Tag Archives: Ole Imports

Juanjo Garcel Piñol and his Wines of Terra Alta DO

Catalunya map, Terra AltaThe Terra Alta DO in Catalonia barely was mentioned as a source of quality wine by John Radford in his book, The New Spain: A Complete Guide to Contemporary Spanish Wine (revised edition, 2004). Perhaps it’s time for a new edition, because in the intervening years much has happened in Terra Alta. Indeed, in the 7th edition (2013) of The World Atlas of Wine, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, had this to say about Terra Alta: “imported red varieties have been replacing the region’s Garnacha Blanca . . . . Vinos Piñol . . . make refined red Garnacha and Cariñena.” Remarkably, Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2016, doesn’t even mention Terra Alta at all, much less Vinos Piñol. However, José Peñín, the authoritative Spanish writer on the wines of that country had, in his Atlas de los vinos de España (2000), quite a bit more to say about the region and its wines and was rather upbeat about its prospects for making quality wine.

How can this be? Well, the region is a relatively new DO or Denominación de Origen as of 1982. It is very small, its winters cold and its summers hot, and its average rainfall is between 14 to 20 inches annually. The soil is mostly limestone interspersed with some clay, very similar to that of the better-known terroir of Priorat. The winds of the region, particularly the southerly cierzo and the garbí that blows from the northeast, help to keep the grapes dry and healthy, as does the wide diurnal temperature variation. Terra Alta is a rather tiny part of the province of Tarragona, situated in the high mountains of the Southwest of the province (see the pink area of the map). It was settled before the ancient Romans colonized Spain; indeed, there is evidence that winemaking preceded their arrival.

Originally known for its white wines, particularly an oxidized type called “amber blanc” or rancio, the inevitable arrival of the Phylloxera louse in the late 1800s forced the replanting of the vineyards. In 2000 it had but 8500 hectares (21,590 acres) planted to vines and by 2010 that area had grown but little, to 22,793 acres. However, it has undergone a major transformation in the last 20 years. Once dominated by winery cooperatives, a few indigenous varieties such as Garnatxa, both red and white (Grenache in Catalan) and some imported varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, it has been transformed by the rise of small wineries with big ambitions. Today, Terra Alta’s top white varieties are Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Parellada, Moscatel, and Chardonnay. Garnacha Tinta and Cariñena (locally called Samsó) are the most-planted red grape varieties; Garnacha Peluda, the rare Morenillo, along with the imports, Tempranillo, Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon are also in the vineyards. There are also experimental plantings of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Marselan (a Cab Sauv × Grenache crossing).

Among the most notable of the newer wineries is Vinos Piñol, also known as Celler Piñol. This winery has been held in the Piñol family since 1945 for four generations. Their wines are made from entirely indigenous varieties that in many cases came from 85-year-old vines. The vineyard, located at an altitude of roughly 500 meters (over 1,600 feet), has been farmed organically since 2000. Most of the vines are trained to single-Guyot trellises and head-pruned.
Pinol, JuanjoJuanjo Garcela Piñol, trained as a chemical engineer, was called to the winery in 1998 by his aging parents, who needed his help in maintaining the vineyard and making the wine. Though he had no oenological training, his chemistry background was very helpful and over time he read heavily and took some courses in winemaking. Today he runs the winery and shares winemaking responsibilities with Toni Coca, along with María Mendoza, who also helps out in the winery and in the vineyard; his mother Josefa maintains the cellar.

His first bottling was the 1995 Avi Arrufi Blanco, of which there were 2,000 bottles. Nevertheless, apart from its appeal within Terra Alta, it turned out to be a very hard sell outside the region, itself barely known and the winery utterly unknown. However, today Piñol exports 85% of its production abroad and has received rave reviews and 90+ points many times since then. The US importer is Olé, which brings in a select number of each of nine different Piñol wines.

He currently produces wines made from four white varieties (Garnacha Blanca, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Macabeo) and six red ones (Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnatxa, Merlot, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Morenillo). He has also introduced three new varieties (Petit Verdot, Marselan, and Verdejo). From these he makes a total of 11 wines, most of which are blends. For the interview with him, the following wines were tasted: L’Avi Arrufi Blanca, Portal Tinto, Sa Natura Tinto, and Mather Teresina. All of these wines have received both critical praise from Jancis Robinson among others, and high scores of 90 to 95 from José Peñín, Robert Parker, and Stephen Tanzer of IWC.

The overall style of the wines is decidedly nuanced, but with clear and distinctive character. This is due to the fact that the focus of the winemaking is on expressing the unique terroir of the vineyards. Whereas many Spanish wineries are increasingly turning to imported varieties, Piñol prefers to emphasize the local, autochthonous varieties, though in the case of the red wines some Syrah is added to deepen the color of the wines, especially given that the dominant red variety, Garnacha, though rich in aromas and flavors, tends to make slightly pale wines. Three-quarters of the wines produced are reds, the rest are whites made from Garnatxa Blanca. (This variety is a specialty of the region, and 35% of the global production of that grape is in Terra Alta.) About 85% of all the grapes they use come from their own vines and the rest are purchased from other organic vineyards in the DO.

L’Avi Arrufí White
The 2010 L’Avi Arrufi Blanca is made entirely of Garnatxa Blanca from 50-year-old vines. It spent eight months in French oak and yielded an alcohol level of 14.8%. The quality of the wine comes in good part from the fact that the vines have very deep roots that tap into the minerality of the soil, according to Piñol. The result is a wine of high minerality and flavors of stone fruit like peaches and apricots, with spiciness and smoky notes derived from the oak. Its mouthfeel is unctuous and rich, giving a long aftertaste that reminds of a fine white Burgundy. This is why Piñol has increased the production of its white varieties from 10% of its wines five years ago to 25% today. Only 300 six-packs have been imported by Olé, as it is now in high demand worldwide. 92 points from Robert Parker, 90 Points from José Peñín.
Sa Natura Tinto
At only $20 this red wine drinks more like a wine costing twice as much yet is made withPinol, Sa Natura label organic, estate-grown grapes, comprised by 50% Cariñena, 20% Garnacha, 15% Syrah, 15% Merlot varieties. The vines grow in clay and limestone soil at 356 m (1,168 ft) elevation. There are earthy tones, as well as pepper, blackcurrant and cherry fruit, with a medium to full body, balanced acidity, and lush tannins. 3,000 cases were produced. Drink it over the next 4-6 years.

