Wine of the Week – a sumptuous and great value Rioja

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Looking south across Rioja just north of Haro.

I love red Rioja. Spain has much more to offer the wine enthusiast than just Rioja, but Rioja can make very fine wines indeed – hence its fame.

The trouble with Rioja is the question of what you are going to get. They aren’t all good, some are downright ordinary in fact, so you must be wary. However, red Rioja can deliver a great deal of pleasure and many very high quality wines.

As far as good value is concerned though the picture is also mixed. I generally hold it to be true that cheaper Reservas and Gran Reservas, from bodegas that have no fame or are just made up brands for the supermarkets, are normally not worth drinking. For me the reliable, value category of red Rioja is the Crianza level, which spend the shortest time ageing in oak.

However, one of the great joys of wine is that every now and again a wine pops up that confounds our beliefs.

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Vineyards near Haro in Rioja.

Recently I presented a very well received tasting of the wonderful wines of CVNE, one of the truly great Rioja houses recently. All the wines were really good, but for me the absolute star wines were the magnificent 2012 Imperial Reserva, ready to drink and wonderfully refined and elegant – stockists here and here – and the quirkily delicious 2014 Monopole Clasíco white.

Rioja Map 2013

CVNE, like many of the original band of Rioja bodegas, are based in Haro.

I showed a fabulous Crianza from CVNE’s Viña Real estate in Rioja Alavesa. It offered rich fruit and lots of character and showed just how good a Crianza wine can be. However, good though it was, another wine stood out for the mix of quality and amazing value for money. Indeed I liked it so much that it is my Wine of the Week.

CVNE GR2011 Cune Gran Reserva
DOCa Rioja
Haro
Rioja
Spain

Founded in 1879 and still owned and run by members of the founding family, C.V.N.E. – the Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España – is one of the great Rioja houses. I love showing their wines at tastings because they have such a wide range of styles, quality levels and labels as their stable includes the famous Monopole range, the great classic Imperial wines and the two single estate wines of Viña Real and Contino.

The wines labelled as Cute – CVNE in old copperplate script – are their base level wines, but still very good in my opinion. The Barrel Fermented white is a wonderful example of getting the oak just right, while the Crianza is a great value gem and the Cune Reserva is, to quote my friend Tom Canavan, a ‘proper wine’. 

However it is this beauty that currently represents the most amazing value for money and it is a really lovely wine.

The blend is 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo – no Grenache – from vineyards around Haro in Rioja Alta. It is aged for ged for 2 years in mainly American oak, but some French oak as well, and 3 years in bottle. The French oak allows for a little tingle of tannin that suits the wine.

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Wines ageing in the Imperial barrel cellar at CVNE. This cellar was designed by Gustave Eiffel.

This is an unashamedly rich Rioja, the lack of Grenache allows the dark fruits to hold sway. It has spice, vanilla, dark plums, blackberries and blueberries on the nose with a light dusting of fresher red plum and raspberry too. The palate is soft, silky, refined and deeply upholstered – sumptuous in fact. There are some savoury, leather notes, a little bite of tannin and some nice freshness all giving definition. It has wonderful concentration – the vintage was very good – with loads of ripe fruit and good length and could have a long life ahead of it if you can resist. Whether you drink it or keep it, I would recommend that you grab some now – 92/100 points.

Drink it with lamb, beef or roast pork, but above all, drink it.

Available in the UK @ £12.50 per bottle – yes £12.50! from Tesco and Tesco Wine by the Case.

Wine of the Week – a touch of Spanish tradition

rio-vino-tondonia-copyRecently I led a tasting of wines made by Bodegas López de Heredia in Rioja – it was at the West London Wine School, check out more of their tastings here. All the wines were excellent, but even in such exalted company, some stood out from the pack. The undisputed highlights were the astonishing 1994 Viña Tondonia Gran Reservas, both red and white, which were wines of incredible finesse and beauty. As you might expect, wines of that quality and age are not cheap, but there were some stunning wines at lower prices that offered superb value for money too. I loved one of them so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Rioja Map 2013

gravonia2005 Viña Gravonia Blanco Crianza 
Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia
DOCa / PDO Rioja
Haro
Spain

Bodegas López de Heredia was only the third bodega to be founded in Rioja after the wine revolution began there in the 1840s-1860s. They were founded in 1877, so really were at the forefront of making Rioja the great region that we know today. Rioja’s development was a slow process in truth, you can read a history of Rioja that I wrote by clicking here, it is a story worth reading as it might not quite be what you expect.

