We uncork two classic Riojas from CVNE

 A few days ago, my old friend, fellow wine writer and bull runner Gerry Dawes was in town so a few of us went out for lunch. Basilio Izquierdo, owner of Bodegas Águila Real and former winemaker at CVNE, brought two bottles of CVNE Viña Real gran reserva 1976 and 1970 from his private cellar that were the hit of the meal.

The 1976 (13,5% alcohol) showed a light brick color with a classic Rioja nose of cedar and strawberry jam, light and delicate.  On the palate, it showed good acidity but in my opinion, lacked a little crispness.  If you have a bottle, I’d recommend that you drink it now.

On the other hand, the 1970 (13%) was at its peak.  A light brick color like the 1976 but on the nose, at first a delicate floral, tea-like aroma that after 20 minutes evolved into delicate spices.  On the palate, vibrant with good structure and crisp acidity.  More alive than the 1976, it’s no wonder that 1970 was a very good vintage in Rioja.

We asked Basilio how to make a wine that can be kept for 40 years.  First of all, you need healthy grapes and ageing in slightly used barrels for 3-4 years, using good quality corks, storing the bottles lying down at a more or less constant temperature with as little light and vibration as possible.

The ideal level of humidity in an ageing cellar is about 80%, difficult to obtain umless the cellar is underground.  To do this in an above-ground cellar requires air conditioning and good insulation, a costly investment.

We ate a very Riojan meal of leeks in oil and vinegar, a tomato and onion salad, lamb sweetbreads and a bowl of ‘pochas’ (white beans that aren’t dried but frozen while they’re fresh).  The wines went down very well and we were sorry that Basilio had only brought two bottles.

If you can get your hands on a well-cellared bottle of Rioja from a good vintage from the 60s and 70s (1964, 1968, 1970, 1975, 1978), take the plunge.  You will discover why classic Rioja has been compared to fine Burgundy.

The magic triangle of wine

El triángulo mágico del vino was the theme of the first wine tasting/dinner held at Echaurren, Rioja’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, on June 18.  The magic triangle refers to the locations of the three wineries profiled:  Agrícola Labastida in Labastida, Abel Mendoza in San Vicente de la Sonsierra and R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia in Haro.

First, the food.  Francis Paniego is an extremely talented young chef who learned his craft both from mother Marisa Sánchez and at several restaurants in Spain and abroad, including El Bulli.  One of his favorite tricks is to take one of his mother’s signature dishes such as potatoes with spicy sausage and turn it on its head by liquifying the ingredients and delicately layering them in a conical cocktail glass.

In my opinion, the tasting menu was less of a wine pairing exercise than a feast of the senses, accompanied by four wines that showed some amazing similarities in spite of the unique personality of each.

The apéritif was:

  • a slice of Cameros cheese with sesame seeds and honey
  • a piece of marinated salmon with soybean sprouts
  • croquettes (no one makes them better than at Echaurren.  I would love to go there and eat nothing else)

These dishes were served with a barrel fermented white from Agrícola Labastida, Tierra Fidel, made with viura, white garnacha and malvasía, delicately perfumed but with a firm mouthfeel, and Jarrarte maceración carbónica, an explosion of fresh fruit.

The five-course tasting menu was

  • a Mediterranean tzatziki-type cold purée of yoghurt, liquified cucumbers, almonds, green apple ice cream, bread and olive oil
  • white asparagus cooked at 65ºC for 6 hours with a mushroom mayonnaise (by the way, this did NOT alter the flavor of the wines)
  • lemonfish with roast root vegetables and a liquified green bean sauce
  • lamb’s tail glacé with a touch of ginger and fresh vegetables
  • a piece of hard toast with lukewarm Cameros cheese, apple and honey ice cream.

Now, the wines: Tierra Fidel 2006, Abel Mendoza Selección Personal 2007, Viña Tondonia red reserva 2001 and Viña Tondonia white reserva 2002.

