Thursday, June 27, 2013

Weekly Wine Review - Red Blend, Argentina - 2009 Finca Flichman Paisaje de Barrancas

After becoming a big fan of Malbecs from Finca Flichman - I was curious to try some of their other offerings - including this Syrah led red blend - Paisaje (landscape or scenery) de Barrancas (the vineyard's name).

Wine: 2009 Finca Flichman Paisaje de Barrancas 
Region: Mendoza, Argentina
Grape Varieties: Red Blend: Syrah (80%), Malbec (10%), & Cabernet Sauvignon (10%)
Obtained from: Purchased at Total Wine & More
Price: $15.00
Wino4Life Category: Everyday Wine
Aeration before tasting: Just a swirl or two, no special aeration.

Cork Condition: Natural cork - no defects or issues.
Appearance: The wine is clear, dark, dark purple in color with a pinkish rim.
Aroma: Dark fruits like blackberry, some toasted oak, and some baking spices - overall very nice.
Taste: Quite tannic, but not overly harsh, lots of fruit flavors and a nice amount of acidity to keep it nicely balanced. A pleasant finish that does turn to mostly mouthdrying tannins after the fruit dissipates.

The Grade: I give this one an B+.  Because the tannins are a bit harsh, in general I am a bigger fan of Finca Flichman's reserve Malbec or their Tupungato blend (which has Malbec playing the leading role) than I am of this wine. That said, this wine is delicious and reminds me that South America also produces some very nice Syrah. For $15 it is a great value if you are looking for something a big bigger and bolder than a Malbec.  It could stand in nicely for a Cab or Syrah at your next meal!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Winery Visits in Spain - Much More than Just a Wine Tasting

When planning a day of winery visits in Napa, Sonoma, or most other wine regions in the US - it isn't unreasonable to plan to stop at four or even five stops in a single day.  You will get to taste some wine, hear about the winery and wine making process, and if you are so inclined - buy a bottle or six or twelve.

I have been lucky enough to also visit a few wineries in Spain and I hope my future holds more of these visits, plus visits to other great wine regions throughout the world.  Visiting a winery in Spain is a bit different that visiting a US winery.  Yes you will get to try the wine - but first you will get an in-depth tour of the winery, their wine making process, and their history.  It is a fabulous way to learn about the winery, but also learn a lot about the process of winemaking in general.  The tours typically have a fee of 10 bucks or less, but with a 90 minute or so tour, and some wine to try at the end - I believe it is well worth the fee!  Also, you may hear about some specific wine they make that you may not have heard of that may only be available to purchase at the winery. A great gift for yourself, or that Wino in your life (don't forget to protect the bottles in your luggage!)

On our vacation to Spain this year,  we stopped off in the City of Haro in the Rioja wine region to tour the Muga winery. Muga has been one of our favorite Spanish wines for many many years, and we have become regulars at their booth when they attend the Las Vegas Wine Spectator Grand Tour each year.  We had actually visited Muga on a previous trip, but at that time we were only able to join a Spanish language tour.  Between my Rosetta Stone fueled ability to understand Spanish fairly well, and Wino4Life Wife who is an awesome translator - I wasn't totally lost, but was looking forward to returning when I could focus on the content of the tour more than translating.

Not only does Muga create some great wines, but I especially enjoy visiting Muga because they have their own coopery - or barrel making operation. As you check out the photos from the tour below - keep in mind that all these barrels and huge vats were made on-site at the winery. Sadly, there was no activity on the day we visited - so I guess we'll have to return again some time as I would love to see the barrel making process in action.

When we arrived for our 9:30a English language tour (hey it's happy hour somewhere!), Muga had something new on display in the front of the winery. In the late 19th century phylloxera (an insect) epidemic destroyed most of the vineyards in France, and not only did some French winemakers journey to Spain to continue their craft, but France looked to Spain to quench the country's thirst for wine. The train on display was used to carry vats of wine from Rioja to France from the late 1870s to the very early 1900s. Eventually phylloxera did make its way to Spain, but by that time the remedy of grafting grape vines onto American rootstock had already been developed, so the impact was less devastating and prolonged.

The tour follows the winemaking process, starting off with fermentation in huge wooden vats. Yes, these monsters with a built in staircase are also made right at the winery!

