Ribera del Duero – a great wine region

As many of you will know, I have a deep love and passion for the wines of Spain. Taken as a whole I think Spain is one of the most exciting wine producing countries in the world. Of course the most famous region – other than Sherry – is Rioja. I like Rioja, I admire Rioja. It is a wonderful region, a lovely place and it produces many fabulous wines, I have written about it often. However, there is much more to Spain than just Rioja and it pains me greatly that so relatively few wines from other regions of Spain are widely available to UK consumers.

Although I will carry on writing about anything and everything that I find interesting in the world of wine, I thought that every now and again I would share some thoughts about Spain’s wine regions with you. Recently I have been tasting quite a few wines from Ribera del Duero, which have reminded me just how good a region it is, so I decided to start there.

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

As you can see from my map, Ribera del Duero is in Castilla y León, or Old Spain. In many ways this region to the north west of Madrid is the original heart of Spain, the original home of those that ‘reconquered’ the peninsula from the Moors. Of course it is also home to the language that we usually call Spanish, but is more properly called Castellano or Castilian.

The Duero River – it becomes the Douro in Portugal – cuts through the region and gives the place its name, bank of the Duero.

For centuries this was border country and was defended by castles which are a common sight to this day and explains why it is called the land of castles – Castilla. There are records from about 800 of the Moors calling it Al-Qila, or ‘the castled’ high plains.

As far as wine is concerned, for millennia there must have been wine made here, as there was all over the peninsula, but it must have been fairly rudimentary and just for drinking rather than thinking about.

It was not until Don Eloy Lecanda y Chave returned to his native Castilla y León from Bordeaux, where he had been trained as winemaker. His family owned an estate near Valbuena de Duero, about as far west as you can go on my map and still be in Ribera del Duero, and he returned brimming with ideas of how to transform the wines. He brought French grape varieties, oak barrels and modern French know how and set about creating wines on the Médoc model. He called his wine Vega Sicilia and it remains one of the finest, most expensive and sought after of all Spanish wines. Rioja was being developed in a similar way at the same time and this article about the history of Rioja might help.

For decades Vega Sicilia was all on its own as the sole fine wine of the region and it was not until the twentieth century that others saw the potential for quality wine here. Firstly the Protos cooperative in Penafiel was created in 1927, but it was not really until the 1980s that the Ribera del Duero revolution took place, with new vineyards being planted and wineries built.

Penafiel Castle dominates the wine making town.

Penafiel Castle dominates the wine making town.

What happened was that modern knowhow had allowed these new pioneers – chef amongst them Alejandro Fernandez of Pesquera – to craft wines that were quite different from Vega Sicilia. More modern, with less oak ageing, more ripe fruit characters and more focus on the the local grape instead of the French varieties.

That grape is a clone of Tempranillo – the grape that made Rioja famous – but in Ribera del Duero it is traditionally called either Tinto del Pais (country red) or more fancifully Tinto Fino.

The wines – and the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) /Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O.) only allows reds and rosés – have to contain at least 75% Tinto Fino with the remainder being Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Garnacha or even the excellent local white Albillo grape.

The climate is one of extremes, with hot, short, summers and pretty hard winters. Basically the place is a high plain and the vineyards sit at around 750 to 800 metres above sea level. The cooling benefits of this altitude are very useful with summer temperatures often reaching over 40˚C. Then there are really big night time drops in temperature, often as much as 20˚C. This Diurnal Temperature Variation allows the vine to rest overnight and preserves acidity and freshness in the grapes, which can make the finished wine more elegant and fine. It also slows down the ripening process, so you have a better chance of producing balanced ripe grapes, rather than overly ripe, alcoholic, raisin-like grapes.

Historically these cool conditions made ripening the grapes very hard indeed and would have produced pretty thin wines. So in the main it had to wait for modern viticulture and winemaking knowledge and techniques for the region to reliably produce wines that could take their place on the world market.

Vega Sicilia is a style and type of wine on its own and has very little in common with most of the red wines of the region – much like Château Musar being quite different from the rest of the wines of Lebanon.

What I like about the region’s wines is how unlike Rioja they are. They may technically be made from Tempranillo, but they never have that dry, savoury tinge that is the hallmark of Rioja to me. No, a good, Ribera del Duero should display concentrated, dark fruits. They should be vivid and rich, with sometimes an almost new world softness to them. However, running through them there should be a backbone of acidity – but not to Sangiovese or Nebbiolo levels – that makes them excellent with the rich, fatty meat dishes that are normal in these parts.

