Robert Parker’s opinion has held sway in the wine world for a long time, first coming to prominence with his pronouncements on Bordeaux’s famed 1982 vintage. His palate is attuned to “big” wines. Full throttled oaky monsters and high octane “fruit bombs” have tended to rule his influential roost since that time. I admit to enjoying those over-extracted, inky wines from time-to-time, but it became apparent over the years, as his palate dominated the wine world and his newsletter, The Wine Advocate (to which I subscribed in my wine-obsessed period in the 1990’s), became the main source of recognition in the small world of wine, that too many wines from all over the world started tasting this way regardless of terroir or the varietals used. In Parker’s world, biggest was best. Back in the ’90’s when I looked for food to go with my wine, I didn’t care so much. Indeed, I think these wines still have a place, albeit limited. For the past ten years or so, I’ve looked more for wines to complement what I was eating. The big, bold wines tended to dominate the subtle and complex dishes I came to enjoy and seek out and the high alcohol fatigued my palate. Fortunately, alternatives to Parker styled wines managed to survive his onslaught and wines with nuance, character and little oak still exist. The world, thirsty for variety and individual personality is starting to take notice again. These wines are easier to pair with unique and nuanced dishes and the lesser amounts of alcohol add pleasure rather than fatigue.One person who has been at the vanguard of those battling Parker’s extensive homogenizing influence has been the noted American food and wine writer, my friend, Gerry Dawes. Gerry’s wine background is extensive, with plenty of experience visiting, drinking and writing about the wines of France and elsewhere. His main passion, however, dating back to the 1960’s has been the wine, food and people of Spain – a passion that he and I share, though his experience far outweighs my own. Gerry has spent the better part of the last forty years traveling around Spain, eating, drinking and getting to know those who share his ardor (check out his website and blog for an idea of the extent of his experience and connections). Gerry has very recently put that experience to work for him, importing exceptional wines from small, artisanal producers, throughout Spain, under the banner, “The Spanish Artisan Wine Group.” Spain is a large wine producing country with many different regions, grapes and styles. Over the last decade or so, the country has garnered a lot of attention, but mostly for the big, Parkerized wines that have been produced there. Now, some of the real variety and individually nuanced wines wil have an opportunity to be tasted on this side of the Atlantic, curated by an expert who knows them intimately. To get a sense of the goals of Dawes and his Group, take a look at the company’s Mission Statement. Here is an excerpt of that statement:
We do not represent wines that conform to the conventional canon, i.e., wines so dark that you can’t see the bottom of the glass; wines with jammy, overripe fruit; wines low in acid; “dry” red or white wines with pronounced residual sugar; wines that taste more of oak than wine; or wines with levels of alcohol higher than 13.5%. We prefer 13% and lower, but will consider wines of 14% on rare occasions, but only if they seem particularly well balanced, which is a sleight-of-hand performed by very few maestros.
I recently had the opportunity to taste 32 of Dawes’ wines, during a tasting Gerry put together for Gretchen Thomas, the wine and spirits director of Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant Group; Andy Pforzheimer, one of the partners in the Barcelona Restaurant Group; and John Gilman, the wine expert behind the highly regarded wine newsletter, View from the Cellar. Gerry was accompanied by two extremely knowledgable assistants from the Spanish Artisan Wine Group team, Candela Prol and Dana Staley.
