Miguel Angel de Gregorio: Give viura a chance

Just when you think you know a lot about something, someone tells you, or you otherwise discover, how little you really know. This happens to me once in a while with regard to the Rioja wine business.  María José López de Heredia has taught me a lot about the historical role of white wine here, for example, the predominance of white in the 19th century and how wineries ‘tinted’ white to make it red (tinto) to pay lower taxes and the influence of wine brokers from Alsace, not Bordeaux, in sales of Rioja to France when French vineyards were ravaged by phylloxera.  You can read about it in the following post:

 https://insiderioja.wordpress.com/2010/05/25/setting-the-record-straight/

Last week at the monthly Rioja tasting put on by our local newspaper La Rioja, winemaker Miguel Ángel de Gregorio of Finca Allende gave a vertical tasting of his whites that really opened my eyes.

Miguel Ángel opened the tasting by mentioning that 1975 in Rioja was the first year that more red wine was produced than white.  I was under the impression that plantings of white varieties had decreased since the 1990s but had not realized that there had been so little planted to red before the mid-1970s.  When I moved to Rioja in 1983, our region was on a ‘red roll’ due to increased demand from the UK and Germany and I assumed that red had outnumbered white ever since Rioja had replanted vines with phylloxera-resistant rootstock in the early 20th century.  Not so.

If you go into the Rioja Regulatory Council website

( http://www.riojawine.com/es/pdfs/ESTADISTICAS_RIOJA_2009_VITICULTURA.pdf), you discover that in 1985, the earliest year that appears in the statistics, there were 29.903 hectares planted to red and 9.094 hectares planted to white.  It shows you how fast white went out of fashion in favor of red. By 2009, there were fewer than 4.000 hectares of white varieties while red had increased to 57.344 hectares.

The point of the tasting was to show that viura from low-yielding vines can produce stunning wines.  For Miguel Ángel, the problem with viura in Rioja is that growers are encouraged to overproduce because the Regulatory Council allows 9.000 kg per hectare as opposed to 6.500 kg/ha for red varieties.  With such high yields the aromatic profile of viura is green apples, not a desirable trait in today’s market.  Moreover, high yields cause acidity to decrease and pH to increase, producing flabby wines.  He suggests that the rules in Rioja should be amended to reduce maximum yields for whites, and suggests that more whites should be fermented in oak barrels like he does.

Continuing with this iconoclastic train of thought, he commented that he uses less malvasía now than in the past because of its tendency to oxidize.

He took us through Finca Allende white from 2000, 2002, 2003, 2007 and 2008, Mártires white 2009 and Allende ‘dulce’ (sweet) 2009.

My tasting notes:

2008:  90% viura, 10% malvasía.  Straw yellow, citrus and stone fruit, good acidity, elegant but not a very long mouthfeel. 

2007:  80% viura, 20% malvasía. Straw yellow, cleaner, more well-defined aromas that reminded me of aniseed and Mediterranean hillside bushes. Good acidity and a long mouthfeel.

2003: 70% viura, 30% malvasía.  Straw yellow but somewhat darker, tending to gold.  Miguel Ángel reminded us that 2003 was a terrible vintage due to excessively hot weather.  On August 13 the temperature reached 53º C in the vineyards. In spite of this, I found  honey and spicy aromas, not a lot of volume on the palate but very tasty anyway.  This vintage was the best of the Finca Allende whites for me.

2002: 60% viura, 40% malvasía.  A defective bottle.

2000: 60% viura, 40% malvasía.  Yellow gold.  Honey and camomile.    Not a terribly long mouthfeel, but elegant both on the nose and palate.

Mártires 2009:  Mártires is the name of a 1ha vineyard planted to viura in1970.  Yellow gold. Floral aroma (camomile).  Crisp acidity with a long mouthfeel. Along with Finca Allende 2003, this was my favorite wine of the tasting.

Allende ‘dulce’ (sweet) 2009. 100% viura from a vineyard planted in 1924. Straw yellow, citrus nose, really crisp acidity, not cloying for a wine with 82 g/lt of residual sugar.  Not for sale as the Rioja Regulatory Council doesn’t allow wines with more than 50 g/lt of residual sugar.  Too bad.

