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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


El Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid

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  El Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid.  
Photo by Gerry Dawes copyright 2012.

Cigalas (Dublin Bay prawns), El Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid. 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2012;

Coffee bar, El Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid. 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2012;

Slide show, Mercado de San Miguel.

Gerry Dawes can be reached at


Rafael Vidal's True Paellas Valencianas at Restaurante Levante outside of Valencia.

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One of Rafael Vidal's true paellas valencianas at Restaurante Levante outside of Valencia.  Real paella valenciana has no seafood, it has duck, chicken, pork and two kinds of bean, a flat type of bean called a vaina and a large local Valencian dried bean called a garrofó, which Rafael Vidal grows himself.  Photo by Gerry Dawes©2012. Contact

Rafael Vidal and his son, also Rafael, at Restaurante Levante in Benisanó, a town outside Valencia, with one of Rafael's true paellas Valencianas. Photo by Gerry Dawes©2007. Contact

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 

 In 2009, Dawes was awarded the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award in a profile written by José Andrés

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 

Mr. Dawes is currently working on a reality television series on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.


Huevos a la Flamenca, A Traditional Dish From Andalucía

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Huevos a la flamenca was one of the most ubiquitous dishes in southern Spain during my early years there in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  I had it a number of times, but seldom found that it was more than ordinary, partly because the dish was usually overcooked.  This week on Facebook I ran across a recipe for huevos a la flamenca, a dish I had never made, so I decided to try it.  The recipe, except for the fact that the left garlic out of the ingredients list, but including it the instructions on how to make the dish, was pretty good.   However, I found that the eggs on top got overcooked, so the next time I will poach them in olive oil and put them on top the dish after it come out of the oven.

Huevos a la flamenca, before going into the oven.  Made with an onion, tomato and garlic sofrito, Spanish olive oil blanched diced potatoes, strips of red pepper and peas, sprinkled with sea salt and topped with jamón serrano, chorizo and a fresh farm egg per person.

For two people:  First I made a sofrito with two medium slices of a large Vidalia onion diced, half a tomato diced, and a minced clove of garlic sauteed in Spanish extra virgen olive oil (Trader Joe's bargain brand).

I sliced half a red bell pepper into thin strips and sauteed them for five minutes in olive oil.

I had some boiled red bliss potatoes and diced one of them into small cubes, then briefly fried the potato in very hot olive oil. 

I had the oven heated to 350 degrees, but it should have been at 450 degrees or even 500 degrees (to enable this dish to finish in 10 minutes).

I added all these ingredients to a Spanish crockery casserole that had been heating in the oven and mixed them together.  

I added a cup of frozen peas and mixed them with the other ingredients, topped the dish with strips of jamón serrano (you can use prosciutto) and placed rounds of one sliced chorizo sausage in a circle on top of the other ingredients.  

I broke two fresh farm house eggs on top of the other ingredients and put the dish in the oven.  After ten minutes, the eggs were still not cooked, so I upped the temperature and checked periodically until the eggs were set. 

The dish come out quite good, except that the egg yolks were hard cooked.  That is the way the dish had always been served to me in restaurants, but I would much prefer the yolks to still be liquid, which would make an excellent sauce for this dish.  

I also plan to add mushrooms the next time I do this dish. 

Huevos a la flamenca, finished dish. 

About Gerry Dawes 

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 

 Dawes was awarded the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award in a profile written by José Andrés

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts.
Mr. Dawes is currently working on a reality television series on 
wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.


The Spanish Artisan Wine Group Arrives in US With a Plethora of Low Octane Beauties, View From The Cellar (July-August 2012) by John Gilman, Publisher

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The sun going down over the vineyards in Bierzo - time to fire up the grill and break out the tapas. 
 All photographs by Gerry Dawes©2011. Contact:

Long-time Spanish wine expert and journalist, Gerry Dawes has finally tossed his hat back in the ring of the wine trade here in the United States, creating a new Spanish wine import company that is focused on searching out old school Spanish wines of great character that have resisted (or studiously ignored) the modern trend towards high alcohol and over-oaked wines that have plagued many of the most well-known properties on the Iberian peninsula during the last couple of decades.

Señor Dawes is probably the most vociferous opponent of excessive new oak to be found in the world of wine since the passing of Bartolo Mascarello, and he is no fan of the very heady and overripe style of winemaking that has been championed in many other journalistic circles behind the banner of Spain’s “Mediterranean Wine” fiction, which argues unpersuasively that Spain’s natural wine proclivity is to make overripe and alcoholic wines due to the limitations of its Mediterranean climate.  

Spain’s important native wine critic, Victor de la Serna of the publication, El Mundo, has long argued for this fantasy in the face of an historical legacy to the contrary, which helped provide the propaganda program behind which so many Spanish wineries sought to maximize profitability by fashioning wines solely for the over the top tastes of Robert Parker’s associate, Jay Miller, who has just retired from covering Spain for the Parker empire.

Gerry Dawes has long been a journalistic counterpoint to the “Mediterranean Wine” armada, and in the last several months has created an import company to search out traditionally-styled Spanish wines that steer clear of the alcoholic hubris that has marred so many new and formerly great wine-producing estates in Spain in the last fifteen or twenty years.

I have now had a handful of opportunities to taste through the wines in Gerry’s new import portfolio, which he has dubbed The Spanish Artisan Wine Group. Not surprisingly, given Gerry’s long history of visiting in Spain and knowing the wine regions of the country inside out, his roster of small and very serious winegrowers is as fine a group of classic Spanish wines as one is likely to find under one umbrella. I had intended to feature these wines as part of a larger piece on Traditionally-styled Spanish wines in a coming issue, but thought the breadth and depth of selections in the Dawes’ portfolio was sufficiently exciting to warrant a feature on their own particularly since many of these wines are made in very, very small quantities, and if I sat on the notes for a few months and included them in the upcoming feature, it is quite likely that many of these superb wines would already be sold out of the market.

So, I have decided to get these notes published as quickly as possible to ensure that readers who are so inclined might have the opportunity to track down some of these truly exceptional wines prior to their disappearing from the market.

The heart and soul of the Spanish Artisan Wine Group’s lineup are superb bottlings of Mencía on the red side of the ledger, and a great set of producers making stunning Albariño on one hand, and another group working their magic with Godello on the white wine side of the ledger. This is not to say that there are not some equally superb wines to be found here amongst Señor Dawes’ selections that are not made from one of these three grapes (in fact, there is a simply stunning, old vine Garnaxta from Camino del Villar Viña Aliaga that Gerry is not particularly fond of- given its riper style in comparison to most of the wines found in his portfolio- but which should absolutely not be missed!), so one would be foolish to focus exclusively on the small growers producing Mencía, Godello and Albariño in the roster of tinyestates represented here. But, that said, there is no denying that the Spanish Artisan Wine Group’s lineup of producers of Mencía, Godello and Albariño are all absolutely exceptional andevery bit as fine as anything I have ever tasted from these three grape varieties. In particular, his roster of Albariño producers are spectacular, with each estate emphatically showing just how great the wines from this grape can be when produced from low yields and old vines.

Along with Albariño producers represented here in the US by José Pastor, such as Pedralonga, Raul Pérez and Do Ferreiro, the likes of Spanish Artisan Wine & Spirits Group producers such as Lagar de Broullón, O'Forollo, Avó Roxo, Cabaleiro do Val and Rozas are redefining just what Albariño can and should be and are amongst some of the most exciting new (at least to me) dry white wines that I have tasted in several years. In fact, Gerry’s roster of Albariño producers is so superb that he generally saves them for the end of tastings, starting with reds and Rosado bottlings and letting the Albariño producers finish off the festivities at the two events I attended!

