Monople Clásico, the return of a Spanish classic

Looking south across Rioja just north of Haro.

I have always had a soft spot for white Rioja, whether fresh and crisp, barrel fermented or aged in oak. Well now there is a new style of dry white Rioja around. I say new, but actually it is an old style that has been brought back to life.

When I was young and just getting into wine I spent a great deal of time in Spain and one of the most widely sold white wines was Monopole made by the wonderful CVNE, Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España. The Monopole had been created in 1914 and was given a French name, because the founding brothers – Eusebio and Raimundo Real de Asúa – loved the white wines of Burgundy, and a German style bottle because German white wines were so commercially important in those days. It was the first white Rioja made in anything like a fresh, lively, modern style. Of course in those days it was partly aged in oak, but it was a complete break with most white Riojas of the times.

Ever since the early 1980s CVNE have made fresher, completely unoaked style of Monopole, which is a very good, just off-crisp wine that is very versatile and pleasurable. However to mark 100 years of Monopole, they have recently returned to making the traditional Monopole as well and it is wonderful to revisit this wine and to experience again what a fascinating – and delicious – wine style it is.

They call this reborn wine Monople Clásico and like the ‘normal’ Monopole it is made from Rioja’s classic white grape Viura, but then it gets very different. Firstly the Viura juice is settled in concrete tanks, then fermented at low temperatures in stainless steel. Then they add a small amount of aged Manzanilla Sherry from the famous Bodegas Hidalgo – yes really. Manzanilla is basically a Fino Sherry from Sanlúcar de Barrameda in the Sherry region and so it is dry and ages with the Flor, or yeast, to give it complexity and that nutty, bready character. Then the blended wine is aged for 8 months in 300 and 500 litre barrels – used barrels so it softens the wine rather than flavours it.

Bodegas CVNE in Haro.

Now, I will have to whisper this and you will have to promise never to mention it to anybody else, but I do not really like Sherry. I appreciate it and am very interested in it, but cannot drink much of it for pleasure. What you have to realise is that Sherry holds the same place in many, possibly most, wine people’s hearts that Alfa Romeo does for petrol heads. You simply have no credibility unless you profess to love Sherry, so this will have to remain our little secret.

So, adding Sherry to a wine might seem strange, illegal even given that Rioja is a PDO / appellation and so the grapes must be grown in the correct area for the term Rioja to appear on the label. That is true, but because CVNE had traditionally made the wine this way, they were allowed to do so again. The idea is strange, but it really, really works. It makes for a truly delicious, fine and complex wine that I loved.

It seems that the management of CVNE were reminiscing about the old style Monopole, as the centenary of the brand was about to happen, so they sent down to the cellar for a bottle and could only find a single example left, a bottle from 1979. They tasted it and it was still in great condition, fresh, lively and so delicious that they decided to resurrect the style. To help them they called on the services of Ezequiel Garcia, the retired CVNE winemaker from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Ezequiel was thrilled to be part of the project and had no reservations in resurrecting this classic wine from the past, indeed I am told that he found it a moving experience. The part of that loves 1940s music hopes that Ezequiel cried!

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view

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

2014 Monopole Classico
CVNE
DOCa Rioja
Spain

The nose is very appealing, delicately aromatic and lifted with waxy apples, light custard notes, some spice, wafts of brioche, flakey pastry, rock pools and sea breeze. The palate is very fresh, lively and slightly saline as well sever so slightly succulent with cooked lemons and apple fruit as well as a waxy quality. There is something smoky and haunting about this wine and the flavours build in the mouth becoming slightly rounded and mealy even. This is a beguiling, complex and fascinating wine that is deeply satisfying, bone dry and wonderfully complete with richness and freshness vying with each other to dominate your senses – 93/100 points.

This would be wonderful with some sea bream, sea bass, mussels, clams, garlic prawns, oysters, chicken, pâté, smoked salmon, or anything light.

Available in the UK for around £25 a bottle from: The Wine Reserve.
It is also available mail order from Spain – until Brexit ruins everything – for around €15 a bottle plus shipping – from Decántalo and Uvinum.

 

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.

ldh-mapa-vinedos-vineyards

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 and my Wine of 2015 – a superb red Rioja from Contino

My first Wine of the Week for 2016 and very possibly my Wine of the Year in 2015 – although there is some stiff competition and I could easily choose something else – was rather fittingly the wine I was drinking as the new year began and 2015 was consigned to history.

I had struggled to think of what to drink with my slow cooked garlicky lamb – not because I did not know what to serve with it, but because I had far too many options as lots of different wines go brilliantly. Grenache, Claret, Cabernet, MerlotRioja, Ribera del Duero and Jumilla would lead the pack for reds for me, but whites can work very well too, especially Marsanne and Rousanne blends. In the end I chose something really, really special and I am very glad that I did.

It was a Rioja from Contino which is a single estate winery in Rioja Alavesa just a little north and west of Logroño. Many of you may be surprised that I emphasise that it comes from a single vineyard or estate, but that is quite rare in Rioja. Most Rioja is a branded product made from fruit sourced from a number of vineyards – much like Champagne usually is – and single estate wines are very far from being the norm.

