Rioja and coke? It’s no joke!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do I drink it? All the time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 discovers natural wines

Last week La Tavina, one of Logroño’s most popular gastrobars, organized a tasting of ‘natural’ wines, an event that guaranteed that a collection of young Turk Rioja winemakers and local wine geeks would fight for the 25 available seats. I was one of the lucky ones. Luis Gutiérrez – Robert Parker’s Spanish wine taster – and Luis Alberto Lecea, president of the Rioja Regulatory Council, himself a grape farmer and small winery owner also attended, a good indication of the interest in these wines.

Rioja has never been a trendsetting region. We would rather see how new ideas develop elsewhere before adopting them. Consequently the most forward-thinking Rioja winemakers are only beginning to think about wines with little or no added sulfur dioxide.

Andrés Conde, the owner and sommelier of Bodega Cigaleña, a restaurant in Santander, led the tasting. His restaurant has one of the largest collections of wines in Spain, especially of older vintages. Conde’s wine knowledge is encyclopedic, and he entertained us with personal anecdotes about the characteristics of each of the wines, the terroir, grapes, aging and winemaking practices based on his visits to the wineries and conversations with the winemakers.

Andrés Conde

Andrés Conde

It was interesting that Conde didn’t mention the word ‘natural’ once during the tasting. He preferred to describe the wines as ‘poco protegidos’ (slightly protected).

Five wines were on the menu:

Sin Rumbo 2013. D.O. Rueda from Nieva in the province of Segovia. 100% verdejo. Produced by Ismael Gozalo who describes himself as an ‘independent winemaker’. The vineyards are located at 900 meters above sea level and farmed biodynamically. Fermentation and a short period of ageing in 500 liter barrels.

Color: not brilliant, a little veiled. A subtle floral nose. Round with a lower level of acidity than what I’m accustomed to but nonetheless very attractive. It was paired with a pea, fava bean, tomato and caramelized onion salad with a touch of olive oil and vinegar. I thought the pairing was good. The wine, however, didn’t hold up well in the glass compared to the others by the end of the tasting.

Sin Rumbo

Sin Rumbo

L’Anglore 2012 rosé. AOC Tavel. Grenache and Monastrell. Producer Eric Pfifferling. Aged for 18 months in barrique, required by the AOC Tavel.

Color, darker than my benchmark, a Rioja rosé, more like a light red. Not a very pronounced aroma when I first tried it. Later it opened up to spice and cherry, with noticeable notes of oak. Mouthfilling and a taste that reminded me a little of maraschino cherry liqueur. The pairing was a poached egg with pieces of ecologically farmed young hen with cauliflower cream and truffle oil. I can’t figure out how this pairing was thought up. The wine overpowered the food, a little unusual given that almost all the wines tasted were elegant and understated.

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Saint-Joseph 2012. AOC Saint-Joseph. René-Jean Dard & François Ribo. Tain-L’Hermitage. A northern Rhone red, meaning syrah. A long discussion led by Andrés y Luis Gutiérrez ensued about the defining aromas of Rhone syrah (black olives, smoked bacon and asphalt) and for these two experts, the only ones at the tasting with anything but a passing knowledge of syrah from the Rhone, this wine had it all. It was definitely not the trademark minty nose of an Australian shiraz, which most of us had tasted in the past. (Tom:  make note to self to look out for more wines from the northern Rhone!)

Medium ruby. To me, acidic fruit and a little bit of burnt rubber. Really pleasant acidity on the nose. Elegant. It was paired with a dish of monkfish and deboned pigs’ trotters, green beans and carrots. Good.

St.-Joseph 2012

St.-Joseph 2012

Cuvée Florine 2012. Côtes du Jura. Producer Jean-François Ganevat. 100% chardonnay, with 15-16 months in barrique. Andrés Conde remarked that Ganevat only added a little SO2 just before bottling.

Straw yellow, buttery with chamomile and barrel notes. Really low acidity (pH 2,8). According to Conde, this wine has characteristics of a textbook Burgundian chardonnay ‘from the old days’. It was an interesting comment but sounded pretentious because, apart from Conde and Gutiérrez, none of us had much experience with today’s chardonnay from Burgundy, let alone one from the old days. I liked it a lot and was glad to taste a wine from Jura, one of today’s ‘hot’ wine regions.

