To Hell, Purgatory and Heaven with Miguel Merino

Miguel Merino

Today I visited my friend Miguel Merino’s winery in Briones with my golfing buddies Henrik and Vivi from Denmark and Erkki and Maili from Finland. Miguel is one of the few people in the Rioja wine trade that I socialize with so I was looking forward to the visit, not only to introduce him to my friends, but also to catch up with him about life in general, the harvest and to taste his wines again.

Miguel started out by giving us his impressions of the 2012 harvest in Rioja.  The winery harvested fewer grapes than last year, enough to make about 40,000 bottles.  Miguel felt that the harvest wasn’t as small as he expected and the grapes were brought to the winery with very little mildew because of the drought in Rioja and the fact that most picking took place just before the October rains turned the vineyards into a sea of mud..  Some grapes were picked after the first rainstorm but it apparently didn’t make much of a difference in quality.

Throughout September Miguel was worried that the phenolic ripeness (maturity of the anthocyanins and tannin in the grapes) was lagging behind the development of sugar (potential alcohol) but at harvest time, fortunately everything came together. If it hadn’t, one of two things would have happened:  either the potential alcohol would have been right but the tannins unripe, or if he had chosen to pick later, he would have had ripe tannins but probably 15% potential alcohol.  This underscores the importance of picking at exactly the right time.

Most of Miguel’s grapes come from vineyards around Briones planted between 1931 and 1973 except for a young vineyard he bought and planted for the young wines produced at the winery.

Miguel also explained how his sorting table worked.  As the grapes were unloaded, they were inspected.  One of three possible events occurred:  the unsuitable grapes were thrown into a bucket called ‘infierno’ (hell), the doubtful grapes were thrown into another bucket called ‘purgatorio’ (purgatory) and the other grapes were allowed to pass through to the destemmer/crusher.  The good grapes would become Miguel Merino wines (heaven) and the ‘purgatory’ grapes made into a second, inexpensive product for workers in the winery and friends.

2012 Miguel Merino undergoing malolactic fermentation.

Miguel works with son Miguel Jr. with each making wines reflecting their personal philosophy.  Miguel Jr., in his early 30s, prefers a modern style, aging his wines for a short time in French oak, while his father calls himself a ‘renewed traditionalist’.  Why ‘renewed’? Because even though he prefers a more traditional style based on crianza, reserva and gran reserva he ages them in barrels with American oak staves and French oak headers.

The tasting that followed showed the differences in these two styles.

Mazuelo de la Qujnta Cruz 2010 (3,800 bottles made)

9-10 months in barrel and 15 months in bottle before release.

Quinta Cruz is a brand made by Miguel Sr. and Swedish friend Lars Torstensson and is primarily sold in the Swedish market. (See my post dated May 1, 2009 for  review of an earlier vintage of Quinta Cruz). The vineyard is located in an area of Briones called Calvario (Calvary), at the fifth station of the Good Friday procession.  The vineyard was originally intended to be planted to graciano but the owner asked the nursery to plant mazuelo by mistake.  A lucky break for Miguel! Mazuelo is normally used in a Rioja blend to add acidity.  According to Miguel, Quinta Cruz was the first 100% mazuelo to be made commercially.

Intense violet, dark fruit and oak on the nose – closed –  it needs more time in the bottle.  Vibrant acidity on the palate.  I bought six bottles to see how it evolves.

Miguel  commented that Mugaritz, Andoni Luis Aduriz’ two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Rentería near San Sebastian had put Quinta Cruz on the wine list to pair with dishes that defied pairing with other wines.  Sound strange?  Maybe, but a listing at Mugaritz is a PR coup for the winery.

Miguel Merino Viñas Jóvenes crianza 2009.  100% tempranillo.

Medium intensity bigarreau cherry (‘picota’ in Spanish).  Spicy – it reminded me of a candy called ‘Red Hots’ we used to eat when I was a kid, red fruit – strawberries.  Great balance between fruit, oak and acidity.  Nice as a sipping wine or with simple meat or vegetable dishes.

Miguel Merino reserva 2005.

Medium brick.  Strawberries, cherries, well-integrated oak.  Mouthfilling, perfectly balanced, crisp acidity.  I thought it was ready to drink now but could be kept for a while because of its ripe tannins and lively acidity.

Miguel Merino gran reserva 2004.

Medium brick with no signs of browning on the rim of the glass.  Plummy and spicy.  Ripe tannins.  Like its younger brother, ready to drink but could be kept for a few years.  I agree with Miguel’s description of a ‘renewed traditionalist’!

Unnum 2008 (made by Miguel Jr.)

According to Miguel, almost all the grapes come from the 1931 vineyard, with some from the one planted in 1946.  Aged for 9-10 months in new French oak.

Medium intensity ruby. Intense black cherries and a dollop of oak on the nose.  High acidity and nice tannin on the palate.

Unnum defies classification.  I wouldn’t call it a totally modern Rioja, but it’s not really a classic, either.  Let’s call it a hybrid, but a good one.  Not exactly my cup of tea but I have to admit that it’s very well-made, and should appeal to a younger drinker’s palate.

If I were going to found a winery, I’d do it like Miguel has.  He unabashedly states that he sells to his friends (who are a legion because of his almost 40 years in the business), he relies on word of mouth, his down home personality and down-to-earth PR to get the message out, and his wines are mighty tasty. In my opinion, that’s what you need to be successful in this business.

If you ever visit Rioja, Miguel Merino is a must see!

Bodegas Miguel Merino.  Carretera de Logroño 16.  26330 Briones (La Rioja)

http://www.miguelmerino.com

 

 

 

 

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Miguel Angel de Gregorio – a Rioja iconoclast but one heck of a winemaker

Miguel Angel de Gregorio

Whenever I see Miguel Angel de Gregorio’s mischievous smile he reminds me of the perennial bad boy in an elementary school class, ready to throw a spitball or yank on some girl’s pigtails. Looks are deceiving, however.  Behind the smile is the brain of one of Rioja’s most accomplished winemakers and a staunch defender of Rioja’s diverse terroirs.

