Two palmentos on Etna

This was our second trip to Sicily, the first one being to the South East, where we stayed at COS, and also visited Valle dell’Acate.  This time we were in the Etna region, and each place we stayed in contained a largely unrestored palmento – the local name for a wine production facility.

We started with a few days at Fuedo Vagliasindi, near Randazzo.  Fuedo Vagliasindi is now a hotel, but used to be the country villa of a powerful noble family.  It is difficult to over-emphasise the scale of the palmento there, and easy to be impressed.  Basically it occupies all of what appears to be the ground floor in the picture below.


One thing I realised on this trip was that the basic pattern seems to change little, irrespective of how grand the palmento is.  If you have a big important palmento, like this one, you simply scale up all the dimensions accordingly.  So instead of the beam of the press having a cross-section of 50cm or so square, this one is closer to a metre square.  And the size of the treading areas, tanks and barrel room are also scaled up accordingly.

The palmento has three levels.  The highest level is where the grapes are received from the fields.  Here there is a staircase on the outside of the building,  to the right as shown above, to enable the grapes to be dumped through windows and into the area where the grapes are trodden.  Below you can see Ben (that’s our knowledgeable guide Benjamin Spencer of The Etna Wine Lab) ready to start treading, and helping indicate how massive the beam of the press really is.  After treading, the must is drained into tanks at a lower level, to the left and back in the picture below, and the press is operated to help extract the liquid from the skins and stalks.

Maybe I have been a bit slow on the uptake, but I always imagined that press worked by one end of the beam being pulled down to the floor by the screw.  Actually, the screw lifts a large stone that is slotted into the floor, so it is the weight of the stone that ultimately determines the force on the beam, and that force will remain constant as long as the stone is suspended.  If the beam end were simply pulled down against the floor, you would have to keep adjusting the position of the beam to maintain a constant force as the mass of skins and stalks compresses.  As Ben put it, using the weight of the stone enables you to set up the press and go to lunch.


The last area of the palmento is the barrel room.  This is at opposite the end to where the grapes arrive, and another level down, thus allowing the wine to continue to follow its easy gravity-driven course.  Easy after some poor sod has initially lugged the baskets of grapes up the stairs, of course.  Unfortunately, as far as the evidence in the picture goes, the barrels could be almost any size.  Take it from me that they are on a scale appropriate to everything else – huge!


Feudo Vagliasindi still has vineyards around the house and produces a wine under its own label.  But that wine is now made just down the road at Tenuta delle Terre Nere, of which there will probably be more in a later post.  The massive area occupied by the palmento is now largely unused, but thankfully still pretty much intact.

After our stay at Feudo Vagliasindi to the North of Etna, we moved round to the South East of the mountain, near Zafferana Etnea, and stayed at La Rocca della Rosa.  While not exactly what I would call small, this farmhouse was on a lot more intimate scale than Feudo Vagliasindi.  The place is still run as a small farm, and it too used to have vines on its property.  The vineyards are no more, but the house still has a palmento, now a bedroom suite for the agriturismo.

The palmento occupies the room behind the two rightmost doors on the balcony shown below (one of the doors being largely hidden by the parasol).  The internal height of the palmento is a little higher than you might think, extending to the bottom of the windows above.  Here, grapes were delivered through a window to the back of the house, but with not so much distance for the vineyard workers to climb as the house is built on a slope.  The barrels were kept on ground floor off to the right of the picture, a space now used as the agriturismo’s dining room.


The palmento has been converted to a bedroom suite, and I was delighted that we got to stay in it.  The palmento has not been messed around with much in its conversion, and some might like more creature comforts, but it is ideal for the wine geek, or anyone else interested in the history of winemaking on Sicily.  What you see in the picture below is the stairs up to the area where the grapes were trodden, now a double bedroom.  Our bedroom window was where the grapes came in.

roca_della_rosa_stairs_to_treading _area

In the arch was underneath is an area that used to be a stone tank, now a twin bedroom.  To the right  was another area that could be used as a tank, and the press, now mainly used as a storage area.


One little detail, which I noticed only after a couple of days intimate contact between my bare feet and the palmento floor, was that the floor’s texture was different in different areas.  Mostly the stone was rough-hewn, but relatively smooth – see below right.  But in the grape-treading area, AKA the area between our bed and the bathroom, the stone surface had been deliberately roughened – below left.


To the sole of my feet, the roughness felt a little spiky, and not entirely comfortable. Was that to help prevent slipping while treading grapes, I wonder? Or perhaps it reduced the chance of crushing grape pips. I understand that in the Douro (sorry for the quick change of country), wooden soles had nails hammered in for that purpose. I also wonder if all palmento grape treading area have this textured surface, and wish I had been more observant at Feudo Vagliasindi.

Farewell to Artur Barros e Sousa Lda

It was only last week that I learned in the UK Wine Forum of the demise of the smallest Madeira shipper Artur Barros e Sousa Lda (ABSL).  Well, they will not totally disappear off the face of the earth, but the business was sold to their next door neighbours Pereira d’Oliveira in November 2013.  Apparently wine already bottled will keep its ABSL label, and is already becoming something of a collector’s item, but the stock in barrel will probably be sold under the d’Oliveira name.  It seems d’Oliveira plan to use the ABSL canteiro as a tourist centre.  I suppose d’Oliveira is the obvious choice as new owner.  Not only it is literally right next door, but there has been a good relationship between the two shippers, and d’Oliveira has been pressing ABSL’s grapes for some time.

The the time it took for the news to reach me probabky reflects the general lack of interest in ABSL shown outside of Madeira and Portugal, which is understandable as they exported little, especially more recently.  Indeed they produced little.  MadeiraWineGuide gives the annual production as 8,000 to 10,000 litres a year, which is about 30 litres a day.  When we wandered around the canteiro in 2007, Edmundo was sitting at a table with some bottles, manually applying the wax seal.  We realised later that the bottles on that table  probably represented the day’s production!

ABSL was a real pleasure to visit.  The door from the street is easy to miss, and I know people have done just that despite being told it is right next door to the very obvious entrance to d’Oliveira’s tasting room.  But when inside, we were warmly welcomed by Artur (pictured below in the blue check shirt) and invited to explore by ourselves. We started in the small courtyard, where a variety of Madeira grapes grow.  Noble ones, such as Terrantez, Malvasia, Boal, Sercial, Verdelho.  Also the less-distinguished Tinta Negra, Carão de Moça, Listrão, Moscatel, Alicante de Málaga, and Bastardo.


