We Uncork Two 1976 Viña Tondonia Gran Reservas

A few weeks ago while rummaging through our impossibly disorganized wine cellar I discovered two bottles of Viña Tondonia gran reserva 1976  – a red and a white.

(Photo: Tom Perry)

Seeing ‘1976’ reminded me that it was the 200th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and was the first vintage after dictator Francisco Franco’s death.

Other important events in 1976 were:

  • Apple Computer Company was founded
  • The Vietnamese National Assembly announced the unification of North and South Vietnam with the capital in Hanoi (later Ho Chi Minh City)
  • The Viking I landed on Mars
  • Adolfo Suárez was elected president of the Spanish government, Jimmy Carter became the 39th president of the United States and Fidel Castro was named president of Cuba.  

I think you’ll agree that a lot of water has passed under the bridge.

I thought that 45 years was probably at the edge of the wines’ drinking windows so I invited several friends and fellow wine lovers to taste them. Under normal circumstances we would have followed our time-honored tradition of gathering ten or so people around a table.  2021, however, is not normal and only five of us were able to safely gather in the small back room of a neighborhood bar.

The tasters were

  • Casimiro Somalo, the retired wine writer for our local newspaper La Rioja;
  • Jorge Elías, a graphic designer who works with López de Heredia (producer of Viña Tondonia) and his wife Alicia;
  • Tom Perry and wife María Antonia.

In addition to the 2 bottles of 1976, Jorge Elías brought a bottle of Tondonia red reserva 2008.

(Photo: Jorge Elías)

The two bottles of 1976 didn’t have capsules. Instead, the necks had been covered with sealing wax.  “RLH” had been pressed into the hot wax when it was applied. I carefully removed the wax and tried to extract the corks with a special tool for old wines – two flat blades that fit between the cork and the inside of the neck of the bottle.  Both corks had shrunk a little however and they fell into the wine, so I quickly decanted them an hour before the tasting.

“RLH” pressed into the wax seal (Photo: Tom Perry)
Tools used for opening and decanting old bottles (Photo: Tom Perry)

I found some notes from the Marqués de Riscal Tradition Wine Club written by Manuel Ruiz Hernández, the longtime lab technician at the Haro Oenological Station, about the weather conditions in 1976:

  • The growing season was 180 days long;
  • The previous winter had been cold and dry.  From December to February rainfall was only 90 liters per square meter compared to an average of 130 liters;
  • March and April were very cold, and April wet.  Consequently, budbreak was delayed.
  • The summer was hot and rainy, with exceptionally high rainfall in August.
  • In general, ripening was difficult and irregular.”

The Rioja Regulatory Council rated the vintage as “Good” (three out of five stars).

It sounded like it had been a difficult vintage, and that fact, along with the corks inside the bottles, made us apprehensive about the outcome of the tasting.

Fortunately, the wines did not disappoint.

White gran reserva 1976:

  • Deep gold; brilliant. 
  • Notes of white flowers, especially chamomile as well as honey, sensations that improved with more time in the glass; no hint of acetification, 
  • Vibrant acidity, delicate honey and buttery notes on the palate, long-lasting in the mouth that improved over time.

The grape varieties were mainly viura with malvasía de Rioja.

The wine was aged for almost ten years in barriques and racked by hand 18 times.  It was bottled between January and February 1986.

Viña Tondonia white gran reserva 1976 after 45 years (Photo: Tom Perry)

Red gran reserva 1976:

  • Light brick with a slight brown rim;
  • Delicate stewed red fruit, elegant with notes of cedar chest and cinnamon;
  • Good acidity, elegant, just perceptible tannin, slightly bitter, pruney.

Grape varieties:  Mostly tempranillo with garnacha, mazuelo and graciano.

The wine spent nine years in barriques and racked twice a year.

What impressed us most about these two wines was their backbone of acidity that we agreed was the main reason for their longevity.

1976 left; 2008 right (Photo: Jorge Elías)

Red reserva 2008

  • Color between picota cherry and medium brick.
  • At first very closed on the nose (we only had two decanters so this wine was decanted after we finished the 1976 white).  It later opened up to reveal elegant red stewed fruit notes and elegant tannins.
  • Well-balanced on the palate, a good dollop of acidity, elegant delicate red fruit and a long mouthfeel.

