According to the usual summary of the month’s weather published by the AEMET, (State Meteorological Agency), March 2021 was the fourth driest March since the beginning of the series in 1961 and the driest of the 21st century, with the aggravating factor that the month was wet or very wet in the southeast of the peninsula and in the Balearic Islands, so that the dryness was proportionally more intense in the rest of the peninsular territory and in the Canary Islands. In the Rioja region, the average rainfall was 50% higher than in the reference period 1981 – 2010.

AEMET MARZO

In terms of temperatures, March was on the whole a normal month, with an average temperature in mainland Spain of 9.9 degrees Celsius, 0.1 above the average for the month for that period. From the 23rd to the end of the month a particularly warm spell was observed with temperatures well above normal, reaching, on the last day of the month, over 30 degrees Celsius in areas of Extremadura and Andalusia and in some parts of the Cantabrian Sea. Overall, this was the 22nd warmest March since the series began in 1961 and the 11th warmest of the 21st century. However, except for this final period, it was cold or very cold in the southeast quadrant of the peninsula, and normal or warm in the rest of the Spanish peninsula. In the Rioja region, depending on the area, it could even reach an increase of 0.2 degrees Celsius.

In March we completed the work we had started in previous months.

 

 

On the one hand, once the vine shoots had been saved for gastronomic use, we proceeded to burn the remains of the wood left by the winter pruning. This is the most effective way to disinfect the vineyards and reduce (drastically) the number of spores of various micro-organisms that live in the dead wood and can infect the vines during the growing season. We like to do this work towards the end of winter and just before spring, when the days have already started to warm up and dry out the wood. (This work is also subject to administrative control).

The second major task to be completed was the clearing of weeds and weed control. You already know that we opt for exclusively mechanical means for this work in our vineyards, without the use of herbicides, and you know the advantages of all kinds that this entails, both from a health and ecological point of view and in terms of improving the quality of the vine and its product.

Since most of the work was done in February, we can now complete the information with data that may be of interest to you.

First of all, a plough called a “forcate” in the land of the Rioja is used, which is recognised as such in the DRAE (Spanish Royal Academy Dictionary): “A plough with two shafts to be pulled by a single horse”. By means of this plough, which contains a pointed plane about 30 cm long and 15 cm wide capable of greater pressure when introduced into the soil, we make criss-cross furrows in the soil, to eliminate weeds and facilitate water penetration with minimum erosion.

 

Arado llamado forcate

 

This prepares the soil for the subsequent use of a special mouldboard plough. A mouldboard plough is any plough that allows the furrowed soil to be turned over by “pouring” it to one side or the other. This peculiar plough, known as “borracho” (drunkard) in the land of the Rioja, has a sort of step on one side or the other that allows the operator to wind between the vines, moving towards and away from them, uncovering the base of the soil and throwing it towards the centre of the so-called renque, i.e. the space between the rows. Bryan suggests that its name comes from the zigzagging movement that the plough has to make around the vines. Then we see that WikiRioja defines it as follows: “Two-handled mouldboard plough with a guide wheel, which was used to dig around (“desacollar”) the vines without damaging the trunk, the name comes from the difficulty the vine grower has in handling it, as it goes all over the place, like a drunkard, and can break many vines”.

 

Arado vertedera

 

(“Desacollar”, in case you are fond of the Alphabet Game –TV contest known as Pasapalabra, in Spain-, is also a local word accepted by the DRAE: “To dig around the vines, leaving them a hole in which the water stops”).

And so the soil is finally prepared for what has been the real work of March. The cleaning around the trunk of the vine, which the ‘borracho’ obviously cannot complete with total cleanliness. For this purpose, the hoe that everyone knows is used, obviously a small hoe adapted to the task. Hoeing is a manual job that few farmers do, as it is exhausting; one person can cover little more than 1000 m2 of vineyard in a day. Another advantage of clearing the trunk of soil and preventing water from reaching it is that it stops the formation of fine hairy roots at the junction of the graft and the base of the vine. In this way the vine is forced to send its roots downwards in search of water and nutrients. We are now entering spring, therefore in the phase of root growth, and it is very beneficial for the roots to go deeper, considering the time when, due to the lack of rain, there is a shortage of surface water resources.

 

I.- Ferran Centelles, who worked at the legendary El Bulli restaurant between 1999 and 2011, won the 2006 Ruinart prize for the best sommelier in Spain and was awarded the National Gastronomy Prize in 2011, among other merits, has written a book for his fellow sommeliers.  Those of us who are certainly not experts on the subject should be pleased about it. We can hope that some of his teachings will be absorbed by the recipients, and therefore have a beneficial influence on us when we go to enjoy ourselves in their restaurants.

Because at the end of it all, after all the studies, tests, analyses, intuitions and conclusions about which wine, in perfect synergy with the food served, is the one that, theoretically and empirically speaking, will provide, objectively speaking, the greatest pleasure, the sommelier must go one step further. He must capture the exterior atmosphere and the inner messages of the customer, in order to obtain the same result, although now subjectively speaking, that is, he must be able to sense which of the possible wines that his knowledge dictates to him, will provide the greatest satisfaction to the consumer at that specific moment. Of course, if in order to do so it is necessary to know a lot about the psychology of customers, it is infinitely more necessary to know about wines.

The title of the book, already indicated, is “Which wine with this duck?” (¿Qué vino con este pato?), an approach to the essence of pairings. Here the duck lends itself to a play on Spanish words: obviously we are thinking of “dish” (plato). Perhaps the author is referring to different categories of ducks, for it is precisely one of them, the “Apicius duck”, which, when served with Banyuls wine, is the beginning of the modern theory of pairing, the pairing of contrasts. If the author had preferred a historical perspective, he would probably have resorted to the “eel” (anguila), for which he gives one of the earliest written references to pairing: the Romans were particularly fond of it with a good Phalernum from the region of Naples. But with eel it is more difficult to achieve synergy and perhaps even rhyme.

 

 

II.- Inevitably, at the beginning of the book, the author is busy trying to give a name to the object of the book. Pairing  (in Spanish: maridaje). It seems that nobody likes the word “maridaje”, but it also seems that everybody, including the author and the author of these lines, have resigned themselves to the fact that they cannot find a better word. Harmonisation, concord, association… sound good, but they do not fit the purpose at all. Spanish words ending in “aje” that are expressive of an action sound forced, and furthermore, in the case of “maridaje”, this seems to contain an annoying gender perspective [1] that could not be further from reality, since its essence is not the assimilation of the couple to one of the factors, but the sublimation of both. That the union of drink and food is better than the sum of both elements separately. I will stick with the second definition of pairing given by the DRAE (Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary): “Union, analogy or conformity with which some things are linked or correspond to each other; e.g., the union of the vine and the elm tree, the good correspondence of two or more colours, etc.”. Can there be any more seductive pairing than this symbiosis between the vine and the elm?

The aim of “pairing” is therefore to improve the result by the sum of factors. It follows, as the author will gradually discover, that the versatility of wine is its most precious virtue when it comes to pairing.

[1] Maridaje is derived from marido. In Spanish marido means husband.

 

 

III.- In a certain way, the book traces the history of the evolution of the technique of food and wine pairing from the moment when the inadequacy of the commonplaces about it inherited from the past was perceived.

However, it should not be said that these inherited basic criteria, handed down in the domestic sphere from father to son, have lost their meaning. At least they remain for us laymen as general guiding principles. It is not unreasonable to respect that whites go better with fish and reds with meat, or sweets with dessert – except for that cloying foie gras with Sauternes, nowadays in general decline -, or that the order should be from lesser to greater in terms of colour, temperature or alcoholic strength. Factors that facilitate the choice also remain valid. For example, the adaptation to regional wines, once almost inevitable, is now more voluntary. And above all, the subjectivity of taste; there are colours to suit every taste, and wines too; we can make little mistake by firmly following this principle.

