The Haro Train Station District. Part 2 – Rioja turns to Bordeaux

The wines from the Rioja region, although in high demand in northern Spain, were not highly regarded abroad.  In his memoirs, the future Marquis of Murrieta, Luciano de Murrieta y García-Lemoine complained about their quality:

“I was in England with the Duke of La Victoria (General Baldomero Espartero), suffering the consequences of forced exile (from 1843 to 1848) because of our political ideas and constantly observing the esteem, that bordered on admiration, that was given to good wine. On my return to Logroño and seeing that in many cases wine was used to make mortar because it was cheaper than water, we felt pained that such a resource had a terrible image only because of awful winemaking…” (1)

Murrieta goes on to say that this inspired him and the Duke of La Victoria to create the winery known today as Marqués de Murrieta.

Luciano Murrieta y García Lemoine, Marquis de Murrieta (Photo from Los Vinos de Rioja, Manuel Llano Gorostiza)

Two unsuccessful attempts to adopt Bordeaux winemaking:

(I). Father Manuel Quintano, a native of Labastida in Rioja Alavesa and dean of the cathedral in Burgos

There were two unsuccessful attempts to improve the quality and aptitude for long distance shipping of wines from Rioja. Both looked to Bordeaux for inspiration. The first was by Manuel Quintano from Labastida in Rioja Alavesa beginning in 1787. 

At that time wines from Rioja were fermented in open tanks using whole clusters of berries, including stems and seeds.  The wine was decanted into wooden hogsheads for shipment and almost invariably arrived at its destination in an almost undrinkable state.

They were a badly vinified variety of the cosechero (semi-carbonic maceration) wines we know today in Rioja.  Even in the 21st century, these wines are mainly sold in northern Spain because of their inability to age and travel over long distances.

Professor Alain Huetz de Lemps in an article from his book Vignobles et Vins du Nord-Ouest de l’Espagne describes the situation:

“…in the years when the harvest was abundant there was a serious problem of overproduction, since the disadvantage of these wines was their inability to keep for long periods, and of adulteration during long voyages.  Shipping these wines by sea outside of Spain was impossible.” (2)

The Real Sociedad Bascongada de Amigos del País (Royal Basque Society of Friends of the Nation), one of the institutions created around the country to foment liberal ideas and modernize the country, were familiar with the great wines of Bordeaux.  The Society commissioned a contest to determine the best methods to allow Riojan wines to be successfully shipped to Spanish America.

Quintano accepted the challenge and traveled to Bordeaux to observe winemaking techniques there. Among the practices he learned were:

  • Planting vines following the ‘quinconces’ pattern
  • Better vineyard husbandry including pruning to control vine growth;
  • Separating the stems and pips from the grapes before fermentation;
  • Using clean vats for fermentation;
  • Clarifying the wine with egg whites;
  • Racking the wine several times to remove solids;
  • Using small 225 liter oak barriques for ageing.

On their return to Labastida, Manuel Quintano and his brother Diego made wine following this method and were granted permission to ship it to the New World. 

The shipment was a huge success. However, efforts to implant the Bordeaux method met with resistance from other wineries in the region because of the high costs of buying barrels and the financial cost of maturing wine for several years before shipment.

The controversy turned out to be favorable to the ‘traditionalists’ and against the ‘modern’ winemaking style. When the French invaded Spain in 1808, the project was forgotten.

(II).The Médoc Alavés

A half century later, a second attempt to learn to make wine following the Bordeaux method was the brainchild of Eugenio de Garagarza, the director of the Model Farm belonging to the regional government of Álava and a graduate of the agricultural school in Grignon in France.

In 1860 he recommended hiring a winemaker from Bordeaux to teach winemakers in Rioja Alavesa “the practices and secrets of the area of the Médoc”.(3) The regional government of Álava would finance the operation.

The man hired was Monsieur Jean Pineau, winemaker at Château Lanessan in Cussac-Fort Médoc. Pineau moved to Elciego in Álava and carried out his duties admirably, instructing the winery owners who participated in the project.  The wines were excellent, but just as with the Quintano project, most of the wineries thought that the cost was too high.  Pineau’s contract was rescinded in 1868.

