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

A farmer takes the helm in Rioja

For the first time in its 87-year history, a grape grower has been elected president of the Rioja Interprofessional Committee and the Regulatory Council. Luis Alberto Lecea, whom we’ve visited on Inside Rioja, will take over from Victor Pascual as soon as the Ministry of Agriculture publishes the order ratifying his appointment in the Official Journal. It’s about time.

Luis Alberto Lecea (Photo:  Tom Perry)

Luis Alberto Lecea
(Photo: Tom Perry)

Lecea, a well-respected leader of the Riojan chapter of ASAJA, one of Spain’s farmers’ unions, carries a lot of weight on his shoulders. Farmers and wine co-ops here have complained for several years about low prices of grapes and wine, a situation that practically paralyzed the Rioja Interprofessional Committee and the Regulatory Council for the last 18 months of Pascual’s nine year tenure.  The producers were hoping to pressure the wineries into paying higher prices by refusing to approve the Council’s advertising and operating budgets but last minute negotiations, promises and the lack of unity between the co-ops and the unions always allowed the budgets to be approved.

Victor Pascual (Photo:

Victor Pascual

Lecea brings a lot of experience and a cool head to the table but my first impression is that fellow growers expect him to push through a deal for higher grape and wine prices.  In his first interview he said, “Minimum prices aren’t possible and reference prices in the wine business are a complicated matter, but we have to be capable of putting in place a means to guarantee a minimum price because the added value of bottles should be reflected in the price of grapes.  I insist that if Rioja doesn’t pay a fair price (for grapes), quality grapes won’t be produced.” Spoken like a true politician.

The Grupo Rioja, the largest winery association whose members include all the big wineries, and whose support allowed Lecea to be elected, picked up the gauntlet by convening a press conference on June 24. “Grape and wine prices are set by supply and demand” was the association’s message.

So, once again, swords have been drawn, confirming my contention that if there’s no political conflict in Rioja, one has to be created.

Fortunately, if we look at the big picture, we can see that in spite of low grape prices, Riojan vineyards continue to be exquisitely tended. On the winery side, there is more variety and more interesting wine on the market than ever before in spite of shrinking retail prices. So, as one prone to sarcasm like me, these political statements sound like a lot of hot air. As much as I sympathize with the economic woes of the growers, I don’t see distributors and supermarkets around the world willing to pay higher prices for Rioja in the medium term unless individual wineries come up with products that these gatekeepers think are worth the extra cost. Because of their weight in Rioja, the onus is on the big wineries to provide these added-value products and sell the hell out of them. Mr. Pascual said in his farewell speech, “Nine years ago it was unthinkable that Rioja would sell 100 million liters outside of Spain.” Spaniards would respond that Mr. Pascual doesn’t have a grandmother (in Spain, grandmothers are the people that heap praise on their offspring.  “Not to have a grandmother” means you have to praise yourself!) On a serious note, it is indeed a testimony to hard work by wineries and a willingness to invest in international generic and branded PR by both wineries and farmers that this figure has been reached, but there has also been a healthy dose of price cutting, starting, in some cases, long before the economic crisis hit in 2008.

If, however, we forget about internal politics and concentrate on what’s on the shelf, today is a great time to get great deals on good wine. To me as a consumer, that’s what matters.

The Yin and the Yang of Rioja

yin-yangMaría José López de Heredia is one of my favorite people and I love her wines, so when I was offered the chance to attend a tutored tasting of her wines, I jumped.  An extra added attraction was the venue:  Benjamin Romeo’s Wine Bar La Tercera Estación in San Vicente de La Sonsierra.  The event was a tasting of three vintages of Viña Tondonia white (1998, 1991 and 1970), three Tondonia reds (2001, 1994 and 1964) and a dinner made by Benjamin’s wife Iraide Somarriba, one of the chefs at the well-known restaurant Regi, near Bilbao.  The meal was accompanied by Benjamin’s wines from Bodega Contador.


