The Haro Train Station District Event, Part 2

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One of the most attractive events on the second day of the Haro Train Station District tasting was a train ride from Logroño to Haro and back. I overheard some visitors comment that it was the first time they had ever taken a train. It’s ironic that trains, that made it easy to ship wine from the Ebro valley to Bilbao and from there, all over the world in the 19th century, are now an archaic means of transportation here.

Consumers had two tasting options: a 20 euro ticket allowing a tasting of one wine from each winery and three tapas or a 40 euro VIP ticket with which you could taste two higher end wines from each winery and try seven tapas made by restaurants from around Haro.

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 Three vintages of Viña Tondonia

The food options were great. One could choose a red bean stew, grilled pork with a caramelized onion marmalade, cornbread stuffed with chorizo cooked in red wine, cream cheese smothered in a pear sauce, red peppers stuffed with meat and wild Riojan mushrooms, grilled mushrooms or a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, called a ‘zapatilla’ or ‘slipper’.

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Tasting at Bodegas Gómez Cruzado

I chose the 20 euro option and was glad I did. Towards the end of the day the sidewalks, the winery gardens and the platform at the train station were filled with glassy-eyed VIP ticket holders who had chosen the 14-glass option. There were spittoons everywhere but most people preferred swallowing to spitting. Thank goodness for the train.

Each winery prepared a special event related to winemaking, wine culture or the history of the train station district.

Bodegas Bilbaínas: a visit to the original winery built by the French in the 19th century and the underground ageing cellars;

CVNE: an exhibition of the sculptress Cristina Iglesias, titled “Wells”;

Muga: oak barrel making

Gómez Cruzado: painting a street mural depicting the history of the winery;

La Rioja Alta: racking wine from one barrel to another;

López de Heredia Viña Tondonia: a photographic exhibition of the history of the train station district from the winery’s private collection;

 

Roda: the underground cellar and the balcony overlooking the Ebro river with a view to the ‘sea of vines’ on the opposite bank.

 

In addition, a roving Dixieland band walked through the winery gardens. It was a big, happy street party.

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One of the ‘Pozos’ sculptures by Cristina Iglesias at Bodegas CVNE seen from above

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Part of the train station district and Haro seen from Bodegas Roda

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The tower at Bodegas López de Heredia, called the ‘txori toki’ or ‘bird’s perch’ in Basque

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Painting a mural at Gómez Cruzado

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‘125 vintages’ on a wall at La Rioja Alta

I had already visited every winery except Gómez Cruzado with wine and lifestyle journalists so as I walked around I concentrated on listening to people’s reactions on seeing the inside of a winery, for many, for the first time and having the chance to talk to the owners and managers. It was heartwarming to hear them welcome the visitors “to our home”. For most of these consumers, the brands were already familiar, but seeing where the wines were actually made was an exciting experience.

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Visitors comparing tasting notes

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Photo call at Bodegas Bilbaínas.  ‘Call me classic’

The two-day event was, in my opinion, a huge success. Over 400 journalists, distributors, wine shops and restaurants attended the professional event on Friday while more than 4000 consumers from all over Spain filled the wineries on Saturday. The weather was perfect, the wines showed very well, the local food was delicious and the wineries laid out the red carpet for their guests. It was a unique opportunity to get an inside look at a unique group of one hundred-year old wineries that are among the best ambassadors Rioja shows the world.

 

I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.

All photos ©Tom Perry.

 

 

The Haro Train Station District Wine Tasting, Part One

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Bordeaux has the Haut Médoc, Burgundy can boast about its terroirs and Germany, the steep terraced vineyards above the Rhine and Mosel rivers. Haro’s historic railway station district is a unique place, too, but not for its vineyards. It’s the only place in the world where you can find five one-hundred-plus-year old wineries within a two hundred yard radius:

López de Heredia Viña Tondonia (1877)

Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España – CVNE – (1879)

Gómez Cruzado (1886)

La Rioja Alta (1890)

Bodegas Bilbaínas (1901)

This small area is also the home of two ‘newcomers’:

Muga (1932)

Roda (1987)

This is a killer marketing opportunity so it might seem odd that an event linking these properties only happened this September. You have to consider, however, that funding for the event came almost exclusively from the wineries’ own pockets, a monumental effort taking into account that their priority is promoting their own brands. Another large expense for the wineries is their contribution to the generic marketing campaigns run by the Rioja Regulatory Council in Spain and abroad. In today’s economic climate characterized by low markups and intense competition, an additional outlay to sponsor a new, untested event was a huge leap of faith. But, judging from this year’s event, it was a spectacular success.

