October 21, 2013
Lorenzo Cañas doesn’t have a Michelin star like several other restaurants in the Rioja region but there’s no doubt that he’s the best-known and loved of all the local chefs. He’s always been known as a chef ahead of his time.
He revolutionized the gastronomic scene in Rioja when he opened his restaurant La Merced in a palace on calle Mayor in the old quarter of Logroño in January 1983, about the time I moved here. Pre-Lorenzo restaurants here offered the hearty fare of the region – baby lamb chops (chuletillas de cordero), vegetable stew (menestra de verduras), a white bean potage (pochas), chickpeas (garbanzos), white asparagus and several kinds of grilled fish, all served in rather unpretentious surroundings. Some people here say that the food was usually thrown on your plate rather than served. Lorenzo literally brought to the table his vast experience as a chef and diner at the best tables all over Europe, taking dining to a higher level in his gourmet restaurant with classical music, fine art hanging from the walls, porcelain dishes, linen tablecloths and a huge underground wine cellar stocked with mostly Rioja but also wines from other regions in Spain and many from abroad, especially France.
He was trying to bring the best in fine dining to our little region.
Most of his customers were businessmen like me with expense accounts from wineries and visitors from big cities around Spain. Sadly, most of the locals didn’t understand what he was trying to create. It wasn’t the cost of the meal but rather the modern twist on our regional cuisine that turned people off. Here, most diners preferred simplicity of style, food like their mothers used to make in the village. I always thought it funny that people wanted to be seen driving Audis and BMWs but would rather eat in a local tavern.
The recession of the late 1980s slowed business down, especially from the wineries, and by the mid nineties Lorenzo decided to close La Merced. He didn’t go away, though. Realizing that even though Riojans didn’t appreciate a fine dining experience on a Friday or Saturday evening, they were prepared to pay big money for their children’s christenings, first communions and weddings, as well as for government-sponsored awards dinners, so he reopened La Merced in a huge new facility on the outskirts of Logroño as an events caterer and has been going full speed ahead ever since.
Two weeks ago, our local newspaper LA RIOJA took a big stand at San Sebastian Gastronomika, one of the world’s foremost gastronomic congresses. The paper invited me along to cover the event from a ‘foreigner’s’ perspective. Each day for three days, a lunch was prepared for chefs and journalists by a famous Riojan chef – Francis Paniego of Echaurren, Ignacio Echapresto of La Venta Moncalvillo (each of these with a Michelin star) and of course, Lorenzo Cañas.
All three meals were very good but all of us from the newspaper agreed that Lorenzo blew the others away.
A humble man not satisfied with his effort in San Sebastian (although I thought that his cod in tomato sauce was the best I had ever tasted) Lorenzo decided to invite us for lunch last Friday at La Merced, serving the same meal as in San Sebastian.
It was even better than the time before, and all the more amazing because Lorenzo is capable of serving that kind quality to three hundred people at a time.
Lorenzo spent several hours during and after the meal answering questions and reminiscing about his 40-plus years of experience. His only admission of any prestigious achievement was showing us his book of VIP guests, filled with words of admiration from heads of state, ministers, actors, actresses and other celebrities. The walls of his private dining room are covered with awards and certificates of membership in the most famous gastronomic societies in the world.
I feel sorry for friends who visit us here – we can take them to great tapas bars, local holes-in-the-wall and Michelin-starred restaurants, but to eat a Lorenzo Cañas meal you have to be invited to a first communion or a wedding!
Oh, I almost forgot about the wines:
Lealtanza white 2012 (Bodegas Altanza)
Tobelos crianza (Bodegas Tobelos)
Tahón de Tobelos reserva (Bodegas Tobelos)
Sorry for not including any tasting notes – I was too busy enjoying the food!
October 2, 2013
The Rioja Harvest Festival has ended, but the harvest itself has just begun, three weeks later than usual. Whenever I see a Rioja winemaker, all but the oldest ones always say the same thing: “This harvest is the most complicated one I’ve ever experienced.” Recently, our local newspaper LA RIOJA featured an article by Fernando Martínez de Toda, chairman of the Department of Viticulture of the University of La Rioja that explains exactly why.
