Grapevine Archive for Rioja

Fri 03 Mar 2017

Staff Choice: Pete’s (and our) House Rioja

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Around 11,000 members buy and enjoy our Society-label Rioja every year. One of them is Pete James from our Member Services team. Indeed, Pete wins the title of ‘quickest email reply in Staff Choice history’, so enthusiastic was he to recommend this wine.

The Society's Rioja Crianza 2012

Consistency is a virtue when it comes to Society-label wines, but feedback from both members and the press suggests that the current 2012 vintage is singing especially sweetly. We were very pleased to see that it was recently selected by Decanter Magazine as one of their 50 top ‘Best-buy Riojas’ – it was the best value of all 50 too!

Here’s why Pete was so quick on the button to sing its praises.

The Society’s Rioja Crianza 2012

This is a wine that I have enjoyed for a very long time and is currently the preferred red in our household, which is no mean feat!

With this being such a staple wine I’ve really come to appreciate the consistent level of quality. No matter what quantity I purchase it in, it never lasts long (surely the perfect endorsement). This has led me to recommend it to many a friend and family member and I would urge anyone reading this to give it a try.

Nice and smooth with a little bit of oak, this is keenly priced everyday-drinking Rioja, which for my mind is very hard to beat. Over the years we’ve tried it with many different dishes (as well as on its own plenty of times), the most recent being a delicious rendang curry which worked an absolute treat.

Pete James

Pete James
Member Services Team Leader

£7.50 – Bottle
£90 – Case of 12
View Wine Details

You can find a full archive of Staff Choices on our website here.

Categories : Spain
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Thu 31 Dec 2015

Rioja Harvest 2015: Sights and Sounds

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Read part one here, which includes news from Viña Amézola and Bodegas Palacio.

Laguardía at sunset with the granite slopes of the Cantabrian mountains behind - the point at which the Alevasa vineyards stop

Laguardía at sunset with the granite slopes of the Cantabrian mountains behind – the point at which the Alevasa vineyards stop

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.

The view from Haro town of the historic railway station quarter, where so many famous bodegas are based in a tiny area

The view from Haro town of the historic railway station quarter, where so many famous bodegas are based in a tiny area

Of all of these, López de Heredía’s is the most surreally romantic.

López de Heredía

López de Heredía

López de Heredía

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).

José Féliz racking our Exhibition Reserva Rioja

José Féliz racking our Exhibition Reserva Rioja

So no sights and sounds of vintage here, just the row upon row of barrels gently ageing and La Rioja Alta’s classically styled reservas and gran reservas are given considerable ageing and are only released when fully ready. For example, the gran reservas are aged for on average 11 years (the minimum is five) – five or six years in barrel and at least five in bottle.

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.

Viña Rea

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!

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

• 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.

Categories : Spain
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Wed 30 Dec 2015

Rioja Harvest 2015: In The Thick of It

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2015 was the earliest vintage on record in Rioja and inadvertently we were there to capture some of the hustle and bustle of harvest time.

On a recent study tour of Rioja, timed to take place just before the vintage, we found ourselves instead, right in the middle of the harvest – the earliest on record and three weeks earlier than usual.

Grapes in transit (not to one of our bodegas!)

Grapes in transit (not to one of our bodegas!)

Harvest is usually the busiest time of year for wineries and not the best time to visit, generally. But it is an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good and for us it was a fantastic opportunity to see for ourselves what actually happens when the grapes come in.

Visit a winery at just about any other time of the year and you’ll be struck by how empty it is. You’ll be lucky if you see another person as you are shown around vast echo-y galleries with serried ranks of tanks and barrels, perhaps with a bit of pumping over or racking going on if you’re lucky. It always makes me think that being a winemaker must be quite a lonely profession!

But seeing a winery in full flood (as it were) is to see it in its true colours, in full operational mode. All those things you’ve heard about or read in textbooks are happening before your eyes, and the wonderful thing about Rioja in particular, is there is such as contrast between the old, highly traditional and the bright, shiny new.

