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Cork Forests, Travel Recommendations, and some other Tidbits from Catavino

CatalanCork-766It’s been a busy the past few months, because Spain is finally waking up to blogging; and we’re excited to be a small part of it. I’ve been buried in two new websites, while trying to maintain a few others. All good news for our small growing enterprise. Today, we head off to Oporto, to consult with a small port house on launching the first ever, blog about port wine. To be honest, we’re really excited about this, and we’re hoping this might lead to some purple feet if we need to visit in the near future.

But for now I want to fill you in on a few experiences I’ve had over the past week. First up, Cork!

Catalan Cork Institute

Just a quick note about my visit to Catalan Cork country, and  promise more with pictures when I have more time. I do want to say thank you to the Catalan Cork Institute, and Juan Botey Serra whose 300yr old property I fell in love with. (lot’s more pictures to put up on flickr too)

Some of you might remember our experience visiting the largest cork producer in the world last year called, Amorim. The experience, to our great surprise, was an eye opener for this cork doubter, and so I couldn’t pass up a chance to see a smaller version right here in our backyard. The Catalan Cork Institute invited Catavino to see their operations north of Barcelona in Costa Brava to explain the differences between the big guy and the small proud guy. Sadly Gabriella was getting her wrist wrapped in Gesso and was unable to join my friend Richard and I, as we traipsed through the thickets of Catalan cork country.

So, what surprised me? While cork is still produced in Catalunya, it is more of a surviving tradition than a burgeoning industry. Most of the cork produced by the Catalan Cork industy is actually from the forests of Extremadura and Andalucia. Estremadura and Andalucia have large cork oak plantation whereas, the cork in Catalunya is embedded in impenetrable forests that make the groomed trees of Portugal. This in turn makes the harvest a much more difficult endevour. During our visit we did get to visit the largest single cork grower left in Catalunya, and while his 1300ha may seem like a lot, the trees on the property are wild and hidden in thickets of vines, and underbrush that make the harvest one of the more amazing things I have seen. Just getting to the oak takes a few hundred wackes with a machete to get through the underbrush that surrounds them. Combine this with a longer period between harvests, 13yrs as opposed to 9yrs in Portugal,  and you have a mess of undergrowth to deal with each time. Here’s a short video to give you some perspective, though the shots we took, albeit hard to procure, were in some of the more “open” areas.

Cork harvest, Catalonia By Richard Gillespie
View in HD Download 720p Version Visit Richard Gillespie’s ExposureRoom Videos Page

Later in the day after a visit to the Catalan Cork Institute and a nice lunch we had the chance to visit one of the largest cork producer’s factories, a place whose daily output of cava corks is around 1,000,000. This is a small drop in the bucket of the global market, but always interesting to watch the machines go through their paces as they do their automated tasks. What we didn’t see, however, is the treatment of the cork to help prevent the notorious issues we all know too well. Most of this cork had been  harvested and treated long before it made its way to the floors of the factory, and this in turn left only the final part of assembly for us to watch.

As I mentioned the whole visit was done in the company of the Catalan Cork Institute (Institut Catalá del CatalanCork-622Suro). Founded in 1977, it was created to do what most of the cork industry was doing at the time, reacting to the outcry and awareness of the affect faulty corks were having on the industry. Now, while they are testing to control for taint and other cork defects, I didn’t see any research or development into what they are doing to prevent cork taint. Not to say that they aren’t, a nice heated discussion over lunch showed that this is a very important part of what they do, but it just wasn’t emphasized on the tour of the labs.

One thing we were shown was an eye opener to me. You see most cork evangelists will claim that cork is neutral and not a contributor to flavor. Well at the Institute we experienced an interesting “scent experiment” of different aromas that come directly from cork. Mind you, it wasn’t just the experience of the smelling differing cork aromas that struck me as strange, but more the fact that they were willing and open to share this idea with us. We smelled: wet earth, cut grass, mushrooms, eucalyptus, along with varying cork faults, a very enlightening and fun experiement.

Finally I want to point out that our day was fill with the latest “in defense of cork” arguement about how cork is environmentally better than other closures,  a sentiment that I generally agree with. Yet, interestingly, the Catalan Cork Indutry actually uses the cork from the other side of Spain! For those that know Catalunya is in the East and Estremadura the west.  So although I agree that the cork is a  carbon sink, if you spend that sink on the effort it takes to transport the product to the production zone you are clearly not gaining any benefit. You might move closer to neutral, but in the end, your whole push of cork as a carbon sink is no longer as potent an argument. Or at least it seems. Historically the producers have been in Catalunya so the infastructure is located there as well as the trained technicians. As we all know it can be hard to move a whole industry.

After all is said and I done, I believe that cork, no matter the end product in Catalunya at least it is a driving force in  preserving the amazing Catalan Forests. While the production is small, what does remain, even if only for the sake of preserving a traditon, is helping to save forests from being destroyed.

Hotel el Prado, Madrid

Other news. A few months ago, while in Madrid, I met with my good friend, Jimmy Pons, a social media expert leading the good fight here in Spain. He wanted to share a new hotel focused completely on wine. Hidden down a street near Plaza Santa Ana is a small 3 star hotel called, Hotel el Prado. Each room is named after a different Denominacion de Origen, and there is a guidebook in each room explaining Spains’ wine regions (with all contact info for each DO, worth the price of the hotel alone!). While this may be enough they also have something that is as rare as a water in the Sahara, FREE WIFI (wine bloggers take note). For this alone you should stop by but wait there is more, a lounge area with stacks of reading materials dedicated solely to wine and in several different languages. Not to mention, they have ties to a “certain” powerful winemaking family; hence, wine is always within reach!

All that said their site is ok, check it out here: Madrid Wine Themed Hotel, and notice they have some package deals that are quite attractive. It is a three star in Madrid so some of the rooms are a bit small, but with a terrace or two in some rooms, and with the location it’s at, I can honestly say this is a steal for anyone trying to focus on wine and food while in Madrid. Check them out, and tell them Catavino sent you. We do not financially gain from a mention, though we would love for them to refer their guests to us! 🙂

Twitter Tasting

We want to say thank you to Craig Drollet of Binendswine.com and Eric Solomon from European Cellars for having us as co-hosts at their twitter tasting. We had a great time, and out of the 6 wines tasted, my favorites were: Bodegas Castaño Monastrell Yecla Solanera Viñas Viejas and Louro while Gabriella preferred the Pazo de Senorans Albarino 2007 and the Castano Yecla “Solanera” 2005.

Ryan Head’s to Minnesota Next Week

If your in Minnesota (I know at least one or two of you are) next week, Wednesday the 29th, I’ll be talking about wine blogging and our experience moving to Spain. Not entirely sure what I’ll say, so I’ll expect some good audience questions! Please come join us, all the details can be found here.

Catavino Judges Wines Blogs in Catalunya

Finally, we will be judging an event very near and dear to our hearts. This Septemeber, DO Catalunya (warning, flash based site, very slow) will be giving 3000 euros to the best wine blog in Spanish or Catalan. We write in English, so we are disqualified, though it should be interesting to see who does enter. There are still not a lot of wine blogs in Spain, but the number is growing. We’re really looking forward to the first Wine Blog Awards with a cash prize! We’ll fill you in with the results!

So there you go. Right now I’m probably sweating in the middle of some schist covered vineyard, while trying to find shade in the middle of the Douro heat. Please have pity for us, 😉 more so for Gabriella. Can’t imagine being in that heat with a plaster cast on your arm! UGH!


Ryan Opaz

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