A note on DIAM

I have been meaning to post this for a while now, but the issue is becoming more and more prominent that I need to say something now, before any more wines get hurt.

Some years ago I was fortunate to taste some trials which Michael Brajkovich MW (with some industry colleagues) had conducted comparing Diam corks with other closures. In that instance, me and a couple of my buddies were able to identify which sample had been closed by Diam, against screwcap and natural cork.

The problem with Diam then was flavour scalping. There was a definite loss of something – it was very difficult to say exactly what, but the Diam bottled wine seemed less bright and less aromatically interesting than the wine sealed with other closures.

I had completely forgotten about this until a couple of years ago when I purchased some white Burgundy from one of my favourite producers. I got the case home, whipped the top off and poured some wine to my dinner guests. Immediately I noted that something was wrong. This was a 2012 and obviously not nearly an alike vintage with the 2010 that I had been drinking up to that point, but it was vastly different from how I remember the wines from this producer.

Then I took a look at the cork that I had pulled out of that bottle. It was a Diam. This was the same cru, same wine, no change in production methods, just a different vintage, and a different means of sealing the bottle.

I had not thought that a closure would make such a big difference, but there it was. I was especially surprised that with a wine style like white Burgundy this would even be a critical factor, but thinking about it, one of the things I love about white Burgundy is the aromatic profile. Using Diam can be a massive compromise to that.

We are increasingly seeing Diam across a number of different regions and styles. J J Confuron is now using it for Premier Cru wines (I cannot afford the Grands Crus from this domaine so cannot tell you what kind of cork is there.) Diam may well be an ok alternative to lower value or entry level products, but for fine wine there has to be a big question over its long term viability. Michael Brajkovich MW tells me that there are higher grades of Diam now that may have better bonding agents and therefore less potential for scalping, but the highest grade that I have seen here so far is Diam 10. But I recently opened a case of a very flash Piedmontese wine from a famous producer and that had a Diam 6 in it. And the wine was not how I remembered it from last year’s vintage (which had a natural cork.)

My preference is either a screwcap or a good (i.e. uninfected) natural cork. From now on at this blog I will be noting whenever a wine is sealed under natural cork, Diam, or any other kind of cork. If I do not mention the closure then please assume that it is under screwcap.

And I would be interested to hear of anyone else’s experiences with Diam.

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Two Finos (and a postscript)

Have been offline for a couple of weeks, but been working on some tricky material, so humble apologies.

Meantime, I am currently in the South of Spain and just enjoyed two cracking wines that I must share with you. After a succession of disappointing Ruedas, a couple of solid, but not mind blowing Cavas, this is the good stuff, finally. Have been in Spain almost a week and taken that long to hit the jackpot.

One a Montilla, the other a classic Sherry, Manzanilla from one of the best of the big houses.

Both of these wines are under screwcap and, given the beautiful day we have just had, deserve to be served well chilled.

Manzanilla Solear Barbadillo (Non Vintage) 15%

Pale gold, yeasty, salty nose, a punchy, lemony fruit tone. In the mouth, savoury, briny, earthy characters, but all balanced by firm acidity and that generous alcohol finish. Classic Manzanilla, under screwcap this sings, punchy, but crisp and fine. Benchmark Manzanilla in fabulous condition.

Toro Albala Rama Sin Filtrar Montilla (Non Vintage) 15%

Very pale, light coloured with ever so slight green tinge, the nose here is very expressive, new season’s green apples, citrus blossom, fruity, yet fresh. Light and crisp to taste, gently breads, but also delicate and fine, with classic Fino “bite” on the finish. I was surprised to learn – after having enjoyed two copitas of the stuff – that this is 100% Pedro Ximenez, but then I guess Palomino has never been widely planted in Montilla and I do not know what the other varieties are like there as far as making these styles.

At dinner I enjoyed a Verdejo from Montilla, better than any Rueda I have had thus far on the trip, exactly what the variety should express, creamy mid palate, yet crunchy acidity, perfect food wine.

That’s what I love about wine – always learning new stuff.