I first tasted several of these wines at the start of March of this year, as the wines were just scheduling to depart from Spain (and I for a month-long swing through France and Germany), and then followed up with a second tasting in late May when the wines had fully arrived here in New York. Both tastings emphasized that Señor Dawes’ lineup is chock full of outstanding producers new to the export markets and who are fashioning absolutely stellar, old school wines that are long on terroir, purity of fruit, tangy acids and great personality that are derived from their traditional places of origin, rather than from a tony French tonnelier or trendy international winemaking consultant.

While I have not yet had the pleasure to visit and taste in the cellars with these producers, it is now at the top of my list for future tasting trips and it will not be long until I have the pleasure to meet these vignerons in person and get a better feel for their philosophies and vineyard landscapes. For, these are really superb wines and some of the most exciting new producers to cross my path in several years. For subscribers not located here in the states, I am sure that these small artisan producers would be delighted to be contacted directly about the availability of their wines, as there is little doubt that they are currently swimming upstream from the more “typical” Spanish wine market at home (still seemingly enamored of alcoholic clout and tons of new wood) and would be amenable to sharing a few of their great bottles with sympathetic private clients from around the continent.

Slide show on The Spanish Artisan Wine Group - Gerry Dawes Selections
(Double click to enlarge.)

Vinos Blancos

2011 Finca Teira Blanco - Bodegas Manuel Formigo (Ribeiro)
The 2011 Finca Teira Blanco from Bodegas Manuel Formigo is a blend of sixty-five percent Treixadura, twenty percent Godello and fifteen percent Torrontés, making it a slightly
different mix than the 2010 reviewed below. The wine tips the scales at 12.7 percent alcohol and offers up a fine bouquet of white peach, lemon, a beautiful base of white soil tones, a touch of candied lemon peel (think mature Raveneau Chablis), pretty spice tones and a beautifully musky floral topnote redolent of honeysuckle. On the palate the wine is fullish, complex and beautifully balanced, with lovely, ripe acids, fine focus and grip and a very long, classy finish that really does its best work at the table. A really lovely bottle of Ribeiro white wine. Fine juice that is still fairly young and will clearly develop secondary layers of complexity with further bottle age. 2012-2018. 91+.

2010 Finca Teira Blanco - Bodegas Manuel Formigo (Ribeiro)

The 2010 Finca Teira is a blend of seventy percent Treixadura, twenty percent Godello and ten percent Alvilla. It weighs in at a cool 12.5 percent alcohol and is a lovely middleweight, offering up a complex nose of lemon, grapefruit, salty soil tones, citrus peel and a touch of beeswax in the upper register. On the palate the wine is medium-full, bright and very wellbalanced, with perfectly respectable depth in the mid-palate, good focus and fine length and grip on the finish. This is not exactly snappy today, but it remains fresh and vibrant for near-term drinking. 2012-2015. 89.

2010 Teira X- Bodegas Manuel Formigo (Ribeiro)

Young Manuel Formigo de la Fuente is the winegrower now in charge of his family’s vineyards in Ribeiro, tucked in a corner of Galicia just above the Portuguese border in northwestern Spain. The estate’s “Teira X” bottling hails from some of their oldest vines in their top vineyard site, Finca Miño Teira, and is a blend of sixty percent Treixadura, fifteen percent each Albariño and Alvilla and ten percent Loureira. Only a few hundred cases are produced each vintage. This is a more structured and slightly riper (thirteen versus 12.5 percent) wine than the estate’s Finca Teira Blanco, with more mid-palate depth and a superior backbone of acidity. The 2010 is an absolutely superb wine, jumping from the glass in a vibrant mélange of lemon, fresh bay leaf, stony white soil tones, orange peel and a dollop of petrol. On the palate the wine is deep, full-bodied, complex and beautifully soil-driven, with sound acids, lovely focus and simply exceptional length and grip on the finish. A superb bottle. 2012-2018. 92.

2010 Sabatelius Godello-Treixadura Blanco (Ribeira Sacra)

The 2010 Sabatelius Blanco is a blend of sixty percent Godello and forty percent Treixadura and is a terrific bottle. The stylish and complex nose wafts from the glass in a blend of pink grapefruit, beeswax, tart melon, lemon peel, salty soil tones, a touch of green olive and a top note of resinous herbs. On the palate the wine is vibrant, medium-full and complex, with a fine core of fruit, bright acids, excellent focus and grip and a long, pure and transparent finish.  Fine juice. 2012-2018. 92.


2010 D. Berna Godello, Adegas D. Berna (Valdeorras)

Adegas D. Berna is owned by the young husband and wife team of Berna Guitián and Elena Blanco, who together with their talented consulting enologist, José Luis Murcia, produce an absolutely lovely bottle of Godello. The deep, complex and very pretty nose wafts from the
glass in a mix of lime, tart orange, salty soil tones, a hint of white peach, olives, white flowers
and a bit of citrus peel in the upper register. On the palate the wine is deep, medium-full and
vibrant, with lovely intensity of flavor, a fine core, crisp acids and lovely length and grip on the beautifully focused finish. This is a really lovely bottle. 2012-2018. 91+.

Spanish Artisan Wine Group founder Gerry Dawes (right), enjoying a glass of Cabaleiro do Val Albariño with winegrower Paco Dovalo López.


Albariño has long been considered one of Spain’s finest white wine grapes, but much of its history has been marked by unfulfilled potential, as the low prices that most of these wines sold for on the international market simply dictated that the grape had to be cropped high in order for wine- growers to survive economically and make a living sufficient to keep their families fed and sheltered. Happily, one is beginning to see more examples of Albariño these days that are clearly focused on maximizing the potential quality of the varietal by keeping yields much lower and searching out blocks of old vines, with the resulting wines showing a dramatically different profile of complexity and depth of flavor than was the case when the only way for a winegrower to survive with this variety was to over-crop and try to get by on volume.

Much the same phenomenon can be seen in a French appellation such as Sancerre, where there continues to be oceans of rather dilute, simple and easy-drinking wine produced from very high crop yields, but where the greatest producers of the region- people such as Edmond and Anne Vatan, the Cotat cousins, Gérard Boulay and others have shown just how profound a wine can be produced from sauvignon blanc in the best terroirs of Sancerre when yields are kept down and the wines are crafted to maximize quality and complexity, rather than simply aiming to make a profit through volume. A similar push upwards in quality can be seen in the region of Rías Biaxas with Albariño, and the last couple of years have seen some absolutely brilliant examples cross my path from some of the top producers in the region. Prior to tasting these wines, I never imagined that Albariño could produce such profoundly complex, intensely flavored and ageworthy wines, and this new trend may well be one of the most exciting today in all of Spain.

Two decades ago, a group of fourteen growers who specialize in Rías Biaxas Albariño decided
to form a quality-oriented growers’ association, which they dubbed the “Asociación de Bodegas Artesanas”, and six of these estates are now part of Señor Dawes’ portfolio. One of the chief tenets of the producers in this association, besides low yields and old vines is the use solely of indigenous yeasts for the fermentation of their wines. These top estates also differ from much of the more commercially-oriented Albariño out there in choosing to bottle their wines significantly later than is customary in the more quantity-oriented houses, allowing the wines to nurture on their fine lees typically until mid-summer of the following year after the harvest. The growers reported on below from The Spanish Artisan Wine Group are certainly amongst the very finest of this new genre of “quality over quantity” Albariño producers, and there are very few other vignerons working with this grape with whom I have experience that can match the stunning quality of these wines.

2010 Albariño - Avó Roxo (Rías Biaxas)

Adega Avó Roxo is currently run by Antonio Gondar Moldes, who took over the management of the family estate only in 2007. His grandfather, Serafin Gondar began production here in the 1930s and this was at one time one of the most famous wineries in the region, winning several awards as late as the 1970s. The family vineyard is one and a half hectares in size and planted entirely to Albariño and Antonio Gondar Moldes is dedicated to taking the quality here to the highest level, and Avó Roxo is one of the most recent inductees into the growers’ association in the region. His 2010 Albariño is a stunning wine, soaring from the glass in a blaze of tart orange, lime, stony, salty minerality, a touch of green olive, ocean breeze and a smoky topnote. On the palate the wine is deep, full-bodied and very transparent, with a great core of fruit, crisp acids, outstanding focus and balance and superb grip on the very, very long finish. This is a stunning example of Albariño! 2012-2020. 95.

