Baby Lamb Chops Grilled and Logroño’s Mayor Roasted at the Annual Celebration of the Lamb Chop

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Who doesn’t like an outdoor cookout? Whether it’s a South African braai, throwing some shrimp on the barbie in Australia, smoking ribs or grilling hamburgers in the back yard in the USA, making a meal outside is a great way to entertain friends and families.

In the Rioja region, our version of the cookout is grilling baby lamb chops over coals from vine cuttings, and the traditionally accepted way to eat them is with your hands, even in restaurants. Once at a large event at a Rioja winery, the chefs grilled lamb chops for guests that included Spain’s King Juan Carlos. When the king received his plate, everyone in the room held their breath to see how he was going to eat them. When he picked up his chop with his hands, the guests breathed a sigh of relief and picked theirs up, too!

One of the most popular events during the wine festival in Logroño in late September is the “celebration of the lamb chop”. According to two of my friends who grew up in the neighborhood, this tradition started in the 1970s when a local bar organized a contest to see who could eat the most lamb chops. Participants came from all over Spain and the winner was determined by weighing the bones.

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Turning vine cuttings into coals

This contest no longer takes place, but to commemorate it, the Riojan Social Club Federation, with the blessing of the city hall, closes off four blocks of one of Logroño’s main streets on the last Saturday morning of the wine festival. Groups of friends sign up to participate and for a fee of 80 euros, each group is provided with a table, four chairs, a big plate of lamb chops, a large steel plate on the street, a special lamb chop grill and several big bunches of grapevine cuttings. This year there were 125 tables. The groups always bring thick slices of bacon and other pork products to grill, sliced tomatoes, olives, spicy green peppers, chorizo and of course, plenty of bottles of Rioja and cans of beer. Friends and passers-by are encouraged to enjoy the atmosphere.

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A grillmeister with a sense of humor

At the table I visited, everyone was talking about two anecdotes. The first was about two tourists who happened to walk by during the cookout and were invited to have a few lamb chops and drink some wine. They readily accepted the invitation and then asked what for them was a logical question: “How much do we owe you?” Our group roared with laughter and told them that it was free. The tourists walked away dazed. Such is Riojan hospitality!

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Dead soldiers in the gutter

The second anecdote was the previous night’s controversy about Logroño’s new mayor saving the traditional ‘burning of the wine barrel’, the event marking the end of the wine festival. The mayor’s reasoning was to participate in the World Climate Strike to help save the environment. Everyone looked at the dense smoke rising from the hundreds of smoking grills in the street and wondered how much heat the mayor was going to get on social media and at the next city council meeting. He was appropriately roasted!

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Smoking grills with lamb chops – Notice the grill-it can be flipped over to cook the chops on both sides.

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Photos:  Tom Perry

 

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Spanish Ministry of Agriculture Gives Green Light to 84 Singular Vineyards in Rioja

July 30, 2019 marks the beginning of a new era in the DOCa Rioja.

The Spanish Ministry of Agriculture approved the regulations proposed by Rioja wineries and grape growers that designate 84 vineyards covering 154 hectares as “Viñedos Singulares” (singular vineyards).

43 vineyards are in Rioja Alavesa, 31 in Rioja Alta and 10 in Rioja Oriental.

The process to guarantee the traceability of the grapes from these vineyards through vinification, barrel and bottle aging was approved internally by the Rioja Regulatory Council starting with the 2017 vintage but final Agriculture Ministry approval was required. As of July 30, wines made from these grapes can carry a specific guarantee label if they receive an “excellent” rating from a tasting panel both immediately after vinification and before the wine is released from the winery, and to state on the front label that the wine comes from a singular vineyard.

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(Credit:  lomejordelvinoderioja.com)

How does a vineyard become “singular”? The most important requirements are:

  • The vineyard must be at least 35 years old;
  • A report must show that it has agro-geological conditions differentiating it from others in the area;
  • Maximum yields must be no higher than 5000 kg/ha for red grapes and 6922 kg/ha for whites (23% lower than those required for other Rioja grapes)
  • A maximum of 65 liters of wine can be produced for every 100 kg of grapes (for ‘regular’ Rioja, the allowed ratio is 72% and for certain vintages up to 75%);
  • No machine picking is allowed;
  • The grapes must be vinified, and the wine aged, stored and shipped from the same winery;
  • No contract bottling is allowed.

