August 4, 2015
In the world of food and wine, nowadays everybody’s talking about specialization. The world’s top restaurants are making names for themselves with revolutionary prep and cooking techniques while wineries are making wines from rare or newly discovered varieties and aging them in innovative ways in oak from the four corners of the world. Anything goes as long as it’s original.
The other day however, we ate at a small neighborhood restaurant in Santander where we were served everyday Spanish home cooking: beef stew, meatballs, grilled sardines, and salad, washed down with a chilled bottle of unlabeled red wine mixed with ‘gaseosa’, a fizzy, sugary bottled water whose closest equivalent outside Spain is Seven-Up.
It was delicious (and unbelievably inexpensive – 24 euros for two), reminding us of meals in Madrid in the early 1970s when we used to go to the same local restaurant every day for lunch and served hearty portions of home cooking with unlabeled wine in carafes or bottles, two courses, dessert, wine and coffee for next to nothing. I vividly remember that the restaurant served a different main course every day, every week. I don’t remember the exact days, but it was something like chickpeas on Monday, beef stew on Tuesday, fried eggs, rice and fried bananas smothered in tomato sauce (arroz a la cubana) on Wednesday, paella on Thursday and fish, usually breaded fried hake fillets on Friday.
There was nothing pretentious about the food. No novelty, no experiments, just good, filling comfort food like people ate at home. And when you’re on a tight budget like we were, big lunches like those tided you over until the following morning.
Back then people would take their empty bottles to the corner tavern where the bottles were filled from a big vat with a spigot. The first year I lived in Spain was in a boarding house and the housemother used to ask any boarder who happened to be around before lunch to go out with a couple of bottles to fill. Restaurants would have this kind of wine wine delivered in large dame-jeannes called ‘garrafas’ where they were decanted into bottles or carafes.
I never knew where this wine came from – it could have been Valdepeñas, La Mancha or Gredos west of Madrid – it was certainly from an area near Madrid – and didn’t have an appellation of origin. It didn’t even have a label! However, when chilled and mixed with ‘gaseosa’ it was the perfect accompaniment to simple, cheap, tasty, filling meals.
You might be wondering why everyone mixed the wine with this fizzy water. It wasn’t because the wine was undrinkable by itself but rather because we guzzled it like water. Moreover, in the summer, with temperatures almost always over 100º F (38ºC) it was the only way you could drink wine.
The next time you’re in Spain, try one of these local restaurants, called tascas, tabernas or casas de comida where you can get a menú del día for as little as 10 euros. Try the house wine with gaseosa. No visit to Spain is truly fulfilling without this experience.
In the Rioja region, all but a handful of wineries are family owned and operated. Most of the recently created companies were founded by vineyard owners who decided to vinify their grapes, bottle and sell wine rather than merely sell grapes to cooperatives or other wineries. Some of these small companies even age their wine in barrels. This has been made possible by the Rioja Regulatory Council’s decision to allow wineries holding fifty-225 liter barrels and a total of 33,750 liters of wine to use the official Rioja back labels, giving them legitimacy in the marketplace. Thirty years ago, the minimum was 500 barriques, and later, 100.
It’s too early to say how many of these newly created wineries will withstand the rigors of the wine business over time, but history shows that a number of family owned and operated Rioja wineries founded in the 19th century have flourished and some have become real powerhouses in the industry.
Probably the most famous of these is Marqués de Riscal, whose official name in English is ‘Wines of the Heirs of the Marqués de Riscal’. Although Riscal’s capital is no longer held 100% by the family, one of the founder’s descendants has a share in the company, sits on the board. His son is a member of the winemaking team.
Other examples are R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, founded in 1877 and run by the fifth generation of the family; Bodegas Faustino, managed by the fourth generation of the founding family that started as a vineyard owner who built a winery in the mid-20th century and are now the leading producer of gran reserva Rioja; and Bodegas Martínez Lacuesta, founded in 1895.
The oldest Rioja winery continuously in the same family hands is Bodegas de La Real Divisa, founded according to the owner, in 1367. This makes it several years older than the venerable Antinori in Tuscany, that has produced wine since 1385.
