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Garnacha and Gastronomy from Aragon: San Valero Winery in Carinena

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“Garnacha & Gastronomy from Aragon” is the message the San Valero Winery (Groupo BSV) wants to share with the world. Groupo BSV is a cooperative of 700 winegrowers who grow mostly garnacha vines, and collectively pool their grapes and resources in order to provide many different styles of wines to many different clients around the world. It is thrilling to visit this mega-winery in the very tiny yet important Denominazion de Origeon (DO) town of Carinena for a few key reasons. The first is that it is one of the oldest DO’s, at 75 years, and second, because the producers are so passionate about their grapes, their care of them, and their city. You will find 15,925 hectares under vine (according to the 2010 Penin guide).

Now you know garnacha? Of course you do. It is the second-most popular grape in Spain after tempranillo, and is famous for being so wind-resistant and hearty. It grows in a traditional “bush” shape (the official name of its training method is En Vaso) and can often be recognized by the strawberry flavor in a blind tasting.

“Gastronomy” is the other message they want to share with the world, because if you did not know this before, the Spanish people love to eat. And even though Carinena is a small town, much of their high-end cuisine rivals that of the best chefs in the world. You will experience the same foams and modernistic presentation, save that the portions for multi-course meals are much larger than you’d find in cities like New York or Paris.

To get to Carinena, one flies to Madrid, and then takes the high-speed train to Zaragoza, one of the biggest cities in Spain after Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia. The train itself is fast, modern, and clean, and the glitzy new Zaragoza train station a gorgeous and expensive expression of the city’s pride.

This being my first day, the main focus was of course dinner, which was held in Le Rebotica Restaurant located in the old city of Carinena, known for its gastronomic cuisine and also the building, for it is the site of a 100-year-old pharmacy.

When Americans think “pharmacy” they think of stores like CVS or Duane Reade, but in days gone by the pharmacists needed many rooms to actually make the compounds used in medicine. A family bought the building 20 years ago and turned it into a restaurant. You will find tables in many private rooms, decorations including antique plates and old wine bottles, and lots of charm.

Joining us for dinner was winemaker Javiar Domecque from the cooperative San Valero Winery, its President Felix Baguena Isiegas, and Luis Gutirrez Andrews, its Director.

You can find many hotels in Zaragoza, but our accommodation this evening is in the winery itself—gorgeously remodeled rooms in a structure dating back to 1944. My bedroom in particular is a study of high-tech creativity as it features an open floor plan with glass “bricks,” a whimsical picture of “old Spain” captured in stained glass that overlooked the old winery, and actual foliage in the bathroom.

Day 2

8:30 am and we are already in the modern new winery, where we are greeted in the very gorgeously designed, yet efficient, front office. Here we also see wall after wall of awards the wines have won over the years at festivals around the world.

From here we walk to the start of our tour at the visitors’ center, where we see attractively arranged bottles of wine, many of which we enjoyed the previous night at dinner. The two roses, one garnacha and the other a syrah blend, are available for about three Euros and quite a bargain. The visitors’ center also includes a large private tasting room with spittoons and a gorgeous chandelier made of wine bottles, and a short film in a variety of languages about the history of the Grupo BSV. We are given white lab coats (making me feel very official) and sent off into the factory. The first space we see is the vat room, and if you ever read or heard of the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory you can imagine the sounds and giant hoses and huge stainless steel vats. Hoses are everywhere.

Here in the winery, grapes are quickly de-stemmed and crushed and sent through the pipes into the giant stainless steel fermentors, where according to variety they spent a minimum (for red) number of hours in maceration. From the vat room we entered the laboratory, where scientists in white coats more elegant than our own disposable ones went about their work analyzing random bottles of wine to ensure uniformity and stability. If you have seen the TV show CSI, some of the wine was treated like a blood sample in that it was put in different vials, and the different vials were put into a tray inside a machine that was hooked up to a computer. Just like the blood samples in that TV show, the wine was subject to an instant analysis of the various chemical components, which showed up on the computer.

After the laboratory we saw the bottling area, which is quite fascinating, as the winery makes wine for a UK airline in the tiny airplane bottle size, as well as making regular 750 ml bottles. A machine lined the empty bottles up, filled them, and then put screwcaps on the airline bottles and corks in the 750 ml bottles, then put a label on them. Like in that Willy Wonka chocolate factory, machines were all over the giant packaging area, doing any number of things: grouping bottles together and putting them two by two into boxes, then lifting and stacking the boxes. There was also an area where—gasp, village women! Actual humans!—sat wrapping bottles by hand. These were the “reserva” wines which deserved special attention.

Below the packaging area was the aging room, where wine patiently sat in cask until it was time to be bottled and sold. Every six months the barrels were racked, meaning that the wine was transferred into new barrels. This was also an automated process. I have been in over a hundred wineries, and never had I seen such an extensive, highly automated process. It was very exciting and earned many points of respect for this cooperative.

