Seven prestigious Rioja wineries join forces for a historic tasting opportunity

Rioja entered the modern era in the mid-19th century when several innovative wineries adopted Bordeaux winemaking practices, notably ageing in small oak casks. When phylloxera devastated French vineyards, many wineries from Bordeaux and other red-wine producing regions came to Rioja looking for wines to send back to France. Local entrepreneurs took advantage of this circumstance to found wineries, many of which still do business today. The center of this activity was the railway station district in Haro, an ideal location for sending wines to the nearby port city of Bilbao for international shipment.

IMG_1485(T. Perry)

On September 18 and 19, just before Rioja Wine Festival week, wine professionals and consumers will have a unique opportunity to taste wines from seven wineries in Haro’s railway station district, among Rioja’s most historic and most prestigious properties. Bodegas Roda, Bodegas Bilbainas, R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, CVNE, Muga, La Rioja Alta and Gómez Cruzado have joined forces to organize a unique tasting experience highlighting their wineries and wines.

BBBodegas Bilbainas seen from the Haro railway station

(vinapomal.com)

On September 18, Tim Atkin, Master of Wine and award-winning wine journalist, will give a seminar and historical tasting of wines from these seven wineries to professionals followed by a day-long open house for an en primeur tasting of recent vintages.

September 19 is open to the general public. Consumers can purchase tickets online that will provide access to the seven wineries, a tasting of one wine at each as well as three ‘tapas’ from a central booth. Throughout the day, surprise activities will take place around the winery district.

Further details and ticket information is available at

http://www.lacatadelbarriodelaestacion.com/en

Inside Rioja will cover this event so watch these pages for an extensive recap of this important event in the Rioja tasting calendar.

GCBarrel ageing cellar at Gómez Cruzado

(haroturismo.com)

IMG_1158A selection of the range from La Rioja Alta(T. Perry)

the central courtyard at CVNECentral courtyard at Bodegas CVNE

(T. Perry)

IMG_1476Wooden fermentation vats at Muga

(T. Perry)

_MG_5181Viña Tondonia white reserva

(T. Perry)

RodaCellars at Bodegas Roda

(roda.es)

 

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Basilio bares all (well, almost!)

Once in a great while, I attend a tasting that is so powerful it reshapes the way I view the world of Rioja. In this case it was a recent vertical tasting of Basilio Izquierdo’s best vintages, both from his tenure as head winemaker at CVNE for 32 years and from his personal project at Bodegas Águila Real where he makes a red and white under the label ‘B de Basilio’.

The tasting was held in honor of Basilio’s classmates at the University of Bordeaux School of Enology Michel Douence, his wife Dany and Michel Rolland. All studied together in the 1960s, but took very different career paths, with Basilio going to work at CVNE, Michel at a big distillery in the Bordeaux area, Dany as the winemaker at the family winery Château Peneau in Bordeaux and Michel as the most famous flying winemaker in the world. It was a tour de force of Basilio’s prodigious talent as a winemaker, as he clearly wanted to show his former classmates and friends what he and Rioja were capable of.

Basilio is probably the most unassuming man I’ve ever met. There’s not a bad bone in his body. In fact, he’s almost embarrassed to push his wines to potential customers. We have to work on that, as the ‘B’ wines are clearly several cuts above the average Rioja produced today. And, when he was at CVNE he was responsible for the great vintages of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

The tasting was held at the Hostería Los Parajes in Laguardia. The wines came from Basilio’s private cellar. It started with two flights of the ‘B’ range, six whites (2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011) made from white garnacha (2/3), viura and malvasía, followed by five vintages of the ‘B’ red (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011). Michel Rolland said he preferred to taste the wines from oldest to youngest, not a typical way to taste but it worked out fine.

I was disappointed that the whites were served too cold. We spent most of the time warming up the glasses in our hands and some of them never really opened up. We were also pitifully short on glassware so it wasn’t possible to taste through all the wines again after half an hour in the glass.