There are, of course, quite a few Rioja wineries that are still in business over a hundred years after their founding but they’re no longer in the hands of the original owners: Marqués de Murrieta (1852 by some accounts), Rioja Santiago (1870), Berberana (1877), CVNE (1879), Bodegas Riojanas (1890), La Rioja Alta (1890), Bodegas Franco-Españolas (1890) and Federico Paternina (1896).
I recently visited a fifth generation family owned and operated winery in Villabuena de Álava – Bodegas de la Marquesa. The winery was founded in 1880 by Francisco Javier Solano y Eulate, the Marquis of La Solana who owned a large holding of vineyards in Villabuena in Rioja Alavesa. Solano was inspired by the teachings of Jean Pineau, the winemaker at Château Lanessan in the Médoc who had been hired by the regional government of Álava to teach wineries how to make wine following the Bordeaux philosophy (better vineyard husbandry, destemming grapes before fermentation, fermenting in closed vats and aging in small oak barrels).
The family’s current holdings are the original 65 hectares plus ten additional hectares owned by friends of the family but managed by the winery. These vineyards yield about 400,000 kgs of grapes that produce about 400,000 bottles. About 80% of the vineyards are planted to tempranillo, and the remainder to the other traditional Rioja varieties: mazuelo, garnacha, graciano and viura.
The winery has made a strong bet on the virtues of aging in oak barriques (2,500). All ten wines in the current range have spent time in oak.
The winery itself is built on the original 19th century property with underground cellars with the fermentation vats and most of the barrel aging area above ground. The family is in the process of restoring the old cellar.
We tasted four of the most popular wines in the range:
Valserrano white 2013. (Valserrano is a valley between the villages of Villabuena and Samaniego where most of the family’s vineyards are located).
100% viura. Fermented four months in oak. Beautiful balance between the fruit and the oak (something that a lot of white Riojas don’t get right).
Valserrano crianza 2011. 90% tempranillo, 10% mazuelo. The first impression was a little mustiness that I thought was probably due to ‘closed bottle syndrome’ – confirmed after a few minutes when the wine opened up to reveal dark fruit and good structure.
Valserrano reserva 2009. 14,5% alcohol. Medium garnet; acidic fruit that reminded me of cranberries, with good structure and round tannins on the palate with potential to further improve in the bottle. (We bought a case.)
Finca Monteviejo 2010. A single vineyard wine made from tempranillo (95%), mazuelo and graciano (5%). Medium garnet; dark fruit with noticeable oak; round on the palate. Ready to drink now.
The winery and its wines are well known in Spain and are gaining a lot of international exposure through affiliation with ARAEX, an export consortium specializing in wines from Rioja Alavesa. They are definitely worth searching for.
Bodegas de la Marquesa isn’t open to tourists yet. The four members of the family have their hands full with the vineyards, winemaking, sales in Spain and administration . Our host María Simón promised us, however, that the winery would be ready once remodeling of the old cellar was finished.
After our visit we repaired to the nearby Hotel Viura, an avant-garde boutique hotel located in the center of Villabuena. Much like the Marqués de Riscal hotel in Elciego, visitors are surprised by the sharp contrast between the light stone buildings in the village and the gleaming metallic structure of the hotel . Since Villabuena is built on both sides of a steep ravine, you can drive straight through the village without even seeing the hotel. You have to look out for the sign.
The day we visited the hotel there was an exhibition of photographs and posters of actresses from the mid to late 20th century wearing dresses designed by Cristóbal Balenciaga, the Basque designer of haute couture. By the way, there’s a Balenciaga museum in Getaria in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa, near San Sebastián that’s worth a visit.
Next to the hotel there’s a well-stocked wine bar where we had a pre-lunch drink.
Aretha Franklin nailed it when she sang, “All I need is a little respect”. In the Rioja wine business, respect has historically been in the hands of small boutique wineries, coddled by wine writers and magazines for their handcrafted wines while large wineries have been derisively dismissed as factories pumping out millions of bottles of mediocre plonk.
Respect has come to larger properties here because of their efforts to cater to visitors and one of the keys to their success has been accentuating the advantages of a large organization – access to the latest technology, marketing muscle, well-qualified staff and the power to put product on shelves and wine lists. If Rioja is a well-known international brand today, it is probably due more to the presence of big, ubiquitous brands than to small wineries boasting 95+ Parker and Wine Spectator points.
