On the Trail

Rioja, Act I

Joe Manekin

Rioja, more than any other Spanish D.O., is in a position of relative strength. The wines have a strong presence in national markets, an even stronger presence in export markets (more than one-third of our sales of Spanish wines are Rioja) and due to what a BMGT 101 text may refer to as “first mover advantages,” the region has a well established, recognizable brand. Part and parcel of that brand is the notion that Rioja wineries patiently age wine for the consumer, and then classify it according to the amount of time ageing at the winery (crianza - one year each in barrel and bottle, reserva - a total of 3 years between barrel and bottle, gran reserva - 2 year minimum in barrel, 3 year minimum in bottle).

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How then, that these highest category, gran reserva wines can be found in Spanish supermarkets for as little as five euros? And what’s up with a winery not being able to mention on the front label the village where a particular cuvee’s fruit is grown? And isn’t there some well regarded winery in Rioja Alavesa that, fed up with all of the rules and regulations, simply decided to abandon Rioja and bottle their entire range, including their single vineyard bottlings, without classification, as simple table wines?

These issues are of significant concern to enough observers, smaller producers, and even to the Rioja consejo itself that there are a few rule changes going into effect. Single vineyard wines can now mention the name of the vineyard where they come from (how crazy is it that in the past, this was not possible?) If a winery is located in a particular village where it has vines and produces a wine exclusively from that fruit, it can now become a “vino de municipio” and state the village on the front label. While it may be an improvement on past label restrictions, under this system a winery based in Labastida who wanted to bottle a Briones village wine still could not do so. For context, imagine if a Burgundy negociant or producer based in Nuits St George, were to be unable to legally bottle a Gevrey Chambertin since their winery is not located in Gevrey.

These are the types of restrictions which have often weighed on my mind while drinking Rioja wines, visiting the region and chatting with its producers. Well, that along with the idea that so many wineries age the wines in a similar way - sure they have their own mix of preferred cooperage, new vs 1 year-old, 2 year-old, or in the case of Lopez de Heredia, 20 year-old barrels. I always wondered what could be possible if people simply did things differently. What would be if someone would start using more 500l or 600l, used barrels in their winery. Or if someone decided that everyone was harvesting too late and wanted to harvest fruit based more on the idea of high acidity and fruit that was just ripe enough. I specifically remember asking one of our friends in Rioja several years ago, wouldn’t it be cool if I set up shop in Rioja, only produced white wines, and had two cuvees, one done as an old fashioned Rioja white, aged at least several years in well used barrels, and another made like a Sherry, aged under flor and in a solera system? Well, it turns out that Miguel Merino (and many others) have been using 500l barrels for their upcoming single vineyard wine, as has Bryan MacRobert at Laventura (who also picks early for acidity). And as far as crazy white wine specialists, Honorío Rubio does the solera thing in Rioja, and also throws in a separate orange wine for good measure (though we’ll discuss his project in another post, since this entry is already shaping up to be a long one!)

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Before we get into our guys Merino and MacRobert, we’re going to start off in the cradle of Rioja Alta, in the historic city of Haro, in the Barrio de Estación de Trenes, at one of the oldest and most consistently respected producers of Rioja. Cune (Compania de Viticultores del Norte de Espana, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing) makes something approaching 500,000 cases of wine. While you can find their Cune Crianza splits in any number of highway rest stops in Spain, Cune still makes a relatively small number of Reserva and Gran Reserva Imperial bottlings from their own vineyards.  Beginning in 2017, they will also be making a village wine or “Vino de Municipio” from their own vineyards in Haro.

Before we go further, I must thank technical director María Larrea for making time to taste with me, and in fact for spending extra time as I was traveling from Bierzo, arrived late, and still was treated to a barrel tasting and quick tour of the barrel ageing and fermentation rooms for Imperial. I learned that 2017, as it was elsewhere in Rioja, was also a severely frost impacted year at Cune (production was down 50%). We tasted 2017 Imperial (whether it will become Reserva or Gran Reserva is yet to be determined, depending upon the development of the wine in barrel) and 2017 Vino de Municipio de Haro out of both a new French and new American oak barrel. Both intensely dark fruited, both obviously oaky (young wine in a new barrel will taste that way), but the American oak showing more sweetly spiced, while the French oak components feel toastier and show a roasted coffee bean quality.

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Not quite a 15 minute drive southeast from Haro, Briones is the Rioja Alta village where our first direct import Rioja property, Miguel Merino, is based. Two Miguel’s (Miguel “padre”  or Sr. and Miguel “hijo,” or Jr.) are at the helm, though in the past year Miguel Jr. has assumed increased responsibility at the winery. While it’s not a cut and dry changing of the guard, there are some subtle but noteworthy changes that have been taking place. To name just a couple, Miguel hijo has lowered the fermentation temperatures by a few degrees centigrade, across the board. The new single vineyard wine, La Loma, from a vineyard originally planted in 1946, used to be blended with an even older vineyard and aged in exclusively French 225l barrels, at least half of them new. Beginning in 2015, La Loma will stand alone, and will feature a combination of 500l and 225l barrel ageing, and not nearly as much of it will be in first use oak. 2016 marks the first time there will be a (delicious, intense and mineral) white wine from a blend of Viura and Garnacha Blanca. As I mentioned earlier, it may not be a formal and complete succession, but it certainly is the first time I have had the opportunity to observe the early stages of a winery being handed down to the next generation. In this case, the baton appears to be confidently handed off and the exchange made without a hitch.

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Laventura is the trademark of first generation Rioja vigneron Bryan MacRobert. He may be young, but he knows his Rioja history and has some clearly defined ideas regarding what makes Rioja special. To summarize, these would include the importance of older vineyards, organically farmed whenever possible, and picked just at the point of ripeness as opposed to past that point. While Bryan knows how to manage a vineyard, and will often offer to pay well above the premium rate for grapes per kilo while also committing to farming a parcel as he would like it farmed, he does have some fairly particular views on winemaking as it relates to Tempranillo. He shares the observation that Tempranillo is very tannic and needs time to mellow out, though in his mind this does not come from twice to 3x yearly racking in 225l barrel, but rather from patient ageing in used, larger format barrels, followed by bottle ageing. As a result, Bryan’s wines can be firmer when young, but also more marked by minerality and edgy fruit as opposed to more showy, open knit fruit and barrel notes. Even his Lanave bottling, a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha which we sell for $15, is surprisingly structured, and Bryan mentioned that perhaps for some of his clients, it is too structured. I countered that it is precisely this individuality of style and singular focus that drew us to the wines. Quick tip: while the reds are delicious and great values, the barrel aged Viura and cement egg aged Malvasia (featuring a “light orange” 3 week maceration on the skins) are both delicious, capable of improving for a while in bottle, and perhaps represent the best values at the winery.

- Joe Manekin

Up next: Barrel tasting with Jesús Puelles and the Wizard of White Wines, Honorío Rubio.