It is some years now since McLaren Vale producer Wirra Wirra was forced to rename its flagship cabernet sauvignon when the ‘international naming police’ ruled that it was too similar to that of a leading Bordeaux château.
The 3/4-tonne Angelus bell that sits atop Wirra Wirra’s cellars had been retrieved from a wreckers’ yard after its former life calling the faithful to prayer at the Jesuit church in Norwood, South Australia. Traditionally rung at the start and end of each vintage and to mark special occasions, it seemed fitting that its name be used for the property’s top cuvée of cabernet.
When forced to change the label, the late Greg Trott, with typical wry humour, chose to call the wine ‘Dead Ringer’. In case there was any doubt, the back label of the first wine to be sold under the new nomenclature read:
Dead Ringer: Colloquial for “resemble exactly.”
…the wine formerly known as The Angelus is now The Dead Ringer. It is indeed a dead ringer for The Angelus – being a blend of 80% McLaren Vale and 20% Coonawarra cabernet, and matured in French oak barriques for 20 months. Whatever the name, this wine is quite simply the best cabernet sauvignon we can make from each vintage.
Members can now try the wine for themselves in the form of the 2013 and 2012 vintages, and a mixed case including the 2005, 2009 and 2012, in the ‘Wirra Wirra: The Name Rings A Bell’ section of our current Fine Wine List.
After a (ahem) dry January, our Staff Choice section returns for February, and will be updated every month with a new recommendation from our thirsty team!
February’s selection comes from our Marketing Team’s Gareth Park:
I’ve been a fan of this wine for a long time, mainly due to its honesty. It’s not a showstopper or flashy in any way but instead is a good juicy red that, at less than £7 per bottle, comes in at a very reasonable price.
I particularly like the way that there isn’t anything confected or false about the wine. It tastes like product of soil, sun and man all in balance; as they should be. A lovely example of Loire cabernet franc from a cracking vintage.
Marketing Campaign Manager
£6.95 – Bottle
£83.00 – Case of 12
View Wine Details
Below is one of the recent additions, from one of the Rhône’s brightest winemaking talents, Richard Maby of Domaine Maby.
The Wine Society has championed the wines of Domaine Maby for almost 40 years. Situated in Lirac, across the river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the soil here is also scattered with the famous ‘galets’ or pudding stones that litter the vineyards of its better-known neighbour.
The property has vineyards in the Lirac, Tavel and Côtes-du-Rhône appellations and the wines, in red, white and rosé, feature regularly on our Lists and en primeur offers and continue to offer excellent value for money.
Richard Maby took over the running of the estate from his father in 2005, re-energising the business and taking it to new heights, together with his wife Natasha.
Before returning to take up the role of vigneron, Richard worked in the French Stock Exchange in Paris. Alongside wine, Richard is also a lover of opera, as members may have gathered from the names of some of his cuvées (Nessun Dorma, Cast Diva, Prima Donna)!
1. When did you know that you wanted to work in the family business?
I always knew that I would work in the family business. I just needed to wait for my father to retire!
2. What’s the most memorable bottle you’ve drunk?
Cheval Blanc 1964, the same age as me!
3. Do you swap wine with other producers? If so with whom?
I swap wine regularly with other producers and especially with very good and friendly producers like Gilles Ferand and Marcel Richaud.
4. Your cellar is about to be flooded. What bottle would you save?
Some bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti that I bought went I worked for the Stock Exchange.
5. Who would you most like to share a bottle with?
With my wife, as I do almost every evening!
6. If you could travel back in time and redo one vintage which one would it be?
2005, because it was a wonderful vintage and my first one. I think that if I would manage it as I do today, the wines would be extraordinary.
8. If your winemaking philosophy could be described in three words what would they be?
Respect of the terroir, respect of the grapes, respect of the wine
9. What is your most memorable food and wine match?
Escalope of foie gras with oranges and a three year-old Tavel Prima Donna.
10. What would be your desert-island wine?
Château Rayas (Châteauneuf-du-Pape).
11. If you weren’t a winemaker, what would you be?
I suppose I would still work for the Stock Exchange…
12. If you could only work with one grape variety, what would it be and why?
We received the sad news from Bulgaria this week that Dr Ognyan ‘Ogy’ Tzvetanov, winemaker at Society suppliers Borovitza, passed away suddenly on Sunday.