One of the newcomers to wine tourism in Rioja is Bodegas Montecillo, founded in 1874 in Fuenmayor as a family winery but since the 1970s owned by Osborne, the well-known sherry, brandy and more recently table wine and Iberian ham producer based in Puerto de Santa María, in southern Spain.
Osborne brings a wealth of wine tourism experience to Montecillo. According to ACEVIN, the Spanish Wine Route Association, over 400,000 wine tourists visited the Sherry region wine route in 2013, more than twice the number visiting Rioja. Osborne has an active wine tourism department responsible for showing visitors around their wineries in Puerto de Santa María and Malpica in Toledo as well as Cinco Jotas, a leading producer of Iberian ham.
Montecillo is reaching out to Rioja wine tourists with two estates: the original Fuenmayor property, a lovingly restored stone winery with several underground niches 12 meters below ground that will be used as a visitors’ and events center, and the nearby winery built in 1975.
Group wine tourism director Carolina Cerrato explained during the opening ceremony of the Fuenmayor winery that Montecillo is the third oldest winery in Rioja. The original owner, Celestino Navajas, learned the wine trade in France and his winery was one of the first to adopt the Bordeaux system of winemaking here. The winery boasts that it has made wine since the creation of the Rioja Regulatory Council in 1926 and has a stock of old wine that hasn’t been moved from its niche for over one hundred years. Is the wine drinkable? Apparently, yes. In 2000 a group of experts from Christie’s, the British auction house opened a number of bottles, selecting the 1938 and 1945 vintages for auction where one bottle fetched £ 834.
The winery in Navarrete is proof that a large property is capable of producing great wines. My own experience in Campo Viejo and El Coto proved to me that large wineries, with their financial clout, give them access to the latest technology as well as teams of highly qualified vineyard and winery managers who are able to produce a ‘house style’ year in and year out. This technology was evident at Montecillo with the use of Ganimede fermenters, racking by gravity, two aging cellars with a total of 38,000 barriques from different suppliers featuring an ongoing experiment to follow the evolution of wine from the same vintage aged in different types of barriques.
Montecillo has made a strong bet on gran reserva. We were shown a cellar with 600,000 bottles of gran reserva 2008 waiting to be labeled and shipped. That’s a lot of wine and a healthy investment if you take into account that Montecillo has financed the cost of the wine, barrels, bottles, corks, bottling and warehousing for seven years before selling a single bottle!
Our tour ended with a stop at the well-stocked shop where you can buy wine from the group’s wineries as well as tee shirts, ties and other souvenirs featuring the Osborne bull.
The bull is arguably the most recognized symbol of Osborne in Spain and has an interesting story behind it. About twenty years ago, the Spanish government forbade the use of roadside billboards, among them, those featuring the Osborne bull. Osborne successfully argued that the bull was not primarily an advertisement for their brand but rather, a symbol of Spain (a well-known euphemism for the Iberian peninsula is ‘la piel de toro’ – ‘the hide of the bull’). The company was allowed to keep the billboards.
Montecillo doesn’t boast an avant-garde, architecture award-winning winery but the visit they offer wine tourists is first-class and the wines are seriously good.
Historical 1874 winery
Ctra. Fuenmayor-Navarrete, km. 2
26320 Fuenmayor (La Rioja)
Polígono Industrial Lentiscares
Ctra. Fuenmayor, km. 3
26370 Navarrete (La Rioja)
Photo credits , except for the Osborne bull: Tom Perry
Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta, one of Rioja’s most iconic 19th century wineries, recently reopened after nine years of much-needed renovation. It was well worth the wait.
The Cebrián family, owner of the property since 1983, put a lot of thought into both the renovation of the winery and its wine tourism package. Although from the outside, the winery, with its stone façade, looked fine, the inside was in dire need of repair. I remember visiting in the mid-1980s and vividly remember the vast underground cellars with their sand-covered floor filled with old barriques, huge wooden fermentation and storage vats and endless dusty and mold-filled niches for bottle aging. It was as if time had stopped in the early 20th century.
Murrieta’s approach to wine tourism is a refreshing change from most wineries where visitors are led through a vinification and aging cellar where the history of the company and winemaking practices are explained and a quick tasting is given, followed by a visit to the winery shop. Murrieta entertains small groups and spends lots of time with them. I’m sure this personal touch will pay off.
