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.

IMG_1485(T. Perry)

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


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

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


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



The Yin and the Yang of Rioja

yin-yangMaría José López de Heredia is one of my favorite people and I love her wines, so when I was offered the chance to attend a tutored tasting of her wines, I jumped.  An extra added attraction was the venue:  Benjamin Romeo’s Wine Bar La Tercera Estación in San Vicente de La Sonsierra.  The event was a tasting of three vintages of Viña Tondonia white (1998, 1991 and 1970), three Tondonia reds (2001, 1994 and 1964) and a dinner made by Benjamin’s wife Iraide Somarriba, one of the chefs at the well-known restaurant Regi, near Bilbao.  The meal was accompanied by Benjamin’s wines from Bodega Contador.


María José López de Heredia

María José López de Heredia


This event was a unique opportunity to taste wines with diametrically opposed character – Viña Tondonia is the essence of elegance and delicacy while Contador is big, bold and in your face.  It’s amazing that both styles coexist in Rioja, perfectly illustrating the Regulatory Council’s motto ‘Rioja, land of a thousand wines’.


María José and Benjamin

María José and Benjamin


I’ve heard María José speak many times but each time I learn something new about her family and the origin of the López de Heredia winery. She told us that  her great grandfather, Rafael López de Heredia, had no intention of making a wine for the masses. His dream was to promote the concept of ‘vinos finos’ as opposed to ordinary table wines. His target market was elitist:  people who had a car, wore a tie and spoke languages, a very small market in early 20th century Spain.


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To accomplish this, he decided to set up an office and tasting room in downtown Madrid between Cibeles and the Puerta del Sol.  Every day he received news from the winery and sent detailed instructions to Haro, no easy task in an age where telegrams and letters were the most efficient means of communication before widespread use of the telephone.

María José explained that the wide variety of styles of Rioja is due more to the way vineyards are tended and vinification than to climate change.  It was surprising therefore to note that the alcoholic strength of the three whites increased with newer vintages:  1970-11,5%; 1991-12% and 1998-12/12,5%.  This seemed to be a contradiction until she explained that until 1970, Tondonia whites had a larger percentage of malvasía, which produces wines with lower alcohol.

It would be interesting for María José to meet professor Gregory Jones from the University of South Oregon, who has done extensive research on the effects of climate change on wine. According to a report I recently read, research in St.-Émilion and Pomerol revealed that climate accounted for over 50% of the variation in quality parameters, 25% was due to soil, 15-20% due to cultural practices and varietal differences the rest.


Part of the lineup

Part of the lineup

It was hard for me to concentrate on the wines while listening to María José’s storytelling, but my tasting notes follow.

1998 white:  medium pale yellow; delicate citrus aroma; racy acidity.  It took the wine about an hour to really show its character.  I wondered, ‘ if the 1998 took this long to open up, how long would it be for the 1991 and 1970?’

1991 white:  straw yellow; chamomile, wildflowers; high acidity, good structure.  Amazingly alive for a 22 year old white.

1970 white:  a little darker straw yellow; slight oak aroma, melon, grapefruit, wildflowers; good structure, long mouthfeel.  Amazingly alive for a 43 year old wine.  It was blindingly obvious that high acidity provided the backbone allowing this wine to retain its characteristics after so many years.

On to the reds.

2001:  cherry/light brick; lively; maraschino cherries; great structure with firm, elegant tannins and lively acidity.

1994:  color a little more towards brick than cherry; same delicate sensation of cherries; round, elegant tannins, very polished, high acidity.

1964:  brick with an orange rim; delicately floral; red fruit just perceptible, still good acidity.  An interesting wine but past its prime. Who cares?  What an experience! It was hard to believe that this wine was thirty years older than the 1994.

