Very interesting article from 31/8/2016 of Luis Gutierrez from Robert Parker's Wine-advocate describing the bigger gap between the more industrialized wineries in the Rioja and the ones (and these are the ones we have at Grandcruwijnen) who are focussing on terroir and quality. 


Spain, Rioja: Mind the Gap

  • LUIS GUTIÉRREZ
  • 31st Aug 2016 | The Wine Advocate

There's so much going on in Rioja at the moment that I feel I could write a whole book about it. But time and space prevent me from doing so. It should be no surprise to anyone following Spanish wines that the appellation system is being questioned by many, and that it seems obsolete for providing the development of quality wines, as understood nowadays. They are, in most places, dominated by large industrial wineries that are more worried about profits, and they favor volume over quality. In general, they produce wines that are needed for a segment of the public that does not care about greatness and terroir; wines for those who do not think about it as an intellectual drink that is representative of place and the years when the grapes ripened. For them, wine is as fascinating as carbonated drinks are for you and me. I feel like I have told this story a million times already.

If anything, I see the gap between industrial and artisanal or quality producers getting wider, and it might prove more and more complicated to find a set of rules to accommodate the interests of both groups. This fracture is even more evident in the most popular appellation. The temptation to produce large volumes at low prices with low margins is higher, because they use the collective brand of the appellation to sell their mediocre products to masses of consumers. Appellations of origin are steered by grape growers and wineries, but power or votes are given to them according to volumes.

The Matador Manifesto

No, no, it's not that we are all bullfighters in Spain. Let me explain. On November 15th 2015, the private Club Matador in Madrid held a meeting with 15 wine professionals to discuss Spain's wine in relation to its quality and prestige, and come up with some proposals for the future. Club Matador, linked to the Matador magazine, is a space for its members to meet; it is a restaurant and bar with an offering of cultural activities - not really a wine place, but where Telmo Rodríguez is part of the board. It was only the meeting place, because the organizer of the meeting was Rodríguez and the club could provide the infrastructure for it.

The output of the meeting was a manifesto, called Manifiesto Club Matador, Los Viñedos de Excepción, which was signed by some 200 people with a list of names that is the "who's who" of Spanish quality wines. It was only in Spanish, but Amaya Cervera from Spanish Wine Lover translated it into English. I've included an adaptation of that translation here because I think it nicely summarizes the existing problems and the idea of what could be a way forward.

"Spain boasts the richest biodiversity and the most varied landscape in Europe, but it also faces the greatest challenges in terms of environmental awareness and preservation. The wine world is no exception.

The Spanish wine appellation system has proved effectiveness in protecting geographical names and origin, but it has been oblivious to soil differentiation and levels of quality. Efforts have been aimed at turning our vineyards into the world's largest, not the best.

However, we have the history, the places and also the passion needed to make the most out of our exceptional crus and vineyards.

Deep changes are needed to boost our wine heritage and bring a sense of self-esteem into Spanish wine. It must be a global change for everyone involved, from producers to authorities.

All of the great wines in the world come from exceptional vineyards. That's why the most revered wine regions have passed laws to defend and protect those unique sites.

We firmly believe that the best way to identify wines based on their origin, quality, identity and authenticity is by means of a pyramidal structure. Wines made anywhere in the region would be at the base; village wines would be a step above, while single vineyard wines would be at the very top.

All producers will benefit from such a structure. Only by raising the bar and demanding more from ourselves, will we be able to improve quality and explain Spain's wine reality more accurately. It will also help to better sell all kinds of wines.

Therefore, we call upon the Appellation of Origin Regulatory Boards to be sensitive to the new wine reality that is emerging all over Spain and to approach a classification of the land in terms of quality. We are certain that establishing such distinctions is the first step towards excellence. Beyond emerging as an unstoppable trend, terroir wines are the best way to improve the quality of Spanish wines and achieve international recognition."

The Matador Manifesto. It's all about the vineyards...

This manifesto was sent by post to all Appellations of Origin in Spain, and not a single reply has been received, which says something about the appellations' interest in these matters. The Matador Club has planned a second part in November, when they will also come up with some proposals.

As a follow up on that, there was a meeting in Remelluri, in La Rioja, called Primer Encuentro de Viticulturas (The First Viticulture Encounter). Some 150 people spent May 15th and 16th of 2016 listening to conferences, hosting round tables, posting questions, discussing, meeting, sharing and tasting wines from the participants, trying to come up with some ideas for a way forward. It's still unclear what the next steps are, but to me what is important is that it brought together many people who feel that a change is needed. There was networking and sharing, people meeting like-minded growers from other regions and a realization that the movement is increasing. There are more and more young growers worried about this, mostly artisanal wine producers. And of course, there were quite a lot of people from Rioja there.

