Gintonic!

Did you know that Spain drink more gin per capital than even Britain?  No, it’s true!  Everywhere you look, there were gintonics.  Every restaurant and every bar, has a special touch, and there are gintonic bars popping up that specifically focus on these beverages.  In one bar, which we found ourselves taking over, had 2 pages of gintonics listed.

Spain, it appears is a gin nation.  Wine, although much loved and much consumed, is really secondary to the cocktail culture of the big cities.  Here, you will see craft gin of all sorts, sizes, and flavors.

One important factor in Spain is the use of craft tonics as mixers for this elixers.  Gin, distilled from the Juniper berry, has always been one of those beverages that I shied away from because it seemed like an old man’s drink.  It smelled odd, and it was oh so very British.  Tonic water, which has quinine dissolved in it, began an an anti malarial tincture.  Now, with the invention of synthetic quinine, and the lower amounts in the mixer, tonic is used for a distinctive bitter taste in mixed beverages.

Our second night in Villafranca (just outside of Barcelona, where our press trip started)  as we gathered in the bar, I saw pages of gintonics staring back at me from the menu.  The night before, having tasted someone else’s drink and stared wistfully a the tiers of gin on the wall in the small but elegant hotel bar, I knew I needed to explore this.  Next to them, there were several tonics.  These were not your generic Schweppes tonic mind you but they were special edition infusions:  pink peppercorn, orange blossom & lavender, ginger & cardamon.  What were these delicious fizzies behind the bar?

I promptly let myself get talked in to my first gin & tonic.  These botanical tonics intrigued me, and the art of making the beverage is as beautiful as the beverage itself.  Depending on the gin you order, you will get a different additon to your drink.  Most often, gintonic (in Spain, forget the “and”), you get will get lime wedges or slices.  However, if you order a Bombay Sapphire I found, you would get cucumbers.  These might be curled, or sliced, and each bartender had a specific art.

The botanical tonics added a complexity to the drink, which allowed the bartenders to be more creative.  One night, as I was now hooked on the gintonic idea, I had a Hendricks with pink peppercorn tonic.  With that, I had cucumber and dried juniper berries in my bowl of cold refreshment.

One other such craft tonic is Fever Tree, which fortunately is available here in the states.  Fever Tree is a delicious tonic, that sets Schweppes (the regular kind) on it’s head with it unique slightly citrus flavor or which counteracts the bitterness of the quinine.

After tasting a different gin every night, and in fact, more than one gin on some nights, I determined that my favorite is Hendricks.  I also enjoyed Bombay Sapphire, though not Bombay or Beefeater.  Here in San Francisco, our local brewery (which also houses a small distillery) makes two gins.  I suspect those will make an appearance in my bar shortly.   Much like scotch, there are hundreds of gins of all flavors.  Some are more intense, some are more mellow, but all are from the same mold.

 

I plan to continue experimenting!  A friend of mine makes tonic, and maybe I can talk her in to teaching me the secret to her art, and make some infusions of our own.  What flavors would you like to see in an infused tonic?

Happy drinking!

Cooking with Cava

On our last day in Barcelona, we were fortunate enough to have a private tour of La Boqueria, the lively market on the town’s busy Las Ramblas boulevard, by Chef Isma Prados, one of Barcelona’s most noted celebuchefs.

Isma is something of a phenomenon in Catalonia, and is a mix of Jaime Oliver and Gordon Ramsey.  His focus is on the true expression of the food, and stresses that you should use only the best ingredients to create the best foods.  He also pays particular attention tot he relationship between food and wine, and as we were here to learn about Cava, on this day, we were cooking with and pairing food with the sparkling star.

After we tooted around thee busy market, we picked out fresh ingreidents for a wonderful show, a cooking class above the market a bit later on.  Yes kids, we were cooking for our lunch!

I will spare you the delicious details of the meal but we had:

  • Spring Salad with winter strawberries.  These are meatier and firmer than the sweet summer berries and take the acid of a cava based dressing well.
  • Halibut Cheeks with fresh peas, au jus
  • Sofrito with pressed & stuffed black Guinea Hen
  • fresh ice cream
Each course was more delicious than the last.  The use of the ingredients with the natural flavors, a touch of salt and pepper, and lots of passion made this the most memorable meal I had in Spain.
Enjoy!

