Vineyard in Spain

“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.”

Sommelier Steve Olson

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.

Setting sail aboard the Wind Surf
Sails up! After “sail away”, enthusiastic cruisers head for a wine-tasting session with Sommelier Steve Olson.

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 the Rueda region; and Numanthia Termes from Toro. It was also a rousing introduction to Spanish views on food and wine.

 first tasting of wines of Spain on our cruise
Wind Surf Beverage Manager Anurag pours wine for the first tasting of our cruise

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 for my favorite taste of the day. We finished with a powerful and spicy Tempranillo from Ribera Del Duero. Production for all three of these wines is organic, biodynamic and sustainable.

three wines of Spain
Rafael Palacio Louro Godello is an Albariño from Galicia that ages well. Casa Castillo El Molar Monastrell is made with the garnacha grape, first planted by Romans in Chateauneuf du Pape. The third wine for this tasting was from Hacienda Monasterio Crianza.

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.

Steve Olson talking about wines of Spain
Steve Olson introduces the wine landscapes of Spain to guests aboard the Wind Surf

Sublime food-and-wine pairings

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).

Wines of Spain
Selections from Steve Olson for our food-and wine-pairing gala dinner: Rafael Palacios As Sortes, hearty complex and mineral; Abadia Retuerta Seleccion Especial, a smooth-textured, tannic blend; and Mas Doix Costers De Vinyes Velles, delicately elegant, with a nose of black fruit, fine-grained tannins and a firm finish.

Hello, Catalunya!

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
Steve Olson, telling wine stories aboard the Wind Surf
the final session of our coures wines of Spain
A week of Spanish wines with Sommelier Steve Olson

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!

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  1. I’d read news of sailing with James Beard Foundation aboard the Wind Surf but hadn’t heard anything about the experience until now. Thanks so much for your post – what an incredible experience! Definitely on my must-try list

    • The James Beard cruise was very special indeed, Michele. We knew there would be food-and-wine pairings, but had no idea we’d get such an in-depth introduction to the wines of the region of our cruise. Definitely worth doing!

    • Ah Karen, there could be no better way to de-mystify wine tasting than with Steve Olson. His approach is down-to-earth and personable. And the wines, very good 🙂

  2. What a fantastic experience. Steve Olson sounds like a remarkable teacher who broke things down in an in-depth, but understandable way. Amazing to see the food and wine pairings and have the opportunity to taste so many small vintages that are probably impossible to find elsewhere.

    • It was wonderful, Alison! Cruisers were happy to learn that Steve selected wines that are distributed in the US, and for the most part, affordable…great news for the largely American clientele on board.

  3. This is such a fabulous post, Anita! I absolutely adore the wines of Spain. They are among my favourite in the world. And I really love the quotes you have cited as well. I feel the same way about chocolate, and that the best ones really invoke a sense of place.

    • Thank you Doreen! If you like Spain’s wines, you certainly would have enjoyed the exuberant tasting sessions with Steve Olson. I now turn to you, for similar guidance in exploring the terroir of chocolate 🙂

  4. We adore the wines of Spain and Steve Olson sure sounds like a wonderful expert who is great at educating a varied audience. The James Beard cruise experience on the Windstar line sounds like a real winner.


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