Each variety was hand-harvested when optimum ripeness occurred for a given grape. After selecting the best grapes from each bunch, the grapes macerate with their juice for 4 days at 6ºC (43°F) for greater fruit expression. After that fermentation is carried out at a temperature of 27ºC (81°F). Maceration and skin contact lasts for 25 days. Malolactic fermentation then takes place, half in oak barrels and half in stainless steel tanks; after which the wine is aged for 13 months in 85% French and 15% American oak.  It contains 14% alcohol.

Pairing suggestions include a rare beef cheddar burger, but the wine’s fresh black and blue fruits will pair even better with a lamb or turkey burger with a slice of Jarlsberg. If grilling sausages, go toward sweet pork and veal rather than spicy beef dishes. White meat also pairs well with Sa Natura due to its inherently sweeter character and also is a good match for meat dishes in mushroom sauce.

The 2011 earned 92 points from Wine Enthusiast & was an Editor’s Choice; prior vintages all earned 90+ points from Robert Parker and others.

Portal Tinto
Pinol, Portal Tinto labelThis wine is made from certified organically-grown grapes, from which 3,050 cases were produced for the 2012 vintage. The vines are head-pruned, dry-farmed (no irrigation), and grow in limestone and clay soil. The vineyards are located within Batea, a town at an elevation of 450 m (1,476 ft). The wine is comprised by 50% Garnacha, 20% Carignan, 10% Merlot, 10% Syrah, and 10% Tempranillo.

According to the Olé Website, “the grapes are brought to the winery in the early morning hours before being de-stemmed and crushed. Prior to fermentation, the must is macerated at a cool temperature (43°F) for four days in large tanks of 5,000-10,000 liter capacity. Fermentation starts [by] utilizing neutral yeasts from Levuline (used mostly in Champagne) and the skins mix with the juice for 22-28 days. Malolactic fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks. The wine is aged for twelve months in 300-liter French and American oak barrels.”
Portal Red is dark ruby-colored, while the aroma reveals minerality, cedar, tobacco, cassis, and black fruit. Ripe and fruit-sweet on the palate, with licorice, dried herbs and mineral notes, ending with a long, fruity finish. It should remain enjoyable for a few more years.
This wine’s ripe, juicy character is very easy to pair with foods like casual American fare (burgers, wrap sandwiches, burritos), spicy Latino dishes, as well as aged hard cheeses.

Mather Teresina Red
Pinol, Portal Tinto vineyardA vineyard from which the Mather Terisina wines are sourced.

This is Piñol’s premiere wine, made from a selection of the best barrels of Garnatxa (50%), Cariñena (30%) and Morenillo (20%) of the 2008 vintage, resulting in a limited production of 7,750 bottles, of which over 1,400 were imported by Olé to the United States. The vines, by the way, are anywhere from 35 to 60 years old. The wines spent 20 – 24 months in 85% French and 15% in new American oak barrels and fined with no animal products, so it can be considered a vegan wine. Its alcohol content is 14.85%.

This wine has high-pitched aromas of red fruits, wet stones and spices. With acidity that lends a “nervous” character to the fruit in the mouth, the wine’s tannins are substantial but fine grained. This is a wine of roundness, volume, depth and great length and should be enjoyed with dishes like pheasant, duck, venison, fois gras, roast pork, and aged hard cheeses.

Among the awards won by Mather Teresina, Vinum Magazine (Germany) has lauded it as one of the best wines in Spain, alongside the prestigious Vega Sicilia.  Robert Parker gave Mather Teresina 92 points in his Wine Advocate magazine.

The Olé Website tells us that “the vineyards are located a few miles southwest of Priorat, within the Terra Alta DO (Zone 5) in Catalunya’s Tarragona province in northeastern Spain. In this remote region, the winemaking tradition dates back to the Romans, around the 2nd or 3rd Century. The winery and vineyards are in the town of Batea, situated at 400 meters (1,312 ft.) elevation. The soils are composed of 95% limestone and 5% clay. Yields are low (24.5 hectoliters per hectare, or 3,500 kilograms per hectare), which enhances the concentration and complexity in the grapes. The vineyards are organically farmed and certified by CCPAE. For climate, the average temperature from April-October is 67.3ºF. The hot day and warm-to-moderate night temperatures make Terra Alta a drier and warmer region than Montsant or Priorat. These conditions produce bright purplish-garnet hued wines with greater weight and ripeness than wines from other areas within Zone 5. The low average yearly rainfall of 16.3 inches is less than neighboring regions.”

The wine offers aromas of spice and red berries, as well as notes of licorice and coffee, along with vanilla and mineral nuances in the background. It has a precision on the palate, with both sour cherry and sweet raspberry flavors that amplify with time. It is full-bodied and well-developed, though promising a long life ahead, given its well-knit tannins and good acid backbone. The finish is long and lingering. A wine for contemplation as well as food, especially beef or game in rich sauces.

A wine that was not tasted for this interview is the Finca Morenillo, based 100% on a rare, local variety that had almost vanished. It is of very limited production at 500 cases or 3,000 bottles and is unique in the wine world. A small amount has been imported into the USA by Olé. Once this writer finds it and has tasted it shall be added to this review.

Pinol, barricaCeller Piñol
Avinguda Aragó, 9, 43786 Batea, Tarragona, Tarragona, Spain

Celler Pinol Website




Based on an interview with Juanjo Piñol in July 2015.

Interview with Tom Puyaubert of Bodegas Exopto, Rioja

Exopto logo



exopto1 | ,eksõptõ | verb [ with obj. ]

1 from the Latin exopto, are, avi, atum.
To desire eagerly, long for.

2 winery founded in 2003 by Tom Puyaubert in La Rioja.

It is fascinating that more often than one may care to count, a winemaker comes across a way to make a new wine quite by accident. Not all accidents in the vineyard or winery are happy ones, but in Tom’s case two such accidents led to very happy results.

