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Falling in Love with Iberian Wine Country

I was recently invited by Olė&Obrigado Imports to participate in a traveling wine seminar through some of the most important wine regions of Spain and Portugal. Olė&Obrigado is one of the most ambitious and dynamic importers of exclusively Spanish and Portuguese wines whose success has been growing exponentially since its inception in 1999.

Founded by Patrick Mata and Alberto Orte with just three wines, their selection has grown to over 100 different labels in two decades. It is a portfolio of impressive scope and depth characterized by integrity, focus and some of the best quality to value wines I have tasted in my over 20 year wine career. They represent true hands-on wine makers who emanate passion, knowledge, determination, and most importantly love of the land they work. Before the trip, I thought I knew quite a bit about the wines of both countries. Boy, was I wrong. I got schooled, and, humbled by my ignorance, I demoted myself and with my head lowered and pouty lip, I walked myself back to the elementary school of Spanish, and even more starkly, Portuguese wines. The Iberian peninsula is the furthest-west-positioned area of the European mainland. Spain and Portugal are the two countries that constitute this square-like shaped mass. Even though the geographic proximity renders some similarities between both countries, their historic heritages and cultural integral developments resulted in two distinctly different nations. There is, however, one intrinsic trait though that Spain and Portugal have always shared: their love and passion for food and wine. Regardless of their sometimes volatile differences, wine and food have always had a cohesive and unifying effect on the countries’ populations. Considering a very diverse geographic landscape, including thousands of miles of the Atlantic Ocean coastline, Iberia offers an abundance of international and indigenous grape varieties resulting in a wide plethora of both classic and unique wines. What do you get when you gather 32 wine professionals from all over the US, put them on a bus, and take them all around Spain and Portugal to visit 20 plus wineries and have them taste nearly 200 different wines? You get an “acid trip.” No, not that kind of acid; but I’ll explain later. For now, here are some of the highlights. Txakolina region in the raw and dramatic land of the Basques, specifically San Sabastian or, as the hardcore locals call it, Donostia, is a must-visit city that should be on every traveler’s bucket list. Surrounded by breathtaking landscapes and filled with historic architecture, it is a place of some of the best foods in all of Spain. Two local grapes dominate the region: Hondarribi Zuri (white) and its red incarnation Hondarribi Beltza grown in three subregions of Txakoli de Bizkaia, Txakoli Guetaria and Txakoli de Alava. The wines are simply unpretentiously delightful. They come in all three colors – white, rosé and red – often with a touch of spritz to them. In most cases they are meant to be drunk young, within a couple of years after bottling, although one of the biggest surprises of the trip was Berroja winery in Bizkaia. Pedro Salcedo, the owner, shared with us some 10-year old bottlings of his Hondarribi Zuri and we were all stunned. They aged beautifully, exhibiting intense concentration and exuding flavors of tropical fruit and exotic spices which lingered on our palates. Being a coastal region, Txakolina offers a decadent assortment of seafood that pairs seamlessly with the wines. In the central north part of Spain lies the region of Ribera del Duero. This geographic positioning gives the area continental weather patterns; hot days, cool nights and relatively low rainfall. Just like me, the Tempranillo grape thrives in these conditions. Torremorón winery is in the town of Quintanamanvirgo, population 94. Yes, 94… At least when we were there. The town is a heartwarming, hope-inspiring example of a wine commune, where all members chip in to ensure the wineries’ prosperity. One wine is made here: Torremorón 100% Tempranillo, my personal favorite quality to value wine of the trip. There you have it, I said it! Vines grown on arid soils of sand, clay, limestone mix produce deeply Game of Thrones-like, dark wines of impressive complexity of both savory and fruity flavors. Another winery of Rueda del Duero we visited, Vizcarra, is run by a no-nonsense, beaming with pride and determination Juan Carlos Vizcarra, who produces an impressive lineup of 100% Tempranillo or Tempranillo blend bottlings. On the third day, we boarded a train in Madrid and headed for Jerez in Andalusia, the land of sherry and flamenco. Author’s note: I cry at flamenco shows. Sherry is one the oldest styles of modern wine. Its production is rather unique and involves numerous stages of blending, intentional oxidation, fortification and a touch of magic. The word count constraints of this article don’t allow me to give justice to the visit at Osborne sherry Bodega. It