The wines from Diego Zamora

The latest Rioja tasting sponsored by our local paper LA RIOJA took place last Tuesday, featuring the wines from the Diego Zamora group:  Bodegas Ramón Bilbao in Rioja, Mar de Frades from Rías Baixas, Cruz de Alba from Ribera del Duero and Volteo, a vino de la tierra from Castilla-La Mancha.

 Diego Zamora, located in Cartagena on the southeast coast of Spain, is famous for Licor 43, once the darling of the disco in Spain in the 1970s but still present on the shelf of practically every bar in Spain.

 The tasting was tutored by the managing director of the group’s wine division Rodolfo Bastida, a Rioja native and old friend for many years.

 Ramón Bilbao, like other wineries in Rioja, has taken the route of expansion into other wine districts in Spain to diversify its product range rather than increase production here.  This makes sense because it allows the group to offer wines from the hottest white wine producing region in Spain today –  Rías Baixas -, a second prestigious red wine region (Ribera del Duero) and a more economically priced range of wines (Volteo) made with internationally recognized grape varieties to provide the necessary volume to fill containers during a recession.

 Mar de Frades, a 100% albariño, has a lot going for it:  an attractive Rhine-style blue bottle that stands out on a shelf, a temperature-sensitive label that tells consumers when the wine has reached the right temperature (10ºC) and an extremely attractive pineapple and tropical fruit nose along with crisp acidity and good structure on the palate.

 The Volteo range of a 100% tempranillo, a tempranillo-cabernet sauvignon blend, a tempranillo-shiraz blend, a rosé made with garnacha and a white blend of viura, viognier and sauvignon blanc has been made with the young US wine drinker in mind, with an attractive label, an easy-to-pronounce name (’volteo’ refers to ‘vaulting’, a sport seen in the circus riders somersaulting on horseback).  The product seems to be a success as, according to Rodolfo, over 650.000 bottles were shipped to the States in 2009.

 We tasted the 100% tempranillo, which I found to be very fruity with notes of blackberries, a little oak and a big mouthfeel. No doubt, wine made by the marketing department but pretty good, even to a 62-year old’s palate.

 Cruz de Alba, a 100% tinto fino (tempranillo) is produced following the principles of biodynamics, which basically implies using natural products and following a biodynamic calendar to pick grapes, prune the vineyard, blend, age and bottle.  Rodolfo explained that he frankly couldn’t tell the difference between a ‘normal’ wine and a biodynamically produced one but believed that it couldn’t hurt as biodynamics forces a winery to pay very close attention to the vineyard.

 I found the 2006 Cruz de Alba crianza to have an intense black cherry color, a mineral nose that’s characteristic of most Riberas, dark fruit on the nose, and intense tannin that will no doubt improve with age.

 We tasted two Riojas:  Ramón Bilbao Limited Edition 2007 and Mirto 2005.

 Limited Edition, a 100% tempranillo, showed black cherry color, an aroma that reminded me of cherries macerated in liqueur with a touch of oak that also showed  crushed graham crackers after the wine was in the glass for ten minutes, elegant, ripe tannins and high acidity.

 Mirto, the top of the line, is also pure tempranillo, with very intense black cherry color, ripe, almost stewed dark fruit along with menthol (which Spaniards call ‘balsámico’) with well-integrated tannin and fairly high acidity for a style of wine that is unabashedly in the camp of modern Rioja.

 I really liked Mar de Frades, and although the style of the reds was too modern for my personal taste, they undoubtedly have a large following, both in Spain and in the USA among fans of chewy fruit and lots of color and structure.  If you’re going to make a modern Rioja, this is, I feel, the way to do it, with ripe, elegant tannin rather than a fruit bomb.  For me, Limited Edition was the best of the lot and the range of reds showcased the stylistic diversity of tempranillo from Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Castilla-La Mancha.  In short, a very interesting, educational tasting!

The economics of the 2009 harvest and its implications (2)

After almost one month of celebrating Christmas, New Year’s and Epiphany, January is usually a pretty dead month in Rioja.  Except in the Rioja wine business.

 As I mentioned in my post on November 16, sales of Rioja have dropped dramatically due to the economic crisis, which has hit Spain especially hard.  Shipments from January through November are down almost 6% in Spain and over 11% internationally, prompting the president of the Rioja Regulatory Council to predict that shipments in 2009 will decrease by 8% (the numbers won’t be published until the middle of February).  This means that Rioja wineries have shipped 30 million fewer bottles than in 2008.