The first such accident happened in the vineyard in 2005, when heavy rains threatened the crop. Fortunately, the Tempranillo was ready to be picked before the rains struck—it is, after all, an early ripener, as its name indicates (temprano means early). There was a significant crop of the variety and not very much of the shy and recalcitrant Graciano, which was then still rather green on the vine. Tom made the obvious and appropriate decision to pick the Tempranillo and leave the Graciano for later. Ten days later, in October, after the rains were over and he finally had time to take a look, he found the Graciano nearly raisined on the vines but chose to pick it nonetheless. The results amazed him, for Graciano is usually picked much earlier to escape the September rains. In this case the resulting wine was exception and this led to his flagship wine, Exopto. (More about Exopto below.)

The second accident occurred in the winery. Viura, the primary Rioja white grape, was already in cask and after a few months was ready to be bottled, but Tom’s wife was about to give birth, so of course the new baby took precedence over the fate of the Viura. By the time that Tom got back to the Viura in barrel, it had already developed further. Tom realized that the additional time in oak had evolved the wine into something much more interesting that he’d expected and decided to give it yet more time on wood. A full year of aging in barrel produced a wine of surprising and exceptional character. That wine became his Horizonte Blanco. (More about Horizonte Blanco below.)

Tom PuyaubertTom, born in Bordeaux, has now lived in Spain for fifteen years, even though his original intent was to complete his studies in international business within six months. In order to support himself while there he engaged with a French oak-barrel maker, Saury, to sell its products in Spain. However, he fell in love with the region and its wine-producing potential and decided to pursue his dream of making his own wine there. He had already had experience working for wineries in the United States and France. In fact, when he was but 20 years old Tom had decided not to go to California, as so many European hopefuls who wanted to become winemakers did, because he felt he’d gain more and learn more by working for a small, family-owned winery than for a California behemoth. He chose Virginia and worked for Rockbridge Vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley for four months where became adept in all aspects of winegrowing and winemaking, picking up Spanish while working in the vineyard with the Mexican workers.

It was while working at Rockbridge that he determined that this was what he wanted to do in life, and he will always remember with gratitude Shepard Rouse, the owner and winemaker, whom he considers his mentor. He learned everything that he needed to know in the vineyard, the winery, the office, and the tasting room. It was, Tom said, “A complete experience technically, culturally, and even linguistically.”

Bodegas Exopto is one of the many new wineries in Rioja that is breaking new ground with new ideas, new attitudes, and new technology. There are still many traditionalist die-hards (and long may they live) such as Marqués de Murrieta, López Herredia, and others that will continue to produce their wines using American oak, aging the wines—both red and white—for long periods, and then delaying their release in bottle until they are deemed ready to consume. Very deep pockets are needed in order to do this. This has long been a recipe for making great wine in Rioja, but it is slowly yielding to the global advances in technology and new ideas. Exopto, founded in 2003, is at the cutting edge of the new in all respects.

An important point to grasp about Rioja is rooted in its history as a wine region. Wine had been made there for many generations and its consumption was largely local. For the most part it was sold in cask and very little of it was bottled. This was radically changed by the arrival of many Bordelaise winemakers who fled to Spain when phylloxera devastated the vineyards of Bordeaux. The French purchased grapes from the growers, established many new wineries or worked for existing ones, and changed the nature of Rioja wine, but they also helped create a divide between the winegrowers and the winemakers. There are now 500 wineries and 15,000 vineyards.

Tom wanted to do things differently, which meant that he would lease his vineyards but also have a winery to make wine from his own fruit. In this way he could control everything. He is a genuine terroirist and garagiste, which is to say vineyard manager and winemaker, as well as part owner. Nonetheless, all of his wines conform to the regulations of the Rioja Consejo de Denominación de Origen Calificada (D.O.Ca.).

The following are Exopto’s vineyards with a full description of the terroir of each (this information comes from the winery’s Website):

Exopto vines, PeriquitaPeriquita

Location: Abalos, altitude of 200 meters.

Surface area: 1,5 Ha. (3.8 acres)

Soil: gravel with sandy subsoil.

Variety: Tempranillo.

Orientation: south.

Special features: due to its orientation and soils this vineyard produces some very mature and fruity Tempranillos.

Wine: Bozeto.

Exopto vines, PortilloEl Portillo

Location: Abalos, altitude of 600 meters.

Surface area: 0,5 Ha. (1.25 acres)

Soil: gravel with sand subsoil.

Variety: Tempranillo, Garnacha.

Orientation: north – south.

Special features: very old vines situated on land in part of the village. An air current often blows through this parcel lying at the foot of the Sierra Cantabria Mountains. However, its stony ground allows the heat of the day to be absorbed. This results in grapes that are well-balanced and complex with great freshness.

Wine: Exopto.

Exopto vines, las abejasLas Abejas

Location: Abalos, altitude of 400 meters.

Surface area: 1,5 Ha. (3.8 acres)

Soil: calcareous clay.

Variety: Tempranillo.

Orientation: south – east.

Special features: vineyard of very old vines (60 years old) with an extremely limited yield (1kg/per vine) producing some highly concentrated wines with excellent structure.

Wine: Horizonte.

Exopto vines, chulatoChulato

Location: Abalos, altitude of 200 meters.

Surface area: 2 Ha. (5 acres)

Soil: calcareous clay.

Variety: Tempranillo.

Orientation: south – west.

Special features: the particular feature of this slope with very good sun exposure is the presence of a subterranean river that borders the vineyard. This cool atmosphere ensures that some very well-balanced, complex grapes are obtained which always maintain very good acidity.

Wine: Horizonte, Exopto / Parte Alta.

Exopto vines, las balsillasLas Balsillas

Location: Alfaro – Monte Yerga, altitude of 500 meters.

Surface area: 0,2 Ha. (0.5 acre)

Soil: pebbles.

Variety: Graciano.

Orientation: east.

Special features: a Graciano “micro-parcel” with very good orientation that allows the grapes to ripen gradually. A river running in the subsoil regulates maturity in extremely hot conditions.

Wine: Exopto.

Exopto vines, el agudoEl Agudo

Location: Alfaro – Monte Yerga, altitude of 500 metres.

Surface area: 3 Ha. (7.6 acres)

Soil: gravel, sandy subsoil.

Variety: Garnacha.

Orientation: east.

Special features: an old Garnacha parcel (60 years old) that enjoys a Mediterranean influence especially favourable for perfect maturity. The altitude allows good acidity to be obtained and vigour on the palate.

