Rioja celebrates a 100-point white while ‘Riexit’ looms

Not much happens in Rioja in August. Winery workers are on vacation except for a few people in the biggest companies in case of an emergency. Most small and medium-sized properties close for the month. I stop writing to concentrate on my golf game. The only things happening are the steady ripening of the grapes and my lack of improvement at golf.

This year, September brings good news and not-so-good news. First, the good news:

  • According to reports from the Rioja Regulatory Council and ASAJA (the young farmers’ association), the probable size of the 2016 harvest will be between 430.000 and 450.000 metric tons, which is roughly equivalent to 430-450 million 75 cl. bottles. These sources agree that this will cover existing demand. Included in the projected harvest are just over 1000 hectares (2470 acres) of red grapes planted in 2014 and 1200 new hectares (about 3000 acres) of white grapes. While it’s too early to make a prediction about the quality of the harvest, so far, so good, although the vines are stressed due to lack of rain in August.

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(Source:  lomejordelvinoderioja.com)

  • For those who pay attention to wine writers’ ratings, Luis Gutiérrez, taster for Spain for erobertparker.com has released his latest scores for rioja (source LA RIOJA). Wines scoring 93 points and higher are:

100     Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Ygay gran reserva white 1986

98     Telmo Rodríguez Las Beatas 2013

97     Artadi Viña El Pisón 2013

96     Artadi Viña El Pisón 2014 (96-98)

Benjamín Romero Carmen gran reserva 2010 (96+)

Viñedos de Páganos La Nieta 2013 (96+)

Álvaro Palacios Alfaro Quiñón de Valmira 2014

Muga Prado Enea gran reserva 2009

95     Abel Mendoza graciano grano a grano 2013

Sierra Cantabria Amancio 2012

La Rioja Alta gran reserva 904 2007

Remírez de Ganuza Trasnocho 2010

Olivier Rivière Losares 2013

Sierra Cantabria El Bosque 2013

Remelluri Granja Remelluri gran reserva 2010

Telmo Rodríguez Altos Lanzaga 2012

94      Artadi El Carretil 2014 (94-96)

Pujanza Norte 2014 (94+)

Artadi El Carretil 2013 (94?)

Abel Mendoza 5V white 2015

López de Heredia Viña Tondonia blanco reserva 2004

Pujanza Norte 2013

Marqués de Murrieta Dalmau reserva 2010

Sierra Cantabria Amancio 2013

López de Heredia Viña Bosconia reserva 2005

Roda Cirsión 2012

Finca Allende Mártires white 2014

Contino gran reserva 2010

Olivier Rivière Ganko 2014

CVNE Viña Real gran reserva 2010

CVNE Imperial gran reserva 2010

Pujanza Añadas Frías white 2013

La Rioja Alta gran reserva 890 2004 (94+)

Hermanos Peciña Señorío de P. Peciña gran reserva 2009

Valenciso reserva 10 años después 2005

Remírez de Ganuza gran reserva 2008

Abel Mendoza tempranillo grano a grano 2013

Benjamín Romeo La Cueva del Contador 2013

Palacios Remondo Plácet Valtomelloso white 2013

93       Tentenublo Escondite del Ardacho (El Abundillano) 2014 (93+)

Marqués de Murrieta gran reserva limited edition 2010 (93+)

