…the title of this post may seem strange but as Jack Paar would have written it: a funny thing happened on my way to La Rioja.
We left our beautiful hacienda in Hernani, just five miles from San Sebastion, or Donostria as the Basque’s call it, heading up the autoroute to France where we had to drop my sister-in-law at the train station. Afterwards, feeling hungry, we decided to drive around beautiful St-Jean-de-Luz and saw a little bistro, Le Madison, with a few tables outside. We parked, bought a parking ticket, and went to the restaurant. It was a beautiful day so we sat outside. I noticed a well-dressed elderly woman (who is TB to call someone else ‘elderly’?), at the next table with her dog lying beside her. The owner brought us a chalkboard listing the specialties and while we were trying to decipher it, the woman, in perfect English with a distinct Spanish accent, asked if she could help us. After we ordered, we continued our conversation with the woman. She asked where we were going to visit and I told her we were going to La Rioja the next day. She then asked, which bodegas we were visiting and I told her we had reservations at Muga (which I had made more than a month ago). She said, “don’t go there, go to CUNE (pronounced coon-ay).”
I was taken a bit aback by this but she continued, “my family once owned that bodega, one of the oldest in La Rioja, but sold it to CUNE (a large corporation owning several bodegas in Spain: Compañia Vinicola del Norte España), Muga buys grapes from us.” That got my attention, as she added,”I still own 6% of the bodega”, and proceeded to write a letter of introduction (whenever you can get one of these, from your hotel or anyone, they are like gold as you will get priority treatment. She said her name was Sophia Vallejo, and I had to ask if she knew there was a town in California by that name. She said, “yes, Robert Mondavi took me there years ago when I stayed with him.” How about that!?! We said our goodbyes to a lovely woman and drove off to explore the French Basque country and visit St-Jean-Pied-Porte, where the pilgrimage trail, El Camino (made famous in the Michael Douglas film The Way) to Santiago de Compostello, nearly 500 miles away begins. Near St. Jean, which is a lovely town, we were told of a good winery nearby. It is called Iroully, and was a very good wine, which is only sold locally I believe. Worth stopping at! I bought one of their big reds and a bottle of a Cava Rosada, which we enjoyed when we got back to Hernani.
The next day we drove, the long way as it turned out, to La Rioja. We arrived in Haro (pronounced ‘arrow’) and noted that there were actually five bodegas together at the bottom of the hill where the old town sits. They are Bodegas Muga, La Rioja Alta, R. Lopez de Heredia, CUNE, and one other one which I didn’t know and we didn’t have time to visit. Why were they clustered together? Because in 1880. a railroad link between Bordeaux and Haro was completed so it was the only efficient way to transport wine. Later, one was built connecting Haro with Bilbao, opening the way to shipping. That is what made Haro the ‘Napa’ of La Rioja, and both continue as the centers of those regions. I might add that the important part of La Rioja (Alto – centered in Haro, Alevesa – Lograno, but excluding the lesser important, Baja – which extends southeast to Zaragosa),is only slightly larger than Napa Valley and reminiscent of it in the 1960’s with the bodegas space far apart with vineyards in between. The most desirable are is Between Haro and Lograno, especially a town called La Guardia where the Marqéuz de Riscal’s Bodega, designed by Frank Gehry, architect of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, is located. Most of the Rioja’s are blends of the two regions. If you think of La Rioja, dilineated on both sides by the Ebro River, as an arrowhead (Harohead?), with the Cantabrian Mountains at the head, and just past them, Haro, you will see that the breezes blowing off the Bay of Biscay, cool it and it gets warmer as you move down towards Lograno, and ultimately to the scorching hot Baja which is on the flatlands. Rising to the north are the Pyranees which makes for a stunning backgrounds for the incredible bodegas which are all uber-modern and put any I have seen in California, or anywhere for that matter to shame.
Now that you have my take on the region, it’s time for some tasting. There are three main classes of Riojas:
Crianza – reds must be aged at least two years, one of which in oak barrels: whites must be aged for six months in oak barrels. Interestingly, most of the oak is American, although some use French Limousin Oak, and Muga, for one has its own barrel makers. More on the effects of oak later.
Reserva – reds must be aged at least three years, one of which in oak. Whites, six months in oak but aged for one year.
Gran Reserva – reds at least FIVE years, two of which must be in oak, and three in bottles.
Naturally, due to storage costs the prices ascend in that order. But it begs the question; which is best? Certainly at the time the appellation was established, that seemed sensible, but with today’s tastes it ‘ain’t necessarily so’. The modern trend is to less oak flavoring which enhances early drinkability, and to my surprise (at three different tastings of at least eight wines), I found that i like the Crianza best. That is not to say with more aging the reservas might taste better. Like all wine, it is, and should be a matter of personal taste. The plus to the crianza’s is they are less expensive! The white Rioja’s are very good but have to compete with so many other good whites – including Rueda, from nearby Ribera del Duero, and which I prefer – make them less likely to be seen in wine shops outside of Spain.
As for the grape varieties, recall that when the phylloxera struck Bordeaux, the French vignerons moved south to La Rioja, but when it was cured by grafting to American rootstock, they returned, and production plunged. As the locals tried to regain the reputation, but with much less profitability, along came the 1930’s and Generalismo Franco, who, because of a famine, decreed that half of the vines be torn out and replaced with grains (this is the same Franco who in 1938, ‘allowed’ Hitler to bomb and destroy the town of Guernica, which for the Fuehrer was a prelude to the concentrated bombings soon to be done throughout Europe. Needless to say, Franco is still a dirty, obscene, name in Euscal Herria (Basque Country).
The grapes used today are (thanks to Karen McNeil and her tome The Wine Bible, which took ten years to assemble and was published in 2000, and while it omits some new wine regions, the information it contains is reliable to date, including contact numbers for the bodegas which proved both accurate and a necessity since you don’t just ‘drop in’ to wineries in Europe. Hopefully a new revision will be out soon…note: it can be purchased in paperback for about $5 on Amazon):
Reds: tempranillo (the main grape of Rioja, and used for aroma, flavor, delicacy, and aging potential), garnacha (grenache, for alcohol and body), graciano (for flavor and aroma), mazuelo (a ‘seasoning grape’), and viura (used by a few vintners for acidity)
Whites: Viura (main grape with mild fruit flavors and acidity). garnacha blanca (blending grape for body), and malvasia (for aroma)
With the advent of the automobile and modern trucking, Haro, was no longer necessary to ship wines, so Longrono grew both in size and importance, but continues to be the ‘heart’ of the wine region.
We left Haro, and drove down the southern side of La Rioja, crossing to La Guardia, then up the northern side, and returned to our hacienda. It would have been much easier to just continue to our next stop, La Ribera del Duero, but we preferred the warmth and convenience of staying in one place, which was also easy to get to San Sebastian from. If we had spent more time in the wine regions we would have loved to stay at the Gehry hotel that is at the Marqéuz de Riscal’s bodega near La Guardia, and priced accordingly.
next: Burgos and La Ribera del Duero
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