Rioja harvests have generally been uncomplicated since the early 1980s, a fact that Martínez de Toda attributes to global warming, with warm springs, long dry summers and the late onset of autumn rains. This has not been the case so far in 2013, characterized by a long winter, practically no spring and the late onset of summer. This year we were wearing coats until the middle of June.
Viticulture experts use the method of heat summation to measure the potential ripeness of grapes in a given region. Heat summation is calculated by taking the average temperature in degrees Fahrenheit every day the temperature exceeds 50ºF (10ºC) between April 1 and October 31 (in the northern hemisphere) because it is assumed that grapevines are inactive below that temperature. Each degree above 50º is one degree day. If Celsius is used for the calculation, the number of Fahrenheit degree days is divided by 1,8.
In Rioja, Martínez de Toda has calculated that until September 18, there were between 200 and 300 fewer Celsius degree days than in the same period in 2012. This means there’s a risk that the grapes won’t ripen in cooler areas – meaning most of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. The eastern half of Rioja, including all of the Baja will be spared. Most of these grapes have already been picked.
I’ve tried to explain to you many times that in ‘the old days’ (up to the 1980s) the large and medium-sized wineries in the western half of Rioja owned vineyards in Rioja Baja. This is the reason why. The grapes in the western half of Rioja simply didn’t ripen during many harvests and had to be fleshed out with ripe grapes from the Baja. It also explains why big wineries even today don’t usually own more than a few acres of vineyards. They would rather have farmers and cooperative wineries take the risk, with the wineries buying from the places that have turned out the best grapes and young wine that particular year.
For Martínez de Toda, this harvest also brings potentially good news. A downside of the long, warm growing season during the last 35 years has been an increase in the alcoholic strength of our wines along with a decrease in the formation of color in reds. This season’s cooler weather favors the production of elegant, more balanced wines with less alcohol and color that doesn’t have to be forcefully extracted.
Wineries and growers now have powerful analytical tools at their disposal to help them decide the best time to pick. Every vintage, the Rioja Regulatory Council takes weekly samples of grapes from 55 vineyards throughout the region representing different altitudes, the year the vineyard was planted and the grape variety. In each sample the following parameters are measured:
- weight of 100 berries
- probable alcoholic strength
- total acidity as tartaric acid
- malic acid
- total polyphenol index
- intensity of color
You can see the September 30 bulletin here.
This is a vast improvement over the decision to hurriedly pick on Columbus Day (October 12) with the help of a refractometer under the best circumstances or biting on a grape to see if it’s sweet, in the worst case. Some wineries still talk about this downhome approach to picking to show their attachment to tradition, but you can be sure that the decision is made in practically all cases by someone with a college degree in winemaking, biology or chemistry.
In Rioja, as in the rest of the world’s grapegrowing regions, the uncertain end result of each harvest reflects an aphorism from New York Yankees baseball star Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Here we also say, “One sunny day in October is worth 30 sunny days in September”.
In wineries throughout northern hemisphere, everyone, even the chemists, is keeping their fingers crossed.
September 25, 2013
For the last five years Spain has suffered the devastating effects of an inflexible labor market, an economy based on overbuilding residential property, banks with questionable lending practices and politicians who thought they were above the law. When most people read the papers, they go directly to the sports pages to get a jolt of positive energy from reading about the success of Spain’s tennis players, football teams and motorcycle racers.
That’s the way it is for 51 weeks of the year, except during festival week, which in Rioja is the wine harvest festival in honor of St. Matthew (San Mateo in Spanish) from September 20 to 25, when all hell breaks loose and the region’s 300,000 inhabitants plus probably 100,000 others from neighboring regions and abroad devote themselves to a frenzy of partying. We deserve it.
The festival starts at 1pm on September 20 when the mayor lights a rocket from the balcony of the city hall in Logroño. This event is called the chupinazo. This year the mayor asked everyone present to forget about their problems and have fun. Obviously, we were all paying attention because her instructions were followed to the letter.
In the past, the city hall square was filled with young people carrying bags of flour and plastic bottles filled with cheap red wine. On hearing the rocket explode, they would douse everyone in sight with wine and then throw flour around, making a god-awful mess of other partygoers who then walked to the old part of town to sing, dance, eat and drink in one of the 100 plus bars in the area.