2010 Albariño - Cabaleiro do Val (Rías Biaxas)

The Adega of Cabaleiro do Val is owned by Francisco “Paco” Dovalo López, who founded and is the current president of the Growers’ Association here. While the winery was only officially incorporated in 1989, the family winegrowing traditions here go back centuries and Señor Dovalo López has some extremely old vines in his vineyard. He has taken selection massale cuttings from some of his one hundred and fifty year-old vines to use for replanting purposes, thus retaining the unique character of his outstanding Albariños. The 2010 offering from Cabaleiro do Val is absolutely outstanding, jumping from the glass in a deep, complex and gently leesy mélange of grapefruit, orange peel, stony minerality, lemongrass and a smoky topnote. On the palate the wine is deep, full-bodied, complex and rock solid at the core, with snappy acids, laser-like focus and simply exquisite length and grip on the perfectly balanced and soil-driven finish. This is a brilliant Albariño! 2012-2020+.  94+.

2010 Albariño - Lagar de Broullón (Rías Biaxas)

Lagar de Broullón is owned by José Pintos, who farms this two and a half hectare vineyard in the village of Meaño, which is one of the very finest for Albariño in the Val de Salnés section of Rías Biaxas. The vineyard is situated with a south by southwest exposition, allowing the grapes to reach fine ripeness each year and still maintain a great base of minerality.  The 2010 from Señor Pintos is a beautiful wine, offering up a deep and vibrant nose of fresh lime, green apple, salty oceanic tones, citrus peel, a bit of lemongrass and a great base of stony minerality. On the palate the wine is deep, full-bodied, complex and classy, with a superb core of fruit, crisp acids and lovely length and grip on the perfectly focused finish. High class juice! 2012-2020.  93.

2010 Albariño - Lagar de Candes (Rías Biaxas)

Eulogio Gondar is the owner and winegrower at Lagar de Candes, and he represents the fourth generation of his family to head this small estate, which is also located in the village of Meaño, in the Val de Salnés section of Rías Biaxas. The soils here are granitic in nature, producing beautifully mineral expressions of Albariño. The 2010 from Lagar de Candes is a lovely wine, wafting from the glass in a complex mix of tangerine, elegant leesy tones, pulverized stone, lime zest and a saline topnote of the ocean. On the palate the wine is pure, medium-full and zesty, with lovely complexity, very good mid-palate depth, sound framing acids and lovely length and grip on the focused and classy finish. This does not quite possess quite the same “electricity” on the backend as the very best Albariños in this lineup, but it is a superb bottle of wine. 2012-2016. 90+.

2010 Albariño “O’Forrollo” - Bodega Meis Otero (Rías Biaxas)

Bodega Meis Otero is owned and operated by the Fernando Meis Otero, who is one of the very youngest members of the Asociación de Bodegas Artesanas. He took over the reins of the family bodega in 2001. Like many of his fellow members of the growers’ association, his vineyards are located in the Val de Salnés. The family’s one and a half hectares of vines used to be planted to a mix of regional grapes, but Fernand Meis Otero’s father took the step to plant exclusively Albariño here in the early 1980s. Thus, the vineyards are just now coming into their prime as they close in on thirty years of age. The 2010 O’Forrollo Albariño is an outstanding wine, delivering a deep and very complex nose of sweet grapefruit, pulverized stone, orange peel, briny oceanic overtones, lemongrass and a touch of acacia blossom in the upper register.  On the palate the wine is deep, fullish, complex and very classy, with a superb core of fruit, laser-like focus, outstanding intensity of flavor and superb length and grip on the beautifullybalanced finish that closes with a distinct note of orange peel. Lovely juice. 2012-2020. 93.

2010 Albariño - Rozas (Rías Biaxas)

Adega Rozas is located in the village of Meaño in the Val de Salnés and is run by winegrower Manolo Dovalo. This family estate goes back several generations, and its 6.3 hectares of vineyards are loaded with old vines- many dating back more than two generations!  Señor Dovalo insists that it is the very high percentage of old vines in this very favored section of the Val de Salnés that allows him to make such outstanding Albariños. The 2010 Rozas is simply stunning, soaring from the glass in a complex blaze of lime zest, tart orange, kaleidoscopic minerality, lemongrass, gentle leesy tones and a smoky topnote. On the palate the wine is deep, full-bodied and very racy, with a rock solid core of fruit, brisk acids, laser-like focus and simply stunning length and grip on the very minerally and magically complex finish. This is as magical a glass of Albariño as I have ever had the pleasure to taste! 2012-2020+. 96+.


2011 Lágrima de Garnacha Rosado - Bodegas Camino del Villar Aliaga (Navarra)

The 2011 Rosado from Aliaga is a beautiful bottle of dry Rosé that is drinking superbly out of the blocks, but shows every indication of improving with a year or two of bottle age. Made from one hundred percent Garnacha, with its color arrived at by a bit of skin contact, the 2011 offers up a deep and stunning nose of blood orange, cherries, rose petals, lovely, chalky soil tones and a bit of orange peel in the upper register. On the palate the wine is deep, fullbodied and beautifully balanced, with a lovey core of fruit, bright acids and excellent focus and grip on the long and classy finish. Just a beautiful bottle of Rosado, with great purity and no “candied” aspects on either the nose or palate. 2012-2016. 92.

2011 Viña Catajarros “Elite” Rosado - Bodegas Hermanos Merino (Cigales)

The Viña Catajarros Rosado from Bodegas Hermanos Merino is made up of a blend of eighty percent tempranillo, five percent Garnacha, and fifteen percent of two white wine grapes, Verdejo (ten percent) and alvillo (five percent). This winery is run by two brothers, Eugenio and his brother Merino, and the estate is a Rosado specialist, with the vast majority of their production comprised of dry rosé (augmented by a bit of red wine). The 2011 Viña Catajarros Rosado offers up a superb and vibrant nose of cherries, orange peel, salty soil tones and a topnote of dried roses. On the palate the wine is deep, full-bodied and tangy, with a superb base of soil, excellent focus and bounce and a very long, complex and classy finish. I would give this superb wine another year of bottle age to really let it blossom, as the 2010 shows that there is more yet to come as this wine develops with a bit of cellaring. High class Rosado here! 2013-2018. 93.

2010 Viña Catajarros “Elite” Rosado- Bodegas Hermanos Merino (Cigales)

The 2010 Viña Catajarros Rosado from Bodegas Hermanos Merino is made up the same blend as the 2011, and the additional year of bottle age has really let this wine come into its own.  The 2010 version is a superb bottle of rosé, jumping from the glass in a complex and classy nose of cherries, melon, pomegranate, a touch of spiced meats, orange peel, complex, soil tones and a nice touch of smokiness in the upper register. On the palate the wine is deep, full-bodied and beautifully balanced, with a lovely core of fruit, with gentle framing acids, superb soil signature and excellent length and grip on the complex finish. High class and serious Rosado that shows every indication of continuing to drink well for several more years. 2012-2016+? 93+.

Assorted Vinos Tintos

2010 Tempranillo - Camino del Villar Viña Aliaga (Navarra)

Carlos Aliaga’s tempranillo never sees any oak and is raised entirely in stainless steel tanks. It hails from the family’s limestone-based vineyards located in the center of Navarra and is a superb value. The 2010 tips the scales at a very civilized 13.5 percent alcohol and delivers a lot of aromatic and flavor complexity for its very modest price tag. The bouquet is a blend of black cherries, new leather, a touch of chocolate, lovely spice tones, a bit of meatiness and a topnote of violets. On the palate the wine is medium-full, complex and has a bit of ripe tannins on the backend, with a sappy core of fruit, good focus and fine length and grip. This will be even better with a year’s bottle age, but it is already an awful lot of wine for a bargain price! 2012-2020. 87+.

