We had the opportunity, invited by Casa Rojo, to learn how one of the most prestigious wines in its family of products is produced and shaped. Casa Rojo is one of the most interesting wineries in recent times. Interesting for their youth, for their courageous way of entering the market, but special, and this is the most important thing, for the commitment they have acquired to make a wine that is nothing more than that: wine. Wine of an excellent quality, produced with all the love of the world.

The Alexander vs. The Ham Factory project is a high-end wine born from the union of two families, Casa Rojo and the Miguel Sanz brothers. Out of a unique terroir, this project unites tradition with modernity, trying to present the world with a new way of understanding this prestigious Denomination of Origin: Ribera del Duero.

This is how Alexander vs. The Ham Factory was born, a red wine in the heart of Ribera del Duero, on the property that the winery has there: 12 hectares distributed over 4 vineyards, 10 of Tempranillo, and 2 of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, with an age of around 20 to 45 years. The layout of the vineyards in different forms makes it possible to approximate the Tempranillo harvest with the French varieties and thus make this process easier for the winery.

In Casa Rojo they have it clear, and the vineyard is not about a bunch of grapes that are drained of juice and then fermented. There is a feeling for doing things properly and all the elements that are part of the wine equation are taken into account: the date of harvesting, the time of day, the grape selection, the barrels where they are going to be left… A care that will make the final product something very special.

The prestigious winemakers Patrick Meraz and Begoña Miguel Sanz are the people behind all the decisions that shape ‘Alexander’. Patrick has consolidated his prestige in Bordeaux, and his hallmark seems to be present in the typically French varieties that join the Tempranillo grape, adding a touch of distinction that can be appreciated in the final result from the very first moments. The Malbec variety has almost been lost in Bordeaux, but has been recovered in Argentina.

The year 2017 has been difficult climatologically and the yield of the vineyard has been low, but the criteria for selection of the grapes in the creation of’ Alexander’ are strict and yet bunches have been left on the plant. But although production has been low, the result looks promising. In situ we witnessed the traces left by last year’s late frosts on the harvest: complete rows of vineyards burned by the ice. It was not a classic frost, but movements of a lot of cold air that destroyed everything in their path, like a beam of light under a magnifying glass that burns everything it passes through.

The vineyard now rests after a full season under the Ribera sky and the naked vines reveal small bird’s nests that settle in the twisted trunks: undeniable proof of the organic certification they have. Enrique Pascual, president of the Regulatory Council of the Ribera del Duero Designation of Origin, accompanies us on our visit. He looks at the sky and silently prays for rain, or snow, because he knows like no one else that the climate is the best ally for the producers in the area, but sometimes it can be the worst enemy.

But these extremes are the ones that endow ‘Alexander’ with its beauty; extremes that are translated into flavours, to which we must add thyme, rosemary, even acorns, and which we come across in our walk around the farm.

It is easy to damage a great grape if the harvesting process is neglected. And everything influences it. Including the transport of the vineyard to the winery once cut, which is done with boxes of 10 or 15 kilos, which won’t crush them. The grape is a fruit that starts to oxidize from the first minute and keeping its skin intact helps us stop this process.

The first selection is made in the plant by a team trained to collect only the promising bunches. A second selection is then carried out in the winery, before entering the destemmer, where the stalks are eliminated, and from there they enter the winery by gravity, entering the OVI.

They don’t crush the grape, they leave the grape as it is. Gravity is what does its job to transport the grapes to the tanks, where they ferment. Cold and hot water pipes keep these tanks at the right temperature to accompany the juice in its transformation. Thanks to a bridge crane, gravity can be used as a method of transporting grapes from one side to the other. In this way, the grapes are not broken aggressively, leaving unwanted flavours in the final product. This produces the velvety tannin so characteristic of’ Alexander’.

Finally, ageing must be done with respect for the wine you want to obtain. With the quality level of the terroir and the wine that is made, Casa Rojo has opted to let the wine rest in French oak barrels, from 150 years old trees. A wood of the highest quality that adds personality to this high quality wine.

The result can now be enjoyed by everyone. A wine that transports us to another level and that perfectly accompanies a good roasted lamb cooked slowly in the oven, or with some cured meats, such as the famous Burgos blood sausage. With food the wine achieves its maximum expression.

Alexander vs the Ham Factory is not a fortuitous coincidence, it is the result of the stubborn determination of José Luis Gómez and Laura Muñoz to do things well.