In recent years, the city fathers have tried to enforce a ‘clean chupinazo’ by stationing police officers around the entrance to the square to keep partygoers from throwing flour around. Fat chance. As soon as everyone leaves the square, out comes the flour.
The atmosphere in the old part of town is electric – big swaying crowds of people eating, drinking, dancing and singing, people meeting friends or running into friends unseen for years, going to bullfights, jai alai matches, eating lunch and dinner in bars or restaurants, staying out until 3 or 4 in the morning every day, catching a catnap and a snack and starting all over again. Believe me, after five or six days of non-stop partying, one is actually glad it’s over. Until next year, that is!
I consider myself extremely lucky (or extremely resilient) because I go to two of these festivals every year – San Fermín in Pamplona in July and San Mateo in Logroño in September. I have no intention of quitting.
Today is the last day of the wine festival and tomorrow, Logroño will go back to normal, with lots of bad news to fill the newspapers. Right now, I’m trying to persuade my wife to go out tonight. If I can get her off the sofa, I might have a chance!
September 7, 2013
This story starts in a hospital in Santander. While in the waiting room I struck up a conversation with a man who told me that his son had a winery in the area. I was under the impression that Cantabria was the only region in Spain where no grapes were grown, but this man told me that there were two areas that had recently begun to grow them: Liébana in the far west of the province near Asturias, and the east coast.
Several years later I had the opportunity to taste some of the wines from the eastern coastal region at a wine fair in Santander and was impressed by the interest of a small group of wine lovers who were willing to invest in a business that to me was plagued by oversupply, low prices and excessive regulation. But I never bothered to enquire further.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I were invited by Ken Baldwin from Totally Spain, a travel agency based near Santander, to one of the wineries in Cantabria, Bodegas Vidular, for a visit to the vineyards, a tasting and lunch. It was an unforgettable experience.
Bodegas Vidular is the brainchild of the Durán family, originally from Bilbao, with experience in the wine distribution business. We met Mikel Durán at one of the company’s vineyards on the outskirts of Noja, one of Cantabria’s most popular resort towns. Here, he explained that grapes and wine had been produced in Cantabria until the early 19th century but its resurgence had been very recent. Vidular, along with five other wineries created a ‘vino de la tierra’ with the designation ‘Costa de Cantabria’. Mikel said that Vidular had no intention of joining a denominación de origen because the rules regarding grape varieties were too strict and would stifle their attempts to see what varieties would work best given the climate and soils of the area. They’re right.
The company has a total of nine hectares of vines in three vineyards: Noja, Castillo (a nearby village) and Vidular, about 15 kilometers south of the coast at an altitude of 500 meters. The winery has planted the white varieties albariño, chardonnay, treixadura, gewürztraminer and godello and more recently, pinot noir.
Cantabria, with its rich clay soil and rainy climate nine months a year is not a place where you would predict grapes would produce quality wine, but for that matter, neither the coast in the Basque Country, but txakolí is selling like hot cakes. Mikel explained that the Noja vineyard was planted in an old quarry, so there’s a base of limestone, good soil for growing grapes. Another smaller producer recently told me that he had trucked in some ‘poor’ soil for his small vineyard.
The topic of soil fertility came up at the second vineyard we visited. Here, the family had laid down a semipermeable mat under the vines to allow rainwater to seep through but would stop weeds and other plants from sprouting up.
These up-front investments reminded me of the fundamental question about the wine business:
Question: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?
Answer: By starting with a large fortune.
The wines are sold in mainly in Cantabria and a few other places around Spain, as well as in Germany and even Japan. We got a big kick out of hearing Mikel’s story about the sale to Japan. He’s a surfer, like a lot of people living on the coast here, and was featured in a story in a Japanese magazine about ‘The Life of Surfers over Forty’. Mikel mentioned that his family had a winery and a reader sent him a 100 case order.
Wine tourism, however, is where Mikel wants to devote his energy. As we were standing beside the Noja vineyard, he pointed to the long line of cars going to the beach and mused about building a small tasting room and shop there.
Following a quick stop at the Castillo vineyard, we took a beautiful drive up a mountain to the winery and vineyards. The family bought and restored an old farmhouse that they originally planned to use as a country hotel, but finally decided to turn into a tasting room and restaurant to entertain groups of wine tourists. Our first stop was the small but functional winery built next to the farmhouse where we tasted the company’s two brands, the white Ribera del Asón and Cantábricus with some tapas prepared by chef Mario Armesilla.
