The best wine tasting ever

Every year during the San Fermín festival a group of us participates in a wine tasting. The rules are simple: each person brings a bottle of red wine costing ten euros or less. Each bottle is poured into a decanter and given a number. After each wine is poured, one participant after another says out loud a numerical score from zero to five. The person bringing the wine with the highest score wins.

Then we drink the rest of the wine from the decanters and go on our merry way back to the party in the streets of Pamplona.  What can be better than that?

This year we decided to eliminate the highest and lowest score given to each wine, but in my analysis of the results, this wasn’t taken into account to allow me to see not only the rank of the wines but also how easy or hard each participant marked the wines. This had a slight impact on the results, but didn’t affect the winner’s status. Every year a surprise wine costing well over ten euros is entered, just for the fun of it. This year it did very badly.

All of those tasting were from the USA except for one New Zealander. Ages ranged from the mid-twenties to two guys in their seventies There were three people with a professional involvement in the wine business: a wine importer from Florida, a guy who regularly participates as a judge in wine competitions and me.

We always have a lot of fun at the tasting. It’s usually held about a week after the festival starts so everybody is in a great mood. Very few people spit, so after five or six glasses, the volume goes up and the jokes start, including taking pictures of someone pretending to drink the discarded wines in the spit bucket.

There were 18 tasters but three people gave a single score for them and their partner. Seventeen wines were tasted.

Here are the results.

1 Viña Alarde Rioja reserva 2006 (67 points)

2 Marqués de Arienzo Rioja crianza 2006 (63 points)

3 Albret reserva 2005 Navarra (61 points)

4 Cepa Gavilán 2009 Ribera del Duero (59 points)

5 Ochoa tempranillo crianza 2009 Navarra (53 points)

6 La Montesa Rioja 2008 (52 points)

7 Príncipe de Viana crianza Navarra 2008 – duplicate entry (49 points)

8 Enate Somontano 2008 (46 points)

9 Gómez de Segura crianza Rioja 2009 (43 points)

11 (tie) Viña Mayor crianza 2007 Ribera del Duero – duplicate entry (42 points)

11 (tie) Príncipe de Viana crianza Navarra 2008 – duplicate entry (42 points)

12 Prado Mayor Pago de San Gabriel 2007 (39 points)

14 (tie) Château Les Ormes de Pez 1995 St. Estèphe (35 points)

14 (tie) Viña Mayor crianza 2007 Ribera del Duero – duplicate entry (35 points)

15 Barón de Ley reserva Rioja 2005 (25 points)

16 Don García Murcia non DO, non-vintage (19 points)

17 Irache crianza 2006 Navarra (14 points)

Once the bottles were identified, I was happy to see that the Don García (a table wine packaged in a tetra-brick and entered as a joke) had received a justifiably low score. I was at first surprised to see how badly the Château Les Ormes de Pez had fared but realized that the subtle aromas and taste of a fine 17 year-old Bordeaux were probably construed as faulty when tasted blind by consumers with little experience with and ‘old’ vintage. I suspect that the same thing was true for the Barón de Ley.

I thought that the Navarra wines (with the exception of Irache) fared well. These wines deserve a better market share than they currently enjoy around the world.

It was interesting that the winning wine got ten scores of 5 (and a 1 too – from the Kiwi), while the second place wine got only four 5s.

My favorites were the Barón de Ley and the Viña Alarde, to which I gave five points.

The tasters’ average scores ranged from 3,65 (me) to 2,06 (the New Zealander, perhaps used to a more fruit-forward style).

The tasting was fun and once again showed me that:

a) people’s tastes vary widely

b) lots of surprises can happen when you can’t see the label or the brand name.

c) Pamplona is the best place to party in July!

Basilio bares all (well, almost!)

Once in a great while, I attend a tasting that is so powerful it reshapes the way I view the world of Rioja. In this case it was a recent vertical tasting of Basilio Izquierdo’s best vintages, both from his tenure as head winemaker at CVNE for 32 years and from his personal project at Bodegas Águila Real where he makes a red and white under the label ‘B de Basilio’.

The tasting was held in honor of Basilio’s classmates at the University of Bordeaux School of Enology Michel Douence, his wife Dany and Michel Rolland. All studied together in the 1960s, but took very different career paths, with Basilio going to work at CVNE, Michel at a big distillery in the Bordeaux area, Dany as the winemaker at the family winery Château Peneau in Bordeaux and Michel as the most famous flying winemaker in the world. It was a tour de force of Basilio’s prodigious talent as a winemaker, as he clearly wanted to show his former classmates and friends what he and Rioja were capable of.

Basilio is probably the most unassuming man I’ve ever met. There’s not a bad bone in his body. In fact, he’s almost embarrassed to push his wines to potential customers. We have to work on that, as the ‘B’ wines are clearly several cuts above the average Rioja produced today. And, when he was at CVNE he was responsible for the great vintages of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

The tasting was held at the Hostería Los Parajes in Laguardia. The wines came from Basilio’s private cellar. It started with two flights of the ‘B’ range, six whites (2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011) made from white garnacha (2/3), viura and malvasía, followed by five vintages of the ‘B’ red (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011). Michel Rolland said he preferred to taste the wines from oldest to youngest, not a typical way to taste but it worked out fine.

