Toro Albalá 2003 Pedro Ximénez (Montilla-Moriles) – Caramel, brown sugar, and motor oil. Very sticky and ungodly sweet, even beyond the wine’s usual clutch and pander, and almost impossible to clear from one’s palate. I mean, it’s incredibly impressive, and I guess accomplished in the sense that it is unquestionably achieving what it sets out to achieve, but… (10/06)
Up & up
Alvear Montilla-Moriles Oloroso “Asuncion” (Andalucía) – Very intense, full of old spice and dried-out dates, both hollowed out by the antiquing of ultra-aged wood (I’m not talking about the winemaking here, but the organoleptics). Peppery complexities and a fuller, almost fruit-related character add to the finish. Very interesting. (5/08)
Alvear 2003 Montilla-Moriles Fino “En Rama” (Andalucía) – This is a richer, bigger style of fino; not heavy, but intense, with a little more salt and slightly rancid nut oil (maybe a personal thing) than usual. Enjoyable. (5/08)
Alvear Montilla-Moriles Amontillado “Carlos VII” (Andalucía) – Big and a little bit heated, showing almond, old candle, dry gray soil, and a clipped finish. Damaged, perhaps? (5/08)
TN: Don ho
Toro Albalá “Don PX” 1971 Pedro Ximénez “Gran Reserva” (Montilla-Moriles) – Sultana molasses, hazelnut syrup and awesomely sweet brown sugar, with burnt cinnamon cap mushroom on the finish. Absolutely delicious, though about an eighth of a glass is more than enough. (3/07)
The unfinished dribble castle (Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon, pt. 3)
(The original version, with zillions of photos, is here.)
15 October 2006 – Barcelona, Spain
Sagrada Familia – I realize, as we approach this in-progress church, that in my subconscious, this has always been the symbol of Barcelona. Blame the Olympic telecast, I guess. Certainly, on the ground it’s but one of many. But seeing it here, now…well, it’s…um, it’s…uh…
The thing is, see, it’s not done. And it’s not done in some fairly major ways…the central tower, for instance, which will dwarf the already soaring apostolic spires, is nowhere to be seen. What is done is covered with scaffolding, which is no way to assess a monument. And yet…
There are things I definitely like about it. The depressing, almost oppressive Passion Façade, for example, which is soul-destroyingly morose; Mel Gibson at his most tortured would not find much to disagree with in the sculptures and depictions. (The Nativity Façade, while more “beautiful” and possibly more important, is too busy for my taste. And it’s going to need a good cleaning, soonish.) The interior, rich with organic elements, is impressive and almost breathtaking in its suggestion of infinite space, even in its barely-begun state. But then there are the candy-shop pinnacles of the bell towers, which look like someone spilled a dessert on a sacred relic, and the eye-numbing clash of architectural styles, and…
I don’t know. It’s just too hard to assess. Maybe when it’s done, which is a long way off. Will I ever see that day? Couldn’t they just hire Vegas contractors, who’d have this thing up in a month? (It would fit right in, too.) In any case, while I’m conflicted but optimistic, and think I’d probably appreciate its finished form, Theresa has no qualms about stating her unchecked loathing of the structure. “It looks like a dribble castle” is her opening volley…from a certain perspective, she’s not wrong…and things get worse from there.
Tapas Gaudí (Avenguda de Gaudí) – Tired and ravenous after our long attempt to understand the inexplicable, we settle for an indifferent meal at this mini-chain, lacking the energy to search for something better. I’m carrying a list of about 75 recommended restaurants, but not one of them is within twelve blocks of our current position. I order defensively, finding much to like about vivid Ibérico chorizo, pimientos, garlicky olives and oily, peppered shrimp from a series of small plates. Theresa, however, errs in choosing a paella, which is difficult to prepare correctly in the best of circumstances, and isn’t particularly successful here. Thankfully, this will be our last mediocre meal in Spain.
Faustino VII Rioja (Center-North) – From a blasé list of nondescript mass-market beverages (we’d probably be better-served ordering sangria; I want a rosé, but it’s not available by the glass), this is smooth, plain and utterly ordinary. There’s red fruit. That’s it, and that’s all the descriptor this wine deserves: just red fruit. I may fall asleep from utter boredom.
Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau – The sunny pedestrian walkway from Sagrada Familia to this working hospital is very pleasant, and there’s reward at the end. The diversions and colors of the modernista architecture are here melded into more traditional forms and structures, which renders a more prosaic result, but one far less jarring to the unprepared eye. If one must convalesce, this would be a good place to do it. That said, it’s a little odd to be snapping pictures while patients hobble around in bathrobes.
Parc Güell – From the hospital, it’s another long walk – one not on any tourist itinerary, and definitely not beautiful (or pleasant, aside from the exercise) in any way – up to this beautiful, sculpted oasis that overlooks that city. Most will enter at the park’s bottom edge, through a network of Gaudí-designed buildings, staircases and artwork, but we come in a side entrance, and thus are surrounded by the much more subtle greens and browns of nature and Gaudí’s enhancements thereof. For us, we soon realize, his style belongs in nature, into which it blends much more naturally than elsewhere, taking the essential forms of the organic and working them in stone and space. I wish we’d come here before seeing Sagrada Familia, because it really helps put that work – indeed, all his work that we’ve thus far seen – in context.
As for the park’s more famous sights – buildings, railings, mosaic lizards and “the world’s longest bench” – they’re nice enough, but absolutely littered with people. Elsewhere in the park, one can actually find some peace. We sit on a bench…normal-sized this time…gazing over the city to the sun-whitened blue of the ocean, while beautiful green birds flutter and chatter overhead, contemplating life, architecture and our next meal.
Casa Vicens – Back down the hill, this time along a well-traveled route full of guidebook-toting tourists, is another (very early) Gaudí-designed structure, and while it would look plenty adventurous in most settings, here in Barcelona it seems almost tentative. Thus, it’s far more pleasing to Theresa’s eye than anything she’s yet seen. And at this point, we – somewhat sadly – resolve to abandon any further visits to modernista sights, freeing us concentrate on the as-yet unexplored Barri Gòtic. But that’s for tomorrow. Tonight, we’ve got to figure out where we’re going to eat.
La Polpa (c/Enric Granados 69) – It’s the same problem we have in France: where to eat on the nights that the natives stay home? From the States, we’d contacted a few places, finding them either closed or full. Thus, we arrived in Barcelona with one gaping hole in our dining itinerary: Sunday night. But, of course, the real problem isn’t finding any old place to dine – there are plenty of options on most major streets – but rather avoiding the showy, touristy spots that tend to be open on non-traditional nights for this very reason. In other words, the goal is to avoid a Catalan version of The Olive Garden. Thankfully, the quiet streets near our hotel provide a few good options…set up to handle tourists if they’re in the area, but not some three-floor extravaganza on La Rambla drawing the unwary with flashing lights and six-language specials boards…and we peruse a half-dozen menus before deciding on this place, which just a few steps from our hotel.
La Polpa is a reasonably spacious restaurant, built on three mismatched levels in a single high-ceilinged room, but tonight it’s extremely quiet; there’s just one other occupied table in the front (probably non-local) section, and a few people nibbling tapas at the central bar. As we dine, a few more locals (and one elderly English couple, who remain vocally but stereotypically septic throughout their meal) arrive.
The menu’s extensive and a little insane, throwing all manner of strange combinations at each other in the hopes that some will stick. In general, dishes are “healthier” than is the local norm (though not everything conforms to that standard), with a lot of elements that might be identified as Italian, Asian or even Californian sneaking into the mix. I order a mesclun salad with raw salmon, papaya and a lemon granita…it’s a little strange, but it works despite the vagaries of temperature, and the granita eventually becomes a sort of sweet-tart dressing for the remnants of the salad…followed by a much richer dish of monkfish accompanied by seasonally-ubiquitous ceps and drenched in a parmesan cream sauce. It’s heavenly. It’s also ridiculously cheap.