Since the meal was the highlight of the visit I didn’t make detailed tasting notes for the wines but can say that they were very tasty, showing intense tropical fruit aromas, and vibrant acidity.
It’s tempting to make a comparison with txakolí, the popular white wine produced in the Basque provinces of Álava, Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa, but the wines from the Costa de Cantabria had a personality of their own. While most of the producers of txakolí from Guipúzcoa favored the traditional low alcohol, slightly fizzy, prone to give you a headache style that is served in bars by pouring the wine from two feet above the glass to aerate it, much like Spanish sidra (hard cider), the Vizcaya style is an attempt to compete with whites such as Rueda. Vidular was somewhere in the middle. I thought it benefited from a little aeration, but was definitely on the serious side.
As a matter of fact, there’s been quite a controversy about the appropriation by the Basques of the word txakolí (or chacolí). According to wine historians, wines called chacolí used to be produced both in Cantabria and the north of the province of Burgos, east of Rioja. In Burgos, the wines are still locally known as chacolí, but not in Cantabria.
The wines from the Costa de Cantabria aren’t widely available outside the region themselves and at least in the case of Vidular, the Durán family is not in a hurry. In the wine business, the slow and steady approach is the safest route to success.
July 29, 2013
The Barrio de la Estación (Railway station district) in Haro boasts the highest concentration of hundred-year old wineries in the world. The railway to Bilbao, completed in the middle of the 19th century, was the most convenient route to ship wines to the port and from there, to the rest of Europe and America, so it was logical that the wineries decided to build here. Within a five hundred meter radius you can find Bodegas López de Heredia (founded in 1877), La Rioja Alta (1890), Gómez Cruzado (1886), Bodegas Bilbaínas (1901), CVNE (1879) and Rioja Santiago (1904). The ‘youngsters’ in the neighborhood are Muga (1932) and Roda (1987).
A few weeks ago, I took a group to several Rioja wineries. One of our stops was at La Rioja Alta.
Lots of changes had taken place at the winery since my last visit. The company no longer uses its old wooden fermentation vats but has kept them for show as a reminder of how its wines used to be made. I remember a visit during the harvest a few years ago. We noticed a group of young men shivering under blankets outside the vats. Their job was to remove the pomace from the tanks after fermentation but they could only work for a few minutes at a time and had to be careful of the carbon dioxide that lingered in the vats. Most of the backbreaking manual labor in wineries has been replaced by technology (in the case of fermentation vats, with self-emptying tanks), but intensive manual labor still very evident here as recently as the 1990s.
One of the things you notice at the bodega is the huge number of 225-liter oak casks used for aging the wines. La Rioja Alta claims that it ages its wines much longer than the minimum time required by the Rioja Regulatory Council. In fact, the crianzas from the winery could qualify as reservas and the reservas as gran reservas. On average, Rioja wineries hold just under three years of sales as inventory but La Rioja Alta’s is a whopping nine years of sales. The winery states that they finance expansion with their own funds, so you can imagine the effort it takes to finance this inventory.
La Rioja Alta’s brands are homages to past directors of the company and to significant events in its history. Its most prestigious gran reserva, ‘890’ is named for the year the company was founded (without the ‘1’ due to opposition from the Regulatory Council). Gran reserva 904 commemorates 1904, the year Bodegas Ardanza merged with La Rioja Alta. Viña Ardanza is named for Alfredo Ardanza, one of the founders of the company, Viña Alberdi after Nicolás Alberdi, the president from 1947 to 1952 and Viña Arana for José María Arana, a vice president of the bodega.
I had a chance to chat at length with one of the staff that I had known from earlier visits. She had been working at the winery for over twenty years and planned on working there for twenty more. It never ceases to amaze me that most of Rioja’s family owned wineries like López de Heredia and La Rioja Alta treat their staff as members of the family rather than just employees. You could certainly tell that they were happy working there and I’m sure they thanked management by working extra hard. This is refreshing. Friends tell me that in Spain’s tough economic climate, managers aren’t usually very nice to employees, figuring they’re easy to replace.