Miguel Angel invented the expression ‘Rioja, la tierra de los mil vinos’ (Rioja, land of a thousand wines) that the Regulatory Council more or less copied in its tagline ‘Rioja, land of 1001 wines’.  Even though Miguel Angel doesn’t produce anywhere near one thousand wines, he has been a pioneer in the expression, through his wines, of the immense variety of soils and microclimates in our region.  He has also had a running battle with the Regulatory Council to be able to define these terroir-based wines on his labels.

De Gregorio comes from a family steeped in grapegrowing and winemaking. His family comes from Argamasilla de Calatrava in La Mancha.  He grew up climbing over the barrels in the Marqués de Murrieta winery where his father was cellarmaster, learning about wine from the great Jesús Marrodán, the winemaker there.

He studied Agronomical Engineering in Madrid and was responsible for one of Rioja’s first ‘modern’ wines, Loriñón, at Bodegas Bretón.  Here he discovered the grapes and vines of the village of Briones in Rioja Alta and when he decided to start his own winery he chose Briones as his home base, patiently restoring the Palace of Ibarra as his office, home and tasting room, building a modern winery and accumulating small plots of singular vineyards around the village.

Finca Allende has 56 hectares (138 acres) of vineyards divided into 92 plots.  The grapes farmed are mainly tempranillo, with some garnacha, graciano, malvasía and viura.

The Allende brand is a blend of grapes from several vineyards while his brands Calvario and Mártires come from specific plots.  His battle with the Council began when he tried to label his wines as coming from old vines from a specific vineyard.  There wasn’t (and still isn’t) a rule in Rioja allowing real single vineyard designations to appear on the label, although the word ‘Viña’ (vineyard) is on hundreds of labels here. Some brands, especially from the hundred-year old wineries around Haro, really express the origin of the grapes, while others registered ‘Viña X’ etc. at the trademark office,  and for whom ‘Viña…’ is just a brand name. Single vineyard wines is a concept the Council will eventually have to deal with, as expression of terroir is a hot topic here. For the Council, it’s both a political and a logistical problem.

It’s political because the big wineries, who wield the power in the Council, don’t want the small boutique wineries to have an edge –which they already have because wine writers naturally gravitate to the smaller wineries where they’re told about terroir even though it can’t go on the label.  It’s a logistical problem because the Council has always said that they don’t have the staff to verify that the wineries are actually separating the grapes in the winery. I agree.  They don’t. But they should.

And ‘old’ vines?  How do you define old? So far, with Calvario, de Gregorio has neatly sidestepped the problem by stating on the label that the vineyard was planted in 1945, something that can be proven with official documents.  But the battle lines have been drawn.

De Gregorio has also proved to be an astute marketer.  When he launched Allende, he positioned it as a boutique wine with a fairly high price.  When he successively launched Aurus, Calvario and Mártires, they were positioned even higher than Allende.

De Gregorio likes to say that he is rediscovering the Rioja of the old days.  One example is the use of vertical wooden presses that slowly extract the juice from the pomace, in contrast to pneumatic presses that in his opinion overpress.  He says he has a letter from Bill Harlan of Harlan Estate in the Napa Valley thanking him for showing the virtues of these vertical presses, after which Harlan got rid of his pneumatic presses.

Even though he may not admit it, de Gregorio has had to respond to the economic crisis by creating a second range of wines made at a separate winery in Briones, ‘Finca Nueva by Miguel Angel de Gregorio’.  The packaging speaks for itself – there’s a symbol of a bird released from its cage (I imagine that it’s de Gregorio’s creativity released from the constraints of tradition) and the tagline ‘Pleasure wines’. These wines are marketed to younger consumers.

I tasted nine wines on September 7 with a group of Canadian wine lovers on a Rioja tour with my good buddy Barry Brown of the Spanish Wine Society (of Canada).

Finca Nueva white 2010:  100% viura from calcareous soil in Briones.  Light straw (barrel fermented). Juicy, flowery, some oak.  Very flavorful on the palate.  A good food wine.

Allende white 2009:  90% viura, 10% malvasía de Rioja.  From red clay soil around Briones.  Pale yellow/green.  I perceived citrus fruit, stone fruit and chamomile aromas and a magnificent unctuousness on the palate. My favorite wine in the tasting and proof that it’s possible to make a great Rioja from viura (along with those from López de Heredia and Muga).

Finca Nueva crianza 2007:  100% tempranillo.  Brillant medium ruby.  Sweet oak and black cherries on the palate.  Perfect acidity/fruit/oak balance on the palate. A great sipping wine.

Finca Nueva reserva 2005:  100% tempranillo.  Medium ruby.  Soft red fruit.  Good balance, easy to drink.

Allende 2006:  100% tempranillo from +35 year-old vineyards (Miguel Angel dixit). Medium intense ruby.  Dark fruit with a mineral edge.  Lovely, soft, and balanced.  Ready to drink now.

Calvario 2006:  90% tempranillo, 8% garnacha and 2% graciano – a field blend from a specific plot, with gravelly soil with a high iron content.  High intensity ruby.  Mountainside plants.  High acidity.

Aurus 2007.  85% tempranillo, 15% graciano.  Black cherry.  Dark, jammy fruit. Long, unctuous (one of my favorite words!), complex.  A wine to keep.

Extra credit:

Miguel Angel also showed us three wines from Finca Coronado, a vino de la tierra from Argamasilla de Calatrava in La Mancha.  The wines come from his family’s estate, where M.A. wants to prove that really fine wines can be made in this area.  In fact, he boasted to me several years ago that he wanted to make ‘the first 100-point Parker wine from La Mancha’.

