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36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

"My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life. . .” - - Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019; Chef-partner of Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, New York 2019


Navarra: A Spanish Kingdom's Wines Wear the Versatility Crown

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Text & Photographs by Gerry Dawes©2010

Immortalized in the Middle Ages in the French poem Chanson de Roland (whose legendary setting is in the hills above the Pyreneen village of Roncesvalles); its capital Pamplona made famous the world over in the 1920s by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises; and again in the 1960s by James A. Michener in Iberia, beautiful, rugged and evocative Navarra is arguably Spain's most versatile wine region.

Located in mountainous north central Spain, Navarra is hemmed to the north by the Pyrenees (and France) to the north/northwest by Basque Country, to the west/southwest by La Rioja and to the east/southeast by Aragón, a climatic range that includes high mountains, green northern zones, the arid Ebro River basin in the south and a desert called Bardenas Reales. These varied climatic influences, which include very important temperate zones provide a breadth of truly great winemaking potential. 

Chardonnay at Chivite's Arinzano Estate
Several of its wineries have proven just that: Its first-rate Chardonnays are among the finest in Spain; garnacha-based rosados rank with the best in the world; the cream of Navarra's Bordeaux- and Rioja-style wines (especially from bodegas such as Julián Chivite) stand alongside many of Spain’s most distinguished reds; and late harvest moscatels — Aliaga, Chivite and Ochoa to name three — are counted among the most delicious dessert wines in the country. Navarra even boasts a stunningly good, little-known, old-fashioned vino rancio known as Capricho de Goya that rates in the high 90s on nearly everyone's point scale.
Bodegas Camilo Castilla
Wines have been made here since the Roman occupation, as evidenced in southern Navarra along the Ebro River by the remains of several wineries, such as the one at Funes, that date back more than 2,000 years. In the Middle Ages, Navarra was a sprawling kingdom that included Bordeaux, French Navarre, parts of La Rioja, portions of the Basque Country (mountainous northern Navarra and Pamplona, called Iruña in Basque) and Aragón.

Roman Winery at Funes in Southern Navarra
Navarra's importance was vital in establishing the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route that buttressed the Christian frontier, especially in the 12th and 13th centuries, when Cistercian monks arrived to establish monasteries and plant vineyards all around northern Spain.
Chardonnay at Chivite's Arinzano Estate
Several of its wineries have proven just that: Its first-rate Chardonnays are among the finest in Spain; garnacha-based rosados rank with the best in the world; the cream of Navarra's Bordeaux- and Rioja-style wines (especially from bodegas such as Julián Chivite) stand alongside many of Spain’s most distinguished reds; and late harvest moscatels — Aliaga, Chivite and Ochoa to name three — are counted among the most delicious dessert wines in the country. Navarra even boasts a stunningly good, little-known, old-fashioned vino rancio known as Capricho de Goya that rates in the high 90s on nearly everyone's point scale.

Bodegas Camilo Castilla

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Mencía: Terroir and Balance Mark Spain's Next Great Red Variety

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Text & Photographs By Gerry Dawes©2008
The unheralded existence of terroir-driven native varietals flourishing in northwestern Spain is comparable to the iceman encased in the glacier: By shining a critical spotlight on Bierzo, at the gates of Galicia in León province, and Ribeira Sacra, in Galicia's Ourense and Lugo provinces - much like sunlight melting back a the glacier ice - the native mencía grape emerges from obscurity. Grown in precariously steep vineyards and often clinging to treacherous slate-strewn hillsides and Roman-style terraces, the indigenous variety is responsible for some of Spain's most intriguing and delicious terroir-laced reds. 

Mencía vines on a steep slate-strewn vineyard

It has become quite evident to me, after tasting through more than 75 such wines on six return trips to these regions over the past five years, that mencía-based wines grown on these stony, well-drained soils, and enjoying beneficial altitudes (some vineyards are more than 2,500 feet above sea level), sunlight and rainfall, have the potential to rival the best in Europe. This assessment holds up despite a preponderance of popular, New Age, cellar-driven winemaking techniques that threaten to obscure both the glorious freshness of the mencía fruit and the haunting, mineral flavors for which many French vintners would give an arm.

