About insiderioja

I'm a 40-year veteran of the wine business, recently retired. My blog is about the Rioja wine business and the food scene in Rioja.

We Uncork Two 1976 Viña Tondonia Gran Reservas

A few weeks ago while rummaging through our impossibly disorganized wine cellar I discovered two bottles of Viña Tondonia gran reserva 1976  – a red and a white.

(Photo: Tom Perry)

Seeing ‘1976’ reminded me that it was the 200th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and was the first vintage after dictator Francisco Franco’s death.

Other important events in 1976 were:

  • Apple Computer Company was founded
  • The Vietnamese National Assembly announced the unification of North and South Vietnam with the capital in Hanoi (later Ho Chi Minh City)
  • The Viking I landed on Mars
  • Adolfo Suárez was elected president of the Spanish government, Jimmy Carter became the 39th president of the United States and Fidel Castro was named president of Cuba.  

I think you’ll agree that a lot of water has passed under the bridge.

I thought that 45 years was probably at the edge of the wines’ drinking windows so I invited several friends and fellow wine lovers to taste them. Under normal circumstances we would have followed our time-honored tradition of gathering ten or so people around a table.  2021, however, is not normal and only five of us were able to safely gather in the small back room of a neighborhood bar.

The tasters were

  • Casimiro Somalo, the retired wine writer for our local newspaper La Rioja;
  • Jorge Elías, a graphic designer who works with López de Heredia (producer of Viña Tondonia) and his wife Alicia;
  • Tom Perry and wife María Antonia.

In addition to the 2 bottles of 1976, Jorge Elías brought a bottle of Tondonia red reserva 2008.

(Photo: Jorge Elías)

The two bottles of 1976 didn’t have capsules. Instead, the necks had been covered with sealing wax.  “RLH” had been pressed into the hot wax when it was applied. I carefully removed the wax and tried to extract the corks with a special tool for old wines – two flat blades that fit between the cork and the inside of the neck of the bottle.  Both corks had shrunk a little however and they fell into the wine, so I quickly decanted them an hour before the tasting.

“RLH” pressed into the wax seal (Photo: Tom Perry)
Tools used for opening and decanting old bottles (Photo: Tom Perry)

I found some notes from the Marqués de Riscal Tradition Wine Club written by Manuel Ruiz Hernández, the longtime lab technician at the Haro Oenological Station, about the weather conditions in 1976:

  • The growing season was 180 days long;
  • The previous winter had been cold and dry.  From December to February rainfall was only 90 liters per square meter compared to an average of 130 liters;
  • March and April were very cold, and April wet.  Consequently, budbreak was delayed.
  • The summer was hot and rainy, with exceptionally high rainfall in August.
  • In general, ripening was difficult and irregular.”

The Rioja Regulatory Council rated the vintage as “Good” (three out of five stars).

It sounded like it had been a difficult vintage, and that fact, along with the corks inside the bottles, made us apprehensive about the outcome of the tasting.

Fortunately, the wines did not disappoint.

White gran reserva 1976:

  • Deep gold; brilliant. 
  • Notes of white flowers, especially chamomile as well as honey, sensations that improved with more time in the glass; no hint of acetification, 
  • Vibrant acidity, delicate honey and buttery notes on the palate, long-lasting in the mouth that improved over time.

The grape varieties were mainly viura with malvasía de Rioja.

The wine was aged for almost ten years in barriques and racked by hand 18 times.  It was bottled between January and February 1986.

Viña Tondonia white gran reserva 1976 after 45 years (Photo: Tom Perry)

Red gran reserva 1976:

  • Light brick with a slight brown rim;
  • Delicate stewed red fruit, elegant with notes of cedar chest and cinnamon;
  • Good acidity, elegant, just perceptible tannin, slightly bitter, pruney.

Grape varieties:  Mostly tempranillo with garnacha, mazuelo and graciano.

The wine spent nine years in barriques and racked twice a year.

What impressed us most about these two wines was their backbone of acidity that we agreed was the main reason for their longevity.

1976 left; 2008 right (Photo: Jorge Elías)

Red reserva 2008

  • Color between picota cherry and medium brick.
  • At first very closed on the nose (we only had two decanters so this wine was decanted after we finished the 1976 white).  It later opened up to reveal elegant red stewed fruit notes and elegant tannins.
  • Well-balanced on the palate, a good dollop of acidity, elegant delicate red fruit and a long mouthfeel.

We didn’t think that this wine had reached its peak yet, but was perfectly drinkable now.

The three wines had in common a vibrant acidity and a delicate, elegant character that today’s wine drinker might call understated, but they were unmistakably from López de Heredia and very good.

This launched a discussion about classic versus modern Riojas.  Casimiro Somalo defined the Tondonias as ‘avant-garde classics’.  They were ahead of their time when hardly any other fine wines existed in Rioja, and today they’re classics because they recall the style of wine that gave Rioja an international reputation in the 1960s.

They have two distinguishing characteristics:

  • They’re undoubtedly Rioja because of their elegance, stewed red fruit notes and soft tannins.
  • They’re undoubtedly from López de Heredia for their delicate character and acidity that has allowed them to age gracefully, in the case of the 1976s, for 45 years.

We recalled that classic Riojas didn’t tire your palate; when you finished a bottle at a meal with friends you usually opened another one. 

Somalo said that you could even enjoy these wines after coffee, a snifter of good brandy, a glass of bourbon or some chocolate.

