Friday, August 26, 2016

The Secret is Out: Mallorca Island Wines

         Party-central villa on far right.... on the sea

I’m at a magnificent villa right on the sea in Mallorca with family and friends celebrating a hallmark birthday of my husband.   Located just off the coast of Barcelona, Mallorca often conjures up ideas of a playground for Russian oligarchs with bazillion Euro yachts, or movie stars (Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas are among the numerous Hollywood folks who’ve bought secluded villas here).   The island of Mallorca, however, is glamorous for an entirely different reason---its wine.  Like Santorini and Corsica, there’s something sexy about the idea of vines surrounded by water, cut off from the rest of the world.  Until now.

                           Palma's airport is one of the busiest in the Mediterranedan

Mallorca is the largest of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean and boasts a rich history including the Romans, Vandals, and Moors.  It was the Romans who brought their vines and wine-making skills 100 years before the birth of Christ.  Under years of Arab rule (when alcohol was forbidden), wine-making continued on Mallorca.  In fact, in the 13th century Mallorcan wines were of such quality that they appeared on the table of both of the courts of Aragon and Castille.  Wines flourished on Mallorca until the late 19th century when, like the rest of Europe, vineyards were destroyed by the phylloxera bug.

                        E.U. funds changed the landscape of Mallorca's wine business

It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the wine industry on Mallorca made a come-back.  Spain joined the E.U. and with it came funds for improving the island’s economy.  Local winemakers decided to invest in their businesses with improvement efforts to improve the quality of their wines.  This included planting of more popular international varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot.  It also included nurturing the island’s native varietals, as well as investment in stainless steel tanks, French oak barrels, and consulting winemakers from the mainland of Europe. 

Their efforts have certainly paid off.  Mallorca now produces some excellent wines, including white, rose, red and sparkling.   The wines are still relatively unknown in Europe (Mallorca receives an extraordinary 15 million thirsty visitors annually, thus only 15% of the island’s wine makes it off the island).  Nonetheless, Mallorcan wines are what every wine-lover dreams about:  indigenous grapes you’ve never heard of (that aren’t grown anywhere else), moderate alcohol levels, white wines made from red grapes, minerality and fruit.

                                This beach was just a few minutes walk from the villa

Mallorca is producing some amazing quality-price ratio wines.  The best producers are blending traditional grapes (such as medium-bodied cherry-like Manto Negro and low-in-tannin Callet) with international varietals.  Here’s a summary (no particular order---all are noteworthy) of the wines we’ve be drunk, each one carefully chosen as one of the island’s best.  If you can find them, buy them!

  • ·        Bodega Biniagual Gran Veran
  • ·        Miguel Oliver Xperiment
  • ·        Miguel Oliver Aia
  • ·        Miguel Oliver Ses Ferritges
  • ·        4 Kilos 12 Volts
  • ·        4 Kilos
  • ·        Binigrau B
  • ·        Binigrau Chardonnay

Viva Espana!  Viva Mallorca!  Viva Birthdays!

Friday, August 19, 2016


                                                 Tapas is an art form in Spain

We are on our way to Spain in a few days and I’m already dreaming of tapas.  Synonymous with appetizers, the word tapas is Spanish in origin.  The name (meaning “cover” or “lid”) is thought to have been coined centuries ago when patrons were served a glass of sweet sherry prior to a meal with a slice or ham or a piece of bread on top.  The food acted as a cover to prevent fruit flies from swarming over the sweet wine.   Tapas have now morphed into an international phenomena.  On a recent trip to Vietnam tapas appeared on the menu of a swanky restaurant.

                        Tortilla Espanol (a potato omelette) is ubiquitous in tapas bars

Tapas make a perfect first night meal for jet-lagged travelers.  Bodies that are totally out of biological sync can ease into the new time zone with tidbits of these lighter foods, versus a heavy three or four course meal.  Yes, most tapas bars require standing, but for travelers who have been sitting mega hours on transatlantic flights this is probably a good idea.  Besides, tapas bars are fun, exhilarating, and are known for the art of conversation---how can one not converse with others in a crowded tapas bar with glorious food?   For me, the whole tapas scene provides the perfect welcome to Spain.  

                        The Bullfighters Bar (aka Torre del Oro) is a must experience

I usually fly into Madrid and make a bee-line to the Plaza Mayor.  The Bullfighter’s Bar is always a great first stop because of the friendly bar men serving the tapas (they will also make you a special order of padron peppers, one of my favorite starters on any continent).  

