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Culture / Foodie Events

The Original Drinker

Spanish Wine Master Loves a $15.99 Red, Hates Wood and Always Avoids Wine Bars

BY // 10.14.15

I love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, and we trade stories about travel and winemakers and terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food pairings and cost. We recommend wines to one another, and we drink, and we learn a lot. Wine Talk introduces you to some of my friends and acquaintances — individuals who love wine as much as I do, who live to taste and learn about it. You’ll appreciate their insight, agree or disagree with their opinions, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well. 

Gerry Dawes loves Spain, and he loves Spanish wines. And the man knows whereof he speaks. The country bestowed upon him its prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomia (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003, and here’s what James A. Michener said about him in Iberia: SpanishTravels and Reflections: “In his nearly thirty years of wandering the back roads of Spain, Gerry Dawes has built up a much stronger bank of experiences than I had to rely on when I started writing Iberia … His adventures far exceeded mine in both width and depth … ”

I first reached out to Dawes when I was planning a culinary journey to Barcelona, Rioja, and the Basque region of Spain, in 2011. I found his website and began reading, and have been learning from him ever since. Then, when I was preparing to stage at Arzak, in 2012, Dawes offered me some sound advice: learn Basque. He is opinionated – “You must decide whether you love wine or carpentry. If you want wood in your wine, suck on a toothpick as you drink your vino.” – he lives life with passion, and he respects wine and the men and woman who make it. Here’s to Gerry!

Tell me about three wines that are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each?
I love my Spanish Artisan Wine & Spirits Group – Gerry Dawes Selections Triay Godello 2014 from Monterrei, Galicia, Spain. I call it my “Montrachet.” Great unoaked, not overripe Godellos with reasonable alcohol levels are some of the most satisfying white wines in the world right now (and I sold great Burgundies and the best Chardonnays from California in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s to the best restaurants in New York). I particularly enjoy this lovely, terroir-driven wine –  whose flavors are reminiscent of white peach, underpinned by a long mineral-driven finish – with seared sea scallops. And to think that this grape was almost extinct in Galicia just 40 years ago, when one enterprising handful of people recuperated this magnificent grape that had dwindled to just over 10 acres in the entire region.

I am a great aficionado of the wonderful dry rosados (rosés) of Spain. I have three in my portfolio right now and I enjoy them all, especially the wonderfully dry Aliaga Lágrima de Garnacha, which is made with 100 percent free-run juice (with no pressing) from a fine stand of old-vine Garnacha in southern Navarra, around the town of Corella. I enjoy this wine with wide range of dishes, including pochas (Navarra white bean stew) and roast kid with patatas panaderas (“baker’s” potatoes that are cooked in the brick oven where the kid was roasted).

A great Rosado
A fine RRosado (Photo courtesy gerrydawesspain.com)

I have another one from Cigales in Castilla-León, Viña Catajarros, a magical blend of Tinto Fino (Tempranillo, Garnacha and two white wine grapes, Verdejo and Alvillo). The Merino brothers make only Rosado, and they make one of the greatest in Europe. Just 15 years ago, they were making their wine down in caves, using a massive stone and a whole tree trunk, ancient Roman-style press. This wine is sometimes available at El Torreón in the historic town of Tordesillas, where my great friend Jeremias de Lozar serves some of the best steaks (click here for mouthwatering video) in the world, carpaccio with shaved foie gras and other unique specialties, with these wonderful Rosado as an aperitif.

I also love the unique genre of rosados that come from and are a specialty of southern Rioja Alta, the dramatic hill country in the lee of the nearly impenetrable Sierra de la Demana, the southern wall of La Rioja. These artisan rosados almost never make it out of the region, where they are served by the glass and bottle in local bars and restaurants in the unassuming villages of this area. Known locally as Ojo de Gallo (Cock’s Eye) claretes, these pale, ethereal rosados with the classic onion-skin cast of great Tavel and rosé Champagnes such as Billecart-Salmon are cheap, delicious as Hell and compelling, since to drink a good one is to be visited by a wine epiphany. I carry the great artisan Ojo de Gallo from Bodegas Lecea, owned by Luis Alberto Lecea, who until recently was the first and only artisan viticulturist and winemaker to be named president of the powerful D.O. Rioja.

And the great thing about these superb rosados, which I drink year ‘round (you drink cold white wines in winter, why not cold rosados?), is that the most expensive tops out at $15.99 (often a buck less) in wine shops.