 

The People's Wine

So I’ve told you a bit about Cava, and a bit about the history of Segura Viudas. Now, let’s dive in deeper.

While Cava is Spain’s sparkling wine, it is also the national beverage. It’s a drink for the people, and isn’t reserved for special occasions. Cava can be seen every day, in bars, in restaurants, in hotel lobbies, and on the dining room table. The high value proposition makes this an ideal beverage for any occasion.

So, let’s review:

Cava is Spain’s version of sparkling wine, traditionally made from indigenous white varieties – Xarel·lo, Macabeo and Parellada.  Most Cava is made in Catalonia, a region at the north east tip of Spain.  Cava must also be made in the méthode champenoise, whereas sparkling wine made in other (shall we say, less than desirable in my opinion) methods may only be called vinos espumosos (sparkling wines).

Historical records show that some form of sparkling wine has been made in the Catalonia region of Spain since the 14th century; it wasn’t until the late 19th century however, that serious efforts were made to compete with France for a sparkling wine with a similar profile to Champagne.

In the US, probably the most recognizable brand of Cava is Frexinet’s Cordon Negro, in the signature black bottle.  This budget bubbly gets a bad rap, and while I was one of the guilty poking fun, it’s a great, fun, simple Cava to serve at parties or in mimosas.  At a recent twitter tasting I participated in, I was pleasantly surprised that my memory of a product similar to Cook’s was completely wrong and the Cordon Negro is really a perfectly fine sparkling wine.

Any way you put it, the value proposition for Cava is excellent.  With most bottles hovering around $8 and many more up to $20, there are some great examples at any price point but it’s a great wine to enjoy anytime.  While there are certainly more expensive cavas out there, you can easily find a great example for under $20, which is very affordable in my book.

My hosts at Segura Viudas focus on making cava of distinction, in the traditional method.  While you are allowed a certian  amount of other grapes, head winemaker Gabriel Suberviola focuses on the local grapes to create special cavas  that really exemplify the region.  While they are a large operation by American standards, the team at Segura Viudas is careful to maintain the quality of the fruit by hand harvesting the grapes, and evaluating each load carefully.  The grapes are then graded, and sorted in to what wine they will become.    You could make the argument that you can just throw everything in the hopper and see what comes out, but they won’t settle for that.  Less quality grapes go in to the every day wines; not lesser quality wines by any means, but these are your $10 every day cavas, vs the iconic Reserva Heredad ($25).  Gabriel and his team can tell on site, and through a detailed process with 17 data points, what wines each small bin is destined to become.

Up next, we blend our our base wine!  This could get interesting…so, pop a bottle, clink your glasses to life, and enjoy cava!

 

Cava cools you off…

It’s hot here in Spain, even though it’s only March. There hasn’t been much rain, and you can feel it all around. The rivers are dry, the air is dry, the vines are dry.

One critical observation about Spain is there is an inordinate amount of smog at atmosphereic gunk. While I belive most of this is organic smog, it makes for a rough go for anyone that is used to clear skies and easy breathing. I myself am suffering after 3 days of heavy smog, where you can barely see the skyline of Barcelona and you can only make the outline of the breathtaking Montserret mountain formation . Even today, from my hotel room less t

 

 

han 1 mile away, the giatn Gaudi Masterpiece, the Segrada Famila, is barely visible in the haze.
When i was in Madrid and Rioja last year, I noticed a simlar issue. With the contstant burning of organic waste (and quite probably inorganic) I wonder how long this city can continue to manage this level of pollution. However, I see steps that are postivie: the city busses are natural gas powedered; there are far more diesel fueled vehicles in Europe than anywhere else ( particular in gas guzzling US); Segura Viudas is making steps to become a green, closed ecosystem.

While in the vineyard in the Penedes region of Catalonia, we toured one of the old vineyards at the estate.  Segura Viudas is a pioneer in the area, practicing sustainable agriculture, as operates as organically as possible with out being constrained to the organic rules of operation. Currently, they are experimenting with reusing the biomass created by pruning, as well as other vineyard activities, and seeling this as fuel. Future plans include using the biomass fuel within

the winery system to becoming a self contained ecosystem.
Additionally, the vineyard manager Sebastià Raventós has been working with cover crops such as hay and oats, to provide a nutrient balance. Of course, this also protects the vineyards from erosion during the rainy season, and also provides another attraction for insects and animals to build a sustainable ecosystem in the vineyard.