 


Now there’s a lot of information available about oak and barrels and ageing on the internet, but given we are the Spanish Wine Experience, and given that Spain just loves throwing wine into oak barrels, we thought it correct and timely to chime in with our two cents.

History

When we look at the Ancient Greeks and Romans we notice that those famous oak barrels weren’t present. In their place what we get are clay amphorae. This was the vessel of choice for both the wines and oils of the Empire. Fortunately we have a happy accident of the Romans deciding to push their reach to the north of Europe.

When they arrived in France they encountered the Gauls, beer drinkers through and through. And beer, that beautiful golden liquor of the north, is kept and transported…in barrels, often oak ones. Initially the Romans were enthralled by its strength compared to the more brittle clay amphorae and the fact that the tight grain was very waterproof. Then you had the roll-ability of them; much easier to move around. Also there was the geographical fact that the forests of continental Europe were teeming with oak trees.

The poetic moment was when, after hauling their wine around in barrels for however long, and at the end of a hard day’s empiring, they went for a glass of red wine and noticed the flavours and aromas had improved and the drink had become more palatable. In less than a couple of centuries, wooden barrels were the new modus operandi for winemaking.

Barrels, chips and staves.

Barrels

Barrels are king, but they are expensive (900-2000$ per item). 100,000 – 200,000 new barrels are sold each year just in North America so you can imagine how much money is flying about. It’s a big business and often one of the main expenditures for a winery.

Oak flavours are extracted better from trees with a tight grain – when the rings are close together – and this happens more in cooler climates: France (Tronçais, Vosges, Nevers) Hungary and Croatia, USA (Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa). This then gives us ‘American Oak’, ‘French Oak’, etc.

A cooperage will cut, bind, toast (the level according to the intensity of the flavour the winemaker wants the wood to impart) and sell on barrels of different sizes. The ‘classic’ barrel for wine ageing is the 225L ‘Bordeaux’ or 228L ‘Burgundy’ size. Foudres, technically not ‘barrels’, can start at 2000L and reach 12,000L! But for ageing and flavour-adding you don’t want too large a barrel as the aromas will dissipate too much.

Chips and Staves (and beans and blocks)

A much cheaper, but less elegant and less well-regarded, method is to add something oaky to the fermenting wine while it’s in the stainless steel tank. Almost like adding a teabag to a pot of hot water or a spice bag for mulled wine. Though this method is cheaper and easier and can give a bit of aromatic lift to a cheap wine, it will never achieve the subtlety or elegance of leaving your wine in barrels.

Fermentation vs Ageing

Most wines are fermented – whether just the clear filtered juice of white wine or the juice + skins combo of red wines – in huge stainless steel tanks. This is essentially the process of making young wine: taking the must, adding temperature and yeast and letting the sugar turn to alcohol. Then, with your resulting booze, the winemaker may choose to fling it in a barrel and let magic happen. Reds are usually fermented in steel, as the temperature is easier to control and, to be frank, they’re also easier to clean.

Some wines are actually fermented in the barrel instead or as well as stainless steel. This will add oak aromas of course, but will also affect the structure of the wine, making them rounder, creamier and fuller. This is because the oak will allow tiny amounts of oxygen in and, particularly with whites, the wine will also be in contact with the lees (dead yeast cells and ‘bits’) that will add a yeasty breadiness. Not many wines are fermented in this way. It is very much a stylistic rather than necessary technique.

Now ageing is a different. Spain bloody loves ageing. At the turn of the 19th century an aphid-like pest called phylloxera ravaged European – particularly French – vineyards, decimating the land. It was the fault of Victorian botanists bringing American rootstocks – laden with the pest – over to Europe. With far fewer vines the Bordeaux winemakers went for help to La Rioja. The Riojans gave them wine and in return the Bordelaise left the concept of oak barrel ageing.

Your finished wine is left in a barrel and is monitored throughout its dormancy; making sure the wines are balanced as they age by sampling and blending.

The age and level of toasting of the barrel will affect your wine as it sleeps. The more heavy the toasting, the more spice and flavour imbued into the wine. The newer the barrel, the more intense the flavour. After four uses (4 years) the barrels stop imparting flavours and are called neutral. Then they are used for storage – which can still help mellow out wines and soften them.

