B-Side Wine Part I: Spain

2017 Black Slate La Vilella Alta Priorat

During a recent skiing outing,  I shared the chairlift with Dan and Uschi, two peer friends in the same ski group in which I participate at Sunday River.  On our way up to T-2 I became aware that Dan is a wine enthusiast. In the ensuing conversation we exchanged some thoughts and stories about our respective wine journey when suddenly I heard the words Priorat, putting a smile on my frozen face.  To be precise, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Dan, who grew up in Minnesota, talk about wines from Priorat. Why was I surprised? It’s not that folks in Minnesota don’t know about Spanish wine. The surprise rather was caused by the intersectionality among skiing, my better half Denise Dudette’s origins, the midwest, and Spanish wines.  I will explain shortly.  For now, l would argue that it’s quite unusual to find someone outside Spain to be fluent in Priorat!  
In the spirit of transparency, Denise Dudette, AKA Bruce Springsteen (the Boss) and a source of inspiration for this blog, also grew up in the midwest, in Waupaca, WI to be exact.  She’s also familiar with Priorat and Spanish wines at large for two reasons: First, I am a Vinopath who explores wines from every corner of the planet, so yes, we have enjoyed together our fair share of Priorat wines, one of my favorite wine regions in Spain.  
Secondly, she lived in Valencia, a stone throw away from another B-Side wine region, Utiel-Requena.  But, I admit that this is a topic for another blog altogether.  What I enjoyed the most about my conversation with Dan was the momentarily and yet deliberate disregard for A-Side Spanish wines such as Rioja, Ribera del Duero or Jerez.  I have an appreciation for the aforementioned wines, however, I truly treasure when I hear folks expressing themselves eloquently about often overlooked wines or what I refer as B-Side wines.  I have a particular soft spot for the ‘overlooked’  wines for reasons that go far beyond the scope of this blog.

But what are B-Side wines? First let me offer a short 30,000 ft view of what a B-Side means in Vinyl records vernacular. In the late 80’s and early 90’s while Rioja dominated the shelves in the Spanish section of wine stores, the same way Vinyl records ruled the shelves of music aficionados. Around the same timeframe, Priorat was  struggling to choose which route to take, tradition or modernity. At stake was sticking with traditional grapes from the area such as Garnacha (Grenache), Cariñena (Carignan) or modernize fostering international types such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Frac and Merlot.  The agonizing debate was raging unabated.  By the turn of the 21st century, Priorat was emerging from obscurity, I started seeing more B-Side wines in wine stores at the same rate I started seeing more CDs at Tower Records. Well, at least throughout wine and music markets such as Boston, New York, DC, LA, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago. Let’s step back a bit on the history of Vinyl. In the 1950 music record companies assigned double-sided Vinyl records with an A-Side and B-Side at random. As technology advanced and competition in the music industry grew in the 60’s, record companies included a “monoaural” version and a “stereo” version of the same song on promotional singles (45 rpm records).  To complicate things, in the apogee of Vinyl records most AM radio stations didn’t play songs in “stereo” since they didn’t have the technology for stereo broadcast.  FM radio stations on the flip side, didn’t like to play songs in “mono.”  By this time companies reserved the A-side for songs that were primed to be a hit, or the songs they wanted radio station to play.  You see, The B-Side was an afterthought mainly to make sure that LP records would be worthwhile buying by including more songs in LP Vinyl album (or cassettes) and in some cases filled the B-Side with song just to fulfill contractual obligations.  The songs on the B-Side’s were often overlooked because, in an oversimplifying fashion, borrowing form professor George Plasketes, B-Side songs were not crowd-pleasing, just like my B-Side wines.

With this in mind, I have chosen to share a couple of my favorite B-Side wines: Priorat. In my analogy I called Priorat  B-Side wine because not many people outside Spain and Italy have heard of them, let alone tasted them.  Wait, what? Yes, this wine region actually produce exceptional wines at exceptional values which is why I was exciting to talk Priorat with Dan. 