There are a great many wines from Ribera del Duero available. Some are great, many are good and a few even disappoint, but I think there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from this exciting region’s wines.

Technically they use the same labelling system as Rioja; Reservas are aged for at least 12 months in barrel, Gran Reservas are aged for at leat 12 months in oak barrels and a further 2 years in bottle, while wines that do not mention either of those terms are considered to be joven / young wines and would have either no oak ageing, or less that a year.

Here are a few of my favourites from the region, so are very affordable, while others are more expensive, but I think they all offer value for money.

fincaresalso2015 Finca Resalso
Bodegas Emilio Moro
This is the entry level wine from Bodegas Emilio Moro which is one of the very best producers in the region and I think the pedigree really shows. It is relatively light and fresh, but the fruit is nice and ripe, the tannins are smooth and there is a little vanilla and spice from 4 months in oak. 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for £10 a bottle from:
Majestic – £8.99 as part of mixed half dozen.

legaris-roble-8695482014 Legaris Roble
Bodegas Legaris
I really like this estate, they make deliciously drinkable, velvety smooth wines that are always enjoyable. This is the baby of the range, but no less enjoyable for that. This 100% Tinto Fino wine is aged in American oak barrels for 3 months and has big, soft ripe fruit, some spice and smooth tannins. 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £10 a bottle from:
Hennings Wine & Ocado.

b_alta_db_ecologico2015 Dominio Basconcillos Ecológico 6 Meses en Barrica
Dominio Basconcillos
I only discovered this producer recently, but was really impressed with this, their entry level wine. Aged for 6 months in new French oak, this vividly deep purple wine is big, chunky and richly fruity and has silky tannins. 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from £12 a bottle from:
Vinceremos, Vintage RootsOrganic Wine Club & Abel & Cole.

valdubon-roble_hi2014 Valdubón Roblé
Bodegas Valdubón
The Valdubon Estate really do make some lovely, polished wines and this is a deliciously straightforward example with loads of fruit, smooth tannins, creamy ripeness and a light lick of rather nice mocha tinged oak – it is aged for 4 months and Roblé, meaning oak, is an unofficial category that is used to make it clear that it has some oak ageing. 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £12 a bottle from:
Marks & Spencer & Ocado

pago_de_los_capellanes_roble2015 Pago de los Capellanes Roble
Pago de los Capellanes
One of my favourite producers, this artisan estate (Pago means estate) never fails to excite me. This Roble wine spends 5 months in French oak and is juicy and sumptuous, yet smooth. The tannins are nicely integrated as is the oak. The fruit is rich and concentrated, but a little glimmer of red fruit makes the wine fresh and elegant. 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 a bottle from:
Great Western Wine.

crianza2014 Emilio Moro
Bodegas Emilio Moro
Yes, I could not resist another wine from this great producer – they have many more too, but you get the picture. This full bodied red spends a year in French and American oak and you have the coconut and the spices to show for it. It is plush and rich with deep black cherry fruit, chewy tannins and some mocha and dark chocolate too. 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for £16.99 a bottle from:
Majestic – £14.99 as part of mixed half dozen.

sainsburys-condado-de-haza-ribera-del-duero2014 Condado De Haza
Bodegas Alejandro Fernández
This second label from the great Pesquera estate is 100% Tinto Fino aged for 18 months in American oak and it is always something of a blockbuster, full-bodied with big, bold fruit and something of a Napa Valley style. There is some freshness though and and elegance too. 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for £15.00 a bottle from:
Sainsbury’s.

tinto-pesquera-crianza-20132012 Pesquera Crianza
Bodegas Alejandro Fernández
Further up the range from Pesquera, you really begin to see why wines from this estate put the region on the map in the 1980s and were frequently compared to the wines Pomerol by wine critics of the time. I still think it is more Pomerol meets Napa, but either way this is a plush, concentrated, hedonistic wine, full of deep ripe, almost creamy fruit, smooth tannins and seductive milk chocolate. 18 months in oak has given it some vanilla, cedar and mocha notes. 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £21 a bottle from:
Roberson Wine & Tanners.

pago-de-los-capellanes2014 Pago de los Capellanes Crianza
Pago de los Capellanes

This 100% Tinto Fino wine is aged for 18 months in French oak and is even more opulent, concentrated and delicious than the Roble. It’s a little young, but nothing decanting a few hours in advance won’t solve – or you could age it for a few years. 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £22 a bottle from:
Great Western Wine.

