“Did you know that there are now more acres planted to vine in Spain than anywhere else? ” asked Sommelier Steve Olson, as he introduced a week of wine tastings on the Wind Surf, flagship of the Windstar Cruise line. “The vineyards generally have low yields,” he continued, “and Spain has the most underrated wines in the world, world-class and well-priced.”
With those words, we were off and running, in what would be a whirlwind tour of Spain’s wine landscape, paired with foods made with mostly Spanish ingredients. Steve’s sessions were all about wines that taste great with food. He encouraged us to learn from the Spanish, where they put food first.
“The land makes the grapes. The vineyard makes the wines. People provide the soul.”
Tom and I were among the 300 or so lucky guests on a Culinary Cruise of Spain & Morocco, the first of three culinary cruises in this year’s James Beard Collection. The a trip featured the teamwork of Steve Olson and James Beard award-winning chef Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave. Our journey would take us into port at Tangier, Morocco, to the Balearic Island of Ibiza, and to several historic cities along the Spanish coast, before reaching Barcelona, our final destination.
As we left each port, we tasted wines that foreshadowed our pairing menus and what the kitchen was preparing. In the course of our eight days aboard the yacht, five tastings explored different Spanish regions and producers, all distinctly Spanish, but different from one another. The wines were mostly from small producers, organic producers and not available in supermarkets. All, however, are available in the United States and across Europe, through a network of importers.
“The single most important wines in the world are wines of place. “
We learned that the best wines from Spain are characterized by old vines, low yields, ancient soils and vineyards sited at high altitude. More than 600 indigenous grape varieties have 3,000 years of history and heritage, in which the culture of wine and food together on the table is paramount.
Our first tasting was in the form of a walk-around cocktail party. It featured wines from three areas of Spain our cruise would not visit: Burgans Albariño from Galicia, Palacios Remondo La Montesa from Rioja, and Finca Villacreces from Valladolid. The second tasting featured three more wines important to understanding the country’s wine landscape: Tio Pepe En Rama, Gonzalez Byass Fino Sherry from Jerez ; Trillon Verdejo from DO Rueda; and Numanthia Termes from DO Toro. It was also a rousing introduction to Spanish views on food and wine.
Going full circle
As we set sail after a day in Tangier, Morocco, it was time for our third tasting. For this one, our taste buds traveled again to Spain’s northern provinces for a world-class Albariño from 100-year-old Galician vines, then dipped to Murcia in the southeastern Jumilla DO for my favorite taste of the day. We finished with a powerful and spicy Tempranillo from DO Ribera Del Duero. Production for all three of these wines is organic, biodynamic and sustainable.
Small producers, limited production
The focus for our next tasting was on small, game-changing producers and very limited production vineyards. Marisol Bueno, the producer of Pazo Señorans Albariño, was an initiator for the DO Rias Baixas, where plots are elevated to promote air flow among the vines. Castaño Solanera is from DO Yecla, one of the smallest DOs in Spain, and is characteristically dry, acidic and with super tannins. Our third wine, Celler De Capçanes Mas Donis Barrica, is produced at 500 meters and more, by the same people working the vineyards of neighboring Priorat. It demonstrated the quality of the more affordable wines of Montsant.
In Montsant, schist soils with a granitic slate base has produced intense fruit since Cistercian monks introduced garnacha grape plantation on the Roman terraces that make wine growing possible in the mountainous terrain. The harvest comes late here, at the end of October, and these grapes need alcohol for balance.
Sublime food-and-wine pairings
The culinary highlight of our cruise was the food and wine-pairing dinner after we departed Cartagena: a natural and indigenous menu from Chef Michel Nischan, paired with wines chosen by Steve Olson. As an aperitif, we enjoyed Lustau Puerto Fino, a fino dry-style sherry from a El Porto de Santa Maria. It evoked an aroma of oyster shell and the spirit of the once-mighty port from which the voyages of Columbus set sail.
“We should be able to feel the soul of the wine.”
Three other wines, one white and two reds, were served with dinner. Rafael Palacios As Sortes from DO Valdeorras is produced from old head-pruned bush vines grown at 3,000 feet, fermented in open vats and aged in oak. Abadia Retuerta Seleccion Especial is produced by the Swiss company Novartis in DO Sardon de Duero. Our final selection for the gala dinner–and my hands-down favorite wine of the trip–was Mas Doix Costers De Vinyes Velles, from DO Priorat. Grown on 110-year-old vines with no American root stock, this wine is fermented in open wood using airborne yeast, and aged in new French oak. To some, it drinks like a burgundy. To me, it was just plain wonderful (technical term).
For our fifth and final tasting, we tasted three memorable wines from DO Catalunya: Scala Dei Les Brugueres Garnatxa Blanca 2015, Vall Llach Embruix 2010, and Torres Milmanda 2013. The first, a Priorat wine, is a garnacha blanca from producer Jordi Vidal. The grapes came from 110-year-old vines, and were grown in a single vineyard in schist, granitic soil at 2,000 feet. The second, a Priorat red, mixes all five of the grapes allowed for this DO. And with a glass of the third, a single-vineyard Penedès chardonnay from Torres, the first family of wine in Spain, my opinion of chardonnay did a 180-degree turn, from “ewww” to pure love. It was that good.
“I don’t have time in my life for wines that could have been made anywhere.”
Steve Olson and Michel Nischan were on board with us for the entire cruise, launching the James Beard Foundation’s collaboration with Windstar. Throughout our week together, both of our culinary guides joined meals and conversations with passengers, sparked conversations and readily answered our myriad questions.
Sailing with James Beard Foundation aboard the Wind Surf: a magical experience!
* * *
We were guests of Windstar Cruises on the first cruise of this season’s James Beard Culinary Collection. A big thanks to the entire crew of the Wind Surf, and to Steve Olson for introducing us to gorgeous wines from Spain!