Photo credit:

Photo credit:

September in Rioja is usually the time when the region slowly returns to life and begins to prepare for the grape harvest after the August holidays. But this year it awoke with a start. The Agency for Information and Foodstuff Control, a government body created to improve transparency in transactions between producers and sellers of foodstuffs, dropped a bomb on Rioja wineries with a law obliging them to pay grape growers 30 days after delivery of grapes or face fines of up to 100,000 euros per transaction. The Agency confirmed that grapes were defined as perishable goods in contracts between wineries and farmers and subject to the 30 day- payment rule. The Spanish Wine Federation protested but the Ministry of the Economy ratified the decision.

Luis Lecea, president of the Rioja Regulatory Council (Photo:  Tom Perry)

Luis Lecea, president of the Rioja Regulatory Council (Photo: Tom Perry)

Without this unfortunate news, all the players here had good reasons to be happy. Sales over the last 12 months had been about the same as in the previous 12 months and ex-cellars prices were stable. From the farmers’ point of view, the 2014 crop appeared to be abundant and several large purchases by wineries at 85 euro cents per kilo for red grapes and about one euro per kilo for white grapes exceeded expectations and not only covered their production costs but guaranteed them a healthy profit. By comparison, in the DE Cava in Catalonia, prices of white grapes are about 35 euro cents per kilo, in Valdepeñas, 24 cents, in La Mancha, 15 cents and Extremadura, 12 cents.

Until now, wineries, especially the big players, have enjoyed the upper hand in their relationships with farmers, dictating grape prices and payment terms. Farmers delivered their grapes on consignment and were forced to accept payment in six or more months’ time depending on uncertain market conditions such as ‘the average price of transactions by three cooperatives’. It was the perfect formula for strained relations.

The election of a farmer as the president of the Regulatory Council ushered in a new climate of compromise that produced an historic agreement: all grape transactions would be subject to written contracts between the parties and payment would take place at 90 days.

The Spanish Wine Federation asked the Agency if its decision excluded the possibility of partial, fixed payment at 30 days and a variable component depending on market conditions. The agency’s reply was that a variable component was possible as long as it was determined by verifiable criteria.

Given Spanish banks’ extreme reticence about loans or credit, this is not the best time to be the managing director or the finance director of a winery.

My good friend Casimiro Somalo, a journalist specializing in wine and agriculture, made an interesting comment the other day on his Facebook page (translation mine):

“There are things I don’t understand and never will. That the government has mandated a deadline for the wineries to pay for grapes seems surreal and like Soviet intervention. This is no excuse to break free market rules, not in the wine trade or anywhere else. I’d like to hear the Ministry’s lawyers explain how they allow the big supermarket chains to pay farmers whenever they please – a year or more? Let’s see if they explain that rights are individual and that we’re capable of signing a contract without rules governing how many hours of sleep we can get. And if this law is good for wine, why not for cereal grains, whose prices have been at rock bottom for years? This is beginning to look shameless.”

Casimiro Somalo (Photo:  Tom Perry)

Casimiro Somalo
(Photo: Tom Perry)






“Winemaking today is about chemistry. Tomorrow it will be about physics.”

Making a statement like that is Oscar Tobía’s style and in keeping with his role as Rioja’s greatest winemaking innovator. It’s a powerful statement in a region where innovation is everywhere, an indispensible requirement for success in an extremely competitive marketplace.

My friend Jeremy Watson, former director of Wines from Spain in the UK and author of two highly regarded books about Spanish wines, recently expressed an interest in visiting Bodegas Tobía after hearing interesting things about the winery. He asked me to set up the visit and I duly complied.

Jeremy Watson and Oscar Tobía (Photo: Tom Perry)

Jeremy Watson and Oscar Tobía (Photo: Tom Perry)

Oscar enjoys pushing the envelope. He made Rioja’s first barrel fermented rosé but wasn’t allowed to sell it because the technique wasn’t in the Rioja rulebook, but he insisted, won the support of other winemakers and was finally successful in getting the rules changed.

Oscar led us outside to his fermentation tanks, where we saw the first evidence of his commitment to innovation: the exclusive use of Ganimede fermenters from Italy that store and release the CO2 produced during fermentation to constantly mix the grapeskins and the fermenting juice, avoiding the formation of a cap. Oscar says it’s a totally natural process and saves on the cost of traditional methods of mixing the skins and the juice such as delestage, pumping over or pigeage. While a few other Spanish wineries use this technology, only two are in Rioja – Bodegas Montecillo and the San Asensio cooperative, and these only use it partially. Oscar believes that Italy is at the forefront of winemaking innovation today and that Rioja winemakers still pay too much attention to Bordeaux.

Two of the winery's Ganimede fermenters

Two of the winery’s Ganimede fermenters

A second innovation is the use of peristaltic pumps that work by expansion and contraction like the movement of food through our intestines to transfer the skins and juice from the fermenters to the press where they’re separated, avoiding Oscar’s pet peeve, oxidation. In his words, “the wine is born younger”.

A future project is to store the CO2 produced during fermentation in underground tanks for use in the winery to avoid the necessity of buying tanks of gas, another cost-saving device.

Oscar criticizes the abuse of fertilizer in Rioja vineyards, which has increased yields but has also caused an increase of potassium and lower acidity in wines. Traditionally, potassium salts are precipitated and removed by cold stabilization, which Oscar feels is hard on the wines. His solution has been to design a machine to lower the level of potassium (he didn’t explain how it worked) to avoid cold stabilization and the addition of acids. “Less expensive and easier on the wines”, Oscar says.

Another innovation is debourbage by means of flotation. Instead of siphoning off precipitated sediments by gravity, Bodegas Tobía injects nitrogen gas mixed with a kind of gelatin into the tanks. This causes any sediment to float to the top of the tank where it’s removed.

Like other Rioja wineries, Bodegas Tobía uses different kinds of oak: American, French, Hungarian and even Slovak. Unlike other Rioja wineries he experiments with barrels made from wood other than oak, such as ash, cherry, acacia and chestnut in a project with the Murua cooperage and the University of La Rioja. Oscar says that the results are promising and he hopes to release wines aged in these kinds of wood in the near future.