We have been listing Borovitza wines for a few years, and Ogy came to the wine Society to show his wines at our ’50 years at Stevenage’ celebration. Our PR manager, Ewan Murray, and I also visited Ogy just three months ago. As my own write-up of the trip hopefully conveys, he was a fiercely passionate and highly talented winemaker, not to mention fantastic company, and I learned a great deal from him.
His partner in wine Adriana will, we are told, be carrying on Ogy’s work, and our thoughts and best wishes are with her and indeed all who were close to Ogy. He will be greatly missed.
Few if any members of the British wine trade were closer to him than Caroline Gilby MW, and we publish an edited version of her lovely blog post remembering him below with her permission.
I actually had glass of wine called “Carpe Diem” in my hand when I got the news. One of my dearest friends in wine died suddenly yesterday and I’m still in shock that he’s gone.
Another cruel reminder about living the life you have to the full and not putting things off. Last year, I had promised to take my husband to meet Ogy and see his winery at Borovitza in the far north west of Bulgaria, but then work got in the way, winter closed in and I put it off. I was hoping that Easter this year would work, but now it will never happen, something I will always regret.
I’ve known Dr Ognyan Tzvetanov for at least 15 years, first as a winemaker, academic and consultant to the Bulgarian industry, when he was always happy to answer my endless questions about the real picture and politics (always a huge topic) in Bulgaria. Gradually this developed into real friendship. I recall one trip when Ogy took me for walking tour of Sofia back in around 2005. My shoes may have been pretty but quickly reduced my feet to bleeding blisters, but it didn’t matter because it was so fascinating uncovering layers of history in Bulgaria’s capital city. And he always took the time to meet me at the airport for a quick coffee or to squeeze in beer somewhere even if my busy schedule didn’t allow time for anything more (and to hand over a bottle of unlabelled “party special” brandy for my husband as he knew where the good stuff was hidden). Always imported beer at that, as Ogy had no time for what he saw as lax standards of microbiology in Bulgaria’s national breweries.(He had been head of winemicrobiology at Bulgaria’s National Wine Research and Control Institute).
There were often surprises on trips to Bulgaria with Ogy – the ancient Thracian tomb of Dionysios, the stunning golden treasures of Panagyurishte, the Magura cave (where some of Europe’s oldest human remains have been found and last spring a visit to the idyllic mountain village of Koprivshtitsa (where Ogy’s partner-in-wine Adriana had been born).
One of the most valuable tastings I ever did with Ogy was on our way to see the potential winery he had just bought in northwest Bulgaria in 2007. On the way, we stopped to do a tasting in a rather boarded-up hotel so we sneaked in via the kitchen – as ever Ogy had a friend there. The tasting that greeted me was a line up of odd-looking liquids in a random selection of reused water and soft drink bottles. These had been bought from roadside stalls and the local market. I can’t say it was the most fun tasting I ever did as the “wines” showed every wine fault you have ever heard of, plus some randomly weird aromas from use of hybrid grapes too. But the point was well made and has stuck with me ever since. Ogy wanted to show me what local people understood to be the most genuine wines and therefore the huge gulf of understanding that had to be bridged when trying to persuade them what would be required to make quality wine as we might understand it in the west. It was dark by now and after a snack of cheesy chips (a great Bulgarian dish and perfect after wine tasting) we headed onto our hotel for the night. I had no idea what sight would greet me in the morning when I opened my curtains and looked out over one of the most stunning landscapes in the world. Even Bulgarians mostly don’t know what a treasure they have in the Belogradchik rocks – though it was nominated as one of seven natural wonders of the modern world a few years back.
Ogy and his winemaking partner Adriana had finally found a way to really make their wine dreams reality. At that time, you couldn’t just open a new winery but had to find a property with an existing licence, which was proving tricky. Both had been renting space in other wineries or even using a warehouse to make their wines to this point, travelling around the country sourcing plots of the best grapes wherever they could find them. North west Bulgaria was not well regarded by the big players of the industry, especially for the rich and super-ripe reds that were their mainstay. However, Ogy and Adriana had found that there were some amazing old plots of vines in this virtually abandoned corner of the country, producing fantastically intense fruit. And because this area is relatively cooler than the rest of the country (especially at night), but with long sunshine hours, ancient soils and good sloping sites, the wines have great potential for elegance, complexity and long life. Bulgaria’s first true terroir wine Sensum was launched by Ogy from the 2003 vintage and came from one such plot of 48 year old vines.