These wines were a different kettle of fish from de Gregorio’s Riojas – to me more of a New World style – wines with a 400 horsepower, 8-cylinder engine.

Finca Coronado 2005.  30% tempranillo, 30% cabernet sauvignon, 20% syrah, 10% petit verdot, 5% graciano and 5% merlot. Intense black cherry with brick.  Very spicy.  A real mouthful.

Finca Coronado graciano 2005.  Intense ruby. To me, floral notes predominate, but with a sensation of overripe grapes.  Another blockbuster in the mouth.

Finca Coronado petit verdot 2005.  High intensity cherry.  Menthol, mint, dried leaves.  Same sensation in the mouth, along with round, firm tannins.

My final impression was that Miguel Angel has dialed back on the intensity of the Allende, Aurus and Calvario in comparison to his first vintages in the 90s and early 2000s.  His Riojas show more elegance and less raw power – maybe the earlier style meant to make an impression as one of the first ‘modern’ Riojas.

On the other hand, Finca Coronado still shows a definite New World character with power and intensity.  For me definitely too powerful to enjoy with food.

Whether you like the Rioja style or the high-powered Finca Coronado, Miguel Angel’s immense talent will keep surprising us in the years to come.

Finca Allende, Plaza Ibarra 1 – Briones – La Rioja

Tel. +34 941 322 301; Email allende@finca-allende.com

The website is currently under construction.

Basilio bares all (well, almost!)

Once in a great while, I attend a tasting that is so powerful it reshapes the way I view the world of Rioja. In this case it was a recent vertical tasting of Basilio Izquierdo’s best vintages, both from his tenure as head winemaker at CVNE for 32 years and from his personal project at Bodegas Águila Real where he makes a red and white under the label ‘B de Basilio’.

The tasting was held in honor of Basilio’s classmates at the University of Bordeaux School of Enology Michel Douence, his wife Dany and Michel Rolland. All studied together in the 1960s, but took very different career paths, with Basilio going to work at CVNE, Michel at a big distillery in the Bordeaux area, Dany as the winemaker at the family winery Château Peneau in Bordeaux and Michel as the most famous flying winemaker in the world. It was a tour de force of Basilio’s prodigious talent as a winemaker, as he clearly wanted to show his former classmates and friends what he and Rioja were capable of.

Basilio is probably the most unassuming man I’ve ever met. There’s not a bad bone in his body. In fact, he’s almost embarrassed to push his wines to potential customers. We have to work on that, as the ‘B’ wines are clearly several cuts above the average Rioja produced today. And, when he was at CVNE he was responsible for the great vintages of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

The tasting was held at the Hostería Los Parajes in Laguardia. The wines came from Basilio’s private cellar. It started with two flights of the ‘B’ range, six whites (2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011) made from white garnacha (2/3), viura and malvasía, followed by five vintages of the ‘B’ red (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011). Michel Rolland said he preferred to taste the wines from oldest to youngest, not a typical way to taste but it worked out fine.

I was disappointed that the whites were served too cold. We spent most of the time warming up the glasses in our hands and some of them never really opened up. We were also pitifully short on glassware so it wasn’t possible to taste through all the wines again after half an hour in the glass.

2005: straw yellow – the only wine in the range with this color. Basilio said that he used cork here rather than a glass stopper. Honey and camomile on the nose, long and unctuous, almost sherry-like. Totally different from the other wines. Very good (but most people would dismiss the wine as oxidized).

2007: pale yellow. At first, not expressive, but after a few minutes opened up with delicate floral notes. I tasted licorice on the palate.

2008: pale yellow but more intense than the 2007. Still closed but opening up to wildflowers – more expressive than the 2007. Good level of acidity, a mouthful! My favorite wine of the flight.

2009: very pale yellow with a greenish tint. Served too cold to really appreciate at first but opens up to reveal licorice notes.

2010: very pale yellow. Herbaceous nose but also reminding me of overripe grapes. Nose very different from the rest. Unctuous, mouthfilling.

2011: very pale yellow. Delicate fruity nose. Too cold.

Reds: (2/3 tempranillo and 1/3 garnacha with a little graciano). Basilio bucks the current single varietal trend in Rioja by insisting on using some garnacha, which he thinks should be a part of every Rioja.

2007: Medium intense ruby, with a little brick on the rim. Fresh strawberries, oak behind. Crisp acidity and firm tannins. A wine with a long life ahead of it.

2008: Medium intense ruby. Raspberries, less oaky than the 2007. Well put together, fresh and grapey. Vibrant acidity and firm tannins. Ready to drink but with plenty of aging potential.

2009: Medium-high intense ruby. Fresh, grapey aroma of red fruit. Oak behind. More aggressive tannin than the previous two vintages. Needs more time in the bottle.

2010 (barrel sample): purple/ruby. Oak stands out in front of the intense red fruit. Unpolished in the mouth. Needs more time in bottle but will be a fantastic wine in a few years.

2011 (tank sample): Intense purple. A huge explosion of fresh fruit both on the nose and on the palate.

My favorite wines for drinking now were the 2007 and 2008. The 2009 is hard to judge but the 2010 and 2011 vintages hold great promise in my opinion.

Wines consumed with dinner:

Imperial reserva 1999 (Basilio reminded us that it was the ‘400 pesetas/kilo’ vintage (grape prices went up drastically because of a small harvest and growers bid wineries against one another for grapes – something the wineries remind growers about the last several years).

A huge color difference with the ‘B’ reds: light brick. Elegant, spicy, a little clove. Fine, round, feminine.

Imperial reserva 1995: Light brick. Strawberry jam, small dose of spiciness. Round, silky, perfectly balanced.

Viña Real Oro gran reserva 1994: (Note: The Viña Real line is made with a higher percentage of Alavesa grapes than the Imperial, made mainly with grapes from Rioja Alta).

