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.

 

 

The Haro Train Station District Wine Tasting, Part One

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Bordeaux has the Haut Médoc, Burgundy can boast about its terroirs and Germany, the steep terraced vineyards above the Rhine and Mosel rivers. Haro’s historic railway station district is a unique place, too, but not for its vineyards. It’s the only place in the world where you can find five one-hundred-plus-year old wineries within a two hundred yard radius:

López de Heredia Viña Tondonia (1877)

Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España – CVNE – (1879)

Gómez Cruzado (1886)

La Rioja Alta (1890)

Bodegas Bilbaínas (1901)

This small area is also the home of two ‘newcomers’:

Muga (1932)

Roda (1987)

This is a killer marketing opportunity so it might seem odd that an event linking these properties only happened this September. You have to consider, however, that funding for the event came almost exclusively from the wineries’ own pockets, a monumental effort taking into account that their priority is promoting their own brands. Another large expense for the wineries is their contribution to the generic marketing campaigns run by the Rioja Regulatory Council in Spain and abroad. In today’s economic climate characterized by low markups and intense competition, an additional outlay to sponsor a new, untested event was a huge leap of faith. But, judging from this year’s event, it was a spectacular success.

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The first day of the event was for 400 wine writers and the trade. It started with a talk by local ethnographer/anthropologist Luis Vicente Elías about the history of the area. It was an eye-opener. Historically, the wines produced from grapes around Haro had a bad reputation, described as ‘mohinos y violentos’ (sad and violent), but this was before the arrival of the French in the middle of the 19th century.

Luis Vicente Elías and Tim Atkin

          Luis Vicente Elías and Tim Atkin

It’s widely thought that the French went to Haro because of phylloxera in their own vineyards, but Elías pointed out that oidium in the 1850s first brought them to Rioja and other regions in the north of Spain. Phylloxera in France was a later development. It was the combination of the two maladies that forced the French to look to Spain for wine.

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Demand for Rioja grapes which the French encouraged local wineries to vinify according to their requirements caused a boom in vineyard planting. In 1857 there were 34,000 hectares, in 1881 – 47,326 hectares, in 1891 – 68,063 hectares, reaching a maximum of 69,260 hectares, more than the area under vine in Rioja today. In 1892 the Spain-France customs treaty expired, high duties were levied on wine, and demand from France collapsed, forcing winery owners to develop other markets. By then, the French had discovered that grafting shoots onto American rootstock was the only way to stop phylloxera. The arrival of the plague to Rioja in 1899, however, drove companies out of business and forced people to emigrate to make a living.

Bodegas Bilbaínas seen from the Haro train station. (Credit:  Bodegas Bilbaínas)

Bodegas Bilbaínas seen from the Haro train station. (Credit: Bodegas Bilbaínas)

Much earlier, Haro was just a whistle stop on the railway line from Castejón in Navarra to Bilbao. This railway to Bilbao became a reality due to the efforts of  winery owners who suggested building it, industrialists from Bilbao who financed it and English engineers who designed it as a way to ship goods from the Ebro valley, most importantly wine, to the outside world.

Elías explained that the original site for the station was much farther from the city, which aroused the ire of the local wine industry. They finally convinced the engineers to build the station on its current site near the wineries. According to Elías, “if the station hadn’t been moved to its present location, there would be no winery station district and we wouldn’t be sitting here today”. A sobering thought, indeed.

Following Elías’s talk, Tim Atkin MW, led a tasting of 14 wines, half from the 20th century, half from the 21st. The wines were mostly from vintages no longer on the market but in some cases, wines not released yet:

Viña Tondonia red gran reserva 1981 R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia

Viña Pomal gran reserva 1987 (Bodegas Bilbaínas)

CVNE Imperial gran reserva 1988

Muga Prado Enea gran reserva 1994

Roda I reserva 1994 (Bodegas Roda)

Gran reserva 904 1995 (La Rioja Alta)

Gran reserva 890 Selección Especial 2001 (La Rioja Alta)

Gómez Cruzado gran reserva 2007 (Gómez Cruzado)

Viña Tondonia red reserva 2004 (R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia)

Roda I reserva 2004 (Bodegas Roda)

Imperial reserva 2010 (CVNE)

Alto de la Caseta Viña Pomal 2010 (Bodegas Bilbaínas)

Torre Muga 2010 (Bodegas Muga)

Gómez Cruzado Pancrudo 2013 (Gómez Cruzado)

I made detailed tasting notes but think it’s more interesting to describe my perception of the evolution in style in the 32 years between the oldest and youngest wines.

Color

The oldest vintages were light brick with some orange, which was to be expected because some color had faded with age. The light brick color was due to the fact that Riojas from these vintages weren’t subjected to today’s aggressive methods of color extraction.

You could easily see the difference between the more traditional styles such as López de Heredia and La Rioja Alta whose color intensity hasn’t evolved much, and the modern style of Roda. More remarkable however was the huge evolution shown in the wines from CVNE, Muga and Bilbaínas. It reminded me of Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way” by Heredia and La Rioja Alta and the embrace of the international, wine writer-driven style by most of the others.

Aroma

In the traditional Riojas, stewed red fruit showed through as well as delicate spicy notes and good balance between oak and fruit. It was just what I expected. I also remembered that this stewed fruit and spicy character was present when these wines were released. They were the hallmark of Rioja in those days.

The newer vintages showed ripe, and in some cases, overripe fruit notes. Tim Atkin commented at one point that in a blind tasting most of them would probably not be identified as Rioja.

Palate

Here, Rioja has shown, especially with the newer vintages, that wineries have mastered the art of picking when the tannins are ripe. This was not always the case. When ‘markets’ (journalists) began to demand more color and ripeness from Rioja, the wineries complied by producing wines from overripe grapes but with green tannins in the first few vintages. Now, the most important criterion for picking is ripe tannins, with higher alcohol because hang time is longer. I remember hearing Agustín Santolaya, the manager of Roda and a native Riojan talk about chewing on his grapes to see if the tannins were ripe, just like his ancestors used to do.

The older wines in the tasting showed a silky texture with varying degrees of firmness, while those from younger vintages showed ripe tannins with no rough edges and good ageing potential.

One difference I noted was high acidity in the traditional wines (due no doubt to the presence of white grapes to help the wines age). In the newer vintages, the backbone of the wine was tannin-based.

After the group tasting we visited the seven wineries to taste their new vintages.

I especially enjoyed tasting Bodegas Bilbainas’s singular wine collection of white tempranillo, graciano and garnacha, the collection of wines from Gómez Cruzado which I wasn’t familiar with and the Mugas, especially the evolution of Prado Enea (their traditional gran reserva) and Torre Muga, which when introduced a few years ago was a sharp contrast to the traditional style of the rest of the range. Today’s Prado Enea is vinified much more in the modern style than before.

Jesús Viguera, the winery’s export manager, remarked that today the traditional style has become a little more modern, with more color and depth, while the modern style has become a little more traditional, with elegant rather than sharp tannins.

The second day of this experience was open to consumers, who paid 20 euros for a basic tasting ticket of seven wines and three tapas prepared by local bars and restaurants or 40 euros for a VIP ticket to taste 14 wines and seven tapas.

More about that in a future post.