May 8, 2013
The neoterroirist movement is gaining traction in Rioja. One of the families leading the charge is the Egurens.
You might ask yourself, “Neoterroirists? Hasn’t Rioja always been a terroir-based wine?” Yes and no. If we look at the last quarter of the 19th century, the founders of what is known today as modern Rioja (that is, wines made from destemmed grapes and aged in oak – Luciano de Murrieta, Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga, Rafael López de Heredia and others) believed in owning vineyards and creating brands based on wines produced there. But they, and wineries founded later also believed in blending grapes and wine from different parts of our region because the low alcohol tempranillo-based wines from Rioja Alta and Alavesa needed the meatier garnacha-based wines from hot Rioja Baja to flesh out their wines and because the end of the harvest in Alta and Alavesa often brought cold and rain.
The neoterroirists reject the Rioja-wide blending habits of the large wineries, assuming the risks of putting all their grapes in one basket, attempting to define the personality of wines produced in small vineyards. The latest slogan used by the Rioja Regulatory Council, ‘Rioja: the land of a thousand wines’ recognizes this fact.
Like a few other families in Rioja, the Egurens started out as farmers who decided to vinify their grapes, age and bottle their wines rather than sell grapes to other wineries. The family have been farmers since 1870 with the fifth generation currently managing the company. They own 100 hectares in Rioja and 92 hectares in the DO Toro. Their Rioja business is based in San Vicente de la Sonsierra across the Ebro river from Briones in La Rioja and Páganos, near Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa.
San Vicente de la Sonsierra is the largest village in the Sonsierra region, located at the foot of the Sierra Cantabria mountain range. San Vicente belongs administratively to La Rioja but viticulturally, the Sonsierra lies between Briñas to the west near the Conchas of Haro to just east of San Vicente and includes vineyards in La Rioja and Álava. Some wine writers call the Sonsierra ‘la milla de oro’ or ‘the Golden Mile’.
The family philosophy is to blend wines from their own vineyards for the Sierra Cantabria range and to produce single vineyard wines for the Viñedos de Páganos range. Marcos Eguren, the head viticulturist and winemaker for the family explained that their project is “to make wines that evoke the character of the vineyard, versatile and with a strong personality”.
The family’s properties are:
- El Puntido (25 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1975 in Páganos at 600 meters above sea level on calcareous clay soil)
- La Nieta (1,75 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1975 in Páganos on silty clay soil, with 30% of the vines planted on a bedrock base)
- La Veguilla (16,5 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1975 in San Vicente de la Sonsierra on pure clay and calcareous clay soil with pebbles)
- Finca El Bosque (1,48 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1973 in San Vicente de la Sonsierra on clay soil with pebbles)
- La Canoca (18 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1985 on calcareous clay soil)
- La Llana (10 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1980 on alluvial soil)
- Valgrande and Jarrarte (4 hectares of tempranillo and garnacha, planted in 1957 and 1959 on calcareous clay soil).
- 90 hectares of tinta de Toro (tempranillo) on sandy soil. All of the vineyrds were planted at least 70 years ago, and some are prephylloxeric.
All of the family’s wines are vinified from grapes from their own vineyards.
We tasted five Riojas and three Toros.
1) Organza white 2010 (Rioja)
Organza is made from a field blend of viura, malvasía and white garnacha coming from the family’s vineyards, but from which ones wasn’t specified. Fermented in new French oak from the Vosges, remaining on the lees for six months and later matured in barrel for a further nine months.
Organza was the last wine in the tasting, which I think is a shame because it really didn’t open up after pouring. When I used to take journalists to their San Vicente winery, Marcos Eguren always recommended tasting Organza both at the beginning and the end of the tasting.
I found it to have a straw yellow color, a chamomile and aniseed nose opening up to peaches and apricots, with great acidity and structure. It’s consistently one of the best white Riojas I’ve ever tasted.