María José López de Heredia

María José López de Heredia


This event was a unique opportunity to taste wines with diametrically opposed character – Viña Tondonia is the essence of elegance and delicacy while Contador is big, bold and in your face.  It’s amazing that both styles coexist in Rioja, perfectly illustrating the Regulatory Council’s motto ‘Rioja, land of a thousand wines’.


María José and Benjamin

María José and Benjamin


I’ve heard María José speak many times but each time I learn something new about her family and the origin of the López de Heredia winery. She told us that  her great grandfather, Rafael López de Heredia, had no intention of making a wine for the masses. His dream was to promote the concept of ‘vinos finos’ as opposed to ordinary table wines. His target market was elitist:  people who had a car, wore a tie and spoke languages, a very small market in early 20th century Spain.


Image 12


To accomplish this, he decided to set up an office and tasting room in downtown Madrid between Cibeles and the Puerta del Sol.  Every day he received news from the winery and sent detailed instructions to Haro, no easy task in an age where telegrams and letters were the most efficient means of communication before widespread use of the telephone.

María José explained that the wide variety of styles of Rioja is due more to the way vineyards are tended and vinification than to climate change.  It was surprising therefore to note that the alcoholic strength of the three whites increased with newer vintages:  1970-11,5%; 1991-12% and 1998-12/12,5%.  This seemed to be a contradiction until she explained that until 1970, Tondonia whites had a larger percentage of malvasía, which produces wines with lower alcohol.

It would be interesting for María José to meet professor Gregory Jones from the University of South Oregon, who has done extensive research on the effects of climate change on wine. According to a report I recently read, research in St.-Émilion and Pomerol revealed that climate accounted for over 50% of the variation in quality parameters, 25% was due to soil, 15-20% due to cultural practices and varietal differences the rest.


Part of the lineup

Part of the lineup

It was hard for me to concentrate on the wines while listening to María José’s storytelling, but my tasting notes follow.

1998 white:  medium pale yellow; delicate citrus aroma; racy acidity.  It took the wine about an hour to really show its character.  I wondered, ‘ if the 1998 took this long to open up, how long would it be for the 1991 and 1970?’

1991 white:  straw yellow; chamomile, wildflowers; high acidity, good structure.  Amazingly alive for a 22 year old white.

1970 white:  a little darker straw yellow; slight oak aroma, melon, grapefruit, wildflowers; good structure, long mouthfeel.  Amazingly alive for a 43 year old wine.  It was blindingly obvious that high acidity provided the backbone allowing this wine to retain its characteristics after so many years.

On to the reds.

2001:  cherry/light brick; lively; maraschino cherries; great structure with firm, elegant tannins and lively acidity.

1994:  color a little more towards brick than cherry; same delicate sensation of cherries; round, elegant tannins, very polished, high acidity.

1964:  brick with an orange rim; delicately floral; red fruit just perceptible, still good acidity.  An interesting wine but past its prime. Who cares?  What an experience! It was hard to believe that this wine was thirty years older than the 1994.

On the subject of ageing, María José explained that her great grandfather didn’t intend his wines to be laid down, except for consumption by the family – this was his concept of a ‘reserva’, something for the family to keep and drink.  Judging from the acclaim received for these old vintages from wine writers and consumers, it’s fortunate that the stock of these old vintages of Tondonia has surpassed the family’s thirst!

For dinner, Iraide Somarriba prepared a fantastic offering of dishes to go with her husband’s wines. By this time (since no spit buckets had been provided), the conversation around the table was lively and we concentrated more on the food rather than the wine.


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 White asparagus mousse with hollandaise sauce.

 Wine:  Predicador white.


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 Tuna tenderloin topped with anchovies, roasted red peppers and fried slices of potato.


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A tempura-fried Gernika pepper with a piquillo pepper sauce.


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 Hake on a bed of crushed crabmeat topped with a hake cheek.

 Wine:  Qué Bonito Cacareaba white 2011


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 Stewed pigs’ trotters served in a ‘Vizcaya’ sauce (stewed spicy pepper meat with olive oil and ham) with wild mushrooms.

 Wine: Predicador 2011.

Benjamin, who has a reputation for being a smart aleck, remarked while grinning at María José, that the wine had been bottled that afternoon.  That got a big laugh from the audience!


