Wine of the Week 35 – all change in Chile

Recently I presented a tasting that I found exciting and that seemed to go down rather well with the attendees. My topic was Chile’s emerging Regions and Styles and it was  a wide ranging – or at least as wide as you can get in 8 wines – look at how Chile is changing.

For a long time Chile has been regarded by many consumers as a safe option. They made reliable wines at good prices, offering good value for money and lots of pleasure and you would have thought that might be enough for Chilean wine producers. However no one with any ambition wants to just be seen as a safe option for ever and this especially true of Chile’s new generation of talented winemakers.

Chile is most definitely on the move and you can see it wherever you look at Chilean wines. New grape varieties are the most obvious personification of this change, but scratch the surface a little and you can see it everywhere. Lots of things are going on in Chile right now, including:

Earlier picking is resulting in wines with more zip and freshness – something that only confident grape growers who know exactly what they are doing can pull off.

Less use of new oak – and less American oak too – is very apparent in recent vintages of Chilean wine, again confidence is behind this, they do not feel the fruit needs as much help – or masking – as it did in the past.

Map of Chile – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of Chile – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

New regions are emerging – or becoming established in some cases – which help the grape growers and wine makers to match a grape variety or wine style with a specific terroir that suits it. Included in this roster would be these regions to the North of Santiago; Limarí, Elqui (over 500KM north of Santiago) and Choapa in the north, although the Atacama region even further north is beginning to produce exciting things too. In the area around Santiago you have the Aconcagua Valley which includes the new Aconcagua Costa as well as Valle de Leyda – both cool places by the ocean for white wine, Pinot Noir and Syrah production. The new regions in the south would include the Itata and Malleco Valleys.

Parallel to this is the move to categorise Chile’s wine regions as Coastal / Costa – where the cool conditions from the Pacific suit Chile’s hugely exciting white wines. The Andes zone is a less established move to plant vineyards higher up in the Andes than is traditional in Chile, the results look promising and not just for white wines either. Between these two is the Entre cordilleras zone between the Andes and the Coastal Mountain range which includes much of the Valle Central as well as many of the emerging regions.

Another fascinating example of creativity in Chile is the current widespread delight in finding the pockets of truly old vine material that the country has. For the last 30 years or so Chile has focussed on giving the world the grapes they want – and that sell – so the vineyard regions around Santiago, the traditional heart of Chile’s wine industry have very few old vines, hardly ever older than 20 years in fact. Chile does though have old vines, especially in the more rural south of Curicó, Maule and Itata where time has stood still somewhat as the vineyards are owned by smallholder farmers down there who cannot afford to uproot their vines as trends change, with the result that they have plenty of old vines, but of grape varieties that has not interested Chile’s producers until recently. The main grapes that fall into this category are País, MoscatelCinsault and Carignan, together with a little Mourvèdre and they are producing some astonishingly good wine.

Actually all the wines I showed were very good and seemed top meet with approval from most people there, but the majority agreed on what was the wine of the night and so I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Maule Valley Vineyards.

Maule Valley Vineyards.

Eclat bottle2008 Éclat Old Vine Blend
Viña Valdivieso
D.O. Valle de Maule

Valdivieso are an old established winery who originally set out to be Chile’s sparkling wine specialist, but who turned to red wines from the 1980s onwards with spectacular results. Always seeking new challenges, their chief winemaker, the charming Brett Jackson – a kiwi living and working in Chile and who introduced me to the delights of drinking Caipirinhas one wonderfully drunken evening – decided to create a wine using the old vine Carignan that can be found in the Maule Valley and that has traditional been used for everyday wines that does not get exported. Brett saw the potential and produces a wine that is quite unlike what people expect from Chile, but that is really superb. The blend changes, but this vintage is 65% Carignan – dry farmed / unirrigated 80 year old plus bush vines with 20% Mourvèdre and 15% Syrah. The finished wine is aged for 12 months in French oak barrels.

Although Carignan is really a Spanish grape and should be called Cariñena, the grape arrived in Chile from france in the twentieth century and so is always called Carignan there. A whole group of producers have now seen the worth of these old vines and have created a group called the Vignadores de Carignan, or Vigno to market these wines and to give some rules for their use. For instance to be a member the wine must have at least 65% Carignan in the blend. The vines must be at least 30 years old, they must be dry farmed bush vines and must be aged for at least 24 months – in bottle, barrel (old or new) or amphoras / tinajas.

On a night of good wines, this stood out to me. It was still a youthful deep, earthy ruby to look at with no browning yet. The nose was concentrated and spicy, with floral tones, earthy, leathery and coffee too, as well as quite a whack of alcohol – the wine is 14.5%. The palate was medium bodied and smooth with rich dried fruit, even some dried fruit sweetness there as well as a lovely fresh, bracing lift of acidity. There was mushrooms and truffles, together with a smoky, leather quality, that touch (just a touch, but I like it) of mocha and a firm touch of tannin on the finish that tightened the wine up in a way I like, but which also shows it could age for longer. If you like Shiraz or Syrah wines or Rhône style blends then this is a wine you should try – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 per bottle from – stockists information here.
Available in the US for around £30 per bottle from – stockists information here.

This really is a lovely wine and if some of the recent developments in Chile have passed you by, then this could be an excellent place to start experiencing them.

Wine of the Week 34 – your own personal summer, in a glass

Funny time of year Winter. The weather gets pretty cold, here in the UK anyway and the days swing between being fiercely cold and crisp with clear blue skies, or dark, damp and grim. Those days in particular get to me and spoil my mood, which is especially bad for me as my birthday is in January. The 17th january in case you were wondering and I am 50 this year, which just does not seem possible at all. There I was happily getting on with my life and suddenly I am half way to 100!

Anyway, at this time of year my thoughts often focus on the weather and I find myself hoping for Spring and Summer to rush towards me and make everything seem better. Well, help is at hand. We no longer need to wait for the weather to turn, we can just open a bottle and get our very own personal early Summer in a glass.

I recently tried this delicious white wine made by Miguel Torres in Chile – in many respects it is the partner to the exciting red wine I featured here – and it just seems so bright and enjoyable that I have made it my Wine of the Week:

Miguel Torres Chile, vineyards. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Miguel Torres Chile, vineyards. Photo courtesy of the winery.

DoS2013 Days of Summer Moscatel
Miguel Torres Chile
D.O. Valle de Itata

Miguel Torres is nearly important to the story of Chilean wine as he is to the Spanish. Torres was the first outsider to come to Chile, in 1979 and he was the first to bring true modern winemaking concepts to the country and the results are clear for all to see. He was a trailblazer and his influence can be widely seen in the country. Just as in Spain though, where Torres started out as the standard-bearer of the new – especially of international grape varieties – and has now become the champion of traditional and indigenous grapes, the Torres winery in Chile has changed enormously since its early days. It still produces exemplary Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Cabernet, of course, but the focus has changed slightly to the grape varieties that Chile’s wine revolution has left behind. What’s more he is at the forefront of the sustainable viticulture movement in Chile.

Chile was ruled by Spain for hundreds of years, yet how many of Chile’s wines reflect that cultural past? Very few indeed, yet planting of Spanish grapes do exist in the country and are slowly being brought back into the mainstream. In recent years Torres have nursed Cariñena / Carignan plantings back to life, as well as the long neglected País and now Moscatel / Muscat.

Muscat has been grown in the country since the Spaniards first arrived and I doubt if there is a more Spanish grape than Muscat? Very few Spanish regions do not produce a sweet style of Muscat in one form or another and increasingly some dry examples too.

Map of Chile – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of Chile – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Chile’s so far little known Itata Valley, a long way further south than most of the famous vineyard areas, is home to much of Chile’s old vines material and so tends to have grape varieties that are not as famous r international. So it is here that much of Chile’s Cinsault  – or Samsó – can be found, as well as some of that old vine Moscatel. John Byron, the future Admiral and grandfather of the poet, was shipwrecked off the south coast of Chile in 1741 and wrote about his experiences of leading a group of survivors north to Santiago and a ship home. He wrote glowing reports about the wines of Chile, especially the Muscats / Moscatels (scroll to the bottom of this piece to read a bout a wonderful and very old fashioned style of Muscat of the sort Byron might have drunk) which he compared favourably to the wines of Madeira. Given that it is certainly on the way to Santiago, then it is entirely logical that Byron was in Itata at the time.

This wine is a real delight – and I don’t always like Dry Muscat. The aromas are light, fresh and lively with flowers, grapes, apples and honey as well as a cut of lemon – it smells like wild flowers. The palate is also light and fresh – the alcohol is 12%, but feels lighter – with green apple, grape and the merest touch of tropical fruit – pineapple – too. What really makes this work so well is the acidity, there is plenty of it making it fresh and lively and giving a touch of grapefruit to the wine, whilst a tiny bit of sweetness stops the wine from being watery and inconsequential. Clever winemaking and lots of style and finesse make this a delight. Try it with any light dishes, salads, fish or chicken, as well as with oriental food, spicy food or just drink it as aperitif – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for £9.99 per bottle from Majestic Wine Warehouses.

It has to be admitted that this is a perfect Summer wine, but why wait? A drop of this gives you your own personal Summer in a glass.

Wine of the Week 13 – another Spanish gem

 

Beautifully tended vineyards at Viña Magaña. Photo from Olé Imports.

Beautifully tended vineyards at Viña Magaña. Photo from Olé Imports.

It must be the Summer making me think of Spain. Whatever the reason though, this week’s Wine of the Week is a gem of a wine and great value for money too, so perfect Wine of the Week material.

It comes from the wonderful, if under appreciated, region of Navarra. As I have mentioned before, Navarra produces a beguiling array of different wine styles, so it isn’t always easy to know what to expect. However the quality is generally high and the wines can be very exciting indeed. As regards red wines, there are mainly two types in Navarra. The more normal is wines made from Tempranillo and Cabernet / Merlot blends, while the newer speciality – or recently revived traditional style – is very fine pure Garnacha / Grenache. There are, of course a few mavericks producing a little Pinot Noir, some Graciano and Mazuelo, some Syrah even, but broadly the red wines fall into those two styles.