Then we climbed two sets of rickety stairs or ladders, noting the barrels on each floor.  It was on the way down we saw Edmundo sealing bottles, and then we moved on to a tasting offered by Artur.  Most of the time we were there, we had the canteiro and tasting room to ourselves; it was only towards the end of our tasting that another couple arrived.


I cannot remember what we tasted, but Artur seemed willing to offer us something from practically any bottle he had if we asked. But considering that we could not carry many bottles home we did not have the cheek to ask for too much.  We bought the Verdelho Reserva Velha for around £27, and the Sercial 1998 for £18 or so.  The Reserva Velha was of uncertain age, but said to be something like 20 years old and from a single vintage.


During my time on the island I discovered I did not like cheaper Madeiras, even wines like Henriques and Henriques 15 year old Verdelho for example, which many seem to rate quite highly.  On the other hand I really enjoyed some of the older vintages – Leacock’s 1959 Sercial was one of the best wines ever to have passed my lips.  I found ABSL’s more recent vintage wines filled the middle ground very nicely, and offered excellent value for money.  I remember the light delicate touch of their wines – nothing too robust and obtrusive.

As many others before have commented the atmosphere in the canteiro was very special.  The building itself was originally a Jesuit house.  But it was taken from them when the Jesuits were expelled from Portugal in 1759, and it eventually passed into the hands of the family who started ABSL. The barrels, floors and stairs in the canteiro are still obviously very old.  Even the most modern of their technology seemed to date from the 1950s.  That atmosphere is impossible to fake, and also impossible to preserve.  Perhaps that is no bad thing – it is just something to be experienced while you can – a bit like the wine produced there, and indeed wine in general. Let’s just hope that d’Oliveira’s tourist ambitions manage to keep at least some of the canteiro‘s charm.  It must be difficult to resist the urge to over-restore in the creation of a safe and manageable place for tourists.

I cannot help feeling sad about the demise of ABSL, but it is clear that the brothers Artur and Edmundo Olim could not keep running the business for ever, and I wish them a happy retirement.

Acknowledgements, sources and further information: Apart from the sources linked to above, I also got information from an interview with Artur that was published in inews, julho 2013, semestral no 7, a magazine of the Instituto do Vinho do Bordado e do Artesanato de Madeira.  For further information about ABSL, and evocative images,  I can recommend Mad About Madeira.  Also, Alex Liddell’s book Madeira, in the Faber and Faber series, has a good section on the company.  Finally, I should thank my good friends John and Inger, for allowing me to use the photos from their visit in 2013 – unfortunately I did not take any myself in 2007.

Azienda Agricola COS

We have just returned from a week staying at Locanda COS – accommodation at the Sicilian wine producer Azienda Agricola COS.  You might already know that I am a bit of a fan of COS wines (see here and here for example), but you probably did not know that we have long intended to holiday in Sicily, amongst other things to take in some Greek temples, like the Temple of Concord at Agrigento shown below. What a great solution it was to stay at COS.


I do not pretend to be a hotel critic or travel writer, so I am not going to dwell too much on the accommodation and the sightseeing.  Let’s just say we would be happy to return, and if you want any more details please ask.  However I feel confident in asserting that we were provided with great breakfasts, dinners and wine.  The dinners, often just cooked for the two of us, were excellent.  It is difficult to describe them briefly, as they varied so much.  In the best possible sense they were rustic rather than sophisticated, and the flavours and flavour combinations were superb.  Great raw ingredients were clearly an important basis for the quality of the food, but they were also put together very nicely.  Our chef was usually Pino, but one evening Angela Occhipinti (Guisto’s sister) stepped in to offer us some local Sicilian dishes.

The wine service was good, and equally varied.  You really have to dine several evenings to get a good picture!  When it was just the two of us, Pino usually opened a couple of bottles and let us get on with it.  On other occasions, I think basically when new people arrived, Joanna joined us and guided us through smaller quantities of a greater number of wines.  By the end of the week, we had worked our way through all the current COS releases (some more than once, but I am not complaining), and a couple of older wines.  A sip of their experimental sparkling Frappato, white and with the base wine fermented in amphora, passed my lips too, but it was sadly corked.  Our dinner hosts, Joanna and Pino are shown below.  They both deserve a big thank you for making our stay there enjoyable.


And here is the view from our apartment (Tramontana), over the vineyards to some mountains on the horizon.  Just out of shot to the right, on a clear day you can see Etna.  You can also see one of the COS dogs, keeping my wife company on an evening stroll. That particular one is easily distinguished from the others by his crazy sticky-out ears.


One morning we were given a tour of the cantina.  Here are some of the amphoras used for the fermentation and initial aging of Pithos wines.  Red and wihite wines are fermented on their skins, and allowed to sit on their skins in amphora for a while after fermentation.  During fermentation the cap is pushed down with specially designed implements.  One can be operated through the small whole in the lid that is clamped to the top of the amphora. For some reason I expected there to be more amphoras – the image shows something like 40% of the total in that room, and there were 4 amphoras elsewhere for the base wine of the experimental sparkling Frappato.  All the ones shown are used for the Pithos Rosso.  Production of Pithos Bianco is relatively small, and occupied only one corner of the room.  The 2012 vintage had already been pumped out of the amphoras, but there was a problem with some of the wine, so it was returned to amphora in an attempt to rectify it – that is why two amphoras are in use with their lids clamped down


But only the Pithos wines are fermented in amphora.  Most is fermented more conventionally in epoxy-lined concrete tanks in a recently designed building.  Again the scale is not huge. You can see there are 4 pictured on the left, and there are another 4 to the right, and that is it.  Gravity drives most of the flow.  You can see where the tanks are loaded from the walkways at the top, which is close to ground level, and the large neutral barrels used for aging some of the wines are at a lower lever level than the fermentation vessels.  Pumps only need to be used to get wine to the bottling line, which is again roughly at ground level.


