Rioja’s rocking rosés

Even though Rioja primarily produces reds, it wasn’t always so. The Najerilla river valley, known for its pink wines, provides a fascinating glimpse of Rioja’s history and current winemaking techniques.

Rioja actually produces two styles of pink wines: rosado and clarete.  At first glance, the difference is merely color, with rosado a medium reddish pink and clarete a very pale orange.  However, the two styles are made differently. Rosados are vinified like whites, except for short contact with the skins to extract a little color, while clarets are vinified like reds, with red and white grapes fermented together with the skins. According to Ezequiel García, El Brujo , the legendary 82-year old former winemaker at CVNE and Bodegas Olarra, the name clarete comes from the fact that in Rioja Alta and Alavesa there were traditionally more white grapes than red and both colors were found in the same vineyard.  When a particular vineyard was harvested, both the red and white grapes were dumped into open lagos or closed vats and fermented with the skins.  The fermented juice was a pale red, called clarete.  CVNE used to label this red wine as clarete. I’m not sure, but perhaps the British term for red Bordeaux – claret – coming from the French clairet has a similar origin, although today, claret refers to red Bordeaux and clarete in Rioja, to a very pale, orange tinted rosé. This color is referred to as ‘ojo de gallo’ or rooster eye.

Ezequiel García 'El Brujo'

Ezequiel García ‘El Brujo’

While production of rosado is larger than clarete in Rioja, the latter has quite a following, especially in northern Spain.  In Bilbao, people often ask for ‘un cordovin’ referring to the village in the Najerilla valley where much of Rioja’s clarete is produced.  Other well-known clarete villages are Badarán, Cárdenas, Azofra and Hormilla.  San Asensio however is the best-known place for clarete and the town even celebrates a clarete battle near the end of July.

San Asensio's 'batalla del clarete'

San Asensio’s ‘batalla del clarete’

Clarete was traditionally made with the white varietal viura and the red garnacha, a variety that used to be abundant in the valley.  One of the claretes I saw in a wine shop, from Hormilla, had 70% viura, 20% tempranillo and 10% garnacha.  Rosado, on the other hand, is almost always a blend of red varietals: in Rioja, tempranillo and garnacha, or 100% tempranillo. The regulations of the Rioja DOC require that at least 25% of a rosé or clarete blend must be made from red grape varieties so a clarete could have as much as 75% white juice.

Left, a Rioja rosé.  Center and right, claretes.

Left, a Rioja rosé. Center and right, claretes.

The clarete style is gaining popularity. Several producers are labeling their wines as such, a surprise to me because I didn’t think the name was officially allowed by the Rioja Regulatory Council, but since the end of 2011, it is.

I was also surprised to see a bottle of Muga rosé with a much paler pink color than in the past.  Maybe clarete or at least pale orange-tinted rosés have an international future.

A Rioja labeled 'clarete'

A Rioja labeled ‘clarete’

The way we were – a visit to the underground cellars of Luis Alberto Lecea

“¡Hola, cabronazo!”  The raspy voice on the phone was my old buddy Gerry Dawes, the American food and wine writer, to announce that our lunch wouldn’t be in Haro as originally planned, but at the winery of Luis Alberto Lecea in San Asensio.  That was good news, because I had wanted to visit Luis for a long time, so I grabbed my camera and notebook and headed out the door.

Luis Lecea is not only the owner of a small family winery located in one of Rioja’s most emblematic wine villages but is also a member of ASAJA, the powerful Young Farmers’ Association who sits on the board of directors of the Rioja Regulatory Council.  My interest in seeing Luis was not to talk about wine politics, but rather learn more about the hundreds of underground wine cellars in his village.

Into the depths of the Lecea cellars.

Into the depths of the Lecea cellars.

We were told that there were more than 350 cellars in San Asensio, almost all of them in a state of utter disrepair if not totally destroyed by the ravages of decades of rain and neglect.  “It’s a shame” Luis said because until the 1950s when the Spanish Agriculture Ministry created coops to give individual growers a profitable means of selling their grapes and wines to big commercial wineries, these small family cellars were the backbone of the Rioja wine business. Some of them had been built in the 17th century.

Luis showed us his family cellar, dug by hand out of the hard earth with picks, adzes and shovels to a depth of ten meters and once underground, opened into a warren of caves where tanks and barrels held his wines. Today, the wine is taken up to ground level with pumps, but in the old days, the juice flowed into the cellar by gravity and once the wine was made, it was emptied into pigskins and carried up the stairs, loaded into big wooden vats and rolled onto to trucks where it was taken to the big commercial wineries.

Generally speaking, in the old days the wines were vinified by means of whole berry fermentation.  The grapes would be dumped into a large open cement tank called a lago, where the grapes began intracellular fermentation without mechanical pressure.  The free-run juice flowed through a hole in the floor to a tank below where fermentation took continued.  The remaining grapes, stems and pips were trodden by foot to release the rest of the juice.

Ever the guardian of tradition, Luis organizes a party every October where he invites guests to watch and even participate in this process.

Second from left, Pedro Ortega.  Right, Luis Lecea.

Second from left, Pedro Ortega. Right, Luis Lecea.

We kept hearing that it was a shame these cellars had fallen into disrepair, hoping that they would be bought and restored, if only to be used as a place for families to cook and eat on weekends and on vacation.  I mentioned to him that there was a company whose business was to fix these places up.  We rounded a corner, and as fate would have it, we ran into the owner of this winery restoration company.  He was visiting the village to help a couple solve the problem of water leaking into the cellar they had bought recently.  I was happy to introduce Luis to Pedro Ortega and hope they can work together to restore San Asensio’s underground winery district. There are cellars like this not only in San Asensio but also in practically every other village in Rioja. With the history at your feet, it’s hard to believe that these places are on the verge of disappearing.  Let’s hope Luis and Pedro succeed. Today you can only visit a few of these old caves, among which are the Paternina cellars in Ollauri and Bodegas El Fabulista in Laguardia.

Baby lamb chops and sausage grilled over vine cuttings.

Baby lamb chops and sausage grilled over vine cuttings.

We were treated to a tasting of Luis’s wines and a lunch of potatoes with spicy sausage, pig jowls, baby lamb chops and sausage grilled over vine cuttings.

I’ll tell you about the tasting, especially of Luis’s amazing claretes, or local rosés, in my next post.