POSTSCRIPT – have just been for a walk around Cordoba (which is where we are right now.) Found a wine shop selling the Toro Albala En Rama wine – for 8,90 Euros. Amazing value. And yet, I purchased a bottle of Fino Los Naranjos from Bodegas El Monte for 9,00 Euros. The wine shop owner was really keen for me to buy this – and then wrapped it up for shipping (I told him that I wanted to drink it…) I do not like it as much, more smoky and savoury, perhaps showing a lot more yeast character and thus more true to type? Perhaps I just need to chill it down more? The other talking point is that when I laid this bottle down at dinner in a restaurant the stopper began leaking, now my hands all smell of Fino (another great reason for screwcaps.) En Rama Sherry (and En Rama Montilla and/or Moriles as well it seems) has become all the rage around the world, and yet it is nigh impossible to buy in NZ, because the importers will not risk it. This is crazy. With all the manic attention on natural wines, on specialist or nice styles of wine, it seems ludicrous that you cannot buy these products retail in our country. We can buy Toro Albala Montilla in Aotearoa, we can get Alvear Montilla as well, but we cannot buy En Rama style Fino???

Vino Los Naranjos Vino en Rama San Filtrar Autentico Moriles Alto (Non Vintage) 15%

Much more colour than the Toro Albala and more aromatic breadth as well, savoury, smoky, almost oily in character, much more developed yeast autolysis, starting to get into the nutty area, green walnut, marizpan. And yet, this is full flavoured, funky wine with great acidity, really dry finish. Lovely, but pretty full on.

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MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Days 4 and 5 – Laguna Volcan

After our amazing barbeque under the stars at Samaipata, we all piled back on the bus and headed back down the gorge road to our hotel for the night, Laguna Volcan, stopping about half an hour into the gorge.

Laguna Volcan is a resort set within the crater of an ancient volcano, but to get up there you need to take a four wheel drive up a bumpy and rather slippery dirt road. This meant having to ferry the eleven Masters of Wine and baggage in several trips.

We had pulled over at a clearing outside a local store. For security reasons, our bus driver was going to have to spend the night there in the vehicle. I ended up in the last group, though my hacking cough had returned. This was about half past ten at night, but there was a group of farm workers outside the store with wheelbarrows full of fresh fruit and produce. We were not sure who was going to buy fruit at this time of night (especially not slices of watermelon that looked like they had been cut open half a day earlier.) Eventually the hawkers started packing up their produce, but it just seemed so desperate to us. A tough way to make a living.

As the last group, one of our number suggested we try and grab a beer from the store while we waited for our ride up the mountain. They had to go hunting in one of the fridges for it, but they eventually managed to dig out a few cans, brewed in Brazil unfortunately.

I couldn’t resist taking this picture of Che Guevara in a compromising position.

We are very close to the Amboro National Park. And there is some spectacular scenery around. By the time we got up to the resort it was well past eleven and it was eerily quiet, there were bird calls and the sounds of frogs (toads?) Someone had managed to rustle up the bartender, but as we had just had a drink it was straight to bed.

This resort is very atmospheric, with a line of cabins stretching out alongside the named lagoon. There are other rooms in the main building, a pool area and a long covered deck that doubles as a restaurant.

The next morning I got up early and went for a walk around the lagoon. At the far end of the crater there is a huge drop and a lookout to another nearby volcano. There were a few issues with the water in the cabins, seems that this is an “eco resort” in lots of different ways. There were so many exotic birds – the place was alive with insect life. You feel like you have been airlifted in a Tarzan story (wrong continent, I know), a small oasis of civilisation in a remote jungle location.

The cabins have two bedrooms and are self contained, so a whole family can take up residence. There is a small golf course here somewhere, apparently, but that is not really the attraction.

A beautiful, peaceful place to catch our breath. I can see why our hosts were so determined for us to stay here.

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MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Day 4 – Bodega Uvairenda, Boutique Wines of Bolivia and El Pueblito Resort

Bodega Uvairenda markets its wines under the brand Vinos 1750, in recognition of the altitude at which the estate is located.

