Rioja discovers natural wines

Last week La Tavina, one of Logroño’s most popular gastrobars, organized a tasting of ‘natural’ wines, an event that guaranteed that a collection of young Turk Rioja winemakers and local wine geeks would fight for the 25 available seats. I was one of the lucky ones. Luis Gutiérrez – Robert Parker’s Spanish wine taster – and Luis Alberto Lecea, president of the Rioja Regulatory Council, himself a grape farmer and small winery owner also attended, a good indication of the interest in these wines.

Rioja has never been a trendsetting region. We would rather see how new ideas develop elsewhere before adopting them. Consequently the most forward-thinking Rioja winemakers are only beginning to think about wines with little or no added sulfur dioxide.

Andrés Conde, the owner and sommelier of Bodega Cigaleña, a restaurant in Santander, led the tasting. His restaurant has one of the largest collections of wines in Spain, especially of older vintages. Conde’s wine knowledge is encyclopedic, and he entertained us with personal anecdotes about the characteristics of each of the wines, the terroir, grapes, aging and winemaking practices based on his visits to the wineries and conversations with the winemakers.

Andrés Conde

Andrés Conde

It was interesting that Conde didn’t mention the word ‘natural’ once during the tasting. He preferred to describe the wines as ‘poco protegidos’ (slightly protected).

Five wines were on the menu:

Sin Rumbo 2013. D.O. Rueda from Nieva in the province of Segovia. 100% verdejo. Produced by Ismael Gozalo who describes himself as an ‘independent winemaker’. The vineyards are located at 900 meters above sea level and farmed biodynamically. Fermentation and a short period of ageing in 500 liter barrels.

Color: not brilliant, a little veiled. A subtle floral nose. Round with a lower level of acidity than what I’m accustomed to but nonetheless very attractive. It was paired with a pea, fava bean, tomato and caramelized onion salad with a touch of olive oil and vinegar. I thought the pairing was good. The wine, however, didn’t hold up well in the glass compared to the others by the end of the tasting.

Sin Rumbo

Sin Rumbo

L’Anglore 2012 rosé. AOC Tavel. Grenache and Monastrell. Producer Eric Pfifferling. Aged for 18 months in barrique, required by the AOC Tavel.

Color, darker than my benchmark, a Rioja rosé, more like a light red. Not a very pronounced aroma when I first tried it. Later it opened up to spice and cherry, with noticeable notes of oak. Mouthfilling and a taste that reminded me a little of maraschino cherry liqueur. The pairing was a poached egg with pieces of ecologically farmed young hen with cauliflower cream and truffle oil. I can’t figure out how this pairing was thought up. The wine overpowered the food, a little unusual given that almost all the wines tasted were elegant and understated.

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Saint-Joseph 2012. AOC Saint-Joseph. René-Jean Dard & François Ribo. Tain-L’Hermitage. A northern Rhone red, meaning syrah. A long discussion led by Andrés y Luis Gutiérrez ensued about the defining aromas of Rhone syrah (black olives, smoked bacon and asphalt) and for these two experts, the only ones at the tasting with anything but a passing knowledge of syrah from the Rhone, this wine had it all. It was definitely not the trademark minty nose of an Australian shiraz, which most of us had tasted in the past. (Tom:  make note to self to look out for more wines from the northern Rhone!)

Medium ruby. To me, acidic fruit and a little bit of burnt rubber. Really pleasant acidity on the nose. Elegant. It was paired with a dish of monkfish and deboned pigs’ trotters, green beans and carrots. Good.

St.-Joseph 2012

St.-Joseph 2012

Cuvée Florine 2012. Côtes du Jura. Producer Jean-François Ganevat. 100% chardonnay, with 15-16 months in barrique. Andrés Conde remarked that Ganevat only added a little SO2 just before bottling.

Straw yellow, buttery with chamomile and barrel notes. Really low acidity (pH 2,8). According to Conde, this wine has characteristics of a textbook Burgundian chardonnay ‘from the old days’. It was an interesting comment but sounded pretentious because, apart from Conde and Gutiérrez, none of us had much experience with today’s chardonnay from Burgundy, let alone one from the old days. I liked it a lot and was glad to taste a wine from Jura, one of today’s ‘hot’ wine regions.

The food pairing was a filet mignon with warm, fresh foie gras and a reduced Port sauce. It went very well with the wine.

Cuvée Florine 2012

Cuvée Florine 2012

Antoine Arena Grotte di Sole 2011. AOC Patrimonio red from Corsica. Mainly nielluccio. A totally unknown appellation and grape variety for me.