2) Murmurón 2012 (Rioja)
Murmurón is arguably Rioja’s best cosechero red, with no hint of the bubble gum and sulfur dioxide aromas that characterize most of Rioja’s cosecheros. It showed a violet-bright cherry color, a fresh, grapey nose reminiscent of strawberries and raspberries, well balanced with ripe tannins and very easy to drink. It was served slightly chilled, as these wines always are in bars here.
3) Sierra Cantabria Selección Privada red 2009 (Rioja)
This wine comes from the Valgrande and Jarrarte vineyards. It was vinified with whole berry fermentation and with crushed grapes and aged for 18 months in new French and American oak. Medium cherry. Spicy nose – to me, nutmeg with dark fruit and cocoa coming out after a few minutes. It took a long time to open up, with jammy fruit coming through when I retasted all the wines at the end of the tasting. Well balanced with ripe tannins.
4) El Puntido 2008 (Rioja)
El Puntido is a single vineyard wine coming from the eponymous vineyard. 16 months ageing in new French oak, with bottling in May, 2010. Fairly intense, brilliant cherry, cherry and slightly acidic, cranberry-like fruit. Not too much oak coming through in spite of the time spent in new wood. Great acidity and a long finish. My favorite wine in the tasting.
5) La Nieta 2009 (Rioja)
Also a single vineyard wine. Intense cherry, slightly less brilliant than El Puntido. Black cherries on the nose but otherwise closed. A mouthful. Many of the tasters gushed about La Nieta being the best wine in the tasting but I thought it was closed. It probably would have showed better if the tasting had been an hour longer. A shame.
6) Almirez 2011 (Toro)
To me, the Eguren story in Toro is fascinating. They created two dynamite brands there, Numanthia and Termanthia, the undisputed darlings of international wine gurus, led by Robert Parker. This naturally attracted the attention of the luxury brand conglomerate LMVH, who bought the Toro winery, the brands and the vineyards. The Egurens must have kept something up their sleeves, however, because they immediately began to develop new brands, a winery and 90 hectares of old vines. I’m not sure, but I suspect they owned them before the LMVH deal because otherwise the vineyards would have cost a fortune. In any case, the family is once again at the top of the heap in Toro.
Marcos Eguren explained that one of the problems winemakers face in Toro is achieving phenolic (anthocyanins and tannins) ripeness, optimum alcoholic strength (avoiding massive 15% wines) and aromatic ripeness at the same time. The solution: looking for vineyards at higher elevations, something they have succeeded at. Fruit extraction is less intense than in Rioja to obtain ripe juice while eliminating the ‘green’ flavors from unripe seeds. The Eguren story in Toro could be summed up as ‘taming the beast’.
Almirez is 100% tinta de Toro, aged for 14 months in oak – 30% new French and 70% one year-old French oak. It shows a very intense cherry color, dark fruit (hard to define because the wines were closed), with elegant tannins and good balance between spicy oak and rich fruit.
7) Victorino 2010 (Toro). 100% tinta de Toro. 18 months in new French oak, bottled in June, 2012.
Very intense cherry. Again a very closed nose at first, opening up to reveal black cherries and spicy aromas. It was more open on the palate than on the nose, with ripe tannins, vibrant acidity and great structure. After 15 minutes in the glass it was still closed.
8) Alabaster 2010 (Toro). 100% tinta de Toro from prephylloxeric vines. 18 months in new French oak. Bottled in July, 2012.
Intense black cherry color. Closed nose. I was only able to discern the spicy oak. A huge mouthful, however, revealing black fruit and ripe tannins. Smooth and well-balanced.
I learned a lot from this tasting, especially about Toro: the value of north-facing vineyards in the region; high altitude vineyards to allow ripe tannins, moderate alcohol, and vibrant acidity; and sandy soil as the home of prephylloxeric vineyards (Jumilla is another place where this occurs). It reaffirmed my faith in Marcos Eguren’s prodigious talent as a winemaker and the unquestionable advantage of owning old vines. My only comments were that in future tastings, all the wines should be poured at the beginning to allow them to open up and be fully appreciated. Just opening the bottles isn’t enough. If consumed with a meal, these wines should be decanted at least 30 minutes before service. And finally, do the Toro wines need 18 months in new oak? If I can put my finger on one ongoing criticism of Rioja and mine especially in Toro is that oak aging is often overdone. Maybe a touch less would be a good thing.