Wine: Bozeto

As can be seen from the pictures above, all the vines are gobelet-trained (called en vaso in Spain, and also referred to as bush vines). The vines must be managed manually and hand-harvested.

There is something extremely satisfying about finding a winery Website that provides such complete information about its vineyards, for very few provide it.

Eighty percent of his production is exported abroad. It is difficult, as a newcomer, to break into the highly competitive markets for wine in countries like France, Germany, England, or Spain itself. He’s had much more success selling his wine in Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Australia, Singapore, and now in the United States, thanks to Patrick Mata and Olé Imports. In fact, Olé has been importing his wines to the U.S. since 2006, beginning with his 2004 Horizonte. He now sells about half of his total production here.

Etiqueta bozetoHis most popular and affordable wine is the Bozeto (formerly known as “Big Bang”), made of 50% Garnacha, 40% Tempranillo, and 10% Graciano, made from organically and sustainably-grown vines that were planted in 1980. The 2012 is still young but very approachable. It has a nearly opaque purple core in the glass with a very narrow meniscus, and its nose is of medium intensity, redolent of red and black berries, and briefly manifests notes of sardines when first opened, but that vanishes as it breathes and peppery notes come forward. (In fact, I’d give it an hour to air before serving it so that it can really open up.) In the mouth it shows a lifted acidity and medium to full body with nicely-balanced tannins; very fruit-forward—dominated the berry flavors—with notes of licorice, especially in the finish. It has gotten 90+ points from Robert Parker over several vintages. I’d call it a perfect barbecue wine and the price is also right at $15 retail.

Etiqueta horizonte tintoThe Horizonte Tinto is another wine that is exceptionally good and available at a very reasonable price, but there is so little of it that most of it can only be found in restaurants. Still, a wine that earns scores of 90 plus consistently is one to which we should all pay attention. This red wine stands out by being a blend that reflects Rioja tradition, while the growing and making of it is other than traditional.

As with his other wines, Tom’s approach is very rigorous, with an almost fanatical attention to details. When the grapes are brought into the tiny winery 70% are destemmed and the balance is lightly crushed. All are then macerated for four days at 5° Celsius (41° F.) before being transferred to concrete tanks for fermentation with the native yeasts that live on the skins. Post-fermentation the wine then spends another twenty days of maceration in contact with the skins, which impart yet more color, tannin, and flavor. The wine is then placed in highly-toasted barrels, 80% of which are made by Saury, a famous oak cooperage in France for which Tom is the representative in Spain. The other 20% are made of American oak—a nod to another tradition in Rioja, the use of American oak from the Appalachians However, beginning with the 2011 vintage, Tom only uses French oak, which in his opinion seems better suited to Rioja wines as what it imparts lends more elegance and subtlety to the wine. One third of all the barrels are new, another third are one year old, and the balance is two years old. The result is wine that after a year in toasted wood has acquired a smoky aroma and tobacco notes, while the fruit is expressed as black fruit—cherry and berry alike, and a hint of licorice in the finish. This is a wine that can be drunk now but should continue to evolve for a few years. Pretty remarkable for only $32.

For Tom, the use of new oak is akin to using salt to season food. Too much salt and the dish is ruined, too little and it lacks flavor. So it is with new oak; its use must be judicious and balanced. As a matter of fact, one could say that Tom is a master of oak usage, given that he also works for a cooperage.

Exopto 1,5L CUVÉE IBONThe Exopto is made of 60% Graciano, which is almost unique among the wines produced in Rioja. In the first place, there are only 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) planted in all of Rioja; his plot of Graciano is a mere half-acre. Furthermore, it is a wine that is only made in good years, as is the case with the 2010. Graciano is a difficult grape to grow and really needs ideal conditions in order to develop and mature properly with ample exposure to sunlight, else it will be far too acidic and green. As a result, given that most growers are looking for quantity more than quality, Graciano has been pulled and replaced with more productive vines like Tempranillo.

The thing about Graciano, as Tom discovered in 2005 quite by accident, is that it is the variety that must be picked last in the season, so that the acidity is brought more in balance, sugars have time to build up, and over-ripeness is the key. In years that are too cool, like 2008 and 2013, no wine is made as the fruit will not adequately mature in such a condition. In a year like 2010, when the conditions were just right, he bottled the Exopto, producing just a few dozen cases.

This is a very big wine, presenting itself with a purple opacity in the glass that cues you to what lies ahead. At four years this is still a young wine as is apparent from the color and nose, which is pungent with aromas of blackberry, graphite, black coffee, and minerals. In the mouth it feels huge, with its bracing acidity, firm tannins, and black fruit, along with a long, lingering finish. Still youthful, it needs about five years before it will ready to drink, and could be held in a proper cellar for decades more, thanks to its 60% Graciano, blended with 30% Tempranillo and 10% Garnacha. It earned 94 points in Wine Spectator. With only 342 cases produced it is indeed a very rare wine, yet its price for the quality is very reasonable at about $70 retail, but it is mostly sold in restaurants.

Mazuelo, a variety often used in Rioja red blends (usually with Tempranillo and Graciano), is the one traditional variety entirely absent in Tom’s wines.

Etiqueta horizonte blancoViura is another challenging variety. Usually, by itself, it produces a rather neutral and uninteresting wine. A handful of producers make some remarkable white wines dominated by Viura that have been aged in oak barrels for ten years, such as López Heredia’s Viña Tondonia White Grand Reserve 2009. These are very big and rather expensive wines, but then López Heredia is among the greatest and most traditional of wineries and one of the few to own its vineyards. For Tom, the discovery that Viura benefited from long contact with wood was a personal epiphany. One year in mostly neutral oak was all that it took for him to create a Viura-based white that was far from ordinary, though not at all like a Viña Tondonia either.

Tom makes the Horizonte Blanco with great care. Once the Viura is picked it is first fermented in stainless-steel vats so that the temperature can be controlled. As the fermentation begins to slow down the must is transferred to oak barrels to complete the fermentation. The barrels are not racked but rather the wine is kept on its lees, which at the beginning undergo battonage once a week, later every two weeks, and finally once a month. It is done using a system of special rollers that support the barrels and allow them to be rotated rather easily by hand. No baton is used for these lees. The same is done for all his wines.

