Five must-try traditional tapas in Logroño’s calle Laurel

Logroño’s calle Laurel is a required stop for both visitors and locals in search of tasty tapas and rioja. Nowadays, most of the bars have adapted their range of tapas to a more modern, elaborate style because of the influence of the bars in San Sebastian’s old town, but a few places here continue to offer tapas that have been popular for fifty years or more, using local raw materials or canned fish, prepared simply and cheaply. These bars are among the favorites of older natives of the region.

You should try them, too.

Calle Laurel wasn’t always a street full of bars and restaurants. In fact, it used to be one of Logroño’s red light districts. Local folklore says that the prostitutes used to hang a branch of bay leaves (‘laurel’ in Spanish) on their balcony to show prospective customers that they were free. The tradition of bars started when someone decided to open a bar where people could keep warm and have a drink while waiting for their favorite lady.

Our tour starts with

Hothouse mushrooms smothered in a garlic, olive oil and lemon sauce

Bar Soriano, Travesía de Laurel 2.  Closed Wednesdays and during the San Mateo wine harvest festival.

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Bar Soriano is unquestionably the most popular bar in the old town. According to José María Barrero, who’s in charge of the griddle, they serve over 7000 mushroom tapas a week. They source their mushrooms in Pradejón in Rioja Baja. Their sauce is a closely guarded secret but my wife thinks that it’s made from olive oil, garlic and lemon juice that’s blended into a thin sauce. It sounds easy to make, but several local competitors can’t come close to matching it.

The mushrooms are cooked in a little olive oil with salt on a very hot griddle. Just before they’re done, some sauce is sprinkled on top of the mushrooms. They are speared three at a time with a toothpick topped with a small piece of shrimp and put on a slice of bread.

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José María Barrero hard at work

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Bar Sierra La Hez, Travesía de Laurel, 1.

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What does this tapa, made with olives, hot green peppers and a salted anchovy have to do with Rita Hayworth? According to the Basque Gastronomic Academy website, this tapa was invented in 1946 in the Bar Vallés in San Sebastian, whose owner called it a ‘gilda’ because, like Rita Hayworth it was “salada”, verde y un poco picante”, literally, “salty, green and a little spicy” which aptly describes its appearance and taste but with a second meaning: “lively, uses salty language and a little provocative”.

In any case, it’s delicious. Sierra La Hez is also a great place to listen to Spanish music from the 70s and 80s and if you speak Spanish, owner Miguel Ruiz is a walking encyclopedia of this genre.

Patatas Bravas (Cooked potatoes with a spicy red and white sauce)

La Taberna del Laurel, calle Laurel 7.

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This is the perfect first stop when embarking on an evening in calle Laurel because the potatoes act as a barrier against the absorption of wine, beer or whatever you’re drinking. It’s always packed but you can hear the guy behind the bar yell “¡Una de bravas!” (An order of bravas) from the street outside.

Classic recipes for patatas bravas use only the spicy red sauce but the Taberna del Laurel, red sauce and a mayonnaise-like sauce to the red sauce.

You can find the recipe at the end of this post.

Bocadillo (small sandwich) with a half sardine in olive oil and a spicy green pepper

El Soldado de Tudelilla, calle San Agustín 33.

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It’s easy to make. Manolo, the owner of the bar, takes a piece of bread, slices it in half lengthwise, opens a can of sardines in olive oil and a can of spicy green peppers in olive oil, puts half a sardine and a pepper on the bread, and wraps it in a paper napkin. It tastes delicious with a glass of young red rioja.

If you want to know what bars were like 50 years ago, this is the place.  It features a zinc bar and a huge sink where tomatoes float and bottles of wine are chilling.  The wall behind the bar is covered with old bottles of rioja, some of whose labels are collectors’ items.

Sliced cod and red pepper in olive oil

Bar Achuri, Calle Laurel, 11.

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If you’re looking for traditional tapas, look no further, so forget about being squeamish and dive in. Among the delicacies on offer here in addition to cod are embuchados (fried sheeps’ intestines), fried pigs’ ears and roast cloves of garlic in rioja wine vinegar. YUM! No kidding!