We didn’t think that this wine had reached its peak yet, but was perfectly drinkable now.

The three wines had in common a vibrant acidity and a delicate, elegant character that today’s wine drinker might call understated, but they were unmistakably from López de Heredia and very good.

This launched a discussion about classic versus modern Riojas.  Casimiro Somalo defined the Tondonias as ‘avant-garde classics’.  They were ahead of their time when hardly any other fine wines existed in Rioja, and today they’re classics because they recall the style of wine that gave Rioja an international reputation in the 1960s.

They have two distinguishing characteristics:

  • They’re undoubtedly Rioja because of their elegance, stewed red fruit notes and soft tannins.
  • They’re undoubtedly from López de Heredia for their delicate character and acidity that has allowed them to age gracefully, in the case of the 1976s, for 45 years.

We recalled that classic Riojas didn’t tire your palate; when you finished a bottle at a meal with friends you usually opened another one. 

Somalo said that you could even enjoy these wines after coffee, a snifter of good brandy, a glass of bourbon or some chocolate.

His final judgment was, “ When a wine can stand up to coffee or chocolate, that’s magnificent .”

Rioja Special Report 2021-López de Heredia Captivates Tim Atkin

Tim Atkin MW has just released his 2021 Rioja Special Report, the sixth since 2016.  Researching and writing the report this year took place in London because of coronavirus travel restrictions. Atkin tasted 1200 samples from 266 producers and held 180 videochats with producers.

Of the wines tasted, 793 scored above 90 points, and 100 of these, 95 points or better.

Atkin’s 2021 podium of winners by category is: 

(Credit: Rioja Special Report 2021)

Atkin’s report is highly regarded here because it’s the most comprehensive yearly snapshot of our state of affairs, ranging from the number of wineries visited and wines tasted, bar and restaurant recommendations, with a frank assessment of our often bewildering wine industry politics.  Tim is brutally honest about happenings behind the scenes, and of course he writes eloquently about what his well-trained palate discerns in his tastings.  In addition, he’s a first class photographer.  

You can purchase the report for £20 which is around $US28 or €23 as of today (February 22) at timatkin.com.  If you’re a Rioja fan, it’s well worth the price.

 In this age of terroir-focused wines from single subzones, villages and single vineyards from small growers who have decided to make and bottle their production,  it was a huge but pleasant surprise to discover that Atkin had anointed R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, universally known as Rioja’s most traditional, immutable winery for almost 150 years, ‘Best Of Show’ in three categories:

  • Winemaker of the year:  Mercedes López de Heredia
  • Overall white wine:  Viña Tondonia white gran reserva 2001 
  • Overall rosé wine: Viña Tondonia rosé gran reserva 2010

María José, Mercedes and Julio López de Heredia (Tom Perry photo)

Since 2009 when I launched Inside Rioja, I’ve written extensively about López de Heredia’s steadfast adherence to tradition since the company’s founding.  It is a truly unique place, with a unique philosophy.

To celebrate the company’s triple crown, I hope you will re-read some of the articles I’ve written and enjoy some photos I’ve taken about the winery and the wines. Just click on the links.

The “Txori Toki” (‘Birds’ Perch’ in Basque) tower (Tom Perry)

“Since my Great-Grandfather’s Time, our Philosophy Has Always Been Modern” – María José López de Heredia (Part 1 of an interview)

Photo:Tom Perry

María José López de Heredia:  The Zaha Hadid Project was an Accident (Part 2)

The Zaha Hadid-designed Vistors’ Reception Center (Photo: Tom Perry)

The antique company stand inside the Visitors’ Reception Center (Tom Perry)

Setting the Record Straight (Why red wine in Spanish is called ‘tinto’ and not ‘rojo’) 

The red range: Viña Cubillo, Viña Bosconia and Viña Tondonia (Tom Perry)

Gerry Dawes:  the 1947 Bosconia is the Best Red Wine I Have Ever Drunk

A walk through one of the winery’s barrel aging cellars (Tom Perry)

