Rioja ‘rosados’ and ‘claretes’ are taking markets by storm

Summer is just around the corner, so it’s time to stop thinking about red wines for a few months and begin to savor whites and rosés.

Given the explosion of sales of red Rioja it can be easy to overlook what’s happening with white and especially, rosé. In the short time since Inside Rioja last explored rosé in Rioja, a lot has happened.

At that time I wrote:

Rioja actually produces two styles of pink wines: rosado and clarete. At first glance, the difference is merely color, with rosado a medium reddish pink and clarete a very pale orange.

 At the end of the article was a comment about some possible changes:

I was also surprised to see a bottle of Muga rosé with a much paler pink color than in the past. Maybe clarete or at least pale orange-tinted rosés have an international future.

 

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Benchmarks-the old (Mateus rosé from Portugal) and the new (Pure from Provence)

 There have indeed been changes here, but first, let’s review how pink wines in Rioja have traditionally been made. One style, called rosado, is vinified with tempranillo and/or garnacha with skins in contact with the juice for a few hours to extract color but no skin contact during fermentation. The other is clarete, where both red and white grapes are fermented with the skins, producing a very pale pink wine. The regulations of the Rioja DOC require that at least 25% of a clarete blend must be made from red grape varieties so a clarete could have as much as 75% of white grapes.

Originally, claretes were made mainly in the upper valley of the Najerilla river in Rioja Alta around the villages of San Asensio, Cordovin, Badarán, Azofra and Alesanco. This style has become so popular in northern Spain that clarete lovers just ask for “un Cordovin”. The area around the Najerilla valley celebrates its relationship with clarete by organizing a ‘Batalla del clarete’ that takes place on a Sunday in the second half of July in San Asensio.

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A clarete from Bodegas Ontañón (Photo: Tom Perry)

Today we can say that pale orange tinted rosés and clarete are gaining in popularity both in Spain and internationally. Probably the first sign of change came as a consequence of the increase in worldwide sales of rosés from Provence with their characteristic pale pink color.

Sales of Provence rosé (Source:  Wine Market Review based on statistics from French Customs)

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Rioja wineries wanted to take advantage of this increase in demand for very pale rosés but were forbidden from doing so because the Rioja Regulatory Board defined rosé as having higher color intensity. It took some time before wineries were able to get the definition changed. Today, the rule for the minimum color intensity of a Rioja rosé is .1UA/cm, measured as the sum of A420+A520+A620. This allows very pale rosés to be made.

For the non-tech minded, basically it’s using photospectrometry to measure the wine’s capacity to absorb light at three wave levels: 420, 520 and 620 nanometers. A lighter intensity will have a lower number and vice-versa. For example, in Rioja, the minimum color intensity for a red is 3.5 UA.

Now, Rioja rosés are available from very pale pink to light red to meet demand in different markets. Some wineries like CVNE and Barón de Ley make more than one style.

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(Photo:  Tom Perry)

There’s a huge range of rosados and clarets from Rioja in the marketplace. Try a pale rosé, a clarete and a darker-hued rosé. I’m sure you’ll love the comparison!

 

 

 

 

 

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Carlos García-Ogara and the road toward brand recognition for Rioja

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Carlos García-Ogara (right) with Tom Perry at Bodegas Campo Viejo, 1984

Today Rioja boasts over 600 wineries that sell over 400 million bottles around the world, all of them bottled in a Rioja winery. Fifty years ago the scene was very different. Rioja wineries sold both Rioja bottled in the winery and in bulk to be bottled in the importing country. To use official Rioja guarantee labels, a winery was required to have at least 500 oak barriques and at least 337,500 liters of wine in the winery. It was a business for big wineries.

Rioja didn’t have a bad image. It had no image at all.

One of the people instrumental in developing Rioja’s image internationally was Carlos García-Ogara, a man largely unknown today in the wine business except for a few elderly veterans of the Rioja wine scene. Carlos and his mission is a story that needs to be told.

BACKGROUND

In the mid-1960s, the Spanish Ministry of Commerce passed a series of laws to encourage companies in certain key sectors of the economy (including wine) to export. It was not strictly a tax rebate. Taxes were levied and paid. It was the return to exporting companies of a percentage of Spanish taxes paid on the price of their goods sold outside Spain.

The government required exporting companies from a given sector to form an association – in Rioja it was called the ‘Grupo de Exportadores de Vinos de Rioja’ (Rioja Wine Exporters’ Association) – and hire a small staff to process each company’s declarations from Spanish customs as well as assure that the disbursement of the funds due to each company was correct.

The law also provided for 1.5% of the funds to be put into a separate account so that associations could carry out collective image-building activities. If the association was not interested in these activities, the 1.5% would be returned to the individual winery. The Ministry of Commerce contributed funds to help the effort.

In Rioja, the 34 “exporting” wineries in 1968 as well as others who joined the export drive in the following years decided to use the 1.5% for promotions and to hire a multilingual manager to devise, negotiate and carry out the plans. The first target markets were the United Kingdom, Germany, Holland and the USA. Shortly afterwards Canada joined them.

The manager hired to carry out these plans was Carlos García-Ogara.

His primary responsibility was to develop an image-building strategy for Rioja wine, that involved

  • analyzing which countries showed strong demand for wine and were potential targets for a PR campaign;
  • creating, with the assistance of the owners and export managers of the wineries, a public relations and promotional strategy suited to each target market;
  • hiring a local PR agency to develop tactics to carry out the strategic objectives.

In practice, this meant:

  • setting up Rioja tastings for journalists to generate news in the media;
  • identifying potential distributors (most of the wineries did not have distributors in the target markets so this was a main objective);
  • using the agency to distribute press releases and newsletters;
  • attending trade fairs with a Rioja stand;
  • inviting journalists to visit the Rioja region and wineries;
  • inserting generic advertising about Rioja in the trade press.