Here, the visit starts in the vineyard, highlighting the ‘château’ philosophy brought to Rioja by Luciano de Murrieta from Bordeaux. The original 168 hectares planted by Murrieta were added to by Vicente Cebrián, who planted 132 hectares on property adjacent to the already existing vineyards. The winery’s vineyards provide 90% of the its needs, with the remaining 10% purchased from suppliers with whom the winery has worked for years. Murrieta remains faithful to the traditional Riojan varietals of tempranillo, garnacha, graciano and mazuelo for reds and viura for white. There is, however, a little cabernet sauvignon in their brand Dalmau, according to the tasting sheet provided by the winery.
The visit then moves to the inside of the original winery, a lodge-like structure about 90 meters long. This is the visitors’ center. On the left side, there are two tasting rooms, one at each end of the building, with a glass wall that overlooks several restored wooden fermentation vats in the first underground level.
Downstairs, the visit highlights the history of the winery with several displays showing documents such as deeds to the property, brand registrations, letters written to and by Murrieta, newspaper clippings from our local newspaper LA RIOJA with the Marquis’ obituary as well as photographs from the 19th and early 20th century.
Other displays showed bottles from significant vintages in Spanish history including the first wine bottled by Murrieta in 1852, a collection of labels dating from the late 19th century, filters, bottling and corking machines and other memorabilia.
We also saw, behind an iron gate, niches filled with historical vintages including all bottlings of Castillo de Ygay from 1892 to the present.
At the end of the visit we were shown a room with pictures of the remodeling process as well as a video interview with the foreman of the crew of Galician stonemasons hired to rebuild the winery.
Following the visit to the cellars we were led to one of the tasting rooms, where Miryam Ochoa, the winery’s PR director, explained at great length Murrieta’s winemaking philosophy in Rioja, based on long periods of aging in oak and bottle followed by a tasting of three wines: Pazo Barrantes, a 100% albariño from a property owned by the Cebrián family in Rías Baixas, Marqués de Murrieta reserva 2009 and Dalmau reserva 2009. My tasting notes follow.
Pazo Barrantes 2013. D.O. Rías Baixas. 100% albariño. 13,5% abv. 13,95€ /bottle RRP in Spain.
Brilliant straw yellow. Closed on the nose at first but soon opening up to aromas of wildflowers and baked bread. Silky texture, balanced acidity, longlasting on the palate. I thought it was really good, without the overpowering tropical fruit aromas present in many other whites from Rías Baixas.
Marqués de Murrieta reserva 2009. D.O. Ca. Rioja. 90% tempranillo, 4% mazuelo, 3% red garnacha, 3% graciano. 14% abv. 1.000.000 bottles produced. RRP 19,95€ in Spain.
Medium black cherry. An aroma that reminded me of cherry liqueur, well-integrated oak and some spicy notes. Round, ripe tannin, medium mouthfeel, persistent.
The Cebrián family’s philosophy has always been to make ‘modern classics’ at Murrieta and this reserva is a good example. It reminded me of the Murrieta wines of the past with understated elegance but without the stewed fruit and pronounced dry, iodine-like nose that I always used to unfailingly identify as Murrieta.
I thought it was excellent.
Dalmau reserva 2009. D.O. Ca. Rioja. 74% tempranillo, 15% cabernet sauvignon, 11% graciano. A single vineyard wine from the Canajas estate.
19.000 bottles produced. 45€ RRP in Spain.
Intense black cherry. Minty and floral nose, powerful but at the same time elegant. Juicy, elegant, longlasting.
Dalmau was created by Vicente Cebrián Jr. (whose middle name is Dalmau) soon after taking over the winery when his father died unexpectedly. This was in the midst of the market’s reaction to traditional Rioja led by the Parkerites. Dalmau, like other ‘modern’ Riojas produced around this time (the early 1990s), tried to express fresh, ripe fruit, high alcohol and powerful tannins but were criticized both in Spain and abroad for being unbalanced. The 2009 Dalmau was still juicy and powerful but with much better balance than the wine I first tasted in London twenty years ago. Not my style but very well made and surely with a big following among fans of modern Rioja.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable visit and tasting. We spent three and a half hours there, an unheard-of amount of time compared with visits to other Rioja wineries.
