Artadi says ‘adios’ to Rioja

About a year ago I wrote here that Artadi had threatened to leave the DOCa Rioja and explained what might have moved the winery to take this step. I expressed my hope that the threat would push the Rioja Regulatory Council into speeding up its decision to recognize wines from single vineyards, a demand widely shared by small and medium-sized wineries here.

Sadly, this has not happened and on December 29, Artadi officially withdrew from the Rioja appellation. The Regulatory Council’s only moves so far have been to visit the winery to confiscate Artadi’s stock of official Rioja back labels and to issue a press release stating

“It’s surprising that after having gained notoriety both through its own efforts and also undoubtedly because of belonging to the Rioja appellation, the same project (Rioja) is suddenly no longer suitable for its (Artadi’s) interests, especially when we have not heard directly the real reasons that have led to this decision”.

lopezdelacalle

 Juan Carlos López de Lacalle (photo by baskoniacultura.com)

Even though Artadi never visited the Council to explain why it was leaving Rioja, the winery’s president, Juan Carlos López de Lacalle made it clear that his winery no longer wanted to belong to an appellation where wines selling for two euros a bottle carried the same official back labels as his.

He has a point. The Rioja Council has been dragging its feet in recognizing that there are currently about 600 wineries in the appellation, of which over 400 sell fewer than 500,000 liters (if the sales breakdown of these 400 wineries were more detailed I’m sure we would discover that many of them sell fewer than 50,000 bottles). The competitive advantage of these small wineries is promoting a high quality, single vineyard image but according to the rules as they stand today, a winery can register a brand name alluding to a vineyard or a specific place such as ‘Viña…, Finca…, Tierra…, Prado…, Hacienda…, Alto…, Granja…, Dominio and the like but they can’t say on the back label or any written literature, under the threat of a fine from the Council, that the wine comes from that specific place. ‘Pagos’ isn’t allowed because a specific category of ‘vinos de pago’ was created in the most recent Spanish wine law but wineries that had registered a brand prior to the new law, including Artadi’s ‘Pagos Viejos’, were grandfathered in.

Why can’t these terms be used to describe the place the grapes come from? Because the Regulatory Council doesn’t have the means to certify that a given wine comes from grapes from a specific vineyard. Currently, the smallest area allowed is a village designation, but under the generic umbrella of the Rioja appellation. One could say that the Council is a victim of its own policy of meticulously certifying the origin of grapes. They simply don’t have enough inspectors and they refuse to take the winery’s word for it. (Wineries from the New World: now is the time to laugh!) It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the larger wineries were less than enthusiastic about the idea.

artadi-pagos-viejos

 (Photo credit:  Artadi website)

For Artadi, a village designation under the Rioja umbrella is unacceptable. Mr. López de Lacalle, with a dash of messianic fervor, recently said in an interview on Radio Euskadi (the Basque government’s public radio station), published on January 5 in our local newspaper LA RIOJA:

“What will we gain (by leaving Rioja)? That consumers will have enough information so that they know that our wines come from natural surroundings, from a specific vineyard, from a specific area and from a region like Álava that is longing to express itself and where everything tastes of wine…. We’re going to show consumers the greatness of an area that seems to be created by the hand of God with the optimum conditions to make one of the best wines in the world.”

 The most recent development is that sixty small wineries in Rioja Alavesa – more than half of the members of the Rioja Alavesa Winery Association (representing small wineries in the region with strong financial support from the Basque Government) – indicated in a survey that they were willing to leave Rioja and create a specific appellation based in Rioja Alavesa.

It’s interesting to note that although Artadi has said that their decision is irrevocable and that they will never return to Rioja, a friend who works for the agriculture department of the Riojan government told me yesterday that if Artadi’s experiment doesn’t work and they want to return to the fold, the Council will have no choice but to take them back.

López de la Calle remarked, “Rioja for the Riojans and Álava for the people from Álava”. A noble sentiment indeed, but I’m sure that the large wineries in Rioja Alavesa like Marqués de Riscal, Faustino, El Coto and Bodegas Valdemar want to remain in the Rioja appellation.

As I’ve said many times, if there’s no controversy in Rioja, we’ll have to create it. An apocryphal Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times”. This is certainly the case in Rioja today.