Pedro López de Heredia – In Memoriam

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

The Yin and the Yang of Rioja – A Tasting and Conversation with Benjamín Romeo (Contador) and María José López de Heredia

Tondonia 1904 (Tom Perry)

Snow covered barrel display outside the winery (Photo: Tom Perry)

A lampshade made from a wine glass (Photo: Tom Perry)

Raiding my Wine Cellar – Château Lynch-Bages 2004

Every wine has a story.  At least that’s what wine marketers want us to believe.  Less talked about but no less interesting, in my opinion, are the stories about how we acquire the wines we drink.

Most bottles are bought in shops or supermarkets, others are gifts.  Many of these stories are mundane.  Once in a while however, there’s an exciting story behind a bottle in a cellar and Château Lynch-Bages 2004 is one of them.

One day in early 2015 an American named Stephen Bolger called me to explain a concept he had successfully sold to Lynch-Bages, a Bordeaux Grand Crû Classé in Pauillac.  His idea, already in place for a few years, was to enlist an international group of affluent wine lovers to work a harvest at the winery, choose grapes for a personal blend under the supervision of the Lynch-Bages winemaking team, and once the base wines had been vinified, return to the winery to bottle them. These customers would have their own stock of wines made at Lynch-Bages and act as de facto ambassadors for the winery in their countries. Some of the members of the group had participated for several years.

It was and is, a brilliant marketing idea.

The idea we discussed was for me to act as an expert tour guide for an upcoming road trip to Rioja, where the group was going to blend their Lynch-Bages-based base wines and visit a few Rioja wineries. It was the first time the group was going to venture beyond Bordeaux.

I was flattered to learn that I had been recommended by a friend, Jane Anson, one of the best-known experts on the wines of Bordeaux (and who recently published a comprehensive book about the region, Inside Bordeaux).

To make a long story short, I took the group on a tour of several high-end Rioja wineries, chosen in advance by Bolger, gave a Rioja Masterclass and tasting and schmoozed with the group for three days, including a gala dinner and old-vintage tasting of Marqués de Riscal.

Far from being the typical stuffy black tie gala wine event, it was organized as a fun-filled end-of-the-trip, with people moving from table to table with their glasses and laughing at the disguises provided in the photocall.  

Shenanigans at the photocall. From left, Tom Perry; Eric Boissenot, advisor to VINIV clients and consultant oenologist for Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Margaux and many others; and Stephen Bolger. Photo credit: VINIV.

A highlight of the experience was a lunch at Remelluri with Jean-Michel Cazes, the owner of Lynch-Bages, who, I discovered, had always been a Rioja lover and had several friends in the Rioja wine trade.  Not surprising given that Rioja and Bordeaux are only a four-hour drive from each other!

An additional takeaway from the visit was a group member’s invitation for me to speak at Washington D.C.’s Metropolitan Club to a group of Washington insiders including several members of Congress.  To my surprise, one of the congressmen introduced himself as the owner of a newly created Rioja winery.

One of the perks with this group was the gift of a bottle of Lynch-Bages 2004, so I was especially excited to open it on Christmas Day with my family.  

It showed a medium-high ruby color with a brick rim, surprising for a 16 year old wine.  On the nose, elegant, round blackcurrant, acidic red fruit and pencil shavings.  The palate showed round, elegant tannins, nice acidity and was very much alive with an incredibly long finish.  The wine’s depth and elegance made me think that it could have been cellared longer but we wanted to enjoy it for this special lunch and it did not disappoint.

Out of curiosity, I did a search for the wine on both Wine Searcher and Vivino.  WS showed an average per bottle price of USD 204 plus tax in the USA and Vivino, an average price of EUR160.

I have never paid so much for a bottle of wine so I was doubly grateful that I had a chance to drink this one.  The complexity and depth of aromas, elegance and incredibly long mouthfeel convinced me that had I bought it, this bottle would have been worth every penny.