Light brick with an orange rim. Nose was flawed – I thought it might have been a dirty barrel because the aroma didn’t improve with time.

Imperial gran reserva 1989: Light brick with some orange. Silky strawberry jam and orange marmalade. I thought it was past its prime.

Imperial gran reserva 1982: More intense brick than the 1989. Elegant stewed strawberries on the nose. Elegant tannins with good ‘grip’. Perfectly balanced. One of my favorites.

Imperial gran reserva 1978: light brick with an orange rim. Delicate, a little ‘pruney’. Good grip and balance. I wonder if it’s going to get better – now it seems to be at the apogee of the aging curve. I love this wine’s delicacy.

Imperial gran reserva 1970: Light brick with a slightly orange rim. Quite intense spicy stewed strawberries. Good grip, elegant, perfectly balanced. Drinking very well. My favorite wine in the tasting.

 Viña Real Oro magnum with a blend of 1948, 1950 and 1952: Light brick/orange. Bottle reduction on the nose which disappeared after ten minutes revealing a delicate strawberry jam nose. Past its prime in my opinion (but I liked it because it was the oldest Rioja I had ever tasted).

The Imperial/Viña Real wines impressed me enormously and reminded me of the style of Rioja prevalent when I joined the wine business almost forty years ago, with delicate, elegant soft red fruit wrapped in notes of cedar, cigar box and cloves. These are the wines that made Rioja famous.

I wish more Riojas were made like that today but I’m afraid this will never happen (with the exception of the López de Heredia wines, in whose cellars time seems to have stopped) because used barrels, however well-maintained, are an anathema to the young Riojan winemaker, who has to deal with a warmer growing season (and consequently higher alcohol), taming wines vinified in new oak and unwilling or unable to add garnacha and graciano because of their unavailability and problems to vinify.

There is an incredible lack of knowledge about these wines. I remember attending a Rioja tasting in London about eight years ago and being approached by a young journalist who had an older writer in tow. The older man asked me with an amused look on his face, “My friend wants to know what’s wrong with this wine”. I sniffed, tasted, spit, and replied, “Nothing. It’s a traditional Rioja!”

Rioja: Process or Place?

Telmo Rodríguez

I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but lately I haven’t been reading other wine blogs because I’ve been busy with a project inMoldova and teaching.  But with those projects behind me, I recently dove back into the blogosphere.

One of the most interesting articles I read was on the Dr. Vino blog where Rioja winemaker Telmo Rodríguez from Remelluri spoke out about how people are missing the point when they talk about Rioja (http://www.drvino.com/2012/04/10/telmo-rodriguez-terroir-rioja-remelluri/ ).

Telmo thinks that too much emphasis is placed on process and too little on place.  With the crianza/reserva/gran reserva classification, you know how long the wine has been aged in oak and in the bottle but very little or nothing about where the grapes come from.  He believes there ought to be more emphasis on expressing the character of individual vineyards by making site-specific wines.

Rodríguez is doing exactly that with a new project called ‘Las Lindes de Remelluri’ using grapes provided by growers who used to sell to Remelluri to make wines from the villages of San Vicente de la Sonsierra and Labastida.  Only grapes grown on the Remelluri estate will be used for the Remelluri brand.

While I agree that wines from individual vineyards are interesting (and I like the idea that there are more and more of them) Rioja is a lot more than small wineries making wines from small plots like inBurgundy.

Rioja as an appellation of origin needs volume and strong brands to be visible in the marketplace, something that 2000 micro-wineries could never achieve.  The idea that Riojas can be blends of grapes and wine from different corners of the region as well as single estate wines is one of the region’s strengths.

To understand why so much Rioja is blended you have to understand the climate here.  Rioja Baja (the eastern end of the region) is hotter and drier than Rioja Alta or Rioja Alavesa, often producing wines with 14% alcohol and even higher.  In Rioja Alavesa the harvest usually starts at the beginning of September and gradually moves west to the cooler, higher parts of Rioja, where the harvest ends at the end of October.

The problem is that the weather often turns cold and rainy towards the end of October so the grapes harvested there can be bloated and the juice watered down, producing wines with low alcohol.  To compensate for this, many Rioja wineries either own vineyards or buy grapes from Rioja Baja.

In spite of the historical trend that favors blending, some of Rioja’s most famous wineries produce wines from individual vineyards, among which are

  • Viña Tondonia, Viña Bosconia and Viña Gravonia from R. López de Heredia
  • Viña Pomal from Bodegas Bilbaínas
  • Finca Torrea from Marqués de Riscal
  • Contino (a single-estate wine belonging to the CVNE group)
  • Finca Valpiedra
  • Marqués de Murrieta

Getting back to the idea of process, I think that using color coded back labels to distinguish crianzas, reservas and gran reservas is not only consumer friendly, letting you know if the wine is young or aged, but is also a way to reinforce the image of the brand by offering more than one product under the same brand name.

 

 

 

 

Gerry Dawes: “The 1947 Bosconia is the best red wine I have ever drunk.”

After several attempts I’ve finally gotten my interview with good friend, eating, drinking and bullfighting buddy Gerry Dawes, who I’ve said many times is one of the two guys with the most comprehensive knowledge of Rioja.

Here are my questions and his answers, which I have copied verbatim. Hold on to your hats.  This is vintage Gerry, once again pulling no punches.

When did you first taste a Rioja? Do you remember what brand and vintage it was? What were your impressions?

Back in the late 1960s, like everyone else who visited (or in my case lived in) Spain, I drank Federico Paternina Banda Azul. Rioja wines were Spain’s best red wines and I developed a taste for them over a period of several years. I thought many Rioja were great. Marqués de Riscal was a bit of a luxury and so was Cune Imperial and Cune Viña Real, but once in awhile I got to drink them. I still remember finding Cune Imperial Gran Reserva 1959 on the shelf of a Costa del Sol shop for 225 pesetas a bottle when I lived in Mijas overlooking the Costa del Sol. I grabbed all three bottles.

