Wine and hot weather

Summer is here, not only on the calendar but on the thermometer. There’s a well-known saying here “en España hay nueve meses de invierno y tres meses de infierno” (in Spain there are nine months of winter and three months of hell). The problem is that rather than four well-defined seasons, we have a very short or non-existent spring and fall, going from winter to summer in a week, when the temperature shoots up from 10ºC (50ºF) to 35ºC (95ºF) and stays there.

Another popular expression is hasta el cuarenta de mayo, no te quites el sayo (literally until the 40th of May don’t take off your cloak). Starting the second week in June, the cloak stays in the closet until October when the temperature goes back down to single digits.

People interested in wine statistics have long remarked that Spain’s per capita consumption has always been lower than in France’s or Italy’s. This has nothing to do with our standard of living. The reason is that for three to five months of the year it’s just too frickin’ hot to enjoy a glass of wine. In a non-air conditioned bar, even a glass of chilled white or rosé gets warm in about two minutes.

Conditioned to never add ice to wine, Spaniards cop out by ordering chilled glasses of beer. No amount of persuasion about the health benefits of wine drinking are going to persuade thirsty people here to drink wine on a hot day. Let’s face it, in hot weather, wine just doesn’t quench your thirst.

In Rioja the problem is that the trade and consumers think that our wines should NEVER be served in anything other than a long stemmed wine glass with no additives except a little chilling in an ice bucket if it’s white or rosé. Given that wine consumption per capita is at an all-time low, and needs a push, I’m going to stick my neck out and say categorically that there are two possible solutions:

  • throw in the towel and drink beer from June to October

  • consider drinking wine in more creative ways.

The sherry industry, subjected to brutal downsizing for thirty years, has tried just about everything to interest consumers, with disappointing results, except for the rebujito, fino sherry and 7-Up on the rocks. Even though sherry brand owners argue that mixing sherry with a soft drink banalizes the fino category, sales are sales and promoting the drink promotes sherry. Somebody ought to bottle it.

Young people in Spain, with little knowledge and few preconceived notions about the ‘purity’ of wine consumption habits, offer a solution to the problem of drinking wine in hot weather.

The most popular wine-based drink today is undoubtedly the kalimotxo, red wine and coke in equal parts, usually served in a big plastic glass on the rocks at local town festivals in the summertime. Kalimotxo is perfect for parties: the coke takes some of the bitter taste away from the wine (tannins are a turnoff for novice wine drinkers), the wine gives you a pleasant buzz and the mixture keeps you cool and alert for all-night dancing in the street. I like to call it Iberian Red Bull. During the festival of San Fermín in Pamplona in early July, you can buy kalimotxo on tap.

Another popular drink is tinto de verano, red wine and sugary carbonated water (called gaseosa in Spanish), served on the rocks with slices of lemon and orange. You can even buy ready made tinto de verano in a bottle.

According to my son, another popular drink, apparently invented in the villages along the Ebro river in La Rioja and Navarra, is pitilingorri, originally rosé wine with an orange-flavored soft drink.

Spain’s best known wine-based drink, sangría, has fallen out of favor among young people here because the ingredients (cheap red wine, gin, some brandy, sugar, cinnamon and gaseosa) give you a massive hangover and probably a bad case of sunburn when you lie down on the beach to sleep it off. Surprisingly, however, when I went to a street tasting in central Florida last spring, there were no Spanish wines available but several brands of sangría were being flogged to unsuspecting consumers. The Wines from Spain promotion campaign would be unhappy to learn that.

I don’t think there’s absolutely any reason why you shouldn’t drink chilled red wine when it’s hot, but people need encouragement because of traditional beliefs about the ideal temperature of service. I remember an occasion several years ago when my wife and I went out to a restaurant to celebrate our anniversary, which is at the end of June. We decided to drink a bottle of young red Rioja. When the bottle was brought to the table it was too warm so I asked for an ice bucket to chill it down. We sat talking for about 10 minutes while the restaurant filled up around us. When we looked around, everyone had an ice bucket with a bottle of the same brand that we were drinking!