López de Heredia Viña Tondonia white 2005

Olivier Rivière Mirando al Sur white 2014

Olivier Rivière Las Viñas de Eusebio Vendimia Seleccionada 2014

Pujanza Finca Valdepoleo 2013

La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza reserva 2008

Finca Allende Calvario 2012

La Emperatriz Finca La Emperatriz garnacha cepas Viejas 2014

Roda I 2009

Basilio Izquierdo B de Basilio 2010

Contino reserva 2010

Abel Mendoza Selección Personal 2013

López de Heredia Viña Gravonia blanco 2007

Contino reserva 2010

Señorío de San Vicente San Vicente 2013

Benjamin de Rothschild &Vega Sicilia Macán 2013

Telmo Rodríguez Lanzaga 2012

Oxer Bastegieta Kalamity 2014

Viñedos de Páganos El Puntido 2013

Artadi Valdeginés 2013

Remelluri white 2013

Remelluri Lindes de Remelluri Viñedos de Labastida 2012

Benjamín Romeo Qué Bonito Cacareaba white 2014

Abel Mendoza garnacha blanca 2015

Remírez de Ganuza reserva 2009

Olivier Rivière Las Viñas de Eusebio Vendimia Seleccionada 2013

Basilio Izquierdo B de Basilio white 2012

Marqués de Murrieta Dalmau reserva 2012

Artuke La Condenada 2014

Vallobera Terran 2012

Bilbaínas Viña Pomal Altos de la Caseta 2012

Bilbaínas Viña Pomal Vinos Singulares white tempranillo reserva 2013

Palacio Glorioso gran reserva 1978

Honorio Rubio Villar Añadas (white) NV

This list says a lot about the current state of rioja. First, many of the brands describe specific places or single vineyards, even though this designation isn’t officially recognized yet. Reality, as usual, is moving ahead of the rulebook.

The increased presence of whites stands out, and surprisingly the top scoring wine for Gutiérrez was the very traditonally made Castillo Ygay white gran reserva 1986. In a separate interview in LA RIOJA, winery owner Vicente Cebrián explained that this wine spent 21 years in barrel, six years in a cement tank and was bottled in January 2014. It will be presented in a series of tastings in the USA starting in New York on October 21. Cebrián says that the wine will be sold at 700 dollars a bottle. Why not?

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(Source:  Marqués de Murrieta website)

Not surprisingly, other traditional rioja whites such as Viña Tondonia and Viña Gravonia made Gutiérrez’s list. In fact, as I observed during a recent tour around our region with a group of Rioja Educators, other wineries like Bodegas Ontañón and Barón de Ley are trying to replicate this style of long ageing in older barrels to capitalize on demand, especially in the US market.

While these traditional whites have found a niche at the mid-and high end of the market, we need to develop whites to compete at more competitive price points because young viura by itself simply doesn’t have the intense aromatic profile demanded by consumers today. Gutiérrez recognizes that rioja is moving in the right direction with blends of viura and recently approved varieties. Consolidating these new styles of rioja white will take time however as Rias Baixas and Rueda are strongly entrenched in markets. Conscious of this, the Rioja Council is launching a PR campaign to promote white.

  • Another development that could be construed as either good or bad news is that following intense discussions in the Council, the ‘single estate’ concept has been renamed ‘viñedos singulares’ (singular vineyards). This is probably to reflect the fact that “any old” single estate shouldn’t be considered prestigious a priori. Experts in viticulture and rioja’s most prestigious producers are formulating criteria to determine what makes a singular vineyard.

The Council says it will decide in November, although it might take longer than expected as prestigious single estate producers will want to assure that their own vineyards are included and there will undoubtedly be pushback from prestigious producers of blended rioja to level the playing field.

The not-so-good news centers around 42 wineries from ABRA (the Rioja Alavesa Winery Association that represents most of the small wineries in the Alavesa sub-region) petitioning the Basque government to approve a new designation called ‘Viñedos de Álava separate from rioja. What have local pundits called this movement? You guessed it: ‘Riexit’. The official reason is that the Rioja Regulatory Council hasn’t done enough to recognize the specificity of wines from the Alavesa. It is most certainly politically motivated, however, as the Basque government has historically demanded a greater control over Alavesa wines.

The director of the Council said earlier this week that his wish was to keep regional politics out of the rioja wine business and to discuss Alavesa claims inside the Council. Currently the Council is studying a labeling rules change to allow the term ‘Rioja Alavesa’ to be the same size as ‘Rioja’. Will this be enough? I hope so. It would be suicidal for 42 relatively unknown wineries to go it alone or under a new umbrella brand in today’s ultracompetitive wine market.

 

 

 

 

Rioja and coke? It’s no joke!

I’ve always said that if there’s not a scandal in the Rioja wine business, the Riojans will create one. The most recent uproar was set off by a deal signed by the local bar and restaurant association, the Logroño City Hall and Coca-Cola to sponsor a contest in local bars to determine who could make the best calimocho, a drink combining wine and coke.