The tasting was held at the Barcelona Wine Bar in Greenwich, Ct. In addition to their Greenwich restaurant, there are five others located throughout Connecticut, one in Atlanta and another on the way in Washington, D.C. A delicious light lunch was provided by the restaurant.The afternoon started with a white wine, the 2010 Terra Remota Caminante Blanco from Empordá in Catalunya’s Costa Brava, not far from elBulli. This elegant blend of 45% Garnatxa, 35% Chenin Blanc and 20% Chardonnay was packed with minerals and very little oak. At 14% alcohol, this was as high in alcohol a wine as we would taste this day. As he was pouring the first of the two rosados that we would taste, Gerry asked, “Ever see a bunch of people frowning while sitting at a table with a rosé on it?” He had a point. Rosés or as they are called in Spain, rosados, are tasty, fun wines. They are most typically served in the summertime, but why not throughout the year? With examples like the two we tasted, that is a legitimate question. The first, from Viña Aliaga in Navarra was a Garnacha Rosado. This was very dry, but with luscious strawberry fruit. At a suggested retail price of $13.99for a 750ml bottle, I could see quaffing this with any number of light dishes. The other rosado, 2010 Catajarros from Cigales was made from 80% Tempranillo, 10% Verdejo, 5% Garnacha and 5% Albillo. At 13% alcohol, this was a little less rambunctious than its 13.5% cousin tasted just prior, but still crisp, clean, dry and with wonderful, floral notes. Both wines come in at the same retail price. While Gerry is very much a traditionalist when it comes to the wines he likes, he took a decidedly non-traditional approach with this tasting. With plenty of white wines still to come, Gerry veered red-ward. He started with some reds from Viña Aliaga, the same family owned, Navarran winery that produced the first rosado that we had tasted. He started us with an un-oaked 2010 Tempranillo. This young, 13.5% alcohol was fresh and aromatic with soft tannins, nice fruit and floral aromas. It was direct and delightful, a very good buy at the SRP of $13.99 and a good alternative to a good Cru Beaujolais. The Garnacha Vieja at 13.9% alcohol from 2007 was still young and vibrant with very good acidity. At an SRP of $19.99 this would make an excellent accompaniment to a wide variety of fish and meat dishes. The 2007 Coleccion Privada, a blend of 80% Tempranillo and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon was deep and complex with classic tar and forest notes. At 13.5% alcohol, this was a very food friendly red, that would be just as delicious and easy to drink on its own. Its RSP was only $18.99. One of the benefits (for drinkers) of being a non-Parker wine at this time, is that good examples are still relatively affordable. The final wine of this single winery grouping was the 2005 Reserva de la Familia, a blend of 75% Tempranillo and 25% cab. This was kept in American oak for 14 months and ultimately was the most Parker-like wine of the day, though it still retained some individual identity and a good acid backbone to balance the still strong tannins. This was the most expensive wine from Aliaga with an SRP of $24.99. In between wines, we had some outstanding bread to clear our palates and soak up the wine that was avoiding the spit bucket and finding its way into our stomachs. The bread was hot with a perfectly crisp crust and an exquisitely soft crumb. I could have been happy had this been all I had to eat. The bread was accompanied by some fresh, fruity extra virgin olive oil from Spain and… …some stellar Spanish charcuterie and sliced cheeses. Membrillo and grapes rounded out the platter. The next group of reds that we tasted were from Catalunya. From up in the hills of Catalunya in the area of Terrassa de Montsant came a 14% alcohol 2008 Heretat Navas ($28.99). This was a blend of 40% Garnacha, 30% Syrah, 20% Cab and 10% Tempranillo with a good fruit and acid balance. The Terra Remota Camino Tinto ($28.99) was a blend of 35% each Garnacha and Syrah along with 20% Cab and 10% Tempranillo. This also had a good acid backbone to go with an underlying layer of tannins from French oak. The Camino had 14% alcohol. A third Catalan red, 2008 Dhuoda from Vega Aixala in the Conca de Barbera, is named for the Carolingian era, Catalan female writer, who wrote a Liber Manualis for her son in the Ninth Century, supposedly the first woman in Europe to write a book. This was a wine that Gerry was trying to decide if he should carry or not and asked for our opinions. The wine, which spends six months aging in old oak without lees after malolactic vinification in steel tanks contains 13.5% alcohol. The wine was a blend of Garnacha and Carignan. The winery itself is exceedingly small with all components in the making of the wine located in the family’s home. The wine had some smoky notes, but excellent flavor. The consensus recommendation was that depending on the price, the wine is certainly worthy of consideration. We took a short break to concentrate a bit on food. It is sometimes easy to forget the strong Arabic influence on Spain and its food. This hummus was wonderfully smooth and garlicky. The pita chips were perfect foils.