On the subject of ageing, María José explained that her great grandfather didn’t intend his wines to be laid down, except for consumption by the family – this was his concept of a ‘reserva’, something for the family to keep and drink.  Judging from the acclaim received for these old vintages from wine writers and consumers, it’s fortunate that the stock of these old vintages of Tondonia has surpassed the family’s thirst!

For dinner, Iraide Somarriba prepared a fantastic offering of dishes to go with her husband’s wines. By this time (since no spit buckets had been provided), the conversation around the table was lively and we concentrated more on the food rather than the wine.


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 White asparagus mousse with hollandaise sauce.

 Wine:  Predicador white.


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 Tuna tenderloin topped with anchovies, roasted red peppers and fried slices of potato.


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A tempura-fried Gernika pepper with a piquillo pepper sauce.


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 Hake on a bed of crushed crabmeat topped with a hake cheek.

 Wine:  Qué Bonito Cacareaba white 2011


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 Stewed pigs’ trotters served in a ‘Vizcaya’ sauce (stewed spicy pepper meat with olive oil and ham) with wild mushrooms.

 Wine: Predicador 2011.

Benjamin, who has a reputation for being a smart aleck, remarked while grinning at María José, that the wine had been bottled that afternoon.  That got a big laugh from the audience!


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 Brownie (well, sort of)


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 Wine:  La Viña de Andrés Romeo 2009


I have to admit that because of the lively conversation around the table and the speed with which both the dishes and the wines were served, I didn’t take detailed tasting notes on either the food or the wines, but I can say that the food was excellent and the wines promising, but largely inscrutable, at least to my nose and palate. I preferred the two whites to the reds, which showed great concentration and jamminess. They were very closed, almost like a black hole, with just a hint of what would undoubtedly open up in time to great complexity.

It would have been fun to spend another two hours talking, waiting for the wines to open up, but it was a week night and the fear of police cars on the prowl for tipsy drivers made me leave right after the meal.

Benjamin is going to give a tasting of his wines in the near future where I’ll be able to give them the attention they undoubtedly deserve.

Pedro López de Heredia: In Memoriam

Rioja has lost a giant of a man, perhaps the greatest visionary of his generation, with the passing on April 20 of 84 year old Pedro López de Heredia, the patriarch of the 136 year-old bodega R. López de Heredia.  Pedro was the grandson of the winery’s founder Rafael.


Pedro López de Heredia (Credit: López de Heredia winery website)

Pedro López de Heredia
(Credit: López de Heredia winery website)

Whenever I think of the four generations of this family I’m reminded of a quote that I read in Barbarians at the Gate by a member of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company. “Mr. R.J. wrote the rules, all we do is follow them.” This was the López de Heredia philosophy too, steadfastly following the rules set down by founder Rafael to his son, also called Rafael, then to Pedro, and from him to his children María José, Mercedes and Julio, who currently run the winery. I’m not sure, but I think Pedro’s young grandchildren are already running around the winery on weekends. Making wine today like it was in the 1870s in the face of the high alcohol, opaque Riojas of the late 20th and early 21st centuries was a bold move.


The 'txori toki' or 'birds' perch' at the winery. Credit:  Claes Löfgren

The ‘txori toki’ or ‘birds’ perch’ at the winery.
Credit: Claes Löfgren

I recently read an anecdote about Pedro and his father that sums up this attitude.  After finishing high school, Pedro mentioned to his father that he was interested in studying chemistry.  His father replied, “It’s up to you, but I wouldn’t advise it if you plan on working in the winery.  With a chemistry degree you’ll be tempted to mess with the wines too much. It’s not only unadvisable, it’s also unethical.” So Pedro took a law degree, but never practiced, instead devoting his energy to his vineyards and winery.

He always defended the fact that his winery was both traditional and at the forefront of modernity but loved to criticize, tongue in cheek, the initiatives that his children suggested.  As the patriarch of the winery, he had the last word, of course, so he must have agreed with the idea of adding the Zaha Hadid-designed tasting room and visitors’ center to the winery.  However, as told by daughter María José, he referred to it as “that ‘thing’ stuck on the front of the winery”. Vintage Pedro.