These bars are also places where customers can enjoy words of wisdom as they eat and drink.  Here are some examples.

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La Taberna del Laurel: “It’s a beautiful day.  You’ll see how someone will come along to f@#k it up.”

 

img_5411Sierra La Hez: “I like to cook with wine.  Sometimes I even add it to the food.”

(Notice the tins of anchovies and sardines in olive oil behind the sign.)

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My favorite: Taberna del Laurel:  “Don’t steal.  The government hates the competition.”

Recipe for patatas bravas:

According to the directoalpaladar website, the red sauce isn’t tomato-based but rather a roux (slowly fried onions, sweet and spicy paprika and flour), to which you add chicken stock until creamy, then mix in a blender.

This website recommends:

  • three medium potatoes cut into bite-sized pieces, three tablespoons of sauce (see below), extra virgin olive oil, salt and a little parsley for decoration.
  • To make the sauce: ½ onion, ½ tablespoon of sweet paprika, one tablespoon of spicy paprika, two tablespoons of flour and ½ liter of chicken stock.

Chop the onion and slowly fry in a little olive oil. Before the onion browns, add the sweet and spicy paprika, mixing them with a wooden spoon.

Add the flour, fry it for a minute it or two and when the mixture starts to blend with the olive oil making a roux, add the chicken stock little by little to make a creamy sauce. Simmer for ten minutes so that the paprika and flour are cooked through, mix it in a blender and then strain.

If you’re in a hurry or not an especially accomplished chef (making a good roux takes time), I suppose you could make a thick tomato sauce and add Tabasco, but that’s cheating!

To cook the potatoes, there’s more than one option, like most things Spanish. Some recipes recommend just frying the pieces of potato while others suggest first boiling them for two minutes and then deep frying them.

 

Rioja celebrates a 100-point white while ‘Riexit’ looms

Not much happens in Rioja in August. Winery workers are on vacation except for a few people in the biggest companies in case of an emergency. Most small and medium-sized properties close for the month. I stop writing to concentrate on my golf game. The only things happening are the steady ripening of the grapes and my lack of improvement at golf.

This year, September brings good news and not-so-good news. First, the good news:

  • According to reports from the Rioja Regulatory Council and ASAJA (the young farmers’ association), the probable size of the 2016 harvest will be between 430.000 and 450.000 metric tons, which is roughly equivalent to 430-450 million 75 cl. bottles. These sources agree that this will cover existing demand. Included in the projected harvest are just over 1000 hectares (2470 acres) of red grapes planted in 2014 and 1200 new hectares (about 3000 acres) of white grapes. While it’s too early to make a prediction about the quality of the harvest, so far, so good, although the vines are stressed due to lack of rain in August.

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(Source:  lomejordelvinoderioja.com)

  • For those who pay attention to wine writers’ ratings, Luis Gutiérrez, taster for Spain for erobertparker.com has released his latest scores for rioja (source LA RIOJA). Wines scoring 93 points and higher are:

100     Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Ygay gran reserva white 1986

98     Telmo Rodríguez Las Beatas 2013

97     Artadi Viña El Pisón 2013

96     Artadi Viña El Pisón 2014 (96-98)

Benjamín Romero Carmen gran reserva 2010 (96+)

Viñedos de Páganos La Nieta 2013 (96+)

Álvaro Palacios Alfaro Quiñón de Valmira 2014

Muga Prado Enea gran reserva 2009

95     Abel Mendoza graciano grano a grano 2013

Sierra Cantabria Amancio 2012

La Rioja Alta gran reserva 904 2007

Remírez de Ganuza Trasnocho 2010

Olivier Rivière Losares 2013

Sierra Cantabria El Bosque 2013

Remelluri Granja Remelluri gran reserva 2010

Telmo Rodríguez Altos Lanzaga 2012

94      Artadi El Carretil 2014 (94-96)

Pujanza Norte 2014 (94+)

Artadi El Carretil 2013 (94?)

