The way we were – a visit to the underground cellars of Luis Alberto Lecea

“¡Hola, cabronazo!”  The raspy voice on the phone was my old buddy Gerry Dawes, the American food and wine writer, to announce that our lunch wouldn’t be in Haro as originally planned, but at the winery of Luis Alberto Lecea in San Asensio.  That was good news, because I had wanted to visit Luis for a long time, so I grabbed my camera and notebook and headed out the door.

Luis Lecea is not only the owner of a small family winery located in one of Rioja’s most emblematic wine villages but is also a member of ASAJA, the powerful Young Farmers’ Association who sits on the board of directors of the Rioja Regulatory Council.  My interest in seeing Luis was not to talk about wine politics, but rather learn more about the hundreds of underground wine cellars in his village.

Into the depths of the Lecea cellars.

Into the depths of the Lecea cellars.

We were told that there were more than 350 cellars in San Asensio, almost all of them in a state of utter disrepair if not totally destroyed by the ravages of decades of rain and neglect.  “It’s a shame” Luis said because until the 1950s when the Spanish Agriculture Ministry created coops to give individual growers a profitable means of selling their grapes and wines to big commercial wineries, these small family cellars were the backbone of the Rioja wine business. Some of them had been built in the 17th century.

Luis showed us his family cellar, dug by hand out of the hard earth with picks, adzes and shovels to a depth of ten meters and once underground, opened into a warren of caves where tanks and barrels held his wines. Today, the wine is taken up to ground level with pumps, but in the old days, the juice flowed into the cellar by gravity and once the wine was made, it was emptied into pigskins and carried up the stairs, loaded into big wooden vats and rolled onto to trucks where it was taken to the big commercial wineries.

Generally speaking, in the old days the wines were vinified by means of whole berry fermentation.  The grapes would be dumped into a large open cement tank called a lago, where the grapes began intracellular fermentation without mechanical pressure.  The free-run juice flowed through a hole in the floor to a tank below where fermentation took continued.  The remaining grapes, stems and pips were trodden by foot to release the rest of the juice.

Ever the guardian of tradition, Luis organizes a party every October where he invites guests to watch and even participate in this process.

Second from left, Pedro Ortega.  Right, Luis Lecea.

Second from left, Pedro Ortega. Right, Luis Lecea.

We kept hearing that it was a shame these cellars had fallen into disrepair, hoping that they would be bought and restored, if only to be used as a place for families to cook and eat on weekends and on vacation.  I mentioned to him that there was a company whose business was to fix these places up.  We rounded a corner, and as fate would have it, we ran into the owner of this winery restoration company.  He was visiting the village to help a couple solve the problem of water leaking into the cellar they had bought recently.  I was happy to introduce Luis to Pedro Ortega and hope they can work together to restore San Asensio’s underground winery district. There are cellars like this not only in San Asensio but also in practically every other village in Rioja. With the history at your feet, it’s hard to believe that these places are on the verge of disappearing.  Let’s hope Luis and Pedro succeed. Today you can only visit a few of these old caves, among which are the Paternina cellars in Ollauri and Bodegas El Fabulista in Laguardia.

Baby lamb chops and sausage grilled over vine cuttings.

Baby lamb chops and sausage grilled over vine cuttings.

We were treated to a tasting of Luis’s wines and a lunch of potatoes with spicy sausage, pig jowls, baby lamb chops and sausage grilled over vine cuttings.

I’ll tell you about the tasting, especially of Luis’s amazing claretes, or local rosés, in my next post.


Back to the Pueblo


When we first moved to La Rioja in 1983, we were amazed to see our neighbors unloading crates of fruit and vegetables from their cars every Sunday afternoon.  All of this produce came from the villages where their ancestors had lived and where their descendants had inherited a house and a garden.

A surrealistic painting of Munilla

A surrealistic painting of Munilla

Of course since neither my wife nor I were from Rioja, we didn’t have our own village or ‘pueblo’ here, but soon, one adopted us.  After we bought our first apartment in Logroño, a couple who lived in the same building whose son was in the same school class as our son, invited us to their ‘pueblo’, Munilla in Rioja Baja.  We’ve been visiting for thirty years and have made a lot of friends who have homes there. We even bring produce back home, even if it’s a present from someone else who has a garden!