 

 

Basilio Izquierdo: “Twenty years ago grapes were better, now there’s more technology”.

The wine tasters’ club run by lomejordelvinoderioja.com, the online wine information site sponsored by our local newspaper LA RIOJA, closed out its 2014 tasting series by inviting Basilio Izquierdo, one of Rioja’s most talented winemakers, to show his latest wines.

Inside Rioja interviewed Basilio a few years ago and has already reviewed a tasting so I won’t go into details about his past, but rather focus on his recent experiments, accomplishments and musings.

Basilio Izquierdo (Photo:  Tom Perry)

Basilio Izquierdo
(Photo: Tom Perry)

For those of you who don’t know Basilio personally, he’s one of the most modest, unassuming guys I’ve ever met in spite of having kept very fast company throughout his career including studying enology under Émile Peynaud in the same class as Michel Rolland (they’re still very close) and inheriting the chief winemaker’s position at CVNE following the departure of Ezequiel García (‘El Brujo’) to Bodegas Olarra.

Basilio showed us five wines: a sparkling ‘metodo tradicional’, two vintages of his white ‘B’ de Basilio (2011 and 2008) and two vintages of red ‘B’ (2011 and 2008). The idea was to show off the latest vintages on the market against the 2008s, his second vintage after leaving CVNE.

The sparkler is a 2009 blanc de noirs brut nature made exclusively with red garnacha from the Najerilla valley (Rioja Alta). Very pale yellow, almost colorless, fine, persistent mousse in spite of being served in a wine glass, a delicate aroma with hints of nuts and graham crackers, and creamy on the palate. Only 400 bottles were produced to be given away to friends because at least for the time being, it can’t be legally sold. Laguardia, the site of his winery, isn’t included on the list of villages approved for the DO Cava.

Basilio felt strongly that the DO Rioja should allow sparkling wine and raise the requirements bar with respect to cava. I agree and think his 2009 is easily as good as vintage champagne and lots better than practically all the cava reservas I’ve tasted.

The sparkler was big surprise and for me, the best wine in the tasting.

‘B’ de Basilio 2011 made with white garnacha (70%) and viura (30%), fermented and aged for nine months in new French oak is straw yellow, shows floral and tropical fruit notes on the nose, vibrant acidity, luscious with tropical fruit on the palate and a long finish.

'B' de Basilio white (Photo credit:  Universal de Vinos)

‘B’ de Basilio white
(Photo credit: Universal de Vinos)

‘B’ de Basilio 2008 (same varieties, same proportion) is a deeper yellow with pronounced wild flower notes (chamomile to me) good acidity, but in my opinion could be a little more ‘zingy’ (I guess that’s to be expected in an 8 year-old white) and an extremely long finish. It has evolved in complexity and is tasting very well.

‘B’ de Basilio red 2011 (bottled in September 2014).   (± 60% tempranillo, 40% garnacha, 3-5% graciano) Color: medium-high intensity black cherry; acidic red fruit (cranberries to me), spicy; good acidity, pronounced tannicity but elegant, will improve in the bottle.

‘B’ de Basilio 2008 (same varieties, and percentages as 2011). Medium intensity black cherry, complex nose featuring red and black fruit, lipsmacking, ripe, round tannins.

Basilio likes to use a high percentage of garnacha because of its smoothness on the palate. He regrets that so much old vine garnacha, especially in Rioja Baja, was pulled up in favor of tempranillo. In his opinion, this happened because growers favored the low maintenance of tempranillo to the finicky garnacha, prone to millerandage and coulure. The historic wineries in Haro used to own or rent vineyards in Rioja Baja for their blends but most of these were replanted to tempranillo.

Since he didn’t mention his pet peeve about clones, we asked him about it. He’s adamant about not using grapes from vineyards planted after 1985, the year in which in his opinion, growers in Rioja made the mistake of massively planting a specific, high-production tempranillo clone. Before 1985, according to Basilio, winemakers could easily distinguish wine made from grapes from specific villages. He believes that these local differences, along with the widespread use of garnacha, produced wines of greater character than today’s in spite of the lack of technology. He contends that “twenty years ago grapes were better, today there’s more technology”, implying, I think, that what happens in the winery these days is seen by many as  more important than what’s in the vineyards. It’s an interesting question for a future debate between the old guard and the Young Turks of Rioja.

