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Text & Photographs by Gerry Dawes©2006
Friendly rivals Agustín Santolaya, Managing Director of Roda & Jesús Madrazo, winemaker, Contino pour each other's wines at Hector Oribe Restaurant in La Rioja.
he organized for me at Roda in April 2003. Photo by Gerry Dawes©2003.
Two years prior, I had questioned his approach to winemaking in print and he was eager to gently but firmly defend Roda's prominently proclaimed scientific approach to viticultural techniques and winemaking, and prove me wrong in the process. At least in my first encounters with Roda - and many other so-called alta expresión new wave offerings being fawned over as nuevos milagros, new miracle wines - I was not impressed. Nor was I convinced by the public relations claim that Roda wines were the "new kings" of the Barrio de la Estación in Haro, especially because its neighbors included a row of classic wineries that had always ranked among Spain's best bodegas: CVNE, La Rioja Alta, R. López de Heredia and Muga.
I had come away from a tasting at Roda several years earlier with the impression that too much emphasis was placed on big, powerful, inky, concentrated wines overdosed on new oak. Its blockbuster alta expresión Cirsion offering was then pegged at around $150 (it's now $250). Santolaya's bent for winemaking by the numbers (i.e., the reliance on scientific criteria) also left me skeptical. His agro-scientist's approach to extracting the best, "phenologically" ripe - quite ripe - old vine tempranillo grapes, then making them into intense, voluptuous wines with liberal lashings of new oak, was simply unconvincing.
And I kept wondering about the "communal palate" behind the Roda wines, which seemed formulaic rather than inspired. Nevertheless, I was not going to miss a chance to taste mano a mano with the individual responsible for overseeing the wines at one of Rioja's most highly touted modern wineries, so I rented a car in Madrid on the last day of the Salón and headed for Rioja, a four-hour drive northeast. Passing through snow flurries on the way up, it was 10:30 at night by the time I arrived. Santolaya had laid out tapas and opened 21 wines - every Roda wine made since the winery's founding in 1987, except for the 1991, which was bottled but never released (the first commercial release in 1996 was from the 1992 vintage).
In addition to his role since 1998 as managing director, my host is also the de facto technical director, the man who has the last word on winemaking. He was first hired as a consultant in 1992 by founders Mario Rotllan, a wealthy Barcelona businessman-wine importer (Pol Roger Champagne, Taylor Fladgate, Château Mouton-Rothschild), and his wife, Carmen Daurella (thus, Ro-Da).
Santolaya recalled that, "Mario Rotllan had a clear idea of what he wanted to do from the beginning: He didn't want to make the same wine as the great classic wineries. Rather, the idea was to look for the maximum possible expression of tempranillo in our area of La Rioja. Finding the best grapes is fundamental, then we try to get everything the grape has to give, while trying to make a wine that is elegant and not aggressive. We want wines that are fun to drink, that give pleasure with food."
With that as the goal, Santolaya assembled and led a team whose first task was to painstakingly identify 100 high-quality vineyards in La Rioja Alta and La Rioja Alavesa near Haro and select 22 separate parcels from which Roda's grapes would be sourced. Through his endeavors then and later, Roda now owns 150 acres of vines and controls another 250 ranging in age from 30 to 50-plus years old and situated 1,475 to 1,870 feet above sea level. Some, like the best vineyards in Burgundy, for example, are at the limits of cultivation, which can be problematic in challenging vintages, but can produce sublime wines in favorable years. Roda also has a 60-year-old garnacha vineyard (at 2,100 feet) in La Rioja Baja used for only the basic Roda bottling.
It is Santolaya's habit to select grapes from the 17 best lots of low-yield vines (minimum age 30 years, average age 45) and vinify them separately in large, upright tinos, or wood vats. Because "it is a communal palate here," he explained, the team then blind tastes the wines to classify them. Before we settled down to taste, Santolaya took me on a quick refresher tour of the facility, where I was reminded that all wine transfers are done by gravity and I learned a maximum of 25,000 cases per year are made.
First in the evening lineup was the 1992 Roda II (the lesser of the three wines made here), followed by 1992 Roda I and 1993 Roda II (no Roda I was made that year) - wines that still had some fresh acidity, but were from poor to mediocre vintages and were overwhelmed by new oak. Roda I, Santolaya said, is 100 percent tempranillo, while Roda II is usually 90 percent or more tempranillo, the rest garnacha and graciano. The 1994 Roda I (no Roda II made), from a great vintage, was riper and smoother, but still marred by oak, as was the 1995 Roda II and 1996 Roda II.