Tempranillo grapes arriving in good health at Amézola

Tempranillo grapes arriving in good health at Amézola

The whole region is in action and it’s quite exciting. In Rioja grapes are quite often brought some distances to the wineries and the roads are busy with tractors and trailors trundling back and forth with their load of grapes. Special road signs are put out to warn motorists of slow-moving grape carriers.

Extreme weather
At Viña Amézola, sisters Cristina and María said that normally they would start harvesting around 6th October. This year, they had pretty much finished by 1st October; the last of the grapes were coming in while we were there (theirs is only one of three bodegas in Rioja who don’t buy in any grapes) and Amézola were breathing a sigh of relief. Just up the road, some bodegas had lost their entire crop, and even the vines themselves, the result of freak, highly localised hail storms in August.

Tasting the new wine
Arriving at the bodega when we did provided another unforeseen opportunity – the chance to taste wine straight from vat just before fermentation had started (when the grape juice is referred to as ‘must’ and still tastes sweet), at a day old and then at two days old. It was fascinating to taste the work of the yeast on the juice in progress.

Tasting the new wine from the 2015 vintage at Viña Amézola

Tasting the new wine from the 2015 vintage at Viña Amézola

During our winery visits, we couldn’t help but remark upon the bundles of sticks that were often seen amongst the vats of fermenting wine. Apparently these are placed into the vats as a way of filtering the wine. Fresh reeds are harvested each year and from specific plots of trees; a traditional method that I for one had not come across anywhere else.

Bunches of reeds used to help filter the wine

Bunches of reeds used to help filter the wine

Bodegas Palacio, home of The Society’s Rioja Crianza, had already finished picking bringing everything in (from some 500 different plots) in a record 10 days. Every single vat in its vast cellar was full. Winemaker Roberto Rodriguez looked pretty exhausted when we arrived at the bodega on the outskirts of picture-postcard perfect Laguardía at early evening.

Feel the fermentation! The dense CO2-laden air and hum of the ventilating fans made the process of fermentation palpable.

Feel the fermentation! The dense CO2-laden air and hum of the ventilating fans made the process of fermentation palpable.

Opening up the enormous gates of the winery we were hit by a new sensation… enormous fans, resembling those you see on jumbo jets, were circulating the CO2-laden air. The noise and the lack of oxygen were quite overpowering. Roberto was anxious to check that we were all ok and that nobody had asthma – it is not unusual for people to suffocate in wineries and removing the CO2 safely is a challenge in the winemaking process.

Feeling a little light headed, we were taken to Roberto’s control centre. Looking like something out of a James Bond film, the array of dials and computer screens enable Roberto to monitor what is happening in every single vat, from temperature control to alcohol levels, wine densities, pumping over, micro-oxygenation etc. It makes it sound simple, as though with the press of a button all can be viewed and controlled, but clearly, there’s a lot more to it than that!

…back to talk of the weather
The medieval hill-top town of Laguardía is in the Rioja Alavesa region which produces grapes that according to Roberto are ‘the soul of Rioja.’ From the town you can look out over the surrounding vineyards and appreciate why this might be so. South-facing and protected by the Cantabrian mountain range, the unique soils and cool nights all contribute to producing grapes with finesse and crucially, the vital acidity that’s required to allow Rioja to age.

We were all too aware of this large diurnal temperature variation. In the day the temperature had got up to 28°C, now that the sun had gone down and we were taking an evening stroll around Laguardía we were all freezing.

These are just the conditions that the tempranillo grape loves.

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

Read part 2 here, including reports from López de Heredía, Muga, La Rioja Alta and Viña Real.

• 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.

Categories : Spain
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Wed 25 Mar 2015

The Society’s Rioja: New Blend, New Vintage

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By far my most important buying job of the year is putting together the blend of The Society’s Rioja (important because around 11,000 members every year buy it).

In the blending room - The mathematics behind The Society's Rioja

In the blending room – The mathematics behind The Society’s Rioja

Last November at Bodegas Palacio in Laguardia, winemaker Roberto Rodriguez and I spent most of a day mixing, tweaking and tasting various components. Quality this year is excellent, thanks to the concentration of the vintage (2011) and the fact that Roberto gave me access to some of his finest barrels of tempranillo normally destined for reserva-level wines.

