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Keeping Spain on the Map: Aurelio Cabestrero & Grapes of Spain
By Michael Franz
Oct 21, 2014
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Many observant wine consumers--and all members of the trade--are aware that the wine business is phenomenally mercurial.  For instance, recent years have seen the commercial fortunes of Argentina, Australia and Austria either skyrocket or plummet (or do both), and we’ve only addressed the “A” entries on the worldwide list of producing countries.  Moving down the list, Spain provides a particularly interesting example.  After decades of chronic under-performance, a wonderful wine renaissance started in the early 1990s and lasted roughly until the “Great Recession” in 2008.  Since then, economic conditions in Spain have worsened alarmingly, and funds to promote Spanish wines seem to have dried up almost entirely.  Today, the primary factor preventing Spanish wine from relapsing into obscurity is the work of a few key importers, particularly Aurelio Cabestrero.

It isn’t easy to understand why promotional efforts on behalf of Spanish wines have collapsed, even when taking into account the country’s very bad economic conditions (unemployment remains very close to 25%, though the number is finally edging downward).  For one thing, American wine consumers remain largely unaware of Spain’s many growing regions, and few could name even one or two other than Rioja.  So, the need for promotion remains pressing.  Moreover, other wine producing countries with serious economic troubles have managed to keep their foot on the promotional gas pedal.  This is true in Portugal as well as Italy.  Whatever the reasons may be, Spain as a whole--and most of its particular growing regions--have simply failed to invest in efforts that could sustain the terrific growth that Spanish wine enjoyed between 1990 and 2007.

Consequently, the hard work of getting Spain’s wonderful wines the attention they deserve in the USA has fallen to importers, and none of them have done a better job than Aurelio Cabestrero.  I’ve known him for more than a decade now, and follow his work as closely as I can, yet he still manages to surprise me every year with talented new producers and terrific new wines.  I don’t know how he accomplishes this feat with such regularity, but a good guess can be derived from the facts that he’s quite widely known, highly admired, and very well liked across Spain. 

Although he’s very modest and friendly, Cabestrero is also an extremely hard worker with seemingly endless energy and a very sharp palate.  Originally from Madrid, he worked at that city's Michelin-starred Café de Oriente for three years before coming to Washington, D.C. to work as sommelier at Taberna del Alabardero (which remains the best Spanish restaurant outside of Spain in the entire world).  He went on to work at D.C.’s highly-regarded Marcel's, and along the way he won the Ruinart 1993 prize as the Best Sommelier in Spain, the 1994 award as Best Young Sommelier from Wine and Gastronomic Magazine, and second prize at the National Sopexa Competition of French Wines and Spirits in 1994.

Cabestrero’s first imports were sold in 2002, and in the twelve years since then, he’s assembled a portfolio of 36 producers, whose wines he now sells in 25 states and the Distric of Columbia.  The wines form a diverse group, since they reflect the distinctive characters of the grapes, regions, and personalities behind them, yet it seems possible to discern a certain continuity of style.  Perhaps due to Cabestrero's background as a sommelier, he seems to select wines with a view to pure fruit and balanced structure.  Even the biggest, most serious wines rarely seem hard or forbidding when young, and ripeness and oak almost never seem to obscure the mineral nuances that give the wines a connection to their places of origin.

Although things remain tough in Spain, with the general status of Spanish wine suffering as a result, we can at least give thanks to individuals like Aurelio Cabestrero who are fighting to keep great wines and strong values flowing to us here in the USA.  Below you will find a case of 12 wines that will provide an introduction to his outstanding work:

REDS:

200 Monges (Rioja, Spain) Reserva “Selección Especial” 2005 ($120):  This is a stunningly complex, gorgeous wine that is just reaching a plateau of maturity that should last for another decade.  Billowing aromas of saddle leather, damp earth, toast and spices are totally attention-grabbing, and the wine’s performance on the palate is equally impressive.  Medium-plus body indicates modest yields, and there’s very good depth of flavor but no hint of over-ripeness or excessive extraction.  On the contrary, the wine’s palate impression is natural and quite compelling, with delicious dark cherry fruit accented by a fresh edge recalling red pie cherries and baked pastry raisins.  Subtle savory undertones of carpaccio and wild mushrooms are starting to emerge at 9 years of age, and the wine shows a wonderful weave of primary fruit, secondary oak, and tertiary bottle bouquet and flavor.  This is the best bottle of Rioja that I’ve ever tasted from the 2005 vintage, and there’s no doubt that it will be even better in another few years.  96