A bottle of Médoc Alavés from 1874. The bottle is on display at La Granja Remelluri in Rivas de Tereso

The Marquis de Riscal hires Pineau

Fortunately, one of the participating winery owners was Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga, the Marquis de Riscal.  He hired Pineau, built a winery according to Pineau’s specifications and soon Riscal’s wines were winning medals in international competitions. Others noticed. The Bordeaux method had taken hold.

Phylloxera discovered in France and demand for wines from Rioja soars

The phylloxera plague began to decimate French vineyards in 1865 and consequently, demand for wines from Rioja increased, with new vineyards planted to meet the demand.  According to Ludger Mees, the vineyard area in the Alto Ebro region (La Rioja, Álava and Navarra) increased 79% between 1860 and 1890. (4)

the phylloxera aphid (Wikipedia)

It was in the context of this increased demand for wines vinified in the Bordeaux style that many wineries were founded in the last third of the 1800s.

In his book De Goede Wijnen van Rioja (1985), Dutch wine writer Hubrecht Duijker published a list of the earliest ‘modern’ wineries founded in Rioja (5)

  = a winery in Haro

## = a winery in the Haro Train Station District

185?          Marqués de Murrieta

1860          Marqués de Riscal

1861          Faustino Martínez

1870          Rioja Santiago ##

1874          Bodegas Montecillo

1877          R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia ##

1877          Berberana

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

1880          Martínez de Ayala

1881          Bodegas del Romeral (now Bodegas AGE, part of Pernod-Ricard Winemakers Spain)

1882          Muerza

1885          Lagunilla

1886          Duque de Moctezuma (today Bodegas Gómez Cruzado) ##

188?          S.M.S. (now Bodegas de la Marquesa)

1890          La Rioja Alta, S.A ##.

1890          Bodegas Franco-Españolas

1890          Martínez Bujanda

1890          Bodegas Riojanas

1894          Bodegas Palacio

1895          Martínez Lacuesta #

1895          De la Torre y Lapuerta (now Bodegas Campo Burgo)

1896          Carlos Serres #

1898          Federico Paternina

1898          Corral

1901          Bodegas Bilbainas (merger with Savignon Frères, founded in 1859) ##

Later, two other wineries were built in the Train Station District:

1970          Bodegas Muga (founded in 1932 with a winery in the center of Haro)

1987          Bodegas Roda

By adopting the Bordeaux method of winemaking and ageing, Rioja and Bordeaux have been inextricably linked for over 150 years. The epicenter of this link is the Haro Train Station District, the largest concentration of one hundred-plus year old wineries in the world.

Bodegas La Rioja Alta celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2015
(Photo Tom Perry)

In Part 3 of this series, we will examine the Haro Train Station District today and its homage to Bordeaux at the Barrio de la Estación International Wine Encounters (BEIWE) on March 21, 2022. At this event, a winery from each of six prestigious Bordeaux appellations – Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint Julien, Margaux, Pessac-Leognan and Saint-Émilion will show their wines alongside six wineries from Hero’s Train Station District.

Footnotes to Part 2

  •  Llano de Gorostiza, Manuel. Los Vinos de Rioja.  Induban, page 62.
  •  Huetz de Lemps, Alain. La Lucha Tenaz de Don Manuel Quintano en favor de la calidad de los Vinos Riojanos.
  • Llano de Gorostiza, op.cit. page 67.
  • Mees, Ludger. La Vitivinicultura en Navarra y La Rioja: Economía, Sociedad y Política de Intereses (1850-1940). Published in Gerónimo de Uztariz, boletín 6, page 154.
  • Duijker, Hubrecht.  De Goede Wijnen van Rioja. Uitgeverij Het Spectrum, page 40.

The Haro Train Station District. Part 1 – the Tudela-Bilbao Railway Line

The development of the steam locomotive in England in the early 19th century was one of the most important drivers of the Industrial Revolution.  By the middle of the century there were more than 10,000 kilometers of railway lines in England, France, the German and Italian States, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia. (1)

Spain was eager to adopt this modern means of transportation.