The tour continues with the barrel aging process where different wine age for different times, and in different types of barrels. Most Rioja wines are aged between one and two years in a barrel - winemaking is not a quick process for good wine at least!  For a wine to be legally labeled as "Rioja" it must follow the winemaking and aging rules of the area. For aging, a a "Crianza" Rioja wine must be aged for at least two years total,  with at least one year in an oak barrel and the other in bottle (this bottle aging must be done at the winery before release).  "Reserva" Rioja wine must be aged for a total of at least three years, of which at least one year is in oak barrels.  "Gran Reserva" Rioja wines must be aged at least five years, of which at least two years is in oak barrels and three years in bottle.  Some winemakers will decide to age a bit or even a lot longer than the law allows, depending on the style of wine they want to create, and depending on the characteristics of the grapes in a particular vintage.

Luckily on the day we visited, Muga was bottling their white Rioja wine (yes Virginia, there is white Rioja!). I'm a total geek I know, but I could watch this process for hours!:

For our next visit I am looking forward to seeing barrel making in action, but it was cool to check out the tools of the trade:

Barrels are toasted to different levels of char to impart the desired flavors to the wine.  If you drink most any red wine, or white wines that spend some time aging in a barrel, the type of wood used and the char level have a significant impact on the finished product that you enjoy.  The first picture below shows the very green process of using barrel wood scraps to fuel the fire that toasts the barrels. The second picture below shows the rage from a lightly toasted to a dark toasted barrel.

Have you ever heard of "fining" of wine?  Fining is part of the clarification process before bottling. As part of the overall clarification process, wine can be filtered to remove particles, but some winemakers choose to bottle the wine unfiltered, as filtering may remove some desirable aroma and flavor components of the wine. In addition, wines can be "fined" which is the process of adding a substance to wine to remove unwanted tannins and impurities that filtering will not remove. The process of fining a wine can lead to a cleaner, softer finished product. The substance that Muga uses, and has been used for centuries in winemaking is ... raw egg whites!  If you think that sounds strange, consider some of the other fining agents that have been used over the years in winemaking - ox blood, milk, fish bladders, gelatin from horses, seaweed, and clay.

A few egg whites are added to a barrel, and as the egg whites settle to the bottom they capture the impurities so they are not included in the wine. Part of the Muga winery tour is an explanation of this process, and the high tech (ha!) gadget used to separate eggs into the white and the yolk. Raw eggs are cracked into the upper "track" part of the device which has small holes in the bottom, the egg white drips down through the holes into the other track and winds up in the bowl on the left, while the yolks fall off the edge of the first track and end up in the bowl on the right.  The whites are used for fining, and the yolks are made into a delicious candy that is sold in the Muga gift shop. This is not a prop, as you can see the nearby trash can had more than a few eggs recently cracked for fining of Muga's wines!

Muga is a very old winery that produces a tremendous amount of wine with distribution to all corners of the globe. Still they maintain fairly traditional winemaking approaches instead of using more modern, automated process which is something I really respect.  Below are pictures of the process they use to "rack" wine aging in a barrel. Racking is the process of moving wine from one barrel to another, and in the process leaving behind the sediment that is created during the aging process.  This process can be repeated several times during a wine's aging - depending on the winemakers desires. Muga uses nothing more than gravity and a funnel made from an old, small wine barrel. The barrels are slightly tipped forward, so when the plug is removed from the barrel, the wine flows through the funnel into the new barrel.  Maybe I've found myself a new summer job!

In addition to the tour of the operations, you'll see the grounds of the winery which are beautifully landscaped, and get to hear about all the different wines the winery makes.  Seizing an opportunity to buy a couple bottles of wine not readily available back home, we purchased a bottle of Aro - a Splurge wine (bordering on a Super Ultimate OMG wine).  I have been lucky enough to try Muga's other top end wines - their Torre Muga and Prado Enea - and absolutely adore them, so the chance to try their showcase Aro was more than I could resist.  The other bottle of wine we purchased is firmly in the category of Everyday wine - is their Eneas.  This bottle caught my attention because this wine is made with a process called Carbonic Maceration - which is something I know about from the French wine called Beaujolais, but did not know that Rioja wines could be made with this process. I'll spare the geeky details, but wine made with this process initially ferment as whole grapes in a carbon dioxide rich vat.  Yes - the juice starts to ferment while still inside the grapeskin.  This process will create a light bodied, fruity, low tannin wine that is meant to be enjoyed immediately, as it doesn't gain the tannins needed to improve with bottle aging. This bottle was only about $7, but not really available except at the winery.  I am very fascinated to taste and compare to other wines made with the Carbonic Maceration process - so stay tuned for an upcoming Wino4Life review!

My overall recommendation - go to Spain, visit wineries in Rioja (or Priorat, or Galacia, or Bierzo...), learn about and drink some great wine!  Just remember - each visit to a winery in Spain will be at least a two hour event - so don't try and pack more than two in any one day (also remember to leave some time for a nice afternoon siesta!).

