Monthly Archives: December 2013

Wine Spectator’s Top Wines of 2013

Wine Spectator magazine releases their annual Top 100 Wines list gradually, two per day for the first week and the remaining 90 wines a week later.  Early results revealed prolongation of the epic Napa Valley vs. France battle, more presence from the Pacific Northwest and some sightings of Italy and Spain.  Actually, the Rioja region of Spain made a significant statement through a wine and winery that I nearly visited last Spring.

#1 Cune Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 2004

#1 Cune Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 2004

HOORAY FOR RIOJA!

In May, we spent a few days visiting Haro in northern Spain’s famed Rioja wine region.  The Haro Wine Loop allows one to access 5-6 different wineries by foot. We walked by the CUNE Winery on my way to an interview at R. Lopez de Heredia, later choosing Bodegas Mugas as our last stop. Had we opted for Cune, we would have, most certainly, tasted the Cune Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 2004(95pt/$63), Wine Spectator’s #1 most exciting wine of 2013.

Cune is an acronym for “La Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana”, translated “The Northern Spanish Wine Company”, founded in 1879 at it’s current Haro location, by two brothers whose descendents still operate the business.  The “Imperial Reserva”, a

CUNE Winery in Haro, Spain

CUNE Winery in Haro, Spain

tempranillo-dominant blend, began in the 1920’s as a special bottling for an English market and has become a thriving red wine ever since.

The designation of this Cune blend is recognition of the world-class wines that have emerged from the Rioja region into U.S. markets for decades. We find seven Rioja wines on the 2013 list, a few that I have actually tasted.  Rioja wines are usually very aromatic, full-flavored and deliver long finishes.  However, the most noteworthy attribute of Spanish winemakers is their commitment to aging.

Aside from the 2004 “Imperial Blend”, other Rioja wines on the 2013 list include the #22 La Rioja Alta Rioja Vina Ardanza Reserva 2004(94pt/$35) and the incredible # 29 R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Rioja White Gravonia

La Rioja Alta Rioja Vina Ardanza Reserva

#22 La Rioja Alta Rioja Vina Ardanza Reserva

Crianza 2003 (93 pt/$36), vintages much older than the norm for other 2013 releases.

While many Rioja wines boast aging of at least two years each in the barrel and bottle, the fact remains that many wineries delay release for nearly a decade after harvest.  In May, we tasted the 1998 vintage “Vina Tondonia” white wine, an unheard of release age compared to other regions of the world.  By comparison, California whites are typically consumed within 18 months from release.  Many Rioja white wines are not released for ten years and proclaimed drinkable for another decade.

Some Rioja wines have an earthiness; others are very fruit forward, but aging, undoubtedly, contribute to the complex, fully balanced flavors. Balancing Old World tradition with modern technology, Rioja sits among the world’s finest regions and continues to deliver fine, aged wines to the U.S. market at competitive prices.

NAPA LEADS THE WAY

The Napa Valley contributed 14 wines, the most of any region.  While half of the wines were their classic and pricy cabernet sauvignon releases, the remaining half, surprisingly, included five different varietals.  In past years, most of the top California pinot noir releases originated from nearby Sonoma Co. In 2013, half of the, California pinot’s come from the Carneros region in the Valley’s southwest section, nearest and most influenced by the San Pablo Bay inlet of the San Francisco Bay.

During the past Century, the Carneros has suffered vine-killing disease and has overcome a reputation for bad soil and atypical weather to become synonymous with good wine, primarily because its terrior is understood. Coastal influences certainly

#31 Patz & Hall Pinot Noir Carneros Hyde Vineyard

#31 Patz & Hall Pinot Noir Carneros Hyde Vineyard

contributed to the success of the single-vineyard #31 Patz & Hall Pinot Noir Carneros Hyde Vineyard 2010 95 pt/$65 or the #59 Donum Pinot Noir Carneros 2010 95pt/$72, a wine that has become a leader in the Carneros pinot revival.