Their vineyard is on a moderately steep hill overlooking the town. Our bus somehow managed to get all the way up, but wisely, no attempt to turn into the driveway. On my previous MW trip we had a problem with one winery gate (turned into an insurmountable issue for the bus and bus drive, sadly.)

But this gave us the chance to walk through the property and down to the winery.

Bodega Uvairenda is steep, steep enough for contour planting, overlooks the town, and is vaguely reminiscent of somewhere in Europe? In several places on the property they have installed the traditional pergola system and planted Pedro Gimenez, one of the ancient varieties that was planted around these parts and which Francisco Roig has decided to specialise with. But otherwise the vineyard employs traditional VSP training, with each block planted to the variety that they believe suits it.

The winery itself is small, but perfectly formed. A small lab area up on a mezzanine, a corner for a few barrels and the company’s first tentative steps in oak maturation.

We enjoyed a wonderful lunch on the winery terrace, featuring traditional dishes from this part of Bolivia, then had a brief tour of the winery. We were then treated to a walkaround tasting of some of the boutique producers of Bolivia, a blend of producers based in Samaipata and others with their holdings in the south of the country, near Tarija. All the wines were extremely interesting and there were several absolute standouts.

After our tasting we went downtown for a coffee presentation and tasting (more on that later) and a fascinating stroll around the town. Lots of interesting things to see and do here, and tourism is expanding all the time.

Finally we finished our day in Samaipata back up the hill, this time at the property just above Uvairenda, with a traditional Bolivian barbeque at El Pueblito resort. Our very generous hosts put on a folk band, an open fire and we got to sit out under the stars for a memorable meal.

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MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Day 4 – The Road to Samaipata

We did not land in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, or just Santa Cruz as everyone calls it, Bolivia, until a little after 2am. It is a three hour flight from Lima, Peru, but there is a time difference of one hour, so we lost an hour on the way.

By the time we had cleared immigration, located our bags and got to our hotel, the beautiful Los Tajibos, the clock had just ticked past 3am. Bolivian immigration officers are not terribly friendly and although it was just one medium sized plane, it took over half an hour to get through the queues. One of our party got held up – and they had to apply for an emergency visa.

It would have been lovely to have spent more time in Santa Cruz. Los Tajibos is a gorgeous hotel, centred around the inviting swimming pool (but sorry, no, no time for a swim!) – and I would certainly love to go back there.

Apparently the downtown area of Santa Cruz is very picturesque, based on the old Spanish settlement, which is laid out in a grid. A lot of the old buildings have been retained and there are bars and restaurants and lots of things to see. Apparently. Unfortunately our schedule was so tight, we didn’t have time to go downtown and wander around, but we had to get on the road to our next destination as soon as we had finished breakfast.

Santa Cruz itself is becoming a large sprawling city. Until the 1960s, it was a sleepy provincial town of no more than 60,000. All the major urbanisation had taken place elsewhere in Bolivia. However, due to the entrepreunerial outlook of the residents, there has been massive expansion and it is now considered the business centre of Bolivia (trick question: what is the capital of Bolivia?) These days the official population count is 1.5 million, but as it begins to swallow up nearby towns Santa Cruz is rapidly approaching 2 million.

Near our hotel there were lots of universities and polytechnics, and there are a number of private high schools (as well as good state schools) in the city. Municipal utilities, such as water and power, are run by local trusts or coops, which makes the tapwater apparently “almost drinkable” (no, still not taking that bet.) But there are also large groups of ethnic minorities, such as Jews, Europeans and Asians in Santa Cruz, which makes this the most ethnically diverse city in Bolivia.

Apparently after World War 2 there was organised immigration of Japanese wanting to escape the horrors of their bombed out towns and cities. Santa Cruz even has a suburb called Okinawa, would you believe. Because of this, Asian cuisine is quite popular in Santa Cruz, sushi (I have no idea where the fish comes from), various styles of Chinese cooking, southeast Asian, they have it all.

Santa Cruz is the most cosmopolitan city in Bolivia, and would be a great kick off place for a tourist. Quite different from the towns on the high plateau (altiplano), such as La Paz by all accounts.

