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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


Alta Expresión Vino: Black gold or fool's gold?

* * * * *
 (Photos will follow shortly. -- GD)

"It is important for wine lovers to lay their bets on wines with authenticity and personality." - - José Manuel Pérez, winemaker, Bodegas Hermanos Pérez Pascuas – Viña Pedrosa (Ribera del Duero).

"New Wave cult wines are undeniably tasty and appealing in a shame-inducing way, like Slim Jims (which they resemble - smoky, meaty, spiced, oily, sweet) but they should in no way be confused with truly great wines, as Slim Jims ought not be confused with fine cuisine." - - Josh Raynolds, then National Sales Representative for Neal Rosenthal Wine Merchants (New York); now Wine Reviewer for Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar.

During the period from 1995 - 2010, alongside a number of high quality emerging single vineyard estate wines from established bonafide fine wine producers, hundreds of powerful, highly concentrated, new oak-riddled, new-wave wines cropped up all over Spain like the saffron crocuses that proliferate in La Mancha each October.

These intensely extracted, international style wines encompass a bewildering array of newly minted brands that vary widely in quality and seriousness. Lumped together under the controversial term vinos de alta expresión ("high expression," or "high concept" wines--read high extract and some say "alta extorsión," for the outrageous prices some command), these potent wines depart sharply from the traditional, mellow, age-worthy style for which La Rioja, the country's premier wine region, was long famous. 

Winning high praise in some circles and vociferous criticism in others, alta expresión wines pushed Spain smack into the center of the brewing international debate between winemaking traditionalists and advocates of the high-octane New World approach.

Thomas Perry, then Director of the Rioja Exporters Group, attributes the highly polemical term to Angel Jaime Baro, President of La Rioja's Consejo Regulador (Regulatory Council), who supposedly coined it as a way of trying to promote the profusion of new avant garde style of wines that have emerged from Rioja in the past few years - - wines that are sharp departure from the traditional, mellow, age-worthy wines for which La Rioja is famous.

Along with this whole new generation of such wines from La Rioja (see box), new wines from Ribera del Duero, Priorato and Toro - - and now La Mancha, Mallorca, Jumilla, Terra Alta (Cataluña), and Valencia - - are being touted as black gold by some, especially wine writers enamored of the “international” style.  And, believe it, making wines that are black as ink is now seen as a virtue in some circles and the prices generally being asked for these wines make saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, seem cheap by comparison.

In a wine market that is increasingly driven by a preference for opaque black cherry colors; pronounced new oak and ripe “black fruits” (and often little else) in the nose; voluptuous, jammy, overripe flavors and even a tolerance for residual sugar in red wines, Spanish winemakers have begun purposely producing wines that fit the alta expresión profile. 

Many top Spanish wine journalists (including a major wine writer, Victor de la Serna of the Madrid-based daily El Mundo, who attacked the use of the term in La Rioja in particular), have excoriated the term vinos de alta expresión in print.   Ironically, de la Serna, many of his fellow Spanish wine journalists, and not a few of Spain’s top producers seem to admire the same dark powerful international style that most alta expresión wines seek to emulate - - as if such wines are yet another sign that Spain has moved into the modern age.

Jésus Madrazo is the 36-year old winemaker at Contino and a descendant of the founder of the great classic bodega, CUNE (Compañía Vinícola de Norte de España).  Madrazo, whose family are major shareholders in Contino, told me, “Most of the best producers hate the term alta expresión, but it has come to define the new wave of Spanish wines and is even showing up on restaurant lists as a separate heading.”   Wine shops such as Bilbao’s D’Vinno “La Tienda,” owned by an enthusiastic young woman named Esperanza Ares, specialize in high-end, new wave and alta expresión wines.

The fruit-driven, power-packed style that alta expresión represents does have some important defenders.  Robert M. Parker, Jr., publisher of The Wine Advocate and the world’s most powerful wine critic, is the most visible.  In fact, many wine experts say his palate is responsible for launching the whole genre. 

Stephen Tanzer, the publisher and main wine reviewer for the Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, one of Parker’s main rivals, has one of the most respected palates in America.  He too, has become an admirer of many of cult wines, garagistes wines, and Spain’s
alta expresión wines.  Tanzer often rates such wines, including many new wave Spanish wines, in the high nineties.  In telephone interviews, defending such wines as Valandraud (an ultra-expensive, high-powered, new wave wine made by Jean-Luc Thuvenin that has set Bordeaux on its ear) and Domino de Pingus (Ribera del Duero), Tanzer told me that he believes that they generally have had a positive impact, especially in Spain and in such places as Bordeaux, where he, like Robert Parker, has been effusive in his praise of many garagistes wines.  

“Many of these small production wines are essentially experimental "winemaker’s" wines,” Tanzer says, “but, if yields are kept low and the winemaker uses modern wine making techniques, they show how much potential a wine region can have, especially in places like Bordeaux and Spain, where wines are often made on a large scale.”

“The negative,”  Tanzer says, “They are usually very international in style, so it is often not clear where they come from.”

Miguel Torres Riera, the owner of Miguel Torres, S. A., Cataluña’s most famous winery, agrees.  Torres has achieved world-wide recognition for a wide range of red and white table wines including the award-winning estate wine, Mas de la Plana (Black Label) 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, and his new entry into the
alta expresión sweepstakes, another single vineyard wine, Grans Muralles.  The 1996 Grans Muralles is a limited production (less than 1,000 cases made) blend of several low yield (15 hectolitres per hectare) old vines native red grapes including Monastrell, Garnacha, and the recovered Catalan varieties Samsó and Garró.  

Torres, who is always on the cutting edge of any movement in Spain and has initiated a number of experimental techniques that have helped revolutionize Spanish wine making, believes the current wave of new wines will be beneficial in the long run.  (It should be noted that the ever-restless Torres has been Spain’s most important innovator, but, to my knowledge, he has never released a wine that was over-oaked, out-of-balance, and hard to drink.)

In a February e-mail message to me, Torres pointed out, “In the Spanish market so-called alta expresión wines have a relatively small impact, because I believe they primarily aimed at wine experts and affect only about 5% of the total market.  They are interesting because they bring something new to Spanish wine culture and encourage wineries to outdo themselves in creating new wines.  I think this is a positive development because it puts us in a position to compete with the best wines in the world.”

However, a number of Spain’s top winemakers, even though they have produced wines that could be classified as such, are trying to distance themselves from the term
alta expresión.  To such acclaimed producers as Alejandro Fernández, Pesquera and Condado de Haza (Ribera del Duero), La Granja (near Toro), and El Vinculo (La Mancha); José Manuel Pérez of Bodegas Pérez Pascuas Viña Pedrosa (Ribera del Duero); Jésus Madrazo, CUNE and Contino (La Rioja); and Fernando Chivite, Bodegas Julián Chivite (Navarra), there is a big difference in their new single vineyard offerings (usually old vines) and many of the other new wave wines that have surfaced recently.  All of them are making wines from vineyards that will probably be classified among Europe’s best someday and they do not want to be grouped with the herd of heavyweight, bull-like wines that have lumbered into the market in the past few years looking for a wine guru or a blind tasting panel to “blow away.”

Álvaro Palacios, 36-year old member of a Rioja Baja family who trace their wine roots back for centuries, is the producer of the international Priorato sensation, L’Ermita,  named for his old vines hillside vineyard near the village of Gratallops.  L’Ermita is big, powerful rich wine that nevertheless reflects the Priorato style, the old vines native Garnacha (80%), and the terroir of the region’s climate and the licorella soil on which the grapes are grown.  Each year, Palacios has tried to imbue the wine with more elegance and balance even though some lovers of monster wines have criticized him for toning L’Ermita down since his blockbuster first releases in the mid-1990s.  Still Sibaritas magazine, one of Spain’s leading wine journals, named the L’Ermita ($165) 1997, from a mediocre vintage, Spain’s Wine of the Year.