López de Heredia was founded by Don Rafael López de Heredia y Laneta and it is still owned and run by his family to this day. A visit there is always worthwhile as it widely regarded as the most traditional Rioja producer there is. Rioja actually took quite a while to develop its style and to formulate its ‘traditions’, even López de Heredia. Oak ageing was used from the beginning, it was what set Rioja apart from the rest of Spain, but the use of the terms Reserva and Gran Reserva was not established until the 1920s at the earliest and the ageing regulations were not established until the 1940s. So whether the wines are traditional or merely idiosyncratic, I couldn’t really say. I just know they are very good.

The wines are very unusual, especially the whites. They undergo long ageing in wood and develop very complex characters as a result. This ageing leads to a note of oxidation in the white wines that is not totally unlike a Fino or Manzanilla sherry. This resemblance can be over stated though, I do not really enjoy Sherry, but I love these wines, so don’t let that idea put you off.

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López de Heredia’s vineyards, Viña Tondonia is contained within the loop of the Ebro River in the foreground, Viña Gravonia is just behind – photo courtesy of the winery.

They make their most famous wines from their  Tondonia vineyard, which is why Viña Tondonia forms part of the company’s name. Tondonia can be either red or white and are labelled as Reserva or Gran Reserva. They also produce red Reservas and Gran Reservas from the nearby Viña Bosconia vineyard, while their red Crianza is called Viña Cubillo and comes from the Viña Cubillas vineyard. Their white Crianzas come from the Viña Laconia vineyard and are labelled as Viña Gravonia.

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Map of López de Heredia’s vineyards – courtesy of the winery.

All of these wines are aged for a lot longer in wood than the regulations require. Gran Reserva reds spend 9 years in barrel and the whites 10 years. Reservas spend 6 years in barrel, while red Crianzas are aged for 3 years in barrel and the whites for 4.

López de Heredia stick to using American oak, as is traditional in Rioja – you can read why here. However, it is American oak with a difference. They buy whole trees and ship them to Spain where they are split, seasoned outside and turned into barrels. This contrasts with American oak barrels made in America which are sawn – which cuts the grain allowing more flavour to come out – and seasoned in a kiln, which concentrates the lactones to give that creamy, sweet vanilla character so typical of American oak and Rioja. So although López de Heredia age their wines in American oak for a long time, it is a more subtle process than you might expect. Also the wines are aged for a short time in new oak before being racked into old, neutral barrels for the extended ageing.

Barrel ageing at López de Heredia - photo courtesy of the winery.

Barrel ageing at López de Heredia – photo courtesy of the winery.

The Viña Gravonia Crianza Blanco is 100% Viura, the Tondonia whites also have 10% Malvasia to make them a little richer. It was fermented in big wooden vats with a spontaneous fermentation of the wild yeast and then aged for 4 years in barrel.

The nose is extraordinary, with that touch of Fino sherry, toasted almonds, olives, a note of the sea, honeysuckle, beeswax, gentle spice, orange pekoe tea, firm white peach, quince and orange peel. The palate is dominated by the acidity and mineral character together with cinder toffee, honeycomb, dried apricots, caramelised orange, waxy lemon and almonds. There is even a very subtle feel of tannin on the long, long finish. It is an extraordinary wine and has a little more weight, concentration and fat then the more widely available 2006 vintage – 2005 was the better year.

Try it with classic fish dishes like sole meunière, or grilled Dover sole, but I expect it would be great with just about any fish dish, anything in a creamy sauce and roast chicken too – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £19 per bottle – for stockists click here.
For US stockists click here.

It won’t be for everyone, but this wine is a delicious example of a really rare style of wine. It certainly excited me at the tasting and thrilled everyone else there too. What’s more it gives an idea of what these great old style Rioja whites are like without having to pay a fortune. Do try it or a Viña Tondonia white if you can.

 

Wine of the Week 47 – a great experience and a great Rioja

This week I throw caution to the wind and celebrate tasting – and drinking – a rare gem from my cellar. It is most certainly not cheap, it isn’t widely available, but it was very, very good, so it is my Wine of the Week.

I was teaching a WSET level 2 course and none of my students had ever tasted a really mature wine, so we cooked up a plan to share an old bottle from my collection.

I spent a happy hour browsing through my bottles, wiping off the dust, and eventually I chose something really exciting. It had sat in my wine rack for well over twenty years just waiting for its moment and I crossed my fingers that it would live up to the hopes that we had for it.

Actually I just hoped it was still alive and not corked.

The bottle was a Rioja, but not just any old wine from that region. No this was the single vineyard 1970 Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva from the great Bodegas López de Heredia in Haro.

Looking south across Rioja's vineyards from the Sierra de Cantabria mountains.