2005: straw yellow – the only wine in the range with this color. Basilio said that he used cork here rather than a glass stopper. Honey and camomile on the nose, long and unctuous, almost sherry-like. Totally different from the other wines. Very good (but most people would dismiss the wine as oxidized).

2007: pale yellow. At first, not expressive, but after a few minutes opened up with delicate floral notes. I tasted licorice on the palate.

2008: pale yellow but more intense than the 2007. Still closed but opening up to wildflowers – more expressive than the 2007. Good level of acidity, a mouthful! My favorite wine of the flight.

2009: very pale yellow with a greenish tint. Served too cold to really appreciate at first but opens up to reveal licorice notes.

2010: very pale yellow. Herbaceous nose but also reminding me of overripe grapes. Nose very different from the rest. Unctuous, mouthfilling.

2011: very pale yellow. Delicate fruity nose. Too cold.

Reds: (2/3 tempranillo and 1/3 garnacha with a little graciano). Basilio bucks the current single varietal trend in Rioja by insisting on using some garnacha, which he thinks should be a part of every Rioja.

2007: Medium intense ruby, with a little brick on the rim. Fresh strawberries, oak behind. Crisp acidity and firm tannins. A wine with a long life ahead of it.

2008: Medium intense ruby. Raspberries, less oaky than the 2007. Well put together, fresh and grapey. Vibrant acidity and firm tannins. Ready to drink but with plenty of aging potential.

2009: Medium-high intense ruby. Fresh, grapey aroma of red fruit. Oak behind. More aggressive tannin than the previous two vintages. Needs more time in the bottle.

2010 (barrel sample): purple/ruby. Oak stands out in front of the intense red fruit. Unpolished in the mouth. Needs more time in bottle but will be a fantastic wine in a few years.

2011 (tank sample): Intense purple. A huge explosion of fresh fruit both on the nose and on the palate.

My favorite wines for drinking now were the 2007 and 2008. The 2009 is hard to judge but the 2010 and 2011 vintages hold great promise in my opinion.

Wines consumed with dinner:

Imperial reserva 1999 (Basilio reminded us that it was the ‘400 pesetas/kilo’ vintage (grape prices went up drastically because of a small harvest and growers bid wineries against one another for grapes – something the wineries remind growers about the last several years).

A huge color difference with the ‘B’ reds: light brick. Elegant, spicy, a little clove. Fine, round, feminine.

Imperial reserva 1995: Light brick. Strawberry jam, small dose of spiciness. Round, silky, perfectly balanced.

Viña Real Oro gran reserva 1994: (Note: The Viña Real line is made with a higher percentage of Alavesa grapes than the Imperial, made mainly with grapes from Rioja Alta).

Light brick with an orange rim. Nose was flawed – I thought it might have been a dirty barrel because the aroma didn’t improve with time.

Imperial gran reserva 1989: Light brick with some orange. Silky strawberry jam and orange marmalade. I thought it was past its prime.

Imperial gran reserva 1982: More intense brick than the 1989. Elegant stewed strawberries on the nose. Elegant tannins with good ‘grip’. Perfectly balanced. One of my favorites.

Imperial gran reserva 1978: light brick with an orange rim. Delicate, a little ‘pruney’. Good grip and balance. I wonder if it’s going to get better – now it seems to be at the apogee of the aging curve. I love this wine’s delicacy.

Imperial gran reserva 1970: Light brick with a slightly orange rim. Quite intense spicy stewed strawberries. Good grip, elegant, perfectly balanced. Drinking very well. My favorite wine in the tasting.

 Viña Real Oro magnum with a blend of 1948, 1950 and 1952: Light brick/orange. Bottle reduction on the nose which disappeared after ten minutes revealing a delicate strawberry jam nose. Past its prime in my opinion (but I liked it because it was the oldest Rioja I had ever tasted).

The Imperial/Viña Real wines impressed me enormously and reminded me of the style of Rioja prevalent when I joined the wine business almost forty years ago, with delicate, elegant soft red fruit wrapped in notes of cedar, cigar box and cloves. These are the wines that made Rioja famous.

