Traveling the back roads of Sweden


the Alingsas potato

There are two places in the world where my heart beats a little faster when I arrive there – Sweden and Pamplona. 

For fifteen years I visited Sweden several times a year to promote Rioja with Munskänkarna, the biggest wine club in the world. The name means ‘the mouth tasters’ after the people who tried the food about to be served to the king to see if it had been poisoned. (What a profession!) Swedes have a love affair with Rioja that sadly has diminished with the passage of time, but back in the early 1990s it was one of our top three markets.  In fact, in 1994, it was number one. Most Rioja was sold in the big cities: Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö so we decided that we had to get the word out to the rest of the country.

The deal with Munskänkarna was for Rioja to pay for my flight to and from Sweden and transportation within the country while the club paid for the wines, meals and hotels.  I would do a tasting a day in a different city followed by a dinner. This would go on for two weeks. Sometimes I’d rent a car, others, I’d take a bus and sometimes I’d be driven to a gas station or crossroads in the middle of the country to be handed off to the president of the club in the next city.

I can’t begin to describe the enthusiasm the club members showed during the tastings.  Imagine fifty to a hundred people showing up in a small town on a snowy evening with their tasting glasses in a small suitcase or bag to learn about the Riojas the club had prepared for the tasting.  I would tell them about the Rioja region, the history of each winery and the basic characteristics of the wines – vintage year, grape varieties and ageing, but let them describe in their own words the aromas and tastes they experienced.

During these tastings I learned that their way of describing the wines was conditioned by the tastes and smells they were familiar with – very different than mine.  How could I talk to them about a cloudberry or a lingonberry if I’d never eaten one?  It was the most important lesson I learned as a taster – never try to impose your nose and palate on someone else because we all have a different sense of smell and taste.  

After every tasting the president of the club would thank me and give me a typical souvenir the region, most of which now sit on the mantel in our living room.  I especially cherish a small statue of a horse from Dalecarlia, a cluster of grapes made of glass, an Örrefors plate, a small gold potato from Alingsås (more about that later) and believe it or not, a hand saw from the town of Sandviken (from one of the biggest toolmakers, Sandvik – imagine carrying that around for two weeks!)

I always talk about these trips to my Swedish friends who unfailingly tell me that I know their country better than they do. Most people’s knowledge of a foreign country is the capital.  To really know Sweden you have to visit the countryside. It’s drop-dead gorgeous.

Among my memories is being dropped off near a roaring river in the north that bordered a forest destroyed by a fire.  The man who picked me up told me that the fire had taken place fifty years earlier.  There was so little sunlight that the forest couldn’t grow back!

I also remember playing a round of golf at midnight in June, watching the sun go down, only to come up again half an hour later.

I’m writing this while listening to a CD of Abba’s Greatest Hits, which always seems to be popular in our house during the Christmas holidays.  I smile when I remember listening to it on a bus during a blizzard in northern Sweden while watching the ‘watch out for moose’ signs on the side of the road and thinking “it doesn’t get better than this”.


Photo credit:

I became so enthusiastic about the country that I even studied Swedish for a couple of years and still prectice whenever I get a chance.  The problem is that Swedes speak English so well that the first time I would make a mistake, the conversation would revert to English!  A warning to the Swedes:  I’m not going to give up!

I always tell my wine economics classes that to promote their products effectively they have to spend time in the market.  My experience in Sweden is a vivid reminder of the truth of that statement

Note:  the statue of the potato is in honor of the agronomist Jonas Alströmer, who convinced Swedish farmers to plant potatoes in the 18th century.  That his home town of Alingsås would honor him by venerating the potato is a tribute to the Swedes’ sense of practicality. 



Back to the basics

Do you remember your first taste of wine? I do, vividly. It was offered to me when I was around 12 by my best friend’s (now my stepbrother) grandfather, a self-made man of German ancestry who, by dint of hard work had created a paper company from scratch. To instill a sense of hard work and perseverance in his grandson he gave him a kit from which he had to build a model of a four-masted schooner from balsa and other kinds of wood.