I didn’t hear the words “biodynamic” or “natural” mentioned once at COS, though I understand both terms apply to their wines.  But there were a couple of hints given in the tour.  One was the constant classical music being played in the main building with the concrete tanks, because the wines liked the vibrations.  The amphora room however survived without – perhaps the amphoras were enough to compensate for the lack of music.  The other hint was the reluctance to use stainless steel as a container, as it acts as an antenna and transfers unwanted energy to the wine.

I vini

Firstly, some brief notes on the designations.  The most important local designation is Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOGC, which can also have Classico appended if the grapes come from a more restricted zone and the wine is aged a bit longer before selling.  It is made from a blend of the local light and fruity Frappato variety, and the better known and more structured Nero d’Avola.  Typical proportions are 60-70% Nero d’Avola and 40-30% Frappato.  The COS Pithos Rosso blend would meet the Cerasuolo di Vittoria regulations, but the amphora vinification means it is not entitled to use the name.  Recently the catch-all designation of Sicilia IGT ceased to exist, so producers now have to use an alternative on their labels – either Terre Siciliane IGT or Sicilia DOC on the label, depending on their wine and how they wish it to be perceived.

The wines were each taken with one or more of the dinners we had at COS.  This was an ideal way of appreciating them, but as the food was different on different occasions, any comparisons must be taken with lashings of salt.  And, as ever, I make no claims to objectivity – indeed, I don’t believe it exists in wine tasting.  The prices are approximate, or estimated, UK retail.

Ramí, Sicilia IGT, Isolia – Grecanico, 2011, 12.0%, £17
Medium deep amber gold. Medium intense on the nose. Apricot and orange peel. Medium low acid. Sweet fruit. Drink now ****

Frappato, Terre Siciliane IGT, 2012, 12.0%, £17
Medium purple ruby. The nose seemed to get a bit lost in the glass. Medium low acid. Medium tannin. Intense confected raspberry fruity. Drink now, or soon. Gave *** on first occasion, but I enjoyed it more subsequently, so ****

Nero di Lupo, Sicilia IGT, Nero d’Avola, 2011, 12.0%, £17
Medium purple ruby. Intense sweet dark fruit. Medium acid. Low tannin. Drink now or leave to age a little ****

Pithos Bianco, Sicilia IGT, Grecanico, 2011, 11.5%, £20
Medium amber. Intense apricot and marmalade. Medium low acid. A little sweetness perhaps, or just ripe fruit. Some astringency. Excellent length. Drink now, but no hurry *****

Pithos, Sicilia IGT, Nero d’Avola – Frappato, 2011, 12.0%, £20
Medium pale, purple ruby. Fresh, vague red fruit.  Some vegetal notes, broad bean pods, or maybe raw mushrooms. Medium acid. Delicate. Sweet fruit. Medium low tannin. More attractive on palate than nose. Like Burgundy with a little age perhaps. Sweet fruit on finish. Drink now, but no hurry. The vegetal notes would have cost this wine a star, but I did not get them on subsequent bottles, so  *****

Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG, Nero d’Avola – Frappato, 2010, 13.0%, £20
Medium pale ruby garnet. Intense light berry fruit. Hint of raspberry maybe. Tad vegetal. Medium low acid. Medium high tannin. As nose. Could be a young non-Burgundian Pinot Noir. Excellent length. Drink now or maybe keep a few years ****

Maldafrica, Sicilia IGT, Cabernet Sauvignon – Merlot – Frappato, 2009, 13.0%, £20
Intense purple. Intense Cabernet blackcurrant nose. Medium acid. Medium high acid. Sweet fruit as per nose. Needs more time.  Not really for me, and there are plenty of good alternatives for this type of wine ****

Maldafrica, Sicilia IGT, Cabernet Sauvignon – Nero d’Avola, 2008, 14.0%, £20
Intense, dark fruit. Slightly Smokey. Serious wine. Medium acid. Sweet fruit.  Medium tannin. Excellent length. Drink now, but no hurry.  A different blend from the 2009, and a big step up in quality *****

Contrada, Sicilia IGT, Nero d’Avola, 2007, 13.0%, £40
Intense purple ruby. Intense mature dark fruit. A little towards an oxidised style, with prune and caramel notes. Medium acid. Medium tannin. Good now, but may improve over several years ****

The notes above are written in my usual telegraphic, rather grumpy, style, but I would like to stress that I enjoyed all of these wines, and was very happy to drink them with food over the course of a week.  Not once did I think I’d really rather be drinking something else.  I brought a couple of bottles of Contrada back with me, choosing that wine largely because it is not so readily available in the UK.  Then, one of my first acts on returning home was to order a case of Pithos Rosso – now only 11 bottles.

Palmento, Sicilian Wine Odyssey – book review

PalmentoA Sicilian Wine Odyssey, by Robert Camuto.  RRP is now £13.99 for the paperback version, but you can get it delivered by one of Amazon’s partners for around £11.00.  21cm tall and around 300 pages.

It is not a big book, not on glossy paper, and it does not have colour pictures. So don’t buy it to leave on the coffee table to impress friends.  Also, do not buy it if you expect a reference book on the wines of Sicily.  The author visits some 20 producers, but you do not get a neatly arranged set of pages on each one, with a description of the winemaking philosophy, list of wines with tasting notes,  table of statistics, and photograph of the winemaker with his dog.

All the information is presented in terms of a chronological description of the author’s visit to each place over the course of a year.  You also get to hear about the journey between some of the wineries, and there is even one chapter were he did not visit a producer at all.  You learn about the history, landscape and people of the island, but it is all through the personal experience of the author and his interviews with other people.  The same applies to the wines – when he tastes or drinks a wine he sometimes describes them, but you never get anything that approaches what you would call a tasting note.  Nevertheless, while claiming no great expertise, he seems to understand wine well, and I find it easy to relate to what he has to say.

Personally I find many wine books rather tedious, and this approach is very refreshing.  However, without the support of the conventional wine book framework, the success or otherwise must largely hang on the quality of the author’s writing.  In my opinion, Camuto writes very well and the book is successful.  In particular, I appreciate the directness of his style when describing people and wines.  He can be brutally honest but rarely, if ever, judgemental.  You can boo, hiss and cheer along as you read about the people he visits, but I wonder to what extent you would be agreeing with what Camuto really thinks.