The absurdly low prices carry through to the wine list, which is so full of low numbers that I initially assume everything is being offered by the glass. But no, these are bottles. If only this sort of thing could be done in the States, people would drink a lot more wine. Of course, a list like this requires one to have a deep understanding of values and hidden gems, which is not something I possess for most Spanish appellations. Thus, a stab in the dark:
Dos Victorias “Viñas Elias Mora” 2004 Toro (Castilla & León) – A big, doofus-fruit wine full of blackberry, black cherry and blueberry, with walnut-infused tannin adding some structure. The finish is so short as to be almost absent. In other words, while it’s perfectly pleasant for what it is, and good enough for the price, it won’t survive pointed questioning, or even a stern gaze. Drink, don’t think.
Castilla “Montecristo” Moscatel Dulce (Navarra) – Moroccan spice perfume, peach and mixed citrus candies. Simple but nice.
Alvear 2003 Pedro Ximénez (Montilla-Moriles) – Blended chocolate, coffee and prune with raisin-studded plum pie and an endless, sticky finish. Very spicy, with a little apple-toned acidity emerging somewhere in the sugary din. This is to wine as crude oil is to high-octane gasoline. I do like PX, but a little goes a long, long way.
TN: White paint (Oregon, pt. 11 & the end)
(The original version, with bigger photos, is here.)
15 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon
Oregon Sauvignon Blanc Cartel – While tasting at Bella Vida, we’re handed a card announcing this most unlikely event: a sauvignon blanc tasting at Patricia Green Cellars (normally closed to the public). Sauvignon blanc from Oregon? This we have to taste for ourselves.
The drive, which crosses the hills on a small country road winding through trees and vineyards, is a beautiful one, but we take it a bit faster than caution might indicate, as we’re short on time. In Green’s busy winemaking shed, three wineries are represented: Andrew Rich, J. Christopher, and Patricia Green Cellars, and not everything on offer is made from sauvignon blanc. We grab glasses, push through the dwindling late-afternoon crowd, and dive in.
Andrew Rich 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Croft (Willamette Valley) – Grassy, with big lime, green apple and grapefruit bursting forth on the nose and palate. It become riper and more focused on the finish, with gooseberry, lime, lemon and lemon curd dominating, yet the wine is obviously a bit of a fruit salad. And there’s an intrusive Styrofoam note throughout, the memory of which the delicious finish can’t quite obliterate. Admirable but worrisome.
Andrew Rich 2005 Gewurztraminer “Les Vigneaux” (69.5% Washington, 30.5% Oregon) – A “freezer wine” that apes true ice wine as made in Germany and Canada. There’s much varietal truth here, with lychees and peaches in play, and though the wine is a little on the silly side, it’s got a great balance between acid, sugar and fruit. Fun.
Patricia Green 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (Oregon) – Citrus rind, Bosc pear, green apple and fetid armpit notes – not all that unusual for sauvignon blanc, though I don’t know that it’s ever actually welcome – with an exceedingly dry, flat finish. Not very interesting.
Patricia Green 2005 Chardonnay “Four Winds” (Yamhill County) – Restrained with terrific acidity, showing melon, grass and lemon over a firm bedrock of limestone. The finish, though seemingly dominated by malic acid, is incredibly persistent. A terrific wine that almost mimics unoaked Chablis (not in taste, but in overall structure)…and it’s hard to believe that it’s from the U.S. I don’t know that it will age, but it’s awfully nice right now.
J. Christopher 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Maresh (Dundee Hills) – Dominated by majestic quartz-like minerality, with grass, dried lemon, and apple skin. Acid and a tannic dryness compete with fine-grained minerals on the finish. Just terrific, and probably the best domestic sauvignon blanc I’ve ever tasted.
J. Christopher 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Croft (Oregon) – It’s interesting to compare this with the Andrew Rich wine from the same vineyard…though I note they use different appellations. A blending issue, perhaps? This is harder-edged than both the Maresh and the Rich version of the Croft, with green apple about all that’s discernable amidst a biting wave of acidity. It probably needs some time to settle down and develop aromatics, but it is a much more uncompromising interpretation that either of its cohorts.
