The frantic pace of tastings and presentations in Madrid barely allows us to write in detail about some of the interesting wines we try. But over recent weeks we attended three events which deserve more attention that a quick, succinct tweet.
Thirty-one out of the 48 members of Bodegas Familiares de Rioja, an association of family wineries, took part in a tasting held in Madrid at the end of April. It was a good opportunity to taste new releases and to gauge the impact of the white grape varieties approved in 2007 and of the new categories approved by the Consejo, such as village wines (vino de municipio) and regional wines (vino de zona) —sparkling Rioja and Viñedo Singular wines will still take a while to reach the market.
Producers came from many parts of the region, from Cuzcurrita del Río Tirón in the western end of Rioja to Alfaro, 130 kilometres east. The map on the slide, inspired in the one drawn by Lo Mejor del Vino de Rioja wine experts Alberto Gil and Agustín Remesal, goes beyond the simplistic division of Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa (political rather than geographical boundaries) and Rioja Oriental (the former Rioja Baja).
We were able taste a variety of styles, from traditional, long-aged wines such as Heras Cordón, to fruit-driven or terroir-driven reds and whites from different areas: Castillo de Sajazarra in western Rioja, Cupani in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, Juan Carlos Sancha in the Alto Najerilla Valley, Ortega Ezquerro in Tudelilla or Arizcuren in Mount Yerga. Fortunately, we didn’t have to deal with many overoaked, overripe reds.
We saw some “vino de zona” and tasted several reds which have applied for the “viñedos singulares” category. This is the case of Finca La Emperatriz, a producer that started to reorganise its range in the 2016 vintage in order to turn their current single-varietal and single-vineyard reds into a single “viñedo singular” intended to represent the distinctive character of their property in Baños de Rioja. In the Najerilla Valley, Martínez Alesanco’s choice for “viñedo singular” is a single-vineyard Garnacha with an informative label, the same as Juan Carlos Sancha’s, who works further south along the river Najerilla. Cerro La Isa, his most ripe, concentrated Garnacha so far, is a candidate for “viñedo singular”.
Some of our favourite reds at the tasting were Garnachas made in tiny quantities, often under 1,000 bottles. We loved the citrus, refreshing Cupani made by young grower Miguel Eguíluz, with grapes from an old vineyard planted in 1917 in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, very close to Labastida; Juan Carlos Sancha’s Peña el Gato from Alto Najerilla stood out for its fragrant, herbal, fresh character in sharp contrast with the lovely-scented Ortega Ezquerro from Tudelilla (a high altitude area in Rioja Oriental) which had a marked Mediterranean character (thyme, rosemary, herbal tea). Javier Arizcuren brought a sample of the extraordinary Barranco del Prado 2018, a pre-phylloxera vineyard at an elevation of 800 metres in Mount Yerga (Rioja Oriental). It displayed equal amounts of minerality, perfume, freshness and finesse.
In terms of whites, international grapes are gaining ground in Rioja. Sauvignon Blanc seems to be conspicuous even if blended in small amounts as in Tobelos 2018. It’s not easy to get used to unusual blends (45% Chardonnay, 35% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Viura in Alma de Tobía) or single-varietal Chardonnays like the one made by Lecea. We much prefer their Reserva labelled “vino de cueva” (aged in cave) which highlights their commitment to make wines in the underground cellars of San Asensio’s traditional bodega district. Our favourite whites in the tasting were the two 100% Maturanas made by Ijalba and Juan Carlos Sancha respectively.
We asked producers whether they would go for the “vino de municipio” (village wine) category. While some of them have already applied for it (Ortega Ezquerro will use it in their white, carbonic maceration red and single-varietal Garnacha), others are still considering it, but many will not give it a second thought either because they favour regional blends or because they are not eligible as their wineries are not located in the same village as their vineyards. Some examples are Finca La Emperatriz’s Las Cenizas, made with grapes from their vineyards in Fuenmayor; Remírez de la Piscina (the winery is located in San Vicente but their best vineyard is in Ábalos) or Arizcuren, whose Mount Yerga wines are fermented and aged in an urban winery in central Logroño.
Last week, we were present at the release of the new Viña Arana Gran Reserva which is set to replace the Viña Arana Reserva from the 2012 vintage onwards. After spending three years in barrels and three more in bottle, the wine meets the requirements of the category (in the past it was sold as “Sexto Año” which meant that it was bottled in its sixth year), but according to La Rioja Alta’s president Guillermo Aranzabal, the aim is to revamp the brand while redefining the style to attract a younger audience who is unfamiliar with long-aged reds. It’s a proper revival, but without losing sight of the fact that it must be a wine with the capacity to develop in the bottle.
“Everyone in the staff at La Rioja Alta has a revered old bottle of Viña Arana in their mind which has aged particularly well,” explained winemaker Julio Sáez. “In addition, there were years when it would be very difficult to tell between Viña Arana and Gran Reserva 904 if tasted blind.”
We experienced Viña Arana’s ability to age in a vertical tasting that included vintages 1987 (light, subtle with persistent acidity), 1991 (more weight, spicy, but less elegant), 1996 ( a kind of compendium of the two previous ones, still with some bright fruit, juicy and as elegant as we all want Rioja to be), 2001 (rich in structure and acidity with dominant oak but with a promising future ahead) and 2005 (the most solid of them all, lively and with great potential).