The next two hours were spent in the vineyards, as members of the cooperative drove us through them to see their plots and to explain the soils and training methods. Right now, garnacha is trained by the “bush” method, also called En Vaso. Basically, the vine is grown like a bush, quite low to the ground, with the idea being that the leaves shade the grapes and protect them from the sun. Traditionally, getting hired help to pick the grapes was not a problem, but now the world is moving towards mechanization, so the grapes are being trained with the double guyot method to allow a machine to harvest the grapes.

The soil in the area is of two types: a brown soil with calcarious outcrops, and a stony rocky soil where the vine roots dig deep into the ground. Mildew is not a problem since the wind quickly dries the grapes after a rain, but odium is a danger. Right now the grapes are still flowering. The bunches of garnacha look very tight, but we were assured that the flower buds fall off on their own, and the grapes can grow in an uncrowded fashion.

To literally give us a taste of what life is like during harvest, we were taken for lunch at a cottage in a vineyard. It was an ancient, simple structure of just two rooms where a family would sleep during the harvest. Jamon and cheese and, of course, wine were brought in for a feast. I thought it was lunch until we were taken to yet another finca (farmhouse in Spanish) filled with dogs, cats, chickens, horses, and lambs. Here, we were given yet another feast, this one featuring traditional dishes of the area including fried rice with garlic, lamb chops, pork, and very fresh tomatoes, onions, and lettuce.

After a brief afternoon break, we went to the city of Zaragosta. We parked in the old city and visited the Cathedral, the square, and a charming tapas bar where the servers wore smart uniforms and pictures of bullfighting stars were framed in hundreds of pictures. The name of the bar is El Marpi and it is highly recommended, very bright and vibrant, with delicious looking food. I had mussels with a sort of salsa, and can also recommend the octopus. Our wine was, of course, the premier wine from San Valero winery, 8.0.1, a limited selection of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah from different harvests. The first 8.0.1 was specifically produced for the 60th anniversary of the cellar, and the winery decided o continue with the same brand and same varieties (with different harvests for each one).

If that was not enough food for the day, dinner awaited, this time with officials from the department of agriculture and tourism. It was held at Casa Montal restaurant, an ancient renaissance palace with Moorish archways. The bottom floor is a fine wine store and below that is a gallery for art related to the leaning tower of Zaragosta that was torn down in the late 19th century. You can see—and buy—prints, and even photographs. The clock of the leaning tower is also for sale here (at least, you can make an offer) with its inner workings fashioned into a display trolley. In the square outside the restaurant, a statue of a young boy looks up at the empty space where the leaning tower once stood. During dinner, we enjoyed various courses of delicious cuisine paired with more of San Valero Winery’s wines.

Day 3

During the formal tasting of all their wines, I appreciated and valued the Group BSV philosophy, which was to listen to the market (specifically, their customers) and make wine people want to drink.

This is crucial to understand. In many wine regions, people buy land, hire a winemaker, and make wine to suit their personal palate. Or they make wine in the same way their families have been making wine for generation, and sell to the same markets year after year.

Australia changed things over ten years ago when it created a mandate to be one of the biggest producers and exporters, and in a step towards that goal, decided to find out what the market demanded first and then produce the wine. That has been the story of Yellow Tail and other popular brands.

I have no idea if Groupo BSV used Australia as a model, but today I also discovered that they make wine to suit the demands of clients, and that they have clients all over the world with different specifications for the style of the wine, and the price point. If I understand the Groupo BSV correctly, a supermarket client may come to them and say they want a light, fruity wine that would cost the end consumer two Euros and would cost the supermarket one Euro to buy. I got the sense that the client had a good sense of his or her market, including the style of wine the consumer demanded and the price the consumer would pay.

In the course of the tasting, we tried Groupo BSV’s many styles of wines, mostly garnacha in various forms (unoaked, oaked, light and fruity, more substantial with higher alcohol) but also syrah and tempranillo and some expensive new styles of wine, aged in French oak, that the company is trying to market. Joining us for the tasting was a Spanish wine writer for the respected Heraldo newspaper in nearby Zaragosta.

After the tasting, journalists and the Groupo BSV staff gathered together to have lunch catered by The Patio restaurant. Spectacular cuisine—many courses that would rival the best international restaurants in the world.

That evening we strolled as a group through the village of Carinena. I remember studying this region in various wine schools for a variety of diplomas, and little prepared me for how small it is. Perhaps the view from my bedroom window was the most active, as it represented a park people would traverse in the course of their daily life. On the stroll, we saw scenes typical of village life—the church, shops, and city hall. Yet what was perhaps most remarkable was the fountain, which we were told spurts wine on a day symbolizing the harvest. Apparently producers also set up tables and give away wine on the streets during these days.

That night, at the winery, the winemakers and owners banded together to create a feast for us starring paella (rice and seafood). Though it was not traditional in this area of the world, it was a lot of fun to see the paella being made and to sip wine and chat with various people during the many small tapas-style plates we enjoyed during its preparation. Carinena is a delightful small town and the San Valero Winery is exceptional in its ability to support the families of so many growers and enjoy so much prestige as people around the world—the patrons of British Airways, the customers of a myriad of supermarkets in many different countries—enjoy the fruits of its labor.

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