Win A Trip To New Orleans With Sandeman’s Summer Sangria Challenge

sangriaPort enthusiasts will be familiar with the Sandeman brand, but this summer, the distinguished producer wants you to think of their fortified wine in a new light: as a mixer. For their Sandeman Summer Sangria Challenge, participants must submit a photo and original sangria recipe that incorporates a bottle of Sandeman Founders Reserve Porto.

Anything else goes ingredient-wise, but it’s helpful to remember that true sangria is a red wine punch from Rioja, Spain. Traditionally, it combines Rioja or another varietal of regional wine with Brandy and fresh fruit. It’s hard to improve upon a classic, but in my experience, Port makes everything better.

The winner will receive a trip for two to New Orleans to attend Tales of the Cocktail – the world’s premier cocktail festival – in July. To enter, visit www.facebook.com/SandemanPorto by June 1. Recipes should yield one pitcher of sangria.

[Photo credit: Flickr user divya_]

How to Make Traditional Sangria

Salt, wine, and wealth in Spain’s Basque region

Basque, wine, Rioja, wine tasting
In the modern world we don’t give much thought to salt. We casually pick some up in the supermarket or tear open a packet at a café, but in the past salt was a vital and sought-after commodity. Everyone needed it for preserving food and as a source for iodine. Nobody could live without it and those who controlled its supply became rich and powerful.

The Basque region of Spain was a major supplier of salt thanks to a strange legacy dating back 220 million years. The remains of an oceanic deposit of salt lie close to the surface at Salinas de Añana. People have been digging up salt here for at least 5,000 years. Our hiking group is visiting this valley. We see pipes channeling saline water onto platforms, where the water evaporates and leaves behind a salty crust. The water has 250 grams of salt per liter. By way of comparison, the Mediterranean has only 40 grams per liter. The Dead Sea has 350 grams per liter and is so salty you can float on it.

The salt is ultrapure and highly prized by top restaurants. Despite this, international competition from more affordable brands has led to a decline in business. Fifty years ago there were some 5,500 salt platforms. Now there are only 45. Yet the workers at Salinas de Añana have carved out a niche for themselves and are hoping their traditional extraction process will get the valley named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

%Gallery-124223%Leaving the salt valley behind, we follow the old Salt Trail through rolling fields punctuated by forest. We circle Arreo Lake and come to Fontecha, a town made rich by salt. Back in the Middle Ages, salt meant wealth, and wealth meant power. Two huge towers glower over the little town, erected by rival families from the money and influence the salt trade gave them. Sadly, both are being worked on and are closed to visitors. Instead we stop for lunch at a terraza, the outdoor seating of a local café. Sitting at terrazas is a favorite pastime in all regions of Spain. Sip some wine, talk to friends, and watch the world go by. It’s a nice way to spend an afternoon or relax after a hike.

More wine comes that night when we visit Bodega El Fabulista in the hilltop town of La Guardia. This is in La Rioja region, where Spain’s best wine comes from. An employee takes us down into the cool cellars, where vaulted stone ceilings shelter orderly rows of oaken barrels. The air is a constant 11-13°C (52-55°F) and 85% humidity. The barrels are made of various types of oak to lend the wine distinct flavors. The amount of time the wine is left in the barrels is critical for its rating: crianza wine spends a minimum of 12 months in oaken barrels, reserva needs 15 months, and gran reserva spends 5 five years in the winery and at least two years in the barrel.

This is all very interesting, but I’m getting anxious to sample some good old Spanish vino. I have some more waiting to do because as we stand glass in hand, the wine temptingly close, we’re treated to another lecture. This time it’s about tasting wine. When a waiter opens a bottle for you and pours out a little for you to check, there’s no need to actually drink some. Smell it to make sure it hasn’t turned to vinegar, and look at it to make sure no bits of cork are floating in it.