American vs French vs Misc

There’s a lot of marketing and chat surrounding the different types of oak used in the wine industry. The reason for this is they affect the boozy juice in different ways. In short:

French Oak: generally more subtle in the imparting of flavours; often of spice, pepper and wood. Ideal with lighter, defter wines like Pinot Noir.

American Oak: imparts a lot of obvious flavour. Often those such as dill, vanilla and coconut (enter the famous ‘vanilla bomb Chardonnays’ of old).

Hungarian/Eastern European Oak: like a beefier version of French. Goes well with big wines like Malbec or Petit Verdot; attributing nutty rich and creamy aromas to the heftier tannic wines.

French oak is by far the most expensive though; so pure economics can often be an obvious consideration.

So what is the barrel actually doing?

Three main things are happening.

  1. Adding the previously mentioned flavours and aromas. Phenols – flavour compounds – in the wood interact with the wine.
      1. Vanillan – vanilla.
      2. Syringaldehyde – vanilla-ishness.
      3. Oak lactone – woody, coconut, herby notes.
      4. Furfural – dried fruits, roasted nuts, burned sugar/caramel.
      5. Guaiacol – burned flavours.
      6. (Iso)Eugenol – spices, smokiness, cloves.
      7. TOASTING – can vary the degree of toffee and mocha notes.
  2. It provides a stable, waterproof environment for the wine to go through certain processes such as malolactic fermentation and lees contact.
  3. The barrel allows a very slow ingress of oxygen.
      1. Allows concentration of flavour and aroma compounds via the precipitation of the phenols.
      2. Small amount of oxygen also help to soften tannins.

And what are the rules in Spain?

Jóven – ‘young’ wine. No ageing in oak (but maybe a sneaky month or two to make it drinkable).

Roble – ‘oak’ wine. An unofficial wine usually denoting a ‘few’ months 3-6 in oak.

Crianza – minimum total ageing of 24 months – 6 of which must have been in oak. In La Rioja, Navarra and Ribera del Duero the minimum is 12 months in oak.

Reserva – minimum total ageing of 36 months – 12 of which must have been in oak.

Gran Reserva – minimum total ageing of 5 years – 18 months of which must have been in oak. In La Rioja, Navarra and Ribera del Duero the minimum is 24 months in oak.

So, as the owner of Bodegas Zifar in the Ribera del Duero once told me years ago, “barrels and oak ageing is not necessarily needed for a wine, but imagine the winemaker is a chef, then the barrels are the spices he can add to tweak his dish at the end and make it more complex and flavourful”. And I think that about sums up the beauty of it.


One of the things that might attract the visitor’s attention most is that in Spain canned food has a consideration beyond subsistence food, military grub for dangerous missions or student flat food. It is a product of quality and luxury, whose price can sometimes reach striking figures. Enter a gourmet supermarket when you visit one of our provincial capitals and you will see what I mean. In Spain there is a long canning tradition. The variety is overwhelming: Santoña anchovies, foie gras, piquillo peppers, asparagus, bonito del norte, mussels and a long list of others.

The canning industry alone generates more than 250,000 tonnes of fish per year, some of which is exported – around 50%, and 80% of this is consumed in the European Union, where its quality is highly valued.  

But where does this tradition come from? In addition to being a country with a great deal of fishing and farming activity, it dates back to the 18th century, when death by scurvy on ships that spent a long time sailing on the high seas had become a real problem. It was Frenchman Nicolas Appert, who observed that foods boiled at more than 80ºC, and not exposed to air, lasted longer without spoiling.

The food then began to be packed in airless containers, which were later sterilized at temperatures to eliminate bacteria and other microorganisms. The result: a longer-lasting, tastier and more nutritious foodstuff.

It was not until the 19th century that the production of packaged food would take place industrially, first in glass jars and later in the popular tin containers.

The result not only prevented the spread of certain diseases, but also brought enormous health benefits. Protein, fatty acids of marine origin and polyunsaturates, omega-3…

For many people eating canned food is not at all glamorous, but canned food can reach levels of excellence as high as any other meal prepared for hours. But welcome to Spain! Here the preserves have rightly been given their place in the most demanding and exquisite pantries, so they deserve to be treated and combined with an appropriate wine, which enhances all their virtues.

Fish preserves combine perfectly with young wines: don’t be afraid, open a tin of sardines and enjoy it with a garnacha, a monastrell, a mencía or a rosé. On the other hand, if you prefer tuna or any of its relatives (bonito, melva…) choose a white wine with body, maybe some barrel.

