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.

 


Happy Podcast Day! This week Roque and Luke tackle another one of the single estate Vinos de Pago! This time it’s DO Pago Florentino, a wine made in the depths of La Mancha but is owned by legendary Ribera del Duero bodega Arzuaga. They talk wine movies and receive and answer live ‘in the moment’ questions from some listeners.


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Cheeseburger

Cheeseburgers are probably the first things that come to my mind when I think about American food. They are not my favourite, but I must confess I’ve succumbed to temptation on more than one occasion. It’s that perfect blend of meat and cheese that makes them irresistible. As much as people now want to complicate them, their preparation is very simple. It is a classic that can not be missed at any summer barbecue. In fact the numbers speak for themselves: 13 billion units were served in 2009 in the United States. Moreover, it is only the first step towards a world of infinite combinations with tomato, bacon, onion, pickles, lettuce, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard… And so, to infinity and beyond.

My proposal is to combine this king of the kitchen with the king of wines in Spain. I would go with a red Rioja. Besides being an easy wine to find, I think the classiness of the wine contrasts with the irreverence of the cheeseburger.

Mac and Cheese

If you want to see an Italian writhe and squirm like a slug on a handful of salt just give him this recipe. It is a recipe that could not be further away from conservatism of the famous and sacred Italian pasta. But between you and me, who can resist the delicious combination of pasta and cheesy cream?

And what better to combine with the sweet flavour of this dish than a dry wine like Manzanilla. It’s one of those combinations that is, by its contrasts, really interesting, but tends to balance out both flavours. Sherry wines are recommended for combining with rice, seafood, white fish, soft cheeses and even ham, and now, why not, Mac and cheese.

Chicken casserole

This is probably one of my favorite dishes in American cuisine. I discovered it whilst diving mouth first into the world of Amish food. A lot of their recipes are based on these casseroles, all of them delicious, but especially this one with chicken. I’ve seen several variations on it that include peas, carrots and even corn. One of my dreams is to one day open a restaurant in Madrid where only Amish food is served.

In either case, my proposal is to pair this dish with an elegant wine from Rías Baixas; it would be the perfect companion. These wines are very versatile, they have a very balanced acidity and allow you to combine them with multiple dishes. The fruity hints of the wine will blend perfectly with the delicate flavours of the chicken casserole.

Hot dogs

Along with the burger, hot dogs are, by popular acclamation, one of the greatest dishes of American gastronomy. Popular all over the world, it is a very easy meal to eat while walking down the street, which explains why one of its most popular points of sale are those street kiosks. But let us bring the hot dog to a higher context, imagine that we are at home enjoying a movie or an interesting football game: it’s time to have a delicious hot dog.

Besides bread and sausage, the variety of seasonings and toppings that can be added is vast: ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, pickles, fried onions, cheese… Everything seems to work well with that simple recipe of bread and sausage.

And if hot dogs are another star of American cuisine, I will propose to match them with one of the other kings of Spanish wines that I think works perfectly: Ribera del Duero. Two strong and different personalities that work perfectly together in your mouth.

Fried chicken

One of the most interesting contrasts that can be sampled in the world of Spanish wines is the one between bubbling cavas and especially greasy meals. It’s not surprising that one of the foods that better combines with this sparkling drink is the Iberian (Ibérico) ham. This is the reason why I have dared to pair fried chicken with this bubbly wine. Bring a bottle of Cava with you to your next picnic. The harmony is perfect between the fat-fried white meat of chicken and the acidity of the Cava. It does nothing but extol its flavours in perfect harmony.

Ribs

It’s time to get your hands dirty. And there is no better way than to eat delicious ribs painted with that sticky and scrumptious barbecue sauce, cooked as slowly as possible. In contrast with the rushed and fast-food image of burgers and hot dogs, it’s not easy to find an American recipe that requires so much time and pampering as the famous pork ribs.

The combination of seasoning and mustard and barbecue sauce requires a wine with character, so I opted for a wine from Toro, a big and elegant wine, linked to the soil and traditions, to empower the timeless flavour of the ribs. Try this combination: it has a powerful mouthfeel and is simply delicious.

Meat Loaf

Finally, to close our round of pairings, I propose the classic dish of meatloaf. I love recipes whose base is ground meat. A similar dish to this, more European, is the famous shepherd’s pie. Occasionally, I cook it with Luke, guided by his wise and very British advice. Undoubtedly, however, American meatloaf has much more temperament, and the result is, perhaps, far more powerful.

Therefore I propose a wine that balances the powerful taste of the meatloaf, let’s try it with a red wine from Priorat. Sun-dried red and black plums, black cherry, and cassis will pair perfectly with those countless flavours exploding in your mouth.


Happy 2017 from Roque and Luke. To toast this new year we tackle another Spanish classic. A bottle of Ribera del Duero, from Condado de Oriza Crianza. As well as the classic wine chat the two swap presents and chat festive nonsense.

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A couple of years ago I walked an elongated version of the Camino de Santiago. 51 days and about 1200km. The most famous route is from France in the little village of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to the ancient holy city of Santiago de Compostela. I published a book about it called, quite originally, El Camino, and then essentially put it neatly behind me into my past. Now I recall my journey and think to myself, as well as the Camino de Santiago, it could quite easily be named the Camino de Vino. For there was a lot of wine. The Spanish have been at it, wine-making that is, since the Phoenicians and Romans.

If we focus, for the sake of brevity and sanity, on the principal and most famous route, the camino francés, we are talking about a 780km walk from east to west along a millennia-old pilgrim track. Spain has 70 denominaciones de origen (D.O.), demarcated wine regions, so statistically it makes sense that one would pass through at least a few of them.