One of the highlights of the visit was the tasting. The last time I visited the winery, Julio Sáenz had recently taken over from longstanding winemaker José Gallego, who had retired. Gallego’s wines were made in a classic style, with around 12% abv, not very intense color and delicate aromas of cedar, cigar box, stewed strawberries and spices, but with a backbone of elegant tannin and acidity. I discovered that Sáenz had added a layer of intensity to the wines without compromising their undoubtedly classic character. They were recognizably La Rioja Alta wines but with a little more zip.
My tasting notes:
Viña Arana reserva 2005
95% tempranillo, 5% mazuelo. 3 years in oak, at least two years in the bottle (this would qualify it as a gran reserva).
Medium cherry; spicy, a little whiff of leather, strawberry jam. Great acidity, firm tannins. The wine will continue to age well in the bottle. Great balance – goes down easy.
Viña Ardanza reserva 2004
80% tempranillo, 20% garnacha. 3 years in oak, 2 years in bottle.
Medium intensity cherry/brick; strawberry jam, spicy. Seems less evolved than Arana, little evidence of leathery notes. Drinking perfectly with perfect balance. Fuller bodied than Arana.
I was blown away by the Ardanza and bought six bottles on the spot!
904 gran reserva 2001 (just released).
Blend of tempranillo and garnacha. 4 years in oak, 4 years in the bottle.
Cherry/brick; nose closed at first, opening up to stewed fruit and chocolate, perfectly balanced. Really alive in spite of being 12 years old. I caught a whiff of old barrel – the wine would probably open up more with time (but we had to leave the winery so I never got a chance to find out).
I asked when the 2004 would be released and was told, “when it’s ready”. I should have known!
La Rioja Alta, like many other Rioja wineries, has branched out from its original winery in Haro with the founding or purchase of other wineries, both in Rioja and in other wine regions in Spain. Its Rioja wineries are Torre de Oña in Páganos near Laguardia and a big vinification plant between Haro and Labastida. The company also owns Lagar de Fornelos in Rías Baixas and Áster in Ribera del Duero.
La Rioja Alta, S.A.
Avenida de Vizcaya, 8
Tel. +34 941 31 03 46
Photos: Tom Perry
June 26, 2013
For the first time in its 87-year history, a grape grower has been elected president of the Rioja Interprofessional Committee and the Regulatory Council. Luis Alberto Lecea, whom we’ve visited on Inside Rioja, will take over from Victor Pascual as soon as the Ministry of Agriculture publishes the order ratifying his appointment in the Official Journal. It’s about time.
Lecea, a well-respected leader of the Riojan chapter of ASAJA, one of Spain’s farmers’ unions, carries a lot of weight on his shoulders. Farmers and wine co-ops here have complained for several years about low prices of grapes and wine, a situation that practically paralyzed the Rioja Interprofessional Committee and the Regulatory Council for the last 18 months of Pascual’s nine year tenure. The producers were hoping to pressure the wineries into paying higher prices by refusing to approve the Council’s advertising and operating budgets but last minute negotiations, promises and the lack of unity between the co-ops and the unions always allowed the budgets to be approved.
Lecea brings a lot of experience and a cool head to the table but my first impression is that fellow growers expect him to push through a deal for higher grape and wine prices. In his first interview he said, “Minimum prices aren’t possible and reference prices in the wine business are a complicated matter, but we have to be capable of putting in place a means to guarantee a minimum price because the added value of bottles should be reflected in the price of grapes. I insist that if Rioja doesn’t pay a fair price (for grapes), quality grapes won’t be produced.” Spoken like a true politician.
The Grupo Rioja, the largest winery association whose members include all the big wineries, and whose support allowed Lecea to be elected, picked up the gauntlet by convening a press conference on June 24. “Grape and wine prices are set by supply and demand” was the association’s message.
So, once again, swords have been drawn, confirming my contention that if there’s no political conflict in Rioja, one has to be created.
