Monday, January 30, 2017

Our 2017 wine & food tours and classes in Florence

Every start of year is exciting as we consolidate past programs & create new and improved tour activities. Our Grape goal is always to improve our offers for ever more educated wine & food travellers and to offer something original that will create a strong memory of Tuscany, and perhaps even a memory that lingers on for many years to come...

So, needless to say, we hope to meet a lot of old & new thirsty visitors in Florence this next year.
Here's a preview of all the small group activities we'll be doing starting in March 2017...

Monday, January 23, 2017

Port vs Sherry - A question of air!

I decided to write down a few notes on Port & Sherry since we've now been to both areas. It's fun to compare two so historical areas where, already hundreds of years ago, wines were known to be shipped out on boats destined to arrive weeks later in distant places. The most common destination was England, or the Commonwealth as it was, and it was also dealt with by the Dutch East India company - which is why many Port and Sherry makers have British or Dutch names.
To stabilise the wines, they were fortified with alcohol to arrive in a proper condition and soon these styles of wines became recognised and cherished so we are left somewhat with the same styles of wines today - of course, in a more intentional way for a modern context.
Unfortunately, both Port & Sherry still carry the legacy of the past and are considered old people's beverages when actually there is a growing curiosity and enormous versatility for these wines - once you know them they'll grow on you!
All I'm asking is that next time you go to where ever it is you buy your wine, try out a Sherry or a Port and you may be very pleasantly surprised!

Port is made with grapes grown in the Portuguese part of the Douro valley East of the Northern Portuguese town Oporto (hence the name), where the wines are transported for ageing (on the South side called Vila Nova de Gaia)
Sherry (most of it) is made with grapes grown in the triangle between the Southern Spanish towns Jerez (hence the name), El Puerto de Santa Maria & Sanlucar de Barrameda. The exception to the rule is for the sweet sherrys (Jerez Dulce).
Grapes & vineyards
Grapes & Vineyards

30 different grape varietals are allowed for the production of Port. Most ports are from red grapes, even though you may be able to find white ports.
The most commonly used are the red varietals Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Amarela that grow in schist & granite soil on terraces along the Douro River.
The yield from is low due to the complex growing on terraces that doesn’t allow for mechanical work.
Many Port Houses also own vineyards (Quinta) and display their names along the Douro Valley. Often the wine that ends up in the Port houses are sourced from many different Quintas.
Grapes used for dry Sherrys are the Palomino white grape that grows in the chalky soils in arid southern Spain. Sweet sherrys are also made of white grapes Muscatel or Pedro Ximenez (PX) grapes mainly grown in other areas around Andalusia.

Palomino (same as the Listan in France, and apparently the Grillo grape in Sicily) is generally speaking a high yielding varietal even if the moonscape it grows on is dry. It’s pretty neutral in character and has a tendency to oxidize pretty fast.
Sherry Bodegas (wineries) often do not own their own vineyards (even if some do) and it is common practice for the Bodegas to buy the wines from the countryside for ageing in their cellars in the towns.
Grapes are traditionally stumped on after harvest so color from the skins extracts into the juice, as most port comes from red grapes. Approximately midway during fermentation (typically within 3 days from start of fermentation), a neutral grape brandy (“aguardente” - normally bought in from France) is added to stop fermentation and leaving natural sweetness in the wine. The addition of the alcohol which kills all yeasts stabilizes the wine even though some of the sugar has not been converted in alcohol (resulting in a taste of natural sweetness).

In port, the alcohol level may vary between 17.5% and 22%.
At this point, the wine is stable and ready to be shipped into Oporto town to age in the gigantic cellars (in the past transportation was in barrels on boats on the river, now in tanker trucks).

Sweetness in port is natural but may vary from dry (less than 40 gr/liter) to very sweet (more than 130 gr/liter)
For dry Sherry wines the Palomino grapes are fermented into dry white wine (11-12.5%), and only after fermentation is over a grape brandy (mostly locally made in Spain) will be added (mixed together with aged Sherry to not shock the wine) to reach around 15-15.5% or 17-18% depending on the further use of the ageing of the wine (biological or oxidation).
The finos may very well come from the delicate first pressing from the grapes and the Olorosos from the second pressings.

Sweet sherry wines made from muscatel or PX grapes that are dried to concentrate the sugars and sweet wines are made out of them.

Max alcohol content in a Sherry is 22%.
Dry sherries are really bone dry with 0-5 gr of residual sugar/liter.

Sweet Sherries start at around 45 gr and may go beyond 212 gr/liter for PXs.