“My only objective with L’Ermita is to some day be considered one of the classics,” Palacios told me recently, “I don’t want any of my wines classified as vinos de alta expresión, because it has no concrete meaning.”  He classifies producers of alta expresión wines as “all those who don’t know what they want to be when they grow up.  They are just following a fleeting trend towards highly extracted wines with a lot of color and tannins.”

Alejandro Fernández, the producer of Pesquera (Ribera del Duero), one of the great wines to emerge from Spain in the 1980s, and several other high-quality wines from emerging estates, is another top Spanish wine star who is not comfortable with his wines being classifed alta expresión and, like many, questions the age-worthiness of such wines.  Over lunch at Marichu Restaurant in New York, he told me, “I may spend a month harvesting my grapes.  The key is to get wines that are in balance and harmony, not wines that are over-ripe, over-alcoholic, and over-oaked.  I have been making wines since 1975.  Many of wines have aged well for 20 years.  I don’t believe most of the so-called alta expresión wines will.”

Many of Spain’s
alta expresión-style producers are emulating producers from France, California, and Australia by turning out some of the biggest, most powerful (topping 14% alcohol content has become the norm), most “mind-blowing” wines - - as many of their admirers including such restaurateurs as Chef-owner Mark Miller of Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe describe them - - anyone has ever seen.   Little does it seem to matter that a growing number of veteran wine drinkers and wine writers are grumbling that such wines have reached the pinnacle of absurdity in style, price, and media exposure and that many of these new emperors aren’t wearing all the viticultural and oenological robes in which great wines are supposed to be draped.  
A host of producers all across Spain, including some from regions with negligible histories of producing anything remotely comparable to fine table wines, are now using irrigation, canopy management, and sophisticated, if not always felicitous, cellar techniques to produce wines that could easily fit the very loosely-defined alta expresión description.  Many of them, if not long in the finesse category, certainly fit the power and concentration profile of the powerful, high alcohol, fruit-driven wines currently in fashion among a strata of new wave wine aficionados worldwide.

Within the confusion created by the emergence of so many new wines at once, there runs a very complicated undercurrent of factors that is being hashed out in an ongoing debate in the Spanish wine press and among Spain’s greatest producers.   The argument over the high powered, concentrated blockbuster style is not unique to Spain, it is going on throughout the wine community and wine lovers are becoming increasingly polarized on the subject.  Everyone has an opinion about what direction Spanish wine should take, but few - - especially the Spanish consumer - - have a clear view of what the outcome will be.  Battle lines are being drawn in hotly fermenting debate over these emerging entries in the so-called “international style” wine sweepstakes.  One thing is sure, Spain and perhaps the rest of the wine world will never be the same once this wild river of vino returns to its banks.

Since Spain has become a serious player on the world wine stage in recent years, understanding what is going on in Spain requires some background information about what is going on internationally and, specifically, in the important American market, where it will be a long time before anyone who cares about truly great wine forgets the advent of the Millennium.  At least until halfway through 2000, everyone seemed to be getting rich off Internet stocks and spending large amounts of money on wine.  Stories were flying everywhere about overnight fortunes and wild nights at expensive restaurants, where the nuevo eno-ricos (the new wine rich) were blowing wads of money on cult wines, miraculous first vintage wonders, garagiste wines, and the new wines from Spain.

During the last decade, the buildup to this wine market madness has been the emergence of a high-end modern segment of the global wine market, whose driving force is consumers who seem to equate concentration with quality, bigger with better.  This international flavor bandwidth is generally occupied by wine hobbyists, collectors, and
speculators, many of whom have relatively undeveloped tastes, but do have a rapacious afición for wine that at times seems to border on the religious and what seems to be sheaves of money to burn.

In Spain and elsewhere, articles are still being written by a specialist wine press eulogizing the supposed superiority of powerful, concentrated, fruit-driven wines that two decades ago would have been considered mere curiosities by any wine aficionado and completely over the top by sophisticated wine drinkers.  (Remember the late harvest Zinfandels of the early 1980s?)   It seems that the newer, the rarer, the more expensive the wine, the higher the praise.  In California, Screaming Eagle brought an astonishing $500,000 - - the gross national product of a small country - - for a double magnum at the Napa Valley Wine Auction.  In a tightly allocated elite market, single bottles of Colgin, Harlan Estate, Araujo, Marcassin, and Bryant Family sold for as much a case of many fine wines from France, Spain, and Italy.  A few first vintage Spanish wines topped the $100 per bottle mark and one even approached $500 - - a bottle, not a case.

After attending a tasting of such American wines in London, Jancis Robinson, author of The Oxford Companion to Wine, wrote in Financial Times (Dec. 2, 2000), “Make no mistake about it, wine in North America is a rich man’s drink.”  Then, trying to put a positive spin on the theme, she added, “The world of wine is richer for the emergence of these overpriced, precocious beauties (Araujo Eisele, Dalla Valle Maya, Harlan Estate, and Screaming Eagle) - - even if their crazy purchasers are not.”

John Mariani, Esquire Magazine’s restaurant columnist and author of the Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink and the Italian Dictionary of Food and Drink (Broadway Books), has his own succinct formula to describe the new wave of expensive, prestige category wines: “S ) D + MH5 - F + $$ (Supply divided by Demand plus Media Hype squared separates a fool from his money).”

Many long-time wine lovers and seasoned professionals are baffled by the new wine public’s taste for the expensive, concentrated, high alcohol and new-oak laden wines riding the crest of the market wave.  Established wine experts such as author Mary Ewing Mulligan, Master of Wine, who is President of New York’s International Wine Center, complain “I feel like a dinosaur when I taste many of these so-called international style, highly concentrated wines coming into the market today.  Frankly, I don’t understand or like most of them.”

In a recent Chicago Tribune article, William Rice quoted Christian Moueix, owner of Chateau Petrus and Napa Valley’s Dominus Estate as saying, "The character of these wines, we call them 'global,' is based on extraction.  I do not care for them, but newcomers to wine seeking to launch a new label on both sides of the ocean hire fashionable winemakers who make wines that are noticed because they are dark, overripe and overly extracted, obvious with a slightly burned taste."  

Unfortunately too many producers in Spain are embracing this approach to wine making.  Many Spanish wineries have entered the mad race to turn out the wine world equivalent of monster trucks, when what the wine drinking public at large really wants is a well-balanced, affordable wine they can drink often.  Jésus Madrazo, who makes El Olivo, a new generation, single parcel wine at the Contino, a wine that could be classifed
alta expresión, but has too much balance and restraint to be a real contender in the category, told me, “It is not that difficult to make 5,000 to say 20,000 bottles of a concentrated expensive wine, if you have good grapes, a wine background, technical skills, and a little imagination.”

Mariano García, former winemaker until 1998 at Vega Sicilia, is one of Spain’s most accomplished and sought-after winemakers.  Now the owner and technical director of Mauro and Maurodos and a consultant in other regions including La Rioja, García has had a string of internationally acclaimed successes, including Mauro, Terreus Pago de Cueva Baja (a single vineyard wine from old vines that tips the scales at 14% alcohol content), and his new San Román from some exceptional old vines near San Román de Hornijos in Toro.  García is also involved with Javier Zaccagnini, a former head of the Ribera del Duero DO, in Bodegas Aalto, an ambitious new winery in that region; he is the consulting enologist for Viña Villabuena’s new Rioja wine (ironically dubbed Izadi Expresión by one writer); and he has trained and helped his son Alberto create a new wine called Leda from 50-year old vines in Cigales, just outside Valladolid.

“The alta expresión concept is highly polemical,” García told in an interview for this article.  

“Some wineries find it easy to jump on whichever bandwagon sounds the best, so the term is open to multiple interpretations and has little real meaning. The impact of so-called alta expresión wines is positive if the wines have quality and personality, so it is important to focus on the vineyards from which the wines come and on wineries, brands, and competent winemakers that have a solid track record of producing exceptional wines.”