The Zaha Hadid-designed visitors' center, nicknamed 'The Flask'. Credit:

The Zaha Hadid-designed visitors’ center, nicknamed ‘The Flask’.

I met him because he had been a founding member of the Rioja Exporters’ Association, which I directed for fifteen years. He sat on the board shortly after the association’s founding, although by the time I arrived on the scene his presence was limited to attending our annual general meetings, where he often spoke out against the politics espoused by the big wineries, but always in a reasoned, constructive way.  His big political battle was to gain official recognition for the use of ‘vinos finos’ (elegant) for Rioja wines, something his grandfather and father fought for, to defend elegant Rioja against the coarse wines on the market, the norm at the time.  Sadly, the Sherry producers had already registered the term ‘fino’ so Rioja wasn’t allowed to use it. If any wines deserved the label of ‘fino’, they were Pedro’s: elegant, silky and long-lived.

I’m sure he was happy, though. Due to his perseverance in maintaining the founder’s dream of making ‘the supreme Rioja’ along with the international acclaim received for his wines, elegant, easy to drink Riojas have become popular once again. On the way out are the high alcohol fruit bombs produced following reviews by a few wine writers, mainly in the USA. Today, these same writers are heaping glowing praise on Heredia’s Tondonia, Bosconia, Gravonia and Cubillo.

Rest in peace, Pedro. Mission accomplished.

Gerry Dawes: “The 1947 Bosconia is the best red wine I have ever drunk.”

After several attempts I’ve finally gotten my interview with good friend, eating, drinking and bullfighting buddy Gerry Dawes, who I’ve said many times is one of the two guys with the most comprehensive knowledge of Rioja.

Here are my questions and his answers, which I have copied verbatim. Hold on to your hats.  This is vintage Gerry, once again pulling no punches.

When did you first taste a Rioja? Do you remember what brand and vintage it was? What were your impressions?

Back in the late 1960s, like everyone else who visited (or in my case lived in) Spain, I drank Federico Paternina Banda Azul. Rioja wines were Spain’s best red wines and I developed a taste for them over a period of several years. I thought many Rioja were great. Marqués de Riscal was a bit of a luxury and so was Cune Imperial and Cune Viña Real, but once in awhile I got to drink them. I still remember finding Cune Imperial Gran Reserva 1959 on the shelf of a Costa del Sol shop for 225 pesetas a bottle when I lived in Mijas overlooking the Costa del Sol. I grabbed all three bottles.

Believe it or not, I still have a bottle of Imperial Gran Reserva 1959 left, a bottle of Cune Viña Real Gran Reserva Oro 1962, a Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Igay 1942, a Viña Tondonia 1947 and a few other assorted treasures. Early this year I opened a bottle of Marqués de Riscal 1922 that was still magnificent.

During the early 1970s, when I was living in Mijas, through a wealthy acquaintance, I got to drink the R. López de Heredia Viña Bosconia 1942 and 1947. I had the 1942 two or three times, but I have drunk about six bottles of the 1947 Bosconia and I am still convinced that it is the best red wine I have ever drunk. I don’t say this lightly, since from 1975 to 1996 I sold great Burgundy, Loire Valley and Rhone Valley red wines and the top wines of California (Duckhorn, Ridge, Caymus, Shafer, Pine Ridge, etc.) to the best restaurants in New York.

I have a reputation among some writers and wine aficionados in Spain as being a “Taliban,” as a couple have called me in print. They think because I have defended the classic wines of La Rioja that I have an old-fashioned franquista palate. They are full of shit. Few of them have traveled the wine roads of Spain tasting wines in bodega after bodega like I have.  And I have done it, not from a base in Spain, but from the United States.  Between 2000 and 2010, there was a four year stretch when I averaged EIGHT trips to Spain a year and another four years when I averaged six trips per year. I have been in at least 600 bodegas in Spain, some of them multiple times, re-visiting some of them as many as a dozen times or more.  Has anyone else in Spain–besides the owner Juan Gil, the Marqués de Figueroa, been in vertical tastings of Palacio de Fefiñanes Albariños six times?