Fortunately, if we look at the big picture, we can see that in spite of low grape prices, Riojan vineyards continue to be exquisitely tended. On the winery side, there is more variety and more interesting wine on the market than ever before in spite of shrinking retail prices. So, as one prone to sarcasm like me, these political statements sound like a lot of hot air. As much as I sympathize with the economic woes of the growers, I don’t see distributors and supermarkets around the world willing to pay higher prices for Rioja in the medium term unless individual wineries come up with products that these gatekeepers think are worth the extra cost. Because of their weight in Rioja, the onus is on the big wineries to provide these added-value products and sell the hell out of them. Mr. Pascual said in his farewell speech, “Nine years ago it was unthinkable that Rioja would sell 100 million liters outside of Spain.” Spaniards would respond that Mr. Pascual doesn’t have a grandmother (in Spain, grandmothers are the people that heap praise on their offspring. ”Not to have a grandmother” means you have to praise yourself!) On a serious note, it is indeed a testimony to hard work by wineries and a willingness to invest in international generic and branded PR by both wineries and farmers that this figure has been reached, but there has also been a healthy dose of price cutting, starting, in some cases, long before the economic crisis hit in 2008.
If, however, we forget about internal politics and concentrate on what’s on the shelf, today is a great time to get great deals on good wine. To me as a consumer, that’s what matters.
June 18, 2013
A few days ago I came across an interesting article about Spanish wines in the Wall Street Journal online (http://stream.wsj.com/story/latest-headlines/SS-2-63399/SS-2-248715/ ) that contained a number of true statements about the performance of Spanish wines in the USA as well as several really big boo-boos. Unfortunately, the mistaken ideas came from the New York office of Wines from Spain, something I honestly don’t understand. They said, “The domestic market has really dried up. Winemakers are desperate to export.” Let me set the record straight.
According to the market research company A.C. Nielsen, wine sales in Spain decreased by less than 1% in 2012. The decrease since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2006 has been 8%. This is an important drop, attributable mostly to the crisis but can hardly be described as ‘drying up’. Two things are happening in the drinks market in Spain: first, the share of sales to retail outlets, especially supermarkets, is rising, while sales to bars and restaurants are decreasing. The increased share of sales to supermarkets means that prices and consequently winery profits are being squeezed to the max by voracious buyers. Some of this has carried over to the traditional distribution network. I heard the story of a big distributor who invited his suppliers to a meeting and proceeded to dictate to them the prices at which he was prepared to purchase their wines, with no guarantee of volume.
Most of the well-established wineries in Rioja that I’ve talked to are tired of this game. They’d rather sell less and make a decent profit than sell practically at cost. “Times will get better”, they tell me.
“Winemakers are desperate to export.” I don’t sense any feelings of desperation from wineries here. What I do sense is a deeper understanding of positioning their products to make them more attractive to buyers. Figures from the Spanish Wine Market Observatory are positive, showing that bottled DOP (with denomination of origin) wines sold abroad increased by 10% both in volume and value while bottled table wine exports increased 6,4% in volume and 18,8% in value. Exports of wine in bulk are flat, but as everyone knows, bulk wine is a commodity whose sales go to the lowest bidder.
Exports of Rioja reached a record high of 96,9 million liters in 2012, a 5,5% increase over 2011. In the USA, Rioja’s third largest market, wineries sold almost 12 million bottles, a 9% increase over the previous year.
So, the situation isn’t so bad after all. In the wine business, you have to take the long view. It’s a long, winding road that fortunately, almost always goes up.
May 31, 2013
María José López de Heredia is one of my favorite people and I love her wines, so when I was offered the chance to attend a tutored tasting of her wines, I jumped. An extra added attraction was the venue: Benjamin Romeo’s Wine Bar La Tercera Estación in San Vicente de La Sonsierra. The event was a tasting of three vintages of Viña Tondonia white (1998, 1991 and 1970), three Tondonia reds (2001, 1994 and 1964) and a dinner made by Benjamin’s wife Iraide Somarriba, one of the chefs at the well-known restaurant Regi, near Bilbao. The meal was accompanied by Benjamin’s wines from Bodega Contador.
This event was a unique opportunity to taste wines with diametrically opposed character – Viña Tondonia is the essence of elegance and delicacy while Contador is big, bold and in your face. It’s amazing that both styles coexist in Rioja, perfectly illustrating the Regulatory Council’s motto ‘Rioja, land of a thousand wines’.
I’ve heard María José speak many times but each time I learn something new about her family and the origin of the López de Heredia winery. She told us that her great grandfather, Rafael López de Heredia, had no intention of making a wine for the masses. His dream was to promote the concept of ‘vinos finos’ as opposed to ordinary table wines. His target market was elitist: people who had a car, wore a tie and spoke languages, a very small market in early 20th century Spain.
