* * * * *
Contributed by: WMC_News_Dept.
Que descansa en una juerga de “pura ma're” with a copita in front of him
Copyright by Gerry Dawes, November 07, 2007.
In 1972, Donn Pohren, a Minneapolis-born American who lived in Spain for decades and was the world's greatest foreign expert on flamenco, published his idiosyncratic underground classic, Adventures in Taste: The Wines and Folk Food of Spain. I was living in southern Spain when I first encountered Pohrens's book (privately printed in Spain) soon after it was published and it had a profound effect on me. In the early years, I never traveled without it. At first, I merely wanted to have some of the wine and food experiences that he had described. Soon, I was having new experiences of my own, experiences that would eventually lead to my becoming a widely published writer on Spanish wine and food and a recognized authority in the field.
Pohren wandered around the Iberian Peninsula in the 1960s exploring the nooks and crannies of Spain's 4,000,000 acres of vineyard lands, the largest acreage of any country in the world. He would pop into a village bar, ask for a glass of the local vino, then casually ask who made the best wine in town. On many occasions, Pohren would soon find himself being offered several samples as one vintner after another vied to show this foreigner that his wine was the best in the village. In his book, Pohren described encounter after encounter with artisan winemakers who were making excellent wines, many of which were unknown to the outside world in those days.
However, many of the wines Pohren described were wines whose charm soon faded if anyone tried to transport them beyond the boundaries of their home region. The winemaking techniques were often primitive. In many places the grapes were still crushed by treading, then fermented in open stone or cement vats, and aged in less than meticulously cared for barrels. The result was a flawed wine, which often tasted good with the local food, but was simply not stable enough to "travel" and was not the stuff to thrill sophisticated wine connoisseurs. Still, Don Pohren swore by the inherent quality of many of these Spanish wines and he was right.
His experiences have always been in the back of my mind and have served me well on numerous occasions, such as an encounter on my first trip to then unknown Priorat in 1988. Firmly in Pohren's shoes, I entered an old-fashioned, untidy cellar, where I was given a flawed wine to taste, but the underlying base wine was clearly very good. I judged the prospects for this region to be so promising that I came back wrote the first major article about the potential of Priorat. Alvaro Palacios and crew arrived the next year and began to make history. Recently, in Ribeira Sacra, I have run into many flawed wines, just as a did in Priorat nearly twenty years earlier. Tasting "underneath" the poor wine making techniques, I found enormous potential. I know Don would have as well.
What Pohren tasted in those wines while researching his book forty years ago was the materia prima (raw material; grapes, soil and climate), the exceptional juice from grapes which often came from old vines, whose average yield of wine per acre of vines was less than half that allowed by the best appellations of Burgundy and Bordeaux. Even backward winemaking techniques couldn't keep the underlying quality from showing through; Pohren's Spanish wines were diamonds in the rough.
In the years since Donn Pohren wrote his book, exciting things have happened which promise an incredible future for both Spain's traditional wines and those of emerging wine regions. Spain's three decades-old democracy has been the catalyst for a modern renaissance in fashion, art, literature, cinema, and gastronomy and it has ushered in a technological revolution in wine making as well. A key element in this was Spain's acceptance in 1992 as a member of the European Economic Community, the Common Market (now the European Union), which posed a special challenge to Spanish wine producers: compete on a quality level with the other wines of Europe or enter the over-saturated European wine "lake", and be lost in the crowd.
Fortunately, Spain opted for quality. Many forward looking people in the Spanish wine trade began to see Spain's entry into the European Union as both a new challenge and a new opportunity for their wines. These challenges and opportunities would require a reassessment of their positions in both the domestic and export markets, an upgrading of their winemaking technology, and consistent quality in their wines. Emile Peynaud, Alexis Lichine, and other consultants were brought in from France to advise winemakers in the Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Rueda. The best enologists from Rioja, Penedes, and Navarra traveled to other regions share their expertise. Young Spanish winemakers trained in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and at the University of California - Davis. Miguel Torres Riera, the maestro of Catalan winemaking, and Jose Peñin, Spain's foremost wine authority, wrote important books about Spain's future in the wine world. New wine books, periodicals, and gourmet journals proliferated. Seminars, international wine symposiums, and wine competitions began to be conducted on a regular basis. And, importantly, wine clubs and societies were formed as an increasingly affluent and growing middle class in Spain began to appreciate the wines of its own country.