A chance conversation one day led them to an abandoned and utterly derelict winery at the foot of the Belogradchik rocks – and importantly still with the right licence.
Financing the project brought the next headache. There were number of EU funds available to wineries around the time of Bulgaria’s accession in 2007. In theory these were designed to support rural development and provide local jobs, but in reality the burden of bureaucracy and financial restrictions meant it was mostly already well-funded companies who benefited. The rules required that applicants were financially stable, debt-free and could fund any project upfront, then you could reclaim 50% back on completion. In practice, this made money difficult to obtain by exactly the sort of companies who needed the help – but somehow Ogy and Adriana managed it.
In their own place, Ogy and Adriana had total freedom to do what they wanted and adapt their methods to every parcel of fruit. And it helped them get away from some of the unexpected issues with rented tanks – I recall one story about an amazing Sauvignon they had made, but every time they went back to check it, it seemed somehow more dilute and they wondered what had gone wrong. Finally the truth emerged. The winery staff had spotted that this was the best wine in the place and had been quietly siphoning off wine to drink and topping up with whatever else they could find in the winery. At Borovitza, some batches were just a few bottles (they even had special tiny barrels coopered if necessary – below a 67 litre barrel for their first MRV, a Marsanne, Rousanne Viognier white blend).
Not every wine always worked – but everything was interesting, and many wines were truly fantastic. Among my favourites are the winery’s flagship Dux, Vox Dei Pinot Noir (matured in barrel with a piece of meteorite found in the vineyard), Sensum, Bouquet (a rare Bulgarian speciality), Cuvée Bella Rada (a surprise for me as I normally hate Rkatsiteli) and the ever fascinating Gamzas (including Black Pack, Granny’s and others – all of which had some great story about obtaining the grapes).
Ogy was often opinionated about the rest of the Bulgarian wine industry, but in spite of this he frequently took time to arrange visits for me so I would understand the bigger picture. He found it frustrating that industry lobbying influenced dividing the country into just two regions for wines with Protected Geographical Indication status. He firmly believed that this was about making life easier for big companies to source wherever they wanted. He felt the old five regions had been based on clearly identifiable differences in soil and climate. In the end, it meant he went his own way, feeling unrecognised by the industry and wine press in Bulgaria, and let his wines speak for themselves.
And so they did – quietly gaining listings in Berry Bros and The Wine Society, among the very few Bulgarian wines to break out of the trap of “ultra-cheap only fit for supermarket bottom shelf” status. Recognition came in from critics like Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker and others. When I showed him that Jancis had highlighted Dux in the World Atlas of Wine, his face was picture of surprise, disbelief and joy. Just a few months ago, he got to show his wines at the historic Five Kings House in the heart of London alongside the likes of Bollinger, Chateau Yquem, Jadot and Schloss Vollrads. He definitely had an air of “I can’t quite believe I’m here, in this company, and in a hall that has been the heart of the wine trade for centuries.” I’m told he kept the text I sent him afterwards, to tell him that his Gamza had been singled out as a highlight of the tasting by the chair of the Institute of Masters of Wine. I only wish he could have had time to fulfil the rest of his ambitions, but his generous heart let him down in the end.
Rest in peace Ogy.
Caroline Gilby MW
1916 was one of the grimmest years in this country’s history, with the Easter rebellion in April, Jutland, the biggest naval battle in history at the end of May and on July 1st the Battle of the Somme began with the greatest number of casualties in British military history (60,000).
But you would learn none of this from looking, as I have, at The Wine Society’s July 1916 List.
Attention is drawn to a separate list of 1912 vintage port for laying down, before a list of no fewer than 36 vintage ports going back to 1896. So our oldest ally was well represented.
More surprising are five Marsalas, ‘by many considered more wholesome than sherry’. The sherry list includes Paxarette (very fine old). ‘Much in fashion in Spanish and other Court circles; it is generally taken with Brandy’.
We are told that ‘a good claret should be dry and soft’ and the range goes back to château-bottled Langoa Barton 1899 and Château Léoville Barton 1896. I was puzzled to read that ‘Burgundy possesses more tannin and body than are to be found in claret and is therefore a powerful stimulant’ and rather wondered what the negociants of the day had mixed in with it.