The Navarrans are proud of their heritage. The region was once the southern part of the medieval Kingdom of Navarre, with the northern bit being over the Pyrenees in what is now France. Much of the population was, and remains, Basque – indeed the Basques claim Navarra as theirs despite it not being part of the official Basque Region, or País Vasco. That historic French influence is very apparent in Navarran wines with most producers having added classic French grapes to their vineyards over the last 40 years or so. The majority of Navarran whites are made from Chardonnay and a great many of the reds have some Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in their blends. I have even heard of a little Malbec being grown in Navarra too.

These French, or international grapes were apparently helped to return to Navarra – if indeed they had ever grown there before – by Juan Magaña who had worked in Bordeaux and wanted to create Navarran wines with the finesse and sophistication of top Bordeaux. To that end he famously smuggled cuttings over the border during the early 1970s – when Spain was still a dictatorship and near siege economy. He planted his vineyard and built Bodegas Viña Magaña in Barillas near Cascante in Ribera Baja in the deep south of Navarra. Nowadays it is so normal for Navarran wines to include Cabernet and Merlot that it is hard to realise quite what a pioneer Juan must have been.

It worked though and before long Juan’s wines were showing just what Navarra could do and it had a huge impact on the style of wines from the region. Juan has now been joined in the business by his son Diego and the 100 hectare family estate, Viña Magaña, has gone from strength to strength, producing wines of great quality and renown.

Juan Magaña hand plunging the grapes as they ferment in the barrels. This ensures good extraction of colour, tannins and flavour.

Juan Magaña hand plunging the grapes as they ferment in the barrels. This ensures good extraction of colour, tannins and flavour. Photo from Olé Imports.

IMG146_Baron_De_Magana-vina_magana2009 Barón de Magaña
Viña Magaña
D.O. Navarra, Ribera Baja sub-zone

A  blend of 35% Merlot, 35% Cabernet, 20% Tempranillo and 10% Syrah fermented separately in 228 litre Burgundy barrels. The blended wine is then aged for 14 months in French oak barrels, 70% new.

I thought this was a tremendous wine, richly fruity, superbly concentrated and showing a lovely balance between elegance and power. The colour is deep, opaque purple / ruby black. The nose shows the rich fruit, blackcurrants, blackberry and plum together with some creme de cassis, red earth, espresso, cedar wood and a dusting of spice. The palate leans towards being full-bodied and is completely dominated by the rich, sumptuous fruit at the moment. There is freshness from a cleansing seam of acidity though, while the tannins are there giving a classy fine grain feel to the finish and the coffee and mocha oak gives the wine an extra polish and class. This is deliciously drinkable and bright right now, but there is enough structure to show that it will age beautifully over the next 4 years or so – 91/100 points, Robert Parker gave it 93!

Available in the UK from SpaNiche Wines at £10.94 (£9.94 by the case). 
Viña Magaña wines are distributed in the US by Olé Imports. Additional stockist information is available here.

Personally I think this is a remarkable wine for the price, beautifully made and full of character. It will age beautifully over many years, which makes it a very good value wine to keep in your cellar – no one will ever guess how cheap it was I assure you.

Serve it at dinner parties with lamb and rich meat dishes, but above all do try this delicious and great value wine.

 

Le Sud-Ouest – delights from south west France

Recently I have led some tastings of wines from France’s south west,the south west of France, or le Sud-Ouest.

I have written about this region of France before, but a another mention will not go amiss as it is a very misunderstood place.

Map of Southwest France including the A.C.s of Bergerac – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of Southwest France including the A.C.s of Bergerac – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

For starters, many people get confused by the term and imagine it includes the Languedoc – it doesn’t. The south west is a wide area mainly to the south of Bordeaux and never straying further east than the delightful town of Millau in the Aveyron department of the Midi-Pyrénées region near the Auvergne. The most northerly wine areas are way over in the north east around the town of Rodez, also in the Aveyron department. Here the rarely encountered wine regions of Entraygues – Le Fel and Estaing with just 20 hectares of vineyards each are attempting to bring themselves back to life after decades of decline. The nearby region of Marcillac is already doing well with some 200 hectares that produce delightful red and rosé wines that are well worth a try. The landscape here is quite beautiful with steep south facing slopes:

Domaine du Cros - photo from the winery.

Domaine du Cros – photo from the winery.

marcillac-domaine-du-cros-lo-sang-del-pais2012 Domaine du Cros Lo Sang del Païs
A.C. Marcillac

This is a delightful, if earthy and rustic wine made from 100 % Fer Servadou, or Manses to the locals and here known as the blood of the country or Lo Sang del Païs.
It is a dry, lean red, quite light bodied, but with a freshness of raspberry and cherry fruit in a rustic Pinot Noir kind of way that makes it an excellent wine with lighter foods.
This will not be for everyone, but it is a fascinating glimpse of classic French wine that many people no longer see, perfect with steak frîtes – 87/100 points.

From £8.50 a bottle in the UK from The Wine Society, Joseph Barnes, Les Caves de Pyrène & The Smiling Grape Company.

The next thing to realise about the south west is that grape growing is so spread out it barely counts as a single wine region. As so few of the wine producing areas touch each other or have much in common it is more a region of convenience, or a wine region in name only. Grape growing and wine production in these places has struggled since a nineteenth century heyday, so many of them produce tiny amounts of wine with viticulture dwarfed by other forms of agriculture. In many ways it is better to regard each wine producing area as a region in its own right. The climate varies across the whole place too with most of it enjoying a relatively dry maritime continental climate although a little Mediterranean influence does creep in further east. This shows itself in the choices of grape variety, with Bordeaux grapes holding sway in the west and a gradual progression through to Syrah in the east, it seemingly never gets warm or dry enough for Grenache here.

Gaillac
This delightfully sleepy part of France, near Albi, has much to offer in the way of wine. The slightly fizzy Gaillac Perlé was quite popular in the 1960s and I think deserves to be rediscovered as all the examples I have tried are lovely white wines. My favourite so far is:

Château Clement Termes

Château Clement Termes in Gaillac – photo from the winery.

HT_FD_F23A_00901628_NC_X_EC_02012 Château Clement Termes
Gaillac Blanc Perlé, A.C. Gaillac
A blend of the local Loin de l’Oeil / Len de l’el and Muscadelle  aged on the lees over winter. At only 12% this is delightfully light and fresh with high but not tart acidity, scented and herbal with green tinged fruit and a nettle-like, stony character. If you enjoy Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet or Picpoul, then I cannot imagine you not falling for this wines delicate, linear charms, certainly I think it is an excellent classic French dry white. That tiny hint of spritz keeps it fresh and emphasises the savoury side too, which makes it a lovely aperitif or perfect with classy fish and chips – the back label proclaims it to be ‘indispensable with fruits de mers’ and I would love to try it with goats cheese some time too – 87/100 points.

From £8.99 a bottle in the UK from Marks & Spencer & The Smiling Grape Company.

10273803_isGaillac though is also an excellent, if unexpected source of red wines and this  next wine thrilled everyone at my tastings:

2009 Domaine Rotier Renaissance Rouge
A.C. Gaillac
This is a sumptuous, supple blend of 40% Duras – a local grape grown nowhere else, with 25% Braucol – the local name for Fer Servadou – & 35% Syrah aged 12 months in barrel. I loved the inky intensity, the delicate smoke notes and the touch of savoury, fresh compost on the nose. The palate was supple and dense with rich black fruit and compact, chewy tannins that were very smooth and pleasurable. A terrific wine that pleased everyone who tried it and would be superb with all manner of meat dishes  – 90/100 points.

I can no longer find a stockist for this wine, but the same producer’s very similar Les Gravels Rouge is available in the UK from The Wine Society at £9.50 per bottle.

Saint Mont

Saint Mont is in the Basque lands of Gascony with ancient links to the Pilgrim's route to Santiago in Spain.

Saint Mont is in the Basque lands of Gascony with ancient links to the Pilgrim’s route to Santiago in Spain.

Previously known as Côtes de Saint Mont, this exciting region is an enclave carved out of the Côtes de Gascogne and using many of the same grapes as Madiran and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh. All the wines I have ever tasted from here are made by the excellent Plaimont Producteurs cooperative. If there are other producers then I have yet to find them, but these guys do a superb job.

I have a particular liking for the tasty white wines of the area and Plaimont have gone to great lengths to bring the traditional grape varieties and blends of Arrufiac, Petit Courbu, Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng back to life in recent years:

retrouv2011 Saint Mont Les Vignes Retrouvées
Plaimont Producteurs
Made from a blend of 60% Gros Manseng, 20 % Petit Courbu and 20% Arrufiac, this is an exciting wine, dry, medium-bodied and tangy with a rich citrus acidity and a richer stone fruit and pithy citric palate with texture and a juicy succulence – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £11.00 per bottle from Les Caves de Pyrène & The Smiling Grape Company.

LN_574506_BP_a_42011 Saint Mont Le Passé Authentique
Plaimont Producteurs
Another deliciously tangy blend of Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu and Arrufiac. Gros Manseng always reminds me of tangly pithy grapefruit, so if you enjoy Sauvignon Blanc this could be a good style for you. It is aromatic, dry, citric and vibrant with a rich texture, lots of freshness, all in all a lovely wine – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK from Waitrose at £9.99 per bottle – £7.49 until 20/04/14.

The red wines of Saint Mont are made from blends of Tannat, Pinenc – yet another local name for Fer Servadou, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and are rather good too, especially this one:

empreinte_de_saint_mont_rouge_2008_hd_300dpi2010 Saint Mont L’Empreinte de Saint Mont
Saint Mont
Plaimont Terroirs & Châteaux
This blend of Tannat and Pinenc – yet another local name for Fer Servadou – is concentrated, weighty, but soft, supple and richly fruity. In fact the key word is soft, it is also very smooth with no obvious tannin feel and very drinkable, as there is also a freshness running through it that stops it being jammy – 87/100 points.

2008 vintage available in the UK at £14.99 per bottle from Vinopic. The white Saint Mont L’Empreinte de Saint Mont is delicately oaky and quite superb too and is stocked by The Wine Society & Adnams Celler & Kitchen.

