May 2008 Archives
A very pleasant way to pass a few hours with friends is to find a perfect location such as San Bartomeu, a country house near Banyoles, and have Linda give a tasting of Spanish wines. We started as the sun was going down but the weather was balmy and sitting outside around a big table with a glass in our hands and Linda explaining about the various regions, styles and grape varieties was a wonderful experience. We tasted 6 wines in all starting with an Albariño white and moving on to 5 reds all from different regions. These included classic areas like Rioja and Ribera, up and coming Priorat and unknowns such as Jumilla and Empordà. Complemented with some local cheeses , bread and olive oil and there was little need for the BBQ programmed afterwards.
To find where "ambrosia" the food/drink of the gods comes from a visit to Mas Estela is needed. Not only do they produce wines which get the highest ratings (Parker 93 points etc) but the location of the winery is sublime. Tucked in a valley within the Cap de Creus natural park and only 3 kms from the Meditteranean sea with it's moderating influence and near the charming village of Selva de Mar make this a highly desirable place to get to know. Access is not easy and this is not a place to turn up to uninvited as it is family run by Didier and Nuria and their sons who are always busy but very welcoming when organised in advance. Nuria showed us around and speaks English as well as Catalan, Spanish and French so some way to communicate their exceptional story will be found. They came here in 1988 and bought a large ruin with some 20ha of valley and scrub land with steep slopes on either side. They had the vision to believe that the place was ideal for planting vines but first they needed somewhere to live. Didier is an architect and extremely practical man and he not only designed a new house from the ruins of the old but proceeded to build most of it himself as well as the Bodega afterwards which stands next door. Nuria took us on a tour of the vineyard and as we climbed up the sides of the hill we saw all the work that has gone into clearing, leveling and planting the terraces with varieties like syrah, monastrell and garnatxa gris to complement the garnatxa and cariñena and muscat they already have. The other important point to note is that this is an organic vineyard, and also they apply the biodynamic principles which look at the cycles of the moon to interact with the soil or when to work on the vines or add natural fertilizer. This means that the environment is not polluted by any type of chemical and as such the whole variety and diversity of organic, insect and wildlife is preserved and encouraged creating a truly healthy environment. During this time of the year with all the wild flowers, fennel, wild asparagus and flowering yellow broome walking here is a real pleasure. The soil on the slopes is poor and made up mainly of brown slate which means that the young plants need to work hard and put down deep roots to look for any moisture they can. Eventually the roots could go down 5-6 metres and that is when you will really get the mineral flavours so much appreciated by wine lovers. The only animal that is not welcome, at least not in the vineyard, is the wild boar which roam these mountains and that can strip entire rows in hours when the grapes are ripe and ready for harvesting. The next part of the visit is a little more technical: where the grapes come in to the Bodega, how they are destemmed and crushed into grape juice which is cooled to 8ºC from the 24ºC or so when they arrive to stop any fermentation, the filtering and then storing in the stainless steel tanks where they will undergo the first controlled fermentation to convert all the sugar to alcohol. All this is thirsty work and when we are led down into the storage cellar where there are over 200 oak barrels with their precious content slowly maturing we are given glasses and the tasting begins with the Mas Estela white wine. This is a blend of Garnatxa gris (white grenache) and Muscat with its flowery aromas. From here we move on to the first red, Quindals 05, a mix of mainly red Garnatxa and a small amount of both Syrah and Cariñena and up to 12 months in oak.This is a fruity wine with lots of body and just screams out for foods like the local cheeses and sausage with "pa amb tomaquet"soaked in olive oil-a meal in itself. Then comes the Mas Estela 01 which is more elegant and complex with notes of the wild herbs we saw and smelled on our walk around the vines earlier. From here we were told to bring our glasses since we were going to taste direct from the tanks the 06 Quindals and Mas Estela. They were truly delicious and even though the Mas Estela red will now spend about 18 months in french oak to add body and complexity this wine will be great when it finally is released. The tasting finished off (and us) with a visit to the oldest part of the house and the cellars carved out of the rock below the main house (the old ruins) where the 500 litre casks of sweet garnatxa and moscatel reside. Here they operate a solera system which means that the wines we are tasting are nearly 20 yrs old and are light, tangy and wonderful. As you might imagine when we emerged into the light we were all feeling pretty good but in need of adding some food to the alcohol. So after saying our farewells to a fabulous tour by Nuria with even a guest appearance by Didier and their model like son Didac, we headed down the road 3 kms to Port de la Selva and had lunch sitting outside with another bottle of the white wine we had first tried a few hours before while evaluating the pros and cons of setting up a bodega and starting an adventure that has still not finished at Mas Estela!
