The next stop on my trip around Spain with Gerry Dawes was the Ribeira Sacra. It’s a spectacularly beautiful wine region in the Sil, Miño, Cabe and Bibei river valleys in Galicia in the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula. The area was a bucket list item of mine because I was unable to visit it with Gerry the last time we traveled together.
It’s a land of almost vertical, terraced vineyards from the top of the verdant gorges down to the banks of the rivers. Its jaw-dropping beauty makes one forget that maintaining the vineyards and harvesting the grapes is a demanding exercise for wineries requiring not only strength but ingenuity.
The Lower Sil and upper Miño valleys are quite different in spite of sharing awesome scenery. The Miño river runs roughly east to west, emptying into the Atlantic at the northwestern border of Spain and Portugal. The Sil valley on the other hand runs from north to south, emptying into the Miño. The Miño benefits from the predominating east-west winds, while the south bank of the Sil valley is bathed in sunlight.
The red grape varieties are mainly mencía, with some brancellao, merenzao, caiño tinto, sousón, tempranillo, garnacha tintorera and mouratón. The white varieties are godello, albariño, treixadura, loureira, dona branca and torrontés.
A few words about the mencía grape. It is the most widely planted red variety in Ribeira Sacra but also in the neighboring Galician DO of Valdeorras, the DO Monterrei in southeastern Galicia abutting on the Portuguese border and the Bierzo, in the northwest corner of the province of León.
To my nose and palate mencía in the Ribeira Sacra stands out for its acidic red fruit reminiscent of sour or morello cherries (guindas in Spanish) and for its elegance. It can stand alone or blended with one or several of the other varieties to add complexity.
Our host in the region was José Manuel Rodríguez, the president of the D.O. Ribeira Sacra and owner of Adega Décima along with other Spanish Artisan Wine Group friends from the region – Jorge Carnero from Viña Cazoga and Víctor Rodríguez of Val da Lenda. We tasted a number of their wines both at Jorge Carnero’s and José Manuel’s wineries as well as at a dinner at a restaurant in our home base in the town of Monforte de Lemos.
These winemakers proved that they were indeed artisans. Gerry chose them because they were small family wineries (colleiteiros in Galician) making wine exclusively from their own grapes, using native yeasts, and blending grapes according to the characteristics of each harvest rather than applying the same formula for every vintage. Above all, they are tireless experimenters.
We tasted not only the “typical” wines made mainly from mencía but also some made for friends, such as a red with 60% red garnacha, 20% mencía and 20% godello, a white with 40% godello, 20% treixadura, 20% albariño and 20% palomino vinified like a red with the skins in contact with the juice. Another interesting wine was from Viña Cazoga from the very difficult 2017 vintage, a blend of 50% mencía with two months’ ageing in 600 liter Allier oak barrels and 50% with no oak. The brand was called ‘Terco’ (stubborn) because Jorge Carnero needed to be hardheaded to make a wine from that vintage.
The Ribeira Sacra is part of a club of vineyards known for ‘heroic’ viticulture. This is defined by the Centre for Research, Environmental Sustainability and Advancement of Mountain Viticulture (CERVIN) as vineyards:
at sites at altitudes over 500 meters (1600 feet) above sea level or
planted on slopes greater than 30% or
planted on terraces or embankments or
planted on small islands in difficult growing conditions.
I’ll be talking at length about heroic viticulture in a future post.
The reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors began in 718 when king Pelagius (Pelayo in Spanish) defeated an Arab-Berber army at Covadonga in what later became the independent kingdom of Asturias. This region in northern Spain is bordered by the rugged Picos de Europa to the south and the Bay of Biscay to the north, with the easiest access along the coast from Galicia to the west and Cantabria to the east.
It was the second stop on Gerry’s itinerary, a place we knew well and were excited to revisit.
The Picos de Europa, lying in Asturias, León and Cantabria is a range of jagged limestone peaks, some of which are over 2,500 meters above sea level. The most famous peak is the Naranjo de Bulnes (‘Picu Urriellu’ in Asturian), challenging to climb but nonetheless a popular destination for hikers that is most easily accessible from either Sotres or Puente Poncebos (see the previous article about Tresviso).
Another popular route in the Picos is through the rugged gorge of the Cares river, a 12 kilometer trek from Puente Poncebos in Asturias to Caín, a tiny hamlet in León. My first hike there was in the mid-1970s when my wife, another couple and I drove to Caín on an unpaved track through a dense forest. When we reached Caín, the only building serving food offered a big piece of cheese wedged between two slabs of coarse bread, along with wine.
We hiked to Puente Poncebos and back to Caín to pick up the car. There were no crowds in either place.
The next time we hiked the gorge was twenty years later from Poncebos. We were surprised to see a number of tour buses parked in Caín, with several places to buy sandwiches, steaks and fabada, a delicious but filling Asturian stew made with large white beans that requires a siesta afterwards. Since we had to hike back to Poncebos, we ate something lighter. There were so many hikers on the trail that at times it felt like Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
On our third hike, we figured out the reason for the crowds. People would be dropped off in Puente Poncebos while a driver would make the one-hundred-plus kilometer drive around and through the Picos to Caín on the now paved road. There they picked up their passengers.