The salad was simple and tasty with very good tomatoes, romaine lettuce hearts, a variety of olives and fine quality olive oil and vinegar.Chick peas made another appearance, this time with spinach and flavored with cumin, onion and garlic confit. Another dish from Andalusia, this was delicious and satisfying. The food at Barcelona Wine bar is not Vanguardist. Rather, they are intent on serving traditional Spanish dishes and based upon the dishes I tried, they do it rather well. The Spanish meatballs were well prepared and also delicious. The food was of a caliber that would be welcome in Spain itself. Gambas al ajillo is a classic Spanish dish and a personal favorite. These were nicely garlicky, though a touch sweet. Nevertheless, they were good quality shrimp that went down rather easily. Lunch over, we still had a number of reds to taste. We started tasting wines made with the Mencia grape from northwestern Spain. The first ones we tasted came from the appellations of Bierzo and Valdeorras ( in Galicia) respectively. The first, from Bodegas Adria, a 2010 Viña Barroca ($14.99), was made entirely without oak. Coming in at 13.5% alcohol, it had notes of iron, chocolate, spring fruit and plenty of additional minerals to go along with its very soft tannins. I found this wine to be quite tasty. The Mencia from Adegas D.Berna ($19.99) in Valdeorras at 13% alcohol, reminded me of a tasty, young non-Parkerized Burgundy with simple, bright fruit. The Ribeira Sacra is a major producer of this varietal that is understandably growing in popularity, but still relatively undiscovered. The 2010 Don Bernardino ($16.99), made with grapes from young vines kissed no oak in its making. At a low 12.5% alcohol, this tasty, mineral rich juice, that like all the other wines in Dawes’ portfolio, used only natural yeasts in the vinification, giving it and the other wines, their own distinctive flavors. It is easy drinking and has already been picked up Blue Hill at Stone Barns amongst other restaurants. The 2010 Décima ($21.99) was poured next. This flavorful Mencia was also only 12.5% in alcohol. Light colored and tasting of toasted bread, pomegranate and slate, this wine was described as “the way Burgundy used to taste.” At the moment, the only place to get this wine in the United States is through Chambers Street Winesin NYC, which bought all of Dawes’ current allotment. The second wine poured (unpictured) was a 2010 from Sabatelius ($21.99). This was another alcohol lightweight (12.5%) with strong violet and floral notes. Toalde 2010 ($24.99) had some wonderfully barnyardy notes on the nose, but was full of luscious, silky, approachable fruit on drinking – very good juice! Not all wines with oak and fruit need to taste the same. Dawes poured his most expensive bottle, a 2008 Don Diego Crianza ($49.99) from Viña Cazoga in Ribera Sacra that he nicknamed his “wild child.” Unlike the other Ribera Sacras, this Mencia based wine did age for six months in old oak, leaving it with a touch more tannic structure than the others. The oak was not overdone, though. Compared to the other Ribera Sacras, it was also relatively high in alcohol at 13.5%. It drank beautifully with nice chocolate notes. Another wine, a 2010 Tinto ($26.99) from the same winemaker was also tasty without the undercurrents from the wood.
These were all tasty wines. Some of them were simple, while others were more complex. They were similar in that they were all very drinkable and left little palate fatigue, but that is where the similarities generally ended. The wines from the same grapes and regions shared familial resemblances, but they were each distinctive, a quality that in and of itself was quite refreshing. These were wines with personality and character.Sure, I preferred some over others (The “Wild Child,” Viña Barroca, Décima and Toalde stand out as favorites amongst the reds), but there were none I wouldn’t happily drink, especially at their delightfully modest price points.
Coming soon: Part 2: The glorious whites of Galicia and more!