As usual, for the uninitiated let’s explore Priorat, a DOC (Catalan for DOQ) located in the province of Tarragona in area in northeast Spain, known as Catalunya. Barcelona is ostensibly the most famous city in the area. What makes the wines of Priorat, besides the tried and true careful wine-making, terroir and climate, is the zeal by which the region’s wine entities strictly follow the guidelines set by the DOQ governing body (Consell Regulador). Priorat produces both white and Red wine but by now most readers know I focused on Reds such as the wines pictured below, Gratallops and La Vilella Alta, both produced by Bodegas Mas Alta under the Black Slate label. Priorat has a long history with church almost as if its wines came to exist through divine intervention. According to the Consell Regulador History Page, Carthusian monks tended the vineyards from the XII through the XIX century. In fact, the name itself is derived form the Prior of Scale Dei (Latin for God’s Ladder).

B-Side Wines from Spain

Red Priorat Vi de La Vila:Wine from the Villages of Gratallops and La Vilella Alta

I feel it’s important to review a few terms to better understand the unique nomenclature of Priorat wines. There are currently only two DOQ in Spain: Rioja and Priorat, where the term Vino de Pago indicates that a wine has been made from a specific vineyard. While this is also true in Priorat with Vi de Finca classifications, it is actually much more sophisticated and intriguing that of “Vi de Vila”, literally wine of the village, is a certification you find in DOQ Priorat. What makes it even more interesting is that it follows a Burgundian-esque concept of more specific Village Nomenclature (twelve in total), each with its unique character and that is because of the unique permutations of grape growing in each village. BTW, the traditional grapes allowed in Priorat, more specifically in these Villages are Garnacha Tinta (Grenache), Cariñena (Carignan), Garnacha Peluda (Hairy Grenache), along with the international grapes Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and increasingly Syrah, making for very complex, spicy and unmistakably Priorat! What I found ironic, frankly, is knowing that there aren’t plantings of Tempranillo in Priorat, although there are plenty of its surrounding Monsant Region. Enough rambling about the regions and B-Sides wines, let us get on with the actual wine tasting. The first iteration I tasted was a 2017 Black Slate from Gratallops, which comes from the oldest registered Estate in Priorat. The wine opens up a bit flat on the nose with light notes of mushrooms. On the palate, the first sip feels rich, oozing dark fruit flavors. As I swirl the glass to let it oxygenate a little bit, the color is deep purple. More on this in a moment. I let it sit for almost four hours, while I was braising a local shank of Maine-raised beef. After aeration, the wine developed aromas of blue berry, black berries, spices and slate! Straight up. I could taste a chalky notes of earth giving way to espresso notes on the finish. No wonder why my palate picked up those notes, Vi de La Vila is grown on Schist, a close relative to Slate, hence the name on the label Black Slate. August Vicent, the winemaker, used Garnacha Negra, Cariñena and Syrah, where it was aged in both concrete and French oak. This means to me, that the spice I detected comes almost entirely from the Syrah as the contact with oak was kept to a minimum.

The second Priorat iteration was a 2017 Black Slate from from La Vilella Alta, where the grapes are grown in licorella and clay limestone. Right out of the gate, the wine offers intense and alluring aromas of earth, spice and cherry fruit. On the palate, the wine is rich, dark and deep with notes of black cherry and coffee flavors wrapped in mouthfiling tannings that ease up to reveal a long, spicy and stony finish. Really impressive! The wine maker, Bicente Oçafrain, used Garnatxa, Carinyena, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah from vines that range from 15-60 year old and letting an indigenous yeast do its magic. Before bottling, the final wine is aged half in concrete tanks and half in French oak (30% new).

Whether you like the style of Priorat wines or not, one thing is clear. Priorat has emerged from the 80’s and 90’s obscurity to a world class success. As I previously indicated, there are only two DOQ in Spain and its ranking, as you are undoubtedly gathering, is still ruled by the A-Side Rioja wines. Still, the B-Sides wines of Priorat in my blog, are second to none. As usual, the truth is in the bottle.

50 years, 50 kilometers and 50 moments in Paris, France.

2019 has been a year to remember.  Last September, I had the privilege to be part of a especial birthday celebration in Paris, France.  My esteemed Cheryl Denise Dudette, AKA Bruce Springsteen (The Boss), after witnessing Earth completing another orbit around the sun for the 50th time, decided to celebrate this feat in Paris! We celebrated fifty years by walking fifty kilometers and creating fifty memories mostly within the 1st through 8th arrondissements in Paris. In all fairness, I will recount in this blog only a selected few moments mostly related to wine. For additional context, over the last couple of years Denise Dudette has developed an intriguing condition related to wine tasting. At a glance, one could argue that her evolved taste correlates directly on proportion with higher prices, however after a deeper examination, I am convinced that the correlation is linked to higher quality rather than price. More on this later. For now, obviously, there are some exceptions to the price/quality ratio, but the exceptions are totally and utterly negligent of marketing as there are plenty of really affordable wines which are really good. More specifically about the condition, Dudette has developed a displeasure for wines with heavy mineral notes which largely come from European appellations ranging from Rioja to Bordeaux to Chianti. The displeasure stems from her experiencing physical side effects such as headaches. What a paradox, drinking great wines at reasonable prices in France without experiencing such an unpleasant side effects. Therein the challenge:how to find great wines at reasonable prices during our 50-kilometer walk. I’ll summarize.