Telmo Rodríguez opening the Primer Encuentro de Viticulturas in the old vat room of Remelluri.

Well, this was not strictly about Rioja; people from all over Spain participated in both events. Problems are everywhere and the changes needed and requested apply to all regions. But it was promoted by a leading grower from Rioja, Telmo Rodríguez. The second meeting was held on his family's property, Remelluri, and Rioja is one of the appellations that is suffering most, because of its size and exposure.

Artadi's Riexit

Artadi leaving the Rioja appellation at the end of 2015 was illustrative of many things. Leaving Cava is easy, because you can hardly get any lower, as the appellation has no quality image whatsoever. But Rioja is the better-known and still somehow prestigious appellation in Spain - a kind of generic brand that helps easy sales. Leaving Rioja requires guts. For now, Artadi's idea to bottle village wines from 2014 onward has been put on hold, as the names of the villages are 'owned' by the appellation and cannot be used on labels. Their 2013s are still appellation Rioja, but the 2014s are out, and most likely they will only say Álava-Spain on their labels. Juan Carlos López de Lacalle from Artadi was obviously present at the Matador and Remelluri events.

The Rioja appellation might not have explicitly acknowledged any of this, but it's obvious that they are concerned and discussing the matter. At least they are willing to do something. They have called many of these vignerons to discuss ideas, which for many is a first time. They might have realized they cannot close their eyes and ignore what is happening...

However, the first thing the new president of the appellation, José María Daroca, did after he gained power in July 2015 was to increase the maximum allowed yields for Rioja's 62,000 hectares of vineyards. The allowed yields for the 2015 harvest were 6,955 kilos of grapes per hectare for red varieties and 9,630 in the case of whites, yields that have been slowly creeping up in recent years. This was quite predictable, as he represents the cooperatives, where price per kilo is the center of everything and grape growers are understandably interested in as many kilos as possible. They have just published the allowed yields for 2016, and they remain the same, but have decided to increase the transformation yield from 70% to 72%, meaning you can now obtain up to 72 liters of wine per 100 kilos of grapes instead of 70.

In such a large region, the sale of grapes or bulk wine is the business for many, because there is a gap between grape growers and wine producers. There are very few wineries that grow their own grapes and make wine exclusively with them. That model is known in France as a domaine versus the ones that buy grapes or even wine, a maison or a négoçiant. In France, there are separate categories for these two kinds of models. However, this is not the case in Spain; but it could help to ease the situation and create a framework where everybody could work, as well as make a decent living, within their style of business and aspirations. Because it's not a matter or creating a new unique model, there's no need to scrap what already exists. Instead, they need to find enough ways to differentiate things and stop the current situation where everything is mixed-up and made to look the same.

There are a number of things that need fixing. For example, in the regulations everything is seen from the point of view of the bottler. Having a bottling license is key, because then you are in a different category. This was explained by Paco Berciano, a wine distributor from Burgos, during the Matador sessions. It was also captured in a video that can be seen here (but it's only in Spanish). If you don't have a bottling license, you have to go to a neighbor, a friend or a bottling service, and the label on your wine will read 'Bottled by so and so, for so and so'. But if you sell that wine to a bottler who might not have vineyards or produce wine at all, then that bottler can sell it with a label that only says, 'Bottled by himself'! And that's all of the information provided.

All of this is not easy, and it's not something that is going to be solved in the short or even mid-term. But there is a need to start, and that starting signal might have been Artadi's Riexit.

There are different proposals and ideas: to make categories based on sales price; to create a pyramidal structure of vineyards à la Burgundy; to create a two-speed Rioja separating base wines from quality ones; and to create different categories of vineyards, which would have different allowed yields and requirements, but could produce only certain categories of wines - this could even be the existing joven, crianza, reserva and gran reserva, translating an existing hierarchy from the wines to the vineyards. These categories should not be thrashed, nor the multi-origin wines despised, but rather there should be a link to quality and not exclusively to time spent in oak.

