Tag Archives: Spain



I underwent a knee operation a fortnight ago. Last week, at a party at The China Sichuan to celebrate the Chinese New Year, I was made to realise just how hard it is to manage two crutches, a glass of wine and a morsel of dim sum. My heart goes out to those for whom this task is a permanent one. The restaurant has instituted a ‘get you home in a taxi on Saturday night for free’ scheme, a praiseworthy effort to ease the financial pain of dining out. Of course this will only apply within a certain radius. They certainly aren’t going to wing you and your mates back to Navan, gratis.

Later that week I ate at Matt the Thrasher, a new fish restaurant in what used to be The Pembroke pub. Presumably it’s an offshoot of the Birdhill, Co Tipperary hostelry that bears the same name. A bit early to report on, they still seem to have teething problems. If I can proffer it a bit of advice it’s get rid of the manky salads in the chiller counter, they detract from the glistening fish alongside; find something other than chilli gloop to slather the tasty mackerel in; and please keep the gurnard for the fish and chips, it was a delightful surprise.

The same week Riva, an Italian restaurant on neon–drenched Hanover Quay closed its doors, another casualty of Ireland’s headlong plunge towards membership of the club for the bootless and unhorsed. Amazingly, another eatery has opened nearby, a tapas bar – albeit a rather grown-up one. Cafébar H is a collaboration between the amiable Rita Crosbie, wife of Harry who, according to Rita “will be doing the washing up” and Johnny Cooke, that outrageously talented chef whose twice-closed eponymous restaurant earned him his reputation as The Bonnie Prince Charlie of restaurant economics. One of the best meals I’ve had in Dublin was in the early days of Cookes MkII, as a guest at a Spanish-themed luncheon when course-after-course of magic morsels kept coming, each more tempting than the one before. Johnny understands tapas like no one else in Ireland.

Johnny is on record as saying “functional eating where people want to get in and out and have a meal, and maybe one or two beers, for €20, are what people are going towards now.” If that’s so he’s not quite managed it at the new H. I think it’s reasonable to assume that a minimal meal might consist of two portions of tapas each plus some shared accompanying potatoes. A rapid calculation told me that in such a case the guy with the twenty euro note would have €1.25 to spend on beer.

The interior decorator has done his/her best to negate the impersonality of the large windows and the surprisingly cosy room is redolent of similar establishments in Jerez, Barcelona or San Sebastian. The young staff welcomed us, divesting us of wet coats and crutches and escorting Petite Chef and myself to a table. Throughout, they proved briskly efficient, being keenly interested in the food and taking pride what the kitchen could achieve. Service would have merited a five star rating but for one lapse – they omitted to advise us of the existence of the Albarinho, which wasn’t on the carte. We settled instead for a bottle of the ever-reliable Laurenz V ‘Singing’ Gruner Veltliner and, as a treat, one of the currently sexy Bodegas Portia reds from Ribera del Duero. The wine list is entirely European, concise and well selected except I’d have liked to have seen more Spanish whites and some half bottles of fino/manzanilla sherry.

Each dish arrived at table as soon as it was cooked. The first was a generous skewering of excellent chargrilled beef, cooked medium rare and set down in a flavoursome sofrito, a thick sauce of tomatoes, onion and garlic cooked in olive oil. Then came the Patatas con Salsa Mojo which, if memory serves me right is a speciality of the Canary Islands, usually far more fiery than this one. Next to table was the soup, our one disappointment. We were salivating as all three of us declared chestnuts and chorizo two of our favourite ingredients. Alas, it tasted of neither, ‘half-decent minestrone’  would have been a more accurate description. Still H was soon back on track with the ‘Bikini’, a warm sandwich in which Johnny had inventively incorporated a smearing of black truffle in addition to the usual ham (in this case the great Serrano) and cheese. The crab cakes, four aesthetically-shaped cylinders accompanied by a Romescu sauce proved another big hit. I wanted the ‘Moorish pigeon’ pastille, with almonds, cinnamon and ‘quinze’ – presumably quince but it was unavailable. Instead I sought the squid and boy, was I glad. A sizable portion of succulent rings with batter light as thistledown arrived, over which we sighed with pleasure.

We were smitten and had common sense not prevailed I’m sure we would have ploughed on till we’d been through the card. We took a reprise of the Pinchitos Morunos, to give the steak its full title and the McH Mini Burger, a cool piece of chef’s whimsy, marrying the workaday patty (a very good one) to exotic foie gras and truffle mayonnaise.