Though we had been at war for two years there are 22 entries under Germany, including Schloss Johannisberg 1908 and Scharzhofberger Auslese 1907, which at 68 shillings per dozen were the most expensive still wines on the list. Hungary too gets a Carlovitz Auslese and Somlau Auslese, as many as Italy with a Chianti and Capri Bianco. Italy declared war on Germany that August. Canary Sac, Australia (three entries) and California (four) are all represented and there are over a dozen liqueurs.
The popularity of The Society’s own Special Highland Blend whisky ‘continues to increase steadily with export orders to India, The Cape, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere’, which must have been complicated logistically.
The Committee of Management were not young and almost completely London based, which probably reflected the average too of the 107 new members elected that year, of whom three quarters came from London and the south-east. 15 new members were in the military but probably too old for active service.
Nine new members were widows, the only possible clue to what was happening on the continent.
Sebastian Payne MW
For a look back at our 1914 List, see Wines On The Brink Of War.
The Society’s February 2016 List will be arriving on members’ doorsteps mid February.
These recipes, while hopefully of use and interest to all, were written with the New Year selections of The Society’s Wine Without Fuss subscription scheme particularly in mind. Wine Without Fuss offers regular selections of delicious wines with the minimum of fuss. Why not join the growing band of members who let their Society take the strain, and are regularly glad they do?
Find out more about Wine Without Fuss in a short video on our website.I was once moved to pen a Food for Thought piece titled A Recipe for Disaster. It was a rant about cooking instructions that don’t make sense.
Try, for example, preheating a superfast fan-assisted oven before defrosting your meat or adding the stock which you suddenly find (in brackets) you should have made by roasting and simmering veal bones for four hours. Good luck with marshalling ingredients that don’t feature in the method, and vice versa. These are merely the tip of an undefrostable iceberg for titanic kitchen egos.
A very famous name has the prize for my favourite blooper of all time: an instruction to simmer some mushrooms for exactly twenty minutes – and then throw them away. The importance of reserving the cooking water for stock went – you’ve guessed it – down the drain.
I do see that successful chefs may take for granted boxes ticked by their large brigades but I strongly suggest that if they intend to break into publishing, they should consider adding to their smoke-boxes, dry-ice dispensers and foam aerosols the magnifying glass, nit-comb and big red pen any sense-checker needs. A chef de cuisine does not a Chief Sub make.
I know from experience just how easy it is to add or omit a zero or to insert a ghost k before a g. I try hard, but even when I get it right, a gremlin in my laptop occasionally likes to undermine my authority by mischievously replacing the degree (Centigrade) symbol with, of all things, a question mark. Fortunately, gimlet eyes and better technical skills than mine at HQ spare my blushes, and the odd escapee, swiftly picked up by members at least reassures me that you are actually reading my work!
Earlier this year I attended a Guardian workshop on food writing, wherein the excellent food journalist Felicity Cloake, who must get as frustrated as I do, stressed the importance of checking one’s recipes. In an ironic twist, I recently read the following, in the same paper’s Corrections and Clarifications section:
“A recipe for kedgeree among our 10 best all-day egg recipes… listed the wrong amounts for the haddock, rice, water, curry powder and salt…”
Finally, I think I understand the expression ‘as sure as eggs is eggs.’
Nothing, however, prepared me for the clutch of Bordelais tapas recipes we presented in our Christmas Sauternes spread and which I hope members enjoyed trying as much as I ended up having to, if only to make sense of them.
These recipes originated at a brilliantly conceived Bordeaux tapas-and-sweet-wine workshop, whence some inspirational ideas emerged from top traiteurs. Clearly, you had to be there, as I wasn’t. Unfortunately, the only written records, posted online, are variously missing weights, measures, oven temperatures and cooking times, number of servings and, in some cases, even the ingredients mentioned in the name of the dish. The world of private catering is competitive if not cut-throat. What a clever way of withholding trade secrets!
Having deconstructed and reassembled the least baffling of the recipes for The Society’s website, I have saved my favourite until now. Not because it was the one in least need of sub-editing (it was), but because we all need a bit of glamour in January. All I added were a suggestion for cooking the prawns and a serving idea.
What’s more it’s the perfect freezer and store-cupboard standby and, although it was designed to match a Sauterenes or Barsac, it works equally well with any number of the aromatic whites in this New Year Wine Without Fuss selection.
