Solar de Samaniego crianza 2003

Solar de Samaniego

Two weekends ago we stayed in Logroño instead of going to our summer house in Cantabria – it was just after the Wine Future Rioja 09 conference (more on that in a future post) and we were entertaining guests, so on Sunday I went down to our wine cellar to grab a bottle, with nothing particular in mind.  After a quick look around I chose Solar de Samaniego crianza 2003 because I hadn’t tasted it in a while and wanted to see how it was evolving, especially because 2003 was only rated ‘good’ by the Rioja Regulatory Council. Toñica and I were very pleasantly surprised after opening the bottle because in our opinion it tasted great, once again driving home the message that the exception confirms the rule where vintage ratings are concerned.

The wine is a blend of tempranillo and graciano, unusual for a crianza. It showed a medium ruby color, with an extremely elegant nose of strawberries, gingerbread cookies and maraschino cherries.  It had a medium mouthfeel with great balance between fruit and oak.  It went down perfectly with our lunch of meatloaf and green beans.

Speaking of mouthfeel, I remember a tasting class I took many years ago with Karen MacNeil, one of the USA’s great wine educators.  She liked to compare mouthfeel to different kinds of milk: skim and whole milk corresponded to light and heavy mouthfeel, with medium somewhere in between.  I used this analogy successfully in tastings in the USA but got a lot of blank stares in most of Europe, proving that wine tasting vocabulary is by no means universal. Last year I gave a tasting to some mainland Chinese wine writers, who agreed that one of the wines smelled like ‘ Beijing during the winter’.  I still haven’t totally figured that one out, but they liked the wine so it must have been a compliment!

Solar de Samaniego is often overlooked because its wines are neither traditional nor ultramodern, but I think it deserves a wider following because the wines are extremely well-made and mighty tasty.  Founded in the early 1970s in Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa by a family with roots in Rioja, the winery is named after Félix María de Samaniego, an 18th century writer of fables who was born and lived in Laguardia.  In fact, the ruins of Samaniego’s country house, where he wrote many of his fables, are in the middle of one of the company’s vineyards.  The former PR director of the company has taken advantage of this location to start a company specializing in picnics and romantic vineyard dinners. 

Solar de Samaniego also owns a winery and vineyards in Ribera del Duero (Durón) which it sells along with its Rioja brands in one of Spain’s most successful wine clubs, which it owns and operates.

Rotary horizontal toasting – science comes to the art of barrel making

There aren’t many wine events for consumers here – I guess wineries must think they’re preaching to the choir.  Once a month, however, our local newspaper La Rioja organizes a tutored tasting by a Rioja winemaker that I try not to miss.

This month’s tasting was unique because the topic was oak.  As you know, the choice of different types of oak (American, French, Russian, Slovenian, Spanish and even Mongolian), the cooperage and the level of toasting are an important part of the winemaker’s arsenal. The novelty of this tasting was a demonstration by a local cooperage, Quercus, of the influence of different levels of toasting on the same wine using the same type of barrel.

Barrelmaking is a craft where precision is the key.  Barrels are assembled without nails or screws, only steel hoops holding the staves together.  Fire is an important part of this process, because heat shapes the wood, making it easier to bend and toasting the inside of the barrel gives flavor to the wine.  The toasting is normally done over a wood fire and the heat generally can’t be applied uniformly which creates variations from one barrel to another.  Coopers make their barrels with light, medium or heavy toast, and often medium + or heavy +.  Although the primary use of oak in winemaking is to slowly microoxigenate the wine, creating long strings of tannins that help the wine to age, the level of toast can provide different flavor sensations.

Quercus has taken the toasting process one step further with its rotary horizontal toasting process, precisely applying different heat intensities over varying amounts of time to create uniformly toasted barrels to the exact specifications of the winemaker.

Quercus uses four types of toasting, Haro, Borgoña (Burgundy), Ribera and Côte d’Or.  They differ on the rate of increase, decrease and maintenance of temperature throughout the process. 

In the first part of the tasting we tried Haro, Borgoña and Ribera toasts with the same wine. With Haro, I noticed a high level of toast on the nose but especially on the palate, with not much fruit showing through.

With Ribera, it was easier to detect the fruit but again, the toast seemed to predominate.

Borgoña was my favorite, with less of a toasty sensation and more elegance (Readers of Inside Rioja should have figured this out already!)

Côte d’Or was more difficult to distinguish (isn’t Côte d’Or in Burgundy, too?) because it was only shown in the second part of the tasting in the wines of Lar de Paula, a winery firmly in the modern Rioja camp, made using new French oak. 

4 Besos (Four Kisses) had a medium cherry color, showed acidic red fruit notes in the nose  that reminded me of cranberries.  It had lots of oak and high acidity on the palate.  

Lar de Paula reserva 2004 was dark ruby with both red and black fruit on the nose and lots of oak on the palate.  It was the wine I liked the least.

Merus tempranillo 2005 was the star of the tasting, showing an intense black cherry color but with  a fresh red fruit and toasted coffee bouquet.  It was long and elegant on the palate with soft tannins balancing the fruit. 

This tasting was not only fun but highly educational.  It proved to me that making barrels is not only an art but a science, too.

The economics of the 2009 harvest and its implications

wine barrelsThe Rioja Regulatory Council recently announced that the harvest subject to protection in 2009 was 397,42 million kilograms of grapes and 5,15 million kilos for the quality reserve.  This is less than the 410 million kilos that I mentioned in my post of October 27.

What do these numbers mean? I think it’s interesting to see how the Council calculates them as grapes become wine and are aged in barrel and bottle before release from Rioja wineries.