The approval of singular vineyards in Rioja culminates a process of recognition of wines from specific areas in our region. Zone wines (from the Alavesa, Alta and Oriental) have been a possibility since the 1990s. More recent has been the approval of village wines.

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(Credit:  Tom Perry)

According to the 2018 annual report of the Regulatory Council there are more than 114,026 individual plots of vineyards in Rioja. 15,069 hectares of vineyards were planted before 1985. Wineries have been marketing wines coming from single vineyards for at least ten years without official recognition. However, because of the rigorous certification process, wines from singular vineyards are a big step beyond the idea of a single vineyard wine.

As I mentioned in a previous article, (https://insiderioja.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/rioja-finally-comes-to-grips-with-single-estates/) both single vineyard wines and wines from singular vineyards are essential for the preservation of old vines in Rioja. Many growers pulled up their old vines because they weren’t able to find a buyer at a worthwhile price. It took the efforts of a group of pioneering young winemakers (http://www.greatwinecapitals.com/Let%27s-Rioja-%27n%27-Roll) to give well-deserved recognition to these grapes and the wines they made and gave other owners of old vineyard a reason to hang on to them.

Wines from singular vineyards can be ´generic’, crianza, reserva or gran reserva.

The 1999 Spanish wine law created a quality pyramid structure for Spanish wines, with table wines at the base and single vineyard wines at the top. The Ministry of Agriculture’s idea was:

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(Credit:  Tom Perry)

At the time, the Rioja Regulatory Council rejected the idea of creating a single vineyard wine category for Rioja, arguing (correctly in my opinion), that a single vineyard wine wasn’t intrinsically of higher quality than a Rioja blend,  a single varietal, a crianza, reserva or a gran reserva. The Council worked on its own singular vineyard concept for several years until wineries and growers agreed on the terms.

Now that the Ministry has approved the certification process, consumers can look forward to tasting the first Riojas made from singular vineyards. Inside Rioja will do our best to let you know when they are released and where you can buy them.

 

 

 

 

Cut-rate Rioja: Can it be avoided?

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The other day I read an interesting thread on the internet about a Rioja reserva 2015 selling for 4.09€ in a hypermarket in Catalonia in northeastern Spain. The debate centered on whether a Rioja winery make a profit producing a 2015 reserva that a hypermarket can sell for 4,09€, whether this kind of offer is good for Rioja and what, if anything, can be done to avoid it.

Let’s tackle the problem one question at a time.

First, can a winery make a profit at that price? Probably not, but with a cut-rate product like this one, the issue is primarily not about making a profit, but rather covering the product’s contribution margin (the selling price less variable costs; in other words, contributing to cover fixed costs).

A big hypermarket chain’s buyers are considerably more talented than winery sales personnel. Chain buyers know the prices of the competition, they know who is willing to play the volume game and they know exactly how much pressure to apply to the seller. The price calculation of a big winery specializing in high volume sales based on a second or third label with no advertising or promotional allowance, known in wine jargon as “net-net” is just a few cents above cost for a very large volume order.

A second possibility is that the winery is in need of cash. No further explanation required.

The question of whether the hypermarket can make any money on the deal is clear: yes, and potentially a lot of money.

Big retailers base their profits on three factors:

  • selling large quantities
  • selling to a lot of different customers
  • having an efficient cost structure

In Spain, the law prohibits sales below cost, so the hypermarket chain must pay at least 3.38€ (4.09 less 21% value added tax on the purchase price). If the hypermarket sets its margin for a big promotional deal like this one anywhere between 10 and 15 euro cents per bottle and orders ten truckloads of wine (150,000 bottles), it can invoice about 500,000 € and have a gross profit of between 15,000 and 22,500 €. Doesn’t seem like much? Understand that a hypermarket will typically carry 200,000 SKUS (stock keeping units or individual brands). It’s also important to understand that the hypermarket will penalize the supplier for late deliveries – to compensate for the loss of profit for out-of-stock situations.

A Rioja reserva offered at a little over 4 euros a bottle is a powerful tool to attract consumers to the wine aisle.