However, despite the governments’ progressive leanings, finances were in a sorry state following a severe economic crisis in 1847 and 1848 so official financial backing for rail lines was lacking.

According to Carlos Larrinaga, the absence of projects “was not due to a lack of initiatives but rather of capital”. (2)

 Unable to raise capital, governments in Spain offered concessions to private investors. In the case of railroads, several of these capitalists were French, such as the Rothschild and Perère families as well as Spaniard José de Salamanca. Once a concession was granted, the investors provided capital with their own funds and by means of stock and bond issues. In exchange, the companies received a percentage of the price for shipping freight for a certain number of years.

Northern Spanish ports compete for concessions

Ports on the coast of the Bay of Biscay competed to link them with central Spain. Some of these projects, such as a line from Alar del Rey to Santander and another from Castile via Soria, La Rioja, Pamplona and Bayonne in southwestern France via the Alduides valley were unsuccessful in spite of strong regional support due to fundraising problems and central government opposition.

The passing of a national railway law in 1855 laid the groundwork for a network of rail lines radiating from Madrid following a plan from the time of king Carlos III.(3) The most important of these lines was to link Madrid to the north coast.

Bilbao, capital of the province of Vizcaya, competed strenuously in favor of this line passing through the city and port but its initial aspirations were frustrated. The project finally approved called for the northern end of the Madrid-Bay of Biscay route to be at Pasajes near the French border, not Bilbao.

Bilbao gets its train line

Bilbao later succeeded in receiving a concession and funding for the last stages of a rail line linking Spain’s major industrial regions of Catalonia and Vizcaya (Bilbao). This line followed the course of the Ebro River to Miranda de Ebro and then north.  By the beginning of the 1860s, it reached from Catalonia to Tudela in Navarra, with the last stage, from Tudela to Bilbao, completed in 1864.

This line connected with the Madrid-French border railway in Miranda, allowing goods to be shipped by sea from Bilbao and Pasajes and overland through France from the border town of Irún, the terminus of the northern line.

The project had strong political support from the Riojan civil engineer and congressional deputy Práxedes Mateo Sagasta as well as financial backing from the provincial government of the province of Logroño and investors from Vizcaya including the recently created Banco de Bilbao (1857).

The line was not only a means to ship industrial goods to and from Bilbao and Barcelona but also foodstuffs from the fertile valley of the Ebro River, including wine from Rioja. Haro, in the province of Logroño (today La Rioja), was a stop on the line and the land around it was where the winery district soon developed, although the train station was not officially opened until 1880 (4).

Phylloxera in France attracts French buyers in search of wine

Numerous French agents began to visit the region in search of wines to export to France, whose vineyards had been ravaged by the phylloxera plague. Some of these French agents decided to stay in Haro, including Messieurs Heff, Anglade, Blondeau, Dupeyron, Foisier, Lavatout, Lepine, Savignon, Serres and Vigier. (5) The first winery in the station district, an association of the Alsatian Armand Heff and Spaniard Rafael López de Heredia, was founded in 1877. (6) Other winery investors followed suit.

Rioja wines needed to improve

From 1864, date of completion of the line to Bilbao, wines from Rioja had a faster route to Bilbao to satisfy increased local demand, and for exports via seaports in northern Spain and overland to France. But as we will see in Part Two, winemaking had to evolve to satisfy the demands of French wineries, Rioja’s most important customers.

a 19th century steam locomotive on the grounds of Bodegas Muga in the Train Station District (Photo courtesy of Bodegas Muga)

Footnotes:

  1. José Manuel Delgado Idarreta.  150 Años del Ferrocarril en La Rioja.
  2. Dialnet-150AnosDeFerrocarrilEnLaRioja18632013-4193133.pdf
  3. Carlos Larrinaga Rodríguez, “Las conexiones ferroviarias entre las Provincias Vascongadas y Navarra a mediados del siglo XIX”.  Revista Huarte de San Juan.  Geografía e Historia 10, 2003, p. 16.
  4. Delgado Idarreta, op.cit.
  5. Llano Gorostiza, Manuel.  Los Vinos de Rioja.  Induban, 1973, p.74.
  6. De Candamo, Luis G.  R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia. Biografia del Rioja Supremo. 1996, pp. 76-77.