Monday, June 24, 2013

Good Ole' Summer Time - Wine for Picnic and Pool Time

The heat of summer is upon us once again and the heat usually means the coolers of beer or summertime sweet mixed drinks make an appearance. When you are looking for an adult beverage to quench that summer thirst or something to serve at a picnic or pool party - don't forget about wine!  
Not really what I had in mind!

A monster Red Zinfandel with 15% alcohol and mouth puckering tannins will not help in the heat - but there are many other options. Think about what quenches your thirst on a hot day - something like lemonade. Lemonade is crisp and clean from the acidity of lemons, a touch sweet, and served ice cold.

Great choices are acidic whites like Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand examples are great - but others will do as well) or Riesling.  For Riesling, you can get something with a bit of sweetness - we're not talking dessert wine here, but again keep lemonade in mind - acid and a bit sweet.  Also - do yourself a favor and shake off the stigma of drinking White Zin and give a good rosé a try.  
Don't be Afraid!

There are tons of rosé wines besides White Zin that are delicious and great for sipping on a hot day - ask your wine shop to recommend something - and don't be afraid to try something from France or Spain - you won't regret it!

Have a favorite Rosé - let us know by leaving a comment!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Weekly Wine Review - Red Blend - 2009 Orin Swift The Prisoner

The story of Orin Swift Cellars is one that is motivational to me. While I am sure the endeavor was based upon the availability of serious bank - the story starts in 1995 when David Phinney went to study for a semester in Florence, Italy where he discovered a love for wine. After graduating college he got a job at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1997 as a temporary vineyard worker during the harvest. Then.... in 1998 he opened Orin Swift Cellars. Not the typical from harvest to winemaker story - but I do understand the passion that drove the founding of this winery.  Today we'll be trying the 2009 The Prisoner red blend.

Wine: 2009 Orin Swift The Prisoner
Region: Napa Valley, CA
Grape Varieties: Red Blend (Red Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah)
Obtained from: Winery
Price: $35.00
Wino4Life Category: Weekend Wine
Aeration before tasting: Just a swirl or two, no special aeration.

Cork Condition: Natural Cork - no defects or issues.
Appearance: Wine is deep, dark purple with a pinkish rim.
Aroma: Strong red fruits like raspberry and cherry with a bit of blackberry as well.  Some nice pepper aroma from the Zinfandel and a hint of vanilla as well.
Taste: Nice and fruity, with some tannins - but not as big as I expected. A pleasant wine overall, but something tasted just a bit off. Not a major problem but it may be tasting a bit off balance from the high alcohol level (comes in at a whopping 15.2%).

The Grade: I give this one a B-. I just can't get past the unbalanced taste - and for nearly $40 a bottle there are droves of red blends out there with more bang for you buck. Keep an eye out for Orin Swift wines though - I believe the issues with this 2009 are more of an exception for the winery than a rule.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Heartbreak in a 750 ml Bottle - Hey it Happens!

You spend your hard earned money on them, you protect them, make sure they have a comfortable place to live; you show great patience as they age and develop into what you hoped they would become; you read and study up on what to do to make sure you give them the best chance to succeed.  No, I am not referring to children nor am I referring to pets or house plants. I am of course referring to wines that you keep in your wine cellar (or closet, or wine fridge)!

OK - Not my Cellar - But Maybe Someday!

Alas, as with children, pets, and plants - sometimes all your hard work only ends up in heartbreak.  This heartbreak was exactly what I experienced this past weekend, with a wine that I had kept care of for years!

The wine I speak of was a 2005 Cosentino M. Coz.  I had purchased this wine in April of 2009 as part of the Cosentino wine club.  On the higher end of what I call splurge wines (See my Wine Rating System), the wine club price for this wine was...(pause for sad reflection)... $120! On the menu for our Saturday night meal was a Tenderloin Steak with a Cabrales (Spanish blue cheese) sauce.  In looking over my list of cellared (or wine 'fridged) wines - I noticed the 2005 M. Coz.  The specifics seemed to be just what I wanted, a nice big Cab (or Cab blend in this case):

  • Wine Type: Red 
  • Bottle Size: 750ml 
  • Vintage: 2005 
  • Appellation: Napa Valley 
  • Varietal: Meritage 
  • Alcohol content: 14.60% 
  • Oak: French 
  • Time in Oak: 30 months 
  • Release Date: 8-Jun 
  • Vintage Notes: Estate blend of 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 15% Merlot, and 2% Petite Verdot from Yountville, St. Helena, Pope Valley and Oakville.
  • Winemaker Notes: The individual lots are punch cap fermented and remain separate during the thirty months of barrel aging in French cooperage. The wine was bottled unfined and unfiltered. 
  • Case Production: 600

My friends at Wine Enthusiast are nice enough to provide a wine vintage chart  where I checked to see that 2005 was a "superb" vintage for Napa Cabs (score of 95 out of 100), and that as of this year the vintage was "can drink, not yet at it's peak". This usually means still quite tannic, but with some aeration and time will be very nice. So, three or four hours before dinner I opened it up and placed it in a decanter.

