A Rioja and coffee tasting – have we gone absolutely mad?

coffee cupYesterday, a friend called to ask if I was interested in giving a lecture and tasting of Rioja wines to some British customers of the company where his brother works – a coffee importing and distributing company here in Logroño. It turns out that they were ‘baristas’, or owners of coffee bars, visiting their supplier.

The intriguing part of the deal was a comparative Rioja and coffee tasting, to see if certain types of Rioja were similar in style to different types of coffee. This I had to experience!

The lecture and wine tasting went off without a hitch.  Then we began to taste different styles of coffee, served freshly brewed in expresso cups.

The first cup was from the Sidamo region of Ethiopia, an arabica coffee (one of the two species, the other being robusta), which I was persuaded to believe showed citrus notes.  We were encouraged to then retaste the white Rioja, whose aroma seemed to be enhanced by the coffee.

The second cup was from Kenya, an arabica, with toasty notes from a long period of roasting.  It reminded us of the oakiness of the Rioja reserva we had tasted a few minutes earlier.  I was beginning to be convinced!

The third cup was a 100% robusta from Vietnam which smelled like graham crackers to me.  The coffee taster at the company mentioned that the characteristic of this type of coffee was roast cereal grains and low acidity, at which point I began to believe that I could actually become a coffee taster.  Then the bubble burst when we were led into the tasting room where it was explained that tasting freshly roasted cups of hot expresso was a lot of fun, but that real coffee tastings are nothing like that.

The tasting room looked like one at a winery with lots of little sinks into which we were to spit the coffee, a large lazy Susan with glasses of a pale liquid ranging from light brown to almost black, and spoons which were about the size of a tablespoon but with a round bowl.

The coffee taster explained that this was a ‘Brazilian’ tasting.  Here, 10 grams of coffee beans are ground and somehow dissolved into cold distilled water.  She proceeded to dip her spoon into the first glass and loudly suck it into her mouth, swirl it around for a few seconds and spit it into the sink.  “Ah, an unroasted Brazil, the most popular coffee used in Spain for blends”.  The rest of us loudly inhaled the contents of our spoons and tried to imagine what we were tasting.

Professional coffee tasters take many years to learn the trade.  The manager of the company explained that he had been working there for 14 years and was only able to distinguish an arabica from a robusta.  Two flavor wheels (one for defects, one for flavors) showed how incredibly subtle coffee is – a series of concentric circles, starting with four characteristics.  Once tasters learn to master these,   they move to the next tier and so on.  The outer circle has about 45 characteristics. (Aside for wine lovers:  if you’re familiar with the wine aroma wheel (http://www.winearomawheel.com) developed by Dr. Ann Noble at the University of California at Davis, the coffee wheel is twice as big). Next to this, wine is a snap to learn about!

Among other facts, I also learned that:

  • coffee is tasted like this three times before a shipment is accepted (when the company is thinking about buying a batch, when the ship has landed and when the batch arrives at the company;
  • coffee bushes are often grafted onto resistant rootstock just like grapevines;
  • coffee companies sell 100% varietal coffee as well as blends;
  • tasting a certain type of coffee after tasting wine positively or negatively enhances the aromas of the wine.

It was an amazing experience that I’d like to repeat soon.  Coffee ‘culture’  is nowhere near as developed as wine ‘culture’ so people never return a badly brewed cup to the waiter like corked or oxidized wine.  But, according to my friend’s brother, several restaurants in Madrid actually have a coffee menu, so change is in the wind.  I can imagine it already:  “My wife would like a blend of Vietnam and high altitude Colombian and I’ll have a 100% Kenya, please!”

The Brotherhood of the Fish, a longstanding tradition in Logroño

Escudo_cofradiaIf you ask a Spaniard what Logroño is best known for, they will probably say  it’s the wine festival in September.  But if you ask a resident of Logroño, they will unhesitatingly say it’s the festival of St. Barnabas (San Bernabé in Spanish) on June 11.

The festival of San Bernabé commemorates the lifting of a siege of the city by French troops under Francis I whose rivalry with Carlos V, king of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire was legendary.  The French troops arrived outside the city walls on May 24, 1521, confident that they would quickly force the city to capitulate, but the local militia, although outnumbered, heroically resisted, causing panic among the invaders by flooding their campsite and warning them that a large Spanish force was approaching.

To stave off hunger, residents fished in the Ebro river at night.

After the French troops had fled on June 11, the city celebrated its victory and swore an oath to St. Barnabas, mandating a celebration every year.

One of the most endearing traditions of this celebration is the distribution of fish, bread and wine to the citizens of Logroño outside the city walls on the morning of June 11.  Since 1940, this has been the responsibility of the ‘Cofradía del Pez’ or Brotherhood of the Fish, an organization of 26 members (the sum of 6+11+1+5+2+1, the date of the lifting of the siege), who must have been born in Logroño, profess a love for the city and be elected by the  other members of the brotherhood.

This year, the brotherhood distributed 24,000 small trout, pieces of bread and wine, served in a small ceramic pitcher.

To ramp up the atmosphere, for the first time in 2009 the city fathers created a medieval festival in the old town, with paredes, a recreation of the French camp, mock battles and a bazaar, which added a lot to the festive spirit of the week.