My experience is not based on tasting wines by the dozens in sit-down or walk around tastings in Madrid, in Barcelona or in New York, it based on winery visits and long lunches, dinners and private tastings with the likes of such bodegueros as Mariano García, Basilio Izquierdo, Isaacin Muga, Javier Hidalgo, Miguel Torres, Carlos Falcó, the Chivite brothers (before they split), the Pérez Pascuas family, Raul Pérez, Ricardo Pérez, Gregory Pérez, Carles Pastrana, Agustí Torelló, Juan Gil of Palacio de Fefiñanes, Gerardo Méndez and with hundreds of other bodegueros, from bodegas both big and tiny.

For the last several years, I have focused on Galicia, where I have visited and tasted in literally scores of bodegas, say 30 in Rías Baixas, a dozen in Ribeiro, 20-25 in Ribeira Sacra, perhaps 20 in Valdeorras and a couple in Monterrei. And just outside the gates of

Galicia, I have visited and tasted in some 20 bodegas in Bierzo. I have returned to a number of these bodegas as many as 5-10 times!!

And I have worn out many pairs of road warrior shoes walking in the vineyards of Spain with the viticulturists and winemakers. One Spanish wine figure accused me of not knowing anything about Spanish vineyards. I had albariza dust on my shoes before that pompous jerk was born.

Pepe Peñin likes to characterize me as “a wine romantic.”  He has told me that on a few occasions. When it comes to Spain, I still confess after all these years to still being somewhat of a passionate, enthusiastic romantic about certain aspects of the country and its people and I hope I never lose that, but I am out there in the trenches with the real artisan winemakers on most trips and I am just not into wineries so commercial that they could just as well be making athletic shoes. In fact, some of them would better serve the world if they did make shoes instead of the type of wines they are making, as I have heard so often, “wines the market is asking for.” 

I can’t wait to see what kind of wines some of these bodegas are going to make for what the Chinese market is going to be asking for.  I once had a misguided American lawyer ask me to taste a wine blind at his home.  It was awful.  He delighted in showing me a Chinese wine that had a serpent in the bottle.  This could augur well for Extremadura, because there is a wine or liqueur from there with a snake in the bottle. 

When was your first visit to Rioja?

During the 1970s when I lived in the south of Spain, La Rioja came to represent an oasis to me during the hot, rainless summers of Andalucia, my adopted home.

By early July, as you know, the heat settles in over a large portion of Spain.  The sun bears down relentlessly, driving millions of Spaniards to the beaches and cool mountain resorts.  Coinciding with this time of year is the annual trek to Pamplona, where Hemingway’s lost souls come from all over the world to see the sun rise on yet another Fiesta de San Fermin.  Since my former wife Diana and I counted ourselves among the admirers of the venerable Ernest’s fiesta, we too joined the migration each year.

We always set out at least a week before the commencement of festivities at Pamplona, so we could explore the Spanish countryside along the way.  On one of these trips, we discovered the Rioja and it became our favorite place to pass some quiet time before surrendering to the wild, weeklong San Fermífestivities at Pamplona, where peace, tranquillity, and sleep are rare commodities, and not even particularly desirable ones at that.  We looked forward to La Rioja, where we could taste fine wines in cool bodegas, sample superb country cuisine, and enjoy the scenery, history, and milder climate of this high mountain valley.