I wish more Riojas were made like that today but I’m afraid this will never happen (with the exception of the López de Heredia wines, in whose cellars time seems to have stopped) because used barrels, however well-maintained, are an anathema to the young Riojan winemaker, who has to deal with a warmer growing season (and consequently higher alcohol), taming wines vinified in new oak and unwilling or unable to add garnacha and graciano because of their unavailability and problems to vinify.

There is an incredible lack of knowledge about these wines. I remember attending a Rioja tasting in London about eight years ago and being approached by a young journalist who had an older writer in tow. The older man asked me with an amused look on his face, “My friend wants to know what’s wrong with this wine”. I sniffed, tasted, spit, and replied, “Nothing. It’s a traditional Rioja!”

Gerry Dawes: “The 1947 Bosconia is the best red wine I have ever drunk.”

After several attempts I’ve finally gotten my interview with good friend, eating, drinking and bullfighting buddy Gerry Dawes, who I’ve said many times is one of the two guys with the most comprehensive knowledge of Rioja.

Here are my questions and his answers, which I have copied verbatim. Hold on to your hats.  This is vintage Gerry, once again pulling no punches.

When did you first taste a Rioja? Do you remember what brand and vintage it was? What were your impressions?

Back in the late 1960s, like everyone else who visited (or in my case lived in) Spain, I drank Federico Paternina Banda Azul. Rioja wines were Spain’s best red wines and I developed a taste for them over a period of several years. I thought many Rioja were great. Marqués de Riscal was a bit of a luxury and so was Cune Imperial and Cune Viña Real, but once in awhile I got to drink them. I still remember finding Cune Imperial Gran Reserva 1959 on the shelf of a Costa del Sol shop for 225 pesetas a bottle when I lived in Mijas overlooking the Costa del Sol. I grabbed all three bottles.

Believe it or not, I still have a bottle of Imperial Gran Reserva 1959 left, a bottle of Cune Viña Real Gran Reserva Oro 1962, a Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Igay 1942, a Viña Tondonia 1947 and a few other assorted treasures. Early this year I opened a bottle of Marqués de Riscal 1922 that was still magnificent.

During the early 1970s, when I was living in Mijas, through a wealthy acquaintance, I got to drink the R. López de Heredia Viña Bosconia 1942 and 1947. I had the 1942 two or three times, but I have drunk about six bottles of the 1947 Bosconia and I am still convinced that it is the best red wine I have ever drunk. I don’t say this lightly, since from 1975 to 1996 I sold great Burgundy, Loire Valley and Rhone Valley red wines and the top wines of California (Duckhorn, Ridge, Caymus, Shafer, Pine Ridge, etc.) to the best restaurants in New York.

I have a reputation among some writers and wine aficionados in Spain as being a “Taliban,” as a couple have called me in print. They think because I have defended the classic wines of La Rioja that I have an old-fashioned franquista palate. They are full of shit. Few of them have traveled the wine roads of Spain tasting wines in bodega after bodega like I have.  And I have done it, not from a base in Spain, but from the United States.  Between 2000 and 2010, there was a four year stretch when I averaged EIGHT trips to Spain a year and another four years when I averaged six trips per year. I have been in at least 600 bodegas in Spain, some of them multiple times, re-visiting some of them as many as a dozen times or more.  Has anyone else in Spain–besides the owner Juan Gil, the Marqués de Figueroa, been in vertical tastings of Palacio de Fefiñanes Albariños six times?

My experience is not based on tasting wines by the dozens in sit-down or walk around tastings in Madrid, in Barcelona or in New York, it based on winery visits and long lunches, dinners and private tastings with the likes of such bodegueros as Mariano García, Basilio Izquierdo, Isaacin Muga, Javier Hidalgo, Miguel Torres, Carlos Falcó, the Chivite brothers (before they split), the Pérez Pascuas family, Raul Pérez, Ricardo Pérez, Gregory Pérez, Carles Pastrana, Agustí Torelló, Juan Gil of Palacio de Fefiñanes, Gerardo Méndez and with hundreds of other bodegueros, from bodegas both big and tiny.