                          The refurbished Mercado in Madrid is ground zero for upscale tapas

A block away is a quite sophisticated spot for tapas, the Mercado San Miguel.  Once the old food market for downtown Madrid, this now super trendy spot has been entirely renovated and is now filled with  upscale food stalls and high-end tapas bars.  The crowd is definitely the young and beautiful with lots of Euros to spend on French Champagne by the glass or caviar- topped-tapas. 

                                          Txakoli's smoked salmon (left), crab (right) 

My favorite tapas bar in Madrid, however, is <10 minute walk from both of the above places.  Txakoli (at #42 Calle Cavas Baja, a tiny pedestrian only street in a residential area) is a huge cut above everything else and offers the best quality/price ratio.  I try to time my visit for the moment the doors open (7 or 8 pm depending on the time of year).  This place feels like a neighborhood spot to me and the clientele is young and hip.  The tapas are killer---don’t miss those made from crab or salmon.  Wine choices are limited but decent. 

                                                 Best buck (per piece) I know 

Another favorite tapas bar of mine is in the Rioja wine district in the town of Logrono. They only serve one tapa here and it’s grilled mushrooms.  Funghi lovers will be in heaven.  The line often snakes out the door.   Bar Soriano...look for their sign in the shape of a large mushroom over the front door.

                    Most of Palma's traditional bars are in the old streets near the cathedral

This year we’ll be flying into Palma de Mallorca.   Our tapas crawl will be in the cobble-stone streets of the old town (where we’ll be staying overnight before heading to Ibiza for several days).  We’ll be heading to traditional tapas spots. (I don’t want Asian-inspired tapas, tapas with a French flair, or any other fusion-type tapas).   Here’s my list:   Bar Espana, Bar Dia, and Taverna Boveda.  But, a great way to find the best tapas is simply to wander, check out the food, and choose the most crowded spots filled with locals rather than touristas.


Friday, August 12, 2016

Beach Towns Where Italians Holiday

Don’t even consider going to Rome, Milan, or Florence during the last two weeks of August if you’re planning to dine at one of your favorite restaurants, or shop at a special boutique.  There’s a very good chance all of them will be closed.  All factories and most businesses in the country close down from mid-August until September 1.  The large cities are deserted as families head to the beach for the last of the summer dolce vita before school begins.   Below are four secret but beguiling beach spots that have yet to be discovered by international tourists.

                                        Hotel Aurora's beach is a little slice of paradiso


The Amalfi Coast is 100 miles geographically but another world away from this captivating gem of a town popular with both Roman and Napolitano families.  A few years ago when I was in Sperlonga, its medieval old town was being used as a movie set for a television soap opera supposedly taking place on the island of Capri.  I had never thought of the two resorts as having anything in common, however, if you remove the hoards of tourists from Capri, you would amazingly find a town very similar to cliffside Sperlonga.

Should you make the trek to Sperlonga, there’s no better place to stay than the family owned 4 star Hotel Aurora.  Located right on the wide, sandy beach, it’s a terrific place to plant yourself for some serious R&R Italian style.  This is buffalo mozzarella country. Don't miss an insalata Caprese at Gli Archi in the medieval town.

                           Tuscan Castiglioncello would even make Michealangelo weep tears of joy


Heading up the coast to Tuscany, the next village is a closely kept secret of families from Florence and Pisa.  Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower met at this elegant beach town shortly after World War II.  In the 1960’s popular film star Marcello Mastroianni summered here. 

Although the celebrities are long gone, it’s easy to see what drew them to this sweet spot. Beautifully maintained homes, draped in bougainvillea, cascade down the mountain to the main square.  Every nook and cranny of the small streets is covered with a profusion of vibrant flowers.   Smart boutiques on a small shopping street offer the latest designs from Milano.  But, everything is done in a very quiet, restrained manner.  This is a world apart from jet-setting Positano down the coast, and jet-setting Portofino up the coast.

Dining?  Look no further than La Lucciola which offers drop-dead panoramic views of the sea and sunsets, as well as the town’s best food.  Sleeping?  If you’re not renting a villa (Wine-Knows has rented a 7 bedroom sea-view villa here next summer), the Grand Parisi is your best bet.  A stately old palace, this four-star hotel offers rooms withy commanding views of the Mediterranean.