(Bottle shots courtesy of the Eguren family website www.eguren.com)
April 25, 2013
Rioja has lost a giant of a man, perhaps the greatest visionary of his generation, with the passing on April 20 of 84 year old Pedro López de Heredia, the patriarch of the 136 year-old bodega R. López de Heredia. Pedro was the grandson of the winery’s founder Rafael.
Whenever I think of the four generations of this family I’m reminded of a quote that I read in Barbarians at the Gate by a member of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company. “Mr. R.J. wrote the rules, all we do is follow them.” This was the López de Heredia philosophy too, steadfastly following the rules set down by founder Rafael to his son, also called Rafael, then to Pedro, and from him to his children María José, Mercedes and Julio, who currently run the winery. I’m not sure, but I think Pedro’s young grandchildren are already running around the winery on weekends. Making wine today like it was in the 1870s in the face of the high alcohol, opaque Riojas of the late 20th and early 21st centuries was a bold move.
I recently read an anecdote about Pedro and his father that sums up this attitude. After finishing high school, Pedro mentioned to his father that he was interested in studying chemistry. His father replied, “It’s up to you, but I wouldn’t advise it if you plan on working in the winery. With a chemistry degree you’ll be tempted to mess with the wines too much. It’s not only unadvisable, it’s also unethical.” So Pedro took a law degree, but never practiced, instead devoting his energy to his vineyards and winery.
He always defended the fact that his winery was both traditional and at the forefront of modernity but loved to criticize, tongue in cheek, the initiatives that his children suggested. As the patriarch of the winery, he had the last word, of course, so he must have agreed with the idea of adding the Zaha Hadid-designed tasting room and visitors’ center to the winery. However, as told by daughter María José, he referred to it as “that ‘thing’ stuck on the front of the winery”. Vintage Pedro.
I met him because he had been a founding member of the Rioja Exporters’ Association, which I directed for fifteen years. He sat on the board shortly after the association’s founding, although by the time I arrived on the scene his presence was limited to attending our annual general meetings, where he often spoke out against the politics espoused by the big wineries, but always in a reasoned, constructive way. His big political battle was to gain official recognition for the use of ‘vinos finos’ (elegant) for Rioja wines, something his grandfather and father fought for, to defend elegant Rioja against the coarse wines on the market, the norm at the time. Sadly, the Sherry producers had already registered the term ‘fino’ so Rioja wasn’t allowed to use it. If any wines deserved the label of ‘fino’, they were Pedro’s: elegant, silky and long-lived.
I’m sure he was happy, though. Due to his perseverance in maintaining the founder’s dream of making ‘the supreme Rioja’ along with the international acclaim received for his wines, elegant, easy to drink Riojas have become popular once again. On the way out are the high alcohol fruit bombs produced following reviews by a few wine writers, mainly in the USA. Today, these same writers are heaping glowing praise on Heredia’s Tondonia, Bosconia, Gravonia and Cubillo.
Rest in peace, Pedro. Mission accomplished.
April 16, 2013
Most visitors to Logroño’s Old Town congregate in and around calle Laurel, our legendary tapas street. Locals, however, tend to have their tapas and drinks on calle San Juan, a short walk away. Until recently, San Juan kept a more traditional profile than its better-known neighbor, a street packed with bars serving traditional specialties such as tortilla de patata (Spanish egg and potato omelet), zapatillas (ham on toasted bread), lecherillas (sweetbreads) and fried mushrooms, while on Laurel and adjacent streets, the fare has evolved toward the modern (at least for tapas), like steak and roast suckling pig. The wine selection on San Juan used to be firmly Rioja, while on Laurel, you can find wine from just about everywhere, to the chagrin of 600 Rioja wineries.
