A red from the heart of Spain

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 June, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 June, 1998, 12:00am

In the heart of Spain, in the ancient kingdom of Navarra, there is a winery called Bodegas Guelbenzu. On display is a Roman earthenware amphora which was dug up a few years ago from the flinty soil in the vineyard.

That clay container proves Romans, and probably their predecessors, were making wine in the Queiles Valley 23 centuries ago, according to scientists who have tested the age of the amphora.

They chose a good spot, because conditions are ideal for grape cultivation. The winters are very cold with heavy frosts. Summers are blindingly hot by day, cool at night. Long warm summer evenings are guaranteed. The vines love it.

Winelovers are equally keen on the result.

The Guelbenzu winery is now selling its 94 Evo label in Hong Kong ($230) and this top-of-the-line wine is a staunch, robust and powerful red. It's as tough as the men of Navarra who rode off to start the reconquest, probably with a goatskin of wine over the saddle.

Modern traditions in the area go back a century to when a young chemistry graduate, Don Miguel Guelbenzu, returned home to Spain from the Sorbonne. Like many students, he had learned a thing or two about wine consumption during his student years in Paris.

His wines won medals in Bordeaux and Madrid last century and today the latest generation of Guelbenzu doctors and lawyers supervise the continuing progress of the 36 hectares of vineyard.

Plots of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and that wonderful softly dark tempranillo grape are planted at varying altitudes and in differing soils. This means the viticulturists can make careful selections. They pick precisely when the grape is best suited to be crushed to give up its secret juices.

Tempranillo is the native grape of the famed Rioja region, but is planted in most warm Spanish regions. It can be a delicate grape, which is a bit surprising since it has survived for thousands of years in the hard Spanish climate, alternatively buried in snow or baked under the relentless blowtorch sun of inland summer.

The addition of a good 30 per cent of tempranillo is what gives the Evo its tough strength.

Importer Virginia Carrion of Spanish Fine Wines (fax: 2687-4431) describes Evo as a 'macho' wine. It's certainly powerful on the palate, although it is only 13 per cent alcohol.

Its dark ruby colour gives a hint of its flavoursome strength. Ms Carrion advises to let it breathe for at least 45 minutes after opening the bottle: good advice.

Ms Carrion, who comes from Barcelona, has been in Hong Kong for seven years, but ventured into the wine import business only a year ago.

'I think Hong Kong winelovers are getting more sophisticated and adventurous,' she says. 'They have many wines from many countries from which to choose, and I think a lot of the new Spanish wines have much to offer.' When a new restaurant takes one of her wines, Ms Carrion takes care to give follow-up service. She goes to the establishments and after lunch dishes have been cleared, gives lessons in fluent Cantonese about how to present wines to customers, how to describe wines and what different wines from Spain go with various dishes.

Spain is one of the world's leading wine producers, with vintages of great quality at reasonable prices. It's about time we had a bigger selection of them on sale in Hong Kong.