The contest’s tag line “The best calimocho is made with the best Rioja” drew immediate criticism from the Rioja Regulatory Council and the Rioja Wine Brotherhood. The Council, while stating that it agreed with the general idea of promotion to attract young consumers to wine, thought that Rioja wines shouldn’t be associated with “this kind of consumption”. The brotherhood was more explicit in its criticism. Its grand master remarked that he had never mixed wine with any other beverage and reminded readers that members of the brotherhood are obliged to take an oath of allegiance that includes not watering down Rioja or other ‘sacrilegious’ practices such as mixing it with fizzy drinks. I guess I’ll never be a member of the brotherhood unless I cross my fingers while taking the oath!

The other side of the argument was taken up by Miguel Ángel de Gregorio, one of Rioja’s most prestigious winemakers, who defended the consumer’s right to drink Rioja any way they please.

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Notice the bottle:  a 1983 Rioja reserva from Bodegas Campo Viejo (Photo credit:  Wikipedia)

When I asked my friends about it, not one of them objected to the idea of Rioja and coke. One of them reminded me that ‘calimocho’ (or kalimotxo) is a Basque name but on this side of the Ebro river it has always been called ‘Rioja Libre’. A group of winery owners that I ran into one morning while they were buying tickets to a local professional soccer game told me that they all drank it. One of them mentioned that a chilled ‘cosechero’ (carbonic maceration red) and coke was the perfect combination.

As for the international acceptance of Rioja and coke an article in the New York Times in 2013 (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/22/dining/wine-and-cola-it-works.html) recommends a recipe for calimocho:  mixing cola with wine, “preferably Spanish”.

But for me, the proof of the pudding was finding calimocho on a restaurant menu as a ‘signature cocktail’ in Jacksonville, Florida several years ago.

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Anyone who has visited (and partied) in Spain during the summer, where daytime temperatures routinely reach 100ºF (37,7ºC) knows that red wine-based beverages – sangria, ‘tinto de verano’, ‘zurracapote’ and of course, calimocho are the perfect way to enjoy wine all year round.

Do I drink it? All the time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rioja finally comes to grips with single estates

“Rioja is like an ocean liner. It needs time to change course.” This comment from Ángel de Jaime, one of the Rioja Regulatory Council’s past presidents, is a good description of the consensus-building process that precedes important decisions taken by the Council.

With 14 organizations on the executive board, representing wineries, cooperatives and farmers’ unions, this process can take a long time and tends to generate plenty of coverage in the media.

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 11.54.50(Photo credit:  lomejordelvinoderioja.com)

Previous decisions, such as the approval of new grape varieties, have often taken years to negotiate, so long in some cases that the delay has actually hurt Rioja.  The best example is the drawn-out debate about authorizing new white varietals.  While wineries and farmers fought in the Council, other DOs like Rueda and Rias Baixas took market share from white Rioja, even on our home turf.

However, the idea of accepting village and single estate grapes and wines in Rioja has been surprisingly well received by all sides and my feeling, after reading the proposals submitted to the Council, is that approval of rules to make these grapes and wines a reality won’t take long.

Fortunately, there are two precedents that make the process easier. Identifying and selling single subzone wines (from Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja) have been on the books since 1998. The only requirements for a subzone wine is for 100% of the grapes and wine to come from the subzone and that winemaking, ageing and bottling take place in the subzone.

The Council has already accepted concept of village wines, with requirements currently under discussion. It appears from the proposals that almost all parties are against making more restrictive requirements for yields, the minimum age of vineyards or a more rigorous tasting note for wines produced from grapes from a specific village except that the grapes and wine must demonstrably come from the village.

The organizations, however, seem inclined to be extremely rigorous with single estate grapes and wines.

The process involves a thorough examination of a number of specific qualities of both the vineyard and the wines produced from those grapes.

First of all, an ‘estate’ must have some singular qualities that set it apart from the surrounding area. One of the organizations has suggested following the OIV’s (International Office of Vine and Wine) recommendations about the methodology to be followed for defining parcels of vineyards, and the advice of international experts.

