The Haro Train Station District Event, Part 2

IMG_3866

One of the most attractive events on the second day of the Haro Train Station District tasting was a train ride from Logroño to Haro and back. I overheard some visitors comment that it was the first time they had ever taken a train. It’s ironic that trains, that made it easy to ship wine from the Ebro valley to Bilbao and from there, all over the world in the 19th century, are now an archaic means of transportation here.

Consumers had two tasting options: a 20 euro ticket allowing a tasting of one wine from each winery and three tapas or a 40 euro VIP ticket with which you could taste two higher end wines from each winery and try seven tapas made by restaurants from around Haro.

_MG_5564

 Three vintages of Viña Tondonia

The food options were great. One could choose a red bean stew, grilled pork with a caramelized onion marmalade, cornbread stuffed with chorizo cooked in red wine, cream cheese smothered in a pear sauce, red peppers stuffed with meat and wild Riojan mushrooms, grilled mushrooms or a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, called a ‘zapatilla’ or ‘slipper’.

_MG_5567

Tasting at Bodegas Gómez Cruzado

I chose the 20 euro option and was glad I did. Towards the end of the day the sidewalks, the winery gardens and the platform at the train station were filled with glassy-eyed VIP ticket holders who had chosen the 14-glass option. There were spittoons everywhere but most people preferred swallowing to spitting. Thank goodness for the train.

Each winery prepared a special event related to winemaking, wine culture or the history of the train station district.

Bodegas Bilbaínas: a visit to the original winery built by the French in the 19th century and the underground ageing cellars;

CVNE: an exhibition of the sculptress Cristina Iglesias, titled “Wells”;

Muga: oak barrel making

Gómez Cruzado: painting a street mural depicting the history of the winery;

La Rioja Alta: racking wine from one barrel to another;

López de Heredia Viña Tondonia: a photographic exhibition of the history of the train station district from the winery’s private collection;

 

Roda: the underground cellar and the balcony overlooking the Ebro river with a view to the ‘sea of vines’ on the opposite bank.

 

In addition, a roving Dixieland band walked through the winery gardens. It was a big, happy street party.

IMG_3510

One of the ‘Pozos’ sculptures by Cristina Iglesias at Bodegas CVNE seen from above

_MG_5573

 

Part of the train station district and Haro seen from Bodegas Roda

IMG_3497

The tower at Bodegas López de Heredia, called the ‘txori toki’ or ‘bird’s perch’ in Basque

IMG_3492

Painting a mural at Gómez Cruzado

IMG_3504

‘125 vintages’ on a wall at La Rioja Alta

I had already visited every winery except Gómez Cruzado with wine and lifestyle journalists so as I walked around I concentrated on listening to people’s reactions on seeing the inside of a winery, for many, for the first time and having the chance to talk to the owners and managers. It was heartwarming to hear them welcome the visitors “to our home”. For most of these consumers, the brands were already familiar, but seeing where the wines were actually made was an exciting experience.

IMG_3493

 

Visitors comparing tasting notes

IMG_3505

IMG_3862

Photo call at Bodegas Bilbaínas.  ‘Call me classic’

The two-day event was, in my opinion, a huge success. Over 400 journalists, distributors, wine shops and restaurants attended the professional event on Friday while more than 4000 consumers from all over Spain filled the wineries on Saturday. The weather was perfect, the wines showed very well, the local food was delicious and the wineries laid out the red carpet for their guests. It was a unique opportunity to get an inside look at a unique group of one hundred-year old wineries that are among the best ambassadors Rioja shows the world.

 

I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.

All photos ©Tom Perry.

 

 

The Haro Train Station District Wine Tasting, Part One

_MG_5549

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’:

Muga (1932)

Roda (1987)

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.

_MG_5560

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

          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.

_MG_5551

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)

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.

Color

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.

Aroma

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.

Palate

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seven prestigious Rioja wineries join forces for a historic tasting opportunity

Rioja entered the modern era in the mid-19th century when several innovative wineries adopted Bordeaux winemaking practices, notably ageing in small oak casks. When phylloxera devastated French vineyards, many wineries from Bordeaux and other red-wine producing regions came to Rioja looking for wines to send back to France. Local entrepreneurs took advantage of this circumstance to found wineries, many of which still do business today. The center of this activity was the railway station district in Haro, an ideal location for sending wines to the nearby port city of Bilbao for international shipment.

IMG_1485(T. Perry)

On September 18 and 19, just before Rioja Wine Festival week, wine professionals and consumers will have a unique opportunity to taste wines from seven wineries in Haro’s railway station district, among Rioja’s most historic and most prestigious properties. Bodegas Roda, Bodegas Bilbainas, R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, CVNE, Muga, La Rioja Alta and Gómez Cruzado have joined forces to organize a unique tasting experience highlighting their wineries and wines.

BBBodegas Bilbainas seen from the Haro railway station

(vinapomal.com)

On September 18, Tim Atkin, Master of Wine and award-winning wine journalist, will give a seminar and historical tasting of wines from these seven wineries to professionals followed by a day-long open house for an en primeur tasting of recent vintages.