What more could you ask from a recipe? Proper instructions, that’s what. I have done my level best here, and if that web-gremlin is not on a well-earned winter break, I will simultaneously hang up my quill, my tastevin AND my cook’s knife.
Janet Wynne Evans
OLIVIER STRAEHLI’S PRAWNS WITH CARDAMOM, VANILLA AND COCONUT
Olivier Straehli has written a number of cookery books, including one dedicated to that Bordeaux über-bun the cannelé. He also presides over the kitchen at La Maison des 5 Sens in Bordeaux – not a restaurant but an espace culturelle dedicated to the pleasures of the senses. Here he combines sweetness, spice and richness to delicious effect, all eminently absorbable by a sweet wine and spice-friendly whites like gewurztraminer,and viognier and rich chardonnays.
M. Straehli’s instructions are merely to cook your prawns so I have taken the liberty of sharing my preferred method of roasting them with a little sesame oil. I do hope he approves, both of that and my presentation. If not, I had better practice my most elegant Gallic shrug.
Serves 8 as a tapa, 4 as a starter
Note: you’ll need four ramekins for starter portions, or, for tapas, eight 5cl shot glasses and a ready supply of cocktail sticks, which can snap very easily if you’re excited!
• 16 tiger prawns, defrosted if frozen
• 2 tablespoons of sunflower or similarly neutral oil
• a scant teaspoon of toasted sesame oil
• a handful of baby onions or very slim shallots, finely sliced
• 200ml coconut milk
• 150ml full fat crème fraîche
• a vanilla pod, split
• 5 whole cardamom pods, lightly crushed
• a green or red medium-strength chilli (jalapeño is about right), deseeded and very finely chopped
• 1 lime
• 16 photogenic coriander leaves, washed and dried, to decorate
Firstly, deal with the prawns.> Remove heads and all shells, including the tail. With the point of a knife, make a cut along the back and remove all traces of the black digestive tract. I always feel better for having done that. Give them a good rinse in two lots of well-salted water (an excellent tip from Ken Hom). Pat them with kitchen paper and leave them on a plate until completely dry.
Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 7. Put the prawns in a small roasting dish. Add half the sunflower oil and all the sesame oil and season well with salt and pepper. With clean hands, make sure every prawn is well coated. Roast for just 6-8 minutes until the prawns are pink, opaque and firm to the touch. Set them aside to cool, and once they have done so, refrigerate them until you are ready to assemble the tapas.
In a frying pan, heat the rest of the sunflower oil and brown the onions or shallots. They should be golden and crisp. Lift them out and let them drain on kitchen paper.
Give the pan a wipe before adding the coconut milk, crème fraîche, vanilla and cardamom, along with half the diced chilli. Bring up to a simmer and let this mixture reduce gently to half its volume, tasting as you go. It may need a little seasoning, but remember that the prawns will be quite salty and toasty.
Once it tastes right – rich, creamy, subtly spice and hauntingly sweet – fish out the vanilla pod and count out the cardamoms. Stir in the rest of the diced chilli and finish with the juice of half a lime, adding a little more if you feel it’s needed.
Divide the mixture into 8 shot glasses or 4 ramekins. Sprinkle with the reserved onion ringlets, and put in the fridge to chill and thicken.
An hour before serving, remove your components from the fridge for the fun part. For the ramekins, arrange four prawns jauntily on top of the sauce, interleaved with the coriander leaves. For the shot-glass option, impale a coriander leaf, glossy side up, with a cocktail stick, add a prawn, then another coriander leaf and a second prawn. Your ‘kebab’ should stand up nicely in the glass without touching the sauce. Repeat the operation seven times.
Equip your guests with little teaspoons so that every morsel of the sauce can be scraped up and savoured. Oh, and do grant permission to lick fingers and glasses at table.
The downside of having a small cellar in another country is that it is generally only topped up once a year with Wine Society wines, and similarly audited, with the odd bottle passing its recommended drinking window.
This Christmas’ pleasant surprise was Bernard Chéreau‘s Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine, Le Clos du Château L’Oiselinière 2003.
When I joined The Society as a buyer in 2004, 2003 was the vintage I was confronted with. At the time I struggled to get to grips with it, especially in the Loire, where the ‘norm’ is something quite different.