Irouléguy

Domaine Brana in Irouléguy - photo from http://www.winesofsouthwestfrance.com

Domaine Brana in Irouléguy – photo from http://www.winesofsouthwestfrance.com

Irouléguy is a beautiful mountainous region in the basque lands with a wine making history that goes back to Roman times and steeply sloped vineyards at heights that range between 100-400m above sea-level. They cling to the French side of the Pyrenees at a place where they wiggle a bit, so run north to south rather than the expected west to east. This means the vineyards face south and south east giving them much more sun than seems logical – if like me you foolishly assumed that the Pyrenees went in a straight line from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean that is. For those cheese fiends amongst you, Ossau-Iraty comes from around here too.

In truth although the region has a long history, like many of the other bits of the south west it almost stopped producing wine after phylloxera and the industry had to be rebuilt to make the good quality modern wines that we now experience. The grapes are classic from this part of the world, but often given their Basque names: Bordelesa Beltza / Tannat, Axeria / Cabernet Franc, Axeria Handia / Cabernet Sauvignon, while the whites are somewhat more exotic: Izkiriota / Gros Manseng, Izkiriota Ttipia / Petit Manseng and Xuri Zerratia / Petit Courbu.

The local coperative, La Cave Irouléguy, is the producer that I have encountered the most, but my favourite wines so far come from Domaine Brana.

Jean and Martine Brana farm 22 hectares of steep slopes in a non interventionist, partly biodynamic way – but not totally biodynamic since 2003 – and the care they take really shows in the finished product. They do not seek to make blockbuster wines, but more elegant wines with medium weight and plenty of elegance.

Domaine-Brana-blanc2011 Irouléguy Domaine Brana Blanc
Irouléguy
This is a classy, elegant and refined blend of 50% Gros Manseng, 30% Petit Courbu and 20% Petit Manseng. It has lovely complexity and richness, tangy mouth-watering acidity and a creamy texture together with a dash of savoury minerality. All in all a very fine wine indeed – 91/100 points.

Sadly I can no longer find a stockist for this wine, but The Wine Society used to stock it, so keep an eye out if they get some more.

Domaine-Brana-rouge2009 Irouléguy Domaine Brana Rouge
Irouléguy
An elegant blend of 60% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Tannat. A developed and beautifully integrated wine showing dried fruit, caramel and mocha oak and hints of leather. The palate has medium weight with intense flavour concentration with lovely intensity of fruit and balancing freshness. There is still a touch of fine grain tannins too giving lovely balance and an elegant restrained feel – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK from The Wine Society at £19.00 per bottle.

Sweet Wines
This part of France has a great tradition of producing desert wines of course Sauternes and Barsac are not far away, while Monbazillac and Saussignac produce very similar wines from the same grape varieties in nearby Bergerac.

The speciality regions for sweet wines in the Sud-Ouest proper though are Jurançon, which uses the wonderful Petit-Manseng to great effect, and the nearby region of Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh. This PDO / AOC covers the same territory as Madiran, but is only for white wines made from Arrufiac, Courbu, Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu and Petit Manseng. Wines labelled Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec are dry. The areas odd name apparently means ‘vines supported on stakes in the old country’ in the local dialect, which is how the vines are grown, which was historically quite rare in France, but is of course very common today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh & Madiran vineyards – photo courtesy of winesofsouthwestfrance.com.

1790-vin-pacherenc-du-vic-billa-saint-albert-75cl2011 Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Saint-Albert
Plaimont Producteurs
A late harvest wine made from a blend Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu left to ripen on the vine until 15 November – Saint Albert’s day. It really is delicious as it seems very fresh and lively with the sweetness keeping in the background, there are some orange marmalade notes, apricot and something more exotic about it too and the acidity keeps the luscious sweetness from dominating your palate. A lovely, beautifully balanced dessert wine, not massively complex, but very attractive. Everybody loved this precisely because it has so much freshness and is not as intense as some other dessert wines – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK at £13.95 per 50 cl bottle from Corney & Barrow.

All the tasters have been very impressed by the wines that I have shown them from south west France, so if you want to try something a little more unusual and interesting, it might be an excellent place to try for some delicious wines. Think of it as less of a wine region and more of a voyage of discovery.

 

 

Navarra – diversity, delights & surprises

 

Navarra's landscape - count the windmills - Don Quixote would have had his work cut out today!

Navarra’s landscape – count the windmills – Don Quixote would have had his work cut out today!

I have recently returned from my first wine trip to Navarra and I am excited, as well as mystified, by what I found.

History long ago robbed Navarra of its coastline, although the northern tip is very near the sea, while modern economics has so far deprived the region of an international airport, so the easiest way to visit is either via nearby Bilbao or Biarritz and it is well worth the effort.

The thronging streets of Pamplona.

The thronging streets of Pamplona.

Pamplona's beautiful town hall.

Pamplona’s beautiful city hall.

One of Pamplona's many excellent bars.

One of Pamplona’s many excellent bars.

Dinner, Spanish ham is the very best thing with any wine.

Dinner, Spanish ham is the very best thing with any wine.

Pamplona, the region’s capital, is a compact, handsome Spanish city with a lovely mediaeval centre whose main square, the delightful Plaza del Castillo, is surrounded by enticing little streets lined with superb tapas bars and teeming with life – except on a Sunday night. The square itself is home to the famous Café Iruña which is well worth a visit as it is a great bar serving just about anything you could imagine from chocolate y churros to full meals. It is also a tourist attraction itself though, as it is an incredibly beautiful building whose sumptuous interior dates from 1888 and was once Ernest Hemingway’s watering hole of choice – indeed their restaurant on the mezzanine floor is named in his honour and there is a bronze statue of him at the bar.

Hemingway at the Café Iruña.

Hemingway at the Café Iruña.

There is much for a hedonist to enjoy in Pamplona and I would highly recommend that you spend a few days there. I was also very glad to renew my acquaintance with Olite which is a small Navarran town that is home to the 14th century Palacio Real de Olite and whose Parador is in a 15th century palace and castle. I spent my 4th birthday there and well remember the mixture of excitement and trepidation I felt when passing the suits of armour on the stairs leading up to our turret room – perhaps I had watched too much Scooby-Doo, as I was certain they would come to life and attack me!

The heart of Olite.

The heart of Olite.

Lovely though all that was, I was here for the wine. I really wanted to get to grips with what made Navarra tick, how its wine industry sees itself and what it does well. I had some ideas, but what I experienced was a real surprise.

I found a very mixed picture indeed. I know the region produces a great deal of Garnacha (Grenache) rosé / rosado, but I went there expecting to find a confident wine region that produced good quality Tempranillo based red blends. In the main I anticipated tasting lots of good wines a bit like Rioja, but offering better value for money and which had some Cabernet and Merlot in them. In my mind Navarra was right up there with Rioja and Ribera del Duero as a quality wine region, but was somehow ignored by the consumer.

Well, broadly speaking I was right about the value for money and the general quality, but not much else. What I found instead was a wine region with incredible variety. In fact if there was any single message I could take away it was that Navarra has great diversity and produces an extraordinary array of wines.

Which we are all used to from the new world, but not so much from European regions and it makes it very difficult to sum up what Navarra is all about. Which must be at least one reason why it is so hard to find Navarra wines for sale in the UK – diversity of styles is not an easy sell. Try as I might I just cannot sum Navarra up in a simple phrase or single style, which might make the wines difficult to sell, but it also makes them pretty interesting.

However this lack of a single identity seems to echo that of the region itself. The place is cool, green and mountainous in the north where it borders France’s Basque regions and at one point is just 12 km from the Atlantic. To the south Navarra is a hot, arid plain and more like the Spain of our imaginations – in fact every time we ventured south of Tafalla the rain stopped and the landscape was noticeably drier.

Historically too the region has a very mixed heritage. It was once home to the Vascones, a tribe who managed to negotiate a respected place for themselves within the Roman Empire and the whole Ebro Valley became Romanised, rich and known as Ager Vasconum. In later history these people became both the Basques and the Gascons and the wider area became the Kingdom of Navarre. This country straddled the Pyrenees and from 1224 was ruled by French dynasties including that of Thibault 1 the Comte de Champagne – which partly explains why Taittinger Champagne is so widely available in Pamplona. It was not until 1512 that Navarra was incorporated into Spain, making it the last piece of mainland Spain to be absorbed. Even then it retained its own systems and some autonomy, while the people still kept many of their traditional freedoms that made Navarra less feudal than much of Spain.

A glance at my map will show you that the Navarra wine region only covers a part of the southern half of the region. They shy away from growing grapes in the cooler north or the mountains – even though Navarra has land very close to Getariako Txakolina and borders France’s Irouléguy regions – and plant solely where there is more sun to ripen the grapes.

Many of the wine areas are very close to Rioja and indeed some parts of Navarra’s southern fringes that hug the Ebro River are included in the Rioja Denominación de Origen Calificada / DOCa rather than Navarra’s Denominación de Origen / DO.

In all honesty I find it very hard to get to grips with Navarra’s wine history. It would appear to have all the same things going for it that made Rioja such a force to be reckoned with – in fact it is even closer to Bordeaux and has more French connections if anything. So why phyloxerra was the making of nearby Rioja, but almost destroyed Navarra seems to be something of a mystery. Of the 50.000 hectares of vines in production before Phyloxerra struck, 48,500 were wiped out and it took a long, long time to recover and even now they only have some 12,000 hectares.

Having studied the history of Rioja to some degree and toured Navarra, it strikes me that even today Navarra is a land of grape growers and estates, whereas Rioja is only just returning to being a land of wine estates after a century and a half of being dominated by producers who mainly made wine brands with bought in fruit. The difference might be as simple as that, Rioja was in great part controlled by big producers with the money and knowhow to turn bought grapes into good wine and Navarra’s growers would have struggled to keep up with nothing like the clout or economies of scale.

So, Navarra missed its moment and had to watch as Rioja became the dominant Spanish wine region and for a long time the only one with true international demand and world renown. The consequences of that are still apparent today and I was really very surprised how there is no clear identity for Navarra even now. They use a broad palette of grapes and produce many different styles of wine. Which makes it slightly harder for the consumer to navigate their way around, but much of what I tasted proved that Navarra is well worth the effort.