All of García’s wines certainly have personality and are technically well-made, but they also fit the alta expresión profile to a tee.  Stephen Tanzer, in his International Wine Cellar, recently rated three of García’s wines in the 90s.  Rating Mauro Vendimia Selccionada 1996 ($60) at 94 points, Tanzer  used such descriptors as “superripe,” “shoe polish,” “huge, unsubtle finish,” “and palate-staining length;” Mauro Terreus 1998 ($140; a 14% + wine rated at 93+), included “knockout,” “hugely concentrated,” “extremely unevolved,” “dense,” and “thick tannins that saturate the entire palate; and Leda Viñas Viejas ($60; 92+), a first release, was described as "brooding and extremely backward,” “a highly concentrated fruit bomb with impressive thickness and depth,” and “the tannins coat the teeth.”

Fernando Chivite, at the time, was one of the true stars of modern Spanish wine (but since displaced in the winery in an internecine inheritance struggle).  The Chivite family had been making wine in Navarra since the 1600s, but in the 1990s, they completely modernized all their winery operations and Fernando himself had become a consummate winemaker producing thousands of cases of exceptionally good wines at a range of prices.  He made excellent, affordable, entry level whites, a superb rosado, solid red wines that one never tires of drinking; one of the great modern Chardonnay-based wines of Europe - - age-worthy in the bargain; and a dessert Moscatel that has the best restaurants in Spain begging for an allocation. 

Chivite’s much-sought-after red wines include several reasonably-priced, modernized classic-style blends; the excellent, superbly balanced Colección 125 tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon blends from his spectacular Arízano estate in Navarra; and, recently, a beautiful, smooth, silky, properly concentrated Gran Feudo Viñas Viejas (old vines) red from 50- to 60-year old tempranillo and garnacha vineyards.  The Chivite family was wildly respected across Spain for what they have accomplished in the modern era; no resting on past laurels here.

In a phone conversation, Fernando Chivite said that he was at odds with the many modern Spanish wines and international winemaking techniques.  “Great wines are made from vineyards that have been properly cultivated,” Chivite emphasized, “and fine wines from such vineyards have finesse and complexity.  Chivite says most of the highly rated
alta expresión wines currently in vogue Alack complexity, which is something you can’t add to the wine, and they stress power over subtlety.”

Fernando Chivite was contemptuous of this style of wine, which he and others called vinos de concurso, wines made especially for tasting panels and reviewers - - those he says English wine expert Hugh Johnson calls “one-taste wines,” which never get better after the first taste. “Many of them are made with artificial, not natural techniques, including the use of added tannins; you can tell some of the aromas are not natural.”

"Some of today’s techniques are perversions of the winemaking process that negate all classic standards of quality," Chivite said,  "Like much of the modern art world, many of the works of modern wine making are not about esthetics and good taste, they are created for their shock value."

Ironically, a proponent of high extract wines from the other side of the world, Brian Croser, the winemaker for Australia’s Petaluma group, echoed some of Chivite’s sentiments in a quote from a recent Chicago Tribune article by William Rice, “Technology is overrated.  You cannot pervert the essentials of nature.  Australian and American wines smell and taste like themselves when an effort is made to reflect nature.”

Victor de la Serna, Deputy Editor Madrid’s daily El Mundo, is one of Spain’s most educated, accomplished, and opinionated wine writers.  After attending Vinitech, a biennial wine technology fair held in Bordeaux, he wrote about the experience, noting that the majority of Spanish winemakers in attendance were from lesser known regions, which is significant because apparently many top established producers are the least interventionist in their wine making and don’t feel the need for all the latest winemaking technology. 

De la Serna observed that, for minimalist winemakers, there were such items the old-style vertical Spanish Marzola presses (Which begs the question: Should Spain’s rapidly-disappearing, so-called “archaic” winemaking methods of decades past go or stay?) and Taransaud, the new favorite French oak barrels that producers such as Vega Sicilia (for their Alión) and Dominio de Pingus are lining up to buy.

De la Serna also commented that most of the technological advances at Vinitech were too much of a good thing and some of it even irritated him.  All this new technology, according to de la Serna, “. . . harshly refutes the noble, but misleading things that (Robert) Parker and others are saying about how today’s wine making being less interventionist and more well-reasoned.”

“Hardly,” de la Serna wrote.  In his opinion, more and more winemakers are practicing interventionist wine making techniques, manipulating their wines, employing machines for reverse osmosis, and masking the wines with oak, other treatments such as artificial tannins, and yeasts “with all the flavors and aromas in the world.”   One winemaker went so far as to tell him that “they shouldn’t let journalists in these fairs, because they will see how easily we can make quantities of garbage (wines).”

“As a French philosopher said,” wrote de la Serna, “Excess in anything is a defect.  But, there is no recourse but to recognize that excess is also a reality in the wine world that is coming.  The chemists and engineers (of wine equipment) are in a feeding frenzy.  One of these days, even grapes will not be needed (to make wine).  Let’s hope it’s not too soon.”

Josh Raynolds, then National Sales Representative for the highly respected Neal Rosenthal Wine Merchants (New York), echoed similar thoughts, “It's not even about the grape anymore, much less the terroir.  I consider myself a pretty good blind taster - 13 years full time in the business, drinking and attending tastings for 20 years, a year in Europe devoted to visiting estates, and going to Europe once or twice a year to taste for the last 11 years.”

“I am often at a loss to even hazard a guess as to even what *&$#@*# variety has been poured,” Josh Raynolds said, “I can, however, often guess what type of oak was used and even who the winemaker or consultant was.  My experience is that there is a sameness to the wines that makes a taster think more about who made it, who consulted on it, what the alcohol level must be and where the wood came from (not to mention what it must have cost).”

Oak has become such a important flavoring agent in new wave wines that, according to an American visitor, a new wave Rioja producer was very disappointed that he had been turned down when he tried to buy the same type of barrels used by Romanée Contí from François Freres, a producer of the type of assertive French oak that is very much in vogue.  Then one day François Freres called and said, “You got a 90 from (Robert) Parker, you can have some barrels.”

As with some American reviewers, championing heavily extracted, oaky, new wave wines has become a fervor among Spain’s wine writer corps, some of whom are very good wine writers, but have ties to the trade - - either in retail, internet sales, importing, or making wine themselves.  Some are so indiscriminate in their praise of these wines - - many of which have obvious, serious flaws - - that they seem to be trumpeting a kind of modernist wine triumphalism that one suspects has as much to do with their trade connections as their love for such wines.

The booster-ism of Spanish wine and food writers also seems to mask a subliminal message to the rest of the world, “Hey, Franco is dead (the late Spanish dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco has been dead for more than 25 years).  Look at us, we are full-fledged Europeans and we can make international style wines as well as anyone else.”

Some of these Spanish writers seem to be ignorant of the fact that most people who have spent any time in Spain recently already know that the country has become a first-rate European player;  that the level of quality in many traditional wine regions is on a par with the best in Europe; and that, after several years of experimental cocina nueva meanderings reminiscent of today’s vino nuevo movement, Spanish food (both traditional regional cuisines and modern star-chef driven cooking) is among the most exciting in Europe.

In an article entitled Los Grandes Ya Son Otros published in El Mundo on January 18, 2001 (available at,) Victor de la Serna, who is planning his own entry into the new wave wine race with a recently planted vineyard on family property in La Mancha, fired yet another broadside at a favorite target of his in recent years, the traditional wines of La Rioja.  De la Serna’s article, which roughly translates as “The Great (Spanish Wines) Are Now Others,” could just as well have carried the subtitle, “Spain’s Greatest Wines Are No Longer the Ones You Think They Are, They Are the Ones I Think They Are” - - and here’s the list of ASpain’s greatest table wines today.”