Jet Lagged

The highlights of the first day and the first ten kilometers included what some may consider heresy: brining American wine to Paris! While still reeling with jet lag, we took a stroll through Jardin du Luxembourg, grabbed coffee at Cafe de la Mairie, ate lunch at Le Bistro de Gaspard near the Hotel des Invalides and climbed the Eiffel Tower before finally settling-in at the Hotel La Villa Madame.   To wind down, I opened two bottles of wine, which brought me in the wine spectrum from Napa Valley to Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the oh so close heretical moment. You see, knowing that French wine could be the anathema for Denise Dudette during this trip, I brought to Paris a bottle of Napa Cab, her favorite wine region. Yes, I brought it for the ‘just in case’ scenario. But there’s always a catch. Well, on our way back to the Hotel, I stumbled upon the ubiquitous Nicolas, my now go-to wine store in Paris. There was a branch just a short scooter ride from our hotel. Here is where I found this 2015 Château Des Fines Roches.

Our first sip in Paris, a 2015 Chateau des Fines Roches Châteauneuf-Du-Pape

Châteauneuf-Du–Pape, Chateau Des Fines Roches 2015 Red Wine. This wine was packed with inviting aromas of black cherry and strawberry, followed by sweet notes of strawberry and spice, saturating the palate with fruit, herbs, spices and just a touch of game, making it feel sexy and playful. It finished richly herbal and yet well balanced such that it never felt heavy. The “herbal” portion it’s un understatement. After a while, the wine benefited from oxidation such that evolving aromas, left the gaminess behind in favor of a very distinct bouquet of sage and rosemary. Typically, Chteauneuf-Du–Pape is an AOC, or Appellation d’origine contrôlée which guarantees a specific level of quality within a geographical indication. The most astounding fact to me is that there are no rules about specific percentages of the eighteen allowed grapes. In practical terms, the main grape for red wines is Grenache Noir and most wines from this region have a blend of Grenache Noir, Syrah and Mourvèdre. However, depending on the even more specific estate or commune, it could have varying amounts of remaining 15 grapes. And just to be precise, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine, the only estate to grow all the varieties and use them consistently is Château de Beaucastel. The best part, Dudette liked it quite a bit and there were no signs of headaches.

Posing for the picture on the hills of the Eiffel Tower.

Earning Miles and Making “Pour” Decisions

Ok, after dealing with the jet lag, we walked another ten kilometers, mostly along the Seine toward the Louvre. Well, I’ll spare you the details of the new contact sport I discovered in Paris named “let’s go trying to see La Joconde” aka Monalisa. What I will share is that I was amazed at the amount of equal opportunity Beerman and Wineman abound around both the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Folks who cater beer and wine to passers-by taking a stroll or a break on the lawn adjacent to both attractions. I almost cave-in and got us a flute with champagne. Nonetheless, I was able to suppress my need for immediate gratification by way of Denise Dudette dragging me like a rag doll across the lawn. What a prophylactic way of exercising restraint! In either case, I waited until the end of the day, at last. We thoroughly enjoyed a stroll through the many parks and even stopped for Café et Croissant at local coffee shops along the way. Yes, admittedly, I also visited a Nicolas, my go-to wine store where I found our next victims: A bottle of Cornas and another from Pauillac.

Cornas. For the uninitiated, all wine from Cornas is 100% Syrah. This version from Cave de Tain was just what we needed at the end of the long walk. It opened up, no pun intended, with a peppery notes on the nose, giving way to ripe plum and chocolate flavors. Seriously delicious finish, with mouth coating flavors of persistent plum, chocolate and pepper. Again, the best part was the wine also had the approval from Denise Dudette as there were no signs of headaches.