The Asturias tourism people must be happy about the increase in tourists to the Picos region. I only hope that overcrowding doesn’t spoil its breathtaking beauty.
The purpose of our stay in Asturias was for Gerry to spend time with his old friend Marino González. González is a cheese producer, a tireless promoter of Asturian products and a shareholder in Tierra Astur, a chain of six cider houses in the three most important cities in Asturias: Gijón, Oviedo and Avilés.
Hard cider is made all across the coastal areas of northern Spain: the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia, but the best cider in my opinion is from Asturias. According to the website lasidra.es there are more than 200 native varieties of apples in Asturias but only 77 are allowed in cider protected by a DOP (Protected Designation of Origin).
Just like wine, there are single varietal ciders but most are blends. And just like ice wine, some industrious producers make an ice cider. It’s delicious.
Cider has its own culture, and Tierra Astur exploits it to perfection. When you sit down at one of their cider houses first you get a menu of the available ciders. After you order, a server, called an escanciador, holds a glass at hip height while the bottle is held over the server’s head. A thin stream of cider flows from bottle to glass. The server hands you the glass, which has about 100 ml of foamy cider called a culín that you’re supposed to drink in one gulp, except for a small amount that you throw on the floor to get rid of the dregs at the bottom of the glass.
If you don’t want someone to ‘escanciar’ for you, there are machines that will pour you a fizzy culín.
Hard cider isn’t very strong, about 6% alcohol, but you can definitely get high because you order it by the bottle and share it. At a one-hour sitting with Gerry and Marino, we drank four bottles. Fortunately we escaped inebriation by munching on a few plates of Asturian cheeses and hazelnuts.
Tierra Astur cider houses are one-stop temples to Asturian culture. You can go there by yourself, with a friend or a group to drink cider or to have a meal that usually consists of grilled Asturian beef, sausages, blood pudding and heaping plates of french fries . But you can order a burger, a breaded veal cutlet, a plate of Asturian cheeses, a torto (kind of an Asturian pizza), fish, fabada… Well, you can order just about anything, including Asturian wine.
In addition to eating and drinking, you can visit their on-site deli and gift shop. You can book the place for a wedding or a first communion meal and even attend a concert.
Tierra Astur’s flagship cider houses in Oviedo are on the aptly named ‘Bulevar de la Sidra’ (no translation necessary) on calle Gascona not far from the cathedral. Their biggest establishment is in a tastefully remodeled city bus depot in Colloto, a suburb of Oviedo with a reduced COVID maximum occupancy of 375. We had dinner there our first night in Oviedo, a Saturday, that happened to be the first weekend after movement restrictions in Spain were lifted. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house!
THE LAND OF 40 CHEESES
In addition to cider, Asturias’s other flagship product is cheese. Tierra Astur sells forty kinds of cheese according to their sales brochure. One type, Los Beyos, has received the IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) seal from the European Union attesting to its origin and production methods while seven have earned the status of DOP (Protected Designation of Origin – with even more rigorous standards than IGP.
These seven cheeses are Gamonéu, Cabrales, Casín and – four types of Afuega’l Pitu, two whites and two reds. The curious name of this last cheese has two possible meanings. According to José Manuel Escorial’s book Spain and its Cheeses, ‘Afuega’l Pitu’ means ‘to choke the chicken’ in Bable, the Asturian language. Escorial explains that In the old days, cheesemakers gave a piece to a chicken and if it had trouble swallowing it, the cheese was ready. Other sources say that it means ‘to choke the throat’. The ambiguity comes from the fact that ‘pitu’ means both ‘chicken’ and ‘larynx’ in Bable. In either case, in the red Afuega’l Pitu varieties, paprika is added, making them spicy.
The next day, Marino took Gerry and me to an artisan cheese fair in the old quarter of Avilés where 46 producers were showing their wares. After sampling quite a few, my favorites were the blue cheeses Gamonéu and of course, Cabrales. This last cheese is considered by many to be the best blue cheese in the world. To find it, check with your local cheese merchant.
In spite of our hectic schedule of eating and drinking, that Gerry calls “gastronomic research”, we had some time to sightsee in Oviedo, a city that we both knew from previous trips.
The old part of town has lots of picturesque squares, beautiful two-story buildings and lots of statues. Perhaps the most famous one is of ‘La Regenta’, the main character in a novel written in the late 19th century by journalist Leopoldo Alas. Ana Ozores is the wife of the director (regente) of the local court and called ‘la regenta’. The book is a scathing, thinly disguised account of the hypocrisy and decadence of Oviedo of that time, that Alas called ‘Vetusta’ (outdated or decrepit). It focuses on the pious Ana Ozores’s tormented existence. Her statue perfectly expresses her sad countenance.
Unfortunately we had to leave Asturias because Gerry’s schedule demanded that we move on to the winelands of Galicia.
From June 6 through the 21st, I accompanied American food, wine and travel writer Gerry Dawes on a trip throughout Spain. Gerry was doing research for his magnum opus “Sunset in a Glass: Adventures of a Food and Wine Warrior in Spain”. I met a few of Gerry’s artisanal wine producers in Galicia, walked across several Roman bridges, visited cheese factories, the Jewish quarter of several towns and cities, and ate some spectacular meals. We covered about 2,500 miles.