De la Serna followed with a listing of some 45 wines, including several white wines, a couple of dessert wines (no sherries), and several red wines (see box) which did not exist even five years ago.  On this list was Marqués de Haro, a wine attributed to CUNE (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España), but actually made by La Rioja Alta, and Vall-Llach, the company that makes the super-concentrated old vines Cims de Porerra (Priorato), which he also listed.  

Mr. de la Serna, while mentioning that great Rioja houses such as López de Heredia, CUNE, La Rioja Alta, etc. were the stars of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, left all of them off the list.  The inference was that these great time-honored houses, who happen to produce some of Spain’s greatest, most enjoyable wines, are now passé and should no doubt be buried with the memory of Franco.

Among other Spanish wine writers, it also currently seems to be the national sport to tar all of classic Rioja with the same broad brush, damning the well-documented mediocrity of many wines from that region and rightfully so in many cases, but condemning by association some of the greatest wineries of Spain such as CVNE, La Rioja Alta, López de Heredia, Marqués de Riscal, Bodegas Riojanas, and others in the process.

Worse for the old guard of high-quality wine producers such as Vega Sicilia in the Ribera del Duero and such Rioja wineries as CVNE, La Rioja Alta, Marqués de Riscal, Bodegas Riojanas, and Marqués de Murrieta many of the Johnny-come-latelys were not only getting scores in the high 90s from some reviewers, they are selling for prices well above those of highly respected, established names.  And, according to some reviewers, these newly minted wines were far superior to wines that had been revered in Spain and elsewhere for decades.

Jésus Madrazo, who credits Contino and the Rodríguez family, who own La Granja Nuestra Señora de Remelluri, with starting the single estate “château” concept in La Rioja in the 1970s.  At the time they were considered revolutionaries.  Now, several more such estate wineries have emerged from La Rioja in recent years and most of them, including Madrazo with Contino’s El Olivo, are producing new cuvees.  In addition, several of the old guard Rioja wineries are now producing
alta expresión-style wines.  Madrazo says, “Many of the old line Rioja bodegas have produced a special cuvee as an answer to the new wave of attention-getting wines from Ribera de Duero, Priorato, and Toro.”

Chafing from the competition and favorable international press these areas have been getting, Madrazo says they wanted to make a statement, “Señores, we have been making wine for a long time in La Rioja and we know a little something  about making wine ourselves.”

On Victor de la Serna’s list of the new Spanish wine grandees were several of these bonafide modern stars, but several were wines from Spanish bodegas with just a couple of vintages to their credit.  There were also a few hastily concocted special cuvees from established wineries which have recently popped up like ping pong balls in a lottery machine, each hoping to be hit the jackpot with wines priced at $50 to $200 per bottle.

Such incredible prices were just the tip of the iceberg.  Lurking beneath the dark, inky surface of this murky wine market were scores of imitators of this modern blockbuster wine style, among them some good wines, but also what, in the opinion of this thirty year observer of the Spanish wine and food scene, are some of the most questionable wines ever produced in Spain. Nowhere on the list were any of the grandes reservas of La Rioja such as CUNE Imperial and Viña Real , La Rioja Alta ‘904, and ‘890 Gran Reserva, Muga Prado Enea, López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real, Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Igay, or Marqués de Riscal.

In the meantime, most of the new wave Rioja wineries have failed to produce anything that to refined palates could remotely be considered a superior wine to best classical Riojas.  De la Serna’s list includes wineries such as Roda, who produce what they bill as revolutionary new blockbuster wines and, as we have noted in these pages in the past, even have anointed themselves the “new kings” of La Rioja’s classic Barrio de la Estación district in the process. 

Roda’s CIRSION 1998, an ultra-expensive alta expresión wine that has been rated in the stratosphere by several Spanish and American reviewers and has been portrayed as a wine that shows how Rioja wines should really be made.  To my palate, it is nearly undrinkable.  This ungainly 14.5% monster wine comes from the cooler upper reaches of the Atlantic-influenced Rioja Alta district, home of some of finest and most complex wines in Spain?  Please!

Agustín Santolaya, the winemaker at Roda, seems to be oblivious to the almost Port-like characteristics of CIRSION.  In a four-page e-mail to me, he outlined Roda’s meticulous search for the perfect Tempranillo vineyards in La Rioja Alta and Garnacha vineyards in the Rioja Baja.  According to Santolaya, Roda has managed to find more than a dozen 30+-year old vineyards in special microclimates “that will allow us to increase the complexity of the wines and minimize the risk of bad vintages.”   

In other words, Roda has sought previously planted, older vines, terroir-driven sites, whose yields are 30 - 32 Hl./hct. in areas warm enough to ameliorate the effects of cooler growing seasons, achieving “the maximum concentration of fruit and maximum color.”  Santolaya also detailed the modern cellar techniques including “minute analysis,” vinification in large French oak vats, then ageing in French oak for 14 to 20 months “to stabilize the wine and retain the maximum fruit possible.”

Over a period of several years, Santolaya and his team at Roda have identified specific vines in these micro-climate vineyards, which give grapes with such a complex and corpulent character that the juice is more like wine already than must.  From these vines they make the CIRSION, which, according to Santolaya, is “a wine with the highest concentration of fruit and structure, which with a short time in barrel could be stable over time, maintain the fruit, and be polished and silky to drink in the year following the vintage.”

Answering my concerns about the alcohol in CIRSION, Santolaya replied, “Concerning your preoccupation with the 14.5% alcohol, I must tell you that at optimum ripeness the grapes used in CIRSION reach these alcohol levels.  If you have tasted the wine you will have observed that the wine never shows its alcohol, but totally to the contrary, it is a fruity, fresh, balsamic wine.”

I have been drinking Spanish wines for more than thiry years and I didn’t just taste CIRSION, I tried to drink it with a meal.  Not only did the alcohol show, CIRSION is one of the most alcoholic, over-concentrated wines I have ever tasted from La Rioja and is more typical of Toro or Priorato than La Rioja.  I do agree that Santolaya’s use of the term “maximum,” has reached its pinnacle with a retail $199 price of CIRSION, the highest price ever asked for a first release from La Rioja.

Another of the new “Spanish” grandees on de la Serna’s list was Dominio de Pingus, a Ribera del Duero wine made by Peter Sisseck, a Bordeaux-trained Danish winemaker who is a good friend of Valandraud’s Jean-Luc Thuvenin, whose style he greatly admires.  Sisseck makes Pingus in a former garage in Quintanilla de Onésimo from grapes that come from several old vines vineyards located some 25 miles from the vinification facility.  Spelling it Dominico (sic) de Pingus), which suggests the wine was not labeled when he reviewed it, Robert Parker rated the 1995 Domino de Pingus, Sisseck’s first vintage, at 96-100 points in The Wine Advocate after “I tasted this wine three times prior to bottling (hence the range of scores) and it is one of the greatest and most exciting wines I have ever tasted.”

After having been singled out as one of the greatest winemakers of all time with his first vintage, Sisseck’s 1995 Pingus, of which just 325 cases were made, soared to $200 per bottle.  Then a shipment of one hundred cases sunk in a shipwreck on the way to the US.   Less than 20 cases of Pingus had been reserved for sale in Spain.    

A few months later lots of the 1995 were next offered by The Rare Wine Company (Sonoma, CA) at $495 per bottle, with a limit of one bottle per customer, but the 1996, which Parker rated 96 points, was bargain-priced at $295 per bottle.  The 1996 was recently listed on for $363 per bottle.  By comparison, was offering the exceptional 1990 Cheval Blanc (with the designation 96RP; Robert Parker) for $396; 1990 Haut-Brion (96RP) for $250); 1990 Château Margaux (100RP) for $400; and the 1996 Lafite-Rothschild (100RP) for $280.
Peter Sisseck is emphatic that “I have never made my wine for Robert Parker,” as he told me in a telephone interview in March.  Nevertheless, he very much likes the big, blockbuster style of wine and, although he claims he does not want “power just to get power,” he admires the intense concentration of such wines as Château Rayas (Châteaunuef-du-Pape), Château Valandraud (Bordeaux), and California wines such as Marcassin, Colgin, Bryant, and Screaming Eagle, all of which he mentioned specifically. 