Among the requirements under discussion are: the minimum age of the vineyard; lower yields than for generic Rioja; no mechanical harvesting; estates cannot be located on fertile soil (a past error allowed by the Council); and that wines must receive a minimum point score (to be determined) in a tasting at the Council. This tasting is in addition to the general tasting to qualify the wine as generic Rioja.

The consensus is not to scrap the current system of ‘generic’, ‘crianza’, ‘reserva’ and ‘gran reserva’, for village and single estate wines, with the subzone, village or single estate featured on the label.

A current critique of the process of buying grapes in Rioja is the accusation by farmers that all wineries tend to gravitate to a more or less equal price for all grapes and wine once a big buy is made public. I assume that farmers who own vineyards that they consider special will apply for single vineyard status to command higher prices for their grapes. It might also encourage them to vinify these grapes, and age, bottle and sell the wine provided that they have access to a winery, rather than selling them to someone else.

Some wineries and wine writers have suggested a pyramid structure, with single estate wines at the tip, implying that the best quality (and therefore the most expensive) wines come from these estates, such as in Burgundy. It’s certainly a fact that in Burgundy the system works that way. It appears, however, that the organizations in the Council prefer the market to determine which wines are ‘the best or most valued Riojas’. I agree.

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Alberto Gil, the wine writer at our regional newspaper LA RIOJA, prefers concentric circles as a graphic representation of the future system, with more precise locations located closer to the center.

Diapositiva2Independently, one of Spain’s viticulture gurus, Pepe Hidalgo, created a zone map based on his research. He divides the DO Rioja into nine zones according to climate, altitude and soil types.

Hidalgo zone map(Map courtesy of LA RIOJA)

Hidalgo thinks that it would be confusing for consumers if Rioja ultimately decided to approve a village-based category (there are 76 villages in Rioja Alta, 52 in Rioja Baja and 18 in Rioja Alavesa) and feels that his categorization would be easier to manage.

I haven’t heard if the Council has debated his idea but it certainly merits consideration.

Time (hopefully, not too long) will tell how this debate will finally play out. Many of Rioja’s 600 wineries need a competitive advantage such as small, scarce amounts of wine to succeed. I think it’s to Rioja’s credit that the Council has collectively pulled hard on the wheel to turn the ship.

 

 

 

 

A new structure for Spanish wine?

(Or ‘Let the consumers do the talking’)

Artadi’s decision to leave the Rioja appellation is just one example of a movement among Spanish winemakers and wine writers to promote recognition of single vineyard sites and village terroirs and the wines produced on them as a means of showing the huge diversity of soils and landscapes in Spain. The movement’s leaders are convinced that it’s necessary for Spain’s appellations to go one step further than merely certifying general origin within the appellation.

Here’s the manifesto (my translation):

 

     Exceptional Vineyards

 Spain is the richest European country for its biodiversity and landscapes but at the same time it is one of those in which the respect and preservation of its surroundings is most questioned. The world of wine is no exception.

 The appellation of origin system has been an efficient means of ordering the wine world as far as origin is concerned but its objective has not been to differentiate soils and landscapes nor has it led to a policy of quality. In Spain policies have been developed to convert our vineyards into the largest in the world but no action has been taken to convert them into the best in the world.

 Nonetheless, we have history, places and the necessary passion to put the best plots and the most exceptional places at the forefront.

 For this reason, we believe that sweeping changes must take place and a new path opened that allows giving value to our unquestionable wine patrimony. It must be a global change affecting each and every layer of the wine sector from grapegrowers to public administration.

 All great wines in the world are a reflection of exceptional vineyards. For that reason, the most prestigious wine regions have always made laws based on those extraordinary vineyards for the purpose of defending and protecting them.

 We are convinced that the best way to identify wines in relation to their origin, quality, identity and authenticity is to create a pyramid structure. At its base would be wines made from grapes from any place in appellations of origin, then, wines from villages and at the tip of the pyramid, wines from single plots.

 All producers would win. We believe that raising the bar and demanding more of ourselves we will improve, we will be capable of better explaining the reality of our country’s wines, and we would help to sell the rest of our wines more effectively.

