Rioja Modern and Traditional

vinsacro-grapesJuan Escudero began making Rioja wine in a small cave carved out of a hillside in 1852, well before the French invasion. The family continued winemaking and growing through the years, with Juan’s grandson, Benito, moving into Cava production in the 1950s. His children returned to Rioja and under the leadership of Bordeaux-trained brother Amador founded Bodegas Vinsacro around the turn of this century.

They planted about 30 acres of vines in Rioja Baja in 1996, but the key to the success of this very modern winery was a small, very old, and very, very old-fashioned vineyard owned by the family for 120 years. It’s called Cuesta la Reina and it was planted around 1945 (70 years ago) on the stony southern slope of Mount Yerga between 450 and 800 meters elevation.

An Old-Fashioned Vineyard
Vinsacro harvestAs was customary at the time, the vineyard was planted by taking cuttings of another old vineyard and grafting the canes onto new rootstocks – a process called massal selection. And, as was customary in Rioja for centuries before the current modern revolution, that old vineyard was planted to a mixture of vine types including Garnacha (perhaps half the vineyard) plus Tempranillo, Graciano, Monastrell and Bobal.

As in 17th and 18th Century Bordeaux, this blend of grapes was less about achieving the perfect blend in the finished wine than about insurance: if growing conditions caused problems with one varietal, there was at least a chance that the others would ripen. When it was time to harvest, the whole vineyard was picked at once and the wine’s final blend was whatever happened to come off the vines. In fact, the traditional name for this style vineyard, “Vidau,” means “ready to pick.”

Modern Quality and Care
Amador and his brothers cherished this old vineyard, but also began applying some modern farming ideas. First, they converted to completely organic farming to help the soil regain its health and keep the old vines thriving. Then, they began to pick each varietal separately as they ripened fully. Tempranillo gets picked first, usually in the first week of October. Then Garnacha comes in late October before Graciano in early November and then, last, Mazuelo and Bobal.

As if four separate harvests weren’t expensive enough, the grapes are sorted twice, once in the vineyard and then on a vibrating table in the winery before they go into the vats. After fermenting separately, each varietal ages for 12-14 months in a mixture of new 70% French oak casks – for modern polish and American oak barrels – for that classic Rioja style.

Finally, Amador creates the decidedly old-fashioned Rioja blend that will become Dioro. About 50% of the final wine is Tempranillo – compared to 80-100% at most “modernist” estates. About 20% is Garnacha (for hints of red raspberry) and 10% each Mazuelo and Graciano (for vivid acids and cherry fruit). Monastrell (earthy) and Bobal (licorice and plum) make up the rest of the blend. Only the very best barrels of wine from Cuesta la Reina go into Dioro, with the rest of the vineyard’s wine being blended into other bottlings.

From organic farming to multiple harvest passes, double sorting, new French oak aging, and strict selection of only the best lots, this is an expensive way to make wine. Which is why Wine Advocate gave the 2015 such high praise (92 points) even at a curiously high reported $65 release price.

At the $27 charged by the big box store down the street, Vinsacro Rioja Dioro 2015 is solid value in rich, ripe, powerful Rioja. At our $14.98 best price, the quality/price ratio is simply silly good!


A Homecoming Story: Remelluri Rioja

Telmo RodriguezTelmo Rodriguez’s first time returning home did not go well.

He’d left to study at the University of Bordeaux, made wine at Cos d’Estournel, and then worked in Cornas, Hermitage, Châteauneuf and Provence. He returned to Remelluri to work with his father in 1989.

But after a few years of battling over farming methods, winemaking approach and more, Telmo left home for the second time to explore new regions and vineyards across Spain. Today he is one of Spain’s most important winemakers and a vocal champion for authentic grapes, vineyards and wines.

Coming Home Again … and Making Changes
In 2010, Telmo’s father retired and Telmo came home once again to lead the family estate. In his homecoming year, he made important changes – starting with telling the 30 or so farmers his father had been purchasing grapes from that Remelluri would now use only their own, estate-grown, grapes. (Not to worry – he also helped those farmers found their own label and both made and marketed their wine for them!) Since 2010, Remelluri has become one of Rioja’s only “Chateau Estates,” making wine only from grapes they grow themselves.