His final judgment was, “ When a wine can stand up to coffee or chocolate, that’s magnificent .”

Rioja Special Report 2021-López de Heredia Captivates Tim Atkin

Tim Atkin MW has just released his 2021 Rioja Special Report, the sixth since 2016.  Researching and writing the report this year took place in London because of coronavirus travel restrictions. Atkin tasted 1200 samples from 266 producers and held 180 videochats with producers.

Of the wines tasted, 793 scored above 90 points, and 100 of these, 95 points or better.

Atkin’s 2021 podium of winners by category is: 

(Credit: Rioja Special Report 2021)

Atkin’s report is highly regarded here because it’s the most comprehensive yearly snapshot of our state of affairs, ranging from the number of wineries visited and wines tasted, bar and restaurant recommendations, with a frank assessment of our often bewildering wine industry politics.  Tim is brutally honest about happenings behind the scenes, and of course he writes eloquently about what his well-trained palate discerns in his tastings.  In addition, he’s a first class photographer.  

You can purchase the report for £20 which is around $US28 or €23 as of today (February 22) at timatkin.com.  If you’re a Rioja fan, it’s well worth the price.

 In this age of terroir-focused wines from single subzones, villages and single vineyards from small growers who have decided to make and bottle their production,  it was a huge but pleasant surprise to discover that Atkin had anointed R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, universally known as Rioja’s most traditional, immutable winery for almost 150 years, ‘Best Of Show’ in three categories:

  • Winemaker of the year:  Mercedes López de Heredia
  • Overall white wine:  Viña Tondonia white gran reserva 2001 
  • Overall rosé wine: Viña Tondonia rosé gran reserva 2010

María José, Mercedes and Julio López de Heredia (Tom Perry photo)

Since 2009 when I launched Inside Rioja, I’ve written extensively about López de Heredia’s steadfast adherence to tradition since the company’s founding.  It is a truly unique place, with a unique philosophy.

To celebrate the company’s triple crown, I hope you will re-read some of the articles I’ve written and enjoy some photos I’ve taken about the winery and the wines. Just click on the links.

The “Txori Toki” (‘Birds’ Perch’ in Basque) tower (Tom Perry)

“Since my Great-Grandfather’s Time, our Philosophy Has Always Been Modern” – María José López de Heredia (Part 1 of an interview)

Photo:Tom Perry

María José López de Heredia:  The Zaha Hadid Project was an Accident (Part 2)

The Zaha Hadid-designed Vistors’ Reception Center (Photo: Tom Perry)

The antique company stand inside the Visitors’ Reception Center (Tom Perry)

Setting the Record Straight (Why red wine in Spanish is called ‘tinto’ and not ‘rojo’) 

The red range: Viña Cubillo, Viña Bosconia and Viña Tondonia (Tom Perry)

Gerry Dawes:  the 1947 Bosconia is the Best Red Wine I Have Ever Drunk

A walk through one of the winery’s barrel aging cellars (Tom Perry)

Pedro López de Heredia – In Memoriam

Pedro López de Heredia (Credit: López de Heredia winery website)

The Yin and the Yang of Rioja – A Tasting and Conversation with Benjamín Romeo (Contador) and María José López de Heredia

Tondonia 1904 (Tom Perry)

Snow covered barrel display outside the winery (Photo: Tom Perry)

A lampshade made from a wine glass (Photo: Tom Perry)

Rioja’s Iconic Art of Blending

What is the most iconic factor that defines Rioja ?  It would certainly be tempting to say that it’s the tempranillo grape.  After all, it’s the most widely planted varietal here, with 88% of red varietals and 80% of the total area under vine .  But it wasn’t always so. According to the 1976 vineyard census, the area planted to garnacha was almost twice that of tempranillo (12800 hectares vs. 7000) and it wasn’t until the early eighties that the latter overtook the former. 

‘Rioja’ has been associated with a wine region for several hundred years, so the increasing dominance of tempranillo in the last forty years can scarcely be the basis for elevating this grape to the status of an icon. In fact, Alberto Gil, the wine columnist for our regional newspaper La Rioja, refers to the “tyranny” of tempranillo for its ubiquity. ‘Dominant’ is not a synonym for ‘iconic’.

For historical reasons based on the region’s location at the confluence of Atlantic and Mediterranean-influenced climate types, a more appropriate icon in Rioja might be the classic Rioja blend of tempranillo, graciano and mazuelo for reds meant for ageing, and tempranillo and garnacha for young reds.  Ángel Jaime y Baró, longtime director of the Haro Viticultural Laboratory and later, president of the Rioja Regulatory Council, called it “typicity”-what made Rioja recognizable and well-liked by consumers in Spain, and, with the Rioja “boom” beginning in the early 1970s, in the UK and from there, around the world.

To understand the importance of the Rioja blend, we have to go back more than one hundred years to the fight against phylloxera when it first appeared in a vineyard near Haro in 1899. 

Leading the fight were two agronomist engineers, Nicolás García de los Salmones, director of the Agricultural Research Laboratory in Navarra and Víctor Cruz Manso de Zúñiga, the second director  of the Rioja Viticultural Research Laboratory in Haro.

In the late 1800s, García de los Salmones traveled throughout French wine regions documenting the practice of grafting European varietals onto American rootstock while at the turn of the 20th century, Manso de Zúñiga concentrated on a scientific approach to rebuilding Rioja’s vineyards on the basis of detailed analyses of the region’s soils and climate patterns.