Contino was the first single estate Rioja wine, certainly in modern times, and it was created in 1973 by the Real de Asúa family. This enterprising bunch – or their ancestors anyway – had previously set up the great Rioja house of CVNE in 1879 and their descendants continue to run CVNE (often written as Cune) – Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España or The Northern Spanish Wine Company – who produce Monopole, Imperial and Viña Real wines as well as Contino.

Rioja map- click for a larger view

Rioja map- click for a larger view

In fact the family had bought grapes from the vineyard that became Contino for many decades and used them in their Viña Real wines, the modern Viña Real estate and winery is very near Contino. According to Jesús Madrazo, the charming, affable, inquiring and wonderfully talented winemaker at Contino, they always knew these grapes were special and so when the owners came to CVNE and explained that they wanted to retire but had no heirs to take the vineyard on, they jumped at the chance to acquire this amazing 62 hectare estate. It is situated just north west of Logroño and the Ebro river wraps around the estate making it appear to be a south facing peninsula. The vineyard is in effect a shallow south facing slope and so acts as a sun-trap and produces wonderfully ripe and concentrated wines.

2 superb grape varieties growing at Contino in Rioja

The 8.5 hectare El Olivo block on the Contino estate.

José Madrazo Real de Asua was the family member who took on control of this estate and turned it into something very special in the region. José Madrazo retired in 2001 and sadly died in January 2015, but his son Jesús Madrazo took over the role has done a remarkable job of taking Contino to new heights. Over time they have changed the focus. Originally, as with most Rioja in those days, they blended all the grapes together, even the whites. For a few vintages now they have used those vines to craft one of the very finest white Riojas there is from a blend of Viura with Garnacha Blanca (Grenache Blanc) and Malvasia – actually that would have been great with my lamb too come to think of it.

IMG_1434

José Madrazo, the brilliant and charming winemaker at Contino.

The main Contino wine is the red Contino Reserva, also available here, which never fails to impress me, but they now also produce some even more special wines. The pure Contino Garnacha (Grenache) is made from 70 years old vines and is one of the finest examples I have tried from Spain (together with these guys here). Their pure Contino Graciano is scintillating and a rare great example of this grape that should be better known. One of my favourite Riojas of all is always the wonderful Contino Viña Del Olivo wine made from a parcel of vines that surrounds an ancient olive tree – it is available here and here.

However, in the truly great years Jesús also makes a little Gran Reserva. This is traditionally only bottled in magnums (1.5 litres or 2 ordinary bottles) and I do like a magnum as it looks so dramatic on the dinner table. Anyway I dug out a magnum of the 2005 Gran Reserva to go with my lamb and it was so very good that I have made it my first Wine of the Week of 2016 and also my Wine of the Year for 2015.

Just in case you are not familiar with the regulations of what each type of Rioja actually is, here are the rules – all times are the minimum required and so the wines can be aged longer:

Joven / Cosecha No oak ageing, or sometimes just a little. Oven never appears on the label, but often does on wine lists. Sometimes wines with a short amount of oak ageing are called Roble or Semi-Crianza, these are unofficial.
Crianza 1 year oak or tank ageing plus 1 year ageing in bottle – Crianzas can often offer very good value for money.
Reserva 1 year oak ageing plus 2 years ageing in bottle – these wines should only be produced in good vintages.
Gran Reserva 2 years oak ageing plus 3 year ageing in bottle – these wines should only be produced in the very best vintages.

Contino GR2005 Contino Gran Reserva
DOCa Rioja
Viñedos del Contino
Rioja Alavesa, Rioja, Spain

This is a classic Rioja blend of 70% Tempranillo – 60 year old vines, 15% Graciano and 15% Garnacha aged for 36 months in American and French oak barrels. The American oak gives that classic touch of vanilla that is the hallmark of Rioja. 2005 was officially classified as an excellent – or rather excelente – vintage and produced some outstanding wines. Contino only made 2699 magnums of the 2005 Gran Reserva – mine was number 1236.

The colour is deep and sumptuous, while the nose is rich, enticing, spicy and smoky with touches of vanilla, cedar and mocha as well as rich, dark plums and blackberry. The palate is rich with wonderful concentration of fruit which together with the oak ageing gives a smooth, supple and silky wine that is always powerful and textured in the mouth – which is relatively unusual for Rioja. The wine leans towards being full-bodied with even some creaminess, but some lively freshness gives lovely balance and elegance by restraining the power, which makes it really drinkable and enjoyable. The tannins are perfectly tamed by the ageing, with just a little fine-grain tannin definition on the finish to help the structure of the wine. This is powerful, but it is not a showy blockbuster, it is a truly elegant and serious wine, one of the great Riojas – 95/100 points.

This truly is a great wine and I enjoyed it very much, but I think it would reward keeping for a good few years yet. There is no doubt that it needs food and is perfect with lamb, but it would also be fabulous with venison, duck or a good steak.

Available in the UK for around £100.00 – £135.00 per magnum from The Halifax Wine Company and Harrods.
Available in the US for around $140.00 – $170.00  per magnum from Woodland Hills Wine Company and Wired for Wine.

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.

fedificio

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.