Telmo picked a great year to come home, because vintage 2010 is perhaps Rioja’s greatest modern harvest. In this nearly perfect year, he harvested low-yields of Tempranillo (about 90%) plus Garnacha, Graciano and white grapes Viura and Malvasía Riojana. All were grown organically, harvested by hand, and fermented with native yeast in stainless steel. A full 17 months in mostly used French oak casks of various sizes let the wines round out and gain spice. Time in bottle allowed the final blend to integrate and add complexity to the sweet, ripe fruit.

remelluri reserva rioja“Real Deal” Reserva Rioja
The result is what I can only call “the real deal” in Reserva-level Rioja. The aromas are fantastic, interleaving scents of crushed cherry and raspberry with fragrant warm spice, orange peel, and fresh earth aromas. The texture is deep and rich, but with a classic touch of Rioja lift, and generous flavors of ripe fruit, sweet and savory spice, cedar, and more. The firm, dusty, finish is the perfect complement to earthy lamb or pork dishes and promises plenty of life for years to come.

  • “Very pleasant and easy to drink. It grows on you,” says Wine Advocate in its 93 point review.
  • “Fresh and long. Great persistence,” says Jancis Robinson.
  • “A wine with beautiful finesse and depth,” says James Suckling with his 95 point rating.

“Yummy – may I have some more?” your family and friends will say as they come home for your holiday feast. “Come taste it now, while you can,” we add, while it is on sale for $37.98 or $34.98 on a six-pack.

Because this is the kind of delicious treat that will give folks one more reason to come home for Christmas dinner for years to come.

Faces of Tempranillo with Howard Friedman

We’re a little bit selfish, it’s true.  We host all these classes and events at the store so you have a chance to sample great wine, meet other wine lovers, and enjoy a discount, to be sure.  But we also relish the chance to continue learning ourselves.  This past Thursday was no exception, when we had Howard Friedman, Spanish wine importer and industry veteran, to the store for a class and tasting.

We started with a refreshing Verdejo from Tamaral in Rueda.  Verdejo is a grape that to many tasters is similar to Sauvignon Blanc, but with a bit more depth and body.

Then it was on to the main event, starting with two different unoaked examples of Tempranillo, one from Bodegas Valduero and one from Don Peduz.  These were fascinating to compare and contrast for two reasons.  One was that they are from different areas of Spain – the Bodegas Valduero from Toro, and the Don Peduz from Rioja.

These areas are also home to different clones of Tempranillo, the Rioja clone being the one we’re most used to, with its lighter color and bright acidity.  The Tinta de Toro, on the other hand, is darker, with more intense berry fruit and fuller body.  The Don Peduz was also fermented by carbonic maceration, so it was interesting to taste two different fermentation methods with  no oak to obscure their differences in aroma and flavor.

From then on we tasted a variety of Tempranillos of different vintages, all but one from Ribera del Duero.  It was enlightening to taste examples that saw different amounts of oak and different lengths of aging.  We’re so used to thinking of Rioja when we think of Tempranillo, so it was great to taste a variety of wines side by side from another part of Spain.

The fact that a different clone of Tempranillo, known as Tinto Fino, is grown in this area was also evident in these wines, especially in the younger wines like the Bodegas Valduero Ribera Del Duero Crianza 2009.  While traditional Rioja can take time to absorb its oak, these wines, with their fuller body and more intense fruit flavors, seemed better able to handle the oak treatment as young wines.  The Tamaral Ribera del Duero Crianza 2008 showed beautifully as well.

One of the best things about the evening was how much time Howard spent talking about the culture, history and geography of Spain.  With every wine we tasted, we talked about what we’d pair with it, and what would be traditional to pair with it in Spain.

This is a familiar conversation to us, because we spend most of our time at the shop talking about what we’ve eaten, will eat, or want to eat, and what wine would go best with it!  With their freshness, purity of fruit, and moderate acidity, all of these wines, even the most mature examples, would be immensely flexible at the table, with everything from roast pork to, of course, tapas!

Howard also talked a bit about the trip he organizes every year for customers who are interested in learning more about Spain.  This 12-day extravaganza in September focuses on wine and visiting wineries, but there are trips to museums, cathedrals, restaurants, and a few days in Madrid as well.

Thanks to everyone who joined us last Thursday and thanks most of all to Howard, whose wealth of industry and travel experience was a privilege to learn from.

Here are the wines we enjoyed:

Tamaral Rueda 2011

Bodegas Valduero Arbucala Toro Joven Esencia 2010

Don Peduz Rioja Joven Selección 2010

Bodegas Valduero Arbucala Toro Crianza Esencia 2009

Valdrinal Ribera Del Duero “6 Mesas” 2010

Tamaral Ribera Del Duero Crianza 2008

Bodegas Valduero Ribera Del Duero Crianza 2009

Bodegas Valduero Ribera Del Duero Reserva 2005

The Hunt for a Really Good Rioja

Norberto Miguel
Noberto Miguel at a class at Chain Bridge Cellars last May.