Víctor Cruz Manso de Züñiga (Credit: Estación Enológica de Haro)

The regional governments in neighboring Navarra and Álava were responsible, thanks to García de los Salmones and these governments’ fiscal independence from Madrid, for purchasing a large supply of American, phylloxera-resistant rootstock as well as financing plant nurseries. No such large-scale assistance was available in La Rioja until the creation of the Caja Vitícola Provincial, a bank that issued debentures and then lent money with generous terms to farmers with which they could purchase rootstock, plants, machinery and other products necessary to rebuild their vineyards.  One of the requirements for these loans was that only certain varieties could be planted including ‘more tempranillo and less garnacha’.  This led to Manso de Zúñiga’s definition of the ideal Rioja blend as ’75% tempranillo, 15% garnacha and 10% mazuelo’.  

Antonio Larrea was the director of the Haro laboratory for 30 years (1944-1970), followed by assuming the presidency of the Rioja Regulatory Council. Larrea further refined the definition of the Rioja blend in 1956 when he recommended “75% tempranillo, 15% graciano and 10% mazuelo”.

Antonio Larrea (Credit: Estación Enológica de Haro)

Manso de Zúñiga and Larrea saw where these varieties fit in the puzzle made up of the long, narrow upper Ebro valley with its seven tributaries, hills, valleys, and soils ranging from mostly limestone, iron and clay in the cooler, wetter western half and alluvial in the hotter, drier eastern half.

Larrea was responsible for the practical viticultural and enological education of a generation of young university graduates, many of whom, like Ezequiel García and Gonzalo Ortiz would go on to work in Rioja’s leading wineries.  Others would study winemaking in Bordeaux where they learned about blending cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot.

Armed with this knowledge, winemakers could compensate for the negative effects of weather on vineyards in a particular growing season by buying grapes and wine from all over the region as well as blending wines from different vintages in an attempt to create a consistent style from year to year.

Rioja in those days was ‘made’ in the winery.

Neither  Manso nor Larrea could imagine, however, the expansion of vineyards planted to an easily cultivated variety like tempranillo to the detriment of the other varieties as a result of the explosion in demand for Rioja beginning in the 1980s. 

Rioja was so associated with the blend that the first single varietal tempranillo, Viña Alcorta, ironically created by Bodegas Campo Viejo, the largest winery in the region, was at first roundly criticized by wine writers in Spain who thought that “something was missing”.

Since Alcorta’s launch in the mid-1980s, a torrent of water has flowed under the Rioja bridge, with an increasing focus on terroir  (the natural environment of a vineyard that includes climate, soil and topography), the creation of single varietals, single vineyard wines, single subzone wines, single village wines, the use of a wide range of oak for barrels and the introduction of old Riojan varieties rescued from extinction. The land of typicity has become “the land of a thousand wines” but the sheer dominance of tempranillo makes it by default the overwhelming grape in a Rioja winery’s varietal palette. 

Today, to find a classic blend of tempranillo, graciano and mazuelo, you have to look at the back label or the technical notes on a winery’s website.  Some of the wines to watch for are the classic gran reservas from over one hundred year old wineries such as CVNE’s Imperial, La Rioja Alta’s 904 and 890, Marqués de Murrieta’s Castillo de Ygay, López de Heredia’s Viña Tondonia  and Bodegas Riojanas’ Viña Albina.

Back label of Marqués de Murrieta’s Castillo de Ygay gran reserva Especial

Nowadays the conversation in Rioja is all about terroir and specificity, with a focus on the vineyard, which almost always means a single varietal. The Rioja blend however, has a long history and certainly deserves to be called iconic.

Thanks to fellow journalists Pablo García Mancha and Alberto Gil for the inspiration!

Raiding my Wine Cellar – Château Lynch-Bages 2004

Every wine has a story.  At least that’s what wine marketers want us to believe.  Less talked about but no less interesting, in my opinion, are the stories about how we acquire the wines we drink.

Most bottles are bought in shops or supermarkets, others are gifts.  Many of these stories are mundane.  Once in a while however, there’s an exciting story behind a bottle in a cellar and Château Lynch-Bages 2004 is one of them.

One day in early 2015 an American named Stephen Bolger called me to explain a concept he had successfully sold to Lynch-Bages, a Bordeaux Grand Crû Classé in Pauillac.  His idea, already in place for a few years, was to enlist an international group of affluent wine lovers to work a harvest at the winery, choose grapes for a personal blend under the supervision of the Lynch-Bages winemaking team, and once the base wines had been vinified, return to the winery to bottle them. These customers would have their own stock of wines made at Lynch-Bages and act as de facto ambassadors for the winery in their countries. Some of the members of the group had participated for several years.

It was and is, a brilliant marketing idea.

The idea we discussed was for me to act as an expert tour guide for an upcoming road trip to Rioja, where the group was going to blend their Lynch-Bages-based base wines and visit a few Rioja wineries. It was the first time the group was going to venture beyond Bordeaux.

I was flattered to learn that I had been recommended by a friend, Jane Anson, one of the best-known experts on the wines of Bordeaux (and who recently published a comprehensive book about the region, Inside Bordeaux).

To make a long story short, I took the group on a tour of several high-end Rioja wineries, chosen in advance by Bolger, gave a Rioja Masterclass and tasting and schmoozed with the group for three days, including a gala dinner and old-vintage tasting of Marqués de Riscal.

