Despite the appearance of tradition in the wine business, few family-owned operations have survived more than 200 years. Politics, wars, economics, tax laws, family squabbles and miss-steps by managing members have often led to takeovers by multi-national corporations, severing the company’s link with the family in all but name alone. The rare exceptions are families like Frescobaldi and Antinori in Italy, and the Osborne family in Spain.
The Osborne empire was founded by Thomas Osborne, who was born in Devon, England and was raised in Cádiz, Spain, where he operated an export company focusing on the sherry trade. He owned sherry bodegas in Jerez de la Frontera before consolidating the business at nearby El Puerto de Santa María, across the bay from Cádiz. In recent decades the company has expanded into other areas of wine production, as well as diversifying into a line of bottled water, energy drinks and Iberian pork products, with particular emphasis and pride placed on the “5 J” brand of ham from free roaming, acorn-fed black pigs. To showcase the ham, Osborne founded the Meson Cinco Jotas (5 Js) upscale tapas bars in 1996, of which a dozen can now be found in major cities across Spain. There you can taste all of the company’s products under one roof.
I recently traversed Spain from north to south, visiting Osborne’s properties in the Rioja region in the Pyrenees, in the Tierra de Castilla region on the high plain near Toledo, and in the Sherry triangle of southern Spain. The scope and range of Osborne’s wine operations in Spain mirror the interplay between tradition and avant-garde modernism that defines Spain today.
We began our trip in Bilbao, a one-time industrial coal-mining town on a river near the northern coast, in the heart of Basque country. Transformed since the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim art museum opened in 1997, Bilbao is a pretty, vibrant town in step with the present, yet retaining some of the charm of the past in its civic buildings and parks. And just as traditional and modern buildings stand side by side in Spain, so does traditional and modern Spanish cuisine.
There are more Michelin starred restaurants per-capita in the Basque country than anywhere else in the world. Bilbao has a plethora of fine dining establishments, including Jatetxea Restaurante on the ground floor of the Guggenheim museum, under the direction of Chef Josean Martínez Alija, who has been called “the best chef in the world for his age” (he’s just 27). One of several notable chefs who represent the second generation of Spain’s innovative chefs who have brought worldwide attention to nueva cocina over the past 20 years, he describes his creations as minimalist with an emphasis on the ingredients. As with French nouvelle cuisine, the portions are small, so we were only pleasantly full after a six-course lunch that included one of his signature dishes — roast tomato stuffed with baby squid, served on a bed of black risotto and fresh cream. His mentor and collaborator in this restaurant is Martín Berasategui of the eponymous three-star Michelin rated restaurant in nearby San Sebastian. The meal at the Guggenheim was, of course, served with a selection Osborne’s fine wines, and as always I was particularly fond of the fino sherry, which pairs so well with seafood.
Chef Fernando Canales of Etxanobe
A short walk down the riverside promenade from the Guggenheim, past palm trees, modern sculptures and the new Sheraton, brings you to the Palacio Euskalduna (Bilbao’s music and conference center), which also houses the cutting edge penthouse Restaurante Etxanobe. Here Chef Fernando Canales, a radio and T.V. personality, serves his modern interpretations of traditional Basque cuisine. For dinner we paired Osborne wines from Ribero del Duero and Rioja in the north with thinly sliced carpaccio of shrimp with smoked bacon vinaigrette; anchovy lasagna in tomato soup; scallops with leak vinaigrette; grilled tuna; and Sirloin grilled “at a distance,” which Chef Canales explained, meant that the meat was raised above the heat source, slow cooked for several hours, and served very rare. The dessert sampler was served with Osborne’s LBV Port, and a Pedro Ximenez Sherry that could stand as a dessert all by itself.
BODEGAS MONTECILLO in Rioja
The drive from Bilbao to Rioja used to take most of a day on tiny, winding roads. Nowadays it’s just an hour and a half on a modern freeway. The road spans rivers and streams as it rises through pine forests into a rolling more arid land with oak trees, wheat fields, and vineyards. For a region so well known around the world, its wineries are surprisingly inconspicuous; wine tourism is relatively new and an obvious after thought.
