Rioja is a wine that has traditionally failed to excite me. Very good, sometimes beautiful wines, abound, but its reputation in Britain has bred complacency. And modern styles can be overcooked points chasers. So the region was never truly on our radar.
Yet murmurings here and there, and chance encounters (more on that to follow) prompted me to give Rioja another chance. Jolly good thing we did too.
Oli and I flew to Bilbão and drove on to Logroño, the administrative centre of La Rioja. The scenery changes abruptly once you pass over the Sierra de Cantabria, from never-ending wheat fields to a quilt of vineyards. Such is the way of many famous and strictly delineated wine regions, though apparently also because the proximity of the Atlantic ocean makes it too cold to plant vines north of the sierra.
Logroño has a certain charm about it, and we grabbed a few pintxos in Bar Charly and La Tavina (terrific, we went back) before shooting over to visit Juan Carlos Sancha in Baños de Río Tobía, Rioja Alta.
Juan Carlos is a professor of oenology at the University of La Rioja, and heads up a project to revive local varieties and counter the influx of international grapes. In 1912, there were 44 varieties permitted in Rioja. By 1942, that had plummeted to 11. Come the twenty-first century, there were just 7. He's a living, breathing example of what we do at Red Squirrel, so I was pretty excited about meeting him and experiencing the fruits of his efforts.
His university team makes wine from as many as 37 native grapes, while his own bodega, begun in 2008, grows 27. He has 6.5 hectares of vineyards, some planted by his grandfather as long ago as 1917. He has a lot of old Garnacha, a bit of an oddity in these parts because it is traditionally more prevalent in hotter Rioja Baja. However, as recently as the 1970s there was more Garnacha than Tempranillo, but in that time the major red grape of Spain has boomed from 31 per cent to 87 per cent of Rioja plantings. Everything is hand-harvested, and his vineyards are organically certified. In total, Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha turns out around 25,000 bottles per year, so it's a tiny operation.
Ad Libitum Tempranillo Blanco 2015
Tempranillo Blanco derives from a single bizarre mutation discovered in 1988 by Jesús Galilea Esteban. Juan Carlos showed us a photograph of the famous vine, and indeed branch. It's now authorised for the region's white wines, though there remain very few vineyards and varietal examples. This has no oak. Aroma of citrus fruits and greengages. Big flavour of white peach, it's really fleshy, full and almost tropical. Medium acidity. Almost like a toned down Viognier, though leaning more towards peach and citrus than the full-on peach and apricot. Really good stuff.
Ad Libitum Maturana Blanca 2015
A super rare variety said to be the first documented grape in Rioja, way back in 1622. It was almost extinct, until Juan Carlos and university colleague Fernando Martinéz de Toda revived it in the late 1980s. Juan Carlos is still the only person making a varietal white wine from Maturana Blanca. It's a tricky grape to grow, very low-yielding, with tiny bunches of berries (Juan Carlos showed us a photograph of a Maturana Blanca bunch next to Viura - quite some contrast). But it's bloody brilliant. Naturally fermented in 500-litre new French oak, then aged for three months in barrel. We took a sniff and both Oli and I immediately shot each other a raised eyebrow. Rich, toasty, buttery and so damn elegant. F*** that's good. Good acidity, fresh, extremely elegant and opulent. My only drawback? It's too good an imitation of quality white burgundy: can you tell what Maturana Blanca tastes like by drinking this? Maybe that's beside the point, given it's the only one being made. And quite frankly, given the requisite amount of quid in my pocket (you're looking at about £20 or so for this) and a choice between this and a similarly priced Chardonnay from somewhere like Puligny-Montrachet, I know where I'm spending my money. Here. Over and over. Sadly one can't, it's currently sold out. Juan Carlos only makes 2,600 bottles. It was a privilege to drink it, truly.