Far from being the typical stuffy black tie gala wine event, it was organized as a fun-filled end-of-the-trip, with people moving from table to table with their glasses and laughing at the disguises provided in the photocall.  

Shenanigans at the photocall. From left, Tom Perry; Eric Boissenot, advisor to VINIV clients and consultant oenologist for Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Margaux and many others; and Stephen Bolger. Photo credit: VINIV.

A highlight of the experience was a lunch at Remelluri with Jean-Michel Cazes, the owner of Lynch-Bages, who, I discovered, had always been a Rioja lover and had several friends in the Rioja wine trade.  Not surprising given that Rioja and Bordeaux are only a four-hour drive from each other!

An additional takeaway from the visit was a group member’s invitation for me to speak at Washington D.C.’s Metropolitan Club to a group of Washington insiders including several members of Congress.  To my surprise, one of the congressmen introduced himself as the owner of a newly created Rioja winery.

One of the perks with this group was the gift of a bottle of Lynch-Bages 2004, so I was especially excited to open it on Christmas Day with my family.  

It showed a medium-high ruby color with a brick rim, surprising for a 16 year old wine.  On the nose, elegant, round blackcurrant, acidic red fruit and pencil shavings.  The palate showed round, elegant tannins, nice acidity and was very much alive with an incredibly long finish.  The wine’s depth and elegance made me think that it could have been cellared longer but we wanted to enjoy it for this special lunch and it did not disappoint.

Out of curiosity, I did a search for the wine on both Wine Searcher and Vivino.  WS showed an average per bottle price of USD 204 plus tax in the USA and Vivino, an average price of EUR160.

I have never paid so much for a bottle of wine so I was doubly grateful that I had a chance to drink this one.  The complexity and depth of aromas, elegance and incredibly long mouthfeel convinced me that had I bought it, this bottle would have been worth every penny.

Raiding my Wine Cellar – Marqués de Riscal 2003

My wife and I have more wine than we can possibly drink. Under normal circumstances we would organize a dinner party and open six or seven bottles, but 2020 has been anything but normal. We decided at the beginning of lockdown in March that we would try to draw down the stock in our cellar before doing any buying, a strategy that wasn’t very successful because of the great offers of direct purchase made by wineries. By the time we were unlocked in mid-June, we had drunk lots of interesting bottles hidden away in the cellar.

Among them were:

a 2007 ice cider from Asturias, a 40 year-old white port, a 2011 white from Costers del Segre in Catalunya, a 2008 merlot roble from Mendoza, a 2007 merlot from Moldova, and a lot of Rioja.

Last night we carried out a raid to our wine cellar and came upstairs with a bottle of Marqués de Riscal 2003.  I didn’t remember drinking that vintage from Riscal so it was going to be an adventure because 2003 in Rioja was classified as “BUENA”.  If you consider that the official grading system here from best to worst is EXCELENTE-MUY BUENA-BUENA-NORMAL and MEDIANA, “BUENA” was right in the middle. The last two definitions defy me, but I guess one has to accept that no one is going to buy a wine classified as DEFICIENTE, nor is the Board likely to classify it.

On its website the Rioja Regulatory Board explains that this classification is based on applying a mathematical formula after tasting thousands of young wines and that later ageing in barrique and bottle can be beneficial as time passes. (The Board does not say that it can be harmful if the wine is not cellared properly downstream, but it happens).

So I proceeded to open the bottle.

After cutting the foil I inserted my lever corkscrew and started to  apply gentle pressure.  The cork didn’t budge. “#$@%*!!” Normally I would have reached for my trusty old cork remover, a gadget with two thin steel blades that you insert on each side of the cork.  By slowly twisting the device and pushing it in, you can more or less separate the cork from the sides of the neck of the bottle and then twist out the cork.

Decanting funnel and filter (L), Old cork remover (R)

The problem was that I couldn’t find it, so I tried to get a good grip on the cork and pull.  The cork started to crumble. “##$$@@%%&&**”. When I decided there was no way to remove it, I reluctantly pushed the bits and pieces of cork into the bottle and slowly poured the contents into a decanter.  I thought, “Why am I going through this rigamarole when I know that the wine will be hopelessly oxidized.

Was I wrong!

The decanting process showed a brick-colored rim and a deep garnet tone in the center of the glass.  My heart started to race in anticipation.  On the nose, it showed stewed maraschino and black cherries, a hint of oak and the slightest hint of cork, probably from the pieces of cork that floated in the bottle for a few minutes.  On the palate it had a texture that I always describe as ‘yummy’, with firm ripe tannin, balanced acidity and a long finish.

How to explain the dried out cork and the excellently preserved wine?  I guess that the seal against the glass was so tight that very little or no air could get into the bottle, although it certainly would have been easier if there had been a little wax applied to the cork to facilitate opening.

Our meal was homemade cream of pumpkin-curry soup, eggplant stuffed with vegetables and medallions of turkey tenderloin in a wild mushroom sauce.  My wife and I agreed that the Riscal paired very nicely with these dishes.

After dinner we cleaned the bottle, poured in the remaining wine, stoppered it and removed the air. Today we finished it and found that it had held up very well.

This experience has encouraged us to drink our older wines more often.  Although we will undoubtedly be disappointed by some of them, finding a bottle like last night’s will make the whole experience well worth it.