One afternoon while I was keeping my friend company, his grandfather stepped from his study with two small glasses of a yellow liquid that he had apparently been drinking. He asked us to take a small sip. It was awful, sweet but at the same time with a bitter taste that totally put me off.

If I hadn’t moved to Spain, this sensation might have defined my attitude toward wine. I know that it has for lots of people. I didn’t drink any wine at all during high school and college because I ran track and cross country. I didn’t turn 21 until my senior year in college and when I did start drinking, my beverage of choice, like everyone else’s, was beer, not wine. I only started to drink wine after I moved to Spain in 1971 because it was plentiful, good and cheap. A glass of ordinary red cost 1 peseta, about 0,6 euro cents. My girlfriend (now my wife) and I could eat and drink all night for less than 100 pesetas (less than 1 euro).

I also vividly remember the simple pleasure of drinking red wine at the dining room table at the boarding house where I lived for six months at the end of 1971. Once in a while the owner would give me an empty bottle and ask me to go around the corner to the local bodega to get it filled from a tank behind the counter. After my wife and I married in 1973 our house wine was Señorío de los Llanos from Valdepeñas that we bought by the three-pack from our local supermarket.

Back in those days before my professional involvement with wine, our attitude toward it was as a simple, tasty accompaniment to lunch, dinner or an outing with friends that got our tongues going. We didn’t ‘taste’, we just drank and enjoyed it.

 I’ve always been amazed that I got into the wine business with so few years of previous practical experience but necessity forced me to catch up fast. Now I smell and taste every liquid that I drink as if it was a wine tasting. Frankly, I’m beginning to think that it’s a stupid thing to do. When I took a step back from the front lines of the wine wars, I told myself that I was going to ‘enjoy’ wine again rather than look at it with a professional eye, nose and palate. This means not paying much attention to what wine writers and magazines say about any given wine.

If there’s one thing that almost 40 years in this business has taught me is that tasting is subjective. I’ve always believed in my own palate. Too many wine lovers have forgotten this simple truth, tending to rely on a so-called expert’s opinion. This is why so many uninspiring wines (in my humble opinion) have filled the shelves at wine shops and supermarkets. The next time you like a bottle of wine, tell your friends about it. We have to make word-of-mouth the driver of sales in the wine business.

White Rioja revisited


All of a sudden, everyone is talking about white Rioja.  This time around, the debate is taking place where it should be – among winemakers.  No Regulatory Council politics, just straight talk. It’s about time.

An interesting event organized by the Rioja Sommeliers’ Association a few weeks ago brought several winemakers together for a panel discussion and tasting about the future of white Rioja. The speakers were:

  • Basilio Izquierdo – former winemaker at CVNE, currently the owner of his own winery.
  • Juan Bautista Chavarri – a winemaker and researcher at the experimental viticulture center and winery at La Grajera, run by the Government of La Rioja. Juanbe is a specialist in white tempranillo.
  • Juana Martínez  – researcher at the CIDA (Centro de Investigación de Desarrollo Agrario).  Government of La Rioja.
  • Juan Carlos Sancha – researcher specializing in native grape varieties on the verge of extinction in Rioja, owner of Bodegas Ad Libitum.
  • Abel Mendoza – owner of Bodegas Abel Mendoza, specializing in white Rioja.
  • Raúl Acha – winemaker at Castillo de Maeterra (Vinos de la Tierra Valles de Sadacia) and Hacienda López de Haro (D.O. Ca. Rioja).

Some background:

White Rioja production has dropped in the last 25 years from9.000 hectares (1985) to 3.850 hectares in 2010.

Three white varietals have traditionally been used in Rioja: viura, malvasía and white garnacha.  Six more were authorized by the Regulatory Council in 2007:  maturana, turruntés, white tempranillo (varietals on the verge of extinction), chardonnay, verdejo and sauvignon blanc.

The new varieties were approved with several conditions. 