Rather than give visitors and extensive tour of the winery, Murrieta has wisely decided to concentrate on its history and a detailed tasting that could have served as an introductory tasting course. Even though our group was made up of locals along with several people with extensive experience in the Rioja wine business, both the visit and the tasting were extremely enjoyable and informative.
Murrieta has an attractive wine shop on the premises as well as a wine club whose members regularly receive special offers.
I encourage you to plan a visit to this winery. You can request a booking at the following website:
Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta
Carretera de Logroño-Zaragoza km. 5
26006 Logroño (La Rioja)
T-941 27 13 70
(All photos by Tom Perry)
January 31, 2015
Last week La Tavina, one of Logroño’s most popular gastrobars, organized a tasting of ‘natural’ wines, an event that guaranteed that a collection of young Turk Rioja winemakers and local wine geeks would fight for the 25 available seats. I was one of the lucky ones. Luis Gutiérrez – Robert Parker’s Spanish wine taster – and Luis Alberto Lecea, president of the Rioja Regulatory Council, himself a grape farmer and small winery owner also attended, a good indication of the interest in these wines.
Rioja has never been a trendsetting region. We would rather see how new ideas develop elsewhere before adopting them. Consequently the most forward-thinking Rioja winemakers are only beginning to think about wines with little or no added sulfur dioxide.
Andrés Conde, the owner and sommelier of Bodega Cigaleña, a restaurant in Santander, led the tasting. His restaurant has one of the largest collections of wines in Spain, especially of older vintages. Conde’s wine knowledge is encyclopedic, and he entertained us with personal anecdotes about the characteristics of each of the wines, the terroir, grapes, aging and winemaking practices based on his visits to the wineries and conversations with the winemakers.
It was interesting that Conde didn’t mention the word ‘natural’ once during the tasting. He preferred to describe the wines as ‘poco protegidos’ (slightly protected).
Five wines were on the menu:
Sin Rumbo 2013. D.O. Rueda from Nieva in the province of Segovia. 100% verdejo. Produced by Ismael Gozalo who describes himself as an ‘independent winemaker’. The vineyards are located at 900 meters above sea level and farmed biodynamically. Fermentation and a short period of ageing in 500 liter barrels.
Color: not brilliant, a little veiled. A subtle floral nose. Round with a lower level of acidity than what I’m accustomed to but nonetheless very attractive. It was paired with a pea, fava bean, tomato and caramelized onion salad with a touch of olive oil and vinegar. I thought the pairing was good. The wine, however, didn’t hold up well in the glass compared to the others by the end of the tasting.
L’Anglore 2012 rosé. AOC Tavel. Grenache and Monastrell. Producer Eric Pfifferling. Aged for 18 months in barrique, required by the AOC Tavel.
Color, darker than my benchmark, a Rioja rosé, more like a light red. Not a very pronounced aroma when I first tried it. Later it opened up to spice and cherry, with noticeable notes of oak. Mouthfilling and a taste that reminded me a little of maraschino cherry liqueur. The pairing was a poached egg with pieces of ecologically farmed young hen with cauliflower cream and truffle oil. I can’t figure out how this pairing was thought up. The wine overpowered the food, a little unusual given that almost all the wines tasted were elegant and understated.
Saint-Joseph 2012. AOC Saint-Joseph. René-Jean Dard & François Ribo. Tain-L’Hermitage. A northern Rhone red, meaning syrah. A long discussion led by Andrés y Luis Gutiérrez ensued about the defining aromas of Rhone syrah (black olives, smoked bacon and asphalt) and for these two experts, the only ones at the tasting with anything but a passing knowledge of syrah from the Rhone, this wine had it all. It was definitely not the trademark minty nose of an Australian shiraz, which most of us had tasted in the past. (Tom: make note to self to look out for more wines from the northern Rhone!)
Medium ruby. To me, acidic fruit and a little bit of burnt rubber. Really pleasant acidity on the nose. Elegant. It was paired with a dish of monkfish and deboned pigs’ trotters, green beans and carrots. Good.
Cuvée Florine 2012. Côtes du Jura. Producer Jean-François Ganevat. 100% chardonnay, with 15-16 months in barrique. Andrés Conde remarked that Ganevat only added a little SO2 just before bottling.