Porto, the Douro, and some Vinho Verde

I returned a few weeks ago from the most most amazing holiday in Portugal.  The focus of our trip was Roy Hersh’s 2012 Port Explorers Tour, but we also spent a few extra days in Porto.  We stayed in Porto and Régua, visiting Port houses in Vila Nova de Gaia, and quintas in the Douro.  Additionally, we went on a refreshing excursion to Vinho Verde.

I recommend both Porto and the Douro very strongly as a wine destination. Even before the Port Explorers Tour started we enjoyed Porto very much, and found everyone friendly and helpful.  It was also nice that none of it has yet become a sanitised tourist destination, though bits of Vila Nova de Gaia are heading in that direction.  And if you want to have great tastings set up for you and meet the people behind the wines, I doubt you could do better than to join one of Roy’s tours.

I intend to blog with more thoughts from this trip – nothing too structured, and probably not many tasting notes – just the things that made the biggest impact on me.  For now here is a quick pictorial summary.

Here are some barcos rebelos with part of Vila Nova de Gaia in the background.  This was the style of boat that used to bring the wine down the Douro to Vila Nova de Gaia for storage before shipping.  Now they are used to advertise Port houses, and the wine arrives by road in small tankers.

This was how we spent a lot of our time.  Here we are at our very first tasting with Roy – at Porto Poças.  Someone has to do it – that wine will not taste itself.

And this was our first meal with the group, at Adega e Presuntaria Transmontana II in Vila Nova de Gaia.  A selection of nibbles, which we soon were to learn was a common way to start a meal, and a mackerel dish in the foreground.

The Douro valley.  Back in Porto, everyone seemed to speak of it with misty eyes.   Now we understand why.  Wow!  The most impressive thing was the sheer scale of the landscape – horizontally as well as vertically.

And finally an example of some of the wine-making kit we saw.  These are the robotic lagares at Sandeman’s Quinta do Seixo – the modern version of the place where all the grape treading goes on.  See the robotic feet at the far end.

Below is a complete list of the significant wine and food related events on our trip.  Those marked with a star, were set up as part of the Port Explorers Tour.  I am not going to get round to writing about all of these, so if you want an opinion get in touch – use the comment box or drop me an email.

Port Lodges
Taylor’s (touristy tour and tasting)
Sandeman’s (touristy tour and tasting)
Dalva (tasting, in shop only)
Porto Poças (tour and tasting) *
Burmester (tour and tasting) *
Offley (tour and tasting) *
J H Andresen (tour and tasting) *
Graham’s (tour and tasting)

Quintas in the Douro
Pintas, Wine and Soul (tour and tasting) *
Passadouro (dinner) *
Seixo (tour, tasting and lunch) *
Crasto (tour, tasting and dinner) *
Tedo (tour, tasting and lunch) *
Vista Alegre (tour and tasting) *
Cavadinha (tour and tasting) *
Quinta do Portal (tour, tasting and lunch) *

Vinho Verde
Casal do Paço (tour, tasting and lunch) *

Dom Luis – Vila Nova de Gaia (lunch)
Fishe Fixe – Porto (two lunches)
Majestic Café – Porto (dinner)
Adega e Presuntaria Transmontana II – Vila Nova de Gaia (dinner) *
Ar de Rio – Vila Nova de Gaia (lunch) *
Bufete Fase – Porto (Francesinha bar for dinner) *
Pedro Lemos – Porto (dinner) *
Rui Paula, DOC – Folgosa (lunch) *
LBV 79 – Pinhõa (dinner) *
Rui Paula, DOP – Porto (dinner) *

Modest Burgundies in Burgundy

Returned from the ACE Cultural Tours Mediaeval Burgundy a few weeks ago.  So not so much focus on wine, and a lot of churches and abbeys.  I would highly recommend the tour if you are into that sort of thing. ACE will doubtless run it again at some point.

At our first hotel, the Hostellerie Le Cedre in Beaune, the food and wine was a lot better than on many of these trips.  Here the food was very accomplished, particularly considering they were catering for a party of 16.  It was excellent and well-presented French cuisine, though not as far as I know particularly Burgundian.  Usually 4 courses, with a varying number of small little extras.  Not quite as fussy as what you might expect from a Michelin-starred restaurant, but heading in that direction.  The wines were also good, if modest, and they were definitely from Burgundy.

At L’Hôtel de la Poste et du Lion d’Or in Vézelay, the food was typical tourist-grade hotel mediocrity, most things being premade and/or preformed.  To be fair to the hotel, I don’t know what their brief and budget was, and what they are capable of on a larger budget, but I was not impressed by what we got.  The wines were not great either.

We had a good few glasses of wine with each meal, so I feel I had a good chance to form an impression of each one, and I describe them briefly at the bottom of this post.  I was particularly impressed by the Prosper Maufoux wines.  Unfortunately this négociant does not seem to be available in the UK – not the straight Bourgogne AC red and white at least – but I will keep an eye out for them next time I am in Burgundy.  Apart from the wines drunk in our hotels, we had a touristy tasting at Bouchard Ainé et Fils which I don’t feel inclined to comment on further, and a few jug wines for lunch.  Ones I particularly remember were an overly-acidic Passetoutgrain, which suddenly became enjoyable when my steak frites arrived, and an Irancy which reminded me of the Domaine Rigoutat wine described below.  Is all red wine from North Burgundy like this?  I wish I had stuck with Chablis in that area.

At Hostellerie Le Cedre, the wines listed below were €20-30 on the wine list, and as far as I could tell they would retail for around £13 in the UK.  No idea how much the wines drunk in Vézelay would cost in the UK.  Maybe £8.  I would not buy them at any price.

Hostellerie Le Cedre

Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Référence, Maison Prosper Maufoux à Santanay, 2009 – Good Pinot Noir fruit. Medium low tannin. Would benefit from a few more years ***

Domaine Bertagna, Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Les Dames Huguettes, Pinot Noir, 2007 – Intense varietal Pinot Noir fruit. Hard edge on the nose and palate. Medium acid. Medium low tannin. Would benefit from a few more years ***

Bourgogne, Haute Côtes de Nuit, Bichot, 2007 – Intense. Citrus and peach. Medium acid. Drink now ***

Domaine Chevrot, Bourgogne, Pinot Noir, 2009 – Bright intense varietal Pinot Noir fruit. A little rubbery. Medium high acid. Medium low tannin. Drink now ***

Bourgogne, Chardonnay, Prosper Maufoux, 2008 – Intense. Slightly mature. Slightly oaky. Some citrus. Medium high acid. Drink now ****

L’Hôtel de la Poste et du Lion d’Or

Domaine Rigoutat, Bourgogne, Coulage la Vineuse, 2008 – Sickly cheap Pinot Noir fruit. Coarsely oaked. Awful *

Irancy, Domaine Verret, 2008 – Sweet, icing sugar, Pinot Noir fruit. Medium acid. Low tannin **

A Spring in Majorca – but only one week

Once again I decided there are more beautiful things in life than wine bottles to show pictures of, so here is the Gran Hotel in Palma, designed by Domènech i Montaner who was also responsible for Modernista buildings in Barcelona.