The barrel aging cellar

The barrel aging cellar

Following the tour of the winery, Oscar offered a tasting of eight of the wines from his wide (but not unmanageable) range.

Oscar Tobía white reserva 2009. 50% malvasía, 50% viura with 18 months in French and American oak. Pale yellow; aroma of wildflowers with a subtle touch of well-integrated oak; elegant, almost understated. I liked it a lot. Oscar says he wants to make a wine like the López de Heredia whites, which have taken international markets by storm.

Daimon barrel fermented white 2012. 60% viura, 30% malvasía, 10% tempranillo blanco. Pale straw; chamomile and other dried flowers; medium body, just the right acidity. Very good.

Alma de Tobía barrel fermented rosé 2013. 55% tempranillo, 35% graciano, 10% “other”. Pretty cherry color; bubble gum and anise; interesting smoky character with oak and strawberries.

Daimon barrel fermented red 2012. 56% tempranillo, 22% graciano, 16% garnacha, 6% “other”. Light cherry; strawberries, a hint of oak; crisp acidity with firm tannin, easy to drink but not a simple wine – it has a good backbone.

Tobía Selección crianza 2010. 80% tempranillo, 10% graciano, 10% garnacha. Medium ruby; noticeably oaky, smoky, red fruit; lipsmacking, good structure. I thought it had been given too much oak, but otherwise good.

Oscar Tobía reserva 2010. 90% tempranillo, 10% graciano. Medium ruby; well-integrated red fruit and oak, herbal, minty; Lovely fruit, perfect acidity and firm tannin. Terrific!

Tobía gran reserva 2000. 100% tempranillo. Vinified before the purchase of the Ganimede fermenters. Medium brick; a ‘traditional’ Rioja nose of oak, cedar chest and cloves; silky, good backbone in spite of its age. For me the best wine of the lot.

Alma de Tobía 2009. The same blend as the rosé. Deep garnet, almost inky; dark fruit, spicy; really mouth filling, luscious. Definitely a departure from the previous reds. Oscar said it had some ‘experimental grapes starting with an “m’’ from a vineyard in one of the highest vineyards in Rioja Alta.


I enjoyed all of Oscar’s wines, although in my opinion, the Tobía Selección 2010 was overoaked and not quite up to the standard of the others.

Oscar uses his barrels for five years and all of his reds undergo malo in barrel. For Alma de Tobía he uses French oak, for Oscar Tobía, one year old French, Hungarian and new American oak. His crianzas are aged in one year old wood from several origins and his graciano (which we didn’t taste), in Hungarian oak. Oscar feels that Hungarian oak respects the original fruit profile of the unaged wines better than the others but it’s expensive, almost as much so as French oak.

He is placing a bet on sauvignon blanc among the new varieties approved by the Rioja Regulatory Council and malvasía among the current varieties. He recently stated in a white wine supplement in our local newspaper LA RIOJA, “Sauvignon blanc is very elegant and blends well with Riojan varietals. Malvasía hasn’t been very popular but it offers numerous possibilities”.

Oscar sells a high percentage of his wines abroad, so keep an eye out for them.

Bodegas Tobía. Paraje Senda Rutia, s/n 26214 Cuzcurrita del Río Tirón (La Rioja)

Even though I can’t participate in the 2014 DWCC because of a scheduling conflict, I’d like to make a small contribution to help ramp up the excitement leading up to the event, so here’s a story about one of my trips to Switzerland twenty years ago, when I learned a valuable lesson about the wine business.

It was the mid-1990s, a time of uncertainty in the European wine trade because of several scandals involving illegal additives to wine. Because of the potential risks involved in selling bulk wine, Rioja made the decision to bottle 100% of its production inside the ‘denominación de origen’ and Porto made, or was about to make, the same decision, in this case, backed up by a government decree. Switzerland had been the leading purchaser of bulk Rioja because customs duties and taxes were lower for bulk than bottled wine and it was my job as managing director of the Rioja Wine Exporters’ Association to promote bottled Rioja. So we agreed on a plan to put Rioja’s bottled at source brands front and center to the Swiss wine trade and consumers.

Education was an important part of the plan so the first year we invited the wine lecturers of the major Swiss hotel and restaurant schools to visit us. The following year we began to offer seminars to the students in those schools. The idea was for me to give introductory lectures after which the local lecturers would add ‘Rioja’ to the curricula in the schools.

The lecturers decided to reciprocate for our having taught them about Rioja by inviting me to visit some Swiss wineries. One of these trips was to the Valais region, southeast of Lake Leman. We arrived at a pretty Swiss chalet in the mountains near Fully and went inside the garage under the house. We were greeted by a woman who showed us her winery (located inside the garage) that consisted of some polyester fermentation and storage tanks,  a manual filling device and some cases stacked in a corner.

I thought, “Why did they bring me here?” I was used to big wineries with huge stainless steel vats and row after row of barriques. Our hostess opened a several bottles of wine and gave us a plate of bread and cheese, at which time we went to the garden and sat at a picnic table for a wine and cheese-fuelled snack.

The wines and cheese were good but I couldn’t help wondering “Why did they bring me here?”

Shortly afterward, a big black BMW with Zurich number plates pulled up to the garage. Four guys in suits got out of the car and our hostess went to meet them. “Bankers”, I thought. One of the lecturers took my arm and beckoned for me to follow him to the garage. “Watch this”, he said.

While we looked on, our hostess poured a small glass of wine for each suit. They thoughtfully sniffed, swirled and sipped. The men asked to buy some cases of wine, whereupon our hostess remarked, “Now I know you. Fill out this form and next year I’ll sell you a case.”

I was speechless. My lecturer friend pointed out that our hostess was Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, one of the most famous winemakers in Switzerland whose wines were in such short supply and great demand that they were sold on allocation.

marietheresedetendueMarie-Thérèse Chappaz


The story doesn’t end here. Marie-Thérèse later showed us her vineyards on the steep slope of a nearby mountain. To harvest the grapes, the winery had installed cables attached to metal boxes to bring them down the slope to the winery.

Several years later during a wine marketing lecture to a group in the Canary Islands I told the story to a winemaker whose vineyards were on the side of a steep hill. I put him in touch with Marie-Thérèse. Later I heard that he had installed a similar rig in his mountainside vineyard.

