In June 2017, I took a group to Rioja, for my first tour to the famous region since 2005. In that time a great deal has happened. New producers have set up, and there has been a greater focus on single varietals, and indeed new grape varieties. While the largest bodegas continue to dominate the export market, we discovered a number of smaller more innovative winemakers, and of course enjoyed the spectacle of visiting some of the most famous names.
Ahead of schedule we took a very pleasant drive along the coast towards Zarautz and our first stop Bodega Rezabal. This family estate is run by Mireya and Anders Rezabal and was founded in 1996. They have 15 hectares in DO Chacoli de Guetaria (or Getariako Txakolina in Basque) with the somewhat lesser known Hondarribi Zuria and Hondarribi Beltza grape varieties being planted. Chacoli wine is slightly sparkling, bone dry and with high acidity and should always be drunk within 12 months of the harvest.
Mireya and Anders are a charming and very welcoming couple and it was a great start to the tour. Given the 38 degree heat we transferred quickly into the cool cellar for some canapes and our first white Chacoli. Anders then took us into the even cooler fermentation room where we tasted a couple of wines straight from the stainless steel vat and contrasted terroir.
Having checked in, everyone was free to explore Calle Laurel, famous for its cafes, restaurants and, of course, ponchos! I have to admit, the next couple of nights saw me strolling the Calle, joining different groups and generally revelling in the delicious delights on offer.
Bodegas Riojanas and Biurko Gorri
Our first full day of visits saw the temperature gauge rise to 38 degrees so we were grateful to spend most of the day inside cool cellars. Our first stop was to the historic Bodegas Riojanas in the town of Cenicero. This bodega was founded in 1890 and they have developed the most impressive underground facility, exquisitely maintained and exceptionally elegant. We were hosted by Esti and Mia as well as Pablo – one of the winemakers. After a highly informative walk round we embarked on a truly extraordinary tasting. Kicking off with a barrel fermented white, a Crianza and Reserva we then moved onto the Gran Reservas. We tasted the 2009, 2005, 2004, 2001, 1998 and 1978 – all showing extremely well and illustrating the different stages of development given their respective ages. All the wines had been aged for 36 months in oak and all were 100% Tempranillo.
This was a magnificent start to our tour!
From Cenicero, it was a 40 minute drive to the village of Bargota and the bodega Biurko Gorri. Owner Ramon hosted our visit and we headed straight downstairs to the traditional dining room which was lovely and cool despite the roaring fire near the kitchen.
Ramon took us through a fascinating tasting of four wines reflecting the diversity of style and including a rare 100% Graciano Rioja and a delicious Sauvignon Blanc. Then it was time to eat. A superb lunch ensued with tomato salad, fresh asparagus and asparagus cooked in a pepper sauce, a delicious bean soup, barbequed lamb and a local flan that was a heavenly mix of the traditional crema catalan with extra cream and custard and a sweet cake at the bottom. Utterly divine.
Miguel Merino and Marques de Riscal
Friday’s temperature gauge was a little bit cooler as we headed out of Logroño towards the town of Briones. Briones is the home to the amazing Vivanco wine museum which is well worth a trip. However, our destination was the tiny boutique bodega of Miguel Merino. Founded in 1994, this is one of the newest and smallest bodegas in Rioja. Miguel is a truly delightful, charming, funny and engaging man and it was a real privilege and pleasure to spend time with him. Despite the fact that he had recently endured vocal cord surgery and could barely whisper, his humour and passion for wine was infectious. He makes 40,000 bottles a year so the winery visit does not take long, but we learnt a lot about the innovative money saving techniques he employed in the early years (such as wrapping steel vats in wet towels to cool them down!) as well as his bespoke part French/part American oak barriques.
The wines were absolutely superb. Miguel has established a fantastic reputation and this was confirmed later in the day when to talking some restaurant owners who could only say “Que Hombre!” What a guy!
First up was a 100% Mazuelo Rioja (or Carignan in France). Pure Mazuelos are very rare so this was a great opportunity for everyone to experience. Reserva 2010, Gran Reserva 2009 and a very special Reserva 1998 were all 100% Tempranillo and beautifully made – full of fruit, well balanced and harmonious.
This was a truly memorable visit and everyone will remember Miguel Merino with great affection.
