Family Wineries of Rioja

Everyone here is talking about the 2012 harvest in Rioja.  It was one of the smallest in recent years, 355 million kg of grapes, compared to 387 million kg in 2011.  This has pushed grape prices up, to the satisfaction of growers.  The wineries also seem to be pleased with quality, so I was excited to attend the traditional tasting of wines from the 2012 vintage by the Family Winery Association of Rioja (Bodegas Familiares de Rioja) earlier this month.  Twenty of the 35 wineries in the association showed their latest releases along with the rest of their range to about 1000 visitors to the two-hour walk-around event. It was impossible to try to taste everything so I concentrated on 2012 reds.




I was happy to note that all the wines I tasted showed intense purple in the glass with lots of fresh red and black fruit, good acidity and lots of tannin.  My only criticism was that they weren’t too expressive on the nose because they had only recently been bottled, some of them only a couple of days prior to the tasting. Hopefully in the future, the tasting will be held a few weeks later to allow the wines to show themselves.


My favorites were two old-vine garnachas from Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha in Baños de Río Tobía.  The first was a 2012 from his colleague and friend Fernando Martínez de Toda’s 100 year-old vineyard Finca de Valdeponzos.  It was a recently bottled tank sample, very potent and in need of taming in the bottle.  His second wine from his grandfather’s vineyard, planted in 1917 was from vintage 2011, also extremely powerful, with dark fruit and a nutty character.  It was rounder on the palate than the 2012.  Both wines are marketed under the label Peña el Gato. These are not your economically priced, everyday tippling wines, but powerhouses meant for the high roller.  Juan Carlos is an extremely accomplished winemaker and grape grower who’s perfectly familiar with the vineyards in his village.  If you can find them, they’re well worth the price.

Other favorites of mine at the tasting were from the Najerilla valley. This area is making a comeback and features producers of fine garnacha-based reds and claretes such as César del Río, Honorio Rubio and Pedro Martínez Alesanco.  Casimiro Somalo, a local wine writer and long-time Rioja lover (he’s from Baños del Río Tobía) agreed with me that these wines were showing more balance and freshness than most of the others.


A surprise

I had never tried wines from Nestares Eguizábal from Galilea in Rioja Baja.  Their Segares tempranillo 2012 was elegant and packed with ripe black fruit.

Wines to watch out for

Small family-owned wineries are attracting a lot of attention here for their efforts to promote wines from villages and single vineyards.  They’re trying to distance themselves from the big wineries that lately seem to have gone to bed with supermarkets around the world and whom many feel have sacrificed quality to hit aggressive price points.

What’s missing today, however, is a more active international presence for these small producers.  If you’re interested, here are some links to get you started:

Family Winery Association of Rioja

Juan Carlos Sancha:

Bodegas Nestares Eguizábal:

Bodegas Honorio Rubio:

Bodegas César del Río:

Pedro Martínez Alesanco:

(Photo credits:  Casimiro Somalo)



To Hell, Purgatory and Heaven with Miguel Merino

Miguel Merino

Today I visited my friend Miguel Merino’s winery in Briones with my golfing buddies Henrik and Vivi from Denmark and Erkki and Maili from Finland. Miguel is one of the few people in the Rioja wine trade that I socialize with so I was looking forward to the visit, not only to introduce him to my friends, but also to catch up with him about life in general, the harvest and to taste his wines again.

Miguel started out by giving us his impressions of the 2012 harvest in Rioja.  The winery harvested fewer grapes than last year, enough to make about 40,000 bottles.  Miguel felt that the harvest wasn’t as small as he expected and the grapes were brought to the winery with very little mildew because of the drought in Rioja and the fact that most picking took place just before the October rains turned the vineyards into a sea of mud..  Some grapes were picked after the first rainstorm but it apparently didn’t make much of a difference in quality.

Throughout September Miguel was worried that the phenolic ripeness (maturity of the anthocyanins and tannin in the grapes) was lagging behind the development of sugar (potential alcohol) but at harvest time, fortunately everything came together. If it hadn’t, one of two things would have happened:  either the potential alcohol would have been right but the tannins unripe, or if he had chosen to pick later, he would have had ripe tannins but probably 15% potential alcohol.  This underscores the importance of picking at exactly the right time.

Most of Miguel’s grapes come from vineyards around Briones planted between 1931 and 1973 except for a young vineyard he bought and planted for the young wines produced at the winery.

Miguel also explained how his sorting table worked.  As the grapes were unloaded, they were inspected.  One of three possible events occurred:  the unsuitable grapes were thrown into a bucket called ‘infierno’ (hell), the doubtful grapes were thrown into another bucket called ‘purgatorio’ (purgatory) and the other grapes were allowed to pass through to the destemmer/crusher.  The good grapes would become Miguel Merino wines (heaven) and the ‘purgatory’ grapes made into a second, inexpensive product for workers in the winery and friends.

2012 Miguel Merino undergoing malolactic fermentation.

Miguel works with son Miguel Jr. with each making wines reflecting their personal philosophy.  Miguel Jr., in his early 30s, prefers a modern style, aging his wines for a short time in French oak, while his father calls himself a ‘renewed traditionalist’.  Why ‘renewed’? Because even though he prefers a more traditional style based on crianza, reserva and gran reserva he ages them in barrels with American oak staves and French oak headers.

The tasting that followed showed the differences in these two styles.

