Thursday, 1 April 2010

A Spanish Armada of wine - and a local hero

Lord Charles Howard of Effingham (1536 to 1624) was Lord High Admiral and commander-in-chief of the English fleet in August 1587 when he sailed in the English flagship Ark Royal, instrumental in defeating the Spanish Armada (not a lot of people know that). The more famous, game of bowls-playing, Francis Drake was actually under his command.

This rather tenuous connection between Surrey and Spain sprang to mind last week as we attended the annual Wines of Spain trade fair held in Old Billingsgate, London. We managed to sip and spit our way through ninety plus offerings ranging from newly-fashionable varieties such as Mencia and Godello, to the renowned and ever popular Riojas from the north east. Exhausting work! Spain has long held a reputation for its tasty red wines, however, we agreed that many of those on show this year were rather lacklustre. Perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that improvement in quality of Spain's white wines has been remarkable over the past few years. As always, though, there are some goodies to be found and we are happy to recommend the following:

Castillo de Albai Reserva 2005, available from Asda at £8.54 is a wonderful red Rioja (yes, in case you're wondering, there is such a thing as white Rioja) with concentrated elegance and a hint of swashbuckling leather and steel bravado. With Easter fast approaching it makes a great Anglo-Spanish alliance with traditional roast lamb. From Bierzo in Galicia, the green and rainy area made famous by the pilgrim's way of Camino Real de Santiago (St James’ Way), we both liked the Hombros 2006, Casar de Burbia , made from the Mencia grape variety. This intense, almost black wine has a warm gamey-ness and a long tannic finish. Fareham Wine Cellar lists the 2003 vintage for the price of £11.99.

An easier name to remember and to pronounce, is 12 Volts 2008, 4 kilos. 4 kilos is the name of the winery, and apparently commemorates the amount of money the founders invested in their project: 4 kilos is 4 million pesetas, in old money. Regardless of the origin, they were named as winery of the year in 2009 by the prestigious Guia Penin, the most authoritative guide to Spanish wines. But perhaps the most surprising thing about this wine, to the English drinker at least, is where it is: the island of Mallorca. More famous to us as a holiday destination and the home of beefy tennis ace Rafa Nadal, there is more to Mallorca than meets the eye. The wine is a well balanced blend of three familiar grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah - and one we've never encountered before, native to the island: Callet. All those varieties manage to work together harmoniously making for a tasty, balanced mouthful with many layers of flavour. You can buy it from The Vineking (Reigate and Weybridge) for £19.99, or at £17.25 if you buy a mixed case of six wines.

The white wines of Spain have not historically had much international appeal. However, times are changing and we found some suprises of the nicest kind. Cuatro Rayas Verdejo 2009 is available from Bibendum at £7.67 a bottle. It is also listed by Marks & Spencer but you have to buy a case of 12 bottles at £71.88. This 12.5% proof wine has a “fresh flowers in the meadows” acidity, without being Alpine. Pazo Barrantes 2008, Marquez de Murrieta from Rias Baixas, made from Spain's own Albariño grape at £14.95 a bottle from Slurp, (great name) and O Chardonnay 2009, Bodegas Olvena, £109.83 a case of 12 bottles from Everywine, are both worthy of consideration as are the sauvignon blancs. So perhaps it's time to give Spanish whites a try: it's not hard work.

From the vast plains and mountains of Spain and its plethora of wine varieties Heather A tripped along (well so would you), to a tasting with a difference at Le Gothique in Wandsworth. Dark and forbidding, Le Gothique is an architecturally intriguing, turreted former orphanage and possessor of an in-house ghost. During the second world war the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building, as it was originally named, became home to M.I.5 and M.I.6., when it was used as a detention and interrogation centre. Prison cells and truth extracting apparatus for reluctant guests such as Rudolph Hess were the furnishings then. Today it is a “Fame” style drama school and trendy restaurant. However, all is respectfully closed before midnight to give the ghost some peace!

This south London oddity was the venue for the inaugural tasting of The Urban Wine Company. The candlelit cloisters led to the presentation of an innovative idea which harnesses today’s emerging community root values with a very marketable and no doubt franchise-able commodity, London grown wine. Major conurbations store heat within the concrete of their buildings, meaning that London is 2 to 5 degrees hotter than surrounding rural areas, creating an “urban island heat effect”. For an annual sub you can join this enterprise and your allotment, back garden or even window box-grown grapes can be added to the harvest. Your own community grown wine plus the kudos of being a part of a very jolly club producing “Chateau Tooting Furzdown Blush”. Yes really, and it’s priceless....! The pale pink wine at this uncorking of the 2009 vintage was eminently drinkable, a soft quaff, and evocative of a Provencal rosé. “Dig for England” now has a new inducement - making wine is fun.
 So, from the Armada of countless big wines from Spain set on broaching our shores, faced with the home-grown English variety, well we all know what happened five hundred years ago...Could this be a similar victory for British enterprise?

“Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told: “I am with you kid, let’s go.” Maya Angelou

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