 For the above reasons we ask the Regulatory Councils to understand the new reality of the wine sector that is blossoming in Spain and to help show the differentiation that exists within each and every appellation of origin in our country. We know that this differentiation is the beginning of exceptionality and because the single vineyard wine movement is unstoppable and is, moreover, the best way to accomplish the goal of Spain’s wines becoming better and more prized.

 About 200 winemakers, practically all of whom are already making single vineyard wines, journalists, sommeliers, distributors and wine shop owners signed it.

Giving official status to single vineyard and village wines is absolutely necessary to provide small and medium-sized wineries a competitive advantage and positioning in markets where there is an increasing number of suppliers and a decreasing number of distributors and small retailers to offer them to consumers. If a wine comes from a single vineyard, why shouldn’t the winery have the right to say so?

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Having said that, I’m not convinced that the best way to tackle this problem is to lobby the Ministry of Agriculture to establish a pyramid structure, defining that single vineyard wines at the tip of the pyramid are intrinsically better and more authentic than wines coming from a single village or wines that are blended.

To me it makes more sense to lobby the appellations of origin to create a procedure to certify the specific origin of a single vineyard or village wine and let gatekeepers (distributors, retailers, supermarkets, wine writers) and ultimately, consumers decide which wine they prefer.

I can’t speak with authority about the rest of Spain, but in Rioja there are a number of highly successful wines that come from separate vineyards, villages and even the opposite ends of the region (from Rioja Baja as well as Rioja Alta) that would almost surely not accept the idea of being lower on a ‘quality/authenticity’ scale than a wine from a single vineyard or village. The attempt to create ‘vinos de pago’ or single vineyard wines in Rioja based on a quality pyramid set up in the latest Spanish wine law was rejected a few years ago in the Regulatory Council by wineries that refused to accept that a single vineyard wine was, a priori, higher on the quality scale than a blend. For the sake of clarity, let me say that most of the wineries on that committee were making single vineyard wines!

It makes no sense to me at all to create a Médoc or Burgundy-like hierarchy for Spanish wines. It’s common knowledge that the Médoc classification has only been changed once since 1855 (when Mouton-Rothschild moved from third growth status to first following years of intense lobbying by Baron Philippe de Rothschild). In any case, this classification was based on retail prices, not on any intrinsic characteristics of one terroir over another. The courts are still hearing cases from disgruntled chateau owners in Saint-Émilion when the classification was reshuffled several years ago. I could go on and on about Pomerol and the crus bourgeois in Bordeaux but the point is, the appelations should give the wineries and winemakers the flexibility to create the best wines for their markets and let the wineries extol the virtues of their products to the gatekeepers. Doing this on a yearly basis rather than creating a hierarchy is the best way to keep wineries on their toes and quality high. The greatest benefit is greatly raising the prestige of Spanish wines around the world, exactly the signers of the manifesto request.

The Regulatory Councils have the statutory obligation to certify the origin of the wines in their appellation. The wineries aren’t asking too much to take this certification to the next level.

 

 

Artadi says ‘adios’ to Rioja

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 (Photo credit:  Artadi website)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Rioja’s iconic Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta reopens after nine years of remodeling

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Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta, one of Rioja’s most iconic 19th century wineries, recently reopened after nine years of much-needed renovation. It was well worth the wait.

The Cebrián family, owner of the property since 1983, put a lot of thought into both the renovation of the winery and its wine tourism package. Although from the outside, the winery, with its stone façade, looked fine, the inside was in dire need of repair. I remember visiting in the mid-1980s and vividly remember the vast underground cellars with their sand-covered floor filled with old barriques, huge wooden fermentation and storage vats and endless dusty and mold-filled niches for bottle aging.  It was as if time had stopped in the early 20th century.

One of Murrieta's vineyards

One of Murrieta’s vineyards

Murrieta’s approach to wine tourism is a refreshing change from most wineries where visitors are led through a vinification and aging cellar where the history of the company and winemaking practices are explained and a quick tasting is given, followed by a visit to the winery shop. Murrieta entertains small groups and spends lots of time with them. I’m sure this personal touch will pay off.

