John Radford (2): “There’s no such thing as a crap grape, just crap winemaking”

John Radford

 This was John Radford’s answer when I asked for his opinion about the status of the viura grape in Rioja.

John then related a conversation with the newly appointed marketing director of the Rioja Regulatory Council in 2007 who was trying to explain the recent approval of verdejo, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay in Rioja.

The marketing director justified the decision by stating, “Rioja makes world class red wines but not world class whites.  We want to.  Can you tell me one producer that makes a world class white from viura?”

John replied, “I can tell you two:  Viña Tondonia gran reserva, 96 months in oak from López de Heredia and Placet from Álvaro Palacios.”

John quickly qualified his statement, mentioning that the conversation had taken place four years ago and that during his latest trip to Rioja he had been tasting viuras with real character, flavor, freshness, subtlety and complexity.

The market has had a love/hate relationship with the viura grape for 30 years.  Until the 1980s, consumers were perfectly content with ‘classic’ white Rioja, like Viña Tondonia and Marqués de Murrieta, vinified in much the same way as Rioja reds, with years of ageing in old oak barriques, as well as semi-sweet whites like Diamante from Bodegas Franco-Españolas. Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres broke the mold by creating a white vinified at low temperature in stainless steel tanks, which prompted a wave of investment in stainless steel and the creation of a slew of ‘Euro’ white Riojas, imitating the freshness of muscadet, vouvray, vinho verde and others.

I remember being vigorously courted in the early 80s by the wine division of Rumasa, at the time, owners of Paternina, Franco-Españolas, Lan and Berberana in Rioja. During that time we drank endless bottles of Viña Soledad white from Franco-Españolas, with its brown Rhine bottle and its art nouveau label, which had taken Spain by storm for its fresh fruit, a big contrast to traditional Riojas.  I ended up going to work for Campo Viejo but kept on drinking Viña Soledad because it was the best-viura-based Rioja on the market.

‘Modern’ Rioja as we called it at the time, with its citrus and green apple notes was immediately seized on by white wine lovers all overEurope.  But two things happened that should have shaken Rioja from its complacency, but didn’t:  the increased popularity of whites from the new world, especially chardonnay, and the arrival of verdejo from Rueda and albariño from Rías Baixas.

I think the general feeling in Rioja was  “our whites are great; after all, they’re from Rioja”.  About that time, some wineries here began to make barrel fermented whites (I especially remember Marqués de Cáceres and Muga) and a few years later, Rioja wineries recreated barrel aged whites.  I thought both styles were extremely attractive, but the market didn’t think so.  While these last two styles had a following with wine lovers, the mainstream wine drinker wanted a fresh, tropical fruit-scented white. 

Rioja reacted in the opposite way. Instead of making a better viura white, growers and wineries ripped out their white vines and planted tempranillo, not the best strategy when their number one international market, the UK, was drinking more white than red.

Others, more pragmatic, invested in vineyards and wineries in Rueda and Rías Baixas. 

When Rueda and Rías Baixas whites began appearing in bars and restaurant wine lists in Rioja, Riojans realized that no amount of patriotism was going to save sales of white Rioja, so, after several years of wrangling between farmers and wineries in the Regulatory Council, a market-based decision was made to allow new varieties like Sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and verdejo as well as native Rioja white grapes on the verge of extinction like white maturana.

Some Rioja wineries have planted these new varietals but the planting of white grapevines has recently been temporarily forbidden because of the glut of wine in the region.  So for the foreseeable future, Rioja has got to live with viura, malvasía, white garnacha, white maturana and white tempranillo.  While the last two varieties have shown positive results, the quantity of wine produced is miniscule.

If Rioja has to live with viura and wants to make a world-class white, wineries will have to work harder to succeed. López de Heredia and Álvaro Palacios have proved that it’s possible. John Radford thinks that more of these wines are on the way.



Bodegas Lan D-12 First Edition 2007

Bodegas Lan is one of my favorite Rioja wineries, so I was naturally curious the other day when I saw a bottle of ‘LAN D-12’ in a tapas bar in Logroño.

I ordered a glass and liked it, but wanted to find out more about the product. After all, ‘D-12’ reminded me more of airplanes (B-52 and F-111) and models of Citroën (DS, C-5) than a wine brand. What were these guys up to?

The back label told me that it was created as a “winemakers’ reserve”.  Traditionally, Lan’s winemakers would leave the best wines from a vintage in tank (depósito in Spanish, hence D) 12. It was unfiltered.  The back label warned me that there might be some sediment at the bottom of the bottle.

‘That’s interesting’, I thought, ‘but how had the winery positioned this brand?’  So I turned to Amaya Cebrián, Lan’s communication director.

