It is mid-March and after several weeks of gambolling about our flat here in London, I have finally nested in the far corner of the spare room. It now is apparent that this could be my fixed base for the next couple of months depending on the progression of the pandemic, COVID-19.
This is certainly a far cry from where I thought I would be just a few weeks ago when planning to head to ProWein and also on to Zurich. Other trips prior to May included a revisit to Portugal and somehow squeezing Liguria and Champagne into the mix. The system of busy life interwoven with seeking wine experiences has ground to a halt. At least, the travel aspect has, even locally with regard to tastings in London.
Pressing pause gives rise to reflection
When the shock of the realisation of our uncertain future eases off and fears for the fate of loved ones are compartmentalised, opportunities arise to rediscover the journey to this remarkable moment in time.
View of Porto across the port lodges in Gaia - above, bottles from the Port Dreams Tasting during Essencia
The last trip was to Porto for the Essencia tasting. This compacted expedition into the many facets of the fabulous state of Portuguese wine, both in our time, as well as stretching back over a century, is riddled with pleasurable tasting notes and anecdotes that I will use my time to recall in a series of posts. Prior to that we were in northern Italy when Britain departed the EU. It is referenced here.
View from the hotel in Davos
The week before Italy I was in Zurich and Davos during the World Economic Forum (WEF) with colleagues, discussing how climate change, sitting atop of the WEF’s Global Risk Report, both impacts and is impacted by all the other threats and outcomes in the list. At a late-night roof terrace dinner and disco event, the lacklustre pitch by our hosts to suspected philanthropists was made bearable by an impressive Swiss Riesling we were served at dinner. It sticks in my mind as incredibly alive, as crisp as the iced pistes that towered over us and as fresh as the alpine air.
Delicious Slovak Frankovka Modrá from Jankacký & Podhorský (Blaufranckisch/Kekfrankos)
Prior to that, we were in Slovakia tasting some fabulous wines. My favourite wine bar in Bratislava, called Grand Cru, is run by a young guy with a lot of examples of young Slovak producers. Mind you, he cowed backwards when I asked if he has any Frankovka Modrá, or Blaufrankisch to quote the German name of the variety (Kekfrankos in Hungarian). He only had two kinds to offer and the one I selected was priced very well at €10 a bottle.
We tried this first and found it absolutely delicious; a gorgeous balance of rich flavour, dark fruit, luxurious, yet not at all heavy. A wine that literally keeps you coming back for more (my favourite kind). We also tried his recommended wine afterwards that was approximately twice the price and, I have to say, wasn’t as impressive as our Frankovka Modrá.
Slovakia was a longer trip of three weeks, right on the heels of the UNFCCC COP25 conference in Madrid where I was based for just over 10 days. Madrid is a fabulous town with a strong sense of its Spanish-ness, unlike a regional capital like Barcelona with its well-trodden international feel. The same conference centre that hosted the 30,000 international delegates is, as I write, a makeshift hospital with over 5000 occupied beds with critically ill patients receiving treatment.
COP25 Conference in Madrid (Left) and the same space in March 2020 dealing with COVID-19
From clandestine discussions in late-night sherry haunts to pouring ciders from bottles held behind our heads in old town Asturian styled bars, Madrid was a million miles from where it is right now in the grip of tragedy.
During the conference, I interviewed Isabel Galindo, Technical Director of Madrid winery, Las Moradas de San Martin. Here the vineyards date back to the 12th Century and have numerous literary linkages, both classical and contemporary, a heritage that is very much a part of the winery ethos.
Isabel is working with old vines on pure granite soils with the Garnacha grape variety in the ‘New Gredo’ hills at around 900-1000m altitude, meaning slow cooler ripening. They are also currently in the conversion to organic certification.
Obviously a climate change policy conference is not the place to taste these wines so Isabel gives the tip of a vino y tapas bar in Madrid where I can find them called Taberna Bodegas Rosell. It’s located close to the main railway station, Madrid Puerta de Atocha railway station and frequented by local Spaniards. The food is fantastic exceptionally well priced typical Spanish fare.
Taberna Bodegas Rosell near to Atocha Railway Station, Madrid - fabulous food and wine
I order first the Bacalao Rosell, a house special with raw cod on a fresh toasted baguette with olive oil, and also salted anchovy and boquerones toasted baguette. Both sublime served with first a DO Madrid white wine, El Gato Orgulloso, a crisp bright citrus wine perfect for the cod and oil. I followed this with Las Moradas de San Martin Senda 2015, a Garnacha with all the attractive floral, herbal and dark fruit we’d expect but with a clean finish that makes it a fabulous match for my tapas lunch.
If I lived in Madrid I would haunt tapas joints like this, indulging the lively chatter, savouring the delicious mixed flavours of the menu and imbibing these regional wines.
From Portugal’s Dao
Winery at Quinta do Ribeiro Santo, award-winning for sustainability and enrgy - led by Carlos Lucas
There is some sort of magnetic draw to the Iberian peninsular, whether that be the people, the places, the gastronomy, or, perhaps more generally, the culture. Just before Madrid, I spent a chilly but hugely insightful few days tasting in Portugal’s Dão region, south of Vinho Verde and the Douro valley but still in the north-east of the country.
It was cold and wet. The entire topography of the land looked like a baron moonscape desecrated by winter, as well as laced with the scars of the 2017 fires that tragically scorched 220,000 hectares of land.
Of the white wines, the Encruzado is highly noteworthy. A versatile variety with potential for incredible complexity and serious ageing. We tasted a wide selection of different expressions by such fabulous producers as Casa da Passarella, Quinta dos Roques, Quinta da Carlvalhais and Ribeiro Santo.
