The Wines That Kept Me Sane in 2020

With a new set of restrictions rolling out prior to the holidays, lockdowns, semi-lockdowns, curfews and other restrictions are once again testing our strength and exposing our vulnerabilities in our Covid-19 world. I’m no stranger to changes and challenges, but this year has been exceptionally tough. 2020 needs no introduction. It has been the year of embracing uncertainty as a way of life, and finding ways to deal with some pretty heavy emotions.

A year ago, I remember sitting in the lunchroom chatting with my colleagues about what we’d have for Christmas dinner, the last-minute shopping we needed to do and our New Year’s Eve plans. Covid was a distant word then, a word with no meaning and no emotions attached to it. The concepts of “lockdown” and “self-isolation” were incomprehensible back then, completely unfathomable in fact. 

A year ago, I remember that I could still visit my sisters in Italy and Switzerland, that my mom could easily travel from Toronto to Europe, but for some reason we decided not to meet for Christmas as we do every year. It was a different world then, one where time and solitude were luxuries, and travel was so commonplace that the ease and frequency of it was, paradoxically, inconvenient. 

Without a doubt, this has been one of the most challenging years that I can remember. Covid brought a new meaning to solitude, dangerously flirting with loneliness and depression. And professional changes, a new awareness about my identity as a woman in wine, came bundled with an array of feelings and raw emotions as I finally found my voice and attempted to use it to make positive changes in the industry

As I reflect back on my favorite wines of the year – scratch that, wines that kept me sane this year- I can’t help but connect those wines to certain moments, places and situations that brought me joy, pleasure and beauty during this crazy year. My world is that of wine and travel, and so this list, The Wines that Kept Me Sane in 2020, reflects a bit of that spirit. It is not based on scores or tasting notes but rather memories and thoughts associated with those fleeting moments of pleasure that wine provides and that I’ve hung on to this year.

Back in the day  

Antonio Madeira, A Palheira, 2017, DOC Dão

Where I had it: Simplesmente Vinho, Porto, Portugal

To sniff, swirl and spit without thinking if Covid is around, to be in a crowded room with people from all over the world, to shake hands or exchange business cards without hand sanitizer are outrageous ideas these days. But not long ago, this was our normal.

On February 20th, when the first lockdown loomed closer and closer, and wine fairs were being cancelled, Simplesmente Vinho, the natural wine fair in Porto, was still on and rocking, as usual. I was lucky to find a cheap flight to Porto to be able to spend the weekend tasting wines from some of my favorite Portuguese producers. Among them, it was Antonio Madeira’s A Palheira 2017 that sticks in my mind. Sublime, I remember thinking as I tasted it and looked out on to the Douro river from the window of the building. Grapes harvested from old vines in the Dão region of Portugal, in typical Portuguese fashion, the wine is a blend of over 20 different varieties. However, the predominant varieties are Jaen, Tinta Amarela and Baga grown at the foothills of the Serra da Estrella. A hands-off winemaking approach, the result is a beautifully expressive and vibrant wine that still lingers in my memory. 

For the past four years I’ve attended Simplesmente Vinho. This is by far one of my favorite wine fairs in Europe. It was also my first and last wine fair of 2020.

Love in the times of Covid-19

Eulogio Pomares Albariño Carralcoba 2017 Parcelarios I, DO Rias Baixas, Galicia

Where I had it: Haro, Spain 

Spain went into lockdown on March 14th, 2020. What now is accepted as “normal” at the time seemed incredibly unreal, bizarre, and confusing. Naively, I believed the lockdown would last just the two weeks as had been stated by the Spanish government, but on March 29th the lockdown was extended, and then again and again… and here we are still. 

Carralcoba Albariño 2017 was a wine that I opened for my first online date. I never thought my life would turn into a series of Skype sessions, IG lives, and Zoom tastings but there I was on a Saturday night, dressed up (the perfect occasion to wear my new boots), waiting slightly nervous for this bizarre new way of courtship to begin. I opened the bottle and poured myself a glass to take the edge off prior to the date. When we finally connected, he was dressed down (sweatpants or pajamas? Does it even matter?), unshaven, and had an unknown wine from an unknown region, something he picked up at the supermarket. Sigh. I don’t remember what we talked about that night; all I remember is that I loved this wine. So pure, so fresh, vibrant acidity, and roundness on the palate. A depth of flavors beyond the typical stone fruit, citrus character of an Albarino, and a long, lingering finish. I finished the bottle, slightly disappointed with the date, but quite happy to have indulged in the moment admiring my new suede boots.

That Sisterly Bond

2017 Cantina Marco De Bartoli ‘Terzavia’ Spumante Metodo Classico Brut Nature, Terre Siciliane

Where I had it: Bologna, Italy

Like many people, I faced lockdown alone in my apartment. When we were finally freed, I was in desperate need of cuddles, hugs, laughter and love. Despite the confusion about travelling, I went to visit my sister and her family in Italy anyway. My soul was filled with love as I reunited with my niece and nephew and felt strength and power once again, something that I hadn’t felt in months. This trip was also a moment of awakening, as various events led me to write my post on Women in Wine. Among them was watching Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s powerful House floor speech condemning Ted Yoho’s abusive remarks towards her. The speech moved me deeply and ignited a fire in me. Her power, her voice, her eloquence, her honesty, and her words have resonated ever since.  