“Today, Organic Viticulture is the Exception. Tomorrow it will be the Norm”

Francisco Ruiz, director of Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez, is a passionate defender of biodynamic viticulture in Rioja. His company was the first in La Rioja whose vineyards were certified by International Demeter, the biodynamic certification body, and they have been farming biodynamically for four years.

Esperanza López from the La Rioja government’s Department of Agriculture, who was with us on our visit to the vineyards, told us that 61 wineries had vineyards certified as organic in La Rioja. The fact that only two have been certified as biodynamic shows that going full biodynamic from organic is a big leap of faith and a lot more responsibility.

I have to admit that before visiting Ruiz’s vineyards and winery I was skeptical about this farming practice. My attitude was based on a remark made several years ago by another Rioja winemaker and not by taking the time to learn about biodynamic farming.

This winemaker commented that one of the wineries in his group carried out biodynamic practices, referring almost jokingly to burying cow horns filled with manure in the vineyard.  When asked if it worked he replied, “I don’t know if it works or not, but it can’t hurt either.”

Francisco set us straight during a recent visit to one of his vineyards near Aldeanueva de Ebro in Rioja Oriental. He convinced our group that biodynamic farming indeed works by rebalancing soils spoiled by years of unsound practices, by creating harmony between the ecosystem of a winery and its surroundings and simply by being more healthy.

The concept of biodynamics was the brainchild of an Austrian, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). According to Wikipedia it was the first of the organic farming movements.  Biodynamic farming shares a lot with organic farming in general but differs in that it treats animals, crops and soils as a single, holistic system, while organic agriculture emphasizes the elimination of wide-spectrum pesticides and herbicides as farming practices.

For Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez, farming biodynamically was a logical step after the company had farmed organically since 1998.   Ruiz explains on the company website:

“Biodynamic agriculture is based on the idea of ​​the field as an organism-farm where everything is related. Always with the aim of strengthening the entire ecosystem, promoting and favoring the best conditions to achieve a balance that allows us to harvest high quality grapes without residues.”

That explains ‘ bio’.  What about ‘dynamics’? It consists of preparing, maturing and spreading in the vineyard a compost solution using a method created by German Maria Thun.

According to biodinamicatierraviva.com, ‘Maria Thun’ is a mixture of manure from free-range cows, crushed eggshells to replace depleted or deficient limestone and basalt sand to add silica to depleted soils.

These ingredients are thoroughly mixed together (dynamized) for an hour and are then added to a covered empty wooden barrel without its heads or a clay pot that is buried in the ground.  After four months the product is turned over again, valerian (an herb) is added and the product reburied for eight weeks.

For each hectare of soil, 250 grams of ‘Maria Thun’ is mixed into 60 liters of water, ‘dynamized’ for 20 minutes and applied to the soil.  The website recommends five applications a year.

Ruiz showed us where he was cultivating his ‘Maria Thun’ mixture.  It was a small wine barrel buried in the ground, covered with a wooden lid.

He also explained the importance of planting cover crops in the vineyard, both under the vines and in the rows between them. Cover crops are spontaneously grown in his vineyards but over time, leguminous species come to predominate, providing depleted nitrogen and nutrients for microorganisms and other animals that inhabit the soil.

We noticed a tall post with a crosspiece next to the vines.  Ruiz pointed out that it was a perch for the birds of prey in the area.  It was interesting to hear that the birds were fickle about where to perch so the company had to experiment with different designs.

A common pest in vineyards is the European grapevine moth, and traditional viticulture would mean spraying.  Ruiz follows an ecological approach, using sexual confusion traps that make it hard for moths to mate but don’t kill them.

 Biodynamics also applies to pruning and canopy management by pursuing a “green to green” approach – managing the leaves is done only when the cover crops have bloomed.

Traditional farming with its emphasis on pesticides and herbicides has noxious effects on crops and on people who consume them. An important principle of ecological farming is that healthy soils produce healthy crops that promote good health.  It’s a win-win situation.

After visiting the Ruiz Jiménez vineyards we were convinced that ecological viticulture is the way forward.  Francisco Ruiz summed it up nicely. “Today organic viticulture is the exception but tomorrow it will be the norm”. 

Featured wine:  Ingenium by Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez

Ingenium is a white made from the maturana grape with no added sulfur that Ruiz described as a natural wine. He noted that the Rioja Regulatory Board would probably not accept it as a Rioja.  He said that it wasn’t a big deal because as a Rioja he would be unable to sell it to a distributor for more than 2 euros a bottle, “but as an ‘anarchic’ wine, not subject to Rioja regulations, it could be sold at a higher price”. Rioja helps you but it also pigeonholes you”, commented Ruiz.

I have to admit that I’m not an accomplished enough taster to be able to distinguish an ecologically farmed wine from one farmed traditionally, but it makes total sense not to ingest pesticide and herbicide residue that are likely to be found in traditionally farmed grapes.

Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez

Carretera Comarcal LR-115, Km 43.5, 26559 Aldeanueva de Ebro (La Rioja)


Email: francisco@vinedosruizjimenez.es

Tel. +34 941 163577

Juan Carlos Sancha: A Riojan Champion of Sustainable Viticulture

Sancha tilling his Cerro La Isa vineyard

The World Tourism Organization’s fourth Global Wine Tourism Conference in Chile in December 2019 emphasized the role of wine tourism for sustainable rural development and launched a call to action.