2007 Garnacha Vieja - Camino del Villar Viña Aliaga (Navarra)

The Aliaga family’s old vine Garnacha bottling, which hails from forty to fifty year-old vines is outstanding. Not particularly ripe by contemporary grenache standards, the 2007 weighs in at 13.9 percent alcohol and is raised in a blend of French and American oak- a small percentage of which is new - for six months. Gerry Dawes is quite funny in commenting that he really does not like this wine, but his customers keep asking for it!  It is really an exceptional bottle of Garnacha, offering up a deep, impressively complex and sappy nose of crushed raspberries, a touch of meatiness, gentle notes of chocolate, garrigue, bonfires and a lovely base of chalky soil tones. On the palate the wine is deep, full-bodied and complex, with melting tannins, a fine core of fruit, superb focus and balance and lovely length and grip. This is a high class bottle of grenache that never strays over the line into jammy obsequiousness and is another dynamite value from this superb producer. 2012-2020+. 92.

2007 Colección Privada Tinto - Camino del Villar Viña Aliaga (Navarra)

The 2007 Colección Privada Tinto from Camino del Villar Viña Aliaga is a blend of eighty percent tempranillo and twenty percent cabernet sauvignon and is aged again in a blend of French and American oak, this time for twelve months duration, and with the percentage of new wood slightly higher than for the Garnacha Vieja. The nose on the 2007 is deep and complex, with a nice, old school feel to its mélange of black cherries, grilled meats, coffee grounds, cigar some and a lovely base of dark soil tones. On the palate the wine is deep, full-bodied and “nobly rustic”, with a superb core of fruit, modest tannins and excellent length and grip on the backend. This is not quite as complex as the Garnacha 2007, but it too is a very good bottle of wine. 2012-2020. 89.

Ribeira Sacra (and other Mencía-based Reds)
2011 Décima Amandi Mencía - José Manuel Rodríguez (Ribeira Sacra)

José Manuel Rodríguez is the head of the growers’ association and regulatory agency of Ribeira Sacra, and makes one of the finest examples of Mencía I have ever had the pleasure to taste. Like the Don Bernardino Mencía, these two lovely vintages of Décima hail from very steep vineyards overlooking the Sil River in the village of Amandi. The 2011 Décima weighs in at a very classic octane of 12.5 percent and roars from the glass in a sophisticated and utterly classic nose of pomegranate, lead pencil, slate, a nice touch of gamebird, coffee bean and a gentle medicinal topnote that is vaguely reminiscent of Hermitage. On the palate the wine is fullish, complex and very intensely flavored, with laser-like focus, fine mid-palate depth, tangy acids and great length and grip on the very softly tannic finish. Utterly classic Mencía! 2012-2020+.  94.

2011 Toalde Mencía - Roberto Regal (Ribeira Sacra)

Roberto Regal’s production is miniscule, as he owns only about one hectare of Mencía vines here in a very steep vineyard overlooking the Miño River. There are just a handful of older indigenous varieties also in the vineyard here, so Señor Regal makes a field blend of these with his Mencía to produce this superb wine. The 2011 Toalde is outstanding, offering up a deep and complex bouquet of black cherries, pomegranate, a touch of nutskin, a lovely base of slate and granitic minerality, smoke and a gentle topnote of fresh herbs. On the palate the wine is deep, fullish, long and very sappy in the mid-palate, with fine focus and balance and a long, suave and bouncy finish. This is a lovely wine. 2012-2018. 91+.

2010 Viña Barroca Mencía - Bodegas Adriá (Bierzo)

The Viña Barroca Mencía bottling from Bodegas Adriá hails from thirty to sixty year-old vines grown on hillside vineyards that range from 450 to a 1000 meters above sea level. The soils here in Bierzo are not the pure slate one finds in Ribeira Sacra, but rather a mix of quartz, clay and slate. The 2010 Viña Barroca Mencía was aged entirely in stainless steel and given four months additional bottle age prior to release and weighs in at a ripe 13.5 percent alcohol. The nose is deep and classy, offering up a youthful mélange of dark berries, medicinal black cherries, a touch of tree bark, graphite, garrigue and a fine base of soil that seems to show a slightly ferrous complexity. On the palate the wine is deep, fullish and intensely flavored, with lovely transparency, a solid core, fine focus and excellent length and grip on the complex and classy finish. I should note that I tasted this wine twice, with the wine once popped and poured and on the other occasion given one hour in decanter prior to serving. The additional aeration made a world of difference in allowing this young wine to blossom fully and decanting is very much recommended for this fine wine. This is a stunning value! 2012-2020. 92.

2010 Mencía D. Berna - Adegas D. Berna (Valdeorras)

Adegas D. Berna is a specialist in Godello, but their 2010 Mencía d’Berna is also a splendid wine and not to be overlooked with all the white wine fireworks being crafted in the cellars and vine- yards here by the estate’s (regionally) well-known and very talented consultant, José Luis Murcia. This is an absolutely classic example of Mencía, offering up a superb aromatic mélange of dark berries, pomegranate, a touch of tree bark, spice tones redolent of cumin, a bit of bitter chocolate and a lovely base of complex, stony soil tones. On the palate the wine is deep, fullish and very intensely flavored, with a sappy core of fruit, tangy acids, excellent focus and grip and a very long, complex finish that stays light on its feet all the way to the conclusion.  There is just a faint touch of volatile acidity to this beauty when it is first opened, so a short stint in decanter is quite beneficial. Fine, fine juice. 2012-2017. 92+.

2010 Décima Amandi Mencía - José Manuel Rodríguez (Ribeira Sacra)

2010 Décima Mencía from José Manuel Rodríguez is another absolute classic in the making. The deep and utterly refined nose soars from the glass in a mélange of black cherries, pomegranate, a touch of road tar, bonfires, fresh herb tones, cracked pepper and a gloriously pure and complex base of slate. On the palate the wine is deep, fullish and very intensely flavored, with a sappy core, tangy acids, exquisite balance and a very, very long, focused and refined finish. The 2010 Décima Mencía is a beautifully crafted, complex and refined wine that is very pure and precise on both the nose and palate. It is still a young wine that will continue to blossom with further bottle age, but there is nothing structurally forbidding about the wine today and it will be a very difficult task keeping this wine in the cellar and not drinking it right away. Great juice. 2012-2025. 94.

2010 Sabatelius Mencía - Primitivo Lareu (Ribeira Sacra)

Primitivo Lareu is a superb winemaker on the far western end of Ribeira Sacra, located in the sub-region of Chantada, which happens to be the coolest vineyard area in all of Ribeira Sacra. In addition to his winegrowing responsibilities, Señor Lareu is also a sculptor and painter, but first and foremost these days, he is a serious viticulturist bent on extracting as much terroir from his vineyards and producing as transparent a glass of wine as possible. His 2010 Mencía is outstanding, offering up a stunning and sappy nose of pomegranate, black cherries, woodsmoke, beautifully complex herbal tones, espresso and a superb base of stony, slate soil. On the palate the wine is deep, medium-full and dancing on the palate, with superb lightness of step coupled to excellent intensity. The wine is impressively complex and focused, with bright acids, little tannin and outstanding length and grip on the bouncy finish. Superb juice. 2012-2020+. 93+.