For the last several years, I have focused on Galicia, where I have visited and tasted in literally scores of bodegas, say 30 in Rías Baixas, a dozen in Ribeiro, 20-25 in Ribeira Sacra, perhaps 20 in Valdeorras and a couple in Monterrei. And just outside the gates of

Galicia, I have visited and tasted in some 20 bodegas in Bierzo. I have returned to a number of these bodegas as many as 5-10 times!!

And I have worn out many pairs of road warrior shoes walking in the vineyards of Spain with the viticulturists and winemakers. One Spanish wine figure accused me of not knowing anything about Spanish vineyards. I had albariza dust on my shoes before that pompous jerk was born.

Pepe Peñin likes to characterize me as “a wine romantic.”  He has told me that on a few occasions. When it comes to Spain, I still confess after all these years to still being somewhat of a passionate, enthusiastic romantic about certain aspects of the country and its people and I hope I never lose that, but I am out there in the trenches with the real artisan winemakers on most trips and I am just not into wineries so commercial that they could just as well be making athletic shoes. In fact, some of them would better serve the world if they did make shoes instead of the type of wines they are making, as I have heard so often, “wines the market is asking for.” 

I can’t wait to see what kind of wines some of these bodegas are going to make for what the Chinese market is going to be asking for.  I once had a misguided American lawyer ask me to taste a wine blind at his home.  It was awful.  He delighted in showing me a Chinese wine that had a serpent in the bottle.  This could augur well for Extremadura, because there is a wine or liqueur from there with a snake in the bottle. 

When was your first visit to Rioja?

During the 1970s when I lived in the south of Spain, La Rioja came to represent an oasis to me during the hot, rainless summers of Andalucia, my adopted home.

By early July, as you know, the heat settles in over a large portion of Spain.  The sun bears down relentlessly, driving millions of Spaniards to the beaches and cool mountain resorts.  Coinciding with this time of year is the annual trek to Pamplona, where Hemingway’s lost souls come from all over the world to see the sun rise on yet another Fiesta de San Fermin.  Since my former wife Diana and I counted ourselves among the admirers of the venerable Ernest’s fiesta, we too joined the migration each year.

We always set out at least a week before the commencement of festivities at Pamplona, so we could explore the Spanish countryside along the way.  On one of these trips, we discovered the Rioja and it became our favorite place to pass some quiet time before surrendering to the wild, weeklong San Fermífestivities at Pamplona, where peace, tranquillity, and sleep are rare commodities, and not even particularly desirable ones at that.  We looked forward to La Rioja, where we could taste fine wines in cool bodegas, sample superb country cuisine, and enjoy the scenery, history, and milder climate of this high mountain valley.

To avoid some of the scorching road heat of summertime Spain, we would leave Mijas, our pueblo on a mountain over-looking the Costa del Sol, in late afternoon.  We would usually drive into the wee hours of morning to escape the steady daytime flow of maniacal North African drivers hellbent on reaching the beaches and homeward-bound ferries of the southern coast. This was before the construction of Spain’s system of autopistas, so we were driving on two-lane roads.  Apart from diminishing one’s chances of being maimed by a Peugeot, the night offered some relief from being stuck behind the long queues of slow, laboring Spanish trucks belching noxious black exhaust.

After stopping for a brief sleep at a Valdepeñas pensión, we would drive on through Madrid in the early morning hours to reach the ancient Castilian capital of Burgos – the terrain of El Cid – by midday.  From there we headed East towards the Rioja.  In less than an hour, as the road climbed, the vegetation became increasingly verdant, the air fresher and cooler.  The greener landscape, now showing some vineyards, soothes the soul as well as the body as the heavy layers of oppressive road heat peel away.  The promise of a thundershower bringing the cool, night breezes of the Rioja would soon put the dust of the southern summer behind us.

On one occasion, we had written the venerable firm of R. López de Heredia in Haro, letting them know that we again wished to visit their bodega.  The reply had come in the charming, graceful Spanish of a more genteel age.  It went something like, “…We cannot tell you what joy the news of your imminent visit has produced in our bodega.  It would be our great pleasure to receive you.”