To accomplish this, he decided to set up an office and tasting room in downtown Madrid between Cibeles and the Puerta del Sol. Every day he received news from the winery and sent detailed instructions to Haro, no easy task in an age where telegrams and letters were the most efficient means of communication before widespread use of the telephone.
María José explained that the wide variety of styles of Rioja is due more to the way vineyards are tended and vinification than to climate change. It was surprising therefore to note that the alcoholic strength of the three whites increased with newer vintages: 1970-11,5%; 1991-12% and 1998-12/12,5%. This seemed to be a contradiction until she explained that until 1970, Tondonia whites had a larger percentage of malvasía, which produces wines with lower alcohol.
It would be interesting for María José to meet professor Gregory Jones from the University of South Oregon, who has done extensive research on the effects of climate change on wine. According to a report I recently read, research in St.-Émilion and Pomerol revealed that climate accounted for over 50% of the variation in quality parameters, 25% was due to soil, 15-20% due to cultural practices and varietal differences the rest.
It was hard for me to concentrate on the wines while listening to María José’s storytelling, but my tasting notes follow.
1998 white: medium pale yellow; delicate citrus aroma; racy acidity. It took the wine about an hour to really show its character. I wondered, ‘ if the 1998 took this long to open up, how long would it be for the 1991 and 1970?’
1991 white: straw yellow; chamomile, wildflowers; high acidity, good structure. Amazingly alive for a 22 year old white.
1970 white: a little darker straw yellow; slight oak aroma, melon, grapefruit, wildflowers; good structure, long mouthfeel. Amazingly alive for a 43 year old wine. It was blindingly obvious that high acidity provided the backbone allowing this wine to retain its characteristics after so many years.
On to the reds.
2001: cherry/light brick; lively; maraschino cherries; great structure with firm, elegant tannins and lively acidity.
1994: color a little more towards brick than cherry; same delicate sensation of cherries; round, elegant tannins, very polished, high acidity.
1964: brick with an orange rim; delicately floral; red fruit just perceptible, still good acidity. An interesting wine but past its prime. Who cares? What an experience! It was hard to believe that this wine was thirty years older than the 1994.
On the subject of ageing, María José explained that her great grandfather didn’t intend his wines to be laid down, except for consumption by the family – this was his concept of a ‘reserva’, something for the family to keep and drink. Judging from the acclaim received for these old vintages from wine writers and consumers, it’s fortunate that the stock of these old vintages of Tondonia has surpassed the family’s thirst!
For dinner, Iraide Somarriba prepared a fantastic offering of dishes to go with her husband’s wines. By this time (since no spit buckets had been provided), the conversation around the table was lively and we concentrated more on the food rather than the wine.
White asparagus mousse with hollandaise sauce.
Wine: Predicador white.
Tuna tenderloin topped with anchovies, roasted red peppers and fried slices of potato.
A tempura-fried Gernika pepper with a piquillo pepper sauce.
Hake on a bed of crushed crabmeat topped with a hake cheek.
Wine: Qué Bonito Cacareaba white 2011
Stewed pigs’ trotters served in a ‘Vizcaya’ sauce (stewed spicy pepper meat with olive oil and ham) with wild mushrooms.
Wine: Predicador 2011.
Benjamin, who has a reputation for being a smart aleck, remarked while grinning at María José, that the wine had been bottled that afternoon. That got a big laugh from the audience!
Brownie (well, sort of)
Wine: La Viña de Andrés Romeo 2009
I have to admit that because of the lively conversation around the table and the speed with which both the dishes and the wines were served, I didn’t take detailed tasting notes on either the food or the wines, but I can say that the food was excellent and the wines promising, but largely inscrutable, at least to my nose and palate. I preferred the two whites to the reds, which showed great concentration and jamminess. They were very closed, almost like a black hole, with just a hint of what would undoubtedly open up in time to great complexity.
It would have been fun to spend another two hours talking, waiting for the wines to open up, but it was a week night and the fear of police cars on the prowl for tipsy drivers made me leave right after the meal.
Benjamin is going to give a tasting of his wines in the near future where I’ll be able to give them the attention they undoubtedly deserve.
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.