Through the Looking Glass – Jeremy Watson reflects on Rioja in the 1960s

Jeremy Watson

Jeremy Watson (photo Tom Perry)

Jeremy Watson’s knowledge of Spain, Spanish wines and of course Rioja far surpassed anyone else’s in the UK until he retired 10 years ago. He had a leg up on most of the other Spanish specialists because of his long experience as a Spanish wine importer, agent, Director of Wines from Spain UK for many years and author. His magnum opus, The New and Classical Wines of Spain, published in 2002, is a hefty 440 page in-depth look at everything you need to know about Spanish wines.

I met Jeremy in the mid-1970s while working at Hijos de Antonio Barceló, my first job in the wine business and we have been good friends ever since.

Jeremy often emails me thoughtful, incisive comments about my posts in Inside Rioja, which I greatly appreciate. The one below is especially enlightening about Rioja in the late 1960s and Bodegas Bilbainas in particular. It is with his permission that I reproduce it for you.

“Dear Tom

 I very much enjoyed your piece about the La Tavina Tastings and Bilbainas.

 You may recall this was the first Rioja Bodega I ever visited and that was in 1968 when my then wife and I included it when having a holiday in Zarauz. The company I worked for in London imported vast quantities of Rioja wines but in bulk for bottling in the UK and marketed as Spanish Burgundy, Chablis etcetera, but certainly not as Rioja. So our visit was very welcome and the boss, owner Don Juan Ugarte, travelled up from Bilbao to receive us. He was a charming man but with very strong views; “Spain makes the best wines in the world, Rioja is the best wine in Spain and Bilbainas makes the best wines in Rioja. Therefore Bilbainas makes the best wines in the world”!!!!! There’s something rather Montgomeryesque about those words; “I won Alamein and according to Churchill Alamein won the war, therefore I won the war.” In Ugarte’s case it was explained to me as typical Basque pride. In Montgomery’s, only he knows.

 Anyway after a very interesting tour of the Bodega when we saw what was state of the art technology at the time of ultra modern steel fermentation hoppers and the temperature controlled fermentation vats for the whites, we sat down on a sofa to taste the full range of wines. They were on a small coffee table using an assortment of glasses little bigger than egg cups and all colours of the rainbow; tricky to say the least. What was striking though was the crisp, light freshness of the cheap, unaged white.

 It was 4 years before I visited other Bodegas, those being Riscal and Murrieta. They were not so welcoming but our contacts with them were more intermittent. Since then I have been lucky enough to visit over a hundred. In 1973 Rioja exports to Britain were about 25,000 cases if my memory serves me right. By 1978 this had risen to 75,000 when the acceleration began to 300,000 cases in 1982 and the 3 million today.

 I recall one lovely story told to me by Santiago, Juan’s only son. They had shipped the usual railway wagonload of bottled wines for our Christmas requirements by train direct from the Bodega but it never arrived at the port, so a replacement was sent by road at great expense to them. Meanwhile Santiago tried tracing the route of the container through Miranda de Ebro to Bilbao but could not find it until he actually started going through the marshalling yards at Miranda. No small job but and eventually he came across it tucked away at the back. When he made enquiries of the shunters he was told that it was a ‘terrible error’ which they could not comprehend. Though not the brightest spark, Santi guessed he knew the answer and went back to the Bodega to enquire whether the usual couple of free cases for the shunters at Miranda had been included in the wagon. He was told they had been forgotten; so the problem was solved. Mind you I believe there was a similar gift for the Customs at Bilbao from most Bodegas and that practice continued for many years.

Sadly as Don Juan grew older, the business started to slide badly. By now Santi had died from illness that resulted from a terrible accident before I had met him. One of his sisters was in a convent while the other was married to a lawyer who tried desperately to revive the company whilst continuing his practice, but to no avail and eventually the great Cava company, Codorníu bought it. What they have done to put Bilbainas back on its feet is fantastic. Of course one must not underrate the power of the Ederra and Viña Pomal brands which, along with a highly acclaimed winemaker, Pepe Hidalgo, held it together way longer than it probably deserved.”

Elaborating on Jeremy’s story, after Santi Ugarte’s death, the remaining heirs fought off a hostile takeover by their neighbour winery CVNE and sold the company to a group of investors led by a director of a major Spanish bank, José Luis Urdampilleta. They made important investments, especially a remodelling of the huge barrel ageing cellars after which they sold the winery to Codorniú who have the financial resources and distribution to give the Bilbainas wines the recognition they deserve.

Most people living outside Spain aren’t aware that Bilbainas produces one of Spain’s best cavas – Royal Carlton. Their experience with sparkling wine goes back almost a century. I remember visiting several years ago with a group of wine writers at which time the winery showed us a framed invoice from Bilbainas to one of the most famous champagne houses. I can’t remember the date of the invoice but apparently this particular maison had problems providing champagne to its customers and turned to a Rioja bodega for help!

Another interesting anecdote referred to the future of the Royal Carlton brand after Bilbainas’ purchase by Codorniú. In spite of Royal Carlton’s popularity in Catalonia, Codorniú’s first intention was to discontinue the brand. They received so many complaints from shops and consumers that they decided to keep selling this Riojan cava in Catalonian cava’s home market!