To avoid some of the scorching road heat of summertime Spain, we would leave Mijas, our pueblo on a mountain over-looking the Costa del Sol, in late afternoon.  We would usually drive into the wee hours of morning to escape the steady daytime flow of maniacal North African drivers hellbent on reaching the beaches and homeward-bound ferries of the southern coast. This was before the construction of Spain’s system of autopistas, so we were driving on two-lane roads.  Apart from diminishing one’s chances of being maimed by a Peugeot, the night offered some relief from being stuck behind the long queues of slow, laboring Spanish trucks belching noxious black exhaust.

After stopping for a brief sleep at a Valdepeñas pensión, we would drive on through Madrid in the early morning hours to reach the ancient Castilian capital of Burgos – the terrain of El Cid – by midday.  From there we headed East towards the Rioja.  In less than an hour, as the road climbed, the vegetation became increasingly verdant, the air fresher and cooler.  The greener landscape, now showing some vineyards, soothes the soul as well as the body as the heavy layers of oppressive road heat peel away.  The promise of a thundershower bringing the cool, night breezes of the Rioja would soon put the dust of the southern summer behind us.

On one occasion, we had written the venerable firm of R. López de Heredia in Haro, letting them know that we again wished to visit their bodega.  The reply had come in the charming, graceful Spanish of a more genteel age.  It went something like, “…We cannot tell you what joy the news of your imminent visit has produced in our bodega.  It would be our great pleasure to receive you.”

We had arranged for two old friends, the late Alice Hall, the dowager empress of American bullfight aficionados, from Milledgeville, Georgia and Carolyn Moyer of Davis, California to join us in a tour of the Rioja on our way to Pamplona.  By 10:00 on the morning of our visit, after a breakfast of rolls and café con leche in the Café Suizo in La Plaza de la Paz in Haro, the four of us were down in the centenarian bodegas of R. Lopez de Heredia for our “second breakfast”– a wine tasting.  Here, in surroundings as incredible as any I have known in the world of wine, Sr. Anastasio Gútierrez Angulo, the firm’s export manager, let us taste some of the firm’s twenty-year old reservas–wines made in the style of a different era–wines of yesterday.

The bodega had all the trappings of a nineteeth-century operation patterned on the chais of Bordeaux– the winery workers even wear blue coveralls as many of the staff at French chateaux still do.  In time-honored fashion, barrels were (and still are today) crafted in the winery’s own cooperage.  We saw workers cracking eggs from the bodega’s chicken farm to get fresh egg whites for fining the wines.  Other employees laboriously filled bottles with reserva wines by hand and corked them with a hand-operated corking device.

Anastasio led us through a man-made maze of cool, barrel-filled limestone caves to the deepest part of the bodega – – the room known at R. López de Heredia as the cementerio–the cemetery.  The cementerio is the resting place of the old vintage reservas dating from the founding of the firm in 1877.  This cellar gets its name from the storage bins lining its walls, which very much resemble the burial niches in the Roman-plan cemeteries of Spain.  Bin after bin was filled with dusty bottles from the greatest vintages of the past.  At one end of the room, a large round wooden table’s centerpiece was a huge, gnarled, cobweb-covered old grapevine surrounded by bottles of wine.

Our host, Anastasio, had selected two gran reservas from the fine 1954 vintage for us to taste.  The first was Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva, a lovely, elegant Bordeaux-style wine of breed and complexity.  The second wine was a more intense, dark ruby wine in a burgundy bottle, Viña Bosconia Gran Reserva, which was showing signs of evolving into a big, warm, rich wine – – aterciopelado (velvety).  The Viña Bosconia had a particularly beautiful nose, one which reminded me of a wonderful phrase that Michael Wigram, an English banker a bullfight aficionado, had used to describe another 1954 reserva at a luncheon during the Feria de Sevilla in 1973, “Gets a nice bloom on it after nineteen years, don’t you think?”

These wines did indeed have “a nice bloom” on them.  They were wines to be enjoyed, not merely tasted and spit on the floor of the bodega, so we sipped them while Anastasio gave us the most charming description of Rioja winemaking that I have ever heard.