2010 Toalde Mencía - Roberto Regal (Ribeira Sacra)

The 2010 Toalde from Roberto Regal is excellent, wafting from the glass in a smoky mélange of dark berries, black cherries, espresso, tree bark, stony soil tones, fresh herbs and woodsmoke. On the palate the wine is deep, fullish and intensely flavored, with lovely transparency, very good mid-palate depth and superb length and grip on the focused and complex finish. This wine is very light on its feet and yet packs plenty of intensity. I suspect it will prove to be a touch longer-lived than the equally fine 2011 Toalde bottling. Classic Ribeira Sacra. 2012-2020+. 92.

2010 Viña Cazoga Mencía - Jorge Carnero (Ribeira Sacra)

Viña Cazoga has a long history of fine wine production in the Ribeira Sacra and was once one of the largest and most important estates in the area, but during the nadir of the region’s fortunes- which really started at the dawn of the twentieth century, when so many of these steep vineyard sites were abandoned and young people emigrated en masse in search of more profitable work- Jorge Carnero’s family’s vineyard holdings in the village of Amandi dwindled down to almost nothing. Jorge’s grandfather, Raimundo Vidal, was instrumental in starting to resurrect the Ribeira Sacra region in the 1970s and today the family owns a single, 3.9 hectare parcel of vines right above the Sil River that was long recognized as the finest vineyard in Ribeira Sacra. Almost the entire vineyard is planted with vines in excess of one hundred years of age, with ninety-five percent planted to Mencía and the balance made up of a mix of Tempranillo and Merenzao. The 2010 Viña Cazoga Mencía is a beautiful wine, offering up a deep, very intense and complex nose of black cherries, pomegranate, black pepper, a touch of spiced meats, slate soil tones, espresso and a topnote of cigar smoke. On the palate the wine is deep, fullbodied and very sappy at the core, with great focus and grip, excellent balance, bright acids, virtually no tannins and outstanding length and grip on the dancing and palate-staining finish.  Great Ribeira Sacra! 2012-2020. 94.

2008 Viña Cazoga “Don Diego” Mencía - Jorge Carnero (Ribeira Sacra)

The Don Diego bottling from Jorge Carnero spends six to twelve months of its elevage in four year-old, five hundred liter French oak barrels prior to bottling and is released after further bottle age. Even using four year-old barrels, the Mencía grape still shows a fair bit of wood influence in this wine, which does make for a markedly different impression than the stainless steel-aged regular bottling. The 2008 offers up a very deep and classy nose of black cherries, bitter chocolate, woodsmoke, lovely soil tones and a nice, generous touch of vanillin oak. On the palate the wine is deep, full-bodied, complex and quite suave on the attack, with a bit less overtly terroir-derived soil tones in evidence. The finish is very long and moderately tannic, and though the wine is focused nicely, there is not quite the same purity and blazing transparency here as is found in the 2010 regular bottling. This is still a very well-made wine, but it seems that the oak takes away a bit more than it adds to the final blend. 2012-2025. 90.

Gerry Dawes can be reached at


Food Vignettes: From Asturias, Three Emblematic Dishes

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 From Don Rockwell's Dining Blog (Washington, D.C.)

"Neighboring Asturias is another sleeper.  It has only a miniscule amount of wine, but great cider and a multitude of some of the best cheeses in the world and bean dishes like verdinas con mariscos (green flageolot-type beans cooked with crab, shrimp and/or clams) and fabada asturiana, along with arroz con leche (rice pudding) with a creme brulee-like caramelized crust.  

Then you add some of the most awesomely beautiful high mountain scenery and seashore in Spain, bucolic mountain villages saved by cheese making and colorful fishing ports and Asturias is a paradise, a place to get away from it all."

I have made this verdinas dish twice since I returned from Asturias.

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Asturian verdinas con mariscos (beans cooked with shellfish), a dish made with beans
brought back from my recent trip to Asturias, crab legs, clams and shrimp. 11-11-2012.
Dish and photo by Gerry Dawes, 2012.

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La Maquina restaurant's famous fabada asturiana, fabada bean stew with chorizo and morcilla.
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2011 /

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La Maquina restaurant's arroz con leche, rice pudding with a caramelized crust.
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2011 /

Gerry Dawes can be reached at


Morcilla (Spanish black pudding or blood sausage) with Pimientos

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Montatidos/pinchos de morcilla con pimientos, bar in the Casco Viejo, San Sebastían.  
Photo by Gerry Dawes/2008 .

Morcilla con arroz a la plancha con pimientos, (grilled blood sausage with rice, topped with roasted red peppers (a typical preparation in Burgos), Rincon de Espana, Burgos, Spain.  
Photo by Gerry Dawes/2005.

More Morcilla (Slide show, double click right to enlarge.) _______________________________________________________________________

About Gerry Dawes  

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 

Dawes was awarded the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award in a profile written by José Andrés

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009.

Mr. Dawes is currently working on a reality television series on 
wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.


Foro Internacional de Turismo de Benidorm 2012 - Entrevista a Gerry Dawes (in Spanish)

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Gerry Dawes would like to host a reality television series on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain that features a different star American chef in each episode.
Serious inquiries welcome.

Gerry Dawes can be reached at


La Castela: One of the best tapas bars in Madrid

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Zamburiñas (small scallops), La Castela, Madrid. Photos by Gerry Dawes©2012  

One of the best tapas bars in Madrid, with a wonderful modernized traditional cuisine tablecloth restaurant in back, which is frequented by some of the city's top food lovers.

(Slide Show)  

La Castela
Doctor Castelo, 22 
(Just a block or so from the northeast corner of El Parque de Buen Retiro-Retiro Park). 
Teléfono: 91 573 55 90.

Gerry Dawes can be reached at

New Sherry Book by Peter Liem & Jesus Barquin Endorsement Quote by Gerry Dawes

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The classic family of Sherry-style wines, which includes Manzanilla and Montilla, is incredibly multi-faceted. Chilled dry, finos, manzanillas and amontillados are exceptional companions to shellfish, tapas and sushi; amontillados and olorosos can be a stunning accompaniment to cheeses and dishes with mushrooms or red peppers and the dessert sherries pair splendidly with everything from foie gras to fruit tarts to espresso or cappuccino. Likewise, this versatility and rainbow of flavors is indispensable in cooking; a splash of sherry can make a dish taste unique. The range of more than half a dozen different basic styles, the spectrum of hues, aromas and flavors in these wines, their utility with food and the fact that many of these marvelous wine jewels are downright inexpensive should make Sherry a popular wine indeed.  

However, there has often been a dearth of reliable information about these wonderful wines, so I am delighted to say that wine writer Peter Liem and Spanish Sherry expert Jesús Barquín have teamed up to create Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla:  A Guide to the Traditional Wines of Andalucía, a well researched book that should be an indispensable addition to the library of any wine aficionado, wine professional, chef or restaurateur.  – Gerry Dawes, Spanish National Gastronomy Prize and Founder of The Spanish Artisan Wine Group

Gerry Dawes can be reached at


Roda & Contino: Mano a Mano (A 2006 Article Revisited)

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Text & Photographs by Gerry Dawes©2006 
Friendly rivals Agustín Santolaya, Managing Director of Roda & Jesús Madrazo, winemaker, Contino pour each other's wines at Hector Oribe Restaurant in La Rioja.

For at least a decade or more, I have had a love-hate relationship with the wines of Rioja - a region responsible for some of my life's most memorable tasting experiences. I prized the best of the old guard wines (R. López de Heredia, CVNE, La Rioja Alta, Marqués de Riscal and others) - yet recognized the mediocrity of many - and grated against the brashness of a gush of new wave Riojas that left palate-scalding new oak and high alcohol in their wake. Not surprisingly, the passage of time has seen most of the stalwarts evolving toward a more modern style and many of the newcomers toning down their brash styles to a degree that moves them closer to the classic wines that made Rioja famous in the first place.

