No, I blame YOU. (Dammit…he has a point.)

It must have been a case of wild optimism to expect to finish a blog post while in the home of a toddler over the holidays. I had every intention (for the first three days or so) of writing – had actually sat down to write, taking advantage of the time zone change and resulting lag in my own circadian rhythms and the fact that I was waking up 2-3 hours before everyone else in the house. Only to realize that said toddler was ALSO waking up 2-3 hours before everyone else and instead of writing, I was busy playing lullabye versions of rock songs (it’s never too soon to start a musical education), tearing up various food stuffs into tiny hand-sized portions, making faces at said toddler, and wiping aforementioned food stuffs off various and sundry surfaces. (Were those writer’s blocks that I just stepped on?).

As a result, I’m behind by two posts and since it bothers me to write out of chronological order (no diagnostic comments, please), we’re going to rewind to the end of November when the class takes off on two weeks of travel to Spain and Portugal. (Insert whirring tape sound).

What the class trip feels like vs. what actually happens.

What the class trip feels like vs. what actually happens.

The first week is a trip to explore wine regions, starting in the South West of France. Our first stop is Château Montus, a wine estate in Madiran, best known for their production of red wine with an ancient French grape varietal called Tannat. Many appellations in this region use this grape – notably Irouleguy, the red wine of the region next to (and seemingly the only red wine they serve in) St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the beginning of the Camino Frances route of the Camino de Santiago.

Like its name, the Tannat grape is typically high in tannin, which normally means a lot of astringency – that dry puckering feeling in the mouth. Some winemakers deal with this by aging the wines longer (like 40 months in barrel for the Château Montus XL Cuvée) in order to soften the tannins. And even then, they recommend waiting 15 years (FIFTEEN YEARS!!) before drinking it… Who ever said winemaking was for the patient?

Château Montus: remnants of the early years - a steel tank constructed by the owner out of sheet metal, with hammer dents still visible. The barrel room lies below the fermenting room. Outside this treehouse was built to survey these Tannat vines.

Château Montus: remnants of the early years – a steel tank constructed by the owner out of sheet metal, with hammer dents still visible. The barrel room, where some wines wait incredibly patiently to be bottled. Outside, this treehouse was built to survey these Tannat vines.

Our next stop is Clos Lapeyre in the Jurançon region. Jurançon is known for producing dry and sweet white wines, rather than red, using the grape varietals Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Courbu Blanc, Petit Courbu, Camaralet de Lasseube, and Lauzet. Grapes are often picked late – October to December – to get the perfect levels of sugar content desired for the final wines. In this region, the sweetness is achieved by leaving the grapes on the vine. Between the foehn (a hot southerly wind from the mountains) and sun exposure on the steep slopes, the grapes continue ripening without developing rot, so they raisin naturally on the vine which concentrates the sugars. During the harvest, pickers select only the grapes that are ready, so may have to go through the same vines 3 or 4 times before all the grapes are picked. (I see the theme about patience cropping up again…)

Visit to Clos Lapeyre: a closer look a Gros (not gross!) Manseng berry. Terraced hillsides and a lesson on the Jurançon. A gorgeous sunset over the Pyrenées.

Visit to Clos Lapeyre: a closer look a Gros (not gross!) Manseng berry. Terraced hillsides (harvesting here 3-4 times would be a nice workout!) and a lesson on the Jurançon. A gorgeous sunset over the Pyrenées.

The next day in Navarra, I decide to split from the class and visit a winery I’ve come across a few times before. I nearly visited Bodegas Ochoa two summers ago when I was walking the camino, but chose not to as I was getting dangerously close to not making it to Santiago at all if I didn’t stop visiting the wineries!

The walk to Bodegas Ochoa in Olite, just south of Pamplona. A newly redesigned tasting room, and my favourite curiosity: a new stainless steel tank just for cultivating indigenous yeasts, one of many ongoing studies with the University of Navarra in Pamplona.

Bodegas Ochoa is run by two sisters, sixth generation family winemakers. The Ochoa wines are more traditional – honouring their father the retired winemaker – while the wines under the brand 8A (Ocho-A, get it?) tend to break away a little from the traditional Tempranillo-Garnacha (Spanish name for Grenache) blends for reds. One such aberration is their 100% Graciano; a red wine made from a notoriously polarizing varietal rarely vinified alone due to its inconsistency in ripening, and low yield. The name tells the whole story: Gracia? No! meaning “No thank you!”.