Our two-week odyssey began with a visit to Tresviso, a bucket list item for Gerry that included a visit to the local cheese factory.
Tresviso, almost 3,000 feet above sea level, is in the province of Cantabria but only accessible from Asturias, the region to the west. There are two ways to reach the village – by hiking for three hours on a steep, narrow, twisting track up the side of a mountain, or on a fairly recent ‘one and a half lane’ road that starts in the village of Tielve, near Poncebos, climbs to the small village of Sotres, and over and across a treeless plateau for 25 miles.
We were expecting little traffic to this isolated spot but quickly discovered that Poncebos, Tielve and even Sotres were packed with tourists. It was the first weekend after Spain had been released from lockdown and people were eager to cure their cabin fever. We retracted our outside mirrors and threaded our way around parked cars and tourists drinking in the road. To make matters worse, at the top of the 3,500 foot pass leading to Tresviso, the local government had organized a mountain trail run and the sides of the narrow road were clogged with cars, vans and race participants.
We finally reached the village but couldn’t find the cheese factory so we went to the local bar to enquire.
Tresviso is an absolutely beautiful spot, nestled on a plateau near the Urdón river gorge. There are only 56 permanent residents but on weekends, the village fills up with hikers, bikers and the odd car full of tourists. Most congregate at the local bar, that also rents out rooms. Until 1990 when the road from Sotres was built, the only way to access the village was to hike up the side of the mountain. In winter, Tresviso is usually cut off from civilization and has to be supplied by helicopter.
Javier Campo is the owner-manager of the only cheese factory in Tresviso and also the mayor of the village. According to José Manuel Escorial, author of España y sus quesos (Spain and its Cheeses), “Picón Bejes-Tresviso cheese is made with sheep (the Lacha breed), cow (Pardo Alpina and Frisian) and goat’s milk (the Pyrenees breed and the Picos de Europa mountain goat). The proportion differs depending on the season of the year. Its paste is buttery yet compact with eyes. White with blue-green streaks”.
Escorial’s rather bland description overlooks the fact that for cheese connoisseurs, Tresviso is one of the world’s best blue cheeses. France’s Roquefort is promoted more aggressively and has wider distribution but both Tresviso and Cabrales from Asturias are every bit as good. This is sadly the case with many of Spain’s gastronomic delights.
How is Tresviso cheese made? After adding the rennet ( the curdling agent), the wet cheese is packed in cylindrical molds and placed on an inclined metal plate to allow the whey to drain. Then the cheese is salted, dried for 12 to 18 days in a warm room (60 to 65F), followed by ageing in limestone caves for a minimum of two months. Penicilium bacteria is injected into the wet cheese.
Traditionally both Tresviso and Cabrales blue cheeses were wrapped in sycamore maple leaves. Other cheese makers imitated this packaging however and now Tresviso is wrapped in aluminum foil with the indication “DO Picón-Bejes-Tresviso”.
Javier told us that he was selling his cheese in the USA and in the UK. The Taste of Home website has a page with the best cheese shop in every state, so you might be able to find Tresviso there. In the UK, you might try Cheeses Online.
Our next stop was Oviedo in Asturias to spend time with Marino González, Asturias’s king of cheese and cider houses.
A few weeks ago while rummaging through our impossibly disorganized wine cellar I discovered two bottles of Viña Tondonia gran reserva 1976 – a red and a white.
(Photo: Tom Perry)
Seeing ‘1976’ reminded me that it was the 200th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and was the first vintage after dictator Francisco Franco’s death.
Other important events in 1976 were:
Apple Computer Company was founded
The Vietnamese National Assembly announced the unification of North and South Vietnam with the capital in Hanoi (later Ho Chi Minh City)
The Viking I landed on Mars
Adolfo Suárez was elected president of the Spanish government, Jimmy Carter became the 39th president of the United States and Fidel Castro was named president of Cuba.
I think you’ll agree that a lot of water has passed under the bridge.
I thought that 45 years was probably at the edge of the wines’ drinking windows so I invited several friends and fellow wine lovers to taste them. Under normal circumstances we would have followed our time-honored tradition of gathering ten or so people around a table. 2021, however, is not normal and only five of us were able to safely gather in the small back room of a neighborhood bar.
The tasters were
Casimiro Somalo, the retired wine writer for our local newspaper La Rioja;
Jorge Elías, a graphic designer who works with López de Heredia (producer of Viña Tondonia) and his wife Alicia;
Tom Perry and wife María Antonia.
In addition to the 2 bottles of 1976, Jorge Elías brought a bottle of Tondonia red reserva 2008.
The two bottles of 1976 didn’t have capsules. Instead, the necks had been covered with sealing wax. “RLH” had been pressed into the hot wax when it was applied. I carefully removed the wax and tried to extract the corks with a special tool for old wines – two flat blades that fit between the cork and the inside of the neck of the bottle. Both corks had shrunk a little however and they fell into the wine, so I quickly decanted them an hour before the tasting.
