Written by Captain Rod Hatch as a guide for all those New World stewards and stewardesses who are new to this industry and to the Old World of Europe, part 2 of A Beginner’s Guide to European Wines takes you on a journey through Spain, Portugal, Croatia and more.
Cava - Cava is far and away the best-known Spanish sparkling wine, boasting DO status. It’s mostly produced in Catalonia, especially around Penedes near Barcelona, but Cava status has also been accorded to sparkling wines from the Rioja region. In future, these sparklers will be able to use Rioja on their labels. The best-known producers are Freixinet, Codorniu and Segura Viudas. In general, Cava is cheap and cheerful (€5 to €10 a bottle) but by no means objectionable, which accounts for its popularity in the home and export markets. The downside to this popularity is that the wine is sometimes dismissed as a poor man’s substitute for the champagne, however this is where your foundation knowledge comes in! Cava is made by the identical process as is used for champagne, however the grapes are different. This, combined with careful experimentation and strict quality control, is leading to a market for single vintage Cava that can command between €20 to €50 per bottle. Some special house blends are even exploring consumer taste for €150+ offerings, so if your chef and chief stew are planning a Spanish theme one night, you can confidently propose a high-end Spanish bubbly to launch the evening on the right note.
Rioja - Spain’s best-known regional name is undoubtedly Rioja. The principle grape is tempranillo, which gives Rioja wines both their main flavour and their ability to age, and an authority known as the Consejo Regulador acts as a policeman to control the quality of this region’s wines. Rioja red wines are classified into four categories: the first, simply labeled Rioja, is the youngest, spending less than a year ageing in oak barrels. A Crianza is wine aged for at least two years, at least one of which was in oak, while a Rioja Reserva is aged for at least three years, of which at least one year is in oak. Finally, Rioja Gran Reserva wines have been aged at least two years in oak and three years in bottle. Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are not necessarily produced each year, so they mark especially good vintages. For €25 to €45 you can buy a Rioja of the same quality as a Bordeaux retailing at over €100 per bottle. La Rioja Alta, Faustino, Marques De Caceres, Marques de Riscal, Muga, Vina Ardanza, Muga, Cune and Campo Viejo are all labels you may expect to find outside of Spain – all are dependable and all are worth the price, even at the top end of their ranges. A quick internet search will point out other, sometimes even higher quality wines from lesser-known producers, but the simplest of all is to remember the four basic quality categories. While you should never dismiss the basic Rioja, for a special occasion, go for the Gran Reservas, eight to 20 years after the vintage date. Only about 10% of Rioja production is of white wine, made primarily from the Viura grape. Much of it is light and fruity but there is growing enthusiasm for some of the barrel-aged versions which can stand up to some of the heavier dishes in the repertoire of Spanish cuisine.
Ribera del Duero – notwithstanding the market dominance of Rioja – it’s almost synonymous with ‘Spanish red’ in the minds of many consumers - the wines of Ribera del Duero can go toe-to-toe with the top Riojas in a competition about excellence and value. The same aging requirements apply as in Rioja, and the Tempranillo grape is locally known as Tinto Fino. At the summit of Rivera del Duero wines sits Vega Scilia – legendary and with prices to match, it’s stunning to drink. It’s only likely to appear on a yacht if it’s just been flown in on the private jet of a connoisseur of Spanish wines, but remember the name so that you’ll know something about it if you ever encounter it. Next in prestige are Alion and Hacienda Monasterio, then a succession of other high-quality producers.
Priorat - Rioja and Ribiera del Duero are up in the northern part of Spain, not too far from Barcelona and within easy weekend access from the third major red wine region in Spain, Priorat. These are big wines produced from vines which have to work hard to survive in tough terrain. There are variations in taste and character between the wines of different producers, and these depend on the balance they choose between to the two principle grapes, Garnacha and Carinena. These are not summer wines, but for a late season charter in the Balearics when a cold Mistral may develop, a couple of bottles of Priorat will comfort guests with their steak dinner.
Sherry - Spain’s fortified and blended wine from Jerez de la Frontera is a subject in itself. You may go an entire career and never see sherry on board a yacht, and only ever encounter it yourself in the tapas bars of Barcelona or Palma de Majorca. However don’t pass up an opportunity to discover the virtues of sherry - read up about it on Google and try for yourself. Start with ordering a fino sherry as an aperitif and if you like the taste, explore some of the different styles and as your palette develops, search outside the popular commercial brands for rarer bottles from a specialist house such as Lustau.
Portugal is outside of the Mediterranean cruising grounds, and its wines may be hard to find outside their country of origin, except for in the UK, USA and Holland. The four main regions are Alentejo, Bairrada, Dao and Douro, which produce a multiplicity of styles from a mix of indigenous and international grape varieties. The reds from these regions are typically rich and full-bodied - all worth trying as an alternative to French reds from the Rhone. Vinho Verde is always a safe bet for white - look for the name Alvarinho (a grape variety) on the label, and use this refreshing, slightly prickly wine to accompany seafood.