v_0392572011 Pago de los Carraovejas Reserva
Pago de los Carraovejas

Another producer that I really admire. This is Tinto Fino aged for 12 months in French oak and blended with little dollops of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The extra maturity shows in the nose as it offers rich fruit together with smoky and balsamic notes. The palate is still very lively and has lots of dark fruit together with something nutty and seductively savoury. 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £30 a bottle from:
De Vinos.

pago-de-los-capellanes2013 Pago de los Capellanes Reserva
Pago de los Capellanes

Good though their Roble and Crianza wines are, this Reserva is on a different level of richness and concentration, but elegance too. It is aged for 18 months in new French oak barrels and that riches shows with cedar, spice and mocha, while the fruit is dense and plush. The tannins still offer a little bite, but nothing too astringent.  93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £38 a bottle from:
Great Western Wine.

vega-sicilia-valbuena-5-2009-es-bl-0199-09a2011 Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5˚
Bodegas Vega Sicilia

This is often described as the ‘second wine’ of Vega Sicilia – the ‘grand vin’ is called Unico – but I think it is really just a different wine. For a start it is 100% Tinto Fino, whereas Unico is a blend, and secondly it is only aged in oak for 3 years – and then a further 2 in bottle before being released in its 5th year – hence 5˚. This is a brilliant wine from a fabulous vintage, it is complex, fine and perfumed too. There is a lot going on and the tannins are just beginning to be silky, serve it with lamb. 95/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £84 a bottle from:
The Wine Society.

As you can see, there are is a great variation in price, but all these wines are very good examples at their different levels. I am absolutely certain that any serious red wine drinker would enjoy these wines, indeed I could have included a few more, but I had to stop somewhere! So the next time you are choosing a red to go with that special dinner, give one of these a go.I am sure it will be just the thing.

Wine of the Week – a great, great value Rioja & a couple of real treats for Christmas

Looking south across Rioja just north of Haro.

Looking south across Rioja just north of Haro.

Rioja is – I think – one of the great wine regions of the world. However, there is plenty of pretty underwhelming Rioja – and I am talking about red Rioja here, I have written about white Rioja here – produced. Increasingly there is reliable, but unexciting Rioja at lower prices, while the more exciting examples – and here I really mean the Reservas and Gran Reservas – cost a bit more than most of us can justify for an everyday sort of wine. I have written extensively about the history of Rioja and you can read the piece by clicking here.

Rioja Map 2013

Map of Rioja – click for a larger view. Non watermarked maps are available by agreement.

Vineyards near Haro in Rioja.

Vineyards near Haro in Rioja.

Well the other day I tasted an affordable Rioja Reserva that was quite delicious, full of character, full of flavour and full of fruit. I kept coming back to it to check, but it really was very good. So I have made it my Wine of the Week.

cune_reserva2011 Cune Reserva
DOCa Rioja
Bodegas CVNE
Haro
Rioja
Spain

CVNE, or Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España (The Wine Company of Northern Spain) was founded in 1879 by Eusebio and Raimundo Real de Asúa and is still controlled by their direct descendants. CVNE was written as Cune in the old days, so that became the brand and is pronounced ‘Coon-eh’. Over the decades other labels have been introduced, Monopole, Imperial, Viña Real and Contino, but the Cune wines themselves remain the core of the range and provide the more everyday wines and the midweek treats.

Bodegas CVNE in Haro.

Bodegas CVNE in Haro.

As such an old established and still family run producer, CVNE are often regarded as being very traditional. However, I am rather of the opinion that this is not entirely the case. There are traditional aspects to them certainly, but having been familiar with their wines for many decades now, I think the wines are richer than they used to be, with more emphasis on fruit – which for me is a very good thing.

This Reserva comes from the stunning 2011 vintage which is officially classified as ‘Excelente’ or excellent. It is a classic Rioja blend of  85% Tempranillo, 5% Garnacha, 5% Mazuelo and 5% Graciano. The grapes were hand picked and then fermented in stainless steel and the wine was aged for aged for 18 months in American oak barrels and some French oak barrels too. The wine was aged for a further year in bottle before release.

The colour is deep and bright and the nose has lifted, fragrant fruit, cherry, plum, blackberry all mingle together with vanilla and spice and coffee together with a touch of something leathery and savoury. The palate is rich, concentrated and rounded with supple tannins, intense dark fruit, spice and a little touch of welcome, balancing freshness. It finishes pretty long and is very satisfying.