Here, the visit starts in the vineyard, highlighting the ‘château’ philosophy brought to Rioja by Luciano de Murrieta from Bordeaux. The original 168 hectares planted by Murrieta were added to by Vicente Cebrián, who planted 132 hectares on property adjacent to the already existing vineyards. The winery’s vineyards provide 90% of the its needs, with the remaining 10% purchased from suppliers with whom the winery has worked for years. Murrieta remains faithful to the traditional Riojan varietals of tempranillo, garnacha, graciano and mazuelo for reds and viura for white. There is, however, a little cabernet sauvignon in their brand Dalmau, according to the tasting sheet provided by the winery.

The visit then moves to the inside of the original winery, a lodge-like structure about 90 meters long. This is the visitors’ center. On the left side, there are two tasting rooms, one at each end of the building, with a glass wall that overlooks several restored wooden fermentation vats in the first underground level.

Restored fermentation vats as seen from one of the tasting rooms

Restored fermentation vats as seen from one of the tasting rooms

Downstairs, the visit highlights the history of the winery with several displays showing documents such as deeds to the property, brand registrations, letters written to and by Murrieta, newspaper clippings from our local newspaper LA RIOJA with the Marquis’ obituary as well as photographs from the 19th and early 20th century.

an early 20th century stand at a wine fair

an early 20th century stand at a wine fair

Other displays showed bottles from significant vintages in Spanish history including the first wine bottled by Murrieta in 1852, a collection of labels dating from the late 19th century, filters, bottling and corking machines and other memorabilia.

an 1852 Murrieta

an 1852 Murrieta

We also saw, behind an iron gate, niches filled with historical vintages including all bottlings of Castillo de Ygay from 1892 to the present.

one of Murrieta's 'sacristies' with old vintages

one of Murrieta’s ‘sacristies’ with old vintages

At the end of the visit we were shown a room with pictures of the remodeling process as well as a video interview with the foreman of the crew of Galician stonemasons hired to rebuild the winery.

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Following the visit to the cellars we were led to one of the tasting rooms, where Miryam Ochoa, the winery’s PR director, explained at great length Murrieta’s winemaking philosophy in Rioja, based on long periods of aging in oak and bottle followed by a tasting of three wines: Pazo Barrantes, a 100% albariño from a property owned by the Cebrián family in Rías Baixas, Marqués de Murrieta reserva 2009 and Dalmau reserva 2009. My tasting notes follow.

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Pazo Barrantes 2013. D.O. Rías Baixas. 100% albariño. 13,5% abv. 13,95€ /bottle RRP in Spain.

Brilliant straw yellow. Closed on the nose at first but soon opening up to aromas of wildflowers and baked bread. Silky texture, balanced acidity, longlasting on the palate. I thought it was really good, without the overpowering tropical fruit aromas present in many other whites from Rías Baixas.

Marqués de Murrieta reserva 2009. D.O. Ca. Rioja. 90% tempranillo, 4% mazuelo, 3% red garnacha, 3% graciano. 14% abv. 1.000.000 bottles produced. RRP 19,95€ in Spain.

Medium black cherry. An aroma that reminded me of cherry liqueur, well-integrated oak and some spicy notes. Round, ripe tannin, medium mouthfeel, persistent.

The Cebrián family’s philosophy has always been to make ‘modern classics’ at Murrieta and this reserva is a good example. It reminded me of the Murrieta wines of the past with understated elegance but without the stewed fruit and pronounced dry, iodine-like nose that I always used to unfailingly identify as Murrieta.

I thought it was excellent.

Dalmau reserva 2009. D.O. Ca. Rioja. 74% tempranillo, 15% cabernet sauvignon, 11% graciano. A single vineyard wine from the Canajas estate.

19.000 bottles produced. 45€ RRP in Spain.

Intense black cherry. Minty and floral nose, powerful but at the same time elegant. Juicy, elegant, longlasting.