The food pairing was a filet mignon with warm, fresh foie gras and a reduced Port sauce. It went very well with the wine.

Cuvée Florine 2012

Cuvée Florine 2012

Antoine Arena Grotte di Sole 2011. AOC Patrimonio red from Corsica. Mainly nielluccio. A totally unknown appellation and grape variety for me.

Medium intensity. Very spicy, notes of overripe grapes and possibly a little brett. Powerful tannin. It was paired with chocolate ice cream and olive oil.

Grotte di Sole from Corsica

Grotte di Sole from Corsica

A sixth wine was introduced as a surprise. A deeply colored red with very intense fresh fruit aromas. Juicy fruit, good acidity and powerful tannin. No clue was given about its origin. I attempted to apply my WSET tasting experience, trying to figure it out by process of elimination. I was still thinking when other clues started to be given. “A blend”. No help. Then “Spain”. “OK”, I thought. It didn’t seem like a Priorat so maybe it was prieto picudo from León. I kept quiet. The last clue was “tempranillo and graciano”. Then Andrés and Luis waved their heads toward Abel Mendoza, one of the winemakers attending the event. It was indeed a ‘slightly protected’ Rioja made by Mendoza. It blew my mind, nothing like any other Rioja I had ever tasted. So much for process of elimination!

Luis Lecea, president of the Rioja Regulatory Council answering a tricky question from Abel Mendoza

Luis Lecea, president of the Rioja Regulatory Council answering a tricky question from Abel Mendoza

The tasting completely changed my view of natural wines. I had only tasted one previously: a red made by the Arambarri family (Vintae) in Navarra. It had really low intensity, coming up short in aroma and flavor. The wines tasted at La Tavina were all elegant and very well balanced, with the possible exceptions of the wine from Corsica and the Rioja because of the level of tannin. They all showed very attractive aromas and were really tasty. I thought they had a kind of purity about them but maybe because I knew that they were natural wines, it was my imagination. In any case, they really got my interest.

12/2014, a natural wine from Navarra with the "drink before" date on the label

12/2014, a natural wine from Navarra with the “drink before” date on the label

The only disappointment was when we asked Andrés where we could buy the first five wines. “They’re all presold before release, so impossible”. I guess I’ll have to find other natural wines to taste but at least I have a benchmark of some of the best.

(All photos by Tom Perry)

Basilio Izquierdo: “Twenty years ago grapes were better, now there’s more technology”.

The wine tasters’ club run by lomejordelvinoderioja.com, the online wine information site sponsored by our local newspaper LA RIOJA, closed out its 2014 tasting series by inviting Basilio Izquierdo, one of Rioja’s most talented winemakers, to show his latest wines.

Inside Rioja interviewed Basilio a few years ago and has already reviewed a tasting so I won’t go into details about his past, but rather focus on his recent experiments, accomplishments and musings.

Basilio Izquierdo (Photo:  Tom Perry)

Basilio Izquierdo
(Photo: Tom Perry)

For those of you who don’t know Basilio personally, he’s one of the most modest, unassuming guys I’ve ever met in spite of having kept very fast company throughout his career including studying enology under Émile Peynaud in the same class as Michel Rolland (they’re still very close) and inheriting the chief winemaker’s position at CVNE following the departure of Ezequiel García (‘El Brujo’) to Bodegas Olarra.

Basilio showed us five wines: a sparkling ‘metodo tradicional’, two vintages of his white ‘B’ de Basilio (2011 and 2008) and two vintages of red ‘B’ (2011 and 2008). The idea was to show off the latest vintages on the market against the 2008s, his second vintage after leaving CVNE.

The sparkler is a 2009 blanc de noirs brut nature made exclusively with red garnacha from the Najerilla valley (Rioja Alta). Very pale yellow, almost colorless, fine, persistent mousse in spite of being served in a wine glass, a delicate aroma with hints of nuts and graham crackers, and creamy on the palate. Only 400 bottles were produced to be given away to friends because at least for the time being, it can’t be legally sold. Laguardia, the site of his winery, isn’t included on the list of villages approved for the DO Cava.