Abel Mendoza 5V white 2015

López de Heredia Viña Tondonia blanco reserva 2004

Pujanza Norte 2013

Marqués de Murrieta Dalmau reserva 2010

Sierra Cantabria Amancio 2013

López de Heredia Viña Bosconia reserva 2005

Roda Cirsión 2012

Finca Allende Mártires white 2014

Contino gran reserva 2010

Olivier Rivière Ganko 2014

CVNE Viña Real gran reserva 2010

CVNE Imperial gran reserva 2010

Pujanza Añadas Frías white 2013

La Rioja Alta gran reserva 890 2004 (94+)

Hermanos Peciña Señorío de P. Peciña gran reserva 2009

Valenciso reserva 10 años después 2005

Remírez de Ganuza gran reserva 2008

Abel Mendoza tempranillo grano a grano 2013

Benjamín Romeo La Cueva del Contador 2013

Palacios Remondo Plácet Valtomelloso white 2013

93       Tentenublo Escondite del Ardacho (El Abundillano) 2014 (93+)

Marqués de Murrieta gran reserva limited edition 2010 (93+)

López de Heredia Viña Tondonia white 2005

Olivier Rivière Mirando al Sur white 2014

Olivier Rivière Las Viñas de Eusebio Vendimia Seleccionada 2014

Pujanza Finca Valdepoleo 2013

La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza reserva 2008

Finca Allende Calvario 2012

La Emperatriz Finca La Emperatriz garnacha cepas Viejas 2014

Roda I 2009

Basilio Izquierdo B de Basilio 2010

Contino reserva 2010

Abel Mendoza Selección Personal 2013

López de Heredia Viña Gravonia blanco 2007

Contino reserva 2010

Señorío de San Vicente San Vicente 2013

Benjamin de Rothschild &Vega Sicilia Macán 2013

Telmo Rodríguez Lanzaga 2012

Oxer Bastegieta Kalamity 2014

Viñedos de Páganos El Puntido 2013

Artadi Valdeginés 2013

Remelluri white 2013

Remelluri Lindes de Remelluri Viñedos de Labastida 2012

Benjamín Romeo Qué Bonito Cacareaba white 2014

Abel Mendoza garnacha blanca 2015

Remírez de Ganuza reserva 2009

Olivier Rivière Las Viñas de Eusebio Vendimia Seleccionada 2013

Basilio Izquierdo B de Basilio white 2012

Marqués de Murrieta Dalmau reserva 2012

Artuke La Condenada 2014

Vallobera Terran 2012

Bilbaínas Viña Pomal Altos de la Caseta 2012

Bilbaínas Viña Pomal Vinos Singulares white tempranillo reserva 2013

Palacio Glorioso gran reserva 1978

Honorio Rubio Villar Añadas (white) NV

This list says a lot about the current state of rioja. First, many of the brands describe specific places or single vineyards, even though this designation isn’t officially recognized yet. Reality, as usual, is moving ahead of the rulebook.

The increased presence of whites stands out, and surprisingly the top scoring wine for Gutiérrez was the very traditonally made Castillo Ygay white gran reserva 1986. In a separate interview in LA RIOJA, winery owner Vicente Cebrián explained that this wine spent 21 years in barrel, six years in a cement tank and was bottled in January 2014. It will be presented in a series of tastings in the USA starting in New York on October 21. Cebrián says that the wine will be sold at 700 dollars a bottle. Why not?

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(Source:  Marqués de Murrieta website)

Not surprisingly, other traditional rioja whites such as Viña Tondonia and Viña Gravonia made Gutiérrez’s list. In fact, as I observed during a recent tour around our region with a group of Rioja Educators, other wineries like Bodegas Ontañón and Barón de Ley are trying to replicate this style of long ageing in older barrels to capitalize on demand, especially in the US market.

While these traditional whites have found a niche at the mid-and high end of the market, we need to develop whites to compete at more competitive price points because young viura by itself simply doesn’t have the intense aromatic profile demanded by consumers today. Gutiérrez recognizes that rioja is moving in the right direction with blends of viura and recently approved varieties. Consolidating these new styles of rioja white will take time however as Rias Baixas and Rueda are strongly entrenched in markets. Conscious of this, the Rioja Council is launching a PR campaign to promote white.

