Audaces fortuna iuvat

Luis Valentín

‘Fortune favors the bold’.  This quote from the Latin poet Virgil in the Aeneid is the mission statement that Luis Valentín and Carmen Enciso chose when they left Bodegas Palacio in the late 1990s to found Bodegas Valenciso.

Theirs is an uncommon story. Most of the wineries founded in Rioja after 1970 have their roots in either vineyard holdings or heavy capital investment: grape farmers who decided to build a winery to vinify their production or investors interested in cashing in on Rioja’s increasing international popularity.  Luis and Carmen had neither vineyards nor deep pockets, only an idea to create a brand that fulfilled their dream of what a Rioja winery should be.

Luis knew the financial and commercial side of Rioja wine from the inside out as the former finance director and later, managing director of Bodegas Palacio, while Carmen was in charge of communications. When launching Valenciso they fostered a group of private investors, disdaining bank finance, and were finally able to build a winery, but only after creating a brand name, buying wine in bulk and having it bottled by other wineries, and slowly building distribution in Spain and abroad.

Luis added to his experience by taking a year off to study winemaking at the University of Bordeaux, traveling back and forth every week from Rioja.

This to me was an example of the long-term thinking that most people in the wine business preach but sadly don’t practice.

As the new kids on the block, Valenciso knew that in a ferociously competitive marketplace they had to be different.  Their strategy was to create a niche brand in three ways: first, making only one wine each vintage – a reserva to take advantage of Rioja’s popularity in the restaurant trade. This also made it easier to get distribution.  If Valenciso had offered a full range of white, rosé, young wine, crianza, reserva and gran reserva, most distributors would probably have refused. The third point was to favor elegance over power in their wines, contrary to what wine writers were raving about at the time. Time has proved them right.  The best Rioja wineries are beginning to dial back on intensity, returning to elegance and food friendliness. This is a good sign.

Luis gave us three vintages to taste: 2001, 2002 and 2004 (no 2003 was bottled; it was too unbalanced because of the extremely hot summer).

Here are my tasting notes:

2001:  13,5%.  Medium ruby.  Brilliant in the glass.  Spicy, strawberries, tobacco, firm tannins, balanced acidity and a long finish.

2002: 14%. Slightly more intense ruby than the 2001, nose closed at first, dark fruit, higher acidity than 2001, firm tannin but not out of balance. Luis commented that it had been a difficult vintage.

2004:  14,5%.  Medium ruby, smoky, mineral, red fruit emerging later.  Fruity, smoky, good acidity on the palate.

I really liked all three wines.  One thing stood out above everything else:  their silky elegance. These are wines that rock with food.

In my opinion, Luis and Carmen are doing everything right.  With their knowledge of the wine business as well as classical Latin poetry, Valenciso is well aware that as Virgil wrote over two thousand years ago, if you don’t get it right, ‘facilis descensus averni’ (the way to hell is easy’).

 Compañía Bodeguera de Valenciso

26220 Ollauri (La Rioja)

Tel. +34 941 30 47 24; Fax +34 941 30 47 28

Three glasses of grape juice and a small beer

The Rioja grape harvest festival starts today at noon, but like most people who live here, we went to the old town last night to get a head start on the week’s festivities.

I was pleased to see so many people enjoying themselves but I couldn’t help feeling disappointment as time after time, groups of young adults would approach the bar and order ‘tres mostos y un corto’  (three glasses of grape juice and a small glass of beer).

Wait a minute, isn’t this the fiesta de la vendimia, the grape harvest festival?  Isn’t Rioja wine the signature product of our region?   I looked around each bar we entered and for every person drinking wine, there were at least 20 drinking something else. 

Curiously, the bars in the old town in Logroño are huge advertisements for Rioja wine:  hundreds of bottles, new and old, line the shelves, signs advertising the price of scores of brands from young wines to crianzas, reservas and even gran reservas, pictures of winemakers posing with the owners of the bars, vintage charts, wine maps and lots of other material, with not a single sign or poster of grape juice or beer in sight. Occasions like this are the least common denominator of wine culture – you don’t have to order a specific brand or a vintage, just ask for a glass of red or white. In spite of this, young consumers had obviously turned their backs on wine.