Basilio felt strongly that the DO Rioja should allow sparkling wine and raise the requirements bar with respect to cava. I agree and think his 2009 is easily as good as vintage champagne and lots better than practically all the cava reservas I’ve tasted.

The sparkler was big surprise and for me, the best wine in the tasting.

‘B’ de Basilio 2011 made with white garnacha (70%) and viura (30%), fermented and aged for nine months in new French oak is straw yellow, shows floral and tropical fruit notes on the nose, vibrant acidity, luscious with tropical fruit on the palate and a long finish.

'B' de Basilio white (Photo credit:  Universal de Vinos)

‘B’ de Basilio white
(Photo credit: Universal de Vinos)

‘B’ de Basilio 2008 (same varieties, same proportion) is a deeper yellow with pronounced wild flower notes (chamomile to me) good acidity, but in my opinion could be a little more ‘zingy’ (I guess that’s to be expected in an 8 year-old white) and an extremely long finish. It has evolved in complexity and is tasting very well.

‘B’ de Basilio red 2011 (bottled in September 2014).   (± 60% tempranillo, 40% garnacha, 3-5% graciano) Color: medium-high intensity black cherry; acidic red fruit (cranberries to me), spicy; good acidity, pronounced tannicity but elegant, will improve in the bottle.

‘B’ de Basilio 2008 (same varieties, and percentages as 2011). Medium intensity black cherry, complex nose featuring red and black fruit, lipsmacking, ripe, round tannins.

Basilio likes to use a high percentage of garnacha because of its smoothness on the palate. He regrets that so much old vine garnacha, especially in Rioja Baja, was pulled up in favor of tempranillo. In his opinion, this happened because growers favored the low maintenance of tempranillo to the finicky garnacha, prone to millerandage and coulure. The historic wineries in Haro used to own or rent vineyards in Rioja Baja for their blends but most of these were replanted to tempranillo.

Since he didn’t mention his pet peeve about clones, we asked him about it. He’s adamant about not using grapes from vineyards planted after 1985, the year in which in his opinion, growers in Rioja made the mistake of massively planting a specific, high-production tempranillo clone. Before 1985, according to Basilio, winemakers could easily distinguish wine made from grapes from specific villages. He believes that these local differences, along with the widespread use of garnacha, produced wines of greater character than today’s in spite of the lack of technology. He contends that “twenty years ago grapes were better, today there’s more technology”, implying, I think, that what happens in the winery these days is seen by many as  more important than what’s in the vineyards. It’s an interesting question for a future debate between the old guard and the Young Turks of Rioja.

 

 

 

World class wine and food pairings at La Tavina

Rioja winemakers are used to hosting winemakers’ dinners all over the world, but surprisingly doing them on their home turf is a new thing for them. Things are changing fast however.  A group of young entrepreneurs from Rioja recently leased a three-story building at the beginning of calle Laurel, Logroño’s famous tapas street, turning it into a wine and tapas bar on the ground floor, an informal restaurant and tasting room on the first floor and a full-fledged gourmet restaurant on the second floor.

 Just about every Monday evening during the fall and winter, this restaurant, La Tavina, invites a winemaker from Rioja (but sometimes from elsewhere) to talk about their wines.  It’s not easy to get a seat because demand is high and space is extremely limited. Perusing my tasting notes I can see that the tastings I’ve attended there include Ruinart and Veuve Clicquot from Champagne, Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha (Rioja), Bodegas Campillo (Rioja), Bodegas Bilbainas (Rioja), artisanal cheese and wine, Bodegas La Rioja Alta (Rioja), Recaredo (Cava) and Do Ferreiro (Rías Baixas).

La Tavina is especially good at matching the featured wines with small bites of food.  A few weeks ago, Bodegas Bilbainas and winemaker Diego Pinilla were featured.  Pinilla brought a range of commercially available wines as well as samples of experimental single varietal and single vineyard wines.

the lineup

the lineup

Viña Pomal white 2012, a blend of 70% viura and 30% malvasía was fermented in barrel (60% French and 40% American) and also given a short period of aging in barrel.  Pale yellow. On the nose it showed floral, citrus and stone fruit aromas.  On the palate it had a medium mouthfeel with good balance. The oak was perfectly balanced with the fruit and acidity – something  other barrel fermented Rioja whites aren’t often good at.