After nearly two centuries of making Sherry, in 1967 Osborne expanded its wine operations to include a line of Porto, and in 1973 Osborne acquired Montecillo on the outskirts of the town of Fuenmayor in Rioja Alta. Founded in 1874, Montecillo is the third oldest winery in the area. Three years later they hired Maria Martínez-Sierra as winemaker. She had earned an oenology degree in Spain, and had gathered practical experience working at Bordeaux wineries owned by the Cordier family. While more than 58% of today’s oenology students in Spain are women, in 1976 a woman winemaker was a real rarity, and it’s a tribute to Osborne’s vision that the management followed her iconoclastic direction.
Her first recommendation was to sell all of the company’s vineyards in Rioja! “This is a terrible place to grow grapes,” she says, and points out that in the 1970’s the 1971, 1972, 1977 and 1979 vintages were all disastrous. I’ve been interviewing winemakers for 31 years, and this was first time I’d ever met a winemaker who did not extol the virtues of his or her vineyards and region. But Martínez is only interested in making the best wine possible, and to that end she wanted total freedom, which meant buying the best grapes possible in any given year, from vineyards that are 25 to 75-years-old; using 100% Tempranillo grapes (though Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo are allowed); ageing in 29,000 French oak barrels (made on premises from untoasted double thick staves); using wild yeast (which some say is riskier); holding large quantities (14,000,000 bottles) in reserve; and declining to produce wine in poor years (such as 1979, 1983, 1992 and 1999). There are very few wineries in the world that have the capital or the will to follow such a regime, let alone skip a vintage. But the result is that the consumer can be confident that a Montecillo wine will always be of the highest quality.
Maria Martínez-Sierra has also proven that an iconoclast can be a traditionalist when traditional techniques result in better wine. For instance, while a large number of wineries have opted for a more international style with less oak ageing, riper grapes and higher alcohol, Martínez has adhered to traditional extended ageing. To keep her wines at a reasonable 12.5% to 13% alcohol instead of the higher alcohols so prevalent today, she uses only wild yeast, and she pays attention not only to the sugar level of the grapes, but also to how they’re farmed. Part of the problem, she says, stems from the use of chemical fertilizers that affect potassium levels in the grapes, which allows the yeast to metabolize more sugar, and thus leads to higher alcohol. She has developed relationships with many growers throughout the region, where 60% of the grapes are sold on the free market, and she has specific preferences as to the age of the vineyards and how they should be farmed.
In an average year Montecillo produces 275,000 to 300,000 cases of wine, of which 54% is exported. The top export markets are Scandinavia, the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. importer is W.J. Deutsch & Sons, in Harrison, N.Y. A small amount, perhaps 5%, is a white Rioja made from Viura grapes. The reds are all Tempranillo and are sold as Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. By law a Crianza must spend two years in the winery before release, including a year in oak; a Reserva must be aged a minimum of three years, with a minimum of one year in oak; and a Gran Reserva must be aged for a minimum of five years, of which 2 years must be in oak. Montecillo’s standards are always higher. They also represent outstanding value; in the U.S. the Crianza can be found for $11, the Reserva for $15, and the Gran Reserva for $22 (a comparable California Cabernet would cost more than $75).
Older wines are kept back for later release; the 1987 Gran Reserva Especial in magnums, for instance, has yet to be released. We were treated to a very special tasting of older wines that serve as validation of Martínez’s approach to winemaking (click here). The wines designated Gran Reserva Selección Especial are spectacular.
Also in northern Spain, Osborne has a new winery in Ribero del Duero where the Señiorío del Cid brand is produced, but our next stop was Osborne’s Malpica winery in the relatively new Tierra de Castilla region, about an hour and a half from Madrid, and forty minutes from Toledo.
Madrid has a lot to offer the epicurean traveler, including the innovative cuisine of Chef Sergi Arola at the two-star Michelin rated La Broche Restaurante. Arola opened La Broche in 1999, after four years at Ferrán Adrià’s renowned El Bulli in Roses near Barcelona. The 32-seat restaurant is an exercise in minimalism, with a stark white interior, black-clad waiters, and white plates designed by Arola himself. The dishes offer surprising twists, such as the marinated sardines stuffed with vegetables brunoisse and herring roe (his modern take on the traditional sardines and tomato on toast), or the melt-in-your-mouth confit of potato cubes stuffed with aioli. Sometimes the envelope is pushed a little too far; I found the duck liver ice cream simply odd. For a less expensive sampling of Chef Arola’s creations, you can have lunch at Restaurante Arola in La Reina Sofia, the modern art museum, where his experimental cuisine will challenge your perceptions.