Even with the new diversity, the cabernet sauvignon grape is still king in the Napa Valley.  There are seven Napa Valley Cabs on the 2013 list, led by the #4 Hewitt Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford 95 pt/$92 and the #9 Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve 2010 96 pt/$135, both in the top ten.  Originally planted in 1880, Hewitt re-planted the 60-acre

Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford

#9 Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford

vineyard with cabernet sauvignon grapes and now produces one of the valley’s best, especially compared to others under $100.

Notwithstanding that the #72 Shafer Relentless Napa Valley 2010 95 pt/$72 returning to the list after the previous vintage was named 2012 Wine of the Year, varietals like syrah, zinfandel and chardonnay have, in recent years, thrived in other California regions.  However, the diversity of Napa Valley is on full display in 2013.

From a small vineyard above the valley floor, a former UC Davis professor is the source of the #30 Lagier Meredith Syrah Mount Veeder 2010 and a famous “Zin” vineyard near St. Helena

churned out only 200 cases of the #90 Carlisle Zinfandel Napa Valley Hayne Vineyards 2011 93pt/$48. Based on

Kongsgaard Napa Valley Chardonnay 2010

#5 Kongsgaard Napa Valley Chardonnay 2010

their reputation for creating balanced, elegant chardonnay, it’s nice to see the #5 Kongsgaard Chardonnay Napa Valley 2010 95pt/$75 listed among the best wines of this year.

THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST

Ten percent of the wines on the 2013 list stem from Oregon (4) and Washington State (6).  The #3 Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Evenstad Reserve 2010, a leader among the state’s consistent high-quality pinot and a list veteran, the #10 Quilceda Creek Cabernet

#3 Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Evenstad 2010

#3 Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Evenstad 2010

Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2010 95pt/$135, both made the top ten.

The emerging Walla Walla region is showcased by the #11 Reynvaan Syrah Walla Walla Stonessence 2010 98pt/$70, the highest rated wine and the #27 Spring Valley Uriah Walla Walla 2010, a merlot-based blend.

#10 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

#10 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

The #17 Alexana Pinot Noir Dundee Hills Revana Vineyard 2010 94pt/$42 proves dominance throughout Oregon, but the price of the #55 A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir Oregon 90pt/$18, a hybrid of 60 vineyards yielding over 130,000 cases, intrigued me enough to purchase a few bottles.

 

FRANCE, ITALY & PORTUGAL

The wines from France and Italy, vintage to vintage, have a major presence on the list due,in part, to the broad range of their regions.

While Bordeaux led France’s typical high quality releases, the southern Rhone Valley premier appellation, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, arguably the world’s finest, placed the Grenache-based #7 Domaine du Pegalu Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reservee

#8 Château du Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2010

#8 Château du Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2010

2010 97pt/$120 and the classic #8 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2010

Domaine du Pegalu Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reserva 2010

#7 Domaine du Pegalu Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reserva 2010

96pt/$120, that used varying amounts of all nine grapes permitted in the region.  Of note, the neighboring Gigondas appellation produced the Grenache-based #15 Olivier Ravoire Gigondas 2010 94pt/$33 that appears to be a good value if you can find it.

Among the mighty, Provence has emerged as an important French region producing fine rose’ and, having attended their showcase tastings in Los Angeles, I anticipated their eventual inclusion on the list.  The cinsault, syrah, Grenache blend #84 Jolie-Pitt & Perrin Cotes de Provence Rose’ Miraval 2012 90pt/$28 comes from the Provence estate of Angelina and Brad in partnership with the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel fame. This designation makes it the world’s finest rose’ for 2013.

The big, earthy, sangiovese-based Tuscan wines have an ongoing love affair with American consumers.  However, the Piedmont region, producing nebbiolo-based Barolo blends positioned itself convincingly with five wines including the #6 Guiseppe

#6 Guiseppe Mascarello & Figlio Barolo Monprivato

#6 Guiseppe Mascarello & Figlio Barolo Monprivato

Mascarello & Figlio Barolo Monprivato 2008 95pt/$110 and the #16 G.D. Vajra Barolo Albe 2008 94pt/$42, Italy’s top rated wines.  The moderate price of the #18 Poggerino Chianti Classico 2010 93pt/$25, an authentic Tuscan sangiovese, enticed itself on to my wish list.

