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36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

"My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life. . .” - - Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019; Chef-partner of Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, New York 2019


A Personal Homage to the Wines of Bodegas Riojanas on the Occasion of Their 115th Anniversary

(Entry in the book Bodegas Riojanas published to commemorate that anniversary.)

It is a an honor to be invited to contribute to a book celebrating the 115th Anniversary of one of the greatest wineries in La Rioja. I have been drinking well-aged, classic Rioja wines for more than thirty-five years and I consider them to be among the world's finest red wines. My experience with these wonderful wines dates back to the late 1960s, when I was living in Southern Spain and drinking some sublime Rioja wines from the 1950s and even the late 1940s. Among these wines was a magnificent 1947 that may have been the greatest red wine of my life, which includes a 20-year career in the wine trade during which I sold some of France’s greatest Burgundies, Rhône Valley wines and the best red wines of California.

Early on, when I was living in Spain in the 1970s, I was often attracted to bottles of Viña Albina and Monte Real Reservas by their labels, which are some of the most attractive in Spain. The Bodegas Riojanas labels speak of tradition, of experience, and of quality and for me their wines show all three attributes. Those factors should never be discounted no matter how inflated the hyperbolic claims by urban-bound wine writers of instant greatness for so-called modern miracle wines become. I found back then, as now, that the wines of Bodegas Riojanas were not wines to be sipped alone and, especially, in this epoque, not vinos de cata–wines made for blind tastings. Wines such as Viña Albina, made in that lovely Bordeaux claret style that has almost disappeared, and Monte Real, which in vintages such as 1973 (especially, and, with age, in other fine vintages as well) can easily be mistaken for a great aged Burgundy, are food wines par excellence. With their fine acidity and balance, they are perfect accompaniments to a meal. They begin to soar in the third glass as the meal progresses, not overwhelming the diner with a powerful, huge mouthful of blackberry jam at first taste and becomes increasingly more boring to drink as the meal goes on.

Over these many years, it has been my pleasure to have encountered numerous bottles of exceptional wines from Bodegas Riojanas. In March 1998, during a gastronomic conference in Córdoba, I introduced several major American food luminaries and chefs to some of the aged Rioja treasures from the wonderful old Roman-origin cellars at El Churrasco restaurant. Among them was a splendid 1982 Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina. My colleagues were astounded at how well the wine had aged (and it was only 16 years old!). Our group of a dozen people had four bottles (two of Viña Albina and two of another Rioja of similar age), which amounted to half the price of just one bottle of one of Spain’s most famous wines.

On another occasion, with a group of Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia wine aficionados, on a wonderful October evening in San Sebastián at Jatextea Rekondo, which has one of the greatest wine cellars in Europe, we raided for great Rioja red wines from Txomín Rekondo’s cellars five different decades from the 1980s to the 1940s. 

Representing the decade of the 1950s, we encountered a superb, still lively and rich 1952 Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Gran Reserva, a wine I also found in excellent condition (again like a great old Burgundy) a couple of years later with New York Times wine writer, Frank J. Prial, in Getaria at Kaia, one of the best seafood restaurants in the world.

Those bottles were all memorable, but I have saved the best two encounters with Bodegas Riojanas wines for last. Some fifteen years ago, when the wine was only 17 years old, at my home outside New York, I served my friend New York Times writer Howard Goldberg a Monte Real Gran Reserva from the 1973 vintage, an incredible sleeper vintage for a number of classic Rioja bodegas, one in which a number of top wines over time began to resemble great aged Burgundy. Goldberg took a sip, pondered the wine and said, "My God, this a dead-ringer for a Burgundy!"

In the fall of 2003, I have was having lunch in the Basque Country in the fishing port of Getaria at Kaia, one of my favorite restaurants with one of my favorite people in La Rioja, Isaac Muga of Bodegas Muga, whose wine, Prado Enea, in vintages such as 1973 and 1981, reminds me a great deal of Monte Real. I suggested that we order some older Rioja wines from other bodegas. He confided that he was not that fond of "aged Rioja wines" anymore. When I presented him with a glass of the magnificent 1964 Monte Real Gran Reserva, Isaac said, "Well, I do like this kind of aged Rioja!"

In September 2005, I had the 1964 Monte Real again with two famous American chefs, Norman Van Aken and Terrance Brennan, also at Kaia. I am happy to report that they also like "this kind of aged Rioja."

For some years now, Viña Albina and Monte Real reservas, have been the alternate choices as my vino tinto at home, the wines I drink when I want a wine that delivers pleasure that builds on each sip and brings me back with its aromas, flavors and charm to one of my favorite places on earth, La Rioja. They could come from no where else.

Bodegas Riojanas has a 115-year history of producing excellent wines across a spectrum of styles and price-ranges. They acquit themselves splendidly in all categories including their rosados and semi-sweet white wines. I can only wish them 115 more years (and more) of continued success.


--Gerry Dawes
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