Baby Lamb Chops Grilled and Logroño’s Mayor Roasted at the Annual Celebration of the Lamb Chop

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Who doesn’t like an outdoor cookout? Whether it’s a South African braai, throwing some shrimp on the barbie in Australia, smoking ribs or grilling hamburgers in the back yard in the USA, making a meal outside is a great way to entertain friends and families.

In the Rioja region, our version of the cookout is grilling baby lamb chops over coals from vine cuttings, and the traditionally accepted way to eat them is with your hands, even in restaurants. Once at a large event at a Rioja winery, the chefs grilled lamb chops for guests that included Spain’s King Juan Carlos. When the king received his plate, everyone in the room held their breath to see how he was going to eat them. When he picked up his chop with his hands, the guests breathed a sigh of relief and picked theirs up, too!

One of the most popular events during the wine festival in Logroño in late September is the “celebration of the lamb chop”. According to two of my friends who grew up in the neighborhood, this tradition started in the 1970s when a local bar organized a contest to see who could eat the most lamb chops. Participants came from all over Spain and the winner was determined by weighing the bones.

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Turning vine cuttings into coals

This contest no longer takes place, but to commemorate it, the Riojan Social Club Federation, with the blessing of the city hall, closes off four blocks of one of Logroño’s main streets on the last Saturday morning of the wine festival. Groups of friends sign up to participate and for a fee of 80 euros, each group is provided with a table, four chairs, a big plate of lamb chops, a large steel plate on the street, a special lamb chop grill and several big bunches of grapevine cuttings. This year there were 125 tables. The groups always bring thick slices of bacon and other pork products to grill, sliced tomatoes, olives, spicy green peppers, chorizo and of course, plenty of bottles of Rioja and cans of beer. Friends and passers-by are encouraged to enjoy the atmosphere.

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A grillmeister with a sense of humor

At the table I visited, everyone was talking about two anecdotes. The first was about two tourists who happened to walk by during the cookout and were invited to have a few lamb chops and drink some wine. They readily accepted the invitation and then asked what for them was a logical question: “How much do we owe you?” Our group roared with laughter and told them that it was free. The tourists walked away dazed. Such is Riojan hospitality!

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Dead soldiers in the gutter

The second anecdote was the previous night’s controversy about Logroño’s new mayor saving the traditional ‘burning of the wine barrel’, the event marking the end of the wine festival. The mayor’s reasoning was to participate in the World Climate Strike to help save the environment. Everyone looked at the dense smoke rising from the hundreds of smoking grills in the street and wondered how much heat the mayor was going to get on social media and at the next city council meeting. He was appropriately roasted!

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Smoking grills with lamb chops – Notice the grill-it can be flipped over to cook the chops on both sides.

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Photos:  Tom Perry

 

Spanish Ministry of Agriculture Gives Green Light to 84 Singular Vineyards in Rioja

July 30, 2019 marks the beginning of a new era in the DOCa Rioja.

The Spanish Ministry of Agriculture approved the regulations proposed by Rioja wineries and grape growers that designate 84 vineyards covering 154 hectares as “Viñedos Singulares” (singular vineyards).

43 vineyards are in Rioja Alavesa, 31 in Rioja Alta and 10 in Rioja Oriental.

The process to guarantee the traceability of the grapes from these vineyards through vinification, barrel and bottle aging was approved internally by the Rioja Regulatory Council starting with the 2017 vintage but final Agriculture Ministry approval was required. As of July 30, wines made from these grapes can carry a specific guarantee label if they receive an “excellent” rating from a tasting panel both immediately after vinification and before the wine is released from the winery, and to state on the front label that the wine comes from a singular vineyard.

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(Credit:  lomejordelvinoderioja.com)

How does a vineyard become “singular”? The most important requirements are:

  • The vineyard must be at least 35 years old;
  • A report must show that it has agro-geological conditions differentiating it from others in the area;
  • Maximum yields must be no higher than 5000 kg/ha for red grapes and 6922 kg/ha for whites (23% lower than those required for other Rioja grapes)
  • A maximum of 65 liters of wine can be produced for every 100 kg of grapes (for ‘regular’ Rioja, the allowed ratio is 72% and for certain vintages up to 75%);
  • No machine picking is allowed;
  • The grapes must be vinified, and the wine aged, stored and shipped from the same winery;
  • No contract bottling is allowed.

The approval of singular vineyards in Rioja culminates a process of recognition of wines from specific areas in our region. Zone wines (from the Alavesa, Alta and Oriental) have been a possibility since the 1990s. More recent has been the approval of village wines.

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(Credit:  Tom Perry)

According to the 2018 annual report of the Regulatory Council there are more than 114,026 individual plots of vineyards in Rioja. 15,069 hectares of vineyards were planted before 1985. Wineries have been marketing wines coming from single vineyards for at least ten years without official recognition. However, because of the rigorous certification process, wines from singular vineyards are a big step beyond the idea of a single vineyard wine.

As I mentioned in a previous article, (https://insiderioja.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/rioja-finally-comes-to-grips-with-single-estates/) both single vineyard wines and wines from singular vineyards are essential for the preservation of old vines in Rioja. Many growers pulled up their old vines because they weren’t able to find a buyer at a worthwhile price. It took the efforts of a group of pioneering young winemakers (http://www.greatwinecapitals.com/Let%27s-Rioja-%27n%27-Roll) to give well-deserved recognition to these grapes and the wines they made and gave other owners of old vineyard a reason to hang on to them.

Wines from singular vineyards can be ´generic’, crianza, reserva or gran reserva.

