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!”

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.



The New York Times praises Rioja ‘crianzas’

Rioja has struggled to become a mainstream wine in the USA.  We currently sell about 8 million bottles there, a much lower number than our two leading European markets (after Spain) – the UK, where over 31 million bottles are sold and Germany, with almost 19 million bottles. I think the main reason is that consumers in the USA are used to identifying wines by grape varietal rather than region and Rioja doesn’t fit that mold.

It was satisfying, therefore, to read in the ‘Wines of The Times’ column of the New York Times on March 31

that Eric Asimov, the NYT’s peripatetic wine writer, has called Rioja ‘crianza’ one of the wine world’s finest values following a panel tasting of 20 brands of ‘crianza’.

Asimov has long been a fan of ‘traditional’ Riojas, especially Viña Tondonia, which he has featured several times in his column. He once again shows a strong preference for the light, silky elegant style of Rioja, which he calls “unlike wines made anywhere else in the world”.

I’ve gone on record many times in favor of this style of Rioja which has sadly fallen out of favor against the oaky ‘in your face’, 14% fruit bombs that have been made popular by the New World.

Another eminent wine blogger, Alder Yarrow, creator of Vinography, has also come out in favor of less oak in Spanish wines.  In a recent interview in Snooth he was asked what wine trend he thought (or hoped) was almost over.  His answer was “the winemakers of Spain abusing their beautiful wines with egregious amounts of new oak”.

I hope Asimov’s kudos and Yarrow’s remarks inspire other wineries in Rioja to return to a lighter, more balanced, elegant style which goes so well with food, even fish.  I for one will continue to drink them and I hope you will, too!