The word concentration comes up often in conversations with Sisseck and, he, like many other winemakers in this style, seems not to question whether concentration is necessarily a good thing.  He told me that he wants to get “ripe tannins.”  “I am not going to sacrifice ripe tannins just for balance and lower alcohol,” he said. 

Sisseck likes the ripeness (more so in his hands than most others) that the Tempranillo grape achieves in the Ribera de Duero and says, Athe region’s warm climate dictates the concentrated, high alcohol style, if the wine is made naturally.  If I didn’t enjoy the style of wines

I can make in the Ribera del Duero, I would make my wines somewhere else.  I am not on a crusade, I just want to be left alone to make wine in the natural style that I like.”

By “natural,” Sisseck means severe cropping from old vines vineyards, crushing the grapes by press, foot, and even hand; fermenting the must in new oak barrels, practicing frequent battonage (stirring of the lees), and racking the wine into more new oak barrels.  The result is a very big, rich, powerful (14.5% to 15% alcohol) wine with very exotic, concentrated black cherry  flavors that, indeed “blow away” a taster, even me, but, in past vintages has become so tiring to drink with food that I have never been able to get beyond one glass.  Even Sisseck admits that his 1995 and 1996 Dominio de Pingus were “big and brutal,” because of the ripeness of the vintage.       

My barrel tastings of the 1998 Dominio de Pingus in his cellars in Quintanilla de Onésimo showed, in this vintage at least, the wines showed more restraint and balance.  If I rated wines from barrel samples, which I do not, I would have scored them very highly.   I have not had the 1998 with food yet, but I hope it will surpass the 1995 and 1996 vintages (1997 was a poor year in the Ribera).

In El Mundo, Victor de la Serna reported interviewing Robert Parker in Paris last year, where Parker had come to receive an award.  “Parker had already tasted two different samples of a Ribera del Duero wine, whose first vintage has not even been released, one about which Spaniards have hardly read a line, and he compares it to Pingus.”  The wine de la Serna was referring to is Aalto, a new wine being made by Javier Zaccagnini with Mariano García as a consultant.

Mr. de la Serna also reported that “Parker likes Spanish wines”and confirmed in his report in El Mundo what some veteran observers of the Spanish wine scene have long known, “Although he still has never come to our country to taste wines (‘next year, without fail’), he gives (Spanish wines) high scores and dedicates laudatory commentaries to them (this year [2000], he gave 99 points to Artadi El Pisón 1995 and Clos Erasmus 1998.”  Both these expensive powerhouse wines, the Artadi (La Rioja: see my commentary on this wine), a much hyped Rioja and Clos Erasmus, a Priorato with a highly polemical track record, seem by design to fit the kind of blockbuster profile Parker seems to favor.

A frustrated-sounding Pablo Alvarez, an owner and Managing Director of Vega Sicilia, told a Viandar (a new Basque Country-based wine and food magazine; Feb. 2001 issue) interviewer, “Recently I read a review in which Robert Parker gave a high score to a wine with a 200 bottle-production!” Alvarez said.  At this rate, we are going to be bringing out a single bottle: ‘Here is my wine!’  I believe a winery is something more than a place to make just a few bottles.”     

Later in the Viandar interview, Alvarez said, “The problem is not whether Parker can make a wine fashionable or cause it to skyrocket in the United States, what is worrisome is that wineries base their wine making styles on whether they think Parker will like it or not.”

In the same interview (and in a subsequent phone conversation with me), Alvarez confirmed a number points related to new wave wines.  When Vega Sicilia launched their new wine, Aliòn, they spent ten years developing the project.  Speaking of the profusion of new wine stars in Spain, Alvarez said, “I don’t understand how these wines can be made overnight.”   

About flying enologists, the ubiquitous consultants from Bordeaux and elsewhere that many new Spanish wineries are using, Alvarez has serious reservations, “I don’t doubt that they are great enologists, but knowing each zone is fundamental and these things one doesn’t learn overnight either. To make great wine, they should know perfectly the region, the varieties, the soil, the climate, etc.”

Many wine experts, among them some of the most respected wine writers in the world, are increasingly vociferous about their dislike for many of the new blockbuster style wines.  In the same Jancis Robinson Financial Times article quoted above, one of the world’s most revered wine writers, English author Hugh Johnson declared about the California cult wines, "I find no grace in these wines at all. They're designed for cigar smokers. There's mass, but no aroma."

Dan Berger, former wine columnist for The Los Angeles Times and contributor to several major wine publications, wrote me in a e-mail response, “When I think about the high-alcohol, over-oaked, lower-acid style of the so-called international 'bigger-is-better’ red wine, I remember what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland: ‘There is no there there.’”

Back in the 1970s, CUNE’s Contino and Remelluri, both in La Rioja Alavesa, brought the estate or chateau winery concept to Spain in the modern era.  Jean León, a native Spaniard and Los Angeles restaurateur and then Miguel Torres showed outsiders that world-class Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay could be grown at single vineyard estates in Cataluña.  By the 1980s, with Pesquera, Alejandro Fernández demonstrated that the quality of Spain’s most prestigious wine, Vega Sicilia, was no anomaly in the Duero River Valley and the new Ribera de Duero denominación de origen rapidly became an international sensation.  

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, an exploding Spanish economy fueled a wine boom of exceptional proportions, Spain’s chefs were recognized as among the best in Europe, a new generation of wine aficionados came of age, wine and food publications proliferated, and for many new money people wine became a fast track ticket to social entree.

As a part of the ongoing evolution of modern Spanish wines, a number of first-rate single vineyard wines has emerged.  The best of these are clearly showing the world that a brilliant viticultural future that lies ahead of Spain, which has the largest acreage under vine of any country in the world and has an incredible number of old vines vineyards, privileged vineyard sites, and even cool micro-climates capable of producing truly world-class wines.  Some of these vineyards are as yet untapped or are in the process of being developed.  Among them are many from regions with a centuries-old history of wine making and whose wines were supposedly well-known by Europeans hundreds of years ago, but fell out of fashion.

Some wines from these vineyards are truly great expressions of superb grape varieties such as Spain’s great tempranillo, old vines stands of pure native garnacha, and the little known, but high quality graciano of La Rioja.  Wines such as those from the family vineyards of Pérez Pascuas (Ribera del Duero), Chivite’s Arínzano vineyard (Navarra), Mariano García’s San Róman vineyard (Zamora’s Toro region), the Contino estate (La Rioja Alavesa), Álvaro Palacios L’Ermita (Priorato), several Catalan estates of Miguel Torres (Mas de Plana, Grans Muralles, and Milmanda [white wines]), Alejandro Fernández’s Pesquera and Condado de Haza properties (Ribera del Duero), and his new estates in Zamora and La Mancha come from exceptional micro-climates married to mature vineyards with distinguishable characteristics.  The exceptional wines made from these vineyards are among Europe’s greatest surprises and they have the potential to rank among the best in the world.

Part of the answer to why this Spanish wine explosion has occurred lies in the fact that Spain has more acreage under vines than any major wine-producing country on earth and its Mediterranean regions (as opposed to the Atlantic climate-influenced regions such as La Rioja) have all the warm country climate that California has used to so much advantage.   All around Spain, especially in some Mediterrean-influenced regions once considered too warm to produce fine wines, there are numerous pockets of old vines Tempranillo, Garnacha, and other varieties just waiting for someone to exploit.     

On the one hand, it is exhilarating to see what modern wine making technology, techniques, and trained winemakers can achieve in these barely tapped gold mines of wine, but the current wine gold rush also has the pitfalls that any rush to riches does.  Consumers who are attracted to the lure of the moment run the risk of getting sold a lot of very expensive, sometimes rotten eggs, while they are waiting for the promise of incredible wine riches to pan out.