Raiding my Wine Cellar – Marqués de Riscal 2003

My wife and I have more wine than we can possibly drink. Under normal circumstances we would organize a dinner party and open six or seven bottles, but 2020 has been anything but normal. We decided at the beginning of lockdown in March that we would try to draw down the stock in our cellar before doing any buying, a strategy that wasn’t very successful because of the great offers of direct purchase made by wineries. By the time we were unlocked in mid-June, we had drunk lots of interesting bottles hidden away in the cellar.

Among them were:

a 2007 ice cider from Asturias, a 40 year-old white port, a 2011 white from Costers del Segre in Catalunya, a 2008 merlot roble from Mendoza, a 2007 merlot from Moldova, and a lot of Rioja.

Last night we carried out a raid to our wine cellar and came upstairs with a bottle of Marqués de Riscal 2003.  I didn’t remember drinking that vintage from Riscal so it was going to be an adventure because 2003 in Rioja was classified as “BUENA”.  If you consider that the official grading system here from best to worst is EXCELENTE-MUY BUENA-BUENA-NORMAL and MEDIANA, “BUENA” was right in the middle. The last two definitions defy me, but I guess one has to accept that no one is going to buy a wine classified as DEFICIENTE, nor is the Board likely to classify it.

On its website the Rioja Regulatory Board explains that this classification is based on applying a mathematical formula after tasting thousands of young wines and that later ageing in barrique and bottle can be beneficial as time passes. (The Board does not say that it can be harmful if the wine is not cellared properly downstream, but it happens).

So I proceeded to open the bottle.

After cutting the foil I inserted my lever corkscrew and started to  apply gentle pressure.  The cork didn’t budge. “#$@%*!!” Normally I would have reached for my trusty old cork remover, a gadget with two thin steel blades that you insert on each side of the cork.  By slowly twisting the device and pushing it in, you can more or less separate the cork from the sides of the neck of the bottle and then twist out the cork.

Decanting funnel and filter (L), Old cork remover (R)

The problem was that I couldn’t find it, so I tried to get a good grip on the cork and pull.  The cork started to crumble. “##$$@@%%&&**”. When I decided there was no way to remove it, I reluctantly pushed the bits and pieces of cork into the bottle and slowly poured the contents into a decanter.  I thought, “Why am I going through this rigamarole when I know that the wine will be hopelessly oxidized.

Was I wrong!

The decanting process showed a brick-colored rim and a deep garnet tone in the center of the glass.  My heart started to race in anticipation.  On the nose, it showed stewed maraschino and black cherries, a hint of oak and the slightest hint of cork, probably from the pieces of cork that floated in the bottle for a few minutes.  On the palate it had a texture that I always describe as ‘yummy’, with firm ripe tannin, balanced acidity and a long finish.

How to explain the dried out cork and the excellently preserved wine?  I guess that the seal against the glass was so tight that very little or no air could get into the bottle, although it certainly would have been easier if there had been a little wax applied to the cork to facilitate opening.

Our meal was homemade cream of pumpkin-curry soup, eggplant stuffed with vegetables and medallions of turkey tenderloin in a wild mushroom sauce.  My wife and I agreed that the Riscal paired very nicely with these dishes.

After dinner we cleaned the bottle, poured in the remaining wine, stoppered it and removed the air. Today we finished it and found that it had held up very well.

This experience has encouraged us to drink our older wines more often.  Although we will undoubtedly be disappointed by some of them, finding a bottle like last night’s will make the whole experience well worth it.

“Today, Organic Viticulture is the Exception. Tomorrow it will be the Norm”

Francisco Ruiz, director of Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez, is a passionate defender of biodynamic viticulture in Rioja. His company was the first in La Rioja whose vineyards were certified by International Demeter, the biodynamic certification body, and they have been farming biodynamically for four years.

Esperanza López from the La Rioja government’s Department of Agriculture, who was with us on our visit to the vineyards, told us that 61 wineries had vineyards certified as organic in La Rioja. The fact that only two have been certified as biodynamic shows that going full biodynamic from organic is a big leap of faith and a lot more responsibility.

I have to admit that before visiting Ruiz’s vineyards and winery I was skeptical about this farming practice. My attitude was based on a remark made several years ago by another Rioja winemaker and not by taking the time to learn about biodynamic farming.