Initially it had very little nose, a bit of oak and no real fruit. Throughout the three or four hours it was open I swirled the decanter trying to coax something out.  Sadly, dinner time came and the wine was a complete disappointment.  It tasted completely unbalanced, a tiny bit of fruit came through with some oak and bitter tannins. I have no problem with tannic wines, but in this case the lack of fruit or acid to counterbalance left it flat. I would have been disappointed at $10 a bottle - but at $120 it was truly heartbreak in a bottle.

What happened?
I wanted to figure out why the wine was so disappointing, so I looked at a couple of possibilities. 

Did I not decant/aerate enough? I saved a glass full and left it in the decanter for another 24 hours. Upon tasting this wine it was even worse.  Bitter with nothing appealing. If wines needs more aeration, they may be overly tannic or a bit closed off in taste and aroma - but not unpleasant to drink.

Did I decant/aerate too much? If the wine had shown some promise when I first opened and decanted then maybe. But too much oxygen can only really negatively impact really really old (like 50 year old) wine, whose delicate flavors may dissipate with exposure to the air.

Was this not a good wine? Let me stress that Cosentino Winery is one of my favorites. They make great wine at all price points, and although I am not a winery club member right now, I was for years.  Even the best wineries can make a dud on occasion, so I searched for reviews and found this one from Wine Enthusiast:

Wine Enthusiast, December 2009
Rating91 Points

ReviewLots to like in this complex red Bordeaux blend. Shows bigtime fruit flavors of blackberries, cherries, raspberries and cocoa, with a rich edge of smoky oak, wrapped into smooth, fine tannins in the modern Napa style. Finishes a bit obvious and sweet. Could develop bottle complexity over the next decade. - S.H. 

I did not find any other professional reviews, but some fellow winos on Cellartracker had these notes:

5/15/2011 - CBBROWN3 WROTE: 90 Points
Decanted about 3 hours. Deep ruby color. Blackberries, mocha, dried herbs, licorice, leather, and cedar on the nose. Medium body with solid tannins and very nice acidity. Still tastes a bit young. Sweet, ripe fruit on the palate with enough spiciness to add some complexity. Seems to have something buried under the tannins/acidity that I just couldn't get out. Very nice, but better in another few years.

12/25/2011 - JSHINSON WROTE: 95 Points
Bright cherry and tar with hints of cigar box and smoke

1/2/2012 - KURT AND RUTHANN WROTE: 91 Points
Well balanced with lots of fruit. excellent wine.

11/3/2012 - WINO365 WROTE:
- It's unbalanced.

The first three reviews were the wine I was hoping for - and had been patiently waiting for over four years to experience, but after all that time it looks like WINO365 and I had similar experiences. Although WINO365's review is concise, ultimately it matched my thoughts exactly.

Was the wine "corked"? The term corked refers to the impact a chemical called TCA can have on wine. TCA can make its way into wine by other means, but most often through a tainted cork. Proponents of screw tops and synthetic wine corks site TCA as one of the major reasons to avoid natural corks. I have experienced only a few corked wines, and they have been unmistakeable. If you experience an overwhelming aroma of wet cardboard or a damp basement - with little other aromas, then you most probably have a corked wine.  The most memorable was at a wine tasting where a new bottle was opened for the table I was at, and while the host described wonderful strawberry and earthy aromas - she noticed a puzzled look from our table. She took a whiff from one of our glasses and without hesitating said "Nope, that smells like gramma's basement, that was a corked bottle!"  At lower levels however,  TCA can still impact a wine, just without the telltale aromas I have experienced in the past.  In fact, the TCA can obliterate a wine's aroma and flavor at these lower levels.

My Conclusion
I have no way to be 100% sure, but the evidence seems to point to a corked bottle tainted with levels of TCA low enough that there was no wet cardboard smell, but the impacts were still devastating to the wine.  The reviews from Cellartracker seem to point to some with good bottles, and at least one other wino who received a bad bottle.  I have read that TCA may affect nearly one bottle in every case of wine with natural corks - scary when you think about it.