I found some notes from the Marqués de Riscal Tradition Wine Club written by Manuel Ruiz Hernández, the longtime lab technician at the Haro Oenological Station, about the weather conditions in 1976:
“The growing season was 180 days long;
The previous winter had been cold and dry. From December to February rainfall was only 90 liters per square meter compared to an average of 130 liters;
March and April were very cold, and April wet. Consequently, budbreak was delayed.
The summer was hot and rainy, with exceptionally high rainfall in August.
In general, ripening was difficult and irregular.”
The Rioja Regulatory Council rated the vintage as “Good” (three out of five stars).
It sounded like it had been a difficult vintage, and that fact, along with the corks inside the bottles, made us apprehensive about the outcome of the tasting.
Fortunately, the wines did not disappoint.
White gran reserva 1976:
Deep gold; brilliant.
Notes of white flowers, especially chamomile as well as honey, sensations that improved with more time in the glass; no hint of acetification,
Vibrant acidity, delicate honey and buttery notes on the palate, long-lasting in the mouth that improved over time.
The grape varieties were mainly viura with malvasía de Rioja.
The wine was aged for almost ten years in barriques and racked by hand 18 times. It was bottled between January and February 1986.
Red gran reserva 1976:
Light brick with a slight brown rim;
Delicate stewed red fruit, elegant with notes of cedar chest and cinnamon;
Good acidity, elegant, just perceptible tannin, slightly bitter, pruney.
Grape varieties: Mostly tempranillo with garnacha, mazuelo and graciano.
The wine spent nine years in barriques and racked twice a year.
What impressed us most about these two wines was their backbone of acidity that we agreed was the main reason for their longevity.
Red reserva 2008
Color between picota cherry and medium brick.
At first very closed on the nose (we only had two decanters so this wine was decanted after we finished the 1976 white). It later opened up to reveal elegant red stewed fruit notes and elegant tannins.
Well-balanced on the palate, a good dollop of acidity, elegant delicate red fruit and a long mouthfeel.
We didn’t think that this wine had reached its peak yet, but was perfectly drinkable now.
The three wines had in common a vibrant acidity and a delicate, elegant character that today’s wine drinker might call understated, but they were unmistakably from López de Heredia and very good.
This launched a discussion about classic versus modern Riojas. Casimiro Somalo defined the Tondonias as ‘avant-garde classics’. They were ahead of their time when hardly any other fine wines existed in Rioja, and today they’re classics because they recall the style of wine that gave Rioja an international reputation in the 1960s.
They have two distinguishing characteristics:
They’re undoubtedly Rioja because of their elegance, stewed red fruit notes and soft tannins.
They’re undoubtedly from López de Heredia for their delicate character and acidity that has allowed them to age gracefully, in the case of the 1976s, for 45 years.
We recalled that classic Riojas didn’t tire your palate; when you finished a bottle at a meal with friends you usually opened another one.
Somalo said that you could even enjoy these wines after coffee, a snifter of good brandy, a glass of bourbon or some chocolate.
His final judgment was, “ When a wine can stand up to coffee or chocolate, that’s magnificent .”
Tim Atkin MW has just released his 2021 Rioja Special Report, the sixth since 2016. Researching and writing the report this year took place in London because of coronavirus travel restrictions. Atkin tasted 1200 samples from 266 producers and held 180 videochats with producers.
Of the wines tasted, 793 scored above 90 points, and 100 of these, 95 points or better.
Atkin’s 2021 podium of winners by category is:
(Credit: Rioja Special Report 2021)
Atkin’s report is highly regarded here because it’s the most comprehensive yearly snapshot of our state of affairs, ranging from the number of wineries visited and wines tasted, bar and restaurant recommendations, with a frank assessment of our often bewildering wine industry politics. Tim is brutally honest about happenings behind the scenes, and of course he writes eloquently about what his well-trained palate discerns in his tastings. In addition, he’s a first class photographer.
You can purchase the report for £20 which is around $US28 or €23 as of today (February 22) at timatkin.com. If you’re a Rioja fan, it’s well worth the price.
In this age of terroir-focused wines from single subzones, villages and single vineyards from small growers who have decided to make and bottle their production, it was a huge but pleasant surprise to discover that Atkin had anointed R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, universally known as Rioja’s most traditional, immutable winery for almost 150 years, ‘Best Of Show’ in three categories:
Winemaker of the year: Mercedes López de Heredia
Overall white wine: Viña Tondonia white gran reserva 2001
Overall rosé wine: Viña Tondonia rosé gran reserva 2010
María José, Mercedes and Julio López de Heredia (Tom Perry photo)
Since 2009 when I launched Inside Rioja, I’ve written extensively about López de Heredia’s steadfast adherence to tradition since the company’s founding. It is a truly unique place, with a unique philosophy.
To celebrate the company’s triple crown, I hope you will re-read some of the articles I’ve written and enjoy some photos I’ve taken about the winery and the wines. Just click on the links.
The “Txori Toki” (‘Birds’ Perch’ in Basque) tower (Tom Perry)
What is the most iconic factor that defines Rioja ? It would certainly be tempting to say that it’s the tempranillo grape.After all, it’s the most widely planted varietal here, with 88% of red varietals and 80% of the total area under vine . But it wasn’t always so. According to the 1976 vineyard census, the area planted to garnacha was almost twice that of tempranillo (12800 hectares vs. 7000) and it wasn’t until the early eighties that the latter overtook the former.
