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

We have chosen the mountains as the image of our winery.

The mountains convey ideas of ascent, verticality and solidity; of mass.

Besides, those chosen also express our idea of diversity, biodiversity,

which we understand to be a tradition in Rioja.

 

At the base is Table Mountain. It is the base not so much because it is the lowest mountain and because it is literally at the table where our work is especially appreciated, but because being the iconic image of Cape Town sends us back to Bryan MacRobert, the soul of our project, who always had it in sight in the years when his passion for wine was developing in the family farm there at the southern edge of the southern hemisphere.

The other three form mountain ranges that give an idea of the diversity of Rioja: they embrace four different political communities and account for the different climates, soils and vines that give variety to our wines.

In ascending order, firstly the Sierra de Cantabria, which marks the northern boundary of the Rioja. We have chosen a profile that can be seen from properties that we cultivate in the Rioja Alavesa, in which El León dormido (The sleeping lion) stands out, and is also the closest reference to the city of Logroño in which we live.

Next is the profile of the Sierra de la Hez which marks the southern limit of the eastern part of the Rioja, taken from the Tudelilla vineyard which supplies us with that very special garnacha.

And the highest, the Sierra de la Demanda, where the Monte de San Lorenzo (Mount San Lorenzo) rises up, the totem of the Rioja, the southern limit of its western part and perceptible almost from any point of our vineyards in the area, including the Rioja Alavesa. The mountains are defined by colours that can be as changeable as life itself, and enclosed in a circle that seeks to indicate the sum of hemispheres that our names express, but which does not close completely because it opens up to new expectations and horizons. Perhaps you can imagine the glass and feel the land of the wine that is drunk from it. Two notes of colour, perhaps the sun, perhaps the moon, which mark our rhythms, complete the perspective

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.

 

The D.O.Ca Rioja is one of the most important wine regions in the world. As a D.O. it was established in Spain in 1925, and was awarded the category of “Calificada” (qualified) – the only one to date – in 1991.

 

The D.O.Ca Rioja is a great valley that occupies about 150 square kilometres from east to west and 60 from north to south, distant another 100, in the north, from the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by mountains to the north and south, crossed by a majestic river, the Ebro, of which another seven smaller rivers are tributaries, forming an equal number of valleys.

What characterises the Rioja, then, is its diversity of soils – clayey, limestone, ferruginous clay, alluvial… -; of crop heights – from 400 to 800 metres approximately, and rising -; of climates – Atlantic in the west, Mediterranean in the east; and of grape varieties – up to 40 different varieties have been counted, and although today there are far fewer of them recognised by the D.O.Ca., some of them are still present in the oldest vineyards. An expression of this diversity was the traditional way of making wines, with blends of varieties not only from within the vineyard itself, but also from different areas and sub-areas. In modern times, as new plantations have been planted, it has been possible to pay more attention to varietal wines.

Diversity of people too. Four autonomous communities participate in the designation. A hospitable land that today welcomes Bryan as it has welcomed so many in the past. All this encourages our spirit: tradition is diversity.

 

My earliest childhood memories are of running barefoot in a village in the Swartland region of South Africa – about fifty kilometres north of Cape Town.

 

 

Because, if you look closely, it all goes back many years, almost as far as my years.  My earliest childhood memories are of running barefoot in a village in the Swartland region of South Africa – about fifty kilometres north of Cape Town where I was born – amongst the farmland vineyards that my parents used to and still own. I remember the contact of my bare feet with the earth and I think that is where my love for it and my passion to understand it began. It was there that I learned to cultivate the vineyards and make my first wines, while studying Viticulture and Enology at the University of Stellenbosch. After graduating, I spent several years travelling between Spain and South Africa, working in the Priorat and Swartland wine regions, areas of small plots of old bush-trained /goblet-trained vines and without irrigation. These are fixations that I keep in order to obtain wines of the quality and personality that I dream of.

Even then, and completely unaware of what time had in store for me, I had fallen in love with wines, the fine wines of La Rioja, very special wines with a terroir that I could not locate at the time.

Maybe one thing led to another, the fact is that I also fell in love with a girl, also an oenologist and a traveller, whose parents lived in La Rioja where, so as not to tire you out with the story, we decided to settle down in the year… Clara, my wife, found a job with a well-known wine group – “if we are going to work in the world of wine, one of us must have a salary”-, because it was difficult for me to find a job; and it was precisely from this difficulty that MACROBERT & CANALS was born, as an adventure, from which we expected good fortune, the dream not only of finding a way of life in my case, but of building something that would bring value to society that we could be proud of.