This clear distinction has become blurred in recent months, as many bars on San Juan are going upscale to follow Laurel’s lead. Last Saturday, my wife, some friends and I did a short tour of San Juan. Our first stop was Tastavin where the bar was packed with elaborate meat and fish tapas, most of which had been cooked in the kitchen and needed to be reheated in a microwave oven just before service. I ordered pluma ibérica, part of the feather loin near the shoulder joint of an Iberian pig, grilled and topped with a green pepper sauce. The rest of our party ordered grilled red tuna drizzled with soy sauce. We drank Buble, a white made with the godello grape from Valdeorras, a denomination of origin in Galicia in northwestern Spain, near the town of Verín and the Portuguese border.
Our next stop was Bar Torres, which had been transformed from a dark, dingy place into one of San Juan’s most popular bars. Although Torres offers a wide range of tapas, the specialty is a grilled patty of wagyu beef (from cows bred in Japan that are massaged and fed beer). Here, we drank Sela, a crianza from Roda in Rioja. If you’re a visitor to Logroño, you’ll enjoy looking at the pictures of the city in the mid-20th century that hang on the walls.
It was getting late, around midnight, so our next stop was our last for the evening, although the streets were still teeming with people. We decided to go to La Tortilla, where, as the name implies, the specialty is Spanish omelet. We ordered our slices of perfectly cooked (meaning that the egg isn’t completely cooked and the potato is al dente) omelet with hot sauce made from a piquillo pepper concentrate on top – that packs quite a wallop! We washed the omelets down with glasses of Campo Viejo from Rioja. Visitors shouldn’t be put off by the gooey texture of the omelet – it’s how it’s supposed to be!
Tortilla is probably Spain’s most popular tapa. Here, the local restaurant association sponsors a contest to determine who makes the best tortilla. There are two categories: regular - tortilla using egg, onion, potatoes and salt - and special, where anything can be used as an ingredient. Once the winner has been chosen, Inside Rioja will sample Logroño’s best offerings. My mouth is already watering!
Tastavin San Juan 25, Logroño http://tastavin.es
Bar Torres San Juan 31, Logroño
La Tortilla corner of Travesía de San Juan and calle Portales, Logroño
April 4, 2013
I assume that if you’re following Inside Rioja, you’re a wine lover. With that in mind, I’d like to let you in on a new project undertaken by my friend, fellow wine blogger and wine educator par excellence Wink Lorch. Wink divides her time between London and the Jura region of southeastern France, where she owns a house. The Jura is known for its fantastic wines, but is little known outside France, except of course for Wink’s heroic efforts to promote it through her blog jurawine.co.uk
Wink is planning to write a book about the region, its wines and its people. No one is more capable than her to do the job, but she needs the help of the wine lovers’ community to get the job done.
She has decided to solicit the help of friends and fellow wine lovers for a crowd funding project on Kickstarter. As I write, she’s a little over halfway toward receiving enough pledges to make the project a reality. For further information, follow this link:
Thanks for your support of this exciting project!
March 25, 2013
Everyone here is talking about the 2012 harvest in Rioja. It was one of the smallest in recent years, 355 million kg of grapes, compared to 387 million kg in 2011. This has pushed grape prices up, to the satisfaction of growers. The wineries also seem to be pleased with quality, so I was excited to attend the traditional tasting of wines from the 2012 vintage by the Family Winery Association of Rioja (Bodegas Familiares de Rioja) earlier this month. Twenty of the 35 wineries in the association showed their latest releases along with the rest of their range to about 1000 visitors to the two-hour walk-around event. It was impossible to try to taste everything so I concentrated on 2012 reds.
I was happy to note that all the wines I tasted showed intense purple in the glass with lots of fresh red and black fruit, good acidity and lots of tannin. My only criticism was that they weren’t too expressive on the nose because they had only recently been bottled, some of them only a couple of days prior to the tasting. Hopefully in the future, the tasting will be held a few weeks later to allow the wines to show themselves.