We had arranged for two old friends, the late Alice Hall, the dowager empress of American bullfight aficionados, from Milledgeville, Georgia and Carolyn Moyer of Davis, California to join us in a tour of the Rioja on our way to Pamplona.  By 10:00 on the morning of our visit, after a breakfast of rolls and café con leche in the Café Suizo in La Plaza de la Paz in Haro, the four of us were down in the centenarian bodegas of R. Lopez de Heredia for our “second breakfast”– a wine tasting.  Here, in surroundings as incredible as any I have known in the world of wine, Sr. Anastasio Gútierrez Angulo, the firm’s export manager, let us taste some of the firm’s twenty-year old reservas–wines made in the style of a different era–wines of yesterday.

The bodega had all the trappings of a nineteeth-century operation patterned on the chais of Bordeaux– the winery workers even wear blue coveralls as many of the staff at French chateaux still do.  In time-honored fashion, barrels were (and still are today) crafted in the winery’s own cooperage.  We saw workers cracking eggs from the bodega’s chicken farm to get fresh egg whites for fining the wines.  Other employees laboriously filled bottles with reserva wines by hand and corked them with a hand-operated corking device.

Anastasio led us through a man-made maze of cool, barrel-filled limestone caves to the deepest part of the bodega – – the room known at R. López de Heredia as the cementerio–the cemetery.  The cementerio is the resting place of the old vintage reservas dating from the founding of the firm in 1877.  This cellar gets its name from the storage bins lining its walls, which very much resemble the burial niches in the Roman-plan cemeteries of Spain.  Bin after bin was filled with dusty bottles from the greatest vintages of the past.  At one end of the room, a large round wooden table’s centerpiece was a huge, gnarled, cobweb-covered old grapevine surrounded by bottles of wine.

Our host, Anastasio, had selected two gran reservas from the fine 1954 vintage for us to taste.  The first was Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva, a lovely, elegant Bordeaux-style wine of breed and complexity.  The second wine was a more intense, dark ruby wine in a burgundy bottle, Viña Bosconia Gran Reserva, which was showing signs of evolving into a big, warm, rich wine – – aterciopelado (velvety).  The Viña Bosconia had a particularly beautiful nose, one which reminded me of a wonderful phrase that Michael Wigram, an English banker a bullfight aficionado, had used to describe another 1954 reserva at a luncheon during the Feria de Sevilla in 1973, “Gets a nice bloom on it after nineteen years, don’t you think?”

These wines did indeed have “a nice bloom” on them.  They were wines to be enjoyed, not merely tasted and spit on the floor of the bodega, so we sipped them while Anastasio gave us the most charming description of Rioja winemaking that I have ever heard.

 First he described the normal processes of vinification, barrel aging, bottling, and so forth for the bodega’s “bread and butter” – the table wines made to sell in the fourth, fifth, and sixth years after the vintage.  Then, when he came to the subject of gran reservas, the classic Rioja reservas from exceptional vintages, he began to speak of the wine as a living thing.

In this place called the cemetery, he brought his wines to life.  Speaking softly, but with passion in his beautifully enunciated Castilian Spanish, he described the wine’s “education.”

“You see,” he began, “in the beginning, a gran reserva is like a young man.  He gets a proper `education’ here in the bodega, then is bottled and becomes a young caballero.  At about 25 years he reaches the peak of his youth, then he mellows out to about the age of, say, 35-40, when he gradually begins to tail off.  However, some of these fellows do well even after fifty.  A few years ago the owners allowed three bottles of the 1914s to be opened for a celebration.  The second bottle was in fine condition.”

It would be a day to remember – Anastasio’s wonderful analogy and his beautiful wines were just the beginning.  We were four good friends glowing with wine and in the mood for fiesta.  At Merendero Toni in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, we lingered over one of those wonderful Spanish lunches: a simple salad of garden-ripened tomatoes, lettuce, and onions at the peak of their flavor, succulent baby lamb chops al sarmiento (grilled over grapevine prunings), crisp fried potatoes, and lots of Rioja tinto. 

