The rain in Spain (Rioja, Spain – Day One)

What a shame that the weekend I happened to be in one of the best beach towns in Spain – during June (aka summer) I might add –  it was raining. This was particularly disappointing considering how hot it was the past week in Priorat and Penedes; why couldn’t I have brought it with me? Adding to my luck I then took it to Rioja with me the following Monday morning, but I’ll come back to that. I managed to get over the poor weather in San Sebastian by hitting the bars (a bit hard), and also the tapas (even harder). There is a good reason why this town is considered to be one of the best to visit in Spain, as the old town has a very extreme concentration of night spots. I sampled a range of pinchos from various bars, and also popped into one of the top wine bars in town, A Fugo Negro, where I tried some wines from a number of regions in Spain, as well as a sensational ceviche dish. On the Monday I hit the dusty (more wet actually) trail for Rioja, less than two hours south-west, for my first and second appointments in the icon region of Spain.

Ceviche with pomegranate seeds and strawberry foam at A Fugo Negro

The arrival of Bodegas Roda on the Rioja wine scene signaled a new chapter in the region, and a new wunderkind on the wine scene. You would hardly believe that the first wine was only released in 1996, and was the 1992 vintage, prepared for since the 1987 vintage. That means that this year will only be the 20th commercial vintage, in a winery that was completed 11 years ago. I had come into contact with Roda back in Melbourne, and it was the first super-premium Spanish wine I was introduced to. Naturally I was intrigued to get the proper introduction, and it seemed fitting that it was the first winery I visited in Rioja. The winery is on the edge of Alfaro, the traditional capital of the Rioja wine region, located in the north-west next to the banks of the Ebro River. I was welcomed to the winery by Arancha Busnadiego, who is responsible for the exports to Asia/Pacific and the Middle East, but I was also fortunate enough to have the Managing Director Agustin Santolaya, who was the visionary behind the business, take me on a tour of some of the vineyards.

With Agustin Santolaya in one of the Roda vineyards

When the owners decided they wanted to produce a super-premium Spanish wine, they were clearly inspired by Bordeaux (like many others in the region), and wanted to use a chateau-concept of one estate, one wine. They engaged Agustin to advise them, and he said they needed two things to create an iconic wine in Rioja. The first thing was old vines, and as such only grapes from wines older than 35 years go into the top Roda wines. The second thing was to source from vineyards in different parts of Rioja, in an effort to avoid the vicissitudes of vintage variation, and always be able to produce an exceptional wine by blending from different estates. A world-class winery was built to capture these tenets, where they vinify and age the wines in barrel and bottle before release. The range of wines has evolved a little over the years, to now include a cult wine at the top (Cirsion), and a young vine wine at the bottom (Sela), and the project has also expanded to Ribera del Duero where they hope to build another winery in the future. In tasting the range I found them to be in the model of the modern iconic Spanish red wine, with plenty of fruit, tannin and oak, and designed for serious cellaring, and not for young drinking. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

The Roda cellars

After some tapas with Arancha at Roda, I headed to my hotel for the next few nights, and then onto my other appointment which had been arranged by her at short notice. The appointment was at Ramon Bilbao, which is historically one of the most important wineries in Alfaro, and is now part of the Diego Zamora Group. According to their corporate website, “The Diego Zamora Corporate Group is based in Cartagena, on the shores of the Mediterranean, and is noteworthy for its marked international approach to business. Today the Diego Zamora Corporate Group operates in the most diverse sectors of the worldwide economy, with its products being available in dozens of countries from all over the world.” As part of their business they own wineries and spirit producers across several countries, as well as importing and distributing various alcoholic products within Spain, including their own. The original Ramon Bilbao winery was established back in 1924 by an experienced wine merchant, who wanted to produce wine from his own vineyards within the walls of Haro. The winery has evolved since it was sold in 1999, and today they produce several million bottles in various categories, using a combination of traditional and modern techniques, in a cellar in an industrial part of the expanded town. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

Ramon Bilbao oak fermenter

Click here to see more photos from the first of four days in Rioja, Spain.

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