Homage to an unknown wine brand

In the world of food and wine, nowadays everybody’s talking about specialization. The world’s top restaurants are making names for themselves with revolutionary prep and cooking techniques while wineries are making wines from rare or newly discovered varieties and aging them in innovative ways in oak from the four corners of the world. Anything goes as long as it’s original.

The other day however, we ate at a small neighborhood restaurant in Santander where we were served everyday Spanish home cooking: beef stew, meatballs, grilled sardines, and salad, washed down with a chilled bottle of unlabeled red wine mixed with ‘gaseosa’, a fizzy, sugary bottled water whose closest equivalent outside Spain is Seven-Up.

A no-name wine with 'gaseosa'

A no-name wine with ‘gaseosa’

It was delicious (and unbelievably inexpensive – 24 euros for two), reminding us of meals in Madrid in the early 1970s when we used to go to the same local restaurant every day for lunch and served hearty portions of home cooking with unlabeled wine in carafes or bottles, two courses, dessert, wine and coffee for next to nothing. I vividly remember that the restaurant served a different main course every day, every week. I don’t remember the exact days, but it was something like chickpeas on Monday, beef stew on Tuesday, fried eggs, rice and fried bananas smothered in tomato sauce (arroz a la cubana) on Wednesday, paella on Thursday and fish, usually breaded fried hake fillets on Friday.

There was nothing pretentious about the food. No novelty, no experiments, just good, filling comfort food like people ate at home. And when you’re on a tight budget like we were, big lunches like those tided you over until the following morning.

Pochas, or white bean stew - the perfect comfort food.

Pochas, or white bean stew – the perfect comfort food.

Back then people would take their empty bottles to the corner tavern where the bottles were filled from a big vat with a spigot. The first year I lived in Spain was in a boarding house and the housemother used to ask any boarder who happened to be around before lunch to go out with a couple of bottles to fill. Restaurants would have this kind of wine wine delivered in large dame-jeannes called ‘garrafas’ where they were decanted into bottles or carafes.

A typical Spanish 'garrafa'. (Photo credit:  todocoleccion.com)

A typical Spanish ‘garrafa’.
(Photo credit: todocoleccion.com)

I never knew where this wine came from – it could have been Valdepeñas, La Mancha or Gredos west of Madrid – it was certainly from an area near Madrid – and didn’t have an appellation of origin. It didn’t even have a label! However, when chilled and mixed with ‘gaseosa’ it was the perfect accompaniment to simple, cheap, tasty, filling meals.

You might be wondering why everyone mixed the wine with this fizzy water. It wasn’t because the wine was undrinkable by itself but rather because we guzzled it like water. Moreover, in the summer, with temperatures almost always over 100º F (38ºC) it was the only way you could drink wine.

La Pirula, a local family style restaurant in Santander.

La Pirula, a local family style restaurant in Santander.

'Who drinks well, lives well'.

‘Who drinks well, lives well’.

The next time you’re in Spain, try one of these local restaurants, called tascas, tabernas or casas de comida where you can get a menú del día for as little as 10 euros. Try the house wine with gaseosa. No visit to Spain is truly fulfilling without this experience.

Advertisements

Bodegas de La Marquesa: five generations in Rioja Alavesa

In the Rioja region, all but a handful of wineries are family owned and operated. Most of the recently created companies were founded by vineyard owners who decided to vinify their grapes, bottle and sell wine rather than merely sell grapes to cooperatives or other wineries. Some of these small companies even age their wine in barrels. This has been made possible by the Rioja Regulatory Council’s decision to allow wineries holding fifty-225 liter barrels and a total of 33,750 liters of wine to use the official Rioja back labels, giving them legitimacy in the marketplace. Thirty years ago, the minimum was 500 barriques, and later, 100.

It’s too early to say how many of these newly created wineries will withstand the rigors of the wine business over time, but history shows that a number of family owned and operated Rioja wineries founded in the 19th century have flourished and some have become real powerhouses in the industry.

Probably the most famous of these is Marqués de Riscal, whose official name in English is ‘Wines of the Heirs of the Marqués de Riscal’. Although Riscal’s capital is no longer held 100% by the family, one of the founder’s descendants has a share in the company,  sits on the board. His son is a member of the winemaking team.