Amaya explained that the winery had identified a niche for a modern Rioja for discerning consumers looking for something special, but not necessarily a reserva, when moving beyond the crianza level.

I liked that idea because I feel that in an overcrowded marketplace, wine brands need to create and communicate a USP or unique selling proposition. D-12 had it.

It seemed to perfectly complement the rest of the range:  the attractively priced crianza, reserva and gran reserva on one hand and the higher priced single vineyard range of Edición Limitada, Viña Lanciano and Culmen.

My wife, son and I shared a bottle at our summer house during the long Constitution Day puente last week.  We all liked it a lot with the spicy seafood pasta that our son made.

My tasting notes:

Black cherry, almost purple.  Intense fresh red and black berry fruit on top of a layer of new oak.  Fruit, ripe tannins and good acidity on the palate.  I thought that the wine would drink better in a few months when the tannins, fruit and acidity knit together a little more.   But it’s very tasty right now.

The wines from Diego Zamora

The latest Rioja tasting sponsored by our local paper LA RIOJA took place last Tuesday, featuring the wines from the Diego Zamora group:  Bodegas Ramón Bilbao in Rioja, Mar de Frades from Rías Baixas, Cruz de Alba from Ribera del Duero and Volteo, a vino de la tierra from Castilla-La Mancha.

 Diego Zamora, located in Cartagena on the southeast coast of Spain, is famous for Licor 43, once the darling of the disco in Spain in the 1970s but still present on the shelf of practically every bar in Spain.

 The tasting was tutored by the managing director of the group’s wine division Rodolfo Bastida, a Rioja native and old friend for many years.

 Ramón Bilbao, like other wineries in Rioja, has taken the route of expansion into other wine districts in Spain to diversify its product range rather than increase production here.  This makes sense because it allows the group to offer wines from the hottest white wine producing region in Spain today –  Rías Baixas -, a second prestigious red wine region (Ribera del Duero) and a more economically priced range of wines (Volteo) made with internationally recognized grape varieties to provide the necessary volume to fill containers during a recession.

 Mar de Frades, a 100% albariño, has a lot going for it:  an attractive Rhine-style blue bottle that stands out on a shelf, a temperature-sensitive label that tells consumers when the wine has reached the right temperature (10ºC) and an extremely attractive pineapple and tropical fruit nose along with crisp acidity and good structure on the palate.

 The Volteo range of a 100% tempranillo, a tempranillo-cabernet sauvignon blend, a tempranillo-shiraz blend, a rosé made with garnacha and a white blend of viura, viognier and sauvignon blanc has been made with the young US wine drinker in mind, with an attractive label, an easy-to-pronounce name (’volteo’ refers to ‘vaulting’, a sport seen in the circus riders somersaulting on horseback).  The product seems to be a success as, according to Rodolfo, over 650.000 bottles were shipped to the States in 2009.

 We tasted the 100% tempranillo, which I found to be very fruity with notes of blackberries, a little oak and a big mouthfeel. No doubt, wine made by the marketing department but pretty good, even to a 62-year old’s palate.

 Cruz de Alba, a 100% tinto fino (tempranillo) is produced following the principles of biodynamics, which basically implies using natural products and following a biodynamic calendar to pick grapes, prune the vineyard, blend, age and bottle.  Rodolfo explained that he frankly couldn’t tell the difference between a ‘normal’ wine and a biodynamically produced one but believed that it couldn’t hurt as biodynamics forces a winery to pay very close attention to the vineyard.

 I found the 2006 Cruz de Alba crianza to have an intense black cherry color, a mineral nose that’s characteristic of most Riberas, dark fruit on the nose, and intense tannin that will no doubt improve with age.

 We tasted two Riojas:  Ramón Bilbao Limited Edition 2007 and Mirto 2005.

 Limited Edition, a 100% tempranillo, showed black cherry color, an aroma that reminded me of cherries macerated in liqueur with a touch of oak that also showed  crushed graham crackers after the wine was in the glass for ten minutes, elegant, ripe tannins and high acidity.

 Mirto, the top of the line, is also pure tempranillo, with very intense black cherry color, ripe, almost stewed dark fruit along with menthol (which Spaniards call ‘balsámico’) with well-integrated tannin and fairly high acidity for a style of wine that is unabashedly in the camp of modern Rioja.

 I really liked Mar de Frades, and although the style of the reds was too modern for my personal taste, they undoubtedly have a large following, both in Spain and in the USA among fans of chewy fruit and lots of color and structure.  If you’re going to make a modern Rioja, this is, I feel, the way to do it, with ripe, elegant tannin rather than a fruit bomb.  For me, Limited Edition was the best of the lot and the range of reds showcased the stylistic diversity of tempranillo from Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Castilla-La Mancha.  In short, a very interesting, educational tasting!