‘Rioja’ has been associated with a wine region for several hundred years, so the increasing dominance of tempranillo in the last forty years can scarcely be the basis for elevating this grape to the status of an icon. In fact, Alberto Gil, the wine columnist for our regional newspaper La Rioja, refers to the “tyranny” of tempranillo for its ubiquity. ‘Dominant’ is not a synonym for ‘iconic’.
For historical reasons based on the region’s location at the confluence of Atlantic and Mediterranean-influenced climate types, a more appropriate icon in Rioja might be the classic Rioja blend of tempranillo, graciano and mazuelofor reds meant for ageing, and tempranillo and garnacha for young reds. Ángel Jaime y Baró, longtime director of the Haro Viticultural Laboratory and later, president of the Rioja Regulatory Council, called it “typicity”-what made Rioja recognizable and well-liked by consumers in Spain, and, with the Rioja “boom” beginning in the early 1970s, in the UK and from there, around the world.
To understand the importance of the Rioja blend, we have to go back more than one hundred years to the fight against phylloxerawhen it first appeared in a vineyard near Haro in 1899.
Leading the fight were two agronomist engineers, Nicolás García de los Salmones, director of the Agricultural Research Laboratory in Navarra and Víctor Cruz Manso de Zúñiga, the second director of the Rioja Viticultural Research Laboratory in Haro.
In the late 1800s, García de los Salmones traveled throughout French wine regions documenting the practice of grafting European varietals onto American rootstock while at the turn of the 20th century, Manso de Zúñiga concentrated on a scientific approach to rebuilding Rioja’s vineyards on the basis of detailed analyses of the region’s soils and climate patterns.
The regional governments in neighboring Navarra and Álava were responsible, thanks to García de los Salmones and these governments’ fiscal independence from Madrid, for purchasing a large supply of American, phylloxera-resistant rootstock as well as financing plant nurseries. No such large-scale assistance was available in La Rioja until the creation of the Caja Vitícola Provincial, a bank that issued debentures and then lent money with generous terms to farmers with which they could purchase rootstock, plants, machinery and other products necessary to rebuild their vineyards. One of the requirements for these loans was that only certain varieties could be planted including ‘more tempranillo and less garnacha’. This led to Manso de Zúñiga’s definition of the ideal Rioja blend as ’75% tempranillo, 15% garnacha and 10% mazuelo’.
Antonio Larrea was the director of the Haro laboratory for 30 years (1944-1970), followed by assuming the presidency of the Rioja Regulatory Council. Larrea further refined the definition of the Rioja blend in 1956 when he recommended “75% tempranillo, 15% graciano and 10% mazuelo”.
Manso de Zúñiga and Larrea saw where these varieties fit in the puzzle made up of the long, narrow upper Ebro valley with its seven tributaries, hills, valleys, and soils ranging from mostly limestone, iron and clay in the cooler, wetter western half and alluvial in the hotter, drier eastern half.
Larrea was responsible for the practical viticultural and enological education of a generation of young university graduates, many of whom, like Ezequiel García and Gonzalo Ortiz would go on to work in Rioja’s leading wineries. Others would study winemaking in Bordeaux where they learned about blending cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot.
Armed with this knowledge, winemakers could compensate for the negative effects of weather on vineyards in a particular growing season by buying grapes and wine from all over the region as well as blending wines from different vintages in an attempt to create a consistent style from year to year.
Rioja in those days was ‘made’ in the winery.
Neither Manso nor Larrea could imagine, however, the expansion of vineyards planted to an easily cultivated variety like tempranilloto the detriment of the other varieties as a result of the explosion in demand for Rioja beginning in the 1980s.
Rioja was so associated with the blend that the first single varietal tempranillo, Viña Alcorta, ironically created by Bodegas Campo Viejo, the largest winery in the region, was at first roundly criticized by wine writers in Spain who thought that “something was missing”.
Since Alcorta’s launch in the mid-1980s, a torrent of water has flowed under the Rioja bridge, with an increasing focus on terroir (the natural environment of a vineyard that includes climate, soil and topography), the creation of single varietals, single vineyard wines, single subzone wines, single village wines, the use of a wide range of oak for barrels and the introduction of old Riojan varieties rescued from extinction. The land of typicity has become “the land of a thousand wines” but the sheer dominance of tempranillo makes it by default the overwhelming grape in a Rioja winery’s varietal palette.
Today, to find a classic blend of tempranillo, graciano and mazuelo, you have to look at the back label or the technical notes on a winery’s website. Some of the wines to watch for are the classic gran reservas from over one hundred year old wineries such as CVNE’s Imperial, La Rioja Alta’s 904 and 890, Marqués de Murrieta’s Castillo de Ygay, López de Heredia’s Viña Tondonia and Bodegas Riojanas’ Viña Albina.
Nowadays the conversation in Rioja is all about terroir and specificity, with a focus on the vineyard, which almost always means a single varietal. The Rioja blend however, has a long history and certainly deserves to be called iconic.
Thanks to fellow journalists Pablo García Mancha and Alberto Gil for the inspiration!