 

Of course, such simple pairings cannot satisfy wine experts, and even less so if one considers the evolution that food, especially restaurant food, has undergone in the last few years.

IV.- Ferrán Centelles then reviews the people who have had or are having most relevance in the evolution of the theory and practice of food and wine pairing. Most of them have published some kind of work, which is included in the very interesting bibliography that the book contains.

Each milestone in that evolution is a story. A story of people, conversations and journeys, which make the book a pleasure to read, and to follow. I take the liberty of making an organic and light-hearted classification.

Thus, he deals in the first place with:

  • the “imagined” pairings with Rafa Peña and Mireia Navarro (Gresca restaurant),
  • Tim Hanni’s “food pairing for the ‘diner’ and not for the ‘dinner’“,
  • the “family pairing” with Evan and Joyce Goldstein;

Then with:

  • the “methodological pairing” based on the elements of “contraposition and conformity” of wine and food, by Gino Veronelli and Pietro Mercadini, culminating in “Il Vino”, Enrico Bernardo’s restaurant where, in his most audacious proposal, it is the wine, the only object of choice on the part of the diner, that decides his meal.
  • The “unfathomable pairing” of El Bully’s forty dishes, a challenge for which our author, who was largely responsible, managed to achieve oriental calmness through Jeannie Cho Lee, who provided the panacea of “versatility”, and to find inner peace through Jancis Robinson (“The obsession with achieving the perfect pairing sometimes creates too much pressure”) and her husband Nick Lander (“The fewer rules, the better, don’t be intimidated by the pairing”).

 

 

However, he continues his research with,

  • Robert J. Harrington’s “pyramid pairing”, who places the basic tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and “umami” (“savoury”, the basic taste in Japan, today, by extension of sushi and derivatives, of universal rank, the result of monosodium glutamate) – at the base of a pyramid for the coordination of the elements, “texture” – the fat structure – at the middle level, and “aromas” at the top.
  • Pierre Chartier’s “molecular pairing”, which could be described as an “inverted hierarchy” because at the base of his pyramid are the “aromas”, determined by the “dominant molecule”.
  • the “cross-cutting”, synthesis or “combined” pairing about which our master author does pronounce himself: “in the pyramid, all the elements are of equal importance”.

 

 

to finish with,

  • – the “integral pairing” or “relativity of pairing” of Josep Roca (El Celler de Can Roca restaurant), no pairing is suitable if it does not connect with the customer, so it is necessary to know all the rules and regulations on pairing in order to be able to break them with full knowledge of the facts for the greater satisfaction of the diner.

IV.- And what happens then, once all the possibilities have been analysed, with the artichokes that we all know are “inmaridables”, that is, impossible to pair? “The artichoke on the defendants’ bench” is the title of the chapter that deals with it. (Also sitting on the bench are vinegar, asparagus, eggs and chocolate – the latter to my surprise; we are back to tastes and colours: in my view, a very dark black chocolate with a powerful purplish red wine is to die for. However, a product that I learnt about thirty years ago in the kitchen of one of the most prestigious wineries in the land of the Rioja is not seated on that bench. The sign hung on the wall read: “Warning: Do not serve wine with leeks, especially if you are an expert”. I don’t know whether the sign or the kitchen, I mean, are still there, but the winery is still going strong; thus, the saying should be applied).

 

 

Allied with his friend, the aforementioned Rafael Peña, who prepared artichokes in seven different ways (raw, boiled, grilled, battered, fried, pickled, in broth), he paired them with nine Spanish wines of different profiles (cava, rosé cava, light and full-bodied whites, medium-bodied rosé, powerful red, oxidative, amontillado, txakoli). Sixty-three possible combinations to get rid of the undeserved bad reputation. Surely you will find at least one that fills you with good sensations. Preferably avoid red.

 

 

V.- By way of conclusions.

If it is a pairing in a restaurant, trust that the sommelier has read Ferran Centelles’ book to the best of his ability.

When it comes to home-cooked meals, follow his advice. And… rehearse, rehearse, rehearse… in other words, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. And if it happens that a wine does not work with the food, you know that mistakes teach you more than successes and that nothing tragic is bound to happen, as Jancis Robinson herself says: “It’s amazing how something as absorbent and neutral as bread can act as a neutraliser”.

According to the monthly report of the AEMET, February was very warm overall, with an average temperature in mainland Spain of 9.5ºC; About 2.5ºC above the monthly average for the month with respect to the reference period 1981-2010. In Rioja we even surpassed in 3.0ºC. It has been the third warmest February since the beginning of the records in 1961 falling behind the months of February 2020 and 1990, and therefore the second warmest of the 21st century. The minimum temperatures were particularly high, which were 3.1ºC above the normal average for the month, the highest recorded minimum temperatures in February since the beginning of the record.

Three particularly warm episodes were identified within the month, the first lasted between days 1 and 6, the second from 8 to 21, and the third between 23 and 27.

 

In terms of rainfall, it has been described as a wet month, with an average rainfall of 71 mm over mainland Spain, a value that reaches 35% above the normal value for the month. It was the 22nd wettest February since the records began in 1961 and the 8th wettest of the 21st century. In the land of Rioja this increase has been proportionally higher when we are further west. Which naturally corresponds to the different basins: more humid in the Atlantic slope, drier in the Mediterranean, being able to estimate the increases with respect to its average value in 153% and 83% respectively.

On the other hand, the accumulated insolation throughout the month of February was lower than the normal value by more than 10%, and as for the wind, the Karim squall that gave rise to very strong winds in the northern half of the peninsula deserves to be highlighted. Between days 16 to 21.

In such circumstances we were able to finish removing the vine shoots from the vineyards in bundles called ¨gavillas¨ and make our first ploughing of the season.

 

 

The ¨gavillas¨ will be used to grill lamb chops later in the spring and summer months. It is perhaps the most important gastronomic specialty of the Rioja, and a reason for a family party.

The ploughing of the vineyard at this time has several reasons. It is used to eliminate weeds mechanically, without the use of herbicides, the weeds would later compete with the vines for nutrients and for water in the growing season. Ploughing aerates the soil and helps to allow the spring rains to penetrate the land without running off or causing erosion. The aeration and tilling of the soil helps to start the nitrogen cycle and improves the structure of the soil if executed in the correct manner and at the correct time.

Again this year we have chosen to use draft animals in the old vineyards. These vineyards were planted in the 1920s, 1930s and 1935s in a square pattern, with a high density of vines and with narrow spacing between rows. It was the way vineyards were planted in those days, when ploughing was only conceived with such animals. Mechanization did not even exist as a concept. Such a planting pattern allows for the criss-crossing of the plough passes, top to bottom and bottom to top, side to side and back, and last diagonally. This is very effective to eliminate, without chemical herbicides, the weeds around the trunk of the vine, to ensure the respiration of the soil and to reduce the risk of erosion, since the furrows not only go up and down the slope, but also perpendicular to it and also diagonally. The water does not find paths by which to run wild, dragging the earth in its path. It is thus the most respectful way with the environment to avoid weeds in the vineyard, at the same time as ensuring the conservation of the surface layer of the soil where the microorganisms that contribute to preserving it live. It is this layer of about thirty centimetres thick that houses the living microorganisms that represent no less than 80% of the living biomass of the planet, and it is they that contribute to the greatest extent to the quality and personality of the result of the strains that welcome.

Working with animals in the vineyard has, in addition to all that has been said, the great advantage that the soil is not compacted as heavy machinery does. This allows for further root development and ultimately healthier vines and better quality grapes.

