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The Grand Garnacha Tasting of Robert Parker – Wine Future Conference

Top table & sommeliersIt was a little tricky to get in. This was the showcase event. The world’s most famous wine writer, and arguably, the single most important individual in the global fine wine trade had come to Rioja for the first time in almost 30 years. Robert Parker was holding court. The great and the greater were there, and even a few nobodies, such as myself. For me, the attraction of the WineFuture conference in Rioja has been the caliber of the speakers and the debate around the issues facing the wine sector, but there was no doubting, by virtue of the queues and the visibly high security presence that Robert M. Parker Jr. was very much the main draw. His wine ratings, based on a 100-point scale and his grandiloquent tasting notes, published in his ever expanding newsletter “The Wine Advocate”, define modern American based wine criticism and steer the fine wine markets of the world.

In person, he appears a genial unencumbered fellow and laboured to emphasis that he loves to drink wine, particularly those wines of great character, texture and individuality. Those of you that have read my Priorat Harvest blog on Catavino know that I’m working at Cellar Mas Doix, a premium Priorat producer. What, you may inquire is the biggest factor, apart from the excellence of the wine, in selling a bottle of old vine ‘Doix’? Well, that would be the 97-points Parker awarded to our current release.

Tonight in the hall of the Rioja Forum in Logrono Robert Parker sat at the head table overseeing a sold out auditorium of 650+ representatives of the wine world from 48 different countries all eager to share a glass with him. Kevin Zraly, the pre-eminent figure in wine education in the US & Pancho Campo MW, President of The Wine Academy of Spain who organised the event, moderated the session. Catavino was there, live-blogging, photographing, tweeting, and recording tasting notes live on adegga.com, and I was part of the team.

Jose Penin & others He began by explaining why he had chosen to tailor the tasting around Garnacha/Grenache based wines, in a region where less than 9% of plantings are Garnacha. This is one of the great Spanish varietals; it’s planted widely around the world, and produces singly, or in blends, some of Parkers favourite wines. In contrast Tempranillo, at the heart of many great Rioja, really only reaches its epitome within Spain. He chose, as he put it, “wines that best exemplify the classic characteristics of Garnacha”, all were singular expressions of the grape and all wines presented had upwards of 80% Garnacha in the blend, many were 100% single varietal wines. Nowadays, Spain is number two, lagging a little behind France in terms of quantity planted (82,000 hectares approx.). Almost all plantings of Garnacha here and in France are ‘Goblet’ or bush trained and while it was traditionally a blending grape, Robert’s mission tonight was to put paid to that myth, and display to a devoted and ebullient audience, that Garnacha based wines were some of the finest in the world. He explained that it is very difficult to produce fine wine from Grenache, much harder than from than from Pinot Noir or Cabernet. He set out to explore its diverse styles from different areas around the world, and the singular nature of the tasting was incomparable and perhaps unachievable with Pinot or a Bordeaux varietal.

While I took notes and photos during the session, our main man on the inside, Ryan Opaz, recorded his tasting notes for all wines live on Adegga. Follow through to the site to read his reviews of each wine.  Ryan also recorded some live video on Qik.com.

Four of the world’s great Garnacha growing countries/regions were represented with more than half of the wines coming from Spain or France. As a nod to our hosts, we finished the tasting with two great Riojas, the Marqués de Riscal 1945 and the somewhat more youthful Contador 2007. The full list of the Grenache based wines, and the two from Rioja, that Robert M. Parker Jr. and the attendees tasted at Winefuture-Rioja `09 were, in order of presentation:

Châteuneauf-du-Pape –France/Francia
Domaine Charvin 2007
2. Marcoux Vieilles Vignes 2007
3. Mont Olivet – La Cuvee du Papet 2007
4. Chapoutier Barbe Rac 2007
5. Barroche Pure 2007
6. Vieille Julienne 2007
7. Pierre Usseglio-Mon Aieul 2007

Atteca Armas 2007 – DO Calatayud
9. Mancuso 2005 – Vino de la Tierra de Valdejalón
10. Espectacle 2006 – DO Montsant
11. Clos Erasmus 2005 – DOCa. Priorat
12. Aquilon 2006 – DO Campo de Borja

Pandora – Alban 2006
14. Sine Qua Non Atlantis 2005

Killikanoon Duke 2006
16. Greenock Creek Cornerstone 2006
17. Clarendon Hills Old Vines Romas 2006
18. Torbreck Les Amis 2005

. Marqués de Riscal de 1945
20. Contador 2007

He peppered his tastings with anecdotes covering his life in the wine trade, from his first journey to France, where he discovered that drinking wine was cheaper than his then favoured beverage – Coca Cola, to his love of drinking old Bordeaux or great Châteuneauf-du-Pape with Sushi be it in La or Tokyo. He thinks they counterbalance well with soy sauce and his own original notes form ´The Wine Advocate´ for some of these wines refernce aromas of ´Sushi wrapper´. Refreshingly, he was keen to debunk notions of food and wine pairing as often being little more than naval gazing exercises that reinforced negative stereotypes and regulations surrounding the enjoyment of wine.

He recalled that, when he started tasting professionally and publishing his newsletter, Spain had little to offer apart from a few Riojas and some wines from a new producer in the east coast called Torres. Change has been dramatic and widespread in the Spanish wine sector in the past 30 years. He commended the efforts of those who had resurrected old vineyards in long-forgotten regions to pursue artisan winemaking.

He spoke lucidly and passionately about his love of wines and his unpretentious style and incredible knowledge was somewhat captivating. For Parker the responsibility of the great winemaker is to “capture and translate the essence of your terroir and faithfully respect the vintage given to you by Mother Nature”.

Kevin Zraly asked questions of Parker throughout the tasting raising such issues as growing global consumer concern over high alcohol wines; a prickly one given that some of the Garnachas on the card clocked in at around 16% abv or even higher. Parker deferred to nature, explaining that Garnacha needs to fully ripen to produce these great wines and that it is often naturally high in sugar. Parker is an advocate of wines where the effects of filtration and fining, if practised, are minimal; he earlier lamented how wines were eviscerated in recent years to such an extent that flavour and texture were noticeable lost. He reminisced that this view was informed by early tastings of Pinot Noir in the great cellars beneath Burgundy.

This was one of the largest tastings ever undertaken in Europe and the most diverse tasting of Garnacha ever ventured. Leading sommeliers from France, Italy, Spain and further afield, together with MW’s (Master of Wine) and MW students comprised the team of 21 from 12 different countries, who were marshaled to patrol the aisles and ensure each attendee had the correct wine in the correct glass on the tasting mat. Two wines were double decanted for the event due to the detection of some unwanted post fermentation aromatics, but the aeration removed the problem.  The natural cork closure was another hero of the evening as less than 1% of the 600 bottles opened for the tasting were tainted.

The tasting itself closely resembled a slightly more informative version of a standard wine class varietal tasting session.We got information about the producers, the size of the vineyards or parcels, the age of the vines, and methods of fermentation and how the wines were aged. Virtually all wines on show are produced in tiny quantities and retail for ultra-premium prices. No surprises there. His tasting notes, in the form of comments made to the audience, were often florid but mostly simple, enthusiastic recognitions of the quality and structure of the wines on show. He also acknowledged that wine criticism has become too effusive and pretensions, “it’s very simple, people have made it too complicated…if a wine tastes good to you, it is good. If the wine tastes too tannic, it is too tannic”. At the end of the day it was just a friendly, unassuming wine enthusiast talking to a group of people about some of the wines he likes and why.

Raymond Magourty

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