My favorites were two old-vine garnachas from Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha in Baños de Río Tobía. The first was a 2012 from his colleague and friend Fernando Martínez de Toda’s 100 year-old vineyard Finca de Valdeponzos. It was a recently bottled tank sample, very potent and in need of taming in the bottle. His second wine from his grandfather’s vineyard, planted in 1917 was from vintage 2011, also extremely powerful, with dark fruit and a nutty character. It was rounder on the palate than the 2012. Both wines are marketed under the label Peña el Gato. These are not your economically priced, everyday tippling wines, but powerhouses meant for the high roller. Juan Carlos is an extremely accomplished winemaker and grape grower who’s perfectly familiar with the vineyards in his village. If you can find them, they’re well worth the price.
Other favorites of mine at the tasting were from the Najerilla valley. This area is making a comeback and features producers of fine garnacha-based reds and claretes such as César del Río, Honorio Rubio and Pedro Martínez Alesanco. Casimiro Somalo, a local wine writer and long-time Rioja lover (he’s from Baños del Río Tobía) agreed with me that these wines were showing more balance and freshness than most of the others.
I had never tried wines from Nestares Eguizábal from Galilea in Rioja Baja. Their Segares tempranillo 2012 was elegant and packed with ripe black fruit.
Wines to watch out for
Small family-owned wineries are attracting a lot of attention here for their efforts to promote wines from villages and single vineyards. They’re trying to distance themselves from the big wineries that lately seem to have gone to bed with supermarkets around the world and whom many feel have sacrificed quality to hit aggressive price points.
What’s missing today, however, is a more active international presence for these small producers. If you’re interested, here are some links to get you started:
Family Winery Association of Rioja http://en.bodegasderioja.com
Juan Carlos Sancha: http://juancarlossancha.com
Bodegas Nestares Eguizábal: http://nestareseguizabal.com
Bodegas Honorio Rubio: http://honoriorubio.com
Bodegas César del Río: http://bodegascesardelrio.com
Pedro Martínez Alesanco: http://bodegasmartinezalesanco.com
(Photo credits: Casimiro Somalo)
February 23, 2013
I’m currently spending a few days in Jacksonville, Florida with my sister to catch up, play some golf and get away from winter in Spain. Whenever I travel I try to learn about the local wine scene as well as to check out how much Rioja is available. Sadly in Jacksonville, very little.
Shipments of Rioja to the USA have exploded over the last ten years, reaching about 11 million bottles in 2012. While this figure pales in comparison to the 42 million bottles shipped to the UK, Rioja is now on the radar screen in major markets in the States. However, in order to approach UK-like numbers, which our region desperately needs to offset the collapse of the Spanish market, Rioja not only needs to consolidate sales in major wine-drinking areas like metro New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and the like, but also pay more attention to smaller cities such as Jacksonville, Columbus, Denver and Phoenix.
The US wine market is still very much driven by varietals and a quick walk along a supermarket wine aisle here in Jacksonville reveals that Rioja’s major weakness is its placement on shelves. Here, it’s usually hidden among the zinfandels or simply put randomly in the red wine section. The other day my sister and I took a walk through a major supermarket to check out the wines. We were disappointed of course to discover only four Rioja brands spread out in the red wine section. While I walked away, muttering and grumbling about Rioja’s poor presence, my sister walked up to a BIG distributor salesperson (discovered because he was wearing his company logo on his shirt) who happened to be checking stock and asked him why the store didn’t bring in more Rioja. “If more people bought it, we would bring more in” was his reply.
Whoa. “Well, if they don’t bring more in, how do they expect people to buy it?” is my reasoning. For a supermarket, what’s the point in carrying 60 cabernets, 50 merlots, 300 chardonnays and 25 sauv blancs when most of them don’t move? OK, they probably do, because supermarkets closely track the takeaway and profitability of stocked merchandise but also actively reward suppliers who put marketing and promotional dollars behind their brands, which shuts most of the small and medium sized wineries out. I think they could follow the lead of European supermarkets and retailers who give new brands a chance for exposure at wine fairs. I know lots of brands that would succeed here if only given a chance.
In the meantime, given the scarcity of Riojas in the Jacksonville market, I’m busy trying out new things. So far, my discovery of 2013 has been Ken Wright pinot noir from Oregon, thanks to a good friend who’s active in the wine scene in the southeast USA. I wish I could get it in Spain, but that’s another story.