  • Another development that could be construed as either good or bad news is that following intense discussions in the Council, the ‘single estate’ concept has been renamed ‘viñedos singulares’ (singular vineyards). This is probably to reflect the fact that “any old” single estate shouldn’t be considered prestigious a priori. Experts in viticulture and rioja’s most prestigious producers are formulating criteria to determine what makes a singular vineyard.

The Council says it will decide in November, although it might take longer than expected as prestigious single estate producers will want to assure that their own vineyards are included and there will undoubtedly be pushback from prestigious producers of blended rioja to level the playing field.

The not-so-good news centers around 42 wineries from ABRA (the Rioja Alavesa Winery Association that represents most of the small wineries in the Alavesa sub-region) petitioning the Basque government to approve a new designation called ‘Viñedos de Álava separate from rioja. What have local pundits called this movement? You guessed it: ‘Riexit’. The official reason is that the Rioja Regulatory Council hasn’t done enough to recognize the specificity of wines from the Alavesa. It is most certainly politically motivated, however, as the Basque government has historically demanded a greater control over Alavesa wines.

The director of the Council said earlier this week that his wish was to keep regional politics out of the rioja wine business and to discuss Alavesa claims inside the Council. Currently the Council is studying a labeling rules change to allow the term ‘Rioja Alavesa’ to be the same size as ‘Rioja’. Will this be enough? I hope so. It would be suicidal for 42 relatively unknown wineries to go it alone or under a new umbrella brand in today’s ultracompetitive wine market.

 

 

 

 

Rioja and coke? It’s no joke!

I’ve always said that if there’s not a scandal in the Rioja wine business, the Riojans will create one. The most recent uproar was set off by a deal signed by the local bar and restaurant association, the Logroño City Hall and Coca-Cola to sponsor a contest in local bars to determine who could make the best calimocho, a drink combining wine and coke.

The contest’s tag line “The best calimocho is made with the best Rioja” drew immediate criticism from the Rioja Regulatory Council and the Rioja Wine Brotherhood. The Council, while stating that it agreed with the general idea of promotion to attract young consumers to wine, thought that Rioja wines shouldn’t be associated with “this kind of consumption”. The brotherhood was more explicit in its criticism. Its grand master remarked that he had never mixed wine with any other beverage and reminded readers that members of the brotherhood are obliged to take an oath of allegiance that includes not watering down Rioja or other ‘sacrilegious’ practices such as mixing it with fizzy drinks. I guess I’ll never be a member of the brotherhood unless I cross my fingers while taking the oath!

The other side of the argument was taken up by Miguel Ángel de Gregorio, one of Rioja’s most prestigious winemakers, who defended the consumer’s right to drink Rioja any way they please.

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Notice the bottle:  a 1983 Rioja reserva from Bodegas Campo Viejo (Photo credit:  Wikipedia)

When I asked my friends about it, not one of them objected to the idea of Rioja and coke. One of them reminded me that ‘calimocho’ (or kalimotxo) is a Basque name but on this side of the Ebro river it has always been called ‘Rioja Libre’. A group of winery owners that I ran into one morning while they were buying tickets to a local professional soccer game told me that they all drank it. One of them mentioned that a chilled ‘cosechero’ (carbonic maceration red) and coke was the perfect combination.

As for the international acceptance of Rioja and coke an article in the New York Times in 2013 (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/22/dining/wine-and-cola-it-works.html) recommends a recipe for calimocho:  mixing cola with wine, “preferably Spanish”.

But for me, the proof of the pudding was finding calimocho on a restaurant menu as a ‘signature cocktail’ in Jacksonville, Florida several years ago.

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Anyone who has visited (and partied) in Spain during the summer, where daytime temperatures routinely reach 100ºF (37,7ºC) knows that red wine-based beverages – sangria, ‘tinto de verano’, ‘zurracapote’ and of course, calimocho are the perfect way to enjoy wine all year round.

Do I drink it? All the time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rioja finally comes to grips with single estates

“Rioja is like an ocean liner. It needs time to change course.” This comment from Ángel de Jaime, one of the Rioja Regulatory Council’s past presidents, is a good description of the consensus-building process that precedes important decisions taken by the Council.