One of the most endearing traditions in Spain is that each province, city and village has its own patron saint or professes devotion to a martyr or virgin.  In La Rioja, the wine festival is in honor of St. Matthew (San Mateo). In Pamplona, it’s San Fermín, in Madrid, San Isidro.  In Munilla, a custom is to celebrate Mass on or the first Sunday after January 17, the feast of St. Anthony Abbot (San Antonio Abad or San Antón), who, as most Catholics know, is the patron saint of animals.  This year, the Mass in his honor was yesterday.

The beautiful little church was mostly filled with women (most of the men waited outside, another Spanish custom), and after Mass, the doors opened and the church filled up with people and their pets.  Most are dogs but iguanas, turtles and some rare South American mammals have also been spotted from time to time.  The priest blessed the animals one by one by sprinkling holy water over them.

San Antón

San Antón

Afterwards, a wooden statue of St. Anthony was paraded around the square and an auction of gifts held to help pay for the renovation of the church.  Someone usually donates a rooster in a cardboard box that is placed in front of the altar along with the rest of the gifts to be auctioned off.  Last year, it started to crow during the sermon, forcing the priest to cut it short and this year he promised to stop if the rooster crowed again.  The rooster crowed on cue but the priest, who was on a roll with the sermon, kept talking. The parishioners laughed.

After the auction, we all went to the casino for a communal lunch, followed by a long walk around the village.  Then everyone closed up their houses and returned to their usual place of residence.

Traditions such as this are an invaluable way of assuring that the thousands of small villages around Spain remain alive.  Fifty or a hundred years ago, towns like Munilla were the centers of Spain’s agricultural and small business economy.  In Munilla, it was textiles and shoes. However, with Spain’s industrialization came a mass exodus from the pueblos to Logroño, Madrid, Barcelona and abroad.  Even though these little towns are practically empty during the week, on weekends, holidays and summer vacations, they resonate with activity.

Most of us come from big cities,  but the ‘pueblo’ is an important part of our lives as an escape from the daily grind and a reminder of another simpler, but much harder time.

'Machito' auctioning off the rooster

‘Machito’ auctioning off the rooster

Musical chairs but in the end, Marqués de Arienzo finds a perfect fit


Marques de Arienzo’s new label

From time to time, the Rioja wine business experiences a period of upheaval as companies are bought and sold, often as a means for the majority shareholders to raise much-needed capital and sometimes to win market share.  Examples of the first case were Mapfre’s (a Spanish insurance company) taking a stake in Muga (since bought back by the Mugas) and Banco Santander’s stake in Bodegas Riojanas (Riojanas later went public).  More often, though, the reason for winery purchases is to consolidate empires.  One of the most recent instances in Rioja was the buying and selling of the Domecq Wine group.

It all started with Savin, a company founded in the mid 1950s that became Spain’s largest winery group with wineries all over the country that at first specialized in selling bulk wine to Europe and the Iron Curtain countries.  In the mid 1960s, Savin built a winery in Logroño and created Campo Viejo, quickly developing it as an attractively priced Rioja positioned toward the growing supermarket business in Spain and abroad.

The Bank of Bilbao took a larger and larger share in the company and in 1989, renamed the company Bodegas & Bebidas.  Its first major acquisition was its biggest competitor AGE in the mid 1990s.

The bank decided to divest itself of its wine and food businesses and the wineries were sold to Allied-Domecq, a UK-based multinational drinks company, itself the union of Allied Breweries and the wineries owned by Pedro Domecq, the sherry company.

The wine brand Marqués de Arienzo was created in the mid-1980s after Pedro Domecq decided to build a winery in Rioja.  The winery was actually built in the early 1970s but the first Rioja brand, Domecq Domain, didn’t fly.  Arienzo was the second effort by the company to launch a Rioja brand and this time, it was a success.  The brand was positioned as a premium range of crianza and reserva, sold mainly to restaurants in Spain and  abroad.

The name of the consolidation game was spirits, with the wine brands dragged along for the ride. Domecq was purchased in 2005 by the French group Pernod-Ricard (the merger of Pernod and Ricard), that included the Domecq Bodegas wineries in Rioja.  In 2010, PR began a process of selling off non-strategic assets to finance the purchase of the vodka brand Absolut.

Our story really begins here.

Most wineries are bought and sold lock, stock and barrel.  But the sale of Bodegas Domecq was different, illustrating how the bust-up of the winery’s assets made great sense to the buyers of the separate parts.

The assets were split up and sold to two companies.  Bodegas Muriel bought the winery itself, some of the vineyards and the brand Viña Eguía.  Other vineyards and the brand Marqués de Arienzo were acquired by Herederos del Marqués de Riscal.


