The 2009 harvest – promising quality, uncertainty about quantity

tempranillo_editLast week, the Rioja Regulatory Council officially declared the end of the 2009 harvest.  The Council wasn’t in a position to estimate the total size of the harvest yet, but has confidently stated that the maximum size of the harvest subject to protection as D.O. Ca. Rioja will be about 410 million kilograms of grapes.  This is easy to calculate:

56.825 hectares of red grapes x 6.500 kgs/hectare (maximum allowable yield) plus 4.057 hectares of white grapes x 9.000 kgs/hectare = 406 million kg. of grapes.

What will be even more difficult to predict is the actual number of liters allowed to be aged, bottled and sold as Rioja, because once malolactic fermentation has taken place, wineries have to submit samples to a tasting committee where they will likely, but not necessarily, be accepted.

This procedure illustrates a big difference in grape growing between Europe and the rest of the world.  Outside Europe, viticulture is a business where there’s no guarantee that your grapes will be bought.  In Europe, however, within the Appellation Contrôlée system (Denominación de Origen in Spain or in the case of Rioja, Denominación de Origen Calificada), owning a vineyard and growing grapes is a privilege granted by the AC and at least in Rioja, farmers know that someone will buy their grapes, although price is subject to supply and demand as well as quality.

Over the years, the Council has tried to encourage price stability by balancing the supply of grapes and wine with market demand with the help of European Union wine laws, that formally don’t allow total production of wine to increase but do permit the transfer of planting rights between regions.  In this way, the vineyard area has increased more or less in step with the increase in demand for our wines. Yields, however, have also increased and this is the source of the problem today.

It’s impossible for farmers to produce exactly 6.500 kg. of red grapes per hectare.  Older vines produce much lower yields while young vines planted with high-yielding clones produce a lot more.  As long as average grape prices were high (between 0,80 and 1 euro a kilo), farmers didn’t mind doing a green harvest (culling the vines to reduce production).  This year, however, because demand has weakened due to the economy, the prospect of a big harvest  has pushed grape prices down. Consequently, farmers are interested in selling everything they’ve produced.  Traditionally the Council let growers  deliver up to 25% more than  the maximum  allowed production to wineries and coops, so that these could choose the best wines for the tasting committee and sell the extra 25% outside Rioja as table wine. Unfortunately, this policy created a large inventory of bottled table wine that competed directly with the most inexpensive Riojas at a time when sales in Spain began to slide. Alarmed, in 2007 the wineries, coops and one of the farmer’s associations voted to gradually reduce the extra 25% in 2007 to zero in 2010.  Now, the individual members of the coops have pressured their boards into attempting to cancel the agreement in the Council to allow them to make some money from the surplus grapes and wine.  The issue will be discussed at the end of the week in the Council.

To satisfy your curiosity, I have to say that most winemakers are pleased with the quality of this year’s harvest.  Although Rioja was plagued by a drought all summer, the subsoil in the vineyards had accumulated enough water throughout the winter and no rain fell during picking.  In addition, throughout September and the first three weeks of October, warm days and cool nights allowed the grapes to ripen with no risk of rot.  However, as baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

More about the economics of the 2009 harvest in my next post.


Catalonia forbids the happy hour

cocktailOne of Spain’s main daily newspapers, El País, published an article today that left me in a state of shock.  Catalonia, a Spanish region that includes Barcelona, arguably Spain’s hippest and most progressive city, has passed a law forbidding the happy hour, which was described in the article as ‘the undercover promotion of alcoholic drinks in some bars and discos…during which two drinks were offered for the price of one’. The article goes on to say that if the current health minister has her way, this rule will go into effect in the entire country and while a far cry from prohibition, is cause for alarm.

Wait a minute.  This is Spain, a country of fun-loving, irreverent prople whose right to a few drinks after work is as sacred as college football on fall Saturdays.  Not letting bars promote drinks to get some business in a country that is suffering from 18% unemployment and is widely predicted to be the last European country to emerge from the current economic crisis?

Now, I’m not saying irresponsible drinking, just the right to promote your business.

Even the USA, whose citizens are regarded by many Spaniards as straight-laced puritans, leaves the happy hour alone (for those of legal drinking age, of course). What would campus life, or for that matter, life in any city and town be on Friday afternoon after a hard week in class or at work without the means to let one’s hair down a little?

El País suggests that forbidding the happy hour means that henceforth, the government decrees that all hours are unhappy, something that Spain cannot afford, given the current state of the economy.

This is not the first time a Spanish health minister has taken a swipe at the drinks trade in Spain and the furor that Elena Salgado  (now the economy minister, go figure) caused was swiftly countered by the unanimous reaction of wineries, distilleries, brewers, distributors and restaurants. Ms. Salgado backed down on direct orders from the president of the government.