 

Working with draft animals is an art. Luckily we still have some people in Spain and specifically in the land of Rioja who keep it as a profession. They preserve a culture in the process of extinction. There are different types of ploughs in different shapes and different materials, some made entirely of wood, others combine it with steel and others are made of pure steel or wrought iron. The diversity allows to attend to different types of soil depending on its texture, humidity and structure, its different types of cultivation and the different tasks that proceed depending on the time of year or crop. There are also different ways of fixing the bridle, of attaching the plough to the animal, types of drawbars, pulling heights…, many variables from which the most subtle differences will be felt. As you can imagine, when working with one horsepower, the smallest setting can determine the most significant differences. Quite an art we have already said.

The work with manual plough allows to feel the earth; you are in direct contact with it, which means perceiving the different types of soil and working them in the most delicate or rigorous way that helps to maintain and improve its structure. Mechanization inevitably implies the loss of this intimate connection with the soil; Today most tractors and mechanical ploughs have enough power and steel to destroy the soil structure without the operator being aware of it.

Other years we have worked with horses and mares. This year it has been with a mule. There is a long tradition of working in agriculture in Spain with mules; arguably the preferred draft animal. The mule is a sterile hybrid, the result of a cross between a donkey and a horse. It has generally been a preferred option over the donkey, as it is larger and stronger, allowing it to pull a plough or cart with less effort and at a better pace. The mule is said to be much more resistant and tenacious than a horse – more stubborn than a mule is a common phrase – being able to work for long periods without rest pulling the plough through uneven terrain, feeding on what the farmer has available. They are also said to be more docile than a horse and less nervous, good traits when working between otherwise narrow crops.

There is some unanimity on the Internet that Roald Dahl published Taste in The New Yorker magazine on 8 December, 1951. I have also found some pages that tell us that it had previously been published in the Ladies Home Journal in 1945. The year is always very important when talking about wines, so this first publication is suspicious since one of the wines mentioned (or tasted) in the book is precisely from the 1945 vintage; perhaps the author was updating the vintage according to the date of publication. The clarification remains for anyone who likes doing research.

 

Download the full text of the original story here: Taste by Roald Dahl.

If you are more of a listener, I recommend Aaron Lockman’s dramatization: Aaron Reads: Taste by Roald Dahl – YouTube

There is a Spanish translation: “La Cata”, by Iñigo Jáuregui, carefully edited by Nórdica Libros SL, with magnificent illustrations by Iban Barrenetxea in 2014, which is now in its tenth reprint.

You can also find on the web many other stories by the author, whose sense of humour is proverbial. Some of them are related to eating and drinking, which is what interests us most here; among the children’s stories, I can suggest the one about the Anteater, literally fed, this type of bear, by the peculiar English pronunciation, and among those for adults, Lamb to the Slaughter, which shows us the extra gastronomic usefulness of his leg.

Let me say no more about them, because I don’t want to spoil the stories for you. With this one –Taste– it is truly difficult to do so, because I am burning with the desire to tell you why I consider it a masterpiece. My intention is probably futile because as soon as you open any webpage about it, they will spoil it for you. I want to avoid that, and therefore I will limit myself strictly to the aspects that concern us here, which are those related to wine. I will divide them into four sections: (01) the wine taster and the wine supplier, (02) the act of tasting, (03) the language of tasting, and (04) the wines tasted

(01) THE CHARACTERS:

Here you have the members of the table, according to Iban Barrenetxea’s apt image. We will refer exclusively to the main characters that you can easily identify.

 

 

The proponent of the tasting, that is to say, the host, is

  • a stockbroker. To be precise, he was a jobber in the stock market, and like a number of his kind, he seemed to be somewhat embarrassed, almost ashamed to find that he had made so much money with so slight a talent. In his heart he knew that he was not really much more than a bookmaker – an unctuous, infinitely respectable, secretly unscrupulous bookmaker – and he knew that his friends knew it, too.

So, he was seeking now to become a man of culture,

  • to cultivate a literary and aesthetic taste, to collect paintings, music, books, and all the rest of it.

Knowing about wine was part of it, and he seemed willing to do anything to be recognised for his ability to choose good wines.

The taster is a famous gourmet; he is defined almost as a true professional,

  • He was president of a small society known as the Epicures, and each month he circulated privately to its members a pamphlet on food and wines. He organised dinners where sumptuous dishes and rare wines were served.

A geek, as we defined him in the first of these letters? Perhaps… Would we today consider a geek someone who describes the custom “to smoke at table” as “a disgusting habit”? Surely not; and who refuses to smoke “for fear of harming his palate”?

In any case, a true wine tasting professional. At that moment he becomes

  • Somehow, it was all mouth – mouth and lips – the full, wet lips of the professional gourmet, the lower lip hanging downward in the centre, a pendulous, permanently open taster’s lip, shaped open to receive the rim of a glass or a morsel of food. Like a keyhole, I thought, watching it, his mouth is like a large wet keyhole.

In short, two oenological archetypes: the connoisseur, who cannot bear to be told that he does not know everything, and the upstart, who cannot bear to be told that he knows nothing.

(02) THE TASTING:

The host first pours a thimbleful of wine into his glass, literally “tipped” it, as the wine rests in a wicker basket with the label facing downwards – the typical “ridiculous” basket – and then fills the glasses of the others. Filling here means “filling up”, i.e., what I understand to be up to the top, maybe not to the rim of the glass, but it looks like the typical filling up of a money-making restaurant that tries to make you drink wine (taking out even the second bottle, as soon as they see that the level of consumption has dropped). Such an overflowing glass, so pretentious and vain in its senseless measure, prevents the wine from tasting and smelling until it reaches its rational measure. Perhaps an insinuation in this case, like so many others scattered throughout the text, about the host’s lack of knowledge and surplus wealth.

In any case, the glass was not so full that it prevented the taster’s nose from entering, the act with which he begins his “impressive performance” – and it was indeed quite a “performance”!

 

  • The point of the nose entered the glass and moved over the surface of the wine, delicately sniffing. He swirled the wine gently around in the glass to receive the bouquet. His concentration was intense. He had closed his eyes, and now the whole top half of his body, the head and neck and chest, seemed to become a kind of huge sensitive smelling-machine, receiving, filtering, analysing the message from the sniffing nose.

For at least a minute, the smelling process continued, then, without opening his eyes or moving his head, Pratt lowered the glass to his mouth and tipped in almost half the contents.

He paused, his mouth full of wine, getting the first taste, then, he permitted some of it to trickle down his throat and I saw his Adam’s apple move as it passed by. But most of it he retained in his mouth. And now, without swallowing again, he drew in through his lips a thin breath of air which mingled with the fumes of the wine in the mouth and passed on down into his lungs. He held the breath, blew it out through his nose, and finally began to roll the wine around under the tongue, and chewed it, actually chewed it with his teeth as though it were bread.

After a little sip and a lot of talk, as we shall see below, he continued with his “performance”.

  • Again he paused, took up his glass, and held the rim against that sagging, pendulous lower lip of his. Then I saw the tongue shoot out, pink and narrow, the tip of it dipping into the wine, withdrawing swiftly again – a repulsive sight. When he lowered the glass, his eyes remained closed, the face concentrated, only the lips moving, sliding over each other like two pieces of wet, spongy rubber.

And the little sips continued until the end of his memorable performance.

 

(03) THE LANGUAGE OF WINE TASTING:

The descriptive language of wine would surely need many instalments of this series of wine and letters. Today it is a highly standardised language, at least very recognisable among experts or professionals in the sector. The eighties of the last century are often referred to as the time when this need to establish parameters of understanding was felt, even if these were abundant in metaphors and plastic images.