The day after watching the video of her speech, my sister and I went to a local wine bar in Bologna. We ordered the Terzavia 2017 sparkling wine, a recommendation from the bar owner who said it was “wonderful, but a bit unusual”. The burrata with heirloom tomatoes and rosemary focaccia tasted like heaven and we passed the afternoon eating and drinking, as one does in Italy. We discussed the video, we discussed how small, subtle words can have a big impact, and we discussed ways to make ourselves heard both in our private and professional lives. By the time we finished the bottle, we felt invincible and ready to change the world. Good conversation always goes well with a good, authentic wine.  Terzavia is made with 100% Grillo grape variety, native of Sicily. It was a rather unusual sparkling wine, slightly oxidative aromas, yeasty character and a bit of salinity but seemed to fit the moment perfectly: unconventional and daring to do things differently. 

A little piece of Chile

Pedro Parra y Familia Imaginador Cinsault 2017, Itata Chile

Where I had it: Tarragona, Spain 

This year was a year of changes despite the staticity of lockdowns: I did the unthinkable during these uncertain times and quit my job as a marketing director for a winery in La Rioja, Spain. I headed back to Tarragona to work as a project manager for Priorat Enoturisme and to continue my path as a doctoral student at Rovira Virgili University. To start anew, to start again seems to get harder and harder as I get older, however, as cliché as this sounds, wine has a way of bringing people together and forging new friendships. 

My first weekend back, I met an old friend and headed to Espaivi, one of the best restaurants in this small seaside town in Catalonia, Spain. A husband-and-wife team, Carlos and Mabel run the restaurant and adjacent wine shop. We connected easily over wine, but more than that they are a Chilean couple who, like me, left Chile many years ago and have found a home in Spain. Carlos is a gifted chef, creating delicious seasonal dishes, and Mabel, his wife and co-owner, has an impressive wine list for the small restaurant that seats at most 30 (terrace and indoor seating). Among those wines, she had Pedro Parra’s Imaginador 2017. I had wanted to try Pedro Parra’s wines for so long, unsure whether the hype was real or just, hype. And it did not disappoint. Finesse. Elegance. Subtlety.  100% Cinsault from old vines in the Itata region of Chile, this wine is beautifully crafted, showing minerality, subtle red fruit, a bit of spice and fresh acidity. Minimal intervention, low fermentation temperatures and longer macerations post fermentation seem to be the key for the subtleties and nuances of wine that feels like a delicate Pinot Noir, as outlined in this article. Having tried this wine two times now, each time it seems to be even more exciting than the previous time and makes me intrigued to know what else is happening in my far away country, Chile. 

Les bons vivants

Domaine Prieuré-Roch Saint Romain 1999 Blanc

Where I had it: Paris, France  

It all started with a Blablacar ride from Angers to Paris. This was pre-Covid times obviously, when carpooling and ridesharing was still a thing, and a convenient way to travel through France. I was in Angers presenting some of my doctoral research at the University of Angers and had to head to Paris to take my flight back to Spain the next day. Nico, the driver for the trip, was a natural wine aficionado who lived in Angers but was headed to Paris to meet a friend. On our way to Paris, we chatted about different wines, producers, wine fairs and other wine-related things. By the time we ended up in Paris, I had made the cut and was invited to have dinner with him and his other wine friends. (Anyone who knows wine will know that making wine friends can be quite challenging. Rare or prized wines are not opened for just any one. Wine knowledge is tested. Wine tastes are scrutinized. Producer preferences must be compatible or awaken curiosity to be invited to these wine dinners).

This was a night to remember with my new Parisian wine pals at Les Fines Gueules, Bar a Vins, a cozy two-floor restaurant and bistro. The evening consisted of eight different wines, from highly-sought after natural wines to classic Burgundy and Rhones. But la pièce de résistance was Domaine Prieuré-Roch Saint Romain 1999 Blanc. Exquisite, delicate, with remarkable richness and depth of flavors. It was singing, just like us by the end of the night.

The final countdown

Mas Martinet Els Escurçons 2008 DOQ Priorat

Where I had it: Tarragona, Spain

This past weekend was the last weekend before restaurants, cafes, and bars were partially shut down in Catalonia. This is, of course, another blow to the hospitality industry and all the people it employs. The fragile holiday plans that many of us had, that at one point seemed feasible, are now on the long list of cancelled activities of 2020. So opening up a few bottles this weekend at Espaivi seemed like a grand way to say goodbye to a year of frustrated plans and dashed hopes. Among the wines that were opened was Mas Martinet’s Els Escurçons 2008 . It’s not every day you get to try an aged Priorat from one of the top producers. Mas Martinet is run by Sara Perez, who is also the winemaker, and it seems to be a fitting way to end this list of liquid memories of 2020. As mentioned previously, this year has been one of awakenings and finding my voice, which includes finding (or highlighting) more female wine professionals. This is actually quite a challenge because, as can be seen in this list, female winemakers or winery owners are a very small minority in the wine trade.

Coming across Els Escurçons 2008 was not only exciting because it showed the power, potential and beauty of Priorat, a Garnacha from vineyards at 600m altitude, that despite its age revealed everything from red fruit, leatherand thyme, with structure and acidity to carry it through another 10 years, but it allowed me to read more about Sara and her dedication to wine. This article gives me hope that eventually women like Sara will have greater representation in the industry, and that the  skills and expertise of many more women in wine will be recognized and celebrated. 

***

There were obviously many other great wines that I had this year, both iconic wines and humble everyday wines, but I’ve choosen to show those that left me with something more to hold on to than just the wine. Now the question remains, what does 2021 hold for us? Hopefully health, love and beauty. But if not, at least we have great wines to see us through.

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