It was paired with a tomato and sardine tartare with pomegranate. A great match! The weight and balance of the wine perfectly offset the acidity of the tomato and the oiliness of the sardine.

tomato and sardine tartare with pomegranate

tomato and sardine tartare with pomegranate

Viña Pomal reserva 2009 Selección Centenaria.  100% tempranillo. 13,5% abv. 18 months in American oak followed by two years in bottle before release.

Medium black cherry.   Red and black berries with elegant tannins and the obvious presence of oak (since this is a big seller in Spain, being able to perceive oak is a positive characteristic). Medium mouthfeel.  No food with this wine.

La Vicalanda reserva 2009. 14% abv. 100% tempranillo grown on old bush-pruned vines from quaternary and clay/limestone soils.  Aged in French oak barrels, half of which are new. 14 months in oak and two years in the bottle when released.

After this description I expected and got a ‘modern’ Rioja.  This brand was in fact developed by Bilbainas’ former winemaker Pepe Hidalgo to help the winery shake off its image as a staid old Rioja brand.  Intense black cherry color.  On the nose, overripe grapes and spices (something Spaniards call ‘balsámico’) but otherwise not very expressive at first.  Opens up later to a red cranberry-like aroma.  An interesting contrast between acidity and the overripe grape sensation.  Good balance with ripe tannins on the palate.

This wine needed some pretty powerful food and La Tavina delivered gnocchi and Riojan spicy potatoes, a really good fit.

gnocchi with spicy potatoes Rioja style

gnocchi with spicy potatoes Rioja style

2010 garnacha from vineyards in Tudelilla in Rioja Baja.  Diego mentioned that the winery wanted to produce an ‘Atlantic garnacha’ (meaning higher acidity and elegance than ‘warmth’) from grapes from an area characterized as influenced more by the Mediterranean than the Atlantic.  An interesting concept.

14,5% abv.. Fermented in oak vats with ten months’ barrel aging.  5000 bottles produced.  Medium intensity black cherry color.  Flowery and red fruit aromas.  Big on the palate but elegant with good acidity.  It was my favorite wine in the tasting.

It was paired with a grilled salt cod steak on a bed of a thick, garlic-based soup.  Once again, the powerful aromas and flavors of the tapa was a good complement to this chewy but elegant wine.

Salt cod steak on a bed of creamy garlic soup

Salt cod steak on a bed of creamy garlic soup

100% graciano (I didn’t write down the vintage but it was probably 2012).  From Bodegas Bilbaina’s ‘Vicuana’ vineyard near the Ebro river close to Haro.   Graciano is a late ripening variety that seems to grow better in Rioja Alta than Baja. This is also an experimental single varietal.  Until now, the graciano from Bilbainas went into Viña Pomal gran reserva as 8% of the blend.

Very intense black cherry color.  Predominantly floral aroma.  Very high acidity.  It was paired with a cured Iberian ham shoulder steak (presa ibérica) on a bed of cream of eggplant and couscous.  The very flavorful pork steak and fragrant eggplant went well with this elegant, fairly high acid graciano.

Cured Iberian ham shoulder steak (presa ibérica) on a bed of cream of eggplant and couscous.

Cured Iberian ham shoulder steak (presa ibérica) on a bed of cream of eggplant and couscous.

Viña Pomal Alto de la Caseta 2007.  100% tempranillo from a plot on stony soil inside the Viña Pomal vineyard from grapes over 35 years old.

Very intense black cherry color.  Concentrated black, plummy fruit.  Powerful but ripe tannins and good acidity on the palate that lasts a long time.

What else but chocolate with this intense, plummy mouthful of wine? The pairing was a creamy hot chocolate with cayenne pepper.  It was unbelievable!

Creamy hot chocolate with cayenne pepper

Creamy hot chocolate with cayenne pepper

In the near future I’ll write more about Bodegas Bilbainas, one of Rioja’s classic wineries that has been carefully rescued from decay.

The best wine job in the world

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On January 2, some very good friends who are also well connected wine buffs visiting from Miami invited my wife and me on a field trip deep into enemy territory – the heart of Ribera del Duero.  It was unthinkable to refuse because our destination was Bodegas Vega Sicilia, Spain’s most iconic winery, practically impossible to visit unless one is a distributor or an A-list journalist. Our hostess was the very knowledgeable, very charming export director, Puri Mancebo, who must have the best wine job in the world.

