Haro, Taxi Driver
9 thirsty folks, exhausted from an intense – and intensely successful – Bordeaux En Primeur campaign, headed off for 72 hours in Haro, the home of Rioja. A few had visited before, so it was something of a reawakening for those individuals; but for most this was a chance to get under the skin of a region which has delivered some of the best, and greatest value, drinking experiences we’ve had over the last decade. With visits to four of the finest Bodegas in the area lined up we were ready to get our hands on a few glasses and find out what makes Rioja so distinctive and brilliant.
Bodegas Muga – Simon Eddleston
Now, at BI we’re probably relatively well-known for enjoying a good lunch or dinner… but not many kick off at 10pm and finish at 2am. Welcome to Rioja!
Having hopped on a Friday afternoon flight, the BI team found ourselves in the beautiful little market town of Haro, 60 or so clicks from the northern Spanish coast. The skyline had been heavily daubed in grey all the way from Bilbao but, as we meandered through the green, semi-mountainous, lush National Park that sits between these two dots on the map, we soon saw a golden, sun-drenched valley glowing expectantly on the horizon. As soon as we had reached this gateway, the wheat fields gave way for a far more rewarding crop… Tempranillo and friends! Our first stop on the whirlwind tour was none other than Rioja royalty – Muga.
A tour around the winery and cellars with the super-knowledgeable Export Director, David, kept compounding what we knew – quality was utterly paramount here, and at every stage from vine to table. The estate even has the employ of Spain’s only remaining Master Cooper! They clearly have a very long-term view and, with the UK as their largest export market worldwide, Muga has obviously struck a chord with ol’ Blighty, garnering a keen and loyal following for generous, refined, long-lasting, and deeply complex wines that represent nigh-on insane value.
We tasted (sans spittoon, admittedly) a fantastic range over a fabulous, multi-course meal with the charming and driven Manu Muga. What a feast... From the gorgeously fresh, aromatic, and gently spiced Muga Blanco with the most melt-in-the-mouth white asparagus to the utterly delicious, elegant, easy, and very ‘Cote d’Azur’ Flor de Muga Rosé en magnum, just to wet the whistle. Then we were served a wonderful cavalcade of delicious, regional tapas goodies, which included flavour-bomb tomatoes and the almost chocolatey local jamon, with a juicy and polished Muga Reserva Especial 2011 from large format. Then it really got exciting with a procession of terrifically distinct yet poised and very ‘Muga’ beauties:
Prado Enea 2010 – Electric. The qualities that the fruit gains from the very high, cool vineyard that forms this super-model are so clear to see here. Generous and rich but with such grace, balance, and confidence. Still embryonic and not released yet and but sell the kids once it is!
Prado Enea 2009 – as with all Prado Enea, there is an almost Burgundian refinement and detail. The ‘09 was a relative powerhouse yet was still terrifically balanced, with the Graciano contributing that all-important thread of freshness and lift. If you don’t own any yet, you need to.
Prado Enea 2001 – this is what it’s all about! By no means fully mature at 16 years of age, we tucked into this winner with stupendously tender veal-stuffed pimientos that were to live for. A perfect Prado, this gave up a myriad of the most soothing and engaging complexity… Soy, supple leather, dark chocolate, toasted herbs, roasted game, and so much more…
Then, with some milk-fed, succulent-as-the-day-is-long, baby lamb chops, flame-grilled to perfection, came another chapter in the Muga book:
Torre Muga 2009 and 2001 – built on the premise of dialled up power and concentration, the Torre went down a treat. It ages effortlessly and with real reward.
Aro 2010 – the high Graciano content really comes to the fore here, adding lift and zippy freshness to the mocha-infusing density and weight of the Tempranillo. Needs 5+ years.
Muga 1976 – oh boy! Manu Muga’s favourite wine from his estate and we can see exactly why… A Grand Cru Burgundy-like lens through which to glimpse Rioja history. A crazy, captivating nose, giving up soy, Asian spices, blood orange, roasted meats smothered with wild mushrooms, and a huge amount more. Superb balance, freshness, precision, and the wine of the night!
Muga 1978 – a mesmerising nose again, chockfull of reasons to keep the hooter submerged deeply inside the bowl of my Riedel. The palate was also full of energy but it didn’t quite reach the hedonistic heights of the ‘76er.
All of a sudden it was 2.30am but I think you’ll understand why.
It turns out there is a gin bar in Haro with over 700 gins to choose from (and a dart board). ‘When are you open until?’ ‘If you’re here, we’re open.’ Oh dear...
La Rioja Alta – Anneka Swann
Bright and early after a quick coffee, BI’s famous nine headed to La Rioja Alta, S.A’s head office.