Way back in 2008, the first time I ever tasted local importer Jonas Gustafsson’s Spanish wines, I asked him – “Any chance you can find a really good Rioja that’s not wooded to death and is actually a good value?” “I’m trying,” he said with a small shake of the head.

It really shouldn’t be so hard to find a great bottle of Rioja. It’s one of Spain’s bigger growing regions, is loaded with old-vine, low-yielding vineyards and has 150+ years of global fame. And yet many of the Rioja we see are either over-ripe, woody messes with more American oak vanilla than a scoop of ice cream or are so lean and tart that they are hard to enjoy with everyday foods.

That’s why we were so excited when Jonas first brought us the wines of Bodegas Laukote from Rioja Alavesa. And after we met owner/winemaker Norberto Miguel last May, we were more excited still! This is the kind of story you can’t make up.

Echos of Romeo and Juliet

Noberto’s mother’s family began growing grapes in rocky, barren, Rioja Alavesa about 100 years ago, but tragedy struck during the Franco years. Norberto’s mother’s family were supporters of Franco, but she met and fell in love with a local boy who was an active Leftist. When they married, they’d planned to grow grapes and make wines, but her family refused them access to the vineyards and actually disinherited her. Soon, facing persecution from the local government, Noberto’s parents fled Rioja to safety further south.

Noberto’s mother had two aunts who had become nuns at the beginning of the Spanish revolution, but who had also managed to hold on to a small slice of their family land. Believing Norberto’s parents had been treated unfairly, they persuaded them to return to Rioja and gave them 7 hectares of Rioja vines, most of which had been planted by Norberto’s maternal grandfather.

Noberto’s father and mother grew grapes and sold them to larger Rioja estates for years, and that’s how Norberto began in the business as well. But, he came to believe that the quality of his old-vine Tempranillo and Viura was wasted in large winery blends. And so, in 2004, Norberto launched Bodegas Laukote to make wine from his 7 hectares of vines, making it the smallest commercial winery in all of Rioja Alavesa.

A Marriage of Tradition and Modernity

Norberto takes a practical, uncomplicated, approach to working his vines and making his wines. He farms his two plots of Tempranillo – one 82 years old and another 35 years old – and small plot of 80 year-old Viura vines as naturally as possible. The old vines naturally keep yields low, and Norberto picks his fruit when he thinks it tastes good.

“Tastes good” is, in fact, Norberto’s driving principle in the winery. His “young” (if you can call 35 year-old vines that) vines seem to taste best when they are fresh and fruity, so he vinifies them in tank using carbonic maceration and bottles the wine with no oak. His Viura is concentrated and deeply flavored with great freshness, so he uses a traditional barrel fermentation regime but pulls the wine from barrel to tank early, getting creamy texture and complexity with fine acids and minerality.

And, for his top wine – made from his now 82 year-old Tempranillo vines – Norberto ages the wine in wood until he things it’s delicious and ready to drink – and no longer. That’s why you won’t find the traditional “Crianza” or “Reserva” designation on the label of his Vendimia Seleccionada. Norberto is unwilling to tie himself to Rioja’s rules on minimum time in oak or bottle, even though doing so might make his wines look better in the marketplace. Instead he gives his Rioja the exact exposure to wood and time in bottle needed to make it excellent – and not one bit more.

“When you buy a bottle of wine … drink it!”

It’s hard to capture Norberto’s verve, energy, passion and humor in an email like this – especially since he speaks essentially no English (fortunately, his niece accompanied him and provided excellent translation). But I would like to share two snippets from his visit with us.

First, asked how long to age his wines, Norberto drew himself up and said, “Let me give you an important tip about wine. When you buy a bottle of wine…drink it!” Very fine advice, although my experience is that Norberto’s white and Tempranillo both improve for a year or so and hold for a while after that. And, as I drink through my stash of the 2005 Vendimia Seleccionada, I’m noticing that every bottle is a touch better than the last.

Finally, I think Norberto summed up things beautifully at the end of the evening when he reminded us all that, “What you are drinking are wines of heart and soul. My heart; my soul. I love my wines.” That love shines through in all his wines, but most powerfully in his flagship Rioja Vendimia Seleccionada. Come see for yourself!