9/21, license to party

For the last five years Spain has suffered the devastating effects of an inflexible labor market, an economy based on overbuilding residential property, banks with questionable lending practices and politicians who thought they were above the law. When most people read the papers, they go directly to the sports pages to get a jolt of positive energy from reading about the success of Spain’s tennis players, football teams and motorcycle racers.

That’s the way it is for 51 weeks of the year, except during festival week, which in Rioja is the wine harvest festival in honor of St. Matthew (San Mateo in Spanish) from September 20 to 25, when all hell breaks loose and the region’s 300,000 inhabitants plus probably 100,000 others from neighboring regions and abroad devote themselves to a frenzy of partying. We deserve it.

The festival starts at 1pm on September 20 when the mayor lights a rocket from the balcony of the city hall in Logroño. This event is called the chupinazo. This year the mayor asked everyone present to forget about their problems and have fun.  Obviously, we were all paying attention because her instructions were followed to the letter.

The crowd waiting for the rocket, with the king and queen of the festival in the foreground.

The crowd waiting for the rocket, with the king and queen of the festival in the foreground. (Photo credit:  larioja.com).

In the past, the city hall square was filled with young people carrying bags of flour and plastic bottles filled with cheap red wine. On hearing the rocket explode, they would douse everyone in sight with wine and then throw flour around, making a god-awful mess of other partygoers who then walked to the old part of town to sing, dance, eat and drink in one of the 100 plus bars in the area.

In recent years, the city fathers have tried to enforce a ‘clean chupinazo’ by stationing police officers around the entrance to the square to keep partygoers from throwing flour around.  Fat chance.  As soon as everyone leaves the square, out comes the flour.

After the rocket goes off. (Photo credit: riojatrek.com)

After the rocket goes off.
(Photo credit: riojatrek.com)

The atmosphere in the old part of town is electric – big swaying crowds of people eating, drinking, dancing and singing, people meeting friends or running into friends unseen for years, going to bullfights, jai alai matches, eating lunch and dinner in bars or restaurants, staying out until 3 or 4 in the morning every day, catching a catnap and a snack and starting all over again.  Believe me, after five or six days of non-stop partying, one is actually glad it’s over.  Until next year, that is!

Calle Laurel, the epicenter of old Logroño. (Photo credit:  blogs.larioja.com)

Calle Laurel, the epicenter of old Logroño.
(Photo credit: blogs.larioja.com)

I consider myself extremely lucky (or extremely resilient) because I go to two of these festivals every year – San Fermín in Pamplona in July and San Mateo in Logroño in September. I have no intention of quitting.

Today is the last day of the wine festival and tomorrow, Logroño will go back to normal, with lots of bad news to fill the newspapers.  Right now, I’m trying to persuade my wife to go out tonight.  If I can get her off the sofa, I might have a chance!

Bodegas Vidular – a surfer has a go at the wine business

This story starts in a hospital in Santander. While in the waiting room I struck up a conversation with a man who told me that his son had a winery in the area.  I was under the impression that Cantabria was the only region in Spain where no grapes were grown, but this man told me that there were two areas that had recently begun to grow them: Liébana  in the far west of the province near Asturias, and the east coast.

Several years later I had the opportunity to taste some of the wines from the eastern coastal region at a wine fair in Santander and was impressed by the interest of a small group of wine lovers who were willing to invest in a business that to me was plagued by oversupply, low prices and excessive regulation.  But I never bothered to enquire further.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were invited by Ken Baldwin from Totally Spain, a travel agency based near Santander, to one of the wineries in Cantabria, Bodegas Vidular, for a visit to the vineyards, a tasting and lunch. It was an unforgettable experience.

Bodegas Vidular restaurant and tasting room

Bodegas Vidular restaurant and tasting room

Bodegas Vidular is the brainchild of the Durán family, originally from Bilbao, with experience in the wine distribution business.  We met Mikel Durán at one of the company’s vineyards on the outskirts of Noja, one of Cantabria’s most popular resort towns.  Here, he explained that grapes and wine had been produced in Cantabria until the early 19th century but its resurgence had been very recent.  Vidular, along with five other wineries created a ‘vino de la tierra’ with the designation ‘Costa de Cantabria’. Mikel said that Vidular had no intention of joining a denominación de origen  because the rules regarding grape varieties were too strict and would stifle their attempts to see what varieties would work best given the climate and soils of the area. They’re right.

