Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Little Taste of Spain in Chicago

The Presentation
The Muga family has been making wines for centuries in Rioja, Spain.  Their current facility, in Barrio de La Estacion of Haro, is over two centuries old and houses over 14,000 barrels of French, American, Hungarian, Russian and a small amount of Spanish oak.  Their wines are oak fermented, oak stored and oak aged.  They even do their own cooperage.
The vineyards are located at the foot of Montes Obarenses in Rioja Alta where they enjoy a combination of Mediterranean, Atlantic and Continental climates.  Muga owns 620 acres of vine here, and controls another 370 that are predominantly clay and limestone soils.  The grapes grown are Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo (Carignan), Graciano, Viura (Macabeo) and Malvasia.  
In addition to their renowned reds, they produce a white and a rose.  The May 2009 Wine & Spirits magazine poll voted them the most popular Spanish wine.  Their 2004 Torre Muga was deemed one of the 10 best wines in the world in 2007 according to Wine Spectator.  The 2006 Rosado received 90 Parker points, deeming it the best rose in Spain and one of the top three in the world.
Their current portfolio of wines is just as impressive.  I had the pleasure of meeting Juan Muga in Chicago this week at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and enjoying some of his wines.  While the majority of information I am passing along comes from either their website or his presentation on Monday, I have included personal comments on the samples I was able to try.
Imbibing with Juan Muga
The Conde de Haro Cava NV is made of 90% Viura and 10% Malvasia.  The grapes grow on North facing slopes to protect them from the heat and are harvested two weeks earlier than the fruit used for their white wine to keep it crisp.  First fermentation occurs in wood; the second occurs for 14 months in the bottle.  Honey on the nose, with a little banana and raisin.
Muga’s white wine uses the same varietal formula as the Cava but the grapes are double-checked and 50% of the harvest is lost in their quality control process.  This wine goes through a slow fermentation in new French oak and spends 3 months on the lees.  Great alternative to Chardonnay with its golden apple meets guava presentation.
The Rosado is 60% Garnacha, 30% Viura and 10% Tempranillo.  It spends 12 hours macerating, 25 days fermenting in small wood vats then spends 2 months aging before bottling.  Beautiful, light salmon colored rose.  Roses and strawberry on the nose and a surprisingly long finish for a rose.
Enea is the first of the still reds, which is made up of 90% Tempranillo and 10% Viura.   The grapes are grown on the South slope of Sierra de Cantabria just before the brush begins on alternating layers of loam and clay.  They are manually selected before going through carbonic maceration and ending in small wooden vats.
The Reserva is 70% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha, and a 10% blend of Mazuelo and Graciano.  The wine spends six months in traditional oak vats before being stored 24 months in small oak barrels.  This is followed by a minimum of 12 months in the bottle.
The makeup of the Seleccion Especial is 70% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha, 7% Mazuelo and 3% Graciano.  It produced using indigenous yeast in oak vats before spending 28 months in casks made from their own cooperage.  It is then fined with fresh egg whites before rounding off in the bottle for 12 months.  Medium ruby wine bearing violets and back fruits; some earth; soft tannins.
Prado Enea is 80% Tempranillo and a 20% blend of Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano.  The grapes for this wine, as well as those used in Torre Muga, are picked later for ideal ripening.  It ferments naturally in oak vats without the use of temperature control or added yeast.  Maceration time varies, but is up to 20 days before the wine spends 12 month in 16,000 litre oak vats then 36 months in barrel.  After casking, it is fined with egg whites and spends another 36 months (minimum) in the bottle.  More concentrated fruit; bright blackberry turns earth and leather.
The Torre Muga consists of 75% Tempranillo and 30% Graciano.  The regimen here is six months in wood vats, 18 months in new oak and at least 12 months in the bottle.
Aro is 70% Tempranillo and 30% Graciano.  It spends six months in oak vats before spending 18 months in new French oak.  It ends with 12 months, at minimum, in the bottle.  The showcase wine.  Deep purple with some sediment.  Ripe plum, straw, tobacco, leather.  Very pleasing long finish.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Nebbiolo is the reigning black grape of Italy, who overlooks his kingdom daily from his throne in the Piedmont region of Italy.  His two most regal offspring are the wines Barolo and Barbaresco.  These wines are of a fuller body and are loaded with extract, tannin, acidity and alcohol, which combine to make them perfect for aging before they make their regal appearance at your table.
It is a particularly challenging grape to rear.  It is quite particular about its soil and requires exceptional drainage, which is why you often find them growing on south facing slopes.  A moderate climate with cool nights does well by this grape.  It has thin skins and ripens late, which means it needs to have the best exposure to sun.  Nebbiolo’s fussiness has made it difficult for vintners outside Italy to grow with any significance.
The blood line of Nebbiolo runs deep and the Italians fiercely protect the integrity of this varietal.  Attestation that this grape has been responsible for wines of distinction have been found dating back as far as 1235.  Documents found in 1303 dub the “Nubiola” grape as “delightful” and “excellent wine.”  A century later those found cutting down a Nebbiola vine were severely punished with retributions up to and including hanging.