Practically all of the activities were generic, that is, to develop the image of brand Rioja.

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Generic Rioja ad (Decanter Magazine Wine Guide to Rioja, 1985)

As time passed and wineries began selling their brands in these markets, advertising and PR became more brand-specific while maintaining a strong generic message.

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Ad for Campo Viejo with the generic tag line ‘Unmistakably Rioja’ (Note the Rioja guarantee stamp and the Rioja logo in the upper left corner) Decanter, 1987

As long as the “1.5%” funds lasted, they were used to finance the above activities with the help of funds from the recently created INFE (Spanish Institute for the Development of Exports), later renamed ICEX (Spanish Institute of Foreign Trade). It is interesting to note that Rioja’s PR agencies were the inspiration for Wines of Spain offices created in these and later, other target markets.

When the tax rebate scheme expired and the “1.5%” funds were depleted, Rioja wineries were called on to devote a greater share of investments in generic/brand specific PR and other image-building activities with the financial support of ICEX, and co-managed by the Rioja Wine Exporters’ Association.

It was not until 2008 that the Rioja Control Board assumed responsibility for international PR for Rioja with funds from both wineries and grape growers. It was an important achievement that significantly increased investment. Today the Control Board’s PR budget is 16.5 million euros (USD 20.16 million), partially co-financed with funds from the European Union.

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Rioja’s current international brand image ‘Saber quien eres’ – (Knowing who you are) (Courtesy of La Prensa del Rioja)

For almost half a century, Rioja has engaged in promoting the umbrella brand RIOJA under which wineries can take advantage of the generic traction created to promote their own brands. This has been decisive in giving the Rioja brand a strong international identity.

Carlos García-Ogara died a few weeks ago.  At his funeral old Rioja hands gathered to reminisce about those early days when Carlos led wineries on the road towards the adventure of selling internationally.

We hope the current generation of Rioja managers will recognize and appreciate the ground breaking efforts of Carlos and the wineries on that a rough but exciting trip that paved the way for Rioja’s strong brand image today.

Wines of the week:

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Enate 234 chardonnay (DO Somontano) Enjoyed at a bar in San Sebastian. (Note that 2 3 4 has also been translated into Basque (Bi Hiru Lau)

Not from Rioja (but that doesn’t mean it’s not good!) Lively acidity, ripe stone fruit notes.  Great for a meal of grilled fish – something readily available on the north coast of Spain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Step Back in Time: CUNE Monopole Clásico

Until the 1980s, Rioja whites were made like the reds, with the juice in contact with the skins and fermentation in wooden vats or cement tanks. The finished wines were then aged in used barriques that were best described as storage vessels with little or no contact with air. They were bottled just before shipment. In fact the only improvement in winemaking since the nineteenth century came from the use of bentonite and later pectolytic enzymes as clarifying agents instead of egg whites.

This traditional style of white was a great success until the increased use of stainless steel tanks and temperature control for wines from other regions, especially Germany and France, gained popularity, and sales of white Rioja declined.

Today, white wines in Rioja are made in three ways:

  • fermentation in stainless steel tanks with temperature control with some skin contact to add aromatic complexity and fuller body on the palate – most Rioja white is made following this method or
  • fermentation in new barriques with contact with the lees (dead yeast cells) that are stirred occasionally (bâtonnage) or
  • fermentation in wooden vats or stainless steel tanks followed by ageing in barriques.

Only one Rioja winery is making truly old-style white today: López de Heredia in Haro with its enormously successful Viña Tondonia. Three wineries, as far as I know, are trying to make a similar style: Barón de Ley, Ontañón and most notably, CVNE with its Monopole Clásico.

CVNE says on its website that a few years ago an old customer mentioned during a tasting that he longed for the traditional style of Monopole, the winery’’s signature white. CVNE’s winemaker María Larrea found a single bottle of Monopole 1979 in the cellars and it occurred to management that it would be interesting to challenge 86 year-old Ezequiel García “El Brujo” (The Wizard), CVNE’s winemaker from the 1940s through the 70s to make a batch of Monopole the way it used to be. García was delighted!

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Ezequiel García ‘El Brujo’ (Tom Perry)

In the old days, Monopole was made from viura, white Grenache, malvasía de rioja and palomino. This last variety, from Jerez was used to add body to the blend, with permission from the Rioja Regulatory Council. After a light press, the juice was sent to a cement tank where the solid material was separated from the juice.

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Ezequiel García’s sketch describing white winemaking in the 1960s (courtesy CUNE website)

Alcoholic fermentation was in stainless steel tanks (a departure from the old days) and ageing was for about eight months in used 300 liter barriques and 500 liter botas (wooden barrels used in sherry wineries).

García said that what made Monopole special was the use of a small amount of wine from the sherry region, vinified under a layer of flor (yeast that forms a layer at the top of the wine) that gives the blend aromas of chamomile and dried stone fruit with lively acidity and a long finish.

I first tasted Monopole Clásico at the last Haro Train Station tasting in 2016, when a member of the CVNE export team dared me to guess the varieties in the wine after my first sip. Of course I didn’t guess correctly. Who would have thought to guess ‘palomino’!

I’m happy that CVNE made the effort to bring this style of wine to the attention of wine lovers. Younger consumers need to understand how winemaking and consumer tastes have evolved over time. It reminds me of a tasting I attended a few years ago in London. A veteran wine writer approached me with a young colleague in tow, glass in hand. The older fellow winked at me and said, “my friend here has a question”. The younger man asked me to sniff his glass while asking, “what’s wrong with this wine?” “Nothing”, I said. “It’s an old style Rioja!”

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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.

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).

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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

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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)

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.