We love Rioja wines but never visited the area. But since we were so close to it, we decided to take a day trip from Bilboa Spain into the town of Haro, the center of the Alta Rioja region, whose higher elevation and a climate coolor than the more inland Rioja Baja (from a combination of Atlantic, Mediterranean and Continental climates) produces leaner, less fruit-forward, lower alcohol wines, with reds typically consisting of varying combinations of Tempranillo (which primarily provides taste and ageability), Granacha (body and alcohol), Graciano (aroma) and Mazuelo (spices). White wines from this area generally consist of Tempranillo Blanco and Viura grapes
Classification of these wines depends largely on aging:
- Plain Riojas spend less than a year in barrels;
- Criainzas Riojas spend at least two years;
- Reservas spend three years in barrels with at least one year in oak; and
- Gran Reservas spend at least two years in oak and three years in bottle.
Many premium wines, however, are aged much longer than these required minimums.
We toured one Rioja Alta winery and tasted at that and five others.
López de Heredia, the oldest, and one of the largest wineries in Rioja, is by far, the most traditional. And since the founding family still owns the property, and that’s the way they want it, it is likely to stay that way. Just how traditional is it?
We have toured many winery tours and we have seen nothing like it. As soon as you walk out of the very modern reception room (which does have a lovely, hundred year-old carved wood reception booth), it’s like you have stepped back a hundred years. Our first stop was on the loading dock where employees were just bringing in the morning’s tempranillo harvest. True, they did transport the grapes on trailer pulled by a tractor and they did fed the bunches through an early-generation destemmer. But the rest of the tour transported us through a time warp. To provide some examples:
- Grapes continue to be grown on untrained vines, rather than on trellises and are harvested by hand., rather than machine;
- Instead of using plastic containers to collect and bring grapes in from the field, they use century-old cone-shaped barrels called “comporta”, which the company still makes from lightweight poplar wood.
- Primary fermentation is still done in huge, ancient oak vats, rather than stainless steel tanks with built-in cooling systems. They are cooled by opening doors and windows to cool breezes;
- Fermentation relies exclusively on naturel yeasts from the grapes, combined with that left on the surface of the oak tanks, with absolutely no artificial yeasts.
- Wine is filtered from skins and grapes (before being removed from vats) by inserting bundles of twigs from pruned vines, rather than mechanical filters. Skins are then returned to the fields for use as natural fertilizer;
- Aging barrels (made primarily from American oak) are used for 30 or 40 years (barrels that need repair are are re-planed or have their aging staves replaced) rather than by retiring barrels every three years;
- Barrel bungs are made of wood surrounded by cloth, rather than of plastic;
- They make their own barrels and comporta totally by hand, all with traditional tools, taking, for example, a full day for an experienced barrel maker to make one barrel, compared with five barrels a day for one using more modern methods;
- The walls of the 100+-year old caves, which were dug by hand, are covered with a century’s worth of accumulated deposits that contain pennicilium which retards the growth of bacteria and causes the walls to sweat and naturally create the required moisture. The cave walls are also covered with spiders and webs, welcome guests that keep the caves clear of insects that might damage the barrels or the wine; and
- Bottles, are transported through the winery in woven six-bottle carriers, rather than paperboard containers.
We enjoyed tasting 2 wines here:
- 2004 Vino Boscona and especially
- The premium 2003 Vina Tondonia Reserva;
Overall, a fascinating, living tour through the history of winemaking and a great place to visit to see something different.
We also tasted some wines from several other wineries:
- La Rioja Alta, with its white, Albarino-based 2014 Lagar de Cervera, its full-bodied and spicy 2007 Vina Ardnza Reserva (which can be drunken now) and its top-end 2005 Gran Reserva 904 (which still needs a number of years);
- Roda, for both its light, young and fruity 2012 Sela and its darker, more age-worthy 2010 Reserva;
- Gomez Cruzado, for a light Viura-based white wine (2014 Blanco) and two reds: the 2009 Reserva and especially the more ageable 2011 Honorable (from a field blend that is primarily Tempranillo);
- Muga, and its 2010 Selecion Especial and its 2008 Prado Enea Gran Reserva.
- CVNE, where we enjoyed the light, fruity Contino Graciano and the young, but smooth 2011 Vina del Olivo
We also had time for a walk though the old town, with its church atop the hill, its narrow, winding streets and its central square, lined with restaurants and graced with a mural that pokes subtle fun at the city’s engrained wine culture, and the many sculptures located around the town.
Lunch was less interesting. With the most highly recommended restaurant closed the day we visited, we ended up at the second recommendation, Beethoven. Aside from the music, was quite a disappointment. Our server forgot to bring our wine, the roasted lamb was at least half fat and and the Rioja-style cod was overcooked. But other than that, it was fine!