This winemaker commented that one of the wineries in his group carried out biodynamic practices, referring almost jokingly to burying cow horns filled with manure in the vineyard.  When asked if it worked he replied, “I don’t know if it works or not, but it can’t hurt either.”

Francisco set us straight during a recent visit to one of his vineyards near Aldeanueva de Ebro in Rioja Oriental. He convinced our group that biodynamic farming indeed works by rebalancing soils spoiled by years of unsound practices, by creating harmony between the ecosystem of a winery and its surroundings and simply by being more healthy.

The concept of biodynamics was the brainchild of an Austrian, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). According to Wikipedia it was the first of the organic farming movements.  Biodynamic farming shares a lot with organic farming in general but differs in that it treats animals, crops and soils as a single, holistic system, while organic agriculture emphasizes the elimination of wide-spectrum pesticides and herbicides as farming practices.

For Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez, farming biodynamically was a logical step after the company had farmed organically since 1998.   Ruiz explains on the company website:

“Biodynamic agriculture is based on the idea of ​​the field as an organism-farm where everything is related. Always with the aim of strengthening the entire ecosystem, promoting and favoring the best conditions to achieve a balance that allows us to harvest high quality grapes without residues.”

That explains ‘ bio’.  What about ‘dynamics’? It consists of preparing, maturing and spreading in the vineyard a compost solution using a method created by German Maria Thun.

According to biodinamicatierraviva.com, ‘Maria Thun’ is a mixture of manure from free-range cows, crushed eggshells to replace depleted or deficient limestone and basalt sand to add silica to depleted soils.

These ingredients are thoroughly mixed together (dynamized) for an hour and are then added to a covered empty wooden barrel without its heads or a clay pot that is buried in the ground.  After four months the product is turned over again, valerian (an herb) is added and the product reburied for eight weeks.

For each hectare of soil, 250 grams of ‘Maria Thun’ is mixed into 60 liters of water, ‘dynamized’ for 20 minutes and applied to the soil.  The website recommends five applications a year.

Ruiz showed us where he was cultivating his ‘Maria Thun’ mixture.  It was a small wine barrel buried in the ground, covered with a wooden lid.

He also explained the importance of planting cover crops in the vineyard, both under the vines and in the rows between them. Cover crops are spontaneously grown in his vineyards but over time, leguminous species come to predominate, providing depleted nitrogen and nutrients for microorganisms and other animals that inhabit the soil.

We noticed a tall post with a crosspiece next to the vines.  Ruiz pointed out that it was a perch for the birds of prey in the area.  It was interesting to hear that the birds were fickle about where to perch so the company had to experiment with different designs.

A common pest in vineyards is the European grapevine moth, and traditional viticulture would mean spraying.  Ruiz follows an ecological approach, using sexual confusion traps that make it hard for moths to mate but don’t kill them.

 Biodynamics also applies to pruning and canopy management by pursuing a “green to green” approach – managing the leaves is done only when the cover crops have bloomed.

Traditional farming with its emphasis on pesticides and herbicides has noxious effects on crops and on people who consume them. An important principle of ecological farming is that healthy soils produce healthy crops that promote good health.  It’s a win-win situation.

After visiting the Ruiz Jiménez vineyards we were convinced that ecological viticulture is the way forward.  Francisco Ruiz summed it up nicely. “Today organic viticulture is the exception but tomorrow it will be the norm”. 

Featured wine:  Ingenium by Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez

Ingenium is a white made from the maturana grape with no added sulfur that Ruiz described as a natural wine. He noted that the Rioja Regulatory Board would probably not accept it as a Rioja.  He said that it wasn’t a big deal because as a Rioja he would be unable to sell it to a distributor for more than 2 euros a bottle, “but as an ‘anarchic’ wine, not subject to Rioja regulations, it could be sold at a higher price”. Rioja helps you but it also pigeonholes you”, commented Ruiz.

I have to admit that I’m not an accomplished enough taster to be able to distinguish an ecologically farmed wine from one farmed traditionally, but it makes total sense not to ingest pesticide and herbicide residue that are likely to be found in traditionally farmed grapes.

Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez

Carretera Comarcal LR-115, Km 43.5, 26559 Aldeanueva de Ebro (La Rioja)


Email: francisco@vinedosruizjimenez.es

Tel. +34 941 163577

Spanish Ministry of Agriculture Gives Green Light to 84 Singular Vineyards in Rioja

July 30, 2019 marks the beginning of a new era in the DOCa Rioja.

The Spanish Ministry of Agriculture approved the regulations proposed by Rioja wineries and grape growers that designate 84 vineyards covering 154 hectares as “Viñedos Singulares” (singular vineyards).

43 vineyards are in Rioja Alavesa, 31 in Rioja Alta and 10 in Rioja Oriental.

The process to guarantee the traceability of the grapes from these vineyards through vinification, barrel and bottle aging was approved internally by the Rioja Regulatory Council starting with the 2017 vintage but final Agriculture Ministry approval was required. As of July 30, wines made from these grapes can carry a specific guarantee label if they receive an “excellent” rating from a tasting panel both immediately after vinification and before the wine is released from the winery, and to state on the front label that the wine comes from a singular vineyard.

Screenshot 2019-08-01 at 14.30.56

(Credit:  lomejordelvinoderioja.com)

How does a vineyard become “singular”? The most important requirements are:

  • The vineyard must be at least 35 years old;
  • A report must show that it has agro-geological conditions differentiating it from others in the area;
  • Maximum yields must be no higher than 5000 kg/ha for red grapes and 6922 kg/ha for whites (23% lower than those required for other Rioja grapes)
  • A maximum of 65 liters of wine can be produced for every 100 kg of grapes (for ‘regular’ Rioja, the allowed ratio is 72% and for certain vintages up to 75%);
  • No machine picking is allowed;
  • The grapes must be vinified, and the wine aged, stored and shipped from the same winery;
  • No contract bottling is allowed.

The approval of singular vineyards in Rioja culminates a process of recognition of wines from specific areas in our region. Zone wines (from the Alavesa, Alta and Oriental) have been a possibility since the 1990s. More recent has been the approval of village wines.


(Credit:  Tom Perry)

According to the 2018 annual report of the Regulatory Council there are more than 114,026 individual plots of vineyards in Rioja. 15,069 hectares of vineyards were planted before 1985. Wineries have been marketing wines coming from single vineyards for at least ten years without official recognition. However, because of the rigorous certification process, wines from singular vineyards are a big step beyond the idea of a single vineyard wine.

As I mentioned in a previous article, (https://insiderioja.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/rioja-finally-comes-to-grips-with-single-estates/) both single vineyard wines and wines from singular vineyards are essential for the preservation of old vines in Rioja. Many growers pulled up their old vines because they weren’t able to find a buyer at a worthwhile price. It took the efforts of a group of pioneering young winemakers (http://www.greatwinecapitals.com/Let%27s-Rioja-%27n%27-Roll) to give well-deserved recognition to these grapes and the wines they made and gave other owners of old vineyard a reason to hang on to them.

Wines from singular vineyards can be ´generic’, crianza, reserva or gran reserva.

The 1999 Spanish wine law created a quality pyramid structure for Spanish wines, with table wines at the base and single vineyard wines at the top. The Ministry of Agriculture’s idea was:


(Credit:  Tom Perry)

At the time, the Rioja Regulatory Council rejected the idea of creating a single vineyard wine category for Rioja, arguing (correctly in my opinion), that a single vineyard wine wasn’t intrinsically of higher quality than a Rioja blend,  a single varietal, a crianza, reserva or a gran reserva. The Council worked on its own singular vineyard concept for several years until wineries and growers agreed on the terms.

Now that the Ministry has approved the certification process, consumers can look forward to tasting the first Riojas made from singular vineyards. Inside Rioja will do our best to let you know when they are released and where you can buy them.





Taking Wine Education Home – Bodegas Paco García’s ‘Experiences’


An increasing number of Rioja wineries have embraced receiving visitors but only a few have made a visit to the winery an experience rather than just a tour. Bodegas Paco García, a small, family-owned winery in Murillo del Río Leza in Rioja Oriental has gone a step further by offering consumers experiences that they can enjoy at home with their friends.