I say “long live the happy hour!” Spain deserves to be happy.

Potatoes Riojan style

potatoesLast Saturday was my birthday so my wife decided that we were going to have a party at our summer house near Santander. Since most of our neighbors are from Bilbao, and consequently, Rioja lovers, we took  a healthy supply of wine (three cases of 12 for a party of 16) and prepared ourselves for a day of fun.  The party started at 1 PM and lasted until midnight.  I understand that several videos and pictures were taken of the event (I don’t remember) but haven’t seen them to be able to decide if they’re You Tube-worthy or not. You, the faithful readers of Inside Rioja, will have a ringside seat!

A marathon like this begs for careful preparation, so we decided to feed the crowd with a staple of Riojan cuisine, potatoes with spicy sausage, called ‘patatas a la riojana’ everywhere in Spain except in Rioja itself, where we call them ‘patatas con chorizo’.

This is the perfect party meal for several reasons:  it’s loaded with carbs to provide energy to keep dancing for hours, it fills your stomach to delay the absorption of the wine into the bloodstream and it’s damn tasty.

This type of food (called ‘spoon food’ – ‘cocina de cuchara’ in Spanish – has always been popular in Spain.  Imagine what life was like in the country 100 years ago.  You awoke before dawn, had a full meal including a bottle of wine, followed by chores until about 10 AM when you had a big mid-morning snack (see a previous post about ‘almuerzo’) with another bottle of wine, more chores, followed by lunch and more wine, more chores, dinner and more wine and to bed when the sun went down.  Sociologists reckon that the average Spanish farmer drank three bottles of wine and a copious amount of food every day to provide enough calories to manage the hard work.

Energy food like potatoes with spicy sausage, lentils and chickpeas, made like stews and eaten with a tablespoon, were served almost every day.

This tradition remains today, as people are going back to the culinary habits of their grandparents because of these dishes’ simplicity and downright good taste.  As a matter of fact, Rioja’s best-known restaurant, Echaurren in Ezcaray ( is actually two restaurants side-by-side:  mother Marisa Sanchez’ traditional dining room where generations of diners have enjoyed her traditional northern Spanish cuisine and son Francis Paniego’s avant-garde dining room, where many of his mother’s dishes are turned inside out (notably his rendition of potatoes with spicy sausage, served as a multilayered purée in a conical martini glass).

More about this amazing restaurant in a future post.

Hungry yet?  Here’s a recipe for potatoes with spicy sausage.  Please bear in mind that all measurements are approximate and can be corrected.

Ingredients for 6:

  • 1,5 kilos (about 3,5 lb. of potatoes (not the kind used for frying – note from my wife)
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 2 teaspoons of spicy red paprika
  • 6 pieces of chorizo, each about 1 inch long
  • an onion
  • 1 bay leaf

Peel the potatoes and soak them in cold water.

Peel and fry the cloves of garlic in a small frying pan in the olive oil.  As soon as the garlic takes on a golden color, sprinkle in the paprika. Then pour this mixture into a pot, adding about 36 ounces of water (the contents of two empty bottles of wine, for the mathematically challenged).  Add the peeled onion, the bay leaf and the chorizo, which shouldn’t be too dry.

When this comes to a boil, lower the temperature, cover the pot and cook slowly for an hour.

Preparation of the potatoes (VERY important):  They should not be sliced, but rather ‘broken’ (‘cachado’ in Riojan) by inserting a knife about 3/4 through and twisting the knife so a piece of potato breaks off.  This, I’m told, keeps the starch inside the potato rather than letting it leach out when the potato is sliced. Break the potatoes into pieces about 1 1/2 inches in diameter (a’ hunk’)

Add the potatoes to the pot and, if there’s not enough water to cover everything, add more until it does.  Add a little salt (careful!  the chorizo is salty).

Cook in the covered pot for about 45 minutes or until the potatoes are soft but a little firm. 

If you want a thicker stew, mash one of the potatoes with a fork and stir into the rest.

Serve in soup bowls with some spicy green peppers (‘guindillas’) on the side.  Some people here will hold a ‘guindilla’ in one hand and take a bite from time to time while others will chop  theirs up and mix it into the stew.  I prefer the latter.

My wife, who refused to help me with the recipe because like all experienced chefs, never measures anything, preferring to fly by the seat of her pants, mentioned that she slowly fries the onion and garlic, puts them into a blender and then adds the mix to the stew, as she thinks that non-Spaniards won’t like to eat a piece of onion and much less, a piece of garlic.

