Photos courtesy of Mark Luna
In case you missed it, I took January off…sometimes, your palate just needs a rest.
Per my annual habit, I shape my pursuits for the New Year around the experiences I both enjoyed and failed to encounter in the previous year. Certainly, that’s the case in my wine life. My missive for 2019 was to try new wines and I certainly did. I hope you did the same, including some of the wines I wrote about.
Last September, I wrote a column that featured the heroic viticulture area of Ribeira Sacra, Spain, highlighting a wine trip that I took early last summer. In reflecting back, that was undoubtedly the pinnacle of my wine year, inspiring me to take another wine trip in 2020, perhaps to an up and coming wine region in this country, or to an ancient area in the old world, and experience more greatness to share with you.
To kick off this first wine column for 2020, I return to Spain, my trip and share with you a couple of wines that I’ve been enjoying recently. And to celebrate the New Year’s number itself, it’s apropos that they can be found for $20.
About 170km northwest of Madrid, in the autonomous community of Castile y León, sits the ancient town of Rueda. Known in the wine world as Rueda DO (Denominación de Origen), it is home to a white wine grape called verdejo. One of only a few noble Spanish white varieties, verdejo was in danger of extinction by the early 1970s, due to pervasive planting and poor farming. It was part of the bulk wine reputation that plagued Rueda for many years. That would change, however, with Angel Rodríguez and his 17th-century vineyard, Martínsancho. Considered to be the greatest farmer in the region, Rodríguez’ single-handedly was responsible for the preservation of Rueda’s verdejo grape. Cuttings from the ancient Martínsancho site were used in 1976 to establish a new 25-acre vineyard, planted in the traditional head-pruned fashion and dry-farmed, meaning no irrigation. This allowed for low-yields of thick-skinned verdejo grapes, highly concentrated, capable of producing extraordinary wines.
An absolute high point of the trip, I had the privilege of walking through the majuelo (plot) of Martínsancho. Less than an acre of 100 year old gnarled vines, the alluvial soil is pure gravel, 30 feet in depth, purely organic. This tiny piece of land, preserved in isolation as both a virtual museum of pre-phylloxera farming and a continuing source of undisputed varietal authenticity, it’s treasured by nurseries throughout Europe. For his untiring efforts in restoring verdejo’s prominence in its region of origin, Rodriguez was officially honored by King Juan Carlos, a few years before his passing several years ago.
As for the wine, Martínsancho Verdejo 2016 speaks for itself. Light yellow in color, its mineral-rich aromas are complemented with lemon and green apples, with herbal and floral qualities adding to its complexity. It’s smooth upon entry, tightens in the middle, and then releases towards a strong and long finish. Less than 2,500 cases were produced and again, at only $20, is a great white wine to start 2020.
To the red(s) we go…
While Garnacha is the most widely-planted red wine varietal in Spain, tempranillo is the grape of fame, with its home being in two regions actually, Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Vastly different topographies and wines of very distinct characteristics separate the two, yet tempranillo shine brightly in both…I was lucky to experience that first hand.
As noted in the Classical Wines of Spain website, The Montaña family traces its heritage to the origins of the modern Rioja wine industry in the late 19th century. Román Montaña consolidated the family business in 1920 as the viticultural component of one of Rioja’s grand old marques, situated in medieval cellars underneath Haro, the capital of Rioja Alta. The Montaña family retains portions of these impressive cellars to this day. Román’s grandson Oscar Montaña currently directs a vineyard estate comprising over 270 acres of prime sites in the Rioja Alta and Alavesa districts.
I was honored to meet Oscar Montaña, as well as his esteemed winemaker Isaac Fernandez Montaña, no relation. Isaac is a first-rate, independent producer, responsible for several wines in both Rioja and Ribera del Duero. For Oscar and his eponymous family label, he produces both the widely-acclaimed Crianza and the prestigious Rioja Reserva.
Montaña Rioja Reserva 2014 is an exceptional wine. Comprised of 90% Tempranillo, 7% Graciano and 3% Mazuelo (Carignan), it is aged for 18 months in both French and American oak barriques. A higher percentage of the wine comes from Rioja Alavesa, the smallest of the three sub-regions (Alta and Baja); this provides more body, weight and dark red fruit character to the nose and finish. Vine age averages 50-60 years, giving the wine great aging potential beyond its current 2014 vintage. This is a balanced and beautiful wine, another $20 greatly spent.
So, here’s to a fantastic 2020 to us all. And may our wine days ahead be as memorable as the ones we say goodbye to…
Until next time, Happy Vino’ing!