(Photo credit: vertical jumping.com)
February 8, 2013
Even though Rioja primarily produces reds, it wasn’t always so. The Najerilla river valley, known for its pink wines, provides a fascinating glimpse of Rioja’s history and current winemaking techniques.
Rioja actually produces two styles of pink wines: rosado and clarete. At first glance, the difference is merely color, with rosado a medium reddish pink and clarete a very pale orange. However, the two styles are made differently. Rosados are vinified like whites, except for short contact with the skins to extract a little color, while clarets are vinified like reds, with red and white grapes fermented together with the skins. According to Ezequiel García, El Brujo , the legendary 82-year old former winemaker at CVNE and Bodegas Olarra, the name clarete comes from the fact that in Rioja Alta and Alavesa there were traditionally more white grapes than red and both colors were found in the same vineyard. When a particular vineyard was harvested, both the red and white grapes were dumped into open lagos or closed vats and fermented with the skins. The fermented juice was a pale red, called clarete. CVNE used to label this red wine as clarete. I’m not sure, but perhaps the British term for red Bordeaux – claret – coming from the French clairet has a similar origin, although today, claret refers to red Bordeaux and clarete in Rioja, to a very pale, orange tinted rosé. This color is referred to as ‘ojo de gallo’ or rooster eye.
While production of rosado is larger than clarete in Rioja, the latter has quite a following, especially in northern Spain. In Bilbao, people often ask for ‘un cordovin’ referring to the village in the Najerilla valley where much of Rioja’s clarete is produced. Other well-known clarete villages are Badarán, Cárdenas, Azofra and Hormilla. San Asensio however is the best-known place for clarete and the town even celebrates a clarete battle near the end of July.
Clarete was traditionally made with the white varietal viura and the red garnacha, a variety that used to be abundant in the valley. One of the claretes I saw in a wine shop, from Hormilla, had 70% viura, 20% tempranillo and 10% garnacha. Rosado, on the other hand, is almost always a blend of red varietals: in Rioja, tempranillo and garnacha, or 100% tempranillo. The regulations of the Rioja DOC require that at least 25% of a rosé or clarete blend must be made from red grape varieties so a clarete could have as much as 75% white juice.
The clarete style is gaining popularity. Several producers are labeling their wines as such, a surprise to me because I didn’t think the name was officially allowed by the Rioja Regulatory Council, but since the end of 2011, it is.
I was also surprised to see a bottle of Muga rosé with a much paler pink color than in the past. Maybe clarete or at least pale orange-tinted rosés have an international future.
“¡Hola, cabronazo!” The raspy voice on the phone was my old buddy Gerry Dawes, the American food and wine writer, to announce that our lunch wouldn’t be in Haro as originally planned, but at the winery of Luis Alberto Lecea in San Asensio. That was good news, because I had wanted to visit Luis for a long time, so I grabbed my camera and notebook and headed out the door.
Luis Lecea is not only the owner of a small family winery located in one of Rioja’s most emblematic wine villages but is also a member of ASAJA, the powerful Young Farmers’ Association who sits on the board of directors of the Rioja Regulatory Council. My interest in seeing Luis was not to talk about wine politics, but rather learn more about the hundreds of underground wine cellars in his village.
We were told that there were more than 350 cellars in San Asensio, almost all of them in a state of utter disrepair if not totally destroyed by the ravages of decades of rain and neglect. ”It’s a shame” Luis said because until the 1950s when the Spanish Agriculture Ministry created coops to give individual growers a profitable means of selling their grapes and wines to big commercial wineries, these small family cellars were the backbone of the Rioja wine business. Some of them had been built in the 17th century.
Luis showed us his family cellar, dug by hand out of the hard earth with picks, adzes and shovels to a depth of ten meters and once underground, opened into a warren of caves where tanks and barrels held his wines. Today, the wine is taken up to ground level with pumps, but in the old days, the juice flowed into the cellar by gravity and once the wine was made, it was emptied into pigskins and carried up the stairs, loaded into big wooden vats and rolled onto to trucks where it was taken to the big commercial wineries.