Long one of my personal favourite Rioja producers, I have always been quick to order these wines off a restaurant list where they represent excellent value for money with the extra aging they undergo. We were greeted by the lovely Brenda, who put up with our standard antics and idiosyncracies (including dropping a pair of glasses around 20 feet from the top of the vat room onto the floor level below) with a smile on her face as she led us through the building that was once the winery. Now head offices and a visitor’s centre, the large ancient wooden fermentation vats still stand to attention in honour of the building’s long history; founded in 1890 in the train station complex just outside of Haro, Brenda was even thrilled to show us Spain’s first electric street lights. It is hard to imagine how much difference it made, being able to work by electric light rather than the impracticalities of candle-light – and the residents of Haro are justly proud that theirs was the first town in Spain to have public electric lighting.
Unlike the other Bodegas we visited, La Rioja Alta have a new and modern winery about a mile away in Labastida. This allows modern techniques to fully integrate with a traditional Rioja winery, allowing a seamless production line and great value while producing accessible traditional Riojas. While the flagship 2007 “904” certainly shone, it was the Vina Arana 2009 and Vina Ardanza 2008 which really wowed with such complexity at very accessible price points.
Vina Alberdi Reserva 2011 - 100% Tempranillo from their own vineyards near their winery in Rioja Alavesa, then aged for 1 year in new and 1 year in old American oak. Cherry and vanilla on the nose with hints of coffee create an easy drinking, forward and simple wine, known for its culinary versatility.
Vina Arana Reserva 2009 - Estate-owned Tempranillo and a splash of Mazuelo (or Carignan to us Francophiles) in this “very good” vintage gives a polished Rioja with a still tight nose, brimming with red cherries, tobacco and vanilla spice.
Vina Ardanza 2008 - For the first time, in the ‘Very Good’ 2008 vintage Ardanza included 20% Garnacha from Rioja Baja, giving an incredibly intense dark cherry red nose. The Cherries and blackcurrants mingle with the tobacco, coffee and vanilla of 30-36 month American Oak aging, giving elegant tannins and a lasting impression.
Gran Reserva 904 2007 - Over 60 year old vines, wild yeast and only natural malolactic fermentation make the 904 a complex and characterful wine a step above the rest of the range. Stewed red fruits and sweet and sour nose give clues to the gamey characteristics this wine will certainly develop through time. Surprisingly high acid, thanks to Rioja’s large diurnal range and high altitudes, and vanilla oak give the 904 the potential to evolve positively for decades.
CVNE (Compania Vinicole del Norte de Espana) – Amanda Hawkyard
The second appointment of the morning was CVNE, and what a memorable visit it was. I had imagined impressive tasting rooms and spotless chais, which of course there were, but nothing prepared me for the old cellars underground. It was like winding the clocks back several hundred years. The penicillium (a form of odourless fungus) all over the walls made it look like an ancient underwater wreck, and spore covered bottles lined the endless corridors which had slumbered there for decades, some dating back two centuries. We then returned to the present day and daylight, and headed over to taste some of the wines, where CVNE displayed incredible generosity and opened no less than 16 bottles, 4 of which were magnums. The BI team of course rose to the occasion.
First up was a delightful white, Monopole 2014, which had wonderful sherry like notes as well as incredible freshness – the perfect summer’s day aperitif. We then moved onto the Contino Blanco 2015, very different in style from the Monopole but which offered lovely white flower notes alongside white peaches and subtle herb-like nuances. Then came the Contino Rosado 2015 – at first look I confess I wrinkled my nose as the dark colour was not what I look for in a rose, but this was no sweet Zinfandel. The proportion of Graciano accounted for the dark pink colour, and although the acidity was high it felt very balanced and quite aromatic. Next up were three Reservas: the Vina Real Reserva 2012, an elegant little number with ripe red fruits and some floral nuances; followed by the Imperial Reserva 2012 which proffered beautifully silky tannins and a fruit-forward character (but not jammy by a long chalk); then finally the Contino Reserva 2010, which had the signature red fruit but also notes of cedar box, snuff and forest floor, as well as an extra layer of polish and finesse. 2010 was a cracking vintage after all. Moving onto the Gran Reservas, we tasted the Vina Real Gran Reserva 2010 and the Imperial Gran Reserva 2010 side by side, which was a very interesting comparison. The former showed notes of sweet spice and red cherries with some floral nuances, whilst the latter had more of soy and balsamic with ripe red fruits and some earthy notes - just gorgeous. Next came a pair of twins – Contino Gran Reserva 2009 and Contino Gran Reserva 2010, both in magnum (they don’t actually bottle this wine in 75cl). The 2009 showed its warm year character in the ripe black cherries and plums that came through on the palate alongside a touch of leather. The 2010 seemed more linear, with some sweet spice and more red fruit than black, with a long and beautifully balanced finish. Up next was the Contino Graciano 2012, which was a first for me. I always thought that Graciano was more of an addition to a blend, rather like Petit Verdot is in Bordeaux, but tasting this wine which is 100% Graciano was such an eye-opener, as the wine was beautifully balanced and complex with a finish that went on and on. Next up was the Contino Vina del Olivo 2014, a single vineyard wine which, although young, was gorgeous even now with a fleshy fruit core and notes of chocolate shavings. Getting towards the end of the line-up now, we moved onto a pair to contrast the young with the mature: Real de Asua 2001 and Real de Asua 2015. The 2001 was a beauty, with a velvety texture, silky tannins and excellent balance. It was quite perfumed on the nose, whilst the palate brought about notes of soy, cigar, ripe black fruits and sweet spice. The oak on the 2015 was a lot more noticeable, with those cherry-vanilla notes coming through alongside red fruits and white flowers, but it was just a baby after all. Finally, last up were the Pagos de Vina Real 2005 and the Pagos de Vina Real 2015. This really was old-vine Tempranillo at its best. The 2005 was so open and expressive; toast, soy sauce, blackberries and black cherries coming through in elegant harmony, it was positively singing and will continue to do so for at least another 20 years. The 2015 was more energetic, not as confident nor together as its older brother, but with all the potential there to be glorious with a long and impressive finish.