The wines began to improve dramatically with the 1995 Roda I and 1996 Roda I, which, though they were still somewhat hamstrung by new oak, also showed exceptional promise with smooth, ripe black fruit and minerals. Santolaya noted that after 1996, they began to tone down the new oak (all French, from eight different producers) a bit; they now use just 50 percent new oak for Roda and Roda I, and 100 percent new oak for Cirsion.
"In the earlier years, we used to put the wines in new oak for 24 months, but we have cut it to 12 to 14 months," Santolaya explained. "The first month in new oak, when the wine is going through malolactic fermentation, gives as much oak to the wine as the next six to eight months does." Wines undergo malolactic fermentation at Roda in November (early for La Rioja) in a special room warmed by radiant heat floors. (Because the winters are cold here, if something is not done to warm the wines, malolactic fermentation will not be completed naturally until spring.)
The team didn't succeed with 1997, an off vintage; the Roda II was sold off in bulk and Roda I was thin and showed more oak than fruit. In 1998, however, both bottlings began to live up to the winery's top-quality claims; the Roda II showed rich berry fruit and round, plummy, chocolaty, ripe flavors that carried the 13.9 percent alcohol well, and the Roda I was a big, silky, but well-structured wine with loads of black plum and Graves-like mineral qualities.
In 1999, another poor vintage, the wines were not successful, but in 2000, Roda hit its stride, turning out big (14 percent alcohol), voluptuous, silky, black wines with lots of rich, ripe fruit. And in the stellar 2001 vintage, which some observers believe produced the best tempranillo grapes in history, the perfect embodiment of the house philosophy was realized with big, sweet, silky, flavor-packed wines that display distinct, minerally terroir and elegance, despite the hefty - for Rioja - 14-plus percent alcohol content.
By midnight, we had tasted through 17 wines with four vintages of Roda's superstar Cirsion still on deck. Santolaya noted that Cirsion is not from a single vineyard, rather it's from the best tempranillo grapes in the best years hand-selected by a specially trained team of ten people who inspect the fruit by tasting it.
"We want a wine with the highest concentration of fruit and structure," so they look for bunches that, according to Santolaya, "are already nearly wine inside the grape and bursting with ripeness with long polymerized tannin strings, not the shorter ones that can make wines harsh and brittle."
Fermentation takes place in upright Seguin Moreau oak foudres and then the wine is moved into new French oak where it undergoes malolactic fermentation. It remains there for only about eight months, because Santolaya doesn't want oak to dominate. He explained that Cirsion is the result of research into the polymerization of grape tannins and anthocyans, and the judicious use of new oak is needed to "fix" them, or in Santolaya lay speak, "make a sandwich with the wood."
Such a recipe yielded big, exotic wines in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001 that showed rich, sweet black fruit, and were very silky and deceptively smooth in spite of the 14.5 percent alcohol levels. The 2001, of which only 7,000 bottles were made, was already on the market when this tasting took place in 2003. Santolaya said that it followed Roda's philosophy that a wine should be ready to drink upon release and should still live for 20 years.
The jury is still out on Cirsion's longevity, but, as Santolaya intended, the wine sure grabs the taster's attention. "When you analyze the time a wine critic has to judge your wine, then divide that into the thousands of wines the critic has to taste every year, each wine gets about one minute, so your wine has to sock him in the jaw and deliver a knockout punch. You have to make him say, 'Wow!'"
In this instance, however, I had spent more than three hours tasting Roda's wines and tasted them again with the tapas later. I concluded that the wines had evolved steadily since those early efforts that I disdained. They were still more alcoholic and extracted than I prefer - big by traditional Rioja standards - but there was no denying the quality standards that went into their making. I even thought that, in some ways, they were moving closer to the more elegant style of wines like CVNE Imperial, an evolved classic from one of Roda's neighbors.