 

 

 

Oscar Tobía pushes the envelope

“Winemaking today is about chemistry. Tomorrow it will be about physics.”

Making a statement like that is Oscar Tobía’s style and in keeping with his role as Rioja’s greatest winemaking innovator. It’s a powerful statement in a region where innovation is everywhere, an indispensible requirement for success in an extremely competitive marketplace.

My friend Jeremy Watson, former director of Wines from Spain in the UK and author of two highly regarded books about Spanish wines, recently expressed an interest in visiting Bodegas Tobía after hearing interesting things about the winery. He asked me to set up the visit and I duly complied.

Jeremy Watson and Oscar Tobía (Photo: Tom Perry)

Jeremy Watson and Oscar Tobía (Photo: Tom Perry)

Oscar enjoys pushing the envelope. He made Rioja’s first barrel fermented rosé but wasn’t allowed to sell it because the technique wasn’t in the Rioja rulebook, but he insisted, won the support of other winemakers and was finally successful in getting the rules changed.

Oscar led us outside to his fermentation tanks, where we saw the first evidence of his commitment to innovation: the exclusive use of Ganimede fermenters from Italy that store and release the CO2 produced during fermentation to constantly mix the grapeskins and the fermenting juice, avoiding the formation of a cap. Oscar says it’s a totally natural process and saves on the cost of traditional methods of mixing the skins and the juice such as delestage, pumping over or pigeage. While a few other Spanish wineries use this technology, only two are in Rioja – Bodegas Montecillo and the San Asensio cooperative, and these only use it partially. Oscar believes that Italy is at the forefront of winemaking innovation today and that Rioja winemakers still pay too much attention to Bordeaux.

Two of the winery's Ganimede fermenters

Two of the winery’s Ganimede fermenters

A second innovation is the use of peristaltic pumps that work by expansion and contraction like the movement of food through our intestines to transfer the skins and juice from the fermenters to the press where they’re separated, avoiding Oscar’s pet peeve, oxidation. In his words, “the wine is born younger”.

A future project is to store the CO2 produced during fermentation in underground tanks for use in the winery to avoid the necessity of buying tanks of gas, another cost-saving device.

Oscar criticizes the abuse of fertilizer in Rioja vineyards, which has increased yields but has also caused an increase of potassium and lower acidity in wines. Traditionally, potassium salts are precipitated and removed by cold stabilization, which Oscar feels is hard on the wines. His solution has been to design a machine to lower the level of potassium (he didn’t explain how it worked) to avoid cold stabilization and the addition of acids. “Less expensive and easier on the wines”, Oscar says.

Another innovation is debourbage by means of flotation. Instead of siphoning off precipitated sediments by gravity, Bodegas Tobía injects nitrogen gas mixed with a kind of gelatin into the tanks. This causes any sediment to float to the top of the tank where it’s removed.

Like other Rioja wineries, Bodegas Tobía uses different kinds of oak: American, French, Hungarian and even Slovak. Unlike other Rioja wineries he experiments with barrels made from wood other than oak, such as ash, cherry, acacia and chestnut in a project with the Murua cooperage and the University of La Rioja. Oscar says that the results are promising and he hopes to release wines aged in these kinds of wood in the near future.

The barrel aging cellar

The barrel aging cellar

Following the tour of the winery, Oscar offered a tasting of eight of the wines from his wide (but not unmanageable) range.

Oscar Tobía white reserva 2009. 50% malvasía, 50% viura with 18 months in French and American oak. Pale yellow; aroma of wildflowers with a subtle touch of well-integrated oak; elegant, almost understated. I liked it a lot. Oscar says he wants to make a wine like the López de Heredia whites, which have taken international markets by storm.

Daimon barrel fermented white 2012. 60% viura, 30% malvasía, 10% tempranillo blanco. Pale straw; chamomile and other dried flowers; medium body, just the right acidity. Very good.

Alma de Tobía barrel fermented rosé 2013. 55% tempranillo, 35% graciano, 10% “other”. Pretty cherry color; bubble gum and anise; interesting smoky character with oak and strawberries.

Daimon barrel fermented red 2012. 56% tempranillo, 22% graciano, 16% garnacha, 6% “other”. Light cherry; strawberries, a hint of oak; crisp acidity with firm tannin, easy to drink but not a simple wine – it has a good backbone.