After lunch, with a tape playing the wonderful jotas of the Basque country, we took the breathtaking drive up to the Balcon de la Rioja for the splendid view of the entire Rioja valley.  Diana and Alice, euphoric from the wine, the food, and the splendor of the day, danced the jota on the mountain as a Spanish family stared incredulously at two foreigners – Alice a septuagenarian at that  – performing the regional dance of northern Spain in their own private fiesta.

What was Rioja like back then and how has it changed?

I think my previous answer describes a little of what it was like back then, but one can still have those kinds of experiences since many of them are so often people based.  Corrida days in Haro, the Battle of Wine outside Haro, Logroño’s San Mateo fiesta and numerous experiences that can be had in La Rioja–in Ezcaray and the southern mountains, Santo Domingo and in wine towns such as Briones, San Vicente de la Sonsierra and many other places–still make the region a magical place for those who know the area, its history, its bodegas and its wonderful restaurants and tapas bars. 

Some people see the changes that modernity has wrought and lament the days of the past, but I have seen Spain grow and modernize over a period of more than forty years and I have come to realize that the question should not be about whether traditional or modern is best, it should be about what is really good.   For too long, the priority of modern Spaniards was to throw off the shackles of the Franco era and plant both feet in the modern era.  This caused the criteria to be skewed.  There was a general feeling that anything new, modern, innovative had to be good by definition and therefore most relics of the past must not be so good, when the real criteria should be: What is based on quality is good, what is not, is not.  Just being new, modern and innovative is not all necessarily good.  Some innovation turns out to be quite bad and sometimes it is in bad taste. 

The same goes for some traditions, which often are used to keep people anchored in the past–the status quo is more to the point–though the best of customs, which were at sometime in history, new, modern and innovative, tend to survive and for good reason.

In wine and gastronomy, I have long maintained that it is not tradition nor innovation that is the question.  The question is: Is it good?  For instance, I believe that Spanish modernized traditional cuisine is some of the best food on the planet.  There are great traditional cuisine restaurants in Spain and also some very bad ones.  And as we know, there are a number of exceptional Spanish, Basque and Catalan cocina de vanguardia restaurants, many inspired by elBulli, but I think it is telling that many of the vanguardia maestros are opening tapas bars and restaurants with modernized and evolved traditional dishes on the menu.

As far as modern Rioja wines go, it is the same.  There are great tradition-based, evolved wines in la Rioja and there are good modern wines, but too many of the modern wines seem to be imitating wines from such places as Napa Valley or even nearby Ribera del Duero, making a style of wines that they think the market is asking for.  Now wine drinkers in droves are turning against overripe, overly alcoholic, overoaked and over-manipulated wines, which for the last decade or so have bordered on religion for most modern wine writers.  Now, that change is in the air and Parkerismo is on the wane, it will be interesting to see how all those who have steadfastly been proselytizing for such wines will change their deeply held beliefs about how such manipulated wines are actually superior to honest wines that taste like the place from which they come and that drink very well with the food of that region. 

Wines with a true sense of place–it can be terroir or it can be a style of wine like Sherry or Champagne or like La Rioja wines used to be–are unique, not copies.  And when unique wines find a successful place in markets outside their regions, their long-term success is dependent on that uniqueness that sets them apart, not a sameness which makes them as generic as Brand X and thus much more sensitive to price competition.

You have always said that your favorite Riojas are from the ‘Barrio de la Estación’ in Haro. What do you like about them?

The great gran reservas like Cune Imperial, Cune Viña Real, Viña Tondonia, Viña Bosconia, Muga Prado Enea, La Rioja Alta’s Viña Ardanza, ‘904′ and ‘890′ and, outside the Barrio de la Estación, Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina and the great Monte Real, Marqués de Riscal and Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Igay were fabulous wines, each distinctly different from one another, but all long-lived (I have had many that were from 40-70 years of age and still vibrant and delicious).  These were remarkable wines by any discerning wine lover’s standards.  And as recently as October 7th, at Arzak, Mariano, Arzak’s sommelier found a wonderful Bodegas Bilbainas Viña Pomal 1962, which he served us in honor of the birth year of American Iron Chef Michael Chiarello (Bottega, Napa Valley).

