'Spanish wines are foreign to me," says Dan Chapman as he opens the tasting session. Of course, there's foreign and there's foreign. Chapman was at home enough in Spain to pass the advanced sommelier exam a while back, and now he serves as a sort of moderator for the rest of the tasters gathered in the back room at Roppongi: Lisa Redwine, Catherine Henson, Megan Burgess, and Paul Krikorian. They all work in restaurants, they all work with wine, and they all want to advance along the path of formal wine mastery. To that end, they meet every Monday around noon to taste, analyze, and share information. Before each of us are six glasses of anonymous Spanish red, ready to be sniffed, swirled, picked apart, and guessed after.
"Early on," says Chapman to me, "we were doing it like we're doing it now, picking a varietal or a region and just spending a lot of time with it. Then we switched over to 'anything goes,' just practicing tasting." The "anything goes" set-up mimicked test conditions: "In the advanced and master sommelier exams, you have 25 minutes and six wines, and there's a certain way they want you to taste, where you point out all these characteristics." And in those exams, you're not going to have a comfortable starting point such as a common provenance.
But random tasting doesn't make for great education. If you want to plumb the depths of a varietal or region, it helps to spend some time there, do a little compare and contrast. "Now," continues Chapman, "we're looking at varietals and regions again, ones we're not as familiar with. We spent about four weeks in Italy, the whites and reds -- just because we don't drink that much Italian wine. Now we're moving on to Spain. We practice going through the tasting format, and kind of keep track, build a database for ourselves."
Chapman sets up a map of Spain showing the various wine regions and starts hitting the highlights. When he gets to the "up-and-coming" region of Jumilla, he says, "They grow Mourvedre -- they call it Monastrell. Obviously, it's in the south, and they tend to be juicier. My experience with those wines is they're almost Zin-like -- really fruity aromatics, but with a little more structure than Zin."
Then he glides on to a discussion of the label laws. "Everything seems to be around barrel-aging; that's their thing."
The rest of the group starts chiming in. "To be a Reserva, it has to be bottled the January after harvest," offers Redwine.
"So you've got the Joven, which is no barrel aging..." continues Chapman.
"No," corrects Henson, "the Joven can have 12 months or under -- or none."
"Okay, good," replies Chapman, happy to be reminded. "Crianza in Rioja and Ribero Del Duero is at least one year in oak, plus another year aging; everywhere else, it's six months and two years aging. Reserva is one year in barrel, three years aging -- these are always minimums. And then Gran Reserva is two years in barrel, a total of five years."
"The whites have different aging requirements," adds Henson. Chapman nods and runs down the numbers before moving on to designations. "It's interesting. In the beginning, it was Vino de Mesa -- table wine -- and Vino de la Tierra, which applies to larger regions without really strict guidelines. Then you have Denominacion de Origen and DO Calificada, which applies to Rioja and Priorat."
"As of April of '91," notes Henson.
"But they've added two new designations. First, VCIG -- Vinos de Calidad con Indicación Geografica, which is like a stepping stone to a DO. The other one, which I think is the most interesting, is the DO. Vino de Pago. It's given to specific sites that are not using grapes native to the area but that have shown great promise. Maverick winemakers."
"Like Priorat?" asks Redwine
"No," says Chapman. There, the use of outsider varietals is "within the laws." (Though it's easy to see why Redwine asked. Priorat is something of a maverick region. In addition to Garnacha, says Chapman, "they're using Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Carignan...") The DOVP wines "tend to be down in Castilla y León outside of the DO regulations. They're individual vineyards that have shown they are really special -- like a Sassicaia in Italy. Last I heard there were eight of them. I think it's pretty smart."
Henson adds a comment on soil types. "I think it's really interesting how you've got some mountainous areas that they've planted all the way down to complete sand."
Moving on to the wines. "What do you expect from Tempranillo?" asks Chapman about Spain's most famous grape.
"High acid," says Krikorian.
"Pinot-like, with lots of oak," offers Burgess.