 First he described the normal processes of vinification, barrel aging, bottling, and so forth for the bodega’s “bread and butter” – the table wines made to sell in the fourth, fifth, and sixth years after the vintage.  Then, when he came to the subject of gran reservas, the classic Rioja reservas from exceptional vintages, he began to speak of the wine as a living thing.

In this place called the cemetery, he brought his wines to life.  Speaking softly, but with passion in his beautifully enunciated Castilian Spanish, he described the wine’s “education.”

“You see,” he began, “in the beginning, a gran reserva is like a young man.  He gets a proper `education’ here in the bodega, then is bottled and becomes a young caballero.  At about 25 years he reaches the peak of his youth, then he mellows out to about the age of, say, 35-40, when he gradually begins to tail off.  However, some of these fellows do well even after fifty.  A few years ago the owners allowed three bottles of the 1914s to be opened for a celebration.  The second bottle was in fine condition.”

It would be a day to remember – Anastasio’s wonderful analogy and his beautiful wines were just the beginning.  We were four good friends glowing with wine and in the mood for fiesta.  At Merendero Toni in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, we lingered over one of those wonderful Spanish lunches: a simple salad of garden-ripened tomatoes, lettuce, and onions at the peak of their flavor, succulent baby lamb chops al sarmiento (grilled over grapevine prunings), crisp fried potatoes, and lots of Rioja tinto. 

After lunch, with a tape playing the wonderful jotas of the Basque country, we took the breathtaking drive up to the Balcon de la Rioja for the splendid view of the entire Rioja valley.  Diana and Alice, euphoric from the wine, the food, and the splendor of the day, danced the jota on the mountain as a Spanish family stared incredulously at two foreigners – Alice a septuagenarian at that  – performing the regional dance of northern Spain in their own private fiesta.

What was Rioja like back then and how has it changed?

I think my previous answer describes a little of what it was like back then, but one can still have those kinds of experiences since many of them are so often people based.  Corrida days in Haro, the Battle of Wine outside Haro, Logroño’s San Mateo fiesta and numerous experiences that can be had in La Rioja–in Ezcaray and the southern mountains, Santo Domingo and in wine towns such as Briones, San Vicente de la Sonsierra and many other places–still make the region a magical place for those who know the area, its history, its bodegas and its wonderful restaurants and tapas bars. 

Some people see the changes that modernity has wrought and lament the days of the past, but I have seen Spain grow and modernize over a period of more than forty years and I have come to realize that the question should not be about whether traditional or modern is best, it should be about what is really good.   For too long, the priority of modern Spaniards was to throw off the shackles of the Franco era and plant both feet in the modern era.  This caused the criteria to be skewed.  There was a general feeling that anything new, modern, innovative had to be good by definition and therefore most relics of the past must not be so good, when the real criteria should be: What is based on quality is good, what is not, is not.  Just being new, modern and innovative is not all necessarily good.  Some innovation turns out to be quite bad and sometimes it is in bad taste. 

The same goes for some traditions, which often are used to keep people anchored in the past–the status quo is more to the point–though the best of customs, which were at sometime in history, new, modern and innovative, tend to survive and for good reason.

In wine and gastronomy, I have long maintained that it is not tradition nor innovation that is the question.  The question is: Is it good?  For instance, I believe that Spanish modernized traditional cuisine is some of the best food on the planet.  There are great traditional cuisine restaurants in Spain and also some very bad ones.  And as we know, there are a number of exceptional Spanish, Basque and Catalan cocina de vanguardia restaurants, many inspired by elBulli, but I think it is telling that many of the vanguardia maestros are opening tapas bars and restaurants with modernized and evolved traditional dishes on the menu.