Don’t forget to try our seafood preserves: the delicious clams, razors and cockles from northern Spain. If the seafood is packed in natural packaging, they will be perfect with the wines of the area: Rías Baixas or Ribeiro. If they are packed with sauces or fried, try a sherry.

Do you like anchovies? You can’t imagine the pleasure of savoring them accompanied by a Txakolí.

Have you ever been told that asparagus and artichokes are the great enemies of wine? Nothing could be further from the truth. A Sauvignon Blanc will put the sulfuric flavors and aromas of these vegetables in their place. In my case, I love artichokes and it’s always been a headache to find them a good companion. Here you have it: Amontillado wine.

And finally, I don’t want to say goodbye without mentioning the foies. Although I’m not a fan of them they marry spectacularly well with Pedro Ximenez.

Don’t hesitate. On your next visit to Spain let yourself be carried away by the fascinating world of canning. You will be pleasantly surprised, as well as discovering a new and wonderful souvenir to take home, for you and your friends.

 


It was a year ago when we started this adventure of the Spanish Wine Experience. At the beginning we only had in mind a few weekly podcasts to discover all the Spanish DO’s, accompanied by a few blogs here and there on wine related topics.

Well, after that time, the result has been much more positive than we had expected. We have remained strictly on schedule in our podcast publication every Thursday of the year. To date, we have published 53 episodes in which we have travelled throughout most of Spain, but we are far from coming to an end. We still have a long way to go: wines of the region, wines of the land, not to mention those areas where there are excellent red and white wines, but of which we have only talked about one variety. So don’t worry, there’s a lot of podcasts left.

We have visited wineries, events, fairs, we’ve invited friends to join us on our podcasts and together with them we have drunk and laughed like never before.

We have also celebrated special times of the year that deserved particular attention, such as Christmas, Easter, Halloween or the New Year.

We have created a community of friends around the world who support us on a weekly basis with their questions and suggestions. Nothing can make us prouder.

And after this first year we only want to continue growing, so we are taking advantage of this first anniversary to announce that now you can also enjoy our enological experience live and in our company through the Airbnb Experiences.

The proposal we want to make is to visit two typical taverns in the centre of Madrid, in possibly the most popular traditional neighbourhood: La Latina. There we will taste 4 different wines: a sparkling wine, an unusual white wine and two totally unexpected red wines. We don’t want to bore you with the wines that you can find in supermarkets around the world. And of course, each wine will be accompanied by a tapa, where we will test the pairing ability of our chefs.

We will bring our podcast microphone to our experiences and they will become part of it. We would love to hear what you think about Spanish wines and above all, to participate with your doubts, questions and thoughts. From the very beginning our podcast has created a virtual community that knows no boundaries, a group of friends who unite us in love of one thing: wine.

We would love to have you on your next trip to Madrid. If you are encouraged to visit the capital of Spain, visit the Spanish Wine Experience site on Airbnb, look for the day and book your place.

Another of our adventures during this second year of production is to launch the “Spanish Wine Experience” book, where we will gather the necessary information to turn it into the most practical, complete and irreverent guide on Spanish wine in the English language. Stay tuned for future news on this exciting project.

And for the rest, we only have to thank you for your company, we want to continue counting on you week after week, and please do not hesitate to visit us if you stop by Madrid: we will toast to that.

 

All the best,

Luke & Roque


FISH AND CHIPS

You ask anyone from Spain to name British dishes and first of all they will snigger directly in your face. Then when they have composed themselves they will almost always say ‘fish and chips’. No dish has become so entwined into the nation’s culinary heart than this one – it is Britain’s answer to the paella.

It can be, and often is, delightfully greasy Friday night takeaway food, but when cooked elegantly is perfection. A lightly battered and crispy flank of cod, plaice or haddock usually, accompanied with some chips, mushy peas and daubed liberally with malt vinegar and salt and perhaps a side of ketchup or tartare sauce. Heaven.

So what to pair with this fishy, salty, tangy, carby plate? I have chosen a crisply acidic and fairly full-bodied Godello from the region of Valdeorras. The big citrus fruit kick from the wine should sit nicely alongside the fish, whilst the acidity should help tackle the salty vinegary nature of the dish.

