Wine Tasting in Madrid
La Carte des Vins
Calle Infantes, 16
Telephone: 91 522 85 17
Calle Doctor Fourquet, 30
Telephone: 91 539 56 15
Calle Jose Ortega y Gasset, 16
Telephone: 91 426 0604
Escuela Espanola de Cata
Calle Alcala, 142
Telephone: 645 829 299
Calle Argensola, 27
Telephone: 91 308 02 21
A few months ago I embarked on an exploration of catas de vino—wine tasting classes offered in Madrid. For those who are interested in relaxed cheese and wine evenings with friends, as well as tasters who seek formal classroom instruction, Madrid offers something for all. I attended primarily introductory courses, yet each of the stores and schools in this article offers various types of classes.
Introductory catas generally approach wine by teaching three phases. The first step is visual, and evaluates the color, intensity, and clarity, whether or not there are bubbles present, as well as the lagrima, or “tear”, which refers to the amount of glycerol and/or alcohol in wine, noted by tipping the glass and observing how it slides down the side. The next step is to indulge in the aromas, thus gaining further clues as to what to expect when it is in the mouth. (Practiced noses may detect natural hints of green pepper, truffle, or eucalyptus). Finally, during the actual tasting, it is important to evaluate texture as well as taste, including what the mouth feels like after swallowing.
First stop on my tasting mission was my neighborhood wine store, Chueca’s La Carte des Vins. Andres Gonzalez, an extremely amicable man with a Masters degree in wine, is one of the hosts of their evening catas, held right in the store. At the head of a long wooden table, beautifully set with lines of sparkling glasses, Andres encouraged questions, jokes, and anecdotes, and what was advertised as a two hour class became three. What I appreciated most about his cata was that Andres was able to impart a great deal of knowledge and appreciation, without boasting pretentious winespeak. We tasted five Spanish wines-blanco, tinto, rosado, cava, and dulce. I enjoyed it so much that I returned recently for a more advanced cata of Spanish reds, in which we were told the names of five wines and attempted to identify them based on knowledge gained from the first class. La Carte des Vins offers catas every night of the week for eight students, starting at 25 euros, and also has store locations around Spain and France.
The following weekend I found myself standing shoulder to shoulder with other young tasters around a table brimming with homemade apperitivos at La Fisna in Lavapies. The store is intimate and sophisticated, with lofty orange ceilings and spacious front windows that expose the soft golden transition to dusk.
The logo of a female silhouette with a ripe bunch of grapes is the essence of La Fisna-a woman with a passion for wine. With a similar philosophy as Andres, store owner Delia Baeza teaches with the humble notion that wine tasting is a subjective experience, and that good wine need not be expensive. (La Fisna is recognized nationally as offering very good prices relative to quality).
La Fisna offers catas for six to eight people and are ideal for couples and groups of friends, as well as solo wine aficionados. Delia’s cata was more an informational conversation over great wines than a traditional course. She learned our names immediately, and moved through careful explanations much like a storyteller. As in La Carte des Vins, we collectively discussed each of the five diverse wines tasted. La Fisna’s catas cost twenty five euros and are held on weekend evenings and Sunday morning.
Delia and Andres note the bottles people purchase on each visit and inquire about their clients’ impressions after drinking, in order to address their clients’ preferences. Both may offer a taste of wine while you shop. I have even left La Carte des Vins shop with hand drawn diagrams after my inquiry over tannins.
In contrast to these two small shops, my next class was at La Vinia, a sleek, modern wine emporium that I found reminiscent of a massive discoteca. It has two floors, spacious ceilings, and curved walls all in maroon, silver, and black. In addition to the store in Madrid’s Salamanca neighborhood, there are La Vinia locations throughout Europe. The cata I attended began at 10:30 on a Saturday morning-a clue as to the level of formality. There was little student-teacher interaction, and the teacher moved so quickly that I felt the two hour session was too short. We tasted five wines, and were sent home with a goodie bag including a bottle of wine, coupons, and a wine tasting book. La Vinia offers several thousand different bottles!
The most “official” cata I enjoyed was at Madrid’s Escuela Espanola de Cata (EEC). The EEC is ideal for committed wine tasters-I attended a two day cata for a total of eight hours. The host and EEC director, Carmen Garrobo, is a locally famed and professional sommelier who reminded me of a sweet, red-haired, fairy godmother. EEC catas are held in a classroom, taught with loads of diagrams and notes. Carmen placed great emphasis on the smelling phase, yet welcomed less subjective interpretation than Andres and Delia. We tasted a total of eleven Spanish wines, and (to my dismay), there was less drinking and more swishing-and-spitting as compared with other catas. The EEC is relatively more expensive than La Fisna and La Carte des Vins, yet the price includes a certificate of completion, as well as cheese tasting at the end of the course.
For serious wine students interested in dedicating significant time and mental energy to their cata, the EEC is a fantastic wealth of information. I preferred the more down-to-earth, yet still very sophisticated catas at La Fisna and La Carte des Vins. In addition to the more informal atmosphere of these nighttime catas, I enjoyed the company of the other tasters and the passion with which Delia and Andres approach wine.
I highly recommend the final cata I attended-it was pure heaven for the gourmet palate. It was a Sunday morning cheese (and wine!) tasting held at Madrid’s extremely high class and internationally competitive cheese shop, Poncelet. Located near Alonso Martinez, it is an immaculate space boasting cheese wheels as large as tires, with elegant marble floors and over three hundred farmhouse and artisan cheeses.
Not unlike wine tasting, a formal cheese cata moves through observations of the appearance, smell, rind as well as inner texture (yes, you must touch the cheese!) before tasting. We relished in several wines and seven superb cheeses, which were arranged in a wheel by varying levels of intensity. Students were encouraged to comment on their preferred combinations of wine and cheese, and the hosts pointed out that cheese and wine from the same region make prime pairs. The stuff that made me swoon was las garmillas, a Cantabrian buttery, tangy cows milk cheese with a strong lacteous smell and soft texture. In these times of hurried meals, it’s a pleasure to be reminded to smell and taste our food.
I was naïve to think that attending a few one or two day wine tasting courses would equip me with a sufficient basis of wine knowledge. Rather, I took from these classes a greater respect for how much more there is to learn. Truth be told, half of my attempts to identify the Spanish reds last week at La Carte des Vins were inaccurate; I still don’t really understand how to interpret la lagrima…the list goes on.
Each time I purchase wine at La Carte des Vins, Andres inquires about what I thought of the previous purchases. Sometimes I admit, for example, that I enjoyed that bottle of La Finca Antigua, a delectable 2005 Syrah from La Mancha, so intensely because I enjoyed it with my friends straight out of the bottle in some beautiful moonlit plaza. And when other students detected coffee and ripe plum, sometimes the aroma reminded me, nostalgically, of a moment shared over a cheap bottle in a dark bar.
I took from these catas a great deal of knowledge, but also some degree of confusion. Concerning wine I believe that the more you study, the more you realize how much there is to learn. I left each class with a bottle or two of some fantastic red I sampled during class, feeling more curious then ever, and moved by the heady, half drunk warmness wine imparts. More than crianza or reserva, more than garnacha grapes and oak barrels, through these courses, I learned to love wine more than when I started.
By Laurie Smolenski
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