Among the most captivating of these maverick makers, Viñedos del Contino has emerged as Spain's most important "château" and Bodegas Roda as one of its most significant and innovative wineries founded in the past 25 years. Both are now at or near the top of almost everyone's list of the greatest wines of the modern Spanish era, including mine. And because each has accrued substantial a track record -- Contino with more than 30 vintages, Roda with more than 15 -- the time was ripe to reassess their evolutions.

Located in La Rioja Alavesa district, a few miles northwest of Logroño, La Rioja's provincial capital, Contino is a single-vineyard pago that produces a reserva and gran reserva, the unusual varietal Graciano and the stunning single-parcel wine, El Olivo.
Roda, a state-of-the-art winery that also embraces some notable, time-honored influences, is located next door to R. López de Heredia's centenarian bodegas in the celebrated Barrio de la Estación in Haro. Roda makes the entry-level Roda (formerly Roda II), Roda I (the bodega's flagship 100 percent Tempranillo) and the super-luxury cuvée, Cirsion (named for the thistle blossom that is the winery's logo).
The genesis for this article actually came about three springs ago at the Salón Internacional de Gourmets in Madrid when Agustín Santolaya, the tall, handsome, affable general manager of Roda, made me an offer I couldn't refuse: "Come up to the winery in La Rioja after the Salón closes and I will open every wine we have made since 1992 and prove to you how great Roda wines really are."

 Agustin Santolaya pouring some of the 21 wines at a midnight tasting that 
he organized for me at Roda in April 2003.  Photo by Gerry Dawes©2003.

Two years prior, I had questioned his approach to winemaking in print and he was eager to gently but firmly defend Roda's prominently proclaimed scientific approach to viticultural techniques and winemaking, and prove me wrong in the process. At least in my first encounters with Roda - and many other so-called alta expresión new wave offerings being fawned over as nuevos milagros, new miracle wines - I was not impressed. Nor was I convinced by the public relations claim that Roda wines were the "new kings" of the Barrio de la Estación in Haro, especially because its neighbors included a row of classic wineries that had always ranked among Spain's best bodegas: CVNE, La Rioja Alta, R. López de Heredia and Muga.

I had come away from a tasting at Roda several years earlier with the impression that too much emphasis was placed on big, powerful, inky, concentrated wines overdosed on new oak. Its blockbuster alta expresión Cirsion offering was then pegged at around $150 (it's now $250). Santolaya's bent for winemaking by the numbers (i.e., the reliance on scientific criteria) also left me skeptical. His agro-scientist's approach to extracting the best, "phenologically" ripe - quite ripe - old vine tempranillo grapes, then making them into intense, voluptuous wines with liberal lashings of new oak, was simply unconvincing.

And I kept wondering about the "communal palate" behind the Roda wines, which seemed formulaic rather than inspired. Nevertheless, I was not going to miss a chance to taste mano a mano with the individual responsible for overseeing the wines at one of Rioja's most highly touted modern wineries, so I rented a car in Madrid on the last day of the Salón and headed for Rioja, a four-hour drive northeast. Passing through snow flurries on the way up, it was 10:30 at night by the time I arrived. Santolaya had laid out tapas and opened 21 wines - every Roda wine made since the winery's founding in 1987, except for the 1991, which was bottled but never released (the first commercial release in 1996 was from the 1992 vintage).

In addition to his role since 1998 as managing director, my host is also the de facto technical director, the man who has the last word on winemaking. He was first hired as a consultant in 1992 by founders Mario Rotllan, a wealthy Barcelona businessman-wine importer (Pol Roger Champagne, Taylor Fladgate, Château Mouton-Rothschild), and his wife, Carmen Daurella (thus, Ro-Da).

Santolaya recalled that, "Mario Rotllan had a clear idea of what he wanted to do from the beginning: He didn't want to make the same wine as the great classic wineries. Rather, the idea was to look for the maximum possible expression of tempranillo in our area of La Rioja. Finding the best grapes is fundamental, then we try to get everything the grape has to give, while trying to make a wine that is elegant and not aggressive. We want wines that are fun to drink, that give pleasure with food."

With that as the goal, Santolaya assembled and led a team whose first task was to painstakingly identify 100 high-quality vineyards in La Rioja Alta and La Rioja Alavesa near Haro and select 22 separate parcels from which Roda's grapes would be sourced. Through his endeavors then and later, Roda now owns 150 acres of vines and controls another 250 ranging in age from 30 to 50-plus years old and situated 1,475 to 1,870 feet above sea level. Some, like the best vineyards in Burgundy, for example, are at the limits of cultivation, which can be problematic in challenging vintages, but can produce sublime wines in favorable years. Roda also has a 60-year-old garnacha vineyard (at 2,100 feet) in La Rioja Baja used for only the basic Roda bottling.

It is Santolaya's habit to select grapes from the 17 best lots of low-yield vines (minimum age 30 years, average age 45) and vinify them separately in large, upright tinos, or wood vats. Because "it is a communal palate here," he explained, the team then blind tastes the wines to classify them. Before we settled down to taste, Santolaya took me on a quick refresher tour of the facility, where I was reminded that all wine transfers are done by gravity and I learned a maximum of 25,000 cases per year are made.

First in the evening lineup was the 1992 Roda II (the lesser of the three wines made here), followed by 1992 Roda I and 1993 Roda II (no Roda I was made that year) - wines that still had some fresh acidity, but were from poor to mediocre vintages and were overwhelmed by new oak. Roda I, Santolaya said, is 100 percent tempranillo, while Roda II is usually 90 percent or more tempranillo, the rest garnacha and graciano. The 1994 Roda I (no Roda II made), from a great vintage, was riper and smoother, but still marred by oak, as was the 1995 Roda II and 1996 Roda II.

The wines began to improve dramatically with the 1995 Roda I and 1996 Roda I, which, though they were still somewhat hamstrung by new oak, also showed exceptional promise with smooth, ripe black fruit and minerals. Santolaya noted that after 1996, they began to tone down the new oak (all French, from eight different producers) a bit; they now use just 50 percent new oak for Roda and Roda I, and 100 percent new oak for Cirsion.

"In the earlier years, we used to put the wines in new oak for 24 months, but we have cut it to 12 to 14 months," Santolaya explained. "The first month in new oak, when the wine is going through malolactic fermentation, gives as much oak to the wine as the next six to eight months does." Wines undergo malolactic fermentation at Roda in November (early for La Rioja) in a special room warmed by radiant heat floors. (Because the winters are cold here, if something is not done to warm the wines, malolactic fermentation will not be completed naturally until spring.)

The team didn't succeed with 1997, an off vintage; the Roda II was sold off in bulk and Roda I was thin and showed more oak than fruit. In 1998, however, both bottlings began to live up to the winery's top-quality claims; the Roda II showed rich berry fruit and round, plummy, chocolaty, ripe flavors that carried the 13.9 percent alcohol well, and the Roda I was a big, silky, but well-structured wine with loads of black plum and Graves-like mineral qualities.
In 1999, another poor vintage, the wines were not successful, but in 2000, Roda hit its stride, turning out big (14 percent alcohol), voluptuous, silky, black wines with lots of rich, ripe fruit. And in the stellar 2001 vintage, which some observers believe produced the best tempranillo grapes in history, the perfect embodiment of the house philosophy was realized with big, sweet, silky, flavor-packed wines that display distinct, minerally terroir and elegance, despite the hefty - for Rioja - 14-plus percent alcohol content.

By midnight, we had tasted through 17 wines with four vintages of Roda's superstar Cirsion still on deck. Santolaya noted that Cirsion is not from a single vineyard, rather it's from the best tempranillo grapes in the best years hand-selected by a specially trained team of ten people who inspect the fruit by tasting it.

"We want a wine with the highest concentration of fruit and structure," so they look for bunches that, according to Santolaya, "are already nearly wine inside the grape and bursting with ripeness with long polymerized tannin strings, not the shorter ones that can make wines harsh and brittle."

