Friday, March 26, 2010

Cuba overcomes oenological challenge

Cuba overcomes oenological challenge
Published: 26/03/2010 at 12:00 AM

Today, I would like to introduce you to another unlikely wine. It's from
Cuba this time. The last time I was in Cuba was almost 12 years ago. At
that time, I was served with a bottle of wine which had a Cuban label on
it. But as my local drinking companion told me, these were actually
Italian grapes, and even the label had been printed somewhere else.

Now you can go to Cuba and drink real local wines. Two wineries, one
from Spain, the other from Italy, have actually planted grapes and, in a
joint venture with the government, are producing genuine Cuban wine.

The 2002 Castillo del Wajay is a tempranillo, made by Bodegas del
Caribe, the Spanish venture. Tempranillo, the star grape of the Rioja in
Spain, goes by the name of Ull de Liebre in Catalonia and Cencibel in la
Mancha. It is a fragrant grape that is ripe early, and can stand a bit
of sun, thus making it safer in warm climates.

The grapes are still young and I can imagine that wines of more recent
vintage are better. But the 2002 had aged well, the wine was perfectly
drinkable, European style rather than New World, and at 13 percent not
too high in alcohol.

I drank it with a friend from a human rights organisation from Cambodia,
a man who usually favours reds and is used to the direct charm of
Australian or Argentinian wines. We enjoyed it - it was dry, discreetly
fruity, with a medium long finish and it definitely reminded me of
old-style Spanish wines.

The second company, the Italian Bodegas San Cristobal, is using merlot.
Both companies have planted chardonnay and pinot grigio as well as
cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo.

The two companies agreed that Cuba is a real oenological challenge, but
say that they both carefully studied the soil and climate and that they
found plenty of people in the island ready to learn and work hard.

"They knew nothing about wine and vinification," said one Spanish
specialist. "They are learning that to handle a vineyard and make good
wine is the work not of one day, or one year but a dedication of an
entire life."

Tourism brings important revenue to Cuba, as people from Europe, the
Middle East, even Canada or South America don't care much for Uncle
Sam's increasingly absurd embargo.

No less than 19 types of grapes were initially planted and tested. The
Castillo del Wajay (a municipality in Cuba) is made entirely of grapes
grown in the island. The goal is to plant several hundred hectares in El
Wajay, Batabano and Banao.

What I like is the idea of extending wine not only to tourists but to
the Cubans themselves. The Cuban friends I have all seem to enjoy a good

"We don't want to just produce wine, we want to promote the culture that
goes with wine, not only in Cuba but in the Caribbean, and for that we
need quality," said Daniel Vuelta Fernandez, the president of the
Bodegas del Caribe (and in Spain of the group Palacio de Arganza).

"If the Caribbean is so generous with fruits, why should it not be
equally generous with grapes and wine. The crucial step is to cultivate
them well, in view of making the best possible wine."

I'll be curious how much the Cuban government taxes its own wine. I'm
not sure we shall ever see Cuban wine on the shelves of shops in
Thailand. At least not in the near future.

People who knew Thailand some 20 years ago are amazed how the wine
culture is taking root in this country, despite super-high taxes,
despite official disapprobation, and that goes for all colours of
shirts. So there is hope for Cuba. It could even make for a gentler and
kinder communist party.

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