Roald Dahl, if we think about the date of publication of this short story, turns out to be a pioneer in the matter and points out the reasons for this need that was later felt to understand one another. Already at the beginning of the story, when describing the taster, he tells us that

  • he had a curious, rather droll habit of referring to it as though it were a living being.
  • ‘A prudent wine,’ he would say, ‘rather diffident and evasive, but quite prudent.’ Or, ‘A good-humoured wine, benevolent and cheerful – slightly obscene, perhaps, but none the less good-humoured.’

And at the start of the tasting itself:

. ‘Um – yes. A very interesting little wine – gentle and gracious, almost feminine in the after-taste.’

establishing a gender parameter that was then repeatedly used until, like everything else, it was revised. We will have to come back to this on another occasion.

 

(04) LOS VINOS:

Three wines were scheduled to be tasted, at least three wineglasses per person rested on the dinner table, ready for a feast. However, one, the last one, was not tasted. A sweet wine? A port with the dessert? A surprise with the cheese? We know that there was a lot of shiny silver, but not the nature and distribution of the cutlery, so there is no clue as to the destination of that third glass, of wine of course, as that is what it is called. A real shame, known as it is by its own admission the extent of Roald Dahl’s cellar. It would have been appropriate and interesting to know his taste for that final moment, for I am convinced that he was depicting his own tasting in the story. For particular reasons I exclude champagne altogether.

Of the two wines we have left, one is not really the subject of a tasting. It is drunk, even swallowed without compassion, but not tasted or analysed. And it was certainly not worthy of such mistreatment; it was a Mosel, a Geierslay Ohligsberg, 1945, the product of a purchase that the host had made the previous summer in the same small village of Geierslay, almost unknown outside Germany. He also explains that his choice was not only for that reason, but because it would have been barbaric to serve a Rhine wine before a “delicate claret”, which is what a lot of people “who don’t know any better” would have served:

  • A Rhine wine will kill a delicate claret, you know that?

So, a Riesling, almost certainly from that area of the river called Middle Moselle, a vineyard planted on the extreme slope down to the water itself, facing west to receive every last drop of an elusive sun, and with a dark, heat-absorbing slate soil, dry and immediate drainage. A personal weakness!

 

This brings us to the “claret”, which we are told from the outset is the wine to be tasted. The image that this word literally conveys is not very accurate. The “claret” is a typical expression to refer to a Bordeaux -although later by extension it was applied to wine from other areas, such as Burgundy, and even Rioja itself-. This is the wine produced in the Aquitaine region. Such a reference was coined centuries ago, perhaps from the same time that the duchess Eleanor gave it to her “English” husband Henry II, the first Plantagenet – in addition to giving him five children that she had denied to her first husband, King Louis VII of France, who had repudiated her for it. Indeed, even today the English still very much include Bordeaux wine as part of their empire, and of their eccentric idiosyncrasies.

From the beginning of the story, it is clear and obvious that the wine to be tasted could not be any other.

The host explains the purpose of the tasting beforehand; it is a matter of locating the hidden origin of the wine, its producer, the “terroir” in short. Insofar as it is not one of the famous great wines, such as Lafite or Latour, he understands that the expert could at best locate the district it comes from, i.e., whether it is St Emilion, Pomerol, Graves or Médoc, but each region has several communes, and these in turn have many, many small vineyards; it is impossible for a man to differentiate between them just by the taste and smell of the wine. And he does not mind adding that the wine comes from a small vineyard surrounded by other small vineyards.

With such a background, our taster prepares himself for the tasting, body and soul as we have seen.

He eliminates the regions of Saint Emilion or Graves, as the wine is “far too light in the body” to belong to one of them.

It is obviously a Médoc.

Once here, he excludes Margaux – it lacks the “violent bouquet” that Margaux has -, and he excludes Pauillac – because unlike the wines of Pauillac, “it is too tender, too gentle and wistful”. And here the personality of the wine taster speaks at length:  The wine of Pauillac has a character that is almost imperious in its taste, And also, to me, a Pauillac contains just a little pith, a curious dusty, pithy flavour that the grape acquires from the soil of the district. No, no. This – this is a very gentle wine, demure and bashful in the first taste, emerging shyly but quite graciously in the second. A little arch, perhaps, in the second taste, and a little naughty also, teasing the tongue with a trace, just a trace of tannin. Then, in the after-taste, delightful consoling and feminine, with a certain blithely generous quality that one associates only with the wines of the commune of St Julien.

This is a Saint Julien, so there is no room for error. Once here, it is necessary to fix, let’s say, the category. It is not a first growth, it is not a second growth, it is not one of ‘the greats’. It lacks the quality, the strength, the radiance. Maybe a third growth, but no, it is definitely a fourth, even if it is from a great year.

Within the “quatrième cru” of Saint Julien, the tannin in the middle taste, and the quick astringent squeeze upon the tongue, takes us to the small vineyards of the Beichevelle area. But not Beichevelle itself, somewhere nearby, perhaps Château Talbot? No; a Talbot comes forward to you a little quicker than this one, besides if it is the ’34 vintage, as he thinks, it could not be. A vineyard close to both, almost in the middle. And it can be none other than the small Château Branaire-Ducru, and the 1934 vintage. Charming little vineyard, lovely old château, so well-known that he cannot conceive why he did not recognise it at once.

 

Bordeaux Wine Regions

It is not appropriate to reveal whether the wine has been guessed correctly or not. Our intention, as we said, was limited to pointing out some characteristics of wines that I hope will be of interest to you and to invite you to participate in a story that, as the classic saying goes, both instructs and delights.

We come to an end, but not without completing the oenological references, as the Moselle is served with fried whitebait in butter – how can we not long for the similar ‘chanquetes’ from the Bay of Cadiz, but fried in olive oil and washed down with a manzanilla sherry from el Puerto? -, and the Bordeaux would naturally be served with a piece of roast beef and a vegetable garnish.

 

01. Because the world made us this way, originating from different parts of the globe, with family genes and origins from other parts of the globe, so that our surnames are unusual in the land of Rioja.

02. Because despite this unusualness of our surnames in Rioja, we decided that the project should be named after us as we are the ones responsible for our project and that our surnames should be pointed out above all other considerations.

03. Because our project has started from scratch, without historical ties or previous assets to attend to, we are free to search within the scope of our possibilities and what seems best to us, and that is what we offer to our clients, we are building this project together step by step from the ground up.

04. Because we always respect the soil, vine and climate, we love diversity, in that our wines can be single site, varietal or inter-varietal, trying to express the best that each specific circumstance of the terrain can reflect.

05. Because before working with the Rioja vineyards, Bryan worked with very diverse vineyards in the Swartland and Priorat, so he knows perfectly how to extract the potential of each variety and vineyard. In this land he loves to express the vineyard if it is considered a special vineyard or the variety, Tempranillo, Garnacha, Viura and Malvasia de Rioja, aspiring not to interfere or alter the essence of the vineyard, variety or region.

06. Because we take care of our vineyards and our wines in the most organic and ecological way that we can, without demonizing the actions of man, especially one who cares and tenders them, in search of the highest quality of the fruit.

07. Because we shy from any typification that is not the result of the vineyard itself, and we think that each plot and its climate are different and therefore deserve differentiated treatment, for the best preservation of the land and obtaining the best possible quality of its fruit.

08. Because we shy from the use of excesses of wood that can alter the nature of the wine in order to obtain a homogenized result, and we only use it for its intrinsic qualities that help to stabilize the wine naturally without altering the flavour of the wine.