Next we examine the wine’s “crown”. If you tip the wine a little while holding it over a white surface, you can examine its edge. The color tells you how old it is. Young wine has a purple edge. As the wine ages it gradually darkens, until with gran reserva it looks brown. Finally we’re allowed to taste it, and everyone holds forth on their observations about its accents and flavors and subtlety. I suppose I could too, but I know very little about wine (I’ve always tasted it to check it, and until now I had no clear idea what crianza meant) so I’ll spare you the pontification and just say that to my uneducated palate, Rioja wine, especially that from El Fabulista, is delicious.

Wandering through the narrow, winding streets of this medieval town we see that wine, like salt, meant wealth and power in the old days. Many houses are adorned with ornate family crests, and the town gives off an aura of money and social standing. Rioja wine is drunk all across Spain. While the salt from Salinas de Añana has become a specialist product for connoisseurs, Rioja has a major market share in a country that demands quality wine.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.

It’s Rioja Restaurant Week in NYC and Chicago!

Last January, my husband and I took a trip to the Rioja region of Spain. We sampled Rioja wines and visited underground cellars by day, and hopped from bar to bar snacking on tapas and drinking Rioja wines by night. We found that there were several Rioja wines that we loved, at that the tapas served there (while not incredibly creative like those offered in the Basque country) were simply delicious. So I was very excited to see that this week, October 18 to 25, is Rioja Restaurant Week both here in Chicago and in New York City.

From now until Sunday, dozens of restaurants in both cities will offer special deals and dishes to celebrate the wine and cuisine of the Rioja area. Some will offer $12 tapas and wine pairings and others will offer $25 or $50 prix fixe menus paired with wine. Other specials offered as part of the promotion include a 15% discount on dinner or a 20% discount on a bottle of Rioja wine. Not a bad deal. This means that at Eivissa, a Catalan tapas restaurant in Chicago (for example), you can either get a multi-course dinner for two for $50, or just nosh on their signature tapas, which are half off weekdays from 4pm-6pm, and enjoy a bottle of Rioja wine for as little as $30.

Over 50 restaurants in NYC are participating, along with nearly 30 in Chicago.

Top 10 wine spots, none in U.S.

I realize that, on the world stage, our homeland isn’t exactly the most popular place right now. Part of it stems from eight years of political buffoonery, and a healthy dose comes from traditional “old world” bias against the United States. Like most of us, I’ve learned to adjust for a touch of this when I read international news coverage. To a certain extent, I understand it … we’re more like France than we realize. But, it’s tough when our country doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

This is especially the case for wine.

In an article detailing the top 10 wine spots in the world, Forbes deemed none in the United States worthy of the list.

1. Castello Banfi, Tuscany, Italy: not an adventurous pick for the top spot
2. Montes, Colchagua Valley, Chile: trying to seem enlightened, succeeds
3. Ken Forrester, Stellenbosch, South Africa: see #2, with the same results
4. Fournier, Mendoza, Argentina: doubling up on South America in the top five? Trying too hard …
5. Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River, Australia: could call for the middle of the pack
6. Felton Road, Central Otago, New Zealand: again with the doubling up …
7. Bodegas Ysios, Rioja, Spain: classic location, should probably be higher
8. Quinta do Portal, Douro Valley, Portugal: this would have been more exciting at #3 or #4
9. Chateau Lynch-Bages, Bordeaux, France: obligatory, but at #9?
10. Peter Jakob Kuhn Oestrich, Rhein/Mosel, Germany: obviously added to the list out of a sense of obligation

And, where are we? No Sonoma? No Napa? Or, a break from the norm with Oregon?

The collection of wine destinations seems to a certain extent like a Little League awards banquet. No country is on the list twice, giving the impression that the reporter sought to dish out as many trophies as possible. The wide reach, of course, makes those absent even more evident.

As you can see, the list is more likely the result of a careful analysis of balancing out different regions and meeting reader expectations than it is a genuine reflection on the most interesting wine destinations in the world.

This is why I hate “listicles”: they have less to do with the content than they do with managing perception. Blech.