September 19 is open to the general public. Consumers can purchase tickets online that will provide access to the seven wineries, a tasting of one wine at each as well as three ‘tapas’ from a central booth. Throughout the day, surprise activities will take place around the winery district.

Further details and ticket information is available at

http://www.lacatadelbarriodelaestacion.com/en

Inside Rioja will cover this event so watch these pages for an extensive recap of this important event in the Rioja tasting calendar.

GCBarrel ageing cellar at Gómez Cruzado

(haroturismo.com)

IMG_1158A selection of the range from La Rioja Alta(T. Perry)

the central courtyard at CVNECentral courtyard at Bodegas CVNE

(T. Perry)

IMG_1476Wooden fermentation vats at Muga

(T. Perry)

_MG_5181Viña Tondonia white reserva

(T. Perry)

RodaCellars at Bodegas Roda

(roda.es)

 

Bodegas Montecillo: A First Class Wine Tourism Destination

Aretha Franklin nailed it when she sang, “All I need is a little respect”. In the Rioja wine business, respect has historically been in the hands of small boutique wineries, coddled by wine writers and magazines for their handcrafted wines while large wineries have been derisively dismissed as factories pumping out millions of bottles of mediocre plonk.

Respect has come to larger properties here because of their efforts to cater to visitors and one of the keys to their success has been accentuating the advantages of a large organization – access to the latest technology, marketing muscle, well-qualified staff and the power to put product on shelves and wine lists. If Rioja is a well-known international brand today, it is probably  due more to the presence of big, ubiquitous brands than to small wineries boasting 95+ Parker and Wine Spectator points.

One of the newcomers to wine tourism in Rioja is Bodegas Montecillo, founded in 1874 in Fuenmayor as a family winery but since the 1970s owned by Osborne, the well-known sherry, brandy and more recently table wine and Iberian ham producer based in Puerto de Santa María, in southern Spain.

Osborne brings a wealth of wine tourism experience to Montecillo. According to ACEVIN, the Spanish Wine Route Association, over 400,000 wine tourists visited the Sherry region wine route in 2013, more than twice the number visiting Rioja. Osborne has an active wine tourism department responsible for showing visitors around their wineries in Puerto de Santa María and Malpica in Toledo as well as Cinco Jotas, a leading producer of Iberian ham.

Montecillo is reaching out to Rioja wine tourists with two estates: the original Fuenmayor property, a lovingly restored stone winery with several underground niches 12 meters below ground that will be used as a visitors’ and events center, and the nearby winery built in 1975.

the entrance to the 1874 winery in Fuenmayor

the entrance to the 1874 winery in Fuenmayor

Group wine tourism director Carolina Cerrato explained during the opening ceremony of the Fuenmayor winery that Montecillo is the third oldest winery in Rioja. The original owner, Celestino Navajas, learned the wine trade in France and his winery was one of the first to adopt the Bordeaux system of winemaking here. The winery boasts that it has made wine since the creation of the Rioja Regulatory Council in 1926 and has a stock of old wine that hasn’t been moved from its niche for over one hundred years. Is the wine drinkable? Apparently, yes. In 2000 a group of experts from Christie’s, the British auction house opened a number of bottles, selecting the 1938 and 1945 vintages for auction where one bottle fetched £ 834.

One of the niches with hundred year-old bottles

One of the niches with hundred year-old bottles.

the arched ceiling of the 1874 winery

the arched ceiling of the 1874 winery

The winery in Navarrete is proof that a large property is capable of producing great wines. My own experience in Campo Viejo and El Coto proved to me that large wineries, with their financial clout, give them access to the latest technology as well as teams of highly qualified vineyard and winery managers who are able to produce a ‘house style’ year in and year out. This technology was evident at Montecillo with the use of Ganimede fermenters, racking by gravity, two aging cellars with a total of 38,000 barriques from different suppliers featuring an ongoing experiment to follow the evolution of wine from the same vintage aged in different types of barriques.

a scale model of the Navarrete winery

a scale model of the Navarrete winery

Montecillo has made a strong bet on gran reserva. We were shown a cellar with 600,000 bottles of gran reserva 2008 waiting to be labeled and shipped. That’s a lot of wine and a healthy investment if you take into account that Montecillo has financed the cost of the wine, barrels, bottles, corks, bottling and warehousing for seven years before selling a single bottle!

One of Montecillo's barrel aging cellars.  In the foreground, a selection of barriques made of different species of oak from different suppliers.

One of Montecillo’s barrel aging cellars. In the foreground, a selection of barriques made from different species of oak from different suppliers.

One of the bottle aging cellars with 2008 gran reserva.

One of the bottle aging cellars with 2008 gran reserva.

Our tour ended with a stop at the well-stocked shop where you can buy wine from the group’s wineries as well as tee shirts, ties and other souvenirs featuring the Osborne bull.

A selection of ties with the Osborne bull logo in the wine shop in Navarrete.