Every wine has a story. At least that’s what wine marketers want us to believe. Less talked about but no less interesting, in my opinion, are the stories about how we acquire the wines we drink.
Most bottles are bought in shops or supermarkets, others are gifts. Many of these stories are mundane. Once in a while however, there’s an exciting story behind a bottle in a cellar and Château Lynch-Bages 2004 is one of them.
One day in early 2015 an American named Stephen Bolger called me to explain a concept he had successfully sold to Lynch-Bages, a Bordeaux Grand Crû Classé in Pauillac. His idea, already in place for a few years, was to enlist an international group of affluent wine lovers to work a harvest at the winery, choose grapes for a personal blend under the supervision of the Lynch-Bages winemaking team, and once the base wines had been vinified, return to the winery to bottle them. These customers would have their own stock of wines made at Lynch-Bages and act as de facto ambassadors for the winery in their countries. Some of the members of the group had participated for several years.
It was and is, a brilliant marketing idea.
The idea we discussed was for me to act as an expert tour guide for an upcoming road trip to Rioja, where the group was going to blend their Lynch-Bages-based base wines and visit a few Rioja wineries. It was the first time the group was going to venture beyond Bordeaux.
I was flattered to learn that I had been recommended by a friend, Jane Anson, one of the best-known experts on the wines of Bordeaux (and who recently published a comprehensive book about the region, Inside Bordeaux).
To make a long story short, I took the group on a tour of several high-end Rioja wineries, chosen in advance by Bolger, gave a Rioja Masterclass and tasting and schmoozed with the group for three days, including a gala dinner and old-vintage tasting of Marqués de Riscal.
Far from being the typical stuffy black tie gala wine event, it was organized as a fun-filled end-of-the-trip, with people moving from table to table with their glasses and laughing at the disguises provided in the photocall.
A highlight of the experience was a lunch at Remelluri with Jean-Michel Cazes, the owner of Lynch-Bages, who, I discovered, had always been a Rioja lover and had several friends in the Rioja wine trade. Not surprising given that Rioja and Bordeaux are only a four-hour drive from each other!
An additional takeaway from the visit was a group member’s invitation for me to speak at Washington D.C.’s Metropolitan Club to a group of Washington insiders including several members of Congress. To my surprise, one of the congressmen introduced himself as the owner of a newly created Rioja winery.
One of the perks with this group was the gift of a bottle of Lynch-Bages 2004, so I was especially excited to open it on Christmas Day with my family.
It showed a medium-high ruby color with a brick rim, surprising for a 16 year old wine. On the nose, elegant, round blackcurrant, acidic red fruit and pencil shavings. The palate showed round, elegant tannins, nice acidity and was very much alive with an incredibly long finish. The wine’s depth and elegance made me think that it could have been cellared longer but we wanted to enjoy it for this special lunch and it did not disappoint.
Out of curiosity, I did a search for the wine on both Wine Searcher and Vivino. WS showed an average per bottle price of USD 204 plus tax in the USA and Vivino, an average price of EUR160.
I have never paid so much for a bottle of wine so I was doubly grateful that I had a chance to drink this one. The complexity and depth of aromas, elegance and incredibly long mouthfeel convinced me that had I bought it, this bottle would have been worth every penny.
My wife and I have more wine than we can possibly drink. Under normal circumstances we would organize a dinner party and open six or seven bottles, but 2020 has been anything but normal. We decided at the beginning of lockdown in March that we would try to draw down the stock in our cellar before doing any buying, a strategy that wasn’t very successful because of the great offers of direct purchase made by wineries. By the time we were unlocked in mid-June, we had drunk lots of interesting bottles hidden away in the cellar.
Among them were:
a 2007 ice cider from Asturias, a 40 year-old white port, a 2011 white from Costers del Segre in Catalunya, a 2008 merlot roble from Mendoza, a 2007 merlot from Moldova, and a lot of Rioja.
Last night we carried out a raid to our wine cellar and came upstairs with a bottle of Marqués de Riscal 2003. I didn’t remember drinking that vintage from Riscal so it was going to be an adventure because 2003 in Rioja was classified as “BUENA”. If you consider that the official grading system here from best to worst is EXCELENTE-MUY BUENA-BUENA-NORMAL and MEDIANA, “BUENA” was right in the middle. The last two definitions defy me, but I guess one has to accept that no one is going to buy a wine classified as DEFICIENTE, nor is the Board likely to classify it.
On its website the Rioja Regulatory Board explains that this classification is based on applying a mathematical formula after tasting thousands of young wines and that later ageing in barrique and bottle can be beneficial as time passes. (The Board does not say that it can be harmful if the wine is not cellared properly downstream, but it happens).
So I proceeded to open the bottle.
After cutting the foil I inserted my lever corkscrew and started to apply gentle pressure. The cork didn’t budge. “#$@%*!!” Normally I would have reached for my trusty old cork remover, a gadget with two thin steel blades that you insert on each side of the cork. By slowly twisting the device and pushing it in, you can more or less separate the cork from the sides of the neck of the bottle and then twist out the cork.