2 talented producers in the Dão region of Portugal
The red wines are mostly blends of classic Portuguese varieties with the added feature of the largely unknown Alfrocheiro, as well as the famous Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (in Spanish, Tempranillo), Touriga Franca and occasional Tinto Cão.
The charm of these wines is in their richness and intensity of flavour combined with tannic structure that, in the hands of talented winemakers, offer the drinker a package of pleasure worthy of deeper exploration.
I am a huge fan, especially after returning to the hotel in Viseu later in the final evening after the wine gifted to us had fully opened up, and fully appreciating the ripe, richly pleasing Curiosity from the producer, Julia Kemper.
From Portugal’s Douro
Preceding the trip to the Dao by a few weeks, a small group of us were very well received at the legendary Quinta do Noval, in the heart of the Douro Valley. Quinta do Noval is perched at high altitude winding down across a complex of steep terraces along the Pinhão Valley.
The landscape of the Douro Valley imprints itself upon the senses of all visitors. It combines austere, unforgiving, meticulous vine terraces reaching from the skies above to the idle Douro river below, with breathtaking beauty and a wilderness of aromas that find their way into the wines.
During our stay we were permitted to submerge our thighs in the stone lagar where the grapes are pressed by human feet to gently release the juices without risk of breaking the seeds, a ritual perfected in Portugal and that remains an integral part of the winemaking process in the Douro Valley.
The Quinta do Noval Nacional Vintage Port is made from grapes grown on ungrafted vines in an area of vineyard close to the main house that was not touched by phylloxera in the 19th Century. The Nacional I have tasted has an extra burst of opulence, richness, and a lightness of touch on the finish that keeps us wanting.
Throughout our stay, we tasted a list of exceptional and charming wines that included young and old vintages, as well as aged vintage tawny ports (which I adore) called Colheita Tawny Port.
Quinta do Noval terraces with house in upper left, 2019
The solitude of the current lockdown means there is time to revisit the memory of Quinta do Noval and maker a proper record of the trip. The majesty of the Douro stains the imagination.
Baby it’s weird outside
The reason for recounting these trips is not to show off about the regularity of travel or to varnish my memories for the future. Rather it is because they seem distant and strange to me now as we settle into this new normal.
Flash sale of original Banksy Art For Sale - view all works on our website now and contact the gallery for more information. Tanya Baxter Contemporary is based in London and Hong Kong.
The WEF Global Risk Report shows ‘Infectious Disease’ as no.10 of 10 in the list of probable risk impacts. This is the lowest risk of the top 10 risks identified and yet, here we are, 2 months forward, amid the number 1 most explicit risk on the planet.
As the disease spreads we are seeing people die, widespread suffering, panic stockpiling of goods like loo roll and hand sanitiser, whole nations quarantined, political failures and successes, demonstrations of gracious humanity, feedbacks of lower carbon emissions from falling social and industrial activities, as well as international empathy and camaraderie between peoples and, hopefully, adaptability to circumstances that are not yet endured.
The streets of London, as well as the rest of the UK and much of the world’s human population, are in physical retreat to deprive this virus of its extended life. Yet, in this retreat we are still actively social, unbendingly modern and brimming with energy that must be spent.
The Days ahead
The big unknown from this period of systemic pause and human retreat is how we return to normal and what the new normal will look like? COVID-19 has shown us how we can respond to a crisis that is in our midst. Invisible to touch but tangibly dangerous.
Emissions of various pollutants from the heat engines of commerce have dropped significantly during the shutdown. This happened before in the last big economic collapse in 2008. Interestingly, the falls in emissions during that period were wiped out by the strength of the rebound as consumerism sprung back into action.
Will it be the same this time? Climate change and sustainability are the most discussed aspects of the wine business today. The impacts of extremes presenting a very severe risk to many, if not all, producers around the world.
Are wine writers, travelling salespeople, producers and all other people who are grounded by these circumstances chomping at the bit to get back out there and board jets and get the old system working again?
Forced learning and experimentation
In the UK, wine is readily available to those who have the budget during the downturn. There is a great opportunity to sit at home and try wines. For communicators, the internet and social media in general offers platforms and channels where experiences can be shared and enhanced.
On Monday [16th March] a group of leading wine professionals filled the void of ProWein by producing a fabulous panel discussion on Zoom. Tonight I watched a live Instagram TV broadcast from an art gallery in New York talking us through their current exhibition, in the absence of physical opening-night attendees. It was shot using a mobile phone in a low-tech-high-tech style and visually informative and engaging.
Travel is certainly part of the buzz for wine lovers. It adds the dimension of experience that tickles the emotions and can make a bottle stand out on a shelf just because you have fond memories of tasting from the barrel in the winery or have enjoyed a fabulous lunch with the winemaker.
The emotive experience sits in our mind as a pre-packed narrative that returns us swiftly to the experience of pleasure. The taste sensation pulls the bow of the silk packaging releasing the memory.
In the first draft of writing this a few weeks ago, prior to the widespread pandemic attention, I wrote that the four Portuguese trips of last year and the one in February have whetted my appetite to taste more in this fabulous country. New circumstances have not changed that desire to explore more but it has made me more aware of the interconnectedness of everyone across all walks of my life.
This catastrophe is a reminder that old systems are increasingly redundant and even dangerous. Our personal contributions may be more self-gratifying than useful and any thoughts for the future will have to include building foundations for social resilience that transcend national borders.
Wine in that sense remains an integral part of the experience of my life. It is a wonderful liquid with its own powers to transport the imbiber through our emotions, time and place. In all of this, I hope I sense the seeds of opportunity to rethink ideas for the future.
It is 1:30 a.m. and time for a glass of tawny.
[Wednesday 18th March 2020]