In February 2015, while researching a piece about the new generation of producers in Rioja (part I and part II), we visited veteran winemaker Basilio Izquierdo. The man who worked as technical director for Cvne between 1974 and 2006 was happily messing around in his maze-like cellar on the outskirts of Laguardia.
The man who came up with the OVI system (tanks moved by bridge cranes in order to benefit from gravity, avoid pumping and improve grape selection) now works in a cramped winery arranged over three floors connected by a steep staircase with a myriad fermenting and aging vessels around. It certainly resembles the small wineries managed by young, adventurous producers we visited back in 2015 rather than those associated with a traditional, classic Rioja winemaker.
We were back in Laguardia last month to attend the 10th anniversary of the small project set up by Basilio in 2007. The attractive programme included vertical tastings of his two main wines, the white and red B de Basilio, as well as the chance to share them with Izquierdo’s fellow students at Bordeaux School of Enology: flying winemaker Michel Rolland, Serge Fourton (winemaker at Baron Philippe de Rothschild for 32 years) and Michel Douence (Château Peneau and Destillerie Douence).
Michel Rolland played an important role in the modernization of Rioja with the creation of Cosme Palacio in 1987, one of the first reds to be aged in new French oak in the area, thus reducing barrel aging times. Nowadays, Rolland makes wines in some Spanish wine regions in partnership with Javier Galarreta (Araex) and has a stake in François Lurton’s venture in Rueda and Toro. In terms of consulting, Marques de Cáceres is his sole client in Spain at this moment.
As Rolland recalled his friendship with Basilio going back 47 years, the Spanish winemaker couldn’t hide his admiration for his colleague’s tasting skills. Izquierdo still maintains close links with Bordeaux. In fact, he was recently named “oenologue exceptionnel” on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Bordeaux Winemakers Association. He was particularly proud to be the only Spaniard on a list of 50 wine professionals. The distinction is visible in a cartoon (see photo above) commissioned by a group of friends and showing Basilio’s career, wines, contributions, passions and place of birth (he was born in Socuéllamos, a village in Ciudad Real, La Mancha in 1947) depicted with the traditional “tinajas” (terracotta vessels) and a quixotic windmill. Basilio himself is portrayed taking a sample of white wine from a barrel with his inseparable glasses hanging from his neck.
Basilio welcomed his guests with a zesty dry sparkling wine with refreshing acidity called Cárdenas 2009, a blanc de noirs made from Garnacha with grapes sourced from the Alto Najerilla valley in Rioja. He tied a checkered tablecloth to the back of his neck before energetically disgorging this delicious, experimental wine which predates a Cava in a similar style released a couple of years ago by Bodegas Bilbaínas.
In the apparent disorder of barrels and tanks, there were amphorae, Sherry casks and demijohns. The scene isn’t very different from some adventurous wineries in Priorat, Gredos or Galicia. Creativity and distinctiveness are the focus of his wines; that’s why they are all limited editions made from very specific, high quality grapes —in most cases sourced from old vineyards planted before the arrival of clonal selections.
Another treat was the Viura aged in three Manzanilla casks brought from Hidalgo in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Basilio managed to develop a veil of flor for three months. This wine was a request from a client in Miami, so it is unlikely to be commercially available, just like the sparkling blanc de noirs or an experimental skin-contact Viura made form a blend of vintages (2015 and 2016). Tailored wines with particular winemaking techniques, including wines to lay down, suitable to celebrate specific dates and anniversaries, are one of the services offered by Basilio on his website.
The main tasting was held at Los Parajes hotel in Laguardia and was followed by a dinner where new wines were poured. We started with the fleshy, tasty Viura Acodo 2014 (1,000 bottles, €19) followed by Acodo Rosé (300 bottles, €25), a full-bodied single-varietal Garnacha aged in oak for 18 months, and an original, rich 2005 feet-trodden white with a complex, nutty character.
The wines Basilio Izquierdo has been making since the 2007 vintage under the B de Basilio brand bustle with originality. Inspiration for the white (around 1,000 bottles, €38) came from different experiences carried out at Cvne in the 2000s with single-varietal Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viura and White Garnacha wines. “Most often, especially after a few years in bottle, the wine that performed better was the White Garnacha”, he recalled.
With up to 70% Garnacha Blanca in the blend, this white was the first in Rioja to focus on this scarce grape variety. It was really interesting to compare two samples from the 2011 vintage bottled under cork and Vinolok glass closure –cork replaced glass from the 2012 vintage onwards. With more fruit and life ahead, the cork clearly won, yet previous vintages bottled with Vinolok showed pretty well, notably the excellent, lovely balanced 2010, but also 2009 (creamy and evolving towards honeyed fruit aromas) and the harmonious 2007 with toasted notes, which was his first vintage.
The red B de Basilio is a more traditional blend (a third Tempranillo from Rioja Alavesa, another third from Rioja Alta with a hint of Graciano and a third of Garnacha from Tudelilla in Rioja Baja and/or Cárdenas in Alto Najerilla valley) but with less time in oak than classic Rioja. Freshness and well-defined fruit were the main traits throughout the various vintages. 2010 shone again as a particularly outstanding vintage in Rioja. It is currently available for sale along with the pretty interesting 2009 and 2011, which will need further development. 2007 still displayed outstanding freshness. Among those to be released in the future, 2013 was already drinkable even if it’s not a suitable year for cellaring, while 2015 was truly promising.
I highly recommend two captivating single-varietal reds which are gradually becoming available. Both of them bear the following legend on the label: “I will make this wine whenever I find suitable grapes for it”. The 2015 Garnacha is the first I taste from Tudelilla (Rioja Baja), one of the most suitable areas to grow this grape in Rioja –many outstanding produces own vineyards in this area but destine them to blends. This wine has the freshness that can be found at high altitude vineyards with peppery and herb aromas, fine ripe fruit and silky tannins. It’s a pity that only 500 bottles have been produced. The powerful, spiced Graciano 2014 is even more scarce and displays the lively acidity that is typical of this variety. Given his past experience in Contino where Graciano has always been present, Basilio is fully aware of this grape’s real potential.
We also tasted two wines with extended barrel aging: four and five years respectively. Both have spent some time spent in demijohns (a technique which I recently witnessed in some wineries in Priorat). The medium bodied Altísimo 2011 (1,300 bottles), which will be available from Christmas, shows the expected finesse, silkiness, bright acidity and aging potential of classic Riojas. The more powerful, rich Maria 2010 is a tribute to Basilio’s daughter. Barely 160 bottles have been made and come in old-fashioned one-litre bottles that Basilio kept from Cvne but won’t be allowed to display the appellation’s seal. It is likely to be sold entirely in Germany except for a few bottles that will be kept in the cellars of Zalacaín restaurant in Madrid.
As expected, Basilio also poured some historical vintages of Imperial and Viña Real from his personal wine collection. But the wine that stole the show was an awesome blend of vintages —1948, 1950 and 1952— from Viña Real Oro sourced from a batch of bottles with low ullage. The ones which were still fine filled two barrels and the resulting wine was bottled in April 1975 in those artisan one-litre bottles crafted at the beginning of the 20th century. It contained all the greatness Rioja is capable of: fine, complex reduction, toasted character and that magic acidity of the past leading to an endless finish. It was the real highlight of the evening, the icing on the cake in this retrospective of a winemaker who has worked his 50th harvest, keeps his passion for wine untouched and is surprisingly close to the new, young faces of Rioja.