Ironically, much like Roda, the wines of CVNE's offspring, Contino, despite their power, have grown increasingly more elegant - though still richly flavored - with each passing vintage under winemaker Jésus Madrazo's hand. Established in 1973 by family members and investors from CVNE (pronounced koo-neh, an acronym for Compañía Vínicola del Norte de España), the Contino property dates to a 15th-century grant from Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. It comprises 153 acres of vineyards set on a gently sweeping slope that angles down to the Ebro River, a natural boundary that nearly encircles the property in a broad loop.
On the other side of the Ebro from the Contino estate, a high, curving, ochre-colored sandstone cliff forms a vertical barrier that, in effect, defines the bowl that Contino property occupies, creating a unique microclimate. The cliff traps the heat and reflects sunlight back into the alluvial, rock-strewn property, parts of which are mindful of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Because of the topography, Contino is often rewarded with riper grapes than many other vineyards in this area, and much riper fruit than vineyards in the cooler, higher elevations around Haro.
Contino's first director and driving force was the now-retired José Madrazo Real de Asua, also a director of CVNE (founded by his great-grandfather in 1879), and the father of the current winemaker, Jésus Madrazo, whose mentor was the legendary CVNE enologist Basilio Izuierdo. "Contino is a warm microclimate property," Madrazo noted in a recent conversation. "
Over the past decade, Contino has begun the harvest between September 15 and 21, which makes us among the earliest grape harvesters in La Rioja. Historically, our alcohol levels range just under 14 percent. The trick is to achieve balance in the wines. If I were not a classic enologist, the wines would probably rise to 15 percent or more." The 40-year-old Madrazo, unlike most modern winemakers in Spain, grew up drinking the great, old library vintages of CVNE Imperial and Viña Real Gran Reservas from the 1940s, '50s and '60s, which set the tone for his winemaking style.
With only a few Contino vintages under his belt (his first vintage was 1999), Madrazo made the stunning 2001 El Olivo from 90 percent tempranillo (harvested from a single parcel over which a 1,000-year-old olive tree presides) and 10 percent graciano from a nearby Finca San Gregorio plot. This 2,000-case gem is undoubtedly the greatest red wine I have tasted in the so-called modern era of Spanish winemaking, which roughly dates stylistically to the early 1990s when concentration, high alcohol and lavish new French oak began to dominate.
Although Madrazo espouses the virtues of new oak, he approaches it with caution: "You have to buy good oak that is not green and has been air-dried so it is properly cured," he explained. "Oak should not import any negative attributes to your wines and it must do justice to your own fruit. What works for another winery might not be good for your wines. For instance, I liked Marqués de Vargas's 1998 and 1999 wines, which were aged in Russian oak made by a Rioja cooper. I admired the balsamic flavors and the toast, so I ordered some barrels to do an experiment. The Russian oak was a disaster at Contino for the flavors I like to extract from tempranillo and my way of making wine."
New oak has its place here, just as it does at Roda. "Agustín Santolaya and I agree that when you use new oak, the quality of the fruit is paramount," he stressed. "You can't use new oak on poor grapes. We use the highest quality of grapes, which can stand up to new oak. Contino's El Olivo and Graciano both have almost 100 percent new oak, but I don't age them more than 12 to 14 months in it." For the majority of his wines, Madrazo uses a combination of French and American oak (with one percent Hungarian) with plenty of carefully main-tained used oak in the mix. Because barrels are kept a maximum of eight to nine years, no more than 10 or 15 percent new oak is usually purchased each year.
At a milestone tasting I attended last April at the Contino estate, Madrazo opened almost every Contino Reserva and Gran Reserva made since 1974 - 28 wines in all (missing were six off years when no wine was released) - for a small audience composed largely of Spanish wine critics. Also in attendance was his aforementioned predecessor, Basilio Izquierdo, who made Contino's wines from 1974 to 1998. (For the first few years, until the vinification facility was built at the estate, Contino wines were made by Izquierdo at CVNE.)
Even in off years, such as 1997, 2002 and 2003, Contino Reservas rate consistently well. Because new oak had to be purchased after the TCA episode, the 1994 and 1995 wines, while still lively, fruity and spicy, had still not shaken off the taste of new wood. In 1996, Izquierdo made an excellent wine, one in which sweet, ripe blackberry and blueberry fruit, toast and carob were well integrated with still detectable, but not overly obtrusive new oak. The 1998 Contino Reserva was sweet, silky and elegant. In 1999, Madrazo took over the winemaking duties and was promptly rewarded with a mid-April ice storm that was one of the worst in recent history. As a result of the deep freeze, one-third of the normal crop was lost.