I’m most intrigued by this blend of tradition and innovation; they do a lot of work with the engineering department of the nearby University of Navarra (Fun fact: the university was founded by St. Josemaría Éscriva in 1952). In between tasting sips, the sisters talk me through what they’re currently working on. The research ranges from canopy trimming techniques to manage berry temperature, cultivating individual yeast strains based on the characteristics they bring to the final wines, and long term planning for climate change..

Model of the winery at Bodegas Baigorri showing the seven layers of gravity flow.

Our final day of the first week brings us to Rioja, and to Bodegas Baigorri. This winery was designed by a local architect and is a massive seven level structure arranged to achieve a completely gravity-fed winemaking process. Gravity-fed vinification is often touted as better for wines as it allows grapes, grape must and wine to move through the winery gently, as too much force and over-handling (pumps, conveyors, etc) can lead to over-extraction and even oxidation (too much oxygen). It is very impressive to look at, but wine making this way becomes time consuming and labour intensive. My opinion is that that gravity flow in key elements of the process, particularly early on during grape reception, and minimal intervention the rest of the time achieves the same purpose – the key is to be gentle.

A foggy day in Rioja, looking at the front, and out the back door at all the vines. Exterminate (the yeast cells)! These fermenting tanks line up ominously one floor below. Tempranillo berries shiver (or maybe it’s just me shaking!) in the surprisingly blustery winds-day.

In Rioja, as in Navarra to the east and Ribera del Duero to the south-west, wines follow several levels of classification, based on aging periods:

  • Joven: New wine – no (or minimal) aging in barrel.
  • Crianza: Aged at least one year in barrel and one year in bottle.
  • Reserva: Aged at least one year in barrel and two years in bottle. 
  • Gran Reserva: Aged at least two years in barrel and three years in bottle.

While barrel aging for a year is fairly typical for many Old World red wines (though of course winemakers can barrel-age for longer, as the Ochoas often do), I like that the wines are not released right away, giving the winemaker a little more control over ensuring that the consumer enjoys the wine at the right time. (And the theme of waiting persists…)

And now for something completely different – let’s visit the vineyards of Alentejo. Bright red leaves tell us these are Alicante Bouschet vines. Olive trees surround the vineyards. Is that…? No! When one can mould a compact, um, cylindrical form like this one, it means there is at least 15% clay in the soil. (Anyone else have toddlers on the brain?) We dig up white stony soil in the next sample site, telling us there is a lot of limestone here. Finally, we see the pruners in action.

For the final week of school before the holidays, we find ourselves in the Alentejo region of Portugal, doing research for our capstone project – a technical and business audit of a local winery. We spend a few days doing some digging (literally and figuratively) at our subject winery, and a few more visiting the neighbours so we have a better understanding of Alentejo as a region.

Lagares – the traditional Portuguese stone troughs for stomping grapes. Aging in amphora, an ancient Roman and Greek method of winemaking, is starting to make a comeback in Alentejo. Of course, aging in barrel is always classic. A beautiful view from one of the tasting rooms.

Alentejo produces roughly 80% red wine and 20% white wine. Some of the red grapes will be familiar to you: Aragonez (also known as Tempranillo), Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. But most of them are Portuguese varietals: Alicante Bouschet, Castelao, Touriga Nacional and Trincadeira (also known as Tinta Amarela in the Douro). We taste some whites while we’re there, but my favourites are the red blends, typically rich and fruity, and the Trincadeira in particular which is harder to find as a single varietal wine. These wines pair well with pork dishes, which appear to represent 90% of the region’s gastronomy. (The remaining 10% is made up of olive oil and nothing else. True story.)

Left to right, top to bottom: sunrise from our hotel in Moura. Wine 101 with the good folks at Wines of Alentejo DO. Listening raptly (the glass of wine in hand helps). A stripped cork tree and cork bark – Portugal produces 50% of the world’s annual production of cork. One last vineyard vista and the Temple of Diana in Évora.

There’s much more to write about Alentejo, but I’ll come back to it as our audit progresses. Two weeks of travel wrapped up, it’s time to repack the bags and take off homeward for the holidays. Here endeth the lesson for now. Next up – Christmas and Nova Scotian wines. Wait for it….

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