The cables leading down the mountainside from the vineyard. (Credit 2012 UniversDitvin)

The cables leading down the mountainside from the vineyard.
(Credit 2012 Univers Ditvin)

It was my first glimpse at marketing low volume, high demand garage wines and I’ve never forgotten it. I tell the story to all my wine marketing students as a lesson about how to create demand in a crowded marketplace.

Even though I won’t be able to attend the 2014 DWCC, I hope the attendees have the opportunity to take a field trip to Fully in the Valais to meet Marie-Thérèse Chappaz. You won’t regret it.

Marie-Thérèse Chappaz

La Liaudizaz

CH-1926 Fully (the site is currently being revamped)


From 2004 to 2012, the Rioja Regulatory Council rated four vintages ‘excellent’ and five ‘very good’. When 2013 was judged ‘good’, people here were surprised, because throughout the year conditions were so bad in the vineyards that we were expecting a much lower rating.

The Rioja Regulatory Council carries out an extremely rigorous tasting program of samples of wines from each new vintage. Winemakers from Rioja wineries are given anonymous samples to taste and grade. Some don’t make it – over 8 million liters in 2013. Once the samples have been tasted and accepted, their scores are plugged into a mathematical formula whose results determine whether the vintage is rated ‘excellent’, ‘very good’, ‘good’, ‘standard’ and ‘average’.

Preparing samples to be tasted by the panel

Preparing samples to be tasted by the panel

(Photo credit:  DOCa Rioja)

The fact that the formula assigned ‘good’ to the 2013 vintage is undoubtedly a tribute to the skill of Rioja winemakers.

Since every vintage rating is the average rating of the sum of the individual wines, I feel that the current nomenclature leaves a lot to be desired, especially when the lowest two ratings are ‘standard’ and ‘average’. In the past, the terms were excelente (excellent), muy buena (very good), buena (good), regular (so-so) y deficiente (deficient). It makes more sense to use the downward sliding scale of the past, but the Regulatory Council explains that the tasting panels reject the substandard wines that are therefore not eligible to be called Rioja so it makes no sense to declare a so-so or a deficient vintage.

A member of the Rioja tasting panel evaluating a sample

A member of the Rioja tasting panel evaluating a sample

(Photo credit:  DOCa Rioja)

Like many other aspects of the wine business, Bordeaux started the tradition of assigning ratings to vintages over a hundred years ago and was duly mimicked by other regions in France as well as wine producing regions throughout Europe, among them Rioja.

And, in keeping with its iconoclastic style, rating vintages has been mainly ignored by the New World.

To return to the question posed in the title of this article, in my opinion, vintage ratings are overrated. As a matter of fact, they can be downright misleading. I remember offering 1979 Rioja (‘normal’ i.e. not so good) to my European distributors in 1983 that bought it enthusiastically because it was a very good vintage in Bordeaux. We didn’t receive a single complaint about the wines from this vintage. However when we tried to sell 1980 (good), the same distributors asked for more 1979 because Bordeaux 1980 was so-so. Fortunately comparisons with Bordeaux are a thing of the past.

Wineries in Rioja treat vintage ratings like Parker scores. If they’re over 90, they advertise them. If not, they say nothing and nobody cares. And, because vintage ratings are by definition the average ratings of the individual wines, individual wineries can say that even though the vintage was only average, THEIR wine was excellent. Witness the recent press conference given by Alvaro Palacios in the UK who announced a ‘game changing’ 100% garnacha Rioja from 2013 from his family’s vineyard in Rioja Baja.

An agronomist engineer/winemaker has suggested a dual system of classification in our local newspaper: a rating of the harvest shortly following its conclusion which would include young wines, and a rating of the vintage, which would include the wines eligible for ‘crianza’ status after twelve months in oak. This would allow markets to understand the ageworthiness of very good and excellent vintages, the ones that would produce ‘reservas’ and ‘gran reservas’. It’s an interesting idea that in my opinion merits debate in the Regulatory Council.

Although most of the 2013 will be sold as young wine and crianza, Rioja can boast a run of very good and excellent vintages – crianzas, reservas and gran reservas from 2004 through 2011 that are currently in markets worldwide. Believe me, 2013 will not be a problem.

 One tradition that sets the Basque Country, Navarra and La Rioja apart from the rest of Spain is the men’s eating club. These clubs, called ‘sociedades gastronómicas’ in Spanish used to be totally off limits to women, perhaps to give men a breather from what they perceived as the strictures of the matriarchal society in the Basque country in which their wives ran the household and administered the family budget. Times have changed of course and women are sometimes invited to eat there but are never allowed in the kitchen. Ever.

A poster/poem warning wives that they can't go to the kitchen

A poster/poem warning wives that they can’t go to the kitchen

Last week I was invited to have lunch at one of these clubs, La Rondalosa, in Logroño. This club is more than just a place for its members to cook, eat, drink and sing. It’s also a ‘sociedad recreativa’ (recreation club) and as such, actively participates in the wine festival of San Mateo, with the members parading behind their banner with a band. My friends who attend the Sanfermines in Pamplona will recognize it as a ‘peña’.

The lunch I attended was particularly interesting because we ate the season’s first fresh white asparagus and enjoyed the wines from Bodegas Pastor Domeco, whose owner José Pastor is an old buddy.

Cooking freshly picked, peeled white asparagus

Cooking freshly picked, peeled white asparagus

If your only experience with white asparagus is the tinned variety, you’re missing a real treat. This vegetable is grown along the Ebro Valley in La Rioja, Navarra and Aragon with the first harvest in April and the last in June. Wisely, the producers have decided to market their asparagus as ‘Espárragos de Navarra’ rather than several independent appellations. The best asparagus is harvested in April. In fact there’s a saying about it:


“En abril para mí, en mayo para el amo y en junio para ninguno”

(In April for me, in May for my boss and in June for no one”)

The asparagus stalks are dug out of the ground when the tip just pokes through. They’re peeled by hand (you have to wear gloves because your hands will turn black) and boiled until tender. They’re served warm with mayonnaise, vinaigrette sauce or by themselves and are a real delicacy. They are a world apart from green asparagus.

A lot of tinned white asparagus comes from South America and labeled as local produce but the fresh ones are indisputably local and are snatched up at local markets in April and May. If you happen to be in Spain at this time, don’t pass up the chance to try them.

Normal operating procedure at an eating club is to have an aperitif and a few glasses of wine to stimulate your appetite. Our aperitif last week could be considered a meal in itself, with seven or eight big plates of tapas.















Afterwards, we tucked into a three course lunch: a fava bean and cuttlefish stew (habas con sepia), hake cheeks with smoked spicy peppers (kokotxas de merluza con pimientos) and fruit cocktail steeped in all kinds of liqueurs. Then, coffee and either a shot of dry anisette or a gin and tonic.

Fava bean and cuttlefish stew on the stovetop

Fava bean and cuttlefish stew on the stovetop






the finished product






Hake cheeks and red peppers

Hake cheeks and red peppers



The meal ended with the chefs tallying up the cost of the meal and dividing the cost among the people present.



 a lobster from the Bay of Biscay


a lobster from the Bay of Biscay

Several hours later, satiated, we made our way home for a short nap to prepare for a tapas crawl around Logroño’s Old Town. For me it was the perfect way to start the weekend!



Álvaro Palacios (Photo credit:

Álvaro Palacios
(Photo credit:

I read the other day that there are about 140,000 wineries in the world, most of them small. It’s not hard to imagine that given this fact, gaining the attention of distributors, retailers and consumers is a monumental task. Because wine is an emotional product, telling a good story is an essential first step.

Rioja has a number of master storytellers, notably María José López de Heredia, Agustín Santolaya from Roda and Miguel Ángel de Gregorio (Finca Allende), but the king is Álvaro Palacios.

Álvaro is one of several brothers in the Palacios family from Alfaro in Rioja Baja. In the 1980s it appeared that family patriarch Antonio Palacios was going to pass the torch to his oldest son Antonio. Álvaro felt restless so he went to work for a few years at a barrel manufacturer and then struck out on his own. He settled in Priorato, a remote hilly area with slate soil in the province of Tarragona, known chiefly because of a company that made communion wines. He must have seen something special there because he soon began making very small batches of wine that he aged in a few oak barriques. I’m sure his father was proud of Álvaro for his independent spirit but that didn’t keep him from making a little fun of him. Antonio senior once told me that Álvaro only had two or three barrels – a joke at a time when a Rioja winery had to own at least 500 barrels to have the right to use the official Rioja crianza, reserva and gran reserva back labels.

The next thing I heard from Álvaro was at the holiday portfolio tasting in 1990 at Martin-Scott Wines, Campo Viejo’s New York distributor. Each of the suppliers present had to pour their own wines as well as those from producers from the same country who weren’t able to attend the tasting. I had to pour a wine called Clos Dofí, a powerful, inky red from Priorato made with garnacha and six or seven other varieties. Surprise! It was Álvaro’s first wine.

The rest is history as Álvaro has parlayed the wines from those few barrels into a reputation as Spain’s most famous winemaker.

A few years ago, the tables turned for the Palacios family with the eldest son leaving to start his own venture, and the Rioja winery in the hands of his sister Chelo. She persuaded Álvaro to return to Rioja to lead the family winery while maintaining his businesses in Priorat and Bierzo, this last one with Chelo’s son Ricardo Pérez.

Álvaro’s presence was quickly felt in Alfaro with the creation and success of Placet, La Montesa, Propiedad and La Vendimia with which he has tried passionately to elevate the image of Rioja Baja, the garnacha grape, that accounted for half the area planted to red grapes until the early 1980s, and high altitude viticulture at the family’s vineyards on the slopes of Mount Yerga.

It’s a job he’s been largely doing by himself. A few days ago he wrote an impassioned article in our local paper criticizing the decision of the governments of La Rioja and Álava (central and western Rioja) to apply for UNESCO World Heritage status for Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa while completely ignoring Rioja Baja. It’s a shame.

Álvaro once again turned the status quo in Rioja on its head at a recent press conference where he announced the creation of a ” game changing” single vineyard garnacha from Rioja Baja. At an interview given to The Drinks Business, Palacio touched all the right buttons, instantly creating enormous expectation about the release of his revolutionary Rioja. This is wine storytelling at its best.

Below is an excerpt from the article summarizing the interview which I have copied from The Drinks Business online:

“Palacios to release ‘game changing’ Rioja

28th March, 2014 by Lucy Shaw

Pioneering Spanish winemaker Alvaro Palacios is to release a “game changing” single vineyard Rioja onto the market next year.

Speaking exclusively to the drinks business at an en primeur tasting of the 2013 vintage of his wines from Priorat and Bierzo, Palacios said: “It will be nothing like any wine to have come out of Rioja so far.

“It’s a bit like a Gevrey-Chambertin in character – it has real soul and is quite magical.

“Currently in barrel, it’s a beautiful, bright ruby red and has crisp red fruit aromas of wild strawberries. It’s quite lactic too, so has a creamy mouthfeel, but also notes of tangerine peel, rosemary and thyme.”

Due to be called Valmira, the wine is made from 100% Garnacha grown in a three-hectare single vineyard of the same name at Palacios’ family estate in the village of Alfaro in Rioja Baja.

“I’m confident about the pricing because I’m confident about the quality of the wine. Plus, there won’t be a lot of it – only around 1,300 bottles of the 2013 vintage,” he said.

Palacios has been working on the project for a decade, but a standout harvest in 2013 has spurred the perfectionist to finally release it.

Over the last 10 years, Palacios has been busy grafting low bush vines with Garnacha and uprooting the Tempranillo planted in the vineyard.

“Garnacha is the queen grape of Rioja Baja – it’s been there for centuries. Producers were wrong to uproot it for Tempranillo in order to make a quick buck,” he said.”

The wine business would be a different place if more wineries told their stories with as much passion as Álvaro Palacios.

Jeremy Watson

Jeremy Watson (photo Tom Perry)

Jeremy Watson’s knowledge of Spain, Spanish wines and of course Rioja far surpassed anyone else’s in the UK until he retired 10 years ago. He had a leg up on most of the other Spanish specialists because of his long experience as a Spanish wine importer, agent, Director of Wines from Spain UK for many years and author. His magnum opus, The New and Classical Wines of Spain, published in 2002, is a hefty 440 page in-depth look at everything you need to know about Spanish wines.