At first Tierra Fidel was oak, herbaceous, spicy with quite high acidity. After about 30 minutes, the nose evolved toward tobacco. Very attractive.

The Abel Mendoza reminded me of Mediterranean hillside plants like rosemary, with good balance between red fruit and oak.  Again, with fairly high acidity.

The Viña Tondonia red 2001 (according to Julio César López de Heredia, not on the market yet) was amazingly fresh and reminded me of strawberry jam. High acidity.  Julio told me that he didn’t think it was ready to drink yet, but I disagreed.  There were no sharp edges here.

Viña Tondonia white reserva 1992 had a nutty, butterscotch and honey nose and was delicate, perfectly balanced, with high acidity.

My overall impression was that in spite of obvious differences in style, all four wines served with dinner showed two similarities:  thankfully, they were not high-alcohol, overextracted fruit bombs and were fresh on the palate, stimulating your taste buds.  If these wines are the current direction Rioja is taking, I applaud the move.  Rioja has always been a food wine and these brands illustrate this trait perfectly.


Padre José García 19, 26280 Ezcaray (La Rioja) Tel: 941 354 047

Picture:  the Echaurren logo

Azpilicueta – a musical chairs brand that’s stronger than ever

Azpilicueta (Ahth-pee-lee-QUAY-ta) is one of Rioja’s most visible brands, currently the property of Domecq Bodegas, owned in turn by the French drinks giant Pernod Ricard.

The brand Azpilicueta was created in 1881 when a winery was founded in Fuenmayor by Manuel Azpilicueta.  In the early 1960s, Azpilicueta was joined by two other Rioja wineries owned respectively by Cruz García and Melquíades Entrena and AGE (Azpilicueta, García, Entrena) was created.

AGE was one of the first Rioja wineries, along with Campo Viejo, to attack the mass market by selling to the incipient supermarket trade and its brand Siglo, with its characteristic burlap wrapping around the bottle, was one of the category leaders for many years.

The winery underwent a series of changes of ownership after Entrena left the company to manage Bodegas Berberana.  The Canadian whiskey distiller Schenley and the Spanish bank Banesto were major shareholders for a while until the mid 1990s when it was bought by the Bodegas & Bebidas group, held as an investment by the Bank of Bilbao (later the BBVA).

The BBVA decided to sell of most of its food and wine business investments and AGE, Campo Viejo and other wineries were bought by Allied Domecq, which, in spite of its French roots and centuries-old wine heritage in Jerez, was a British drinks conglomerate whose capital was mostly from a brewery.

Azpilicueta is no longer made at AGE, but at Campo Viejo in Logroño.

In  spite of these changes, brand Azpilicueta has actually been strengthened by these changes, as better winemaking and a worldwide sales network has given it much needed visibility.  It’s currently on most restaurant lists in Spain and popular as a pour in bars, too.  As a matter of fact my cuadrilla drinks several bottles at our local bar every Saturday and Sunday before lunch.

My tasting notes of Azpilicueta crianza 2006:

Medium ruby, intense plum, dark fruit and spice, well-balanced oak and fruit.  Drinking well now.

The Marquis who salvaged Rioja wine

I’m reading a fascinating book (originally a doctoral dissertation) about the founding of the Marqués de Riscal winery in the mid-19th century, titled El Marqués que reflotó el Rioja (The Marquis who salvaged Rioja wine).

One of the most interesting chapters discusses the marquis’ role in the Médoc Alavés project.  For those of you who don’t know what that is, it was an experiment sponsored by the government of Álava from 1862 to 1868 to attempt to make wine in Rioja using vineyard management techniques and winemaking processes from the Médoc.

I was surprised to read that the marquis, Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga, was only responsible for hiring the Bordeaux winemaker – Jean Pineau from Château Lanessan – and arranging for the shipment of a number of 225-liter oak casks from Bordeaux as well as 9.000 vine shoots of different varietals for the nine wineries that participated in the project.  Hurtado de Amézaga did not participate in the experiment himself.