Ex-cellars prices have decreased, too, with the average price of a young Rioja dropping 4%, crianza 2.8%, reserva 7.7% and gran reserva 9.2%.  This follows a trend going back to 2000, mainly the consequence of a crowded marketplace and pressure from big retailers to meet price points.

These numbers have had a huge impact on grape prices, as wineries, faced with razor thin profits, are pressuring their grape suppliers, who have found that they have produced more grapes than the wineries are willing to buy.  The result:  grape prices have plunged and the growers are complaining that current prices don’t cover their production costs and some wineries haven’t paid for grapes from the 2008 harvest.  The wineries counter that grape prices were high for ten years and if wineries have had to tighten their belts, the growers have to, as well.

Back in November, I explained that an inventory-to-sales ratio of 3 is ideal in Rioja.  Now, a large harvest in 2009 as well as decreased sales has pushed the ratio well over 3. At that time, the largest winery association, the Grupo Rioja,  proposed that maximum yields be reduced by 10% for 2010, 2011 and 2012 to bring supply of grapes back into line with demand until sales of wine pick up again.

 This situation came to a head at last Friday’s meeting of the Rioja Regulatory Council when the growers’ representatives refused to support the Council management’s request to approve the 2010 advertising and promotion budget.  The growers have convened meetings this week to decide a course of action.

 From the growers’ point of view:

  • Grape prices are at their lowest since 2001 – an 8% drop in sales doesn’t justify a 50% reduction of grape prices
  • Some haven’t been paid for their grapes from 2008, let alone 2009
  • Reducing production takes money from their pockets, as they could sell excess grapes to make table wine.

However, the European Union doesn’t allow minimum price fixing, so the matter of renegotiating prices is strictly between wineries and growers, outside the scope of the Council.

 The president of the Council has stated that the growers’ refusal is temporary and the problem will be solved.

The Council has proposed a 10 million euro (14.3 million USD) advertising and promotional budget for 2010 that is on hold until financing is secured.

As Spaniards like to say, ‘las espadas están en alto’ (the swords have been drawn!).

La cuadrilla

Everyone knows that one of the signs of alcoholism is drinking alone.  It’s true that Rioja has its share of alcoholics (with the cost of young Rioja at 85 U.S. cents a glass, I’m surprised that there aren’t more!)  However, drinking is a group activity in Rioja, based on ‘la cuadrilla’.

‘Cuadrilla’ can best be translated as ‘crew’, but not in the nautical sense.  A bullfighter has a ‘cuadrilla’ (the picador, the banderilleros, and the mozo de espadas), a construction company has  ‘cuadrillas’ of bricklayers, painters, plasterers, formwork specialists etc.  In addition, ‘cuadrilla’  means the group of friends that you hang out with.

Here in Rioja you can see cuadrillas going from bar to bar before lunch and dinner having a small glass of wine or beer and sometimes a tapa. Each round is paid by a different member or the money is collected at the beginning and the rounds continue until the money is gone.

Unless it’s a special occasion when everyone goes to the old part of town to the highest concentration of bars, cuadrillas drink in their own neighborhood.  Since there are several bars on every street in Logroño, and most other cities in Spain, you can have a few glasses of wine without going too far from home.

A variation on the theme of the cuadrilla is having a few glasses of wine with your spouse after work.  We do this at least three times a week, visiting several bars near the house.  It’s a great way to get a little fresh air, some exercise, see your friends and chat with the bartenders, whom we know very well, to hear the latest jokes.  You enver get drunk because the glasses are small. Spaniards are gregarious people and the streets are full between 7:30 and 10 PM every night, so it’s easy to run into friends from the neighborhood.

One of our favorite bars is El Tirador (The Shooter).  Like other bar owners in Rioja, Pedro Ruiz, his wife Toñi and their children moved to Logroño in the early 1970s.  Pedro is from San Asesnsio, one of the most important wine villages in Rioja, and the bar serves wine from the family’s small winery.  The bar takes its name from the fact that Pedro was a rifleman in the Spanish army.

El Tirador serves  a wide range of tapas: a hothouse mushroom, a piece of pig’s ear, sausage and my favorites:the VIP –  two boiled quail eggs, a pickled anchovy and chopped onion; and  the huevo frito – a fried quail egg with a piece of sausage on a piece of bread.

Bar El Tirador, Somosierra 22, Logroño.  Tel.  941 24 40 39.

Marqués de Vargas

As I’ve explained in several earlier posts, every month our local newspaper LA RIOJA organizes a tutored tasting of the wines from a Rioja winery led by the winemaker.  We had to wait all year –  until December 21 –  to taste the wines from the Marqués de Vargas group but it was well worth it!  For me it was the highlight of a year of fantastic tastings.