Nueva cucina restaurants are everywhere in the city. We stumbled upon Citra, just around the corner from our hotel, which was recognized by the New York Times as “the favorite new restaurant in Madrid” in 2007. The inventive dishes are the creations of Venezuelan chef Elias Murciano, who graduated from the Culinary Institute in New York, and subsequently studied under such super-star chefs as Alain Ducasse and Martin Berasategui. His restaurant is divided into the lower bar area, where you can have smaller portions of the same dishes offered in the upper 42-seat hall, in a more informal setting. Signature dishes include risotto with Norwegian lobster tails and wild mushrooms, and lamb with couscous. Each course is perfectly paired with specific wines.
If you’re looking for more casual food, try Osborne’s 5Js restaurants (there are three in Madrid), with a lively bar scene downstairs, and a quieter dining experience upstairs. The dishes are tapas for the refined palate, using the best ingredients, carefully prepared.
More rustic neighborhood tapas bars can be found on virtually every street. We had a good meal for 12 Euros at Cervantes Cervezaria, on Calle Cervantes behind the Prado museum. Though Cervezaria means literally “Beer Hall,” the bar also serves a wide selection of wines.
Malpica lies about 70 miles southwest of Madrid (40 miles west of Toledo), in a shallow valley that drains into the Rio Tajo. The town is so tiny that it didn’t even show up on my Michelin map. It’s dry country except for a narrow strip of riparian vegetation along the river, and in the irrigated vineyards of Bodega Osborne Malpica. Built in 2001, Osborne Malpica is a USD $50 million dollar state-of-the-art winery and vineyard project designed to create contemporary Spanish wines for the international market.
Unexpectedly in such a remote area, Osborne’s visitors’ center, built contiguous to the winery, hosts 45,000 visitors annually, with convention and wedding facilities, catered affairs, a tasting salon, gift shop and art gallery showcasing local artists. Seven times a day a tram takes visitors on an hour-and-a-half guided tour of the winery and vineyards, followed by a wine tasting.
As expected in a modern winery, everything is temperature controlled and computer assisted. Half a million cases are currently produced under the Solaz, Plural, and Dominio de Malpica labels. Winemaker César Fernández has previous experience working in wineries in Chile, California, Oregon, Hungary, and of course Spain.
Under the direction of Bárbara Sebastián, the vineyards comprise over 1,800 acres, with an additional 1,500 acres in the planning stages. Malpica is planted only to red varieties (the Viura grapes, a.k.a. Macabeo, for the Blanco are sourced from another area). Currently planted are Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Graciano, Malbec and Mencía. A five acre plot is dedicated to research and development of grape varieties from all over the world, and as the area lies outside of the Denomination of Origin system, the winemaker is free to experiment. By far the most amazing aspect of Malpica is the degree of control Bárbara Sebastián exercises over the vineyards through the use of computers and sensors. Every one of the 1,700,000 vines is mapped by GPS on the computer. Water sensors at various depths in the ground, meteorological stations throughout the vineyard, as well as individual plant sensors, continually send information on the vineyard’s health. Drip irrigation can be meted out to specific areas that need it. With computerized graphs and charts to guide her, Bárbara can influence the ripening pattern of each variety.
The resulting wines are clean, flawless, varietally correct and refreshingly inexpensive. The Solaz line retails for just $9 in the U.S., while the 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sold under the Dominio de Malpica label has a suggested retail price of $16. Plural, available only in the Spanish market, is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Mencía. (click here for tasting notes)
EL PUERTO DE SANTA MARIA
shrimp at Rome
We ended our trip where the Osborne family business began, in Andalucía at the extreme southwest of Spain, in the town of El Puerto de Santa María, across the bay from Cádiz. It’s an ancient area, first settled by the Phoenicians and subsequently under the rule of Carthage, Rome and the Moors. A recent archaeological discovery of two Phoenician wine presses near Jerez is evidence that wine has been made here since the 4th-century B.C.
El Puerto de Santa María, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and Jerez de la Frontera constitute the three principal towns of the Sherry Triangle, the first two on the coast, and Jerez about 12 miles inland.
The wine’s DO (Denominacione de Origen) is Jerez (pronounced He-reth), and on every label of Sherry you will see the words Jerez, Xérès (the French form) and Sherry (the anglicization of Jerez). It’s interesting to note that the French word derives from Xera, the Phoenician name for the Region, while the English word derives from the Arabic Seris (pronounced Sherish).