Yes - this wine was heartbreak in a 750 ml bottle (did I mention $120 for a bottle!), but since I have been buying wine to age for more than 10 years and have only had this type of heartbreak once so far, I would definitely say the overall effort to buy and cellar wines is definitely worth it - no reward without risk!Wineries take great steps to combat TCA and the resulting corked wine, so I have no issues with Cosentino winery. Cork taint is just a negative possibility amongst all the potential positives in the wonderful world of wine. In fact, since I had some of the Cabrales sauce left over, I cooked up a couple more steaks last night, and paired it with a 2006 Cosentino The Poet. This wine was also a heritage blend, and come in just under the wire to be a weekend wine at $49 per bottle. Absolutely delicious - fantastic with deep fruit like blueberries, and a nice touch of cedar and baking spices, and some nice tannins. The Poet paired very nicely with the steak and the blue cheese sauce - my big Cab craving was finally satisfied! 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Wine Tip of the Week: Force Yourself to Experiment Regularly

As you continue your journey into wine, you will find wines you love, wines you like, and wines you loathe. Many times you may fall into a habit of sticking with the safe and known commodities of wines you love.  While there is nothing wrong with having a "go to" set of wine favorites - it can leave you in a rut. Remember - you would not have found those favs without experimenting earlier in you wino-hood.

Set  a goal for yourself to try something new at least once a month.  Try a new brand, a new grape variety, a new region - whatever you like. It may be from a recommendation at your wine shop, something you read, a friends recombination, or (if you're like me), after hours browsing through the shelves of my wine shop - but whatever the catalyst - force yourself to experiment! Your next favorite wine may be just one sip away!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Weekly Wine Review - Spanish Red - Viñedos de Páganos Rioja El Puntido

**Disclaimer: I received this bottle for free from the winery representative at the Wine Spectator Grand Tour. (Thank you Ana!!!)

I look forward to the Wine Spectator Grand Tour each year to try some new wines, and to check out the latest offerings from favorite wineries. We tend to spend a good amount of time in the Spanish wine section to sample old favorites like Alto Moncayo, Muga, El Nido, and Emilio Morro. This year, we also tried a Rioja from Viñedos de Páganos that was really awesome. At the end of the event, the winery representative was nice enough to give me a bottle so I could do an "official" Wino4Life review.  I was very surprise and delighted, but as always will give an honest assessment. 

Wine: 2008 Viñedos de Páganos Rioja El Puntido
Region: Rioja, Spain
Grape Varieties: Tempranillo
Obtained from: Winery at Wine Spectator Grand Tour in Las Vegas
Price: Free for Review, Retails at about $50
Wino4Life Category: Weekend Wine
Aeration before tasting: Just a swirl or two, no special aeration.

Cork Condition: Natural cork - no defects or issues.
Appearance: Dark reddish purple - much darker than most Riojas, and it is likely unfiltered.
Aroma: Intense dark blackberry fruit, coffee and a bit of vanilla.
Taste: Very big and bold, with a good amount of tannins, and nicely acidic.  Really delicious,  nicely balanced, with a nice long finish.

The Grade: I give this one an A. This wine is a more expensive Rioja at around $50, but the quality of the wine is apparent. The "El Puntido" name comes from the name of the single vineyard from which this wine is made.  This wine could stand to age for at least two or three more years so the tannins will mellow, but I believe it would be worth the wait. It would be a great accompaniment to a meal featuring your favorite red meat - nicely grilled.  I was honored to be given a bottle of this to review, and if I can find it I will be purchasing more to put away for a couple of years. I also look forward to trying it with some nice Spanish cheese.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Great Gourmet Surprise - Chef's Dinner at Casa Pedro in San Juan de Parres, Asturias, Spain

Whenever we go on vacation I typically spend a good deal of time researching hotels and restaurants in the area.  I want to make sure that we find a comfortable place to stay, and good food and great wine to help make sure we have pleasurable and memorable leisure time.  Even if we are going to a place we are very familiar with like Chicago, I still look for any new spots, any change of ownership or new chefs that may provide an opportunity to try and enjoy a new food and wine venue.

I put in the time to do this research because in my experience, you don't typically stumble across a good restaurant. Depending on where you go, there may be a few or a few hundred to choose from - but without any additional information than the name on the sign - you are just rolling the dice.  Your hotel may be able to help you, but will a hotel concierge point you to a true winner of a restaurant, or to a place his brother-in-law, neighbor or high school buddy just opened?  Or will you be pointed to the hotel's restaurant - which are often very expensive, without the quality to justify the cost.