Navarra with watermark QS

Map of Navarra – click for a larger view. High-res non-watermarked versions of my maps are available by agreement.

Navarra’s Sub-zones & Climate
Navarra, like Rioja, is made up of sub-zones – 5 of them in fact, however they do not seem to be mentioned on the labels or wine details. So although they are different, have varied soils and differing climatic conditions, the consumer does not really notice whether the wine is from one or the other or is a blend from across the region.

Senorio de Saría in .

Senorio de Saría in Valdizarbe.

Valdizarbe is the most northerly and cool, often with chalky soils.

Tierra Estella.

Tierra Estella.

Tierra Estella is a beautiful and lush place with limestone soils and gently warm with noticeably moist ( sub-humid) conditions – it was certainly damp while I was there.

Old vines in Baja Montaña.

Old vines in Baja Montaña.

Baja Montaña is unlike all the other sub-zones. It produces very little wine and is high and cool, however these sunny, but cool hilly vineyards have well drained gravel and limestone soils that together with cool nights seem to be able to produce some astonishing wines – this struck me as a place to watch.

Bodegas Inurieta in Ribera Alta.

Bodegas Inurieta in Ribera Alta.

Ribera Alta is a large area that accounts for around a third of all Navarra production. The soils are sand and limestone in the main with a gentle Mediterranean climate that makes it warmer than the 3 northern sub-zones.

Vines in Ribera Baja.

Vines in Ribera Baja.

Ribera Baja is actually south of Rioja and is the warmest and driest part of Navarra with an arid Mediterranean climate that produces piquillo peppers as well as being home to the largest number of bodegas in Navarra. This arid plain is a sun trap with sandy soils. Moscatel / Muscat performs well here as well as the red varieties.

Piquillo peppers hung out to dy.

Piquillo peppers hung out to dy.

Right now these sub-zones seem to me to be largely an irrelevance which reduces the impact of a simple message about Navarra DO. Remember that Rioja on the whole ignores its sub-zones, but perhaps they will become more important and relevant as Navarra builds its following.

Rosado – Navarra’s standard-bearer
I suspect that most wine drinkers will have tried a Rosé Garnacha from Navarra – even if they unaware of what it was. These wines are hard to avoid in Spain and are perfect with tapas – our little group of wine writers tasted quite a few examples while in Navarra and many were very good indeed. I have not always been excited by Garnacha rosado, usually being more tempted by Tempranillo or Bobal versions, but the sheer pleasure that some of them delivered has turned me – all of these were deliciously drinkable if undemanding and I would happily drink them with anything or nothing:

botella_vino_inurrieta_mediodia2012 Garnacha Rosado Mediodia
Bodegas Inurietta
This is also sold by Adnams as their Adnams Selection Rosado ‘Monte Arlas’

2012 Nekeas Garnacha Rosado
Bodegas Nekeas – they also produce Morrisons Signature Navarra Garnacha Rosé

gran-feudo-rosado-12012 Gran Feudo Garnacha Rosado
Bodegas Chivite
We actually had this a few times as it is omnipresent in Pamplona’s tapas bars – indeed it is the best selling Rosé in Spain.

It is delightful and goes with anything at all – a vibrant, happy, juicy wine bursting with fruit.

2G2012 Señorio de Sarria Garnacha Rosado
Bodegas Señorio de Sarria

A lovely, vibrant and bright wine with rich red fruit, almost, but not quite sweetly ripe and a nice dash of tangy acidity. This would perhaps be my choice as representative of good Garnacha rosado.

rosado_de_lagrima2012 Ochoa Rosado de Lagrima
Bodegas Ochoa
This is made by the delightful Adriana Ochoa who has worked around the world, especially in Australia with Yalumba and the influences show – both ways actually as she persuaded Yalumba to make Tempranillo. This was the palest rosé that I tried on the trip and it was made from a 50/50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Garnacha. It was perhaps the most delicate that we tasted, which gave it a little more class with some minerality, fresh acidity, red fruit and even a touch of tannin making it balanced as well as delicious – it was perfect with our delicious alfresco lunch.

However, some producers make more complex and demanding rosés as well and these are really very special:

8G2012 Señorio de Sarria Viñedo N° 5 Garnacha Rosado
Bodegas Señorio de Sarria
Made from 56 year old vines, this is quite superb with real wine aromas of earth, mushroom and savoury herbs as well as bright red fruit notes. The palate is rich, full and textured with ripe red fruit and brambley fruit balanced by a bite of acidity and excellent balance. I really liked this very much indeed, it is intense and full of flavour, a great rosé – 89/100 points.

imagen_escala_ancho.php2011 Chivite Collecion 125 Rosado
J. Chivite Family Estates
Now quite seperate from Gran Fuedo, the Chivite Family Estates are at Aberin in the Tierra Estella Sub-zone. This is an ambitious wine that aims to be a fine rosé wine. Made from a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha it is aged on its lees for 6 months in French oak barrels with weekly lees stirring to add texture and complexity – an astonishingly good rosé, one of the very best I have ever tasted – 91/100 points.

The Whites – focus on Chardonnay
I really like white wine and have taken to it more and more the older I get. I particularly like Spain’s white wines nowadays. Navarra’s whites puzzled me a bit though, with few exceptions the favoured white grape of the region seems to be Chardonnay and while I have nothing against Chardonnay, many consumers do – in the UK anyway. What’s more, if I want Chardonnay then my thoughts would not really turn to Spain, unless I was in Spain, but then I would want an Albariño, Godello, Verdejo, barrel fermented Rioja or even Txakoli – all classic Spanish styles. I can see that a Spaniard might want a Chardonnay from time to time, but I really think Navarra producers are holding themselves back by over relying on this grape.

That being said there were some very nice examples and  some that excited me. The lively and fresh unoaked 2012 Chardonnay from Bodegas Señorio de Sarria – think slightly tropical Chablis with a hint of lactic creaminess, while the 2012 Gran Feudo Chardonnay from Bodegas Gran Feudo / Chivite was a little more textured and creamy – but still with good acidity and freshness – was also a lovely wine, both score 87/100 points.

I was also excited by the 2011 Nekeas Barrel Fermented Chardonnay made by the charming Concha Vecino at Bodegas Nekeas. It was textured and beautifully integrated with peach, cinnamon, poached pear, gentle oak spice and creaminess all balanced by fresh acidity that kept it delicate and elegant. I would certainly order that if I saw it on a wine list in Spain, it would be wonderful with a sole or a creamy fish pie. This lovely wine is so well balanced it would win many people back to Chardonnay, Concha believes it to be one of the very best in Spain and considering it sells in Spain for around €8, then I think she is right – 91/100 points for quality and value.

The one Chardonnay that I have tasted from Navarra which is on a completely different level of complexity is the 2009 Chivite Collecion 125 Blanco from J. Chivite Family Estates. This superb wine spends nine months on the lees in Allier oak and is beautifully rich, creamy, textured and opulent, but well balanced with lovely acidity and good integration of the gently spicy and nutty oak. It isn’t cheap, but is very fine and complex. This is a wonderful wine, wherever it comes from and some claim it to be Spain’s finest white – 93/100 points.

Sauvignon Blanc et al
As for whites made from anything other than Chardonnay, I only tried a few. Bodegas Inurietta make something of a speciality of Sauvignon Blanc and produce 2 versions. Their unoaked version is called Orchidea and is a nice, direct, limey and attractive Sauvignon. Their oaked version, Orchidea Cuvée is more complex, textured with a leesy lime curd character and a cut of grapefruit-like acidity, it’s a lovely and interesting wine but sadly they only make 5000 bottles.

Much as I liked all of these – and I really did – I kept wanting some whites that were just a bit more – well Spanish, or different at least. They planted the French varietals in Navarra because of their historic links north of the border, so what about Basque grapes to give some difference – Gros Manseng makes stunning whites in Gascony and the Basque lands, so what about some more diverse white grapes guys, something you could make your own?

The Reds
For most Spanish wine regions the red wines is what it is really all about and that is certainly true of Navarra. Navarra has long grown the classic Spanish grapes that we normally associate with Rioja, but that are widely grown throughout Spain, Tempranillo, Garnacha and even Graciano and Mazuelo. Over the last 40 years or so though most producers have added classic Bordeaux grapes to their vineyards. They always say this is because of their traditional link with Gascony and Aquitaine north of the Pyrenees and those regions do indeed grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – I even heard of some Malbec in Navarra too. However these traditional grapes were apparently helped to return to Navarra – if indeed they had ever grown there before – by Juan Magaña who had worked in Bordeaux and wanted to create Navarran wines with the finesses and sophistication of top Bordeaux. To that end he famously smuggled cuttings over the border during the early 1970s – when Spain was still a dictatorship and near siege economy. He planted his vineyard and built Bodegas Viña Magaña in Barillas near Cascante in Ribera Baja. If you have not tried his wines they are quite magnificent and I hope to visit next time.

I had been looking forward to the Tempranillo based wines and various blends and I enjoyed a good number of them including the following stand out examples.

Bodegas Inurietta
Falces, Ribera Alta sub-zone

Grapes arriving at Inurietta.

Grapes arriving at Inurietta.

This winery was the first one that I visited and they really impressed me. The winery is very modern and well equipped, even though the the land has belonged to the owning family for well over 100 years. Inurietta is the name of the parcel of land near Falces in the Ribera Alta zone. They grow their grapes at various heights in the valley from 300 to 480 m, which certainly seems to help retain good freshness in the wines. The soils vary from sand and silt to gravels, clay and limestone.
Overall I think their wines seem to be very good quality, well made with ripe fruit and an approachable, modern style.