I have at least a dozen Mencía-based wines from Galicia and Bierzo. It depends upon the evening and the dish, but I am exceptionally fond of José Manuel Rodríguez’s Décima Mencía from the Amandi sub-region in the Sil River Valley of La Ribeira Sacra, the most drop-dead, awesomely beautiful wine region on earth in my estimation. The flavors in this wine are reminiscent of pomegranate and those intriguing graphite flavors that come from the mind-bending, impossibly steep slate-terraced vineyards the grapes are grown on. I adore this wine with anything from oven-roasted zamburiñas – small Galician scallops – to grilled lamb chops to thick Galician steaks. And like all my red wines, I drink them cool, at wine-country cellar temperature.

[Editor’s note: Gerry Dawes Selections have only recently been launched in the United States; however, many of these wines are available online from the following merchants (the first two listed ship to Texas):

Wine Library, 586 Morris Ave, Springfield Township, NJ 07081 (973) 376-0005 

The Wine Connection, 32 Westchester Ave, Pound Ridge, NY 10576 (914) 764-9463 www. wineconn.com

Astor Wines & Spirits, 399 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10003 (212) 674-7500

Houston-area merchants, if you carry any of the wines mentioned here, please let me know.]

Let’s say that cost is no consideration. What’s the one bottle you would add to your personal collection?

A 1947 López de Heredia Viña Bosconia Gran Reserva Rioja, which still exists at the winery. One of the greatest red wines I have ever tasted or drunk (on some six different occasions).

1947_vina_bosconia_lopez__64372

What is your favorite grape?
Godello for white wines, which if off great vineyards, left unoaked and with no battonage and other cellar monkey business, makes some of the most delicious wines to be found anywhere, in Spain or elsewhere. Mencía is my choice for red wines, because it offers compelling pomegranate-like flavors and is a great transmitter of terroir, reflecting the stony vineyards in which it is grown.

How about one bottle that our readers should buy now to cellar for 10 years, to celebrate a birth, anniversary or other red-letter day?
Viña Cazoga, a little-known back-country Ribeira Sacra Mencía-based wine that comes from spectacular vineyards and has such low production that it is all sold and none is kept back as an archive or library wine. Cazoga with age may be one of the greatest, albeit unsung red wines of Spain. I was lucky enough to have tasted an odd bottle of a 20-year-old unoaked Cazoga that was hidden somewhere semi-lost in the cellar. I tasted it at Cazoga with the great wine writer guru John Gilman of View From The Cellar. We were amazed and judged it to be our equivalent of a 96-point wine. The suggested retail price for Viña Cazoga is around $28.99.

What is the one thing you wish everyone would remember when buying and drinking wine?
Avoid wines that top 14 percent alcohol, and develop an appreciation for wines in the 12- to 13.5 percent range. I have only about three wines that reach 14 percent. I love the taste of good wine, so the lower the alcohol the better, because I can drink more of it with relative impunity. If you drink wines for the alcohol, you are missing the point. Drink tequila instead, or whiskey, or whatever. Likewise, wines that taste like wood are a travesty. Great terroir-driven wines, including whites and rosados, will live for many, many years, if they have good acid levels and a mineral underpinning. I have had 20-year-old whites, rosés and reds without a bit of wood that were exceptional and alive a decade or two after the vintage. Oak used to be an ageing receptacle, and it was used oak at that. Then, with the advent of nuevos-enos-ricos, as I call them, oak became a flavoring agent. You must decide whether you love wine or carpentry. If you want wood in your wine, suck on a toothpick as you drink your vino.

Where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle?
I really do not like wine bars. I do not want a glass of an interesting, very good, stupendous, etc. wine. I want to live with and share a whole bottle with food with my lady love or with friends. I taste wines for a living in cellars; when I sit down with a wine, I want it to be a joy, not a tasting experience.

What was your “wine eureka moment” — the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?
A jug of Gallo Chablis, a loaf of French bread and some cheese, years ago consumed on the beach at Carmel, California, when I was a young sailor in Russian Language School at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Or perhaps a bottle of Mateus Rosé brought back to Spain from a get-your-passport-stamped-every-six months-to-stay-in-Spain-as-foreigner run to Portugal. The Mateus and a few tokes of hashish sitting around another empty bottle of Mateus with a candle in it was a transcendent wine experience.

What has been the strangest moment/incident you have experienced in your career?
The Battle of Wine in Haro, La Rioja, where on June 29 each year the locals and a few visitors go up on a mountain outside the Rioja wine capital of Haro early in the morning and literally pour on, in and around one another some 100,000 liters of young Rioja wine, staining the participants’ white outfits, themselves and the whole mountain a not particularly appealing shade of wine purple and causing rivelets of wine (really!) to run down the mountain like water after a rainstorm.

Gerry Dawes cannot abide wood in his wine.
Gerry Dawes does not abide wood in his wine. (Photo courtesy Gerry Dawes)

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