest features – apart from the wavy colored metal roof elements symbolizing vines, red wine and signature Riscal bottling features such as a wire “dress” for the bottle – is the use of cave space under the hotel’s foundation for aging barrels. This winery makes 5 million bottles a year and has capacity for 7. Riscal also makes a white Verdejo in Rueda, another 3 million bottles. Because these wines are readily available in the American market, I didn’t purchase any at the winery. But I highly recommend them. The Verdejo is a fresh young wine, on the one hand aromatic, much like a Sauvignon Blanc with a distinctive citrus nose, and on the other hand like a warm climate unoaked Chardonnay with softly rounded ripe pear and yellow apple flavors. (Can you tell I loved it?) The Reserva Tempranillo 2004 was an interesting middle style between traditional and modern in every differentiating way. Quite interesting, actually. Buy now, hold for at least 1-2 more years.

The next stop was a tiny hill town, Laguardia. It is one of few remaining places in northern Spain where remnants of both inner and outer walls are still standing. Laguardia reminded me very much of San Gimignano and Volterra (minus the alabaster), including expansive vistas where once upon a time you could “see the enemy coming.” We missed the rarely scheduled English speaking tours of the church, noted for elaborate stone carvings on interior walls. What to do? Visit another winery!

La Faustina was our final example of the many ways in which wine can be produced in La Rioja. We will never see this wine in our market because production is very small, and thus the winery is too small for official designation as a Rioja wine. The winemaker purchases grapes and has them delivered to an incredibly tight and tiny winemaking facility dug into the clay soil of the hillside and reinforced by stone arches. We had a blind tasting of a crianza and reserva to see if we could identify the difference. By this point, it was a no brainer.

Lunch at 2:00 – the usual time for the usual two hours. I had the pequenos stuffed roasted red peppers and hake served with sweet clams in a garlic parsley broth. We splurged on a 1998 Gran Reserva Marques de Murrieta Castilla Ygay. This is another of the centenary wines. Not only was this unique flavor due to the age, but also a lesson in the distinctive color of aging Riojas. Reduction is a natural process in bottle aging, but Riojan wines have a tendency to turn brownish. In most wines, this would be a sign that it may be past its prime. In Riojan wines, it means that the wine is in prime time – drink now and invite your friends!

The wine tour is concluded, we’re off to Bilbao to tour museums, and then departure to our respective next stops – Barcelona for me.

A Tale of Two Riojas

November 5, 2009

How can one small place offer such dramatically different experiences of terroir and territory? Two wineries, two towns. La Rioja is incredible in this regard.

Today we visited wineries providing the most extreme imaginable differences in operations and wines. Thus far all of our wines have been red and “modern” style. I understood this conceptually, but not really. Yo se ahora. Today we tasted both colors and styles.

Our first winery, Bodegas Fernando Remirez de Ganuza, is 20 years old. While this isn’t new by New World standards, it is for La Rioja. There are about 1,000 tightly controlled bodegas (wineries) already occupying nearly every inch of existing space in the province. Supply already exceeds demand, so this is a tough market dynamic, especially right now.

Let me tell you, I have never visited a winery as pristinely clean as this one. While it isn’t necessarily the most high-tech winery I’ve ever seen, the range of experimentation with production equipment and methods was very interesting, with a focus on both quality and efficiency. Our tour was guided by the owner’s daughter, Christina. With degrees in biology and chemistry, she makes the lab decision on when to pick ripened grapes, judges the progression of fermentation, and evaluates the condition of the wine until it goes into bottle for the final aging period. We tasted a 2003 Reserva, and I purchased a 2001 Gran Reserva. (Won’t the Spanish wine tasting be fun?) This was very much a modern style wine, but more balanced and complex than the others we have tasted thus far. (Plus, it was Reserva, not Crianza.)