I have known this wine for a long time and often show it on my courses, but it was nice to reacquaint myself with it and to realise what a very good wine it actually is. It also delivers a huge amount of pleasure – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for £11-£13 per bottle from Majestic, Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar, Ocado, Asda Wine Shop and Bargain Booze and many others – click here for more stockists.
Available in the US for around $20- $25, for US stockists click here.

Recently I have also tasted a couple of other wines from CVNE, the Imperial Reserva and Gran Reserva. Launched in the 1920s as a premium Rioja the wine was originally aimed at the UK market and bottled in Imperial Pints, hence the name. They were both magnificent wines and would be wonderful to enjoy over Christmas:

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

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

imp_reserva2010 Imperial Reserva
DOCa Rioja
Bodegas CVNE
Haro
Rioja
Spain

Another stellar vintage, this 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo blend was aged for 2 years in American and French oak casks and another 2 years in bottle.

The nose is rich and powerful with ripe black and red fruit, vanilla, spice, herbs, coffee and leather. The palate is pretty full and silky with that rich fruit and the herbal, spice, earthy tastes giving an almost sweet and sour character. A complex and delicious wine that drinks very well already, but that touch of chalkiness to the tannins will soften and it would get more complex with age – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £20-£24 per bottle from Majestic, The Wine Reserve, The Co-operative, Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar, The Wine Society and many others – click here for more stockists.
Available in the US for around $32- $38 – for US stockists click here.

imp_granreserva2008 Imperial Gran Reserva
DOCa Rioja
Bodegas CVNE
Haro
Rioja
Spain

2008 was not rated quite as highly as 2010 and 2011, but CVNE still got some fabulous results. This 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo blend was aged in American and French oak casks for 2 years and in bottle for another three years before release.

This is a big wine still, but beginning to show a little maturity. The colour is more ruby and the fruit is more strawberry with a touch of richer blackberry. There is also vanilla,  spicy, toasty oak and a real savoury note. This follows onto the palate with umami, balsamic characters as well as the rich fruit, leathery and earthy flavours, dried fruit, spice and supple, silky tannins. All in all this is a real treat and a fine Rioja – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £20-£24 per bottle from Tanners, The Wine Society (2010 vintage), The Wine Reserve and many others – click here for more stockists.
Available in the US for around $70 – for US stockists click here.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I do sometimes do some work for CVNE, but the views expressed here are my own and I was not asked or paid to write the piece.

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.

f2_lh_vinedos_27

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 – a delicious Vermouth from Rioja

The Vermouth display at La Casa del Abuelo in Madrid.

The Vermouth display at La Casa del Abuelo in Madrid.

Until recently I could not remember the last time I had drunk any Vermouth. In my early years I used to sell it and it was so fashionable that it was positioned right at the back of the shop, next to the equally popular Sherries and Tonic Wines – ah the early 1980s really were another country.

Recently though I have started becoming aware of Vermouth being much more visible than I can remember for a very long time – I suppose it might be because of the big trend for Gin and Martinis, whatever the reason it is fascinating to see this old favourite having a resurgence, however modest.

A Vermouth is a fascinating wine style – even if you don’t like them. It is both a fortified wine and an aromatised wine.

There are four components in the making of Vermouth:

Base wine

Sugar syrup or a mistelle (fortified grape juice)

Spirit

Herbs, roots, plants and spices to give the flavouring – the most historically important flavouring is the wormwood shrub, wermut in German – pronounced vermut – from which the drink gets its name.

It is worth noting that like gruit and hops in beer, the herbs and spices were originally meant to act as a preservative and to have medicinal purposes too, not just to be a flavouring, in the distant past they probably covered up the smell and taste of some pretty rank wine too!

How you make Vermouth:

The base wine is sweetened with the sugar syrup or the mistelle. The herbs are macerated in the spirit and this flavoured alcohol is blended into the sweetened wine – it can then be aged for complexity or left as it is for freshness.

Apparently the first Vermouth to be bottled and sold was created by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in Turin, Piemonte, in 1786. His invention was the first commercial red Vermouth and a form of it is still available as Carpano Classico Vermouth, while a newer recipe, called Antica Formula Carpano caught my eye recently and that has gone for a bigger flavour and the artisan look, so much so that you could be forgiven for assuming that it is the older product.