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Photo credit:  Pablo Orío

Offers like this one appear on supermarket shelves all the time. In fact, supermarkets create and register brands that they use to sell at aggressive prices to promote the image of the supermarket. They offer their most important suppliers the possibility of supplying products under the supermarket’s label. It’s a win-win for the supermarket because a supplier who raises their prices too much can be replaced with another.

In the case of Rioja, the supermarket brand has to be registered in the name of the current supplier. It’s a small bit of bureaucracy, but assures that all brands sold as Rioja actually are owned by a Rioja winery.

A second alternative is for a winery to sell the supermarket a second or third label.

Is this kind of deal good for Rioja’s image? I think not. First of all, consumers who see a reserva selling for 4 euros a bottle are going to wonder why they should buy others selling for 10 euros and higher. After all, the 4 euro wine carries the same guarantee label on the bottle as more expensive ones. Wineries that spend considerable amounts on developing their brand image throw up their hands in despair. The Regulatory Board, that invests over ten million euros of the wineries’ and grapegrowers’ money on advertising, promotion and public relations to elevate the image of brand Rioja, wonders if this huge investment is worth the effort.

What can be done? Sadly, nothing, until these large-volume, low margin wineries begin to understand that they can’t win long term with this strategy, usually based on buying and holding large stocks of wine, perhaps more than they need.

I have always been a great admirer of the Napa Valley. There, wineries compete in markets at much higher price points than those of Rioja and seem to agree on an image of quality and prestige for the Napa Valley brand. Coincidentally, the Napa Valley is universally recognized as the world’s most popular wine tourism destination.

Rioja has made enormous progress over the years to improve its image. The wineries agreed in the early 1990s to stop selling bulk wine outside the borders of the Rioja appellation. Recognizing wines from each of the three zones (Alta, Alavesa and Baja (currently ‘Oriental’) has been a reality for years. Wineries have created wines with strong individuality from specific areas of the appellation and the Regulatory Board, recognizing the huge diversity of terroirs in the region, recently approved the categories of singular vineyards and single village wines.

Still missing in my opinion is a greater sense of ‘Rioja patriotism’ and the need for stronger brands from all wineries with less low-price wheeling and dealing. A little more Napa in Rioja would be a good thing.

 

 

Beans, beans, the versatile fruit

January is a miserable month in the Rioja region. The holidays have passed, most people’s bank accounts have taken a serious hit (in Spanish we call it ‘la cuesta de enero – ‘the January hillclimb’), we are trying to lose the weight gained over the holidays and get back into our exercise routines.

Our favorite food in January and the rest of winter is ‘comida de cuchara’, literally, ‘food you eat with a spoon’, especially all kinds of stews made with beans: lentils, chickpeas, red, white, brown and black beans. These legumes provide warmth on cold, rainy winter days as well as slow-absorbing carbs.

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A one kilogram bag of Anguiano beans, with a recipe and the seal of guarantee

I recently read a book (The Four-Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss) that recommended eating a lot of legumes that provided slow-absorbing carbs as part of a diet. Ferriss wrote the book for Americans, who traditionally don’t eat a lot of beans, except for baked beans, with a sauce full of molasses, not the ideal diet food. He urged his readers to soldier through what he thought was an unpalatable diet of beans. After all, every American knows the rhyme ‘Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart. The more you eat, the more you f***!’ On the other hand, for those of us that live in Spain, this diet is paradise! All last winter and so far this year we have eaten lots of lentils, chickpeas, red, white, black and brown beans. And yes, we have Beano! Sadly, we haven’t lost any weight but we haven’t gained any either! Diets in an area like Rioja with so much good wine are hard to keep!

Recently we got a call from Wine Fandango, one of Logroño’s hip gastrobars, reminding us about a special dinner where each course from the pre-meal cocktail to dessert was made using red beans from the village of Anguiano. The dinner was part of a series of events (‘La Rioja a Bocados’- La Rioja Bite by Bite) at Wine Fandango, highlighting regional produce made in an innovative way by chef Aitor Esnal.