Do you think it’s been a mistake for Rioja winemakers to follow the new world trends of high alcohol and a meaty structure? Have they dialed this back or are a lot of wines still too modern?

Now that we are in very tough economic times both in Europe and the United States, this approach to winemaking can be disastrous for all but a few who can pull it off.  And anyone who wants to sell such wines in the future had better brush up on their Chinese, because Western markets are turning against such excesses big time.  The market is also   turning against wines in heavy bottles, which are very expensive to make and transport,  ecologically unwise,  and, more often than not, have been shown to hold wines that are not only expensive, they are usually not very much fun to drink and are often the opposite of what a wine with charm, grace, harmony and balance should be. 

In my estimation, it is not the time-honored wines of La Rioja that the Barrio de la Estacion, Riscal, Bodegas Riojanas and Murrieta were once known for that will be considered the greatest dinosaurs in the near future, it will be the overwrought, Parkerized, monster wines that never really existed a decade or so ago.  (By the way, what do the makers of such wines not understand about the value of second glass and second bottle sales, which are much more likely to happen–by multiples of multiples–with wines that have 12% – 13%, are not fat and overripe or overoaked?)

Most of the garnacha here has been grubbed up and replaced with tempranillo. What has garnacha contributed historically to our wines and can Rioja reds make it as single varietal tempranillos?

More to the point, “Most of the garnacha here has been grubbed up and replaced with a clone of tempranillo that is prolific and produces insipid wines that need over-ripeness and new oak flavors to make their point, are getting less and less palatable by the day to the broad market out there and for which a lot of marketing dollars have to be spend to sell such wines.

Garnacha was an essential component in a number of great Rioja wines such as Cune Viña Real.  Garnacha and mazuelo added to Tempranillo made many Rioja wines great, complex, multi-faceted and delicious.  Who decided that monovarietalism was a virtue?  The press, who are not winemakers, nor the real consumers of wines?  Oh, well, as Navarra has realized since they ripped out a lot of their exceptional garnacha vines, Aragón, now dubbing itself as the Kingdom of Garnacha, is not that far away.  And should Rioja’s bodegueros change their minds about blending other grapes into the increasingly uninterested tempranillo clone now planted in so much of the region, perhaps a pipeline to Campo de Borja, Cariñena or Calatayud should be considered.

Is there any hope for white Rioja?

The future for Rioja white wines, which I view as extremely dim, will probably have to have its roots in the past.  Viura is an insipid grape.  Among the many wines that I have sampled that were made from that grape from across Spain (counting those that go under the name Macabeo, Macabeu), I have yet to encounter a great one.  (I don’t count the aged R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Blancos, which owe as much to winemaking technique and to the blend of other grapes as to Viura itself.) 

Basilio Izquierdo’s B. de Basilio Blancos are the best white wines that I have tasted in La Rioja, but the true base for those wines is Garnacha Blanca.   Any future hope for white wines in La Rioja should be based on the blends prevalent in the past: Viura with Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia. 

And rather than planting Chardonnay and trying to make more insipid, copy-cat white wine that has to be manipulated in the cellars to have any interest at all, I would strongly consider planting good clones of Godello in the higher elevations.  Now, there, in my humble opinion, is a grape with a future.

We uncork two classic Riojas from CVNE

 A few days ago, my old friend, fellow wine writer and bull runner Gerry Dawes was in town so a few of us went out for lunch. Basilio Izquierdo, owner of Bodegas Águila Real and former winemaker at CVNE, brought two bottles of CVNE Viña Real gran reserva 1976 and 1970 from his private cellar that were the hit of the meal.

The 1976 (13,5% alcohol) showed a light brick color with a classic Rioja nose of cedar and strawberry jam, light and delicate.  On the palate, it showed good acidity but in my opinion, lacked a little crispness.  If you have a bottle, I’d recommend that you drink it now.

