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  • Classic bodegas in Rioja reflect upon tradition and innovation
  • Classic bodegas in Rioja reflect upon tradition and innovation
  • Classic bodegas in Rioja reflect upon tradition and innovation
  • Classic bodegas in Rioja reflect upon tradition and innovation
1. The 14 wines of the tasting 2. The stage with the speakers 3. A sommelier serves Torre Muga 4. Sarah Jane Evans shares lunch with winemaker David Sampedro and his wife Melanie Hickman and retailer Ezequiel Sánchez. Photos: Yolanda Ortiz de Arri

Rioja

Classic bodegas in Rioja reflect upon tradition and innovation

Yolanda Ortiz de Arri | June 22nd, 2018

With 14 wines, seven producers and 800 trade professionals in two shifts, Sarah Jane Evans was aware of the need to host a dynamic tasting at this year’s edition of the Haro Station Wine Tasting. As such, she chose an innovative format with interviews and videos to reflect upon tradition, innovation and identity “in the largest historic bodega district in the world.”

On the first video, José Luis Gómez, history professor at the University of La Rioja, explained briefly what Haro looked like between the 16th and 18th centuries. “There were only 2,000 inhabitants but it was an important place in Rioja because 50% of the land was devoted to vines. Muleteers sold the wine in wineskins in the Basque Country and brought back iron and other products that arrived to the ports,” he explained. Drinking that wine these days would be a challenge, although Gómez said there was one exception noted by international chroniclers of the time: “clarete” from Haro (rosé wine).   

To illustrate this period in history, three winemakers in the Station District —Alejandro López from Bodegas Bilbainas, María Larrea from Cvne and David González from Gómez Cruzado— presented three traditional wines that were very innovative on their day: Viña Pomal Gran Reserva 2010, released in the early 20th century, Imperial Gran Reserva 2010, in the market since 1920; and Honorable 2014, launched in 1914 as Gran Reserva. When Evans asked if there is a defined style of wine in the Station District, David González explained that there us “a common thread for the seven bodegas: we all look for finesse and wines with an ability to age well over time”.

Post-filloxera bubble

On the second video, Swiss phylloxera expert Andreas Oestreicher reminded the audience that the bug, which entered Rioja through Sajazarra in 1899, “took this region to the top but it also made it reach rock bottom”. To meet the French négociants’ demand during this bubble, almost 52,000 hectares of vines were planted by 1891. But phylloxera quickly solved the problem of overproduction too as it took almost a century (1980) to reach this figure again. Oestreicher also spoke about the effects of th devastating bug on the population: "20,000 people were forced to leave Rioja between 1900 and 1910”.

After the video, participants tasted four 2001 reds, one of the best vintages in Rioja: Viña Tondonia Reserva, Viña Ardanza Reserva Especial, Prado Enea Gran Reserva and Roda II. José Luis Ripa, commercial director at Tondonia and “consort of María José López de Heredia since 2012” agreed with David González in the sense that the Barrio produces fines wines with good ageing potential and added that Tondonia still tries to maintain levels of alcohol below 13% and grape blends to encourage freshness. Julio Sáenz, winemaker at La Rioja Alta, also spoke about the importance of blending grapes in wines like Viña Ardanza —sometime ago, they purchased a vineyard in Tudelilla (Rioja Baja) where they grow Garnacha for the Ardanza blend. 

Whites with a personal style

Whites were served on the third flight after a no-nonsense video presentation by Manuel Ruiz, former director at Haro’s Winemaking Control Board, who recalled his arrival by train at Haro in the 1960s. “Vineyards were few and far between in Haro in those days; instead, cereal and beetroot were the main crops. I soon realized that producers took their grapes from the Sonsierra and other regions in Rioja.” When “an excess of grapes was still encouraged and oak barrels regardless of their quality”, Ruiz talked about the nighttime talks with grape growers that he used to host at a time when producers were keen to plant foreign varieties. “Luckily this plan didn’t prevail,” he concluded.

To present his Viña Pomal Maturana Blanca 2017, Alejandro López explained that despite written records of the existence of this variety since 1622, it was no longer planted after phylloxera because it was low yielding. Bilbaínas, “a long-standing winery that is constantly rethinking everything”, has decided to plant 22 hectares of this high acidity, local variety beneath the high ridges of Conchas de Haro. 

According to David González, who introduced his Montes Obarenes 2015, a blend of Viura and 15% Tempranillo Blanco, the future of Rioja whites lies on local varieties. “We have our own style and there are lots of great areas where they can be planted,” he explained.

The last white of the morning was Monopole Clásico 2014, the first vintage of this wine brought back from the past by Cvne based on the hand-written notes of Ezequiel García “El Brujo”, who made this wine over 50 years ago with a little bit of manzanilla and kept in in Sanlúcar vats. These days, Mopole Clásico is innovative again. “Ezequiel added some Calagraño to the Viura blend, but there’s very little of it now; we cannot keep the wine in the cask for 8-10 years as they did in the past; it would be unthinkable”, said María Larrea, Cvne technical director. 

Looking to the future

The last flight commenced with Viña Tondonia Reserva 2006, a vintage which has not yet been released. It is made by Mercedes López de Heredia “with the same care as her ancestors but with a different touch”, said José Luis Ripa. “These days everyone talks about the vineyards but I am a great believer in the persons.”

Agustín Santolaya picked the baton with Roda 107, an experimental wine that stems from a project to recover the best Tempranillo families with the aim of obtaining wines with lower pHs and alcohol in the future. “This wine you’re trying now is raw, but the future is there,” said Satolaya. “We won’t find the solutions, but the following generations will.

Another wine that made its debut was Torre Muga 2015, which is set to be released in December. Jorge Muga explained that the idea behind this Bordeaux-style wine came from his francophile uncle Manuel. Jorge Muga also toyed with the idea of making a sweet wine upon his return to Rioja from South Africa but Muga couldn’t sell it because at that time the regulations didn’t contemplate this style of wine. “Those 3,000 bottles have been drunk nicely at home,” he joked.

The last sample was a juicy Garnacha 2017 from La Pedriza, the vineyard that was purchased by La Rioja Alta in Tudelilla. Although it could be a lovely wine in itself, La Rioja Alta blends it in Viña Ardanza. It was the final wine before a closing discussion among winemakers moderated by Sarah Jane Evans. Everyone agreed that local varieties should be favoured rather than imported ones and that they should be planted in optimum conditions to maintain the essence of a place where tradition lives alongside innovation.

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