The group has wineries in three DOs:  Rioja, Rías Baixas and Ribera del Duero.  We tasted wines from all three, starting with Rías Baixas.

Pazo San Mauro 2008 100% albariño.

Pale yellow with gold reflections. A citrusy, tropical fruit nose, perfectly balanced.  Unctuous, with good acidity on the palate.

An extremely attractive wine.

San Amaro 2007  95% albariño, 5% loureiro.  Vinified for five months in barrel.

Greenish yellow, surprising for a barrel fermented white.  I found a nutty character on the nose, along with fresh citrus and tropical fruit.  More body than the previous white with a long mouthfeel.

I thought San Amaro was fantastic, and proof that the wines from Rías Baixas don’t necessarily have to be consumed young.

Of course, everyone was excited about tasting the three Riojas, and no one was disappointed.  All of them were made from grapes grown on the winery’s 70 hectare estate just east of Logroño.  The vineyards, among Rioja’s most famous, are part of the ‘Three Marquis’: Marqués de Murrieta, Marqués de Vargas and Marqués de Romeral, located next to one another.  These three properties have waged a battle with the regional government because of a proposed widening of the N-232 highway between Logroño and Zaragoza that would mean razing part of the vineyards.  As far as I know, the issue hasn’t been resolved yet.

Marqués de Vargas reserva 2005.  75% tempranillo, 10% mazuelo, 5% garnacha and 10% ‘others’, a synonym for cabernet sauvignon.  CS  can be used by the wineries that participated in the cabernet experiment in the 1980s and early 1990s.  However, the catch necessary for its use is that any reference to it is forbidden in the wineries’ brochures or on their websites. This is an example of the sometimes convoluted politics in Rioja.

Aged for 22 months in American, French and Russian oak of different ages.

Brilliant ruby, well-banced nose with sweet oak, dark fruit and  milk chocolate.  Balanced, elegant tannins with a long mouthfeel.

My favorite of the night.

Marqués de Vargas Reserva Privada.  Aged for 23 months in Russian oak.

Intense ruby, dark fruit,  kirschberry liqueur.  Extremely elegant on the palate.

Hacienda Pradolagar 2004  40% tempranillo, 10% mazuelo, 10% garnacha, 40% ‘others’.  Aged in French and Russian oak.

Deep ruby.   Forest floor, cigar box, slightly bitter cherries.  On the palate, elegant tannins, well balanced.  Will improve with time.

Conde de San Cristobal (DO Ribera del Duero).  Vintage:  unknown – I forgot to write it down. 80% tinto fino, 10% cabernet sauvignon, 10% merlot.  Aged for 12 months in new French, American and Russian oak.

Very deep ruby.  Blackberry, tobacco, mineral nose.  Round and elegant on the palate.

Young wine from 2009 ( Rioja).  50% tempranillo, 50% garnacha

In spite of its youth, the wine showed very elegant tannins.  Very grapey, as expected.

I liked several things about this tasting:

  1. all the wines, the reds as well as the whites evolved positively in the glass, showing great depth of flavor
  2. a little cabernet sauvignon doesn’t make these wines taste any less like Rioja but rather adds complexity
  3. the three Riojas showed ripe, elegant tannins.  For me, this is a hallmark of this winery and something that other wineries here should emulate.
  4. Wines from Rías Baixas can age.



Burn, baby, burn

Happy 2010 to you, loyal fans of Inside Rioja!  I guess that we celebrate New Year’s like everyone everywhere by eating and drinking far too much but we have a tradition in our family that I want to share with you, hence the title of this post.  Every New Year’s Eve, just before dinner, each of us dons a piece of red clothing.  When we sit down to eat, we write all the things we want to forget about the past year on one piece of paper and our New Year’s resolutions on another.  We keep the resolutions in our billfolds all year and read them again on the following New Year’s Eve.  That’s always good for a laugh or two!

After eating our twelve grapes at each stroke of midnight from the clock tower on the Madrid City Hall, hugging, kissing and toasting with cava, we all go outside to the terrace of our apartment where we watch the neighbors shoot off fireworks from one apartment building to another and listen to the fire trucks roaring up and doen the street. Then we burn our piece of red clothing and our ‘things to forget’ list from the past year.

Since our son’s birthday falls on December 31, he always invites his friends over for a glass or two of cava before his sister and he go out dancing.  This year, John is in Adelaide, Australia finishing a Master’s in marketing, but his friends came over anyway and we toasted to the picture of him that we had put at his place on the dining room table.  Toñica and I always laugh when we look at the pictures from past New Year’s Eves at how much those kids have grown, while we always look the same!