Dessert? Are you kidding? We could possibly have managed something light, say a crema catalana but this, like the pigeon, had flown the coop. Didn’t matter we were all ecstaticto having shared tapas that were not the usual sad-looking ‘snack on a saucer’ but real, serious food, perfectly cooked, from righteous ingredients and bang in the idiom. Johnny, whom I know well, had left with the pigeon and the crema but Rita and the pot lad whom I hardly know were there, snacking at a table near the door. I wanted to go and congratulate them but was put off at the sight of their dining companion, a scary-looking little geezer wearing a trilby and black shades, who looked vaguely familiar.

Note for Johnny: We didn’t get away with a twenty note. In fact we spent about €55 a head. But, my, did we have a blow-out.

Cafébar H, Grand Canal Plaza, Dublin 2 Tel: 01-8992216

Food *****

Wine ***

Service ****

Ambience ****

Volume 3 bells

Overall ****






"Stuck in an appellation" Saint Emilion

A day in a wine writer’s life. I get up, dress, eat my porridge then phone the Guinness Storehouse to see if they have a wheelchair. Oh dear, apparently they don’t. I should maybe make it clear that my request stems not from the previous night’s over indulgence but from a knee operation. The Storehouse is The Land That God Forgot for us D4, southside wine scribes – can’t get there by public transport, there’s no parking and a cab costs a fortune. Ah, well, needs must…

I grab my crutches and limp up the road towards the taxi rank. Three traffic jams later I arrive at the Gleesons Incorporating Gilbey’s Portfoilio Tasting, bit of a mouthful? No, it’s a lot of mouthfuls, 41 tables, groaning with wines from all over the world as well as ports, sherries, brandies and beers. Here’s a flavour.

Before I kick off I’ll issue the usual caveat. This is a personal view of a tasting on a particular day. Other folk may love wines I hated or hate wines I loved. Make of it what you will.

Scanning the catalogue I find lots of old familiars, known quantities. This saves me time. For instance, while I know that, say, Les Charmes de Magnol Medoc 2008 is going to be of merchantable quality it won’t excite or surprise so I pass. The Cheval Noir Grand Vin de St.Emilion 2005 (€18.50, selected independents) on did surprise and pleasantly so, good budget claret.

Louis Latour, as usual, have quite a presence but, as ever, I find you have to get into the upper echelons of their list before thye start to charm. Louis Latour Montagny (Super Valu €19.99) is much more inviting than their Chablis. Simmonet-Febre’s Chablis (€18.99, O’Brien’s) was nicer, less steely.

On the Chateau de Sours stand I re-encounter owner Martin Krajewski, nice man. His Petit Cantenac St.Emilion 2008 (€22.50) has plenty of potential. The Bordeaux Rosé,  as always, was well up to the mark (€14.99, independents).

I’m a massive fan of the wines of JCP Malthus as people who read my Herald and the old Sunday Independent columns may have noticed! Bordeaux, Barossa, wherever there’s a roundness, a loveliness, a warmth about them and something that just shouts “Hey, this is bloody good winemaking”.  Area Manager Myriam Carrere tempts me to a vertical – 2006/7/8 – of Ch.Teyssier St.Emilion – I seem stuck in this appellation at the minute – the 2008 promises much but if you can find it, buy the ’06, it’s simply stunning. Entry level Pezat was good as ever. Seems to be some confusion as to whether this and Ch.Lacroix are the same thing. I came away none the wiser.

Can’t help thinking that Jaboulet Ainé have lost their way.Though Caroline Frey has expunged the bad winemaking of Jabs from ‘90s days the newer wines still seem to be struggling to find a house style. Maybe I just liked the big ruggery-buggery wines I remember from the 1980s? Anyhopw, I think they’ve lost something in power, shape and robustness while recovering the finesse that  went missing for so many years.

The delightful Anne Trimbach is in Dublin to present the wines of this brilliant house. Unlike some of their Alsace rivals I can’t think of one wine in their portfolio that doesn’t hack it. Everything is ‘sorted’. Trimbach Alsace Riesling 2009 (€15.99, SuperValu, O’Brien’s, independents) is a classic of the genre.  As for the Cuvée Frederick Emile 2004 (€34.99) every wine lover should have at least one bottle squirreled away for a joyous occasion.

Next table, Gruner Veltiner, Austria’s signature from ex-hippy Laurenz Moser. Named ‘Singing’, ‘Sunny’ and ‘Charming’ (€15.99-€24.99, Donnybrook Fair and independents) the wines are as beguiling as the titles. German wines, happily, are back up and bouncing, after a rocky couple of decades.