Tobía Selección crianza 2010. 80% tempranillo, 10% graciano, 10% garnacha. Medium ruby; noticeably oaky, smoky, red fruit; lipsmacking, good structure. I thought it had been given too much oak, but otherwise good.

Oscar Tobía reserva 2010. 90% tempranillo, 10% graciano. Medium ruby; well-integrated red fruit and oak, herbal, minty; Lovely fruit, perfect acidity and firm tannin. Terrific!

Tobía gran reserva 2000. 100% tempranillo. Vinified before the purchase of the Ganimede fermenters. Medium brick; a ‘traditional’ Rioja nose of oak, cedar chest and cloves; silky, good backbone in spite of its age. For me the best wine of the lot.

Alma de Tobía 2009. The same blend as the rosé. Deep garnet, almost inky; dark fruit, spicy; really mouth filling, luscious. Definitely a departure from the previous reds. Oscar said it had some ‘experimental grapes starting with an “m’’ from a vineyard in one of the highest vineyards in Rioja Alta.

IMG_5036

I enjoyed all of Oscar’s wines, although in my opinion, the Tobía Selección 2010 was overoaked and not quite up to the standard of the others.

Oscar uses his barrels for five years and all of his reds undergo malo in barrel. For Alma de Tobía he uses French oak, for Oscar Tobía, one year old French, Hungarian and new American oak. His crianzas are aged in one year old wood from several origins and his graciano (which we didn’t taste), in Hungarian oak. Oscar feels that Hungarian oak respects the original fruit profile of the unaged wines better than the others but it’s expensive, almost as much so as French oak.

He is placing a bet on sauvignon blanc among the new varieties approved by the Rioja Regulatory Council and malvasía among the current varieties. He recently stated in a white wine supplement in our local newspaper LA RIOJA, “Sauvignon blanc is very elegant and blends well with Riojan varietals. Malvasía hasn’t been very popular but it offers numerous possibilities”.

Oscar sells a high percentage of his wines abroad, so keep an eye out for them.

Bodegas Tobía. Paraje Senda Rutia, s/n 26214 Cuzcurrita del Río Tirón (La Rioja)

http://www.bodegastobia.com

The Grande Dame of the Valais or Things aren’t always what they seem

Even though I can’t participate in the 2014 DWCC because of a scheduling conflict, I’d like to make a small contribution to help ramp up the excitement leading up to the event, so here’s a story about one of my trips to Switzerland twenty years ago, when I learned a valuable lesson about the wine business.

It was the mid-1990s, a time of uncertainty in the European wine trade because of several scandals involving illegal additives to wine. Because of the potential risks involved in selling bulk wine, Rioja made the decision to bottle 100% of its production inside the ‘denominación de origen’ and Porto made, or was about to make, the same decision, in this case, backed up by a government decree. Switzerland had been the leading purchaser of bulk Rioja because customs duties and taxes were lower for bulk than bottled wine and it was my job as managing director of the Rioja Wine Exporters’ Association to promote bottled Rioja. So we agreed on a plan to put Rioja’s bottled at source brands front and center to the Swiss wine trade and consumers.

Education was an important part of the plan so the first year we invited the wine lecturers of the major Swiss hotel and restaurant schools to visit us. The following year we began to offer seminars to the students in those schools. The idea was for me to give introductory lectures after which the local lecturers would add ‘Rioja’ to the curricula in the schools.

The lecturers decided to reciprocate for our having taught them about Rioja by inviting me to visit some Swiss wineries. One of these trips was to the Valais region, southeast of Lake Leman. We arrived at a pretty Swiss chalet in the mountains near Fully and went inside the garage under the house. We were greeted by a woman who showed us her winery (located inside the garage) that consisted of some polyester fermentation and storage tanks,  a manual filling device and some cases stacked in a corner.

I thought, “Why did they bring me here?” I was used to big wineries with huge stainless steel vats and row after row of barriques. Our hostess opened a several bottles of wine and gave us a plate of bread and cheese, at which time we went to the garden and sat at a picnic table for a wine and cheese-fuelled snack.

The wines and cheese were good but I couldn’t help wondering “Why did they bring me here?”