I was disappointed that the whites were served too cold. We spent most of the time warming up the glasses in our hands and some of them never really opened up. We were also pitifully short on glassware so it wasn’t possible to taste through all the wines again after half an hour in the glass.

2005: straw yellow – the only wine in the range with this color. Basilio said that he used cork here rather than a glass stopper. Honey and camomile on the nose, long and unctuous, almost sherry-like. Totally different from the other wines. Very good (but most people would dismiss the wine as oxidized).

2007: pale yellow. At first, not expressive, but after a few minutes opened up with delicate floral notes. I tasted licorice on the palate.

2008: pale yellow but more intense than the 2007. Still closed but opening up to wildflowers – more expressive than the 2007. Good level of acidity, a mouthful! My favorite wine of the flight.

2009: very pale yellow with a greenish tint. Served too cold to really appreciate at first but opens up to reveal licorice notes.

2010: very pale yellow. Herbaceous nose but also reminding me of overripe grapes. Nose very different from the rest. Unctuous, mouthfilling.

2011: very pale yellow. Delicate fruity nose. Too cold.

Reds: (2/3 tempranillo and 1/3 garnacha with a little graciano). Basilio bucks the current single varietal trend in Rioja by insisting on using some garnacha, which he thinks should be a part of every Rioja.

2007: Medium intense ruby, with a little brick on the rim. Fresh strawberries, oak behind. Crisp acidity and firm tannins. A wine with a long life ahead of it.

2008: Medium intense ruby. Raspberries, less oaky than the 2007. Well put together, fresh and grapey. Vibrant acidity and firm tannins. Ready to drink but with plenty of aging potential.

2009: Medium-high intense ruby. Fresh, grapey aroma of red fruit. Oak behind. More aggressive tannin than the previous two vintages. Needs more time in the bottle.

2010 (barrel sample): purple/ruby. Oak stands out in front of the intense red fruit. Unpolished in the mouth. Needs more time in bottle but will be a fantastic wine in a few years.

2011 (tank sample): Intense purple. A huge explosion of fresh fruit both on the nose and on the palate.

My favorite wines for drinking now were the 2007 and 2008. The 2009 is hard to judge but the 2010 and 2011 vintages hold great promise in my opinion.

Wines consumed with dinner:

Imperial reserva 1999 (Basilio reminded us that it was the ‘400 pesetas/kilo’ vintage (grape prices went up drastically because of a small harvest and growers bid wineries against one another for grapes – something the wineries remind growers about the last several years).

A huge color difference with the ‘B’ reds: light brick. Elegant, spicy, a little clove. Fine, round, feminine.

Imperial reserva 1995: Light brick. Strawberry jam, small dose of spiciness. Round, silky, perfectly balanced.

Viña Real Oro gran reserva 1994: (Note: The Viña Real line is made with a higher percentage of Alavesa grapes than the Imperial, made mainly with grapes from Rioja Alta).

Light brick with an orange rim. Nose was flawed – I thought it might have been a dirty barrel because the aroma didn’t improve with time.

Imperial gran reserva 1989: Light brick with some orange. Silky strawberry jam and orange marmalade. I thought it was past its prime.

Imperial gran reserva 1982: More intense brick than the 1989. Elegant stewed strawberries on the nose. Elegant tannins with good ‘grip’. Perfectly balanced. One of my favorites.

Imperial gran reserva 1978: light brick with an orange rim. Delicate, a little ‘pruney’. Good grip and balance. I wonder if it’s going to get better – now it seems to be at the apogee of the aging curve. I love this wine’s delicacy.

Imperial gran reserva 1970: Light brick with a slightly orange rim. Quite intense spicy stewed strawberries. Good grip, elegant, perfectly balanced. Drinking very well. My favorite wine in the tasting.

 Viña Real Oro magnum with a blend of 1948, 1950 and 1952: Light brick/orange. Bottle reduction on the nose which disappeared after ten minutes revealing a delicate strawberry jam nose. Past its prime in my opinion (but I liked it because it was the oldest Rioja I had ever tasted).

The Imperial/Viña Real wines impressed me enormously and reminded me of the style of Rioja prevalent when I joined the wine business almost forty years ago, with delicate, elegant soft red fruit wrapped in notes of cedar, cigar box and cloves. These are the wines that made Rioja famous.

I wish more Riojas were made like that today but I’m afraid this will never happen (with the exception of the López de Heredia wines, in whose cellars time seems to have stopped) because used barrels, however well-maintained, are an anathema to the young Riojan winemaker, who has to deal with a warmer growing season (and consequently higher alcohol), taming wines vinified in new oak and unwilling or unable to add garnacha and graciano because of their unavailability and problems to vinify.

There is an incredible lack of knowledge about these wines. I remember attending a Rioja tasting in London about eight years ago and being approached by a young journalist who had an older writer in tow. The older man asked me with an amused look on his face, “My friend wants to know what’s wrong with this wine”. I sniffed, tasted, spit, and replied, “Nothing. It’s a traditional Rioja!”