Looking closer at the components, it’s clear to see why. Firstly, 2011 saw some of the Bodega’s healthiest tempranillo grapes which meant the wines were able to support extensive ageing. This year we selected from barrels where the wines have aged for a staggering 22 months (that’s 7 months more than the previous vintage).

Incidentally that means the wine does legally qualify to be labelled as a reserva. The barrels chosen were 90% American oak, a significant feature in good traditional-style Rioja, and 10% French oak: this combination endows the wine with a round, smooth texture and a hint of vanilla spice.

Our shipment of the new blend has arrived from Rioja and is available now for £7.50 per bottle. I hope you like it.

Pierre Mansour
Society Buyer

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Fri 21 Nov 2014

Picturing Rioja: Infographics

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They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but I’d wish I had these kinds of infographics when I was studying for my wine exams many harvests ago.

I’d always had a mental block when trying to remember the ageing laws for Rioja that cover crianza, reserva and gran reserva wines. The age in bottle and age in barrel would regularly get mixed up (was gran reserva two years in barrel and three in bottle or vice versa?).

To be honest, this remained the case until quite recently, or at least until I started work on the Rioja infographic below. This was created around our current Spanish offer, featuring as it does a number of different styles of Rioja.

Rioja infographic - The Wine Society

Click to enlarge

The idea of an infographic is convey information in a visual format. There are millions of examples on the internet (a quick Google just brought back 8 million results and seem to cover every conceivable subject, including Superheroes and World Octopus Day…).

There seems to be no reason why this approach shouldn’t work for wine so we had a crack at it, firstly with a Loire example earlier in the year and now in more detail with this one. Some of us respond to visual prompts more readily than others. I’m guessing I fall into that category as I can now remember my Rioja ageing laws without thinking about it, shame it’s taken me so many years to realise!

As with everything we do at The Society the end result has to be useful to members, so what do you think? Is this approach helpful? Are there other regions or even other wine related information that you would like to see presented in this way?

Do let us know.

Gareth Park
Campaign Manager

EDIT: 5th December: Following a number of requests, we have reproduced this infographic in PDF format for members to print.

Categories : Spain
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Tue 03 Jun 2014

Bodegas Palacio Celebrates 120 Years

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1894 was an interesting year.

Frenchman Martial Bourdin tried to blow up the Greenwich observatory, Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer opened a little store in Manchester that bore their surnames, Tower Bridge was opened to traffic and Blackpool Tower to tourists, and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle released The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (though he would drag his heels for a further 16 years before becoming a Wine Society member).

s RiojaMeanwhile, in the Laguardia sub region of Rioja Alavesa, Don Cosme Palacio y Bermejillo quietly founded what is today one of the oldest wineries in Rioja, Bodega Palacio; producer of The Society’s Rioja and Glorioso Crianza Rioja.

Surviving along the way the arrival of the vine-destroying phylloxera louse, two world wars and a civil war, not to mention nearly 40 years under Franco’s dictatorship, Bodega Palacio has played a key role in development of winemaking in the area.

Don Cosme’s entrepreneurial spirit was evident in his pioneering approach to making wine.
He was key in the introduction of ageing wines in oak barrels and a keen exponent of winemaking techniques from Bordeaux.

He was also a strong believer that each wine should speak of where they are from and be a true expression of their own personality. Despite the Bodega changing hands a few times in the last 120 years, the desire to keep with Don Cosme’s belief of creating wines that are true to themselves has stuck fast and is still very much in evidence today.

Bodegas Palacio

Each year Pierre Mansour, the Society’s buyer for Spain, carries out an intensive tasting session with Roberto Rodriguez, Palacio’s current, internationally renowned winemaker, selecting and finalising the wines that will make up the blend for what is currently The Society’s top-selling red wine: The Society’s Rioja.

Glorioso RiojaThere are plenty of ingredients to choose from. The bodega, via its network of long-term growers, has access to over 255ha of vineyards which provide the fruit for its annual production of 3.5 million bottles, and has the capacity to hold a staggering 13,000 barrels.

The Glorioso Rioja label was born in 1928 and makes for an interesting contrast when compared with The Society’s Rioja. The latter is more traditional in style, made with multiple rackings (the process of moving the wine from one barrel – in this case American oak – to another to allow contact with oxygen) to impart lovely aromas of leather and vanilla, and to soften the tannins.