Every fall, just before the harvest begins, vineyard owners receive a card with a microchip.  The chip contains data about each owner’s  holdings of red and white grapes. It works like a credit card.  During the harvest, each time the grower delivers a load of grapes to a winery, an inspector subtracts the amount of red and white grapes from the total in the chip.  Once the balance  reaches zero, the grower is not allowed to deliver any more grapes.  A little wheeling and dealing takes place, however, as some growers, due to drought, hail or other reasons produce a little less than their cards indicate, so a grower with a little more than allowed often ‘borrows’  a card with a balance to be able to deliver more grapes.

At wineries, a sample of each load of grapes is analyzed and the potential alcohol, color, tannins, amount of botrytized grapes, age of the vineyard and other parameters determine the price the winery is willing to pay.

Once the harvest ends, each winery sends a harvest report to the Council, and the Council in turn informs the winery how much wine can be vinified and subject to protection as Rioja wine.  Ususlly the conversion factor is 72 liters of wine for every 100 kilos of grapes, but it can be as low as 70 or as high as 74 depending on the harvest and the state of the Rioja business.

After alcoholic and malolactic fermentation take place, the wineries prepare samples for blind tasting by the Council’s tasting committees, made up of winemakers from Rioja wineries.  It’s like a peer review. At the same time, each batch of wine is chemically analyzed. Wines that pass the tasting and chemical analysis are then certified as Rioja.

At this stage, some wines are bottled and sold as ‘sin crianza’ or young Rioja.  The Council issues back labels and subtracts the corresponding amount of wine in their books from that winery’s total for that year.  In the same way, when wine is put into barrels for ageing, the Council records the amount of wine being aged.  At the ‘crianza’, ‘reserva’ and ‘gran reserva’ stages, the same procedure is followed, with the Council issuing only as many back labels as the balance of wine from that vintage in the winery, according to the Council’s accounting.  Note that the correct figure is the Council’s, not the winery’s.

Once the winery has asked for all the back labels it’s entitled to from a given vintage, it can’t sell any more wine from that year.  This system has been in place for all vintages since 1980.

Another interesting feature is the quality reserve as mentioned above.  Wineries are allowed to petition the Council to vinify up to 5% more than the maximum allowed to compensate for potential shortfalls in small harvests.  There’s a catch, though.  If there’s no shortfall, the winery has to send the wine to the distillery.

For the last week or so, the Council has been debating what should be done in 2010 if sales remain stagnant.  Traditionally, a reliable measurement of the ‘health’ of the Rioja business is the inventory to sales ratio.  If the ratio is about 3 (years of sales as inventory of wine), both wineries and growers are comfortable with the state of affairs.  If, however, the ratio dips below 3, it indicates a shortage of wine and the quality reserve program kicks in to alleviate it.  If, on the other hand, the ratio is over 3,5 either sales are stagnant, too much wine has been made, or in this year’s case, both).  Under debate at present is the possibility of only allowing 90% of the maximum allowable yield (5.850 kgs/hectare for red grapes and 8.100 Kgs/ha. for white) in the 2010 harvest.  This will bring the ratio back to about 3.  This seems to satisfy the wineries but the counteroffer made by representatives of the growers remains to be seen!

This may sound complicated, but it shows how committed the wineries and growers are to stability.  As you can see, there’s a lot more to a Rioja harvest than meets the eye!


Castillo Ygay gran reserva 1989 ‘Early release’

Luciano de Murrieta

Luciano de Murrieta

After a hard week at the annual meeting of the Great Wine Capitals Global Network in Bordeaux, we decided to spend a relaxing weekend at our summer house near Santander.  However, gale force winds and driving rain made us miserable so we decided to leave early for Logroño, a nice Sunday lunch and a warm, dry house.

While Toñica prepared a dish of hake fillets in white wine sauce, I went to the cellar in the basement to find an appropriate wine for the meal.  My eyes landed on a bottle of Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay gran reserva 1989 which ended up on the dinner table.  Not only did it go really well with the fish, it brought back memories of how Rioja used to be made.

I remember my first visit to the winery in the mid-1980s. Winemaker Alfonso Troya, who learned his trade from the great Jesús Marrodán, explained that traditional houses like Murrieta didn’t need to age their wines in bottle before release – they were aged for years in old barrels that had lost most of their capacity to microoxigenate the wine inside, so consequently, were ready to drink when bottled.

In the late 1980s the winery decided to release some of the Castillo de Ygay vintages with less barrel age than usual, holding back the rest for a further 10 to 20 years.  These were the ‘early release’ Ygays, the first of which, 1985, was released in 1994. 

Murrieta wines are produced exclusively from the winery’s extensive vineyards just outside Logroño and are blends of tempranillo and a generous amount of mazuelo, along with some garnacha and graciano.  The percentages weren’t on the back label but most of the vintages favor the first two varieties.

The wine showed a medium brick color with no hint of brown, a  nose that reminded me of spice and a cedar chest with hints of oak and a light, elegant mouthfeel.  I thought it was at the top of its game.  Perfect with Toñica’s fish.

Murrieta was always easy for me to recognize at tastings because of its distinctive spicy nose with just a hint of oak and the 1989 early release took me back 20 years, before the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s influence was as overpowering as it is today and fine, old Riojas were in great demand.

At the time this wine was made, the owner, Vicente Cebrián, a businessman with interests in newspaper publishing (he was one of the owners of the now-defunct newspaper YA), wanted to restore the estate to its original late 19th century splendor but suddenly died of a heart attack, leaving the property in the hands of his teenaged children Vicente and Cristina.  They have continued their father’s plans but have, unfortunately in my opinion, given the wines a more modern style that may not be appreciated by the winery’s loyal fans.

The gran reserva 1989, however, was made before this change came about and I thoroughly enjoyed it! Call me a traditionalist, but wines like this are a treat!