Generally speaking, in the old days the wines were vinified by means of whole berry fermentation. The grapes would be dumped into a large open cement tank called a lago, where the grapes began intracellular fermentation without mechanical pressure. The free-run juice flowed through a hole in the floor to a tank below where fermentation took continued. The remaining grapes, stems and pips were trodden by foot to release the rest of the juice.
Ever the guardian of tradition, Luis organizes a party every October where he invites guests to watch and even participate in this process.
We kept hearing that it was a shame these cellars had fallen into disrepair, hoping that they would be bought and restored, if only to be used as a place for families to cook and eat on weekends and on vacation. I mentioned to him that there was a company whose business was to fix these places up. We rounded a corner, and as fate would have it, we ran into the owner of this winery restoration company. He was visiting the village to help a couple solve the problem of water leaking into the cellar they had bought recently. I was happy to introduce Luis to Pedro Ortega and hope they can work together to restore San Asensio’s underground winery district. There are cellars like this not only in San Asensio but also in practically every other village in Rioja. With the history at your feet, it’s hard to believe that these places are on the verge of disappearing. Let’s hope Luis and Pedro succeed. Today you can only visit a few of these old caves, among which are the Paternina cellars in Ollauri and Bodegas El Fabulista in Laguardia.
We were treated to a tasting of Luis’s wines and a lunch of potatoes with spicy sausage, pig jowls, baby lamb chops and sausage grilled over vine cuttings.
I’ll tell you about the tasting, especially of Luis’s amazing claretes, or local rosés, in my next post.
January 21, 2013
When we first moved to La Rioja in 1983, we were amazed to see our neighbors unloading crates of fruit and vegetables from their cars every Sunday afternoon. All of this produce came from the villages where their ancestors had lived and where their descendants had inherited a house and a garden.
Of course since neither my wife nor I were from Rioja, we didn’t have our own village or ‘pueblo’ here, but soon, one adopted us. After we bought our first apartment in Logroño, a couple who lived in the same building whose son was in the same school class as our son, invited us to their ‘pueblo’, Munilla in Rioja Baja. We’ve been visiting for thirty years and have made a lot of friends who have homes there. We even bring produce back home, even if it’s a present from someone else who has a garden!
One of the most endearing traditions in Spain is that each province, city and village has its own patron saint or professes devotion to a martyr or virgin. In La Rioja, the wine festival is in honor of St. Matthew (San Mateo). In Pamplona, it’s San Fermín, in Madrid, San Isidro. In Munilla, a custom is to celebrate Mass on or the first Sunday after January 17, the feast of St. Anthony Abbot (San Antonio Abad or San Antón), who, as most Catholics know, is the patron saint of animals. This year, the Mass in his honor was yesterday.
The beautiful little church was mostly filled with women (most of the men waited outside, another Spanish custom), and after Mass, the doors opened and the church filled up with people and their pets. Most are dogs but iguanas, turtles and some rare South American mammals have also been spotted from time to time. The priest blessed the animals one by one by sprinkling holy water over them.
Afterwards, a wooden statue of St. Anthony was paraded around the square and an auction of gifts held to help pay for the renovation of the church. Someone usually donates a rooster in a cardboard box that is placed in front of the altar along with the rest of the gifts to be auctioned off. Last year, it started to crow during the sermon, forcing the priest to cut it short and this year he promised to stop if the rooster crowed again. The rooster crowed on cue but the priest, who was on a roll with the sermon, kept talking. The parishioners laughed.
After the auction, we all went to the casino for a communal lunch, followed by a long walk around the village. Then everyone closed up their houses and returned to their usual place of residence.
Traditions such as this are an invaluable way of assuring that the thousands of small villages around Spain remain alive. Fifty or a hundred years ago, towns like Munilla were the centers of Spain’s agricultural and small business economy. In Munilla, it was textiles and shoes. However, with Spain’s industrialization came a mass exodus from the pueblos to Logroño, Madrid, Barcelona and abroad. Even though these little towns are practically empty during the week, on weekends, holidays and summer vacations, they resonate with activity.