José Manuel Pérez, one of Spain’s most talented young winemakers, makes some of Spain’s most highly respected wines from 60 year-old vines planted by his grandfather at his family’s Ribera del Duero wine estate, Bodegas Hermanos Pérez Pascuas Viña Pedrosa. The quality of their Tempranillo vineyards around Pedrosa del Duero, the family’s dedication in maintaining them (José’s father Benjamín was Spain’s viti-culturalist of the year and his two uncles, Adolfo and Manuel also work daily in the operation), the limits of cultivation climate next to where the high wheat-growing páramo begins, and 34-year old José Manuel’s winemaking skill all contribute to one of Spain’s model wine-producing estates.

In response to my e-mail asking him his opinion of vinos de alta expresión, he responded with some of the most profound thoughts of any one I interviewed for this article.  “In my opinion,” Pérez wrote, “lately, the wine world has taken on a distinctly commercial tone.  There is a lot of speculation and things are being taken out of context.  Some bodegas don’t know which argument to use to make themselves stand out from the others.  Some say that their vines are the oldest, that their grape selection is the best, and that they harvest grape by grape [one new wave producer claims to have a harvest team working on a grape selection table cutting off the riper “shoulders” from each bunch of grapes].”

“Others say they do the most perfect macerations,”  Pérez continued, “and some even claim they sleep in the bodega at night during the harvest and fermentation periods.  In each case, one must ask oneself if these claims are true or are they just vain commercial representations, which, in many case are fabrications to justify a high price.  To make a great wine, you have to go much further than just taking advantage of market conditions to make facile wines.  That is why I respect wines such as López de Heredia Tondonia, Muga Prado Enea, CUNE Imperial, La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza and many other wines in the classic traditional Rioja style, because of what they represent in the panoramic view of Spanish viniculture.”
When contemplating the purchase of these highly extracted, new wave or alta expresión wines, perhaps consumers should consider Stephen Tanzer’s Freudian statement from my conversation with him.  It goes to heart of the matter with many of these new wave wines. “Drinkability with meals is only about 20% of the equation,” Tanzer said.  

“People who pay these prices are not thinking about drinking the wines with meals.  The wines are expensive because they are usually made in small quantities.," Tanzer continued. "They are highly collectible, high visibility trophy wines.  People who buy CUNE and the other top classical wines of Spain, for instance, are thinking about how well the wines drink with food.”   

“How well the wines drink with food.”  Now there’s a true alta expresión that should be high on anyone’s list of reasons to buy a wine, Spanish or otherwise.

- - The End - -

First appeared in The Wine News, April/May 2001.

(Photos will follow shortly. -- GD)

Rioja: The Mountain Cat Springs to Life

 By Gerry Dawes

Introductory Notes from (Madrid), a wine shop on whose website the article was serialized in two installments:

The article that follows was first published on the net at, from the printed version of the October/November 2002 issue of this prestigious American wine magazine. With the consent of the author we offer you what we believe to be one of the most stunning in-depth analysis of current Rioja developments having been written this year. Regardless of having to agree with all his appreciations, this compelling and extensive account will lead you through the exciting new developments occurring in Spain's flagship Appellation for red wines. I was featured in two separate monthly articles (December 2002 and January 2003). Translation into Spanish has been performed by Ernesto de Serdio of Reserva y Cata. Enjoy this superb reading!

Note on the author: Gerry Dawes spent 20 years purveying fine wines to top Manhattan restaurants. Up until he left the wine trade to devote full time to his writing, he worked with such noted authorities as Frederick Wildman, Gerald Asher, Robert Haas, Robert Kacher and many top wineries in California, France and Italy. His avocation, however, has always been the wine, food and culture of Spain, a country in which he has lived and traveled for nearly 30 years. Dawes is considered the leading authority in the United States on Spanish wines. In addition to The Wine News, his articles and photographs have appeared in The New York Times and various national wine publications. He wrote several chapters in The Berlitz Travellers Guide to Spain and is currently writing Homage to Iberia (inspired by James A. Michener's Iberia: Spanish Travels & Reflections).

La Rioja, northern Spain's splendid, red-wine-producing enclave, has been regularly accused of being a sleeping giant by the critics. Many of the loudest voices come from Spain's own cadre of wine writers, some of whom seem to automatically equate the word nuevo with the concept of quality. A few among them have practically made a crusade of denigrating the region's balanced, food-friendly wines, even los buenos clasicos, as Jésus Madrazo, the young, highly regarded general manager of Contino and a descendant of the founding family of CUNE, calls the top traditionalist wines. A couple of these modernista proponents have even conjectured that the old guard's resistance to change is some kind of sinister, post-Franco movement.

 Isaac Muga and Jesus Madrazo pouring each other's wine (Contino & Muga) at lunch at Bodegas Muga.
Photo by Gerry Dawes copyright 2004

Because La Rioja is so large and produces so much wine, this old lion may appear to move slowly, but like the mountain cat that it is, once this time-honored region springs to life, it will be hard to hold back. In fact, La Rioja is in a dynamic state of evolution, and many of its classic bodegas are already producing some of the best, modern-style wines in Spain.

The region's metamorphosis was aptly described in a recent issue of Sobremesa, one of Spain's leading epicurean magazines: "The old enological catechisms" are giving way to a new generation of red wines that are "capable of competing with the best wines on the planet." The author highlighted the emergence of a group of Rioja wines that "are escaping their local coordinates and aspiring to place themselves among the world elite."

A visit this spring confirmed the profound changes La Rioja is undergoing. A conference in Logroño entitled "Los Grandes de la Rioja" had drawn a field of international wine writers for a four-day marathon that would encompass a series of catas (tastings), winery visits and winemaker dinners. It soon became apparent, however, that the conference was being largely underwritten by La Communidad de La Rioja (the Rioja provincial government) and not by the official Rioja denominación de origen (DO), which also represents the Basque and Navarrese sections of the DO.

What this meant was that in the tastings (more than 130 wines were poured for evaluation) and visits, there would be no wines from Navarra's Rioja-designated communities, nor from the vital Basque Rioja Alavesa. The latter, which is located on the lower slopes of the Sierra Cantabria mountains north of the Ebro River, is home to many of La Rioja's most important (and some of the most polemic) wineries:  Marqués de Riscal, Martínez Bujanda, Faustino Martínez, Remelluri, Contino, Remírez de Ganuza and Artadi among others. Industry insiders said privately that the absence of the Rioja Alavesa DO wines was a result of infighting between the two regional governments.

Fernando Remirez de Ganuza
Gerry Dawes copyright 2004

Putting aside local politics, La Rioja is arguably the greatest red wine region in Spain. And its prowess is still based primarily on the ability of the top centenarian bodegas to produce millions of bottles of high-quality wines at reasonable prices. This core group includes CUNE (Companía Vinícola del Norte de España), La Rioja Alta, Muga, López de Heredia, Marqués de Riscal, Marqués de Murrieta and Bodegas Riojanas. This distinguished group of bodegas makes more bottles of 90-plus-rated wines than the rest of Spain put together.

Francisco Hurtado de Amezaga, Technical Director of Marqués de Riscal, opening old reservas with hot tongs 
during the presentation of the plans for the new Frank Gehry-designed hospitality center at the winery.
Gerry Dawes copyright 2004

Marqués de Riscal alone has some two million cases of fine wine aging at the bodega at any one time. By contrast, even in bumper years like 1998 and 1999, the Ribera del Duero produces less than three million cases annually.

The famous Barrio de la Estación in Haro (Rioja Alta), home to CUNE, López de Heredia, La Rioja Alta, 
Bodegas Bilbainas, Muga, Roda and others. Beyond are the vineyards of La Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa.
Gerry Dawes copyright 2004

"Some like to say that La Rioja has been asleep, but the reality is that we continue to dominate the market in spite of the rise of other regions, and by a substantial margin," Contino's Madrazo asserts.