SHEPHERD’S PIE

The pie that isn’t really a pie. Shepherd’s Pie is a minced lamb combination of meat, peas, carrots, onions, garlic (and other bits) covered with a generous layer of fluffy mashed potato (at its best with mustard and cheese in it) and baked in the oven. The dish is at once light but also very filling with strong flavours of ‘meat’ and ‘potato’. A dish for a chilly winter evening.

So to pair with this boldly flavoured dish I have chosen a red wine that is noted both for its elegance and minerality as well as, depending on the producer or site, its spicy and fruity intensity of flavour. A bottle of red from Bierzo made from the Mencía grape. The body and power of the wine, though more restrained than some wines of Spain, should go toe to toe with this classic dish. Also works with the pork mince variation of the dish: Cottage Pie.

STEAK AND KIDNEY PIE

Another classic pie, steak and kidney; a sexy saucy thick gravy blend of chunks of beef, diced kidney, onions and spices wrapped up in a shortcrust pastry and popped into the oven. At once this dish is rich and spiced but also gentle and smooth. An intriguing blend of depth of flavour and delicateness.

To go with this dish I have chosen a fruit forward wine that can match the flavour intensity but won’t overpower it. Try it with a good quality bottle of Garnacha from the region of Campo de Borja. Pleasing red and berry fruit flavours with not too heavy body but with good acidity and a hefty level of alcohol. Should go perfectly with this staple of British cuisine.

SUNDAY ROAST

The Sunday Roast is perhaps the only dish to rival fish and chips for gastronomic fame. Roast beef or roast lamb are the two quintessential roasting meats. Not only are you going to have a big meaty flavour to deal with, but then you have the roast potatoes, parsnips, Yorkshire puddings, gravy, steamed vegetables, gravy and the accompanying condiments of spicy horseradish for beef and tangy mint sauce for lamb. It’s a busy and complex plate.

This therefore requires a complex and intense wine, but without lacking elegance. We are heading to Cataluña for a bottle of red Montsant: often Garnacha blends. These wines can take on a lot of depth and fruity darkness that should go well with the big, but almost sweet, flavours of the Sunday Roast.

HAGGIS

What wine to pair with a cooked stomach filled with offal, onions, oatmeal, suet, spices and stock? The eternal question facing the wine-loving Scot. Haggis is one of my most favourite dishes. It is an intensely spiced and meaty flavour that is often accompanied with mashed potatoes and turnips (‘neeps and tatties’) and perhaps a sensual whisky cream sauce. I love it with a cold beer or a dram of peaty whisky. But wine?

I have gone off piste for this one and chosen a heavy and alcoholic Oloroso sherry from Jerez. In Spain this fortified wine with its notes of spice, caramel, nuts and soft leather can go well with hearty stews and, more importantly, offal dishes like tripe, oxtail and pork cheeks. I think this wine with the Haggis will be the perfect Hispano-Scot pairing!

TOAD IN THE HOLE

Another stalwart classic of British cuisine with a ridiculous name, Toad in the Hole is a dish of pork sausages (of various flavours) cooked in the oven in a Yorkshire Pudding batter and served usually with onion gravy and vegetables. It is simple, hearty, but quite delicate and elegant in its flavours.

I didn’t want anything to big to overpower the soft and almost sweet flavours of the batter, the pork or the gravy, so I have opted for a dry Spanish rosé from Navarra. Spanish rosé wines are almost always dry, so forget that Californian White Zinfandel nonsense, big on booze and colour and are great food wines. Rosés have characteristics of both white and red wines, so they are some of the best food pairing wines. Try it!

STICKY TOFFEE PUDDING

I personally believe that what Britain does better than the world is desserts, or ‘puddings’. A combination of hearty and gleefully unrestrained unhealthiness matched with a certain delicateness and finesse. For the most luxuriantly sweet of British desserts, I have chosen possibly the most lusciously sweet wine in the world: Pedro Ximénez (PX), also from Jerez, but whose grapes are usually grown in neighbouring Montilla-Moriles.

PX is the grape and is grown, picked, and then dried out on straw mats under the sun until they essentially become like raisins. This concentrates their flavours and their sugars and produces mind-blowingly sweet syrupy wines. This should pair well with the moist sponge cake covered in the signature toffee sauce – and with bonus custard and vanilla ice cream on top for good measure. Pure decadence.

Let no man say that Britain doesn’t have good dishes and let no other man say that all you have to go with it is beer or cider. Now you have Spanish wines at your disposal!

Salud!