The resulting wine is bright, with at first a nose offering stone fruit and citrus, but as it evolves in the glass it begins to yield a floral bouquet of considerable intensity. It offered a long, minerally finish that was refreshing and very satisfying. It is certainly ready to drink now but could continue to age in bottle for another several years. Only 1,800 bottles were made. All this for a mere $32.

These are wines that represent an interesting spectrum, from the quaffable, barbecue-friendly Bozeto, to the more refined character of the two Horizontes, to the powerful and elegant Exopto, all the product of a master crafter of wine from one of the great vinicultural and oenological regions of the world. It is not by accident.

Exopto wines come into the U.S. through Olé Imports, about which I wrote in a post back in October 2012 (Patrick Mata of Olé Imports). Their address and phone are:

Olé Imports USA:
Patrick Mata
56 Harrison St. Suite 405
New Rochelle, NY 10801
Ph.: 914-740-4724
Fax: 413-254-8923

Olé Imports Spain:
Alberto Orte
C/ Girasol, 4, Bq.1, 3ºB
11500 El Puerto de Santa María, Cádiz
Ph.: +34-91-559-6659
Fax: +34-91-185-0945

Olé Imports

Bodegas Exopto

01.300 Laguardia, Álava, Spain / T +34 650 21 39 93 / info@exopto.net

Exopto Web page

The interview with Tom Puyaubert took place on 9 June 2014


Interview with Pablo del Villar, President of the Consejo Regulador of Rueda D.O.


Villar in the vineyard I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Pablo del Villar, of Hermanos del Villar, owners of vineyards situated in the town of Rueda, Spain, in the Rueda DO, northwest of Madrid. He was in New York to help promote his wine, a Verdejo of the Oro de Castilla label, which is being brought to this country by Olé Imports.

Pablo was trained as a chemical engineer before he went into the wine business. Though born in Valladolid forty years ago, his family is from Rueda, the capital of the region and DO (Denominación de Origen) of the same name. At first he worked in the petroleum business, but as it happened, his father was a businessman who had long been involved in agriculture—crops like cereal, canola, sugar beets, and corn, as well as cattle—and in 1995 he and a brother purchased a winery. Four years later, Pablo was invited to come and run the winery, so he left the petroleum industry. Given his chemistry background, he found it easy to learn oenology. Not that, strictly speaking, he is the winemaker. On the other hand, he was recently elected as president of of the Consejo Regulador of the Rueda D.O. [the Regulatory Council of the Denomination of Origin of the Rueda wine district in the Community of Castile and León.  This was the first wine district in the Community to obtain DO status.]

The winery team with which he works numbers nine persons, of which one is a full-time winemaker—Alberto Martínez, who, though young, is trained and has ample experience. Most importantly for Pablo is that Alberto shares his intellectual curiosity. With respect to issues of blending, style, and so forth, Pablo is the final arbiter—he decides when the blending results in what he wants and then he instructs Alberto on how he wants it carried out.

To put the viniculture and winemaking in perspective one must bear in mind that Rueda is not like other winegrowing regions of Spain. For one thing, there are very few wineries—a mere seventy in all. They are all very professionally-run, large, and with fairly large production. Thus in Rueda the process of growing and making the wine is very efficient and well-paced. As Pablo says, “We are not traditional like so many wineries in other regions—that is, the business hasn’t been passed down from the great-grandfather, oak barrels aren’t much used, and so on. Our goals are to make affordable wines that are popular with consumers.”

Bear in mind that Rueda is almost exclusively a white-wine region. Its four principal varieties are Sauvignon Blanc—a French variety, Viura, Palomino (used in making fortified wines), and Rueda’s own autochthonous grape, Verdejo, which accounts for about 85% of total production as of 2013. (By comparison, Sauvignon Blanc is only 6%, Viura about 9%, and Palomino has declined from nearly 15% in 1999 to a mere .5% in 2013 and is due to be eliminated.) In fact, white-wine production in Rueda has grown from just over 20 million liters of wine to nearly 90 million in the last fifteen years. Red varieties had been grown in the region in the pre-phylloxera era, but were so devastated by the blight as to nearly disappear, but even today the production of the most-widely planted red grape, Tempranillo, represents barely 1.5% of overall wine production.

Rueda did not achieve official DO status until 1980, because until Marqués de Riscal invested heavily in a winery there in 1972 to produce Verdejo, the region had largely been making bulk wine. That it now enjoys DO status shows just how great a turnaround the region has accomplished.

Spanish wine regions, Rueda.

The Rueda D.O. is boxed in red. Click on the image to see an enlargement of the map.

Of all the producers of Verdejo wine, Hermanos del Villar has achieved something unique—acclaim for the Oro de Castilla as a “model” for the variety. Since 2007 it has consistently attained a 90-point rating from Steve Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar.

There is also an Oro de Castilla Sauvignon Blanc which, though similar to the Verdejo, is more mineral in character and also has tropical fruit notes.

For Pablo and the winery, “the entire point of making their wines is to extract everything that the grape offers without modifying it.”  Most of the work to make the wine is in the vineyard.

Villar vineyard, RuedaAt present there are 120 hectares (about 305 acres) with plans to plant another twelve or so, with 2,200 vines per hectare (or barely 900 per acre, which indicates fairly wide spacing). In the case of the Hermanos del Villar vineyards, the vines are trained on double-Guyot trellises; other vineyards in the region may plant using the vaso or goblet system, but at an even wider 1,100 vines per hectare (450 per acre). The reason for such wide spacing has to do with the terroir of the region, which is semi-arid, with high temperatures in the summer and very low ones in winter, along with a diurnal temperature range that is typical of high-altitude vineyards.

Consider, after all, that all the rain is concentrated in the fall and winter seasons, while the vines have to survive most of the spring and all summer with little or no rainfall at all. Another factor to consider is that the very stony soil doesn’t really hold on to moisture very well. Nevertheless, while there is vine irrigation in place, it is used primarily to help regulate the acidity of the soil rather than to raise production levels. Indeed, even though the Consejo Regulador of Rueda allows up to 10,000 kilos of fruit per hectare to be harvested (about 10,000 pounds or 5 tons per acre) Pablo says that they self-regulate the amount to be harvested to 7,500 kilos (about 3.5 tons). Pablo considers the 10,000 kilo limit as excessive for producing quality wine.