Paixar (Bierzo, Castilla y León) Mencia 2011 ($70):  I’ve tasted every vintage of this Paixar ever made--with the single exception of 2010--and regard it as one of Spain’s very best wines (and consequently one of the world’s best also).  The 2011 rendition shows typically impressive pigment concentration, and the first aromatic impression is of toasty oak.  Beneath the oak, subtle scents of anise, exotic spices and wood smoke prove quite alluring.  Medium-plus body is standard for Paixar and that’s what the 2011 shows; there’s richness and substance, but no sense of heaviness.  Dark berry fruit notes predominate, but there’s also a bright, fresh streak to the wine that also lends a suggestion of red fruits, and the overall impression is one of purity and precision.  On the palate and in the finish, oak remains rather prominent, but the proportions of oak, fruit and tannin are just right, and those who can give this the 10 years of ageing that it deserves will get a great wine in return for their patience.  If that seems like a lot to ask, remember that this is how you’d be advised to treat a $70 bottle of Bordeaux, and trust me:  This will turn out to be a much better wine than anything you’ll get from Bordeaux for $70.  95

Pujanza (Rioja, Spain) “Norte” 2010 ($95):  This terrific wine combines serious flavor impact with a very fresh, energetic character that will make it an outstandingly versatile performer at the table (for those who lack patience) but also an excellent candidate for long-term cellaring.  Ripe but restrained fruit is accented by scents of high-class oak, with toasty, smoky accents that work beautifully with the dark cherry core.  The freshness and energy of the wine make it seem almost “bright,” which isn’t what some tasters expect from a $95 bottle of red wine, but the fact is that it shows plenty of “bass” notes to balance out all of that treble.  This is proved by the wines persistent, proportional finish, in which the wood and grape tannins never overwhelm the fruit.  This is a beautiful bottle of Rioja, enjoyable now but best after 2018.  95

San Roman (Toro, Castilla y León) 2011 ($70):  This is a fantastic young rendition of San Roman, which is probably the single most distinguished wine from the entire appellation of Toro.  Whereas some past vintages have been extremely tight and oaky when first released, requiring years of cellaring to show their inevitable greatness, this release exhibits a notably different profile.  The 2011 is already amazingly generous, with highly expressive aromas, deep and lasting flavors, and wonderful texture combining fleshiness and grip.  Dark berry fruit is accented with toast and spice notes, but these wood-based sensations are really nicely balanced against the fruit, which outlasts them in the finish.  There’s a chance that this will still shut down and tighten up, but my guess is that it will prove to be one of those rare wines that shows its beauty from the start and stays beautiful for a good dozen years.  94

Arrocal (Ribera del Duero, Castilla y León) “Selección” 2010 ($42):  If I had tasted this wine “blind,” I strongly suspect that I’d have guessed it to be a $75 bottle, and I wonder whether other reviewers have failed to give it the respect it deserves because it doesn’t cost more (or because it isn’t the winery’s top release; there’s also a “Maximo de Arrocal released in select vintages that can be sensational).  In any case, this is an exceptionally concentrated, deeply flavored, generously textured, downright delicious wine that is very open and expressive in both aroma and flavor.  Rich and ripe but also fresh and pure, it is a truly beautiful expression of Tempranillo, with the plush texture and open flavors that make excellent wines from Ribera del Duero the most immediately convincing of all renditions of this great grape variety.  93

Astrales (Ribera del Duero, Castilla y León) 2011 ($70):  I always love this wine, but due to a very prominent overlay of oak in this vintage, it will take a little longer than usual for the 2011 to display all of its charms.  Impressively dark in color, its appearance is very promising, but the aromas are dominated by scents of toast and smoke.  The palate displays much more generosity, with dark berry and cherry flavors and pleasantly earthy, savory undertones.  The finish then turns a bit hard and dry, with wood tannins re-asserting themselves.  Very good now, and quite probably outstanding in another 5 years, this is a good bet for the cellar.  93

Viña Otano (Rioja, Spain) Gran Reserva 2001 ($27):  I’ve never tasted a wine from this Bodega, and was amazed to see a current release Gran Reserva from 2001, which I regard as the greatest vintage for red wines in north-central Spain in my 20+ year-long career as a professional taster.  Consequently, when I opened and tasted it, I was forced to recall the old film cliché:  “Where have you been all my life?”  Most 2001 Gran Reservas are now fully mature, and a few of them are starting to dry out and crack up, but this one is still very fresh and actually certain to improve during the coming years.  Medium-bodied, with good color that shows no amber at the edge, it offers complex aromas that still show primary fruit notes along with some subtly smoky oak and interesting earthy undertones that have developed from time in bottle.  The balance of fruit, wood and tannin is just right, and the finish is long and symmetrical as it tails off, with the fruit riding right alongside the tannins, which are very fine in grain and not overly grippy.  I’ve scored this conservatively, in light of the high probability that it will get even better with time (amazingly enough), but 92 seems right given that I don’t have any prior experience with the wine.  92