Madrazo increased the French oak content to 70 percent (plus 29 percent American, one percent Hungarian) and made a very elegant wine. In 2000 and 2001 - the former vintage, good; the latter, great - the direction in which Madrazo intended to take Contino was clearly evident. Both wines showed plenty of sweet, ripe red currant and blueberry fruit, spices and reasonably restrained oak. With just 13 percent alcohol, the 2000 Reserva was very elegant and stylish; the 2001 more powerful (13.7 percent) and packed with sweet fruit, chocolate and minerally terroir. In the poor 2002 vintage, Madrazo actually made a delicious, spicy, easy-drinking wine, and he seemed to do quite well with the super-hot 2003, which was still aging in barrel.
After a break, wines from Contino's "classic" period - 1974 to 1988 (when TCA began to be detectable) - were poured. Because I have high regard for traditional, well-aged wines, I was generally more enamored of their qualities than were my modern-palate-tuned Spanish counterparts, with the exception of critic Andrés Proensa, whose scores more closely paralleled mine. Many of these wines showed typical sweet red cherry fruit with the hints of orange peel, dried rose and tea that come from aging. Because of poor vintages and the TCA hiatus, between 1983 and 1988 only the 1985 and '86 still showed reasonably well.
Although Madrazo is making some of Spain's great modern wines, he also turns out a throwback to the long-aging, traditional Riojas on which he cut his teeth. In very good to excellent years, he bottles (in magnum only) a sublime Contino Gran Reserva. He opened the 1996, an incredible wine with deep, rich, deliciously sweet currant and cherry fruit, great balance and marvelous complexity, for his guests. The 2000 was nearly as good, while the 2001 promises to be even better with age. He observed, "I wanted to make a wine that would recall the great classic grandes reservas that I grew up drinking - the 1964 CVNE Viña Real, R. López de Heredia Viña Bosconia 1942, for example - wines that will live for 30 years or more. I want some wine lover in the future to be able to duplicate the same experience by savoring a superb wine that is several decades old."
But Madrazo was not yet done. As a fare-thee-well gesture, the budding Rioja maestro pulled the cork on his dream wine, the 2000 El Olivo. This intensely flavored, complex, beautifully structured red finishes with a Graves-like minerality, the stamp of Contino's terroir. His 2001, from a spectacular tempranillo vintage, could well become the model for others in Spain to emulate.
A January tasting at Hector Oribe Restaurant in Páganos (La Roja Alavesa) brought me up to date on the latest releases and validated what I already suspected: Contino and Roda are two of the best new-wave wineries in Spain whose recent vintages demonstrate that big doesn't necessarily mean brawny. These wines are not Arnold Schwarznegger dancing the tango in True Lies; rather, they are substantial Riojas with balance, style and even grace. More important, they are delicious to drink.
It is poetic justice that both bodegas are based in La Rioja, a region that has taken heavy flack from a few prominent Spanish wine writers who seem to favor just about any new property from the hot-country Mediterranean wine regions over almost anything produced in Spain's time-honored red wine area. The wines of Contino and Roda are living proof that tempranillo grown in the unique micro-climates and soils of Rioja's Atlantic-influenced, mountainous wine region is still hard to top when put into the hands of talented winemakers like Jésus Madrazo and Agustín Santolaya.
Through a series of events over a span of two years, the verticals that follow were tasted at both wineries, respectively, with a January 20 follow up review of the latest releases over lunch with both Jésus Madrazo and Agustín Santolaya at the wonderful Hector Oribe Restaurant in the village of Páganos in La Rioja Alavesa (also in attendance was Gónzalo Lainez, Roda's export manager, who is also a member of Peña Bilbao, one of northern Spain's most influential private tasting groups). None of the wines were tasted blind.