Believe it or not, I still have a bottle of Imperial Gran Reserva 1959 left, a bottle of Cune Viña Real Gran Reserva Oro 1962, a Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Igay 1942, a Viña Tondonia 1947 and a few other assorted treasures. Early this year I opened a bottle of Marqués de Riscal 1922 that was still magnificent.

During the early 1970s, when I was living in Mijas, through a wealthy acquaintance, I got to drink the R. López de Heredia Viña Bosconia 1942 and 1947. I had the 1942 two or three times, but I have drunk about six bottles of the 1947 Bosconia and I am still convinced that it is the best red wine I have ever drunk. I don’t say this lightly, since from 1975 to 1996 I sold great Burgundy, Loire Valley and Rhone Valley red wines and the top wines of California (Duckhorn, Ridge, Caymus, Shafer, Pine Ridge, etc.) to the best restaurants in New York.

I have a reputation among some writers and wine aficionados in Spain as being a “Taliban,” as a couple have called me in print. They think because I have defended the classic wines of La Rioja that I have an old-fashioned franquista palate. They are full of shit. Few of them have traveled the wine roads of Spain tasting wines in bodega after bodega like I have.  And I have done it, not from a base in Spain, but from the United States.  Between 2000 and 2010, there was a four year stretch when I averaged EIGHT trips to Spain a year and another four years when I averaged six trips per year. I have been in at least 600 bodegas in Spain, some of them multiple times, re-visiting some of them as many as a dozen times or more.  Has anyone else in Spain–besides the owner Juan Gil, the Marqués de Figueroa, been in vertical tastings of Palacio de Fefiñanes Albariños six times?

My experience is not based on tasting wines by the dozens in sit-down or walk around tastings in Madrid, in Barcelona or in New York, it based on winery visits and long lunches, dinners and private tastings with the likes of such bodegueros as Mariano García, Basilio Izquierdo, Isaacin Muga, Javier Hidalgo, Miguel Torres, Carlos Falcó, the Chivite brothers (before they split), the Pérez Pascuas family, Raul Pérez, Ricardo Pérez, Gregory Pérez, Carles Pastrana, Agustí Torelló, Juan Gil of Palacio de Fefiñanes, Gerardo Méndez and with hundreds of other bodegueros, from bodegas both big and tiny.

For the last several years, I have focused on Galicia, where I have visited and tasted in literally scores of bodegas, say 30 in Rías Baixas, a dozen in Ribeiro, 20-25 in Ribeira Sacra, perhaps 20 in Valdeorras and a couple in Monterrei. And just outside the gates of

Galicia, I have visited and tasted in some 20 bodegas in Bierzo. I have returned to a number of these bodegas as many as 5-10 times!!

And I have worn out many pairs of road warrior shoes walking in the vineyards of Spain with the viticulturists and winemakers. One Spanish wine figure accused me of not knowing anything about Spanish vineyards. I had albariza dust on my shoes before that pompous jerk was born.

Pepe Peñin likes to characterize me as “a wine romantic.”  He has told me that on a few occasions. When it comes to Spain, I still confess after all these years to still being somewhat of a passionate, enthusiastic romantic about certain aspects of the country and its people and I hope I never lose that, but I am out there in the trenches with the real artisan winemakers on most trips and I am just not into wineries so commercial that they could just as well be making athletic shoes. In fact, some of them would better serve the world if they did make shoes instead of the type of wines they are making, as I have heard so often, “wines the market is asking for.” 

I can’t wait to see what kind of wines some of these bodegas are going to make for what the Chinese market is going to be asking for.  I once had a misguided American lawyer ask me to taste a wine blind at his home.  It was awful.  He delighted in showing me a Chinese wine that had a serpent in the bottle.  This could augur well for Extremadura, because there is a wine or liqueur from there with a snake in the bottle. 

When was your first visit to Rioja?

During the 1970s when I lived in the south of Spain, La Rioja came to represent an oasis to me during the hot, rainless summers of Andalucia, my adopted home.

By early July, as you know, the heat settles in over a large portion of Spain.  The sun bears down relentlessly, driving millions of Spaniards to the beaches and cool mountain resorts.  Coinciding with this time of year is the annual trek to Pamplona, where Hemingway’s lost souls come from all over the world to see the sun rise on yet another Fiesta de San Fermin.  Since my former wife Diana and I counted ourselves among the admirers of the venerable Ernest’s fiesta, we too joined the migration each year.

We always set out at least a week before the commencement of festivities at Pamplona, so we could explore the Spanish countryside along the way.  On one of these trips, we discovered the Rioja and it became our favorite place to pass some quiet time before surrendering to the wild, weeklong San Fermífestivities at Pamplona, where peace, tranquillity, and sleep are rare commodities, and not even particularly desirable ones at that.  We looked forward to La Rioja, where we could taste fine wines in cool bodegas, sample superb country cuisine, and enjoy the scenery, history, and milder climate of this high mountain valley.

To avoid some of the scorching road heat of summertime Spain, we would leave Mijas, our pueblo on a mountain over-looking the Costa del Sol, in late afternoon.  We would usually drive into the wee hours of morning to escape the steady daytime flow of maniacal North African drivers hellbent on reaching the beaches and homeward-bound ferries of the southern coast. This was before the construction of Spain’s system of autopistas, so we were driving on two-lane roads.  Apart from diminishing one’s chances of being maimed by a Peugeot, the night offered some relief from being stuck behind the long queues of slow, laboring Spanish trucks belching noxious black exhaust.