There have been warm, ripe vintages since (notably 2005 and 2009) and I have come to think of 2003 as atypical, rather than the Hyde to the regular Dr Jekyll.
The biggest fear at the time was that the wines would have insufficient acidity to maintain freshness even over the short to medium term. Unusually, permission was granted to add acid but, with little or no experience of doing so, few growers did.
The best wines found their balance and I have enjoyed numerous examples over the last few years.
The Le Clos was still remarkably good AND fresh, and complemented a buttery and flavoursome chicken admirably.
Jo Locke MW
The 2009 vintage of Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine, Le Clos du Château L’Oiselinière is currently available for £10.95 per bottle.
Members may be wondering why they haven’t received their January List in this month’s mailing pack.
Fear not! The simple answer is that we have made some tweaks to the timing of our quarterly Lists this year. The changes are as follows:
• New Year List: will be sent mid February (last year: mid January)
• Spring List: will be sent early May (last year: late March)
• Summer List: will be sent late July (last year: mid July)
• Christmas List: will be sent early October (last year: late September)
Why the change?
The decision to move the List mailing dates was taken largely for practical reasons. The New Year List in recent years went to print in December, and consequently before we had a clear picture of the level of Christmas trading. As a result we found it very challenging to ensure that all wines in the new List were shipped and available for sale by mid-January. Mailing the first List of the year in February gives us a little extra breathing space.
Our Spring List sees the most significant change in mailing dates, from late March last year to early May this year. The rationale for this is twofold; firstly it allows us more time to ship the new vintage whites and rosés from Europe, as we have in the past found it difficult (particularly if the European harvest the previous autumn was late) to ensure that members have access to the very freshest young dry whites and rosés. The other reason is that we will no longer need to second-guess the Chancellor’s decision on duty rates, as the Spring List will now go to print after the Budget.
I would like to take the opportunity to wish members a happy New Year, and thank them for their continued support.
Head of Buying
It is with a feeling of infinite sadness that I have to announce the death of Jean Meyer at the age of 71 after a long illness, which he faced with great courage, helped of course by his wife Odile and daughters Céline and Isabelle.
It would be difficult to overstate his contribution to Alsace. If this French and Rhenish region has achieved anything since its post war elevation to appellation status, much of the credit must stop at his door.
As a winemaker he had no master, believing in the intrinsic quality of Alsace wines, and every year facing the challenge of turning his grape into wines worthy of the appellation and the Josmeyer brand.
Josmeyer had started as a négoce house but Jean gradually did away with purchased grapes. Today all the production comes from own vines, and that includes The Society’s Exhibition Alsace Riesling. Moreover, all the vines are now farmed both organically and biodynamically.
Alsace revels in its grape varieties and Jean made all their diversity a strength. Together with his daughter Isabelle, he designed labels according to grape variety, changing with every vintage. He was a passionate advocate of grand cru and designed a Japanese-inspired label just for these exalted wines.
His wines were never less than elegant and always were marked by a sense of purity. Jean was a remarkable epicurean and realised, perhaps before anyone else, the importance of food in selling wine. And he had an answer for any number of dishes. He extolled the virtues of gewurztraminer with anything tomato, for example, and took the time to write a lovely piece on matching Alsace wines with cheese on our website.
There was more to this focus on gastronomy than just marketing savvy. Jean was an outstanding cook in his own right, understanding the delicate balance that exists between wine and food. It is the same sense of balance that made him an outstanding blender. As a host, he had no equal; his lunches were always a high point of the year. His risotto was something of legend and the perfect foil for an aged riesling or pinot gris.
He had a boyish charm and infectious enthusiasm that will be irreplaceable.
Odile was his life companion who allowed him to shine, though not without the occasional tease. Céline and Isabelle are his talented daughters who for some time have held the reins of this extraordinary Alsace house. Our thoughts are with them.
Read part one here, which includes news from Viña Amézola and Bodegas Palacio.
While they are used to dramatic temperature differences in Rioja, such heat as we experienced during our visit in October was not usual.
How had this affected the vintage?
You might assume that the winemakers we visited would be ecstatic about an early vintage of ripe healthy grapes. Yes, it’s fair to say that there were plenty of smiles on faces – but these are wines that are crafted for the long haul and the winemaking men and women behind them are a pragmatic lot… and these were early days.