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 Brownie (well, sort of)


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 Wine:  La Viña de Andrés Romeo 2009


I have to admit that because of the lively conversation around the table and the speed with which both the dishes and the wines were served, I didn’t take detailed tasting notes on either the food or the wines, but I can say that the food was excellent and the wines promising, but largely inscrutable, at least to my nose and palate. I preferred the two whites to the reds, which showed great concentration and jamminess. They were very closed, almost like a black hole, with just a hint of what would undoubtedly open up in time to great complexity.

It would have been fun to spend another two hours talking, waiting for the wines to open up, but it was a week night and the fear of police cars on the prowl for tipsy drivers made me leave right after the meal.

Benjamin is going to give a tasting of his wines in the near future where I’ll be able to give them the attention they undoubtedly deserve.

Small vineyards, big wines

The neoterroirist movement is gaining traction in Rioja. One of the families leading the charge is the Egurens.


You might ask yourself, “Neoterroirists? Hasn’t Rioja always been a terroir-based wine?” Yes and no.  If we look at the last quarter of the 19th century, the founders of what is known today as modern Rioja (that is, wines made from destemmed grapes and aged in oak – Luciano de Murrieta, Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga, Rafael López de Heredia and others) believed in owning vineyards and creating brands based on wines produced there.  But they, and wineries founded later also believed in blending grapes and wine from different parts of our region because the low alcohol tempranillo-based wines from Rioja Alta and Alavesa needed the meatier garnacha-based wines from hot Rioja Baja to flesh out their wines and because the end of the harvest in Alta and Alavesa often brought cold and rain.

The neoterroirists reject the Rioja-wide blending habits of the large wineries, assuming the risks of putting all their grapes in one basket, attempting to define the personality of wines produced in small vineyards.  The latest slogan used by the Rioja Regulatory Council,  ‘Rioja:  the land of a thousand wines’ recognizes this fact.

Like a few other families in Rioja, the Egurens started out as farmers who decided to vinify their grapes, age and bottle their wines rather than sell grapes to other wineries.   The family have been farmers since 1870 with the fifth generation currently managing the company. They own 100 hectares in Rioja and 92 hectares in the DO Toro. Their Rioja business is based in San Vicente de la Sonsierra across the Ebro river from Briones in La Rioja and Páganos, near Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa.

Three generations of the Eguren family (Credit:  Eguren brochure)

Three generations of the Eguren family (Credit: Eguren brochure)

San Vicente de la Sonsierra is the largest village in the Sonsierra region, located at the foot of the Sierra Cantabria mountain range. San Vicente belongs administratively to La Rioja but viticulturally, the Sonsierra lies between Briñas to the west near the Conchas of Haro to just east of San Vicente and includes vineyards in La Rioja and Álava. Some wine writers call the Sonsierra ‘la milla de oro’ or ‘the Golden Mile’.

The family philosophy is to blend wines from their own vineyards for the Sierra Cantabria range and to produce single vineyard wines for the Viñedos de Páganos range.  Marcos Eguren, the head viticulturist and winemaker for the family explained that their project is “to make wines that evoke the character of the vineyard, versatile and with a strong personality”.

The family’s properties are:

In Rioja:

  • El Puntido (25 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1975 in Páganos at 600 meters above sea level on calcareous clay soil)
  • La Nieta (1,75 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1975 in Páganos on silty clay soil, with 30% of the vines planted on a bedrock base)
  • La Veguilla (16,5 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1975 in San Vicente de la Sonsierra on pure clay and calcareous clay soil with pebbles)
  • Finca El Bosque (1,48 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1973 in San Vicente de la Sonsierra on clay soil with pebbles)
  • La Canoca (18 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1985 on calcareous clay soil)
  • La Llana (10 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1980 on alluvial soil)
  • Valgrande and Jarrarte (4 hectares of tempranillo and garnacha, planted in 1957 and 1959 on calcareous clay soil).

In Toro:

  • 90 hectares of tinta de Toro (tempranillo) on sandy soil.  All of the vineyrds were planted at least 70 years ago, and some are prephylloxeric.

