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.

 


This week Roque and Luke set their sights, and their tastebuds, on another lesser known, hidden away corner of La Mancha: DO Ribera del Júcar, near the historic city of Cuenca. They guzzle down a bottle of La Duna from Vega Moragona. They get serious talking about cooperatives and get stupid talking about anthropomorphic wine!

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Now it’s all well and good banging on about this wine or that wine, and of course you can buy them in the shops, but there’s nothing quite like seeing the land where the grapes grow and, if possible, visiting wineries.

All these mini itinerary trips require hiring a car and please, if you do them, try, where possible, to have a designated driver. The SWE team doesn’t want a lawsuit against them for promoting the acquiring of DUIs.

Have a look at these 6 regional Spanish road trips, set your own timetables to fit in with the ideas, and enjoy d(r)iving in the heart of the wine-lands!

1. Navarra/Rioja – two/three days

Start of the route: Estella

End of the route: Logroño

Recommended steps:

  1. After enjoying the historic centre of pretty Estella head out southwest along the NA-1110 and visit the Santa María de Irache monastery, its bodega and the free Tempranillo wine tap there pouring out DO Navarra red.
  2. Follow the NA-1110 past vineyards and the remote villages of the Camino de Santiago such as Los Arcos, Torres del Río and Viana to arrive at Logroño.
  3. In Logroño, capital of DO La Rioja, go out for tapas in the famous bar-filled streets around Calle Laurel and Calle San Agustín.
  4. Take the N-232a to the gorgeous hilltop town of Laguardia. Eat in one of the old taverns: pochas (bean stew), steak and potatoes with red peppers.
  5. Afterwards take a trip to maybe visit the Ysios winery, designed by Santiago Calatrava, or head just south a little on the A-3210 to the village of Elciego to visit the famed Marqués de Riscal winery designed by the Guggenheim’s Frank Gehry.
  6. Drive into the wine lands again through villages like San Vicente de Sonsierra and Briones and make your way to the capital of the La Rioja wine region: Haro.
  7. A visit to one of the great bodegas is a must (CUNE, Muga etc). My favourite is Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia with its ancient and dusty subterranean wine cellars and antiquated methods of production. For a more upmarket lunch head to historic Hotel los Agustinos.

2. Manchuela/Utiel-Requena – one/two days

Start of the route: Alcalá del Júcar

End of the route: Requena

Recommended Steps:

  1. Enjoy the delirious beauty of Alcalá del Júcar: take a drink at the Cuevas de Masago cave bar and have lunch/dinner and wine at El Moli restaurant.
  2. Head west along the Júcar river on the B-5 to the Jorquera viewpoint on the AB-880.
  3. Head north in the direction of Fuentealbilla and visit the winery Finca El Molar: a biodynamic place run by a young and friendly lady called Rus.
  4. Take the CM-3207 road east driving through the wine-lands of DO Manchuela.
  5. Stop just before the fairytale village of Cofrentes on the CV-439 for one of the most startling views in the whole area.
  6. Head north along the N-330 and the high undulating vine-covered fields of DO Utiel-Requena.
  7. Visit the old centre of Requena, like an Andalusian white town lost in the Valencia region.
  8. Enjoy a cheap tasting at the wine shop on Plaza del Salvador and then have a nice traditional meal at the friendly Mesón de la Villa.

3. Ribeira Sacra – one day

Start of the route: Os Peares

End of the route: Monforte de Lemos

Recommended steps:

  1. Head to the village Os Peares and turn onto the dramatic Sil Canyon road, LU-P-4103.
  2. Rejoin at the OU-0508 and continue on to the postcard-perfect viewpoint: Mirador de Vilouxe.
  3. Take the LU-903, which heads through the verdant green depths of the DO Ribeira Sacra wine-lands. Keep your eyes peeled for the Monasterio de San Paio de Abeleda near the village of O Couto and grab a glass or a bottle of local Mencía red wine at the Adega Ponte de Boga or one of the many other bodegas that little the area.
  4. Cross the canyon at its bottom and come up the other side past high-flung Doade and the famously steep vine-covered valley walls.
  5. End your day at Monforte Lemos, a calm town famed for its giant 18th century seminary, and enjoy a well-earned meal.