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The poster advertising the Anguiano bean dinner

Anguiano in the southwest corner of La Rioja is most famous for its ‘danzadores’, men who run and twirl around down steep village steps on stilts. No less famous are its beans, locally called ‘caparrones’, that have a quality seal from the Government of La Rioja attesting to their origin and method of cultivation.

The event opened with an introduction from Javier Llaría, a producer from Anguiano who explained the characteristics that made the local beans so special – the beanstalks are grown at an altitude of 650 meters (2132 feet) on stony soils that provide drainage and reflect sunlight back to the plants, with a large temperature difference between day and night, and selection of individual beans on sorting tables. 20% of the harvest is rejected and therefore not certified.

It could have been a wine grower talking. There were many other similarities between bean and wine certification, especially problems with certain producers who don’t like the fact that the certification process means control over their production and certain retailers that prefer to buy large quantities at bargain prices rather than in the one-kilogram package with the seal of guarantee. The bean producers from Anguiano have chosen to adhere to the fairly lenient demands of a product guarantee rather than the tight strictures of an appellation of origin. Mr. Llaría understood the fact that the Rioja appellation was founded in 1925 and has had almost a century to work out most of its problems while the Anguiano bean producers have just started working together.

The meal

Opening cocktail: “Alubión” (a play on ‘alubia’ – ‘bean’ in Spanish) made by Esnal’s wife Beatriz, the restaurant’s mixologist, with liquefied beans, rum, almond liqueur, sugar, and orange juice with a slice of orange peel as decoration. It was surprisingly good.

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‘Alubión’, the bean-based cocktail

Mains:

Capuccino from Anguiano made with liquefied beans, small pieces of spiny lobster and cacao. Served in an espresso cup.

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A waffle topped with beans, a red pepper sauce, collards and spicy sausage.

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Grilled baby squid in a sauce of mashed beans, with a mousse of scallions and leeks.

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Toasted filet mignon with a spinach leaf in a bean and garlic gravy and shrimps in tempura.

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Dessert: Bean pie with chocolate, ice cream made with young beans, an almond cookie and raspberries.

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The wine was El Buscador 2015 from Bodega Finca de la Rica (DOCa Rioja).

The verdict: Pass with Distinction

Before the meal we had some doubts about a meal made with beans as the main ingredient. Chef Aitor Esnal told us during his introduction that we shouldn’t expect a ‘caparronada’ (thick bean stew with pork rind – a Riojan favorite). The meal showed an extremely high level of creativity and tasted great!

Esnal and mixologist Beatriz Martínez’s next event will feature a cocktail and five course meal based on Riojan black truffles. We can hardly wait for that!

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Chef Aitor Esnal (Credit:  Wine Fandango)

Wine Fandango, General Vara de Rey 5-26003 Logroño (La Rioja)

Tel. +34 941 243910; info@winefandango.com; http://www.winefandango.com

 

What can Rioja learn from wine tourism in Australia?

 

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We recently spent three weeks in Australia to attend the annual meeting of the Great Wine Capitals Global Network. It was a week of meetings and visits to wineries in South Australia.

The second reason for the trip was to visit Western Australia, especially Margaret River, to experience the wine tourism offer there.

It wasn’t our first trip to the Australian wine country. In 2005 we spent a week in and around Melbourne visiting the Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula. Our feeling however was that wine tourism had evolved in 13 years and we wanted to check it out.

While in Perth we were fortunate to attend an open air Western Australian wine fair where we tasted wines from most of the wineries in the region. It was a fast, efficient overview of their wine offer. Our friends from Perth made lots of recommendations and pointed us to Howard Park in Margaret River, which had not been on our radar but turned out to be one of the highlights of our tour.

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We visited the Swan Valley, Perth Hills and Margaret River in Western Australia; Adelaide Hills, the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia and the Bellarine peninsula in Victoria.

Coonawara in South Australia was also on the list but our flight was unexpectedly cancelled. We were disappointed but we’ll go next time.

Wineries we visited:

Swan Valley: Sandalford and Houghton

Perth Hills: Brookside Vineyards

Margaret River: Cape Mentelle, Leeuwin Estate, Voyager Estate, Xanadu, Vasse Felix, and Howard Park.