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The first day of the event was for 400 wine writers and the trade. It started with a talk by local ethnographer/anthropologist Luis Vicente Elías about the history of the area. It was an eye-opener. Historically, the wines produced from grapes around Haro had a bad reputation, described as ‘mohinos y violentos’ (sad and violent), but this was before the arrival of the French in the middle of the 19th century.

Luis Vicente Elías and Tim Atkin

          Luis Vicente Elías and Tim Atkin

It’s widely thought that the French went to Haro because of phylloxera in their own vineyards, but Elías pointed out that oidium in the 1850s first brought them to Rioja and other regions in the north of Spain. Phylloxera in France was a later development. It was the combination of the two maladies that forced the French to look to Spain for wine.

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Demand for Rioja grapes which the French encouraged local wineries to vinify according to their requirements caused a boom in vineyard planting. In 1857 there were 34,000 hectares, in 1881 – 47,326 hectares, in 1891 – 68,063 hectares, reaching a maximum of 69,260 hectares, more than the area under vine in Rioja today. In 1892 the Spain-France customs treaty expired, high duties were levied on wine, and demand from France collapsed, forcing winery owners to develop other markets. By then, the French had discovered that grafting shoots onto American rootstock was the only way to stop phylloxera. The arrival of the plague to Rioja in 1899, however, drove companies out of business and forced people to emigrate to make a living.

Bodegas Bilbaínas seen from the Haro train station. (Credit:  Bodegas Bilbaínas)

Bodegas Bilbaínas seen from the Haro train station. (Credit: Bodegas Bilbaínas)

Much earlier, Haro was just a whistle stop on the railway line from Castejón in Navarra to Bilbao. This railway to Bilbao became a reality due to the efforts of  winery owners who suggested building it, industrialists from Bilbao who financed it and English engineers who designed it as a way to ship goods from the Ebro valley, most importantly wine, to the outside world.

Elías explained that the original site for the station was much farther from the city, which aroused the ire of the local wine industry. They finally convinced the engineers to build the station on its current site near the wineries. According to Elías, “if the station hadn’t been moved to its present location, there would be no winery station district and we wouldn’t be sitting here today”. A sobering thought, indeed.

Following Elías’s talk, Tim Atkin MW, led a tasting of 14 wines, half from the 20th century, half from the 21st. The wines were mostly from vintages no longer on the market but in some cases, wines not released yet:

Viña Tondonia red gran reserva 1981 R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia

Viña Pomal gran reserva 1987 (Bodegas Bilbaínas)

CVNE Imperial gran reserva 1988

Muga Prado Enea gran reserva 1994

Roda I reserva 1994 (Bodegas Roda)

Gran reserva 904 1995 (La Rioja Alta)

Gran reserva 890 Selección Especial 2001 (La Rioja Alta)

Gómez Cruzado gran reserva 2007 (Gómez Cruzado)

Viña Tondonia red reserva 2004 (R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia)

Roda I reserva 2004 (Bodegas Roda)

Imperial reserva 2010 (CVNE)

Alto de la Caseta Viña Pomal 2010 (Bodegas Bilbaínas)

Torre Muga 2010 (Bodegas Muga)

Gómez Cruzado Pancrudo 2013 (Gómez Cruzado)

I made detailed tasting notes but think it’s more interesting to describe my perception of the evolution in style in the 32 years between the oldest and youngest wines.

Color

The oldest vintages were light brick with some orange, which was to be expected because some color had faded with age. The light brick color was due to the fact that Riojas from these vintages weren’t subjected to today’s aggressive methods of color extraction.

