World famous Rioja is 100km south of Bilbao and protected by mountains on either side; the Sierra Cantabria to the East and the Sierra de la Demanda to the West. It is divided into three subzones: Riojas Alta, Alavesa and Baja. Most commercial Rioja is a blend from all three. Rioja Baja, with its hotter continental climate was considered a bit rougher than Alta and Alavesa with their maritime influence, relying more on Garnacha (Grenache) than Tempranillo which was more prevalant in the Alta and Alavesa. This is no longer the case. Many growers in Baja replanted to Tempranillo and the best are making wines to equal their more rarified neighbours to the North West. We also mustn’t forget the other authorised grapes which also have a part to play in the classic Rioja blend: Mazuelo (Carignan) for guts and body, and Graciano for colour and elegance.
Rioja has always been a political hothouse. It was the first region to establish its own Denominacion de Origen, rigorously policed by the Consejo Regulador in Logrono. The current controversy is that the Basques are claiming the Rioja Alavesa for themselves. Such is the power of the Consejo Regulador that they have stated, yes, secede by all means, but you will no longer be able to call your Alavesa wines Rioja. This leaves the Basques in a bit of a quandary!
Bodegas Abeica (Abalos/Rioja Alta)
Coming across Isabel Fernandez’s Longrande almost two decades ago in the brilliant Casa Toni restaurant in San Vicente de la Sonsierra was a revelation. We had to beg to see her, largely to overcome her fear of export.
She is as full of personality as her wines. Fiery, energetic, 50-something Isabel started full time in the family bodega at the age of 25. Both sides of her family had vineyards and she now has 35ha around the village of Abalos in Rioja Alta over the road from the Alavesa. The small bodega, built by her parents, is on three levels to make the best use of gravity. Grapes (always picked by family members) are sorted in the vineyards, arrive in baskets at the top level and placed directly into the tanks where they ferment in whole clusters. Although they have owned three pneumatic presses in the last 13 years, Isabel says they almost invariably end up treading the fermenting must by foot. A cool malolactic fermentation then takes place in tank and is generally over by December. Isabel is at pains to keep the whole process as natural as possible. No filtering, sometimes a little natural fining. She even hermetically seals her subterranean barrel room with masking tape. She uses only American oak, which she thinks suits her wines better, giving them a little longer in barrel to compensate for the lighter effect of American rather than French oak. Finally, she determines the bottling date biodynamically, according to the cycles of the moon.
Her wines are fascinating: perfumed, with a beautiful purity of fruit and surprising body and structure. If you have time, her wines benefit from an hour in a decanter.
Heredad Pangua Sodupe (San Asensio/Rioja Alta)
Cigar-chomping, Che Guevara look-alike Roberto Pangua has 20 hectares around San Asensio and neighbouring Briones in the Rioja Alta. 17.5ha are Tempranillo, 2.5ha are Viura. His family has worked the vines for as long as anyone can remember, always selling to the larger Bodegas. It was finally time to go it alone, so he started his own Bodega in 1998. He uses mainly American oak, but has been experimenting with Spanish, French, Hungarian oak, Acacia and Cherry. He told us that Cherry and Chestnut were widely used in the area in the past.
Our latest encounter with Roberto, his wife and son almost killed us. After a full tasting at his Bodega in San Asensio in the Rioja Alta, the entire contents of the local butcher’s shop were brought in and grilled over vine cuttings in the corner of the tasting room. We were subsequently four hours late for our following meeting and all we really wanted to do at that point was lie down. You only live once – and it almost ended there and then!
Roberto makes Rioja Joven (young wine) in three colours: white, red and rose. Classic Crianza and occasionally Reserva and Gran Reserva. He also makes an excellent barrel-fermented white Rioja and a red Autor. Many growers have been introducing wines that sit outside the strict confines of the D.O. system (Joven, Crianza, Reserva & Gran Reserva). Roberto’s Autor is a selection from vines over 50 years old, fermented with wild yeasts. This selection might usually be kept for Reserva or Gran Reserva but, as an “Autor” wine, spends a shorter time in barrel and bottle before release to keep more fruit and freshness.
He has recently released a spicy, peppery virgin olive oil.
Bodegas Vinicola Real (Albelda de Iregua/Rioja Alta) SOME ORGANIC
Miguel Angel is the energetic, moustachioed owner and winemaker of this brilliant estate in the Rioja Alta. His 200 Monges is an excellent balance of old and new. New, clean, winemaking techniques with old values. The slightly sweaty nose of the Tempranillo grape with a saturated core of dark, red fruit. When we visited him in June, he took us into the hills above the village and showed us his gnarly, old windswept vines. Old vines make good juice. His Vina Los Vallos bottlings are organic.