Two Steps Forward, a Giant Step Back

Photo credit:  crayola.com

Photo credit: crayola.com

September in Rioja is usually the time when the region slowly returns to life and begins to prepare for the grape harvest after the August holidays. But this year it awoke with a start. The Agency for Information and Foodstuff Control, a government body created to improve transparency in transactions between producers and sellers of foodstuffs, dropped a bomb on Rioja wineries with a law obliging them to pay grape growers 30 days after delivery of grapes or face fines of up to 100,000 euros per transaction. The Agency confirmed that grapes were defined as perishable goods in contracts between wineries and farmers and subject to the 30 day- payment rule. The Spanish Wine Federation protested but the Ministry of the Economy ratified the decision.

Luis Lecea, president of the Rioja Regulatory Council (Photo:  Tom Perry)

Luis Lecea, president of the Rioja Regulatory Council (Photo: Tom Perry)

Without this unfortunate news, all the players here had good reasons to be happy. Sales over the last 12 months had been about the same as in the previous 12 months and ex-cellars prices were stable. From the farmers’ point of view, the 2014 crop appeared to be abundant and several large purchases by wineries at 85 euro cents per kilo for red grapes and about one euro per kilo for white grapes exceeded expectations and not only covered their production costs but guaranteed them a healthy profit. By comparison, in the DE Cava in Catalonia, prices of white grapes are about 35 euro cents per kilo, in Valdepeñas, 24 cents, in La Mancha, 15 cents and Extremadura, 12 cents.

Until now, wineries, especially the big players, have enjoyed the upper hand in their relationships with farmers, dictating grape prices and payment terms. Farmers delivered their grapes on consignment and were forced to accept payment in six or more months’ time depending on uncertain market conditions such as ‘the average price of transactions by three cooperatives’. It was the perfect formula for strained relations.

The election of a farmer as the president of the Regulatory Council ushered in a new climate of compromise that produced an historic agreement: all grape transactions would be subject to written contracts between the parties and payment would take place at 90 days.

The Spanish Wine Federation asked the Agency if its decision excluded the possibility of partial, fixed payment at 30 days and a variable component depending on market conditions. The agency’s reply was that a variable component was possible as long as it was determined by verifiable criteria.

Given Spanish banks’ extreme reticence about loans or credit, this is not the best time to be the managing director or the finance director of a winery.

My good friend Casimiro Somalo, a journalist specializing in wine and agriculture, made an interesting comment the other day on his Facebook page (translation mine):

“There are things I don’t understand and never will. That the government has mandated a deadline for the wineries to pay for grapes seems surreal and like Soviet intervention. This is no excuse to break free market rules, not in the wine trade or anywhere else. I’d like to hear the Ministry’s lawyers explain how they allow the big supermarket chains to pay farmers whenever they please – a year or more? Let’s see if they explain that rights are individual and that we’re capable of signing a contract without rules governing how many hours of sleep we can get. And if this law is good for wine, why not for cereal grains, whose prices have been at rock bottom for years? This is beginning to look shameless.”

Casimiro Somalo (Photo:  Tom Perry)

Casimiro Somalo
(Photo: Tom Perry)

 

 

 

 

 

Oscar Tobía pushes the envelope

“Winemaking today is about chemistry. Tomorrow it will be about physics.”

Making a statement like that is Oscar Tobía’s style and in keeping with his role as Rioja’s greatest winemaking innovator. It’s a powerful statement in a region where innovation is everywhere, an indispensible requirement for success in an extremely competitive marketplace.

My friend Jeremy Watson, former director of Wines from Spain in the UK and author of two highly regarded books about Spanish wines, recently expressed an interest in visiting Bodegas Tobía after hearing interesting things about the winery. He asked me to set up the visit and I duly complied.

Jeremy Watson and Oscar Tobía (Photo: Tom Perry)

Jeremy Watson and Oscar Tobía (Photo: Tom Perry)

Oscar enjoys pushing the envelope. He made Rioja’s first barrel fermented rosé but wasn’t allowed to sell it because the technique wasn’t in the Rioja rulebook, but he insisted, won the support of other winemakers and was finally successful in getting the rules changed.

Oscar led us outside to his fermentation tanks, where we saw the first evidence of his commitment to innovation: the exclusive use of Ganimede fermenters from Italy that store and release the CO2 produced during fermentation to constantly mix the grapeskins and the fermenting juice, avoiding the formation of a cap. Oscar says it’s a totally natural process and saves on the cost of traditional methods of mixing the skins and the juice such as delestage, pumping over or pigeage. While a few other Spanish wineries use this technology, only two are in Rioja – Bodegas Montecillo and the San Asensio cooperative, and these only use it partially. Oscar believes that Italy is at the forefront of winemaking innovation today and that Rioja winemakers still pay too much attention to Bordeaux.