All of the family’s wines are vinified from grapes from their own vineyards.

We tasted five Riojas and three Toros.

1)   Organza white 2010 (Rioja)

Organza is made from a field blend of viura, malvasía and white garnacha coming from the family’s vineyards, but from which ones wasn’t specified. Fermented in new French oak from the Vosges, remaining on the lees for six months and later matured in  barrel for a further nine months.

Organza was the last wine in the tasting, which I think is a shame because it really didn’t open up after pouring.  When I used to take journalists to their San Vicente winery, Marcos Eguren always recommended tasting Organza both at the beginning and the end of the tasting.

I found it to have a straw yellow color, a chamomile and aniseed nose opening up to peaches and apricots, with great acidity and structure. It’s consistently one of the best white Riojas I’ve ever tasted.

2)   Murmurón 2012 (Rioja)

Murmurón is arguably Rioja’s best cosechero red, with no hint of the bubble gum and sulfur dioxide aromas that characterize most of Rioja’s cosecheros.  It showed a violet-bright cherry color, a fresh, grapey nose reminiscent of strawberries and raspberries, well balanced with ripe tannins and very easy to drink.  It was served slightly chilled, as these wines always are in bars here.


3)   Sierra Cantabria Selección Privada red 2009 (Rioja)

This wine comes from the Valgrande and Jarrarte vineyards.  It was vinified with whole berry fermentation and with crushed grapes and aged for 18 months in new French and American oak.  Medium cherry.  Spicy nose – to me, nutmeg with dark fruit and cocoa coming out after a few minutes.  It took a long time to open up, with jammy fruit coming through when I retasted all the wines at the end of the tasting.  Well balanced with ripe tannins.

Colección Privada

4)   El Puntido 2008 (Rioja)

El Puntido is a single vineyard wine coming from the eponymous vineyard.  16 months ageing in new French oak, with bottling in May, 2010. Fairly intense, brilliant cherry, cherry and slightly acidic, cranberry-like fruit.  Not too much oak coming through in spite of the time spent in new wood.  Great acidity and a long finish.  My favorite wine in the tasting.

El Puntido

5)   La Nieta 2009 (Rioja)

Also a single vineyard wine.  Intense cherry, slightly less brilliant than El Puntido.  Black cherries on the nose but otherwise closed.  A mouthful.  Many of the tasters gushed about La Nieta being the best wine in the tasting but I thought it was closed.  It probably would have showed better if the tasting had been an hour longer.  A shame.

La Nieta

6)   Almirez 2011 (Toro)

To me, the Eguren story in Toro is fascinating.  They created two dynamite brands there, Numanthia and Termanthia, the undisputed darlings of  international wine gurus, led by Robert Parker.  This naturally attracted the attention of the luxury brand conglomerate LMVH, who bought the Toro winery, the brands and the vineyards.  The Egurens must have kept something up their sleeves, however, because they immediately began to develop new brands, a winery and 90 hectares of old vines.  I’m not sure, but I suspect they owned them before the LMVH deal because otherwise the vineyards would have cost a fortune.  In any case, the family is once again at the top of the heap in Toro.

Marcos Eguren explained that one of the problems winemakers face in Toro is achieving phenolic (anthocyanins and tannins) ripeness, optimum alcoholic strength (avoiding massive 15% wines) and aromatic ripeness at the same time.  The solution:  looking for vineyards at higher elevations, something they have succeeded at. Fruit extraction is less intense than in Rioja to obtain ripe juice while eliminating the ‘green’ flavors from unripe seeds.  The Eguren story in Toro could be summed up as ‘taming the beast’.

Almirez is 100% tinta de Toro, aged for 14 months in oak – 30% new French and 70% one year-old French oak. It shows a very intense cherry color, dark fruit (hard to define because the wines were closed), with elegant tannins and good balance between spicy oak and rich fruit.


7)   Victorino 2010 (Toro). 100% tinta de Toro. 18 months in new French oak, bottled in June, 2012.

