Lessons from the other side of the world


One of the things I like most about working with the Great Wine Capitals Global Network is to visit other wine regions to hear their story, taste their wines and compare how they take care of visitors – it’s a great reality check and benchmarking exercise against our efforts here in Rioja.

We recently spent a week on New Zealand’s South Island.  We were awed by the spectacular scenery, great wines and devoted wineries and returned with lots of ideas and food for thought regarding Rioja.

The first thing that hit us between the eyes was how unencumbered New Zealand wineries are by tradition and how they use technology to get things right the first time.  For example, although vines began to be planted in Marlborough in the 1970s and the first pinot noir vines were planted in Central Otago in 1981, both Marlborough sauvignon blanc and Central Otago pinot noir are already well-known to wine lovers around the world. We were amazed to hear that there are only 1.600 hectares planted to grapevines in Central Otago.

A second fact is that wineries are focused on what they do best. Big brands such as Montana, Cloudy Bay and Oyster Bay created demand for New Zealand wines but I was surprised to learn that most wineries are small and focused on maintaining a premium image for their brands and their region.

This is a lesson Rioja could benefit from.  At a wine industry seminar, speakers from both large and small wineries made the following interesting points:

  • Overdeliver at a specific price point
  • Don’t assume growth – boom and bust cycles are caused when people see an upward trend and everyone wants to buy into it (that is, plant heavily and increase production)
  • Emphasize premiumization-drive value, not volume
  • Tell your story passionately, emphasizing place, vineyard, and person
  • Refocus on core markets, but spend some time on a few emerging ones.

We were also impressed with the quality of the ‘cellar-door’ (New World winespeak for winery tourism) experience.  Every winery we visited was focused on good service and making the visitor come away with a meaningful experience.  Sure, the wineries sold wine, t-shirts and other merchandise, but we learned a lot and came away as real fans of these wines.

If you get the chance to visit New Zealand, go as soon as you can.  It took us over 30 hours to get there from Rioja but the trip was worth every penny.  We’re already planning to go back!


Castillo Ygay gran reserva 1989 ‘Early release’

Luciano de Murrieta

Luciano de Murrieta

After a hard week at the annual meeting of the Great Wine Capitals Global Network in Bordeaux, we decided to spend a relaxing weekend at our summer house near Santander.  However, gale force winds and driving rain made us miserable so we decided to leave early for Logroño, a nice Sunday lunch and a warm, dry house.

While Toñica prepared a dish of hake fillets in white wine sauce, I went to the cellar in the basement to find an appropriate wine for the meal.  My eyes landed on a bottle of Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay gran reserva 1989 which ended up on the dinner table.  Not only did it go really well with the fish, it brought back memories of how Rioja used to be made.

I remember my first visit to the winery in the mid-1980s. Winemaker Alfonso Troya, who learned his trade from the great Jesús Marrodán, explained that traditional houses like Murrieta didn’t need to age their wines in bottle before release – they were aged for years in old barrels that had lost most of their capacity to microoxigenate the wine inside, so consequently, were ready to drink when bottled.

In the late 1980s the winery decided to release some of the Castillo de Ygay vintages with less barrel age than usual, holding back the rest for a further 10 to 20 years.  These were the ‘early release’ Ygays, the first of which, 1985, was released in 1994. 

Murrieta wines are produced exclusively from the winery’s extensive vineyards just outside Logroño and are blends of tempranillo and a generous amount of mazuelo, along with some garnacha and graciano.  The percentages weren’t on the back label but most of the vintages favor the first two varieties.

The wine showed a medium brick color with no hint of brown, a  nose that reminded me of spice and a cedar chest with hints of oak and a light, elegant mouthfeel.  I thought it was at the top of its game.  Perfect with Toñica’s fish.

Murrieta was always easy for me to recognize at tastings because of its distinctive spicy nose with just a hint of oak and the 1989 early release took me back 20 years, before the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s influence was as overpowering as it is today and fine, old Riojas were in great demand.

At the time this wine was made, the owner, Vicente Cebrián, a businessman with interests in newspaper publishing (he was one of the owners of the now-defunct newspaper YA), wanted to restore the estate to its original late 19th century splendor but suddenly died of a heart attack, leaving the property in the hands of his teenaged children Vicente and Cristina.  They have continued their father’s plans but have, unfortunately in my opinion, given the wines a more modern style that may not be appreciated by the winery’s loyal fans.

The gran reserva 1989, however, was made before this change came about and I thoroughly enjoyed it! Call me a traditionalist, but wines like this are a treat!

The ‘Best Of’ Wine Tourism awards

BestOf color_editWine tourism is starting to jump in Rioja.  After years of thinking that opening to tourists was an unnecessary expense, winery owners here have finally realized that it’s not only a great way to sell wine but also to build relationships with  customers and teach them about wine culture.  This is especially important in Spain, where per capita consumption of wine is decreasing year after year and young people show little interest in our product.

Enter the Great Wine Capitals Global Network, made up of Bilbao/Rioja, Bordeaux, Cape Town, Firenze, Mainz/Rheinhessen, Mendoza, Porto and San Francisco/Napa Valley.  Founded in 1999,  one of its aims is to promote tourism, especially wine tourism, among its members.   The Network created the ‘Best Of’ wine tourism awards in 2004 to honor the best wine tourism initiatives in several categories.  Each member city organizes its local award contest, with the winners in each category competing among themselves for the international awards.

The awards have been a huge success, drawing a lot of attention, both to the winners and to the network.

Bilbao/Rioja celebrated its 2010 ‘Best Of’ winners at aceremony held at the historic Citadel in Pamplona on October 1.

The winners are:

Accommodation:  Hotel Hospedería Villa de Ábalos (http://www.hotelvilladeabalos.com

Architecture, Parks and Gardens:  Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (http://www.cvne.com)

Art and Culture:  Finca Valpiedra (http://www.familiamartinezbujanda.com)

Innovative Experiences and Sustainable Wine Tourism Practices:  Bodegas Muga (http://www.bodegasmuga.com)

Restaurant: Remenetxe (http://www.remenetxe.com)

Winery Tourism Services: Rioja Alavesa Wine Route (http://www.rutadelvinoderiojaalavesa.com)

The international winners will be announced at an awards ceremony during the annual meeting of the network in Bordeaux on November 1.

For more information about the Great Wine Capitals Global Network, follow this link: