February 25, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
In the near future I’ll write more about Bodegas Bilbainas, one of Rioja’s classic wineries that has been carefully rescued from decay.
January 20, 2014
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
December 10, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
Tempranillo blanco: 96
Malvasía de Rioja: 68
Sauvignon blanc: 36
Garnacha blanca: 19
Maturana blanca: 6
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.