Very rarely though, you may happen upon a culinary experience more by chance than by spending hours combing through restaurant reviews and travel guides.   My wife and I did have one great surprise culinary experience on our recent vacation to Spain and it happened in a small village with a population of less than 100 people, San Juan de Parres in the province of Asturias.  

I had done my usual research to find what turned about to be an absolutely gorgeous vacation apartment to rent in this village - La Senda Apartamentos.  To say that we loved staying here and that we experienced incredible hospitality would be a complete understatement.  This part of Spain isn't as famous a vacation destination as Madrid or Barcelona, but the beauty, the ocean, the mountains, and the warm, wonderful people have no equal in my humble option
La Senda Apartamentos

The View from the Picture Window of our La Senda Vacation Apartment - Gorgeous!

The directions to get to the La Senda Apartmentos are to drive up the hill from Cangas de Onís until you come to San Juan de Parres, where you will see Casa Pedro - a restaurant and tourist apartment, and you turn right just before Casa Pedro.

Casa Pedro in San Juan de Parres, Asturias, Spain

Having just driven from San Sebastian, we had not eaten since breakfast and needed to have our late Spanish lunch.  In Spain, lunch is the biggest meal of the day and happends during the "siesta" time (around 2-3p), and dinner is a smaller meal later in the day (around 9-10p).  So, after unloading our luggage to our awesome Apartment, we headed back to Casa Pedro for lunch.  It is very typical in Spain for restaurants to offer a menú del dia (menu of the day) for the lunch time meal.  At Casa Pedro, this menu included a choice of several hearty starters, from which we chose the Asturian specialty of Fabada.  Fabada is a hearty and rich bean stew that typically includes spanish chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), and bacon cooked in a saffron and paprika spiced broth. 

My wife and I were served a huge pot of Fabada to share. Absolutely delicious - with chorizo and morcilla that were most likely made by the family that owns the restaurant.  A nice jug of simple house wine and some delicious bread on the side and it was a great start to our stay in this part of Spain.

The choice of entrees typically include a fish, a chicken, and a beef or pork dish. On Saturday one of the specialities of Casa Pedro is their Escallopines with Cabrales sauce - and I could not pass this up. It is a thin cutlet (think scallopine) of beef, breaded and fried, and topped with a cream sauce flavored with Cabrales blue cheese.  If you are a fan of blue cheese I highly recommend finding a way to get your hands on some of this stuff. It is so delicious, and is fantastic with wine, especially a bolder Rioja or Ribera Del Duero.  I know it is available at La Tienda - a great online store for a ton of Spanish products.

Escallopines with Cabrales sauce

Casa Pedro version was like the ultimate chicken fried steak.  Absolutely delicious, with a perfectly balanced Cabrales sauce, served with french fried potatoes that were nicely crispy - not underdone as you will often find in Spain.

At this point, I am ready for a full blown, multi hour siesta as I am very full and very happy.  But there is one more treat left on the menu - dessert!  Again there are several desserts to choose from, but I was intrigued by the name of Casa Pedro's Tarta de la Abuela (Grandma's cake) so had to give it a try. This dessert is also known as Tarta de Galletas (cookie cake) and is made by layering a flan-like custard, thin cookies dipped in flavored milk, all topped with chocolate.  Grandma definitely knows her stuff - as this dessert was absolutely phenomenal!  Over the course of our vacation we had Tarta de la Abuela at least 10 times, and since our return have been searching for a recipe to try and duplicate it. Top this off with a cafe cortado (espresso "cut" with a bit of milk) - and my wife an I were happy travelers.  The price you ask for this delicious multi-course lunch? The price tag is a fixed 11 Euros (about $14)... an absolutely amazing value for a meal that feels like it was served at home. Oh now I get it ... Casa Pedro!  

Tarta de la Abuela

Cafe Cortado

The title of this post is a Great Gourmet Surprise - and although this meal was great it is not the surprise. Read on - you will not be disappointed!  As we were leaving Casa Pedro's beautifully rustic building in a gorgeous part of Spain guess what we saw hanging on the wall?  Yes! - a sign that said follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.  As my wife and I went back to our Apartment to relax and enjoy a bit of siesta time, we wanted to hook up with Casa Pedro on both Twitter and Facebook. 