The Douro region is renowned as the home of fortified Port, the classic after-dinner wine, and as with sherry, port is a special subject. It is normally a blended wine, as this maintains the consistent taste of each brand’s production. However, any given house may decide to bottle that year’s production after four to six years’ barrel ageing and label it as Late Bottled Vintage for that year. In very special vintage years, some houses may also decide to ‘declare’ a vintage - these wines are bottled after two years in barrel but continue to develop for 10+ years, some keeping for decades. Vintage ports throw a deposit, known as a crust, as they age, so need decanting before being served. Do not try to keep vintage ports on a yacht, unless it hardly ever goes to sea.
Croatia, Montenegro, Greece and Turkey
A little local knowledge in this area can really impress owners or charter guests. Few of them will know anything about the local wines produced in these popular cruising grounds, so here is some brief guidance:
Montenegro - this micro-country is generally a pick-up or drop-off point for guests. For what may be their only meal there, encourage them to try the local Vranac grape, which delivers an intense, deep-coloured red wine. Look for the producer Plantaza.
Croatia - wines from the Peljesac peninsula in the south of Croatia can actually stand up in comparison with some of the bigger reds from the Rhone valley in France, though from different grapes. Stagnum and Dingac are the top wines to recommend. In the mid 1990’s, Dingac was ridiculously cheap and good value at around €7 to €8 a bottle, however even at that price it was beyond the means of most Croatians. Then the local German expats discovered it ad within a couple of years its price doubled - now the Peljesac wines command prices in line with their quality, around €30+ per bottle. If you have red wine lovers on board, they are guaranteed to be a winner. Further north you can impress again by suggesting the equally dependable reds (and whites) from the Istrian peninsula.
Greece - you are unlikely to find any Greek wines outside Greece, as production is too small to develop an international market. Use this point to promote guests’ interest in discovering local gems that they will never find after they return home. A few suggestions are wines from the Ionian Islands (Gentilini winery for reds) or San Gerassimo’s Robola on Cephelonia. Solomos wines on Zakynthos are also great, as are any whites from Santorini. Otherwise, if you don’t understand the rest of the label but see the words Nemea (region) or Hatzidakis (producer), buy and try.
Turkey - Turkish wines have been winning international competitions for years now, but they are still regarded with suspicion by many consumers. Some people find the tang of the whites too unfamiliar, and the reds astringent. For those who wish to experiment, generally safe labels are Sevilen Centum Syrah, Doluca Signum, and Kavaklidere Pendor Syrah.
As a junior stew you will not have any input in the selection of interior equipment - you will have to use whatever is already on board, including glassware. A little background knowledge is nonetheless not out of place, especially as knowledge plus experience will position you for a future role as chief stew or purser, with some authority to advise on the selection of items for fitting out a new interior.
Many yachts have a collection of heavy crystal wine glasses which look impressive and beautiful but are totally unsuitable for serious appreciation of fine wines. The purpose of a wine glass is to deliver wine to the mouth, and a thick-rimmed crystal glass which occupies space near the front of the mouth is a distraction from the sensory experience.
Instead, a thin rim is what is needed. There are many designs to choose from, but the main brand to know about is Riedel. Thanks to much experimenting from professional tasters, the glass shapes in this range of fine crystal ware are dedicated to maximum appreciation of particular types of wine. For example, a glass which concentrates the aroma of a red Bordeaux wine in a particular part of the glass and when drunk from will deliver the wine to a particular area of the palette may do nothing to accentuate the virtues of a white wine from Bordeaux or anywhere else. The Burgundy Grand Cru shape exemplifies the special feature of Riedel glasses in concentrating the bouquet and directing the wine to a particular area of the mouth. The reverse curve near the top of the glass requires the drinker to tilt back the head in order to drink from the glass. Then, as the wine spills over the reverse curve, it’s directed to its intended destination on the palette.
The range of Riedel glasses is constantly expanding, but a safe selection would be based on the Riedel Sommeliers Champagne Flute, Burgundy Grand Cru, Bordeaux Grand Cru, Syrah/Rhone, and Chablis/Chardonnay designs. While these are all specifically from the selection for French wines, which empirically you are most likely to be serving during Med cruises, the Bordeaux Grand Cru is also suitable for the big Italian reds such as Barolo and Barbaresco. Conversely, the recently redesigned Brunello glass is also suitable for Bordeaux reds, as well as big Spanish reds such as Rioja and Tempranillo. Finally, the Chianti/Riesling glass will round off a selection to cover most eventualities. The only remaining issue is where to store them all - a problem which designers can easily solve by shaving some space off your crew quarters.