The quality in the glass simply did not correspond with the price of the wine, and once again I asked myself why I didn’t drink more Rioja. We then grabbed the open bottles and headed over to the dining room where delicious barbequed lamb chops were waiting for us. Needless to say I will not look at the CVNE bottles in my own cellar in quite the same way again.
Vina Tondonia, Rafael Lopez de Heredia – Dasha Tinkova
Vina Tondonia was one of the biggest surprises I had from this whole Rioja trip. Given the breadth of reach of the winery (it can be seen on many of the greatest wine lists around the world) I was expecting it to be very commercial, perhaps almost factory like in scale. Quite the opposite: it was amazing to see how traditional it was. The Lopez de Heredia family have devoted themselves to producing the most exceptional and unique wines, making the vineyard and its whole production so personal and private. They still use the exact same methods that were introduced by their founder Don Rafael in the late 19th century. Both their red and white wines spend many years ageing in barricas, which are actually hand made by their own coopers with oak purchased from the US. The Reserva is aged for 6 years, and the Crianza for 4 years – in the case of the latter, this is a year longer than the minimum requirement for a Gran Reserva! The current release of Gran Reserva is 1995, which spent 10 years in barrel and 10 in bottle before reaching the market.
The estate was built next to the train station back in 1877, making the wine transportation much easier back in the day. The location of this bodega, and the others which immediately surround it, is a reminder of the connections between Bordeaux and Rioja which contributed to the true birth of the wine style we know today – the phylloxera attack on Bordeaux in the 1870s which destroyed the vines sent winemakers south of the Pyrenees, and the resulting wines back north over the border. However it was the introduction of oak barrels from France which transformed the naturally fleshy but high acid wines produced in the region into the long-ageing, vanilla-and-spice-soaked beauties we know and love today.
We were led through their underground cellars, a massive 15 metres below ground and 180 metres long with over 3000 square metres of cellar space, which took 1 year to dig out by 70 men in the 1880’s. It was like something from a horror movie: dangling cobwebs, mouldy walls and darkness. Of course, this is all as a result of the perfect conditions the cellars experience – especially given their close proximity to the River Ebro. In fact when we broke out of the door at the end of the corridor, we realised why it couldn’t go any further – we were literally 5 metres from the river’s edge!
It was amazing to see how much tradition is left the Vina Tondonia Estate, and how even today the Lopez de Heredia family refuse to modernize their winemaking techniques. That said, in terms of architecture, the winery in Haro is a blend of modern and traditional, with its original 1877 buildings updated with a striking new visitor centre designed by global superstar Zaha Hadid (which itself houses an exhibition stand built for the Brussells Expo of 1910).
After a tasting of the range, the highlight of which was the Vina Tondonia Reserva 2005 (full bodied in style, with ripe tannins and a very intense and powerful palate of fruit), we headed back up to town for a well-earned beer and a rest before our evening in the capital of the region: Logrono.
Enjoy yourself (it’s later than you think)
We were all aware that Spanish time runs, shall we say, a little later than UK – but I’m not sure we had appreciated how much. Drinks at 6:30pm was very much still during siesta time; dinner at 10pm was the slot reserved strictly for the elderly and families with young children; we were the first onto the dance floor at El Submarino around midnight; and when we retired back in the direction of Haro (although not quite to bed... yet) at around 3am the main square of Logrono was only just starting to fill up. Thank heaven a little British reserve was still intact or we’d never have made our 11am flight the following day.
A huge thank you to all our hosts for making us so welcome and for sharing so much knowledge and passion for this remarkable, distinctive wine region. We will be back!