Bodegas Roda Roda II 2000, La Rioja Alta - $38: Pleasant nose of fruit, minerals and oak. Very smooth and balanced with integrated fruit and oak; rich black plum and chocolate flavors; smooth, silky tannins and a mineral finish. Score: 89
Roda I 2000, La Rioja Alta - $59: Fresh nose of black plum, pleasant oak and minerals. Plummy fruit flavors and silky texture with a mineral finish, this time shored up with noticeable tannins. Should improve with a few years of cellaring. Score: 91
Roda II 2001, La Rioja Alta - $38: Somewhat closed, but clean nose shows some lead pencil. Sweet, delicious and balanced, with a nice complex finish showing ripe fruit, graphite minerality and oak. Excellent. (17% garnacha) Score: 92
Roda I 2001, La Rioja Alta - $59: A gorgeous, elegant, balanced black fruit nose. Delicious, well-knit balance of ripe fruit, chocolate and minerals that fill the mouth and finish silky and seamless. Very impressive. Score: 94
Cirsion 2001, La Rioja Alta - $250: Deep, ripe black fruit nose. Very rich and exotic flavors with intense, sweet blackberry fruit laced with chocolate and minerals. So silky it glides over the palate in a smooth, voluptuous rush of fruit, so you may not notice the 14.3 percent alcohol until you have finished a glass of it. Score: 92
Cirsion 2000, La Rioja Alta - $250: Exotic, spicy nose of violets and minerals. A very concentrated "Mediterranean" Cirsion, with delicious, silky black fruit flavors and enough tannins to hold it together. For lovers of big, concentrated wines. Very nice for its weight. Score: 92Contino Reserva 2001, La Rioja Alavesa - $42: Pleasantly oaky nose with sweet, ripe fruit and toast aromas. A tannic, oaky finish buttresses lots of delicious sweet blueberry and red currant with chocolate and mineral flavors. A great vintage that needs several years of cellaring. Score: 94
Viñedos del Contino Contino Reserva 2000, La Rioja Alavesa - $42: Integrated oak and sweet black fruit nose. Elegant, stylish and balanced with delicious, concentrated sweet red fruit, cocoa and mineral flavors, and noticeable, but harmonious oak. Opens steadily with airing. Score: 93
The four gran reserva wines listed below all need several years in bottle, but, with aging, they promise to be delicious, profound wines that show the best of the Contino estate - in fact, the best that La Rioja and Spain can produce.
Contino Gran Reserva 1996, La Rioja Alavesa - $65: Nice oak and sweet fruit jump out of the glass. Wonderfully complex and delicious with sweet ripe cherry and currant flavors along with licorice, cocoa and mineral notes; lovely finish. A modern wine that is a throwback to the great Rioja wines of yesteryear, many of which are among the greatest red wines ever produced. (Magnum only) Score: 96
Contino Gran Reserva 1999, La Rioja Alavesa - $65: Closed nose shows whiffs of ripe fruit. Rich and sweet, with cola, licorice and chocolate flavors still bound up in firm tannins that bode well for the long term. Still needs plenty of time. (Magnum only; not yet in the U.S.) Score: 91
Contino Gran Reserva 2000, La Rioja Alavesa - $135: Intense black and red fruit aromas with mineral and oak notes. Very rich, sweet, ripe, deep, delicious black raspberry fruit with carob, minerals and oak in the finish. (Magnum only; not yet released) Score: 95
Contino Gran Reserva 2001, La Rioja Alavesa - $145: Deep, ripe black fruit, black olive and oak scents. A big, sweet, rich delicious wine with good grip to hold it for the long haul. Needs several more years to develop fully, especially since it is in magnum. Score: 96
Contino Graciano 2000, La Rioja Alavesa - $95: Exotic nose of anise, white chocolate and herbs. Tart by nature, this Graciano, which is reminiscent of a Petit Verdot, needs bottle age, air and, certainly, food. The aromas in the nose carry through on the palate with more herb and balsamic flavors. Score: 88
Contino Viña del Olivo 2000, La Rioja Alavesa - $120: Ripe black fruit and black olive nose with oak integrated. Rich and very complex with stunning black fruit flavors, good acidity and great structure. Reminiscent of a great Graves, like Haut-Brion, with a long, gravelly finish. Score: 94
Contino Viña del Olivo 2001, La Rioja Alavesa - $120: Beautiful nose of ripe black fruit, minerals and toasty oak. Entry is smooth, with delicious, sweet, fresh black raspberry, toast and mineral flavors. Elegant for its 14 percent alcohol with a good acid balance and everything in harmony. Needs five to ten years; this great wine is a keeper. Score: 97 - GD
This article originally appeared in The Wine News. (First published in 2006.)
About the author
Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine.
Gerry Dawes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org