Sebastià was born and bred in this small wine growing region, and has the soil in his blood.  His familiy has worked the vineyards in the area for generatiosn.    He belives that great cava or great wine begins in the vineyard, and that great wine cannot be made without great grapes.  He is part of the landscape here, born and bred in this small wine growing region of Penedes, and has the

soil in his blood.  His family has worked the vineyards in the area for generatiosn.    He belives that great cava or great wine begins in the vineyard.  To this point, he fiercly guards his vines, and has a particular reverace to the old, gnarly vines that are growing freely.  While there are advantages to head trained, neat, trellised vineyards, they are also more prone to diseases and pests since they aren’t allowed to grow naturally.  These old vines, planted 40+ years ago, producer less grapes, but grapes of an intensity that cannot be compared.

Sebastià is a lovable charmer, and his passion and lvoe for the vines is clear.  He is a fighter, and is dedicated to a more traditional way of growing grapes; this return to the past has a greater respect for the environment.  Even though he claims not to speak English, there is a glint in his eye when we get excited about talking about green practices.  He pulls out the seeds for the cover crop and grins when we recognize his efforts.

In effect, he is an ecologist who uses less invasive methods, and studies the history of the vineyards to predict future outcomes.  With 19 years of experience on the saem vines, he has been keeping track of weather patterns, including the global climate changes that are impacting all grape growers.  with this knowledge, he can predict down to the day, when the grapes will be ready to harvest.  Planning a trip on Tuesday?  Nope!  We harvest on Tuesday!

Using methods such as pheromone traps for moths, cover crops to stabilize the soil on erosion prone hillsides, and creating biomass from clippings, Segura Viudas has been a pioneer in these efforts.  They have even gone so far as to create a nature train within one vineyard, which explains the natural habit and what they are doing to assist in rebuilding the environment.

Sebastià has such a passion for the vineyards taht he has been taking care of for the last 19 years; it is clear that he is as much a part of them as they are him.  Teh excitement he holds for creating the best possible fruit, and ensuring that every possible action can be taken to take care of these gems is clear.

 

Since it was hot and dusty outside, it was a welcome sight to come inside and taste some of the delicious Cava that the winery produces.  Next up, a bit of history about the property, and some tasting!

Barcelona is for…

Welcome back! Here we are, on day 1 or day 2, depending on how you look at it,of my whirlwind spin through Barcelona, Penedes, and Priorat.

Getting here was certainly enough of and adventure for anyone, let alone someone that is 5’11” and mostly legs, not to mention a tad wider than the last time she few coach.

To catch you up, I left my house at 11:00 PST on March 10th. After spending at least 1.5 hours in the check in line – which in itself i absurd for an international departure, it then took another 30+ minutes to clear security and enter the International Departures hall in SFO.

Lucky me, I somehow managed not only to score a middle seat, I also managed to achieve that travel mecca – the completely full but not yet overbooked plane. Now, I would have happily given up my fabulous middle seat if it had meant taking a flight that either was not sardine city, or that my possibilities of getting a coveted upgrade (ha fat chance!) were more than 1 billion to one.

So there I sat, in my spiffy middle seat. Luckily, I shelled out the extra fee for the extra leg room, because honestly if I had not, this would not have been pretty. As it was, my middle seat was the next to last row in Economy Plus. That would have been perfectly fine, because my seat mates were really nice fellows, until…

After watching the first movie and eating a rather unsatisfactory lunch, I downed two melatonin in the hopes that I could catch at least a few hours of shuteye, knowing that I arrived in Frankfurt at 9:30am. Well, that apparently was not going to happen.

I am pleased to report that the row behind me was occupied with three people who simply should not keep their traps shut. Even after multiple announcements by the flight crew to please close your window shades, be quiet and let people rest due to the very short night, what I heard for the next 13 hours (and I do not exaggerate when I say this) was the equivalent of 2 nine year old boys playing Angry Birds. Now this was not the soft lilt of a French accent. This was the percussive staccato of two — increasingly inebriated — Germans — who would. not. shut. up.