Bodegas Inurietta wines are distributed in the UK through C & D Wines.

botella_menu_vino_inurrieta_cuatrocientos.p:Users:quentinsadler:Desktop:botella_menu_vino_inurrieta_cuatrocientos2010 Inurietta Quatrocientos Crianza
I greatly enjoyed this blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Graciano and Petit Verdot aged for 14 months in French and American oak. It had good rich cassis and black cherry fruit with soft, but firm fine grain tannins and a cut of fresh acidity as the vines are grown at quite high altitudes – 87/100 points.

botella_menu_vino_altos_de_inurriera2008 Altos de Inurietta Reserva
A 50/50 blend of Syrah and Petit Verdot aged for 14 months in new French oak barrels.
This was a hugely impressive and modern style red wine, gloriously smooth and richly fruity with soft, rounded tannins. The oak is nicely balanced with the fruit and supports rather than dominates – 88/100 points.

botella_menu_vino_ladera_inurrieta2010 Laderas de Inurietta
100% Graciano aged for 15 months in new French and American oak barrels.
I’m not always a fan of Graciano on its own and prefer it in blends, but this joins the ranks of the few varietal examples (especially Contino) that I have really enjoyed. The nose offered rich creamy black fruit and freshly turned earth (nicer than it sounds). The palate gives rich, sweet, ripe black fruit and plums together with soft, sweet tannins and a ripe, creamy texture to the fruit and silky tannins. A beautifully made and modern wine with a new world feel – 89/100 points.

Bodegas Señorio de Sarria
Puente de la Reina, Valdizarbe sub-zone

Puente la Reina from Señorio de Saría.

Puente de la Reina from Señorio de Saría.

I have always been fond of this beautiful winery ever since I used to sell the 1978 Gran Reserva in another life and their wines always please the crowds when I show them at tastings.
The estate is very peaceful as it sits in rolling tree covered hills, deep in the Sarria Estate which farms many other things other than grapes. Milk and cheese is a speciality too, in fact of 1500 hectares, only 210 are used for wine production. Most of the vines are on south facing slopes at between 400 – 500m allowing the wines to keep good balance between fruit and freshness.

Señorio de Sarria wines are distributed in the UK through Boutinot.

13G2010 Señorio de Sarria Viñedo Sotés
I have always been fascinated by this single vineyard multi-varietal blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Graciano and Mazuelo. The vines are 53 years old and grown around the Castillo de Sotés just over the hill from Saría itself.  The wine was aged 9 months in French oak barrels.
This has lovely intensity and weight, with a creamy ripeness of fruit, the palate also has a firmness that I like, the acidity is there but masked by everything else, it just supports. Medium-bodied, dry and structured, but a lovely wine for posh everyday drinking – 87/100 points.

32004 Señorio de Sarria Gran Reserva
This wine has always delivered superb value for money and is a great bottle of wine that tastes as Spanish as they come, despite only having French grapes in it! The blend is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon to 30% Merlot aged for 36 months in oak, the Cabernet in French and the Merlot in American.
The colour was an earthy garnet, while the nose offered leather, dried fruit and fragrant smoke. The palate gave prunes, plums, mocha tinged oak and intense sweet ripe fruit together with savoury characters, lovely weight and a silky texture. 89/100 points.

Available in the UK from Caviste @ £14.95 per bottle.

Their Reserva Especial was also rather good by the way.

Bodegas Nekeas
Añorbe, Valdizarbe sub-zone

Nekeas Valley.

Nekeas Valley.

Another beautiful spot in Valdizarbe, the sunny Nekeas Valley seems to produce some good wine and I had never stumbled across them before. They claim to have the most northerly olive groves in Spain too and make some superb olive oil.
Historically the place was an important producer, but the vineyards were unused for 100 years before being brought back to life in 1989. The vines form a single block, interspersed with olives, growing between 450 and 650m.

Concha Vecino winemaker at Nekeas.

Concha Vecino winemaker at Nekeas.

Nekeas’s secret weapon is their wonderful winemaker Concha Vecino. She has such passion for the place and what she does and love for “my grapes” and “my wines” that she is hard to resist. Her enthusiasm is catching and what is more she really knows what she is doing. Subtlety seems to be her watchword and she makes very good wines which really try to capture the character of the place. As Concha says “Oak and tanks are for everyone, but my valley is just for me”.

temp_cab_crianza2010 Nekeas Crianza Tempranillo-Cabernet Sauvignon
A 60/40 blend grown at the top of the valley slopes. The wine is aged for 14 months in French oak and is unfined and unfiltered.
This gave a lovely aroma of wild herbs, earth and flowers together with studs of deep red fruit. The palate had great concentration of rich cassis and redcurrant with high, fresh, clean, tangy acidity. Very soft, smooth texture, there is a seam of gently firm tannin leaving a slightly chalky finish. Intense, but delicious, the finish gives herbs and lavender. Over all it has lovely balance and purity – 88/100 points.

cab_merlot_reserva112008 Nekeas Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot
A 50/50 blend grown in very high vineyards on poor, thin, stony soils. The wine is aged for 18 months in French oak of around a year old.
The colour is dense, blue black and opaque.
The nose offers rich notes of mocha and sweet tobacco with clean earth together with dried cassis and the beginnings of prune and fig.
The palate is rich, creamily ripe and succulent, with deep sweet black fruit and is pretty full bodied and concentrated with good acidity and running through it. This is very good and attractive wine – 89/100 points.

We will hear a little more about Nekeas very soon….

Bodegas Julian Chivite / Gran Feudo
Cintruénigo, Ribera Baja sub-zone
I am so glad to have finally visited Chivite, even if it was a rush. They are so important to Navarra, having been grape growers since 1647 (which is just before lunch in Spain) and have produced wine since at least 1860 – their superb Colección 125 range was created in 1985 to celebrate the 125th  anniversary of their first wine exports and have always been some of the very best Spanish wines. 
Now the Colección 125 are produced at the Chivite Family Estates at Aberin in the Tierra Estella sub-zone, sadly I did not get there, but did try the range and they are all magnificent wines.

We had a light lunch here and the centrepiece was a stunning Tortilla. We asked the lady who made it what the secret was of that lovely soft texture and it seems it was a litre of olive oil poured into the egg mixture! You live, you learn.

After years of family problems an 11th generation Chivite is once more in charge, Julian, no less and I was so excited to meet him that I forgot to take a photograph!

GF Crianza2008 Gran Feudo Crianza
50% Tempranillo, 30% Garnacha and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 18 months in French and American oak.
A wonderful wine with the punch of young Grenache dominating the pure red fruit and spice laden nose.
Rich, supple palate with the Tempranillo providing the weight and taut, smooth tannins, while the Garnacha gives the fleshy texture and brightness. Lovely supple freshness, medium bodied and elegant with a lovely savoury finish, smooth supple tannins, vanilla and mocha oak notes and fresh acidity all dominated by rich red cherry and blackberry fruit – 88/100 points.

The Gran Feudo Reserva was very good too, but the next wine was a real treat:

GF Res VV2008 Gran Feudo Viñas Viejas Reserva
50% Tempranillo and 50% Garnacha from  vineyards planted between 1954 and 1960. The wine was aged for 12 months in American oak.
A lovely wine, it somehow feels classy with fine grain tannins and burnished coffee character as well as bright black cherry fruit, vanilla and spice. A lovely elegant, easy wine – 89/100 points.

chivite-coleccion-125-reserva-62009 Chivite Collecion 125 Reserva
This vintage was pure Tempranillo aged 14 months in French oak barrels 40% were new and 60% second use.
I had not tried this for a while and it was as good as I remember, rich and concentrated but still elegant, classy and complex with lovely fruit concentration giving a creamy quality, deep black fruit, subtle use of oak giving nice spice nuances and some mineral, earthy characters. A beautiful wine of great finesse – 93/100 points.

Ochoa Vinedos y Bodegas
Olite, Ribera Alta sub-zone
Now all the wineries that I have written about here make lovely wine that I rate highly, but Ochoa was such a wonderful visit. The Ochoa family seem to have been involved in Navarra wine for centuries, but the winery only goes back to 1908, but like so many other producers around the world, the focus on quality wines only began in recent times when the delightful Javier Ochoa took over. In recent years Javier has been joined by his daughter Adriana as enologist and her passion for the vines and the wines she makes from them really shows. What also helps is that Adriana has made wine all around the world and especially has experience of making wine at Yalumba in Australia and her go getting attitude really shows. I thought that all her wines were very good quality indeed.

Javier & Adriana Ochoa.

Javier & Adriana Ochoa.

The Ochoas farm 143 hectares just south of Olite on clay and limestone soils that face south giving excellent sun exposure.
I loved their enthusiasm and exuberance, touring their vineyards was a delight, whilst riding a grape harvester was just a wild experience – oh and the lunch was superb too.

The view from the top of a harvester - I's never been on a harvester before...

The view from the top of a harvester at Ochoa – I’d never been on a harvester before…
The Ochoas, like most Navarra producers I met – and Miguel Torres – are certain that machine harvesting is just as good as picking by hand.

Views from Ochoa's Traibuenas vineyard near Olite.

Views from Ochoa’s Traibuenas vineyard near Olite.

The same view with the harvester.

The same view with the harvester.

reserva2007 Ochoa Reserva
55% Tempranillo, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot aged for 15 months in French and American oak.
Gosh I really liked this wine. We might technically have had finer wines on the trip, but this was so good and so joyful to drink that I rank it pretty high. It still has lovely fruit, giving a soft and succulent character, but there is just the beginning of dried fruit, leather, coffee and mocha too. The tannins are smooth and silky while the flavour lasts and lasts – 90/100 points.

Conclusions so far
So, from everything I had experienced so far, Navarra’s ability to produce good rosé from a range of grapes, but especially Grenache / Garnacha is well deserved and my view of them as good quality rosés is increased.

My opinion of the white wines from Navarra has certainly grown, I tasted many good Chardonnays made in many different styles – and some non-Chardonnays too – most of them I would happily order and drink with pleasure. My only quibble is that here in the UK anyway the word Chardonnay is not considered a good thing to have on a wine label. To me it feels limiting to major on a foreign white grape that cannot ever really be your own, especially when Spain and the Basque lands are full of wonderful white grapes, but that might just be me. All I know is that most UK consumers would not want to buy a Chardonnay and I am unlikely to ever order a Spanish Chardonnay, even if it’s good, because I want more traditional Spanish styles.