Four Portuguese releases, two ports and two red blends were incorporated into the list. For those seeking value without compromising quality, the #37 Quinta do Passadouro Douro 2010 91pt/$28 is a blend of three native grapes from the Douro region and a wine to make note of.

Aside from these trends, we now anticipate seeing wines from Germany, South Africa and South America appear annually.  One particular wine, the widely available, moderately priced #36 Bodega Norton Malbec Mendoza Reserva 2011 92pt/$20 is a full-flavored wine that has made numerous appearances.

This snapshot of 2013 has me wanting to explore more wines from Walla Walla, Piedmont and, of course, Rioja. Fourteen countries and four U.S. states have contributed to this 2013 who’s who of wine, evidence of its global impact.

 

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The White Hill Towns of the Andalucia

 

Photographed By:  Karen and Lyle Norton

 

While visits to Granada, Alhambra, Cordoba and Sevilla are a must when traveling in southern Spain, our decision to spend three days exploring the hill towns of the Andalucía Mountains left us with a memorable experience that exceeded expectations at all levels.

Our image of old Spain is, in many regards, based in Andalucía.  It is the home of bullfights, flamenco, gazpacho and unbelievable landscapes.  With the larger cities of southern Spain on the horizon, our focus for the next few days was Ronda and the other pure, picturesque whitewashed hill towns, each sustaining their own unique village lifestyle.

Learning a few days earlier that the Ronda Avis office had closed, thus terminating our reservation, we were able, through the help of a hotel clerk in Madrid, to secure an early 21st Century “Ford something” from a local entrepreneur.

Ronda, Spain

Ronda, Spain

We arrived by train in Ronda, which was intended just to be our headquarters for daily excursions to the hill towns.  Rain required a taxicab straight to our hotel, but our desire to walk and to see some of the town before dusk led us back out, requiring an umbrella and rain coats.  While on this walk we soon discovered that Ronda was not only our base, but also the largest and most spectacular hill town of them all.

"El Tajo"

“El Tajo”

Directed to Plaza se Espana and the New Bridge, built in 1751, which leads to the entrance of Old Town, we first passed by Spain’s first great bullring, dating back to the 16th Century.  Then, as we approached the “Puente Nuevo,”  the deep gorge they call “El Tajo” came into view.  A ravine, nearly 400 feet deep and 200 feet wide that divides the old Moorish area, La Cuidad, from the new town (cir. 1485) “El Tajo” is spectacular enough with majestic rock formations, natural landscapes and buildings perched at the base of its cliffs, but the view of the bridge, reaching deep into the canyon amid wildflowers and waterfalls was as spectacular as any span I had ever seen.

This first visit was a stunning preview to Ronda and sparked our desire to hike down the Jardines de Cuenca Park trail for the best views.  However, we had a car reserved for the next morning and the hike would have to wait until we had explored the other white hill towns.

GRAZALEMA

DSC00973

Grazalema, Spain

Amid a steady rain, we received our car and were soon driving among olive groves, then cork forests in the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park before the winding incline that assured us we were on our way to Grazalema, the first white hill town. Grazalema, Zahara and the Pileta Cave, three stops on our visit, are all located within the park.

Grazalema is a cozy little village, nestled into the hills, surrounded by large, spectacular rock

Rooftops of Grazalema

Rooftops of Grazalema

outcroppings.  Whitewashed buildings, red roofs and window flower boxes spilling over with bright flowers line the narrow streets that all lead to a small public square, which was fairly empty on a rainy Sunday morning. With quaint shops and remarkable views, Grazalema is a popular base for Spaniards who hike in the natural park.

Driving over the steep Cadiz Mountain pass to Zahara was my most “white-knuckled” in memory. Twisting, slick roads at high altitude, with no protective barriers, in a strange car with manual transmission all shared responsibility for the increase in my heart rate. We did find respite at the summit with the large mountainous saddle rendering views of the Zahara Reservoir.  More winding roads lie ahead as we began DSC00978our dissent down the mountain toward the second village.

ZAHARA

Zahara spreads out below an old fortified Moorish castle that once constituted its boundaries.  Once a stronghold for the Moors, Zahara played a significant role in the Reconquista in 1482.  The hike from the village up to the castle is good exercise and renders some impressive views of the region.

