Rioja needs rain

 I admit that the picture exaggerates the situation, but there’s no doubt that Rioja needs rain. Rainfall in the region in the last eleven months has been267 liters per square meter, 28% less than the average.  It hasn’t rained since July.

The drought, along with higher than average temperatures in July, August and September, is having a negative impact on the 2011 grape harvest in Rioja.

Technically speaking, farmers look at two measurements to decide when to pick grapes:  the amount of sugar in the grapes – a measurement of the potential alcoholic strength of the wine – and phenolic ripeness, that is, the amount of color and the ripeness of the tannins in the skins.  Ideally, grapes should be picked when both of these measurements of ripeness are at their optimum level.

The problem this year is that sugar levels are high while the tannins are still green.  Should farmers pick early or wait for ripe tannins and extremely sweet grapes? Neither alternative is good. Amador Escudero, owner of Bodegas Escudero in Rioja Alta hits the nail on the head when he asks, “What’s the point in having a chemist, a winemaker and an agronomist engineer on the payroll if they can’t agree on when to pick?”

An additional problem is the stress on the vines due to lack of rain.  Some farmers and winery owners point their fingers at the rule approved by the Rioja Regulatory Council that forbids watering the vines after véraison when the skin of the grapes changes color.  This rule is meant to discourage watering to increase production but it penalizes vineyards in drought years.  The Regulatory Council counters that it’s possible to request permission to water under extraordinary circumstances but the fact is that most Rioja vineyards don’t have easy access to water.

Most farmers think that the 2011 harvest will be smaller than last year’s. They also hope that a shortage of supply will push grape and wine prices above their current levels, in the opinion of most, below production costs.

In the meantime, the president of the Council says that the harvest will be excellent.

Time will tell.  We’ll keep you posted.

Tempranillos to the World

According to TAPAS (Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society),, tempranillo is the sixth most widely planted grape variety in the world.  This surprised me, because tempranillo doesn’t exactly roll off the tongues of consumers as do cabernet, chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir and shiraz.

I was happy, however, to discover that TAPAS had declared September 1 International Tempranillo Day.  The event was played up by the Rioja PR campaign in the USA but completely ignored in Rioja.

Here, most of the PR money goes to the promotion of ‘Rioja’, even though tempranillo accounts for 85% of the volume of red grapes and more and more red Riojas are made exclusively with this variety. I suppose the Rioja Regulatory Council is deterred by the fact that tempranillo is also grown in Ribera del Duero, Valdepeñas, Penedès and other regions in Spain as well as overseas, including the USA, Australia, and Uruguay.  It irritates me however, that Rioja hasn’t capitalized on being the birthplace and earliest defender of this great varietal.

There is, however, one event that promotes excellence in tempranillo:  an international tasting competition called Tempranillos al Mundo (Tempranillos to the World), organized by the Spanish Winemakers’ Federation.   It was, therefore, a treat that the opening event of the 2011-12 tasting series organized by our local newspaper LA RIOJA featured the five double gold medal winners from the 2010 competition.  Even more interesting was the fact that each wine was explained to the audience by the winemaker.

Gaudium 2004 (Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres-Rioja)


95% tempranillo from over 40 year old vineyards in San Vicente de la Sonsierra and Cenicero. Aged for 24 months in oak.

Medium garnet, vibrant dark fruit, spice, tobacco and after a while graham crackers.  Excellent balance, long aftertaste. To me, Gaudium was the most traditional of the five wines because of the stewed fruit aromas on the nose.

Amaren ‘60’ 2004 (Bodegas Amaren-Rioja)

 100% tempranillo from vineyards over 60 years old (hence the name) in Villabuena, Samaniego, Leza and Navaridas in Rioja Alavesa.

 Medium garnet. Hillside plants and red fruit (cranberries).  Excellent balance, good acidity.

 Ochoa reserva 2005 (Bodegas Ochoa-Navarra)


55% tempranillo, 30% cabernet sauvignon, 15% merlot from the Ochoa vineyards (143 hectares with an average age of 20 years).

Fairly intense brick.  Spicy and ‘pruny’.  It showed good balance and firm acidity.  I thought it was somewhat less complex than the other winners.  Under 10 euros a bottle, so a really great deal.

Viña del Olivo 2007 (Bodegas Contino-Rioja)

88% tempranillo, 12% graciano from the vineyards surrounding the estate in Laserna in Rioja Alavesa.

Intense garnet.  Dark fruit, floral (from the graciano?), great balance and elegance.

Hiru 3 Racimos (Bodegas Luis Cañas-Rioja)

Medium garnet, mineral and dark fruit on the nose.  Mouthfilling, elegant and ready to drink now.

I was very impressed with all five wines.  There was one characteristic they shared that in my opinion make them hallmarks of a great wine – they were all produced from old vines with very low production with intense grapiness bursting from the glass. They are great examples of the tempranillo grape at its best.

Tempranillos al Mundo will be held inNew York in 2011.  It will be a great opportunity to show off our star varietal to the world’s biggest market for wine.