I met Jeremy in the mid-1970s while working at Hijos de Antonio Barceló, my first job in the wine business and we have been good friends ever since.

Jeremy often emails me thoughtful, incisive comments about my posts in Inside Rioja, which I greatly appreciate. The one below is especially enlightening about Rioja in the late 1960s and Bodegas Bilbainas in particular. It is with his permission that I reproduce it for you.

“Dear Tom

 I very much enjoyed your piece about the La Tavina Tastings and Bilbainas.

 You may recall this was the first Rioja Bodega I ever visited and that was in 1968 when my then wife and I included it when having a holiday in Zarauz. The company I worked for in London imported vast quantities of Rioja wines but in bulk for bottling in the UK and marketed as Spanish Burgundy, Chablis etcetera, but certainly not as Rioja. So our visit was very welcome and the boss, owner Don Juan Ugarte, travelled up from Bilbao to receive us. He was a charming man but with very strong views; “Spain makes the best wines in the world, Rioja is the best wine in Spain and Bilbainas makes the best wines in Rioja. Therefore Bilbainas makes the best wines in the world”!!!!! There’s something rather Montgomeryesque about those words; “I won Alamein and according to Churchill Alamein won the war, therefore I won the war.” In Ugarte’s case it was explained to me as typical Basque pride. In Montgomery’s, only he knows.

 Anyway after a very interesting tour of the Bodega when we saw what was state of the art technology at the time of ultra modern steel fermentation hoppers and the temperature controlled fermentation vats for the whites, we sat down on a sofa to taste the full range of wines. They were on a small coffee table using an assortment of glasses little bigger than egg cups and all colours of the rainbow; tricky to say the least. What was striking though was the crisp, light freshness of the cheap, unaged white.

 It was 4 years before I visited other Bodegas, those being Riscal and Murrieta. They were not so welcoming but our contacts with them were more intermittent. Since then I have been lucky enough to visit over a hundred. In 1973 Rioja exports to Britain were about 25,000 cases if my memory serves me right. By 1978 this had risen to 75,000 when the acceleration began to 300,000 cases in 1982 and the 3 million today.

 I recall one lovely story told to me by Santiago, Juan’s only son. They had shipped the usual railway wagonload of bottled wines for our Christmas requirements by train direct from the Bodega but it never arrived at the port, so a replacement was sent by road at great expense to them. Meanwhile Santiago tried tracing the route of the container through Miranda de Ebro to Bilbao but could not find it until he actually started going through the marshalling yards at Miranda. No small job but and eventually he came across it tucked away at the back. When he made enquiries of the shunters he was told that it was a ‘terrible error’ which they could not comprehend. Though not the brightest spark, Santi guessed he knew the answer and went back to the Bodega to enquire whether the usual couple of free cases for the shunters at Miranda had been included in the wagon. He was told they had been forgotten; so the problem was solved. Mind you I believe there was a similar gift for the Customs at Bilbao from most Bodegas and that practice continued for many years.

Sadly as Don Juan grew older, the business started to slide badly. By now Santi had died from illness that resulted from a terrible accident before I had met him. One of his sisters was in a convent while the other was married to a lawyer who tried desperately to revive the company whilst continuing his practice, but to no avail and eventually the great Cava company, Codorníu bought it. What they have done to put Bilbainas back on its feet is fantastic. Of course one must not underrate the power of the Ederra and Viña Pomal brands which, along with a highly acclaimed winemaker, Pepe Hidalgo, held it together way longer than it probably deserved.”

Elaborating on Jeremy’s story, after Santi Ugarte’s death, the remaining heirs fought off a hostile takeover by their neighbour winery CVNE and sold the company to a group of investors led by a director of a major Spanish bank, José Luis Urdampilleta. They made important investments, especially a remodelling of the huge barrel ageing cellars after which they sold the winery to Codorniú who have the financial resources and distribution to give the Bilbainas wines the recognition they deserve.

Most people living outside Spain aren’t aware that Bilbainas produces one of Spain’s best cavas – Royal Carlton. Their experience with sparkling wine goes back almost a century. I remember visiting several years ago with a group of wine writers at which time the winery showed us a framed invoice from Bilbainas to one of the most famous champagne houses. I can’t remember the date of the invoice but apparently this particular maison had problems providing champagne to its customers and turned to a Rioja bodega for help!

Another interesting anecdote referred to the future of the Royal Carlton brand after Bilbainas’ purchase by Codorniú. In spite of Royal Carlton’s popularity in Catalonia, Codorniú’s first intention was to discontinue the brand. They received so many complaints from shops and consumers that they decided to keep selling this Riojan cava in Catalonian cava’s home market!






Rioja winemakers are used to hosting winemakers’ dinners all over the world, but surprisingly doing them on their home turf is a new thing for them. Things are changing fast however.  A group of young entrepreneurs from Rioja recently leased a three-story building at the beginning of calle Laurel, Logroño’s famous tapas street, turning it into a wine and tapas bar on the ground floor, an informal restaurant and tasting room on the first floor and a full-fledged gourmet restaurant on the second floor.

 Just about every Monday evening during the fall and winter, this restaurant, La Tavina, invites a winemaker from Rioja (but sometimes from elsewhere) to talk about their wines.  It’s not easy to get a seat because demand is high and space is extremely limited. Perusing my tasting notes I can see that the tastings I’ve attended there include Ruinart and Veuve Clicquot from Champagne, Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha (Rioja), Bodegas Campillo (Rioja), Bodegas Bilbainas (Rioja), artisanal cheese and wine, Bodegas La Rioja Alta (Rioja), Recaredo (Cava) and Do Ferreiro (Rías Baixas).

La Tavina is especially good at matching the featured wines with small bites of food.  A few weeks ago, Bodegas Bilbainas and winemaker Diego Pinilla were featured.  Pinilla brought a range of commercially available wines as well as samples of experimental single varietal and single vineyard wines.

the lineup

the lineup

Viña Pomal white 2012, a blend of 70% viura and 30% malvasía was fermented in barrel (60% French and 40% American) and also given a short period of aging in barrel.  Pale yellow. On the nose it showed floral, citrus and stone fruit aromas.  On the palate it had a medium mouthfeel with good balance. The oak was perfectly balanced with the fruit and acidity – something  other barrel fermented Rioja whites aren’t often good at.