Image via WikipediaThis tour goes to one of the most beautiful parts of the Empordà region, the Sant Pere de Rodes monastery and surrounding Cap de Creus natural park. When starting from Girona you need to allow at least an hour's travel time. I always go through the small village of Villajuïga and stop to fill up my water bottle with the mineral water available at the tap next to the entrance to the bottling plant where the well is located. This is a water rich in minerals and one of the few that come out of the ground with a little natural carbonation which is nice and refreshing without producing the aggressive bubbles of gas added mineral waters. From here we enter the Cap de Creus natural park and wind our way up the hill through the olive trees and then cork oaks and meditterranean pines and heavy gorse and broome (called ginesta in Catalan.) The area suffered a very big fire in 2000 which destroyed most of the pine trees while the cork oaks with their thick protective layer of cork survived even though they are still black and sooty on the outside which shows the hardiness of this local species. From the top not only do we have spectacular views of the coast, the Bay of Roses and Pyrenees but also the famous 10th century monastery, Sant Pere de Rodes, set in a commanding position where they could survey the terraces where the grapes and olives made them one of the wealthiest landowners in Catalunya for nearly 500 years. By the early part of the 20th century a combination of phylloxera which wiped out the vines and a shortage of labour from migration to tend the very steep terraces meant the whole area went into dramatic decline until the tourists arrived to bring new life and income to the remaining people. Several of the benefits that the fires produced was to reveal the old terraces on the steep slopes as well as acting as a renovating and revitalizing force for new plant growth throughout the park. Coming down the other side towards Port de la Selva, making sure to watch out for the many cyclists that use this road for training, especially in the spring when all the wild flowers are out and seeing the sparkling sea get closer is a joy. Time to head into this charming fishing village for lunch sitting outside and tasting some of the fresh fish which the fishermen bring in each day.
Girona, like many ancient towns, has many old legends which are still celebrated even though most people have long ago forgotten why. Local schools and their teachers have a duty to pass on as many of these tales as they can to their students so that these traditions continue to have some relevance to the citizenry. The first I will cover is the Tarlà or harlequin of the Ramblas The Tarlà comes out during the Girona spring festivals and can be seen for about a month usually from mid April before Sant Jordi to mid May after the Temps de Flors or Flower Festival. You can see him hanging from a pole stretched over the Ramblas where they narrow and the street is actually called l'Argenteria. Along with many colourful banners which are also strung along this street it makes for a very impressive and photogenic sight. So why is there a dummy dressed as a harlequin hanging and somersaulting from a pole surrounded by banners? Well as they say fact is often stranger than fiction and I defy anyone to invent a stranger explanation than the real one. During the middle ages there were many plagues like the Black Death that swept through the crowded and unsanitary towns of the time and several people in this street had died ; as a consequence the city authorities had determined that the area should be sealed off to stop the plague spreading to other areas. During the weeks or months that they were cut off from all their fellow citizens some of the residents decided to cheer up their neighbours with displays of acrobatics from poles erected between the narrow buildings. No one knows if this was to give thanks for surviving or just another of those ideas that arise when you don't know if you will be alive in a few days so make the most of life while you have it. Anyway, the amazing part is that 500 years later we are still admiring the spectacle , even if most people are not sure what the meaning behind it is!