Straw yellow, buttery with chamomile and barrel notes. Really low acidity (pH 2,8). According to Conde, this wine has characteristics of a textbook Burgundian chardonnay ‘from the old days’. It was an interesting comment but sounded pretentious because, apart from Conde and Gutiérrez, none of us had much experience with today’s chardonnay from Burgundy, let alone one from the old days. I liked it a lot and was glad to taste a wine from Jura, one of today’s ‘hot’ wine regions.
The food pairing was a filet mignon with warm, fresh foie gras and a reduced Port sauce. It went very well with the wine.
Antoine Arena Grotte di Sole 2011. AOC Patrimonio red from Corsica. Mainly nielluccio. A totally unknown appellation and grape variety for me.
Medium intensity. Very spicy, notes of overripe grapes and possibly a little brett. Powerful tannin. It was paired with chocolate ice cream and olive oil.
A sixth wine was introduced as a surprise. A deeply colored red with very intense fresh fruit aromas. Juicy fruit, good acidity and powerful tannin. No clue was given about its origin. I attempted to apply my WSET tasting experience, trying to figure it out by process of elimination. I was still thinking when other clues started to be given. “A blend”. No help. Then “Spain”. “OK”, I thought. It didn’t seem like a Priorat so maybe it was prieto picudo from León. I kept quiet. The last clue was “tempranillo and graciano”. Then Andrés and Luis waved their heads toward Abel Mendoza, one of the winemakers attending the event. It was indeed a ‘slightly protected’ Rioja made by Mendoza. It blew my mind, nothing like any other Rioja I had ever tasted. So much for process of elimination!
The tasting completely changed my view of natural wines. I had only tasted one previously: a red made by the Arambarri family (Vintae) in Navarra. It had really low intensity, coming up short in aroma and flavor. The wines tasted at La Tavina were all elegant and very well balanced, with the possible exceptions of the wine from Corsica and the Rioja because of the level of tannin. They all showed very attractive aromas and were really tasty. I thought they had a kind of purity about them but maybe because I knew that they were natural wines, it was my imagination. In any case, they really got my interest.
The only disappointment was when we asked Andrés where we could buy the first five wines. “They’re all presold before release, so impossible”. I guess I’ll have to find other natural wines to taste but at least I have a benchmark of some of the best.
(All photos by Tom Perry)
Special end of year double issue: Artadi threatens to leave the Rioja appellation and My favorite wines from 2014
January 2, 2015
December 28 is Spain’s April Fools’ Day so when I opened the local newspaper and read that Artadi, one of Rioja’s most prestigious wineries, was planning to leave the Rioja DOCa, I immediately thought it was a joke. But when I read the editorial on page two explaining that the current president of La Rioja wasn’t going to run for office in the upcoming elections I realized that this piece of news was the joke and the story about Artadi was on the level.
Behind Artadi’s interest in creating a new appellation for wineries in and around the village of Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa is the belief that the umbrella brand ‘Rioja’ and its claim ‘the land of a thousand wines’ attempts to express the huge diversity of styles of wine that exists in our region but lumps them all together under one appellation. Put bluntly, Artadi feels that the current rules of the Rioja DOCa don’t allow wineries to talk about the specific characteristics of microclimates, soil types and the grapes and wine produced in individual vineyards and villages.
The reaction of the wine and growers’ groups in the Regulatory Council was immediate and can be summed up by “Bring your proposal to the Council and we’ll talk about it”.
Only time will tell whether Artadi’s proposal to leave Rioja is real or is a gambit meant to accelerate the debate leading to simplifying the procedure for recognizing single vineyard, single village, and single subzone wines within Rioja. Whatever the outcome, there are a number of reasons to put the issue at the top of the agenda.
First, today there are over 600 wineries in Rioja. Wineries have always realized that to succeed they need a competitive advantage to convince the wine trade’s gatekeepers (distributors and retailers) to offer them to consumers. When there were fewer wineries in Rioja, fewer Spanish appellations, the New World wasn’t a force yet, and superstores hadn’t overpowered distributors, it was a plus for a winery to say it was from Rioja. Today, being a Rioja winery just isn’t enough.