Zahara, Spain

Zahara, Spain

Our brief time in Zahara was spent exploring the cobble-stoned streets between more whitewashed

View of Zahara Resevior

View of Zahara Resevior

buildings, finding interesting shops and numerous vista points.  In a small church off the town square sits the Virgin of Dolores, an iconic statute that is celebrated throughout the year.

The quiet solitude of Zahara reflects a simpler lifestyle, the locals going calmly about their business in a friendly manner.  If arriving or leaving Zahara via route A-374, a stop at the Zahara

Flowers in Zahara

Flowers in Zahara

Reservoir turnout is recommended for great panoramic views of the town.

Route A-374 soon turns into A-384 and we are on our way to Arcos de la Frontera, our final white hill town stop of the day.

ARCOS DE LA FRONTERA

The old town of Arcos narrowly spreads itself across the hillside cliffs, seemingly a totally different place than the lower village.  For me, the best part of Arcos is the views of old town shimmering in the late afternoon sun.

Arcos

Arcos

Plaza del Cabildo, the center of old town is bookended by the Church of Santa Maria and the parador, a former governor’s palace. After a surprisingly nice dinner in old town, we drove back to Ronda, anxious to explore our local environs more thoroughly.

BACK TO RONDA

Our base, the Hotel Maestranza, is located on the original home site of legendary bullfighter Francisco Romero, directly across the street from the bullring. Aside from the experience of standing in the middle of the ring, smaller than imagined, there was a wonderful museum including centuries old costumes and, more recent

Ronda Bullring cir. 16th Century

Ronda Bullring cir. 16th Century

photos of Ernest Hemmingway who was a part-time resident here. The picturesque arena, perched on the cliffs was intriguing, but the canyon spoke to us.

Crossing the bridge, stealing another glance at the gorge, we are soon in old town with more narrow streets and whitewashed buildings.  The building entrances innocently face the street.  Only once inside do you realize they are built directly on the cliffs of “El Tajo.”

Panoramic of Ronda

Panoramic of Ronda

As we entered the trail down into the canyon, the breathtaking views of the bridge, cliff-top buildings, waterfalls and the surrounding flora continued to change the deeper we descended. Dozens of photographs later, we ascended the trail back to old town and began to explore the ancient La Cuidad area, including the remnants of early Arab cultures.

View of Arab Bridge

View of Arab Bridge

Up from the gorge, we traversed through the Moorish Quarter and its amazing history, walking toward “El Tajo,” moving down past the Old Bridge, which was built around 1616, and an old city wall to the Arab Bridge, marking the ancient entrance to Ronda.

A short distance past the Arab Bridge lies the remains of the Arab Baths whose location was not an accident.  After a long journey, the baths provided the necessary place to cleans one’s body before prayer.

Arab Baths

Arab Baths

Our ascension back up the opposite side of the canyon to Plaza de Espana left us with many scenic views and an appetite.  We found a restaurant perched on the canyon wall and settled into a relaxing lunch with more breathtaking views. During lunch my wife informed me that we had to be at the entrance of Pileta Cave by 4pm.  What and where, I inquired.

A history buff, Karen had discovered that Pileta Cave is

Spain’s best opportunity to view Neolithic and Paleolithic paintings, some dating back 25,000 years.  Soon, we were back in our car, driving past cork and olives toward the small town of Benaojan, a benchmark on the way to the cave.

Entrance to Pileta Cave

Entrance to Pileta Cave

Descending into a cave is never really pleasant, it’s deep, dark, damp, and slippery and, as a designated lantern carrier, I felt responsible for the six people between the next lantern and me. However, the rewards were astonishing and sometimes hard to comprehend. This is prehistoric finger-painting at its best with many definitive drawings of horses, cattle and, uniquely, a large fish.

Touring the Pileta Cave was an amazing end to an amazing three days. Ronda and the White Hill Towns

"El Tajo"

“El Tajo”

of the Andalucía surpassed all of our expectations and became one of the most memorable stops during our month in Spain.  The next morning we were on a train headed to Cordoba and Sevilla with the conviction that we would one day return to Ronda to further explore the area and relax in the atmosphere of true Spanish hospitality.