A healthy mix (Rioja, Spain – Day Two)

So here it is; Rioja is a big deal. With over 14,000 vineyards across 65,000 hectares it is the largest producing region in Spain. It is by no means the largest in area though, only stretching for 130 km from Haro to Alfaro, the vineyard planting is possibly the densest in Spain. Although there are 14,000 vineyards, there are only 583 business with a license to bottle, meaning there are many more growers than producers, like Champagne. Also like Champagne there are quite a few large producers, but large here means for than one million cases. Vineyards are spread across the three viticultural sub-regions of Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Orientale, and generally wine is blended across the three in different volumes. Rioja wine is the most exported and consumed around the world, and would most likely be the first region that comes to mind when considering Spanish wine regions. The three appointments I had on my second day in the region were in the three main type of winery; one large commercial winery, one mid-sized modern negociant, and one iconic super-premium producer.

Above Rioja Alavesa

The first two appointments I had were organised through a contact back at home, but I didn’t realise the significance of the first until well into the visit. Bodegas Muriel located in Elciego in the heart of the Rioja Alavesa, represents the boom of Rioja and Spanish wine since the 1980s. It is only one of three wineries in Rioja that has a license to bottle wine, with more wineries in other regions as well. Together the business produces in excess of three million cases, for which they must purchase a significant amount of fruit and wine from growers. The wines they produce are predominantly market-led, with a mixture between traditional wines in the Rioja Denominacion de Origen Calificada (Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva), and modern varietal examples.

The great wall of barrels at Bodegas Muriel

The reason I had the appointment set-up for me was made clear when I tasted the wines. I actually joined a group of buyers from the UK working for an American wine company that contracts wineries to bottle wine that they brand as their own and distribute it in other markets. These guys clearly are experts at tasting commercial wines produced in large volumes designed for the competitive under $10 AUD market. With the wineries I have been visiting and wines I have been tasting, it has been a long time since I have tasted wines like this, and my standards are a lot higher. We tasted a great number of wines, and generally they were anything but impressive, regardless of the price. Several wines for the Australian market were brought out, and that is when it clicked. I had seen these wines before as a buyer, and remember being impressed with the quality versus price. Tasting through these bottles (sealed under screw-cap I might add), I was very impressed again, and thought that the wines bottled for the importer in Australia were far superior. Perhaps it is just a taste thing, and I enjoy certain wines as an Australian than those intended for such markets as the UK and USA. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

Pre-bottling wine in tank

The second appointment was with a producer that I stocked with great pride in the shop I managed, after meeting representatives and being shown the wine. The representatives were from a group of wineries that originally were all from Rioja, but have since expanded to include one winery each in six other regions. The group came together as small producers not large enough to dedicate the necessary finances and attention to export markets, and effectively pooled their resources. This group is known as ARAEX for the Rioja wineries, and Spanish Fine Wines for the others. The Rioja winery that I was introduced to initially was the one I was visiting, Baigorri, which is just one of the many world-class modern winemaking facilities in the region. Honestly, I feel like I’m back in the Napa Valley and parts of Chile with all of these flashy architectural marvels, some of which are reminiscent of the Guggenheims. The Baigorri winery is different in the sense that most of the action is built into the side of a hill on several levels to utilise gravity in the wine production. The only thing you see from the road is the glass box entry that gives an awesome view over the vines.

Bodegas Baigorri

The winery purchases most of its fruit from growers, which are predominantly located in Rioja Alavesa. In fact the winery is right on the border between the provinces of La Rioja and Basque. Along with Yolanda from ARAEX, I joined technical director Simon Arina for a tour of some of the vineyards they source from. Like my visit to Roda the previous day, this was unscheduled as most visitors to the region aren’t particularly interested in the vines, only the wineries and wines. They miss out, as they miss one of the most amazing things I have seen in vineyards on my trip, something that Yolanda didn’t even know about. Back in the dark ages there were small villages throughout the regions until nobles consolidated them to make large towns. The villages were abandoned, as were the tradition of carving into rock tombs for the dead, which are still not really understood. As you can see from the photos, they are perfectly preserved and this particular one had dozens of tombs. I felt that this gave spirit to the wine somehow. The wines produced by the estate are technically brilliant, well-balanced and excellent value. Before a very brief lunch I tasted through a sample of the wines and reminded myself why I was so impressed, particularly with the crianza, as they perfectly balance drinkability with uniqueness and complexity, and do it for a great price. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

Medieval tombs in rock above vineyards of Rioja Alavesa

My final appointment of the day was on the other side of the Rioja valley, to a modern cult producer. The name is a combination of the surnames of the founders; Luis Valentin and Carmen Enciso. The winery was founded in 1998, and in that short period of time has had praise showered on it from the four corners of the globe. I was welcomed by Luis and introduced to the winery and philosophy, which made more sense after hearing the background. Luis trained and worked in Bordeaux before eventually becoming the Managing Director of Bodega Palacio, a fairly large formerly French-owned winery. Here he spent some time working with Michel Rolland long before his rise to fame, as Palacio was only his second client outside of France as a consultant. When the French owners decided to sell the business, Luis and Carmen sold their shares and establish their own wine brand in a new model. Unlike the majority of business that sprang up in the Rioja boom period of the ’70s and ’80s, they didn’t have enough capital to either purchase vineyards or build a winery. So they started small and gradually built their winery which after almost a decade is still incomplete. Rather than unnecessarily and expensively contract an architect or builders, they decided to build it themselves, and everyone that works there has made some contribution the winery.

Bodegas Valenciso

The philosophy of the winemaking was fairly simple; to produce wines of great structure and aromatics like they used to be, before the trend of harvesting ripe and hot, and storing in predominantly new American oak created very heavy intense red wines. There are a number of techniques they employ that are very different to the norm in Rioja, but common in other regions outside of France. The first is to ferment and macerate the red wines in cement vats, which gently extracts the aromatics without making them too reductive or closed. The second is to use cool temperatures only to rack and stabilise the wines, limiting the necessity to use sulfites to protect the wine. The third is to use mostly French oak in smaller volumes and more age, and Luis would prefer to use larger format barrels but this is not allowed under the Rioja DOCa red wines. Ultimately it is about one winery, one wine, like a Bordeaux model. In actual fact they make one red and one white, but you get the idea. The wines I tasted were certainly against the mold of modern Rioja, having structure and intensity, but also being very velvety and delicate with complexity. The ageing in bottle before release plays a large part in that, as they are only just moving from the 2005 to the 2006 vintage. Wines like this perfectly exhibit vintage variation, as I saw when comparing the two vintages Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

A rare sight in Rioja – cement vats!

Click here to see more photos from my second day in Rioja, Spain.

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