When harvesting the grapes, they aim not for a particular level of Brix in the fruit, but rather an aromatic ripeness, which usually leads to about a 12 to 12.5% of alcohol in the wine. (In other words, the focus is not on the sugar level, which may mislead the harvester to think that a level of 23 Brix will mean a phenolically mature grape, which may or may be the case.) The grapes are harvested by machine at night, when there are low temperatures and no sunlight to affect the fruit. The equipment is designed to bring the grapes to the winery clean of stems and leaves. One advantage, therefore, is that there is little need to chill the fruit before it goes into the fermentation tanks. Much of the fermentation takes place at 13°C. (56.6°F.) and some occurs at as low a temperature as 5°C or 41°F. The resulting wine is then aged on its lees in stainless-steel tanks. The lees are stirred for two reasons: one is to add complexity to the wine, and the other is to let it age better once in bottle, though of course it is meant to be drunk young.

The 2013 vintage was exceptional in Rueda, thanks to outstanding weather conditions with hot dry days and very cool nights as the harvest approached, resulting in elevated acidity and deep fruit flavors in the grapes.  The harvest took place on the night of September 28.

AF Etiqueta verdejo TI can speak to the quality of the 2013 Verdejo myself, having had the opportunity to taste it twice. The first time it was shared with friends over dinner, accompanying roast Cornish Game Hens. It was an elegant pairing, given the slight sweetness and subtle flavor of the birds which was offset by the bracing acidity, some minerality, and fresh citric aromas and flavors of the wine—along with a herbaceous character all of which is very much like a Sauvignon Blanc. In fact, the wine evolved in the glass to yield delicate notes of white peach. The second time I tasted it alone and then with my wife with arctic char served with dill—it was a superb accompaniment again and for the same reasons—it balanced the sweet and delicate taste of the fish as well as any white wine could hope to match.  The 2013 is a wine that will age gracefully for a few years to come.

It is these characteristics that make the Verdejo of Oro de Castilla a “best example” of the variety according to the Spanish Wine Academy; Josh Reynolds of Steven Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar says that it is “a textbook Verdeho.” I myself would describe it as a “very model of a modern, major Verdejo.” (Thank you, Gilbert & Sullivan.)  Its retail price in wine shops will be around $17.

Oro de Castilla Website

The interview with Pablo del Villar took place on 21 April 2014

Oro de Castilla comes into the U.S. through Olé Imports, about which I wrote in a post back in October 2012 (Patrick Mata of Olé Imports). Their address and phone are:

Olé Imports USA:
Patrick Mata
56 Harrison St. Suite 405
New Rochelle, NY 10801
Ph.: 914-740-4724
Fax: 413-254-8923

Olé Imports Spain:
Alberto Orte
C/ Girasol, 4, Bq.1, 3ºB
11500 El Puerto de Santa María, Cádiz
Ph.: +34-91-559-6659
Fax: +34-91-185-0945

Olé Imports Website 

 For a thoughtful assessment of the future of the Rueda DO, read this blog post on the Decanter Website.


Patrick Mata of Olé Imports and a Tasting of Rare Riojas

Olé Imports/Peninsula Wines

Interview with Patrick Mata, 1 May 2012

 Olé, a word heard in the bullrings of Spain and meaning roughly the same as “bravo,” is a shout of approval, and thus an apt name for this young importing firm, founded in 1999, and which has been receiving accolades from critics like Robert Parker and the hard-to-please “Wine Curmudgeon” (see quotations from both, below).  The company was founded by two men then in their twenties, Patrick Mata and Alberto Orte, starting with three bottles of wine.

Patrick’s father was a malagueño, his mother Belgian.  Patrick was born in Málaga in 1978, but his father’s family came originally from the town of La Mata, Soria in N. Spain but his great grandfather moved to Andalucía, taking with him the surname Mata, after the town.  A winery was established by him in Málaga, where in addition to Malaga wine, Rioja, Priorato and Jerez wines were produced, under the name of Compañía Mata. Their wines were sold in Spain and abroad, including Russia, Switzerland, Germany, the U.S., and Cuba.

When José Mata, the grandfather, died in the late 1960’s all the family-owned wineries were sold.  Patrick’s father had worked in the wine trade for six years, but once the wineries were sold he went into the real state development business.  Meanwhile, Patrick remains fascinated by his family history and its involvement in the wine business.  He’s been seeking Mata wines and found an 1816 Málaga sweet wine (rather like Madeira in style), but the owner wanted $32,000 for it.

He studied at the University of Madrid at the Escorial and it was there that he met Alberto, whose family had also been in the business of wine.

Alberto, Patrick’s partner in Olé Imports, is a madrileño and, like Patrick, attended the University of Madrid, where they met.  Alberto studied Law and Patrick business afterwards formed a partnership and started an advertising company by the name Olé Marketing, in Madrid, which would be the foundation later to the wine company Olé Imports. At 19 years of age, Patrick went to Miami to attend the University of St. Thomas, while in college; Patrick audited a wine class at Florida International University (FIU). He ended up taking a one-semester course with Chip Cassidy on the subject of the distribution of wine and spirits in the US.  Patrick called Alberto in Madrid to tell him that he needed some wines for Prof. Cassidy to taste, so he was sent three bottles, including a sweet Montilla.  He met Cassidy—who in addition to being on the faculty of FIU was also a buyer for twenty-five wine shops—on a Saturday at 10:00, along with some of his distributors.  Upon tasting the wines one distributor, Carlos García of Iberia Wines, ordered 400 cases.  He wanted to then place a second order after the first one had sold out, and at this point Alberto had to seek out other wines to export.

After graduating, Patrick moved to New York and, after six months searching for a distributor, Martin Scott Wines was recommended, so he signed a distribution agreement with that firm.  He also traveled to Connecticut, Vermont, Ohio, Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC, to drum up business for the wines that Olé was offering.

By 2006 Alberto, staying behind in Spain, decided to enrolled in the master program of Oenology and Viticulture at the Politecnic University of Madrid. He then went on to start making wine—not found in the US—in different regions throughout Spain. A Rioja wine priced under $10 and a Priorat wine at $15 are two examples of 25 different wines that Alberto is now handling and distributing throughout Spain and now in the United States.