Dalmau was created by Vicente Cebrián Jr. (whose middle name is Dalmau) soon after taking over the winery when his father died unexpectedly. This was in the midst of the market’s reaction to traditional Rioja led by the Parkerites. Dalmau, like other ‘modern’ Riojas produced around this time (the early 1990s), tried to express fresh, ripe fruit, high alcohol and powerful tannins but were criticized both in Spain and abroad for being unbalanced. The 2009 Dalmau was still juicy and powerful but with much better balance than the wine I first tasted in London twenty years ago. Not my style but very well made and surely with a big following among fans of modern Rioja.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable visit and tasting. We spent three and a half hours there, an unheard-of amount of time compared with visits to other Rioja wineries.

Rather than give visitors and extensive tour of the winery, Murrieta has wisely decided to concentrate on its history and a detailed tasting that could have served as an introductory tasting course. Even though our group was made up of locals along with several people with extensive experience in the Rioja wine business, both the visit and the tasting were extremely enjoyable and informative.

Murrieta has an attractive wine shop on the premises as well as a wine club whose members regularly receive special offers.

I encourage you to plan a visit to this winery. You can request a booking at the following website:

http://www.marquesdemurrieta.com/

Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta

Carretera de Logroño-Zaragoza km. 5

26006 Logroño (La Rioja)

T-941 27 13 70

(All photos by Tom Perry)

Special end of year double issue: Artadi threatens to leave the Rioja appellation and My favorite wines from 2014

December 28 is Spain’s April Fools’ Day so when I opened the local newspaper and read that Artadi, one of Rioja’s most prestigious wineries, was planning to leave the Rioja DOCa, I immediately thought it was a joke. But when I read the editorial on page two explaining that the current president of La Rioja wasn’t going to run for office in the upcoming elections I realized that this piece of news was the joke and the story about Artadi was on the level.

Behind Artadi’s interest in creating a new appellation for wineries in and around the village of Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa is the belief that the umbrella brand ‘Rioja’ and its claim ‘the land of a thousand wines’ attempts to express the huge diversity of styles of wine that exists in our region but lumps them all together under one appellation. Put bluntly, Artadi feels that the current rules of the Rioja DOCa don’t allow wineries to talk about the specific characteristics of microclimates, soil types and the grapes and wine produced in individual vineyards and villages.

The reaction of the wine and growers’ groups in the Regulatory Council was immediate and can be summed up by “Bring your proposal to the Council and we’ll talk about it”.

Only time will tell whether Artadi’s proposal to leave Rioja is real or is a gambit meant to accelerate the debate leading to simplifying the procedure for recognizing single vineyard, single village, and single subzone wines within Rioja. Whatever the outcome, there are a number of reasons to put the issue at the top of the agenda.

Juan Carlos López de La Calle (MD of Artadi) (Photo cred:  elsibaritaurbano.com)

Juan Carlos López de Lacalle (MD of Artadi)
(Photo cred: elsibaritaurbano.com)

First, today there are over 600 wineries in Rioja. Wineries have always realized that to succeed they need a competitive advantage to convince the wine trade’s gatekeepers (distributors and retailers) to offer them to consumers. When there were fewer wineries in Rioja, fewer Spanish appellations, the New World wasn’t a force yet, and superstores hadn’t overpowered distributors, it was a plus for a winery to say it was from Rioja. Today, being a Rioja winery just isn’t enough.

In the 32 years I’ve been in the Rioja wine business I’ve witnessed the development of numerous differentiation strategies to help wineries to get a leg up on their competitors: ‘experimental’ grapes, high volume and huge PR budgets to cozy up to supermarkets, sweet-talking winemakers, single varietal wines, different kinds of oak, traditional Rioja/modern Rioja/avant-garde Rioja, high scores from Parker and the Wine Spectator, scarcity, wineries designed by internationally famous architects, unorthodox winemaking techniques, underwater ageing, collaboration with famous foreign flying winemakers, striking labels, striking brand names, unusual bottles, ecological and biodynamic wines, natural wines (no added SO2 – the latest trend)  and of course, rock-bottom prices.

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of pressure in Rioja to allow wineries to express themselves in new ways. What I wonder is “Why Artadi?” They’ve successfully exploited their competitive advantages and are at the top of the heap.

I can think of several reasons.