As far as modern Rioja wines go, it is the same.  There are great tradition-based, evolved wines in la Rioja and there are good modern wines, but too many of the modern wines seem to be imitating wines from such places as Napa Valley or even nearby Ribera del Duero, making a style of wines that they think the market is asking for.  Now wine drinkers in droves are turning against overripe, overly alcoholic, overoaked and over-manipulated wines, which for the last decade or so have bordered on religion for most modern wine writers.  Now, that change is in the air and Parkerismo is on the wane, it will be interesting to see how all those who have steadfastly been proselytizing for such wines will change their deeply held beliefs about how such manipulated wines are actually superior to honest wines that taste like the place from which they come and that drink very well with the food of that region. 

Wines with a true sense of place–it can be terroir or it can be a style of wine like Sherry or Champagne or like La Rioja wines used to be–are unique, not copies.  And when unique wines find a successful place in markets outside their regions, their long-term success is dependent on that uniqueness that sets them apart, not a sameness which makes them as generic as Brand X and thus much more sensitive to price competition.

You have always said that your favorite Riojas are from the ‘Barrio de la Estación’ in Haro. What do you like about them?

The great gran reservas like Cune Imperial, Cune Viña Real, Viña Tondonia, Viña Bosconia, Muga Prado Enea, La Rioja Alta’s Viña Ardanza, ‘904′ and ‘890′ and, outside the Barrio de la Estación, Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina and the great Monte Real, Marqués de Riscal and Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Igay were fabulous wines, each distinctly different from one another, but all long-lived (I have had many that were from 40-70 years of age and still vibrant and delicious).  These were remarkable wines by any discerning wine lover’s standards.  And as recently as October 7th, at Arzak, Mariano, Arzak’s sommelier found a wonderful Bodegas Bilbainas Viña Pomal 1962, which he served us in honor of the birth year of American Iron Chef Michael Chiarello (Bottega, Napa Valley).

Do you think it’s been a mistake for Rioja winemakers to follow the new world trends of high alcohol and a meaty structure? Have they dialed this back or are a lot of wines still too modern?

Now that we are in very tough economic times both in Europe and the United States, this approach to winemaking can be disastrous for all but a few who can pull it off.  And anyone who wants to sell such wines in the future had better brush up on their Chinese, because Western markets are turning against such excesses big time.  The market is also   turning against wines in heavy bottles, which are very expensive to make and transport,  ecologically unwise,  and, more often than not, have been shown to hold wines that are not only expensive, they are usually not very much fun to drink and are often the opposite of what a wine with charm, grace, harmony and balance should be. 

In my estimation, it is not the time-honored wines of La Rioja that the Barrio de la Estacion, Riscal, Bodegas Riojanas and Murrieta were once known for that will be considered the greatest dinosaurs in the near future, it will be the overwrought, Parkerized, monster wines that never really existed a decade or so ago.  (By the way, what do the makers of such wines not understand about the value of second glass and second bottle sales, which are much more likely to happen–by multiples of multiples–with wines that have 12% – 13%, are not fat and overripe or overoaked?)

Most of the garnacha here has been grubbed up and replaced with tempranillo. What has garnacha contributed historically to our wines and can Rioja reds make it as single varietal tempranillos?

More to the point, “Most of the garnacha here has been grubbed up and replaced with a clone of tempranillo that is prolific and produces insipid wines that need over-ripeness and new oak flavors to make their point, are getting less and less palatable by the day to the broad market out there and for which a lot of marketing dollars have to be spend to sell such wines.

Garnacha was an essential component in a number of great Rioja wines such as Cune Viña Real.  Garnacha and mazuelo added to Tempranillo made many Rioja wines great, complex, multi-faceted and delicious.  Who decided that monovarietalism was a virtue?  The press, who are not winemakers, nor the real consumers of wines?  Oh, well, as Navarra has realized since they ripped out a lot of their exceptional garnacha vines, Aragón, now dubbing itself as the Kingdom of Garnacha, is not that far away.  And should Rioja’s bodegueros change their minds about blending other grapes into the increasingly uninterested tempranillo clone now planted in so much of the region, perhaps a pipeline to Campo de Borja, Cariñena or Calatayud should be considered.