You could easily see the difference between the more traditional styles such as López de Heredia and La Rioja Alta whose color intensity hasn’t evolved much, and the modern style of Roda. More remarkable however was the huge evolution shown in the wines from CVNE, Muga and Bilbaínas. It reminded me of Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way” by Heredia and La Rioja Alta and the embrace of the international, wine writer-driven style by most of the others.

Aroma

In the traditional Riojas, stewed red fruit showed through as well as delicate spicy notes and good balance between oak and fruit. It was just what I expected. I also remembered that this stewed fruit and spicy character was present when these wines were released. They were the hallmark of Rioja in those days.

The newer vintages showed ripe, and in some cases, overripe fruit notes. Tim Atkin commented at one point that in a blind tasting most of them would probably not be identified as Rioja.

Palate

Here, Rioja has shown, especially with the newer vintages, that wineries have mastered the art of picking when the tannins are ripe. This was not always the case. When ‘markets’ (journalists) began to demand more color and ripeness from Rioja, the wineries complied by producing wines from overripe grapes but with green tannins in the first few vintages. Now, the most important criterion for picking is ripe tannins, with higher alcohol because hang time is longer. I remember hearing Agustín Santolaya, the manager of Roda and a native Riojan talk about chewing on his grapes to see if the tannins were ripe, just like his ancestors used to do.

The older wines in the tasting showed a silky texture with varying degrees of firmness, while those from younger vintages showed ripe tannins with no rough edges and good ageing potential.

One difference I noted was high acidity in the traditional wines (due no doubt to the presence of white grapes to help the wines age). In the newer vintages, the backbone of the wine was tannin-based.

After the group tasting we visited the seven wineries to taste their new vintages.

I especially enjoyed tasting Bodegas Bilbainas’s singular wine collection of white tempranillo, graciano and garnacha, the collection of wines from Gómez Cruzado which I wasn’t familiar with and the Mugas, especially the evolution of Prado Enea (their traditional gran reserva) and Torre Muga, which when introduced a few years ago was a sharp contrast to the traditional style of the rest of the range. Today’s Prado Enea is vinified much more in the modern style than before.

Jesús Viguera, the winery’s export manager, remarked that today the traditional style has become a little more modern, with more color and depth, while the modern style has become a little more traditional, with elegant rather than sharp tannins.

The second day of this experience was open to consumers, who paid 20 euros for a basic tasting ticket of seven wines and three tapas prepared by local bars and restaurants or 40 euros for a VIP ticket to taste 14 wines and seven tapas.

More about that in a future post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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)

 

Bodegas La Rioja Alta: 123 years of quality

The Barrio de la Estación (Railway station district) in Haro boasts the highest concentration of hundred-year old wineries in the world.  The railway to Bilbao, completed in the middle of the 19th century, was the most convenient route to ship wines to the port and from there, to the rest of Europe and America, so it was logical that the wineries decided to build here. Within a five hundred meter radius you can find Bodegas López de Heredia (founded in 1877), La Rioja Alta (1890), Gómez Cruzado (1886), Bodegas Bilbaínas (1901), CVNE (1879) and Rioja Santiago (1904).  The ‘youngsters’ in the neighborhood are Muga (1932) and Roda (1987).

Monsieur Vigier, the winery's first winemaker.

Monsieur Vigier, the winery’s first winemaker.

A few weeks ago, I took a group to several Rioja wineries.  One of our stops was at La Rioja Alta.

Lots of changes had taken place at the winery since my last visit.  The company no longer uses its old wooden fermentation vats but has kept them for show as a reminder of how its wines used to be made.  I remember a visit during the harvest a few years ago. We noticed a group of young men shivering under blankets outside the vats.  Their job was to remove the pomace from the tanks after fermentation but they could only work for a few minutes at a time and had to be careful of the carbon dioxide that lingered in the vats.  Most of the backbreaking manual labor in wineries has been replaced by technology (in the case of fermentation vats, with self-emptying tanks), but intensive manual labor still very evident here as recently as the 1990s.