Pauillac. With all the respect to the Mouton Cadet Estate and the Rothschild family, this was the weakest link in the lineup. And yet, I enjoyed its character. Robust, richly flavored Bordeaux loaded with mineral notes framed by dark plum, coffee and licorice. It finished very intriguing, even though the tannins were not soft at all, it had an interesting appeal. We washed it down with charcuterie from the local Carrefour store around the corner from our hotel and the proteins and fat of the Jambon helped break down the tannins making it a very pleasant experience.

Think Globally and Shop Locally

On the third day, we actually caught a break from walking, sort of, as we walked only six kilometers because started raining. On our way back to the hotel from our daily bread, coffee and stroll, we spent some time at a local outdoor market featuring local fare, arts and crafts. Little did we know I was about to experience a Parisienne afternoon in the middle of the day. Obviously, we stopped at the wine tent where we sampled exquisite wines from Burgundy, specifically from Chambolle-Musingy, Gevrey-Chambertin and Nuit St-Georges. I could not resist and picked up a bottle of from Jean Lecellier himself. I also bought charcuterie in the same market, along with cheese and bread. Straight up, that was our dinner, Picnic style. Although the same concept, Picnic style, which I referred earlier as Pariesienne, Denise Dudette simply say Pepe’s style.

At a local market just outside in St Sulpice Church

The wine, was an excellent rendition of Bourgogne. Nothing surprising here, the expected bouquet unique of the Grevrey-Chambertin, heady, steely and yet very elegant, all classic trademark of the regal region. Let me elaborate, according to historians, Napoleon Bonaparte used to carry Chambertin everywhere he went even that fateful trip to Russia. This bottle pictured below, offered us a somewhat austere side of Burgundy at first. We let it air for almost one hour and were rewarded with the citrus-blossom aromas and just a touch of vanilla the wine expressed extremely subtle. On the pallet the wine was fine textured and it became harmoniously opulent and toasty, very royal. I sincerely or barely rather, could explain what happened to the bottle. I am willing to entertain the thought that the company made it taste like liquid poetry as I was right next to Denise Dudette. A memorable afternoon indeed. I have never seen this wine before and I have not seen it ever since. No matter, I am still in the lookout. I am curios to try it again.

Au Revoir

Our last night was a memorable one, we walked a lot as expected, starting by visiting the Arc De Triomphe. Obviously we took a stroll along the Champs-Èlysées, despite a semi-cloudy evening and the threat of rain. After going up and down all 276 steps required to reach the top of the Arc, we stayed to learned about France’s history, well the building of the Arc more specifically at the permanent exhibit inside it. One of the most impressive views of the Paris for sure, is atop the Arc. As one walks around, you will learn that there are twelve different roads radiating from the Arc, or twelve roads intersecting at the Arc. In either case, the view at night is amazing to say the least.

After long walks, we rewarded ourselves with a trip to Au Père Louis, a wine bar, shocking I know! Since we were at a wine bar, we decided it to wing it and requested wine by the glass to try out different bottles. We started with a known face and order two glasses of Puech-Haut Prestige Rouge from St Drézéry. A blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah, the wine is typical from Languedoc, where according to the Wine Bible, the Greeks first planted vineyard in the fifth century. Our glasses were filled from a bottle that that been opened for thirty minutes. I was delighted the our first glass as the wine showed structure, power and elegance, opening up with flavors of dark plum and black fruit layered with a touch of wood since the Syrah is aged in wood barrels that impart a touch of vanillin notes. Really yummy.

Our second glass derailed our plans to drink by the glass. We requested a Côte~Rôtie which was frankly the wine of the trip. I typically shy away from Côte~Rôtie wines based on price. However, this bottle was a gem, a true vinous transmutation if you consider its origin. Onto the wine then. Côte~Rôtie, literally means “Roasted Slope”, which is a famous appellation in the Northern Rhone wine region. If you wonder why it’s called the Roasted Slope, allow me to share that the vines in Northern Rhone Vally get roasted under the Provançe sun. This sun-baked vines give Syrah and all Côte~Rôtie wines a very particular constitution. Côte~Rôtie wines are for the most part Syrah-based, although the AOC allows small quantities of up to 20% of Viognier. “Our” wine from the 2017 vintage was made from 90% Syrah and 10% Viognier, aged for 13 months in mostly new Oak Barrels. The wine was super ripe and concentrated loaded with aromas of dark fruit, spices and espresso notes. On the palate, the wine explodes with blueberry and blackberry flavors which give way to notes of roasted coffee. The wine is definitely not for the faint of heart, its’ big, powerful, brooding and yet finishes with sweet tannings. Perhaps it was the wine, or likely the company. Maybe it was the food and especially the conversation, and for sure, the evening was nothing short of spectacular, perfectly matching the walk, the wine and the occasion, the most adequate was to culminate the evening. Au revoir!