Ponzi Wine Bar – Part of a larger complex of restaurant, wine bar, and (as of our visit) empty space awaiting a client, this is a very pleasant spot that desperately needs a better exterior view. Nonetheless, it does well, presenting both Ponzi and other Oregon wines by the glass and bottle. The staff, almost inevitably, is almost exclusively comprised of attractive young people…though unlike so many other similar venues, they appear to know their stuff.
Ponzi 2005 Arneis (Willamette Valley) – Floral, showing honeysuckle, ripe apricot and mango with a spicy texture. Yet despite all these yummy descriptors, the wine comes of as simple. Pleasant, to be sure, but simplistically so.
Ponzi 2004 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) – Very closed at first, with burnt cherries and a bit of jam underneath a heavy, palate-deadening weight. With air, a Port-like character emerges, with jam a significant player as well. A decidedly fruit-dominated, somewhat behemoth wine that’s not to my taste, but that’s executed pretty well for those that appreciate this style. And I suppose it will age…though my previous experiences with old Ponzi pinot suggest that “last” is a better term.
The Painted Lady – Like Red Hills and the Joel Palmer House before it, this is a converted residence. And as with the Joel Palmer House, we barely see the interior, preferring an outdoor table on the restaurant’s tiny terrace to one of the over-conditioned rooms. (A word of advice: there are serious issues with glare and heat from the setting evening sun on the few outdoor tables, so if you eat early, be prepared to play a positioning game until after sunset…or sit inside. After the sun goes below the rooftop horizon, however, the outdoor tables are well worth their previous inconvenience.)
With a passionate, knowledgeable owner and (mostly) excellent service, plus a true purity to the cuisine, this ends up being the most complete dining experience of our stay. While it’s not as memorable at our fungal fiesta at the Joel Palmer House, it does everything just a shade better.
Theresa starts with fried razor clams, their panko-encrusted texture and form a surprising and worthy variation on an old standard, while I nibble on flawless sweetbreads in a shallow pool of chopped corn and porcini cream, the earthier aspects of each combining for a glorious whole. Proximity to source improves an impeccably roasted filet of wild King salmon, while halibut over corn succotash and fried green tomatoes is no less perfectly presented. The most outstanding dish, however, is a simply-prepared 10 oz. cut of Strawberry Hill beef that brings out every beautiful essence of rare steak, served with pillowy potato gnocchi and a few asparagus spears drizzled with olive oil. It sounds unexciting to the jaded diner, but each bite proves otherwise.
Willakenzie 1998 Pinot Noir Aliette (Willamette Valley) – Shy at first, though it builds and improves throughout the evening, showing gentle baked cherries and leaves over a flowing stream of gravel and crushed granite. Soft-textured, this pinot embraces the tongue, getting longer and longer with each sip. A lovely wine, though I don’t know if I’d hold it much longer.
The only lapse in the restaurant’s perfection comes at the end of the meal, when we’re offered a “small plate of local cheeses” and, after much delay but no explanation, presented with a single, razor-thin wedge of a cheese…from Washington. Well, OK, I guess it could easily be “local,” but somehow this seems to subvert the premise. Or at least the plural.
Toro Albalá “Don PX” 1971 Pedro Ximénez “Gran Reserva” (Montilla-Moriles) – Prune motor oil that’s still amazingly primary (though I’m led to believe that this isn’t exactly 100% 1971 wine, but rather more of a solera), yet with beauty and elegance as the wine lingers…and lingers, and lingers, and lingers. Old PX is the longest-finishing wine I’ve ever encountered, which I guess means that one should studiously avoid bad examples. Thankfully, this isn’t one.
And thus is our brief Oregon visit brought to a satisfying close. The drive to the airport, through otherwise depressing strip malls and chain shopping complexes on the southern outskirts of Portland, is overwhelmed by the beauty of a dark purple sky, in which the snowy peak of Mt. Hood and the smoking crater of Mount St. Helens gleam as pinnacles of light and dark; metaphoric representations of good and evil made manifest. (Or perhaps that’s just the wine talking.) We’ll remember the books, the wines, and the mushrooms, but most of all we’ll remember the gentle beauty of a region to which we’ll soon find a reason to return.