Fifty Years of Rioja – the Region and its Wines between 1970 and 2020

Jeremy Watson

Wine – it’s such a complicated subject. If we venture beyond the ‘either I like it or I don’t’ phase, we need an expert’s help to attempt to fathom its mysteries. Enter the wine writer. As far as I know, no other fruit has been so meticulously dissected as the grape and its fermented liquid. I tip my hat to the men and women who have worn out their elbows studying, their suitcases and salaries from traveling and their palates from tasting and reporting on the mind boggling variety of wines made around the world.

The topic of Rioja is no exception, although our output dwarfs those books written about Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. There is, however, a devoted group of journalists who specialize in our region, fighting for attention in newspapers, with publishers and in the fast-expanding world wide web.

The latest addition to this select library of publications about Rioja is Fifty Years of Rioja – The Region and its Wines between 1970 and 2020 by Jeremy Watson, who I am proud to say has been a dear friend and colleague since my earliest days in the wine business almost fifty years ago.

Watson’s book is out of the ordinary in several ways.  First, because it is a personal memoir of his countless visits to Rioja.  He lovingly portrays the charm of the region, the Riojan people, gastronomy and of course, wine. It is also an unfiltered, no holds barred look at how business is transacted in Rioja as seen through the eyes of an Englishman.

The book tells of Rioja’s triumphs, mistakes and scandals.

Watson’s book chronicles the huge changes that have taken place in Rioja’s infrastructure with the transformation of the wine business from a group of small wineries to huge conglomerates that were built, bought, sold and re-sold. Wine shipped in tanks to be bottled in the UK, Sweden, Belgium and Switzerland gives way to 100% Rioja bottling, but not after a nasty court fight at the highest level in the European Union.

The book explores new categories – wines from single vineyards, single village wines and single zone wines – created to complement Rioja’s traditional classification of “guarantee of origin”, crianza, reserva and gran reserva. Watson dissects the fight over approval of new grape varieties –  do they improve the quality of Rioja or are they concessions to fads?

In addition, Watson takes a detailed look about Rioja’s acceptance through the years in the United Kingdom market and his experience of marketing Spanish wines in the UK from his post of Director of Wines from Spain.

Here you can read about

  • Rioja’s fickle weather patterns and how climate change has affected grapegrowing;
  • the scandal surrounding the Spanish conglomerate Rumasa and its purchase of several Rioja wineries;
  • what happens when banks run wineries;
  • the economics of ageing in oak barrels;
  • the debate about singular vineyards;
  • does Rioja still show a typical style?
  • hospitality, Riojan style;
  • and many other topics.

Most wine books are snapshots of wineries that eventually become outdated.  What makes Watson’s book unique is his eyewitness account of happenings in the Rioja wine business and in the region itself over a half century.

Fifty Years of Rioja: The Region and its Wines between 1970 and 2020 by Jeremy Watson is available from Amazon. In the UK, the paperback addition sells for 6.93 GBP and the Kindle edition for 3.00 GBP.  In the USA it is currently available for 3.96 USD with the paperback to follow shortly.

Photos by Tom Perry

Miguel Merino: A Personal Remembrance

Miguel Merino Sr. and Jr.

Miguel Merino, founder of Bodega Miguel Merino, passed away on October 31 after a long illness.

Most people in Rioja today knew Miguel as the jovial owner of the winery he founded in 1994.  Miguel however, was a 44 year veteran of the Rioja wine trade, having begun his career as one of the two export directors of Bodegas Berberana, at that time one of Rioja’s powerhouses along with Paternina, AGE and Savin, the parent company of Bodegas Campo Viejo.