It was paired with a tomato and sardine tartare with pomegranate. A great match! The weight and balance of the wine perfectly offset the acidity of the tomato and the oiliness of the sardine.

tomato and sardine tartare with pomegranate

tomato and sardine tartare with pomegranate

Viña Pomal reserva 2009 Selección Centenaria.  100% tempranillo. 13,5% abv. 18 months in American oak followed by two years in bottle before release.

Medium black cherry.   Red and black berries with elegant tannins and the obvious presence of oak (since this is a big seller in Spain, being able to perceive oak is a positive characteristic). Medium mouthfeel.  No food with this wine.

La Vicalanda reserva 2009. 14% abv. 100% tempranillo grown on old bush-pruned vines from quaternary and clay/limestone soils.  Aged in French oak barrels, half of which are new. 14 months in oak and two years in the bottle when released.

After this description I expected and got a ‘modern’ Rioja.  This brand was in fact developed by Bilbainas’ former winemaker Pepe Hidalgo to help the winery shake off its image as a staid old Rioja brand.  Intense black cherry color.  On the nose, overripe grapes and spices (something Spaniards call ‘balsámico’) but otherwise not very expressive at first.  Opens up later to a red cranberry-like aroma.  An interesting contrast between acidity and the overripe grape sensation.  Good balance with ripe tannins on the palate.

This wine needed some pretty powerful food and La Tavina delivered gnocchi and Riojan spicy potatoes, a really good fit.

gnocchi with spicy potatoes Rioja style

gnocchi with spicy potatoes Rioja style

2010 garnacha from vineyards in Tudelilla in Rioja Baja.  Diego mentioned that the winery wanted to produce an ‘Atlantic garnacha’ (meaning higher acidity and elegance than ‘warmth’) from grapes from an area characterized as influenced more by the Mediterranean than the Atlantic.  An interesting concept.

14,5% abv.. Fermented in oak vats with ten months’ barrel aging.  5000 bottles produced.  Medium intensity black cherry color.  Flowery and red fruit aromas.  Big on the palate but elegant with good acidity.  It was my favorite wine in the tasting.

It was paired with a grilled salt cod steak on a bed of a thick, garlic-based soup.  Once again, the powerful aromas and flavors of the tapa was a good complement to this chewy but elegant wine.

Salt cod steak on a bed of creamy garlic soup

Salt cod steak on a bed of creamy garlic soup

100% graciano (I didn’t write down the vintage but it was probably 2012).  From Bodegas Bilbaina’s ‘Vicuana’ vineyard near the Ebro river close to Haro.   Graciano is a late ripening variety that seems to grow better in Rioja Alta than Baja. This is also an experimental single varietal.  Until now, the graciano from Bilbainas went into Viña Pomal gran reserva as 8% of the blend.

Very intense black cherry color.  Predominantly floral aroma.  Very high acidity.  It was paired with a cured Iberian ham shoulder steak (presa ibérica) on a bed of cream of eggplant and couscous.  The very flavorful pork steak and fragrant eggplant went well with this elegant, fairly high acid graciano.

Cured Iberian ham shoulder steak (presa ibérica) on a bed of cream of eggplant and couscous.

Cured Iberian ham shoulder steak (presa ibérica) on a bed of cream of eggplant and couscous.

Viña Pomal Alto de la Caseta 2007.  100% tempranillo from a plot on stony soil inside the Viña Pomal vineyard from grapes over 35 years old.

Very intense black cherry color.  Concentrated black, plummy fruit.  Powerful but ripe tannins and good acidity on the palate that lasts a long time.

What else but chocolate with this intense, plummy mouthful of wine? The pairing was a creamy hot chocolate with cayenne pepper.  It was unbelievable!

Creamy hot chocolate with cayenne pepper

Creamy hot chocolate with cayenne pepper

In the near future I’ll write more about Bodegas Bilbainas, one of Rioja’s classic wineries that has been carefully rescued from decay.


On January 2, some very good friends who are also well connected wine buffs visiting from Miami invited my wife and me on a field trip deep into enemy territory – the heart of Ribera del Duero.  It was unthinkable to refuse because our destination was Bodegas Vega Sicilia, Spain’s most iconic winery, practically impossible to visit unless one is a distributor or an A-list journalist. Our hostess was the very knowledgeable, very charming export director, Puri Mancebo, who must have the best wine job in the world.

Puri Mancebo

Puri Mancebo

Puri, armed with a degree in economics, found the job at the winery while working as an economist at the Spanish Embassy Commercial Office in Sofia, Bulgaria.  After several years there, she figured it was time to move back to Spain.  During her search, one of the companies that contacted her was Vega Sicilia.  They told her to take her time – she could call them once she had returned to Spain.  To make a long story short, she got the job –  with the parent company – who sent her for a year to Hungary to develop international sales at Oremus, the group’s winery in Tokaj.  Puri says that the company must have figured, “if she lasts here, she’s the right person for the job at Vega Sicilia”, and so it was.

It was her first job in the wine business and she dove in headfirst, acquiring an impressive wine education that would allow her to speak with authority to the company’s customers and consumers around the world.

Puri doesn’t sell wine per se – it’s already been presold to longstanding customers with a yearly allocation. Her job is to meet customers, give tastings and host wine dinners around the world, a job that keeps her away from home 60% of the year. It’s a demanding job but obviously worth it.

The process of allocating bottles to customers fascinated us, so Puri explained how it worked.  We thought that the winery directly assigned a given number of bottles to each distributor every year but that’s not exactly true. Customers have the first word. Every January the winery sends out an allocation letter with the numbers left blank.  The distributor fills them in based on their expectations The winery juggles the figures based on available inventory, and, I suppose, past performance.

For any winery, this might seem to be an ideal situation, but one has to remember that it took the winery over one hundred years to cultivate this image, so patience is required.

Oak vinification tanks for Vega Sicilia 'Único'

Oak vinification tanks for Vega Sicilia ‘Único’

For me, a visit to any winery outside Rioja inevitably inspires comparison with how things are done in Rioja.  There were a lot of things different about Vega Sicilia.