On the other hand, the 1970 (13%) was at its peak.  A light brick color like the 1976 but on the nose, at first a delicate floral, tea-like aroma that after 20 minutes evolved into delicate spices.  On the palate, vibrant with good structure and crisp acidity.  More alive than the 1976, it’s no wonder that 1970 was a very good vintage in Rioja.

We asked Basilio how to make a wine that can be kept for 40 years.  First of all, you need healthy grapes and ageing in slightly used barrels for 3-4 years, using good quality corks, storing the bottles lying down at a more or less constant temperature with as little light and vibration as possible.

The ideal level of humidity in an ageing cellar is about 80%, difficult to obtain umless the cellar is underground.  To do this in an above-ground cellar requires air conditioning and good insulation, a costly investment.

We ate a very Riojan meal of leeks in oil and vinegar, a tomato and onion salad, lamb sweetbreads and a bowl of ‘pochas’ (white beans that aren’t dried but frozen while they’re fresh).  The wines went down very well and we were sorry that Basilio had only brought two bottles.

If you can get your hands on a well-cellared bottle of Rioja from a good vintage from the 60s and 70s (1964, 1968, 1970, 1975, 1978), take the plunge.  You will discover why classic Rioja has been compared to fine Burgundy.

CVNE, 130 years old and still going strong

ImperialThe new world wine trade, led by the Australians, has gotten a lot of mileage from the statement ‘We make wine to consumer tastes, while the old world makes wine to suit the winery’.  Last week, the fallacy of that statement was driven home to me once again at a tasting featuring the wines of CVNE (pronounced CU-NAY)

 CVNE (short for the tongue twisting ‘Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España’) was founded in1879 by two brothers from Bilbao, Raimundo and Eusebio Real de Asúa and is now run by the fifth generation of the founding family.  This in itself is an outstanding accomplishment, as most family companies are bankrupted by the third generation (as they say in Spain, the inspired founders build the company, their children maintain the business and the grandchildren ruin it). CVNE is one of a number of wineries founded in the mid- and late 19th century, among which are Marqués de Riscal, Marqués de Murrieta, Federico Paternina, AGE, Bodegas Riojanas, La Rioja Alta, Bodegas Bilbaínas, Bodegas Franco-Españolas, R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, Bodegas Montecillo and Martínez Lacuesta.

 To return to my original point, you don’t survive 100 years in business if you don’t give your customers what they want, and what Rioja lovers in Spain want is wine that you can drink with a meal.

 Rioja’s most important market has always been northern Spain, notably the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia, in addition to La Rioja itself.  Here, fish was and is a staple of our daily diet and the light, elegant style of a traditional Rioja is perfect with fish as well as vegetables and lamb, products easily available to us.

 The arrival of concentrated, tannic, high-in-alcohol wines, designed to win medals at tastings and to humor wine writers to Rioja’s major market, the United Kingdom produced a reaction in our region that was at first an imitation of the new world style and mostly criticized by journalists. Rioja has gradually evolved into what I call a ‘more powerful elegance’ than Riojas from the 1970s and 1980s but nonetheless recognizeable as Rioja and just as good with either meat or fish.

 CVNE is a prime example of this enduring philosophy.  Its brands Viña Real, Imperial and Monopole are found on practically every restaurant wine list in Spain.  In fact, if the company has a weakness, it has been its overwhelming strength in the Spanish market and lack of presence internationally.  The owners of the company have addressed this by hiring two of Rioja’s most dynamic export managers, Óscar Urrutia and José Luis Ripa from Bodegas Martínez Bujanda and El Coto de Rioja respectively.

 My favorite wine from the tasting, Imperial reserva 2004, showed a medium garnet color, stewed red and black fruit with well-integrated oak and elegant tannins on the nose, with medium to high acidity and firm fruit in the mouth. With 13,5% alcohol, it is more powerful than an Imperial from the 70s which probably had 12% or 12,5% and somewhat softer tannins, but it goes perfectly with food and would no doubt be recognized as a CVNE wine by the founders of the company.

 A perfect example of a business philosophy designed to last one hundred years!