As far as the red wines were concerned, I liked what I saw from all the producers that I have written about here and more. I had always seen Navarra as a producer of Tempranillo, Cabernet and Merlot blends and I found many of them to be very good quality indeed and well deserving of being more popular and sought after.

The surprises
However the red wines that I found the most startling and exciting were not made from Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot at all. They were actually made from a grape variety that I am not particularly keen on either. I knew Navarra grew it because they make rosés out of it, Grenache / Garnacha is a classic Spanish grape, but I hardly ever seek it out. It of course produces great results in blends in Rioja and Priorat, but as a varietal it hardly ever moves me. In Spain it is grown in the hot regions of southern Aragón – Calatayud, Cariñena and Campo de Borja – where it makes nice affordable wines that can be fun and great value, but hardly ever amazing.

So you could have knocked me down with a feather when I tasted a Garnacha from Navarra – pretty much against my will – and I loved it, I became hooked and wanted more, so tasted all the Garnacha I could find. I was wondering why I liked them so much when Concha Vecino put her finger on it. She described them as the “Pinot Noir of Garnachas” and the only Atlantic Grenaches in the world.

We are so used to Grenache being seen as hot climate grape that hearing how well it does in a cool area is quite astonishing and changes all the rule. However it must be said that another favourite Grenache of mine this year was the magnificent 2007 Villa Maria Reserve Grenache from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, another place that is pretty cool and with a sort of Atalantic climate. Sadly this wine is so far produced in such small amounts that it is not available in Europe. The good news is though that these cool climate Garnachas from Navarra are available and often deliver great value for money.

Old vines at Nekeas.

Old vines at Nekeas.

Chap Garnacha

2011 El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa Old Vine Garnacha
Bodegas Nekeas, Añorbe, Valdizarbe sub-zone
These vineyards this wine comes from are at the highest point of the valley – the high plain or chaparral – and the vines are between 70 and 100 years old. The wine has a short time in French oak to give it a dusting of spice and touch of complexity. It gives rich aromas of red fruit with caramel, vanilla, red fruit and spice.
The palate is rich, smooth, supple, savoury and nicely tarry, with gently firm tannins and lovely intense rich sweet fruit, while throughout the wine is this lovely freshness, purity and cut of clean acidity. Do try it – 90/100 points.
Old vines with Bodegas Palacio de Sada behind.

Old vines with Bodegas Palacio de Sada behind.

Sada2012 Palacio de Sada Garnacha
Bodegas Palacio de Sada, Sada, Baja Montaña sub-zone 
Palacio de Sada are very near Sangüesa in cool high land with stony soils. It has been left behind by time a little, so they still have 200 hectares of old vine Garnache, much of it over 100 years old. Even with the newer 400 hectares the average age of their vines is still over 30 years old!
This was my first Garnacha from cool climate Navarra and I was very taken by it. It is simple, unoaked and juicy, but wow it’s delicious. If I had a wine bar or wine company I would order it straight away. It smells of freshly crushed raspberries and tastes of a whole melange of fresh red fruit and spice – my note says “Sangria for grown ups”! The cool, high altitude conditions give this wine a lovely seam of freshness which I think makes it such a joy – 90/100 points, mainly for the pleasure it delivers.
Palacio de Sada wines are distributed in the UK by Amathus.

La Dama

2009 Domaines Lupier La Dama Garnacha
Bodegas Domaines Lupier, San Martín de Unx, Baja Montaña sub-zone
75 year old Garnacha bush vines organically grown on dispersed plots on cool rocky soils at 600 – 750m. It the brainchild of  mavericks, or fanatics (in the best sense) Enrique Basarte and Elisa Úcar who say of their wines that “Atlantic Grenache, mountain viticulture, spectacular soils make it possible to obtain this ‘savage’ expression of the Grenache Grape”. The finished wine was aged 14 months in French oak.
I saw the road signs to the wonderfully named San Martín de Unx and it stuck in my mind. I wish we had gone, because this was the most exciting wine of the trip, only just and even then because it was so unexpected as much as anything else, but it really is a great wine.
The nose is fragrant and elegant with a purity about it. The palate is balanced and fine with poise and elegance and it carries the 14.5% alcohol perfectly. It is quite rich and concentrated, but also fresh and lively and feels much more Burgundian than Rhône-like. A great, great Grenache that I would love to try in a couple of years – 93/100 points.
Domaines Lupier wines are distributed in the UK by Fields, Morris & Verdin.

_0004_sta-cruz-artazu-2010

2010 Santa Cruz de Artazu Garnacha
Bodegas y Vinédos Artazu, Puente de la Reina, Valdizarbe sub-zone 
Juan Carlos Lopez of Bodegas Artadi fame has spread his wings since 1996, making superb wines in Alicante and also Navarra as well. Their Navarra estate is situated in Artazu just over the river Arga from Señorio de Saría and not far from the Camino de Santiago. Their vineyards grow at 500m and the primary focus is red Garnacha, especially in the flagship wine Santa Cruz de Artazu. Which in itself is interesting as at nearby Saría they were adamant that the best use of their old Garnacha vines was in their  Viñedo N° 5 Rosado, rather than in a red wine.

Certainly it is warmer and more humid here than in Baja Montaña and it shows with a heavier, richer and more brooding and spicy style that has intense smoky sweet black fruit and smoky fine tannins. This is a very different take, but still very fine. It needs a lot of time and a lot of food – 92/100 points.
Artadi and Artazu wines are distributed in the UK by Fields, Morris & Verdin.

However much I liked many of the other reds – and I did – it seemed to me that with red Grenache Navarra has found its star grape. I have never tasted Garnacha as fine, complex or interesting as these – do try some if you can.

At risk of out staying my welcome though I have one more surprise:

Something sweet to finish

I have tasted many Muscats – Moscatel in Spanish – from Navarra and have enjoyed them all in their different ways. Some were light, fresh and clean, while most were lightly fortified like a Vin Doux Naturel. I would highly recommend the following Navarra Moscatels:

moscatel_dulce2011 Ochoa Moscatel Vendimia Tardía
The freshest example I have tried, it is not fortified and the grapes are only a little bit over-ripe. It’s so light and clean and pure that it seems to sing. It feels very simple in many ways, but is so, so deliciously full of fresh, lively peaches, honey, flowers and almonds that it is almost impossible to resist – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from Winedrop.co.uk @ £11.75 per half litre / 500cl.

5G

Señorío de Sarría Moscatel
This is a richer , but still fresh, and honeyed, sweet and a delicious take on the style. The aromas are quite lifted and vibrant with honey, blossom and aniseed as well as lemon shortbread notes. Interestingly the partially fermented grape juice is fortified with local Orujo – a Spanish grappa.

Quite a classic style in Spain – 87/100 points.

chivite-coleccion-125-vendimia-tardia-22008 Chivite Collecion 125 Vendimia Tardía
A more complex style, this is late harvested and partly botrytised Moscatel / Muscat with he grapes being picked in 12 successive tris through the vineyard to get the ripest grapes. The wine is fermented and aged for 5 months in French oak and it really is stunning, honeyed, concentrated and rich as the Sultan of Brunei – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK from Waitrose @ £19.99 per half bottle.

So, just when I thought I knew what Navarra Moscatel was all about, I was given this:

caprichoMoscatel Capricho de Goya
Bodegas Camilo Castilla, Corella, Ribera Baja sub-zone
This wine is bonkers! It is amazingly concentrated and ripe with deep prune, fig and raisin characters, rum, caramel and nutty toffee too. It is made a bit like a Madeira with ageing in a mixture of wooden barrels and glass demijohns on the roof for 7 years. It is so, so lovely, like sticky toffee pudding in a glass – who needs the dessert? In style it is like a joyous cross between PX and Rutherglen Muscat with more freshness and salinity. It is intensely sweet, but also has an intense savoury richness, truly great wine – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK from Templar Wines @ £19.25 per half litre / 500cl.

So, the whole trip was quite an experience and Navarra delivered up more variety and more unexpected gems than I could imagine. I loved the wines and the place and if you drink a few of these wines that I have mentioned, then so will you.

A dramatic Navarra sunset.

A dramatic Navarra sunset.

Rioja’s Heart of Oak

CIMG3041

Looking south from the Sierra de Cantabria across Rioja Alavesa to the Ebro.

Rioja’s fame exceeds that of all of Spain’s other wine producing regions. Many wine drinkers, me included, love Rioja – especially the red wines, but how Rioja became the famous wine region it is and how the wines came to be made as they are is an interesting story.

Back before a handful of Bordeaux producers started carving out a new market for fine wine in the seventeenth century, most wine – including Bordeaux and Rioja – was pretty ordinary fare. Drunk mainly because it was safer than water, wine was just a part of everyday life in those parts of the world where grapes grew.

Then as now Spain was covered in vines and awash with wine. Technology and understanding had not yet touched wine, so by and large the people who tended the grapes and made the wine merely watched the process take place. Nowadays winemakers control what happens in the vineyard and winery to achieve fully ripe grapes and to make clean wines.

So, what put Rioja on the wine map? Why did the wine revolution happen so much earlier in Rioja than Spain’s other regions?

Map of the wine regions of South East Australia - click for a larger view. High-res non-watermarked versions of my maps are available by agreement.

Map of Spain’s wine regions – click for a larger view. High-res non-watermarked versions of my maps are available by agreement.

Rioja Map 2013

Map of Rioja – click for a larger view. High-res non-watermarked versions of my maps are available by agreement.

Geography

From a location point of view Rioja has much going for it. The Sierra de Cantabria shelters it from the worst of the Atlantic rain, wind and cold – which prevent most of the rest of the Pais Vasco – or Basque lands – producing good red wines. A small part of Rioja – Rioja Alavesa – is in the Pais Vasco and it seems that Basque merchants, whose lands hugged the cold and wet Bay of Biscay, noticed that this drier area just to the south could produce the richer, stronger wines their overseas markets demanded.

In the past the big problem of course was transport, rough roads and ox carts could only transport so much and it must have been hard going to get the wine out. In those days the Spanish kept their wine in hog skins and served it from them too, so we can only guess what the wine would have tasted like after a few months – very different from even a basic wine of today.

