All my wine blogs, La Mancha

The man behind Finca Sandoval

When you mention Victor de la Serna’s name in Spain – especially among the wine community, people will nod their heads in respect.
Victor de la Serna is considered to be the one of the top three most influential wine experts on Spanish wine.

Yet, he wasn’t always winemaker. Starting as a journalist, just like his father, he created quite a resume over the years!

Mr. de la Serna is very respected wine and food writer, restaurant critique and editor in chief of famous – a collective Spanish wine blog that seriously discusses wines.

This blog was started by Spanish newspaper El Mundo (Victor de la Serna was one of the deputy editors).

So you can imagine, when he announced releasing a first vintage of his own wine, the fellow wine society became alert. Everybody, who knew Mr. de la Serna, was also aware of his high standards when it comes to quality of wines.

I remember our wine director telling us how he called Victor de la Serna up, when he first heard about his new Syrah based wine, in little known D.O. Manchuela: “I basically asked him – how many cases can I get allocated to us? He asked me if I didn’t want to taste it first, and I responded: that wouldn’t be necessary.”

Regretfully, when I was about to meet this interesting man during my visit in La Mancha (2007), I knew none of this. All I knew at that time was the fact that he was producing Finca Sandoval, wine that I admired – and I heard something about him writing for food and wine magazine.

How shameful! If I have done my homework and looked him up before my trip to Spain, I could have asked him so many valuable questions!

It was quite memorable visit, regardless. We were meeting Victor de la Serna, together with Rafael Coñizares, a winemaker of several great wines of La Mancha, on our way to Madrid.

They treated us to a lunch (with tasting of their wines) in 1 star Michelin rated restaurant Las Rejas Restaurante in Cuenca. What a treat!

One of those rare gourmet experiences that I’ll never forget. First of all, la Serna told us that he brought all vintages of Finca Sandoval, so far produced.

When do you get the opportunity to taste a rare, boutique production wine as Finca Sandoval, vertically – vintage by vintage, side by side? Better yet, he admitted that it was a first time for him as well. So that alone was a promising adventure.

Shortly the “show” started. For our little group of 10 people we were assigned three very tactful, elegant servers. They moved around quietly, precisely. The almost invisible, super professional service was just incredible.

Everybody knew what needs to be done, our glasses were re-filled with water without us even noticing. Since there was a wine presentation going on at the same time, none of the servers said a word so they wouldn’t disturb us.

Before each course was served, the chef came out of the kitchen to explain to us, what we were going to eat. We couldn’t help ourselves but take pictures of every course, like “those crazy Americans”. It was too beautiful a presentation not to preserve memories.
I will share some pix here, but forgive me that I can’t explain the food the way their chef could. All I can say is that the gourmet creations (you can’t possibly name it just food), incl. the visual part, were truly unforgettable!

Dreaming about the food, don’t let me forget about the wine! Mr. De la Serna was telling us about his dream – to start a wine project in Manchuela (little known terroir in Spain, planted with old vines of local large-berried Bobal).
He was familiar with the area for over 35 years, because his father-in-law owned farmland there. Therefore, he had enough time to study the soils and climate. He knew that it would be a top spot for planting other varieties, and possibly making quite unique wines.

It was an opportunity not embraced by locals, mainly for historical and economical reasons. So when the financial opportunity stroke, Victor was planting his first vineyards in 1998 with high quality Syrah and Touriga National (high tannin Portugal grape, also used in Ports).
Besides his Syrah vineyard with the lowest-yielding clones, he also located the best quality old vineyards, planted with native varieties like Grenache, Mourvèdre and Bobal. And the modest but efficient winery was installed.

Every vintage of Finca Sandoval is slightly different blend. That’s the charm and freedom of proprietary blends.
Victor told us how he was gradually decreasing the share of Syrah in Finca Sandoval, and slowly increasing Bobal and Monastrell in the blend, as the quality of grapes was getting better and better every single vintage.

I don’t remember what exactly the 2001 vintage blend was, but in 2002 he blended 93% Syrah with 7% of Monastrell, while the 2005 vintage, the last we tasted, only had 76% of Syrah and 13% of Monastrell. It was amazing to have the chance to compare each vintage – and see how it’s developing.
It certainly was Mr. de la Serna’s intention – to make the best possible wine from this unique terroire, with quite aging potential. He definitely accomplished his vision.

If you care about expert ratings, the history of Finca Sandoval’s ratings is quite impressive as well: Jay Miller from Wine Advocate refers to Finca Sandoval as an outstanding effort, predicting long age potential.

From the 2001 vintage, the wine never got less than 90 points: 2001 was rated 91 pts., 2002 got 92, 2003 got 93, and both 2004 and 2005 received 95 points. That’s an outstanding record!The latest vintages – 06 through 08 received 93 points.