The first thing that came to mind was the fact that the winery had lived in a vacuum in the Duero valley for most of its 150 year history, so it wrote its own rules about grape varieties, winemaking and aging rather than having to adopt rules made by others. In fact, when the DO Ribera del Duero was founded in 1982, the grape varieties authorized were the ones cultivated at Vega and the winery was no doubt the nucleus around which the DO Ribera del Duero was created.  Curiously, some of the wineries founded in the area chose not to join Ribera (Bodegas Mauro and Abadía Retuerta are probably the best-known) but rather joined ‘Vinos de la Tierra de Castilla-León’ when changes in the Spanish wine law made it possible to create new designations that allowed wineries not in the DO system to put vintages and grape varieties on their labels. Before that time, either you belonged to a DO, A DOCa like Rioja or you were a ‘vino de mesa’, in other words, a table wine, synonymous with plonk. For some wineries, the DO system was seen to be too rigid and intrusive.  If any winery in Spain could have gone solo it was Vega Sicilia, but to its credit, it joined the DO. This doesn’t appear to have affected its style one bit.

Another difference about Vega Sicilia is that grapes from each of its 85 vineyards are vinified separately.  For Puri, the essence of the winemaker’s skill is “the art of blending”.  No single vineyard or single varietal wines here.  In this respect, Vega is like Rioja in the old days.

There are 19 different soil types on the estate, ranging from those in hillside vineyards to others near the Duero river.  As a general rule, the vineyards between 35 and 70 years old produce grapes destined to become ‘Unico’ while those from 20 to 35 years old produce Valbuena.

The grapes meant for ‘Valbuena’, the winery’s second label, are vinified in stainless steel tanks while those destined to become Vega Sicilia ‘Único’ and ‘Único Reserva Especial’ are vinified in 19 oak vats.

State of the art winemaking technology is visible all over the winery.  Puri explained that there are mushroom-like devices on top of the malolactic fermentation vats so the winemaking team can see if malo has finished.  I also saw a device I had never seen before:  an elevator that takes  a tank from one floor to the other to avoid the ‘stress’ produced on the juice by pumping it over the cap during fermentation.  Only three of these ‘elevator tanks’ are in use in the wine world today:  one at Cos d’Estournel in the Médoc, one in California and this one.

the vat elevator

the vat elevator

A striking difference between Vega Sicilia and Rioja is how the wines are aged.  At Vega Sicilia, after malo, the wines are aged for a short time in 225-liter barriques, followed by more prolonged aging in large oak vats, then bottling. The vat stage allows the different wines to blend together. In Rioja, wineries almost always bottled directly after long aging in small barriques.

Vega Sicilia’s deep pockets allow it to replace these large vats, which are built on-site after five or six years.  The Rioja wineries that use large oak vats for fermentation make a big deal about the fact that  vat coopers are few and far between in the world, so accessibility to them is limited to a select few wineries.  This doesn’t appear to be a problem at Vega Sicilia.

The Valbuena is aged in oak for three years and for an additional two years in the bottle before release, while ‘Unico’ is aged in oak for 6½ years and a further four years in the bottle.

one of the barrel cellars at the winery

one of the barrel cellars at the winery

Único Reserva Especial, a blend of the last three vintages of Único’, is released 15 years after the harvest and according to Puri, only sold in magnums.  Only 15.000 bottles are released.

bottle aging in metal cages, called 'jaulones'

bottle aging in metal cages, called ‘jaulones’



Following our tour of the winery we went to the family home surrounded by vineyards, which is now used for corporate events.  We tasted the Valbuena 2009, to be released in March and the Único’ 2005, which will be released in 2015.

the founder's family home, now used for corporate events

the founder’s family home, now used for corporate events

My tasting notes (with a slightly diminished sense of smell and taste after two weeks of nonstop holiday partying):

Valbuena 2009.  80% tempranillo, 20% merlot and malbec.

Medium black cherry, plummy, a little tar.  Well-balanced.

Fresh acidity, elegant tannin, long.

Vega Sicilia Único 2005.  80% tempranillo, 20% cabernet sauvignon.

Black cherry with a brick meniscus.  Nose closed at first, opening up to lush cherry and plums with vibrant acidity, perfect balance and elegant tannins.

What struck me the most about these two wines was how perfectly balanced they were – no sharp edges anywhere.


I wondered, however, if I would have identified them as coming from Vega Sicilia if they were in a blind tasting with other wines from Ribera del Duero.  Of course they were very good but there are, of course, lots of other very good wines from this region. One’s expectations are high when tasting iconic wines if you’re looking at the labels or at least know what brand you’re tasting.

My prior experience with Vega Sicilia was limited to a bottle of Único consumed, of all places, at a picnic in the country with some friends in the mid 1970s and two bottles with some colleagues from the wine business at a restaurant in Osaka, Japan (if my memory serves me).  This last experience is worth elaborating on. We looked at the wine list and noticed that the wines were inexpensively priced, so we ordered and drank two bottles of Único.  Later, we asked the owner why the wines were so cheap.  He explained that he wanted to encourage people to drink wine so he sold them at cost!  Wouldn’t it be nice if more restaurants did that!

I wondered what the current retail prices for Valbuena and Único were so I looked in the Vila Viniteca (a fine wine shop) website in Barcelona.

Valbuena 2008 (75 cl):  95,60 euros/bottle.

Vega Sicilia Único 2003 (75cl):  236,90 euros/bottle

Único Reserva Especial 1994 – a blend of 1970, 1972 and 1974.  (75cl) 740 euros/bottle.



The recent publication of a supplement in our local newspaper LA RIOJA about white Rioja- Los blancos piden paso (Whites step forward) is a detailed look at how wineries are responding to the challenge of using newly approved varieties to overcome the limitations of the viura grape and take full advantage of world demand for white wine.

Pssst...have you tried the new white Riojas?

Pssst…have you tried the new white Riojas?

Although we’ve discussed viura’s limitations in depth in previous posts in Inside Rioja, a short summary follows.