Shortly afterward, a big black BMW with Zurich number plates pulled up to the garage. Four guys in suits got out of the car and our hostess went to meet them. “Bankers”, I thought. One of the lecturers took my arm and beckoned for me to follow him to the garage. “Watch this”, he said.

While we looked on, our hostess poured a small glass of wine for each suit. They thoughtfully sniffed, swirled and sipped. The men asked to buy some cases of wine, whereupon our hostess remarked, “Now I know you. Fill out this form and next year I’ll sell you a case.”

I was speechless. My lecturer friend pointed out that our hostess was Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, one of the most famous winemakers in Switzerland whose wines were in such short supply and great demand that they were sold on allocation.

marietheresedetendueMarie-Thérèse Chappaz

(Credit:  vinsconfederes.ch)

The story doesn’t end here. Marie-Thérèse later showed us her vineyards on the steep slope of a nearby mountain. To harvest the grapes, the winery had installed cables attached to metal boxes to bring them down the slope to the winery.

Several years later during a wine marketing lecture to a group in the Canary Islands I told the story to a winemaker whose vineyards were on the side of a steep hill. I put him in touch with Marie-Thérèse. Later I heard that he had installed a similar rig in his mountainside vineyard.

The cables leading down the mountainside from the vineyard. (Credit 2012 UniversDitvin)

The cables leading down the mountainside from the vineyard.
(Credit 2012 Univers Ditvin)

It was my first glimpse at marketing low volume, high demand garage wines and I’ve never forgotten it. I tell the story to all my wine marketing students as a lesson about how to create demand in a crowded marketplace.

Even though I won’t be able to attend the 2014 DWCC, I hope the attendees have the opportunity to take a field trip to Fully in the Valais to meet Marie-Thérèse Chappaz. You won’t regret it.

Marie-Thérèse Chappaz

La Liaudizaz

CH-1926 Fully

www.chappaz.ch (the site is currently being revamped)

 

Lessons from a Master Storyteller

 

Álvaro Palacios (Photo credit:  7canibales.com)

Álvaro Palacios
(Photo credit: 7canibales.com)

I read the other day that there are about 140,000 wineries in the world, most of them small. It’s not hard to imagine that given this fact, gaining the attention of distributors, retailers and consumers is a monumental task. Because wine is an emotional product, telling a good story is an essential first step.

Rioja has a number of master storytellers, notably María José López de Heredia, Agustín Santolaya from Roda and Miguel Ángel de Gregorio (Finca Allende), but the king is Álvaro Palacios.

Álvaro is one of several brothers in the Palacios family from Alfaro in Rioja Baja. In the 1980s it appeared that family patriarch Antonio Palacios was going to pass the torch to his oldest son Antonio. Álvaro felt restless so he went to work for a few years at a barrel manufacturer and then struck out on his own. He settled in Priorato, a remote hilly area with slate soil in the province of Tarragona, known chiefly because of a company that made communion wines. He must have seen something special there because he soon began making very small batches of wine that he aged in a few oak barriques. I’m sure his father was proud of Álvaro for his independent spirit but that didn’t keep him from making a little fun of him. Antonio senior once told me that Álvaro only had two or three barrels – a joke at a time when a Rioja winery had to own at least 500 barrels to have the right to use the official Rioja crianza, reserva and gran reserva back labels.

The next thing I heard from Álvaro was at the holiday portfolio tasting in 1990 at Martin-Scott Wines, Campo Viejo’s New York distributor. Each of the suppliers present had to pour their own wines as well as those from producers from the same country who weren’t able to attend the tasting. I had to pour a wine called Clos Dofí, a powerful, inky red from Priorato made with garnacha and six or seven other varieties. Surprise! It was Álvaro’s first wine.

The rest is history as Álvaro has parlayed the wines from those few barrels into a reputation as Spain’s most famous winemaker.

A few years ago, the tables turned for the Palacios family with the eldest son leaving to start his own venture, and the Rioja winery in the hands of his sister Chelo. She persuaded Álvaro to return to Rioja to lead the family winery while maintaining his businesses in Priorat and Bierzo, this last one with Chelo’s son Ricardo Pérez.