UNWTO General-Secretary Zurab Pololikashvili said: “Wine tourism creates jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities. It touches all areas of the regional economy through its linkages to handicrafts, gastronomy and agriculture. There lies its great potential to generate development opportunities in remote destinations.”

Rioja wineries read his message loud and clear.

Today, over 400 Rioja wineries have a tourism program, increasing visits to wine villages, generating jobs, promoting knowledge about wine culture, enhancing the wineries’ image and creating additional revenue streams. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.

However, challenges remain. Among them is attracting discerning wine tourists who have no shortage of choices of wineries to visit. The most forward-thinking wineries here are moving away from the traditional model of “visit the winery, taste some wine and go to the gift shop” toward an approach focusing on the vineyards.  Explaining how the specific conditions in a particular vineyard – soil, microclimate, elevation, exposition to sunlight, grape varieties, farming techniques and the relationship of the vineyard to its habitat is a necessary step to gain a better understanding of what goes into a bottle of wine.

One of the most interesting wine tourism projects based on sustainable viticulture and winemaking in Rioja is at Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha in the remote village of Baños del Río Tobía in the Rioja Alta subregion.

Sancha’s efforts earned him a ‘Best Of Wine Tourism’ award from the Great Wine Capitals Global Network in 2019 for Sustainable Wine Tourism Practices.

Sancha has been a champion of sustainability in Rioja for over 30 years. While at Viña Ijalba he was a pioneer in introducing organic viticulture, and together with colleagues in the department of viticulture at the University of La Rioja, led the fight to rescue several traditional grape varieties on the verge of extinction in Rioja, including red and white maturana and turruntés, which were later added to the list of approved varietals in the DOCa. Rioja.

In 2007 he moved back to his village and took over the management of his family’s vineyards, most of which were planted to garnacha (grenache) by his great grandfather on steep terraced hillsides at about 700 meters (2,300 feet) above sea level. Sancha’s goal was to learn about the characteristics and differences between his vineyards and eventually make single vineyard wines from several different plots. After the Rioja Regulatory Board created the category of viñedo singular (singular vineyard) and it was approved by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Sancha applied and his Cerro La Isa vineyard was among the first to be granted VS status in 2019.

Today, both red and white Cerro La Isa have been approved as wines made from viñedos singulares.

While Sancha the academic is known for experimenting with long forgotten grape varieties in Rioja, his true love is his plots of old vine garnacha, a variety that once outnumbered tempranillo in Rioja vineyards but by 1973 had shrunk to 39% and today is only 8% of the acreage in Rioja.

Sancha’s Peña El Gato vineyard

With his knowledge of Rioja’s viticultural heritage and with his old vines planted above his village, it was a no-brainer that his wine tourism project would be focused on sustainability.

When you visit Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha, among other things, you will learn about

sustainable viticulture and winemaking;

conserving old vines and their genetic material;

saving historical grape varieties and vineyards;

the holistic relationship between vineyards and their surroundings.

A visit to the property features a trip up to Cerro La Isa (Isa’s Hill) where Sancha has built an eight-sided covered lookout from which you can see the family’s old garnacha vineyards planted in the early 20th century.  Sancha will tell you that he was lucky to save most of the vineyards, but pointing at empty terraces, unlucky in that several were uprooted before he moved back to the village.

You will begin to understand the backbreaking work invested by Sancha’s ancestors to create and tend their vineyards without the benefit of machines on a cool, windswept landscape.  

You will learn about Rioja’s singular vineyard project, whose goal is to encourage owners of old vines to maintain them and hopefully make unique wines from the grapes produced there.

You will learn the difference between massal and clonal selection when planting vineyards or replacing vines and you will see some extremely old vines of vitis silvestris, with male and female plants rather than the hermaphroditic vitis vinifera, the prevalent species of grapevine planted around the world today.

In the winery Sancha will explain that solar panels provide energy, water is used sparingly and little or no sulfur dioxide (SO2) is used as an antimicrobial agent and antioxidant in winemaking. In fact, one of his wines is ‘natural’, with no added SO2.

Sancha’s enthusiasm and his passion for saving Rioja’s viticultural heritage are boundless.  After visiting his vineyards, wine tourists will have a much better understanding of the hard work and skill required to produce the grapes that make great wine.

Juan Carlos Sancha, S.L.

26320 Baños de Río Tobía, La Rioja, Spain

Tel. +34 941 23 21 60 ; Cell. +34 639 21 60 11

URL: juancarlossancha.com

Same same…but Different

On August 8, Spain’s Official Journal published the authorization of 20 projects of viñedos singulares (singular vineyards or VS) in the DOCa. Rioja, bringing the total to 104.

Yesterday however I read an article in an online magazine about the launch of a terroir-focused wine brand created by a well-known Rioja winery. What caught my eye was a comment about the coincidence of the creation of this brand three years after the creation of the viñedos singulares (singular vineyard) category in Rioja. The article gave the impression that the wines from this particular winery were part of the viñedos singulares project. This is a bit misleading, so I think it’s time to set the record straight about the differences between Rioja’s singular vineyard category and single vineyard wine projects in Rioja.

As they say in Thailand, “Same same…but different.”

Rioja Alavesa vineyards

Rioja Alavesa vineyards with the Sierra Cantabria mountains behind (T. Perry)

Singular vineyards

A project sanctioned by the Rioja Regulatory Board whose purpose is to protect vineyards with certifiably old vines by encouraging the owners not to pull them up but instead aspire to make singular wine from them.