Until the early 1980s, Rioja whites were made exactly the same as reds – fermentation in large oak vats and long ageing in old 225-liter American oak barriques, then bottling just before shipment from the winery.  Vinification in stainless steel at low temperatures began in the mid-eighties with the wines enjoying some initial success.  However, they were quickly criticized for either a lack of fresh aromatic fruit or for being similar to other “Euro-whites”.  Rioja smarted from these rebukes, but except for some success with barrel-fermented and barrel-aged styles in limited quantities, debates about authorizing other varieties in the Regulatory Council never prospered due to resistance from growers, and the subordination of the issue to debates about the saving certain local red varietals such as maturana tinta from extinction.

Viura (Credit


Faced with this dawdling, many Rioja wineries invested in Rías Baixas (Marqués de Murrieta, La Rioja Alta, Marqués de Vargas, Ramón Bilbao and others) and Rueda, notably Marqués de Riscal and Domecq Bodegas. Others made agreements with producers in these areas to bottle under license.

Finally in 2007, the Rioja Regulatory Council approved six new white varietals (the local varieties tempranillo blanco, maturana blanca and turruntés, the international chardonnay and sauvignon blanc and Rueda’s verdejo).  However, the Council also agreed that while the local whites could stand alone, the international varietals could be no more than 49% of a white blend, with 51% reserved for local varieties. In addition, the growers’ unions in the Council successfully lobbied regional governments to forbid planting, fearing that grape prices would plummet due to increased supply. Finally, after whites from Rías Baixas and Rueda had taken the Spanish and international markets by storm, relegating Rioja white to a testimonial presence, regional governments caved in to the demands of wineries and allowed white to be planted again.

Maturana blanca (Credit:

Maturana blanca

As of today, total of about 2500 new hectares (6175 acres) have been authorized, but incredibly, the authorization includes the possibility of planting viura.  So far, according to data from the Agriculture Council of La Rioja, out of the 750 hectares already planted, 53% is viura, 26% is tempranillo blanco, 6,43% verdejo, 3,76% sauvignon blanc and 2,6% chardonnay. According to the rules set down by local authorities, planting rights have been granted mainly to farmers – 85% -while wineries receive the remaining 15% but have to pay a transfer fee to buy rights on the open market. It’s clear that most farmers prefer viura because they’re familiar with it and it’s easy to grow- up to 11 or 12.000 kilos per hectare, well above the maximum authorized yield of 9.000 kilos.

So it appears that viura is being planted to…improve viura!

A lot of criticism has been leveled against the international varieties and verdejo because they would produce whites that are not ‘typically’ Rioja.  But what constitutes ‘typicity’?  In the case of Rioja reds, forty years ago a typical Rioja style indeed existed – just about everyone made blends of tempranillo and garnacha (more of the latter than the former) with a little mazuelo and graciano.  The grapes and wines were sourced from all over Rioja- from Rioja Alta and Alavesa for acidity and elegant aromas and from Rioja Baja for alcoholic strength.  These wines were aged for years in old American oak barrels and bottled just before shipment.  They showed aromas of jammy red fruit, a hint of oak, spice and leather, with high acidity due to the addition of a small amount of viura.

Sauvignon blanc (Credit:

Sauvignon blanc

Rioja’s expansion to about 600 wineries and the consequent need for differentiation in order to succeed has devalued the concept of typicity.  Today Rioja markets itself as ‘the land of 1000 wines’ with companies creating brands based not only on blends from different parts of our region aged in American oak barriques but also single varietal and single vineyard wines aged in American, French, Balkan, Russian, Mongolian and even Spanish oak. Today, a ‘typical’ Rioja white would probably not be popular due to the lack of fruit of a high yield viura based wine. So let’s start to think that Rioja whites can and should be as diverse as our reds.

Chardonnay (Credit:


Is there any hope for viura in Rioja? In my opinion, definitely. At much lower yields, Abel Mendoza and Finca Allende are producing great viura-based wines.  And no one can deny that the Viña Tondonia and Viña Bosconia whites from López de Heredia, blends of viura and malvasía and aged for years in used oak barriques in the classic Rioja style, are taking markets by storm.

Rioja wineries have adopted different strategies for their new whites.  For example, the Aldeanueva de Ebro cooperative, Rioja’s largest winery, is planning to build a new vinification plant for white wines.  The managing committee of this grape farmer–owned company has decided to oblige individual growers to plant the cooperative’s 160 newly authorized  hectares to at least 50% verdejo and the rest, tempranillo blanco, which will be blended with the cooperative’s holdings of viura.

Garnacha blanca (Credit:

Garnacha blanca

A similar strategy has been carried out at Dinastía Vivanco with a white made from 60% viura, 20% malvasía and 20% tempranillo blanco.

Bodegas Franco-Españolas, whose viura and malvasía-based whites can age for decades, defends local varieties.

Muga, too, is building on the huge success of its viura and malvasía based barrel fermented white.  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be its guiding principle.

What about the international varietals?  One interesting example is El Coto, a large company that has enjoyed spectacular success with 100% viura whites, notably because Pedro Guasch, the head winemaker for many years until his retirement and the current technical director Pedro Aibar were trained in white wine producing regions. But this winery is moving forward. Several years ago, El Coto bought a 567 acre plot in Rioja Baja where the company has planted 20 hectares of sauvignon blanc, 12 hectares of chardonnay and five hectares of verdejo.  El Coto has also planted small experimental plots of each of the newly authorized white varietals in another vineyard.

Bodegas Altanza in Fuenmayor is satisfied with its new blend of viura and sauvignon blanc.  Sources at the winery say that since adding sauvignon, sales of white have increased tenfold to 130.000 bottles.

If most of the new planting rights are in the hands of growers, the answer to the question, “what should I plant?” should be provided by the wineries that traditionally buy grapes from each grower.  This implies both a commitment to a long-term relationship between grower and winery in terms of promise to purchase as well as price.  One important question remains: how to produce better viura? If viura at 9000 kilos a hectare produces mediocre wines but good to great ones at 5000 kilos, the only solution is for wineries to agree to pay farmers a higher price to produce less.

It remains to be seen whether they will be willing to do this.

Hectares of white varietals in Rioja as of 31.12.12 (Source: 2012 Annual Report of the Rioja Regulatory Council)

Viura:  3546

Verdejo:  147

Tempranillo blanco:  96

Malvasía de Rioja:  68

Chardonnay:  55

Sauvignon blanc:  36

Garnacha blanca:  19

Maturana blanca:  6

Turruntés:  0,8

Others:  61