In its slight disrepair (cracked sidewalks, weeds poking out of unlikely places, walls plastered with hand bills of long past concerts and circuses) downtown El Puerto de Santa María is reminiscent of many Mexican resort towns, while the affluent residential section along the beach of Vistahermosa is a dead ringer for La Jolla, California.
Gaspacho & Osborne’s Bailen Dry Oloroso
El Faro’s Chef Fernando Córdoba
As you’d expect from a coastal town, seafood restaurants predominate. One of the oldest is Romerijo, which has been serving shellfish by the pound since 1952. Customers line up to pick from a selection of over 25 varieties of boiled shrimp, lobster, crab, mussels, clams, oysters, barnacles and sea snails. You can either take your selection with you, or enjoy them on the terrace with beer, or better yet, an Osborne fino sherry.
For a formal, beautifully prepared meal, I highly recommend El Faro del Puerto Maria, under the direction of Chef Fernando Córdoba, who created for us an entire dinner around Osborne’s Rare sherries.
OSBORNE SHERRIES and brandies
There are, in the sherry region, 3,700 vineyards and 2,800 vineyard owners. The white Palomino grape makes up 95% , while the remaining 5% is split between Muscat and Pedro Ximénez (commonly referred to as PX). The best vineyards are grown in the chalky soil between El Puerto de Santa María and Jerez.
Osborne’s brandy soleras in El Puerto de Santa Maria
Despite the number of vineyard owners, there are only 64 sherry producers. The largest collection of sherry bodegas (39) are located in Jerez, followed by Sanlúcar with 19, and El Puerto de Santa María with just 6 (of which Osborne is by far the largest). Osborne’s sherry bodega (wine cellar) is located downtown, just three blocks from the harbor. Osborne’s brandy aging facility is on the edge of town on the road to Jerez.
Sherry is a fortified wine; that is, it’s a blend of still wine and grape brandy. It’s unknown when the practice of fortification began, but the style of sherry we know today dates from the end of the 18th or beginning of the 19th century, when the solera system was invented. It’s a system by which a portion of wine drawn from the oldest barrel, is replaced by wine from the next oldest barrel. Thus the wine is being continually blended.
Where the production of sherry was once a mystery even to those who made it, much of the process is now controlled scientifically. Sherry starts out as a light, dry Palomino wine with an alcohol content of 11 to 12%. In the beginning it is divided into two basic types — fino and oloroso. If it’s destined to be a fino (called manzanilla if aged in Sanlúcar), it’s fortified to 15.5% alcohol and transferred to barrels known as botas in Spanish and butts in English. Unlike all other wine, sherry is aged in an oxidative environment; the barrels are only filled about four fifths full. Within the region four or five strains of flor yeast naturally grow on the surface of the wine. The flor (flower) lives off oxygen and nutrients in the wine, and forms a blanket that protects the wine from oxidation. As old wine is withdrawn and newer wine is introduced from the criadera (nursery) of younger barrels two or three times a year, nutrients are replenished. Keeping the flor alive requires a delicate balance of temperature, humidity, new wine, and an alcohol content under 16%. Finos are delicate wines, almost clear as water, bone-dry and refreshing, with a complex nutty-leesy character.
Pepe Gomez demonstrates the use of the valencia (traditional wine thief)
If the flor dies, or if the winemaker adds more alcohol to kill the flor, the fino becomes an amontillado, and will evolve into a darker, fuller bodied wine with further aging. A fino that is just beginning to take on the characteristics of an amontillado may be bottled as a fino-amontillado (or manzanilla-pasada if it’s from Sanlúcar).
Going back to the beginning, if the wine is destined to be an oloroso, it’s fortified to between 17 and 18% alcohol, which inhibits the growth of the flor. The wine then ages in contact with the air in the barrel, and through slow ageing and evaporation it turns dark brown, concentrates in flavor, and gains several degrees of alcohol (older olorosos can be 22 to 24%). A natural oloroso is a dry wine and may be labeled as such.
The best sweet sherries are made by blending olorosos with a concentrated wine made from sun dried Pedro Ximénez grapes. Unfortunately, most commercial amontillados and olorosos are just ordinary wines sweetened in a number of different ways.
