Cellar Palate is a peculiar but very real condition that affects travellers to wine regions. As long as you are sitting on a sun-kissed veranda looking out onto a twinkling sea, or in a grand salon replete with roaring fire and hearty, luxurious food, the most ordinary bottle of wine can reach majestic heights. All too often, vinous tourists are so taken with these experiences that they fill the boot of the Rangie with said local plonk and whisk it back to Blighty ready to show unsuspecting friends and neighbours this remarkable new find. The outcome is rarely satisfying. What really counts is how that same wine tastes on a wet Wednesday in Watford (as my original tasting mentor Pedro Emerson used to say); if it stacks up just as well under grim conditions as it did ‘on tour’, it’s worth getting excited about.
You’ll recall that earlier this year we took a trip to Rioja and had a memorable dinner with Manu Muga at his family’s bodega. We were so taken by the wines that we decided immediately that we had to recreate the dinner for our clients back here in London, even down to serving the wine of the trip, the 1976 Muga Reserva. As the evening drew closer I started to think about the Cellar Palate phenomenon and I must admit to a small niggling worry that maybe we had been taken away by the moment and not the contents of the glass... well the truth is I needn’t have worried. Muga is one of the finest, most consistent producers we work with anywhere in the world and the wines really ought to be considerably more expensive (don’t tell them, whatever you do...)
So with a great Spanish meal lined up at Barrafina on Adelaide Street, we gathered with Eduardo and ‘Pepe’ (our great friend and Muga’s long-standing representative in the UK) for an in-depth exploration into the magic of Muga. The family had also generously given us access to their wine library (or as they call it, ‘the cemetery’ – not because the wines are dead and gone, but because they like the image of ‘resurrection’ each time one is dug out from the collection) in order to create for our guests the first official UK vertical tasting of Prado Enea.
So, the wines.
We started with Muga’s sparkling white Rioja, Conde de Haro, which has more of the toasty, green fruit and hazelnut characters that you get from good Champagne than any Cava you might drink (90pts). This was followed by the hugely popular Muga Blanco, a barrel-fermented blend of the local Viura and Malvasia, which is packed with fresh citrus and a touch of tropical fruit, backed up by that distinctive whiff of smokiness from the barrel contact (91pts). As we had learned on our trip, and our guests were about to discover, barrels are really very, very important to Eduardo and his family. Alongside this we also tucked into the first red of the night – an absolutely a point magnum of ‘Seleccion Especial’ Reserva from the great 2010 vintage. At once satisfying and intellectual, like an action movie with a great plot, it was characterised as much by its fabulous spine of fresh acidity as its plush, ripe, dark fruit. A truly lovely wine (93pts). How can this possibly be £25 a bottle?
Then into the main event – the Prado Enea vertical. We had lined up the 2009, 2004, 2001 and 1994. Now of course Prado Enea is only made in the best vintages, and given that Rioja has a pretty benevolent climate, these are not as few and far between as for some more margin growing regions; that said, these are four of the best vintages that Spain has ever seen – 2004 and 2001 in particular – so there was great excitement at how these wines would be developing and which would be at the peak of their powers.
The 2009 is young but shows astonishing potential. The famous Prado texture is already there, silken and lithe with a tightly-pulled thread of freshness at its core. This is an athlete of a wine, muscular and graceful, with masses of capacity for development (95+pts). If you don’t have it, buy it. As Luiz Gutierrez (96pts) says, “At this quality level, the price seems like a real bargain.” That price, by the way, is under £200 per 6 in bond.
The 2004 is the King among Princes. Drinking absolutely perfectly, with the ideal blend of fresh and cooked fruit, exotic spices and masses of warm earth charm, it absolutely captures the essence of Gran Reserva Rioja. It smells of the warm wind that blows up the hill to Haro. I am transported! In its style, which is fuller bodied than Tondonia but not as modern and polished as say Roda, it’s hard to see how Rioja can get much better (96+pts).
One of the highlights of our Rioja trip was the 2001. On this occasion, sandwiched between the grandeur of the 2004 and the ‘fading elegance’ of the 1994, the 2001 was potentially in a tricky spot... but the quality of the vintage (think 1982 or 2009 for Bordeaux) was absolutely in its zone. This is a gloriously aromatic glass of wine – the texture is incredible and the nose is just ridiculously complex with all manner of flora, fauna and fungi. What can you say about this? Does anywhere else produce a wine like this? I think not (95pts).
The 1994 has transitioned beautifully into its later stage of life. All fragrance, complexity, spice and dried fruits, with a lightness of touch that really suits the development of the fruit character, this is the child star-turned mature actor, all craft and subtlety replacing the bombastic impact of youth (94pts). The end of a fascinating mini-journey.
To finish we explored the two extremes of Muga: first the legendary 1976 Reserva which had been the catalyst for the whole event. This was possibly even better than the bottles we had back in Haro (the opposite of cellar palate!) and still retains an amazing core of fresh fruit, held up by that graceful acidity and ultra-fine tannins. There is so much here: roasted meats, dried mushrooms, cooked black cherries, clove and black pepper... This wine is all about texture though; soft and yet precise, plump and yet lean, it’s a mind-bending wine. How long will it last? No signs of an empty tank yet, that’s for sure (95pts). This was followed by the most international of Muga’s wines, the Torre Muga. Power, density and concentration are the watch-words here and the 2011, whilst only just at the start of its journey, was already a performer with real glitz and panache. If you like your wines juicy and intense, this is for you (94+pts)
Cellar Palate? Not a bit of it.
Huge thanks to the team at Barrafina Adelaide Street for looking after us so well, and of course to Eduardo and the whole Muga family (including Pepe!) for their time and generosity.