From Briones, it was a 20 minute hop to El Ciego and the hallowed winery of Marques de Riscal – one of the most famous bodegas in all of Spain. As you arrive on the road to the town you are greeted by the extraordinary of the Frank Gehry designed 5* hotel complex that Riscal have built around the winery. Three restaurants, one of which has a Michelin star, 400 euro per night rooms and a grape and vine inspired health spa – this was serious bling!
And this is where we were headed….The Tradition 1860 restaurant is on the second floor of this incredible complex with great views of the town. A truly magnificent lunch ensued: goat’s cheese terrine, delicious croquetas, red peppers with egg yolk, a really clever vegetable broth, battered hake, slow cooked veal cheeks and a wonderful cheese, apple and honey ice cream dessert. All washed down with Sauvignon Blanc, Arienzo crianza and Gran Reserva 2007.
Despite being stuffed senseless, most of us managed to take the tour of the winery and it was well worth it. Fascinating history, a great combination of old cellars and modern technology and a Verdejo 2016 and Reserva 2010 to finish.
A day of quite deliberate contrast and truly memorable.
Vina Izalba and Restaurant La Galeria
A late start and a cooler temperature made Saturday a more gentle day as we headed to the outskirts of Logrono to Vina Ijalba. I last visited Ijalba in 2005 and they were at the forefront of organic viticulture and were prominent in a project to redevelop old traditional grape varieties.
Our host was Vincent. Vincent is Dutch, speaks six languages and hosted a truly special occasion with a charm and skill that belied his years. Instantly picking up on the sense of humour of the group, he gave a concise but extremely informative narrative of the estate as well as some really useful details about the terroir and the Ijalba vineyards that are planted on disused quarry pits. Moving from the winery to the tasting room we then experienced a somewhat raucous session tasting eight wines and matching with some delicious tapas.
The wines went down a storm and allowed us to taste the rare Maturana Blanco and Tinta, a Tempranillo Blanco, Joven, Crianza and Reserva, as well as their delicious White Rioja and 100% Graciano. Brilliantly made and great insights were added by Vincent.
This was an utterly fabulous end to the tasting part of our tour. Just dinner to go…….
Restaurante La Galeria was our destination at a mere 300 yards from the hotel. Modern and innovative, owner Raul has endeavoured to deconstruct some Riojan classics and present them in a highly distinctive way. Patatas bravas soup with some jamon, pankura Hake, mushroom risotto, roast pork and an ice cream mille-feuille were all served with aplomb. Plus, as an added bonus, we were joined for dinner by Juan Carlos Sancha and his wife Marian. Juan Carlos is a Professor of Enology at La Rioja university and Marian is a lawyer at the DO Rioja regulatory body. Juan Carlos punctuated the evening with introductions to the variety of wines as well as giving some thoughts on the future of Rioja. We tasted the future as one of the wines was a single vineyard Rioja which is now being approved by the regulatory authorities as well as a Late harvest dessert Rioja. A white dessert wine made from Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano that was utterly delicious and only permitted four years ago.
I have to admit to a little bit of trepidation before the start of this tour. Back in 2005 when we first toured Rioja I was disappointed by some big, impersonal wineries and a region that seemed a bit stuck in its ways. How things have changed! We discovered in 2017 a vibrant wine region that is embracing change by recognising both ancient and international grape varieties, amending old fashioned regulations while at the same time respecting the noble history and tradition. We tasted our first late harvest Rioja—a white dessert wine made from the four traditional red grapes and sparkling Rioja will be made in the very near future.
The overall quality was exceptional—whether it be wines made from 100% Tempranillo, Graciano or Mazuelo or blended with Garnacha, the whites were a delicious surprise and the various opportunities to match Riojan cuisine in the tastings proved that gastronomy is becoming an increasingly important feature.
I endeavoured to create as much contrast as possible. Chacoli on Wednesday afternoon, historic Riojanas and the organic Biurko Gorri on Thursday. The delightful Miguel Merino was a joy to visit, and the Riscal lunch was superb cuisine and the chance to marvel at the Frank Gehry architecture. Vincent at Vina Ijalba was a scream—full credit to him for instantly recognising the charm, sense of humour and willingness to fully engage of the super group of people who came on tour.