Inside Rioja has already published detailed information about the viñedos singulares project that you can read here.

VS in Rioja is similar to South Africa’s Certified Heritage Vineyard project and I know that the promoters of each project are following the other’s progress, so Rioja’s VS project is not just a shot in the dark.


A future singular vineyard owned by Bodegas Ontañón in Quel  (Photo: T. Perry)

 Single vineyard wines

Single vineyard designations are also a part of Rioja’s DNA. Many of Rioja’s historic names reflect the concept of single vineyards such as Viña Tondonia, Viña Bosconia, Viña Pomal, Viña Zaco, Viña Ardanza, Viña Alberdi, Viña Albina and others. These places have existed for more than a century in some cases but I believe that because the wines produced in these wineries in western Rioja Alta are blends, some of them with garnacha from Rioja Oriental, they have come to be identified as winery brands rather than coming specifically from the so-called vineyard. It is interesting to note however that Viña Zaco from Bodegas Bilbaínas was one of the first applicants to receive VS status in 2019.

Viña Tondonia

Viña Tondonia during a snowstorm in 2005 (Credit:  Tondonia website)

In addition, newer wineries have registered names containing the terms ‘Viña’, ‘Finca’, ‘Propiedad’, ‘Heredad’ and others alluding to place and the ensuing confusion about brand versus origin is perhaps why, at least today, they do not enjoy the protection given to VS. They are, instead, the affirmation by the grower and winery that the vineyard in question and the wines produced there are special, and have demonstrably terroir-linked characteristics, which in most cases they certainly show in tastings.

The increased focus on terroir in the wine world gives these single vineyard wines a legitimate place in the market and they deserve recognition.

Why haven’t more growers and wineries applied for VS status? One reason, perhaps rooted in the Riojan mindset, is the unwillingness of a well-established single vineyard-advertised brand owner to submit to a yearly tasting and the possibility of losing VS status for a certain vintage,  while a magazine or favorite wine writer can give the brand a perpetually high score just by looking at the label or hearing the producer’s name.

Or maybe it’s just being cautious until the VS category is better established. However one marketing executive I asked stated categorically, “VS is a stillbirth”. Well, we all know where he stands! I certainly disagree.

Will these two categories converge? I’m not sure today but it would be beneficial to Rioja if they did.












Well-trained Sommeliers Add Value to the Restaurant Experience


Bilbao-Rioja Venta Moncalvillo Carlos Echapresto

Photo:  Venta Moncalvillo. Carlos Echapresto is the co-owner of the restaurant along with his brother Ignacio.  Carlos holds Spain’s National Gastronomic Award and was Spain’s Best Sommelier of the Year in 2016.

About twenty years ago I led a group of sommeliers from the USA on a tour of Rioja wineries and restaurants. During a visit to one of the area’s top restaurants, I asked the head waiter, who was also the sommelier, how diners chose which wines to order with their meal. He replied, “Older locals always choose their favorite Rioja before ordering the meal. Younger locals and visitors from other parts of Spain and those from abroad choose the food first and then ask for recommendations about pairings. The older locals will always choose a Rioja but the others are willing to experiment, even with wines from other parts of Spain.”

Both are legitimate strategies, but obviously only the latter warrants the intervention of a sommelier or a qualified head waiter for guidance. This almost invariably leads to some pleasant surprises. With the growth in international tourism to our region, the increasing number of Michelin-starred restaurants in La Rioja, Alava and Vizcaya (16 restaurants with a total of 19 stars) and the inclusion of a dizzying number of wines from other Spanish regions and from abroad on our wine lists, the need for a well-versed maître d’ or a sommelier is a necessity, especially if a guest is from outside the region.

A good example is at Remenetxe in Gernika, near Bilbao. Sommelier Jon Andoni Rementería’s wine list has 1400 wines, of which 550 are from Rioja and of these, 290 from Rioja Alavesa alone. Unless you’re a Rioja wine connoisseur, Jon Andoni is there to help.

José Félix (Chefe) Paniego is the maître and head sommelier at the two Michelin-starred Echaurren in Ezcaray in La Rioja as well as the president of the Association of Sommeliers of La Rioja. He talks about his wine list like a philosopher as “…more than a menu. It is a book of sincere reflections that speak of wines through those who make them. (Each winemaker) describes his way of understanding the vineyard, his way of working, his life, in short”.

Chefe Paniego

José Félix (Chefe) Paniego, maître and head sommelier at Echaurren

Félix Jiménez, the owner of Kiro Sushi (1 Michelin star) in Logroño, makes choosing a wine easy because he only serves one. To accompany his sushi menu he serves Akemi (‘bright, beauty’ in Japanese), a white Rioja chosen specifically by Jiménez after tasting a huge number of samples to find the perfect taste.

Félix Jiménez

Félix Jiménez, alma mater of Logroño’s Kiro Sushi (Photo: Kiro Sushi)

Carlos Echapresto, the co-owner with his brother Ignacio of the one Michelin starred Venta Moncalvillo in Daroca de Rioja doesn’t use “maître” or “sommelier”, on his business card, but rather “host”. In a 2017 interview on the Spanish Wine Lover website, he explains that before his guests are seated he offers them an aperitif and tries to discern their food and wine tastes to make the food/wine pairing experience more enjoyable. He is a big fan of wine by the glass, offering more than 70, which is fantastic if you are ordering the tasting menu.