Adelaide Hills: Penfolds Magill Estate, Pike and Joyce, Longwood

Barossa: Yalumba, Hentley Farm, Seppeltsfield

McLaren Vale: Beresford Estate

Bellarine Peninsula: Jackrabbit Winery

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The cellar door and café at Jackrabbit Winery in the Bellarine Peninsula (the restaurant was closed for a wedding reception)

I don’t consider these wineries to be a representative sample of Australian wine tourism experiences. In fact, several friends in the wine business (from the UK, Hong Kong and Australia) and our friends in Perth and Melbourne recommended them to us specifically for their excellent wines and wineries.

That said, our main conclusions from these visits were:

  1. A cellar door (Australian for ‘tasting room’) with an enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff, several tasting options and the possibility for visitors to purchase wine and have it shipped, was a constant in all the wineries.

Most of the wineries we visited only sell their brands in a few Asian markets.  For us and other foreign visitors, visiting cellar doors was a great exposure to some fantastic pours that we could not purchase at home.

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The cellar door at Cape Mentelle in Margaret River

Cellar doors are not just an employee, a few bottles, a spittoon and a price list. They’re the centerpiece of the winery and are designed with utmost care. It surprised us to read in the James Halliday Wine Companion that the cellar door at Howard Park had been designed following the principles of feng shui. I’m sure this fact was not lost on the Chinese wine tourists who visit Australia.

Beyond the cellar door, the public exhibition areas at Penfold’s and Seppeltsfield were spectacular, as would be expected at these iconic properties. But they were the exception, not the rule.

2.  The wineries’ main objective was to encourage tasting and purchase. The option to join the winery’s club, providing opportunities to receive the newsletter, take advantage of special offers and members-only tastings are means to facilitate loyalty to the winery and its brands.

3.  Winery restaurants are popular, with great menu options. We were surprised to discover that these restaurants were packed, even in the middle of the week in Margaret River, a three hour drive from Perth. The food was without exception very good. In fact, at Voyager Estate, the head chef, Santiago Fernández (from Galicia in northwestern Spain) won the 2018 award for the top regional chef in the latest Western Australia Good Food Guide.

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The restaurant at Voyager Estate

In spite of its distance from Perth, Margaret River has done a great job marketing itself as a wine tourism destination. This accomplishment is even more amazing when you consider that Perth itself is one of the most isolated capital cities in the world and that the first wine estate in Margaret River – Vasse Felix – was only founded in 1967.

4.  The transportation infrastructure is well developed and caters to a wide range of consumers, especially in the Swan Valley near Perth. You can join a party bus – great for bachelor and hen parties, organize a chauffeured van or a limo with your friends, take a gourmet tour that includes visits to wineries, breweries and chocolate factories or even take a winery cruise down the Swan River from Perth City.

You can drive to Margaret River, but the area is also accessible by bus, train or a combination of the two. Once you arrive, numerous tour companies compete to take you on a standard, deluxe or customized tour.

Our first day of winery visits in Margaret River was with a tour company. We told them where we wanted to go and they called in advance to make the appointments for us.  Our driver, the owner of the company, was a treasure trove of knowledge about the region. We were able to visit four cellar doors and enjoyed a great meal at Voyager Estate.

On our second day of touring Margaret River, we drove ourselves, around visiting two wineries, with lunch at one (Vasse Felix). Even though you have more freedom driving yourself, I don’t recommend driving and tasting unless you have a designated driver. We could have tasted more, especially at Howard Park, so having a driver is essential.

5.  Wineries don’t always show the entire winery, although it’s an option for premium visitors.

What messages can we offer Rioja after our Australian wine tourism experience?

From the winery’s point of view, winery tourism is meant to create loyalty to the company and its brands. The Australian emphasis on the cellar door and direct purchase of wine leads me to believe that this could be given a higher priority at Rioja wineries. A typical Rioja winery tour takes you through the whole winemaking process – crush, destemming, fermentation, tank ageing, barrel ageing and bottle ageing. The tasting, often a bottle of red and one of white sitting on an upturned barrel, with little or no introduction from a greeter is at the end of the visit. In Australia, the order is taste first, then visit the winery if the consumer is interested in a tour and one is available (Australian industry statistics indicate that tours are not popular). In my view, Rioja wineries invest a lot of time and money showing tourists the winery with no idea if the investment will pay off in terms of sales.