It’s no secret that wine consumption in Spain is dropping precipitously but it was a shock to see first hand people ignoring wine in such an obvious way.

I’ve written in these pages about the efforts made by the Rioja Regulatory Council, the regional government and our local newspaper LA RIOJA to promote wine culture among young adults but my feeling after visiting a few bars is that we are failing to reach the new generation of young adults that will have to sustain our industry for the next 50 years. After all, sales to the Spanish market account for 70% of the total, so a plunge in sales here means that Rioja will either have to make up the shortfall abroad – no easy feat in a ferociously competitive marketplace – or hundreds, perhaps thousands of acres of vines will have to be grubbed up.  In comparison to this, farmers’ grumbling about lower than expected grape prices is a petty matter.

However, if you ask a winery here how they feel about sales in the Spanish market, the unwavering response is ‘forget about it, we’re concentrating on international markets’. This head-in-the-sand approach, so typically Spanish, threatens to ruin our industry.

Last night’s events have piqued my curiosity and I’ll be devoting more space here to discovering why young adults have turned their backs on wine and what could be done to reverse the trend.

In the meantime, until my doctor tells me to stop, I’m going to continue drinking Rioja and wine in general.  A cold beer is nice on a hot day, but nothing beats Rioja and tapas!  After the festival officially starts at noon, some friends (all over 40) are going back to the old town for more. We might not be able to reverse the trend in consumption, but we’ll have fun trying!

Two treasures from Rioja

Sometimes I find a bottle of Rioja from a winery’s private stock. It never ceases to give me a thrill to taste something that only a few people have ever tasted. Last Friday I shared two bottles like this with some friends at our house near Santander.

The first one was ‘Cosecha de Familia gran reserva 2001’ from Bodegas Beronia and how I got my hands on it is as interesting as the wine itself.

Last Friday we went on a pilgrimage to a small church, San Pedruco, near Ajo, where our summer home is located.  We spent most of the day eating and drinking and decided about 5 PM to walk down to the beach for a swim, hoping that it would clear our heads.  On the way, one of my friends ran into a woman who had lived in the same trailer park years before, and she offered us a swim in her pool and a cup of coffee.

Afterwards, she showed us her trailer, which had all sorts of small buildings added on, including a wine cellar.  She offered me the bottle of Beronia, asking me to open it for dinner that night.

Well, we did.  The label said ‘89% tempranillo, 6% mazuelo and 5% graciano, from vineyards over 25 years old; aged for 28 months in French and American oak and for a further 48 months in the bottle before release’.  It also said ‘prohibida la comercialización’ (not for sale).

It had a garnet color, an aroma where stewed fruit, spices and herbs predominated as well as balanced acidity.  It was a little rough around the edges and we all agreed that the wine needed to breathe more.  However, with four avid wine drinkers sitting around the table, the bottle was empty before we knew it.

Since we had started with a nine year-old wine I decided to throw caution to the wind and open a bottle of Martínez Bujanda reserva 1981.  This, too was a bottle from the winery’s private stock that I used to receive as a Christmas present, and ‘Feliz Navidad’ (Merry Christmas) was even printed on the label.

For a 29 year-old wine, it was delicious.  I remember back in the 1980s when both the 1981 and 1982 were released, the 1982 was rated ‘excellent’ while the 1981 was ‘very good’.  As these vintages aged, experts here began to comment that the 1982 had developed more quickly while the 81 would be at its best later. My tastings of these vintages over the years have confirmed this.

My notes from last Friday said ‘light brick color, delicate aromas where cedar, spice and tea predominate, and on the palate, a light mouthfeel.  Has seen better days but a great example of traditional Rioja’.

‘Cosecha de la Familia’ (the current vintage) is advertised on the Beronia website while the Conde Valdemar 1981 is only alluded to as a vintage in the family cellar on the Bodegas Valdemar site.  These wines are real treasures that you have to look for.  I hope you find them.  They’re worth trying!