Wine Travel on a Budget: La Rioja (Part 1)

thumb_DSC01058_1024Anyone who enjoys wine has at one time or another imagined visiting these regions in person. Where better to enjoy that Chianti Classico than a Tuscan Villa, or that Premier Cru Burgundy than a small village in the Cote d’Or? However, wine regions are not the most affordable places to visit and some are near impossible to get to. What’s a 20-something wine lover with limited disposable income (i.e. near zero) to do? Here I hope to explain how to visit wine country without going broke. Our first stop: La Rioja.

Rioja is situated in north-east Spain with the Basque country to the north and Navarre to the east. Although not a particularly large province, it is famous for producing some of Spain’s best wines, and in particular it’s best reds. The best of Rioja wine are made in the hilly Rioja Alta region centered in the town of Haro.

Winemaking in Rioja got its start in the late 19th century when French winemakers, having lost their vineyards and their livelihoods to the phylloxera epidemic, went wandering in search of promising (and disease-free) vineyards. Some of these winemakers settled in Rioja, where they took the native red grape, Tempranillo and began to make wine in the French style–think significant barrel aging.

Eventually phylloxera was overcome by grafting wines to new American rootstock. The French returned to their vineyards, but the people of Rioja had discovered the potential of their land and native grape. Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, numerous Basque and Riojan families began to produce wine in the region. The great names of Rioja–Lopez de Heredia, La Rioja Alta, CVNE, Muga, Marques de Riscal–all trace their roots to this time. One of our guides mentioned that the Railway District in Haro has the highest density of centenary wineries in the world!

thumb_DSC01062_1024My brother and I arrived in Haro on a sunny day in late July, having spent the past four hours cutting across Cataluña, Navarre, and Rioja as we followed the river Ebro north into the hills. Our walk to our hotel in a village called Brinas, a bit over a mile away, took us on a lovely walk across vineyards and along the river (I later discovered this path was part of the Camino to Santiago de Compostela). It would have been even more lovely were my brother not dragging a 50-pound suitcase with a broken wheel and swearing most of the way. In the end, we were rewarded with a lovely view of the surrounding hills and vineyards from our room’s balcony. Our slightly rustic room was clean and spacious, and given that we were only paying 40 Euros a night, a bargain!

thumb_DSC01082_1024We spent the next morning wandering around Haro, including taking a look inside the lovely churches, parks, and an art gallery. After lunch, we decided to drop and try a few wines at Muga, where I tasted one of their whites and two reds. The fantastic wine bar staff helped explain the differences between the wines and also gave us a primer on how the wine barrels are made in house. The highlight of this part for me was a taste of the 2006 Torre Muga, aged in a combination of French and American oak, was richer and more powerful than most of the other Rioja’s I had tried, but still held that wonderful combination of fruit and earth.

The rest of the afternoon was taken up with the highlight of our trip to Rioja: a tour of the cellars & tasting at Lopez de Heredia’s Vina Tondonia. For those of you who don’t know, Lopez de Heredia is legendary for making some of Rioja’s most unique and compelling wines by a process that hasn’t changed since their founding a century ago. Part of this process is the rare practice of aging wine in their cellars until they are ready to drink—usually for a decade or more. For example, the most recent release of the Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva is 1994—almost as old as I am!

Lopez de Heredia had pushed back against modernization in winemaking by sticking to the same techniques and oftentimes the exact same tools that they have used since their founding, albeit with many, many repairs. They (along with Muga) are the only two Rioja producers that still make all their barrels at an in-house coopery. They are also very insistent on using American oak in all of their barrels. Why American oak? For one, it’s traditional. More importantly, because of the smaller pores in American oak, the wines oxidize (and thus age) at a slower pace. The greater time in barrel imparts the earthy, tobacco aromas that great Rioja is famous for.

thumb_DSC01095_1024At the end of the tour we went from the dark, moldy cellars full of beautiful old bottles into a shiny, surprisingly modern room (proof that not everything at Lopez de Heredia is 100 years old) for our tasting of three wines. First up was a white—the 2005 Vina Gravonia. Lopez de Heredia is one of the only producers in Rioja still making traditional, barrel aged whites. Gravonia roughly translates as “from gravel” and refers to the gravel soil of the vineyard, planted only with the Viura and Malvisia grapes used to make whites. This white was one of the most interesting and fun wines I’ve tasted. Dry with high acidity, it had much more weight & body than most whites, and the namesake gravel soil shone through—I suppose nowadays people would call that ‘minerality.’ Next we drank the 2004 Vina Bosconia Reserva. The Bosconia vineyard is completely devoted to black grape varieties, for the most part the Rioja staple Tempranillo. Bosconia, I was told, refers to the forest that surrounds the vineyard. The Bosconia had more fruit than earthy notes, with wonderfully silky tannins.

Saving the best (or at least the most famous) for last, we finished our tasting with the 2003 Vina Tondonia Reserva. The Tondonia vineyard contains LdH’s oldest vineyards, located in the center of a horseshoe shaped bend of the river Ebro. The area grows both black and white grapes, producing two line of wines—Vina Tondonia and Vina Tondonia Blanco. For a wine that was 12 years old, the fruit seemed amazingly fresh and delicate and was perfectly complemented by the spicy, earthy notes. I also sampled a taste of the 2001 Vina Tondonia Reserva Blanco. I’ve never tasted a wine that old; It was similar to the Vina Gravonia, but with flavors and aromas being even more subtle. I wish that I had taken notes because writing this down a month later, I know I’m leaving so much out. Most of all, they were fun to drink—which is the point of wine in the first place, isn’t it?

The tour & tasting was $30. While it may seem pricey, this also includes one bottle of the latest release of Vina Tondonia (in our case the 2003), which sells in the shop for 22 Euros (and is closer to $35 in the states). Also, because of their cultural partnership with the Guggenheim in Bilbao, we also received two complementary tickets to the Guggenheim museum. All included, this was a fantastic deal. Then again, given that I ended up walking out with 4 bottles of wine and a storage box, perhaps the generosity is really just a way to draw us in. Still, the damage for 2 tours, 2 extra bottles, and a storage box was only around 100 Euros.

In recent years many winemakers around the world have begun to turn towards a focus on the terroir and traditional winemaking practices—returning to where Lopez de Heredia had been all along.

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