Nine months of winter and three months of hell


A Spanish proverb says, ‘Hasta el cuarenta de mayo, no te quites el sayo’ which literally means ‘until the 40th of May, don’t take your tunic off’.  The saying refers to the fact that hot weather here almost always arrives the second week in June, when suddenly the temperature increases from20ºC(68ºF) to 38ºC(100ºF) and stays there until the end of September.

My friends from more temperate areas of the world are always amazed at how short and hot the Spanish summer is.  Here we have an expression to describe the climate: ‘ nueve meses de invierno y tres meses de infierno’ (nine months of winter and three months of hell’.

The arrival of summer inSpain is often seen as a catastophic event for the consumption of red Rioja because suddenly, red wine drinkers switch to water or the ubiquitous ‘caña’ or glass of draft beer.  White wine is an option, but here it usually means a glass of Rueda or albariño from Rías Baixas. We’ve already discussed that.

Red Rioja lovers have an alternative: drinking glasses of chilled ‘cosechero’ Rioja.  As I’ve mentioned here, ‘cosechero’ reds are produced using carbonic maceration, also called whole berry fermentation, where the red grapes are not crushed to release the juice.  The temperature in the vat makes the juice ferment inside the grape and the carbon dioxide produced causes the skin to burst, releasing an intensely fruity wine.

Most bars in Rioja served chilled ‘cosechero’ all year around but in my opinion, they’re best enjoyed in warm weather.

Some of my favorites are:

Murmurón (produced by Bodegas Sierra Cantabria (

Muñarrate (Bodegas Solabal – no website)

Medrano Irazu (

These wines are usually available from 0,60€ to 1€ a glass in local bars.

A step up in price but definitely worth it, is ‘A mi manera’ (My Way), a homage to Frank Sinatra produced by Benjamín Romeo at Bodega Contador (currently no website in spite of getting 100 points from Robert Parker for one of his wines).  Come to think of it, with such high scores, why does he need a website?

Unfortunately, Rioja wineries don’t usually ship cosechero reds abroad because of their limited shelf life (they’re best up to 12 months after bottling), so to try them you’ll have to come here.

A more sacrilegious approach, frowned on in Rioja but widely accepted in the rest of Spain, is adding ingredients to red wine to make it more palatable in hot weather.  Sangría is the most famous of these products, but the sugar, brandy, gin and cinnamon used in most sangrías can give you a nasty hangover if you overdo it.

Two of my favorites are tinto de verano and kalimotxoTinto de verano is red wine with 7-Up or soda water, with a slice of orange as a garnish and served on the rocks.  Kalimotxo is the vinous alternative to Red Bull: half red wine and half coke, great for sustaining all-night, outdoor dancing at Spain’s many summer festivals such as San Fermín. Don’t frown until you’ve tried it; it’s really good!

Spaniards look forward all year to the arrival of summer, but by the end of June are complaining about having to stay indoors during the hottest time of day (from 11am to 5pm).

We open our windows at night to let the cool air inside.  We close them and lower the blinds at 9 or 10am to keep the hot air outside.  This simple piece of advice would have probably saved the lives of hundreds of northern Europeans during the heat wave of 2003. We learned this from  800 years of Arab occupation (from 711 to 1492 AD).

I have months of really hot weather ahead of me, so it will be golf from 8 to 12 and a long siesta in the afternoon.  At night, a few glasses of chilled ‘cosechero’ in the old part of town.  That’s how I beat the heat!



John Radford (2): “There’s no such thing as a crap grape, just crap winemaking”

John Radford

 This was John Radford’s answer when I asked for his opinion about the status of the viura grape in Rioja.

John then related a conversation with the newly appointed marketing director of the Rioja Regulatory Council in 2007 who was trying to explain the recent approval of verdejo, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay in Rioja.

The marketing director justified the decision by stating, “Rioja makes world class red wines but not world class whites.  We want to.  Can you tell me one producer that makes a world class white from viura?”

John replied, “I can tell you two:  Viña Tondonia gran reserva, 96 months in oak from López de Heredia and Placet from Álvaro Palacios.”

John quickly qualified his statement, mentioning that the conversation had taken place four years ago and that during his latest trip to Rioja he had been tasting viuras with real character, flavor, freshness, subtlety and complexity.

The market has had a love/hate relationship with the viura grape for 30 years.  Until the 1980s, consumers were perfectly content with ‘classic’ white Rioja, like Viña Tondonia and Marqués de Murrieta, vinified in much the same way as Rioja reds, with years of ageing in old oak barriques, as well as semi-sweet whites like Diamante from Bodegas Franco-Españolas. Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres broke the mold by creating a white vinified at low temperature in stainless steel tanks, which prompted a wave of investment in stainless steel and the creation of a slew of ‘Euro’ white Riojas, imitating the freshness of muscadet, vouvray, vinho verde and others.