Palma is a fine city, but we were staying in Sóller, at the other end of the scenic railway, and just over the mountains on the North West side of the island. So most of the restaurants mentioned below are in Sóller, though there are a couple we visited for lunch on day trips.

Generally speaking I was a little surprised at how similar the restaurants we tried were in terms of price, menu choice and quality of food.  It seemed to be pretty standard to offer a number of local Mallorcan dishes, along with some with a somewhat more international flavour which normally came with shredded lettuce and other inappropriate bits of salad.  Generally speaking the quality was pretty good, but never much better than that.  Here are the restaurants, together with the wines taken at each place.  The prices are estimated Spanish retail prices for 75cl bottles, converted at current rates.  Don’t take them too seriously, but it will give you some idea the relative prices.

La Vila, Sóller
We had our first evening meal in our hotel restaurant.  Good atmosphere and service. The food was OK, but on the relatively pricey side and unnecessarily complicated.  Scallops were a bit chewy, and the selection of cheeses boring.  Nicely cooked magret of duck in a good orange sauce, but lots of additional faffy bits, and apples with so much cinnamon flavour they overpowered the rest of the dish.

Jean Leon, Petit Chardonnay, Penedés DO, 2009, £9.50
Intense and ripe tropical fruit.  Pineapple, and something with a bitter edge – maybe Seville oranges ***

Ses Nines, La Vila Hotel Sóller Edició Limitada, Binissalem Mallorca DO, Tianna Negre, 2009, £13.50
This was a supposedly a special cuvée for the restaurant.  Intense and brambly, with quite a bit of tannin and a bitter finish.  Good now, but I’d expect it to improve in the next 5 years or so.  A good ***

Es Canyis, Port de Sóller
Had a late lunch here, sharing a starter of grilled sardines and a main of arròs negre.  Simple but very good – probably the best meal of the holiday.  Nice relaxed restaurant and good service too.

Blanc de Blancs, Maciá Batle, Binissalem Mallorca DO, 2010, £5.30
Intense tropical fruit again.  This time pineapple and melon I thought.  Bitter and cloying finish ***

El Guia, Sóller
The most remarkable thing about this place was the service.  Slow and ponderous silver service, with wine top ups every few minutes until they got a bit busier, and a waiter who keeps repeating the order to himself as he returns to the kitchen.  The fish soup  was full of mushy fibres of fish.  Maybe that is how it is done locally, but it wasn’t to my taste.  But I enjoyed very much the local dish llom amb col – pork wrapped in cabbage leaves and slow cooked.

José L Ferrer, Crianza, Binissalem Mallorca DO (Mantonegro), Spain, 2008, £9.00
Sweet sickly dark fruit on the nose – rather unpleasant I thought.  Slightly sweet, slightly oxidised, and quite tannic *

Son Tomas, Banyalbufar
Just had a main course for lunch here – a disappointingly tough grilled monkfish.  My wife’s Mallorcan fish was better cooked, so maybe I was just unlucky. A nice terrace location though.

Alba Flor, Blanco, Prensal Muscat, Binissalem Mallorca DO, Vins Nadal, 2009, £7.50
Another oxidised one.  Lemon, sherry and apples.  Maybe I should have been sending these back, but I quite liked this one.  More interesting than tropical fruit! ***

Cipriani, Sóller
This was not the Don Cipriani you may have read about elsewhere.  It seems that has now folded.  This was a restaurant on the main square.  The food was very good.  I had the sopes mallorquines, which was actually a meal in itself (I had forgotten that sopes was not soup), and the equally local slow cooked shoulder of lamb.  Decent service, and a good outside location.

Ses Nines, Manto Negre Cab Sauv Callet Sirah, Binissalem Mallorca DO, Tianna Negre, 2010, £9.00
Blackberry.   Jammy, and with a certain edge.  Quite tannic, bitter finish.  Not unpleasant.  Despite the same star rating, it did not appeal as much as La Vila’s version of Ses Nines ***

Sa Cova, Sóller
Had a couple of meals here.  Service is a bit rough around the edges but acceptable, and outside tables small with little space around them.  Had battered squid rings as a starter twice.  The first time was fantastic – light and crispy coating with melt-in-the-mouth squid.  Next time was sadly more greasy and chewy.  Had the magret of duck here too to compare.  This time it was in PX sauce.  Bigger portion, also well cooked and tasty, but cheaper and less faff.  This one also came with cinnamon apples, which were more subtly spiced.

ÁN/2, VdT Mallorca, Falanis, Ánima Negre, 2008, £11.60
This is the cheapest of the Ánima Negre red range.  Nicely delineated aromas, vanilla oak, and blackcurrant fruit. Intense and quite tannic.  Spicy, especially on the finish.  Excellent length.  At last we had stopped messing about with wines on this holiday.  Would be even better after another 5 years ****

Victoria, Alcúdia
This has an excellent location on the peninsula beyond Alcúdia – a terrace with fine views.  I had a tuna salad to start with, which turned out to be tinned tuna on a salad you might well get in the UK.  Pleasant enough, but I expected something more exciting.  This was followed by frit mallorquí, a local offal fry-up, which was good.

Bach, Extrísmo, Seco, Penedes DO (Xarel.lo, Macabeo, Chardonnay), Spain, 2009,  £5.00
Citrusy, orange I think, and pineapple.  Good value ***

Café Sóller, Sóller
As suggested by the name, this was less of a restaurant and more of a café that serves food. A rare fillet steak here, correctly cooked.  The place seems to specialise in inappropriate garnishes, so my steak had a huge piece of white asparagus lying across the plate.  My wife’s mozzarella and tomato salad came with a strawberry, and I saw pasta being served with slices of orange and kiwi.