Long Island Wine in Texas?


A Wine of Exceeding Expectations. An old world style from a new world winery in North Fork of Long Island.

On a recent business trip to Dallas, TX, I discovered a culinary gem in Cafe Urbano while dining with some colleagues.  Mind you, the original idea was to hit the Capital Grille in downtown.  I gently objected the place of choice for two particular reasons. First, I wanted to visit something ‘local‘ and secondly, and potentially a more important factor  in the decision was that we didn’t have a reservation.  I avoid as much as I am able to waiting more than 20 minutes in line just to be seated at a restaurant in general.  Before I get into the specifics of this Shinn Estate NV Red Blend,  I must share how and where I obtained this particular bottle: my colleague Carlo, an avid beer fan, had this bottle stashed in his office claiming that it was a gift from Christmas 2016. He confessed that he had not tried this wine yet and probably will never find an ocassion to drink it. After a brief conversation about IT consulting and hobbies, “Wine” came up and since I am familiar with the North Fork wineries, Carlo gave me the wine.  I took it, put in my laptop bag and off we went to Capital Grill—or so we thought.  After I heard that the wait was approximately 40 minutes, I inquired among my colleagues about the BYOB scene in the area. To my surprise, the consensus was “not a clue”.  I searched for BYOB restaurant near me and Google pointed us at Cafe Urbano. The BYOB concept was an easy sell to my peers and since I already had a bottle of wine, why not?   I ordered a Short Ribs Sandwich, knowing that the bottle was a Bordeaux-esque blend composed of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec & Petit Verdot.  I have to say, I truly enjoyed my meal and the rest of the evening.  In large part, because the combination of the Short Ribs with the Shinn Estate wine was some sort of controlled serendipity, if that ever existed. You see, our group was planning to hit highly regarded–and pricey Capital Grill.  Understandably, the high price tag elevates the expectations, at least that’s what marketing folks would like us to believe it blindly.  If it is expensive it must be good! However, the unpretentious fare from the local Cafe Urbano with the Bordeaux blend from Long Island definitely exceeded all my expectations. And apparently the expectations of my colleagues as well.  The wine opened up with aromas of plum and dark cherry fruit with oaky vanilla influence.  While I might be describing an every day wine, the fact that the smooth and yet firm tannins stood up well to the fatty ribs was beyond what I expected.  The wine itself is extremely food-friendly with the right amount of fruit, acidity and tannins.  In fact, you may need a bit of protein such as short ribs to wash it down.  As the evening ended, the wine finished with emerging notes of plum, mushrooms and cocoa powder. Incredible tasty.  Upon returning to New England, I found a younger version of the Shinn Estate wine at Bin 312 on North Main St in Providence for just under $20.00.  Obviously, I tried it again and the notes are pretty consistent.  Plum, oak and earth. Perhaps, the younger version was a bit more elegant and yet, this time around, the expectations were met.  Cheers!


Wine Tasting in Chicago, IL @ Loop Liquors

Wine Tasting in Chicago, IL @ Loop Liquors

On a recent trip to Wisconsin, I stopped by Loop Liquors in Chicago for a collaborative engagement with Ted Kontos. He is the owner of Loop Liquors and his place is totally awesome. How many liquor stores would let you open and drink the wines you purchase? Next time you’re in Chicago please visit Loop Liquors at 1610 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60622. The selection is modest but well worth it

What we had

90 + Lot 71

Among the many bottles we feature that afternoon, this Malbec was the clear winner. The point of the tasting was to showcase the best wines in the store under $20.00; this bottle really delivered. A fairly elegant expression of Malbec from Valle de Uco in Mendoza, Argentina. The wine opens up with violet and cherry aromas, underscored by a touch of sandalwood. Upon tasting the wine, there is an unresolved tension between its juiciness and its acidity. This tension however, is nicely framed by soft velvety tannins. Perfect for “Empanadas de Carne” estilo pampero, or meat turnover Argentinian style.