Puri Mancebo

Puri Mancebo

Puri, armed with a degree in economics, found the job at the winery while working as an economist at the Spanish Embassy Commercial Office in Sofia, Bulgaria.  After several years there, she figured it was time to move back to Spain.  During her search, one of the companies that contacted her was Vega Sicilia.  They told her to take her time – she could call them once she had returned to Spain.  To make a long story short, she got the job –  with the parent company – who sent her for a year to Hungary to develop international sales at Oremus, the group’s winery in Tokaj.  Puri says that the company must have figured, “if she lasts here, she’s the right person for the job at Vega Sicilia”, and so it was.

It was her first job in the wine business and she dove in headfirst, acquiring an impressive wine education that would allow her to speak with authority to the company’s customers and consumers around the world.

Puri doesn’t sell wine per se – it’s already been presold to longstanding customers with a yearly allocation. Her job is to meet customers, give tastings and host wine dinners around the world, a job that keeps her away from home 60% of the year. It’s a demanding job but obviously worth it.

The process of allocating bottles to customers fascinated us, so Puri explained how it worked.  We thought that the winery directly assigned a given number of bottles to each distributor every year but that’s not exactly true. Customers have the first word. Every January the winery sends out an allocation letter with the numbers left blank.  The distributor fills them in based on their expectations The winery juggles the figures based on available inventory, and, I suppose, past performance.

For any winery, this might seem to be an ideal situation, but one has to remember that it took the winery over one hundred years to cultivate this image, so patience is required.

Oak vinification tanks for Vega Sicilia 'Único'

Oak vinification tanks for Vega Sicilia ‘Único’

For me, a visit to any winery outside Rioja inevitably inspires comparison with how things are done in Rioja.  There were a lot of things different about Vega Sicilia.

The first thing that came to mind was the fact that the winery had lived in a vacuum in the Duero valley for most of its 150 year history, so it wrote its own rules about grape varieties, winemaking and aging rather than having to adopt rules made by others. In fact, when the DO Ribera del Duero was founded in 1982, the grape varieties authorized were the ones cultivated at Vega and the winery was no doubt the nucleus around which the DO Ribera del Duero was created.  Curiously, some of the wineries founded in the area chose not to join Ribera (Bodegas Mauro and Abadía Retuerta are probably the best-known) but rather joined ‘Vinos de la Tierra de Castilla-León’ when changes in the Spanish wine law made it possible to create new designations that allowed wineries not in the DO system to put vintages and grape varieties on their labels. Before that time, either you belonged to a DO, A DOCa like Rioja or you were a ‘vino de mesa’, in other words, a table wine, synonymous with plonk. For some wineries, the DO system was seen to be too rigid and intrusive.  If any winery in Spain could have gone solo it was Vega Sicilia, but to its credit, it joined the DO. This doesn’t appear to have affected its style one bit.

Another difference about Vega Sicilia is that grapes from each of its 85 vineyards are vinified separately.  For Puri, the essence of the winemaker’s skill is “the art of blending”.  No single vineyard or single varietal wines here.  In this respect, Vega is like Rioja in the old days.

There are 19 different soil types on the estate, ranging from those in hillside vineyards to others near the Duero river.  As a general rule, the vineyards between 35 and 70 years old produce grapes destined to become ‘Unico’ while those from 20 to 35 years old produce Valbuena.

The grapes meant for ‘Valbuena’, the winery’s second label, are vinified in stainless steel tanks while those destined to become Vega Sicilia ‘Único’ and ‘Único Reserva Especial’ are vinified in 19 oak vats.

State of the art winemaking technology is visible all over the winery.  Puri explained that there are mushroom-like devices on top of the malolactic fermentation vats so the winemaking team can see if malo has finished.  I also saw a device I had never seen before:  an elevator that takes  a tank from one floor to the other to avoid the ‘stress’ produced on the juice by pumping it over the cap during fermentation.  Only three of these ‘elevator tanks’ are in use in the wine world today:  one at Cos d’Estournel in the Médoc, one in California and this one.

the vat elevator

the vat elevator

A striking difference between Vega Sicilia and Rioja is how the wines are aged.  At Vega Sicilia, after malo, the wines are aged for a short time in 225-liter barriques, followed by more prolonged aging in large oak vats, then bottling. The vat stage allows the different wines to blend together. In Rioja, wineries almost always bottled directly after long aging in small barriques.