With 14 organizations on the executive board, representing wineries, cooperatives and farmers’ unions, this process can take a long time and tends to generate plenty of coverage in the media.

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 11.54.50(Photo credit:  lomejordelvinoderioja.com)

Previous decisions, such as the approval of new grape varieties, have often taken years to negotiate, so long in some cases that the delay has actually hurt Rioja.  The best example is the drawn-out debate about authorizing new white varietals.  While wineries and farmers fought in the Council, other DOs like Rueda and Rias Baixas took market share from white Rioja, even on our home turf.

However, the idea of accepting village and single estate grapes and wines in Rioja has been surprisingly well received by all sides and my feeling, after reading the proposals submitted to the Council, is that approval of rules to make these grapes and wines a reality won’t take long.

Fortunately, there are two precedents that make the process easier. Identifying and selling single subzone wines (from Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja) have been on the books since 1998. The only requirements for a subzone wine is for 100% of the grapes and wine to come from the subzone and that winemaking, ageing and bottling take place in the subzone.

The Council has already accepted concept of village wines, with requirements currently under discussion. It appears from the proposals that almost all parties are against making more restrictive requirements for yields, the minimum age of vineyards or a more rigorous tasting note for wines produced from grapes from a specific village except that the grapes and wine must demonstrably come from the village.

The organizations, however, seem inclined to be extremely rigorous with single estate grapes and wines.

The process involves a thorough examination of a number of specific qualities of both the vineyard and the wines produced from those grapes.

First of all, an ‘estate’ must have some singular qualities that set it apart from the surrounding area. One of the organizations has suggested following the OIV’s (International Office of Vine and Wine) recommendations about the methodology to be followed for defining parcels of vineyards, and the advice of international experts.

Among the requirements under discussion are: the minimum age of the vineyard; lower yields than for generic Rioja; no mechanical harvesting; estates cannot be located on fertile soil (a past error allowed by the Council); and that wines must receive a minimum point score (to be determined) in a tasting at the Council. This tasting is in addition to the general tasting to qualify the wine as generic Rioja.

The consensus is not to scrap the current system of ‘generic’, ‘crianza’, ‘reserva’ and ‘gran reserva’, for village and single estate wines, with the subzone, village or single estate featured on the label.

A current critique of the process of buying grapes in Rioja is the accusation by farmers that all wineries tend to gravitate to a more or less equal price for all grapes and wine once a big buy is made public. I assume that farmers who own vineyards that they consider special will apply for single vineyard status to command higher prices for their grapes. It might also encourage them to vinify these grapes, and age, bottle and sell the wine provided that they have access to a winery, rather than selling them to someone else.

Some wineries and wine writers have suggested a pyramid structure, with single estate wines at the tip, implying that the best quality (and therefore the most expensive) wines come from these estates, such as in Burgundy. It’s certainly a fact that in Burgundy the system works that way. It appears, however, that the organizations in the Council prefer the market to determine which wines are ‘the best or most valued Riojas’. I agree.

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Alberto Gil, the wine writer at our regional newspaper LA RIOJA, prefers concentric circles as a graphic representation of the future system, with more precise locations located closer to the center.

Diapositiva2Independently, one of Spain’s viticulture gurus, Pepe Hidalgo, created a zone map based on his research. He divides the DO Rioja into nine zones according to climate, altitude and soil types.

Hidalgo zone map(Map courtesy of LA RIOJA)

Hidalgo thinks that it would be confusing for consumers if Rioja ultimately decided to approve a village-based category (there are 76 villages in Rioja Alta, 52 in Rioja Baja and 18 in Rioja Alavesa) and feels that his categorization would be easier to manage.

I haven’t heard if the Council has debated his idea but it certainly merits consideration.

Time (hopefully, not too long) will tell how this debate will finally play out. Many of Rioja’s 600 wineries need a competitive advantage such as small, scarce amounts of wine to succeed. I think it’s to Rioja’s credit that the Council has collectively pulled hard on the wheel to turn the ship.

 

 

 

 

A new structure for Spanish wine?