Currently in Rioja there are more than 600 wineries, many recently founded with little history and an unspectacular physical plant. This discourages them from opening to wine tourists. But many of them, to paraphrase the rock group Three Dog Night, “have some mighty fine wine”. These wineries could open a tasting room even if they can’t offer a tour. It will undoubtedly get them visibility and some extra income.

Another important weakness in Rioja is transportation infrastructure, not necessarily how to get here, but how to get around once you’re here. The Rioja region is a similar distance from Madrid as Margaret River is from Perth (4 hours by car), by bus or train, with more or less the same intensity of public transportation. And Haro is only an hour from Bilbao, so getting here is not that much of a problem.

I always have trouble finding, much less recommending, a good Rioja tour operator.

Private enterprise here seems to be hesitant about taking the risk to start a wine tour business. Maybe it’s because individuals find it hard to compete with regional governments that offer wine tourism services at bargain prices. But the fact that over 800,000 tourists visited La Rioja in 2017 is a powerful incentive for entrepreneurs to start  wine tour companies.  But until then, the best option for wine tourists in Rioja will be to drive themselves around.

Winery restaurants? We have a few, but in my opinion, we don’t need many more to attract wine tourists.  Rioja offers a wide choice of affordable restaurants serving delicious food throughout our wine country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blues to cure the September blues – Rioja and the Five Senses

 

IMG_2797It’s the beginning of September. Vacation’s over but you still have to endure a flight delay or a monumental traffic jam most of the way from the coast back to your house. The kids are complaining because they have to go back to school. You have to go back to work. You’ve gained five pounds in three weeks. You’re irritable and can’t sleep. Sound familiar? It’s what Spaniards call ‘el síndrome posvacacional’ or post-vacation stress.

Fortunately in Rioja, The ‘Rioja and the Five Senses’ program has the cure. Throughout September, your sense of hearing is stimulated by a range of musical activities around the world of Rioja wine. It puts you in a good mood and gets you thinking about wine again after a summer of drinking beer.

Inside Rioja attended two of these activities recently: a concert of popular music from the ‘30s and ‘40s held at Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha in the small village of Baños del Río Tobía in the southwestern corner of the Rioja wine district, and a rock/blues/pop combo at Bodegas La Emperatriz a few miles north.

Round One – Swing

Saphie Wells and the Swing Cats, a four person combo made up of a tenor sax/clarinet, an upright bass and a guitar, led by a talented young singer, Saphie Wells. The band played songs made popular by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Eartha Kitt and others, including ‘Let’s call the whole thing off’, ‘All of me’ and ‘C’est si bon’. Ms. Wells really put her heart into the songs, and her audience responded by snapping fingers and clapping in time with the music.

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One of the buildings in the winery was converted into a nightclub for the event, with soft lighting, and tables for two or four with candles scattered in front of the stage. During the concert, the winery served one of its red wines with glasses frequently topped up. Fortunately most people came and went on a bus provided by the organizers! https://swingcatsbarcelona.com/

The winery

Juan Carlos Sancha is not only a winery owner but also holds a Ph.D in viticulture. A professor at the University of La Rioja, he is one of Rioja’s foremost experts on local grapes. In the 1990s he led a movement to rescue little-known grape varietals from extinction and then fought to get the best ones approved for use in Rioja wines. You can thank him and his colleague Fernando Martínez de Toda for the addition of red and white maturana and turruntés (no relation to the torrontés grown in Argentina) and helping to develop white tempranillo, a natural mutation of the red variety, discovered in 1988.

Sancha has also fought hard to develop the concept of singular vineyards in Rioja and old vine garnacha at high altitude above the Najerilla river valley near Baños. https://juancarlossancha.com/

Round Two – rock and roll

The following Saturday we traveled to Bodegas La Emperatriz, a winery surrounded by over 200 hectares of vineyards divided into 22 plots. Some of these are in the process of being certified as singular vineyards. The property used to belong to Empress Eugenia de Montijo, wife of France’s Napoleon III, with grape and wine production dating from the mid-19th century. The property’s current owners are Eduardo and Víctor Hernáiz.