I think that rather than persuade Spaniards, especially young adults, to imitate the drinking habits of their parents, the wine trade should educate people from scratch, much like Americans of my generation did, by first offering them wine coolers such as kalimotxo and tinto de verano, moving later into dry white and then red. This might be a blow to the predominantly red wine producing regions of Rioja and Ribera del Duero but the key is to get them drinking wine by exposing it to them in a non-technical, casual way. It may take longer than the industry is willing to admit, but with young adult unemployment in Spain at almost 50%, this is probably the only wine they can afford.

I’m prone to complaining about the huge increase in consumption of lambrusco in Spain, but it’s cheap and cheerful, just what young people want these days.

Rioja versus Ribera – a tour de force with Agustín Santolaya

The last wine tasting before the summer break was a blockbuster.. Those of us who attended the event instead of watching the football match between Spain and Croatia were treated to a masterclass by Agustín Santolaya, the general manager of Bodegas Roda in Haro, who led us through a discussion and tasting of three wines from Roda in Rioja, three from their winery in La Horra in Ribera del Duero and as an extra treat, Dauro, the group’s extra virgin olive oil from the Ampurdán in northeastern Spain.

The tempranillo grape reigns supreme in both Rioja and Ribera del Duero but as every wine lover knows, the expression of a varietal depends on the climate, the soil, the genetics of the grape, the age of the vineyard, the time of the harvest and the winemaker’s skill, among other factors. Santolaya first set out to define these factors.

The climate

Rioja vineyards are located at an average altitude of 400 meters above sea level in a valley that looks a little like a funnel lying on its side, with the mouth pointing east toward the Mediterranean. The western half of the region is affected by an Atlantic climate (cool winds and rain coming from the north). The eastern half  influenced by warm, dry winds from the Mediterranean sea to the east with some influence of cold air from the meseta or high tableland of Castilla to the south. Frost isn’t much of a problem in the temperate Ebro valley.

Ribera del Duero on the other hand is located on the high northern Castillian plateau at an altitude of 800 meters where a continental climate is predominant (very cold winters, and extremely hot summers with huge swings in temperatures during the grape growing season that are great for producing powerful yet nuanced wines). The downside is a high risk of frost as late as mid-May and as early as mid-September. The growing season in Ribera del Duero is a full month shorter than in Rioja. That blew my mind.

The soil

Roda’s Rioja vineyards are located in the far western corner of the region and were described by Santolaya as a ‘sandwich’ of limestone surrounded by layers of sandstone. Consequently the roots have to ‘fight’ to worm their way through the limestone. The Ribera vineyards in La Horra on the other hand are basically clay and root penetration is easier.

The philosophy

Roda was the first ‘modern’ Rioja winery to solve the problem of high alcohol and unripe tannins. Back in the early 90s when Rioja began to produce big, high alcohol wines, egged on, sadly, by wine writers – notably Robert Parker – most of the wines were unbalanced, often with green tannins and flabby acidity. Roda always likes to say that they heeded the advice of old farmers who tasted the skins and, when sweet rather than bitter, picked. Of course it helped that they were working with old vines!

In the late 1980s Roda began to painstakingly acquire old vineyards. Today the winery has 17 vineyards (50 hectares that they own and a further 20 that they farm, all over 30 years old). They keep the grapes and wine from each plot separate until blending, just before bottling. The blending of so many different wines allows them to make four distinctive wines: Sela, a recently created young wine made from grapes and wine formerly sold off, Roda, Roda I and Cirsion, the top of the line.