Álvaro’s presence was quickly felt in Alfaro with the creation and success of Placet, La Montesa, Propiedad and La Vendimia with which he has tried passionately to elevate the image of Rioja Baja, the garnacha grape, that accounted for half the area planted to red grapes until the early 1980s, and high altitude viticulture at the family’s vineyards on the slopes of Mount Yerga.

It’s a job he’s been largely doing by himself. A few days ago he wrote an impassioned article in our local paper criticizing the decision of the governments of La Rioja and Álava (central and western Rioja) to apply for UNESCO World Heritage status for Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa while completely ignoring Rioja Baja. It’s a shame.

Álvaro once again turned the status quo in Rioja on its head at a recent press conference where he announced the creation of a ” game changing” single vineyard garnacha from Rioja Baja. At an interview given to The Drinks Business, Palacio touched all the right buttons, instantly creating enormous expectation about the release of his revolutionary Rioja. This is wine storytelling at its best.

Below is an excerpt from the article summarizing the interview which I have copied from The Drinks Business online:

“Palacios to release ‘game changing’ Rioja

28th March, 2014 by Lucy Shaw

Pioneering Spanish winemaker Alvaro Palacios is to release a “game changing” single vineyard Rioja onto the market next year.

Speaking exclusively to the drinks business at an en primeur tasting of the 2013 vintage of his wines from Priorat and Bierzo, Palacios said: “It will be nothing like any wine to have come out of Rioja so far.

“It’s a bit like a Gevrey-Chambertin in character – it has real soul and is quite magical.

“Currently in barrel, it’s a beautiful, bright ruby red and has crisp red fruit aromas of wild strawberries. It’s quite lactic too, so has a creamy mouthfeel, but also notes of tangerine peel, rosemary and thyme.”

Due to be called Valmira, the wine is made from 100% Garnacha grown in a three-hectare single vineyard of the same name at Palacios’ family estate in the village of Alfaro in Rioja Baja.

“I’m confident about the pricing because I’m confident about the quality of the wine. Plus, there won’t be a lot of it – only around 1,300 bottles of the 2013 vintage,” he said.

Palacios has been working on the project for a decade, but a standout harvest in 2013 has spurred the perfectionist to finally release it.

Over the last 10 years, Palacios has been busy grafting low bush vines with Garnacha and uprooting the Tempranillo planted in the vineyard.

“Garnacha is the queen grape of Rioja Baja – it’s been there for centuries. Producers were wrong to uproot it for Tempranillo in order to make a quick buck,” he said.”

The wine business would be a different place if more wineries told their stories with as much passion as Álvaro Palacios.

Through the Looking Glass – Jeremy Watson reflects on Rioja in the 1960s

Jeremy Watson

Jeremy Watson (photo Tom Perry)

Jeremy Watson’s knowledge of Spain, Spanish wines and of course Rioja far surpassed anyone else’s in the UK until he retired 10 years ago. He had a leg up on most of the other Spanish specialists because of his long experience as a Spanish wine importer, agent, Director of Wines from Spain UK for many years and author. His magnum opus, The New and Classical Wines of Spain, published in 2002, is a hefty 440 page in-depth look at everything you need to know about Spanish wines.

I met Jeremy in the mid-1970s while working at Hijos de Antonio Barceló, my first job in the wine business and we have been good friends ever since.

Jeremy often emails me thoughtful, incisive comments about my posts in Inside Rioja, which I greatly appreciate. The one below is especially enlightening about Rioja in the late 1960s and Bodegas Bilbainas in particular. It is with his permission that I reproduce it for you.

“Dear Tom

 I very much enjoyed your piece about the La Tavina Tastings and Bilbainas.

 You may recall this was the first Rioja Bodega I ever visited and that was in 1968 when my then wife and I included it when having a holiday in Zarauz. The company I worked for in London imported vast quantities of Rioja wines but in bulk for bottling in the UK and marketed as Spanish Burgundy, Chablis etcetera, but certainly not as Rioja. So our visit was very welcome and the boss, owner Don Juan Ugarte, travelled up from Bilbao to receive us. He was a charming man but with very strong views; “Spain makes the best wines in the world, Rioja is the best wine in Spain and Bilbainas makes the best wines in Rioja. Therefore Bilbainas makes the best wines in the world”!!!!! There’s something rather Montgomeryesque about those words; “I won Alamein and according to Churchill Alamein won the war, therefore I won the war.” In Ugarte’s case it was explained to me as typical Basque pride. In Montgomery’s, only he knows.