Medium intensity. Very spicy, notes of overripe grapes and possibly a little brett. Powerful tannin. It was paired with chocolate ice cream and olive oil.

Grotte di Sole from Corsica

Grotte di Sole from Corsica

A sixth wine was introduced as a surprise. A deeply colored red with very intense fresh fruit aromas. Juicy fruit, good acidity and powerful tannin. No clue was given about its origin. I attempted to apply my WSET tasting experience, trying to figure it out by process of elimination. I was still thinking when other clues started to be given. “A blend”. No help. Then “Spain”. “OK”, I thought. It didn’t seem like a Priorat so maybe it was prieto picudo from León. I kept quiet. The last clue was “tempranillo and graciano”. Then Andrés and Luis waved their heads toward Abel Mendoza, one of the winemakers attending the event. It was indeed a ‘slightly protected’ Rioja made by Mendoza. It blew my mind, nothing like any other Rioja I had ever tasted. So much for process of elimination!

Luis Lecea, president of the Rioja Regulatory Council answering a tricky question from Abel Mendoza

Luis Lecea, president of the Rioja Regulatory Council answering a tricky question from Abel Mendoza

The tasting completely changed my view of natural wines. I had only tasted one previously: a red made by the Arambarri family (Vintae) in Navarra. It had really low intensity, coming up short in aroma and flavor. The wines tasted at La Tavina were all elegant and very well balanced, with the possible exceptions of the wine from Corsica and the Rioja because of the level of tannin. They all showed very attractive aromas and were really tasty. I thought they had a kind of purity about them but maybe because I knew that they were natural wines, it was my imagination. In any case, they really got my interest.

12/2014, a natural wine from Navarra with the "drink before" date on the label

12/2014, a natural wine from Navarra with the “drink before” date on the label

The only disappointment was when we asked Andrés where we could buy the first five wines. “They’re all presold before release, so impossible”. I guess I’ll have to find other natural wines to taste but at least I have a benchmark of some of the best.

(All photos by Tom Perry)

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Special end of year double issue: Artadi threatens to leave the Rioja appellation and My favorite wines from 2014

December 28 is Spain’s April Fools’ Day so when I opened the local newspaper and read that Artadi, one of Rioja’s most prestigious wineries, was planning to leave the Rioja DOCa, I immediately thought it was a joke. But when I read the editorial on page two explaining that the current president of La Rioja wasn’t going to run for office in the upcoming elections I realized that this piece of news was the joke and the story about Artadi was on the level.

Behind Artadi’s interest in creating a new appellation for wineries in and around the village of Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa is the belief that the umbrella brand ‘Rioja’ and its claim ‘the land of a thousand wines’ attempts to express the huge diversity of styles of wine that exists in our region but lumps them all together under one appellation. Put bluntly, Artadi feels that the current rules of the Rioja DOCa don’t allow wineries to talk about the specific characteristics of microclimates, soil types and the grapes and wine produced in individual vineyards and villages.

The reaction of the wine and growers’ groups in the Regulatory Council was immediate and can be summed up by “Bring your proposal to the Council and we’ll talk about it”.

Only time will tell whether Artadi’s proposal to leave Rioja is real or is a gambit meant to accelerate the debate leading to simplifying the procedure for recognizing single vineyard, single village, and single subzone wines within Rioja. Whatever the outcome, there are a number of reasons to put the issue at the top of the agenda.

Juan Carlos López de La Calle (MD of Artadi) (Photo cred:  elsibaritaurbano.com)

Juan Carlos López de Lacalle (MD of Artadi)
(Photo cred: elsibaritaurbano.com)

First, today there are over 600 wineries in Rioja. Wineries have always realized that to succeed they need a competitive advantage to convince the wine trade’s gatekeepers (distributors and retailers) to offer them to consumers. When there were fewer wineries in Rioja, fewer Spanish appellations, the New World wasn’t a force yet, and superstores hadn’t overpowered distributors, it was a plus for a winery to say it was from Rioja. Today, being a Rioja winery just isn’t enough.

In the 32 years I’ve been in the Rioja wine business I’ve witnessed the development of numerous differentiation strategies to help wineries to get a leg up on their competitors: ‘experimental’ grapes, high volume and huge PR budgets to cozy up to supermarkets, sweet-talking winemakers, single varietal wines, different kinds of oak, traditional Rioja/modern Rioja/avant-garde Rioja, high scores from Parker and the Wine Spectator, scarcity, wineries designed by internationally famous architects, unorthodox winemaking techniques, underwater ageing, collaboration with famous foreign flying winemakers, striking labels, striking brand names, unusual bottles, ecological and biodynamic wines, natural wines (no added SO2 – the latest trend)  and of course, rock-bottom prices.