After reviewing some of the tweets and Facebook posts - we learned that Casa Pedro was indeed a family restaurant - including the owner's son and Casa Pedro Chef Cristian. It turns out Cristian has spent time cooking in various places in the world, including Germany, Madrid, and in San Sebastian, Spain at a fantastic restaurant where I had a very memorable birthday dinner - Mugaritz. Casa Pedro also delivers food, so as we perused their full menu Cristian's influence became apparent with more imaginative and modern dishes alongside the offering of traditional Spanish dishes.

One night we decided to try Casa Pedro for dinner delivery and enjoy some of the wine we had purchased earlier in our vacation in the comfort of our Apartment.  When the food arrived, it was none other than Chef Cristian!  We mentioned his background cooking at places like Mugaritz, and as part of that conversation he graciously offered to prepare us a special dinner while we were in town.  Not an offer we receive every day (or ever) so... yes let's make this happen!

The Gourmet Surprise (La Sorpresa Gastrónoma)

We called back the next day to arrange a night later in the week.  When the night arrived, we strolled down the one lane road from the Apartment to Casa Pedro - chatting about what was in store for us as we had absolutely no idea what would be on the menu for our meal.  The incredible level of personal attention began with Chef Cristian acting as our Chef and Server for the meal.  First I was led to their wine cooler to pick out a wine for the meal.  Here was a bit of a conundrum for me - picking a wine without knowing anything about the menu.  The best choice in this situation is typically to ask for recommendations - so Chef Cristian showed us what they had, which included a 1984 Marques de Murrieta Rioja, plus he pointed out some of his other favorites. I was intrigued by a 29 year old Rioja, but was afraid that the flavors of the wine, which would have matured away from fruit flavors over the years may not be a good match for a Chef's tasting menu, so I opted for a Crianza Rioja that the Chef pointed out - one that I had never heard of or tried, Bai Gorri. In Rioja, Crianza wines spend at least in year in oak barrels and another year aging in bottle.  

Crianzas are a great choice for food pairing as they are typically fresh and fruity tasting, with just enough complexity from the oak aging to be an interesting companion to food.  Bottle number one for the night was a 2008, and was fruity, nicely acidic and delicious.  Armed with a great wine, we are ready to eat - let the feast begin!

The first component was a standard part of every great Spanish meal - great bread. This was freshly baked, still hot from the oven and served with a nice Spanish olive oil.

Course #1 - Croqueta de Gamonéu (Croquette of Gamonéu Cheese)
Croquetas are a fairly common dish throughout Spain, usually filled with either mashed potatoes or a thick béchamel flavored with ham, cheese, salt cod, crab or other seafood. Our Casa Pedro Croqueta however, was very far from common.  Piping hot, with a super crisp coating, and a super soft, super flavorful filling. I don't usually take pictures of food after I started to indulge, but with this one I know I would not be able to describe the filling, so hence the picture with a missing bite.  Gamonéu is a Spanish cheese made exclusively in Asturias that I had heard of in the past, but had never tried until this dish.  The taste is slightly smoky, buttery, with a nice level of acidity. The acidity and fruitiness of our Bai Gorri Rioja paired very nicely. What a great first course!

Course #2 - Terrina de Foie con Dulce de Manzana y Pan Casero de Pasas (Terrine of Foie Gras with Sweet Apple Preserve and Homemade Raisin Bread)
At some point my wife may have mentioned that she is a big fan of Foie Gras, which may be have been the inspiration for our second course.  The delicious richness of a Foie Gras terrine, complemented by the acidity and sweetness of the cubes of sweet apple preserves. The homemade raisin bread added a bit of dried fruit and spice flavors to create a delicious balance of flavors.

Course #3 - Ensalada de Cigalas con Cítricos (Salad with Lobster and Citrus Fruits)
The influence of a gastronomic temple like Mugaritz was apparent in the next course. A great light and refreshing course after the rich Foie Gras, this course was included a plastic bubble filled with a green salad with lobster meat and citrus segments.  The lobster claws were also included for a very interactive dish. The plastic bubble served as an artistic salad shaker so we could combine the salad ingredients ourselves. 

Course #4 - Yema de Huevo Trufada con Chips (Truffled Egg Yolk with Potato Chips)
Next up, Chef Cristian's creativity really shined through.  A truffled egg yolk served over a classic French potato puree, topped with Serrano ham bits and potato chips.  A deft hand with seasoning was used here, as the chips and the ham provided the saltiness for the dish - any added salt would likely have been overkill. The egg was farm fresh and local - a different taste than you get from your standard store bought eggs. The ham - world class Serrano. A hint of truffles and a decadent potato puree.  Overall - a delicious gourmet dish topped with good old Lay's Potato Chips - it just doesn't get any better!