Next we visited Lopez de Heredia. This is one of the so-called centenary wineries. Started in 1877, it is the third oldest winery in continuous family operation in Rioja. Everything about this winery was old. The fermentation casks – huge, 64,000 liters, American oak – are 100+ years old. The barrels used for aging are used over and over again, whereas Remirez buys new barrels every year. The walls of the caves holding 13,000 barrels were covered in slimy black mold. It was frankly tough to breathe. Lopez wines can age in bottle for decades. I saw a 1952 that is reportedly drinking very nicely now. Lopez operates its own cooperage to repair and build new barrels. At the moment of tasting, the true merits of this deep tradition were revealed. We tasted a golden hued 1991 Viura (white), dry as a bone, better and better with each sip. It was a gorgeous wine. Then the 2000 Reserva that uses all 4 permitted grapes (75% Tempranillo). It was light in color and body, bold and complex in flavor. I think I finally understand what “gamey strawberry” aroma and flavor actually means. It was an elegant, gentle wine. Since Lopez reds are available online from a couple of familiar merchants (Sam’s in Chicago, K&L in San Francisco), I only purchased the white wine to bring home.

Our lunch was lovely, but quite similar to previous meals in their traditional composition. One exception: incredible local mushrooms (bolletus?) From nearby mountains, presented in a light creamy sauce scented with peppery olive oil and black truffles. Yum!

Moving on to Logrono, about 30 minutes away, there is a sign officially declaring this town as the capital of Riojan wine. Hmmm, a little competition with Haro? Part of the reason for the trip at this particular time, and for the visit to Logrono, is the annual harvest festival honoring San Mateo. We haven’t quite figured out the entire back story of the festival, which lasts for a week, but this evening is clearly the main festivity. Thousands of people packed the streets to eat tapas, drink wine, and watch a parade with fireworks. It was fun to be part of the local festivities, but I’m not sure I would voluntarily book a hotel right in the middle of everything. Our hotel, the Marques de Vallejo, is quite literally in the midst of it all. This is a relatively new, modern style hotel with teeny rooms – not quite the charm of Haro and Los Agustinos. And as I am writing this final sentence on Saturday morning, having listened to the revelers all night long, let me just say that my cafe con leche is most welcome and quite tasty.

Dia Dos en Rioja

November 5, 2009

The grapes are happy. (BTW, so am I!) There isn’t a cloud in the sky. Days are quite warm, but not hot. Evenings are cool – only about 10 degrees diurnal temp variation. There is a light fog in the morning, creating an easy but important challenge for the sun to burn off and further concentrate the natural sugars in the grapes to guarantee an excellent 2009 vintage. The official harvest festival period is now, but it seems that is merely a bit of celebration before the hard work of hand-picking the crop selection begins in about a week (winemaker estimate).

We began our day at a respectable 10:00 am the Dinastia Vivanco Museo de la Cultura del Vino. Our guide, Alberto, warned us that it would be like “Falcon Crest.” Between the Texas-sized property and elegant museum adjacent to the equally high-design winery complex, and the kitschy into video, we got his point! But the interior of the museum was well worth it – a very comprehensive global history of wine and an overview of the entire winemaking process, plus lots of interesting artifacts. I’m pleased to report that I could read/understand almost everything in the exhibit which was (of course) presented entirely in Spanish. I guess skipping a few Spanish classes in college didn’t completely erase my base of knowledge! My favorite exhibit was the corkscrew collection, especially the section called “indelicato” with strategically placed tools :).

After an abbreviated tasting of the winery’s 2005 Crianza, the first of many for the day, we drove like crazy to our second destination, Granja Remelluri. (Granja means farm.) We had a very short tour of GR’s extensive caves – they produce 1/2 million bottles per year – and then repaired to the restaurant for a traditional Riojan lunch.

We started with freshly sliced tomatoes laced simply with fresh garlic and olive oil, roasted peppers served warm, and slices of blood pudding (sausage). I had to be coaxed into the latter. Let’s just say that once was enough. Next was a pair of stews, the same potato/chorizo combination from the previous night, equally tasty, and a white bean version. It was quite clear that the beans were fresh, not dried and restored. The preparation of both dishes was simple but full of flavor. Next was grilled lamb chops. The fire was made from vines rescued from winter pruning in the vineyard and was set in a small cooking shed next to the restaurant. We could see the chef shuttling in and out to tend the fire and grill the meat. It was outstanding flavor, a perfect complement to the 2003 Reserva from this vineyard. (We had already polished off a 2005 Crianza.). The lamb was served with a simple green salad. Dessert was a pear poached to perfection in red wine with excellent strong coffee. By the time we left the restaurant, it was 4:00. I see now why a siesta is necessary!