La Rioja- the land named after wine: a road movie

día de La RiojaThe tourist board of the government of La Rioja has just launched its latest PR campaign – a 30 minute documentary about La Rioja in the form of a road movie starring one of Spain’s most popular  movie directors – Fernando Colomo and an up-and-coming actor, Diego Martín.

The documentary takes Colomo and Martín to a lot of the places we’ll eventually talk about here:  the Dinastía Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture, a spectacular new winery –  Bodegas Darien, a wineskin maker’s shop, medieval grape pressing, wine therapy tratments, a hot air balloon ride, a 15th century wine cellar, the cathedral at Santo Domingo de la Calzada, the monastery at San Millán de la Cogolla, the church of Santa María la Real in Nájera, the stilt runners’ dance in Anguiano, walking the pilgrims’ route, having tapas on the calle Laurel, a walk through the mountains and finally, a visit to the dinosaur theme park in Enciso where you can see real dinosaur footprints (no kidding!).

Even if you can’t understand a word of Spanish, pour yourself a glass of Rioja and enjoy the 30 minute film.

Please note that since the Rioja region lies in three of the autonomous states of Spain – La Rioja, Álava and Navarra, the film doesn’t cover the last two states, but gives you a really good look at Riojan geography.

To see the film, click on the following link:


Now I hope you’ll appreciate why I love this place so much!

The best sherry tasting ever

This post is a little outside the scope of Inside Rioja, but to paraphrase a song from the 60s, ‘It’s my blog and I’ll do what I want’, and any time I get the chance to taste good sherry, I go for it , because I worked for eight years for a winery that made Málaga, a fortified wine.  Tasting good sherries, especially the sweeter styles reminds me of the beginning of my career in the wine trade 35 years ago. 

The tasting was organized by the Fundación  para la Cultura del Vino (http://www.culturadelvino.org), an organization made up of several well-known wineries (Marqués de Riscal, La Rioja Alta and Muga from Rioja, Codorniú, Vega Sicilia from Ribera del Duero, Terras Gauda from Rías Baixas and Chivite from Navarra) along with the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture.  The Foundation organizes a number of events to promote wine culture, the best-known of which are tastings of famous wines from around the world.

The sherry tasting was the first time a Spanish region was highlighted, and therefore caused enormous expectation among  those fortunate enough to be invited.  It was held in the ballroom of the casino in Madrid near the Puerta del Sol, which added another dimension to the excitement we felt before the event.

Sadly, sherry has largely been ignored by consumers for the last twenty years.  Falling sales since the 1980s have produced a massive imbalance between supply and demand that has not been completely corrected by uprooting vines and the creation of special categories to market older wines (VOS –  Vinum Optimum Signatorum or Very Old Sherry- wines whose average age is over 20 years and VORS – Vinum Optimum Rarum Signatorum or Very Old Rare Sherry- whose average age is over 30 years). In spite of innovative marketing campaigns, undistinguished wines are often found at low prices, as pressure to meet overheads has forced wineries to cave in to the demands of supermarket buyers. 

I certainly hope this is a passing fad because sherry deserves a place in our homes and hearts.

This tasting, which was absolutely the best one I’ve ever attended, showed what fantastic wines can be made in Jerez.

The following wines were tasted:

Fino Inocente (Valdespino).  Comes from a single vineyard within the Macharnudo estate.Pale yellow with greenish hues.  Pungent, buttery, almond nose, Fine, unctuous, persistent on the palate.

Manzanilla en Rama Saca de Primavera 2009 (Barbadillo). Yellow-gold (more than a traditional manzanilla), Complex nose reminiscent of an olive orchard, buttery, not as much of a salty tang ususally associated with manzanilla.

Manzanilla Amontillada de Sanlúcar Almacenista Cuevas 1/21 (Lustau). Gold-amber. Pungent and  slightly caramelly on the nose.  The nutty amontillado character expresses itself on the palate.

Oloroso del Puerto Almacenista Obregón 1/110 (Lustau). Medium intensity mahogany.  Nutty, spicy, elegant.  Rich and mouthfilling.

Palo Cortado 1978 (González Byass). Gold with amber hues.  Delicate, jammy citrus fruit nose.  On the palate, caramelly, persistent, velvety.

Palo Cortado VORS (Tradición). Gold with amber hues.  Bitter orange and ‘sweet shop’ nose.  Candied fruit on the palate.

Cuatro Palmas (González Byass).  Mahogany.  Tobacco nose.  Extremely salty on the palate, a testimonial to its origin as a fino over 50 years ago.

Amontillado Reliquia (Barbadillo).  Medium mahogany.  Candied oranges, orange peels, nutty, a little astringent, like iodine.  Brandy-like, smooth on the palate.

Oloroso VORS (Tradición).  Amber-gold.  Toffee and almonds.  Caramelly, roast coffee.  Elegant.

Pedro Ximénez ‘Niños’ VORS (Valdespino).  Very intense mahogany.  Raisins, prunes, dried figs.  Unctuous and mouthfilling.

I can’t speak highly enough of sherry and would like to make a suggestion:  buy a good bottle.  The next time you curl up with a  book you enjoy, drink a glass or two.  Sherry is the perfect wine for contemplation.  And, try to learn a little about these wines.  Go to the Regulatory Council website (http://www.sherry.org) where you can read all about the history and styles of this fascinating wine.lg_fcv