Florentino Martínez was the star of this month’s tasting organized by our local newspaper LA RIOJA. Martínez, like many other Rioja winery owners, got his start in the wine business as a grape farmer who gradually got into winemaking and ageing, although at heart he remains a cosechero, specializing in young wines made by carbonic maceration or whole berry fermentation.
The best way to describe Florentino is ‘campechano’, someone who is affable, easy-going and uncomplicated. He’s never taken a public speaking course but his talk was brilliant, from the heart, laced with personal anecdotes and jokes about a project that is his passion.
Florentino has been a friend for a long time and I’ve always appreciated his honesty and generosity. I remember last winter I was in calle Laurel with some friends when we ran into Florentino with some Brazilian customers outside a bar. He asked the owner of the bar for a bottle of Luberri which he opened and gave to my group. You don’t forget gestures like that.
One of his stories is his description of the Christmas Day suppers that took place in his father’s winery (back then, surely an underground cellar) when the family would drink the young red from the latest vintage for the first time directly from the vat.
His company was founded in Elciego in Rioja Alavesa in1991 with his wife and two daughters, following several projects with others that didn’t work out as he had planned. The company farms 35 hectares in an area between Elciego and Laguardia.
We tasted the five wines made by the winery.
Luberri red 2010: ‘Luberri’ is Basque – ‘lur (earth) + ‘berri’ (new). 95% tempranillo and 5% viura (a white varietal whose high acidity is traditionally blended in small amounts with red to give the wine more zing).
‘New earth’ is appropriate as a brand name and its spirit came through clearly throughout the tasting.
The whole berry fermentation process starts by emptying whole bunches of grapes into a vat. This differs from the classic method of red winemaking where the stems are removed and the grapes lightly crushed before fermentation.
With carbonic maceration, the fermentation process starts inside the grapes and after 7 or 8 days, the skins burst, releasing the juice. Wines made this way are intensely fruity but sometimes smell a little like hydrogen sulphide (rotten eggs) because the winemaker needs to protect the grapes with a dose of SO2. The high pH and low acidity don’t allow these wines to age like a crianza or reserva but it doesn’t matter because the whole idea is to drink them while they’re young and fresh.
To me, one of Luberri’s achievements is producing a carbonic maceration red that has none of these unpleasant aromas that are a big stumbling block for most CM wines’ wider appeal. It was clearly the best one I had ever tasted, with a bright cherry color, an elegant aroma that reminded me of strawberry bubble gum with some notes of mint, and fresh and fruity on the palate.
Seis de Luberri 2008. 100% tempranillo.
Seis (‘Six’) refers obliquely to the fact that the wine has been aged for six months in oak.
In Rioja, producers aren’t allowed to make any allusion to oak on the label unless the wine has been aged for at least 12 months. This attitude is enforced in the Regulatory Council by the large wineries with many thousands of barrels who believe that the ‘crianza’ category has to be protected to the detriment of younger wines. This often means that wineries put practically all their effort into their oak aged wines without paying much attention to younger wines.
Florentino made it a point to defend making good young Riojas, stating that they don’t necessarily come from the worst grapes – a powerful statement.
With today’s increased emphasis on fresh fruit, and with prices falling through the floor due to the effects of a very persistant economic crisis, wineries would be wise to release more unoaked or only slightly oaked reds. They would certainly hit sensitive price points that way.
Back to Seis: Light, brilliant cherry color, flowery with red fruit and oak – a little too much of the latter for my taste – with balance, elegance and freshness on the palate.
Biga de Luberri crianza 2008. 100% tempranillo.
Medium ruby color, a floral nose with just a hint of oak. (‘With Seis’ the oak seemed to come through more strongly.) Light and fresh on the palate.
Monje Amestoy de Luberri reserva 2006. 90% tempranillo, 10% ‘others’ (almost surely cabernet sauvignon but Florentino’s lips were sealed). Intense ruby, red fruit on the nose, reminding me of cranberries, and toast but not overpowering. On the palate, like the other wines in the range, it had a light, crisp, balanced mouthfeel.
Cepas Viejas (Old Vines) 2006. 100% tempranillo. The grapes for Cepas Viejas come from vines over 75 years old that produce about 3.500 kilos per hectare, a little more than half the maximum yield authorized for red grapes in Rioja.
Intense ruby. Dark fruit, with mineral notes on the nose. On the palate, clean, with good acidity. Once again, the balance between oak and fruit was perfect.
Cepas Viejas was my second favorite of the evening and showed me that Luberri’s preference for light, balanced, easy to drink reds went straight through the range.
My thought on leaving the tasting was that more and more of the Riojas I had tasted recently were getting back to the elegant, light style of winemaking that was popular here before the 1990s when wineries began soaking their wines in new oak.
As a marketing guy, I also liked the fact that the five wines were linked with ‘de Luberri’ (by Luberri) on the label. This is a big help to consumers who would otherwise be confused by five different brand names.
To me, Luberri’s wines proved that complexity is not the enemy of elegance. I hope this is the way of the future.
Familia Monje Amestoy, Camino Rehoyos, 01340 Elciego (Álava)
U.S. Importer: De Maison Selections www.demaisonselections.com
Photo credit: www.luberri.com