I wish I knew as much about Victor de la Serna then, as I do now. I am trying to pay him a tribute this way. A hat off to his wines, his achievements, his outstanding career as a journalist and also a big thanks for this unforgettable afternoon.

I hope one day I will come back and visit the places we have seen, this time without the schedule. So I can take my time to enjoy every detail of it.

Oh, and at the end of our wine tasting and “gourmet special” we asked if we could see the kitchen-laboratory, where everything was created. It was pulsing with energy, even though the restaurant wasn’t too busy in the afternoon.

My apology to executive chef. The only picture I have of him, is very dark and I can’t use it. But the entire young and energetic crowd of talented chefs, that were helping him to create this amazing experience, those you can see:

So what is there left to say about this outstanding wine, Finca Sandoval and its producer, Victor de la Serna?

I think the words of our wine director Robert Colopy, (a wine expert that I have a huge respect for), wrapped it up just right: “Finca Sandoval, in my opinion, could be the very best expression of Syrah in the world!” Amen to that!

Victor de la Serna in facts:
– Deputy Editor of El Mundo, one of Spain’s best national newspapers
– First Spaniard to ever graduate from the School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York
– For the past 42 years a reporter and editor for various Spanish media
– For more than 30 years, he has been writing about wine for Informaciones, El País, Diario 16, Decanter, Sibaritas and El Mundo.
– Twice winner of Spain’s National Gastronomy Award (for food and wine writing and for spreading the knowledge of Spanish wines internationally).
– Member of the International Wine Academy
– Member of Spain’s Royal Academy of Gastronomy
– Member of the Grand Jury Européen

All recipes paired with wine, Ground meat, Lamb

Not so Greek Musaka

This meal is not so easy to arrange nicely (sorry for the pic) but trust me, super delicious to eat!
Yeah, my apology to Greek’s traditionalists, I dare twisted the famous Greek meal. I know that the original musaka is layered with a thin slices of eggplant like lasagna. Not that it wasn’t good enough for me, I just wanted to try something different.

I have to say, it came out so good, we couldn’t get enough of it! Super comfy food especially now, in this cold and snowy weather. If lamb meat has too strong a flavor for you, you can mix it half and half with beef. I had 100% lamb and it was divine!

Twisted Musaka

1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground lamb
1 large onion chopped
4 cloves garlic
1 medium size eggplant chopped into little cubes
3 tbs dry oregano
1 cup red wine
1 tbs Cinnamon
salt and pepper
Fresh thyme – few sprigs
1 large can of crushed tomatoes in puree
1/2 lb small shape pasta (your choice)
olive oil

Spread chopped eggplant onto baking sheet, covered with paper towel, season with salt and let sweat for 10-15 minutes. Pat dry with another paper towel.

In the large heavy bottom pot heat olive oil and saute onions until soft, for few minutes. Add all the meat and breaking it up with a wooden spoon, brown the meat until cooked. Add finely chopped garlic and spices.

Pour in red wine, mix together and let cook for a minute. Add tomatoes (break them up in your hand) and cubes of eggplant. Let mixture cook, uncovered, for at least one hour or until reduced (to about half) and thickened.

In the meantime bring water to boil in the large pot, season with salt and cook about pasta to “al dente”. Drain, add a table spoon of olive oil and mix together. Set aside.

When the sauce is cooked, reserve 1 cup of meaty sauce on the side. Pour pasta into the sauce and mix together so the hot sauce coat the pasta well.

Pour the pasta mixture in a prepared large baking dish. No need to grease it first.

For a cheesy cover:
1 table spoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup of milk
1 cup grated Parmesan
1 cup of Greek yoghurt
2 eggs
Salt and pepper

Cook flour on melted butter and mix, creating the roux. Pour in milk and mix until thick, making Béchamel sauce. Add almost all the Parmesan cheese, season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Mix and let cool. Add 2 whole eggs to warm (not hot) sauce and reserved cup of meaty sauce. Mix in Greek yoghurt. Stir and pour all over the meaty sauce with pasta in the baking dish.

Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan cheese. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour in oven. Serve in the baking dish and let all your guests dig in right away and help themselves. You don’t want to miss that amazing aroma when you first cut into the cheese crust and it opens the layers of delicious, cooked lamb mixture with wine and all the spices.

As I said at the beginning, this dish isn’t easy to arrange for photo shoot. But trust me, you will be reaching for a second serving!
It makes my mouth watering just writing about it. I wish somebody invented a pictures on web with aroma attached.

Wine suggestion:
You can open any big red that you were longing to drink for a very long time. It’s a comfort food time! Spicy Malbec, delicious Cabernet Sauvignon, Brunello, Barolo, GSM – many choices here. I have paired this dish with one of the best Syrah based wines I ever tasted – Finca Sandoval from Manchuela, Spain. The pairing with rich flavors of lamb and spices of this dish was out of this world!