Other examples are R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, founded in 1877 and run by the fifth generation of the family; Bodegas Faustino, managed by the fourth generation of the founding family that started as a vineyard owner who built a winery in the mid-20th century and are now the leading producer of gran reserva Rioja; and Bodegas Martínez Lacuesta, founded in 1895.

The oldest Rioja winery continuously in the same family hands is Bodegas de La Real Divisa, founded according to the owner, in 1367. This makes it several years older than the venerable Antinori in Tuscany, that has produced wine since 1385.

There are, of course, quite a few Rioja wineries that are still in business over a hundred years after their founding but they’re no longer in the hands of the original owners: Marqués de Murrieta (1852 by some accounts), Rioja Santiago (1870), Berberana (1877), CVNE (1879), Bodegas Riojanas (1890), La Rioja Alta (1890), Bodegas Franco-Españolas (1890) and Federico Paternina (1896).

_MG_5290

I recently visited a fifth generation family owned and operated winery in Villabuena de Álava – Bodegas de la Marquesa. The winery was founded in 1880 by Francisco Javier Solano y Eulate, the Marquis of La Solana who owned a large holding of vineyards in Villabuena in Rioja Alavesa. Solano was inspired by the teachings of Jean Pineau, the winemaker at Château Lanessan in the Médoc who had been hired by the regional government of Álava to teach wineries how to make wine following the Bordeaux philosophy (better vineyard husbandry, destemming grapes before fermentation, fermenting in closed vats and aging in small oak barrels).

A stroll through the streets of Villabuena.

A stroll through the streets of Villabuena.

The family’s current holdings are the original 65 hectares plus ten additional hectares owned by friends of the family but managed by the winery. These vineyards yield about 400,000 kgs of grapes that produce about 400,000 bottles. About 80% of the vineyards are planted to tempranillo, and the remainder to the other traditional Rioja varieties: mazuelo, garnacha, graciano and viura.

The winery has made a strong bet on the virtues of aging in oak barriques (2,500). All ten wines in the current range have spent time in oak.

The barrel aging cellar

The barrel aging cellar

The winery itself is built on the original 19th century property with underground cellars with the fermentation vats and most of the barrel aging area above ground. The family is in the process of restoring the old cellar.

Down the stairs to the underground cellar.

Down the stairs to the underground cellar.

We tasted four of the most popular wines in the range:

Valserrano white 2013. (Valserrano is a valley between the villages of Villabuena and Samaniego where most of the family’s vineyards are located).

100% viura. Fermented four months in oak. Beautiful balance between the fruit and the oak (something that a lot of white Riojas don’t get right).

Valserrano crianza 2011. 90% tempranillo, 10% mazuelo. The first impression was a little mustiness that I thought was probably due to ‘closed bottle syndrome’ – confirmed after a few minutes when the wine opened up to reveal dark fruit and good structure.

Valserrano reserva 2009. 14,5% alcohol. Medium garnet; acidic fruit that reminded me of cranberries, with good structure and round tannins on the palate with potential to further improve in the bottle. (We bought a case.)

Finca Monteviejo 2010. A single vineyard wine made from tempranillo (95%), mazuelo and graciano (5%). Medium garnet; dark fruit with noticeable oak; round on the palate. Ready to drink now.

The winery and its wines are well known in Spain and are gaining a lot of international exposure through affiliation with ARAEX, an export consortium specializing in wines from Rioja Alavesa. They are definitely worth searching for.

Our tasting

Our tasting

Bodegas de la Marquesa isn’t open to tourists yet. The four members of the family have their hands full with the vineyards, winemaking, sales in Spain and administration . Our host María Simón promised us, however, that the winery would be ready once remodeling of the old cellar was finished.

After our visit we repaired to the nearby Hotel Viura, an avant-garde boutique hotel located in the center of Villabuena. Much like the Marqués de Riscal hotel in Elciego, visitors are surprised by the sharp contrast between the light stone buildings in the village and the gleaming metallic structure of the hotel . Since Villabuena is built on both sides of a steep ravine, you can drive straight through the village without even seeing the hotel. You have to look out for the sign.