Mikel Duran at his Noja vineyard

Mikel Duran at his Noja vineyard

The company has a total of nine hectares of vines in three vineyards:  Noja, Castillo (a nearby village) and Vidular, about 15 kilometers south of the coast at an altitude of 500 meters.  The winery has planted the white varieties albariño, chardonnay, treixadura, gewürztraminer and godello and more recently, pinot noir.

Cantabria, with its rich clay soil and rainy climate nine months a year is not a place where you would predict grapes would produce quality wine, but for that matter, neither the coast in the Basque Country, but txakolí is selling like hot cakes.  Mikel explained that the Noja vineyard was planted in an old quarry, so there’s a base of limestone, good soil for growing grapes.  Another smaller producer recently told me that he had trucked in some ‘poor’ soil for his small vineyard.

The topic of soil fertility came up at the second vineyard we visited.  Here, the family had laid down a semipermeable mat under the vines to allow rainwater to seep through but would stop weeds and other plants from sprouting up.

Semipermeable mat to protect against aggressive undergrowth

Semipermeable mat to protect against aggressive undergrowth

These up-front investments reminded me of the fundamental question about the wine business:

Question:  How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?

Answer:  By starting with a large fortune.

The wines are sold in mainly in Cantabria and a few other places around Spain, as well as in Germany and even Japan.  We got a big kick out of hearing Mikel’s story about the sale to Japan.  He’s a surfer, like a lot of people living on the coast here, and was featured in a story in a Japanese magazine about ‘The Life of Surfers over Forty’.  Mikel mentioned that his family had a winery and a reader sent him a 100 case order.

Wine tourism, however, is where Mikel wants to devote his energy.  As we were standing beside the Noja vineyard, he pointed to the long line of cars going to the beach and mused about building a small tasting room and shop there.

Following a quick stop at the Castillo vineyard, we took a beautiful drive up a mountain to the winery and vineyards.  The family bought and restored an old farmhouse that they originally planned to use as a country hotel, but finally decided to turn into a tasting room and restaurant to entertain groups of wine tourists.  Our first stop was the small but functional winery built next to the farmhouse where we tasted the company’s two brands, the white Ribera del Asón and Cantábricus with some tapas prepared by chef Mario Armesilla.

One of the delicious tapas served before our meal

One of the delicious tapas served before our meal

Since the meal was the highlight of the visit I didn’t make detailed tasting notes for the wines but can say that they were very tasty, showing intense tropical fruit aromas, and vibrant acidity.

It’s tempting to make a comparison with txakolí, the popular white wine produced in the Basque provinces of Álava, Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa, but the wines from the Costa de Cantabria had a personality of their own.  While most of the producers of txakolí from Guipúzcoa favored the traditional low alcohol, slightly fizzy, prone to give you a headache style that is served in bars by pouring the wine from two feet above the glass to aerate it, much like Spanish sidra (hard cider), the Vizcaya style is an attempt to compete with whites such as Rueda.  Vidular was somewhere in the middle.  I thought it benefited from a little aeration, but was definitely on the serious side.

Ribera del Asón white 2012. Albariño and chardonnay.

Ribera del Asón white 2012.
Albariño and chardonnay.

As a matter of fact, there’s been quite a controversy about the appropriation by the Basques of the word txakolí (or chacolí).  According to wine historians, wines called chacolí used to be produced both in Cantabria and the north of the province of Burgos, east of Rioja. In Burgos, the wines are still locally known as chacolí, but not in Cantabria.

The wines from the Costa de Cantabria aren’t widely available outside the region themselves and at least in the case of Vidular, the Durán family is not in a hurry. In the wine business, the slow and steady approach is the safest route to success.