Having said that, Santa Cruz is already at 1200 metres above sea level. However the start of the Amazon Basin is just a couple of hours drive north, while the foothills of the Andes are just to the west of the city.

It was this route that we took to Samaipata, up Highway 7 and following the Rio Pirai. Highway 7 leads into the interior of Bolivia, eventually ending up at Cochabamba, one of the cities on the high plateau at 2500 metres, or you can turnoff and head to Sucre, one of the capitals of Bolivia (yes, Bolivia has TWO capitals…)

But this road has another significance, because up this gorge Che Guevara marched his troops in July 1967, briefly capturing the town of Samaipata (he was desperately trying to find some insulin to ward against asthma), before the fled into the hills south towards Vallegrande.

Another hour or so driving west of Samaipatha, Highway 7 connects with Highway 22, the road to Vallegrande, and onto the town of La Higuera where Che Guevara was eventually captured and famously shot on 9 October 1967. It is amazing to think that is now just over fifty years ago – and it is interesting that the “Che Guevara Trail” is now being promoted by tourism operators. Certainly this gives me yet another excuse to come back to Bolivia and Santa Cruz.

The Pirai Gorge road is already a busy tourist route, with lots of adventure activities in these foothills. Many of the young people from schools and colleges in Santa Cruz come up here during the holidays, to camp out, swim beneath waterfalls and see the stars come up.

There is commercial kayaking on the river, with different grade rapids. Right beside the river is a national park, with lots of day hikes, on some spectacular mountains. Ancient volcanoes dot the landscape interspersed with lush vegetation. We are at altitude, but it is also very temperate, climate wise.

And on one of these mountains, there is even a condor viewing hike. It is recommended to only do this with a guide, as the condors are quite ferocious close to their eyries.

And at the top of the gorge is the little town of Samaipata, which has vineyards in and around it, and several small wine producers based there.

The leading producer is Bodega Uvairenda, which was originally founded by Francisco Roig and now he has one of his best friends as a business partner.

Francisco was educated in America and is a corporate finance expert, so his English was flawless. He himself is not from a wine making family, but his wife is French, which is how he got the bug for wine. And because he still had connection in the US when he did his winemaking degree he did it through UC Davis.

Our bus (which was apparently kitted out for Catholic bishops when the Pope visited Bolivia) slowly wound its way out of Santa Cruz and passed through the outlying towns, now virtually swallowed up by the city. Then someone asked whether we had any water, so the decision was made to stop at a roadside store. While we were waiting at the side of the road, I noticed that there were lots of people outside the shop pounding away at something under an awning. I got out to have a look.

What they were pounding were coca leaves – the shopkeeper was filling little green bags of coca leaves for sale and the customers would then take these wooden mallets to crush the leaves and liberate the essential oils. Some of our hosts purchased a few bags of leaves and so we got to try coca on our way up to Samiapata. I had been very sick for a week or so and was coughing really badly – the coca not only helped clear my sinuses and supressed the coughing, for a short while at least. Yes, your tongue goes a little number of you chew the wad of coca in the appropriate place.

It seems that coca leaf chewing is frowned on by polite society, but a lot of truck drivers rely on the stuff to keep them awake. Seems to be a habit among poorer people, a little like smoking. We saw these little green bags elsewhere in Bolivia. It was certainly an interesting experience.

The gorge road is very windy and in places tight. Our journey was slowed somewhat by the work going on, it seems that this road is being upgraded, with new culverts and bridges and some much needed widening around several bends. There were workmen everywhere the day we went up, with a couple of one way Stop/Go sections. It will be great when it is finished (although some of the engineering in places looks a little questionable.)

I asked Francisco about getting to Samaipata from Santa Cruz. There are several local buses, though they do not look especially fast. He thought it about a little, then advised that the cheapest (and most direct) option would be to catch a cab. Apparently this is not outrageous as it seems, even though it would be an hour and a half to two hour drive. It is a lot slower by bus – believe me.