Very intense cherry.  Again a very closed nose at first, opening up to reveal black cherries and spicy aromas.  It was more open on the palate than on the nose, with ripe tannins, vibrant acidity and great structure. After 15 minutes in the glass it was still closed.


8)   Alabaster 2010 (Toro). 100% tinta de Toro from prephylloxeric vines.  18 months in new French oak.  Bottled in July, 2012.

Intense black cherry color.  Closed nose.  I was only able to discern the spicy oak.  A huge mouthful, however, revealing black fruit and ripe tannins. Smooth and well-balanced.


I learned a lot from this tasting, especially about Toro:  the value of north-facing vineyards in the region;  high altitude vineyards to allow ripe tannins, moderate alcohol, and vibrant acidity; and sandy soil as the home of prephylloxeric vineyards (Jumilla is another place where this occurs). It reaffirmed my faith in Marcos Eguren’s prodigious talent as a winemaker and the unquestionable advantage of owning old vines.  My only comments were that in future tastings, all the wines should be poured at the beginning to allow them to open up and be fully appreciated.  Just opening the bottles isn’t enough. If consumed with a meal, these wines should be decanted at least 30 minutes before service. And finally, do the Toro wines need 18 months in new oak?  If I can put my finger on one ongoing criticism of Rioja and mine especially in Toro is that oak aging is often overdone.  Maybe a touch less would be a good thing.

(Bottle shots courtesy of the Eguren family website

Pedro López de Heredia: In Memoriam

Rioja has lost a giant of a man, perhaps the greatest visionary of his generation, with the passing on April 20 of 84 year old Pedro López de Heredia, the patriarch of the 136 year-old bodega R. López de Heredia.  Pedro was the grandson of the winery’s founder Rafael.


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

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

Whenever I think of the four generations of this family I’m reminded of a quote that I read in Barbarians at the Gate by a member of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company. “Mr. R.J. wrote the rules, all we do is follow them.” This was the López de Heredia philosophy too, steadfastly following the rules set down by founder Rafael to his son, also called Rafael, then to Pedro, and from him to his children María José, Mercedes and Julio, who currently run the winery. I’m not sure, but I think Pedro’s young grandchildren are already running around the winery on weekends. Making wine today like it was in the 1870s in the face of the high alcohol, opaque Riojas of the late 20th and early 21st centuries was a bold move.


The 'txori toki' or 'birds' perch' at the winery. Credit:  Claes Löfgren

The ‘txori toki’ or ‘birds’ perch’ at the winery.
Credit: Claes Löfgren

I recently read an anecdote about Pedro and his father that sums up this attitude.  After finishing high school, Pedro mentioned to his father that he was interested in studying chemistry.  His father replied, “It’s up to you, but I wouldn’t advise it if you plan on working in the winery.  With a chemistry degree you’ll be tempted to mess with the wines too much. It’s not only unadvisable, it’s also unethical.” So Pedro took a law degree, but never practiced, instead devoting his energy to his vineyards and winery.

He always defended the fact that his winery was both traditional and at the forefront of modernity but loved to criticize, tongue in cheek, the initiatives that his children suggested.  As the patriarch of the winery, he had the last word, of course, so he must have agreed with the idea of adding the Zaha Hadid-designed tasting room and visitors’ center to the winery.  However, as told by daughter María José, he referred to it as “that ‘thing’ stuck on the front of the winery”. Vintage Pedro.


The Zaha Hadid-designed visitors' center, nicknamed 'The Flask'. Credit:

The Zaha Hadid-designed visitors’ center, nicknamed ‘The Flask’.

I met him because he had been a founding member of the Rioja Exporters’ Association, which I directed for fifteen years. He sat on the board shortly after the association’s founding, although by the time I arrived on the scene his presence was limited to attending our annual general meetings, where he often spoke out against the politics espoused by the big wineries, but always in a reasoned, constructive way.  His big political battle was to gain official recognition for the use of ‘vinos finos’ (elegant) for Rioja wines, something his grandfather and father fought for, to defend elegant Rioja against the coarse wines on the market, the norm at the time.  Sadly, the Sherry producers had already registered the term ‘fino’ so Rioja wasn’t allowed to use it. If any wines deserved the label of ‘fino’, they were Pedro’s: elegant, silky and long-lived.