Viña Otano (Rioja, Spain) Reserva 2009 ($22):  This is a completely, gulp-ably delicious wine that also shows real complexity and class…for $22.  My first encounter with this Bodega included an excellent 2001 Gran Reserva and a very good 2011 Crianza, so we are off to a very good start.  Although I really do like the Crianza, $5 is a very small premium to buy up to this Reserva; likewise, $5 is peanuts to trade up to a Gran Reserva that is 8 years older.  So, this and the 2001 seem like the obvious wines to buy, and I actually like the two of them equally well, despite the fact that they are very different.  Thanks to a relatively warm growing season, this 2009 Reserva is very soft and immediate in its appeal, with lovely soft fruit and very broad texture for a five year-old Rioja Reserva.  Frankly, you could find plenty of Reservas from 2005 or 2006 that aren’t as open and seductive as this wine is right now.  Nevertheless, there’s a lot going on underneath all that soft fruit, with nice spice and smoke notes, as well as a subtle accent of cured meat.  This would be perfect with medium-weight dishes such as chicken, pork, duck or veal.  92

Adrás (Ribeira Sacra, Galicia) Mencia 2013 ($19):  I fell in love with this wine instantly.  That may not be entirely surprising to those who know me, as I’ve probably written more about the Mencia grape than anyone based in the USA.  However, I also showed it to two different groups of people at dinner parties, and everyone else loved it immediately too.  For a wine that is just one year off the vine, it shows lots of juicy, primary fruit; and though it seems obvious that it would be assertively fruity at this early stage, the remarkable thing is that the fruit isn’t “obvious” in its character, but actually quite layered and interesting.  It shows fresh, sweet-seeming tones, but also wonderful bright acidity, and these sensory signals are woven together by subtle savory notes that really provide an excellent sense of integration and completeness that is utterly unexpected in a wine of such youth.  As a final testament to this wine’s captivating powers, a friend from one of the dinner parties--who had never heard of nor tasted Mencia before--showed up un-announced at our door the following evening, having just driven to a wine shop to find another rendition.  She demanded that we open it immediately to try it--and it turned out to be Finca la Cuesta Mencia from Bierzo’s Luna Beberide (also imported by Aurelio Cabestrero).  One more convert to Mencia!  92

Pingao (Rioja, Spain) Tinto 2013 ($13):  Based on the wines at the head of this list, you could get the misimpression that Aurelio Cabestrero only imports expensive wines.  That would indeed be a misimpression, and this wine shows that he excels at all price levels.  (An important example:  His collection of wines priced in the teens from Ribera del Duero are, unquestionably, the best of any importer working in the USA, but I’ve reviewed many of those, whereas this Rioja is new to me).  Pure and fresh but neither simple nor obvious, this provides lots of spicy, fruity aroma and flavors that are surprisingly deep and lasting given the moderate weight of the wine.  Very well made, and amazingly interesting for the price.  89

WHITES:

Adrás (Ribeira Sacra, Galicia) Godello 2013 ($19):  As a wine producing country, Spain is definitely stronger with reds than whites, and Aurelio Cabestrero’s portfolio reflects that in the sense that there are more red than white wines.  However, the relatively few whites that he brings to the USA are all near the top of the quality pyramids in their respective regions, and that’s certainly true for this lovely rendering of Godello.  Medium-bodied and very satisfying, with fresh aromas followed by delicious fruit recalling white peaches and poached pears, with excellent acidity that is very well integrated with the fruit.  There lots of punchy flavor here, but also a sense of real refinement.  Along with excellent renditions of Pinot Blanc, Godello can be one of the world’s most versatile whites for food-pairing purposes, so restaurateurs:  Take note!  91

Egeo (Rueda, Castilla y León) Verdejo 2013 ($13):  This is a very consistent wine from year to year, always showing very expressive aromas (cut grass and dried herbs) and fresh, energetic fruit (white melon with lemon and lime accents).  Other producers’ Verdejo bottlings from Rueda often show too much sulfur on the nose, this is always free from that flaw.  It is wonderfully refreshing when the weather is hot, and when things turn cool, that’s when oysters come into season, so this is a year-round winner at a bargain price.  90