Bordeaux has the Haut Médoc, Burgundy can boast about its terroirs and Germany, the steep terraced vineyards above the Rhine and Mosel rivers. Haro’s historic railway station district is a unique place, too, but not for its vineyards. It’s the only place in the world where you can find five one-hundred-plus-year old wineries within a two hundred yard radius:
López de Heredia Viña Tondonia (1877)
Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España – CVNE – (1879)
Gómez Cruzado (1886)
La Rioja Alta (1890)
Bodegas Bilbaínas (1901)
This small area is also the home of two ‘newcomers’:
This is a killer marketing opportunity so it might seem odd that an event linking these properties only happened this September. You have to consider, however, that funding for the event came almost exclusively from the wineries’ own pockets, a monumental effort taking into account that their priority is promoting their own brands. Another large expense for the wineries is their contribution to the generic marketing campaigns run by the Rioja Regulatory Council in Spain and abroad. In today’s economic climate characterized by low markups and intense competition, an additional outlay to sponsor a new, untested event was a huge leap of faith. But, judging from this year’s event, it was a spectacular success.
The first day of the event was for 400 wine writers and the trade. It started with a talk by local ethnographer/anthropologist Luis Vicente Elías about the history of the area. It was an eye-opener. Historically, the wines produced from grapes around Haro had a bad reputation, described as ‘mohinos y violentos’ (sad and violent), but this was before the arrival of the French in the middle of the 19th century.
Luis Vicente Elías and Tim Atkin
It’s widely thought that the French went to Haro because of phylloxera in their own vineyards, but Elías pointed out that oidium in the 1850s first brought them to Rioja and other regions in the north of Spain. Phylloxera in France was a later development. It was the combination of the two maladies that forced the French to look to Spain for wine.
Demand for Rioja grapes which the French encouraged local wineries to vinify according to their requirements caused a boom in vineyard planting. In 1857 there were 34,000 hectares, in 1881 – 47,326 hectares, in 1891 – 68,063 hectares, reaching a maximum of 69,260 hectares, more than the area under vine in Rioja today. In 1892 the Spain-France customs treaty expired, high duties were levied on wine, and demand from France collapsed, forcing winery owners to develop other markets. By then, the French had discovered that grafting shoots onto American rootstock was the only way to stop phylloxera. The arrival of the plague to Rioja in 1899, however, drove companies out of business and forced people to emigrate to make a living.
Bodegas Bilbaínas seen from the Haro train station. (Credit: Bodegas Bilbaínas)
Much earlier, Haro was just a whistle stop on the railway line from Castejón in Navarra to Bilbao. This railway to Bilbao became a reality due to the efforts of winery owners who suggested building it, industrialists from Bilbao who financed it and English engineers who designed it as a way to ship goods from the Ebro valley, most importantly wine, to the outside world.
Elías explained that the original site for the station was much farther from the city, which aroused the ire of the local wine industry. They finally convinced the engineers to build the station on its current site near the wineries. According to Elías, “if the station hadn’t been moved to its present location, there would be no winery station district and we wouldn’t be sitting here today”. A sobering thought, indeed.
Following Elías’s talk, Tim Atkin MW, led a tasting of 14 wines, half from the 20th century, half from the 21st. The wines were mostly from vintages no longer on the market but in some cases, wines not released yet:
Viña Tondonia red gran reserva 1981 R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia
Viña Pomal gran reserva 1987 (Bodegas Bilbaínas)
CVNE Imperial gran reserva 1988
Muga Prado Enea gran reserva 1994
Roda I reserva 1994 (Bodegas Roda)
Gran reserva 904 1995 (La Rioja Alta)
Gran reserva 890 Selección Especial 2001 (La Rioja Alta)
Gómez Cruzado gran reserva 2007 (Gómez Cruzado)
Viña Tondonia red reserva 2004 (R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia)
Roda I reserva 2004 (Bodegas Roda)
Imperial reserva 2010 (CVNE)
Alto de la Caseta Viña Pomal 2010 (Bodegas Bilbaínas)
Torre Muga 2010 (Bodegas Muga)
Gómez Cruzado Pancrudo 2013 (Gómez Cruzado)
I made detailed tasting notes but think it’s more interesting to describe my perception of the evolution in style in the 32 years between the oldest and youngest wines.
The oldest vintages were light brick with some orange, which was to be expected because some color had faded with age. The light brick color was due to the fact that Riojas from these vintages weren’t subjected to today’s aggressive methods of color extraction.
You could easily see the difference between the more traditional styles such as López de Heredia and La Rioja Alta whose color intensity hasn’t evolved much, and the modern style of Roda. More remarkable however was the huge evolution shown in the wines from CVNE, Muga and Bilbaínas. It reminded me of Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way” by Heredia and La Rioja Alta and the embrace of the international, wine writer-driven style by most of the others.
In the traditional Riojas, stewed red fruit showed through as well as delicate spicy notes and good balance between oak and fruit. It was just what I expected. I also remembered that this stewed fruit and spicy character was present when these wines were released. They were the hallmark of Rioja in those days.
The newer vintages showed ripe, and in some cases, overripe fruit notes. Tim Atkin commented at one point that in a blind tasting most of them would probably not be identified as Rioja.
Here, Rioja has shown, especially with the newer vintages, that wineries have mastered the art of picking when the tannins are ripe. This was not always the case. When ‘markets’ (journalists) began to demand more color and ripeness from Rioja, the wineries complied by producing wines from overripe grapes but with green tannins in the first few vintages. Now, the most important criterion for picking is ripe tannins, with higher alcohol because hang time is longer. I remember hearing Agustín Santolaya, the manager of Roda and a native Riojan talk about chewing on his grapes to see if the tannins were ripe, just like his ancestors used to do.
The older wines in the tasting showed a silky texture with varying degrees of firmness, while those from younger vintages showed ripe tannins with no rough edges and good ageing potential.
One difference I noted was high acidity in the traditional wines (due no doubt to the presence of white grapes to help the wines age). In the newer vintages, the backbone of the wine was tannin-based.
After the group tasting we visited the seven wineries to taste their new vintages.
I especially enjoyed tasting Bodegas Bilbainas’s singular wine collection of white tempranillo, graciano and garnacha, the collection of wines from Gómez Cruzado which I wasn’t familiar with and the Mugas, especially the evolution of Prado Enea (their traditional gran reserva) and Torre Muga, which when introduced a few years ago was a sharp contrast to the traditional style of the rest of the range. Today’s Prado Enea is vinified much more in the modern style than before.
Jesús Viguera, the winery’s export manager, remarked that today the traditional style has become a little more modern, with more color and depth, while the modern style has become a little more traditional, with elegant rather than sharp tannins.
The second day of this experience was open to consumers, who paid 20 euros for a basic tasting ticket of seven wines and three tapas prepared by local bars and restaurants or 40 euros for a VIP ticket to taste 14 wines and seven tapas.
More about that in a future post.