(Or ‘Let the consumers do the talking’)

Artadi’s decision to leave the Rioja appellation is just one example of a movement among Spanish winemakers and wine writers to promote recognition of single vineyard sites and village terroirs and the wines produced on them as a means of showing the huge diversity of soils and landscapes in Spain. The movement’s leaders are convinced that it’s necessary for Spain’s appellations to go one step further than merely certifying general origin within the appellation.

Here’s the manifesto (my translation):

 

     Exceptional Vineyards

 Spain is the richest European country for its biodiversity and landscapes but at the same time it is one of those in which the respect and preservation of its surroundings is most questioned. The world of wine is no exception.

 The appellation of origin system has been an efficient means of ordering the wine world as far as origin is concerned but its objective has not been to differentiate soils and landscapes nor has it led to a policy of quality. In Spain policies have been developed to convert our vineyards into the largest in the world but no action has been taken to convert them into the best in the world.

 Nonetheless, we have history, places and the necessary passion to put the best plots and the most exceptional places at the forefront.

 For this reason, we believe that sweeping changes must take place and a new path opened that allows giving value to our unquestionable wine patrimony. It must be a global change affecting each and every layer of the wine sector from grapegrowers to public administration.

 All great wines in the world are a reflection of exceptional vineyards. For that reason, the most prestigious wine regions have always made laws based on those extraordinary vineyards for the purpose of defending and protecting them.

 We are convinced that the best way to identify wines in relation to their origin, quality, identity and authenticity is to create a pyramid structure. At its base would be wines made from grapes from any place in appellations of origin, then, wines from villages and at the tip of the pyramid, wines from single plots.

 All producers would win. We believe that raising the bar and demanding more of ourselves we will improve, we will be capable of better explaining the reality of our country’s wines, and we would help to sell the rest of our wines more effectively.

 For the above reasons we ask the Regulatory Councils to understand the new reality of the wine sector that is blossoming in Spain and to help show the differentiation that exists within each and every appellation of origin in our country. We know that this differentiation is the beginning of exceptionality and because the single vineyard wine movement is unstoppable and is, moreover, the best way to accomplish the goal of Spain’s wines becoming better and more prized.

 About 200 winemakers, practically all of whom are already making single vineyard wines, journalists, sommeliers, distributors and wine shop owners signed it.

Giving official status to single vineyard and village wines is absolutely necessary to provide small and medium-sized wineries a competitive advantage and positioning in markets where there is an increasing number of suppliers and a decreasing number of distributors and small retailers to offer them to consumers. If a wine comes from a single vineyard, why shouldn’t the winery have the right to say so?

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Having said that, I’m not convinced that the best way to tackle this problem is to lobby the Ministry of Agriculture to establish a pyramid structure, defining that single vineyard wines at the tip of the pyramid are intrinsically better and more authentic than wines coming from a single village or wines that are blended.

To me it makes more sense to lobby the appellations of origin to create a procedure to certify the specific origin of a single vineyard or village wine and let gatekeepers (distributors, retailers, supermarkets, wine writers) and ultimately, consumers decide which wine they prefer.

I can’t speak with authority about the rest of Spain, but in Rioja there are a number of highly successful wines that come from separate vineyards, villages and even the opposite ends of the region (from Rioja Baja as well as Rioja Alta) that would almost surely not accept the idea of being lower on a ‘quality/authenticity’ scale than a wine from a single vineyard or village. The attempt to create ‘vinos de pago’ or single vineyard wines in Rioja based on a quality pyramid set up in the latest Spanish wine law was rejected a few years ago in the Regulatory Council by wineries that refused to accept that a single vineyard wine was, a priori, higher on the quality scale than a blend. For the sake of clarity, let me say that most of the wineries on that committee were making single vineyard wines!