All other commercial styles – as opposed those made by farmers for their own consumption – seem to have been based on what Carpano created and white, rosé and drier styles followed over time. White Vermouth was apparently created by Dolin in Chambéry in Savoie in 1821. Interestingly Chambéry is just over the Alps from Piemonte and in 1932 Chambéry was created an appellation contrôlée, or PDO, the only one for Vermouth. In my youth I remember enjoying Dolin’s Chamberyzette – available here and here, this is their white Vermouth blended with wild Alpine strawberry juice – I used to love, perhaps I still would if I tried it?

The wonderful menu mirror at

The wonderful menu mirror at La Casa del Abuelo.

I bet you are wondering where this is leading, well recently I was in Madrid and was having a happy time in one of the great bars of that city of great bars, La Casa del Abuelo the original one at 12 Calle Victoria. This Madrid institution has been around since 1906 – it seems that Ernest Hemingway was a frequent visitor during the 1920s and ’30s, but then every bar in Madrid claims that, and he drank so much they may well all be right – and it only serves prawns. The other branches have bigger menus, but the original one only serves gambas done six different ways. The classics are Gambas al AjilloGambas a la Plancha, Langostinos con Gabardina (big prawns in batter – hence gaberdines or overcoats! They rather wonderfully translate it as muffled shrimps) and their Croquetas de Gamba Roja (red prawn croquettes – they’re really good).

They have a small wine list nowadays, but the first time I went there – some 30 years ago – they only served 2 drinks, both of which are still available, a sweet red wine or a red Vermouth.

Well on my recent rip I ordered the Vermouth because a friend had mentioned this particular drink to me – he actually ships it into the UK, and I was intrigued. I tried it and really enjoyed it, so have made it my Wine of the Week.

VermutVermut Lacuesta Rojo
Bodegas Martinez Lacuesta
Haro
Rioja
Spain

I have long been an admirer of Bodegas Martinez Lacuesta. Founded in Haro in 1895 they have quietly got on with making superb wines ever since. They produce four different wine ranges, the classic Martinez Lacuesta wines and the somewhat funkier Comprador range which have more Garnacha in them than Tempranillo – Garnacha is usually very much in the supporting role in Rioja. Nowadays they also make make some excellent speciality Riojas and a couple of white Ruedas.

‘Vermut’ is a real speciality of the bodega – they have been bottling it since 1937, but I bet it has been made since the beginning. Nowadays they actually produce five different Vermuts, Blanco (white), Reserva Roble Francés (Reserva aged in French oak), Reserva Acacia (Reserva aged in acacia wood barrels) and a Limited Edition – Vermut Edición Limitada – which is aged in barrel for 14 months.

However, it is the Rojo, or red Vermut, that is the mainstay of their Vermouth production. It is all hand made in small batches from grapes grown in Martinez Lacuesta’s own vineyards. The twist here is that the botanicals, herbs etc, are added to white wine and then aged in American oak barrels for three years – this also introduces sweet vanilla flavours that show up in the finished Vermouth. This mixture is then added to the base red wine along with sugar, caramel and alcohol and aged in French oak barrels for another three months.

The nose is very complex with spices, herbs, dried fruit, toffee, vanilla and camomile. The palate is mellow with sweet dried fruit and an attractively herbal and medicinal character. There is plenty of richness and sweetness, but that is balanced by the herbs and touch of bitterness.

I actually found it really appetising, invigorating and unexpectedly satisfying. I don’t think it went with the gambas, but it was a good drink. I drank it neat with ice, but I am willing to bet it would be delicious with a slice of orange and a splash of sparkling water or lemonade, or even some orange juice – 88/100 points.

In the meantime, Vermut Lacuesta Rojo is available in the UK from Basco – formerly Greys Fine Foods – for £13.50 a bottle.
For US stockists click here.

Stop press:

Since returning from Madrid I have discovered that Vermut Lacuesta Rojo makes a superb Marianito cocktail – simpler recipes are available:

Ingredients: 8 parts of Vermut Lacuesta Rojo well chilled
1-2 parts of gin
1-2 parts of Curaçao orange
1 touch of Campari
1 touch of angostura
orange or lemon juice at will
ice
1 green olive

Preparation: Put all the liquid ingredients in a mixing bowl with ice. Mix without shaking and serve with more ice and remember to add the olive, although I prefer a slice of orange.