I remember being vigorously courted in the early 80s by the wine division of Rumasa, at the time, owners of Paternina, Franco-Españolas, Lan and Berberana in Rioja. During that time we drank endless bottles of Viña Soledad white from Franco-Españolas, with its brown Rhine bottle and its art nouveau label, which had taken Spain by storm for its fresh fruit, a big contrast to traditional Riojas.  I ended up going to work for Campo Viejo but kept on drinking Viña Soledad because it was the best-viura-based Rioja on the market.

‘Modern’ Rioja as we called it at the time, with its citrus and green apple notes was immediately seized on by white wine lovers all overEurope.  But two things happened that should have shaken Rioja from its complacency, but didn’t:  the increased popularity of whites from the new world, especially chardonnay, and the arrival of verdejo from Rueda and albariño from Rías Baixas.

I think the general feeling in Rioja was  “our whites are great; after all, they’re from Rioja”.  About that time, some wineries here began to make barrel fermented whites (I especially remember Marqués de Cáceres and Muga) and a few years later, Rioja wineries recreated barrel aged whites.  I thought both styles were extremely attractive, but the market didn’t think so.  While these last two styles had a following with wine lovers, the mainstream wine drinker wanted a fresh, tropical fruit-scented white. 

Rioja reacted in the opposite way. Instead of making a better viura white, growers and wineries ripped out their white vines and planted tempranillo, not the best strategy when their number one international market, the UK, was drinking more white than red.

Others, more pragmatic, invested in vineyards and wineries in Rueda and Rías Baixas. 

When Rueda and Rías Baixas whites began appearing in bars and restaurant wine lists in Rioja, Riojans realized that no amount of patriotism was going to save sales of white Rioja, so, after several years of wrangling between farmers and wineries in the Regulatory Council, a market-based decision was made to allow new varieties like Sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and verdejo as well as native Rioja white grapes on the verge of extinction like white maturana.

Some Rioja wineries have planted these new varietals but the planting of white grapevines has recently been temporarily forbidden because of the glut of wine in the region.  So for the foreseeable future, Rioja has got to live with viura, malvasía, white garnacha, white maturana and white tempranillo.  While the last two varieties have shown positive results, the quantity of wine produced is miniscule.

If Rioja has to live with viura and wants to make a world-class white, wineries will have to work harder to succeed. López de Heredia and Álvaro Palacios have proved that it’s possible. John Radford thinks that more of these wines are on the way.



John Radford: “Tempranillo is Rioja and Rioja is tempranillo”

John Radford

 In my opinion, there are two people in the English-speaking wine trade whose knowledge of Spain and Spanish wine is beyond comparison – the Englishman John Radford and the American Gerry Dawes.  It has been my privilege to have known both for many years and whenever they visit Rioja we try to get together.

John is a passionate member of the UK wine writers’ guild but I’m sure that if he he had decided to pursue an acting career he would have been successful, especially on the Shakespearian stage.  He reminds me of Hans Holbein’s portrait of King Henry VIII, an image reinforced by a rich English baritone voice that has captivated thousands of listeners on his radio program on the BBC and an equal number of studentswho want to learn about wine, especially from Spain. 

Recently, John was here tasting wines, this time mostly from Rioja Alavesa, so we decided to get together for a meal. Of course, the conversation revolved around wine.

I’ve always felt that Rioja has stepped out on a limb by pulling up thousands of hectares of garnacha to plant tempranillo since the early 1980s, with the result being the absolute predominance of  the latter grape. My feeling is that garnacha, graciano and mazuelo add complexity to red Rioja.  So I asked John, “Is Rioja better or worse for being 100% tempranillo?”

John’s reply: “It’s good.  Tempranillo is Rioja and Rioja is tempranillo.  It’s kind of like Bordeaux and cabernet sauvignon.  Cabernet sauvignon from anywhere else is just trying to be Bordeaux.  I’ve tasted tempranillo from Australia and it was good but it didn’t do anything for me.”

“Nowhere does tempranillo show its versatility more than in Rioja.  I’ve been tasting some fresh, delicious carbonic maceration tempranillos that are perfect for summer drinking.  At the other end of the scale you have magnificent gran reservas with majestic structure, and aromas reminiscent of oak and cigar box.  Perhaps you need graciano or mazuelo for long ageing but young tempranillo is wonderful.”

John feels that in Rioja Alavesa, 100% tempranillo is fantastic.  In Rioja Alta he thinks you probably need some graciano for ageing and in Rioja Baja he’s been impressed by wines made with 50% tempranillo and 50% garnacha.  “Tempranillo is the best grape to plant in high altitude vineyards – around 600 meters–  but at lower altitude –300 meters– some garnacha is needed.”

“The top Riojas are among the best in the world.”