I embarked on my first Spanish wine trip this month. It seems strange that it has taken me this long to reach Spain on my travels and considering its output of wine, quality and price it seems inexcusably neglected. Over this year my aim is to cover most of this place, to understand better it’s wines, it’s food and it’s culture.
Like most of London it seems, with the explosion of tapas bars and restaurants in the capital over the last few months, I have been falling in love with Spanish cuisine, I even have a Spanish cook book and trying things out for myself while sipping fino sherry and snacking on toasted almonds, not only great for the skin but a food and wine match made in heaven!
The love affair with Rioja in the UK has got to be one of the most successful ‘brands’ in the UK market. You would be hard pushed not to find a Rioja on any restaurant, pub or bars wine list and is probably the biggest regional selling red wine in the country. Despite this it is, perhaps for me, one of the least known regions where I have any real depth of knowledge. Perhaps this is because Rioja (being so well recognised) by the UK consumer as well as being seen as a safe and reliable bet when one is slightly baffled by a wine list, tends to therefore sell itself and one doesn’t really need to know and say much to sell the wine to the consumer. Secondly as a wine snob/ connoisseur (delete as you see appropriate) I have never got too excited by mass produced, cheap Rioja which uniformly has an American wood flavour mixed with some red fruit flavours that uniformly fail to offend or excite. But I know this is not only what Rioja has the ability to produce.
Like all successful ‘branding’ in wine it is always a double-edged sword. As it grows in popularity, demand goes up, production goes up, quality goes down, reputation too if it is not careful. But like many of the world’s great wine producing regions of the world, it is in its regionality that Rioja has managed to overcome this danger. Yes there is a load of uniformly tasting largely well made but still unexciting wine grown here, but so are there a great number of medium to small sized boutique quality producers that continue to make high quality, and in many cases, world class quality wines under the label of Rioja. These wines come at a price but while not cheap some of these incredible wines are a hell of a lot more affordable than other iconic wines in world-class growing regions of the world. It is probably this fact alone that has fueled my interest in visiting Rioja now and namely one wine in particular Valserrano Finca Monteviejo by Bodegas de la Marquesa. A wine that has seduced practically everyone that has ever tasted it. Often I will get people ring me up and tell me how much they love the wine, where can they get it from, how much is it, it has that sort of effect on people. Not only did I want to visit where this wine is made I wanted to see if there was anything else out there that can match it. This is the stage for me where Rioja gets really exciting.
First stop then was to meet with my old friend Pablo Di Simon from Valserrano. He picked us up from Logrono and took us on a day tour of Rioja Alevesa, one of the 3 regions of the Rioja area. The landscape is undulating hills made up of a mixture of untrellised bush vines (the older vines) as well as trellised wines – 90% the Tempranillo grape with rest being Viura (grape variety for white Rioja), Mazuelo, Graciano and further south in Rioja Baja – Garnacha. Intertwined with the vineyards are beautiful fortress towns like the enchanting Leguardia, Briones, and Brinas. All immaculate and seemingly unchanged in centuries. In fact when we stayed inside the walls of the town we were awoken at six in the morning by chanting monks singing as they walked through the tiny narrow streets!
Alevesa of all the three regions of Rioja seems to be the where most of the smaller boutique wineries are based, although strictly borders of Rioja Alto and Alevesa interchange in this area. It is not only where Bodegas de la Marquesa are based but also iconic wines such as Contador Rioja (the first Spanish wine to receive consecutive 100pts from Wine Advocate two years running) but also Artadi, Murrieta, Contino, the list goes on and these wines are some of the worlds best and with a price to follow. One winery that we were really impressed with in the area was Pujanza. They have some of the highest vineyards in Rioja, grown at the very limits of what is possible and it is in the extremes that great wine is made. They also use 100% French oak which after visiting and tasting many different Riojas seems evident to me to have one of the strongest influences on structure and flavour components of the wine.
When I asked the winemakers at Pujanza why some use American oak and some wineries use French oak she replied rather straightforwardly. ‘People use American oak because it is cheap compared with French oak’ in her opinion there is no comparison. French oak is better. And at Pujanza no expense is spared with only 100% French oak used, 25% new oak, 25% 1 year old oak, 25% 2 years, and 25% 3 year old. The results are outstanding and the consistency across the range shows off a winery that is in their element. This style would fit in the ‘modern’ category of Rioja. The use of French oak give the wine a more subtle oak influence, more structure and the ripe fruit is allowed to blossom. This like the finca monteviejo made in similar way using again only French oak offers a seductive quality to the Tempranillo that just sings!