At about 18:30, we gathered for a glass of white Rioja (Muga, a large producer) and a short history of Haro that centered around the reunification of Spain, marriages and Marques, and wine. Haro is quite small, so our walking tour really consisted of situating us on the town square and pointing out the many places where we could enjoy tapas that evening. One event was to practice sharing a glass of wine from a perron, which requires a degree of finesse and coordination to avoid wearing your serving down the front of your shirt! (There were a few spills. My closest friends will be shocked when I tell you no drips for me….) So that’s what we did for several hours – ate tapas and sipped small glasses of wine. In all, we visited four tapas bars, sampling a total of 15 items and ending with plates of jamon y queso with a bottle of Muga reserva. We learned a distinction between tapas (small plates) and pinxtas (little bites, pronounced “pin-chas”). We had mostly pinxtas to enjoy the variety. I couldn’t begin to describe all of the flavors, so let me share my favorites. First, a small slice of bread, toasted and smothered on olive oil, topped with garlic-laden mushrooms and savory shrimp. Second, hot chiles rellenos stuffed with sausage.

On to the next adventure. Hasta manana!

Hola de Rioja

November 5, 2009

Cincinnati • Paris • Barcelona • Bilbao. All in 20 hours give or take a few long layovers. In case you are wondering, the global recession hasn’t curbed airport construction in Europe! Paris CDG appears to be doubling in size, and there were half a dozen large cranes hovering over new facilities in Barcelona where I had to shuttle more than a mile to the new terminal to find Spanair.

I am part of a very small wine tour. There are only four of us – a couple from Philadelphia celebrating their 25th anniversary, and a chap from Leeds (UK) who is quite a world wine traveler. Our guide, Alberto, is a native Riojan who has founded the tourism board in La Rioja and has run it for 12 years. Needless to say, he is a fountain of information.

The drive from Bilbao to Haro, the “wine capital” of La Rioja, offered a wonderful drive-by view of the spectacular titanium Guggenheim in the sweet light of day. More on that Sunday when I return for a short day trip enroute to Barcelona.

Haro is a very small town of about 11,000 people. There is seemingly one industry – wine!! Although grapevine coverage isn’t quite as ubiquitous as in southern France, the wineries are much more concentrated with better signage and public access. La Rioja is a self-governed province of Spain, and its only designated quality wine region. (Well, it isn’t really – Priorat and Cava were also designated quality regions in the past 15 or so years, but are not acknowledged by the people of La Rioja who are very proud of the tough standards and monitoring of El Consejo Regulador.) All other Spanish wine regions are designations of origin (DO), but not guarantees of quality (DOCa).

Our Hotel, Los Agustinos, is spectacular. Check out the website for great photos. Its history is quite charming. Starting out as a convent in 1373, it was later used as a military headquarters and hospital, a jail, and several temporary uses before becoming a hotel in 1989.
After checking in about 20:30, we met in the spacious lounge to launch the trip with a bottle of Cava (Cordoniu, one of the largest producers along with Friexenet). The set 3-course dinner menu with 2 bottles of wine was a bargain at 29 euros! First course a traditional potato and chorizo “stew” accompanied by pickled hot green peppers, bacalao (local salted cod specialty) plated in fresh pureed tomatoes and EVO, and a devilishly good molten chocolate dessert with hints of nuts and caramel. The wine was a 2005 Crianza from Arco, a modern style blend of Tempranillo, Mazuela and Graciano grapes.

A short primer on Rioja wines: there are 7 permitted grapes, 4 red (Tempranillo, Garnacha, Carignan or Mazuelo as it is called locally in Spain, and Graciano) and 3 white (Viura or Macabeo, Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia.). The vast majority of Rioja wines are red; it is the reds which are best known and most prized.

There are four official levels of quality as determined by the length of oak and bottle aging prior to release. In order from least to most they are Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. The Consejo Regulador affixes color-coded stamps to each bottle to designate and guarantee quality levels based on tasting and testing vintage samples.

Finally, there are two main styles of Rioja reds. The traditional style is light in color and body, characterized by a somewhat gamey strawberry flavor profile. The modern style is inky dark, almost opaque, with generally higher alcohol and more tannins. Most need to go through malolactic fermentation to soften harsh and bitter tannins. This style profile is considered to be more appealing to international consumers. It is possible for Rioja wines to be 100% Tempranillo, but increasingly rare. The other grapes provide color, structure, tannins for aging potential and fruit-forward flavors to the blended wines that are considered to be a classic Rioja blend.

Hasta luego