Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Running of the Winos


Recently, I found myself in Pamplona, in the Spanish Basque country, for the Alimenta 2009 exhibit. Of course, Pamplona is better known for the running of the bulls, but we were here for the running of the winos, charging thirstily from table to table to taste and discover what the Navarran countryside had to offer. Like the bulls, I was on a single-minded mission: to find new, interesting wineries using traditional techniques and grapes.

This area has been making wine for centuries, but most of it has been rustic and rough or easy-going and uninteresting. There also does seem to be a significant French influence, as there was in Empordà: the wines were generally higher in acid than those of the more Southern Spanish areas like La Mancha, but this could also be a function of the climate and terroir.

In any case, I did find this tasting somewhat difficult. There were a ton of wineries with over-ripe international varieties (Chardonnay, Cab Sauvignon, Merlot) when they should have been promoting and using their traditional grapes like Viura, Tempranillo, Garnatxa and Monastrell. And let's not talk about the use (or rather, abuse!) of oak...

However, I had a chance to visit the town of Pamplona, so please enjoy these pictures. It's a small but colorful town as you'll see, and we did an organized tour following the path the bulls take (800 meters in 3 minutes, no human can run that fast so the best you can hope for is 8-10 seconds in front of 3 tons of charging, angry meat, then hop the wall).


There were enticing tapas bars...


Colorful friezes...


Cute buildings filled the city around every corner


Spanish-style cathedrals (well duh, we were in Spain, right?).


Really? Is this place even necessary?


City Hall and the square where the St Fermin festival (the running of the bulls) is inaugurated every year.



The main square of Pamplona, with the hotel where Hemingway spent many nights drinking.


Lots of Basque influence too, obviously, as we're right by San Sebastian and the Basque Country.


Really tiny buildings too.


Oooh, Jamon Iberico!


This is the source of the water that Saint Saturnin used to baptize the earliest Christians.


The entry to the bullring, seen from the point-of-view of a charging bull. Or wino.


A statue dedicated to the brave (Foolish? Drunken?) souls who run during the Feria.


In a fit of thorough self-mockery, the artist included himself in his work. He's the guy who fell!


Our last dinner, complete with a professional carver and Pata Negra.

All in all I learned a bit about the wines of the region, though they, like most of Spain, have been thoroughly influenced by powerful critics. Many of the wineries have forsaken their roots and are making wines that could be from anywhere. That said, I did find some interesting stuff that was honest and true to its roots, so hopefully I'll be able to work with them.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Girona Flower Festival


While in Empordà, we had a chance to visit the famous Flower Festival in Girona. This event, 40 years old now, invites citizens of this lovely ancient city to decorate their homes and streets in flowers and artwork. In addition, people open their houses to the street so strangers can file in and enjoy the work.


Even the river gets into the action, with a 3 meter-wide floating flower.


In the museums, flowers are appropriately framed.



In the ancient Muslim bathhouse, we discovered a veritable cornucopia of beauty.



On the roof, virtual rabbits played in a virtual carrot garden, to everyone's delight, especially theirs.




Here, proof that both the citizens and their mannequins threw themselves into the project.





Surveying it all, a modern gargoyle and an ancient one shared the view.



We were even interviewed by the local news crew, wondering what a large group of Americans with black teeth were doing hanging out drinking beer.


Art and beauty in the city were not ephemeral like the flowers, here a metal door beckons hungry travelers.


Open doorways invited people to peek inside, though everything was carefully protected by bars.


The modern artwork was juxtaposed nicely with the ancient, more permanent one.






Ever appreciative of beauty, even the French had given something to the city: this bridge, designed and built by the Eiffel company, you know, the folks who brought you that little tower in Paris.


It looked like a Spanish, one-river version of Venice, with narrow, brightly-colored buildings, all neat and proper on one side, all festooned in garlands of flowers on the other.



We ended our day at Mimolet, where we enjoyed a fantastic meal of local foods, finishing up well past midnight. The next day we would all head back out into the world, with fond and flowery memories of our time in Empordà.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Random Bad Translation Pic of the Day

This is what happens when someone doesn't even use the Internet for translation (I mean, Google Translation HAS to be better, right?) For the record, even though I was in a duck mood, the thought of "Thigh of Hopeful Duck" was a little sad, so I opted for the "Mask of Pork" (pork cheeks).