Án, Felanis, Ánima negra, VdT de los Illes Balears, 2001, £50.00
This is the middling priced wine of the Ánima negra range.  Intense mature spicy red fruit. Cinnamon, I think.  Sweet ripe fruit. Dusty tannins. Fantastic length with a bitter finish.  Drink now or keep up to another 10 years.  Easily the best wine of the holiday *****

Bizarrely, in our experience of Sóller, the less fancy the restaurant and the poorer the quality of the wine glasses, the better the wines that were available.  Sa Cova and Café Sóller were the only places to serve anything of the level of ÁN/2, and Café Sóller was the only place to have Án on their list.  Café Sóller also deserves special mention for the reasonable markups on the Án.  They charged €41 for the 2001 and €58 for the 2000 – less than the retail prices I saw for similar vintages.

A week of Tenerife wine and food

Recently back from my hols on Tenerife. The focus of the holiday was by no means wine, but of course I was keen to try the local wines, and as there seems to be so little written about them I thought you might be interested in my experiences there. I am not going to give a factual summary here of the DOs and grape varieties, but if you are interested in such things you could do worse than looking here.

Casa del Vino

First stop, almost literally, was Casa del Vino de Baranda. Here is a wine museum, a tasting room, bar and restaurant. The museum was full of information about Tenerife wines, actually too much information for me, and the obligatory old bits and bobs of wine making in days gone by. The casa was an old farm house that produced wine, and as such came with a huge lever wine press that now forms part of the museum. You almost got a picture of that at the top of this page, but then I decided Mount Teide was prettier.

The most interesting thing I learned was about the local traditional method of training vines. It is a variant on the cordon system, with several branches braided together and laid out horizontally to grow up to around 3m long. The braided branches are allowed to rest on the ground during winter, but propped up by 50cm or so in the spring. These days a variety of training systems are used, but I did spot one or two vineyards that still used the traditional method.

We hit the ground running in the tasting room, which turned out to be more of a wine bar for locals, than a venue for (ahem) serious wine enthusiasts like us. There was a changing menu of something like 10 wines, which were served with bread and cheese, in proper wine glass sized portions, for 1-2 euros each. We did manage to negotiate half pours, but they were still large for tasting samples, and not a spittoon in sight. If I went again, I would avoid pre-Sunday-lunch drinking time with the locals, make sure no one was driving, and schedule plenty of time and liver capacity to enjoy the wine. Anyway, we finished up sharing 4 half-glass tasters, and then a bottle over lunch from the restaurant.

The wines

For some reason, in restaurants the most commonly recommended wine was Rueda. OK, it is not a bad choice but there are other white wines in the world, including quite a few from Tenerife. We succumbed once and had a couple of glasses, but otherwise stuck to wines from the island. Dry wines only. I understand Tenerife produces very good sweet Malvasias, but we did not seek these out, and none presented themselves in a very obvious way.

Maybe it was the just me, or the wines we tried, but I found the whites all a bit samey. Sweet tropical fruit aromas, mainly pineapple I think, almost pungent, fair acidity, maybe a tad astringent, and with a slightly cloying finish that seemed to be due to the aromatic profile rather than residual sugar. I hope it does not sound condescending – I don’t mean it to be – but I’d say they were characterful and rustic rather then smooth and sophisticated. All pretty solid *** wines, but I was tiring of them by the end of the week. Here are the white wines we tried, with actual or estimated retail prices converted to pounds at current exchange rates:
Marba, Blanco Barrica, Tenerife Tacoronte Acentejo DO, 2009, 12.5%, £7.60
Viñátigo, Gual, Tenerife, Ycoden Daute Isora DO, 2008, 13.0%, £7.40
Viñátigo, Verdello, Tenerife Ycoden Daute Isora DO, 2007, 13.0%, £10.30
Viñátigo, Blanco, Tenerife Ycoden Daute Isora DO, Spain, 2009, half bottle, £3.00
Viñátigo, Marmajuelo, Tenerife Ycoden Daute Isora DO, 2009, 13.0%, £8.70
Viña Zanata, Tenerife Daute Isora DO, Viña La Guancha, 2009, 12.5%, £9.00
So that’s one tasting note for 6 wines – no messing about on winenous! Three of these are of the varieties Gual, Verdello and Marmajuelo, as mentioned in the list above. I don’t know about the Viña Zanata, but the remaining two are mainly Listán Blanco – another name for the Palomino Fino of Sherry fame. There is also a Listrão Branco on Madeira, which I assume is the same variety.

I found more variation in the reds – both in style and quality.
Tajinaste, Tenerife Valle de la Ortava DO, 2008, 13.0%, £7.80
Tintilla, Tenerife Ycoden Daute Isora DO, Tágara, 2006, 13.5%, £10.30
Tanganillo, Tinto, Tenerife Valle de la Orotava DO, 2008, 13.5%, £6.50
Arautava, Tinto, Tenerife Valle dela Orotava DO, 2009, 13.0%, £8.40
Monje, Tradicional, Tinto, Tenerife Tacoronte-Acentejo DO, 2008, 13.0%, £9.50
Crater, Tenerife Tacoronte-Acentejo DO, Bodegas Buten, 2006, 13.5%, £14.00
In these names, it is only Tintilla that is the grape variety. All the others are dominated by Listán Negro. In addition to Listán Negro, the Crater has Negramoll and la Hollera blended in, and the Monje has Negramoll. Negramoll is the same as Tinta Negra Mole of Maderia, so together with Verdello and Listán Blanco, we are now up to three varieties in common with that island. All the reds were low on tannin. According to Jancis Robinson in her “Guide to Wine Grapes”, Listán Negro is usually vinified using carbonic maceration, so that could explain the low tannins, and also some of the flavour profiles.