By the end of 2000, La Rioja reportedly had more than 130,000 acres in production, more than the Ribera del Duero (35,000 acres), Navarra (37,000 acres) and Priorato (3,500 acres) combined. But while La Rioja produces more red wine than all of those regions put together, not all of it is good. In fact, far too much is lamentably mediocre, a trait La Rioja shares with many other major wine-producing areas in the world. And there are overstocks in some bodegas that are approaching five times their average annual production, a scenario that caused grape prices to plummet in 2000 and 2001, though paradoxically the gross revenues actually increased last year because of higher average prices.

Over the last decade of the 20th century, vineyard acreage expanded by roughly 20 percent as diseased vines and old, underproducing stock were uprooted and replanted in a process that is ongoing. Higher-production clones trained on modern trellis systems and spaced for mechanization are contributing to an increased production estimated at between 50 and 60 percent. (So much for European Union controls to dry up the continent's vast wine lake - ironically, much of the replanting expense is actually being heavily subsidized by the EU.)

In the face of what is being called el crisis de la Rioja, producers of heretofore typical-style Rioja wines, many of which had lackluster reputations, have scrambled to improve the quality of their wines (other overstocked wine regions find themselves in similar predicaments, most notably Beaujolais, where 13 million bottles were recently - and embarrassingly - distilled into vinegar). Spurred by a combination of declining sales in European markets (down 34 percent in Sweden, for example) and the natural desire to compete globally at a higher level, medium- to large-size bodegas and cooperatives are changing their approach to winemaking.

Trasiego (racking) at La Rioja Alta.
Gerry Dawes copyright 2004

Having tasted so many Rioja Alta and Rioja Oriental (Baja) wines, I reasoned that it would be folly to leave without tasting the wines of the Basque Country's Rioja Alavesa. I hastily rearranged my plans to stay another six days. Over the course of my intensive winery visits and tastings in La Rioja, an in-depth picture of the revolutionary changes taking place on several Rioja fronts came into sharp focus. In most of the best traditional houses of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, 21st-century improvements in vineyard development, vinification facilities and winemaking techniques are dramatically changing the face of winemaking here. Even in La Rioja Baja/Oriental, traditionally the backwater of the region, quality is on the rise.

Isios winery near Laguardia
Gerry Dawes copyright 2004

Among the most important developments is the dramatically intensified focus on the vineyard, and thus grape quality, especially in the emerging, small-producer bodegas of La Rioja Alavesa.

Indeed, the current breeze of change prevailing in La Rioja is blowing from the vineyards. During the first 25 years I traveled there, I was almost never invited to tour the vineyards. Rather, my encounters largely took place in the cellars.

Tinos (wooden vats), La Rioja Alta
Gerry Dawes copyright 2004
(The same was generally true of my visits to Champagne and even Burgundy during that period.) In the past five years, however, I've seen more Rioja vineyards in the company of winegrowers than in my first quarter-century of combined visits.

This new-found interest in terroir is reflected in the number of site-specific wineries that have sprung up across the region over the past decade. Established to make luxury cuvées from pagos, or single vineyard and estate sites, these wineries are moving toward a Burgundian philosophy that is sure to lend additional excitement to their winemaking approach.

Andrés Proensa, the moderator of the Los Grandes de La Rioja conference and one Spain's top wine writers, approves of the change in philosophy. "La Rioja is living in a very interesting moment and undergoing a notable change in attitude," he says. "Not long ago, the thrust of the winemaking was in the cellars, and the vineyards were considered to be secondary - almost a necessary evil. Now Rioja producers are turning an eye toward the vineyards and this is changing the wines of the region for the better. Not just the modern and expensive wines, but the shift is also affecting the quality of wines priced at moderate levels."

The manner in which the conference tastings were presented illustrated the changes under way in La Rioja. The flights were arranged into seven categories: ecológicos (organic), estilo tradicional (traditional style), blancos con madera (whites with oak aging), renovados (new style), tintos cosecha 2001 (reds from the 2001 harvest), vanguardia (ultramodern) and grandes clásicos (great classics).  

Among the renovados were the alta expresión wines, a style that has been the subject of an often-heated debate among wine professionals and aficionados. The term was coined to categorize the usually big, powerful, dark, quite ripe wines, often loaded with French oak, that carry hefty price tags in the $50 to $100-plus range (see Alta Expresión Vino, April/May 2001). Had the Basque wines also been included, there would undoubtedly have been more categories, such as cosechero-viticultor (grower-vintner) and vinos de pago (single-vineyard wines).

Very much at odds with the alta expresión approach to winemaking is Manuel Camblor, a passionate and knowledgeable collector who lives in New York City (and who now lives in La Republica Dominicana).   A creative home and furniture design consultant, he developed his palate for Rioja gran reservas at his late grandfather's side in the Dominican Republic. At first, Camblor was excited about the new wave of Spanish wines that began to emerge in the mid-1990s. He had the means to buy them and did.  

Over the intervening years, as he pulled one expensive bottle after another from his cellar, he found none lived up to its billing. Disillusioned, he recently posted his concerns on El Mundo's Web site: "When wines begin to have aspirations to greatness, encouraged by certain critics who speak of their potential and put them in the same league with wines which over their history have earned a reputation, my skepticism was awakened."

La Rioja Alta, S.A.
Gerry Dawes copyright 2004

Several of the revered, proven producers to which Camblor alluded recently founded the Agrupación de Bodegas Centenarias (Centenarian Bodegas Group) to promote and defend their image. But for some time, traditional Rioja houses such as CUNE, Marqués de Riscal, La Rioja Alta and Marqués de Murrieta have been steadily upgrading their equipment. Most of them now have state-of-the-art, computer-controlled, vinification facilities, so don't let anyone tell you that these classic bodegas - no matter how picturesque their facades and museum-esque buildings may be - are mired in the past. It just isn't so. 

With the exception of the great virtual working wine museum, R. López de Heredia, which has steadfastly remained true to its traditions, many of the big, classic bodegas boast facilities on par with model California wineries. In particular, CUNE has had a technically spectacular, gravity-force operation for a decade; La Rioja Alta has built a large vinification site across the Ebro River just a couple of miles away from their early 20th-century bodega; and the ultramodern vinification plant at Marqués de Riscal is absolutely stunning.

The epic of the ongoing evolution at most of the great, classical Rioja bodegas is a story in itself, because in no other region in Spain are so many high-quality, traditional-style wines being made in tandem with so many exciting New Age wines. Indeed, over the past several years, almost all of the top Rioja bodegas have developed modern-profile wines meant to compete not only with Rioja's alta expresión wines, but also the tinto fino (tempranillo) mono-varietal, merlot-esque wines of the Ribera del Duero, the lush, high-octane wines of Priorato and a pandemic sprouting of powerful, French oak-basted New World-wannabes from all around Spain.

The big difference is that most of the contemporary wines from the best old-line, Atlantic-climate, Rioja bodegas are well-balanced and eminently drinkable. In fact, remarkably few have overstepped the bounds of good taste to enter the international wine sweepstakes. Wines such as CUNE's exceptional Real de Asua, Marqués de Riscal's cabernet sauvignon-laced Barón de Chirel, Marqués de Murrieta's Dalmau; Bodegas Muga's Super-Rioja, Torremuga; Martínez Bujanda's estate-grown Valpiedra; and Palacios Remondo's Herencia Remondo Propiedad have shown they can compete in the high-stakes, vino moderno game themselves.

The historic buildings at CUNE, Compañía Vínicola del Norte de España.
Gerry Dawes copyright 2004

"With more than a century of making fine wines to our credit, we know a thing or two about making great wines in both classic and modern styles," observes Madrazo, who makes the increasingly elegant wines of the Contino estate.