Glorioso, however, is made in a brighter and more fruit-driven and lively style, raised only in French oak barrels, which impart a less pronounced direct oak influence but which instead lend a velvety texture and a subtle lick of spice.

This year, Bodega Palacio are celebrating their 120th anniversary and have provided us with some photographs which show the fascinating evolution of the bodega and while Don Cosme’s original winery, a handsome building of traditional local stonework, is now a small hotel located next to the newer, more modern winery, his ethos and beliefs still stand firm today.

Gareth Park
Marketing Campaign Manager for Spain

Categories : Spain
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Thu 10 Apr 2014

A Real Privilege: The Birth of a Wine

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Fine wine manager, Shaun Kiernan, helped blend the exclusive Contino 930 Reserva Rioja 2010, The Society’s first Rioja to be offered en primeur. Here he describes the process.

I’ve worked for The Wine Society for many more years than I care to remember, but fortunately opportunities regularly arise to remind me why I continue to do so.

207759 (283)Last February, I had the privilege to visit Spain with Pierre Mansour, our Spanish buyer, to taste through a large number of old Riojas, which we subsequently listed in an offer. At the same time we visited the cellars of Contino, a long-term Society supplier, and their charming winemaker, Jésus Madrazo, to blend what has become our first Rioja Reserva to be offered en primeur.

Over the years, I’ve been involved in blending new wines before in Stevenage and, on occasion, helped with the mix for The Society’s Claret out in Bordeaux, but this was special as I was witnessing the birth of, and helping to shape, a wine which I think will give members enormous drinking pleasure over a number of years.

It was a fascinating process and I have to admit to feeling quite daunted as we entered the cellars where we were confronted with numerous bottles all containing wines with different attributes from different vineyards and different grape varieties.

Our job was to come up with a blend which was in keeping with the Contino style and one that Society members would enjoy over the next decade.

After about an hour and half of extreme pipette action, tasting and blending and re-tasting and re-blending, we finally felt that we had found a wine which achieved what we set out to do. It is Contino 930 Reserva Rioja 2010, a blend of tempranillo, graciano, garnacha and mazuelo aged in French and American oak for nearly two years, including fruit from Contino’s most famous ‘Olivo’ vineyard.

It is offered now in bond (until 9pm, Tuesday 29th April), while still ageing in Contino’s cellars, and is due for release in early 2015. We think it will be ready to drink on arrival but will start peaking from 2019 until 2025.

Witnessing, and playing a part in, the birth of something so special was one of the very memorable moments of my career here at The Wine Society. I hope that you enjoy the fruits of our labours.

Categories : En Primeur, Spain
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What has 640 legs and drinks 256 bottles of wine in 90 minutes?

The answer: Wine Society members at our recent tasting of Spanish wines.

Spain wine tastingIt was clear to see why, after tasting the wines on show at Merchant Taylors’ Hall in London earlier this month, Spain is now one of our most important sources of wines, and why these wines are so popular with members.

34 wines were available to taste, many of which were poured by winemakers and representatives from some of Spain’s finest wineries.

So what makes Spain so outstanding at the moment? For me, the primary reason is that it manages to deliver at whatever price point you care to look at. ‘Diversity’ can be a somewhat overused term in wine circles but it’s certainly true of Spain.

I spent a large part of the recent tasting pouring Cruz de Piedra Macabeo. At £5.75, this was a white that, I have to admit, I was unfamiliar with. When members started coming back not just for a second taste but for a third and fourth try, I quickly started to take notice, particularly when there were many more expensive wines vying for their attention.

My colleagues pouring wines at a similar price point – both reds and whites – reported the same thing. There was no doubt that Spain can certainly hold its own in terms of offering great value for money.

But it is not just at the entry level that Spain shines. I was lucky enough to try a selection of Riojas from £6.95 to £34 and was impressed that all of them delivered a great wine for the price.