The day we visited the hotel there was an exhibition of photographs and posters of actresses from the mid to late 20th century wearing dresses designed by Cristóbal Balenciaga, the Basque designer of haute couture. By the way, there’s a Balenciaga museum in Getaria in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa, near San Sebastián that’s worth a visit.

Ava Gardner in a Balenciaga evening dress.

Ava Gardner in a Balenciaga evening dress.

Next to the hotel there’s a well-stocked wine bar where we had a pre-lunch drink.

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

_MG_5206

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.

_MG_5248

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.

_MG_5257

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)

How important are vintage ratings?

From 2004 to 2012, the Rioja Regulatory Council rated four vintages ‘excellent’ and five ‘very good’. When 2013 was judged ‘good’, people here were surprised, because throughout the year conditions were so bad in the vineyards that we were expecting a much lower rating.

The Rioja Regulatory Council carries out an extremely rigorous tasting program of samples of wines from each new vintage. Winemakers from Rioja wineries are given anonymous samples to taste and grade. Some don’t make it – over 8 million liters in 2013. Once the samples have been tasted and accepted, their scores are plugged into a mathematical formula whose results determine whether the vintage is rated ‘excellent’, ‘very good’, ‘good’, ‘standard’ and ‘average’.

Preparing samples to be tasted by the panel

Preparing samples to be tasted by the panel

(Photo credit:  DOCa Rioja)

The fact that the formula assigned ‘good’ to the 2013 vintage is undoubtedly a tribute to the skill of Rioja winemakers.

Since every vintage rating is the average rating of the sum of the individual wines, I feel that the current nomenclature leaves a lot to be desired, especially when the lowest two ratings are ‘standard’ and ‘average’. In the past, the terms were excelente (excellent), muy buena (very good), buena (good), regular (so-so) y deficiente (deficient). It makes more sense to use the downward sliding scale of the past, but the Regulatory Council explains that the tasting panels reject the substandard wines that are therefore not eligible to be called Rioja so it makes no sense to declare a so-so or a deficient vintage.

A member of the Rioja tasting panel evaluating a sample

A member of the Rioja tasting panel evaluating a sample

(Photo credit:  DOCa Rioja)

Like many other aspects of the wine business, Bordeaux started the tradition of assigning ratings to vintages over a hundred years ago and was duly mimicked by other regions in France as well as wine producing regions throughout Europe, among them Rioja.

And, in keeping with its iconoclastic style, rating vintages has been mainly ignored by the New World.

To return to the question posed in the title of this article, in my opinion, vintage ratings are overrated. As a matter of fact, they can be downright misleading. I remember offering 1979 Rioja (‘normal’ i.e. not so good) to my European distributors in 1983 that bought it enthusiastically because it was a very good vintage in Bordeaux. We didn’t receive a single complaint about the wines from this vintage. However when we tried to sell 1980 (good), the same distributors asked for more 1979 because Bordeaux 1980 was so-so. Fortunately comparisons with Bordeaux are a thing of the past.

Wineries in Rioja treat vintage ratings like Parker scores. If they’re over 90, they advertise them. If not, they say nothing and nobody cares. And, because vintage ratings are by definition the average ratings of the individual wines, individual wineries can say that even though the vintage was only average, THEIR wine was excellent. Witness the recent press conference given by Alvaro Palacios in the UK who announced a ‘game changing’ 100% garnacha Rioja from 2013 from his family’s vineyard in Rioja Baja.

An agronomist engineer/winemaker has suggested a dual system of classification in our local newspaper: a rating of the harvest shortly following its conclusion which would include young wines, and a rating of the vintage, which would include the wines eligible for ‘crianza’ status after twelve months in oak. This would allow markets to understand the ageworthiness of very good and excellent vintages, the ones that would produce ‘reservas’ and ‘gran reservas’. It’s an interesting idea that in my opinion merits debate in the Regulatory Council.

Although most of the 2013 will be sold as young wine and crianza, Rioja can boast a run of very good and excellent vintages – crianzas, reservas and gran reservas from 2004 through 2011 that are currently in markets worldwide. Believe me, 2013 will not be a problem.