09. Because we do not share the same philosophy that wine that is not aged in small barrels for an established time and manner is of a higher quality but equally generic. We vindicate our careful way of production, and the proper use of large oak vats, barrels, concrete or stainless steel that tend to ensure the transparency and personality of each wine produced in them.

10. Because we are not terroirists or marketers, we are humanists; in wine a big part depends on the attitude of the person who makes it and the tools he has at his disposal.

January 2021 was colder and wetter than usual. According to the website www.meteosojuela.es, the thermal anomaly was minus 0,3º and the water anomaly was 166%. It started with the Filomena squall that brought very low temperatures and snow during the first and second week. After the passage of this now legendary squall, we had eight days without rainfall and with even lower temperatures, which contributed to the formation of ice and allowed us to work on pruning the vines. The month ended with four consecutive days of high winds and rainfall that left the soil waterlogged, forcing a break. At least the wind is not damaging the vines at the moment.

 

Low temperatures and snow are very beneficial for vines. They slowly increase water reserves and protect plants from diseases, as well as healing pruning wounds. You can find out more at: https://quienariojavino.com/2021/01/07/los-beneficios-de-la-nieve-en-el-vinedo/

 

Thus, during that month Bryan was able to finish the pruning work. He also took advantage of the low temperatures to trim the wood and branches on the old vines in order to reduce them; this ensures that the sap, when it flows, reaches the buds with a shorter run. At a certain age you need any help you can get. It is a task that involves deep cuts in the plants, so it is better to do it when it is very cold, which avoids the movement of the sap and possible infections. The wood and vine shoots cut from the vines are also piled up to be burnt when the weather improves.

Panoramic view of the Ebro as it passes through El Cortijo, a district of Logroño. If you look (very) closely, you will see that it has just passed under the two surviving arches of the Roman bridge of Mantible. To the north, the meander encircles the well-known Finca de San Rafael, that reddish clay-ferrous plain, where the vineyards of Contino (more to the east) and the Vineyard of Lentisco (towards the west), and their respective wineries, as well as some other vineyards, are located. That part is Alava, in the Laserna district of the town of Laguardia.

In the background, the Sierra de Cantabria, where you will have distinguished, towards the centre, the Picota or León Dormido, and further to the east the Sierra de Aras, as you know them from our first letter. In front of this mountain range, an unmistakable green spot is the Cerro de la Mesa. It will obviously remind you of Table Mountain, of our history and imagotype. On the north side of this hill, hidden from our view, is the Viña Real winery, also owned by CUNE like Contino, a very interesting work of the French architect Philippe Mazières.

It is one of the many meanders of the Ebro to which our book refers.

The book in question is Ignacio Peyró’s (https://ignaciopeyro.es),  “Comimos y Bebimos. Notas de cocina y vida” (We ate and we drank. Notes on cooking and living) published by Libros del Asteroide (www.librosdelasteroide.com) in 2018 (*).

 

 

As chance would have it, we started with it. It contains some sixty articles, five for each month of the year, except for a couple of months that have four and three that have six, of which wine is the protagonist in several, and a guest artist at the table in practically all of them.

A little before life was put on hold, I was tempted, for reasons of little relevance here, to devote myself to writing short articles on gastronomy. A friend (perhaps presumed) in order to encourage me, gave it to me as a gift, but reading it entirely dried up my barely born resolve in the conviction that I could not add anything to what had already been so well said. (The only trace of that intention remains in an unpublished article that was a premonitory “Praise of the Ephemeral”. Perhaps one day, if I overcome my modesty, it will become part of these letters, because the object of praise was precisely “the figs from the vine”, as fleeting as life, as intense as it is).

Even if what paralysed my will was the certainty that I lacked the author’s knowledge and gift of the written word to make readers enjoy what he had made me enjoy, I must admit that what angered me was the unabashed practising hedonism of someone who, as can be seen on the book’s cover, is the same age as my son.  It is well known that what really hurts are the truths that one receives from life. How much time wasted on my part!

As I say, wine is the protagonist of a number of articles. Thanks to them, we will be able to learn how poets anticipated cardiologists in extolling the virtues of wine for the heart -although all immoderation is unhealthy, if you will forgive me this stomach-turning moralising. We will also be able to participate in the anguish (always) and the overflow of kisses (with no identical frequency) that are experienced in each harvest; we will be able to observe the psychological relationship between virility and white wine, get to know a port that we will never know biblically, or appreciate the differences between Bordeaux and Burgundy to conclude that it is always the insistence on comparisons that prevents enjoyment.

Here we will refer in particular to one whose title we have taken as our headline, and which poses the Hamletian question of whether to be or not to be a wine snob. That is the question.

The author describes the sufferings that being a wine snob entail and against which he warns us. A sum of losses: of tranquillity, of money, of friends… a constant state of anguish for the wine that we will not be able to taste, for the wine that we are aware of tasting before its due time and that tastes more and more like the uneasiness of how it would have tasted then, on the lookout for corked wine, for the unfulfilled expectations.

We are not going to wallow in anguish. By and large, everyone has experienced that passions tend to generate more heartaches than moments of pleasure. In spite of everything, in spite of all these anxieties, even that of the final touch, which is nothing less than that of ending up writing texts like this one, even so, the author generalises, so much suffering will be worth it, in exchange for the glory of those ephemeral moments.

We all know that a sense of humour is the best way to face a ridicule that is as inevitable as it is conscious. Let us drink and enjoy wine, and learn from it and with it. When knowledge expands, so do the pleasures, and, of course, the displeasures of unfulfilled expectations. But lukewarmness has never left memorable memories. Let us not shy away from practising rituals, however apparently snobbish they may seem, but let us flee like the plague from perfectionism, a sterile pretension if it is our own and disheartening if it is that of others.

In any case, perhaps the best thing about this book is its capacity to stimulate hedonism and the epicurean and vital passion in which it imbues us, as much for the substance of its content as for the intelligence and originality of the way in which it is expressed. How could we, the beneficiaries of “La tierra del Rioja”, not get overenthusiastic when we read: It has been said, and not in vain, that the best wines in the world come from the most beautiful vineyards in the world: the Duero Valley, Priorato, Burgundy, the slow meander of the Ebro that ‘girdles and ungirdles’ La Rioja! (sic due to the absence in the quote of mythical areas such as Bordeaux, Tuscany or the slopes of Etna. But it is to the greater blessing of those included, which are and are there).

In the smallness of the warehouse where we make our wines, located in an industrial area no uglier than any other, which only has the prestige of the presence of a renowned winery, “Olarra”, we have written, as our website says: ““If we cannot buy a Château in Bordeaux, or inherit land in Burgundy, the only thing left to do is to prove that it is possible to make a Rioja that is at least as good as the wines from there”. Obviously as good does not mean the same. We are Rioja, we love our Tempranillo and we do not pretend at all that it is similar to Cabernet or Pinot noir.

And with that momentum that the exhilarating reading turns overwhelming, we are ready to affirm, also unabashedly, that El Barranco del San Ginés 2015”  is, now that time has refined it, a wine comparable to the best that can be produced in those regions, provided that it is drunk with no less conviction and spirit than those used to taste the (affordable) myths.

 

Barrica del Barranco del San Ginés

Bottle of Barranco del San Ginés resting in a French oak barrel.

(*) Forgive me this interruptus that is quite snobbish (DRAE: “Person who imitates with affectation the manners, opinions, etc., of those whom he considers distinguished”) or perhaps (also) of pedantic (DRAE: “It is said of the conceited person who makes an untimely and vain boast of scholarship, whether he really has it or not”), but I can’t help it if the title of the book reminds me, perhaps not gratuitously, of Joseph Conrad‘s “Notes on life and letters” I will certainly not have another occasion to bring up in these letters, whose content tends to be oenological, this writer, to whom I profess a great veneration and not so much because his novels abducted me in my adolescence and relieve my senescence, but because, damn it! he began to learn English in his twenties, with an obvious proficiency that has eluded me.