María José of López de Heredía told us, ‘we don’t like to judge our harvest straight away. Our grandmother told us you must always wait until after the second fermentation’ (that is the malolactic fermentation – you can read more about that in our series of winemaking articles.)
The general feeling is pretty positive though: the summer was continuously hot and dry and the tempranillo grape – the main constituent of Rioja – was picked in good health and full ripeness. Small grapes (the result of evaporation caused by the heat) may result in lower quantities, however.
María said that having a mix of grapes gives Rioja producers a distinct advantage and that in 2015 at López de Heredía they will reduce the amount of garnacha they use (a variety that tends towards high alcohol levels) and will increase the amount of graciano and mazuelo, two grapes that give highish acidity to the wine. In the face of a changing climate these grapes might become more important, she suggested.
The railway quarter in Haro
López de Heredía, together with La Rioja Alta, Muga and several other well-known names, are all in Haro’s historic railway station quarter. Here the harvest was still in full flow, with tractors trundling in and out of their impossibly picturesque wineries.
Of all of these, López de Heredía’s is the most surreally romantic.
Grapes are brought in to the winery in poplar wood crates in the way that they have been for centuries. The technique hasn’t been retained for any reasons of sentimentality; María tells us that they have discovered that the unusual shape of the crates and the poplar wood from which they are made are ideal for their wines. ‘The wood harbours the indigenous yeasts that we want for fermentation. We have experimented with other methods over the year, but we have come to realise that our predecessors knew what they were doing!’
Across the road at Bodegas Muga, we were treated to the full spectacle of the harvest being brought in. Trucks were unloading and grapes weighed and analysed (15% of grapes come from a network of small family growers as was traditional in Rioja); an optical sorting machine ensured only the best berries made it through to be made into wine, and the barrels were being made and toasted to just the right levels in Muga’s own cooperage. Muga is one of the few wineries in the world whose barrels and casks are made by their own coopers.
La Rioja Alta – ageing the wine and the effects of climate change
The other bodega we visited in the station quarter was La Rioja Alta – home of our Exhibition Rioja Reserva. Here, too we were treated to a tour of the cellars but the wines are not made here (fermentation, bottling and labelling all now takes place at Labastida a new winery some five minutes away).
What sets the wines apart from other traditional producers and the reason we chose them for our Exhibition wine is that their wines still retain vigour and feel alive. This is attributed partly to the skilled job of racking the wine (moving it from one barrel to the next to remove sediment and clean the barrel). At La Rioja Alta this is done traditionally and it is only after five years’ training that a new cellar hand will be allowed to do this skilled job on their own.
The rackers get to know their barrels intimately and notice when things aren’t quite right. Interestingly our guide told us that they usually rack every six months but climate change is having an effect on this part of the winemaking process too. They are starting to notice as humidity levels have dropped slightly the wine is maturing more quickly, the pores in the wood presumably widening ever so slightly. Now they check the barrels more often and top up the barrels every month.
Brave new world at Viña Real
On our last day in the region and in complete contrast to the wonderful historic cobwebby cellars of López de Heredia, we found ourselves witnessing state-of-the-art winemaking in Viña Real’s purpose-built winery dug into the hillside in the Rioja Alavesa. Designed by Bordeaux’s Philippe Mazières, the architecture is as stunning as it is practical, the winery looking like a vast barrel on top of the hillside.
The operation is vast here and highly ergonomic. Tunnels carved out of the hillside were built by the same company that constructed the underground system in Bilbão and took three years to make and were a considerable investment for the company. 25 thousand barrels and three million bottles are housed here, but only nine people are employed.
But the most impressive aspect of this circular bodega is the vat room where the design allows for the vast fermentation vats to be filled automatically using a robotic crane. Gravity alone is used to move the grapes and juice around the bodega avoiding the need for any pumping which has a negative effect on quality.
Grapes for Viña Real wines are hand-harvested then sorted by both a visual inspection and automated hoppers before falling into mini stainless-steel vats which are then slowly hoisted by a crane and moved around the circular fermentation hall by a huge electronic arm. We were lucky enough to see this in action.
You can watch the process in this short but noisy video!
• If you’re interested in buying wines from the Rioja region, including those from some of the bodegas mentioned above, visit our website.
• There’s more on the effects of climate change and its influence (or not) on rising alcohol levels in wine in our article by Caroline Gilby MW here.