The 1999 Spanish wine law created a quality pyramid structure for Spanish wines, with table wines at the base and single vineyard wines at the top. The Ministry of Agriculture’s idea was:

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(Credit:  Tom Perry)

At the time, the Rioja Regulatory Council rejected the idea of creating a single vineyard wine category for Rioja, arguing (correctly in my opinion), that a single vineyard wine wasn’t intrinsically of higher quality than a Rioja blend,  a single varietal, a crianza, reserva or a gran reserva. The Council worked on its own singular vineyard concept for several years until wineries and growers agreed on the terms.

Now that the Ministry has approved the certification process, consumers can look forward to tasting the first Riojas made from singular vineyards. Inside Rioja will do our best to let you know when they are released and where you can buy them.

 

 

 

 

Blues to cure the September blues – Rioja and the Five Senses

 

IMG_2797It’s the beginning of September. Vacation’s over but you still have to endure a flight delay or a monumental traffic jam most of the way from the coast back to your house. The kids are complaining because they have to go back to school. You have to go back to work. You’ve gained five pounds in three weeks. You’re irritable and can’t sleep. Sound familiar? It’s what Spaniards call ‘el síndrome posvacacional’ or post-vacation stress.

Fortunately in Rioja, The ‘Rioja and the Five Senses’ program has the cure. Throughout September, your sense of hearing is stimulated by a range of musical activities around the world of Rioja wine. It puts you in a good mood and gets you thinking about wine again after a summer of drinking beer.

Inside Rioja attended two of these activities recently: a concert of popular music from the ‘30s and ‘40s held at Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha in the small village of Baños del Río Tobía in the southwestern corner of the Rioja wine district, and a rock/blues/pop combo at Bodegas La Emperatriz a few miles north.

Round One – Swing

Saphie Wells and the Swing Cats, a four person combo made up of a tenor sax/clarinet, an upright bass and a guitar, led by a talented young singer, Saphie Wells. The band played songs made popular by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Eartha Kitt and others, including ‘Let’s call the whole thing off’, ‘All of me’ and ‘C’est si bon’. Ms. Wells really put her heart into the songs, and her audience responded by snapping fingers and clapping in time with the music.

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One of the buildings in the winery was converted into a nightclub for the event, with soft lighting, and tables for two or four with candles scattered in front of the stage. During the concert, the winery served one of its red wines with glasses frequently topped up. Fortunately most people came and went on a bus provided by the organizers! https://swingcatsbarcelona.com/

The winery

Juan Carlos Sancha is not only a winery owner but also holds a Ph.D in viticulture. A professor at the University of La Rioja, he is one of Rioja’s foremost experts on local grapes. In the 1990s he led a movement to rescue little-known grape varietals from extinction and then fought to get the best ones approved for use in Rioja wines. You can thank him and his colleague Fernando Martínez de Toda for the addition of red and white maturana and turruntés (no relation to the torrontés grown in Argentina) and helping to develop white tempranillo, a natural mutation of the red variety, discovered in 1988.

Sancha has also fought hard to develop the concept of singular vineyards in Rioja and old vine garnacha at high altitude above the Najerilla river valley near Baños. https://juancarlossancha.com/

Round Two – rock and roll

The following Saturday we traveled to Bodegas La Emperatriz, a winery surrounded by over 200 hectares of vineyards divided into 22 plots. Some of these are in the process of being certified as singular vineyards. The property used to belong to Empress Eugenia de Montijo, wife of France’s Napoleon III, with grape and wine production dating from the mid-19th century. The property’s current owners are Eduardo and Víctor Hernáiz.

Both Juan Carlos Sancha and La Emperatriz are members of Provir, an association of family-owned wineries in Rioja. Eduardo Hernáiz is the association’s current president.

http://www.bodegaslaemperatriz.com/en/

The musical date was with Confluence, from Bilbao, a band made up of weekend musicians who in “real” life are lawyers, statisticians, civil servants and members of other professions. ‘Confluence’, as the name suggests, specializes in a combination of rock, pop, country, jazz, blues and spirituals.

Led by the inimitable Irrintzi Ibarrola on vocals and acoustic guitar, the band is made up of a Hammond organ, electric bass, drums, electric guitar, and harmonica with an occasional riff from an alto sax.

If Saphie Wells and the Swing Cats reminded me of the music my parents used to listen to, Irrintzi Ibarrola and Confluence was my music – the USA and UK from the 1960s and early 70s, with songs from Ben E. King (Stand by Me), Otis Redding (Sitting on the Dock of the Bay), the Beatles (I’ll Get by with a Little Help from my Friends) – although sung in the lusty Joe Cocker version, Johnny Cash and of course, Bob Dylan.

Hearing the Cocker song took me back to 1970 when some friends and I jumped a curfew imposed  because of the riots caused by the Kent State murders to go to a Cocker concert in downtown Columbus, Ohio.  It was well worth risking getting arrested!

The band also played some of Ibarrola’s original songs. My favorite was ‘Mitad hombre, mitad sardina’ (Half man, half sardine) inspired by the moment Ibarrola looked at himself in the mirror wearing a wet suit.

Clearly, Ibarrola’s inspirations are Cocker, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Cash and Motown (Ibarrola introduced himself as a native of Detroit). His number one hero, however is Bob Dylan. For the group’s second encore, Ibarrola sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ as Dylan in the 60s, 80s and the 21st century.  Pure genius!

It was a swingin’, swayin’, foot stomping performance.

After the concert I introduced myself as a real native of Detroit. Ibarrola laughed and asked me if I had understood his singing. “Every word”, I replied, although I have to agree with Ibarrola’s statement from a recent article in Bilbao’s El Correo: “You can perform rock and roll in any language”!

Right on, brother!

 

 

The Haro Train Station District Event, Part 2

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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.

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 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’.

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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.

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

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

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

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Painting a mural at Gómez Cruzado

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‘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.

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Visitors comparing tasting notes

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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

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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.

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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.

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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