 Anyway after a very interesting tour of the Bodega when we saw what was state of the art technology at the time of ultra modern steel fermentation hoppers and the temperature controlled fermentation vats for the whites, we sat down on a sofa to taste the full range of wines. They were on a small coffee table using an assortment of glasses little bigger than egg cups and all colours of the rainbow; tricky to say the least. What was striking though was the crisp, light freshness of the cheap, unaged white.

 It was 4 years before I visited other Bodegas, those being Riscal and Murrieta. They were not so welcoming but our contacts with them were more intermittent. Since then I have been lucky enough to visit over a hundred. In 1973 Rioja exports to Britain were about 25,000 cases if my memory serves me right. By 1978 this had risen to 75,000 when the acceleration began to 300,000 cases in 1982 and the 3 million today.

 I recall one lovely story told to me by Santiago, Juan’s only son. They had shipped the usual railway wagonload of bottled wines for our Christmas requirements by train direct from the Bodega but it never arrived at the port, so a replacement was sent by road at great expense to them. Meanwhile Santiago tried tracing the route of the container through Miranda de Ebro to Bilbao but could not find it until he actually started going through the marshalling yards at Miranda. No small job but and eventually he came across it tucked away at the back. When he made enquiries of the shunters he was told that it was a ‘terrible error’ which they could not comprehend. Though not the brightest spark, Santi guessed he knew the answer and went back to the Bodega to enquire whether the usual couple of free cases for the shunters at Miranda had been included in the wagon. He was told they had been forgotten; so the problem was solved. Mind you I believe there was a similar gift for the Customs at Bilbao from most Bodegas and that practice continued for many years.

Sadly as Don Juan grew older, the business started to slide badly. By now Santi had died from illness that resulted from a terrible accident before I had met him. One of his sisters was in a convent while the other was married to a lawyer who tried desperately to revive the company whilst continuing his practice, but to no avail and eventually the great Cava company, Codorníu bought it. What they have done to put Bilbainas back on its feet is fantastic. Of course one must not underrate the power of the Ederra and Viña Pomal brands which, along with a highly acclaimed winemaker, Pepe Hidalgo, held it together way longer than it probably deserved.”

Elaborating on Jeremy’s story, after Santi Ugarte’s death, the remaining heirs fought off a hostile takeover by their neighbour winery CVNE and sold the company to a group of investors led by a director of a major Spanish bank, José Luis Urdampilleta. They made important investments, especially a remodelling of the huge barrel ageing cellars after which they sold the winery to Codorniú who have the financial resources and distribution to give the Bilbainas wines the recognition they deserve.

Most people living outside Spain aren’t aware that Bilbainas produces one of Spain’s best cavas – Royal Carlton. Their experience with sparkling wine goes back almost a century. I remember visiting several years ago with a group of wine writers at which time the winery showed us a framed invoice from Bilbainas to one of the most famous champagne houses. I can’t remember the date of the invoice but apparently this particular maison had problems providing champagne to its customers and turned to a Rioja bodega for help!

Another interesting anecdote referred to the future of the Royal Carlton brand after Bilbainas’ purchase by Codorniú. In spite of Royal Carlton’s popularity in Catalonia, Codorniú’s first intention was to discontinue the brand. They received so many complaints from shops and consumers that they decided to keep selling this Riojan cava in Catalonian cava’s home market!

 

 

 

 

 

Lorenzo Cañas – a chef ahead of his time

Lorenzo Cañas doesn’t have a Michelin star like several other restaurants in the Rioja region but there’s no doubt that he’s the best-known and loved of all the local chefs. He’s always been known as a chef ahead of his time.

Lorenzo Cañas

Lorenzo Cañas

He revolutionized the gastronomic scene in Rioja when he opened his restaurant La Merced in a palace on calle Mayor in the old quarter of Logroño in January 1983, about the time I moved here.  Pre-Lorenzo restaurants here offered the hearty fare of the region – baby lamb chops (chuletillas de cordero), vegetable stew (menestra de verduras), a white bean potage (pochas), chickpeas (garbanzos), white asparagus and several kinds of grilled fish, all served in rather unpretentious surroundings. Some people here say that the food was usually thrown on your plate rather than served. Lorenzo literally brought to the table his vast experience as a chef and diner at the best tables all over Europe, taking dining to a higher level in his gourmet restaurant with classical music, fine art hanging from the walls, porcelain dishes, linen tablecloths and a huge underground wine cellar stocked with mostly Rioja but also wines from other regions in Spain and many from abroad, especially France.