"But with a little more structure," replies Chapman. "Tight."
"They show a little more of that cooked-type fruit," suggests Redwine. "The fruit is not that bright, more like stewed. A lot of cinnamon...not real earthy, and not a lot of herbaceousness. It's like compote, kind of."
"Right on," says Chapman.
Redwine assesses Wine Number One. "I just started with doing the characteristics by memory," she says, and begins running down the formal checklist of observations: "Wine number one is a red wine. The wine is bright -- no gas, no particles. The color is -- it's not opaque, but it's dark, it's deep. The color is ruby going out to slightly orange meniscus. The viscosity, I would say, is medium."
She swirls and sniffs. "Moving on to the nose. The wine is clean, medium intensity, medium alcohol. The wine is developing. Moving on to fruit characteristics: I smell red fruit -- red plums, red cherries, a little cranberry in there. Almost like a tea, an Earl Gray tea. I get a wet stone or a wet leaf, forest floor, a little bit of cinnamon maybe coming from oak, a little bit of clove, a tiny bit of herbaceousness...."
She sips and sucks air over the wine in her mouth. (So does everyone else.) She spits the sip into an empty water glass. "Moving on to the palate: the acidity is medium/medium plus, tannins are medium, intensity is medium, alcohol is medium. Confirming the fruit: a lot of red cherry, a lot of cranberry, a little bit of that tea characteristic. It's more coming from the tannin. Definitely cinnamon, clove, oak. Almost like a cola-ish too, on the finish. I get that earthiness, the wet leaves. Did I miss anything?"
"Is it balanced?" asks Chapman.
"Yes, the wine is balanced. The finish is medium-medium plus. Complexity -- is that the one I'm missing? Medium." She sips again. "Mmm. It's good. So then: moving on to initial conclusion. It's old world. Given the earthiness and the alcohol content and that it's Spain, um, it's one varietal, and three to five years."
"Temperature?" asks Chapman.
"Cool..." She begins considering her final verdict on varietal: "Tempranillo...Grenache...I don't think it's Monastrell -- not deep enough. Final conclusion: old world, Spain, 2003, I'm gonna say Rioja, and it's a blend...." She's guessing that the orange on the rim is because of Grenache and that the "stewed, cooked fruit" she detects matches with her earlier thoughts on Tempranillo.
"Quality level?" asks Chapman.
And so it goes around the table, Chapman taking notes on each taster's evaluation, prompting them when they forget to mention a required characteristic. (Nobody offers criticisms during the individual evaluations. The table policy is "No hurt feelings," but they save their disagreements for the end.) Then after all six wines have been tasted, Chapman asks for group comments on Wine Number One.
"High acid," says Krikorian. "Tart." It's a hard judgment, but there's reason for it. The fruit is still there, but it's muted, and the finish bears that cola-like character Redwine mentioned. The acid has taken the upper hand.
Chapman: "Lots of red fruit herbs spices forest floor." Someone suggests leather, and he agrees.
"2003 Rioja?" he asks, checking Redwine's assessment.
Krikorian: "Given the browning, it's either Grenache or it's more than five years old."
Chapman turns to Redwine. "You called the color deep, but that's not deep, when you compare it to the others. It's starting to lighten up, which might suggest some age."
"This could be a little older than we think," says Krikorian. And he's right: it's a '96 Reserva from Campillo.
"So I got the region right," says Redwine, satisfied.
Chapman holds up the trade book he's been using as a reference. "Doug Frost says Spanish wines are such good value, because oftentimes they release wines when they're ready to drink," holding on to them for several years after bottling.
That may be changing somewhat. The other two Tempranillos we taste are huger, riper, richer -- and much younger. "Tempranillo has behaved differently in the three wines we've had today," says Burgess, and she agrees it may be due to a shift in winemaking style, a shift that may lessen the need for extended prerelease aging. Spanish wines may be getting a little less foreign. As Krikorian puts it, "They're closer to California than to either Italy or France."