Sherry Bodegas are allowed by DO regulations to sweeten their wines with a “sunned must” or color their wines with a boiled syrup of wine before bottling and selling.
There are different methods used for ageing of Ports:
- Storage in vats (cement, steel or glass or even a short time in barrels without excessive exposure to air) for non-oxidative ports (Ruby, White & Rose Ports and also the prestigious Vintage & LBV, Crusted & Single Quinta)

- In old barrels with exposure to air for the oxidative ageing (tawny style Ports, Colheita & Garrafeira)

A port labeled as a Tawny port indicates that the Port has aged in barrels for a period of time. Then there are approximate ageing that can be indicated bottle: 10, 20, 30 or 40 yrs (target age, not actual age).
Different minimum ageing restrictions apply to each category of Port.
The wines are now ready to be introduced in the ageing barrels for a min. of 2 yrs for Fino/Manzanilla and beyond 30 yrs for the VORS
Sherries go into a Solera ageing system where wines are aged in old American oak barrels (of 5 or 6 hundred liters) stacked at least into 3 rows (“criadera”). The bottom row has the oldest wine in it. At every bottling (typically twice a year) only a part of wine is taken from the bottom row barrels, which then are filled with wine from the middle row, which at their turn are filled with the top row. The top row is filled with the new wine from the tanks. Hence you will not find a vintage on most Sherries as any given wine is a mix of several vintages.
Vintage Sherry does exist but is not common since what really makes Sherry unique is the use of the Solera.
Please note that all ports may vary some in sweetness depending on style & producer.

Both white (made from white grapes Rabigato, Viosinho, Gouveio and Malvasia) and rose Ports (made from same grapes as ruby) are usually quite simple in style and can be considered excellent aperitif wines (it’s increasingly popular to use them for mixed drinks).
Drink: before dinner with snacks

A non-oxidative, non-aged red port wine that does not improve with bottle ageing (the name refers to the color which remains bright).
If labeled Reserve or Special Reserve the wine has usually aged up to 6 yrs and costs a few extra Euros.
Drink: after dinner or with cheese or chocolate

Here Port differs a lot from Sherry, which doesn’t give much important to vintage. Generally speaking Vintage Port is a single vintage (and from a vintage that has been declared age-worthy – apparently only happens a couple of times each decade) and from a special selection of grapes. The wine is then aged in casks for a short period of time (2 yrs) and then bottled – and will improve in the bottle. Some vintage ports are known to have kept very well indeed – more than 100 yrs in the cellars and still going strong!
Vintage Ports are often considered the pinnacle of port wines.

Is port from a single vintage and aged for a longer period of time in casks (4-6 yrs) to speed up the development of the wine into a stylistic softness so it’ll practically be ready to drink earlier. LBV’s are basically there to deliver a similar experience to a Vintage Port but at a lower price (and usually doesn’t compare at all!)

Is a blend of different vintages intended to create a ready-to-drink wine.

Refers to a special style of vintage port which will come from a specific vineyard (so the closest to the terroir concept one could get in the Port region)

An oxidative barrel aged port (hence lighter and more orange in color).
These wines get a more nutty flavor (kind of like the flavor you get in Oloroso sherry, but are sweeter wines) and due to the angel’s share (a little percentage of wine evaporates over the years) it can be up to 22% in alcohol.
There is also Tawny Port labeled as Reserve which ages in oak (6 yrs?)
 If the general age of the wine is 10, 20, 30 or 40 yrs old it can be stated on the label, and these are pretty prestigious bottles (and sometimes quite hefty in prices).
Drink: before or after dinner as is (meditation wine) or to accompany desserts with nuts or cheese plates

This is a tawny port with a specific vintage (e.g. 1995) that has to be aged for a minimum of 7 yrs. As it reports its vintage it often gets confused with a Vintage Port, but it’s definitely a Tawny is style – not Ruby.
Drink: as often as you can (it’s delicious!)

This is the most rare port as it is first aged like a tawny for around 4 yrs in an oxidative process, and then the ageing is reversed in reductive in glass demijohns for another 8 yrs or so. Due to the second part of ageing, the wines often are described to have a scent of “bacon” which to some might sound lovely, but for breakfast with eggs!