Read at the end, where it is placed, this interrupting note, also serves us to comment in all modesty that the author of the article we are referring to, if he is also an auto-biographer, is not, strictly speaking, in dictionary terms, a “snob”, since everything he tells us is of his own making, without alien affectation, nor is he “pedantic”, since his scholarship is not conceited, nor is it untimely or vain. At most, he could be labelled a “geek” (DRAE: “Person who practices a hobby excessively and obsessively”). The concept is quite well understood; if, as the author says, in every invitation to lunch or dinner you insist on bringing the wine yourself (because you are afraid of what you are going to be given), you take the time a week before to beg, demand, control that the wine rests in a suitable situation that avoids unsettled lees and warmth, and when the time comes you try to hoard the bottle under the unconfessed pretext that only you understand it, you are a real wine geek, and maybe you can even be proud of it

In our previous instalment of VINEYARDS AND WINES we talked about how diversity is the winemaking tradition of the land of the Rioja. To explain this, we relied on the book by Pedro Balda and Fernando Martínez entitled “Minority Vine Varieties in La Rioja”. Now we are taking the next step and aim to explain how we express that diversity in our wines.

I. Inter-varietal diversity: LA NAVE

First of all, we are talking about inter-varietal diversity, which is present in LA NAVE insofar as it produces a mixture of typical vine varieties and those typical of the Rioja DOC.

A diversity of varieties with grapes from different areas of the DOC, given that in most cases the plantations are young, less than 35 years old, and each is exclusively of a different variety, as a result of the practice of the Control Board which today, for reasons of traceability, prevents grapes of different varieties from entering the winery on the same journey.

The percentage of vines mixed in LA NAVE, by “coupage”, is approximately one third Tempranillo, one third Red Garnacha, and one third Mazuelo, although the precise quantities always depend on the year. The former provides structure, body and colour. The second, red fruits. The third, acidity and colour.

It is a very traditional blend and is therefore a classic Rioja wine, which is made like all our wines in large oak barrels, to prevent the excess wood from altering, hiding or distorting the wine’s natural aroma and flavours.

II. Intra-varietal diversity: LAVENTURA

Secondly, we review the different varietal wines of LAVENTURA. These are Tempranillo, Garnacha, Viura and Malvasia. In this case the diversity is of another nature, it is intra-varietal because it is produced within the same variety. In these wines the grapes come from old vines – 35 years old and upwards – which guarantee, on the one hand, the best quality, as a result of their lower yield, and, on the other, a more varied biotype because, given the time of planting the selection of the plants was massale, that is in accordance with the choice of the winegrowers themselves depending on the plant material available – normally the most appreciated one among those at hand -, while more recently such choice is previously tempered by the selection of the nurseryman, who provides the winegrowers with the rootstocks to be planted. These will normally provide more yield, and even more resistance to possible diseases in particular, but at the cost of loss of biodiversity.

In the book already mentioned that we use as a pattern, the varieties of Tempranillo (as a reference variety despite being not a minority), Garnacha (today a minority, although in the seventies of the last century it even surpassed Tempranillo) and Malvasia are discussed. Viura should not be a minority and has not been chosen to be included as a reference for white wines, so we will have to resort to other elements of comparison.

Let us leave aside the origins, background and morphological characteristics of the vines, so as not to lengthen these notes too much, and focus on the respective oenological characteristics.

1. TEMPRANILLO

We are told that this variety prefers cool areas, as in situations of water stress it can lose its leaf. Quality wines usually result from low yields. It produces structured wines, with remarkable tannins, intense colour, high alcohol content, ph tending to increase and low acidity level that improves in fresh areas; in these areas the wines are very balanced, with structure and length. In warm areas, their tannins are exacerbated and the wines are shorter and unbalanced.

The above-mentioned characteristics may reveal the growing success of this variety in Rioja. It is very balanced in all respects and tolerates high yields well. It is like the average. It blends in very well and welcomes what the other varieties can bring to it.

In our opinion, its treatment as a varietal requires careful control of production. Better still, the higher clayey soils – preferably facing the sun to the east or north -, which guarantee freshness, and consequently acidity, the presence of red fruits, and more delicate and expressive tannins. It goes without saying that the yield cannot be forced. On the contrary, we measure the load of grapes very carefully, thus controlling water stress, depending on the power of the vine itself.

To do this we use old vines – old age is also a guarantee of a suitable biotype, as we explained earlier – which we look for in high areas throughout the designation of origin. In cold years, it is possible to blend with those from lower areas to provide balance. We pay special attention to the organic control of production and processing. Staying in large barrels guarantees that their natural properties are not disfigured.

 

2. GARNACHA (tinta)

Laventura Garnacha

The pattern of this variety given in the reference book seems to make it complementary to the previous one: it is resistant, although sensitive to Botrytis or rot, it bears water stress better, and it is less plastic than Tempranillo, so that the higher yield is followed by the proportional decrease of its attributes and the increase of its oxidative character. Its acidity is also higher than that of Tempranillo, while its pH is lower (it seems that the Rioja Alta or upper and the Rioja Oriental, when it was a Rioja Baja or lower, gave each other a complementary hand).

The wine stands out for the vivacity of its tones and aromatic intensity with very characteristic notes of red fruits. In the mouth it is a soft variety, with little tannin and very pleasant. Globally, the best expression of Garnacha is usually found in cool areas and poor soils, where more structured wines with a lot of personality are produced.

Our Garnacha respects these parameters on principle. It comes from high areas and old vines from all over the designation, they are generally bush-trained vines, which fits in very well with the variety, as it grows very vertically, so that production control is guaranteed and the wine responds to what is expected: red fruits, grassy nuances of scrubland, light, without excess alcohol, good acidity, subtle complexity and elegance. Extremely pleasant because it is transparent as it reflects very well the climate, terroir and work with which it has been developed, and extremely pleasant also for the one who drinks it.

The barrels in which it is kept are also large, 600 litres, so as not to interfere with its natural properties.

 

3. MALVASÍA

Laventura Malvasía

Although it is known as “Malvasia de Rioja”, in reality it has little to do with the Malvasia that can be found in many other regions (up to 9 different varieties), as our reference book tells us. The capital name of our variety is Alarije.

Our book goes on to tell us that it is a very productive variety, with very compact bunches, and therefore prone to rot. This is why it tended to be planted in the “headlands” of the plots, where the slope is steeper, the depth of the soil is shallower and the vigour of the vines is very limited. As for its characteristics, he adds that it produces wines with low pH, good acidity and alcohol content suitable for making white wines. When it comes from poor soils, these are fatty, sweet, and balanced by a good acidity, not too aromatic; when it comes from fertile soils, it becomes a very light variety, acid and with herbaceous and citrus aromas, suitable only for the production of young wines for quick consumption.

Our Malvasia comes from vineyards with limestone soils in the higher areas of the designation of origin. It is macerated for 24 hours in its own skins, which allows the must to be impregnated with aromas and tannins and protects the wine from oxidation. It sounds paradoxical, but rapid and controlled oxidation in must protects the wine from oxidation in wine, or, as it is commonly said, better to oxidise the must on the lees in contact with the skins than to oxidise the wine. This is helped by the fact that it is kept in an oval-shaped concrete tank – literally a “concrete egg” – which contributes to better lees circulation and thus combats oxidation. The result is a complex, powerful and extraordinarily gastronomic wine.