After stopping for a brief sleep at a Valdepeñas pensión, we would drive on through Madrid in the early morning hours to reach the ancient Castilian capital of Burgos – the terrain of El Cid – by midday.  From there we headed East towards the Rioja.  In less than an hour, as the road climbed, the vegetation became increasingly verdant, the air fresher and cooler.  The greener landscape, now showing some vineyards, soothes the soul as well as the body as the heavy layers of oppressive road heat peel away.  The promise of a thundershower bringing the cool, night breezes of the Rioja would soon put the dust of the southern summer behind us.

On one occasion, we had written the venerable firm of R. López de Heredia in Haro, letting them know that we again wished to visit their bodega.  The reply had come in the charming, graceful Spanish of a more genteel age.  It went something like, “…We cannot tell you what joy the news of your imminent visit has produced in our bodega.  It would be our great pleasure to receive you.”

We had arranged for two old friends, the late Alice Hall, the dowager empress of American bullfight aficionados, from Milledgeville, Georgia and Carolyn Moyer of Davis, California to join us in a tour of the Rioja on our way to Pamplona.  By 10:00 on the morning of our visit, after a breakfast of rolls and café con leche in the Café Suizo in La Plaza de la Paz in Haro, the four of us were down in the centenarian bodegas of R. Lopez de Heredia for our “second breakfast”– a wine tasting.  Here, in surroundings as incredible as any I have known in the world of wine, Sr. Anastasio Gútierrez Angulo, the firm’s export manager, let us taste some of the firm’s twenty-year old reservas–wines made in the style of a different era–wines of yesterday.

The bodega had all the trappings of a nineteeth-century operation patterned on the chais of Bordeaux– the winery workers even wear blue coveralls as many of the staff at French chateaux still do.  In time-honored fashion, barrels were (and still are today) crafted in the winery’s own cooperage.  We saw workers cracking eggs from the bodega’s chicken farm to get fresh egg whites for fining the wines.  Other employees laboriously filled bottles with reserva wines by hand and corked them with a hand-operated corking device.

Anastasio led us through a man-made maze of cool, barrel-filled limestone caves to the deepest part of the bodega – – the room known at R. López de Heredia as the cementerio–the cemetery.  The cementerio is the resting place of the old vintage reservas dating from the founding of the firm in 1877.  This cellar gets its name from the storage bins lining its walls, which very much resemble the burial niches in the Roman-plan cemeteries of Spain.  Bin after bin was filled with dusty bottles from the greatest vintages of the past.  At one end of the room, a large round wooden table’s centerpiece was a huge, gnarled, cobweb-covered old grapevine surrounded by bottles of wine.

Our host, Anastasio, had selected two gran reservas from the fine 1954 vintage for us to taste.  The first was Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva, a lovely, elegant Bordeaux-style wine of breed and complexity.  The second wine was a more intense, dark ruby wine in a burgundy bottle, Viña Bosconia Gran Reserva, which was showing signs of evolving into a big, warm, rich wine – – aterciopelado (velvety).  The Viña Bosconia had a particularly beautiful nose, one which reminded me of a wonderful phrase that Michael Wigram, an English banker a bullfight aficionado, had used to describe another 1954 reserva at a luncheon during the Feria de Sevilla in 1973, “Gets a nice bloom on it after nineteen years, don’t you think?”

These wines did indeed have “a nice bloom” on them.  They were wines to be enjoyed, not merely tasted and spit on the floor of the bodega, so we sipped them while Anastasio gave us the most charming description of Rioja winemaking that I have ever heard.

 First he described the normal processes of vinification, barrel aging, bottling, and so forth for the bodega’s “bread and butter” – the table wines made to sell in the fourth, fifth, and sixth years after the vintage.  Then, when he came to the subject of gran reservas, the classic Rioja reservas from exceptional vintages, he began to speak of the wine as a living thing.

In this place called the cemetery, he brought his wines to life.  Speaking softly, but with passion in his beautifully enunciated Castilian Spanish, he described the wine’s “education.”

“You see,” he began, “in the beginning, a gran reserva is like a young man.  He gets a proper `education’ here in the bodega, then is bottled and becomes a young caballero.  At about 25 years he reaches the peak of his youth, then he mellows out to about the age of, say, 35-40, when he gradually begins to tail off.  However, some of these fellows do well even after fifty.  A few years ago the owners allowed three bottles of the 1914s to be opened for a celebration.  The second bottle was in fine condition.”

It would be a day to remember – Anastasio’s wonderful analogy and his beautiful wines were just the beginning.  We were four good friends glowing with wine and in the mood for fiesta.  At Merendero Toni in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, we lingered over one of those wonderful Spanish lunches: a simple salad of garden-ripened tomatoes, lettuce, and onions at the peak of their flavor, succulent baby lamb chops al sarmiento (grilled over grapevine prunings), crisp fried potatoes, and lots of Rioja tinto. 

After lunch, with a tape playing the wonderful jotas of the Basque country, we took the breathtaking drive up to the Balcon de la Rioja for the splendid view of the entire Rioja valley.  Diana and Alice, euphoric from the wine, the food, and the splendor of the day, danced the jota on the mountain as a Spanish family stared incredulously at two foreigners – Alice a septuagenarian at that  – performing the regional dance of northern Spain in their own private fiesta.

What was Rioja like back then and how has it changed?

I think my previous answer describes a little of what it was like back then, but one can still have those kinds of experiences since many of them are so often people based.  Corrida days in Haro, the Battle of Wine outside Haro, Logroño’s San Mateo fiesta and numerous experiences that can be had in La Rioja–in Ezcaray and the southern mountains, Santo Domingo and in wine towns such as Briones, San Vicente de la Sonsierra and many other places–still make the region a magical place for those who know the area, its history, its bodegas and its wonderful restaurants and tapas bars. 