                                         Across the Bay is the Cinque Terre...but you may not want to leave Lerici


Just over the Tuscan border a little further north is a gem of an Italian beach resort, Lerici.  I came across this special spot on the sea by accident nearly 40 years ago, and was so impressed that I’ve returned too-many-times-to-count for a holiday---in fact, I’ve even brought a Wine-Knows group here and they loved it.

It’s easy to pretend you’re an Italian here as Italian families are the only ones in town, menus are in Italian, and la dolce vita oozes from every fiber of the city.  Across the bay in the Cinque Terre the reverse is true.  You rarely hear Italian spoken in any of these “super-touristy five villages.”  To me, Lerici has the best of both worlds:  the town offers stupendous views of the sea, with the lights of the Cinque Terre twinkling in the distance, along with a definite Italian flair.

There’s no better place to capture the view than at the Hotel Doria Park.  Sat high on a hill out on a promontory, the simple yet pleasant Doria Park offers 3-star rooms with beautiful terraces to soak up the never-ending sea views over the town’s majestic castle.  And, Chef Davido in the hotel’s restaurant is sure to serve up a great seafood dish plucked that day from the town’s fishing fleet.

                                                                La Dolce vita in Camogli 


Last, and certainly not least, is one of the most charming villages on Italy’s stretch of the Mediterranean.  Located just south of Genoa on the Italian Riviera (and only a couple of hours from Milano), Camogli was used as the cover shot for Italy the Beautiful Cookbook.  Need I say more?  

Camogli is a slow-paced fishing village built around a tiny horse-shoe shaped bay.  The beach is flanked by brightly colored multi-story palaces (now divided into vacation flats and apartments).  Painted a mesmerizing rainbow of muted pink, ochre yellow, or deep terra-cotta, these pleasant eye catching colors are framed with deep green shutters and trompe l’oeil facades.  Magic.

The best place in town for lodging is the elegant Cenobio Dei Dogi.   Once the swanky home of the former Governor of the Italian Republic, this spot is all about understated elegance.   The hotel’s swimming pool is one of the most beautiful on the coast.  Don’t even consider getting a room without a seaview.  It’s all about the view. Food-wise, the beach is lined with restaurants.  Check out the fish displays to see what looks good.   This is the land of pesto, so pasta al pesto is also an option.

Enjoy your time away from the maddening crowds in some of my favorite spots in all of Europe.


Friday, August 5, 2016

Chile’s Napa Valley

           The majestic snow-capped Andes provide a stunning backdrop for show-stopping wines

The central valley of Chile, located <100 miles south of the country’s capital city of Santiago, is one of South America’s most promising wine regions.  Called the Colchagua Valley, it is home to many of Chile’s finest red wines.  Some of these red wines have even beat out some of the world’s most impressive reds in blind tastings.  It’s no wonder why winemaking families like the Rothschilds from Bordeaux have flocked to this area to open wineries.

The Colchagua Valley boasts a textbook grape-growing climate for world-class red wines:  major heat to ripen fruit, but cool evenings which allows the vines to rest.  This extreme difference in day and night temperatures is called the “diurnal shift.”  In winemaking, the variance between day and night temperatures is what separates a table wine from a premier wine.  The cool nighttime from the nearby Pacific Ocean is exactly why Napa makes much better wine than the interior parts of California where the influence of the sea is absent at night, and there is little diurnal shift.

The hillsides of the Andes provide even more of a diurnal shift, thus it’s no wonder that some of the best spots for reds is on the lower slopes of the Andes.  Also adding to the quality of the wines in the Andes are the free-draining granite soils, and the more intense sunlight due to the higher elevation.  That being said, there are also some killer producers on the valley floor in favorable terroirs.  For example, vineyards near the valley’s main river are often prime due to the river’s moderating influence on the tremendous summer heat.  The valley’s floor also benefits from the soil washed down from the Andes.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah thrive in the Colchagua Valley.  So does the Carmenere grape.  While many of not heard of Carmenere, it was once one of the main grapes of Bordeaux.  While Carmenere is related by DNA to the Cabernet family, it is often confused with Merlot.  Carmenere is used in Chile as both a blending grape and is vinified as a 100% varietal.

Here’s a list of my favorite producers in the Colchauga Valley.  Wine-Knows will be visiting them all during our 2017 harvest tour in March:

  • Altair
  • Casa de Silva
  • Lapostolle
  • Los Macquis
  • Montes