The origins of the name, Nebbiolo, are uncertain, but there are two schools of thought.  The references to royalty illustrate one school of thought and that is that the name derives from the Italian word “nobile,” which means royalty.  The other school of thought is that its name comes from the word “nebbia,” which means fog, which either was attached to the grape because of the frosted appearance of the grape itself or because of the blanket of fog that comes into the region in the fall during harvest.  
Piedmont translates to “foot of the mountain.”  The region is found south of the Alps, predominantly on the steep limestone hills of Langhe.  As stated, the region is perfect for Nebbiolo and it has been difficult for others outside Italy to grow this variety with any success.  Among those who are trying are Argentina, Australia, and California.
The differences between Barbaresco and Barolo have to do with age.  For starters, Barolo is an older wine, historically, than Barbaresco.  The second difference is the time each wine must age.  Barbaresco must spend a minimum of two years aging, one of which much be on oak.  If it is to be labeled “Riserva” it must age four years.  Barolo, on the other hand, must age a minimum of three years, 18 months of which must be on oak, and “Riserva” labeling requires five years of aging.  Both need time in the bottle.  If drunk too early, they taste of bitter chocolate.
Tasting Exercise
Prepare for a night of indulgence and compare a Barolo and a Barbaresco.  As Barolo can be a little pricey, you may try just one.  Either will give you a good taste (literally) of what Nebbiolo has to offer.  You may also find a Nebbiolo d’Alba.  Choose also to contrast one of these wines to one produced in another country.  Do you agree they are just not the same?    
On The Label
Nebbiolo, Barolo, Barbaresco
It The Bottle
Red fruit, black fruit, floral, sweet spice, earth, vegetal, game - “tar and roses” is a term often attached to the aromatic profile
At The Table
Red meat, aged cheese, mushrooms
Photo Credit:

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Port is a fortified wine.  Fortified wines are wines where spirits - usually grape brandy - are incorporated.  This addition of alcohol kills the yeasts and stops fermentation before all the sugars are gone.  The wine then moves to barrels where they are aged up to 40 years.  Port was created so that wine could survive long ocean voyages.  They can be made with either red or white grapes.
Port takes its name from the city, Oporto (Portugal), from where it has been shipped for a few hundred years.  Production occurs over 40 miles downstream from the vineyards in Duoro where there are three subregions.  The vineyards in Baixo Corgo produce the lightest wines, Cima Corgo is where most of the top vineyards are found and Duoro Superior, while planted more sparingly, is also a source of quality Port.  
Each year authorities dictate how many grapes may be used for Port with the remainder being turned into still wines.  Twenty-nine varieties are recommended for use in the production of Port.  The best known reds are Tinta Roriz (which is the local name for Tempranillo), Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cao and Tina Barroca.  Better known whites are Sercial, Verdelho, Malvasia Fina and Viosinto.
There are four major categories of Port.  Ruby Port is deep in color, fruity and ready to drink.  It may taste similar to some sweet wines you may have had.  They will be labeled "Ruby Port,” "Reserve Ruby Port,” "Late Bottled Vintage(LBV)" or "Traditional Style LBV.”  Reserve Ruby Port is a blend of multiple vintages that is aged in cask up to five years.  A Late Bottled Vintage, or LBV, is made from a specific year’s vintage and is aged four to six years before bottling.
Tawny Port is paler, browner and smoother with complex nutty aromas.  A Tawny with Indication of Age will be labeled either 10, 20, 30 or 40 years.  It is important to know that the age stated is not the actual age, but is an average age of the vintages inside.  These Ports must state the year of bottling.  With age, the palate has changed to walnut, almond, caramel and coffee.  Colheita is a rare, single vintage Port with a minimum of eight years of aging.
Vintage Ports are the longest lived of all of the Port wines and are intended to do most of their aging in the bottle versus the cask.  They are bottled between 18 months and three years.  Any producer can declare a vintage and the wines will be blends of grapes from their finest vineyards.  Single Quinta Vintage Ports are made from a single top quality vineyard and the name of the quinta (estate) appears on the label.  It is tradition with some to gift a newborn with a Vintage Port from his or her birth year to save until adulthood.
White Ports are, of course, made with white grapes.  They are golden in color and will be off-dry to sweet.  They will spend three to four years in cask before bottling.
Tasting Exercise
Choose a Ruby Port to compare with a Tawny Port for this exercise.  This will give you a very good idea of what basic differences there are between the two styles.  If you know you already like Ruby Ports, compare a standard Ruby to a Late Bottled Vintage.  You may also find it interesting to compare a standard Old World from Portugal to a New World port wine.  Australia has some good samples on the market. 
You may wish to invite a friend or two over to help with your experimentation but, if you don’t, it is okay as they will keep awhile.  If you do invite friends, either keep them around for a bit or advise them to bring a designated driver, as the alcohol content in Port ranges between 18 and 20%.
If you find that you are a fan of Port, there is a “Port Appreciation Society” on Facebook where members can share old favorites and new discoveries.
On The Label
Port, Late Bottled Vintage, Colheita
In The Bottle
Ruby:  Red fruit, dark fruit, dried fruit
Tawny:  Caramel, nuts, vanilla, dried fruit, creme brulee
At The Table
Ruby:  Desserts, Chocolate
Tawny:  Hard cheese, dried fruits, nuts (my absolute favorite - almonds), chocolate, nutty desserts
"for a new generation of port drinkers"
Photo credit (Port Wine, above):