Some people see the changes that modernity has wrought and lament the days of the past, but I have seen Spain grow and modernize over a period of more than forty years and I have come to realize that the question should not be about whether traditional or modern is best, it should be about what is really good.   For too long, the priority of modern Spaniards was to throw off the shackles of the Franco era and plant both feet in the modern era.  This caused the criteria to be skewed.  There was a general feeling that anything new, modern, innovative had to be good by definition and therefore most relics of the past must not be so good, when the real criteria should be: What is based on quality is good, what is not, is not.  Just being new, modern and innovative is not all necessarily good.  Some innovation turns out to be quite bad and sometimes it is in bad taste. 

The same goes for some traditions, which often are used to keep people anchored in the past–the status quo is more to the point–though the best of customs, which were at sometime in history, new, modern and innovative, tend to survive and for good reason.

In wine and gastronomy, I have long maintained that it is not tradition nor innovation that is the question.  The question is: Is it good?  For instance, I believe that Spanish modernized traditional cuisine is some of the best food on the planet.  There are great traditional cuisine restaurants in Spain and also some very bad ones.  And as we know, there are a number of exceptional Spanish, Basque and Catalan cocina de vanguardia restaurants, many inspired by elBulli, but I think it is telling that many of the vanguardia maestros are opening tapas bars and restaurants with modernized and evolved traditional dishes on the menu.

As far as modern Rioja wines go, it is the same.  There are great tradition-based, evolved wines in la Rioja and there are good modern wines, but too many of the modern wines seem to be imitating wines from such places as Napa Valley or even nearby Ribera del Duero, making a style of wines that they think the market is asking for.  Now wine drinkers in droves are turning against overripe, overly alcoholic, overoaked and over-manipulated wines, which for the last decade or so have bordered on religion for most modern wine writers.  Now, that change is in the air and Parkerismo is on the wane, it will be interesting to see how all those who have steadfastly been proselytizing for such wines will change their deeply held beliefs about how such manipulated wines are actually superior to honest wines that taste like the place from which they come and that drink very well with the food of that region. 

Wines with a true sense of place–it can be terroir or it can be a style of wine like Sherry or Champagne or like La Rioja wines used to be–are unique, not copies.  And when unique wines find a successful place in markets outside their regions, their long-term success is dependent on that uniqueness that sets them apart, not a sameness which makes them as generic as Brand X and thus much more sensitive to price competition.

You have always said that your favorite Riojas are from the ‘Barrio de la Estación’ in Haro. What do you like about them?

The great gran reservas like Cune Imperial, Cune Viña Real, Viña Tondonia, Viña Bosconia, Muga Prado Enea, La Rioja Alta’s Viña Ardanza, ‘904′ and ‘890′ and, outside the Barrio de la Estación, Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina and the great Monte Real, Marqués de Riscal and Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Igay were fabulous wines, each distinctly different from one another, but all long-lived (I have had many that were from 40-70 years of age and still vibrant and delicious).  These were remarkable wines by any discerning wine lover’s standards.  And as recently as October 7th, at Arzak, Mariano, Arzak’s sommelier found a wonderful Bodegas Bilbainas Viña Pomal 1962, which he served us in honor of the birth year of American Iron Chef Michael Chiarello (Bottega, Napa Valley).

Do you think it’s been a mistake for Rioja winemakers to follow the new world trends of high alcohol and a meaty structure? Have they dialed this back or are a lot of wines still too modern?

Now that we are in very tough economic times both in Europe and the United States, this approach to winemaking can be disastrous for all but a few who can pull it off.  And anyone who wants to sell such wines in the future had better brush up on their Chinese, because Western markets are turning against such excesses big time.  The market is also   turning against wines in heavy bottles, which are very expensive to make and transport,  ecologically unwise,  and, more often than not, have been shown to hold wines that are not only expensive, they are usually not very much fun to drink and are often the opposite of what a wine with charm, grace, harmony and balance should be. 

In my estimation, it is not the time-honored wines of La Rioja that the Barrio de la Estacion, Riscal, Bodegas Riojanas and Murrieta were once known for that will be considered the greatest dinosaurs in the near future, it will be the overwrought, Parkerized, monster wines that never really existed a decade or so ago.  (By the way, what do the makers of such wines not understand about the value of second glass and second bottle sales, which are much more likely to happen–by multiples of multiples–with wines that have 12% – 13%, are not fat and overripe or overoaked?)

Most of the garnacha here has been grubbed up and replaced with tempranillo. What has garnacha contributed historically to our wines and can Rioja reds make it as single varietal tempranillos?

More to the point, “Most of the garnacha here has been grubbed up and replaced with a clone of tempranillo that is prolific and produces insipid wines that need over-ripeness and new oak flavors to make their point, are getting less and less palatable by the day to the broad market out there and for which a lot of marketing dollars have to be spend to sell such wines.

Garnacha was an essential component in a number of great Rioja wines such as Cune Viña Real.  Garnacha and mazuelo added to Tempranillo made many Rioja wines great, complex, multi-faceted and delicious.  Who decided that monovarietalism was a virtue?  The press, who are not winemakers, nor the real consumers of wines?  Oh, well, as Navarra has realized since they ripped out a lot of their exceptional garnacha vines, Aragón, now dubbing itself as the Kingdom of Garnacha, is not that far away.  And should Rioja’s bodegueros change their minds about blending other grapes into the increasingly uninterested tempranillo clone now planted in so much of the region, perhaps a pipeline to Campo de Borja, Cariñena or Calatayud should be considered.

Is there any hope for white Rioja?

The future for Rioja white wines, which I view as extremely dim, will probably have to have its roots in the past.  Viura is an insipid grape.  Among the many wines that I have sampled that were made from that grape from across Spain (counting those that go under the name Macabeo, Macabeu), I have yet to encounter a great one.  (I don’t count the aged R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Blancos, which owe as much to winemaking technique and to the blend of other grapes as to Viura itself.) 