I met Miguel shortly after my arrival in Rioja in 1983 as the export director of bottled wines for Savin and we soon became friends because of our mutual love of wine and music, more specifically, rock and roll.

Because we traveled most of the time we used to joke that we saw each other more often in New York, London and Stockholm than in Logroño.  It was an incentive to meet at home more often between trips.

 Berberana was bought by Rumasa in 1980 and after a few years with the winery under its new owners, Miguel, along with his former managing director Melquíades Entrena and another executive, Félix Pérez, founded Cenalsa, an export consortium. Miguel soon tired of driving back and forth from Logroño to Pamplona and fighting to get distribution for the wines he represented in an increasingly competitive marketplace, so in 1994 he founded his own winery in Briones.

Today it’s not uncommon for a winemaker or a grape grower to found a winery, but Miguel was neither. His decision was both gutsy and risky, but he never looked back.  He sought advice from experts – for winemaking, Manuel Ruiz Hernández, the longtime technician at the Haro Enological Laboratory; for grape and wine supply the powerful broker Pedro Vivanco; and from friends like Lars Torstensson, one of the two former wine buyers at Sweden’s Vin & Sprit.  The other buyer, Arne Skog, became Miguel’s distributor in Sweden when Skog founded Domaine Wines & Spirits.

Miguel’s philosophy was to have fun with his wines and his winery, vowing only to do business with friends and former customers.  To visit him was to be regaled with stories about his adventures as a wine salesman and countless jokes and anecdotes as you sat around the table in his tasting room.

Miguel telling a story soon after founding the winery

Among the many stories he told, one stands out in my mind. Miguel was at a wine fair negotiating with a German-speaking buyer, ostensibly for a discount supermarket chain.  Miguel saw that there was no way he could make a deal, so when the buyer was leaving, he told Miguel “Auf wiedersehen” (‘goodbye’ in German).  Miguel answered, without missing a beat, with the similar sounding “¡Olvídense!” (‘forget it’) in Spanish!

As I mentioned earlier, Miguel’s other love was rock and roll, developed during a yearlong stay in the USA as an exchange student.  Throughout his life he referred to his hosts as “my American family” and he visited them as often as possible. 

Miguel and I used to listen to music at a home he owned in Trevijano in the mountains southeast of Logroño.  This was long before the internet so we relied on the 45 and 33⅓ rpm records in our collections.  There was one particular song we couldn’t find: 96 Tears by ? And the Mysterians, one of Miguel’s favorite’s.  He finally found a copy. Whenever I hear it I think of Miguel. 

Miguel was a pioneer in his winery with the launch of Mazuelo de la Quinta Cruz, a plot of the mazuelo grape variety near the fifth station of the Via Crucis on Monte Calvario (Mt. Calvary) near Briones.  Lars Torstensson, who had become the director of Domaine Rabiega, Vin & Sprit’s winery in Provence, was experimenting with carignan (a synonym for mazuelo), so they decided to make a 100% mazuelo, Rioja’s first.  It became popular in Spain because of a listing at Andoni Luis Aduriz’s  two Michelin-starred Mugaritz near San Sebastian where it was paired with dishes that defied pairing with other wines.  Quinta Cruz gained notoriety internationally, too as Decanter magazine’s “Best Old World Red” in 2007. 

Miguel’s grape selection process echoed his sense of humor. As the grapes were unloaded onto the sorting table they were inspected.  One of three possible events occurred:  the unsuitable grapes were thrown into a bucket called ‘infierno’ (hell), the doubtful grapes were thrown into another bucket called ‘purgatorio’ (purgatory) and the other grapes –  ‘cielo’ (heaven) were allowed to pass through to the destemmer/crusher.  The good grapes would become Miguel Merino wines and the ‘purgatory’ grapes made into a second, inexpensive product for workers in the winery and friends.

Miguel’s legacy is guaranteed with Miguel’s son taking over operations at the winery along with wife Érica.

With Miguel’s passing, Rioja has lost one of its most endearing and lovable characters.  Rest in peace, my friend.