To be a real Riojan, enjoy a healthy portion of this stew with a few glasses of red Rioja, turn on the TV and watch the football game. You’ll probably fall asleep, though!

The ‘Best Of’ Wine Tourism awards

BestOf color_editWine tourism is starting to jump in Rioja.  After years of thinking that opening to tourists was an unnecessary expense, winery owners here have finally realized that it’s not only a great way to sell wine but also to build relationships with  customers and teach them about wine culture.  This is especially important in Spain, where per capita consumption of wine is decreasing year after year and young people show little interest in our product.

Enter the Great Wine Capitals Global Network, made up of Bilbao/Rioja, Bordeaux, Cape Town, Firenze, Mainz/Rheinhessen, Mendoza, Porto and San Francisco/Napa Valley.  Founded in 1999,  one of its aims is to promote tourism, especially wine tourism, among its members.   The Network created the ‘Best Of’ wine tourism awards in 2004 to honor the best wine tourism initiatives in several categories.  Each member city organizes its local award contest, with the winners in each category competing among themselves for the international awards.

The awards have been a huge success, drawing a lot of attention, both to the winners and to the network.

Bilbao/Rioja celebrated its 2010 ‘Best Of’ winners at aceremony held at the historic Citadel in Pamplona on October 1.

The winners are:

Accommodation:  Hotel Hospedería Villa de Ábalos (

Architecture, Parks and Gardens:  Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (

Art and Culture:  Finca Valpiedra (

Innovative Experiences and Sustainable Wine Tourism Practices:  Bodegas Muga (

Restaurant: Remenetxe (

Winery Tourism Services: Rioja Alavesa Wine Route (

The international winners will be announced at an awards ceremony during the annual meeting of the network in Bordeaux on November 1.

For more information about the Great Wine Capitals Global Network, follow this link:

CVNE, 130 years old and still going strong

ImperialThe new world wine trade, led by the Australians, has gotten a lot of mileage from the statement ‘We make wine to consumer tastes, while the old world makes wine to suit the winery’.  Last week, the fallacy of that statement was driven home to me once again at a tasting featuring the wines of CVNE (pronounced CU-NAY)

 CVNE (short for the tongue twisting ‘Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España’) was founded in1879 by two brothers from Bilbao, Raimundo and Eusebio Real de Asúa and is now run by the fifth generation of the founding family.  This in itself is an outstanding accomplishment, as most family companies are bankrupted by the third generation (as they say in Spain, the inspired founders build the company, their children maintain the business and the grandchildren ruin it). CVNE is one of a number of wineries founded in the mid- and late 19th century, among which are Marqués de Riscal, Marqués de Murrieta, Federico Paternina, AGE, Bodegas Riojanas, La Rioja Alta, Bodegas Bilbaínas, Bodegas Franco-Españolas, R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, Bodegas Montecillo and Martínez Lacuesta.

 To return to my original point, you don’t survive 100 years in business if you don’t give your customers what they want, and what Rioja lovers in Spain want is wine that you can drink with a meal.

 Rioja’s most important market has always been northern Spain, notably the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia, in addition to La Rioja itself.  Here, fish was and is a staple of our daily diet and the light, elegant style of a traditional Rioja is perfect with fish as well as vegetables and lamb, products easily available to us.

 The arrival of concentrated, tannic, high-in-alcohol wines, designed to win medals at tastings and to humor wine writers to Rioja’s major market, the United Kingdom produced a reaction in our region that was at first an imitation of the new world style and mostly criticized by journalists. Rioja has gradually evolved into what I call a ‘more powerful elegance’ than Riojas from the 1970s and 1980s but nonetheless recognizeable as Rioja and just as good with either meat or fish.

 CVNE is a prime example of this enduring philosophy.  Its brands Viña Real, Imperial and Monopole are found on practically every restaurant wine list in Spain.  In fact, if the company has a weakness, it has been its overwhelming strength in the Spanish market and lack of presence internationally.  The owners of the company have addressed this by hiring two of Rioja’s most dynamic export managers, Óscar Urrutia and José Luis Ripa from Bodegas Martínez Bujanda and El Coto de Rioja respectively.

 My favorite wine from the tasting, Imperial reserva 2004, showed a medium garnet color, stewed red and black fruit with well-integrated oak and elegant tannins on the nose, with medium to high acidity and firm fruit in the mouth. With 13,5% alcohol, it is more powerful than an Imperial from the 70s which probably had 12% or 12,5% and somewhat softer tannins, but it goes perfectly with food and would no doubt be recognized as a CVNE wine by the founders of the company.

 A perfect example of a business philosophy designed to last one hundred years!