The Society’s Rioja Crianza is made by Bodega Palacio, a winery with a history nearly as long and rich as The Society itself. Each year The Society’s Spanish buyer Pierre Mansour travels to Rioja to carefully blend the wine with the expert team at Palacio to provide an end result which is absolutely typical of a traditional Rioja. I struggle to think of another wine made with over 250 years of combined winemaking expertise and hand blended to such exacting specifications for under £7.

At the other end of the pricing spectrum was the Contino Graciano Rioja 2007. This was one of the wines that made me take a step back upon tasting. It is only produced in exceptional years and yes, ok, it is £34 so it should be excellent, but when compared to wines of similar quality from other regions that £34 price tag starts to swim into perspective. With 15 months in French and US oak and with a tiny overall production of 330 cases (the typical production of a left bank chateau of a similar quality might be around 20,000 cases) this might be even be considered by some a bargain.

Pierre recently described Spain as ‘the most exciting, vibrant wine country in the northern hemisphere’ but don’t just take his word for it, it would appear that the several hundred members who enjoyed the recent Spanish tastings would agree with him.

Gareth Park
Campaign Manager

If you weren’t able to attend the tastings then all these wines and more are available as part of our latest featured range of Spanish wines.

Categories : Spain, Wine Tastings
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Mon 10 Jun 2013

Rioja: Sisters Doing It For Themselves, Part 2

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María José López de Heredia at The Society's recent Rioja tasting.

María José López de Heredia at The Society’s recent Rioja tasting.

Read part one here.

If one bodega can claim to be an expert in the production of aged whites it’s López de Heredia. Sisters María José and Mercedes have never been averse to ageing whites in oak for as long as reds and to taste the wines is a revelation.

Their 100% viura 2003 Viña Gravonia Blanco, a vintage for whites which María told me, ‘you would normally run a mile from,’ was fabulous. ‘This was one of the longest harvests in our history. We started picking on September 24th and didn’t finish until October 23rd. There had been a heatwave from May to August and we wanted to let the vines make the most of the September rains,’ she explained.

Preconceptions about white Rioja being oxidised and oaky are immediately dispelled. Dry with a lovely fragrant nuttiness and complex honeyed finish the wine still has an enthralling zip of acidity and extraordinary length. Despite the ultra-traditional nature of the wines, they are ideally suited to modern cuisine and you could happily serve this alongside Asia-style cooking as well as the more conventional seafood or chicken dishes.

The remarkable cellars of López de Heredia.

The remarkable cellars of López de Heredia.

Vina Tondonia Blanco RiojaThe bodega bottles its best wines under the Viña Tondonia label, Tondonia being the 100-hectare vineyard on the right bank of the Ebro river and one of the finest in the Haro region. The 1996 Reserva Blanco shown on the night, a blend of 90% viura and 10% malvasia has spent ten years in barrel in the historic cobwebby vaults of the bodega. This long ageing imparts an ethereal quality to the wines which have enticing smoky, caramel aromas and intense, vivid flavours that last and last. That a 17-year-old wine can still taste so fresh is remarkable.

Somewhat paradoxically for a bodega renowned for its long-lived wines, María José says that the point of wine is not that it should last for ever, ‘it’s far better to drink and enjoy wine,’ she says, ‘this is why we appreciate members of The Wine Society as we can see that they take pleasure from our wines.’

From the labels on the bottles which still show the grandfather’s hand-drawn image of the bodega, unchanged since around 1885, little else has changed at the winery. Though they respect technology they haven’t introduced much in the way of new technology, ‘what we do works, so we don’t want to change things,’ María says. ‘We grow our vines in an old-fashioned way, we ferment in traditional 160-year-old vats and use 100-year-old presses. We don’t filter and just use egg white for fining. Ours are very natural wines.’ María doesn’t like the terms ‘natural, organic or biodynamic’ as she believes classifying your wines in this way limits them.

‘What we do is labour-intensive but we believe that making wine is a craft and we are still working to realise the project that our great grandfather started in 1877.’

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

Categories : Spain, Wine Tastings
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Fri 07 Jun 2013

Rioja: Sisters Doing It For Themselves

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Recently Rioja’s finest gathered in London and Edinburgh to show Society members their wines and talk about what it is that makes them so special.

Manuel Muga discussing his wines with Society members at the tasting.