 

4. VIURA

As we have already said, our book does not give us a pattern for Viura, as it does not consider it to be a minority grape. José Peñín, in his book published in 1989, “The Great Book of Rioja Wines”, tells us that for a long time wines of this variety used to be subjected to prolonged ageing in oak, given the slowness of their oxidative evolution. However, in line with new trends that call for the presence of fruit, this method of winemaking has been modified and has shown enormous possibilities that translate into considerable aromatic and fruity potential. The wines are pale in colour and have perfect acidity (which allows them to be sometimes added to Tempranillo and even to rosé wines). Incidentally, we mention this book because at some point we will have to dedicate a special instalment to it and observe how much things have changed in thirty or so years.

We can highlight that our varietal avoids the cloying of Verdejo or Sauvignon Blanc. It is born very timidly and its ageing capacity is surprising. Its initial citrus aromas gradually transform in the bottle into aromas of fruit such as pear, apple and peach, gradually gaining in complexity and personality. Extraordinarily pleasant to drink.

Fermented in large barrels in which it is aged on its lees for a year, gaining in body and length, without an excess of wood drowning out the fruit and delicacy of the wine.

III. Inter-varietal and intra-varietal diversity: EL BARRANCO DEL SAN GINÉS

Finally, for now, we will refer to EL BARRANCO DEL SAN GINÉS, where both intra-varietal and inter-varietal biodiversity is materialised, because given the age of the plantation, more than eighty years old, we find in it intermingled vines of different varieties -specifically: tempranillo, garnacha, graciano, mazuelo and viura-, in the way that later, as we have said, was restricted by the Regulatory Council of the DOCa.

The “terroirists” would find in this vineyard all the strength of their arguments.

Barranco del San Ginés

Because all this biodiversity is gathered in a unique vineyardviñedo singularin the upper part of Laguardia, relatively close to the mountains, which guarantees a cool and protected climate, sloping down towards the ravine, facing east, which reduces the heat of the west in summer. The soil is clayey, with a shallow sandstone surface layer. Some five thousand vines planted in a 1.40 metre wide square -suitable for animal-drawn ploughing and hoeing-, so that the yield is obtained by the accumulation of vines -rainfall being the other variable to be taken into consideration-, without the possibility of forcing the production of each one of these vines.

And thus, the wine responds to that sum of soil, plant mass, climate and work. It is difficult to categorise, with a marked personality, elegant structure, overflowing with finesse, and many layers of fruit, many flavours, much terroir.

 

When we tried to define our project with a perfect phrase, the following one appeared to be most inspirational: “Rioja, tradition is diversity”.

Perhaps the inspiration was not so much so, but rather a reflex action of self-protection: can there be anything more diverse than a South African winemaker making Rioja wine? However, we do not believe that this was the spark that led us to connect tradition and diversity, but rather a more substantial one; not exactly an impulse to rebel, but certainly an affirmation. Affirmation of a project which is based on a denial: Rioja wine should not be identified, parameterized, with a certain type, in which the greatest weight of identification, perhaps even improvement, comes from an element which is not natural to the wine itself – it is not the climate, it is not the soil, it is not the plant – such as the wood of the barrels in which it must rest. It cannot be, and must not be, that the richness of the land of the Rioja is so constrained and consequently impoverished. Quality parameters are one thing and standardization is another. We cannot assume that it is tradition that has led to this standardization.

Our project, as you already know, is a young one. We have barely had time to attend seven harvests, to produce seven vintages. However, from the very beginning our course of action was established: to try to reflect in our wines all the richness and diversity of the variety of soils, vineyards and climates in this land -if they are naturally within our reach, which is no small matter.  Of course, we are obliged to use artificial elements -concrete, stainless steel, wood- but under no circumstances must these define the wine, nor alter its natural properties; at most they must contribute to enhancing them, to making them more perceptible.

Fortunately, a book published in 2017 by the local government entitled “Minority Vine Varieties in La Rioja”, by Pedro Balda and Fernando Martínez de Toda, has recently fallen into our hands. In this book we have hopefully seen our aspirations scientifically confirmed.

 

variedades minoritarias de vid en la rioja

 

It contains what is surely the nicest part of the doctoral thesis that the former (with a PhD) wrote in 2014, under the direction of the latter, a University professor, and which we are told can be downloaded at the following link from the University of La Rioja: https://dialnet.unirioja.es/descarga/tesis/43838.pdf

In the foreword signed by the professor you can read:

“In general, in any wine-growing area, there are two types of winemaking culture. One, which we could call ‘traditional’, tries to obtain an increasingly better product, based on the region’s own culture, that is to say, using traditional and typical vine varieties of the area and seeking as an end product a classic wine, although better produced than before. The other type of winemaking culture, which we could call ‘modern’, seeks a different product, more in line with current international tastes and uses foreign varieties, widely grown throughout the world and not traditional in the area concerned.

Both types of winemaking culture can produce high quality wines, and their main difference is that, in the first case, we are maintaining the genetic and cultural diversity typical of our Mediterranean culture and we are making our own wine, particular and different from the rest. However…”

End of quote, because we are not interested in addressing the ills that plague a standardized wine industry for sale, but rather to affirm our principle: “Rioja, tradition is diversity”. And so much so that pages ahead in the PhD thesis, we see Bryan’s presence portrayed in the “communication” of experiences that has shaped the tradition of Rioja wine: “In the case of La Rioja, an important communication route is the Ebro Valley and, at certain periods in its history, the Way of St. James. This has allowed not only the arrival of many varieties from faraway places but also an important circulation of ideas and viticulture and winemaking innovations”.

Of course, participating in this affirmation requires participating in the idea that biodiversity is a great wealth, and that uniformity is monotony and poverty. It is therefore reasonable to get hooked onto the genetic heritage that we have inherited in this land, thanks precisely to the “traditionalism of the winegrower”, as it is the one that has empirically adapted best to the circumstances of the soil and climate in which it develops, trying to understand it and improve it according to the times and circumstances that affect us; as there is no doubt that these supports change, are in fact changing, and perhaps, as the English would say, dramatically. In this respect, we should be grateful for the moves of something as naturally ultraconservative as the DOC Control Board in incorporating minority varieties into the land of Rioja (Maturana Tinta, Maturana Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco and Turruntés, 2008), or in recognising the particular characteristics of some vineyards, (not so much in admitting foreign varieties simply because they have proved successful in other designations of origin).

Thus, the varieties authorised in the Designation today are Tempranillo, Garnacha tinta, Graciano, Mazuelo and Maturana tinta (for red wines) and Viura, Malvasía, Garnacha blanca, Tempranillo blanco, Maturana blanca, Turruntés, Chardonay, Sauvignon blanc and Verdejo (for whites).

Before providing the ampelographic characteristics of 36 minority varieties under study, to which they add the ubiquitous Tempranillo as an appendix due to its reference value, the aforementioned authors express their concern about the serious loss of this diversity which humanity is witnessing, and which in the field of wine can be defined as the standardization of plantations – sometimes atypical or foreign – which in turn are standardized due to the exclusivity of the type of clone or rootstock. We could say that, in the artificial environment of the human being, the Darwinian natural selection is not produced by the quality or improvement of the species, but by its immediate and short-term economic yield.

“The preservation of viticultural biodiversity has three fundamental levels: biodiversity on rootstocks, inter-varietal biodiversity and intra-varietal biodiversity (between biotypes of the same variety)”.

The configuration of the rootstock is a question that affects the planting of the vineyard; as a result of the phylloxera invasion, the winegrowers had to resort to grafting clones or biotypes of the desired variety onto a disease-resistant American rootstock.  This rootstock is the “trunk” that is planted in the ground, and therefore forms the vine on which the shoots will grow. The loss of biodiversity may occur here due to the standardization of rootstocks and the standardization of clones, but this is not an issue that we should address now since what we are going to explain here are our wines, and these today come from old or very old plantations, all of them post-phylloxera.