I found the Tanaganillo to be rather dumb and short, tasting mainly of boiled blackcurrant sweets **. The Tintilla was oxidised, but have no idea if it was the wine itself, or if the bottle had just been left open too long. The oxidative notes were of the type I have noticed others liking, but they give me no pleasure, so *. The Tajinaste and Arautava were simple but good fruity blackcurrant wines, with some licorice noted on the finish of the Arautava, ***. The Monje and the Crater were a step up in quality I thought. Maybe it was the DO, which I understand was the first one on the island, or the other grapes blended in with the Listán. The Monje was also blackcurrant fruit dominated, but was more elegant, with a slight green edge, and aromatics that reminded me a bit of Syrah – but still only *** I think. The Crater, was maybe a tad bretty, and in that phase of development where it was starting to develop mature notes whilst still retaining some youthful dark fruitiness – all good things in my book. I may have been partly swayed by the environment where we drank the wine, but I think this scraped ****.

Restaurants – bad, ugly and good

Let’s start by getting some of the bad and ugly out of the way. If you are at the Teide Portillo Visitors’ Centre, don’t be tempted to eat at the nearby restaurant. There we had a soggy spag with packet bol, and a tough Spanish omelette, presumably warmed up out of a packet, and was the worst restaurant meal I can remember. We had lunch another day just up the road, which was better – but to be honest we may just have got lucky by choosing better from the menu – we went for soup at that place.

Also avoid Pomadoro in Puerto de la Cruz – there we had rather unsavoury squid (cooked in bad oil perhaps), tough rabbit, and a tough and overcooked fillet steak. The views overlooking the sea are great, but you can get the same experience next door at Rustica, where the fish dishes were a lot more acceptable, if not particularly great. Also be prepared to be serenaded by a dodgy guitar player, who will then come round asking for money.

The best place we found in Puerto de la Cruz was Régulo – we went there twice. It is what I would call a proper restaurant. Their customers were mainly foreigners like us, but providing tourist troughing did not seem to be its raison d’etre, unlike Pomadoro, Rustica and many other places we saw in Puerto. I had the excellent value fish soup on both occasions, and everything else we tried was tasty and nicely cooked. Huge portions though! I think there is something about Tenerife “entrées” that does not translate properly – they seem to be main course size. And my shoulder of lamb was a whole shoulder (maybe I exaggerate) that even I could not finish. Good wine recommendations there – the Arautava, and the Monje.

We had only dinners in Puerto de la Cruz, and lunches elsewhere on those days. An honourable mention for lunch must go to Casa del Vino, where we had a good but not very exciting meal. To be fair though, we did go for the el-cheapo lunch option for something like EUR12 per head for 3 courses, so we cannot complain too much. And another honourable mention to El Burgado at Playa las Arenas, near Buenavista del Norte in the North-West corner of the island. There we shared a paella, which was OK, but the best thing about the restaurant was the friendly service and the quiet and beautiful location by the sea.

All other meals were dinners, and taken in Santa Cruz. The first night we went to a place close to our hotel that we had a personal recommendation for – Meson El Portón, Calle Dr Guigou 18. I give the address because I saw it in no guide books or similar places you look for recommendations. I noted it was very full at lunchtime, which I took to be a good sign, and we returned for dinner. The place was nearly empty but we were welcomed warmly. No menu was presented, but we were lead to a display of raw fish and meat and, with pidgin English, pidgin Spanish and much finger pointing, we made our choice, – a whole pampona (a local fish) for 2, and we accepted the offer of a salad “para picar”. Wine negotiations followed a similar pattern. The salad – various things including tuna – was good, and the pampona was even better – huge, cooked perfectly and seasoned with not a little garlic. On leaving, we discovered there was an English menu outside, with one intriguing item: “ham broke black woman”. But don’t worry, the Spanish version was “jamon pata negra”. All in all, an excellent and reasonably priced evening!

On the third evening in Santa Cruz we ate at Clavijo 38. We both went for the “local fish”, which turned out to be hake. We had huge portions, a half fish each effectively, and it was nicely cooked. But expensive. Too expensive I think.

But it was the second evening that was the gastronomic highlight of the holiday. We went to Solana. I discovered it recommended on a Spanish wine website, where it seemed to stand out in Santa Cruz in terms of the large number of people willing to rate it highly. No mention in guide books or on trip advisor though. It is a small restaurant with 34 covers, run by Nacho Solana, chef, and his wife Erika Sanz, sommelier and all things front-of-house. There was no evidence of any other staff at all, and the personal touch added a lot to the dining experience. Nacho took it upon himself to explain the whole menu to us in detail, and was clearly truly passionate about his food. Everything sounded great and it was difficult to decide, but it helped that we were allowed to split dishes to allow us to taste more of them. The food was good, but to me not all dishes were equally successful – a personal thing no doubt, as my wife did not always agree with my likes and dislikes. We started with a fois gras mille-feuilles – no pastry, but very thin layers of fois gras and apple. I chose that, but was a little disappointed. The other half-starter though was perhaps my favourite dish – scallops with artichokes on a bed of mushrooms. It sounded like an unlikely combination, and still does, but it worked fantastically. We then moved on to two half-dishes of pork – one from a fully grown pata negra pig, and one with meat from a suckling pig cooked over two or three days. The suckling pig literally melted in the mouth, but I preferred the firmer texture and fuller flavour of the grown-up pig. And for dessert, two half portions of chocolate soufflé and tarte tartin. We asked for wine recommendations.  Erika thought artichoke was too difficult to match, but suggested glasses of Rueda with the fois gras. It didn’t work at all. Maybe it was one of the few white wines they had by the glass?  The local red wine sugestion though was a hit – that was the Crater.  Total bill for all of the above plus a coffee was under EUR130 for two. Another excellent and reasonably priced evening. If you are in Santa Cruz, go there!

(Update: see here for my vinous report on a 2013 trip to Tenerife.)

On return from English vineyards

Just got back from a few days in the South East.  Enjoyed Canterbury a lot, both for its cathedral and the three excellent and very different meals we had there: the world’s thickest and meatiest beefburger at The Dolphin, huge pots of sweet mussels at Café Belge, and a Michael Caines good value “amazing grazing” lunch.  What better way to recharge flagging tourist batteries than a good quality leisurely light lunch in a restaurant that manages to be formal and relaxed at the same time?

But I did not intend this to be a restaurant review.  We visited a couple of vineyards, Chapel Down and Wickham, also the English Wine Centre, and I wanted to share some thoughts about them and their wines.  I approached these places as an ordinary punter – a tourist if you like.  I did not phone in advance saying I would like to taste some wines to write up on my blog.  Apart from anything else, that would be lying as I am not exactly going to “write up the wines”.