He was trying to bring the best in fine dining to our little region.

Bunch of fried green asparagus with pancetta, a goat cheese sandwich and a quail egg with Riojan chorizo on a spoon

Bunch of fried green asparagus with pancetta, a goat cheese sandwich and quail eggs with Riojan chorizo on a spoon

Most of his customers were businessmen like me with expense accounts from wineries and visitors from big cities around Spain.  Sadly, most of the locals didn’t understand what he was trying to create.  It wasn’t the cost of the meal but rather the modern twist on our regional cuisine that turned people off.  Here, most diners preferred simplicity of style, food like their mothers used to make in the village. I always thought it funny that people wanted to be seen driving Audis and BMWs but would rather eat in a local tavern.

a selection of fresh local vegetables with ham (served in a mold)

a selection of fresh local vegetables with ham (served in a mold)

the same vegetable dish after opening with a fork

the same vegetable dish after opening with a fork

The recession of the late 1980s slowed business down, especially from the wineries, and by the mid nineties Lorenzo decided to close La Merced.  He didn’t go away, though.  Realizing that even though Riojans didn’t appreciate a fine dining experience on a Friday or Saturday evening, they were prepared to pay big money for their children’s christenings, first communions and weddings, as well as for government-sponsored awards dinners, so he reopened La Merced in a huge new facility on the outskirts of Logroño as an events caterer and has been going full speed ahead ever since.

a fresh cod steak on a bed of red peppers from Nájera with a tomato and onion sauce

a fresh cod steak on a bed of red peppers from Nájera with a tomato and onion sauce

Two weeks ago, our local newspaper LA RIOJA took a big stand at San Sebastian Gastronomika, one of the world’s foremost gastronomic congresses.  The paper invited me along to cover the event from a ‘foreigner’s’ perspective.  Each day for three days, a lunch was prepared for chefs and journalists by a famous Riojan chef – Francis Paniego of Echaurren, Ignacio Echapresto of La Venta Moncalvillo (each of these with a Michelin star) and of course, Lorenzo Cañas.

roast rack of baby lamb with apple sauce and sautéed shiitake mushrooms

roast rack of baby lamb with apple sauce and sautéed shiitake mushrooms

the lamb was perfectly cooked

the lamb was perfectly cooked

All three meals were very good but all of us from the newspaper agreed that Lorenzo blew the others away.

A humble man not satisfied with his effort in San Sebastian (although I thought that his cod in tomato sauce was the best I had ever tasted) Lorenzo decided to invite us for lunch last Friday at La Merced, serving the same meal as in San Sebastian.

a pear from Rincón de Soto cooked in red wine , topped with lemon sorbet

a pear from Rincón de Soto cooked in red wine , topped with lemon sorbet

It was even better than the time before, and all the more amazing because Lorenzo is capable of serving that kind quality to three hundred people at a time.

Lorenzo spent several hours during and after the meal answering questions and reminiscing about his 40-plus years of experience.  His only admission of any prestigious achievement was showing us his book of VIP guests, filled with words of admiration from heads of state, ministers, actors, actresses and other celebrities.  The walls of his private dining room are covered with awards and certificates of membership in the most famous gastronomic societies in the world.

I feel sorry for friends who visit us here – we can take them to great tapas bars, local holes-in-the-wall and Michelin-starred restaurants, but to eat a Lorenzo Cañas meal you have to be invited to a first communion or a wedding!

Oh, I almost forgot about the wines:

Lealtanza white 2012 (Bodegas Altanza)

Tobelos crianza (Bodegas Tobelos)

Tahón de Tobelos reserva (Bodegas Tobelos)

Sorry for not including any tasting notes – I was too busy enjoying the food!

some of Lorenzo's many recognitions from Spain and abroad

some of Lorenzo’s many recognitions from Spain and abroad

more awards and distinctions

more awards and distinctions