Fernando Remírez de Ganuza, a Rioja innovator

From the air, Rioja is an extremely complex checkerboard of small vineyards. The 64.000 hectares protected by the Denominación de Origen Calificada Rioja are divided into about 120,000 individual vineyards farmed by 19,000 growers.  A farmer’s holdings are often separated by hundreds of yards, making efficient vineyard management difficult.

The agricultural departments of La Rioja, Álava and Navarra are conscious of this problem and have promoted the idea of vineyard concentration.  This means throwing the current vineyard property division in villages out the window and making a new one so that all individual farmer’s lands in a specific village are contiguous.

You can imagine that concentration is an extremely complex process, because farmers are usually reticent about giving up a plot they know well to taking ownership of another plot, even if it’s next to one they already own. Farmers fight tooth and nail about this and I’ve heard that the process often takes ten years or more.

Fernando Remírez de Ganuza got his start in the wine business by buying, consolidating and selling vineyards. This intimate knowledge of Rioja vineyards was a great help to Ramírez when he began to make wine in Samaniego, in Rioja Alavesa in 1989.

Fernando Remírez has made a name for himself in Rioja not only for the excellent reputation his wines have earned in a short time but also  because of the innovative winemaking processes he has pioneered.  The first of these is recognizing that there is a difference in structure between the grapes in the ‘shoulders’ of each bunch and those in the ‘tips’.  To picture this, imagine a grape cluster as an upside-down isoceles triangle.  At Remírez de Ganuza, the ‘shoulders’, rich in pigmentation, are used to make reservas and are consequently destemmed before fermentation.  The ‘tips’, with less color, are used to make carbonic maceration reds and are not destemmed. The separation process takes place on the sorting table.

A second important process is using the skins of the white grapes to ‘fix’ the color of reserva wines during fermentation. In Rioja, it’s legal to blend red and white grapes (not red and white wine, however) and traditionally, winemakers have added some viura to tempranillo before fermentation to increase the acidity of the finished wine.  The idea of adding the skins of white grapes to a fermenting tank of red grapes was new to me, however.  It works, too, as all the Remírez de Ganuza wines show a lively, zingy acidity that is a hallmark of good Rioja.

For Trasnocho, the top of his range, Remírez uses a heavy plastic bag that is inserted into the fermentation tank.  This bag is then filled with water to displace the air in the tank, gently crushing the grapes underneath and preventing the oxidation of the tannins. 

We tasted the Remírez de Ganuza range at a recent winemaker’s dinner in Logroño. 

Fernando commented first that all the wines were made from grapes from the same vineyard in Samaniego.  This was surprising because we expected the different wines to come from different vineyards.

Erre Punto white 2009.  70% viura, 30% malvasía.

Pale yellow.  Floral and citrusy on the nose. Well balanced fruit with a medium mouthfeel and long aftertaste.  Fernando Remírez commented that the structure of the wine comes from macerating the skins in the juice for a short time before fermentation.

Erre Punto red 2010. Carbonic maceration.  90% tempranillo, 5% graciano, 5% viura and malvasía.

Intense ruby.  The nose reminded me of spicy chewing gum (Dentine).  Floral, firm structure on the palate, with good acidity considering that it was a carbonic maceration wine.

Remírez de Ganuza reserva 2005. 90% tempranillo, 10% graciano.

Black cherry.  Toasty, dark fruit and cocoa.  High acidity, ripe fruit and tannins.  A little closed. Ready to drink now but can be cellared. After five minutes the wine opened up, with an aroma reminiscent of cranberries.

Trasnocho 2006.  90% tempranillo, 5% graciano, 5% viura and malvasía (skin only).

Very intense black cherry.  Closed nose but after swirling the wine in the glass it opened up to reveal somewhat acidic fruit, reminding me again of cranberries.  On the palate, ripe tannins, and crisp acidity, typical of a good Rioja.

Ever the innovator, Fernando Remírez told us that he is going to experiment with the new white varieties recently approved by the Rioja Regulatory Council, although he is a firm believer in the renaissance of traditional white Rioja varieties.

 Bodegas Remírez de Ganuza, 01307 Samaniego (Álava), www.remirezdeganuza.com

Photo credit:  lomejordelvinoderioja.com

2010 Rioja vintage rated excellent – who wins?

It’s official.  On Friday, April 1, the Rioja Regulatory Council announced that after tasting samples from over 284 million liters of wine from the 2010 harvest, this vintage would be rated excellent.

Some people in Rioja have gone as far as to say that 2010 is the best vintage in the last 50 years.  That’s a mighty strong statement to make when you look back to 1964, widely quoted as the best Rioja vintage ever.  Time will tell. The last five excellent vintages were 1994, 1995 and 2001 (no doubt locked away in cobweb-filled cellars by now), 2004 and 2005, now on the market as reservas or gran reservas.

Readers should note that the date, April Fools’ Day, had absolutely no significance in the timing or the meaning of the announcement because Spain’s April 1 is actually celebrated on December 28.

I find it ironic, however, that this classification was given to wine from grapes whose prices were lower than those from other vintages from the first decade of the 21st century, with the exception of 2009 (classified very good, by the way).

I haven’t talked to any grape farmers about this because it would be like throwing gasoline on a brush fire.  I can’t help but admire these farmers, however, for their efforts to produce excellent grapes in spite of being paid at or below cost (depending on who you talk to).

Being a marketing guy, I discussed this with a very good friend, a winemaker at a small Rioja winery known for its garnachas from Rioja Baja. I asked him if wineries had paid premium prices for the best grapes. 

 “Sadly, no”, he said.

“This is a bad sign”, I thought.  Quality should always command a premium (if marketed as such).

Irony aside, from the consumer’s point of view, wines from an excellent vintage at low prices are too good to pass up, so my advice to Rioja lovers is to keep an eye out for the 2010 crianzas, which will be released in late 2012. They will be the prologue for the reservas and gran reservas to follow.

Caveat emptor, however. If the 2010 vintage is as good as it’s been touted to be, distributors, retailers and restaurants could push the price up. It’s too bad that the grape farmers won’t see the money.