To add a sprinkling of joy to this situation, which could be heard through both earplugs and headphones, two older gentlemen were having a rather animated conversation in the emergency exit row immediately behind my German buddies. And what I mean by animated is loud. Why they felt that it was their right to stand there, in front of the people who lucked out and got the exit row who were also trying to sleep, is beyond me.

So here we are, in Frankfurt. No sleep. No brain cells. It’s really only 1am my time since we had just switched to Daylight Savings Time, but I was zonked. Of course, I had 3 hours to kill in the airport. Unbeknownst to me, once you exit the United/Lufthansa International Terminal, you kinda enter no man’s land. There was literally one cafe which was a mix of German airport food and Asian fusion. Hrm ok…After 2 coffees and 2 stale pretzels for lunch, and several tours down the A concourse, I discovered some additioanl shoping optinos, but at that point I had to board my second hop.

Would you like to make a guess as to how many school groups can fit on one Airbus 320? C’mon! Guess! I’m thinking about 100. The airport was teeming with mostly American school groups which were clearnly on spring break. It warmed my heart to hear the hacking coughs that were about to get on my flight.

Things observed to this point:

    • Travelling for just under 22 hours is less than desireable. Do whatever you need to to make it faster, more direct, or break it up.
    • Smoking cubbies are bizarre, tiny enclosed boxes where you walk in, light up and walk out with more smoke in your clothes than in yoru lungs.
    • While you are not allowed to smoke in the airports, you can smoke in cubbies, and everyone still smokes like chimmeys, particularly in Germany and Spain.
    • March is school group travel time. There are hundreds of French adn American stuhigh school students wandering around Barcelona
    • Get to the tourist sights EARLY or you will be in line fo rabout six years.

My feet hurt, and my still not reparied foot is about the size of a basketball. Remember your drugs when you are on a plane for that long!

More importantly, Barcelona is lovely. It’s in the mid-60s, the beer is great, and while there are crowds in the touristy sections of town, it’s also a wonderful old rambly city.

This afternoon I’m off to Penedes to learn about Cava. There will be a siesta in my very near future! Happy tavels!

¡Viva España!

Happy February everyone!  I can hardly belive it’s still “winter” here in San Francisco, given that it’s in the mid 70s, and the sun is shining.  Time to get out and enjoy some crisp sparkling delicious Cava!

Cava is Spain’s version of sparkling wine, traditionally made from indigenous white varieties – Xarel·lo, Macabeo and Parellada.  Most Cava is made in Catalonia, a region at the north east tip of Spain.  Cava must also be made in the méthode champenoise, whereas sparkling wine made in other (shall we say, less than desirable in my opinion) methods may only be called vinos espumosos (sparkling wines).

I am so excited that in 3 short weeks, I will be spend a whirlwind week, learning all about this magical elixer, from the masters of Segura Viudas.

Some of the activities I will be participating in are:

  • An Assemblage master class, where we learn about the traditional cava grapes, terroir, region and climate.
  • A blending session, where we will learn to create our own special bubbly blend
  • A cooking class to learn about the regional cuisine
  • Meals paired with the wines of the region
  • A side trip to Priorat, one of my favorite regions.  Did someone say Garnacha?  Monastrell?  Garnacha Blanca?  Pack me a straw!

And did I mention, they are rather fond of jamon in Spain?

And now, a bit more about my hosts, Segura Viudas:

Segura Viudas has developed a reputation as a premium cava producer, with the property dating back to the 11th century.  The brand was born in 1959, and the wines were first released in 1969.  The Ferrer family of Barcelona, who owns brands like Gloria Ferrer and Frexinet, purchased the estate in the 1980s making it a global competitor.

I’m looking forward to learning more about cava and the Catalonia region of Spain!  As you might now, I was in Spain & Portugal last year, when I spoke at the International Wine Tourism Conference.  At that time, I took some extra time and explored Madrid, Rioja, and the northern regions, so this will be a great way to round out my Spanish adventure.  I wonder if I can accidentally miss my return flight and get lost in Barcelona?

Watch out for tweets and posts from the road!  Can I do this all with just my iPad?  I hope so!