The problem was that I couldn’t find it, so I tried to get a good grip on the cork and pull. The cork started to crumble. “##$$@@%%&&**”. When I decided there was no way to remove it, I reluctantly pushed the bits and pieces of cork into the bottle and slowly poured the contents into a decanter. I thought, “Why am I going through this rigamarole when I know that the wine will be hopelessly oxidized.
Was I wrong!
The decanting process showed a brick-colored rim and a deep garnet tone in the center of the glass. My heart started to race in anticipation. On the nose, it showed stewed maraschino and black cherries, a hint of oak and the slightest hint of cork, probably from the pieces of cork that floated in the bottle for a few minutes. On the palate it had a texture that I always describe as ‘yummy’, with firm ripe tannin, balanced acidity and a long finish.
How to explain the dried out cork and the excellently preserved wine? I guess that the seal against the glass was so tight that very little or no air could get into the bottle, although it certainly would have been easier if there had been a little wax applied to the cork to facilitate opening.
Our meal was homemade cream of pumpkin-curry soup, eggplant stuffed with vegetables and medallions of turkey tenderloin in a wild mushroom sauce. My wife and I agreed that the Riscal paired very nicely with these dishes.
After dinner we cleaned the bottle, poured in the remaining wine, stoppered it and removed the air. Today we finished it and found that it had held up very well.
This experience has encouraged us to drink our older wines more often. Although we will undoubtedly be disappointed by some of them, finding a bottle like last night’s will make the whole experience well worth it.
Francisco Ruiz, director of Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez, is a passionate defender of biodynamicviticulture in Rioja. His company was the first in La Rioja whose vineyards were certified by International Demeter, the biodynamic certification body, and they have been farming biodynamically for four years.
Esperanza López from the La Rioja government’s Department of Agriculture, who was with us on our visit to the vineyards, told us that 61 wineries had vineyards certified as organic in La Rioja. The fact that only two have been certified as biodynamic shows that going full biodynamic from organic is a big leap of faith and a lot more responsibility.
I have to admit that before visiting Ruiz’s vineyards and winery I was skeptical about this farming practice. My attitude was based on a remark made several years ago by another Rioja winemaker and not by taking the time to learn about biodynamic farming.
This winemaker commented that one of the wineries in his group carried out biodynamic practices, referring almost jokingly to burying cow horns filled with manure in the vineyard. When asked if it worked he replied, “I don’t know if it works or not, but it can’t hurt either.”
Francisco set us straight during a recent visit to one of his vineyards near Aldeanueva de Ebro in Rioja Oriental. He convinced our group that biodynamic farming indeed works by rebalancing soils spoiled by years of unsound practices, by creating harmony between the ecosystem of a winery and its surroundings and simply by being more healthy.
The concept of biodynamics was the brainchild of an Austrian, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). According to Wikipedia it was the first of the organic farming movements. Biodynamic farming shares a lot with organic farming in general but differs in that it treats animals, crops and soils as a single, holistic system, while organic agriculture emphasizes the elimination of wide-spectrum pesticides and herbicides as farming practices.
For Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez, farming biodynamically was a logical step after the company had farmed organically since 1998. Ruiz explains on the company website:
“Biodynamic agriculture is based on the idea of the field as an organism-farm where everything is related. Always with the aim of strengthening the entire ecosystem, promoting and favoring the best conditions to achieve a balance that allows us to harvest high quality grapes without residues.”
That explains ‘ bio’. What about ‘dynamics’? It consists of preparing, maturing and spreading in the vineyard a compost solution using a method created by German Maria Thun.
According to biodinamicatierraviva.com, ‘Maria Thun’ is a mixture of manure from free-range cows, crushed eggshells to replace depleted or deficient limestone and basalt sand to add silica to depleted soils.
These ingredients are thoroughly mixed together (dynamized) for an hour and are then added to a covered empty wooden barrel without its heads or a clay pot that is buried in the ground. After four months the product is turned over again, valerian (an herb) is added and the product reburied for eight weeks.
For each hectare of soil, 250 grams of ‘Maria Thun’ is mixed into 60 liters of water, ‘dynamized’ for 20 minutes and applied to the soil. The website recommends five applications a year.
Ruiz showed us where he was cultivating his ‘Maria Thun’ mixture. It was a small wine barrel buried in the ground, covered with a wooden lid.
He also explained the importance of planting cover crops in the vineyard, both under the vines and in the rows between them. Cover crops are spontaneously grown in his vineyards but over time, leguminous species come to predominate, providing depleted nitrogen and nutrients for microorganisms and other animals that inhabit the soil.
We noticed a tall post with a crosspiece next to the vines. Ruiz pointed out that it was a perch for the birds of prey in the area. It was interesting to hear that the birds were fickle about where to perch so the company had to experiment with different designs.
A common pest in vineyards is the European grapevine moth, and traditional viticulture would mean spraying. Ruiz follows an ecological approach, using sexual confusion traps that make it hard for moths to mate but don’t kill them.
Biodynamics also applies to pruning and canopy management by pursuing a “green to green” approach – managing the leaves is done only when the cover crops have bloomed.
Traditional farming with its emphasis on pesticides and herbicides has noxious effects on crops and on people who consume them. An important principle of ecological farming is that healthy soils produce healthy crops that promote good health. It’s a win-win situation.
