To Hell, Purgatory and Heaven with Miguel Merino

Miguel Merino

Today I visited my friend Miguel Merino’s winery in Briones with my golfing buddies Henrik and Vivi from Denmark and Erkki and Maili from Finland. Miguel is one of the few people in the Rioja wine trade that I socialize with so I was looking forward to the visit, not only to introduce him to my friends, but also to catch up with him about life in general, the harvest and to taste his wines again.

Miguel started out by giving us his impressions of the 2012 harvest in Rioja.  The winery harvested fewer grapes than last year, enough to make about 40,000 bottles.  Miguel felt that the harvest wasn’t as small as he expected and the grapes were brought to the winery with very little mildew because of the drought in Rioja and the fact that most picking took place just before the October rains turned the vineyards into a sea of mud..  Some grapes were picked after the first rainstorm but it apparently didn’t make much of a difference in quality.

Throughout September Miguel was worried that the phenolic ripeness (maturity of the anthocyanins and tannin in the grapes) was lagging behind the development of sugar (potential alcohol) but at harvest time, fortunately everything came together. If it hadn’t, one of two things would have happened:  either the potential alcohol would have been right but the tannins unripe, or if he had chosen to pick later, he would have had ripe tannins but probably 15% potential alcohol.  This underscores the importance of picking at exactly the right time.

Most of Miguel’s grapes come from vineyards around Briones planted between 1931 and 1973 except for a young vineyard he bought and planted for the young wines produced at the winery.

Miguel also explained how his sorting table worked.  As the grapes were unloaded, they were inspected.  One of three possible events occurred:  the unsuitable grapes were thrown into a bucket called ‘infierno’ (hell), the doubtful grapes were thrown into another bucket called ‘purgatorio’ (purgatory) and the other grapes were allowed to pass through to the destemmer/crusher.  The good grapes would become Miguel Merino wines (heaven) and the ‘purgatory’ grapes made into a second, inexpensive product for workers in the winery and friends.

2012 Miguel Merino undergoing malolactic fermentation.

Miguel works with son Miguel Jr. with each making wines reflecting their personal philosophy.  Miguel Jr., in his early 30s, prefers a modern style, aging his wines for a short time in French oak, while his father calls himself a ‘renewed traditionalist’.  Why ‘renewed’? Because even though he prefers a more traditional style based on crianza, reserva and gran reserva he ages them in barrels with American oak staves and French oak headers.

The tasting that followed showed the differences in these two styles.

Mazuelo de la Qujnta Cruz 2010 (3,800 bottles made)

9-10 months in barrel and 15 months in bottle before release.

Quinta Cruz is a brand made by Miguel Sr. and Swedish friend Lars Torstensson and is primarily sold in the Swedish market. (See my post dated May 1, 2009 for  review of an earlier vintage of Quinta Cruz). The vineyard is located in an area of Briones called Calvario (Calvary), at the fifth station of the Good Friday procession.  The vineyard was originally intended to be planted to graciano but the owner asked the nursery to plant mazuelo by mistake.  A lucky break for Miguel! Mazuelo is normally used in a Rioja blend to add acidity.  According to Miguel, Quinta Cruz was the first 100% mazuelo to be made commercially.

Intense violet, dark fruit and oak on the nose – closed –  it needs more time in the bottle.  Vibrant acidity on the palate.  I bought six bottles to see how it evolves.

Miguel  commented that Mugaritz, Andoni Luis Aduriz’ two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Rentería near San Sebastian had put Quinta Cruz on the wine list to pair with dishes that defied pairing with other wines.  Sound strange?  Maybe, but a listing at Mugaritz is a PR coup for the winery.

Miguel Merino Viñas Jóvenes crianza 2009.  100% tempranillo.

Medium intensity bigarreau cherry (‘picota’ in Spanish).  Spicy – it reminded me of a candy called ‘Red Hots’ we used to eat when I was a kid, red fruit – strawberries.  Great balance between fruit, oak and acidity.  Nice as a sipping wine or with simple meat or vegetable dishes.

Miguel Merino reserva 2005.

Medium brick.  Strawberries, cherries, well-integrated oak.  Mouthfilling, perfectly balanced, crisp acidity.  I thought it was ready to drink now but could be kept for a while because of its ripe tannins and lively acidity.

Miguel Merino gran reserva 2004.

Medium brick with no signs of browning on the rim of the glass.  Plummy and spicy.  Ripe tannins.  Like its younger brother, ready to drink but could be kept for a few years.  I agree with Miguel’s description of a ‘renewed traditionalist’!

Unnum 2008 (made by Miguel Jr.)

According to Miguel, almost all the grapes come from the 1931 vineyard, with some from the one planted in 1946.  Aged for 9-10 months in new French oak.

Medium intensity ruby. Intense black cherries and a dollop of oak on the nose.  High acidity and nice tannin on the palate.

Unnum defies classification.  I wouldn’t call it a totally modern Rioja, but it’s not really a classic, either.  Let’s call it a hybrid, but a good one.  Not exactly my cup of tea but I have to admit that it’s very well-made, and should appeal to a younger drinker’s palate.

If I were going to found a winery, I’d do it like Miguel has.  He unabashedly states that he sells to his friends (who are a legion because of his almost 40 years in the business), he relies on word of mouth, his down home personality and down-to-earth PR to get the message out, and his wines are mighty tasty. In my opinion, that’s what you need to be successful in this business.

If you ever visit Rioja, Miguel Merino is a must see!

Bodegas Miguel Merino.  Carretera de Logroño 16.  26330 Briones (La Rioja)