Some bodegas here strive to make copycat, market-styled wines that rely on overripe fruit, high alcohol and aggressive new oak. But with the best vineyards, the marriage of mencía and ideal terroir produce enough personality that sometimes the fruit actually has enough character to stand up to such abuse. Better yet, when makers back off and don't try to produce ersatz Priorat or Ribera del Duero then the charm of sweet red and black raspberry-currant fruit imbued with the masculinity of somewhat rustic, garrigue-like country flavors and a strain of graphite-like minerals (Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra, as well as Priorat, have these traits in common) make for a memorable palate profile that calls the drinker back for sip after sip. Mencía is also grown in the Galician DOs Valdeorras and Monterrei, where predominately white wines, especially those made from the potentially spectacular native godello, rule (see "Galician Gold" article).

"Mencia is being abused. Way too much oak for no discernable reason. This is a wonderful grape which doesn't need that much help to shine. There is nothing wrong with leaving well enough alone," says Roger Kugler, General Manager & Wine Director at Suba and Wine Director at Boqueria, two of New York City top Spanish tapas restaurants. "Its not that all the oak aged Mencias are bad (there are a few that are very good), its just that most of them are inferior to the wines of 10 years or so ago which did not have the aggressive oak aging."

Yet this surprising red variety is having its greatest impact in the aforementioned Bierzo, some 250 miles northwest of Madrid, and emerging Ribeira Sacra, another 70-odd miles to the west. At this juncture, by far the most important of these two regions is Bierzo, which was not even a blip on the Spanish wine radar screen less than a decade ago - even for Spaniards.

Yet in just the past half-dozen years, the region has experienced meteoric growth, vaulting from obscurity to critical acclaim. Among the stalwart wines: the richly flavored Descendientes de J. Palacios wines from the old vines vineyards of Corullón (made by Priorat's Álvaro Palacios and his nephew, Ricardo Pérez); a range of Domino de Tares wines made until recently by former Ribera del Duero enologist Amancio Fernández; and Paixar, crafted by the sons of Mariano García, arguably Spain's top winemaker. These higher-profile Bierzo wines have had increasing success in the United States, which has become Bierzo's most important export market. Many others have come in their wake, including the highly regarded Tilenus, Castro Ventoso, Pittacum, Pucho, Peique, Cuatro Pasos (a wine from Martín Codax of Rías Baixas Albariño fame), Cásar de Burbia and Vega Montán. Both Tilenus and Castro Ventoso, as well as the newly inaugurated Bodega Cabildo de Salas, are made by Raúl Pérez, a young rising star winemaker. 

I became acquainted with many of the aforementioned wines in 2002 when I made a pilgrimage to Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra to taste the bright, fruity, mencía-based reds that were beginning to draw serious attention, especially those of Palacios and Pérez made from ancient vineyards at a place called Corullón. On the way to my appointments, I came across a lively country wine fair in Cacabelos, the key town of the Bierzo DO. Cacabelos is surrounded by vineyards and every May 1st it celebrates its chief industry in the Plaza del Vendimiador, where a statue of a family of grape pickers pays homage to those souls who have brought in the harvest here for centuries.
Vendimiador (Grape Harvester) Monument in Cacabelos (Bierzo) 

I eagerly waded in, tasting a range of mencía-based wines with the producers themselves. Most were works in progress, but others were eye-opening in their potential (two that stood out among the nearly dozen booths were Castro Ventoso and Val de Paixarines) and almost all - even the more rustic or heavily oaked examples - displayed an intriguing red and black raspberry richness laced with distinct terroir. Although the bodegas that produced them were only then beginning to make wines for outside markets (hence a number exhibited the harsh new oak character that comes with a barrel room full of new oak), beneath their oak curtains, the raw material augured well for the production of wines that would make Bierzo the most exciting emerging Spanish region since Priorat.

After tasting at the wine fair, I went to lunch with three of the principals of Dominio de Tares, partner Mario Rico, former winemaker Amancio Fernández and the late general manager Fermín Uria, whose reds - Cepas Viejas (old vines), P.3 (from a 100-year-old vineyard) - showed remarkable richness of wild blackberry fruit and mineral tones. (Since then, their wines have enjoyed much success in the United States and they, along with the wines of Palacios, are a major reason that Bierzo is held in such high esteem here.)