Vega Sicilia’s deep pockets allow it to replace these large vats, which are built on-site after five or six years.  The Rioja wineries that use large oak vats for fermentation make a big deal about the fact that  vat coopers are few and far between in the world, so accessibility to them is limited to a select few wineries.  This doesn’t appear to be a problem at Vega Sicilia.

The Valbuena is aged in oak for three years and for an additional two years in the bottle before release, while ‘Unico’ is aged in oak for 6½ years and a further four years in the bottle.

one of the barrel cellars at the winery

one of the barrel cellars at the winery

Único Reserva Especial, a blend of the last three vintages of Único’, is released 15 years after the harvest and according to Puri, only sold in magnums.  Only 15.000 bottles are released.

bottle aging in metal cages, called 'jaulones'

bottle aging in metal cages, called ‘jaulones’

 

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Following our tour of the winery we went to the family home surrounded by vineyards, which is now used for corporate events.  We tasted the Valbuena 2009, to be released in March and the Único’ 2005, which will be released in 2015.

the founder's family home, now used for corporate events

the founder’s family home, now used for corporate events

My tasting notes (with a slightly diminished sense of smell and taste after two weeks of nonstop holiday partying):

Valbuena 2009.  80% tempranillo, 20% merlot and malbec.

Medium black cherry, plummy, a little tar.  Well-balanced.

Fresh acidity, elegant tannin, long.

Vega Sicilia Único 2005.  80% tempranillo, 20% cabernet sauvignon.

Black cherry with a brick meniscus.  Nose closed at first, opening up to lush cherry and plums with vibrant acidity, perfect balance and elegant tannins.

What struck me the most about these two wines was how perfectly balanced they were – no sharp edges anywhere.

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I wondered, however, if I would have identified them as coming from Vega Sicilia if they were in a blind tasting with other wines from Ribera del Duero.  Of course they were very good but there are, of course, lots of other very good wines from this region. One’s expectations are high when tasting iconic wines if you’re looking at the labels or at least know what brand you’re tasting.

My prior experience with Vega Sicilia was limited to a bottle of Único consumed, of all places, at a picnic in the country with some friends in the mid 1970s and two bottles with some colleagues from the wine business at a restaurant in Osaka, Japan (if my memory serves me).  This last experience is worth elaborating on. We looked at the wine list and noticed that the wines were inexpensively priced, so we ordered and drank two bottles of Único.  Later, we asked the owner why the wines were so cheap.  He explained that he wanted to encourage people to drink wine so he sold them at cost!  Wouldn’t it be nice if more restaurants did that!

I wondered what the current retail prices for Valbuena and Único were so I looked in the Vila Viniteca (a fine wine shop) website in Barcelona.

Valbuena 2008 (75 cl):  95,60 euros/bottle.

Vega Sicilia Único 2003 (75cl):  236,90 euros/bottle

Único Reserva Especial 1994 – a blend of 1970, 1972 and 1974.  (75cl) 740 euros/bottle.

 

 

Bodegas Vidular – a surfer has a go at the wine business

This story starts in a hospital in Santander. While in the waiting room I struck up a conversation with a man who told me that his son had a winery in the area.  I was under the impression that Cantabria was the only region in Spain where no grapes were grown, but this man told me that there were two areas that had recently begun to grow them: Liébana  in the far west of the province near Asturias, and the east coast.

Several years later I had the opportunity to taste some of the wines from the eastern coastal region at a wine fair in Santander and was impressed by the interest of a small group of wine lovers who were willing to invest in a business that to me was plagued by oversupply, low prices and excessive regulation.  But I never bothered to enquire further.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were invited by Ken Baldwin from Totally Spain, a travel agency based near Santander, to one of the wineries in Cantabria, Bodegas Vidular, for a visit to the vineyards, a tasting and lunch. It was an unforgettable experience.