I’m sure he was happy, though. Due to his perseverance in maintaining the founder’s dream of making ‘the supreme Rioja’ along with the international acclaim received for his wines, elegant, easy to drink Riojas have become popular once again. On the way out are the high alcohol fruit bombs produced following reviews by a few wine writers, mainly in the USA. Today, these same writers are heaping glowing praise on Heredia’s Tondonia, Bosconia, Gravonia and Cubillo.

Rest in peace, Pedro. Mission accomplished.

The way we were – a visit to the underground cellars of Luis Alberto Lecea

“¡Hola, cabronazo!”  The raspy voice on the phone was my old buddy Gerry Dawes, the American food and wine writer, to announce that our lunch wouldn’t be in Haro as originally planned, but at the winery of Luis Alberto Lecea in San Asensio.  That was good news, because I had wanted to visit Luis for a long time, so I grabbed my camera and notebook and headed out the door.

Luis Lecea is not only the owner of a small family winery located in one of Rioja’s most emblematic wine villages but is also a member of ASAJA, the powerful Young Farmers’ Association who sits on the board of directors of the Rioja Regulatory Council.  My interest in seeing Luis was not to talk about wine politics, but rather learn more about the hundreds of underground wine cellars in his village.

Into the depths of the Lecea cellars.

Into the depths of the Lecea cellars.

We were told that there were more than 350 cellars in San Asensio, almost all of them in a state of utter disrepair if not totally destroyed by the ravages of decades of rain and neglect.  “It’s a shame” Luis said because until the 1950s when the Spanish Agriculture Ministry created coops to give individual growers a profitable means of selling their grapes and wines to big commercial wineries, these small family cellars were the backbone of the Rioja wine business. Some of them had been built in the 17th century.

Luis showed us his family cellar, dug by hand out of the hard earth with picks, adzes and shovels to a depth of ten meters and once underground, opened into a warren of caves where tanks and barrels held his wines. Today, the wine is taken up to ground level with pumps, but in the old days, the juice flowed into the cellar by gravity and once the wine was made, it was emptied into pigskins and carried up the stairs, loaded into big wooden vats and rolled onto to trucks where it was taken to the big commercial wineries.

Generally speaking, in the old days the wines were vinified by means of whole berry fermentation.  The grapes would be dumped into a large open cement tank called a lago, where the grapes began intracellular fermentation without mechanical pressure.  The free-run juice flowed through a hole in the floor to a tank below where fermentation took continued.  The remaining grapes, stems and pips were trodden by foot to release the rest of the juice.

Ever the guardian of tradition, Luis organizes a party every October where he invites guests to watch and even participate in this process.

Second from left, Pedro Ortega.  Right, Luis Lecea.

Second from left, Pedro Ortega. Right, Luis Lecea.

We kept hearing that it was a shame these cellars had fallen into disrepair, hoping that they would be bought and restored, if only to be used as a place for families to cook and eat on weekends and on vacation.  I mentioned to him that there was a company whose business was to fix these places up.  We rounded a corner, and as fate would have it, we ran into the owner of this winery restoration company.  He was visiting the village to help a couple solve the problem of water leaking into the cellar they had bought recently.  I was happy to introduce Luis to Pedro Ortega and hope they can work together to restore San Asensio’s underground winery district. There are cellars like this not only in San Asensio but also in practically every other village in Rioja. With the history at your feet, it’s hard to believe that these places are on the verge of disappearing.  Let’s hope Luis and Pedro succeed. Today you can only visit a few of these old caves, among which are the Paternina cellars in Ollauri and Bodegas El Fabulista in Laguardia.

Baby lamb chops and sausage grilled over vine cuttings.

Baby lamb chops and sausage grilled over vine cuttings.

We were treated to a tasting of Luis’s wines and a lunch of potatoes with spicy sausage, pig jowls, baby lamb chops and sausage grilled over vine cuttings.

I’ll tell you about the tasting, especially of Luis’s amazing claretes, or local rosés, in my next post.