Chapel Down

There were 13 wines for sale at Chapel Down and we expressed interest in tasting as many as we could.  We were soon disabused of that notion.  You can only taste 3 wines free!   We explained we were perfectly happy to pay for our tasting samples, but no they couldn’t do that – something to do with taxation.  Hmmm.  But if we wanted to taste more, then we could go on one of the thrice-daily guided tours at £9.00 a pop, after which we would get a tasting of 8 wines.  So using that ruse we could taste 11 of their 13 wines – in fact we later realised that as there were two of us, by sharing samples we could actually taste everything.  As a tour was soon due anyway we signed up.

In the meantime we wandered around the vineyards at Tenterden a bit ourselves.  The map we picked up was obviously a bit out of date but enabled us to find our way around.  The oldest vines were Bacchus and Auxerrois from 1987, and the most recent additions according to the map were Bacchus from 2007.  About half the area had been planted with Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay in 2004, and there was also a block of Pinot Noir that dated back to 1999.  A vine of that venerable Kentish Pinot Noir features at the top of this article. All vines were Guyot trained, but to a greater height than I am used to seeing in other places.  I was surprised that several row end posts and nearby vines were on the floor.  I wonder how that could have happened – and how long it will take the vineyard to get around to repairing the damage.

The guided tour was fine, and bullshit free.  We got to see a bit of everything, including a sparkling wine bottling line in action. Only the second one I have seen – they are a lot more fun than still wine bottling lines.  Then, hurrah, we got our tasting.  In fact we only got 7 wines, but after our additional 3 free ones I felt I had tasted enough anyway.  Here are some brief impressions:

  • Vintage Reserve Brut, Sparkling, Reichensteiner, Rivaner, Pinot Noir, £17: Too expensive. ***
  • Pinot Reserve, Sparkling, 2004, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, £25: This is more like it.  Could well be a decent Champagne.  Has depth and interest.  Worth the money, and we bought some. ****
  • Bacchus, 2006, £10: Good acidity and intense fruit.  Closest point of reference for me would be a pungent Sauvignon Blanc.  We bought some of this too. Things were looking up, but unfortunately the best was behind us. ***
  • Flint Dry, 2009, Chardonnay, Huxelrebe, Bacchus, £8: Fresh, but undistinguished and lacking intensity, particularly after the Bacchus. **
  • English Rose, Rosé, Rondo, Schonburger and others, 2009, £10: **
  • Rondo, Regent, Pinot Noir, £12:  Shudder. Why do they bother? *
  • Nectar, 2009, Sieggerebe, Ortega, Bacchus, £13:  Medium Sweet. Shudder. Why do they bother? *
  • Brut Rosé, Sparkling, Pinot Noir, £25: Not impressed, but then I am not a rosé person. ***
  • Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sparkling, 2006, £25: Not bad, but I was expecting more.  Might acquire more interest with time? ***
  • Pinot Blanc, 2006, £11:  Tastes like proper wine. But so it should for the price. ***

Finally, before leaving the site we popped upstairs for lunch at Richard Phillips.  I was surprised to find the restaurant was full considering it was mid-week and the shop downstairs did not seem very busy.  Anyway, we ate in the bar, which was not a problem for us.  The pea and ham starter was excellent – good texture and intense and fresh flavours – but both of us found our main courses disappointing.  A rather bland tasting fish dish, and two parts of my trio of lamb were in various stages of dessication.

That does all sounds rather negative, doesn’t it?  But I actually came away pleasantly surprised.  My only other encounter with an English vineyard – Chilford hall many years ago – had been dire.  By contrast this was a smooth and professional operation that offered some serious wines.  If only they did not put up so many barriers to tasting them!

English Wine Centre, and Wickham

Two entirely separate enterprises, but I’ll deal with them together.  We spent a lot less time at these places than Chapel Down, and the wines I remember from them were all Wickham wines.

The English Wine Centre is not a vineyard.  Most importantly from my point of view it is a shop – though it also has a restaurant, and markets itself as a wedding venue.  We were asked for, and were given, a tasting.  At this point we were feeling a little fussier than at Chapel Down and asked for dry whites and sparkling wines only.  That narrowed the field quite a lot as sparkling wines were not on tasting mid-week, and it turned out that one of the dry whites available was the Chapel Down Flint Dry we had already dismissed.  So we finished up with four wines, 2 of which we didn’t like, and two we did.  The ones we liked were both from Wickham – more on those later.  They had an excellent selection of English wines for sale, and we bought quite a few bottles there.  The main downside was the prices – a good 30% or so over cellar door and other retail outlets. However, if you are intent on buying English wines the convenience of having then under one roof is an advantage.

Next stop was Wickham.  First we had a quick look at the vines by the restaurant.  Not sure exactly what we were looking at, but they were cordon trained and had obviously been tarted up with roses and lights to enhance the view from the restaurant.  They also seem to have been equipped with heaters – a bit like smudge pots, but these were positioned under the vines.  Inside the shop we were offered a no-fuss tasting of all their wines, so top marks for that!  The ones we liked and bought are described below.  I am afraid I can remember little about the ones we did not like.

  • Wickham Vintage Selection Dry, 2009, Faber, £8 (£11 at EWC): Light and herby. ***
  • Wickham Special Reserve Fumé Dry, 2009, mainly Bacchus and Reichensteiner, £9 (£13 at EWC):  Delicately oaked, giving real interest. ***
  • Wickham Vintage Selection Special Reserve, 2009, Rondo and a little Pinot Noir £12.20: Sour cherries. ***

In conclusion

Generally speaking, I had my pre-existing feelings about English wines confirmed by the experience.  The better dry white wines were light and herbaceous – tending towards Sauvignon Blanc aromatics.  On the right occasion I could enjoy these wines.  It is not my favourite style, but I would say that about Sauvignon Blanc too.  At their worst they were acidic and watery.  English sweet wines and red wines I would generally simply avoid.  The sparkling wines made from German crossings were quite pleasant, but horribly overpriced in my opinion – a comparable experience to Prosecco, but at twice the price.  The sparklers made from proper French grapes I thought were comparable in both quality and price to Champagne.  To be honest I think Champagne is overpriced in the UK too, but at least that means the English equivalents can compete.

Perhaps more on English wines later, when I open some of my booty…