The little town of Samaipata looks like your typical Bolivian town, with traditional walled courtyards and verandahs, but there are heaps of tourist operations advertising their wares on footpath signs and several budget hostels. Apparently they recently got their very first luxury B&B, followed shortly after by a second. The local wine bar is run by a couple of Aussies and there is very good 3G coverage here apparently (but not if you are a customer of Vodafone NZ, it seems.)

Samaipata, and the other agricultural valleys surrounding Santa Cruz, was where some of the earliest wine was made in Bolivia. The Catholic Church sourced altar wine from this region, since grapes couldn’t survive on the high plateau. Conditions are kinder here, it is more temperate and there is enough water for vines to thrive. Pretty much everyone in Samaipata grew grapes during the Spanish rule. Even today, walking around the town you can see some of the walled gardens at the back of people’s houses where wild vines are growing.

Samaipata is a cute place – and I cannot wait to return.

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MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Day 3 – Big Day

Driving back from Santiago Queriolo Resort, our driver made a fatal mistake by driving into Ica to get back to the main highway to Lima. The previous day we had skirted around the northern edge of town, but instead we ended up in a chaotic rush hour traffic jam. Ica itself is a sprawling, shambolic, dusty city, where nobody seems to follow the rules of the road. Tuk tuks everywhere, five rows of cars at one point in a narrow city street designed for one lane each way, a van broken down and some bemused police who seemed to have no idea how to fix the situation. These people need to go to Rome and teach people there how to weave through traffic snarl ups.

And why is there a massive sandhill smack in the middle of the city?

On the way back to Lima we took a detour and drove inland to Pachamac, which is where Santiago Quierolo have their main production facility. When we arrived there was a line of trucks laden with plastic bins of grapes, waiting to unload the harvest. We only had time for a very cursory tour, taste some unfermented juice and to have a quick look at the Pisco stills.

When we got back on the main road into the city, our driver decided to go around the downtown area and head for the coast.

Lima is built alongside a group of cliffs overlooking the wild Pacific Ocean. We passed several really good surf beaches – and there were plenty of surfers in the water catching a few waves.

Eventually we turned inland and up one of those cliffs to the upmarket neighbourhood of Miraflores and our destination, El Mercado.

Santiago Quierolo had invited a couple of members of the local media to join in with our farewell lunch, as well as the winemaking team.

This is an absolute must do if you ever go to Lima. The place was buzzing when we arrived, a completely different experience from the restraint and quiet solemnity of Astrid y Gaston.

El Mercado is a large bistro – though “casual” is the way most people dress in Peru, everyone here was dressed sharply, it is clearly the place to be.

You start off with complimentary homemade corn chips and dips when you sit down.

What followed was basically a run through the entire Mercado lunch menu, including desserts. My phone died halfway through, so I am relying on others for visual evidence of the gourmet delights and all washed down with Intapalka wines and Don Santiago Pisco with the sweet courses.

You know you are in the right restaurant when even the locals are taking photos of the dishes. Outstanding.

When we finally managed to drag ourselves away from El Mercado it was off to a Gran Pisco tasting at the stately Lima Country Club, with our hosts Cona Pisco, the National Pisco Commission of Peru.

Carlos de Pierola is a Peruvian wine writer and an expert on Pisco. He judges at both local competitions as well as overseas spirits shows. He gave us a short introduction to Pisco history, production and regulations and then led us through eighteen examples from recent vintages. It was an incredible experience and I will be writing a story about Pisco shortly, but certainly I feel I understand what is special about Peruvian Pisco and why there is such a lot of interest in this category at present.

Carlo has his own website called Barricas though it appears to be in Spanish only. Full notes on the tasting to follow shortly.

Peru was playing Iceland in a World Cup warm up match at the stadium downtown, so the streets were relatively quiet (for Lima) when we left the country club to head to the airport for our flight to Bolivia. However as we got closer to Lima Airport the traffic began building up again

Our flight to Bolivia was scheduled for a 10.00pm departure, so there was a little time to look around the duty free store inside the airport. On the way into Lima a couple of days earlier I had stopped at the duty free store downstairs in the arrivals area and they apologised that they had no Pisco there for sale, just lots of the usual whiskies and cognacs you see everywhere else in the world. But here, on the way out, there is an amazing array of Piscos on offer (not so much Peruvian wine) and plenty of staff eager to pounce on you when you set foot in the store.