  • No new planting unless other vines are grubbed up.  
  • The ‘comunidad autónoma’ or regional government (in this case, La Rioja, Navarra and Álava) has to authorize it.
  • The native varieties can stand alone in a Rioja white, while the international varieties can be no more than 50% of a blend.

The negotiations were so drawn out that in the meantime, Rueda gained a foothold throughout Spain, including the bars and restaurants in Rioja.

The president of the Sommeliers’ Association, Carlos Echapresto, set the tone for the debate when he stated that the evolution of Spanish cuisine and more specifically, the wider use of vinaigrettes and other white sauces has provided more opportunities for serving white wines.  Chefe Paniego, the sommelier at Echaurren in Ezcaray (1 Michelin star) said that consumption of white had increased by 60% when elaborate (vs traditional Riojan) dishes were ordered.

As the winemakers took their turns speaking, it became clear that two different attitudes toward white Rioja had emerged.

In light of the success of red Rioja and the wide acceptance of other Spanish whites, notably Rueda and Rías Baixas, in Spain and abroad, most wineries are reluctant to grub up red vines to plant white grapes, because most white Rioja is perceived as being old fashioned.  As Juanbe Chavarri put it,  ‘lacking in impact aromas’.  Big commercial wineries don’t seem to be interested in making a low-priced white to compete with Rueda, whose production has increased from 10 million kgs per year to 75 million kg to keep pace with demand.  Moreover, grape prices in Rioja are low, discouraging growers from reducing yields to produce more complex wines.

The view championed by the winemakers at this seminar was “let’s see what we can do with our native varieties with low yields and the judicious use of oak”.

Basilio Izquierdo favors low-yielding white garnacha and viura for his ‘B de Basilio’.  In the tasting it was elegant and delicate, almost understated. 

Juan Bautista Chavarri from the La Grajera experimental winery near Logroño likes white tempranillo, viura and malvasía.  He showed three white tempranillos at the event – one aged in acacia wood, one aged in French oak and an unoaked one.  I liked all three but thought that the acacia-aged white was the most original.

Juan Carlos Sancha spoke of his 23 years of experience trying to salvage native Riojan grapes from extinction.  When he was the director of Viña Ijalba, the company launched the first white made from maturana, a grape that he works with at his own winery under the brand Ad Libitum.  I liked it because of its notes of honey.  One of the sommeliers tasting beside me said it reminded him of chenin blanc.

Abel Mendoza cultivates low-yielding viura and malvasía from his own vineyards and others in the Sonsierra area. His barrel-aged white was fantastic, showing delicate apricot notes and lip-smacking intensity on the palate. 

Raúl Acha from Castillo de Maetierra (a ‘vino de la tierra’ from Rioja Baja) offered a riesling that didn’t especially impress me because I had just been in the Rhine tasting whites for a week.  His company, one of the founding members of the vino de la tierra Valles de Sadacia, specializing in moscatel de grano menudo,  is also working with international white varietals.  I was disappointed that he didn’t bring his viognier, which I had really liked at an earlier tasting.

This seminar and tasting confirmed a feeling I’ve had for quite a while now:  the terroirists in Rioja, large, medium and small, believe that they can attract consumers to white Rioja with complex, intense wines made with low-yielding viura, malvasía, white garnacha, white tempranillo and white maturana.  They’re not supermarket wines, and therefore not so easy to find, but definitely worth looking for.

As far as I know, only Barón de Ley 2011 has been made using  the new international varieties.

While I’m on the subject of white Rioja, here are some other favorites of mine:

  • Muga barrel fermented
  • Remelluri
  • Allende
  • Finca Nueva (from Finca Allende)

I’ve heard good things about the following two, but haven’t tasted them yet:

  • Dinastía Vivanco white tempranillo
  • Cosme Palacio 1894 (the year the winery was founded) vintage 2007

Juana Martínez made a comment that the Rioja wine trade should think about when she said , “White wine is the product people try when they first become interested in wine.  Since as much white as red is consumed in our major markets, we shouldn’t forget how important it is.”