Most of us come from big cities, but the ‘pueblo’ is an important part of our lives as an escape from the daily grind and a reminder of another simpler, but much harder time.
From time to time, the Rioja wine business experiences a period of upheaval as companies are bought and sold, often as a means for the majority shareholders to raise much-needed capital and sometimes to win market share. Examples of the first case were Mapfre’s (a Spanish insurance company) taking a stake in Muga (since bought back by the Mugas) and Banco Santander’s stake in Bodegas Riojanas (Riojanas later went public). More often, though, the reason for winery purchases is to consolidate empires. One of the most recent instances in Rioja was the buying and selling of the Domecq Wine group.
It all started with Savin, a company founded in the mid 1950s that became Spain’s largest winery group with wineries all over the country that at first specialized in selling bulk wine to Europe and the Iron Curtain countries. In the mid 1960s, Savin built a winery in Logroño and created Campo Viejo, quickly developing it as an attractively priced Rioja positioned toward the growing supermarket business in Spain and abroad.
The Bank of Bilbao took a larger and larger share in the company and in 1989, renamed the company Bodegas & Bebidas. Its first major acquisition was its biggest competitor AGE in the mid 1990s.
The bank decided to divest itself of its wine and food businesses and the wineries were sold to Allied-Domecq, a UK-based multinational drinks company, itself the union of Allied Breweries and the wineries owned by Pedro Domecq, the sherry company.
The wine brand Marqués de Arienzo was created in the mid-1980s after Pedro Domecq decided to build a winery in Rioja. The winery was actually built in the early 1970s but the first Rioja brand, Domecq Domain, didn’t fly. Arienzo was the second effort by the company to launch a Rioja brand and this time, it was a success. The brand was positioned as a premium range of crianza and reserva, sold mainly to restaurants in Spain and abroad.
The name of the consolidation game was spirits, with the wine brands dragged along for the ride. Domecq was purchased in 2005 by the French group Pernod-Ricard (the merger of Pernod and Ricard), that included the Domecq Bodegas wineries in Rioja. In 2010, PR began a process of selling off non-strategic assets to finance the purchase of the vodka brand Absolut.
Our story really begins here.
Most wineries are bought and sold lock, stock and barrel. But the sale of Bodegas Domecq was different, illustrating how the bust-up of the winery’s assets made great sense to the buyers of the separate parts.
The assets were split up and sold to two companies. Bodegas Muriel bought the winery itself, some of the vineyards and the brand Viña Eguía. Other vineyards and the brand Marqués de Arienzo were acquired by Herederos del Marqués de Riscal.
Muriel needed a bigger winery to carry out its plans to move into the high volume supermarket business around the world. Viña Eguía is a popular young Rioja that gives Muriel a foothold into this segment of the market, especially in Spain.
For Marqués de Riscal, this purchase made great strategic sense, too. The vineyards, located on some of the best sites in Rioja Alavesa, allow Riscal to decrease its dependence on outside suppliers of grapes and therefore exercise greater control over the quality of its fruit. Secondly, Marqués de Arienzo, a brand with good distribution in restaurants in Spain, is a perfect complement to Marqués de Riscal. In addition, Riscal has taken over the ‘Aula Marqués de Arienzo’, renaming it ‘Aula Marqués de Riscal’. This well-liked seminar has trained hotel and restaurant staff about wine tasting and service for many years.
Riscal’s influence on Marqués de Arienzo is evident, with a redesign of the label and a more modern feel to the wine while maintaining its image as a wine to be enjoyed with food.
I tasted several bottles over the recent Christmas holidays. My tasting note for Marqués de Arienzo crianza 2008:
Tempranillo, graciano and mazuelo. Brilliant, medium-intensity ruby. Red fruit – strawberries and maraschino cherry giving it a little sweetness. Quite a dollop of oak. Great balance, good acidity – a little tart on the palate.
I thought it went very well with our New Year’s Eve dinner when we had roast baby lamb.