First, the Rioja Regulatory Council has been slow to discuss the demands of smaller properties to certify single vineyard, single village and single vineyard wines. When the Spanish Agriculture Ministry created the current wine law, it created a hierarchy starting with table wines at the bottom with few or no quality demands, appellations of origin and ‘qualified appellations like Rioja with strict control procedures and ‘vinos de pago’ or single estate wines at the top, with very strict requirements. The Rioja Council found a number of reasons to criticize the rules and their possible application in Rioja, starting with “what is the maximum size for a single estate?” citing examples of single estates in central Spain with almost 1000 hectares. If 1000 hectares seems like a lot of hallowed ground for a single vineyard, Is five OK? Or ten? Is a single estate wine inherently better than a blended reserva or a single varietal? Why should single estates be at the top of the hierarchy? How will the Council guarantee that the wine comes from the single estate? After a couple of meetings, the discussion became so complicated that the matter was shelved.

What’s the problem?  If the Council allows wineries to say that they sell single varietal wines, why not single estates? Hmmm.

Given the drawn-out decision making and consensus building process within the Council, I can imagine that Artadi figured it would be easier to withdraw its vineyards from the Rioja appellation and create its own mini-appellation where the rules are clear from the outset and membership is exclusive.

A second possible reason could be to add other grape varieties to the current ones allowed in Rioja. If these vineyards are exclusively in Álava, the Basque government could petition the European Union to authorize new varieties. The head of the agriculture department of the government of La Rioja hinted in a followup article that the Basque government might be behind the whole affaire in an attempt to create an exclusively Basque denomination of quality wine, an issue that has always been on the political agenda in the Basque Country.

I’d like to think that the threat by a top winery to leave Rioja will push the Council into rethinking its policy of single vineyard, single village and single subzone wines to allow not only Artadi but many other wineries to express what they perceive as unique attributes of their properties and wines. But for the sake of keeping things simple for consumers, let’s keep calling them all ‘Rioja’.  Do we want lots of sub-appellations like Bordeaux or an almost inscrutable mish-mash of vineyards-within-villages like Burgundy that only Masters of Wine understand?  Maybe the MWs don’t either!

Time will tell if clear heads prevail.

PART TWO: MY FAVORITE WINES IN 2014

Spanish newspapers are fond of making end-of-the-year lists about just about everything: best box office hits, most titles won by a football team, celebrities in jail for tax evasion, politicians in jail for influence peddling, regional governments with the highest debt per capita and others.

In keeping with this list-making tradition, here are the Riojas I liked the most in 2014 (in no particular order of preference):

  • Campillo reserva selecta 2007 (Bodegas Campillo)
  • Bodegas Bilbainas garnacha 2010
  • Contino reserva 2007
  • CVNE Imperial gran reserva 2007
  • Viña Ardanza 2004 (La Rioja Alta)
  • Punto red 2013 (Fernando Remírez de Ganuza)
  • Lorea reserva 2008 (CVNE) – the wine the bodega offers to wine tourists
  • Marqués de Teran 2009 selección especial (Bodegas Regalía de Ollauri)
  • Finca Torrea 2010 (Marqués de Riscal)
  • Viña Tondonia reserva 2002 (served from a 1,5 liter bottle)
  • Viña Pomal Alto de la Caseta 2007 (Bodegas Bilbainas)
  • Tobía gran reserva 2009 (Bodegas Tobía)
  • A Codo (sparkling wine from Rioja grapes made by Basilio Izquierdo)

I also really liked the following wines from other appellations and countries:

  • Catalpa malbec (Bodegas Atamisque – Mendoza, Argentina)
  • Salentein reserve pinot noir 2013 (Bodegas Salentein – Mendoza)
  • Catena Zapata St. Felicien cabernet-merlot 2010 (Mendoza)
  • Carmelo Patti malbec 2009 (Mendoza)
  • Dalva Golden White Porto 1963 (C. da Silva)
  • Momentos reserva carmenere 2013 (Chile)
  • Auratus 2013 white (Vinho Regional Minho – Portugal)

Of course I tasted and enjoyed lots of other wines but these were my absolute favorites.