Marques de Arienzo’s old label

Muriel needed a bigger winery to carry out its plans to move into the high volume supermarket business around the world. Viña Eguía is a popular young Rioja that gives Muriel a foothold into this segment of the market, especially in Spain.

For Marqués de Riscal, this purchase made great strategic sense, too.  The vineyards, located on some of the best sites in Rioja Alavesa, allow Riscal to decrease its dependence on outside suppliers of grapes and therefore exercise greater control over the quality of its fruit.  Secondly,  Marqués de Arienzo, a brand with good distribution in restaurants in Spain, is a perfect complement to Marqués de Riscal.  In addition, Riscal has taken over the ‘Aula Marqués de Arienzo’, renaming it ‘Aula Marqués de Riscal’.  This well-liked seminar has trained hotel and restaurant staff about wine tasting and service for many years.

Riscal’s influence on Marqués de Arienzo is evident, with a redesign of the label and a more modern feel to the wine while maintaining its image as a wine to be enjoyed with food.

I tasted several bottles over the recent Christmas holidays.  My tasting note for Marqués de Arienzo crianza 2008:

Tempranillo, graciano and mazuelo.  Brilliant, medium-intensity ruby.  Red fruit – strawberries and maraschino cherry giving it a little sweetness. Quite a dollop of oak. Great balance, good acidity –  a little tart on the palate.

I thought it went very well with our New Year’s Eve dinner when we had roast baby lamb.

Maturana: a valuable addition to Rioja’s arsenal of grapes

Nada que VerBy choosing to support native red grapes rather than internationally popular varietals, Rioja has taken the road less traveled, but it’s a strategy that’s paying off.  Maturana is one of the red varieties most recently approved, and a few years after the first vines were planted, several brands have been launched.  Last night I had the chance to taste two maturana wines produced by Bodegas Pedro Martínez Alesanco, a 100% maturana and a blend.

Maturana was one of the many native-to-Rioja varietals on the verge of extinction studied by professors Fernando Martínez de Toda and Juan Carlos Sancha of the University of La Rioja.  Following a rigorous selection process and several years of political wrangling in the Rioja Regulatory Council and the Ministry of Agriculture, maturana was approved in 2007.

Gonzalo Ortiz, the 87 year old former winemaker at AGE and Berberana, who still owns a winemaking consultancy service with his son Gonzalo (Bodegas Valdemar) and daughter, invited several of his friends to an informal tasting last night at our local bar, the Monterrey, in Logroño.  Gonzalo is proud to talk about his role in the rescue process of maturana, which began with the discovery of several vines in a vineyard in Navarrete which were first studied as an R&D project at Berberana, where, if my memory serves me, Martínez de Toda was working.

One of the Ortiz’ consulting clients is Bodegas Pedro Martínez Alesanco in Badarán (incidentally the town where Martínez de Toda was born) in Rioja Alta.  Martínez took a liking to maturana and Ortiz has helped him develop it, both as a single varietal wine and as part of a blend. We tasted both.

Gonzalo Ortiz

Gonzalo Ortiz

The first wine was Nada que Ver (‘Nothing to do’ in English because the wine has nothing to do with any other Rioja).  A 100% maturana, crianza 2009.  13,5% alcohol. Intense black cherry.  Wild fruit character – I thought of zinfandel – with a floral touch.  Great body and structure with firm tannins on the palate.  I liked it A LOT!

The second wine was Pedro Martínez Alesanco reserva ‘Selección’ made with 40% maturana, 30% tempranillo and 30% garnacha. It was vinified in 500-liter wood tanks and later aged in barrique for 18 months, followed by 20 months in bottle before release.

Intense black cherry.  Dark fruit and spices, more delicate than the 100% maturana.  Good balance, firm tannins.  I liked it too.

Several other producers have launched Riojas with maturana.  As far as I know, they are Bodegas Valdemar, Viña Ijalba (where Juan Carlos Sancha was managing director and winemaker for many years) and Ad Libitum, Sancha’s own winery in Baños de Río Tobía, not far from Badarán.

In a recent interview, Juan Carlos Sancha offered his opinion about maturana: “Character (it’s unique), original (from Rioja), great structure, color and acidity, small cluster and grapes and resistance to plagues.  A real current and future grape on its own and an ideal complement to tempranillo, offering in my opinion, a lot more than cabernet sauvignon to Rioja.”

So far, maturana has been promoted chiefly by its discoverers Sancha, Martínez de Toda and the Ortiz family with the help of Pedro Martínez Alesanco.  But more followers are sure to come!