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

Jeremy Watson

Jeremy Watson (photo Tom Perry)

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

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

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

“Dear Tom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The ‘new’ white Rioja steps forward

The recent publication of a supplement in our local newspaper LA RIOJA about white Rioja- Los blancos piden paso (Whites step forward) is a detailed look at how wineries are responding to the challenge of using newly approved varieties to overcome the limitations of the viura grape and take full advantage of world demand for white wine.

Pssst...have you tried the new white Riojas?

Pssst…have you tried the new white Riojas?

Although we’ve discussed viura’s limitations in depth in previous posts in Inside Rioja, a short summary follows.

Until the early 1980s, Rioja whites were made exactly the same as reds – fermentation in large oak vats and long ageing in old 225-liter American oak barriques, then bottling just before shipment from the winery.  Vinification in stainless steel at low temperatures began in the mid-eighties with the wines enjoying some initial success.  However, they were quickly criticized for either a lack of fresh aromatic fruit or for being similar to other “Euro-whites”.  Rioja smarted from these rebukes, but except for some success with barrel-fermented and barrel-aged styles in limited quantities, debates about authorizing other varieties in the Regulatory Council never prospered due to resistance from growers, and the subordination of the issue to debates about the saving certain local red varietals such as maturana tinta from extinction.

Viura (Credit bedir.es)

Viura
(Credit bedir.es)

Faced with this dawdling, many Rioja wineries invested in Rías Baixas (Marqués de Murrieta, La Rioja Alta, Marqués de Vargas, Ramón Bilbao and others) and Rueda, notably Marqués de Riscal and Domecq Bodegas. Others made agreements with producers in these areas to bottle under license.

Finally in 2007, the Rioja Regulatory Council approved six new white varietals (the local varieties tempranillo blanco, maturana blanca and turruntés, the international chardonnay and sauvignon blanc and Rueda’s verdejo).  However, the Council also agreed that while the local whites could stand alone, the international varietals could be no more than 49% of a white blend, with 51% reserved for local varieties. In addition, the growers’ unions in the Council successfully lobbied regional governments to forbid planting, fearing that grape prices would plummet due to increased supply. Finally, after whites from Rías Baixas and Rueda had taken the Spanish and international markets by storm, relegating Rioja white to a testimonial presence, regional governments caved in to the demands of wineries and allowed white to be planted again.

Maturana blanca (Credit: us.riojawine.com)

Maturana blanca
(Credit: us.riojawine.com)

As of today, total of about 2500 new hectares (6175 acres) have been authorized, but incredibly, the authorization includes the possibility of planting viura.  So far, according to data from the Agriculture Council of La Rioja, out of the 750 hectares already planted, 53% is viura, 26% is tempranillo blanco, 6,43% verdejo, 3,76% sauvignon blanc and 2,6% chardonnay. According to the rules set down by local authorities, planting rights have been granted mainly to farmers – 85% -while wineries receive the remaining 15% but have to pay a transfer fee to buy rights on the open market. It’s clear that most farmers prefer viura because they’re familiar with it and it’s easy to grow- up to 11 or 12.000 kilos per hectare, well above the maximum authorized yield of 9.000 kilos.

So it appears that viura is being planted to…improve viura!

A lot of criticism has been leveled against the international varieties and verdejo because they would produce whites that are not ‘typically’ Rioja.  But what constitutes ‘typicity’?  In the case of Rioja reds, forty years ago a typical Rioja style indeed existed – just about everyone made blends of tempranillo and garnacha (more of the latter than the former) with a little mazuelo and graciano.  The grapes and wines were sourced from all over Rioja- from Rioja Alta and Alavesa for acidity and elegant aromas and from Rioja Baja for alcoholic strength.  These wines were aged for years in old American oak barrels and bottled just before shipment.  They showed aromas of jammy red fruit, a hint of oak, spice and leather, with high acidity due to the addition of a small amount of viura.