Fermentation takes place in upright Seguin Moreau oak foudres and then the wine is moved into new French oak where it undergoes malolactic fermentation. It remains there for only about eight months, because Santolaya doesn't want oak to dominate. He explained that Cirsion is the result of research into the polymerization of grape tannins and anthocyans, and the judicious use of new oak is needed to "fix" them, or in Santolaya lay speak, "make a sandwich with the wood."

Such a recipe yielded big, exotic wines in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001 that showed rich, sweet black fruit, and were very silky and deceptively smooth in spite of the 14.5 percent alcohol levels. The 2001, of which only 7,000 bottles were made, was already on the market when this tasting took place in 2003. Santolaya said that it followed Roda's philosophy that a wine should be ready to drink upon release and should still live for 20 years.

The jury is still out on Cirsion's longevity, but, as Santolaya intended, the wine sure grabs the taster's attention. "When you analyze the time a wine critic has to judge your wine, then divide that into the thousands of wines the critic has to taste every year, each wine gets about one minute, so your wine has to sock him in the jaw and deliver a knockout punch. You have to make him say, 'Wow!'"

In this instance, however, I had spent more than three hours tasting Roda's wines and tasted them again with the tapas later. I concluded that the wines had evolved steadily since those early efforts that I disdained. They were still more alcoholic and extracted than I prefer - big by traditional Rioja standards - but there was no denying the quality standards that went into their making. I even thought that, in some ways, they were moving closer to the more elegant style of wines like CVNE Imperial, an evolved classic from one of Roda's neighbors.

Ironically, much like Roda, the wines of CVNE's offspring, Contino, despite their power, have grown increasingly more elegant - though still richly flavored - with each passing vintage under winemaker Jésus Madrazo's hand. Established in 1973 by family members and investors from CVNE (pronounced koo-neh, an acronym for Compañía Vínicola del Norte de España), the Contino property dates to a 15th-century grant from Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. It comprises 153 acres of vineyards set on a gently sweeping slope that angles down to the Ebro River, a natural boundary that nearly encircles the property in a broad loop. 

Contino Estate, La Rioja Alavesa.

On the other side of the Ebro from the Contino estate, a high, curving, ochre-colored sandstone cliff forms a vertical barrier that, in effect, defines the bowl that Contino property occupies, creating a unique microclimate. The cliff traps the heat and reflects sunlight back into the alluvial, rock-strewn property, parts of which are mindful of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Because of the topography, Contino is often rewarded with riper grapes than many other vineyards in this area, and much riper fruit than vineyards in the cooler, higher elevations around Haro.

In cool years, this warm bowl effect can be an advantage, but in very hot years, it presents its own set of problems. During an early vintage, a hot spell caused the sugars to spike to a level that produced wines that nudged 18 percent alcohol, hence no Contino was made that year. Ever since, a keen weather eye is trained on the vineyards during warm spells so that this costly experience is not repeated. Taken altogether, the vineyard's terroir normally results in wines of substantial concentration that carry between 13.5 to 14.2 percent alcohol.

Contino's first director and driving force was the now-retired José Madrazo Real de Asua, also a director of CVNE (founded by his great-grandfather in 1879), and the father of the current winemaker, Jésus Madrazo, whose mentor was the legendary CVNE enologist Basilio Izuierdo. "Contino is a warm microclimate property," Madrazo noted in a recent conversation. "

Over the past decade, Contino has begun the harvest between September 15 and 21, which makes us among the earliest grape harvesters in La Rioja. Historically, our alcohol levels range just under 14 percent. The trick is to achieve balance in the wines. If I were not a classic enologist, the wines would probably rise to 15 percent or more." The 40-year-old Madrazo, unlike most modern winemakers in Spain, grew up drinking the great, old library vintages of CVNE Imperial and Viña Real Gran Reservas from the 1940s, '50s and '60s, which set the tone for his winemaking style.

With only a few Contino vintages under his belt (his first vintage was 1999), Madrazo made the stunning 2001 El Olivo from 90 percent tempranillo (harvested from a single parcel over which a 1,000-year-old olive tree presides) and 10 percent graciano from a nearby Finca San Gregorio plot. This 2,000-case gem is undoubtedly the greatest red wine I have tasted in the so-called modern era of Spanish winemaking, which roughly dates stylistically to the early 1990s when concentration, high alcohol and lavish new French oak began to dominate.
Contino's now famous El Olivo vineyard.

Although Madrazo espouses the virtues of new oak, he approaches it with caution: "You have to buy good oak that is not green and has been air-dried so it is properly cured," he explained. "Oak should not import any negative attributes to your wines and it must do justice to your own fruit. What works for another winery might not be good for your wines. For instance, I liked Marqués de Vargas's 1998 and 1999 wines, which were aged in Russian oak made by a Rioja cooper. I admired the balsamic flavors and the toast, so I ordered some barrels to do an experiment. The Russian oak was a disaster at Contino for the flavors I like to extract from tempranillo and my way of making wine."

New oak has its place here, just as it does at Roda. "Agustín Santolaya and I agree that when you use new oak, the quality of the fruit is paramount," he stressed. "You can't use new oak on poor grapes. We use the highest quality of grapes, which can stand up to new oak. Contino's El Olivo and Graciano both have almost 100 percent new oak, but I don't age them more than 12 to 14 months in it." For the majority of his wines, Madrazo uses a combination of French and American oak (with one percent Hungarian) with plenty of carefully main-tained used oak in the mix. Because barrels are kept a maximum of eight to nine years, no more than 10 or 15 percent new oak is usually purchased each year.

At a milestone tasting I attended last April at the Contino estate, Madrazo opened almost every Contino Reserva and Gran Reserva made since 1974 - 28 wines in all (missing were six off years when no wine was released) - for a small audience composed largely of Spanish wine critics. Also in attendance was his aforementioned predecessor, Basilio Izquierdo, who made Contino's wines from 1974 to 1998. (For the first few years, until the vinification facility was built at the estate, Contino wines were made by Izquierdo at CVNE.)
Historic Tasting at Contino.

We began the modern phase of the tasting with the 1994 through the 2004 Contino barrel sample. (Because the winery became infected with TCA in the late 1980s, no wine was made in 1992 and 1993. After a four-year closure and $6 million sanitization program, a crianza was made in 1994 and 1995 that marked the return to reservas.) "Contino Reserva has to be good every year," Madrazo said, "since it has the best price-to-quality ratio, it is our bread-and-butter volume wine (8,500 to 17,500 cases per year, depending on the vintage) - the one that reaches more customers, so it has to carry the quality image of Contino always."

Even in off years, such as 1997, 2002 and 2003, Contino Reservas rate consistently well. Because new oak had to be purchased after the TCA episode, the 1994 and 1995 wines, while still lively, fruity and spicy, had still not shaken off the taste of new wood. In 1996, Izquierdo made an excellent wine, one in which sweet, ripe blackberry and blueberry fruit, toast and carob were well integrated with still detectable, but not overly obtrusive new oak. The 1998 Contino Reserva was sweet, silky and elegant. In 1999, Madrazo took over the winemaking duties and was promptly rewarded with a mid-April ice storm that was one of the worst in recent history. As a result of the deep freeze, one-third of the normal crop was lost.

Madrazo increased the French oak content to 70 percent (plus 29 percent American, one percent Hungarian) and made a very elegant wine. In 2000 and 2001 - the former vintage, good; the latter, great - the direction in which Madrazo intended to take Contino was clearly evident. Both wines showed plenty of sweet, ripe red currant and blueberry fruit, spices and reasonably restrained oak. With just 13 percent alcohol, the 2000 Reserva was very elegant and stylish; the 2001 more powerful (13.7 percent) and packed with sweet fruit, chocolate and minerally terroir. In the poor 2002 vintage, Madrazo actually made a delicious, spicy, easy-drinking wine, and he seemed to do quite well with the super-hot 2003, which was still aging in barrel.