After spending time in the party town of Logrono for a few days, we travel north to the historical centre of Rioja and the small town of Haro. This is where the international brand of Rioja started. In the mid 1860s/ 70s with the catastrophic effect of the phlollexara outbreak in France. Wine makers from Bordeaux arrived in Rioja and built wineries around the train station of Haro, which connected Madrid to Paris. While wine was already being made in this region, the Bordelaise brought with them modern vine growing and modern wine making techniques as well as a developed export market.
These large wineries today have all largely received modern facelifts and are creating well-priced and varied styles of Rioja. Wineries such as Cune and Bilbainas are making a wide range of Riojas and the difference between the more ‘traditional’ and the more ‘modern’ styles is a great lesson in the use of wood, as well as the intricate care taken grading the quality of the vineyards enabling them to create such variance from largely one grape. It is also great to see the price/ quality ratio here being held high. Bilbainas ‘Zaco’ Rioja is a single vineyard wine, using high quality low yielding bush vines, and French oak but ageing the wine for less time creating a fruit driven modern style Rioja that retails £8-£10. Now that is value for money! A trip to Haro wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Lopez Heredia, the one winery whose wines probably have remained ‘traditional’ in the most purest sense. Their white wine currently on sale is their 2003 Crianza and their 1997 Reserva, a white wine that has spent over 3 years in oak. Extraordinary wines still with vibrant acidity yet super developed almost sherry-esque flavours, long, complex and unique.
Finally a Rioja report would not be complete without some notes on the Gran Reservas. The wines that perhaps represents the Rioja region at its most complex and unique. Wines that spend a minimum of 2 years in oak cask with a further 3 years ageing in bottle. These wines acquire premium prices but it seems a tradition that many of even the most modern winemakers like to make. Even if only in tiny quantities it seems a tradition that is thankfully alive and well today. All the Gran Reservas we tried on our trip were incredible. Not bigger wines but subtle and complex- an abundance of flavours with many of the top wines still carrying loads of fruit alongside more developed notes, spices, minerals and animal notes. These wines still have such life to them and will last for many years to come.
Another wild and wonderfully wacky fiesta in Haro pursued in which thousands of people descend on the town, everyone seems to be in a brass band and whom play throughout the town before a steel bull arrives and chases everyone around the main square as fireworks fire continuously from its back. It is hilarious, surreal and completely bonkers which about sums up fondly Rioja in general.
The last few days in Spain we travelled through the mountains and onto the beginnings of the Duero River, home of the Ribera vineyards. A region that is gaining popularity and importance in the winemaking world. Here the climate is very different to Rioja. Vines being between 800-1000 metres above sea level make for very extreme vine growing conditions. The biggest danger being ground frosts during flowering as well as in the autumn. Just a week before we were there, night temperatures were down to 1 degree at night. In the highest regions this amounts to a very short ripening season which means only tiny yields per vine can reach full ripeness. It is a gamble that they play and when they pull it off it is fantastic. We were very lucky to visit Dominico de Atatu who has some of the most extreme vineyards in the area. Out in the vineyard you would be lucky to see 2 bunches per vine. I have never seen such low yielding vines anywhere.
While Ribera only became a classified DO in 1982, peasants have been making wine in this way for centuries hence some of the vines ageing up to 100 years old. Atatu wines were outstanding and excellent value for money compared with the more established Rioja at this high level. I say we were lucky to visit Domingo de Atatu because other visits and tastings were less successful. A lot of the wines we tasted were unripe both in fruit and tannins. While American oak use is the norm here a lot of it felt unsubtle and poorly integrated. We didn’t manage to taste some of the most iconic wines of this region such as Vega Sicilia and Pingus unfortunately, wines that retail between £200-£400 a bottle. But to me it seems when done well it is outstanding and can be excellent value but buy with caution.
Our trip ended in Valladolid, a cool historic city and the best food of the trip. After the excitement of trying some Spanish delicacies the food so far had been mixed from the fabulous to the damn right awful. Huge amounts of salt, and excess fat along with poor quality bread were the most disappointing elements while incredible marinated peppers; chorizo and mushrooms were the more successful. Highlights included a finca Monteviejo food and wine match made in heaven with chocolate ganache with salt and olive oil. It was incredible and something to be repeated often until the day I die! The tapas in Valladolid was exceptional. Super fresh baked cod, mushroom and jamon. All cured meats were sensational, fresh croquettes and surprisingly black pudding and chorizo is a great combination.
With suitcase crammed with cured meats and Sheep’s cheese we head home, a big step closer to understanding the Tempranillo grape and the variety of wines it can produce as well as a wealth of cuisine ideas for home.