In the 32 years I’ve been in the Rioja wine business I’ve witnessed the development of numerous differentiation strategies to help wineries to get a leg up on their competitors: ‘experimental’ grapes, high volume and huge PR budgets to cozy up to supermarkets, sweet-talking winemakers, single varietal wines, different kinds of oak, traditional Rioja/modern Rioja/avant-garde Rioja, high scores from Parker and the Wine Spectator, scarcity, wineries designed by internationally famous architects, unorthodox winemaking techniques, underwater ageing, collaboration with famous foreign flying winemakers, striking labels, striking brand names, unusual bottles, ecological and biodynamic wines, natural wines (no added SO2 – the latest trend) and of course, rock-bottom prices.
Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of pressure in Rioja to allow wineries to express themselves in new ways. What I wonder is “Why Artadi?” They’ve successfully exploited their competitive advantages and are at the top of the heap.
I can think of several reasons.
First, the Rioja Regulatory Council has been slow to discuss the demands of smaller properties to certify single vineyard, single village and single vineyard wines. When the Spanish Agriculture Ministry created the current wine law, it created a hierarchy starting with table wines at the bottom with few or no quality demands, appellations of origin and ‘qualified appellations like Rioja with strict control procedures and ‘vinos de pago’ or single estate wines at the top, with very strict requirements. The Rioja Council found a number of reasons to criticize the rules and their possible application in Rioja, starting with “what is the maximum size for a single estate?” citing examples of single estates in central Spain with almost 1000 hectares. If 1000 hectares seems like a lot of hallowed ground for a single vineyard, Is five OK? Or ten? Is a single estate wine inherently better than a blended reserva or a single varietal? Why should single estates be at the top of the hierarchy? How will the Council guarantee that the wine comes from the single estate? After a couple of meetings, the discussion became so complicated that the matter was shelved.
What’s the problem? If the Council allows wineries to say that they sell single varietal wines, why not single estates? Hmmm.
Given the drawn-out decision making and consensus building process within the Council, I can imagine that Artadi figured it would be easier to withdraw its vineyards from the Rioja appellation and create its own mini-appellation where the rules are clear from the outset and membership is exclusive.
A second possible reason could be to add other grape varieties to the current ones allowed in Rioja. If these vineyards are exclusively in Álava, the Basque government could petition the European Union to authorize new varieties. The head of the agriculture department of the government of La Rioja hinted in a followup article that the Basque government might be behind the whole affaire in an attempt to create an exclusively Basque denomination of quality wine, an issue that has always been on the political agenda in the Basque Country.
I’d like to think that the threat by a top winery to leave Rioja will push the Council into rethinking its policy of single vineyard, single village and single subzone wines to allow not only Artadi but many other wineries to express what they perceive as unique attributes of their properties and wines. But for the sake of keeping things simple for consumers, let’s keep calling them all ‘Rioja’. Do we want lots of sub-appellations like Bordeaux or an almost inscrutable mish-mash of vineyards-within-villages like Burgundy that only Masters of Wine understand? Maybe the MWs don’t either!
Time will tell if clear heads prevail.
PART TWO: MY FAVORITE WINES IN 2014
Spanish newspapers are fond of making end-of-the-year lists about just about everything: best box office hits, most titles won by a football team, celebrities in jail for tax evasion, politicians in jail for influence peddling, regional governments with the highest debt per capita and others.
In keeping with this list-making tradition, here are the Riojas I liked the most in 2014 (in no particular order of preference):
- Campillo reserva selecta 2007 (Bodegas Campillo)
- Bodegas Bilbainas garnacha 2010
- Contino reserva 2007
- CVNE Imperial gran reserva 2007
- Viña Ardanza 2004 (La Rioja Alta)
- Punto red 2013 (Fernando Remírez de Ganuza)
- Lorea reserva 2008 (CVNE) – the wine the bodega offers to wine tourists
- Marqués de Teran 2009 selección especial (Bodegas Regalía de Ollauri)
- Finca Torrea 2010 (Marqués de Riscal)
- Viña Tondonia reserva 2002 (served from a 1,5 liter bottle)
- Viña Pomal Alto de la Caseta 2007 (Bodegas Bilbainas)
- Tobía gran reserva 2009 (Bodegas Tobía)
- A Codo (sparkling wine from Rioja grapes made by Basilio Izquierdo)
I also really liked the following wines from other appellations and countries:
- Catalpa malbec (Bodegas Atamisque – Mendoza, Argentina)
- Salentein reserve pinot noir 2013 (Bodegas Salentein – Mendoza)
- Catena Zapata St. Felicien cabernet-merlot 2010 (Mendoza)
- Carmelo Patti malbec 2009 (Mendoza)
- Dalva Golden White Porto 1963 (C. da Silva)
- Momentos reserva carmenere 2013 (Chile)
- Auratus 2013 white (Vinho Regional Minho – Portugal)
Of course I tasted and enjoyed lots of other wines but these were my absolute favorites.