Sauvignon blanc (Credit:  winepro.org)

Sauvignon blanc
(Credit: winepro.org)

Rioja’s expansion to about 600 wineries and the consequent need for differentiation in order to succeed has devalued the concept of typicity.  Today Rioja markets itself as ‘the land of 1000 wines’ with companies creating brands based not only on blends from different parts of our region aged in American oak barriques but also single varietal and single vineyard wines aged in American, French, Balkan, Russian, Mongolian and even Spanish oak. Today, a ‘typical’ Rioja white would probably not be popular due to the lack of fruit of a high yield viura based wine. So let’s start to think that Rioja whites can and should be as diverse as our reds.

Chardonnay (Credit: provedo.com)

Chardonnay
(Credit: provedo.com)

Is there any hope for viura in Rioja? In my opinion, definitely. At much lower yields, Abel Mendoza and Finca Allende are producing great viura-based wines.  And no one can deny that the Viña Tondonia and Viña Bosconia whites from López de Heredia, blends of viura and malvasía and aged for years in used oak barriques in the classic Rioja style, are taking markets by storm.

Rioja wineries have adopted different strategies for their new whites.  For example, the Aldeanueva de Ebro cooperative, Rioja’s largest winery, is planning to build a new vinification plant for white wines.  The managing committee of this grape farmer–owned company has decided to oblige individual growers to plant the cooperative’s 160 newly authorized  hectares to at least 50% verdejo and the rest, tempranillo blanco, which will be blended with the cooperative’s holdings of viura.

Garnacha blanca (Credit: urbinavinos.blogspot.com)

Garnacha blanca
(Credit: urbinavinos.blogspot.com)

A similar strategy has been carried out at Dinastía Vivanco with a white made from 60% viura, 20% malvasía and 20% tempranillo blanco.

Bodegas Franco-Españolas, whose viura and malvasía-based whites can age for decades, defends local varieties.

Muga, too, is building on the huge success of its viura and malvasía based barrel fermented white.  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be its guiding principle.

What about the international varietals?  One interesting example is El Coto, a large company that has enjoyed spectacular success with 100% viura whites, notably because Pedro Guasch, the head winemaker for many years until his retirement and the current technical director Pedro Aibar were trained in white wine producing regions. But this winery is moving forward. Several years ago, El Coto bought a 567 acre plot in Rioja Baja where the company has planted 20 hectares of sauvignon blanc, 12 hectares of chardonnay and five hectares of verdejo.  El Coto has also planted small experimental plots of each of the newly authorized white varietals in another vineyard.

Bodegas Altanza in Fuenmayor is satisfied with its new blend of viura and sauvignon blanc.  Sources at the winery say that since adding sauvignon, sales of white have increased tenfold to 130.000 bottles.

If most of the new planting rights are in the hands of growers, the answer to the question, “what should I plant?” should be provided by the wineries that traditionally buy grapes from each grower.  This implies both a commitment to a long-term relationship between grower and winery in terms of promise to purchase as well as price.  One important question remains: how to produce better viura? If viura at 9000 kilos a hectare produces mediocre wines but good to great ones at 5000 kilos, the only solution is for wineries to agree to pay farmers a higher price to produce less.

It remains to be seen whether they will be willing to do this.

Hectares of white varietals in Rioja as of 31.12.12 (Source: 2012 Annual Report of the Rioja Regulatory Council)

Viura:  3546

Verdejo:  147

Tempranillo blanco:  96

Malvasía de Rioja:  68

Chardonnay:  55

Sauvignon blanc:  36

Garnacha blanca:  19

Maturana blanca:  6

Turruntés:  0,8

Others:  61

 

Lorenzo Cañas – a chef ahead of his time

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

Lorenzo Cañas

Lorenzo Cañas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the same vegetable dish after opening with a fork

the same vegetable dish after opening with a fork

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

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

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

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

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

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

the lamb was perfectly cooked

the lamb was perfectly cooked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, I almost forgot about the wines:

Lealtanza white 2012 (Bodegas Altanza)

Tobelos crianza (Bodegas Tobelos)

Tahón de Tobelos reserva (Bodegas Tobelos)

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

some of Lorenzo's many recognitions from Spain and abroad

some of Lorenzo’s many recognitions from Spain and abroad

more awards and distinctions

more awards and distinctions