Ad Libitum Maturana Tinta 2015 (barrel)
And so to the red, but tried out of barrel. So guess what this is? Not actually the white version of what's above, but thanks to Jancis et al, something a bit more familiar: the Jura grape Trousseau, aka Bastardo in the Dão and Douro. Known here as Maturana Tinta, it is permitted in Rioja reds but plantings are very limited. Juan Carlos makes 16,000 bottles a year, made in oak barrels like you see below for the Monastel. The wine has a deep colour, and if you lift the glass to your ear you hear a faint crackling: the final throes of malolactic fermentation. Like listening to the inside of a seashell and freshly milked Rice Krispies. The aroma is quite something on the other hand: simultaneously obscure and yet so obvious. Those rose-flavoured dark chocolate Quality Streets? Yes, those. Turned up to eleven. So striking. Spicy addition on the palate. Altogether very redolent of bittersweet dark chocolate. Very long. Brilliantly different.
Ad Libitum Monastel 2015 (barrel)
So to a grape so rare, it doesn't have a proper entry in Wine Grapes. Monastel should not be confused with the similar-sounding Moristel from Somontano in north-east Spain, or the widely planted Monastrell. There have been mutterings about changing the name so as to avoid any such confusion, but Juan Carlos is adamant the traditional local name survives. He has two barrels of this, making roughly 600 bottles a year, and that's about the extent of it in Rioja. This is about as esoteric as it gets. Again this is 2015 vintage out of barrel (photo above). Naturally fermented. It's a bit darker in colour than the Maturana Tinta. A woody, aniseed aroma. Some Mediterranean herbs. Darkish fruit flavours, like blackcurrants, then some intense cranberries, and a more tannic structure. It's impressive and intriguing, and I'd love to see how this is in bottle. A real eye-opener.
Peña el Gato 2015 (barrel)
I first came across this Garnacha as an unattached entry in the most recent Decanter Rioja tasting. It scored highly (90-something), and has the added appeal of having a cat on the label. So I took a mental note. Then our friends Sam & Charlie at Vino Vero mentioned the zero added sulphur version when we told them we were off to Rioja, as they'd been to see Juan Carlos last year. It translates as "the cat rock", or cat mountain. But there aren't and weren't any cats, as far as we or Juan Carlos could tell. Except on the lovely label. What we do know his grandfather planted the Garnacha vines in 1917, so La Peña el Gato is not far away from its telegram from the Queen. The wine is brilliant. Organic, again naturally fermented in barrel (above). Cedar, leather and tobacco leaf on the nose. Hints of strawberries. A deep colour, with intense purple rim. More strawberry to taste, layers unfurling along the tongue. More leather, some spice. Lots of fruit. Amazingly it's 16 per cent alcohol. Not surprising perhaps for Garnacha, rather because you don't feel any alcohol heat at all. It has good acidity, a bit of grip and structure, bags of length, silky finish. So voluptuously attractive.
Peña el Gato José Luis Martinez Solana 2015 (barrel)
Juan Carlos owns this 103-year-old Garnacha vineyard, named after the grower who originally planted it. Just half a kilometre away from his grandfather's old vineyard. The wine has more colour and a darker fruit aroma profile. Stronger structure and body too, but it begins very silky. Some dark chocolate notes. Again it's 16 per cent alcohol but you wouldn't know it.
Peña el Gato Garnacha Sin Sulfitos 2015 (barrel)
So a zero added sulphur Garnacha from 106-year-old vines. According to Juan Carlos, one of only three such wines in Rioja. Our of barrel. Really inviting, deep colour. Bright fruit aroma. Loganberries perhaps. Grippy! And juicy. Tasting deliciously dense, lovely acidity and bags of structure. Much more pronounced acidity than the other Peña el Gato wines. Juan Carlos says this is good for the preservation of the wine in the absence of sulphur additions. Another 16 per center but once again, impossible to spot. Really good length. Quite smashable really. To be bottled in October.
Once back in Logroño, we enjoyed another tour of the pintxos bars, studiously (on my part) avoiding the mushroom specialists much to Oli's amusement, and returning to La Tavina, where they have an upstairs wine shop with very fair prices on local and other Spanish wines, and just €2 corkage. We tucked into this stupendous Garnacha Blanca, mainly because it looked fun, up our street, and something we didn't recognise from back home, but which we've since discovered is imported into the UK by Ben Llewellyn and Carte Blanche. Track it down!
The next day we visited and lunched with Bryan MacRobert, a contact from South African travels, trying his brave new Laventura wines. Report to follow in Part Two...
by Nik Darlington