Dominio de Tares, partner Mario Rico

At dusk, in a misting rain, I joined Ricardo Pérez, who drove me a few kilometers beyond the village of Corullón to visit Descendientes de J. Palacios's spectacular, impossibly steep vineyards. Pitched on slate-strewn hillsides, the precipitous sites we toured included the soon-to-be-celebrated Moncerbal vineyard, where old vines mencía thrives on magical slate soil. Later, at the Palacios cellars in Vilafranca del Bierzo, we tasted the sweet, rich, terroir-imbued, still tannic wines of the Moncerbal vineyard. All were lush, rich, minerally reds that seemed to validate the promise of the wines tasted at the fair.

I dined later that evening with the owner of Luna Berberide, Alejandro Luna, and winemaker Gregory Pérez, who introduced me to yet another fine Bierzo Mencía made in consultation with the great Mariano García (former winemaker at Vega Sicilia and owner of Bodegas Mauro in Tudela de Duero, just west of Vega Sicilia). Taken altogether, that memorable May Day yielded one of the most meaningful epiphanies I have experienced in more than three-plus decades of covering Spanish wine: Bierzo's mencía-based reds were capable of standing alongside the best of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Napa Valley or any region on earth. As noted earlier, Mariano García and sons Alberto and Eduardo are also making their own Bierzo, the very highly regarded Paixar from the village of Dragontes, another high-altitude spot near the border of Lugo, one of the four provinces of Galicia.

The senior García is enthusiastic about Bierzo's prospects. "From these high-altitude, hillside, broken-slate vineyards it is possible to make wines with great style and personality," he asserts. "There is an explosion of quality wines from Bierzo and emerging single vineyard pagos [that are] comparable to the great northern Rhône Valley cru vineyards in Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie."

Another name consumers will be hearing quite a lot about is the aforementioned Raúl Pérez, who makes compelling wines in Bierzo and is also the consulting enologist for several Galician wineries, among them Alguiera, which is shipping its top-notch Ribeira Sacra wine to the United States this fall. "Ribeira Sacra, Vinos del Cielo" (wines of heaven) reads a sign overlooking a heavenly view of perhaps the most strikingly dramatic and stunningly beautiful wine region in the world (from a photo-journalist fresh off a visit to Portugal's Douro River Valley, this is not hyperbole).

The sign is also a tie-in to the origin of the region's name, which comes from the profusion of ancient sacred (sacra) monasteries and churches that dot this region. Some are more than 1,000 years old, and several are Romanesque churches founded in the 12th and 13th centuries by Burgundian Cistercian monks, who were the "Johnny Grapevines" of their epoch. They established vineyards all around France, Spain and Germany, many of which are still the basis for some of the world's most famous wines (Clos de Vougeot, Beaumes de Venise and Vega Sicilia to name but a few). While other grapes are grown here, including minority red varieties brancellao and merenzao, and the superb white godello, Ribeira Sacra is the land of mencía par excellence. It's a snake-shaped DO - still practically unknown in this country - with 3,000 acres terraced along the spectacular slate-strewn hillsides of the dammed-up Miño (flowing north-to-south) and Sil (flowing east-to-west) river valleys. It is shared by the Galician provinces of Lugo in the north and Ourense in the south, and is divided into five subzones: northernmost Chantada and Ribeiras do Miño along the Miño, Amandi and Quiroga-Bibei along the Sil (all four in Lugo province) and Ribeiras do Sil (along the Ourense portion of the Sil).