Lingenfelder’s German riesling and gewürztraminer (€13.99, independents) with their engaging bird and hare labels should be sought out and bought.

Black Tower roll on, now with added varietal choice. Stick with the Riesling, honest wine for the €9.35 ask. The sylvaner is a bit grim.

Moving up the price scale, if you can still find Lo Zoccolaio’s Barolo 2001 for the stated €37.49 (McHugh’s had some) grab the merchant’s hand off, this is classic kit.

The Dalmau Reserva Rioja 1985 at €85 is daft money, considering you could have, as alternative, 4 bottles of the very quaffable Marques de Murieta Reserva 2005 (O’Briens, Dunnes, Molloys) and a taxi home. This wine, for me, wiped the floor with the popular Faustino equivalent.

The Bodegas Portia Prima Ribero del Duero 2007 (€25, selected independents) is currently dead sexy. Baby brother Ebeia Roble 2009, almost half the price, is good too.

Simonassi Malbec 2006 was decent for the money (€9.99).

Vergelegen Cabernet 2004 was good kit but at €29.45 I can think of a couple of dozen reds I’d rather drink or lay down. The better South African wines still impress, rather than charm.As a ‘how to’ they should look at the complexity St.Hallet are cramming into St.Hallet Old Block Shiraz 2005 (€34.95) , the 2004 of which I remember from a big Aussie seminar last year where it kicked sand in the eyes of a good few more expensive shirazes. The ’05 has all the poke of  a traditional Barossa red with lots of other nice things revolving round the glass.

Chileans Terra Andina gave us a well-priced Reserva Pinot Noir from Leyda (€10.99, Donnybrook Fair, Centra) and an electrifying, invigorating Sauvignon Blanc (€9.99) that carried more than a hint of old-style Marlborough before the Kiwis started shining it up.

More? Luscious the Lane ‘The Gathering’ Semillon-Sauvignon from Adelaide Hills (€22, independents); Hunter Estates Chardonnay from NZ, always class; and St.Hallett Old Block Shiraz 2005 (€35, O’Briens, Tesco) up there with the Barossa’s biggies.

Best of the budgets? No question. I give you False Bay Chardonnay, from South Africa’s Western Cape – classy stuff at ridiculous (€9.80, Londis, independents) money from Paul Boutinot, the Manchester maverick behind, among others, Chat en Oeuf (€9.10, Superquinn, Centra), one I’m always plugging for value. The 2010 False Bay Chardonnay is clean, non-cloying, more European than New World and altogther a worthy example of the sort of Chardy that should put noisy chavs like Pinot Grigio back in their box.

Can’t quit without mentioning the wonderful Julia Kennedy, whose organisation, as usual, was pluperfect. Great ideas of hers to get Fingal Ferguson there with mum Giana’s cheeses and his own salami, a huge quantum leap from when he started a few years back. The new mortadella, in particular, was a wondrous product.

Julia is off now to pastures new, Gleeson’s loss is Dillon’s gain.

Separated at birth?

More than a few people have commented on what they reckon is an uncanny likeness between superstar San Sebastian chef Juan Mari Arzak and a certain Dublin-based food and drink writer. This photo, taken a couple of years ago after one of the most memorable meals of my life, should help you decide for yourselves.

Hmmm… he does look a bit like me doesn’t he? Maybe a bit older and not quite so ruggedly handsome but it’s deffo a titchy bit doppelgangerish. Funny, I could never have seen  me mum with a Basque… juan-mari-ern

'Rising Stars' – Spanish Wine Tasting

Like football, the wine-tasting season is back in full swing. Today Spain, tomorrow, the Adelaide Hills. I do hope everyone planning to organise an event this year poked their head through the door of The Great Room at The Shelbourne during the Spain ‘Rising Stars’ tasting, which was simply the best-organised tasting in the history of ever. The comprehensive catalogue, sent to wine writers by post ahead of the event, contained prices (retail, hooray!) and stockists. Better yet, when I got there the tables and by-and-large the wines on them were laid out in catalogue order.

Factor in plenty of room, masses of spittoons, a constantly refreshed supply of water and nibbles – sensibly, just water biscuits and Spanish artisan cheeses, matching the seriousness of the event and you have a tasting to be reckoned with. To put the membrillo on the queso there was an early doors hour-and-a-half ‘quiet’ period reserved for the wine press. Could probably have done with at least two-and-a-half as unfortunately I didn’t have time to get round to the half dozen or so tables at the back which were reserved for wineries seeking representation here.

