My road to Rioja began in March in a small cellar outside Paarl, where I was tasting with Bryan MacRobert, former assistant to Eben Sadie and now the man behind two seriously impressive young projects in both hemispheres. From farming stock in Malmesbury, Bryan makes swoon-worthy Swartland wines under his own name and Abbotsdale label, and is creating an audacious new cellar far up the Cape's west coast; but for the bulk of the year he is here in Logroño, quietly but passionately rallying for a return to a fresher, elegant - in his view authentic - style of Rioja wine. Bryan spent three vintages at Terroir al Limit, Eben Sadie's erstwhile Priorat venture, so is no stranger to Spain, and recently married Clara, a winemaker at Campo Viejo.
Laventura is just a few years old, the first vintage being 2013, but working with small parcels of old vines. And the wines are already pretty special. We went to taste them with some jamón in Bryan's 'tasting room', a sunken stone pit under a tree among one of his small vineyards. His bakkie navigated vertiginous, crumbling tracks to the peace and quiet of the middle of nowhere, surrounded by old, gnarly vines and terrain impassable by farm machinery, everything done by hand and ploughed by mules.
Bryan's incisive understanding of the unique tapestry of soils and microclimates around Rioja is seen in each and every one of these wines. At the moment it's a straightforward portfolio of one white, one red and one orange wine. We tried the first two vintages of the white (predominantly Viura), likewise the red (mostly Tempranillo) and the new skin contact Malvasia.
Laventura Rioja Blanco 2013
It's a field blend of around 90 per cent Viura (Macabeo), plus bits of Garnacha Blanca, Malvasía Riojana and Calagraño, the latter being a virtually extinct local variety no longer permitted in Rioja wines unless planted before 1970. In actual fact the vines were planted 80 years ago, so call off the authorities. Bryan made 3,000 bottles of this first vintage and there's not masses left. The vineyard is largely clay with some calcareous elements, and this was fermented in new Austrian oak barrels. This is floral, elegant and super fresh, with really excellent acidity. A world away from the 'traditional' oxidative style of oaked white Rioja, which while I like the best examples isn't generally my thing so I loved this. For the record, the oxidative style is very much Oli's thing, and he loved this too! Bryan recalled 2013 as a baptism of fire, a cool vintage and an extremely damp August. But this is an utter triumph over adversity. So good.
Laventura Rioja Blanco 2014
Exactly the same process and similar raw material as above, except now some grapes from organic vines and those Austrian barrels are one year older. It's very similar in style, though the warmer, more settled 2014 vintage shows in slightly lowered acidity, a bit more fruit, a rounder body and slightly elevated aromatics. More of this vintage was made, at around 5,000 bottles, which is where Bryan wants it more or less to sit. Between the two I marginally preferred 2013 for its acidity and distinctive mineral edge that I wasn't expecting to find in Rioja. But again this is a terrific, very exciting wine.
Laventura Rioja Tinto 2013
Bryan has strong but sanguine and calm views about what ought to be thought of as 'traditional' red Rioja. Here's what it isn't: overtly oaked, alcoholic, full-bodied or needlessly extracted. Or as he puts it, "not about chasing points and trying to be like Ribera del Duero." This debut is the antithesis: judiciously oaked, low in alcohol (12.5%), fresh, elegant and medium-bodied. Like the white it comes from a field blend of predominantly Tempranillo (over nine-tenths) with some Graciano and Garnacha. It's a really pretty paler sort of colour, cranberry at the core and pale at the rim. Bryan didn't yet have a de-stemmer in 2013 so it was fermented whole bunch in third-fill Burgundy barrels. The aroma is super attractive and fine, intense red fruits. Light and elegantly fresh to taste. Gorgeous structure to it, feeling cooler climate than it is, even taking into account the colder than usual vintage in Rioja. There's some serious ageing potential here underpinning its striking prettiness.
Laventura Rioja Tinto 2014
The Tempranillo has been dropped from the label because the 2014 vintage saw more Garnacha included in the blend. Total of 5,000 bottles produced, again the norm Bryan wants, and from three different Tempranillo vineyards. It's a very similar colour, still has that bright, striking red fruit, but here there are some earthier, leathery notes that I really fell for. Crunchy, grippier fruit. So very elegant like the 2013 and utterly delicious. That fresh acidity allied to superb poise. This was probably my favourite of the two, because of the added grip and minerality yet remaining fresh (also just nudging 13% alcohol), and I reckon it will continue to develop beautifully. Bravo Bryan, more like this please!
Laventura Malvasía 2014
This is an interesting one on so many levels, and a complete surprise because the crafty chap had been keeping this up his sleeve. Firstly the grape, which after doing a bit of digging isn't your ordinary Malvasía. Rather, Malvasía Riojana is a widely but not densely planted Spanish grape called Alarije, and is not related to the grapes we more readily think of as Malvasía all over Europe. It's also the same thing as so-called Spanish Torrontés. There are very limited plantings around La Rioja and it seems Bryan is one of a tiny number of producers making a varietal version, alongside renowned Abel Mendoza, whose wine - curiously called Torrontés - we tried at the brilliant Guardaviños wine bar in Logroño (associated with Les Caves de Pyrène).
But Bryan's Malvasía Riojana is utterly, breathtakingly different. A higher altitude single vineyard close to the Sierra de Cantabria, with a very cool microclimate that wards off botrytis so you can leave the fruit to ripen later into the season. At this point the grapes change colour, becoming a pomegranate reddish colour and translucent, to the extent you can see the pips inside. No barrels here, it's made and aged in cement, with three weeks on skins, creating a pale orange-pink colour. Highly unorthodox for Rioja. Working backwards, the finish is very, very long, with fine texture and mouthfeel, some tannin, oxidative notes (not remotely obtrusive), sumptuously dry blood orange flavour, lovely acidity. So well balanced. Just 30 ppm of sulphur. And just 700 bottles. Groundbreaking.
Return for part three soon, including a foray into Txakolí and a visit to López de Heredia in Haro...
by Nik Darlington