My overall impression was that these wines were, indeed, really good and showed that viura, when not overfarmed, could hold its own with more fashionable varieties.

Miguel Ángel, always the iconoclast, saved his last broadside for the Regulatory Council for allowing sauvignon blanc, verdejo and chardonnay without really testing whether they adapted well to the soils and climate of Rioja, following commercial rather than technical criteria.  His parting comment was “Rioja will never produce wines as good as white burgundy with chardonnay but certainly can produce better wines from viura than the Burgundians could”.

Viura deserves a chance but as long as farmers produce 9.000 kg per hectare, it will rarely show its true potential.

Miguel Ángel has a lot more to say, so I’ve decided to interview him and share his thoughts with you.  He’s already agreed.  More to follow.

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The Bullfight Cocktail

 

Most people in Spain don’t have to work on Friday afternoons.  It was one of the smartest moves Spanish company owners could have made because they recognized that the country starts to gear up for the weekend after work on Thursday.  This tradition started off at universities around the country when students would go to bars after class on Thursday and carry on until the bars closed at 3 am or so. When I was in school, it was TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday).  Here, it’s TGIT.  Needless to say, class attendance on Friday is way down.

This tradition is no doubt bad for the Spanish economy but clearly good for workers.  Spain’s economy is in such bad shape that people can’t wait to take their minds off the sorry state of affairs here.

Because of free Friday afternoons, in Rioja, people either get a few hours’ head start to their vacation homes in the pueblo or have a drink with their friends before lunch.  This custom, called el aperitivo or el vermú, often evolves (or degenerates, depending on the intensity of the event) into a vermú torero or bullfight drink, because just like a bullfight, you know when it’s going to start, but not when it’s going to end.  You just get wrapped up in having a few glasses of beer or wine with your friends starting at 1:30 or 2 pm and before you know it, it’s 6 o’clock, just the time for a gin and tonic.

People who just have their regular glass of wine or two before lunch will often return to the same bar for a cup of coffee or a drink and a game of mus (more about this unique Spanish card game in a future post) to discover that some of the friends they said goodbye to several hours earlier are still standing at the bar engaged in telling jokes or talking about politics in a loud voice.

Bars here make it easy to carry on like this because they offer tapas such as Spanish omelette, deep-fried calamari, potato chips, peanuts, and olives to munch on.

My wife and I usually leave for our summer house on Friday afternoon, but once in a while we will enjoy a vermú torero at the bar conveniently located next door to our apartment building. The combination of the upcoming weekend, not having to go back to work, lively conversation and the liberal consumption of alcoholic beverages makes the vermú torero a great way to spend Friday afternoon.

Wineries vs. Farmers, 2011 edition

 

The swords are once again drawn in the boardroom at the Rioja Regulatory Council.  And it’s for the same reason as in 2010:  grape prices.  Last year, the farmers, who represent 50% of the votes at the Council, threatened to block approval of the promotion budget but were placated by the president of the Council, who promised to lobby for higher prices.

The problem is that grape prices during the latest harvest have remained low.  Farmers once again complain that the price paid, as low as 38 euro cents per kilo in some cases, doesn’t cover production costs. This year, they have threatened to not only block the promotion budget (8,6 million euros) but the operating budget (5,6 million euros) too. Their original demands were:

  • Minimum prices
  • An obligatory contract, with a copy sent to the Agriculture Ministry to assure market transparency
  • Maximum yields tied to the inventory-to-sales ratio (when there are more than three years of sales in wineries, maximum yields would automatically decrease.  When the ratio is less than 3 years, maximum yoields would automatically increase

The ministry has told the farmers that minimum prices and an obligatory contract are illegal, but in spite of this, they insist that the ministry discriminate ‘positively’ by tying subidies to wineries that sign a contract. Besides, farmers feel that their only bargaining chip is the power of their votes.