Most notable in Ribeira Sacra are its single-row terraces composed of old vines mencía (with some garnacha tintorera and the white grapes, albariño and godello mixed in) growing on treacherous slate-strewn slopes first planted by the Romans 2,000 years ago. These vineyards are so steep that steel tracks have been placed at strategic points to allow the grapes to be hauled up, and some, like a Cividade, are so sheerly pitched and isolated that they can only be reached by boat, on which the grapes are transported during harvest to the winery.
On that first visit, I was awestruck by the region's magical landscape and remain so today. While the first mencía-based wines I drank here were not as captivating as the terrain, I did find some of the same deliciously fruity black-ruby red raspberry qualities and similar graphite-slate mineral characteristics as those in Bierzo. And while they were fresh and light (some only 12 to 12.5 percent alcohol, a welcome relief in this era of overwrought wines), too many were unsophisticated, not well made and often obviously overproduced. My suspicions were confirmed when I toured a small, minifundia grower vineyard full of heavily laden vines with Fernando González of Adegas Alguiera. The 50-something former banker-turned-bodeguero explained that this overzealous farmer was one of the multitude who sell their grapes to the larger Ribeira Sacra wineries and others outside the region. Over intervening vintages González and his quality-minded peers have tried to persuade the minifundia growers to reduce yields significantly. If they are successful, the difference in quality could occur practically overnight and propel Ribeira Sacra into the front ranks of Spain's premier red wine regions. Together with the winemaking expertise of González's peripatetic, talented Raúl Pérez, who brought out the best in Adegas Alguiera's wines, these small, old vine plots, with careful vineyard practices, are capable of producing world-class wines. The progress being made was underscored during a visit this August.

Pradio, a new, but very isolated hill country winery overlooking the intersection where the Sil River pours out of its "throat" (Gargantuas del Sil) into the Miño River, with José Manuel Rodríguez, president of the Consejo Regulador of Ribeira Sacra. Pradio's youthful and energetic 30-something owner Xavier Seone Novelle has renovated a small hamlet of old houses and built a winery, a rural hotel and facilities for mountain tourists. He welcomed us with glasses of Pradio 2006, a carbonic maceration red wine, along with some of his mother's excellent tapas. It was evident from the first sip, at least at this winery, that things in Ribeira Sacra are moving in the right direction. The wine was deliciously fruity, moderate in alcohol and had seen no wood - except the trees growing on the property.

That night at O Grelo restaurant, just down the road from the hilltop Parador de Turismo where I was staying in the Ribeira Sacra capital of Monforte de Lemos, José Manuel Rodríguez and I tasted through his wines, paired with house tapas. The juicy, complex Décima 2006 and the Décima 2005 (a year he says was "espectacular" for his wine) were both delicious and full flavored, and neither topped 12.2 percent alcohol. He then poured an unusual and unusually good Décima 2006 tinto that was a silky, easy-drinking blend of mencía, garnacha tintoera (30 percent) and the white godello (10 percent). The garnacha tintorera boosted the alcohol level to 13.5, but that is low by today's standards. I now had tasted four superb mencía-based Ribeira Sacra wines from two small producers, and there were more to come.

A day later, after a heart-stopping tour of hillside mencía vineyards with Fernando González (the van was worrisomely wide for navigating the cliff-side access road), we returned to Alguiera and were met by Raúl Pérez, who was fresh off a flying enologist run to and from Bierzo in his Mini-Cooper. He led us through an eye-opening lineup of wines ranging from the Alguiera 2006, which will be superb with bottle age, back to the 2001, one of the best mencía-based wines I had ever tasted - and certainly the best Ribeira Sacra wine ever made. As we were drinking the wines with some tapas from Alguiera's own small restaurant, José Manuel Rodríguez showed up with Dona Das Penas owner Antonio Lombardía, who produced a bottle of juicy, white peach- and honeysuckle-flavored, mineral-laced Alma Larga Godello 2006, which clearly demonstrated that Ribeira Sacra was capable of producing a world-class white as well. The next morning, at the Parador of Monforte de Lemos, Antonio Lombardía poured his Verdes Matas Mencía 2006, which, despite just having been bottled and marked by new oak, showed excellent potential with rich, sweet raspberry and red currant fruit, mineral flavors and only 12.5 percent alcohol.

On earlier trips to Ribeira Sacra, I had seen glimpses of potential greatness in the meager production of José Manuel Rodríguez's Décima and in Alguiera, Viña Cazoga and Abadía da Cova, which had been on the U.S. market for some time, but seemed to have lost focus under the interventionist winemaking market urgings of their former American importer. Others, such as Peza do Rei, Rectoral de Amandi, Cividade, Ponte da Boga, Os Cipreses and Vía Romana, showed promise, and some were delicious with food, but, in general, they lacked finesse and some needed to lower their yields.