Anyhow, take a bow and several encores, the Embassy of Spain and event co-ordinator Justine Adam.

Billed as ‘rising stars’ the spotlight was on the regions we’ve come to call ‘the New Spain’ thanks to John Radford’s seminal book. That said, the purist could assert that, in particular, Penedes, Rias Baixas and Ribera del Duero are more ‘risen’ than ‘rising’.

Quality wasn’t quite a given but, generally, wine lovers can be confident that buying into Spanish wine will provide both interesting drinking and value for money. Here are just a few of the many I liked. Paco & Lola’s gorgeous Rias Baixas albarino 2008 (€14.99) was, I thought, the nicest of the many examples of this grape variety on show. Affectionately known as ‘Spotty Bottle’ it should stick out a mile on the shelves of The Celtic Whiskey Shop, Superquinn and some independents. CWS also had some fine sherries from Hidalgo, including a PX.

Quintessential Wines of Drogheda had many interesting wines on their stand, including those of Bodegas Naia from Rueda. The K-Naia Verdeho, with its refreshing minerality is well worth the €14.75 ask (Quintessential, Power & Smullen). The barrel aged Naides 2007 (€31.50) was an absolute gem and I’d rather drink it than many a PC Chablis. La Rousse’s Prius de Morana Rueda 2007 was a steal (Fallon & Byrne; The Storehouse, Naas) at the €10 ask.

On the Approach Trade stand I found another likeable verdeho, this one laced with viura and sauv B also, called Basa 2008 (€13.95). Ace winemaker Telmo Rodriguez’s name on a bottle is usually a guarantee of quality. I’m a big fan of Dehesa Gago 2007, a balanced and beautiful red from Toro (€13.50, stockists nationwide). The big brother, Gago Crianza 2006 (€23.25) was absolutely ace. Approach Trade who import them also bring in Alvaro Palacios’ Les Terrasses 2005 (€31.35), which I waxed lyrical over when I wrote about Priorato in the Sunday Independent earlier this year.

Clada Group had a vibrant red from Toro, Eternum Viti (ho, ho) 2006 (€14.95, Woodberry’s Galway & The Corkscrew, Dublin). Also a big ripsnorting bugger from Ribera del Duero called Neo Sentido.

A lot of Rioja on Barry & Fitzwilliam’s table. I did like the 3 Ribera del Dueros from Bodegas O.Fournier. The entry level, curiously named Urban Oak (€14.99) represented value for money. Pago del Oro 2006 (€14.99, Classic Drinks, independents) a cheerful, uncomplicated red from Toro. Classic had an unusual red wine, Pittacum 2005 (€16.95) featuring the little-known Mencia grape, big mouthfeel balanced by just the right touch of acidity.

Finally, if it’s organic wine you’re after, look no further than Mary Pawle from Kenmare (www.marypawlewines.com), who’s been doing organic longer than most or maybe any. I couldn’t separate Albet y Noya’s 3Macabeus 2008 and Lignum Negre 2007 for quality.The ’07 is drinking better as of now. Both represent heroic value for money. Wine of the show? The utterly absorbing Clio 2006 (Quintessential Wines, Power & Smullen). But at €44.95 I won’t be drinking much of it, alas!

There were many more that impressed but the fingers are dropping off me; might add more later.

So it Goes…

This week’s decent drinking

A few months ago, somewhere in the middle of Spain I stood gazing at a higgledy-piggledy collection of unkempt tatty bush vines rising out of a pebble-strewn field. “Why the hell would anybody want to make wine here?” I wonder. We’ve bumped up to this plateau, 850 meters above sea level, in a 4×4, fresh from inspecting a brand new state-of-the art winery in the valley below.

These very vines, sixty years and more of age, were the lure that caused wine company Baron de Ley to make an investment they probably won’t see a profitable return on for a good few years, a considerable act of faith. The region is called Cigales.

Cigales sits just above Ribera del Duero, currently Spain’s sexy red wine region sporting famous names such as Vega Sicilia, Pingus, Aaalto, Malloleus and Pesquera. While Ribera has always made good reds, Cigales was mainly famed within Spain for its rosados or rosé wines. Most of the vineyards in Cigales are tiny plots, passed down through generations, from whose grapes the owning families made ‘hobby wine’. Bushes bearing white or red grapes were clustered together and harvested as one crop. The whites were rarely identified by name; the red was the familiar tempranillo, known here as tinto del pais, roughly translated as ‘local red’. The climate of Cigales is high continental, with hot summers and cold winters and large daily temperature fluctuations benefit the vines, allowing them to ‘rest’ at night, although protection against frost is a must.