4. Jerez – one day

Start of the route: Jerez

End of the route: Jerez

Recommended steps:

  1. Start off your trip by looking around the dreamy old town in Jerez and stopping in at old bars like Tabanco San Pablo, for a local tipple.
  2. Head to the town’s oldest sherry winery – Fundador, started in 1730 – and go for a tour and tasting around its fascinating complex.
  3. Head west along the pretty A-480 road. On either side, for as far as the eye can make out, you can notice the distinct dry, almost, white albariza soils: a mixture of chalk, sand and clay. Vineyards surround you as you drive to Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
  4. Enjoy the views across the sands and lazy Guadalquivir estuary to the UNESCO-protected Doñana national park on the other side of the water. Enjoy cheap drinks and some fresh fish and flamenquín at Don Viento.
  5. Stroll up to the centre of the old town, perhaps ‘forcing’ yourself to have another sherry at the adorable Plaza de Cabildo.
  6. Have a final mosey through more of those typically white and endearingly scruffy white streets – occasionally shocked with colour – to Taberna der Guerrita for a tapa and yet more sherry.
  7. Choose your designated driver and head back to Jerez past the final wine-town of El Puerto de Santa María before taking the CA-201 and visiting the beautiful Carthusian charterhouse, Cartuja de Santa María de la Defensión.

5. Cariñena/Campo de Borja – one day

Start of the route: Zaragoza

End of the route: Borja

Recommended steps:

  1. Head south from Zaragoza on the A-222 towards the eerie and Civil War-ruined ghost town of Belchite.
  2. Head west along the A-220 keeping your eyes peeled just after leaving Belchite for the odd-looking Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Pueyo up on its private hill.
  3. Drive through the rumbling plains and vineyards of DO Cariñena and make for the attractive town of Borja; home of Bodegas Borsao, which Robert Parker said in 2016 was ‘My favourite value winery not only in Spain, but in the world…’
  4. Have food at La Bóveda del Mercado and make sure to accompany it with red wine: the speciality being made from the Garnacha grape. You are now in DO Campo de Borja, the ‘Empire of Garnacha’.
  5. Follow the small road north, that rises out of the town past beautiful vineyards, to the Santuario de Misericordia. Here you can see the amusing repainting of Ecce Homo when local octogenarian Cecilia Giménez tried, and spectacularly failed, to restore the fresco.
  6. Return towards the N-122 and take the road west, coming off at the Z-372. You’re now heading into the lush and mountainous beauty of the Moncayo Natural Park.
  7. Visit the imposing and ancient-looking Monasterio de Veruela and its well-set up wine museum. Also, of course, grab a drink there!

6. Bierzo – one day

Start of the route: Ponferrada

End of the route: Villafranca del Bierzo

Recommended steps:

  1. First head east along the LE-142 and check out some of the outrageously cute slate-tiled mountain villages typical of the area: Molinaseca, El Acebo de San Miguel, Foncebadón and, slightly further off, Rabanal del Camino.
  2. Check out the Templar Castle in Ponferrada and grab tapas in the old town at El Bodegón: famed for their spicy mussels, fried calamari and patatas bravas.
  3. Head west along the LE-713 to the wine town of Cacabelos and then try to grab a tour of the Godelia winery. You’ll start to notice that you are following pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.
  4. Past dinky Pieros, take the offshoot road CV-126-32 to the ramshackle and diminutive wine-village Valtuille de Arriba. This whole area is surrounded by smooth multicoloured hills dotted as far as the eye can see with Mencía grapevines; Spain’s answer to Pinot Noir.
  5. Follow the country roads west – best to use a GPS here – to one of Spain’s most attractive small towns: Villafranca del Bierzo. Eat at the Casa de Comidas La Pedrera, with its pretty decor and garden.

There are myriad routes through cute villages and outstanding countryside in all 70 of the country’s denominaciones. So, when you’ve finished these 6, hire a car and make your own adventure!

Salud y buen camino!


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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