 

Portainjerto-plantado

 

The intra-varietal biodiversity is present in our Laventura varieties. The inter-varietal biodiversity is present in La Nave (diversity of monovarietal plots, planted less than 35 years ago, thus complying with the new rules that do not allow inter-varietal mixing in the vineyard). And the inter and intra-varietal biodiversity is present in our unique vineyards or so-called Viñedos Singulares (Barranco del San Ginés). We will continue to explain all this in successive installments.

When we talk about Rioja wine, we have a problem with location, because we think at first that it is wine produced in La Rioja, as a region or community, which is not exact. Specifically, we must refer to wine produced in the area defined as the Rioja Qualified Designation of Origin (DOC Rioja), produced in accordance with the rules established by its Control Board, and duly qualified as such by the latter. And this area of the DOC Rioja does not coincide geographically with that of the political Community of the name La Rioja, but rather occupies a part of it, the same as it does in other parts, certainly smaller ones, of other provinces, which are Alava, Navarre and Burgos (of the latter only one estate that is truly an enclave within the first), in turn integrated into other differentiated Autonomous Communities.

We have chosen the expression “LA TIERRA DEL RIOJA” (the land of the Rioja) to bring them together. We would like to give you some information, usually taken from our own life experience here, that may interest you about wine and the territory where it is produced. Whenever we talk about “el Rioja”, we will be thinking indistinctly about the qualified wine and the area of the denomination.

 

mapa denominacion rioja

PANORAMIC VIEW / The three sub-zones of the Rioja Denomination of Origin

There are three areas in the territory of the Designation that have been commonly distinguished: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja (the difference is due to the average altitude of the territory, but today the latter has preferred to be known as Oriental or Eastern Rioja) and Rioja Alavesa.

The first comprises the whole of the western part up to the area of Logroño where the eastern part begins; the Alavesa includes, from the northern part of the Ebro river, that area which belongs to Alava (and further proof of the artificiality of the boundaries; we will generally describe it as Sonsierra and treat it as a single area). The truth is that such a generic distinction, or any other surely the same as the one we are going to apply here, is due to the ambiguity of its vague and inaccurate boundaries. Sometimes this is why a Rioja Media (Middle Rioja) is introduced into the distinction. Not even the possibility of its real application as a sub-zone would be truly representative of the variety and richness of the Rioja. Timidly, although already with official recognition, the need and coherence to delimit with more precision and traceability the areas of the land from which the wine comes, and which provide it with its personality, is beginning to emerge: subzone, municipality, estate, unique vineyard (viñedo singular)…

The land of the Rioja is located in an extensive valley marked by the winding course of the Ebro river, which made its way through the mountains in the west, at the point known as Las Conchas de Haro, and retreated placidly and without any obstacles to be overcome in the east, there by the area of Alfaro.

 

 

The northern and southern limits of the valley are mountain ranges, of not exaggerated altitude, but of marked personality, personality that they transmit to the climate and the soil. These are, to the north, Obarenes, Montes de Toloño and Sierra de Cantabria (or, by extension, Toloño) and then the Sierra de Aras, and to the south the Sierra de la Demanda, the Cameros and the Sierra de Yerga and de la Hez. The advantage of this parallel chain of heights is that you can enjoy fantastic views of the valley from them. Looking from north to south, we could stop at Cellórigo, at the foot of the Obarenes that our little ones know how to identify with the back of a stegosaurus – in some guides we read that it is known as the “Pulpit of La Rioja”, and the plates on the dinosaur’s back as Peña Lengua, and are identified with stone needles that resemble the Gothic needles of a cathedral; no doubt, ways of seeing that everyone can improve-, in the Peñacerrada pass -in the ascent of which there is precisely a “Balcony of La Rioja”-, or in Lapoblación, climbing the Bernedo pass where is located El León dormido (the Sleeping Lion) -known by the inhabitants there as La Picota, perhaps because to see the lion it is necessary to have as much distance as imagination. Looking from the south to the north, we could perhaps visit the Monte de San Lorenzo (perhaps too high to enjoy the valley), the Castillo de Clavijo, or the Cabi Monteros.

Of course, as we go up to these viewpoints we leave the land of the Rioja behind, but since there is a continuum between plain and mountain, it is not superfluous to include some information about them here; and with the search now for higher, cooler and more humid areas for planting vines, as a result of the changes in the climate, they will become part of the DOC when least expected.

Our intention is to follow the course of the river in the same west-east direction with an eye on the horizon of mountains, as reflected in our imagotype, and to provide data that we think may be of interest to you from any point of view, especially, of course, that related to winemaking.

 

sierras de la rioja

First of all, let us inspect the southern slope of the Ebro river, distinguishing here, more for taking a breath than with a differentiating value, the valleys or basins through which its tributaries flow, namely: Oja (or rather Oja-Tirón) -it seems so easy to say that the river Oja has given its name to La Rioja, that etymologists do not naturally agree-, Najerilla, Iregua, Leza and Jubera, Cidacos and Alhama. Then, at the end, we will cross the river to pass into Navarre and return westwards, first along its banks, and then through the area that we emotionally encompass within the so-called Sonsierra riojana and which, from Logroño onwards, occupies as a continuum spaces in La Rioja and Alava. Furthermore, since we do not find any outstanding tributary rivers to stop us for the respite, we will address these spaces in one go until the exit via Briñas, which they call the portal.

In this way we try to convey to you that what defines such a small space is its diversity. That, in terms of winemaking, it is born from the diversity of soils: ferrous-clay (reddish, with more or less alkalinity, low organic matter…), clay-limestone (whitish), more or less stony, alluvial on the banks of the great river;

tipos de tierra en la rioja

from the diversity of climate: which goes from the western Atlantic due to its proximity to the Cantabrian sea, to the eastern Mediterranean because it is already influenced by this sea successively nuanced or aggravated by the altitude in its slope towards the mountains; and today by the irrationality that feeds the climate change and that seems to translate into long periods of drought with violent and excessive inrush of water, exaggerated heat and abrupt peaks of extreme cold and off-season frost; from the diversity of authorised vine varieties and the shape and age of their planting; and also from the landscapes, villages, people…. All this makes the land of la Rioja a unique, singular and diverse “terroir”.

Now, it turns out that our intention is already embodied, since November 2019, in a magnificent book published by Los Aciertos y Pepitas publishers, written by Antonio Remesal and Alberto Gil, with the title: Rioja. Silent Wines, and with the subtitle: “A guide to getting to know the other Rioja: the regions, the villages, the vineyards, the wineries, the wines and the people of this surprising wine-growing region”; and what they tell us in 311 pages, we cannot pretend to summarise in this booklet. So what we want to do is to inform you about its existence and to assure you that it is of paramount interest for the knowledge of Rioja -the authors, excluding the definite article “La”, solve the problem of location-, and essential if you are one of the “good people” of whom Antonio Machado said: “where there is wine, they drink wine” -if there is no wine, they will have to make do with “fresh water”-, and thus you get on the move to satisfy that primordial need.

Here, therefore, we intend to be intrinsically subjective because we will only talk about what we have experienced. We will not be partial, nor impartial, because we will not make comparisons, but in no case shall we be arbitrary. I do not think we will be referring to any place that you cannot already find in the standard guides. Naturally, we tend to go to restaurants where we can drink MacRobert & Canals wines, but this is not always possible. There is no more complicated place to sell Rioja than the land of the Rioja. Here there are ‘special obligations’: there is no restaurateur who does not have a father, son, brother, brother-in-law, nephew, friend, or parishioner who in one way or another has no interest in a certain wine, if not the restaurateur himself.