Back at the winery, we tasted wines, some experimental and offering potential for future cult status. Museum Real 2003 Reserva, the company’s flagwaver is hand harvested, hand sorted and gravity pressed, with two years in French oak barriques, followed by two years bottle ageing before being put on sale. It has much in common with a fine Rioja Reserva. The old bush vine grapes however bestow a massive concentration, making Museum Real a fine, muscular, powerful wine that imposes its personality on the taster.

The other day I found a bottle of the 2003 in my cellar. it seemed just the job for a pissy-downy afternoon with a couple of friends. The wine has a concentrated and complex nose, yielding plums, cassis and cherries, with pronounced hints of rosemary and thyme and an extended finish. Big it is but at the same time it’s replete with finesse and we liked it a lot.

Museum Real 2003 Reserva is fairly widely available in Ireland, at around €17.99 and can also be enjoyed at The Port House, as in its homeland, with a selection of tapas.

Get out of your comfort zone

The other day, en route to a wine tasting, I was walking up Grafton Street. The sun was shining the buskers were out in force. Halfway up the street a couple of girls were knocking out old Beatles’ hits. They were pretty damn woeful. Both played guitars and, between them, could just about scrape up the obligatory four chords. They sang, if that’s the word, in screechy unison. Yet the crowd gathered around them didn’t seem to mind, singing along and willingly chucking coins into the hat.

Further up the street stood two young flamenco guitarists. They played bravura duets, striking sparks off each other, fluent on their instruments. Yet they played to an audience of an old man, his dog and one of those silver-statue mime artists.

I hurried on. The tasting was an exposition of the wines of Rueda, a Spanish Denomination of Origin that makes exquisite white wines. Located in the northern province of Castilla y Leon, Rueda was only granted D.O. status in 1980 after centuries of experience with the native grape, verdejo (you can pronounce it, approximately ‘vair-deck-o’). Years ago, Rueda wines were rich and heavily oaked, sometimes aged to the point of oxidation. Tastes change, however and modern winemaking techniques now ensure that Rueda’s wines are crisp, fruity and aromatic. Wine writers often liken verdejo to sauvignon blanc but I think that’s a tad simplistic; I don’t find any of the aggression or the overwhelming gooseberry grab on the palate. I always get more of a tropical vibe, star fruit and lychees, held in check by lively but not harsh balancing acidity.

Whatever the flavour profile, Rueda’s wines are perfect partners to fish, particularly the like of hake, mullet and John Dory; also shellfish. They work well with asparagus, now in season, something not many wines do. And they are especially good as a quaffer in the garden or as an aperitif.

Of course, we like what we know. Having suffered chardonnay overload we are now clinging to sauvignon blanc, although pinot grigio (thanks to Sex and The City?) is winking at us. Few, though, have ventured as far as vermentino, albarino, pinot blanc, chenin blanc, semillon, all of which can make excellent white wine. As does the aforesaid verdejo.

Unfortunately, like the ‘singalongas’ on Grafton Street we are stuck in our comfort zone. So I’m encouraging you to break out, give sauvignon a week off and try a verdejo. Most wine merchants and supermarkets will stock one. Go on, you can do it. You could set a trend. One day soon, mark my words, this region and this grape will be sooo sexy.

There were no bad wines in the tasting and most were excellent. Many exhibitors were seeking Irish representation. Of those already here, Wines Direct (1850 579579) bring in Jose Parientes, while Approach Trade, who have done sterling work in introducing us to Spanish regionals have the vibrant Mantel Blanco. Around €14 from Curious Wines, Bandon; Mortons, Firhouse; 64 Wines; The Kingdom, Tralee; World Wide Wines, Waterford and others. O’Brien’s also have a cracker for around €10.