Santolaya repeated over and over that after 25 years in Rioja the company was beginning to get a feel for the soils, climate and the expression of tempranillo in Rioja. After only four years in Ribera, however, they still have a lot to learn. They did understand  that

  • they didn’t want to make a Rioja-style Ribera but rather follow the Roda philosophy of expressing the terroir of their particular vineyards;

  • they wanted to avoid the problems that other newly arrived wineries from other regions faced, ‘making a statement’ in Santolaya’s words, with overripe, overoaked wines made from grapes from recently planted vineyards.

Roda had problems finding suitable vineyards to purchase so finally they made a deal with two farmers (the Balbás brothers) in La Horra, offering them a share of the winery in exchange for an 80-year contract to purchase the grapes. It took some time to convince the brothers about the benefits of such a long contract, but Roda persuaded them that developing vineyards and wine was a multi-generation undertaking.

Both the Rioja and Ribera vineyards were old enough (over 30 years) to assure that no new, highly productive clones of tempranillo had been planted.

 The tasting

Sela 2009:

89% tempranillo, 11% graciano. A year in used oak barrels, so technically a crianza but labeled a generic Rioja.

Brilliant cherry, fresh red fruit, elegant, round and easy to drink. RRP (recommended retail price) in Spain 15 euros/bottle.

Roda 2007:

A difficult year in Rioja. 89% tempranillo, 8% garnacha, 3% graciano. 16 months in French oak and 20 months in bottle before release.

Brilliant brick, very spicy, well integrated oak and red fruit, fresh, round and elegant. RRP in Spain 24 euros.

Roda I 2006 (the roman numeral ‘I’ indicates a more rigorous selection of grapes and better development as the wine ages – used for both Roda and Corimbo):

100% tempranillo. 16 months in French oak and 20 months in bottle before release.

Brick but more muted than the 2007, medium intensity. Blackberries and a hint of oak. Good acidity on the palate, long finish. RRP in Spain 40 euros.

Corimbo 2010 (Bodegas La Horra, Ribera del Duero):

100% tinto fino (tempranillo)

Intense ruby, mineral, Mediterranean hillside spices (thyme), dark fruit, tannins very evident but not aggressive, needs more time in the bottle. RRP between 15 and 24 euros according to Santolaya.

Corimbo I 2009:

100% tinto fino (tempranillo)

Intense ruby, an explosion of dark fruit, smoke and graham crackers on the nose, good acidity, long finish. RRP 40 euros.

Corimbo I 2010:

100% tinto fino (tempranillo)

Ruby/brick, bacon, dark fruit and floral, very polished tannins. Still too young. RRP 40 euros.

With the Roda range you could see the progression from the simple (Sela) to the more complex (Roda I) while with the Ribera wines it was obvious that the wines and stylistic development were a work in progress. The 2009 and 2010 vintages of Corimbo were too young to drink now.

Nevertheless, throughout the range of both Rioja and Ribera, the elegant, polished tannins and vibrant acidity stood out. Santolaya repeated the word ‘fresco’ (fresh) many times during the tasting, referring to the acidity of the wines on the palate that make them perfect with food.

All the wines vere very good but to me,  Sela stood out for its simplicity and elegance while Corimbo I was special because of the potential it showed.

It was a fantastic way to end the tasting season before summer break. And Santolaya timed it perfectly. As we left the tasting we watched Spain score the only goal in an otherwise boring match to beat Croatia in the last minute and advance to the quarterfinals of the European Cup!

Small Letters, Big Wine

If you have allergies like me, June is the worst month to taste wine. It’s a lose-lose situation. If I take my allergy medicine I can’t drink or drive. If I don’t, I spend the whole day sneezing, my nose is plugged up and I can’t taste a thing. It also makes me really ornery!

So it was fortunate that it rained yesterday and today, clearing the air of pollen, allowing me to skip my pill and taste some wine.

I usually buy my wine at local wine shops rather than supermarkets because the releases from small wineries are only available there and in restaurants.  I bought today’s bottle from Miguel Reinares at La Viñería but often buy at Universal de Vinos, owned by Juan Carlos Somalo, with whom I’ve shared lots of bottles. These two shops are the places to go to discover new wines in Logroño.

