An area in the northern part of the province of Huesca in Spain, a few hours' drive from Barcelona, Somontano is a young and dynamic wine-producing region whose Denominación de Origen was established as recently as 1985. It has since then succeeded in earning a fine reputation for its boutique wineries and excellent wines. Viñas del Vero is one of these producers, and I was lucky enough to be invited to visit their cellars earlier this year.
Taking its name from the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, Somontano (literally translated as "at the foot of the mountain") is an area of rolling hills and chalky soil, with cold, harsh winters and hot but short summers offering very good growing conditions for vines. The landscape in this part of Spain is breathtaking, dominated by the towering Pyrenees, the River Vero, and beautiful vineyards, olive groves and almond trees.
Part of the Gonzalez Byass Group (better known in the UK for their range of sherries like Tio Pepe), Viñas del Vero is Somontano's leading winery. The region's microclimate, with an average temperature of 11°C, and the diversity of soils like clay, chalk and limestone mean that a range of different grape varietals can be successfully planted and vinified there. I never associated Riesling or Gewürztraminer with any wine making region in Spain but was pleasantly surprised to see and try wines from these varietals in Somontano, produced by Viñas del Vero.
The Gewürztraminer was in fact quite a revelation, showing unmistakeable floral and citric notes typical of the grape, and good, refreshing acidity. A great wine to be enjoyed in summer which will go down a treat with any fish or seafood, but also most Asian and Oriental dishes.
A reputation for over-production, high yields and low quality table wines in the 1980s and 90s have unfortunately turned many people away from drinking Spanish wines. More recently, the country's most reputable wine makers have been turning this situation around by tackling some of these issues. Wines from areas like Priorat and Somontano can today rival some of the best in France or Italy. At Secastilla Valley, a delightful enclave of 7 villas and castles in Somontano, 100-year old garnacha vines are organically maintained and heavily pruned, the vines are stressed and their grapes carefully hand-picked to control yield and quality, producing some of Viñas del Vero's best, award-winning wines.
The Secastilla Valley is also where we went truffle hunting for the day, a great experience as the local expert and his trained dog managed to find us quite a few sizeable nuggets.
We then headed to the stunning Secastilla Vineyard where we had a selection of cheeses, cold hams, tomatoes and tortillas as well as barbecued lamb chops and sausages. The perfect spread to partner with Viñas del Vero's 2008 Secastilla label, made from those well-pruned 100-year old garnacha vines. This had intense, dark fruit tones, smooth tannins, and great length, all in all a very well structured wine.
Once a year, Viñas del Vero invite journalists, opinion leaders, and people from the wine industry from around Europe for their annual celebration entitled "Days of Wine and Truffles". It was a thrill to be among those invited to experience, in addition to truffle hunting, a magnificent 16-course truffle dinner prepared by Michelin starred chef Carmelo Bosque from Lillas Pastias Restaurant at Viñas del Vero's flagship winery Blecua.
The Blecua estate dates from the end of the 11th century, when it was used as a retreat by French Benedictine monks. Set in 14 hectares of vineyard, it was restored by Viñas del Vero to create a new winery for the sole purpose of making its top label wine: Blecua. Making Blecua involves a triple selection process - of the best seven vineyard sites, the best grapes (Garnacha, Tempranillo, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon), and the best barrels for the final blend. Unfiltered, the wine is aged for 20 months before being bottled. The production is thus limited and represents the best of Viñas del Vero winemaking. Unsurprisingly, Blecua retails at £62 in the UK.
The meal prepared by Carmelo Bosque was of epic proportions, and one of the most enjoyable I have had lately. Some of the highlights below.
Truffle macaron - I can still taste that truffled butter filling!
Truffled black olives with truffle shavings - spheriphication of black olive juice flavoured with truffles.
Lukewarm vegetable pot with truffle - dried, crumbled black olives and truffles as "earth", this was my favourite course of the dinner.
Jerusalem artichoke cream and caramelised salsify.
Potato skins with eel and onions.
Salad of "Gran Reserva" capon cooked in a glass bottle - local, free-range chicken, meltingly tender.
Oven baked "calçots" with crushed truffles and caramelised orange - calçots is a local variety of allium.
Rice "pasta" with truffle shavings and baked pancetta.
Fried black cod with civet and truffle - it was wonderful to try black cod in something other than a Japanese meal, the civet and truffle sauce was utterly delicious.
Gigot of beef with a buttered truffle purée.
Cheese with a black sesame syrup.
"Snow" truffle on a muscovado cream.
The meal was also an opportunity to taste Viñas del Vero's top label - the aforementioned Blecua. The 2005 vintage was released as late as October 2011, and is indeed a magnificent, full-bodied wine with deep cherry colour, well rounded tannins, sweet spices, liquorice and a fantastic length. A complex nose and well-structured wine, it is not surprising that it's been named as one of the four greatest wines of Spain.
It was a very slow start the following morning for everyone, but we made it in good time for a visit to Vilarnau Cava Winery before flying back home. Gonzalez Byass' Cava brand, Vilarnau is a state of the art winery, specialising in long-aged, small scale cavas. In addition to the three typical cava grapes, Parrellada, Xarello and Macabeo, the winery also blends Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Trepat in its wines.
We were welcomed by the bubbly (no pun intended) Eva Plazas, the estate's head winemaker for a tour of the winery and full tasting. But before that, we tried a Catalan delicacy called "calçotada".
This is a dish made from char-grilled calçot, a local allium resembling something between a spring onion and a leek, but milder in flavour and less bulbous. The grilling brought out the sweetness of the onion and imparted a delicious smokiness which went well with the romesco sauce they were dipped in. It can be rather messy (but fun) getting stuck into a "calçotada", but luckily we were all wearing bibs!
We had the Brut Rosado D.O. Cava with our calçotada, a blend of Trepat and Pinot Noir, aged We had the Brut Rosado D.O. Cava with our calçotada, a blend of Trepat and Pinot Noir, aged for 12 months in bottle. Richly coloured, it had strawberry on the nose, and red, fresh fruit on the palate. It was a refreshing, uncomplicated and easy going cava (Ocado £10.99).
Of the 5 Vilarnau cavas available in the UK, ranging in price from £10.99 to £19.50, Vilarnau 2009 Gran Reserva (£19.50) was undoubtedly in a league of its own. Made from Macabeo, Parellada, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, it had a rich, golden colour and fine, persistent bubbles. Aged for 36 months in bottle before degorgement, it developed a long brioche aftertaste and ripe fruit, peach and apricot on the palate.
|Bubbly Eva - Head Winemaker at Vilarnau|
It was fascinating to discover that there is so much more to Gonzalez Byass than just the ubiquitous Tio Pepe, much as I love a bone-dry fino. The well made wines by Viñas del Vero in Somantano were a revelation. Blecua was exceptionally good, as were also the more affordable wines from the portfolio, particularly from the Secastilla range. As a region, Somontano is breathtaking, and I would urge anyone interested to visit the area, and book a visit to Viñas del Vero winery to try some of their range. Visits and tastings can be arranged via this link. If you are lucky, you might even get to try some calçotada, which I highly recommend.
Many thanks to Gonzalez Byass and R&R Drinks for inviting me to Somontano.