South by South-East (Rioja, Spain – Day Four)

It’s funny how everyone’s concept of quality is different. In New World wine-producing countries the only laws and restrictions we have on our wines relate to labelling, whereby if we label our wines as being from a variety, region and/or vintage, they must be a minimum level (e.g. a minimum 85% in Australia). This doesn’t mean we have to use these minimums, we can always not indicate any of these things on the label. In Europe on the other hand, most of the wine regions and countries have established sometimes complicated systems and laws governing viticulture and wine production to maintain and in some cases guarantee quality. Take the Rioja Denominacion de Origen Calficada (DOCa, the only one in Spain not including the Priorat DOCQ) for example. The classification relates to red wines, and limits the maximum yield per hectare to 6.5 tonnes, and only allows tempranillo, graciano, garnacha tinto and mazuelo. There are then four quality designations that are determined based on the barrel and bottle ageing, from the young/Joven wines, to Crianza (minimum one year in oak, total two years before release), Reserva (minimum one year in barrel, total three years before release), and Gran Reserva (minimum two years in barrel, minimum three years in bottle). This comes back to my initial comment, that quality is partly subjective and somewhat controversial, as many producers forego the system in favour of less oak ageing, and they would be considered far superior in quality compared to others. Simply labelling a wine as Gran Reserva is no indication of quality at the end of the day. Like any wine (or product for that matter) regardless of origin , all you can do is trust the producer, but unfortunately you can’t tell the quality of a wine when it is the bottle.

Above Rioja Orientale vineyards near Alfaro

One of the difficult things about my trip is to research which wineries to visit, and then attempt to contact them. In my research of the best of Spanish wine, I happened upon a site that shows the quality of this country’s products, by outlining some of the highest scoring wines by such luminaries as Robert Parker Jr. and Wine Spectator. On this site I found many estates I had already arranged appointments with thanks to the best importer of Spanish (and Portuguese) wines in Australia, The Spanish Acquisition, which filled me with great confidence and pride that I had worked so closely with them in my previous post. I also discovered a number of estates that I wasn’t familiar with, some of which I was able to make appointments with such as Clos Erasmus in Priorat. Both producers I visited had got numerous mentions on these lists, one from Rioja but the other from their other estates, one of which I had already visited.

It’s all about the jamon iberico, baby!

Artadi began funnily enough as a cooperative, when a group of growers who were previously making their wines in their own respective cellars decided to build a new winery that they could all make their wine in. They engaged visionary winemaker Juan Carlos Lopez de la Calle to run the winery, but when he wanted to bottle and market the wines the growers disagreed preferring to continue selling their wine in bulk. The growers agreed to leave Juan Carlos with the winery, but this left him with no fruit to make wine with. Thus he began to purchase vineyards, in some key areas and gradually the brand grew as new vineyards were either purchased or planted. The business has grown to include vineyards and wineries in another two regions; Navarra and Alicante, both of which I will visit in the future.

Barrels in the cellars of Artadi

I was welcomed to the estate by second generation Carlos Lopez de la Calle who began by showing me the winemaking facility. For such an important winery in Rioja producing one of the most iconic wines in Spain, it is incredibly simple and far from an architectural marvel. It is simply about making wine in the best way possible, nothing more. We very quickly moved onto the more important part of the wine, the vineyards, and we did it in the most unique way imaginable. In fact when I say it, you probably won’t believe it. A few years ago after visiting London they found someone who was purchasing discontinued London taxis, refurbishing and reselling them. It was a tad weird sitting in the back seat as there was no front seat, and felt like a bit of an upper class upper twat of the year.

Carlos Lopez de la Calle next to the Artadi London taxi
The vineyards are being converted to organics, and trials are being conducted on biodynamics as well. As the vineyards are mostly in the Rioja Alavesa area there is a large amount of calcareous, clay and limestone soils. There is no irrigation, and yields are pretty heavily lowered to get a good amount of concentration and intensity. The barrels are stored in the old cellars of a house in the nearby medieval village of Laguardia, which used to belong to Carlos’ mothers family and was repurchased. We then took a lovely picnic and some bottles, and tasted a few of the wines in one of the vineyards. Having tasted them I can see why they are so highly rated, as they are very in the mould of concentration, intensity, power, expression and ageing potential. The top wines are really not designed for young drinking, something that irks me somewhat as I feel that wines should be drinkable when they are released, and they should deserve to be cellared. But that’s just me. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

Clay and limestone soils in an Artadi vineyard

The last winery I visited in Rioja also happened to be the only one located in the southeastern part of the region, commonly referred to as Rioja Baja but they prefer the term Rioja Orientale, because Baja means lower. It is in the town of Alfaro that a previous producer I had visited in the Priorat region originated from, and has since returned to. The producer is Alvaro Palacios, and the winery is Palacios Remondo. As I talked about previously, Alvaro left his family’s business in the late-80s to establish wineries in the uncluttered and wild region of Priorat, where he gained a cult following for his wines, in particular the l’Ermita. His father ran the Palacios Remondo estate until he passed away in 2000, at which point Alvaro was invited back to take over the management and take the brand into the new millennium.

Oak fermenters in the Palacios Remondo esate

Isabel Palacios (no relation) who is responsible for the exports of all three brands (the third is in Bierzo and will be the last winery I visit in Spain), was my host at the Rioja estate, partly because Alvaro recently broke his leg horse-riding. Much like Telmo Rodriguez with the Remelluri estate, Alvaro very quickly began to make his mark on the Rioja estate previously run by his father. The first was to convert to organics in the vineyards, and to also graft across many of the tempranillo vines to garnacha, which he is not only very familiar with but feels it is much better in this part of Rioja. The vast majority of fruit for the 1 million bottles of wine per year come from estate vineyards, only three additional long-term growers provide fruit, often from very old vines to go into the top wines. The winemaking is almost identical to the wines in Priorat, and confirmed the theory I developed at the Priorat winery. My theory was that Alvaro coming from Rioja was having a Rioja influence on the wines of Priorat, but that the style would work better with the Rioja wines. The Palacios Remondo wines are the perfect combination of fruit concentrated, intense, complex yet very soft and delicious. The wines I tasted all exhibited amazing balance and structure, but were neither too oaky or hot, although a little young in some cases. Here are the notes from the tasting.

Special stones on the soils of Palacios Remondo vineyards

Click here to see more photos from Day Four in Rioja, Spain. The next day I drive from Navarra all the way to Bilbao, stopping in at Getaria on the way.

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