Today for lunch I opened a bottle of  ‘Letras Minúsculas’ (Small Letters) 2009 from Bodegas Exeo in Labastida.  The wine is made from tempranillo (75%) and garnacha (25%) from the winery’s vineyards located around Labastida in Rioja Alavesa..  According to the back label the wine had been aged for five months in ‘mixed’ (ie from different origins) oakbefore release.

The wine blew me away.  It was soft, fresh and smooth, with red berry flavors and just a hint of oak, perfect for sipping or just about any kind of food. It was a magnificent statement about the potential of garnacha-based wines in Rioja Alavesa.

I wish more wineries would take a chance with garnacha, once the dominant red grape in Rioja but now sadly relegated to a distant second place behind the ubiquitous tempranillo.  Garnacha sometimes has problems with fruit set but when the conditions are right can make stunning wines in Rioja.

I checked out the website and learned that Exeo’s wines are distributed in Spain, Holland, Australia, the USA (Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia) and Puerto Rico.

 The winery’s website is

Rioja vs Rioja

  How would you feel if you bought a porcelain tea set from Limoges only to discover that it was made in Limoges, Mississippi, not in France? Or a crystal vase from Waterford, Michigan instead of Waterford in Ireland?  Disappointed, right? You wanted the real thing but were duped by someone taking advantage of the reputation of a place name to sell you something else.

That’s how Rioja lovers will probably feel after buying a bottle of wine from the province of La Rioja in Argentina.  The Rioja Regulatory Council in Spain has been fighting a long legal battle with the producers of wine from La Rioja in northwestern Argentina over the latter’s right to identify their wine as Rioja.

Rioja contends that the use of ‘Rioja’, ‘La Rioja’ and adjectives based on ‘Rioja’ clearly lead consumers to confusion over the origin of the wine.  The Regulatory Council commissioned a survey by ACNielsen that showed that almost 60% of international consumers identified Argentine Rioja as Rioja from Spain.

The latest round in the fight, however, has been won by Argentina, whose National Appellate Court recently ruled in favor of the Argentine Rioja, stating that the use of the word ‘Argentina’ after the appellation of Origin ‘Rioja’ clearly differentiates it from its Spanish counterpart.

The legal grounds for the ruling come from the TRIPS agreement (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) whose article 23, paragraph 3 states

In the case of homonymous geographical indications for wines, protection shall be accorded to each indication, subject to the provisions of paragraph 4 of Article 22. Each Member shall determine the practical conditions under which the homonymous indications in question will be differentiated from each other, taking into account the need to ensure equitable treatment of the producers concerned and that consumers are not misled.

 However, Paragraph 4 of Article 22 covers the issue of potential consumer confusion:

 The protection under paragraphs 1, 2 and 3 shall be applicable against a geographical indication which, although literally true as to the territory, region or locality in which the goods originate, falsely represents to the public that the goods originate in another territory.

So the outstanding issue, then, is whether Argentine Rioja is deliberately trying to lead consumers to believe that their wines are from Rioja inSpain.

Many years ago, Rioja registered ‘Rioja’ in the European Union register of appellations of origin. Consequently Argentine Rioja can’t be sold as such in the E.U. But outside the E.U., for example in the USA, the issue isn’t so clear.  Argentine wines are a big hit in the US market and I’m sure that the producers from La Rioja in Argentina are trying to take advantage of this.  On the other hand, Spanish Rioja is making huge investments in PR and the Council is afraid that Argentine Rioja will cash in on the name ‘Rioja’.

So, the battle lines are drawn.  To me it’s a shame that given the current state of the wine business (oversupply, decreased consumption and low profits), Rioja has to fight this battle with its Argentine counterpart.

Look carefully at the picture at the top of this post.  If you saw a bottle on your local supermarket shelf, would you think it was from Spain?