One of the things you notice at the bodega is the huge number of 225-liter oak casks used for aging the wines.  La Rioja Alta claims that it ages its wines much longer than the minimum time required by the Rioja Regulatory Council.  In fact, the crianzas from the winery could qualify as reservas and the reservas as gran reservas. On average, Rioja wineries hold just under three years of sales as inventory but La Rioja Alta’s is a whopping nine years of sales.  The winery states that they finance expansion with their own funds, so you can imagine the effort it takes to finance this inventory.

An antique poster advertising La Rioja Alta

An antique poster advertising La Rioja Alta

La Rioja Alta’s brands are homages to past directors of the company and to significant events in its history.  Its most prestigious gran reserva,  ‘890’ is named for the year the company was founded (without the ‘1’ due to opposition from the Regulatory Council).  Gran reserva 904 commemorates 1904, the year Bodegas Ardanza merged with La Rioja Alta.  Viña Ardanza is named for Alfredo Ardanza, one of the founders of the company, Viña Alberdi after Nicolás Alberdi, the president from 1947 to 1952 and Viña Arana for José María Arana, a vice president of the bodega.

I had a chance to chat at length with one of the staff that I had known from earlier visits.  She had been working at the winery for over twenty years and planned on working there for twenty more.  It never ceases to amaze me that most of Rioja’s family owned wineries like López de Heredia and La Rioja Alta treat their staff as members of the family rather than just employees.  You could certainly tell that they were happy working there and I’m sure they thanked management by working extra hard. This is refreshing. Friends tell me that in Spain’s tough economic climate, managers aren’t usually very nice to employees, figuring they’re easy to replace.

One of the winery's ageing cellars

One of the winery’s ageing cellars

One of the highlights of the visit was the tasting. The last time I visited the winery, Julio Sáenz had recently taken over from longstanding winemaker José Gallego, who had retired. Gallego’s wines were made in a classic style, with around 12% abv, not very intense color and delicate aromas of cedar, cigar box, stewed strawberries and spices, but with a backbone of elegant tannin and acidity.  I discovered that Sáenz had added a layer of intensity to the wines without compromising their undoubtedly classic character.  They were recognizably La Rioja Alta wines but with a little more zip.

Bottle ageing

Bottle ageing

My tasting notes:

Viña Arana reserva 2005

95% tempranillo, 5% mazuelo.  3 years in oak, at least two years in the bottle (this would qualify it as a gran reserva).

Medium cherry; spicy, a little whiff of leather, strawberry jam.  Great acidity, firm tannins.  The wine will continue to age well in the bottle.  Great balance – goes down easy.

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Viña Ardanza reserva 2004

80% tempranillo, 20% garnacha.  3 years in oak, 2 years in bottle.

Medium intensity cherry/brick; strawberry jam, spicy.  Seems less evolved than Arana, little evidence of leathery notes.  Drinking perfectly with perfect balance.  Fuller bodied than Arana.

I was blown away by the Ardanza and bought six bottles on the spot!

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904 gran reserva 2001 (just released).

Blend of tempranillo and garnacha.  4 years in oak, 4 years in the bottle.

Cherry/brick; nose closed at first, opening up to stewed fruit and chocolate, perfectly balanced.  Really alive in spite of being 12 years old.  I caught a whiff of old barrel – the wine would probably open up more with time (but we had to leave the winery so I never got a chance to find out).

I asked when the 2004 would be released and was told, “when it’s ready”. I should have known!

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La Rioja Alta, like many other Rioja wineries, has branched out from its original winery in Haro with the founding or purchase of other wineries, both in Rioja and in other wine regions in Spain.  Its Rioja wineries are Torre de Oña in Páganos near Laguardia and a big vinification plant between Haro and Labastida.  The company also owns Lagar de Fornelos in Rías Baixas and Áster in Ribera del Duero.

La Rioja Alta, S.A.

Avenida de Vizcaya, 8

26200 Haro

Tel. +34 941 31 03 46

http://www.riojalta.com

Photos:  Tom Perry