To date, the winery has launched three experiences. The first was to discover the garnacha grape. The second was a crianza (≥ 12 months aging in oak casks) made exclusively from graciano grapes.

The third experience, called duelo de robles (duel of oaks) offers consumers a box with two bottles of Paco Garcia crianza 2014, one aged in American oak and the other in French oak, but you don’t know which is which. Before opening each bottle for tasting, there’s a detailed explanation on the inside of the box explaining the differences between each type of oak.

According to the winery:

American oak (Quercus alba)

  • Indigenous to the East Coast of North America;
  • The trunk is cut with a saw, not split. The entire trunk can be used.
  • Extremely hard wood, almost impermeable, making it difficult for air to pass through the staves, making for slower evolution of the wine;
  • Wine aged in American oak is powerful on the palate;
  • Typical aromas include vanilla, coconut, coffee, cocoa and tobacco.

French oak (Quercus petraea)

  • Found in western, central and southern Europe, mainly in France)
  • The trunk is split, not sawn. Consequently a lot of wood is wasted.
  • Wine aged in French oak has a silkier texture. The most characteristic aromas are honey, vanilla, dried nuts and sweet spices.

Following this explanation, the experience suggests opening each bottle, asking consumers to guess which wine is aged in French and which in American oak.

After everyone guesses, participants peel back a corner of the back label on each bottle to discover the secret.



What an idea! We tried it at home with friends a week ago and had a great time! I’ve tasted other Rioja brands aged in both types of oak but none of the wineries have made the comparison so much fun.

I’m looking forward to the next Paco García Experience and am sure it will be both entertaining and instructive.

Bodegas Paco García www.bodegaspacogarcia.com

Inside Rioja Visits the Navarra Vinofest


Navarra holds a special place in my heart. It’s one of Spain’s most beautiful regions, from the rolling green hills of the pre-Pyrenees in the north to valleys carved by rushing rivers and dotted with picturesque villages and the muted green and ochre landscape on the banks of the Ebro river.

My love for the place is enhanced by the magic of the “fiesta” of San Fermín in Pamplona from July 6 through the 14th that I first experienced in 1971 and have been returning to almost every year.

No one can say they’ve experienced Navarra without tasting the wines produced there. For many years Navarra wines lived in the shadow of their southerly neighbor Rioja and sales stagnated. The Navarrese took a bold step a few years ago by approving the use of several international grape varieties – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and syrah for reds and chardonnay, muscatel and sauvignon blanc for whites to differentiate themselves from Rioja. Another smart move was to keep the old vine garnacha that grew in the Ebro valley while Rioja pulled theirs up to plant more tempranillo.

Several weeks ago, the DO Navarra organized a wine festival in Pamplona to highlight the wines from 29 producers. It was a great chance to see what Navarra was up to wine-wise.

It would have been impossible to taste everything so I concentrated on whites made from “international” varietals and garnacha-based reds (plus a few others that caught my eye – or should I say, nose).

These are the wines I enjoyed most:

Bodega Inurrieta

For me, the clear winner of the day.

  • Inurrieta Orchidea sauvignon blanc 2017
  • Inurrieta Mimao garnacha 2016
  • Altos de Inurrieta reserve 2013


Finca Albret

  • Albret La Viña de Mi Madre 2013

Bodegas La Casa de Lúculo

  • Lúculo Origen crianza 2016

Bodegas Lezaun

  • Lezaun tempranillo 2107 (carbonic maceration)

Bodegas Ochoa

MDO Moscato frizzante (a slightly sparkling moscato – a category that’s taking Spain by storm!)

Bodegas San Martín

  • Señorío de Unx garnacha blanca 2017


  • Inmune tinto 2017


Bodegas Castillo de Monjardín

  • Castillo Monjardín chardonnay 2017
  • Castillo Monjardín chardonnay reserva 2015

Bodegas Máximo Abete

  • Guerinda La Abejera tinto madera 2014

Bodegas Nekeas

  • El Chaparral tinto 2016

Bodegas Pagos de Aráiz

  • Pagos de Aráiz roble 2015

After the tasting we had a pintxo at the Café Roch (Pamplona’s oldest bar), lunch around the corner at Catachu and a gin & tonic (the best ones in town!) at the Bar Baviera. We slept on the bus back to Logroño. It was a perfect day!

I urge you to take a look around your favorite wine shop or check out Wine Searcher for wines from Navarra. They deserve wider recognition.






Oriental Rioja

Students of wine discover quickly that trying to learn about the world’s wine regions is a daunting task. Bordeaux for example has 60 appellations and Burgundy 84. I could go on and on about Italy, Germany, the USA and other countries but you get the idea.

Until a short time ago, Rioja was easy – one appellation for the entire region. However, the Rioja Regulatory Council recently approved the official division of the Rioja appellation into zones, a further division into villages and even gives vineyards that meet strict criteria the status of “singular” from which, hopefully, singular wines will be made. Currently, wineries are now allowed to label their wines with a zone name as long as they meet certain criteria.

Traditionally, these zones within the Rioja DO were called:

  • Rioja Alta for the area west of Logroño on the south bank of the Ebro river and for a small area on the north bank around the villages of Ábalos and San Vicente de la Sonsierra;
  • Rioja Alavesa for the area on the north bank of the Ebro that lie within the province of Álava in the Basque Country;
  • Rioja Baja for the area east of Logroño on both banks of the Ebro.

The only complication from the wine educator’s point of view was that most of the vineyards on the north side of Rioja Baja lie within the province of Navarra. Rioja Alta vineyards are exclusively within the province of La Rioja. The only coincidence was that Rioja Alavesa lay entirely within the Basque province of Álava.

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(Rioja Alta is dark green, Rioja Alavesa light green and Rioja Baja orange).

In 1998 Rioja Alavesa successfully lobbied the Council to allow wines made entirely from grapes from Alavesa vineyards and bottled in wineries in the Alavesa to be labeled ‘Rioja Alavesa’.

‘Rioja Baja’ however, has caused an uproar because a few producers, notably the grape cooperatives in the Baja feel that ‘baja’ (lower) denigrates the image of their wines. As early as 2004 a few wineries proposed changing the name to “Rioja Milenaria” in clear reference to the historical presence of Roman settlements there. The idea didn’t gain much traction, however.

Official approval for zoning the DOCa Rioja in 2017 revived the movement to dignify the name of the region. After what I understand was a fairly short debate, the Council unanimously approved the term ‘Rioja Oriental’ and submitted the change to European Union authorities to make it official.

What the Council and wineries weren’t expecting was intense criticism from both inside Spain and the USA. Both Luis Gutierrez, Robert Parker’s Spanish taster and Helio San Miguel, a Spanish wine educator living in New York, writing in  Spain’s Gourmets magazine slammed the change because they felt that ‘oriental’ had a negative connotation in English. One Rioja importer even refused to accept a batch of wine labeled ‘Rioja Oriental’.

According to our regional newspaper La Rioja, the agency managing the Rioja PR campaign in the USA isn’t too enthusiastic about the name change either. That should have been a warning sign.

Incidently, a large Chinese wine producer Changyu recently purchased a 75% stake in the large Marqués del Atrio winery located in the Baja. No kidding. Is this the real force behind the change from ‘Baja’ to ‘Oriental’?

Today (April 12), the Regulatory Council announced that ‘Rioja Oriental’ is once and for all the new name of the former zone known as ‘Rioja Baja’.

Getting back to wine educators in English speaking countries, the challenge from now on is how to translate ‘Rioja Oriental’ into English. The way I see it, there are three alternatives:

  • say ‘Oriental Rioja’;
  • say ‘Rioja Oriental’ with an English accent;
  • say ‘Eastern Rioja’.

What do you think?

My favorite wine this week:  Lecea crianza 2014 (San Asensio).  100% tempranillo from vines over 20 years old. Rich black fruit on the nose with a touch of oak; full bodied.  Lipsmackingly good.


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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.


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.


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!