Both Juan Carlos Sancha and La Emperatriz are members of Provir, an association of family-owned wineries in Rioja. Eduardo Hernáiz is the association’s current president.

http://www.bodegaslaemperatriz.com/en/

The musical date was with Confluence, from Bilbao, a band made up of weekend musicians who in “real” life are lawyers, statisticians, civil servants and members of other professions. ‘Confluence’, as the name suggests, specializes in a combination of rock, pop, country, jazz, blues and spirituals.

Led by the inimitable Irrintzi Ibarrola on vocals and acoustic guitar, the band is made up of a Hammond organ, electric bass, drums, electric guitar, and harmonica with an occasional riff from an alto sax.

If Saphie Wells and the Swing Cats reminded me of the music my parents used to listen to, Irrintzi Ibarrola and Confluence was my music – the USA and UK from the 1960s and early 70s, with songs from Ben E. King (Stand by Me), Otis Redding (Sitting on the Dock of the Bay), the Beatles (I’ll Get by with a Little Help from my Friends) – although sung in the lusty Joe Cocker version, Johnny Cash and of course, Bob Dylan.

Hearing the Cocker song took me back to 1970 when some friends and I jumped a curfew imposed  because of the riots caused by the Kent State murders to go to a Cocker concert in downtown Columbus, Ohio.  It was well worth risking getting arrested!

The band also played some of Ibarrola’s original songs. My favorite was ‘Mitad hombre, mitad sardina’ (Half man, half sardine) inspired by the moment Ibarrola looked at himself in the mirror wearing a wet suit.

Clearly, Ibarrola’s inspirations are Cocker, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Cash and Motown (Ibarrola introduced himself as a native of Detroit). His number one hero, however is Bob Dylan. For the group’s second encore, Ibarrola sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ as Dylan in the 60s, 80s and the 21st century.  Pure genius!

It was a swingin’, swayin’, foot stomping performance.

After the concert I introduced myself as a real native of Detroit. Ibarrola laughed and asked me if I had understood his singing. “Every word”, I replied, although I have to agree with Ibarrola’s statement from a recent article in Bilbao’s El Correo: “You can perform rock and roll in any language”!

Right on, brother!

 

 

Taking Wine Education Home – Bodegas Paco García’s ‘Experiences’

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An increasing number of Rioja wineries have embraced receiving visitors but only a few have made a visit to the winery an experience rather than just a tour. Bodegas Paco García, a small, family-owned winery in Murillo del Río Leza in Rioja Oriental has gone a step further by offering consumers experiences that they can enjoy at home with their friends.

To date, the winery has launched three experiences. The first was to discover the garnacha grape. The second was a crianza (≥ 12 months aging in oak casks) made exclusively from graciano grapes.

The third experience, called duelo de robles (duel of oaks) offers consumers a box with two bottles of Paco Garcia crianza 2014, one aged in American oak and the other in French oak, but you don’t know which is which. Before opening each bottle for tasting, there’s a detailed explanation on the inside of the box explaining the differences between each type of oak.

According to the winery:

American oak (Quercus alba)

  • Indigenous to the East Coast of North America;
  • The trunk is cut with a saw, not split. The entire trunk can be used.
  • Extremely hard wood, almost impermeable, making it difficult for air to pass through the staves, making for slower evolution of the wine;
  • Wine aged in American oak is powerful on the palate;
  • Typical aromas include vanilla, coconut, coffee, cocoa and tobacco.

French oak (Quercus petraea)

  • Found in western, central and southern Europe, mainly in France)
  • The trunk is split, not sawn. Consequently a lot of wood is wasted.
  • Wine aged in French oak has a silkier texture. The most characteristic aromas are honey, vanilla, dried nuts and sweet spices.

Following this explanation, the experience suggests opening each bottle, asking consumers to guess which wine is aged in French and which in American oak.

After everyone guesses, participants peel back a corner of the back label on each bottle to discover the secret.

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What an idea! We tried it at home with friends a week ago and had a great time! I’ve tasted other Rioja brands aged in both types of oak but none of the wineries have made the comparison so much fun.

I’m looking forward to the next Paco García Experience and am sure it will be both entertaining and instructive.

Bodegas Paco García www.bodegaspacogarcia.com