Even more interesting was the choice of varietals:  johannisberg riesling, semillion, purmint (furmint?), pinot gris, pinot blanc, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and two totally unknown varietals, at least to me:  moissac and pieponille.  A quick look at Jancis Robinson’s Vines, Grapes and Wines revealed that moissac is a synonym of mauzac blanc, a white variety planted in southwestern France, especially in Gaillac, while pieponille is likely a misspelling of picpouille, a minor red variety in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Therefore, the Médoc Alavés project seemed to favor white varieties over red and more emphasis on varieties from eastern, southern and northern France than on those associated nowadays with the Médoc.

In any case, the Marquis of Riscal hired Jean Pineau for his own project after the Médoc Alavés project was judged a failure due to higher production costs and poor harvests which failed to enthuse the rest of the wineries from Álava.  As a matter of fact, the varietals planted in Riscal’s vineyards in the period immediately before the onset of phylloxera at the very beginning of the 20th century were:

  •  tempranillo 76,37%
  • graciano 7,38%
  • calagraña 4,94%
  • mazuelo 4,57%
  • jaén 4,38%
  • garnacha 1,81%
  • morisco 0,55%

Four of the seven varietals (tempranillo, garnacha, mazuelo and graciano) are official varieties in Rioja today, while calagraña is still present in Rioja, although today included in ‘other varietals’ by the Rioja Regulatory Council.

It seems pretty clear to me that Riscal’s project had more to do with vinifying red varieties and aging in oak casks than producing white and red wines from French varietals like his neighbors.

If anyone is interested in reading this fascinating book (sadly only available in Spanish), it can be found in the gift shop at Marqués de Riscal or through the publishing house LID Editorial Empresarial, S.L.  www.lideditorial.com

Basilio Izquierdo: “Red and white garnacha are two of the most interesting varietals in Rioja”


 Basilio Izquierdo was the head winemaker at CVNE for 32 years, responsible for one of Rioja’s most ubiquitous brands. In 2006 he decided to create his own winery and Rioja brand, “B” (for Basilio).  Having spent his entire adult life as a winemaker, he is a storehouse of information about the evolution of Rioja from the sixties until today.

He has two pet peeves:  one is the current use of clones of tempranillo selected exclusively for their high yields, creating grapes that in his opinion no longer reflect where they’re produced.  For that reason, for “B” he selects grapes from vineyards planted before 1985 and only in rare cases, later, but never after 1990.

Basilio’s second complaint is that most of the old vine garnacha in Rioja has disappeared, because traditionally, garnacha from Rioja Baja with 15% alcohol was blended with 11% tempranillo from Rioja Alta and Alavesa.

His aim, therefore, has been to produce a Rioja like those from the 1970s: a red from 2007 where tempranillo from Rioja Alta and Alavesa (65%) and graciano from Rioja Alta (5%) with relatively low alcohol and high acidity are blended with old vine garnacha from Tudelilla in Rioja Baja (30%) and a 2009 white made with garnacha blanca (60%), viura (30%) and malvasía (10%).

With his white, his single concession to a modern style is to ferment the juice in new French oak barrels, leaving the young wine on the lees for six months.  He’s a firm believer in garnacha blanca, in his opinion more aromatic than viura, whose predominance in Rioja whites today goes against the market preference for more perfumed whites like those found in Rueda and Rías Baixas.

We were unable to taste the current vintages the day I spoke to him because they hadn’t been bottled yet, but I did taste the “B” white 2007 and the “B” red (no vintage noted) at a winewriters’ lunch several months earlier.  My tasting notes follow.

“B” white 2007:  very pale yellow; elegant nose, stone fruit and a little plum; elegant, unctuous and with balanced acidity.

“B” red:  medium cherry; smoky, dark fruit nose; elegant with firm tannins.

Right now “B” is sold to private customers in Spain; none has been sent abroad.  Basilio is hoping to start soon.

We agreed that we would taste the new vintages soon.  Stay tuned! I’ll tell you about them here.