Is there any hope for white Rioja?

The future for Rioja white wines, which I view as extremely dim, will probably have to have its roots in the past.  Viura is an insipid grape.  Among the many wines that I have sampled that were made from that grape from across Spain (counting those that go under the name Macabeo, Macabeu), I have yet to encounter a great one.  (I don’t count the aged R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Blancos, which owe as much to winemaking technique and to the blend of other grapes as to Viura itself.) 

Basilio Izquierdo’s B. de Basilio Blancos are the best white wines that I have tasted in La Rioja, but the true base for those wines is Garnacha Blanca.   Any future hope for white wines in La Rioja should be based on the blends prevalent in the past: Viura with Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia. 

And rather than planting Chardonnay and trying to make more insipid, copy-cat white wine that has to be manipulated in the cellars to have any interest at all, I would strongly consider planting good clones of Godello in the higher elevations.  Now, there, in my humble opinion, is a grape with a future.

Gary Vee talks to María J

I’m a big fan of López de Heredia Riojas and an even bigger fan of the winery’s managing director/spokesperson María José López de Heredia.  As you know, María José has made traditional Riojas her family’s cause celèbre, speaking passionately about them to distributors, consumers and journalists around the world. Last week she appeared on Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV.  It was love at first sight.

At first it seemed incongruous to have one of the wine world’s most conservative, traditional producers on what is arguably the wine world’s most progressive, hip shows, but after the interview started, I realized that María José and Gary enjoyed every minute of the interview and it gave the winery more PR mileage than a 95 by Robert Parker.

In a crowded place like the wine business it’s essential to tell a good story.  You need one to get past the biggest gatekeepers in our industry, the distributors, and once past the gate, so to speak, you need a good story to put the wine on retailers’ shelves, on restaurant wine lists, to get consumers to buy the first bottle and then, the all-important repeat business.

I don’t know anyone in the business who tells a winery story better than María José.

If you can spare 45 minutes, watch these two episodes of Wine Library TV.  You, like Gary’s 800,000 daily followers, will learn a lot about Rioja, López de Heredia and one family’s 140-year passion for its wines.

María José López de Heredia: “The Zaha Hadid project was an accident”

img_0352_edit(Continued from the post dated April 26.  )

María José feels that wineries should cultivate their image just as they cultivate their vineyards and their wines, and in this respect, there’s still a lot of work to be done in Rioja.  “Here in Rioja, we’re capable of making the best wines in the world, but it’s useless to believe that we’re the best if the outside world doesn’t know about it.”

On the subject of image, she says that the Zaha Hadid-designed visitors’ reception area and tasting room, nicknamed ‘La Frasca’ (the beaker, because of its shape) was an accident.  There was no design contest nor did the winery specify that the architect had to be a woman.  “After restoring my great grandfather’s stand, I wanted to protect it and Zaha was recommended by a friend  as a good architect.  It was before she won the Pritzker prize. ”

To carry our her plans, María José had to overcome the resistance put up by her father, who still refers to the visitors’ center as “that thing stuck to the front of the winery”.  She finds his attitude surprising since what he added on to the winery was described by Hadid as “extraordinary, using large blocks of stone like the Egyptians or the Romans “.  María José laughs and says that the family spends more time talking about their building projects than their wines, about which they’re completely in agreement.

María José repeats that the Hadid project wasn’t conceived to attract visitors to the winery but rather to add to its heritage.  In spite of this, López de Heredia receives thousands of visits a year, and not necessarily older folks commonly thought of as Viña Tondonia drinkers.  “About 70% of our visitors are young people with a modern mentality who might not have ever heard of our brand but through word of mouth and the internet have been curious to see our history for themselves and how our wines are made following traditional, natural methods, something they value highly.  We don’t make wine for old or young people, but rather for people of all ages.”