It makes no sense to me at all to create a Médoc or Burgundy-like hierarchy for Spanish wines. It’s common knowledge that the Médoc classification has only been changed once since 1855 (when Mouton-Rothschild moved from third growth status to first following years of intense lobbying by Baron Philippe de Rothschild). In any case, this classification was based on retail prices, not on any intrinsic characteristics of one terroir over another. The courts are still hearing cases from disgruntled chateau owners in Saint-Émilion when the classification was reshuffled several years ago. I could go on and on about Pomerol and the crus bourgeois in Bordeaux but the point is, the appelations should give the wineries and winemakers the flexibility to create the best wines for their markets and let the wineries extol the virtues of their products to the gatekeepers. Doing this on a yearly basis rather than creating a hierarchy is the best way to keep wineries on their toes and quality high. The greatest benefit is greatly raising the prestige of Spanish wines around the world, exactly the signers of the manifesto request.

The Regulatory Councils have the statutory obligation to certify the origin of the wines in their appellation. The wineries aren’t asking too much to take this certification to the next level.

 

 

Artadi says ‘adios’ to Rioja

About a year ago I wrote here that Artadi had threatened to leave the DOCa Rioja and explained what might have moved the winery to take this step. I expressed my hope that the threat would push the Rioja Regulatory Council into speeding up its decision to recognize wines from single vineyards, a demand widely shared by small and medium-sized wineries here.

Sadly, this has not happened and on December 29, Artadi officially withdrew from the Rioja appellation. The Regulatory Council’s only moves so far have been to visit the winery to confiscate Artadi’s stock of official Rioja back labels and to issue a press release stating

“It’s surprising that after having gained notoriety both through its own efforts and also undoubtedly because of belonging to the Rioja appellation, the same project (Rioja) is suddenly no longer suitable for its (Artadi’s) interests, especially when we have not heard directly the real reasons that have led to this decision”.

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 Juan Carlos López de Lacalle (photo by baskoniacultura.com)

Even though Artadi never visited the Council to explain why it was leaving Rioja, the winery’s president, Juan Carlos López de Lacalle made it clear that his winery no longer wanted to belong to an appellation where wines selling for two euros a bottle carried the same official back labels as his.

He has a point. The Rioja Council has been dragging its feet in recognizing that there are currently about 600 wineries in the appellation, of which over 400 sell fewer than 500,000 liters (if the sales breakdown of these 400 wineries were more detailed I’m sure we would discover that many of them sell fewer than 50,000 bottles). The competitive advantage of these small wineries is promoting a high quality, single vineyard image but according to the rules as they stand today, a winery can register a brand name alluding to a vineyard or a specific place such as ‘Viña…, Finca…, Tierra…, Prado…, Hacienda…, Alto…, Granja…, Dominio and the like but they can’t say on the back label or any written literature, under the threat of a fine from the Council, that the wine comes from that specific place. ‘Pagos’ isn’t allowed because a specific category of ‘vinos de pago’ was created in the most recent Spanish wine law but wineries that had registered a brand prior to the new law, including Artadi’s ‘Pagos Viejos’, were grandfathered in.

Why can’t these terms be used to describe the place the grapes come from? Because the Regulatory Council doesn’t have the means to certify that a given wine comes from grapes from a specific vineyard. Currently, the smallest area allowed is a village designation, but under the generic umbrella of the Rioja appellation. One could say that the Council is a victim of its own policy of meticulously certifying the origin of grapes. They simply don’t have enough inspectors and they refuse to take the winery’s word for it. (Wineries from the New World: now is the time to laugh!) It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the larger wineries were less than enthusiastic about the idea.

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 (Photo credit:  Artadi website)

For Artadi, a village designation under the Rioja umbrella is unacceptable. Mr. López de Lacalle, with a dash of messianic fervor, recently said in an interview on Radio Euskadi (the Basque government’s public radio station), published on January 5 in our local newspaper LA RIOJA:

“What will we gain (by leaving Rioja)? That consumers will have enough information so that they know that our wines come from natural surroundings, from a specific vineyard, from a specific area and from a region like Álava that is longing to express itself and where everything tastes of wine…. We’re going to show consumers the greatness of an area that seems to be created by the hand of God with the optimum conditions to make one of the best wines in the world.”

 The most recent development is that sixty small wineries in Rioja Alavesa – more than half of the members of the Rioja Alavesa Winery Association (representing small wineries in the region with strong financial support from the Basque Government) – indicated in a survey that they were willing to leave Rioja and create a specific appellation based in Rioja Alavesa.