Manuel Muga discussing his wines with Society members at the tasting.

Rioja has long been the jewel in Spain’s fine winemaking crown. The bodegas present, Muga, La Rioja Alta S.A, Lopez de Heredia, Amezola de la Mora and CVNE, all family owned and with over 600 years of winemaking heritage between them, can lay claim to being largely responsible for this and for establishing a benchmark of quality by which others measure themselves.

Though all the wineries are steeped in tradition, key to their success is the fact that they haven’t rested on their laurels. A healthy respect for the past is matched by a desire to constantly improve and innovate. Everyone that I spoke to talked of fulfilling the dreams of their ancestors and carrying on their work – the sense of a generational responsibility and family pride – not unique to this group, nonetheless came across very strongly.

Sisters Cristina and María Amézola represent the new generation in Rioja. They were Spain’s youngest winemakers when they took up the reins at just 17 and 18 respectively following the tragic death of their father.

Cristina and María Amézola

María and Cristina Amézola

They were studying at university and hadn’t even thought about working in the family business. Their mother continued to run the business until they finished their studies. ‘Coming back to the winery felt like the right thing to do,’ Cristina told me – they really had to hit the ground running and Cristina, who had been studying journalism, found herself in charge of production, winemaking and tourism. Her sister gravitated towards sales and marketing as well as overseeing finances and viticulture and now travels widely promoting their wines.

Both are now settled in their roles and are pleased to be carrying on the work of their father and uncle who had replanted the vineyards and restored the winery in the 1980s. The bodega dates back to the 19th century and had been in the family for generations but had fallen into disrepair following the outbreak of phylloxera.

Cristina told me how much she had learned from their consultant oenologue, Georges Pauli, a respected Bordeaux winemaker and bodega manager Julio Galeretta. She acknowledged that one of the most challenging aspects of her role comes when she has to act as mediator between consultant and cellarmaster. Old ways die hard; justifiably so. Between them they are obviously getting it right though as their wines demonstrate a seamless blend of innovation and tradition.

Their treatment of the white grape viura reveals something of their spirit to try new things. ‘People told us to grub up the white grapes.’ María told me. But the sisters thought it was important to keep the five hectares of viura they had and to make smaller quantities of better quality wines. ‘Viura is the tempranillo of the white grapes,’ María says, ‘it’s a difficult variety…it has fruit but it isn’t obvious and it needs careful ageing in barrel…the key is to get the balance right between freshness and flavour and to allow the mineral character to shine through.’

Bodega Amezola

Bodega Amezola

In fact the historic viura grape (which goes by the name macabeo throughout the rest of Spain and macabeu/maccabéo over the border in Roussillon), was not the original white grape of Rioja. Garnacha blanca and malvasia predominated in pre-phylloxera Riojan vineyards. Growers were encouraged to replant with viura after the epidemic as it was high-yielding and resisted oxidation well. But the grape is not easy to grow or vinify and needs to be pruned hard and be grown at altitude to get the best out of it. But despite the grape’s reputation – Oz Clarke said in his Encyclopedia of Grapes, ‘it is a grape which obstinately defies nearly all attempts to turn it into world-class wine’ – the sisters believe in its potential, eschewing the normal practice of throwing in some malvasia or garnacha blanca into the blend.

They showed their 2010 Iñigo Blanco on the night (we don’t list, as we feel it is rather pricey). Their best vintage yet, the sisters told me, it showed great purity of fruit, a mix of white peach and apricot on the nose and an appetising rich texture and full flavour. A wine to get the taste buds going before a meal but with enough richness to accompany seafood or chicken dishes; very much a white Rioja in the modern mould but no less authentic for that.

The sisters are also experimenting with blending a little viura into their red crianza wines to give them added freshness (a maximum of 5% is permitted). While this might be something of a novelty in Rioja today it actually harks back to an age-old tradition when white and red grapes were often grown side by side and picked and fermented together.

But if proof were needed that viura is capable of making great white wine and in a traditional style capable of long ageing, another pair of sisters, María José and Mercedes of historic López de Heredia, can provide it. More on them to follow next week.

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

Categories : Spain, Wine Tastings
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