The w(a)ines in Spain

There’s a lot to be said for Spanish wine – quite apart from the fact that there is a huge amount of it. Very usefully, especially for the established producers, one can very easily find mature wines in the shops – none of the raw young stuff that’s usually all you find in South African shops (and, even more problematically, in South African restaurants). Changing at Madrid airport last week, knowing I’d be arriving late and tired and thirsty in Granada, I bought a bottle of a good red Rioja – Vina Ardanza, from La Rioja Alta. The current vintage is 2001!
That was admittedly a bit older than most of the other bottles on the shelf, but not by all that much in many cases. It cost around 20 euros – about R200. And very good it proved to be.
Later in the week, to suitably prepare my palate for what looks likely to be a vinous feast in sherry country, I bought a bottle of that ubiquitous and famous fino sherry, Tio Pepe. A far from ignoble example of one of the world’s great wines. And at around six euros (R60-plus) there can’t be many better wine bargains in the world, I suspect.
Yesterday was my last day in Granada. A visit to the Alhambra proved abortive. After half an hour I decided that I’d rather not wander around one of the world’s great buildings if it meant doing so in the company of many thousands of other jostling tourists taking photographs of it and each other. One advantage of growing older for me is that I feel more serene taking such irrevocable decisions – it’s more than unlikely now that I shall ever see the Alhambra. Too bad!
More cheerfully, the next morning found me riding rather blissfully on a comfortable Spanish train, for a three-hour journey to Seville to change there for Jerez de la Frontera, heart of the sherry country. It should, I suppose, have been flamenco or Manuel de Falla on my headphones, but somehow Mahler seemed a fine accompaniment to endless vistas of millions more olive trees than seemed entirely plausible.
And now I’m in Jerez – my first visit to a place whose wines I have loved and admired for a long time, which has to be exciting. A demanding and exhilarating programme of tastings and visits starts in an hour or so. The occasion is that a small group of international wine writers had been invited by Jesús Barquín to participate in Vinoble, the sweet and fortified wine fair that has been held in Jerez for many years. But at the last minute, the mayor of Jerez cancelled the sponsorship, citing Spain’s economic problems. Jesús suggested we come anyway – so here a few of us are! Including Americans Peter Liem, who’s something of a sherry expert (I think he’s writing a book on it with Jesús), and Eric Asimov of the New York Times.
I am working inexpertly on my ipad, and if I can find some way of including photos, I will.
Hoping all the time that there are still afew readers braving the slowness and other problems on Grape.

From a different south (further north)

I yesterday spent some time in some of the most remarkable old vineyards I´ve ever had the privilege of visiting. They are south of the lovely city of Granada in Andalucia, southern Spain, high on a mountainside less than 10 kilometres from the Mediterranean (where pale Brits and Germans are probably already turning bright pink in the hot sunshine). There are in fact only remnants of viticulture hereabouts – after phylloxera´s destruction, most farmers turned to the more lucrative crops in the rather rich schistous soils and amazingly semi’tropical conditions (lots of mangoes, for example, believe it or not).

Even those vineyards that were replanted on rootstocks couldn´t long survive the problem of highly expensive farming (steep slopes, expensive labour, long and difficult distances from the villages), and were progressively abandoned. Even now one can see many signs of them – vines struggling under newer almond trees, for example.

But some 20 years back, farmer Horacio Calvante got an idea which hasn´t let him go yet. He started looking around for abandoned old vineyards, rehabilitated them when possible, and occasionally replanted. Now he has a few dozen scattered tiny parcels of vines over the mountainside. The oldest are of a variety that is also one of the oldest in the Cape – Muscat dÁlexandrie (good old hanepoot), and the grapes off these go into a very good dry white wine sold under the Calvente label.

This wine was, incidentally, listed in the book called 1001 Wines to Try before you Die, published a few years back. The heart of it is a tiny block of pre-phylloxera vines ‘ some 150 years old, it seems. But there are many other vines approaching 100 years. And the setting of all of them is spectacular. I realise how inadequate it is to simply say that, without including pictures. Once I´m back amongst my own technology, rather that trying to do things in Spanish, I shall put up some photos. (I have swiped this pic of Horacio among his wines, for the time being, from here, where you can see some more, if you wish.)

But yesterday. walking through some vineyards and, through the window of a bouncing 4×4 admiring others on seemingly inaccessible slopes that were as steep as anything I´ve seen on the Mosel, I thought a good deal about some of the winemakers back home with a love of old vines – Chris Alheit, Eben Sadie among them, and above all of viticulturist Rosa Kruger, who has done more for old vineyards in South Africa than anyone else. She would love these ones.

In a few days I´m off for my first visit to Jerez de la Frontera, to learn something about sherry. Fortunately with the guidance of one of its great modern masters, Jesus Barquin, and his apparently even more eminent partner in Equipos Navazos, who make some of today´s most sought after sherries.

I believe it´s pretty grim weather back in Cape Town. It always adds to one´s own pleasures in sunny parts to think of the misery one is missing.