would take a novel as it was simply eternally memorable. We tasted some of the rarest, oldest sherries available, the flavors of which evoked poetic exultation and then left us speechless. Olorosos, Amontillados, Palo Cortados, and decadently sweet Pedro Ximenez… some of the wines well over 100-years old. Until this trip, Portugal was the only European wine country of significance I never visited. All the reports were rather promising, so I was giddy with anticipation. Our first visit, for an all-day stay, was at Fita Preta winery and Azores Wine Company in Alentejo region run by António Maçanita and his wife Alexandra. The man is ferociously energetic, impressively knowledgeable, and devilishly handsome. Yes, I have a man crush. Along with his sister Joanna, who runs the winery Maçsanita Vinhos, and whose riveting looks and personality I won’t even attempt to describe, they form a formidable team that belongs to the realm of mythological tales. This is where the humbling kicked in and persisted throughout the rest of the stay in Portugal. I learned about grapes I’d never heard of (Arinto, Roupeiro, Antao Vaz), which when turned into wines offered unique and intriguing structures and aromas. For the first time, I drank wines from the Azores archipelago that tasted of the austerity of the land, including reds of primal purity, savage intensity smoothed out by abundant sun rays: Baga, Aragonez, Jean, Moreto and Alfrocheiro grapes. The inevitable was happening; I was falling for Portugal and its people, and was falling hard. Next was Caves Sao Joao in the region of Bairrada in central western Portugal. Established in 1920, the winery has gone through some ups and downs in the realm of commercial success considering the less flashy style of their wines focused on finesse and nuanced complexity. In 2013 the owners, the Costa family, decided to share their 1 million bottle collection of their vintage wines going back to 1950s. In an intimate setting of a dungeon-like, cobwebbed cellar, we drank the oldest wines of the trip: 1984 Porta Dos Cavaleiros Reserva Branco from white grapes Cercial, Bical, Malvasia; its red counterpart 1989 Portas Dos Cavaleiros Reserva Tinto from Preto Mortagua, Jaen, Tinta Roriz; and my favorite 1994 Poco do Lobo Cabernet Sauvignon from vines planted in the 1970s. Luis Seabra Vinhos winery lies in the Douro area whose magical scenery grips one’s soul and squeezes tears of primal longing. Until not that long ago, the region was mainly known for Port wines. Strong efforts on the part of some younger wine makers started off a trend of making high quality, internationally recognized still, unfortified wines from local grapes. And here, yet again, I was exposed to some unknown-to-me grapes, often with tongue twisting names: Rabigato (white), Viosinho Dozelino (white and red versions) and Rufete (red) to mention a few. Luis Seabra has a very realistic approach to winemaking based on his broad knowledge of soil composition and meticulous work in both his vineyards and the winery. His Xisto Cru and Xisto Ilimitado labels are great examples of restrained elegance and a strong sense of terroir expressiveness. And now about the acid trip. One of the major components of wine, its qualitative factor, is acidity. It is wine’s preservative and its backbone that allows us to enjoy wine’s nuances better and enhances our food and wine marriage appreciation. All of the participants of our wine adventure through Iberia agreed that pronounced and healthy acidity was an underlying theme of nearly all the wines we tasted testing our stomachs to their limits. Because of the physical limits of the article, unfortunately I couldn’t include all the wineries and people encountered during this escapade. The ones I mentioned weren’t necessarily the best; all of them were great. The purpose of the article was to paint a picture of the magic, charm, and wealth of the Iberian peninsula’s wine world. The wine trip ended on May 11, but my affair with Portugal continued for another three days. I spent a full day in Oporto walking the narrow, hilly streets of the city studded with historic houses of famous Port producers: Fonseca, Warre’s, Graham’s and Quinta de Noval. The next day, I took a relaxing 2.5 hour train ride to Lisbon where I climbed the streets of the Alfama district bustling with tourists and trams. I people watched on the Rassio, drank espresso in the Bairo Alto, and took a sunset boat cruise on the bay with friends. I felt happy, free and most importantly grateful. And yet again, I came to a realization that traveling is an irreplaceable form of education. While visiting new places and countries, a person is forced to adapt, hopefully embrace and ideally comes to love space, time and people who fill them. I become aware of the enormity and complexity of the human condition and the liberating insignificance of my ego and at the same time the timeless importance of my individual existence in the vastness of the universe. Only seemingly an oxymoron.

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