Olé now has 150 different Spanish wines in its portfolio, including the 25 created and made by Alberto.  The style of wines that they make and sell are of relatively low extraction. Many wines are aged in concrete tanks which, like oak, actually breath, impart no wood characteristics, and are inexpensive by comparison with wood barrels.  Furthermore, Alberto also rescues varieties that have on occasion been on the verge of extinction, such as the mere six hectares (about 15 acres) of Tintilla de Rota in the DO region of Cádiz, in southwestern Andalucía.  He is perhaps the only person to be making dry red wine from this variety.

Olé presently distributes its wines in forty-three States.  In addition, they have also created a new portfolio category, Peninsula, which includes many more boutique wineries than those by Alberto.  It is a more special vehicle for wines that are not known even in Spain, perhaps barely in their own regions.  Furthermore, the demand for the overall range of wines that Olé offers comes from ten countries so far, including Japan, Germany, Italy, as well as other countries, including the USA.

A prize for the best Spanish wine firm was awarded on May 9, 2012 in Madrid:  among the finalists were Torres, the Catalan wine producer that helped revolutionize the production of wine in Spain; Marqués de Cáceres, a Rioja producer that changed the way that Rioja wines are marketed and perceived outside of Spain; and Olé Imports, by far the youngest firm among them.

Wine Tasting at Instituto Cervantes, New York City, 15 October 2012

A wine tasting for the trade was held at the Instituto Cervantes and included not only the regular portfolio of Peninsula Wines but also ten rare Rioja wines that were part of a collection called El Panteón del Vino—The Pantheon of Wine—that came from a renowned restaurant, Los Tamarises, in Getxo, just north of Bilbao.  Four generations of the Lazcano family, owners of the restaurant, have assembled these wines over the years.  The Pantheon wines have been stored in the underground cellar of Los Tamarises since 1930 onwards.  When the restaurant closed earlier this year, its collection was sold at auction.  It included many vintages of the fabulous and legendary Vega Sicilia, in Ribera del Duero, all of which were purchased by the owner of the winery for its library.  The Rioja wines were nearly ignored by comparison, so that Patrick’s partner, Alberto, was able to successfully bid for them.  Among the treasures that were part of the collection of Riojas was a single bottle of 1881 Marqués de Riscal Reserva—it can be had for about $1,440 retail.  Other wines included a 1926 Marqués de Riscal Reserva, a 1928 Reserva Especial de Martínez Lacuesta, and so on, with the latest bottles including a Bodegas Federico Paternina Gran Reserva of 1982.  Following are the ten wines that were selected for the recent tasting (all having been decanted and then poured from carafes):

  1. Bodegas C.V.N.E. “Imperial” Gran Reserva 1935 – the oldest of the rare Riojas in the tasting, it exhibited the typical color of an old red wine:  pale, brownish at the core, not yet oxidized.  On the nose it offered terciary aromas of old leather and tobacco, in the mouth it came across as harmonious, with good acidity, well-knit tannins, and moderate alcohol (12%), showing tobacco, wet leather, and spicy notes.  This wine was originally created for the English market in the 1920s—bottled as an Imperial pint (500ml) and is now C.V.N.E.’s top wine—today made with a blend dominated by Tempranillo, followed by Mazuelo and Graciano.  The blend for the 1935 is not known.  I went back to this wine several times over a period of two hours and it continued to hold up with no hint of fading.  It is interesting to note that this was from the last vintage before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War—a very good vintage, in fact.  A long finish as well for a remarkable wine.  It turned out to be my favorite of the tasting, a sentiment concurred in by several other tasters.  (The grapes come from old vines in the Rioja Alta, the region that produces the most elegant wines.)
  2. Marqués de Riscal Reserva 1945 – its color was a bit deeper than the 1935, mature, giving out terciary aromas with a balsamic character that suggested aged Cabernet Sauvignon, which in fact was the result of the 70% domination of that grape in the blend, which also included Tempranillo, Graciano, and possible even some Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Viura.  That would be a remarkable blend, and it is the 1945 that has the most dominant Cabernet Sauvignon of any vintage of Riscal.  In the mouth it offered aged balsamic, wet leather, and hints of tobacco and cedar, medium-bodied.  It had been aged for 48 months in barrel.  A very fine old wine.  (The Cabernet, by the way, was planted at the time of the founding of Riscal in 1858, as it was then conceived as a winery that would be making Bordeaux-style wines.)
  3. Marqués de Riscal Reserva 1952 – its color has a very pale raspberry hue.  Its nose was, of course, fully developed, and it also offered aromas of balsamic and rather fruity—old leather is not evident in this one.  Like the ’45, it has a large portion of Cabernet (though not as much) in the blend and had the benefit of being of an excellent vintage year in Rioja.  It had very good structure which was reflected in the sensations it produced in the mouth—acidity, alcohol, and tannin all harmoniously integrated, with notes of balsamic, leather, vanilla, spice.  Very nice indeed.
  4. Bodegas C.V.N.E. Viña Real Reserva Especial 1952 – Not as aromatic as the 1935, more subdued, with some fruit and old leather, fully mature.  Medium-bodied, with a good balance of alcohol, acidity, and integrated tannins.Quite lovely.Its grapes come from old vines in the Rioja Alavesa.
  5. Viña Pomal Reserva Especial 1952 – from a winery established in 1908 and renowned for its reserve wines.  A very pale brick color, this Reserva seemed closed and tired after a few hours in carafe, so I was disappointed when I tasted it, thinking that it offered little, but apparently it needed nearly six or seven hours of aeration before it really opened up and showed its stuff, according to Patrick.  I regret not having been able to taste it at that point myself.
  6. Bodegas C.V.N.E. “Imperial” Cosecha 1955 – – this wine was remarkably like the 1935, which is high praise, and it had the benefit of coming from an exceptional year in Rioja.  Pale brick color, with a subdued bouquet, with notes of wet leather, tobacco, spice.  In the mouth, medium-bodied, almost sweet.  Though 20 years younger than the 1935, it actually offered less length and not so long a finish as the older wine.  Still, a really good example of an old vintage.
  7. Viña Pomal Reserva Especial 1955 – Embarrasingly for me, I have no tasting notes for this wine, though I had definitely tried it.
  8. Bodegas C.V.N.E. “Imperial” Cosecha 1956 – its color was a pale, brick red, and on the nose I detected a hint of VA (volatile acidity) which gave it a prick, but it was clearly mature, with leather and tobacco notes.  In the mouth it was acidic, but with well-integrated tannins and the mature notes of leather and tobacco with a hint of vanilla.  Fragile, I’d say.
  9. Marqués de Riscal Reserva 1960 – by this vintage, Riscal had abandoned its Cabernet and in fact produced a wine that was 100% Tempranillo.  A medium-pale reddish-brown, the wine evinced tobacco and vanilla on the nose, but with hints of autumn in the air—a sign that the wine, while still good to drink, was already in decline—not necessarily a bad thing if you like the autumn air.  In the mouth, I found it a trifle tired, a bit acidic, but that the tobacco and leather flavor was still in evidence.  It came from a good vintage, but it seemed even older than the ’45 Riscal or the ’35 Imperial.
  10. Marqués de Riscal Reserva 1969 – this was a pale brick-red color showing brown hues, but the nose was still fresh yet developed; in the mouth it was balanced, exhibiting subdued tobacco-leaf and vanilla flavors; clearly mature, but the finish was somewhat short.