It’s interesting to note that although Artadi has said that their decision is irrevocable and that they will never return to Rioja, a friend who works for the agriculture department of the Riojan government told me yesterday that if Artadi’s experiment doesn’t work and they want to return to the fold, the Council will have no choice but to take them back.

López de la Calle remarked, “Rioja for the Riojans and Álava for the people from Álava”. A noble sentiment indeed, but I’m sure that the large wineries in Rioja Alavesa like Marqués de Riscal, Faustino, El Coto and Bodegas Valdemar want to remain in the Rioja appellation.

As I’ve said many times, if there’s no controversy in Rioja, we’ll have to create it. An apocryphal Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times”. This is certainly the case in Rioja today.

 

 

The Haro Train Station District Event, Part 2

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One of the most attractive events on the second day of the Haro Train Station District tasting was a train ride from Logroño to Haro and back. I overheard some visitors comment that it was the first time they had ever taken a train. It’s ironic that trains, that made it easy to ship wine from the Ebro valley to Bilbao and from there, all over the world in the 19th century, are now an archaic means of transportation here.

Consumers had two tasting options: a 20 euro ticket allowing a tasting of one wine from each winery and three tapas or a 40 euro VIP ticket with which you could taste two higher end wines from each winery and try seven tapas made by restaurants from around Haro.

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 Three vintages of Viña Tondonia

The food options were great. One could choose a red bean stew, grilled pork with a caramelized onion marmalade, cornbread stuffed with chorizo cooked in red wine, cream cheese smothered in a pear sauce, red peppers stuffed with meat and wild Riojan mushrooms, grilled mushrooms or a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, called a ‘zapatilla’ or ‘slipper’.

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Tasting at Bodegas Gómez Cruzado

I chose the 20 euro option and was glad I did. Towards the end of the day the sidewalks, the winery gardens and the platform at the train station were filled with glassy-eyed VIP ticket holders who had chosen the 14-glass option. There were spittoons everywhere but most people preferred swallowing to spitting. Thank goodness for the train.

Each winery prepared a special event related to winemaking, wine culture or the history of the train station district.

Bodegas Bilbaínas: a visit to the original winery built by the French in the 19th century and the underground ageing cellars;

CVNE: an exhibition of the sculptress Cristina Iglesias, titled “Wells”;

Muga: oak barrel making

Gómez Cruzado: painting a street mural depicting the history of the winery;

La Rioja Alta: racking wine from one barrel to another;

López de Heredia Viña Tondonia: a photographic exhibition of the history of the train station district from the winery’s private collection;

 

Roda: the underground cellar and the balcony overlooking the Ebro river with a view to the ‘sea of vines’ on the opposite bank.

 

In addition, a roving Dixieland band walked through the winery gardens. It was a big, happy street party.

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One of the ‘Pozos’ sculptures by Cristina Iglesias at Bodegas CVNE seen from above

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Part of the train station district and Haro seen from Bodegas Roda

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The tower at Bodegas López de Heredia, called the ‘txori toki’ or ‘bird’s perch’ in Basque

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Painting a mural at Gómez Cruzado

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‘125 vintages’ on a wall at La Rioja Alta

I had already visited every winery except Gómez Cruzado with wine and lifestyle journalists so as I walked around I concentrated on listening to people’s reactions on seeing the inside of a winery, for many, for the first time and having the chance to talk to the owners and managers. It was heartwarming to hear them welcome the visitors “to our home”. For most of these consumers, the brands were already familiar, but seeing where the wines were actually made was an exciting experience.

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Visitors comparing tasting notes

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Photo call at Bodegas Bilbaínas.  ‘Call me classic’

The two-day event was, in my opinion, a huge success. Over 400 journalists, distributors, wine shops and restaurants attended the professional event on Friday while more than 4000 consumers from all over Spain filled the wineries on Saturday. The weather was perfect, the wines showed very well, the local food was delicious and the wineries laid out the red carpet for their guests. It was a unique opportunity to get an inside look at a unique group of one hundred-year old wineries that are among the best ambassadors Rioja shows the world.

 

I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.

All photos ©Tom Perry.