There will be fewer bottles of the new Viña Arana Gran Reserva (80,000 compared to 150,000 when it was sold as Reserva) and the retail price will rise from €16 to €25. Production will be smaller than the Gran Reserva 904 (150,000 bottles, €38) but will exceed the exclusive Gran Reserva 890 (25,000 bottles, €105).
Guillermo Aranzabal revealed that from the 2014 vintage, “the same ‘Gran Reserva criteria’ are applied to 904 and Viña Arana in terms of vineyard selection and winemaking but not with regards to ageing [904 spends four years in oak and four years in bottle] and blending.” Emulating the 904 blend, Graciano has replaced Mazuelo in the Viña Arana Gran Reserva but in lower amounts (5% compared to 10% in the 904). For Julio Sáez, “Graciano is more elegant and favours extended ageing.”
Compared with the 904, the new Viña Arana Gran Reserva is more straightforward and fruit-driven with good intensity, more evident oak (dairy aromas) and less complexity. Differences will be reinforced in the future given that, as Aranzabal advanced, “in the next four to five years 904 and Viña Arana will not be made in the same vintages.”
He also announced that the company’s major goal for the next 10 years is to produce wine only in excellent and very good vintages. The three Gran Reserva meet this requirement and Viña Ardanza will soon do, but it will take much longer for Viña Alberdi and Club de Cosecheros, the wine sold en primeur to La Rioja Alta club members.
This means that La Rioja Alta could become an important grape supplier in the future. “We own 453Ha and plant 40 additional hectares on an anual basis, so selling grapes or wine that fail to meet our quality requirements will undoubtedly increase in the coming years,” Aranzabal explained.
Spanish wine merchant Cuvée 3000 hosted an original tasting to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Billecart-Salmon. It was conducted by Antoine Roland Billecart, member of the 7th generation, alongside six flagship Spanish sparkling producers. Each of them presented a different champagne matched with musical pieces chosen by Jean Roland Billecart, Antoine’s father.
Importer Joan Valencia denied having chosen it deliberately, but all the Spanish producers on the stage works outside the country’s appellations. Currently producing a sparkling wine made with the Hondarrabi Zuri variety in Zarautz (Basque Country), Artadi left Rioja in 2015, three years after Raventós i Blanc stopped making Cava. Llopart, Torelló, Recaredo, and Gramona are members of Corpinnat, the most recent split in Cava. Antoine Roland Billecart himself described his table companions as “brave people who have chosen to show the uniqueness of their territories at a time when the identity and distinctiveness of a region is so important.”
A particularly strong link between Billecart and Raventós i Blanc was revealed. Pepe Raventós recalled how after several unsuccessful attempts to make a rosé Cava with Pinot Noir, he met Antoine in 2005 and learnt about their blanc de blancs vinification to which they add a small amount of red wine. If Billecart-Salmon set a milestone in Champagne with its rosé, Raventos i Blanc’s De Nit marked a new trend for the category in Spain. Pere Llopart from Cavas Llopart presented the Brut Réserve, a blend of the three traditional varieties in Champagne including almost 50% of reserve wines, as a “multi-layered, texture-rich” fizz. Torello’s Paco de la Rosa highlighted the balance between freshness and delicacy of Sous Bois, a champagne entirely vinified in oak which tries to retain the distinctive style of the house.
Ton Mata revealed that Billecart has always been a flagship champagne at Recaredo to the point that both families have exchanged visits. He defined accurately the contrast between delicacy and strength in the fascinating 2007 Vintage. “Who cares about bubbles?” said Mata. “This wine hardly needs them. It's a great white from Champagne.” Finally, Xavier Gramona, shared personal memories and feelings as he presented Cuvée Nicolas 2002, a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that, according to Antoine, best epitomizes the origin of the first wine made by his family 200 years ago. Wilted flowers and dried herbs on the nose followed by creamy and nutty aromas and a powerful and energetic palate that was nevertheless very harmonious.
Spanish producers shared many anecdotes and detailed, poetic tasting notes that Cuvée 3000 printed in a booklet. After the tasting we had the chance to try some Spanish fizz —with many bottles already labeled as Corpinnat rather than as Cava— including two interesting new releases.
Artadi’s sparkling wine from Zarautz (Gipuzkoa) is the response of Juan Carlos López de Lacalle and his son Carlos to the area’s extreme acidity. Made with the indigenous Hondarrabi Zuri, Izar-Leku (it means place of stars in Basque) has a marked briny, iodine character and showcases herbal notes rather than fruit. Grapes are sourced from a rented 3.5Ha pergola-trained vineyard with amazing views of the sea. The wine is aged for 12 months in stainless steel tanks except for a batch (30%) that was kept in barrels prior to undergo the second fermentation in bottle where it spent 18 months with its lees.
Pepe Raventós brought some magnums of Mas del Serral 2007, his most ambitious sparkling so far. Grapes are sourced from Clos del Serral, a north-facing vineyard surrounded by a forest where grapes tend to ripen two weeks later. Biodynamically managed and plowed with a horse, it was planted in the 1950s with Xarel.lo and Bastard Negre (Graciano). This sparkling is all about tension, with dried herb aromas and marked briny notes. It feels austere and pure, almost radical, but with well integrated acidity. Despite being aged for 100 months, it feels young. A wine that explores new paths.