Now, however, after the remarkable August tastings at Alguiera and the samplings of Décima, Pradio and Pena Das Donas, I had seen the future of Ribeira Sacra crystallize in just two days. And there are other very promising mencía wines now entering the American market, such as D. Ventura Viña Caniero, in the which the great Gerardo Méndez of Rías Baixas's Do Ferreiro Albariño has a hand; the unusual, but exotic and intriguing (cherry and chestnut wood, for example, instead of oak) Enológica Thémera; and a trio of wines - Lacima, Lapena and Lalama - from Priorat husband-wife team, Sara Pérez (Clos Martinet) and René Barbier, Jr. (Clos Mogador). With Pérez-Barbier, what I fear is not an invasion of alliterative labels, but the Priorat factor, which I hope does not bring in its wake Mediterranean climate-style wines with 14 percent to 15 percent alcohol levels.

Andre Tamers, president of De Maison Selections and the U.S. importer of D. Ventura Viña Caniero, fervently believes in the future of Ribeira Sacra and warns of attempts to "Prioratize" these Atlantic-climate wines. He says those that are being made in this fashion in Bierzo are suffering from the overzealous use of new oak and are "completely over hyped. Bierzo is really more like Beaujolais," he notes. "Ribeira Sacra has the potential to be the new Burgundy." Based on the real promise of the mencía-based wines I tasted in August, within two to three years, I believe Ribeira Sacra will vault onto the world wine stage to join the Spanish red wine chorus line that already includes Bierzo, Jumilla, Priorat and Toro.

But Ribeira Sacra, if it stays true to its regional style, will be the lightest-stepping dancer in the line as the antidote to the big alcohol wines that still dominate today. Therein lies the challenge: to maintain the lovely raspberry, red currant and light black raspberry mencía fruit, minerality and modest alcohol content that makes these wines so engaging. To do so means resisting the temptation to submit to the ubiquitous abuse of new oak, which overwhelms both the fruit and the terroir.

If these first few Ribeira Sacra wines entering the American market are an indicator, they may prove to be Spain's antidote to all the overblown blockbuster wines out there - an antidote that a multitude of protesting wine lovers and importers like André Tamers and Alexandra Elman of New York's Marble Hill Cellars are ready to embrace. Perhaps big brother Bierzo will even follow Ribeira Sacra's lead and mencía will reach the top of the Pop chart by singing its own tune. Might I suggest "I Stop By Heaven" from Jerry Butler's soul album, "The Iceman Cometh?"

Tasting BAR

Many Bierzo wines, including some from the best, most vaunted vineyards, have elevated alcohol levels and are often the victims of over-oaking, a serious problem in this region (as well as in many other parts of Spain). Newcomers to Bierzo should seek the delicious raspberry fruit and mineral flavors of the younger, fresher, unoaked versions, and be leery of labels that connote roble or joven roble, which could indicate a regimen of three to six months in harsh new oak (a practice that breaks in new barrels for aging more important wines).

The majority of the wines that follow were tasted in Spain with the producers; they were not tasted blind.

Albares Mencía, 2006 Dominio de Tares (no oak; 13.5%) - $11: Ripe black raspberry and mineral nose. Rich, delicious mélange of black raspberry, currant and dark baker's chocolate with a long, lingering, graphite-mineral finish. I have to admit that this wine has been my house red for years and I love it. At this price, Albares is a steal! (Importer: Classical Wines) Score: 91

Pétalos Mencía, 2006 Descendientes de J. Palacios (5 months in oak; 14%) - $20: Ripe black raspberry nose. Round, smooth entry with delicious, deep black raspberry and currant fruit laced with graphite-like mineral flavors in a finish that still shows some wood and fruit tannins. Reasonable value. (Importer: Rare Wine Company) Score: 90