Unblocking this impasse will involve a change in attitude on both sides.  The big wineries in Rioja are used to setting grape prices after coops begin to sell young wine the spring after the harvest, and often delay payment for nine months or more.  It would be good if this policy changed, with prices  set as a function of the quality of each farmer’s crop and payment terms set more reasonably.

The problem is that the wineries’ markups are already razor-thin, with a steady decrease in the average price since 2000.  More and more business is done with supermarkets in Spain and abroad and a price difference of a few cents a case usually determines who wins the contract.  Therefore, for large wineries, paying more for grapes than their closest competitors is a disadvantage. They’re interested under these circumstances in low prices for grapes.

Farmers have to understand that some years prices are high and others, low.  For example in Rioja, in the 18 years between 1992 and 2010, grape prices have only been less than 55 euro cents, the average production cost, in 1992, 1993, 1994, 2001, and 2010. Most of those years, the average price was between 75 euro cents and 1 euro.  This is not exactly a good reason to paralyze the Regulatory Council.

This week will be a tough one for the president of the Council.  He needs 25 votes from the farmers to approve the 2011 budget.  Let’s hope that clear heads will prevail.

Phylloxera

I spent most of the first week of 2011 in bed with a bad case of flu, and consequently had plenty of time to re-read some of my favorite books.

The first one that fell into my hands was Phylloxera – How Wine was Saved for the World by Christy Campbell. (ISBN 0 00 711535 0).  It never ceases to amaze me that the epic struggle against the vine louse took over 30 years, from when it arrived in France from America in the late 1860s until a ‘cure’ was found at the very end of the 19th century, and that the culprit – American plant material, ultimately provided the solution through phylloxera-resistant American rootstock (carefully selected to resist chlorosis from chalky European soils) to which European vinifera vines were grafted.

The fight against phylloxera was organized around two schools of thought: to use Campbell’s terms, the sulfuristes, who favored chemical means such as injecting carbon bisulphide, an explosive compound, into the soil, copper sulphate, whale oil and petrol, potassium sulphide dissolved in urine, flooding the vineyards with water or replanting vines in sandy soil. The américainistes, on the other hand, believed that the absence of the louse on American roots (but not on leaves) was somehow the key to its erradication. The fact that the infected vines came from America made this solution preposterous at the time.

Of course, we all know that the américainistes were right but at first, the proponents of insecticides seemed to have the upper hand.  Some of their methods were outright scams, but others seemed to hold the pest at bay, so were widely used.

While France, Portugal and parts of Spain struggled from the 1870s on, Rioja was spared from phylloxerization until 1899.  As we all know, this was a boon to the Riojan wine industry, as the demand for wine in France had to come from abroad, and Rioja wines were being made in a style commercially attractive to French merchants.

In view of the well-documented, European-wide research into the causes of phylloxera and the alert network put in place by governments at the time, it was shocking to read in another book (Viña Tondonia:  un pago, una viña y un vino) about a scam that took place in Rioja just as the louse was making its presence known here.

Phylloxera’s presence was first detected in La Rioja in 1899.  Like other European regions, importing American vines was totally forbidden in Rioja until the presence of the louse was confirmed.  At about this time, one Guillermo Varela, from Verín in Galicia appeared, promising a guaranteed remedy against the louse.  Varela promised to reveal the composition of his remedy in exchange for a bank deposit of 250.000 pesetas (I have no idea about the current value, but it was a lot of money).  After the desperate Rioja vintners deposited the funds in a local bank, the formula was revealed:  water, quicklime, copper sulfate, tobacco and male urine.  Needless to say, Varela disappeared and the formula didn’t work after extensive testing by Víctor Cruz Manso de Zúñiga and his team at the Enological Research Station in Haro.

In the end, the only solution was grafting, which was finally finished in the early 1930s.  Before then, however, more than 20.000 people had left Rioja in search of a new livelihood and the vineyard area, 50.000 hectares in 1900, had been reduced to 14.000 in 1909.

Vineyard plantings in Rioja didn’t reach 50.000 hectares again until the year 2000.