After a break, wines from Contino's "classic" period - 1974 to 1988 (when TCA began to be detectable) - were poured. Because I have high regard for traditional, well-aged wines, I was generally more enamored of their qualities than were my modern-palate-tuned Spanish counterparts, with the exception of critic Andrés Proensa, whose scores more closely paralleled mine. Many of these wines showed typical sweet red cherry fruit with the hints of orange peel, dried rose and tea that come from aging. Because of poor vintages and the TCA hiatus, between 1983 and 1988 only the 1985 and '86 still showed reasonably well.

Although Madrazo is making some of Spain's great modern wines, he also turns out a throwback to the long-aging, traditional Riojas on which he cut his teeth. In very good to excellent years, he bottles (in magnum only) a sublime Contino Gran Reserva. He opened the 1996, an incredible wine with deep, rich, deliciously sweet currant and cherry fruit, great balance and marvelous complexity, for his guests. The 2000 was nearly as good, while the 2001 promises to be even better with age. He observed, "I wanted to make a wine that would recall the great classic grandes reservas that I grew up drinking - the 1964 CVNE Viña Real, R. López de Heredia Viña Bosconia 1942, for example - wines that will live for 30 years or more. I want some wine lover in the future to be able to duplicate the same experience by savoring a superb wine that is several decades old."

But Madrazo was not yet done. As a fare-thee-well gesture, the budding Rioja maestro pulled the cork on his dream wine, the 2000 El Olivo. This intensely flavored, complex, beautifully structured red finishes with a Graves-like minerality, the stamp of Contino's terroir. His 2001, from a spectacular tempranillo vintage, could well become the model for others in Spain to emulate. 

A January tasting at Hector Oribe Restaurant in Páganos (La Roja Alavesa) brought me up to date on the latest releases and validated what I already suspected: Contino and Roda are two of the best new-wave wineries in Spain whose recent vintages demonstrate that big doesn't necessarily mean brawny. These wines are not Arnold Schwarznegger dancing the tango in True Lies; rather, they are substantial Riojas with balance, style and even grace. More important, they are delicious to drink.

It is poetic justice that both bodegas are based in La Rioja, a region that has taken heavy flack from a few prominent Spanish wine writers who seem to favor just about any new property from the hot-country Mediterranean wine regions over almost anything produced in Spain's time-honored red wine area. The wines of Contino and Roda are living proof that tempranillo grown in the unique micro-climates and soils of Rioja's Atlantic-influenced, mountainous wine region is still hard to top when put into the hands of talented winemakers like Jésus Madrazo and Agustín Santolaya.

Tasting Bar

Through a series of events over a span of two years, the verticals that follow were tasted at both wineries, respectively, with a January 20 follow up review of the latest releases over lunch with both Jésus Madrazo and Agustín Santolaya at the wonderful Hector Oribe Restaurant in the village of Páganos in La Rioja Alavesa (also in attendance was Gónzalo Lainez, Roda's export manager, who is also a member of Peña Bilbao, one of northern Spain's most influential private tasting groups). None of the wines were tasted blind.

Bodegas Roda Roda II 2000, La Rioja Alta - $38: Pleasant nose of fruit, minerals and oak. Very smooth and balanced with integrated fruit and oak; rich black plum and chocolate flavors; smooth, silky tannins and a mineral finish. Score: 89

Roda I 2000, La Rioja Alta - $59: Fresh nose of black plum, pleasant oak and minerals. Plummy fruit flavors and silky texture with a mineral finish, this time shored up with noticeable tannins. Should improve with a few years of cellaring. Score: 91

Roda II 2001, La Rioja Alta - $38: Somewhat closed, but clean nose shows some lead pencil. Sweet, delicious and balanced, with a nice complex finish showing ripe fruit, graphite minerality and oak. Excellent. (17% garnacha) Score: 92

Roda I 2001, La Rioja Alta - $59: A gorgeous, elegant, balanced black fruit nose. Delicious, well-knit balance of ripe fruit, chocolate and minerals that fill the mouth and finish silky and seamless. Very impressive. Score: 94

Cirsion 2001, La Rioja Alta - $250: Deep, ripe black fruit nose. Very rich and exotic flavors with intense, sweet blackberry fruit laced with chocolate and minerals. So silky it glides over the palate in a smooth, voluptuous rush of fruit, so you may not notice the 14.3 percent alcohol until you have finished a glass of it. Score: 92

Cirsion 2000, La Rioja Alta - $250: Exotic, spicy nose of violets and minerals. A very concentrated "Mediterranean" Cirsion, with delicious, silky black fruit flavors and enough tannins to hold it together. For lovers of big, concentrated wines. Very nice for its weight. Score: 92
Contino Reserva 2001, La Rioja Alavesa - $42: Pleasantly oaky nose with sweet, ripe fruit and toast aromas. A tannic, oaky finish buttresses lots of delicious sweet blueberry and red currant with chocolate and mineral flavors. A great vintage that needs several years of cellaring. Score: 94

Viñedos del Contino Contino Reserva 2000, La Rioja Alavesa - $42: Integrated oak and sweet black fruit nose. Elegant, stylish and balanced with delicious, concentrated sweet red fruit, cocoa and mineral flavors, and noticeable, but harmonious oak. Opens steadily with airing. Score: 93

The four gran reserva wines listed below all need several years in bottle, but, with aging, they promise to be delicious, profound wines that show the best of the Contino estate - in fact, the best that La Rioja and Spain can produce.

Contino Gran Reserva 1996, La Rioja Alavesa - $65: Nice oak and sweet fruit jump out of the glass. Wonderfully complex and delicious with sweet ripe cherry and currant flavors along with licorice, cocoa and mineral notes; lovely finish. A modern wine that is a throwback to the great Rioja wines of yesteryear, many of which are among the greatest red wines ever produced. (Magnum only) Score: 96

Contino Gran Reserva 1999, La Rioja Alavesa - $65: Closed nose shows whiffs of ripe fruit. Rich and sweet, with cola, licorice and chocolate flavors still bound up in firm tannins that bode well for the long term. Still needs plenty of time. (Magnum only; not yet in the U.S.) Score: 91

Contino Gran Reserva 2000, La Rioja Alavesa - $135: Intense black and red fruit aromas with mineral and oak notes. Very rich, sweet, ripe, deep, delicious black raspberry fruit with carob, minerals and oak in the finish. (Magnum only; not yet released) Score: 95

Contino Gran Reserva 2001, La Rioja Alavesa - $145: Deep, ripe black fruit, black olive and oak scents. A big, sweet, rich delicious wine with good grip to hold it for the long haul. Needs several more years to develop fully, especially since it is in magnum. Score: 96

Contino Graciano 2000, La Rioja Alavesa - $95: Exotic nose of anise, white chocolate and herbs. Tart by nature, this Graciano, which is reminiscent of a Petit Verdot, needs bottle age, air and, certainly, food. The aromas in the nose carry through on the palate with more herb and balsamic flavors. Score: 88

Contino Viña del Olivo 2000, La Rioja Alavesa - $120: Ripe black fruit and black olive nose with oak integrated. Rich and very complex with stunning black fruit flavors, good acidity and great structure. Reminiscent of a great Graves, like Haut-Brion, with a long, gravelly finish. Score: 94

Contino Viña del Olivo 2001, La Rioja Alavesa - $120: Beautiful nose of ripe black fruit, minerals and toasty oak. Entry is smooth, with delicious, sweet, fresh black raspberry, toast and mineral flavors. Elegant for its 14 percent alcohol with a good acid balance and everything in harmony. Needs five to ten years; this great wine is a keeper. Score: 97 - GD

This article originally appeared in The Wine News. (First published in 2006.)

About the author 

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine.

Mr. Dawes is currently working on a reality television
series on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.

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