Like champagne and Vouvray, sherry is made in such an array of styles — from light and dry to full-bodied and sweet — that it can serve throughout a meal from the aperitif to the cheese course. Our dinner at El Faro began with a tuna tartar and trout roe, paired with Fino Quinta Sherry. There followed shrimp with Amontillado Coquinero Sherry; gaspacho with smoked eel and goat cheese, paired with Solera India Sherry; Corvina over tomato and vegetable compote, with Bailen Dry Oloroso Sherry; and finally cheesecake with ice cream and strawberry coulis, served with Pedro Ximénez 1827 Sweet Sherry.
Sherry is a connoisseur’s wine; too few appreciate its complexity and charm, and as a result the wines represent a great value in today’s market. Make a point to learn more about it and to lay in a case of your favorites. (click here for notes on Osborne’s sherries)
If you’re lucky enough to visit El Puerto de Santa María, Osborne’s visitors’ center is open Monday through Friday. Tours with an English speaking guide begin at 10:30. The cost is 3 Euros. To make a reservation, email: email@example.com, or fax: 956.869.059
A Note on Osborne’s Bull
Fifty years ago Osborne commissioned commercial artist Manolo Prieto to come up with a logo to advertise Osborne’s Veterano brandy. Prieto came up with an iconographic silhouette of a fighting bull, which has come to represent not only Osborne as a company, but Spain itself. The Tejada family of El Puerto de Santa Maria, relatives of the artist, have been making billboards of the bull for fifty years. Constructed of sheet metal, the largest are 45 feet in height and weigh 8,800 pounds. Over the years legislation was passed that banned billboards, but in 1997 Spain’s Supreme Court granted amnesty to the Osborne bull, declaring it a cultural asset. Today over ninety bulls can be found across Spain, and several dozen more in Mexico.
Silken Gran Hotel Domine: Calle Alameda Mazarredo 61, 48009 Bilbao. Tel: 944.253.300, fax: 944.253.303, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.granhoteldominebilbao.com. Directly across the street from the Guggenheim, the Silken Gran Hotel Domine is an ultra modern hotel that mirrors the museum’s curved lines in its décor and the curvilinear atrium filled with a 26-meter high river stone artwork by Javier Mariscal entitled Fossil Cypress. The rooms are also decorated with humorous paintings by Mariscal. The hotel’s rooftop restaurant overlooks the museum.
Bilbao Tourism: http://www2.bilbao.net/bilbaoturismo/index_ingles.htm
Jatetxea Restaurante: Guggenheim Bilbao, Avda. Abandoibarra #2, 48001 Bilbao, Vizcaya
www.martinberasategui.com, price fixed 53 euros (plus wine & vat). www.guggenheim-bilbao.esemail: email@example.com Tel: 944.239.333, fax: 944.242.560
Restaurante Etxanobe: www.etxanobe.com Gastronomy Menu 65 euros (plus wine & vat)
Hotel Bauza: Calle de Goya 79, 28001 Madrid. Tel: 91.435.7545, fax: 91.431.0943, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.hotelbauza.com The 167-room, four star, Hotel Bauza is located on Calle de Goya in the Salamanca quarter. It’s a modern hotel with wireless internet, a good restaurant, and a convenient location with quick access to the M-30 freeway from the airport. It’s less than a 15 minute walk to Parque del Buen Retiro, the large park that borders the Prado, the Thyssen, and the Reina Sofia museums, as well as the southern train station.
La Broche: Hotel Miguel Ángel, Calle Miguel Angel 29-31, 28010 Madrid.
Tel: 91.399.3437, fax: 91.399.3778,
Metro: Gregorio Marañón
Restaurante Arola Madrid: La Reina Sofia Museum: c/ Argumosa 43, 28012 Madrid.
Citra: Castello 18, 28001 Madrid. Tel: 91.575.2866, email: email@example.com
EL PUERTO DE SANTA MARIA:
Hotel Monasterio San Miguel: Virgen de los Milagros 27, 11500 El Puerto de Santa María (Cádiz). Tel: 95.654.0440, fax: 95.542.604, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.jale.com/monasterio. The labyrinthine 150-room Hotel Monasterio is built around an early 18th century convent and chapel. All rooms have air conditioning and wi-fi. There are several meeting rooms, Las Bóvedas Restaurante, and a pool.
Romerijo: La Ribera del Marisco, 11500 El Puerto de Santa Maria (Cádiz). Tel: 956.541.254 www.romerijo.com
The official website of the sherry producers: http://www.sherry.org/en/default.cfm
For an excellent article on Sherry: http://www.cellartours.com/spain/spanish-wine-regions/sherry.html
(Text and photos © by Scott W Clemens)
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