Mazuelo de la Qujnta Cruz 2010 (3,800 bottles made)

9-10 months in barrel and 15 months in bottle before release.

Quinta Cruz is a brand made by Miguel Sr. and Swedish friend Lars Torstensson and is primarily sold in the Swedish market. (See my post dated May 1, 2009 for  review of an earlier vintage of Quinta Cruz). The vineyard is located in an area of Briones called Calvario (Calvary), at the fifth station of the Good Friday procession.  The vineyard was originally intended to be planted to graciano but the owner asked the nursery to plant mazuelo by mistake.  A lucky break for Miguel! Mazuelo is normally used in a Rioja blend to add acidity.  According to Miguel, Quinta Cruz was the first 100% mazuelo to be made commercially.

Intense violet, dark fruit and oak on the nose – closed –  it needs more time in the bottle.  Vibrant acidity on the palate.  I bought six bottles to see how it evolves.

Miguel  commented that Mugaritz, Andoni Luis Aduriz’ two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Rentería near San Sebastian had put Quinta Cruz on the wine list to pair with dishes that defied pairing with other wines.  Sound strange?  Maybe, but a listing at Mugaritz is a PR coup for the winery.

Miguel Merino Viñas Jóvenes crianza 2009.  100% tempranillo.

Medium intensity bigarreau cherry (‘picota’ in Spanish).  Spicy – it reminded me of a candy called ‘Red Hots’ we used to eat when I was a kid, red fruit – strawberries.  Great balance between fruit, oak and acidity.  Nice as a sipping wine or with simple meat or vegetable dishes.

Miguel Merino reserva 2005.

Medium brick.  Strawberries, cherries, well-integrated oak.  Mouthfilling, perfectly balanced, crisp acidity.  I thought it was ready to drink now but could be kept for a while because of its ripe tannins and lively acidity.

Miguel Merino gran reserva 2004.

Medium brick with no signs of browning on the rim of the glass.  Plummy and spicy.  Ripe tannins.  Like its younger brother, ready to drink but could be kept for a few years.  I agree with Miguel’s description of a ‘renewed traditionalist’!

Unnum 2008 (made by Miguel Jr.)

According to Miguel, almost all the grapes come from the 1931 vineyard, with some from the one planted in 1946.  Aged for 9-10 months in new French oak.

Medium intensity ruby. Intense black cherries and a dollop of oak on the nose.  High acidity and nice tannin on the palate.

Unnum defies classification.  I wouldn’t call it a totally modern Rioja, but it’s not really a classic, either.  Let’s call it a hybrid, but a good one.  Not exactly my cup of tea but I have to admit that it’s very well-made, and should appeal to a younger drinker’s palate.

If I were going to found a winery, I’d do it like Miguel has.  He unabashedly states that he sells to his friends (who are a legion because of his almost 40 years in the business), he relies on word of mouth, his down home personality and down-to-earth PR to get the message out, and his wines are mighty tasty. In my opinion, that’s what you need to be successful in this business.

If you ever visit Rioja, Miguel Merino is a must see!

Bodegas Miguel Merino.  Carretera de Logroño 16.  26330 Briones (La Rioja)





The long, hot summer

September is just around the corner. In Rioja, that means the grape harvest, wine festivals and the beginning of the annual joust between wineries and grape farmers over prices.

The Rioja Regulatory Council is predicting a smaller harvest than in 2011, when 387 million kilos of grapes were vinified. The theoretical production ceiling in Rioja is 413,77 million kilos (58.442 hectares of red grapes x 6.500 kg/ha. + 3.767 kgs of white grapes x 9.000 kg/ha). The smaller than normal harvest is a consequence of a severe drought that has lasted two years and several hailstorms in June and July that hammered Rioja Alavesa. In Álava agriculture experts have predicted a 35% reduction in yields, suggesting a harvest of 77 million kgs, 41 million less than normal.

The Council is strangely upbeat about the situation. The technical services director, Domingo Rodrigo recently went on record to praise the excellent state of the vineyards while minimizing the effects of the drought and the hailstorms. I’m surprised that the Council isn’t concerned about a 41 million kilo drop in production in the smallest sub-region of Rioja. I’m certainly worried about it.

Sales (from January through June, the latest figures available) are flat – 0,51% lower than in the same period in 2011. While export sales are up 5,3%, this doesn’t compensate for the 3,1% drop in sales in Spain. Hopefully sales in the Spanish market will pick up as soon as cooler weather invites Spaniards to drink red Rioja after a long, hot summer of cold beer.

What does this mean for grape and wine prices? In a supply and demand economy, the current situation in Rioja, with lower supply and flat demand usually means higher prices, but Rioja beats to a different drum. Prices will ultimately depend on how much wine is needed by wineries (a smaller harvest could be interpreted as a good thing) and on whether profits will be impacted by higher grape prices, which they probably will because wineries won’t dare raise prices. In addition, VAT (value added tax) will increase from 18% to 21% from September 1 and I seriously doubt that wineries will pass it on to their customers. Financial constraints will probably prevent bigger wineries from buying up more grapes than they require, as has been done in the past.

All the above suggests to me that red grape prices will remain low in 2012 and early 2013. Growers will complain and probably boycott the approval of the 2013 advertising and marketing budget, but that’s nothing new.

In short, we’ve had a long, hot summer and all things point to a wild, crazy ride for the rest of the year.