A number of fledgling wineries - some representing substantial investments, others on a relative shoestring budget - have surfaced in La Rioja over the past 20 years. Since 1985, more than 50 bodegas have opened, a figure that doesn't even include the very small operations among the 420-odd registered bodegas that don't show up on Rioja DOs radar screen. The most highly regarded among this group of relative newcomers are Roda, Marqués de Vargas, Telmo Rodríguez, Remírez de Ganuza, Artadi, Finca Allende, Campillo (owned by Faustino), Ondarre (owned by Olarra), Barón de Ley, Marqués de Griñon, Barón de Oña (now owned by La Rioja Alta), Señorío de San Vicente, Abel Mendoza, Miguel Merino, Luberri-Monje Amestoi and Viña Villabuena. Most of these bodegas register high on the New Age vino del autor scoreboard.

Agustin Santolaya pouring some of the 21 wines at a midnight tasting he organized for me at Roda in April 2003.
Gerry Dawes copyright 2003.

In response to this rising tide, the Rioja Baja region (which is now trying to reposition itself as La Rioja Oriental), is trying to establish its own regional identity. Historically, this southeastern section of Rioja has been the supplier of recourse for more robust, higher alcohol, Mediterranean-continental climate, garnacha-based wines used to beef up the crianza (and sometimes reserva wines) of the bodegas of La Rioja Alta in leaner years. Now wineries such as Palacios Remondo in Alfaro, under the guidance of Álvaro Palacios, are turning up the heat.

Palacios, who has become an international wine star because of his L'Ermita single-vineyard wine from Priorato, hopes to show that outstanding wines can be made in this heretofore little-appreciated area of La Rioja. A major advocate of the single-vineyard approach to producing superb wines (he has several spectacular vineyards in Priorato, La Rioja and the emerging Bierzo area), Palacios says, that "What we want to establish in our eastern zone is precisely the geo-climatic and varietal differences between grapes grown in the different areas of La Rioja, showing with absolutely dignified wines how distinctive the flavors in each region can be."

Palacios is convinced that "If La Rioja does not begin to offer wines that show the charm of its provenance and encourage its zonal distinctions, local microclimates and specific vineyard sites, it will continue to be a great wine region that produces a high volume of good quality wines at medium-to-low prices for large numbers of consumers, but it will never produce wines of exceptional quality."

The problem, Palacios says, "is the lack of [Rioja] wines that have truly elite status. A wine region has to have certain designated areas or single vineyards to create great works of viticultural art. In my opinion, La Rioja still has not yet done that."

It is hoped that Palacios's new Herencia Remondo Propiedad (a blend of 40 percent garnacha, 35 percent tempranillo, 15 percent mazuelo and 10 percent graciano) is indicative of what's in store here. Harvested from the family's 250-acre La Montesa vineyard situated 1,800 feet above sea level on the slopes of the Sierra de Yerga, the 1999, 2000 and the exceptional 2001 vintage of Propiedad may be the best wines ever produced in La Rioja Baja/Oriental.

Suddenly, in a region where, historically, most of the emphasis has been on elevating the juice in the winery into something quite palatable (and often, very, very good), everyone is beginning to focus on grape quality by taking control of their own grape sources and paying more attention to terroir.

In La Rioja Alta, Finca Valpiedra, Finca Allende and Señorío de San Vicente are notable for their distinctive sites, but the movement toward single- vineyard plots is strongest in La Rioja Alavesa, where a number of small producers with very old vines show the promise of the region. Such Alavesa producers as Contino, Remelluri, Remírez de Ganuza and Artadi are proving they can attract international attention with wines made from single-vineyard sites or a series of separate single vineyards. Producers such as Valdelana, Luberri Monje Amestoi and Ostatu draw from exceptional sites as well.

There are also a number of cosecheros-viticultores (grower-producers) in La Rioja Alavesa who have relatively small, single-vineyard pagos that have been in their families for generations; it is not uncommon to find vineyards here that are 50 to 80 years old. These producers are reminiscent of small Burgundy winegrowers, and some have the potential to craft extraordinary wines from these sites. The problem at this juncture is that many of them, with the help of Basque government subsidies, have only recently begun to attempt making serious, age-worthy wines. Traditionally, most made deeply fruity, rich, carbonic maceration cosechero vinos del año, a Beaujolais-style wine that was sold cheap and meant to be drunk before the next harvest. The wines were often delicious, but certainly not intended to sit on retail shelves for very long.

Many of these producers simply don't have the depth of experience necessary to make world-class wines from these quintessential grapes. Some have brought in consultants to advise them. Doroteo Sáenz de Samniego of Ostatu enlisted Bordeaux's Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, owner-winemaker of St.-Emilion's Château L'Angelus, to help him select three of his best parcels for his top-of-the-line Gloria de Ostatu, and he now uses 65 percent French oak (five types), because "Americans like French oak better," he says. Others, such as Florentino Martínez whose pampered vineyards at Luberri-Monje Amestoi en Elciego yield some of the best juice in La Rioja Alavesa, have followed the modern trend toward over-oaking their otherwise excellent wine (although Martínez says he is seriously considering lowering the percentage of new oak he uses). Some, such as Abel Mendoza in neighboring Rioja Alta and Señorío de San Vicente, are making new-wave wines that show great promise, but have been hyped out of proportion to their actual quality.

The Rioja Alavesa can be a confusing place to outsiders because its wineries run the gamut from the huge, internationally known Marqués de Riscal to the small, cosechero family home wineries such as Ostatu and Luberri Monje Amestoi. In between are the modern, high-production wineries such as Faustino Martínez, Martínez Bujanda and Campillo, and a string of good, medium-size, often family-owned wineries, such as Luis Cañas, Valserrano, Larchago and Valdelana. Then there are the single- vineyard estates such as Remelluri and the first-rate Contino. Even the main cooperative, the Unión de Cosecheros de Labastida (Grower's Union of Labastida), is one of the best in Spain. But the Basque region, with its separate and often peculiar politics, has incredible potential and will undoubtedly be the micromodel for what much of the rest of the Rioja will become in time.

"Producers in La Rioja are opening their minds to all kinds of influences - not all good, regretfully," Andrés Proensa noted at the conference. "[But] there is a new generation of winemakers, more or less young people, who are working with their heads in the cellars and their feet in the vineyards, studying soils, microclimates, grape varieties, production, vineyard treatments, grape maturation, and later crafting a style of wine that complements the terroir by choosing with great care how they make the wines, choose the types of oak, toast the barrels, the aging regimen and all the rest."

Contino's Madrazo is counted among this breed of enlightened winemaker. His carefully crafted wines are becoming more stylish and balanced with each vintage. The brother team of Álvaro and Rafael Palacios is adhering to a similar formula at Palacio Remondo, as are the young Muga cousins, who are responsible for Torre Muga. Not to be overlooked are Finca Allende's gregarious Miguel Angel de Gregorio, and Juan Jésus Valdelana of Bodegas Valdelana's Jésus de Valdelana, whose young wine is a work of art. At the 150-year-old Marqués de Murrieta, Vicente Dalmau Cebrián-Sagárriga has assembled a winemaking team whose average age is 29. He took over a few years ago after his father's sudden death and is guiding the bodega into the 21st century. His eponymous Dalmau is a thoroughly modern vino del autor wine, but it preserves the best of Murrieta's classic style.

María José López de Heredia in the 'cementerio' of her family's winery.
Gerry Dawes copyright 2004

Even the four young siblings (two women, two men) at R. López de Heredia are making their presence felt at that venerable institution. In a gesture that likely was unprecedented at this 125-year-old bodega, members of the Los Grandes de La Rioja group were allowed to taste a one-year-old wine, the 2000 vintage of Viña Tondonia. It may sound like a small thing to those accustomed to New World winemaking, but this simple offering spoke volumes about these enlightened young lions. Their generation will undoubtedly leave an indelible imprint on the storied wines of La Rioja. For now, they've already sent this big, sleeping cat a wake-up call that is resonating across Spain.

This article first appeared in The Wine News, Oct/Nov 2002
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