The Ribeira Sacra – Galicia’s Sacred Slopes

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 Miño river above the hamlet of Belesar
“O Cabo do Mondo” (The End of the World) in the Miño valley

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.

A trough used for transporting boxes of grapes up the steep slopes. Other farmers have to carry the boxes on their back. Heroic viticulture.
Looking up José Manuel Rodríguez’s steeply terraced vineyard

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.

Gerry Dawes and José Manuel Rodríguez

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.

‘Terco’ (Stubborn) by Jorge Carnero

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.

Asturias: a Land of Rugged Mountains, Hard Cider and Tasty Cheeses

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).  

the Naranjo de Bulnes (Photo credit: ruralia.com)

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

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.

Mina, ‘escanciando’ a culín of cider at Tierra Astur in Oviedo (Tom Perry photo)

If you don’t want someone to ‘escanciar’ for you, there are machines that will pour you a fizzy culín.

A do-it-yourself cider dispenser (Tom Perry photo)

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.

a selection of Asturian cheeses and quince to taste with cider

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.

Some of the dishes offered at Tierra Astur. Top, left to right, a torto and a burger; Bottom left to right, a plate of fabada and a grilled piece of Asturian beef. Photo: Tierra Astur

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!

Celebrating the end of lockdown (T. Perry)
Gerry at the Tierra Astur deli at the Colloto cider 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.

An artisan Asturian ‘Picón’ blue cheese

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.

Statue of Ana Ozores, ‘La Regenta’, the subject of Leopoldo Alas’s novel

Unfortunately we had to leave Asturias because Gerry’s schedule demanded that we move on to the winelands of Galicia.

Tresviso, a Remote Mountain Village – with one of Spain’s best blue cheeses

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.

the hikers’ path up the mountain to Tresviso (Credit: genniuco.com

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.

Tresviso (Photo: Tom Perry)

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.

a piece of Javier Campo’s Tresviso cheese

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 Campo’s label

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.

We Uncork Two 1976 Viña Tondonia Gran Reservas

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.

(Photo: Jorge Elías)

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.

“RLH” pressed into the wax seal (Photo: Tom Perry)
Tools used for opening and decanting old bottles (Photo: Tom Perry)

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.


Viña Tondonia white gran reserva 1976 after 45 years (Photo: Tom Perry)

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.

1976 left; 2008 right (Photo: Jorge Elías)

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 .”

Rioja Special Report 2021-López de Heredia Captivates Tim Atkin

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)

“Since my Great-Grandfather’s Time, our Philosophy Has Always Been Modern” – María José López de Heredia (Part 1 of an interview)

Photo:Tom Perry

María José López de Heredia:  The Zaha Hadid Project was an Accident (Part 2)

The Zaha Hadid-designed Vistors’ Reception Center (Photo: Tom Perry)

The antique company stand inside the Visitors’ Reception Center (Tom Perry)

Setting the Record Straight (Why red wine in Spanish is called ‘tinto’ and not ‘rojo’) 

The red range: Viña Cubillo, Viña Bosconia and Viña Tondonia (Tom Perry)

Gerry Dawes:  the 1947 Bosconia is the Best Red Wine I Have Ever Drunk

A walk through one of the winery’s barrel aging cellars (Tom Perry)

Pedro López de Heredia – In Memoriam



Pedro López de Heredia (Credit: López de Heredia winery website)

The Yin and the Yang of Rioja – A Tasting and Conversation with Benjamín Romeo (Contador) and María José López de Heredia

Tondonia 1904 (Tom Perry)

Snow covered barrel display outside the winery (Photo: Tom Perry)

A lampshade made from a wine glass (Photo: Tom Perry)

Rioja’s Iconic Art of Blending

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 mazuelo for 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 phylloxera when 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.

Víctor Cruz Manso de Züñiga (Credit: Estación Enológica de Haro)

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”.

Antonio Larrea (Credit: Estación Enológica de Haro)

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 tempranillo to 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.

Back label of Marqués de Murrieta’s Castillo de Ygay gran reserva Especial

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!