Two of the winery's Ganimede fermenters

Two of the winery’s Ganimede fermenters

A second innovation is the use of peristaltic pumps that work by expansion and contraction like the movement of food through our intestines to transfer the skins and juice from the fermenters to the press where they’re separated, avoiding Oscar’s pet peeve, oxidation. In his words, “the wine is born younger”.

A future project is to store the CO2 produced during fermentation in underground tanks for use in the winery to avoid the necessity of buying tanks of gas, another cost-saving device.

Oscar criticizes the abuse of fertilizer in Rioja vineyards, which has increased yields but has also caused an increase of potassium and lower acidity in wines. Traditionally, potassium salts are precipitated and removed by cold stabilization, which Oscar feels is hard on the wines. His solution has been to design a machine to lower the level of potassium (he didn’t explain how it worked) to avoid cold stabilization and the addition of acids. “Less expensive and easier on the wines”, Oscar says.

Another innovation is debourbage by means of flotation. Instead of siphoning off precipitated sediments by gravity, Bodegas Tobía injects nitrogen gas mixed with a kind of gelatin into the tanks. This causes any sediment to float to the top of the tank where it’s removed.

Like other Rioja wineries, Bodegas Tobía uses different kinds of oak: American, French, Hungarian and even Slovak. Unlike other Rioja wineries he experiments with barrels made from wood other than oak, such as ash, cherry, acacia and chestnut in a project with the Murua cooperage and the University of La Rioja. Oscar says that the results are promising and he hopes to release wines aged in these kinds of wood in the near future.

The barrel aging cellar

The barrel aging cellar

Following the tour of the winery, Oscar offered a tasting of eight of the wines from his wide (but not unmanageable) range.

Oscar Tobía white reserva 2009. 50% malvasía, 50% viura with 18 months in French and American oak. Pale yellow; aroma of wildflowers with a subtle touch of well-integrated oak; elegant, almost understated. I liked it a lot. Oscar says he wants to make a wine like the López de Heredia whites, which have taken international markets by storm.

Daimon barrel fermented white 2012. 60% viura, 30% malvasía, 10% tempranillo blanco. Pale straw; chamomile and other dried flowers; medium body, just the right acidity. Very good.

Alma de Tobía barrel fermented rosé 2013. 55% tempranillo, 35% graciano, 10% “other”. Pretty cherry color; bubble gum and anise; interesting smoky character with oak and strawberries.

Daimon barrel fermented red 2012. 56% tempranillo, 22% graciano, 16% garnacha, 6% “other”. Light cherry; strawberries, a hint of oak; crisp acidity with firm tannin, easy to drink but not a simple wine – it has a good backbone.

Tobía Selección crianza 2010. 80% tempranillo, 10% graciano, 10% garnacha. Medium ruby; noticeably oaky, smoky, red fruit; lipsmacking, good structure. I thought it had been given too much oak, but otherwise good.

Oscar Tobía reserva 2010. 90% tempranillo, 10% graciano. Medium ruby; well-integrated red fruit and oak, herbal, minty; Lovely fruit, perfect acidity and firm tannin. Terrific!

Tobía gran reserva 2000. 100% tempranillo. Vinified before the purchase of the Ganimede fermenters. Medium brick; a ‘traditional’ Rioja nose of oak, cedar chest and cloves; silky, good backbone in spite of its age. For me the best wine of the lot.

Alma de Tobía 2009. The same blend as the rosé. Deep garnet, almost inky; dark fruit, spicy; really mouth filling, luscious. Definitely a departure from the previous reds. Oscar said it had some ‘experimental grapes starting with an “m’’ from a vineyard in one of the highest vineyards in Rioja Alta.

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I enjoyed all of Oscar’s wines, although in my opinion, the Tobía Selección 2010 was overoaked and not quite up to the standard of the others.

Oscar uses his barrels for five years and all of his reds undergo malo in barrel. For Alma de Tobía he uses French oak, for Oscar Tobía, one year old French, Hungarian and new American oak. His crianzas are aged in one year old wood from several origins and his graciano (which we didn’t taste), in Hungarian oak. Oscar feels that Hungarian oak respects the original fruit profile of the unaged wines better than the others but it’s expensive, almost as much so as French oak.

He is placing a bet on sauvignon blanc among the new varieties approved by the Rioja Regulatory Council and malvasía among the current varieties. He recently stated in a white wine supplement in our local newspaper LA RIOJA, “Sauvignon blanc is very elegant and blends well with Riojan varietals. Malvasía hasn’t been very popular but it offers numerous possibilities”.

Oscar sells a high percentage of his wines abroad, so keep an eye out for them.

Bodegas Tobía. Paraje Senda Rutia, s/n 26214 Cuzcurrita del Río Tirón (La Rioja)

http://www.bodegastobia.com