Bodegas Vidular restaurant and tasting room

Bodegas Vidular restaurant and tasting room

Bodegas Vidular is the brainchild of the Durán family, originally from Bilbao, with experience in the wine distribution business.  We met Mikel Durán at one of the company’s vineyards on the outskirts of Noja, one of Cantabria’s most popular resort towns.  Here, he explained that grapes and wine had been produced in Cantabria until the early 19th century but its resurgence had been very recent.  Vidular, along with five other wineries created a ‘vino de la tierra’ with the designation ‘Costa de Cantabria’. Mikel said that Vidular had no intention of joining a denominación de origen  because the rules regarding grape varieties were too strict and would stifle their attempts to see what varieties would work best given the climate and soils of the area. They’re right.

Mikel Duran at his Noja vineyard

Mikel Duran at his Noja vineyard

The company has a total of nine hectares of vines in three vineyards:  Noja, Castillo (a nearby village) and Vidular, about 15 kilometers south of the coast at an altitude of 500 meters.  The winery has planted the white varieties albariño, chardonnay, treixadura, gewürztraminer and godello and more recently, pinot noir.

Cantabria, with its rich clay soil and rainy climate nine months a year is not a place where you would predict grapes would produce quality wine, but for that matter, neither the coast in the Basque Country, but txakolí is selling like hot cakes.  Mikel explained that the Noja vineyard was planted in an old quarry, so there’s a base of limestone, good soil for growing grapes.  Another smaller producer recently told me that he had trucked in some ‘poor’ soil for his small vineyard.

The topic of soil fertility came up at the second vineyard we visited.  Here, the family had laid down a semipermeable mat under the vines to allow rainwater to seep through but would stop weeds and other plants from sprouting up.

Semipermeable mat to protect against aggressive undergrowth

Semipermeable mat to protect against aggressive undergrowth

These up-front investments reminded me of the fundamental question about the wine business:

Question:  How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?

Answer:  By starting with a large fortune.

The wines are sold in mainly in Cantabria and a few other places around Spain, as well as in Germany and even Japan.  We got a big kick out of hearing Mikel’s story about the sale to Japan.  He’s a surfer, like a lot of people living on the coast here, and was featured in a story in a Japanese magazine about ‘The Life of Surfers over Forty’.  Mikel mentioned that his family had a winery and a reader sent him a 100 case order.

Wine tourism, however, is where Mikel wants to devote his energy.  As we were standing beside the Noja vineyard, he pointed to the long line of cars going to the beach and mused about building a small tasting room and shop there.

Following a quick stop at the Castillo vineyard, we took a beautiful drive up a mountain to the winery and vineyards.  The family bought and restored an old farmhouse that they originally planned to use as a country hotel, but finally decided to turn into a tasting room and restaurant to entertain groups of wine tourists.  Our first stop was the small but functional winery built next to the farmhouse where we tasted the company’s two brands, the white Ribera del Asón and Cantábricus with some tapas prepared by chef Mario Armesilla.

One of the delicious tapas served before our meal

One of the delicious tapas served before our meal

Since the meal was the highlight of the visit I didn’t make detailed tasting notes for the wines but can say that they were very tasty, showing intense tropical fruit aromas, and vibrant acidity.

It’s tempting to make a comparison with txakolí, the popular white wine produced in the Basque provinces of Álava, Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa, but the wines from the Costa de Cantabria had a personality of their own.  While most of the producers of txakolí from Guipúzcoa favored the traditional low alcohol, slightly fizzy, prone to give you a headache style that is served in bars by pouring the wine from two feet above the glass to aerate it, much like Spanish sidra (hard cider), the Vizcaya style is an attempt to compete with whites such as Rueda.  Vidular was somewhere in the middle.  I thought it benefited from a little aeration, but was definitely on the serious side.

Ribera del Asón white 2012. Albariño and chardonnay.

Ribera del Asón white 2012.
Albariño and chardonnay.

As a matter of fact, there’s been quite a controversy about the appropriation by the Basques of the word txakolí (or chacolí).  According to wine historians, wines called chacolí used to be produced both in Cantabria and the north of the province of Burgos, east of Rioja. In Burgos, the wines are still locally known as chacolí, but not in Cantabria.

The wines from the Costa de Cantabria aren’t widely available outside the region themselves and at least in the case of Vidular, the Durán family is not in a hurry. In the wine business, the slow and steady approach is the safest route to success.