NOTE:  One must always bear in mind that very old wines pose special challenges, such as the condition of the corks, which if not replaced after 15 years or so can turn bad.  In fact, none of these wines had been recorked, so the oldest cork went back 77 years.  All of the corks broke apart upon opening the bottles, so the wines were decanted through a mesh filter to keep the cork from  going into the decanters, but amazingly none of the wines were “corked,” that is, affected by TCA, which spoils the wine.  Ullage, or the amount of the air in the bottles, was mostly at the lower neck, with only one at high shoulder, so, as all the corks were intact before being pulled, none of the wines was already oxidized upon being opened.  That speaks extremely well of the storage conditions of the restaurant cellar.  Old wines can also vary considerably from one bottle to the next.

From the regular portfolio of Peninsula wines that were also available for tasting, the following stood out for me:

  • Pinyolet Garnacha 2010 (DO Montsant; 100% Garnacha from fifty-year-old vines, dry-farmed and organically grown) – with a $16 suggested retail price, this wine has to be considered a bargain, given its deep ruby color, youthful, aromatic nose loaded with minerals and black fruit; in the mouth well-balanced, with good structure, and plenty of flavor.  It was aged for six months in a stainless-steel tank on its lees.  It was made by Carles Escolar.  Quite special.
  • Blanc d’Orto 2011 (Village wine of Masroig; DO Rias Baixas) – this wine, a clear, medium lemon-gold color, proffered aromas of tropical fruit with a citrus edge, and was youthful and fresh in the mouth, with good acidity, a medium body, and flavors redolent with tropical fruit and citrus.  It had spent seven months in a stainless-steel tank.  Made by Joan Arsens for Orto Vins, it is delightful and well worth the suggested price of $43 a bottle.
  • Leirana Albariño 2011 (DO Rias Baixas) – everything that an Albariño should be, this is.  Clear, with a light lime-gold hue, it has a perfumed, racy nose of tropical fruit and lime, and it adumbrates the taste perfectly, with a very tingly finish that is long for a youthful white wine.  Raul Perez made this wine for Forjas del Salnes—which you’ve certainly never heard of (nor I), fermenting it with ambient yeast, no malo, and aged in stainless steel.  No wonder it tingles.  All this for only $37.
  • DSG Phincas 2009 (DOCa Rioja, Biodynamic® without certification—blended from five parcels) – Its youth is attested by its color:  deep ruby with a purple core and narrow pink meniscus; the nose is suffused with primary aromas of black fruit, cedar, and tobacco; in the mouth it has wonderful balance, and flavors mirror aromas, with a rich body and good length.  Made of 70% Tempranillo, with 15% Graciano, 10% Garnacha, and 5% Viura (the white grape of Rioja), this blend reflects the ones made back in the first half of the last century.  With a long maceration and fermentation on indigenous yeast and fourteen months in French oak, this is a wine definitely to lay down—if not for 77 years, then for at least 7 or longer.  David Sampedro Gil (DSG) made this with almost maniacal care.  So treat it with TLC.

These wines are, I think, a good representation of the wines in the Peninsula Portfolio, and attests to the exceptional tasting acuities of Patrick and Alberto, and well as their own fanatical devotion to offering really quality wine at a wide range of prices.  It’s an amazing achievement for a company that’s only been around for thirteen years.  I’m not alone in this assessment, too which I add my own “Olé!”

The Wine Curmudgeon blog, which advocates the Drink Local movement and also makes a point of seeking affordable yet excellent wines has this to say:  “Ole Imports . . . not only brings in quality wines, but quality wines that are terrific values. Ole [sic] products are often candidates for the $10 Hall of Fame, and they get terrific reviews — not only here, but from people like Robert Parker. Most importantly, they’re honest wines, tasting like they’re supposed to taste. Mata’s producers make Spanish wines, not Spanish wines made to appeal to U.S. palates.”

He goes on to say, “There are a couple of importers whose wines are so trustworthy that the Wine Curmudgeon will buy them regardless of what’s in the bottle.  Kermit Lynch, of course, for French wine, and Ole Imports and Patrick Mata for Spanish wine.”  This is exceptionally high praise from the curmudgeonly reviewer (Jeff Siegel), who tends to be a skeptic about many things vinous, particularly when dealing with the mainstream press and mass-market wines.

There are two interviews on this blog of Spanish winemakers whose wines are imported by Olé:  The first is with Pablo de Villar, who specializes in wines made from Verdejo; the second is with Tom Puyaubert, who makes wines with a difference in Rioja.

(For Robert Parker’s evaluation of the Peninsula Portfolio of 2005, for example, please read Parker Press on Ole Imports, July 2005.)

In fact, the Olé Website greets its visitors with the heading that you see below:

1- Very old vines trained ‘en vaso’—from the Olé Website

Below the image Patrick has written a footnote:  “My dear friend and partner Alberto Orte and I have searched the Spanish peninsula for wines that share four fundamental elements: terroir, quality fruit, exceptional winemaking, and last but not least, wines that present an exceptional value.”

At present there are three employees working in Spain, and ten in the United States.

56 Harrison St. Suite 405, New Rochelle, NY 10801, 914-740-4724