A dry Sherry, very pale in color due to the biological ageing under “flor” (yeasts that naturally form on the surface of the ageing wine at around 15% of alcohol). The flor can live naturally (also thanks to being fed by the addition of new wine at least twice yearly) and their characteristic depends on their location (Jerez de la Frontera versus the two coastal towns). The wine is bone dry and yeasty in character. If it is made in Sanlucar de Berrameda it is called Manzanilla (thought to be different because of the specific coastal air). Fino comes from Jerez or El Puerto de Santa Maria.
The minimum ageing is 2 yrs by law and goes through the Solera system (at least 3 layers of barrels to a max of 7 yrs – after which the flor dies).
Drink: as an appetizer with tapas, during a tapas dinner. Excellent food wine (kind of horrible on its own).

Whereas the characteristic of fino is to be “fine” in quality of juice, the Olorosos can be made of the second press or simply not as elegant wines. Oloroso is also aged with the Solera system, but the main difference being that the juice is fortified to 17% which inhibits the flor from growing, so this is “just” an oxidized wine. The color is deeper, the flavors are nuttier and deeper.
Drink: during dinner (consider this your full-bodied red wine compared to a lighter “fino” like a white wine)

This type of sherry is for the people who either can’t decide if they like fino or oloroso the most, or neither and simply need a middle way. It ages biologically under flor for a couple of years and then continues ageing in an oxidative way for a few more years.
Drink: Still being bone dry this is an excellent wine for meal times to accompany medium savory dishes.

The flor on a fino is hard to control as it is naturally occurring and traditionally, when the flor on a fino was dying and the wine exposed to oxygen for a few years, this “mistake” of a wine was bottled with this name. Compared to an Amontillado, which is quite similar in concept, the Palo Contado usually spends a longer time in the ageing process and is considered quite rare.
Drink: this is a complex wine to be enjoyed with complex cheeses or even meats.

It is possible to find a vintage (so a wine that was aged without the Solera system), but it’s extremely rare as this method is simply not the soul of Sherry production.

CREAM (medium sweet)
Cream (and pale cream) is probably the least fashionable sherry at the moment and probably the one that comes to mind when mentioning Sherry at all. It was invented in the 1870’ies to please the British palate and is a mix of Oloroso Sherry with the PX, hence a sweet and after-dinner drink.

MOSCATEL (sweet)
Made from Muscat d’Alexandria grapes (famous for the origin of many sweet wines in many different countries). Often sun-dried and then fortified mid-way very similar to the process of Port making, although still aged according to the Solera system typical for most sherries.

PEDRO XIMENEZ – PX (very sweet)
Made from a Spanish grape of the same name (most often grown in Montilla-Moriles) is also a grape that lends itself exceptionally to be sundried and made into a deep dark dessert wine (even if PX is still a white grape), reminiscent of dark dried raisins and molasses. The residual sugar content in this wine can be up to 500 gr / liter which makes it a perfect companion to salty blue cheese or very dark chocolate.

In English stands for Very Old Sherry and goes for Sherries that have been aged in average for more than 20 yrs. A commission tastes and analyzes (and even carbon dates!) these wines to have pretty accurate data for the certification.
Stands for Very Old Rare Sherry and is only for Sherries that have been certified to be an average of more than 30 yrs old.

The latter sherries are definitely the most special, complex wines and also more expensive Sherries to be got, costing at least 30-40 euros or more a bottle – but still a bargain for such great wines!
Drink when?
Drink when?
Ruby, white and pink & vintage ports are to be consumed within a few days after opening, so treat like any red, white or pink wine (also in service temperature).
Furthermore, like regular wine bottles, for vintage ports you want to store them on their side if you’re not drinking them any time soon.

Tawny ports are due to last better once open (as they are already oxidized wines) and easily last a few weeks once open.
Finos & Manzanillas can keep a few days once open, but do treat like a white wine & also when it comes to serving temperature.

All other Sherries are fine open a few weeks, so no need to finish the bottle in one go!
Treat your Oloroso’s as reds and serve at a slightly higher temperature.
The sticky wines are a matter of taste, slightly chilled may make them a little easier to drink ;)

More info on Port: Fortheloveofport & Winefolly

More info on Sherry: Guildsomm & Sherrynotes

 A celebration of how Port was transported from the Douro valley wine region to the city.

The actually used Solera system (this one in the winery Tradicion in Jerez de la Frontera)

Monday, January 16, 2017

Merry in Sherry - trip report!

Recently we grabbed an opportunity of heading to Southern Spain. Our main goal was to get our heads around Sherry - and perhaps also to get a vacation from having small kids? Truth be told, when you can get a grandparent to watch your kids, you don't deny (especially when this is a luxury you're not used to).
The choice fell on Southern Spain, having already "done" the Port wine region in Portugal, this one was really missing from our experiences. Funny enough, we're were not particularly fond of either (even though a good port or sherry would never be denied) but these wines are so particular and important to the history of wine that a trip really really merits. And after visiting, you really do gain a different appreciation.
And I couldn't imagine a better time to visit than in the middle of winter. Temperatures are incredibly mild and, well coming from a nordic country, almost summer-like!