History & a glimpse of the Future

Most of Rioja is in Spain's smallest autonomous region. La Communidad de Rioja.

Most of Rioja is in Spain’s smallest autonomous region, La Communidad de Rioja.

Rioja Alavesa though is in the Province of Alava in the País Vasco.

Rioja Alavesa though is in the Province of Álava in the País Vasco.

On the cusp of the 19th century, only Bordeaux specialised in making fine wines for the wealthy. Surely many Basques and Riojans must have travelled north to see what it was that Bordeaux winemakers did to their wines that created their high reputation. Manuel Quintano was a Basque from the wine town of Labastida in Rioja Alavesa where his family owned land and made wine, and he certainly went to Bordeaux. Quintano was trained for the priesthood in Bayonne and this might be where he first came into contact with good red Bordeaux wines and perhaps where he saw qualities in them that his own wines lacked? Although ordained he became more and more interested in wine and in 1785 he travelled to Bordeaux to study how wine was made there.

Labistida / Bastida

Labastida or Bastida in Basque.

He noted every stage of production and the differences from how wine was made back home in Rioja. Amongst much else he found out about racking and clarification, but above all it is believed he became the first Riojan to notice the effect that ageing in oak barrels could have on a wine.

It was this use of barrels that was the the most important thing Quintano learned. The oak did many things that were beneficial to the wine and these would have been especially noticeable in the days before modern vineyard and winery practices made rich, clean wines. The wood has a porous structure that allows a slight evaporation, which concentrates wine and allows in a trickle of oxygen that softens the tannin. This helps develop a more silky texture and this difference in mouth-feel between thin everyday wines and finer wines would have been much more obvious in the past when alcohol levels struggled to get above 11%.

Barrel ageing at Bodegas La Rioja Alta - photo permission Bodegas La Rioja Alta.

Barrel ageing at Bodegas La Rioja Alta – photo permission Bodegas La Rioja Alta.

Of course the wood also effects the flavour of the wine, often giving vanilla, cedar, coffee, cocoa or caramel characters. All of this can often give an impression of sweetness and richness into the wine, which helps accentuate that sensation of concentration.

However the most important thing the oak did for the wine was to make it live longer. The wood contains a polyphenol – or type of tannin – called ellagitannins that helps to protect the wine from oxidation. To most wine makers in the eighteenth century, whose wines only lasted a few months and visibly deteriorated over that time, this would have seemed like finding the key to eternal life.

Quintano returned to Labastida in 1786 and set about applying what he had learned and  successfully produced wine using these techniques. In 1795 he even exported wine to Mexico and Cuba, the first barrel-aged wines to be exported from Spain and it seems they arrived in perfect condition. However, not everyone was happy with these expensive developments and complaints were made to the Council of Castile – the government – who upheld that all Rioja wine must be sold at the same price. This of course made the cost of barrels and cellar ageing prohibitive and Quintano’s experiments ground to a halt.

His achievements though were never entirely forgotten and today Quintano’s name is used for a range of wines produced by Bodegas y Viñedos Labastida. Also some of Quintano’s vineyards now form part of Bodegas Remelluri which is owned by the family of that modern revolutionary, Telmo Rodríguez.

Stagnation

So the production of everyday wines carried on interrupted from time to time by the devastating effects of The Peninsular War and the various Carlist or Civil Wars of the early nineteenth century. The local people – and pilgrims en route to Santiago – still slaked their thirst with wines stored in skins while little trickles were exported to Bordeaux and elsewhere. This trickle turned into a torrent from 1850 onwards when oidium devastated the vineyards of Bordeaux. For ease of export these wines destined for overseas were transported in barrels. The best wines would often be selected for export and so the idea of barrels being associated with quality wine became widespread in Spain.

The Rioja Revolution

Luciano de Murrieta - by kind permission Bodegas Marques de Murrieta & Maison Marques et Domaines.

Luciano de Murrieta – by kind permission Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta & Maison Marques et Domaines.

Events then came together which ensured Rioja’s future as a fine wine region and this future was all about the use of oak. War played its part too, Luciano de Murrieta – later the Marqués de Murrieta – was on the losing Carlist side in the civil war of the 1840s and went into exile in London. It was here that he apparently came to admire the fine wines of Bordeaux. On his way back from exile in 1850 Luciano spent time in Bordeaux to study winemaking and brought the modern techniques he found to Rioja where the Duque de la Victoria, the former prime minister of Spain and his boss during the wars – owned vineyards.

An early 19th century press at Faustino.

An early 19th century press at Faustino.

Much more hygenic evolution of the press by late 19th century - this one at CVNE can still be used.

Much more hygienic evolution of the press by late 19th century – this one at CVNE can still be used.

He set about making the fermentations more efficient and hygienic and then went looking for barrels. These were in very short supply and usually the wrong size, but it seems that even using make do casks Luciano proved his point. The wines had an intensity and a fragrance the everyday wines lacked and most importantly could enjoy a long life. The experiment was a great success with exports soon going  to Cuba and Mexico. Luciano marketed his own brand from 1852 and moved to a new bodega at Ygay near Logroño in the late 1860s.

Perhaps if this revolution had been left just to Luciano de Murrieta it would have happened very slowly, but luckily at least one other pioneer had also seen the future.

The Marqués de Riscal had similarly fallen under the spell of Bordeaux wines and studied how they were made – also in 1850 as it happens – and he set out to build a state of the art winery, based on the most modern practices then used in Bordeaux. He planted Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Rioja’s own Tempranillo and even employed a winery manager from Bordeaux. It was a long project, the winery and first vintage were not complete until 1862, but the wine was an instant success and even won Gold Medals at expos in Bayonne in 1864 and Bordeaux itself in 1865.

Riscal’s wines were in great demand and were the first Riojas to be sold in bottle. To ensure that the wine in the bottle was what he had made – and that it had not been drunk and then refilled by an unscrupulous merchant – he sealed his bottles with a wire mesh. This quickly became iconic and like his techniques became imitated by other Rioja producers.

It helped that the railway arrived in Rioja in 1864 and linked it to Bilbao and Madrid as well as the French frontier and so Bordeaux. Finally Rioja could export its wines more easily and efficiently.

So, by the 1860s because of a series of disasters, accidents, wars and study by inquisitive people Rioja had ceased to be a backwater for wine. Instead it had become a region producing wines, made by the most modern techniques, that were worthy of mounting a challenge to Bordeaux itself.

Barrel shaving at Bodegas La Rioja Alta. Most Bodegas have their own coopers. Photo by permission Bodegas La Rioja Alta.

Barrel shaving at Bodegas La Rioja Alta. Most Bodegas have their own coopers. Photo by permission Bodegas La Rioja Alta.

So, Rioja was born and strangely enough oak, rather than grapes, was the dominating characteristic. What’s more French oak was expensive and rather bizarrely it seems that it was more normal even for the French to use Russian oak in the days before the Russian Revolution in 1917. So instead Riojans looked to the recently independent Spanish colonies in the Americas as their source of oak. These countries were their natural trading partners and a large market for their wines. The oak was plentiful, cheap and gave even more flavour than European wood – in fact it gave that rich sweet vanilla character, that has been the hallmark of Rioja ever since.

Evolution

Spanish drinkers as well as foreigners quickly came to love this rich and clear flavour that set Rioja wines apart from the other wines of Europe. Ageing in American oak had many benefits that made the wines very attractive to Spanish drinkers who had never before been able to enjoy high quality wines from their own country. The rich oaky vanilla flavour became a fundamental part of the wine style, as did the silky texture and smooth tannins. This came from the long oak ageing which also ensured, together with careful racking, that the wines had little or no sediment in the bottle, something the Spanish consumer favours to this day.

So popular did the style become with the Spanish – and even now Rioja is more widely available in Spain than wine from any other region – that for well over 100 years only about 20% or so of production was exported. Rioja was the quintessential Spanish wine and this resulted in other regions copying Rioja’s techniques, style, even labelling and wire bottle seals.

Growers and Bodegas

One unexpected result of Rioja’s oak ageing techniques was the virtual demise of estate wine. Historically growers had made their own wine, albeit in a rudimentary way, and sold that to their neighbours or merchants to blend with other wines. The new methods and the cost of the equipment put modern winemaking beyond their reach so most of these farmers focussed on growing grapes which they sold to the bodegas who could afford the oak barrels and the new equipment. Even now estate bottled Rioja is relatively unusual with bodegas traditionally buying much of their fruit from a spread of growers.

It seems to me that in those low tech times this separation of skills could actually have been beneficial to quality. Nowadays we assume that estate wines are better, almost by definition, but this separation allowed the farmers to concentrate on growing better fruit while the winemakers could put their energies into turning them into good wine. It wasn’t universal by any means, but separating growing and wine making certainly became the norm and Rioja’s fame and reputation as a quality wine region stems from this moment.

Viña Pomal is still a strong brand.

Viña Pomal from Bodegas Bilbainas is still a strong brand.

CVNE is another long lived Rioja brand.

CVNE is another long lived Rioja brand, this menu card is from 1901.

This also allowed for the creation of some really strong and long lasting wine brands which might not have happened if every grower had been marketing their own wines – after all France which had a more grower centric and fragmented wine industry has been hampered in its fight back against the new world by a real lack of strong wine brands.

Continued French Involvement

Rioja had certainly advanced by the late 1800s, but was not yet entirely sure of itself. True the wines had a market in Spain and some quality Rioja was exported in bottle, but it is highly unlikely that Rioja would have developed as far and as fast as it did without further French influence.

Just as Rioja was getting started, Bordeaux was in deep trouble. Oidium and Phylloxera took a heavy toll on France’s vineyards from the 1850s to the the 1890s and so Bordeaux struggled to produce enough wine. Even when they had solved the Phylloxera problem by grafting their grapes onto American rootstocks there was a long, wine-less wait for the new vines to mature. Luckily Rioja had wine to spare, the quality was good, it had been made using modern French techniques and so perfectly suited the wine starved French market.