I was a little worried about the "scum", but it turned out to be creme Chantilly. No harm, no foul, no scum. Still, I went for the apples braised in Catalan cream (a bit cinnamonny but good).

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Empordà, Spain


Yeah, I said the same when I heard I was going there. It’s in the northeast sector of Spain, just south of the French border (heck, I could walk there from where we were). Even though I (and most people I spoke with) had never heard of it, it’s also Spain’s oldest wine-growing region. The Romans came here 2,000 years ago, planted vines, and never looked back.

Looking at the Pyrenees towards France

Today, it’s a fascinating area of rolling foothills and winding roads. The northerly Tramontana wind blows constantly, and like the Mistral in France, has a tendency to drive people mad. Also like the lands just north of the border, there is a large amount of slate in the ground, giving a nice mineral note to the wines while making the vines really work for their fruit. The area achieved DO (Denominacion de Origen, say it with the “th” sound replacing the “c”, so it’s pronounced Denominatheeon; go ahead, I’ll wait) status in 2006, and after this trip, it’s easy to see why.

First, a disclaimer: I am usually not a big fan of many (not all, so don’t get all up in my visage about this) Spanish wines. I find them over-ripe, over-oaked, low-acid, and basically over-done. And the prices for some of these ooze monsters aren’t exactly easy on the wallet. Heck, some of the cheapest Spanish wines I’ve tasted have been the best because they weren’t whacked with tons of oak and extracted to high Heaven (or Hell).

So while I kept an open mind about this trip, I was a bit skeptical.

However, after three days of tasting and visiting wineries in the (quite beautiful) region, I am convinced there are well-made wines to be found in this area. In general, the wines expressed a sense of terroir that I sometimes find lacking in other Iberian wines. They all had a relatively high amount of acidity, and while some were over-oaked, most were balanced. Most of the wines exhibited a lean earthy minerality in their mid-palate that I found refreshing, and a nice amount of acidity to balance the big fruit they get there. The main sticking point for me was, for the most part, price.

I found familiar and not-so familiar grape names on the bottles: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Torrontes, Macabeo, Samsò (orginally, I thought this was Cinsault, as the two are pronounced exactly alike, which led to a somewhat Abbott and Costello-ish routine with one winemaker until we cleared things up. Oh, what is it? Carignan, as they can't call it that here as a DO in Spain is named Cariñan and the authorities don't want any confusion...). However, some grape names were in Catalàn, a dialect that when spoken sounds half-Spanish, half-French, all said with a Portuguese accent. Interesting, to say the least.

So as I said, I found some interesting things that I'll follow-up with in the coming days. We'll see...

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Lighter Side of Wine


It's been a crazy 10 days or so since the NY Times review came out, so I've been swamped with work and haven't really had time to write. Add to that the fact that I've had a serious case of Writer's Block (high frustration, low creativity), and, well, what you've got is not as much updating of this blog as I'd like. My goal was to have at least 1-2 posts per week, I'm down to 1 every 10 days. Not good.

In the meantime, I've partaken of some wonderful wine dinners and shared some great times. This got me thinking, which is never a good thing, and all of a sudden I find my fingers flying over the keyboard.

Sometimes, people take wine too seriously. It becomes the focus of the meal as opposed to something that should be enjoyed and shared among friends. Two recent events stand out: a picnic in Central Park a few weekends ago (the one Saturday it hasn't been cold or rainy), and a dinner at Peking Duck House last Friday. Both are exemplary of what wine should be, in my mind, at least.

In both cases, we had some wonderful and some not-so-wonderful bottles, yet the main motive was to gather friends together and enjoy each other's company over these bottles. Too many times I've gone to dinners and all we had in common was the wine, and the moment someone stopped talking about them all you could hear were the crickets (yes, even in the city, we have them). That quickly becomes mind-numbingly boring, and I start asking myself, "Where's my gun?" Then I recall that I am in New York, and I don't own a gun, but that bus lane is quite close and a quick leap could free me from this morbid gathering.

Wine is supposed to be fun. Yes, it's all good and nice to analyze and think about it, but at the end of the day, it's a convivial beverage that you are supposed to share with your friends and family. All the analysis should be done at the professional tastings. After that, relax and enjoy yourself. Life is too short to take so many things so seriously.