Wandering around Madrid I quickly realised that Vermouth is now big in Spain and is produced right across the country. There are plenty of examples from Catalunya, even from Priorat, some from Jerez, including those made by Bodegas LustauCruz Conde Vermouth made from Pedro Ximenez in Montilla-MorillesRibera del Duero and there is even a Galician Vermouth made from Albariño grapes and I intend to taste as many as possible in my forthcoming visits to Spain.

It is amazing to think that this drink that I had almost forgotten about is enjoying such an exciting renaissance and giving so much pleasure. If you are open to interesting and complex drinks, do give one a try soon.

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 69 – a sumptuous red for winter

Winter seems to be in the air, so my thoughts are turning to red wine again.  I am still hoping for a late Indian Summer though, which would give me a chance to get out some of the mouthwatering white wines that are sitting in the rack looking up at me expectantly.

Regular readers will know of my love and fascination with all things Iberian and Spanish – especially the wines. Recently I presented a tasting of the less usual wines of Spain and everything I showed went down very well. Indeed a couple of the wines have already been Wines of the Week and they are really good – click here and here.

Many of you will know about Priorat, one of Spain’s – and the world’s – greatest wine region and certainly one of the most expensive. This amazing, rugged landscape specialises in producing richly mineral red wines that are usually made from blends based on Grenache, or Garnacha as the Spanish call it and Garnatxa as the Catalans call it. A few of the red wines are Carignan  / Cariñena / Samsó dominated blends, while a small number of producers craft superb white wines from grapes like Garnacha Blanca and Macabeo, as well as Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier.

Wine map of Spain, see Montsant in the north east - click for a larger view

Wine map of Spain, see Montsant in the north east – click for a larger view

Priorat is one of only two regions to hold Spain’s highest classification, Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) – it is Denominació d’Origen Qualificada or DOQ in Catalan. The only other region to have this so far is Rioja.

Priorat is tiny and the wines expensive, but luckily for us it is almost completely surrounded by another wonderful wine region – Montsant. This region is only a relatively humble DO or Denominación de Origen – but then so is Ribera del Duero – but it can produce wines of real quality. Recently I tasted a superb Montsant, that was so good I showed it at my tasting and everyone loved it so much that I decided to make it my Wine of the Week.

Montsant's rugged, but beautiful landscape.

The Joan d’Anguera estate in Montsant’s rugged, but beautiful landscape.

Joan and Josep Anguera.

Joan and Josep Anguera.

Planella2012 Planella Montsant
Joan d’Anguera
D.O. Montsant
Catalunya, Spain

The story here is an old and familiar one, the d’Anguera family have farmed these wild hillsides for centuries, scratching a living by providing grapes for the cooperative. However in the 1970s Josep d’Anguera decided to get more ambitious, perhaps he was influenced by the Priorate pioneers, or perhaps he just realised the potential of his land, but he planted Syrah and that had a really positive effect on his wines. It certainly made them easier to sell, but also tamed and softened the more rustic grapes in the blends, although now they are reducing the amount of Syrah in their blends in favour of the traditional local grapes. Today the estate is run by Josep’s sons, Josep and Joan and they too are forward thinking and ambitious and from 2008 to 2012 they were in conversion to biodynamic viticulture – 2012 was their first biodynamic vintage.

50% Cariñena / Samsó / Carignan, 45% Syrah and 5% Garnacha / Garnatxa / Grenache. Fermentation in concrete vats using indigenous yeasts. Aged for 12 months in old French oak barrels.

The colour is rich and opaque, while the nose gives lifted aromas of sweet dark fruit, warming spice, wild herbs and smoke. The palate is mouth filling, mouth coating and wondrously smooth. The texture is very seductive, as is the intense ripe fruit, blackberry, mulberry and nuggets of raspberry and cherry.  Savoury, spicy, smoky characters balance the fruit, together with a light touch of spicy oak and a seam of slatey minerality. The tannins are very smooth and ripe, adding to that seductive, sumptuous feel. This is a terrific wine that will wow anyone who tastes it – 91/100 points.

This is a lovely food friendly style, try it with anything meaty or hearty, especially cassoulet, pot roasts or slow roast garlicky lamb.

Available in the UK for around £13-£16 per bottle, from James Nicholson (NI), Forest Wines, Harvey Nichols, L’Art du Vin, No 2 Pound Street, Prohibition Wines, Salusbury Wine Store, St Andrews Wine Company.
For US stockists, click here.

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.