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of pressure in Rioja to allow wineries to express themselves in new ways. What I wonder is “Why Artadi?” They’ve successfully exploited their competitive advantages and are at the top of the heap.

I can think of several reasons.

First, the Rioja Regulatory Council has been slow to discuss the demands of smaller properties to certify single vineyard, single village and single vineyard wines. When the Spanish Agriculture Ministry created the current wine law, it created a hierarchy starting with table wines at the bottom with few or no quality demands, appellations of origin and ‘qualified appellations like Rioja with strict control procedures and ‘vinos de pago’ or single estate wines at the top, with very strict requirements. The Rioja Council found a number of reasons to criticize the rules and their possible application in Rioja, starting with “what is the maximum size for a single estate?” citing examples of single estates in central Spain with almost 1000 hectares. If 1000 hectares seems like a lot of hallowed ground for a single vineyard, Is five OK? Or ten? Is a single estate wine inherently better than a blended reserva or a single varietal? Why should single estates be at the top of the hierarchy? How will the Council guarantee that the wine comes from the single estate? After a couple of meetings, the discussion became so complicated that the matter was shelved.

What’s the problem?  If the Council allows wineries to say that they sell single varietal wines, why not single estates? Hmmm.

Given the drawn-out decision making and consensus building process within the Council, I can imagine that Artadi figured it would be easier to withdraw its vineyards from the Rioja appellation and create its own mini-appellation where the rules are clear from the outset and membership is exclusive.

A second possible reason could be to add other grape varieties to the current ones allowed in Rioja. If these vineyards are exclusively in Álava, the Basque government could petition the European Union to authorize new varieties. The head of the agriculture department of the government of La Rioja hinted in a followup article that the Basque government might be behind the whole affaire in an attempt to create an exclusively Basque denomination of quality wine, an issue that has always been on the political agenda in the Basque Country.

I’d like to think that the threat by a top winery to leave Rioja will push the Council into rethinking its policy of single vineyard, single village and single subzone wines to allow not only Artadi but many other wineries to express what they perceive as unique attributes of their properties and wines. But for the sake of keeping things simple for consumers, let’s keep calling them all ‘Rioja’.  Do we want lots of sub-appellations like Bordeaux or an almost inscrutable mish-mash of vineyards-within-villages like Burgundy that only Masters of Wine understand?  Maybe the MWs don’t either!

Time will tell if clear heads prevail.

PART TWO: MY FAVORITE WINES IN 2014

Spanish newspapers are fond of making end-of-the-year lists about just about everything: best box office hits, most titles won by a football team, celebrities in jail for tax evasion, politicians in jail for influence peddling, regional governments with the highest debt per capita and others.

In keeping with this list-making tradition, here are the Riojas I liked the most in 2014 (in no particular order of preference):

  • Campillo reserva selecta 2007 (Bodegas Campillo)
  • Bodegas Bilbainas garnacha 2010
  • Contino reserva 2007
  • CVNE Imperial gran reserva 2007
  • Viña Ardanza 2004 (La Rioja Alta)
  • Punto red 2013 (Fernando Remírez de Ganuza)
  • Lorea reserva 2008 (CVNE) – the wine the bodega offers to wine tourists
  • Marqués de Teran 2009 selección especial (Bodegas Regalía de Ollauri)
  • Finca Torrea 2010 (Marqués de Riscal)
  • Viña Tondonia reserva 2002 (served from a 1,5 liter bottle)
  • Viña Pomal Alto de la Caseta 2007 (Bodegas Bilbainas)
  • Tobía gran reserva 2009 (Bodegas Tobía)
  • A Codo (sparkling wine from Rioja grapes made by Basilio Izquierdo)

I also really liked the following wines from other appellations and countries:

  • Catalpa malbec (Bodegas Atamisque – Mendoza, Argentina)
  • Salentein reserve pinot noir 2013 (Bodegas Salentein – Mendoza)
  • Catena Zapata St. Felicien cabernet-merlot 2010 (Mendoza)
  • Carmelo Patti malbec 2009 (Mendoza)
  • Dalva Golden White Porto 1963 (C. da Silva)
  • Momentos reserva carmenere 2013 (Chile)
  • Auratus 2013 white (Vinho Regional Minho – Portugal)

Of course I tasted and enjoyed lots of other wines but these were my absolute favorites.