Indeed to a large degree the style of Rioja that we know today was a French invention. The long barrel ageing was a deliberate attempt to make the Rioja destined for the French market to taste more like Bordeaux did at the time. So successful was it that the techniques quickly became used for the entire production, not just the wines that were reservé for the French market.

Ageing

It is tempting to assume that Rioja as we know it emerged into the world fully formed in the mid 1860s. Certainly Riscal and Murrieta were quickly followed by a wave of other bodegas that are still with us today – these include López de Heredia, CVNE, Muga, Bilbaínas and many other famous names.

However, although the basics of the techniques – or recipe – had become established, the fine details took some decades to develop. The consumer was given wines that had already been aged and so were ready to drink and had little or no sediment. The vessel the wine was aged in gave a rich, sweet vanilla character that enhanced the wine’s natural fruitiness – this is an important consideration as in the days before modern technology and cold fermentation it was much more difficult to make fresh, fruity wine. So strange as it may seem, unoaked Rioja – now officially categorised as Joven – is an entirely modern development and has only been around for the last 40 years or so once winemaking made it possible. For nigh on 100 years, Rioja relied on oak to round out the wines and give them a richness they otherwise lacked.

Rioja barrel ageing at CVNE.

Rioja barrel ageing at CVNE.

Rioja ageing in bottle at CVNE.

Rioja ageing in bottle at CVNE.

The process of ageing the wines was called raising or criar – it is the same word for children and plants – and so the oak aged wines themselves came to be called Crianzas. As well as being the collective word for any oak aged Rioja, Crianza is also the official  classification term for those Riojas aged in wood for the shortest time.

Between the 1860s and 1960s all red Rioja was barrel aged and ageing was the most important consideration. So much so that until well into the 1960s many Riojas – and other Spanish wines – were labelled with no mention of vintage. Instead the vital piece of information on the label was how long it had been aged for and so they were labelled as 3er Año – meaning it was bottled in the third year after harvest. More expensive wines were labelled as 5˚ Año, meaning it was bottled in the fifth year after harvest. This tradition clung on into the 1980s for bottles in Spain anyway and I remember being very confused by it during my early days in wine.

The terms Reserva and Gran Reserva are so strongly associated with Rioja that it might surprise some to learn that they did not exist before the very late nineteenth century. Apparently the expression stems from French wine companies reserving certain barrels of Rioja that they would ship home to beef up their own wines. It was not until the 1920s that Reserva and Gran Reserva started appearing on labels.

Denomination de Origen & Classification 

Throughout history decrees had been issued regulating where Rioja wines could be made and as we saw during Manuel Quintano’s time, rulings had been made about how it could be made. It was not until the 1920s, with phylloxera beaten and a ready market for their quality wines, that serious attempts were made to legally define Rioja.

Rioja was created as Spain’s first Denomination de Origen in 1925, but no real control was  in evidence until 1953 when the Consejo Regulador drew up the regulations for Rioja wine. This controlled yields and permitted grape varieties, it banned chaptilisation and stipulated minimum alcohol levels, but above all it codified the ageing and oaking regime for Rioja wines – the current regulations are:

Crianza: Wines which are at least in their third year, having spent a minimum of one year in casks and a few months in the bottle. For white wines, the minimum cask ageing period is 6 months.

Reserva: Selected wines of the best vintages with an excellent potential that have been aged for a minimum of 3 years, with at least one year in casks. For white wines, the minimum ageing period is 2 years, with at least 6 months in casks.

Gran Reserva: Selected wines from exceptional vintages which have spent at least 2 years in oak casks and 3 years in the bottle. For white wines, the minimum ageing period is 4 years, with at least one year in casks.

Oak Types

As you can see the rules require aged Rioja wines to be aged in oak barrels, or casks  – chips and staves are not permitted – and these must be of the Bordeaux type that contain 225 litres. There are no restrictions as to the type of oak, but American oak has always been the most widely used.

Although we overwhelmingly associate Rioja with American oak, some producers champion French oak and its use is increasing. Some use just French, but I have noticed a trend for Riojas to be aged mainly in American oak with a small amount of French, typically 15% or 20%. Normally the wine would be aged and then blended, but to avoid this Bodegas Beronia for instance use barrels which have staves of both American and French oak.

French oak is split, not sawn and so the grain and pores never open as they do with sawn American oak. In addition the kiln drying of American oak concentrates their lactones, which accentuates those creamy vanilla notes. The result is that French oak gives a more restrained and subtle character of spice and cedar. Using a combination of the two can often make the wine seem tighter, firmer and, some might say, more elegant than using  American oak on its own.

Of course many bodegas are experimenting with other oaks and using them too. Hungarian, Slavonian and Russian oaks can all be found in Rioja today. Stylistically they lean in a similar direction to French oak but give less spice character.

The Present and the Future

In my view there can be no doubt that oak has been good for Rioja. Most Riojan winemakers seem to think that American oak has been good for Rioja too. It certainly seems to me that without the clear identity that American oak brings, the easily definable and tasty vanilla character, then Rioja would not have enjoyed the success that it has.

The use of oak, especially American oak, made the wines seem richer and more full-bodied than they actually were in the 19th and 20th centuries. People liked the aromas,  flavours and silky, smooth texture and found it easy to define what it was they liked in these wines. The style is approachable and so it is no accident that Rioja is often one of the first red wine styles that drinkers enjoy.

Old vines in Rioja Alavesa.

Old vines in Rioja Alavesa.

Vinos de Autor

Of course if oak can be seen as generally good for the region, it is also true that some producers feel a little constrained, albeit benignly, by the Reserva and Gran Reserva classification system. They want some of their wines to be an expression of the vineyard and the winemaking without reference to such a classification, one practical reason is that if a bodega produces a top wine as a Gran Reserva in one vintage and as a Reserva or even a Crianza the next, then some consumers might well imagine the wine to be inferior – which is not necessarily the case. The classification is about ageing and not quality. That is why increasingly many bodega’s top wines are now defined as Vino de Autor or signature wine and marketed without reference to the Reserva / Gran Reserva classification. CVNE’s Real de Asúa and Pagos de Viña Real are both examples of this, as are Roda’s Cirsion, Beronia’s III a.c, Contino’s Viña del Olivo and Muga’s Torre Muga amongst many others.

The buildings at CVNE date from 1879.

The buildings at CVNE date from 1879.

Progress

Concrete fermentation tanks, modern and hygienic  in the 19th century.

Concrete fermentation tanks, modern and hygienic in the 19th century.

Nothing ever stands still and it is instructive that as grape growing and winemaking has become more technically advanced and accomplished then Rioja has branched out. As soon as cold fermentation made attractive, fruity and unoaked jovens possible, they made them. These can be enjoyable wines and offer great value for money, but they lack that classic oaky Rioja character and it is hard to envisage anyone ever producing a truly fine and complex unoaked Rioja.

The Future

The modern fermentation tanks at Viña Real.

The modern fermentation tanks at Viña Real.

All the producers I spoke too agreed that oak has helped to define their wines and to give Rioja a clear identity. Some saw the future as having increasing use of European oaks to produce more restrained wines, while most were of the opinion that American oak would continue to dominate Rioja – albeit with French and other oaks used as seasoning.

The dramatic barrel room at Viña Real.

The dramatic barrel room at Viña Real.

No one seemed in any doubt though that the future of fine Rioja wine will be glorious and is as closely linked to oak as its past.

Chile – experimenting and perfecting

As readers of these pages will know, I have long been a fan of Chilean wine and although it has been too long since I visited Chile I love the country too. It is a very beautiful place with wonderful sights to see and the people are a delight.

At Luis Felipe Edwards in the Colchagua Valley 2003

If I have had any problems at all with Chilean wine it was that they have for too long relied upon a narrow a range of grape varieties. I am sure that is not a commercial problem for them as consumers usually drink from a very, very narrow range of grape varieties. However for someone like me it can get dull if everyone only makes their own versions of the same old thing. There is only so much Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay I want to drink – however good they are.

Which is why I am really delighted to find that of late Chile seems to be pushing the boundaries further than ever before, finding new grapes, new styles, new blends and new grape growing areas. As a consequence I have recently been able to taste some wonderful new wine styles from Chile, so if you are getting bored with the same old, same old and want to drink something exciting you should give Chile a go. Continue reading

My Summer Wine Part 1 – Biarritz

So, September has started and the summer is pretty much over. I haven’t written very much on Quentin Sadler’s Wine Page this summer because there has been so much going on. Quite apart from my work teaching people about wine I have visited some amazing wine regions, learnt a huge amount and been planning articles in my head.

However, I thought that I ought to mention a few things I tasted over the summer before you all completely forget about me. Back at the beginning of August I spent a few days in Biarritz for the first time since 1968 – when I was a very small boy. In those days I was more interested in the beach, pretty nice even now, than wine, but I was hugely excited by the local wines this time around.

The lovely old harbour in Biarritz

Biarritz
Biarritz is a splendid coastal town in south-west France that surrounds an old fishing and whaling harbour. I was really won over, it is lovely with a real feeling of grandeur, faded and real about it. Biarritz was put on the map in the 1850s by that fascinating character Emperor Napoleon 111 who bizarrely managed to be both France’s first president and last monarch. He and Empress Eugénie had planned to retire there – although is transpired that the Prussians had other plans – and the house they built still dominates the town as the glamorous Hôtel du Palais – and no, I didn’t stay there. Continue reading

X Marks the Spot – a Tuscan Mystery

Pietro Beconcini Agricola – even lovely on a rainy day

San Miniato is not a big place, but midway between Pisa and Florence it is part of a landscape that has produced wine since Etruscan times. Unlike the more famous areas of Tuscany though the wine has traditionally been seen purely in local terms. In the past it seems that many of the region’s big producers have bought grapes or wine from the farmers of San Miniato to beef up their own wines and give high quality at a good price. Much like Fronsac in Bordeaux it has historically been something of an insider’s secret.

Continue reading

Chacolí: The Wild Wine of Spain

I have written a piece about one of the most interesting wines in the world – Chacolí. Chacoli comes from Spain’s beautiful Basque region and the wines are a really unusual and thrilling style that is perfect with the local shellfish, they are mainly white, although a little red and rosé is made too. You can read the article here