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.

IMG_2541

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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2 thoughts on “Rioja discovers natural wines

  1. First time visiting your blog. Nicely written tasting notes. I am surprised that theydid not include bodegas moraza, a leading estate making natural style 100%garnacha in the Rioja. You can read my post about them, if you want more info.

    About the availability of the wines you tasted, you could find them on your next visit to France. L’Anglore could be challenging to get but not impossible.

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