Basilio Izquierdo’s B. de Basilio Blancos are the best white wines that I have tasted in La Rioja, but the true base for those wines is Garnacha Blanca.   Any future hope for white wines in La Rioja should be based on the blends prevalent in the past: Viura with Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia. 

And rather than planting Chardonnay and trying to make more insipid, copy-cat white wine that has to be manipulated in the cellars to have any interest at all, I would strongly consider planting good clones of Godello in the higher elevations.  Now, there, in my humble opinion, is a grape with a future.

John Radford weighs in on Rioja in 2011

 I’ve said before on these pages that the two wine writers with the most comprehensive knowledge of Rioja are the Englishman John Radford and the American Gerry Dawes.  I’m waiting to do an interview with the elusive Gerry (he was sighted in Galicia, Bilbao, San Sebastian and Barcelona a couple of weeks ago) but his wine brokerage business is logically top of mind these days.

 Don’t worry, Geraldo, I forgive you.

Meanwhile, John has just completed a comprehensive tasting tour of Rioja to follow up on his book The Wines of Rioja, published in 2004.  The hardcover edition of the book, published by Mitchell Beazley, is out of print but JR has just informed me that a Kindle version has been produced, available from Amazon.

John suggests buying both the e-book and the 2011 follow-up, written after his recent tour, where he tastes 500 wines, rating 64 of them 19 points or more out of 20, and visits a number of new bodegas that either didn’t exist or he had no time to visit the last time around.

If you want to get John’s take on what’s happening in Rioja, don’t forget to pick up both the book and the 2011 postscript.

The URL for the books at Amazon UKis http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_12?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=john+radford+spain&sprefix=John+Radford

 In the USA it’s http://www.amazon.com/gp/search/ref=sr_nr_seeall_10?rh=k%3AJohn+Radford%2Ci%3Astripbooks&keywords=John+Radford&ie=UTF8&qid=1319129413#/ref=sr_pg_6?rh=k%3AJohn+Radford%2Cn%3A283155&page=6&d=1&keywords=John+Radford&ie=UTF8&qid=1319129546

Prices are £10,99 and £5,75 at the UK site and $19,81 and $11,50 at the US site.

 

 

In Memoriam Enrique Forner (1925-2011)

When Enrique Forner arrived in Rioja in 1970 he really rocked the boat. At that time the business was in the hands of traditional wineries, most of them founded in the 19th century, as well as a few new players such as Savin (Campo Viejo) who nonetheless played the game mostly by the already established rules. Back then, Rioja wines were exclusively blends, aged for years in old oak casks and bottled just before shipment to customers. They were light-colored, with aromas reminiscent of cedar, spice and stewed fruit, and the best among them, while praised for their elegance, could not be called fruity or grapey. Rioja whites were vinified more or less the same way, with long aging in old oak and very little time in the bottle.

 Forner applied his long experience in the Bordeaux wine trade (he was the owner of Chateau Larose-Trintaudon and Chateau Camensac) to his Rioja bodega, which he named Unión Viti-Vinícola (the Vitivinicultural Union),although he called his brand Marqués de Cáceres. The winery was known as Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres.

I remember several factors that set Forner apart from his competitors in Rioja. First, he made long-term deals with two coops (Huércanos and Uruñuela, if I remember correctly) in Rioja Alta to assure supply of good-quality young wine. This was the essence of the ‘vitivinicultural union’. The grapes and wine were produced at the coops the under the supervision of the technical team at the winery and Bordeaux winemaker Émile Peynaud, but was blended, aged and bottled at Marqués de Cáceres. This arrangement served Forner well until the winery was able to install its own fermentation plant. Grapes were still sourced mainly from these two coops.

The second innovation was the wines themselves. Forner was a pioneer in creating fruity reds, with the right balance of oak (not as old as the wood used by others) and bottle aging, as well as a range of whites, vinified in stainless steel tanks at low temperature. Forner first created a young white and a crianza, followed by a semi-sweet white (Satinela) and a barrel-fermented white (Antea). In fact, Marqués de Cáceres was (and as far as I know, still is) the only Rioja winery with a wider range of whites then reds.

The third difference was the feminine touch in label design and marketing,  led by Forner’s daughter Christine and the ebullient PR boss, the Scotswoman Anne Vallejo. The winery was able to tap into the distribution network already in place for Forner’s Bordeaux properties and it was obvious from the immediate success of the wines abroad that this approach worked like a charm.

One of the strategies that impressed me the most was the winery’s reaction to exorbitant grape and wine prices during the 1999 harvest and the young wine market of early 2000. Grape prices skyrocketed to over 400 pesetas (2,40 euros) a kilo, and most wineries immediately factored this into their cost calculations. Of course, distributors worldwide howled in protest, but nonetheless accepted price increases of over 20 per cent, causing a huge drop in sales. Naturally, grape prices in 2000 were much lower in 1999 but the damage had already been done as distributors blamed the wineries for their short-sightedness. Forner was one step ahead of his competition. Faced with huge cost increases he simply bought the smallest amount of grapes that he could and drew down his inventory of wine rather than raise prices. His grateful distributors never forgot that.

Enrique Forner also lobbied hard for a revamp of Rioja labelling requirements. When he arrived here, wines were not labelled crianza or reserva from a given vintage, but rather ‘4th year’ or ‘6th year’ meaning that the wines were bottled in the fourth or sixth year after the harvest. This was meaningless to the consumer, who was looking for a vintage year, but a boon to the wineries, which could blend wines from different vintages at will. Forner convinced them that the market needed to know the vintage year.

Enrique Forner shook up the establishment in Rioja but was never in the limelight, preferring to work behind the scenes. With his French and Spanish background, he was probably not a fan of Frank Sinatra, but I have no doubt that he would agree with that famous Sinatra line “I did it my way”.