But I was already lugging way too much stuff – and thanks to Planet Wine in Auckland, we can now buy Tabernero in New Zealand.

To complicate matters – Bolivia is in a different time zone from Peru, it is actually one hour ahead. So our plane was really leaving at 11 Bolivian time, which meant that we would not be landing in Santa Cruz until after 2am. And getting through immigration in Bolivia, as I now fully appreciate, can be a slog…

This was certainly a “Big Day”.

“Miles of golden beaches
Excellent wines and features
Mister – take a week off in gay Peru
Penitent monks to stare at
Colonial Dons in old straw hats
Everyone’s there in gay Peru”

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MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Day 2 – Santiago Queirolo Resort

The story of Santiago Queirolo is worth retelling.

The family originally came from northern Italy in the late 19th century, founding a tavern in Pueblo Libre, a suburb of Lima. They imported and distributed speciality products from Italy, arguably introducing a lot of interesting food items to Lima and, ultimately, Peru. In the 1880s, the patriarch Don Santiago Queirolo started making Pisco and wine to supply the restaurant, with the fruit grown in nearby coastal valley. But demand for these products came from other establishments, so in1906 they made their first mass market wines, Borgoña and Vino de la Magdalena, both of which are still produced (side note – we tasted Borgoña at one point, it is a soft red, gently sweet and not too heavy, very much an entry wine for people who are not regular wine drinkers.)

The restaurant / tavern in Pueblo Libre is still incredibly busy, though a little out of the way from where we were based in San Isidro, so we did not make a special trip out to it.

In the 1960s, production outgrew their Lima base and the family established vineyard holdings in the Canete Valley, to the south of Lima. Canete remains an important centre of Pisco production, with a number of quality producers based there.

Santiago Queirolo’s largest processing facility is in Pachamac on the outskirts of Lima. While not the largest Pisco producer in Peru, they are a significant player in the market and establishing a reputation for high quality Pisco.

In 2000 the family made a strategic decision to develop a new estate for quality table wines and so in 2002 an estate in Ica Valley was acquired and planted.

The Santiago Queirolo resort is only a couple of kilometres from Tacama, closer to the east and south of Ica Valley.

This is an amazing place, with beautiful high vaulted rooms built in traditional Peruvian style, thick mudbrick walls with wooden skeleton. I imagine these lodgings would be cool in the heat of summer.

Originally built as a weekend retreat for the family, it was later decided to open up the complex to accommodation. However the devastating southern Peru earthquake in 2007 (which caused massive damage and loss of life in the city of Pisco) wrecked the main hotel. The decision was made to rebuild and even expand the resort further. So there are now two pools, several bars, a conference centre and a range of different room formats catering for various sized groups.

The restaurant literally overlooks the main vineyard block and there is a miniature winery on site, which was fermenting base wine for Pisco while we were there.

After checking in and shaking off the dust, we all piled into four wheel drives and took a drive up into the hills behind the resort. The company has been progressively developing these hillside plots and there is a lot of land still to be planted. It is very dry and shingly, quite steep in places, predominantly north facing slopes, but with lots of gullies and folds. The company has developed an expensive irrigation network amongst the contour plantings.

The fruit up here had not yet been harvested, so we got to taste some juicy, ripe Petit Verdot.

We stopped at a lookout area with a pergola and a view of the setting sun, along with a glass of one of Santiago Queirolo’s Charmat sparklings, a refreshing, light, semi sweet bubbly called Vals.

Growing on one of the pergolas at the lookout was Quebranta, one of the most famous varieties used in the making of Pisco.

Quebranta has huge bunches of fairly large berried grapes, but on the same bunch you can find berries that are completely green, while others may already be starting to raisin. The flavour of the grapes is very delicate, these are fairly large berries after all, faintly aromatic, and moderately sweet in the mouth.

After our toast to the spectacular Ica Valley, we went back down to the Resort for a formal tasting, followed by dinner.

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