A selection of ties with the Osborne bull logo in the wine shop in Navarrete.

The bull is arguably the most recognized symbol of Osborne in Spain and has an interesting story behind it. About twenty years ago, the Spanish government forbade the use of roadside billboards, among them, those featuring the Osborne bull. Osborne successfully argued that the bull was not primarily an advertisement for their brand but rather, a symbol of Spain (a well-known euphemism for the Iberian peninsula is ‘la piel de toro’ – ‘the hide of the bull’). The company was allowed to keep the billboards.

The Osborne bull, a symbol of Spain. (Photo credit:  Osborne)

The Osborne bull, a symbol of Spain.
(Photo credit: Osborne)

Alternativa-al-toro-de-Osborne-600x250(Spanish humor:  Driver: “What about the Osborne bull?” Passenger:  “They decided that this is more typically Spanish.”)

Montecillo doesn’t boast an avant-garde, architecture award-winning winery but the visit they offer wine tourists is first-class and the wines are seriously good.

Bodegas Montecillo

Historical 1874 winery

Ctra. Fuenmayor-Navarrete, km. 2

26320 Fuenmayor (La Rioja)

Bodegas Montecillo

Polígono Industrial Lentiscares

Ctra. Fuenmayor, km. 3

26370 Navarrete (La Rioja)

Website: www.osborne.es

Visits: montecillo@osborne.es

Photo credits , except for the Osborne bull:  Tom Perry

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)

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)

 

 

 

 

 

How important are vintage ratings?

From 2004 to 2012, the Rioja Regulatory Council rated four vintages ‘excellent’ and five ‘very good’. When 2013 was judged ‘good’, people here were surprised, because throughout the year conditions were so bad in the vineyards that we were expecting a much lower rating.

The Rioja Regulatory Council carries out an extremely rigorous tasting program of samples of wines from each new vintage. Winemakers from Rioja wineries are given anonymous samples to taste and grade. Some don’t make it – over 8 million liters in 2013. Once the samples have been tasted and accepted, their scores are plugged into a mathematical formula whose results determine whether the vintage is rated ‘excellent’, ‘very good’, ‘good’, ‘standard’ and ‘average’.

Preparing samples to be tasted by the panel

Preparing samples to be tasted by the panel

(Photo credit:  DOCa Rioja)

The fact that the formula assigned ‘good’ to the 2013 vintage is undoubtedly a tribute to the skill of Rioja winemakers.

Since every vintage rating is the average rating of the sum of the individual wines, I feel that the current nomenclature leaves a lot to be desired, especially when the lowest two ratings are ‘standard’ and ‘average’. In the past, the terms were excelente (excellent), muy buena (very good), buena (good), regular (so-so) y deficiente (deficient). It makes more sense to use the downward sliding scale of the past, but the Regulatory Council explains that the tasting panels reject the substandard wines that are therefore not eligible to be called Rioja so it makes no sense to declare a so-so or a deficient vintage.

A member of the Rioja tasting panel evaluating a sample

A member of the Rioja tasting panel evaluating a sample

(Photo credit:  DOCa Rioja)

Like many other aspects of the wine business, Bordeaux started the tradition of assigning ratings to vintages over a hundred years ago and was duly mimicked by other regions in France as well as wine producing regions throughout Europe, among them Rioja.

And, in keeping with its iconoclastic style, rating vintages has been mainly ignored by the New World.

To return to the question posed in the title of this article, in my opinion, vintage ratings are overrated. As a matter of fact, they can be downright misleading. I remember offering 1979 Rioja (‘normal’ i.e. not so good) to my European distributors in 1983 that bought it enthusiastically because it was a very good vintage in Bordeaux. We didn’t receive a single complaint about the wines from this vintage. However when we tried to sell 1980 (good), the same distributors asked for more 1979 because Bordeaux 1980 was so-so. Fortunately comparisons with Bordeaux are a thing of the past.

Wineries in Rioja treat vintage ratings like Parker scores. If they’re over 90, they advertise them. If not, they say nothing and nobody cares. And, because vintage ratings are by definition the average ratings of the individual wines, individual wineries can say that even though the vintage was only average, THEIR wine was excellent. Witness the recent press conference given by Alvaro Palacios in the UK who announced a ‘game changing’ 100% garnacha Rioja from 2013 from his family’s vineyard in Rioja Baja.

An agronomist engineer/winemaker has suggested a dual system of classification in our local newspaper: a rating of the harvest shortly following its conclusion which would include young wines, and a rating of the vintage, which would include the wines eligible for ‘crianza’ status after twelve months in oak. This would allow markets to understand the ageworthiness of very good and excellent vintages, the ones that would produce ‘reservas’ and ‘gran reservas’. It’s an interesting idea that in my opinion merits debate in the Regulatory Council.

Although most of the 2013 will be sold as young wine and crianza, Rioja can boast a run of very good and excellent vintages – crianzas, reservas and gran reservas from 2004 through 2011 that are currently in markets worldwide. Believe me, 2013 will not be a problem.