After visiting the Ruiz Jiménez vineyards we were convinced that ecological viticulture is the way forward. Francisco Ruiz summed it up nicely. “Today organic viticulture is the exception but tomorrow it will be the norm”.
Featured wine: Ingenium by Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez
Ingenium is a white made from the maturana grape with no added sulfur that Ruiz described as a natural wine. He noted that the Rioja Regulatory Board would probably not accept it as a Rioja. He said that it wasn’t a big deal because as a Rioja he would be unable to sell it to a distributor for more than 2 euros a bottle, “but as an ‘anarchic’ wine, not subject to Rioja regulations, it could be sold at a higher price”. Rioja helps you but it also pigeonholes you”, commented Ruiz.
I have to admit that I’m not an accomplished enough taster to be able to distinguish an ecologically farmed wine from one farmed traditionally, but it makes total sense not to ingest pesticide and herbicide residue that are likely to be found in traditionally farmed grapes.
Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez
Carretera Comarcal LR-115, Km 43.5, 26559 Aldeanueva de Ebro (La Rioja)
The World Tourism Organization’s fourth Global Wine Tourism Conference in Chile in December 2019 emphasized the role of wine tourism for sustainable rural development and launched a call to action.
UNWTO General-Secretary Zurab Pololikashvili said: “Wine tourism creates jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities. It touches all areas of the regional economy through its linkages to handicrafts, gastronomy and agriculture. There lies its great potential to generate development opportunities in remote destinations.”
Rioja wineries read his message loud and clear.
Today, over 400 Rioja wineries have a tourism program, increasing visits to wine villages, generating jobs, promoting knowledge about wine culture, enhancing the wineries’ image and creating additional revenue streams. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.
However, challenges remain. Among them is attracting discerning wine tourists who have no shortage of choices of wineries to visit. The most forward-thinking wineries here are moving away from the traditional model of “visit the winery, taste some wine and go to the gift shop” toward an approach focusing on the vineyards. Explaining how the specific conditions in a particular vineyard – soil, microclimate, elevation, exposition to sunlight, grape varieties, farming techniques and the relationship of the vineyard to its habitat is a necessary step to gain a better understanding of what goes into a bottle of wine.
One of the most interesting wine tourism projects based on sustainable viticulture and winemaking in Rioja is at Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha in the remote village of Baños del Río Tobía in the Rioja Alta subregion.
Sancha has been a champion of sustainability in Rioja for over 30 years. While at Viña Ijalba he was a pioneer in introducing organic viticulture, and together with colleagues in the department of viticulture at the University of La Rioja, led the fight to rescue several traditional grape varieties on the verge of extinction in Rioja, including red and white maturana and turruntés, which were later added to the list of approved varietals in the DOCa. Rioja.
In 2007 he moved back to his village and took over the management of his family’s vineyards, most of which were planted to garnacha (grenache) by his great grandfather on steep terraced hillsides at about 700 meters (2,300 feet) above sea level. Sancha’s goal was to learn about the characteristics and differences between his vineyards and eventually make single vineyard wines from several different plots. After the Rioja Regulatory Board created the category of viñedo singular (singular vineyard) and it was approved by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Sancha applied and his Cerro La Isa vineyard was among the first to be granted VS status in 2019.
Today, both red and white Cerro La Isa have been approved as wines made from viñedos singulares.
While Sancha the academic is known for experimenting with long forgotten grape varieties in Rioja, his true love is his plots of old vine garnacha, a variety that once outnumbered tempranillo in Rioja vineyards but by 1973 had shrunk to 39% and today is only 8% of the acreage in Rioja.
With his knowledge of Rioja’s viticultural heritage and with his old vines planted above his village, it was a no-brainer that his wine tourism project would be focused on sustainability.
When you visit Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha, among other things, you will learn about
sustainable viticulture and winemaking;
conserving old vines and their genetic material;
saving historical grape varieties and vineyards;
the holistic relationship between vineyards and their surroundings.
A visit to the property features a trip up to Cerro La Isa (Isa’s Hill) where Sancha has built an eight-sided covered lookout from which you can see the family’s old garnacha vineyards planted in the early 20th century. Sancha will tell you that he was lucky to save most of the vineyards, but pointing at empty terraces, unlucky in that several were uprooted before he moved back to the village.
You will begin to understand the backbreaking work invested by Sancha’s ancestors to create and tend their vineyards without the benefit of machines on a cool, windswept landscape.
You will learn about Rioja’s singular vineyard project, whose goal is to encourage owners of old vines to maintain them and hopefully make unique wines from the grapes produced there.
You will learn the difference between massal and clonal selection when planting vineyards or replacing vines and you will see some extremely old vines of vitis silvestris, with male and female plants rather than the hermaphroditic vitis vinifera, the prevalent species of grapevine planted around the world today.
In the winery Sancha will explain that solar panels provide energy, water is used sparingly and little or no sulfur dioxide (SO2) is used as an antimicrobial agent and antioxidant in winemaking. In fact, one of his wines is ‘natural’, with no added SO2.
Sancha’s enthusiasm and his passion for saving Rioja’s viticultural heritage are boundless. After visiting his vineyards, wine tourists will have a much better understanding of the hard work and skill required to produce the grapes that make great wine.