Coming down tired and sore from the Pyrenees on day one, you enter the old kingdom of Navarra, which, handily, happens to be a D.O. It is an odd region that is as varied as it is attractive. From Swiss-style green peaks dotted with chalet toy towns with Basque names like Linzoain, Zubiri, Aurtiz, to ancient medieval cities like Pamplona, Estella and Puente la Reina, Navarra has long been the pilgrim gateway to Spain.

And, after a long walk, you want a glass of wine or five. As a region for red wine it is quite far behind a lot of the other great regions, though they are tasty, they are also rather unpolished and often a little unexciting and simple. But they do the job. Navarra’s magic lies in its rosés and is arguably the best region in Spain for reliable versions of the dark pink Spanish chilled wine.

Around the village of Cirauqui, trellised wines snake up to its little mount and at the old former Benedictine monastery of Irache there is a pilgrim wine fountain dispensing free red to walkers. Take your plastic bottle and fill it up. The tap wasn’t working when I passed by the morning of my walk so I would have to imagine how it tasted.

A few days later and the pilgrim hauls his tired frame into the old quartermaster of the Spanish wine world: La Rioja. It was rare to have a view that didn’t include kilometres and kilometres of vineyards. Spring had left the surrounding fields velvety and green with long grasses. It was almost a Spanish Tuscany without the Cyprus trees.

We wouldn’t have dreamed of ordering anything except the local wine in these towns – Navarrete, Nájera, Santo Domingo de la Calzada; all small church-filled places. But the crown was given to Logroño and its obscene number of bars. Tapas bar after tapas bar offering a full list of local producers and their wines; usually none more than a couple of euros a glass, and served with the famed speciality nibbles: potatoes cooked with peppers and chorizo, stuffed mushrooms, fried pig snouts, little sandwiches.

We rubbed our heads and in the morning blinked clear the hangovers as we approached the much-scorned yet bleak beauty and expanses of the meseta. The 200km long flat-as-a-pancake plateau. The topography had simmered down to nearly zero. There were a few soft rises and dips but not a vineyard in sight. We were walking west and shadowing another behemoth region: Ribera del Duero, which lay 85km to the south.

As compensation for this we continued to do what we did every day: get up early, walk between 20-40km, arrive at our destination, and open and drink an unhealthy amount of local wine. Fortunately, as we drifted from Burgos to Frómista, to Carrión de los Condes, to Castrojeriz, to Sahagún, this local wine happened to be those dark liquorice-filled yet smooth beasts of Ribera.

After the monument-filled and genteel old city of León, it was high time we walked through a D.O. again. This time was Bierzo, the floral wonderland of the far west part of Castilla y León. The land grow bouncy and hilly again, and then the mountains brought a new architecture; stone houses with distinctive grey slate roofs.

The vineyards of Bierzo showed off their drama as they slid over warm green slopes in the foreground as snow-tipped peaks danced in the back. Little ladies in round hats were pruning the vines around the postcard-perfect villages of Molinaseca, Villafranca del Bierzo, Valtuille de Arriba. In Bierzo, for red wines, the Mencía grape was king. It is a grape I have described before as the Pinot Noir of Spain. Elegant, floral and lighter than the bolstered Tempranillos, hot Garnachas and inky Monastrells of the rest of Spain. Here, with the moderate climate, retaining heat in summer but overall more mild in all seasons, red fruits, violets and a pleasing minerality fill these suave wines. Many fuzzy mornings were had.

Finally the world was drowned in green as I entered the mystical Celtic lands of Galicia. Here the temperatures drop and the humidity and rainfall increase. There are reds, good reds, to be had in this region, but the superstars are the whites.

At Portomarín we brushed the top of D.O. Ribeira Sacra, a fecund valley sliced in two by the Sil river; famous for its grand canyon. Here again Mencía was the dominant red. They had a different aspect to the darker wines of Bierzo, lacking the heavier fruit punch. They were dangerously drinkable, light and fruity but still had that classic minerality, poetically linked to the steep slate hillsides on which the Mencía grape grows.

And so to Santiago de Compostela I arrived. I had been lashed with rain and had sweated through shirts, been pummelled with hail storms and blown about by gales, often on the same day, but after 47 days I had finally arrived at that moss-covered religious relic where St James lay, dead as dust in his box.

However there was one more region to drink. Split into five sub-zones, D.O. Rías Baixas spreads itself out along the lower western fjord-like estuaries of Galicia. They share the space with cute Scandiweigian villages, broad sandy bays, eucalyptus forests and fishermen. They also make Spain’s best white wines using the Albariño grape.

The day after I arrived I headed north up to the shipwreck-riddled Costa da Morte, coast of death, on the vineyard-less Rías Altas, but for now, in Santiago, I could at least feel fairly close to some vineyards. There is a sub-zone – Ribera del Ulla – that creeps in land and leaves the fjords, and sits just 10km or so south of the city. So we drank our fill.

Albariño in its Galician homeland is a joy to drink; bracing acidity and fresh lemony flavours and melons and apricots too sometimes. They can be creamy if left on the lees or almost effervescently mimicking the Vinho Verdes of Portugal. And, when paired with seafood – the region’s speciality – it makes the drinker emit sounds that are best left to the privacy of one’s home.

I finished the Camino de Santiago with firmed buttocks and calf muscles, the same belly, and, probably a liver that had packed up and died in the corner of the room. St. James might be shocked if he ever came back one day to realise that his Camino de Santiago is really the Camino de Vino.