Looking south across Rioja’s vineyards from the Sierra de Cantabria mountains.

López de Heredia are unapologetically old fashioned even now, with long ageing and even producing oaky whites and rosés, but this wine was 45 years old. Franco was still dictator of Spain when it was made and Ted Heath was the UK Prime Minister. It was a very different world back then, without computers or the internet, cheap air travel or mobile phones – what’s more The Beatles hadn’t even officially split up and the first Moon landing was only the year before!

I have visited the bodega once, a long time ago, but it always stays with you as the place is one of the iconic wineries of Spain and their story is pretty good too. Still family run, they were founded in 1877 by Don Rafael López de Heredia Landeta who was actually born in Santiago, Chile. However he was Spanish and when the family returned to Spain in 1869 he went to nearby Bayonne in France to study business. While he was there he must have seen the problems the French were having with their vines – this was in the depths of the phylloxera crisis – and the business potential of applying Spanish wine to French producers who had no wine of their own to sell – click here to read about this period of Rioja’s history.

Rioja Map 2013

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

Don Rafael established his winery in Haro, in the barrio, near the railway station – this area is home to a great concentration of the fine old established Rioja producers, including CVNE and Muga, as the railway made exporting the wines much easier than it was in the past. At first the winery was pretty small, but as demand grew he sought to expand – in every direction.

First they set about digging cellars into the local hillside and then he wanted to enlarge the bodega buildings too. He did this by employing Galician stonemasons to turn the excavated stone into building material and then got an architect to design him an up to date winery that was much larger than he needed to allow for future growth. Amazingly it is still larger than they need, although they have expanded several times in to vacant buildings that Don Rafael put up back in the nineteenth century.

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The beautiful López de Heredia winery, complete with the Txori Toki tower. Photo courtesy of the bodega.

As if developing downwards, by digging cellars, and outwards with more buildings was not enough, the winery was finished off with a lovely art nouveau tower that dominates that part of Haro and makes it impossible to miss the winery. This tower is known as the Txori Toki – bird tower in Basque – and its picture graces their wine labels to this day.

López de Heredia is a lovely bodega to visit, the buildings are beautiful and seem to capture the spirit of a time and a place in Rioja’s early history. The cellars are simply amazing with cavern after cavern opening up as you walk through them and you briefly like an explorer from a different age. At the heart of the cellars is a huge tasting room with an enormous round table and enjoying a tasting there is an experience that you never forget.

Unusually for Rioja their production has always been based upon their own vineyards and the core of their range is a series of single vineyard wines such as Viña Gravonia, Viña Cubillo, Viña Bosconia and most importantly the famous Viña Tondonia. This large, 100 hectare vineyard is so synonymous with the company, that its official name is Bodegas R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia. This extraordinary site produces some of the most iconic and traditional Rioja ones in the form of their great reds, whites and one of the very last of the old style long barrel aged Rosados.

The tasting room deep in the cellars, photo courtesy of the winery.

The tasting room deep in the cellars, photo courtesy of the winery.

vina_tondonia_19701970 Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva
Bodegas R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia
Haro, Rioja
The blend is something like 75% Tempranillo with 15% Garnacha and some Mazuelo and Graciano.  It fermented in wooden fermentation vats, before being aged for 10 years in 225 litre American oak barrels before being bottled.

Opening wine as old as this is always a gamble and a bit of a worry, but I had stored it well in my small cellar the Big Yellow Wine Storage in Fulham, so I should not have worried and as soon as I sniffed it, I knew it was good.
The colour was a real tawny orange and it had become transparent with age. The aroma was deep and savoury with leathery, earthy, meaty, mushroom notes together with some dried fruit – cherry, raspberry, prune, raisin – as well as orange, walnuts and rich coffee, it was really exciting sniffing this.
The palate too was extraordinary, with plenty of life in it still. There was a nice refreshing, elegant cut of acidity and even a little smear of tannins on the finish, but everything was superbly integrated and had become a whole entity with a silky mouthfeel. The flavours were overwhelmingly savoury with smoky, meaty tones, dried fruit giving that glimmer of sweetness and an intensity that totally dominated my senses. Whats more I have never had a dry wine that had such a long finish, it went on for around 2 minutes!
This was a great wine by any measure and what’s more showed no sign of being tired yet. Probably the finest old Rioja I have ever tasted – 95/100 points.

I don’t drink, or even taste, anything like this very often, but when I do it reinforces my joy of wine and excites me enormously. The sense of history I get when I taste old wine is a real part of the pleasure, so if you ever get the chance to taste a really old Rioja, do give it a go.