Peique Mencía, 2006 Bodegas Peique (13.5%) - $12: Rich fruit, clove, licorice and mineral nose. Delicious, rich, luscious red and black wild berries with clove, licorice and bitter dark chocolate notes. Reminiscent of a Graves or a good Chinon. Unbelievable bargain. (Importer: José Pastor Selections, Vinos & Gourmet, Inc.) Score: 91

Paixar Mencía, 2004 Paixar (14%) - $70: More new French oak than fruit in the nose. Excellent black raspberry and mineral flavors. In spite of the 14% alcohol and liberal lashing of new oak, experience with this wine shows that time and food will tone down these normally egregious flaws in the wines of this particular producer, who, seemingly, is enamored of new French oak. If you are, too, and you find this rather stiff tab in your range, this wine will really deliver. (Importer: Aurelio Cabestrero) Score: 92

Vega Montán Mencía Roble, 2005 Bodegas Adrià (14%) - $16: Spicy, sweet fruit, slate-like minerals and new oak in the nose. Nice entry with sweet ripe fruit and haunting soil flavors. Well balanced, so it tastes lighter than its 14%, but it is a bit over-oaked. Air, food and decanting improve the mix considerably. Good value. (Importer: Marble Hill Cellars) Score: 88

Cásar de Burbía, 2004 Cásar de Burbía (13.5%) - $20: Nice nose of red currant, cherry and minerals. Despite five months in new French and Hungarian oak, two-plus years in bottle have left it with none of the new oak nasties. Delicious balance of ripe berry fruit, dark chocolate, terroir and restrained oak. A real sleeper. (Importer: Nick Radisic, Rad Grapes) Score: 89

Tilenus (Envejecido en Roble), 2004 Bodegas Estefanía (14%) - $20: Earthy slate, ripe red fruit and some oak in the nose. Great balance of rich wild berries, minerals and well-integrated oak which may contribute to the pleasantly bitter finish. This elegant wine will surpass many Burgundy clos on the market. Why the maker felt compelled to inscribe "aged in oak" on the label, except perhaps for the purpose of appealing to those who favor oak over fruit, is baffling. Nevertheless, the wine is a fine value. (Importer: Eric Solomon Selections) Score: 91

Ribeira Sacra Décima, 2006 José Manuel Rodríguez (unoaked; 12%) - $27: Excellently balanced nose of red fruit and minerals. Delicious, with juicy acids balancing sweet raspberry fruit flavors and an enticing, complex mineral finish all in harmony because of the restrained alcohol and no oak. (Importer: Marble Hill Cellars) Score: 91

Prádio Mencía, 2006 Xavier Seoane Novelle (unoaked; 12.5% alcohol) - $20: Pleasant candied red fruit carbonic maceration nose. Delicious, bright, fruity, balanced, quaffable wine with lots of raspberry and currant fruit with a lasting, mineral-laced finish. Good value. (Importer: Marble Hill Cellars) Score: 89

D. Ventura Viña Caneiro, 2006 Losada Fernández (unoaked, unfiltered; 14%) - $26: Pure, rustic, ripe fruit and minerals in the nose. Big, rich, loaded with fruit, but very juicy and delicious with a long, intriguing earthy minerality in the finish. Superb. (Importer: De Maison Selections) Score: 92

Thémera, 2004 Enológica Témera (aged in cherry and chestnut wood; 12.5% - $23: Nice nose with subdued red fruit and scents of cherry and chestnut wood. Rich, but not overblown, juicy fruit with those odd, but not off-putting oak flavors that compete with minerals. Interesting, and good with food. (Importer: José Pastor Selections, Vinos & Gourmet, Inc.) Score: 88
Algueira Mencía Barrica 2005 Algueira, S.L. (aged 13 to 14 months in oak; 13%) - $40: Bright red fruit, graphite and non-obtrusive oak nose. Nice red fruit, good balance of fruit, tannin and oak, but needs more time. Quite good. (Importer: Antonio Antalvo) Score: 93

Alma Larga Godello Blanco 2006 Pena das Donas (no oak; 13.6%) - $25: Lovely white peach and lees nose. Of white Burgundy quality with delicious white peach and honeysuckle flavors, laced with a long, mineral-like finish. (Importer: Marble Hill Cellars) Score: 92 - GD

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