Some of his guests will tell him, “I have a budget of X, make some suggestions.” Echapresto says, “If there’s a good vibe in the restaurant and I have the opportunity to offer something really special, I’ll open it.“

The wine by the glass strategy is a must with a tasting menu, but it works best if the customer is given the chance to choose. I discovered this the hard way recently when my wife and I went to a well-known restaurant with a Michelin star in Cantabria to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We decided to try the tasting menu with the wine pairings recommended by the restaurant. The pairings were not specified on the menu but we trusted the sommelier’s decision.

It turned out that three of the pairings on the nine-course menu were from the same winery – a ‘cava’, a white and a red, and two others were a wacky red and white from new appellations in Cantabria. A furmint from Tokay saved the day. We concluded that most of the wines in question were good deals from a local distributor who in turn passed them on to the restaurant. A consequence of COVID-19 and a three-month forced closing? The meal was delicious but most of the pairings a little forced. We felt that it would have been more honest if the pairings had been written out on the tasting menu. After all, how much does it cost to print a page on a laser printer? Caveat emptor – let the buyer beware!

Josep Roca

‘Pitu’ Roca (Photo Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Has the pandemic caused by the covid-19 virus changed the role of the sommelier? Josep ‘Pitu’ Roca, maître and sommelier at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, voted #1 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013 and 2015, is sure that it has. He recently told La Verdad that his dining room staff has gone from one day to the next from being purveyors of happiness to superfluous. “COVID-19 has mandated social distancing, requiring us to reduce contact with customers to a minimum”.

Among the ideas that have occurred to him are “emphasizing movements more than words, using gestures like they do in the Far East, cultivating the poetry of rituals or the eloquence of silence. In short, employing new ways of transmitting safety, good taste and happiness.”

Roca also suggests modifying wine lists, not by removing wines, something he considers a travesty, but rather by using graphic elements and simplifying choice for guests. Roca suggests printing out a shorter list on recyclable paper in accordance with guests’ choices of food items, a wise suggestion that our restaurant in Cantabria would be smart to consider.

My takeaway is that the adventurous food and wine lover can learn a lot from a sommelier if she’s willing to experiment. Wines by the glass are a great way to discover new things, especially with a tasting menu. Most top restaurants understand this but even more modest restaurants could increase their offer of wine by the glass, especially in today’s difficult economic climate. Even though a restaurant can’t afford a sommelier, the maître or the chef can be a reliable guide.


Social Distancing in the Good Old Days

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 09.20.37

Almost everyone who visits Spain for the first time talks about how sociable Spaniards are. We love to mingle with our friends at restaurants, bars and on sidewalk terraces. Bars are our social clubs, where we have breakfast, read the newspaper, meet with our cuadrilla (group of friends) to have a few drinks and some tapas before lunch and/or dinner, have an after dinner drink, gossip, talk politics, soccer, the economy or any other topic. And we don’t mind if our friends get up close and personal when we’re together – with lots of touching, handshakes, hugs and air kisses. In fact, when we see an empty bar, we usually don’t go inside. In short, keeping our distance from others is not part of our DNA.

But that was in the good old days.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 09.32.02

I’ve always thought that Spain was one of the countries where one’s personal space was small until I read an article in the Washington Post about a study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology in 2017 that analyzed a sample of almost 9,000 people from 42 countries.

The authors of the study showed subjects a card with the outline of two people (A and B) facing each other with a scale underneath ranging from zero to 220cm for reference. The subjects were asked if they were A, how close in centimeters they would be comfortable with B as a stranger, an acquaintance or a close friend. The results were surprising.

Screenshot 2020-05-14 at 18.57.09

(Credit above and below: Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology via the Washington Post)

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Argentines were the most comfortable at close range with strangers, acquaintances and close friends, while Romanians, the most standoffish in the study with strangers, were comfortable with close friends at a distance of about 45cm.

Spaniards kept strangers at about 90cm, acquaintances at about 75cm and close friends at about 60cm.

Curiously, the study showed that citizens of the USA were comfortable with good friends at a closer range than Spaniards (45 vs. 60cm) while Norwegians didn’t feel uncomfortable standing about 35cm away from a close friend.

Unfortunately, there was no evidence about Swedes and their much-celebrated penchant for keeping their distance from everyone. That might explain why Sweden and Norway have chosen to deal with the coronavirus in widely differing ways.

This academic experiment, while undoubtedly carried out with the strictest scientific rigor, offers different results from my own empirical experience. One instance was at a cocktail party at the US Embassy in Madrid in 1976 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Latin American diplomats and Spanish businessmen tried to talk practically nose-to-nose with US Embassy personnel while the Americans moved backwards to give themselves space. It was obvious that neither side realized that diplomacy also means consciously respecting others’ personal space.

Perhaps the best lesson I’ve learned about personal space is many years attending some of Spain’s most popular festivals like San Fermín in Pamplona, San Mateo in Logroño and Aste Nagusia in Bilbao and San Sebastian. When you’re surrounded by thousands of others while watching fireworks or the chupinazo (the firing of the rocket signaling the opening of the festival), defending your personal space, whether you’re from Argentina, Chicago or Madrid, is impossible. The best way to handle it is to go with the flow and have fun.

Let’s hope that soon we’ll be able to return to the good old days.

(Photos:  Tom Perry)