December 22, 2014
The wine tasters’ club run by lomejordelvinoderioja.com, the online wine information site sponsored by our local newspaper LA RIOJA, closed out its 2014 tasting series by inviting Basilio Izquierdo, one of Rioja’s most talented winemakers, to show his latest wines.
For those of you who don’t know Basilio personally, he’s one of the most modest, unassuming guys I’ve ever met in spite of having kept very fast company throughout his career including studying enology under Émile Peynaud in the same class as Michel Rolland (they’re still very close) and inheriting the chief winemaker’s position at CVNE following the departure of Ezequiel García (‘El Brujo’) to Bodegas Olarra.
Basilio showed us five wines: a sparkling ‘metodo tradicional’, two vintages of his white ‘B’ de Basilio (2011 and 2008) and two vintages of red ‘B’ (2011 and 2008). The idea was to show off the latest vintages on the market against the 2008s, his second vintage after leaving CVNE.
The sparkler is a 2009 blanc de noirs brut nature made exclusively with red garnacha from the Najerilla valley (Rioja Alta). Very pale yellow, almost colorless, fine, persistent mousse in spite of being served in a wine glass, a delicate aroma with hints of nuts and graham crackers, and creamy on the palate. Only 400 bottles were produced to be given away to friends because at least for the time being, it can’t be legally sold. Laguardia, the site of his winery, isn’t included on the list of villages approved for the DO Cava.
Basilio felt strongly that the DO Rioja should allow sparkling wine and raise the requirements bar with respect to cava. I agree and think his 2009 is easily as good as vintage champagne and lots better than practically all the cava reservas I’ve tasted.
The sparkler was big surprise and for me, the best wine in the tasting.
‘B’ de Basilio 2011 made with white garnacha (70%) and viura (30%), fermented and aged for nine months in new French oak is straw yellow, shows floral and tropical fruit notes on the nose, vibrant acidity, luscious with tropical fruit on the palate and a long finish.
‘B’ de Basilio 2008 (same varieties, same proportion) is a deeper yellow with pronounced wild flower notes (chamomile to me) good acidity, but in my opinion could be a little more ‘zingy’ (I guess that’s to be expected in an 8 year-old white) and an extremely long finish. It has evolved in complexity and is tasting very well.
‘B’ de Basilio red 2011 (bottled in September 2014). (± 60% tempranillo, 40% garnacha, 3-5% graciano) Color: medium-high intensity black cherry; acidic red fruit (cranberries to me), spicy; good acidity, pronounced tannicity but elegant, will improve in the bottle.
‘B’ de Basilio 2008 (same varieties, and percentages as 2011). Medium intensity black cherry, complex nose featuring red and black fruit, lipsmacking, ripe, round tannins.
Basilio likes to use a high percentage of garnacha because of its smoothness on the palate. He regrets that so much old vine garnacha, especially in Rioja Baja, was pulled up in favor of tempranillo. In his opinion, this happened because growers favored the low maintenance of tempranillo to the finicky garnacha, prone to millerandage and coulure. The historic wineries in Haro used to own or rent vineyards in Rioja Baja for their blends but most of these were replanted to tempranillo.
Since he didn’t mention his pet peeve about clones, we asked him about it. He’s adamant about not using grapes from vineyards planted after 1985, the year in which in his opinion, growers in Rioja made the mistake of massively planting a specific, high-production tempranillo clone. Before 1985, according to Basilio, winemakers could easily distinguish wine made from grapes from specific villages. He believes that these local differences, along with the widespread use of garnacha, produced wines of greater character than today’s in spite of the lack of technology. He contends that “twenty years ago grapes were better, today there’s more technology”, implying, I think, that what happens in the winery these days is seen by many as more important than what’s in the vineyards. It’s an interesting question for a future debate between the old guard and the Young Turks of Rioja.
September 29, 2014
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.
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.”
September 16, 2014
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
www.chappaz.ch (the site is currently being revamped)