Our itinerary:
We started with 3 full days in Seville to, well, simply be tourists and discover the city on foot. The good thing about walking miles every day is that you get to celebrate your workout with lots of good food :)
Seville is an incredibly beautiful town. Tapas were born there & so was Flamenco. The Cathedral is breathtaking (one of the World's largest) and the orange trees decorate the streets wherever you go & monuments & squares are simply enchanting. Santa Cruz is one of the oldest in charming areas, very central and perfect to stay in as a tourist.
On the evening of the Epiphany we had the thrill of watching the parade of the 3 Kings with decorative carts and lots of children in costumes, throwing candies at the crowds!
Then we took the train 1 hour south to Jerez de la Frontera and had 1 full day in town to discover Sherry. You don't need a car as all the Sherry houses are placed in a circle around the city at convenient 5-10 walking distance one from another. You could probably check them all out in one day - we got a little tired after the first 6-7 and decided to take a nap at the hotel.
Next day we took the train from Jerez to El Puerto de Santa Maria (10 minutes) to visit a Sherry house on the harbour. From there we took a boat to Cadiz (30 mins) which was nice to walk around in for a few hours. And that rounded up our short trip.

Places we ate (& drank):
- Vineria San Telmo (Seville) - mentioned first, because it was our favorite. Varied menu of tapas and plates, excellent quality at good prices. Excellent list of wines, also by the glass. Waiters and owner very nice, environment simple, but pleasant.
Mamarracha (Seville) - We ate here the first night and enjoyed what a late Spanish dinner means, getting to eat only around 11 pm because the place was crowded. But worth the wait with some very nice contemporary tapas and a very good bottle of Toro.
- La Brunilda (Seville) - This was an enormously popular tapas bar, so we got there half an hour before opening time and actually waited in line to get in. We were a bit taken away by the crowd of tourists. However, the food was very good...but I don't understand the hype...
- Casa Morales (Seville) - This is a century old wine bar where wines were stored in the past. Now you can have a glass of wine (or two!) and enjoy some delicious cheeses or ham. Gets busy in the evening, but the atmosphere is local and it's worth elbow-rubbing for a space at the bar.
- Dos De Mayo (Seville) - a more traditional tapas restaurant. Best part was that we sat on the terrace and enjoyed the winter sun. The food was ok, but not specifically noteworthy.
- Abantal (Seville) - I was really looking forward to the tasting menu at the city's only Michelin starred restaurant, and even though the food wasn't bad, it just wasn't outstanding. My high expectations were met by a few original and interesting dishes, but some were just pure bland or boring. In my opinion the dishes lacked a thread of consistency. The wine pairing was quite decent and well priced.
- Las Banderillas (Jerez) - this is a typical sherry "tabanco" (traditional wine bar typically linked with one of the sherry wineries, selling wine from the barrel - quite cheaply, might I add). This one was very traditional with bulls pictures and otherwise bare facilities. Food was traditional, ok, not fantastic. Prices were extremely reasonable.
- Tabanco El Pasaje (Jerez) - simple wine bar with a lot of local regulars. You can order cheese and cold cuts (and lots of sherry) and other simple tasting dishes. Best thing of all is that there's a Flamenco show every evening from 9 pm to 10 pm. Absolutely loved that!
- Albores (Jerez) - locally quite a popular restaurant with an ample menu. Food was very good but somehow I didn't find it to be very memorable. Just good.
- La Bodeguilla del Bar Jamón (El Puerto de Santa Maria) - very nice wine bar / tapas restaurant with lots of wines by the glass and excellent hams...
- Casa Manteca (Cadiz) - a bar with lots of local charm. And apparently a must-go in Cadiz, we were told. Menu is mainly cured/pickled fish, but of course excellent. Especially the pickled sardines!

Wineries we visited:
- Tradicion (Jerez) - tour & tasting 20 euro per person (great tour & tasting by Ulrike)
- Lustau (Jerez) - tour & tasting 15 euro per person.
- Gutierrez Colosia (El Puerto de Santa Maria) - tour & tasting 10 euro per person (tours run by passionate Betrand and start at 11.15 am)

Small piece of advice:
If you are headed to Seville & you're a serious foodie, you should get into contact with Shawn who works with a few like-minded people in Seville. She has an extensive website on places to eat and organises small group tapas tours through her website.