Course # 5 - Torto con Tomate Concasse con Menta y Sardina Marinada (Corn Cake with Chopped Tomato with Mint and Sardines
I have long been a fan of various forms of fried dough. On this trip to Spain I have added another variety of fried dough to my favorite list - a Torto or corn cake.  For our meal, our Torto perfectly fried, obviously made with excellent quality corn flour, and topped with delicious fresh tomatoes, a hint of fresh mint, and wonderful sardines.  These sardines are nothing like the canned, mushy version we have in the U.S., instead they are meaty, and nicely salty. Again, a dish with a great balance of flavors - the richness of the corn cake, the acidity of the tomatoes, the freshness of the mint, and the saltiness and meatiness of the sardines.

Course #6 - Rodaballo Asado con Tallarines de Trigueros y Café (Grilled Turbot with Wild Asparagus Noodles and a Coffee Sauce 
The proximity to the ocean provides access to a nice selection of fresh fish. For our dinner, Chef Cristian selected a Turbot, which was perfectly grilled, and served with "noodles" of wild asparagus - cooked just enough to maintain a perfect al dente texture, and - to continue with the wonderful surprises of the night - it was served with a coffee sauce.  I was very pleasantly surprised how well the bitterness of the coffee sauce complemented the fish and asparagus. This is a dish I will try my best to recreate at home, I only hope I can do it justice.

Intermission - We have an Empty Wine Bottle!
To this point the meal was proceeding absolutely perfectly - a great gourmet surprise in progress!  But now we had a small crisis (if you could call it that)... our wine bottle was empty!   Luckily this problem was easy to solve, and I decided to stick with the same wine as it paired very nicely will all our dishes so far.  I didn't pay much attention as the Chef opened our second bottle, but upon my standard sniff and swirl I noticed that this wine was a bit different, a bit less fruity and a tiny bit more full bodied than the last. It turns out that our first bottle was a 2008, and the second bottle was a 2007. Perhaps because of the vintage, perhaps the additional year of age - but whatever the reason it could not have worked out better as the lighter, fruitier 2008 was a great pairing for our courses so far - and we had just one more course which could have used a bit heavier wine.  Purely by chance, but another element of the night that contributed to making this a perfect meal. 

Course #7 - Taco de Vaca con Pesto de Beyos (Cube of Beef with Beyos Cheese Pesto)
With our second bottle of wine poured and ready to go, we were served a beautiful "taco" of beef, accompanied with a pesto made from the Spanish cheese called Beyos.  When I first heard "taco" you can imagine what I was expecting, but in this case taco was used to describe the cut of meat - there were no Mexican corn or flour tortillas involved!  Asturias is known for its beef, and its easy to see why. A nicely charred, perfectly medium rare cut of beef, accompanied by a delicious and rich pesto.  The pairing with the Rioja was fantastic, with the acidity of the wine nicely cutting the rich cheese-based pesto.

After Dinner Hospitality
After such a great meal, thankfully there was no dessert planned, as my wife and I were both stuffed. Chef Cristian offered us an after dinner drink (or Chupito to use the Spanish term). My wife was still enjoying her Rioja, I asked for a glass of Scotch (neat of course!), and left it up to the Chef to choose the brand. Chef Cristian joined us at our table with a giant Gin and Tonic for himself (well deserved!!!) and a glass of The Macallan he had poured for me.

We sat, talked, raved about the meal, talked about Spain, and laughed and laughed. My glass of Scotch seemed to keep getting refilled - and it seemed to fuel my ability to speak Spanish (I can understand Spanish fairly well, but I am still working on speaking).  Our dinner started at 9:30p and took about two hours. Time breezed by, and before we knew it when my wife thought to check her watch it was 3:15a!!! We had all had such a good time, that time literally flew by!  As if the great meal, fantastic hospitality, and after dinner hang out time wasn't enough, we even got a lift home from our Chef.

The End of a Perfect Gourmet Night

My wife and I have travelled great distances, and paid high price tags for great meals - but none of them have compared to the overall experience we had at Casa Pedro.  Artistic food, great wine (and Scotch!), hospitality, laughs, friendship - all we could ever ask for in a night out for dinner.

If you find yourself in Northern Spain anywhere near San Juan de Parres - you need to make it a point to eat at Casa Pedro. If you choose either a traditional lunchtime meal from the menú del dia, something more adventurous from Chef Cristian's expanded menu, or if you arrange a Chef's dinner of your own - I guarantee you will enjoy the experience and will be anxious to share the secret just like I am!