The New Spain

Modern Spain is arguably one of the most significant allies in the wine critic’s fight against the spectre of big brand uniformity. Since Rioja’s fall from grace in the nineties when over-production and unscientific tinkering caused quality to tumble, other regions have emerged, offering exciting wines, frequently made from hitherto unsung grape varieties to titillate palates wearied by Cabernet/Chardonnay overloads. This book provides a compelling introduction to Rias Baixas, Rueda, Campo de Borga, Utiel-Requena, Ribiero del Duero, Bullas, Yecla and the myriad other emergent regions; the vinously minded would be immediately tempted down to their wine merchant for a journey of exploration. A comprehensive, well-researched and important book

The New Spain by John Radford, Mitchell Beazley UK£25

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El Bulli 1998-2002

We promised you a full review of this book. Well, here it is. For those of you who are not aware of El Bulli, it’s a 3 star Michelin restaurant in Spain, north of Barcelona. El Bulli has become so popular that reservations for its entire six-month dining season are filled on the day it begins accepting requests. Dinners there can exceed 30 courses. In 2002 it was given the accolade of Best Restaurant in the World. El Bulli only opens for six months of the year and for the rest of the time the kitchen rehearses and researches under the guidance of the man who made it all possible, Ferran Adrià. The food Adrià and his team produce has to be the most innovative in the world but like other innovations, architectural or musical, say, the innovation takes some getting used to. Still, anyone I’ve ever met who’s eaten at El Bulli, tells me the food is as wonderful as it is weird.
Many believe Adrià to be the finest Spanish artist in any media since Dali and Picasso. Here he’s meticulously and chronologically catalogued every dish he’s created during the five-year period – over 800 of them. These are augmented by stunning photography and a commentary in the form of charts, graphs and genealogies of dishes and concepts. Also included is a CD-ROM containing recipes for each dish, videos, menus from the restaurant and what Adrià calls ‘evolutionary analysis diagrams’. My initial scepticsm vanished as I got into the book and became ever more impressed with the purity and logic of Adrià’s concepts.
This mega-tome weighs over 9lbs but it’s no food pseud’s bible; more a scientific and creative exploration of just how far the frontiers of flavour can be rolled back. The photography, stark and uncluttered, enables the reader to get to grips with shape, form and colour without fussy distractions. The accompanying booklet makes a good fist of demystifying the hardback and the CD details the recipes and provides a further wealth of information.
All this avoirdupois and exotica coupled with high production value doesn’t come cheap. It will set you back around e100. So, given the high price, who needs this book? Every aspring young chef with eyes on ‘the Stars’. Who wants it? Me!

El Bulli 1998-2002
By Ferran Adrià

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La Rioja

It is difficult nowadays to imagine the impact that Rioja had on the wine drinker when it burst into our consciousness some forty years ago. Let me set the scene. For starters, Bordeaux and Burgundy, our favourite tipple, had started to escalate in price. Whereas in the 1960s the difference in cost between a merely respectable and a good bottle was only a pound or two, the gap had started to widen, putting the better wines beyond the reach of the average drinker. Then there were the great scandals – the revelation that, in a poor year, some of our hallowed names had souped up their wines by a judicious admixture of grapes from The Midi impacted on our confidence. The humorous magazine Punch summed it up rather well with a satirical guide to wine labelling that included ‘Mis en bouteille au chateau – there is a picture of a castle on the label’.
Rioja was undoubtedly given a boost by the well-propagated myth that its wine industry had been started by the French – ‘myth’ because wine had been made in the upper Ebro valley by the Romans. The French connection came about because of an outbreak of mildew in Bordeaux vineyards in the 1840s. Bordeaux wine brokers went south in search of reliable supplies and hit upon La Rioja. Wine makers and French technology followed in their wake although, remarkably, and with one exception, they did not bring with them their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines, being content to work with the local variety, Tempranillo. With the devastation caused by phylloxera in the 1860s, the procession South intensified. Rioja gained an unprecedented boom which lasted until the turn of the century when the dreaded louse arrived in the region to cause the same havoc it had earlier caused in France. This and the loss of a lucrative market as Spain’s colonial interests dwindled sent the industry into decline.Then, in the late 1960s, Rioja was rediscovered, re-born as “affordable claret-style wine.” Boom time once again.
Though Rioja was the first and is still the most highly regulated area in Spanish winemaking, the regulations haven’t always worked in the region’s favour. The emphasis on barrel maturation has led to some faded, heavily oxidised wines – if you are subjecting a wine to extended barrel ageing then the base product has to be pretty good and that hasn’t always been the case. Nevertheless, the best reds are sublime and you have a choice between the old-style, matured in American oak, silky, aromatic and medium bodied and the new upfront ‘fruit bombs’ made in that international style that the market seems to demand. Names to try include my favourite, Muga; Monte Real; Olarra; the two Marqueses, Murrieta and Riscal; also that runaway commercial success and Ireland’s choice, Faustino.

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