During the past two decades, investments in new wine making technology (especially in the area of fermentation control), better barrels, experiments with new grape varietals, and the replanting of vineyards in some areas have begun to have a geometric effect on the overall quality level of Spanish wines. This progress in winemaking technique in Spain would not in itself account for such a dramatic effect–in fact, it is now often a detriment to authenticity--if it were not for the fact that Spain is a splendid natural vineyard endowed with many areas whose grape varietals have become perfectly acclimated over centuries to the micro-climate and soil in which they grow. All that was needed in many cases were winemakers dedicated to quality and the technology to achieve it. The grapes produced in the best wine areas of Spain–Rioja, Jerez, Cataluna, Ribera del Duero, Navarra, Rueda, and in many up and coming regions–have shown they are capable of producing wines which can stand alongside the best of France, Italy, and California. The Tempranillo of the Rioja and Ribera del Duero, for example, is coming to be recognized as a grape which can produce wines to rival those made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Pinot Noir.
The established, classic wine regions of Spain like Rioja and Jerez, while refining the techniques and polishing the skills which made them famous, also created exciting new areas of interest with small estates like Remelluri and Contino in Rioja and the emergence of such high-quality wines as the almacenista sherries of Emilio Lustau and the late harvest Navarra moscatels from Julián Chivite, Ochoa and Viña Aliaga. Other areas whose wines were once underground legends in Spain, like those described by Donn Pohren, but whose viticulture was based on tiny artisan producers and ill-equipped cooperatives, began to realize their potential for making great wines.
Ribera del Duero, home of Vega Sicilia, Pesquera, Mauro, and Viña Pedrosa; Navarra, the producer of perhaps the world's finest rosés; Priorato (Cataluna) and Toro (Castilla-Leon), whose rich, concentrated, blockbuster red wines have drawn international attention; Rueda, a surprising white wine region; and Rías Baixas, whose Albariños now count the U.S. as its most important export market, are just the most visible of the emerging wine regions capable of making first rate wine from native grapes. There are many more to come. Previously unknown regions–not many unknown to Donn Pohren–such as Bierzo, Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras and Monterrei, along with Jumilla and many others–have either jumped onto the world wine stage or are just in the wings awaiting their call to stardom. Producers like Miguel Torres in Penedes, Julián Chivite in Navarra, Carlos Falcó at Dominio de Valdepusa and Codorniu's Raimat estate, just to name a few examples, have achieved new heights with foreign varietals, though even the best examples often fall short of the intriguing, delicious, uniquely Spanish wines made from indigenous varieties–the kinds of wines that Donn Pohren loved.
Embedded in me like a memory chip is the spirit of Donn Pohren and his book. Following his example, I still ferret out little known producers and drive many kilometers out-of-the-way just to eat a dish in a little-known regional restaurant and, like Don, look beyond rusticity (or fancy trappings in some places) to find the core of something that is undeniably wonderful and unique to Spain. Only adventurers and indefatigable travelers can do what Donn Pohren did. I can attest to how indefatigable and adventurous he was from averaging six trips a year to Spain (eight per year in the past five years).
Without Don Pohren’s book (and to a great degree, James A. Michener’s Iberia) I may have never caught the spirit of the Spanish road that has sustained me now for more than 35 years. For that I owe Donn a now unredeemable debt of gratitude and so do people such as Steve Metzler, who built a great and exemplary Spanish wine importing company, Classical Wines, based on his Pohren-inspired wine travels. Because of Donn, Metzler was inspired to find not only Pesquera and make Alejandro Fernandez's wine world famous, he even met his wife, Almudena. Neither of us saw Don Pohren as much as we would have liked to over the years, but fortunately several years ago in Madrid, I had an opportunity to let Donn know just how much his work meant to me and to the many who carry Spain in their hearts.
I will miss the fact that Donn is no longer with us in body, but he will never die in the spirits and hearts of those who followed his incredible Quixotesque passion for Spain, flamenco, Spanish wine and traditional food and all things Spanish. (Quixote may have been a dreamer, but not a madman; those windmills he was tilting at were brought from the low countries and represented the domination of the foreign House of Austria, a powerful, inquisition wielding force that crushed those who dissented like Don Quixote after his encounter with the windmill sails.)
Donn Pohren was a dreamer and he may have seemed like a madman when he lived his life like a candle in the wind during his awesome flamenco juerga years, but to me Donn Pohren was a profound inspiration and he always will be. Vaya con Dios, Don Donn. I will raise a copita to you often in my journeys. I can see the angels lining up now for a juerga--a Spanish wine, food and flamenco party--the likes of which even heaven hasn’t seen.