There is a clear demand to be able to reference origin on labels, be it village or something smaller, separating by soils or combining allowed yields with minimum prices of the wines. But I'm afraid the one that seems to be the current official proposal is to create a new category for single vineyard wines. It might sound appealing, but I believe it's dangerous to start building your house at the roof instead of setting solid foundations first. In my opinion what needs to be separated is the bottom, not the top. Look at the prestige and meaning that the official Denominaciones de Pago single vineyard appellations have: NONE. Furthermore, it can actually be counterproductive, because if there is no correlation between this new category and the quality of the wines, people will think 'this is just another gimmick and nonsense from all these wine people.' This will just make us all even less credible.

When it comes to someone officially stating, 'this is better than that,' there are always going to be problems. Look at what happens when there are minor changes proposed to the Bordeaux or Burgundy classifications. So pretending to build a whole detailed hierarchy for something that has been flat since the appellation was created back in 1925 might just be impossible. Or at least it will take time, and I'm talking about time that needs to be measured in generations, not in years.

Whatever is done, it needs to allow both worlds to coexist in peace. It's not a matter of making it mandatory to separate by origin or banning the existing categories, because that would be as short-sighted as denying the possibility to reference origin. Quality wines are needed, and it's your and my concern, but industrial and cheaper wines are also needed for the numerous, for which wine is only a commodity. At the end of the day, it's all about money. Let's not forget wine IS a business. Yes, for some of us it's a lot more, even a way of living, but for many it's pure business. There you have another gap.

Clint Eastwood-inspired barrel. Go ahead, make my day.

Phew! Now that I've got that out of my system, it's time to look at the more positive things that I've seen while visiting the region, meeting producers, walking vineyards and tasting wines. I'll tell you about some discoveries, including where to have a glass of wine and a bite to eat if you happen to visit the region...

Rioja 'n' Roll: Newbies and Sophomores

First of all, there are a few new names, though still very few for the size of the region - and some of these new producers are collaborating, talking to each other and sharing. There's even a new association, Rioja 'n' Roll, who wants to "defend single vineyard, village and human size wines, free wines without labels that reflect the personality of their creators and the vineyards they work." But as Oscar Alegre, one of the members, told me, "we also want to have a great time together and enjoy wine!" The components of Rioja 'n' Roll are Alegre Valgañón, Artuke, Bárbara Palacios, Exopto, Laventura, Olivier Rivière and Sierra de Toloño. Roberto Oliván from Tentenublo was there in the beginning, but soon decided he was happier doing his own thing, so the group remains with the other seven members.

Artuke, Exopto and Olivier Rivière have been producing wines for a while and might be familiar to many of you. I've noticed recent improvements in all three, quite a remarkable improvement in the case of the latest vintage released by Artuke. I guess the best is yet to come, as they are hard-working, determined and enthusiastic about their vineyards and wines; and they are always seeking new ways and formulas to improve. They showed the potential that is now starting to be realized. Bravo!

Artu(ro and Ki)ke de Miguel. The two together make Artuke.

Olivier Rivière is slowly gaining access to better vineyards and the effect on his wines is clearly noticeable. Furthermore, there are some new wines, like the highly impressive Losares, which debuts in the fresh 2013 vintage. Exopto's Tom Puyaubert and his partners have also purchased new vineyards, a plot with old Garnacha, Tempranillo and Viura; the plot is called La Mimbrera and in 2015, they managed to produce one barrel from it. This will probably turn into a new wine. They are focusing increasingly on the vineyards and they might release more small cuvées in the future, like a high altitude Garnacha from Ábalos. In the winery, they use large (600-liter) barrels.

Alegre Valgañón has not presented any wines for tasting yet and I found Sierra de Toloño in my previous article. Bárbara Palacios is the daughter of Antonio Palacios from the Palacios family (of the Palacios Remondo winery in Alfaro). She started in 2005 with a seven-hectare vineyard in Haro and an experimental plot of Merlot planted in 1990. Her project really took off in 2014 in a small winery in Briones. She studied in Bordeaux, and I think her taste and mentality are quite Bordelaise.

Clean, sleek labels and wines from Laventura.

The arrival of young South African Bryan MacRobert is a great addition to the (short) list of new names. He worked with Eben Sadie in his homeland from 2009 to 2012 and then did two harvests in Priorat with Terroir al Limit, where Eben used to be a partner. He met a girl from Logroño, moved to Rioja in 2012, and started making wine in 2013 in a joint venture with his father-in-law. Laventura produced 6,000 bottles in 2013 and 12,000 bottles in 2014. They are slowly starting to buy some vineyards; they currently own 1.5 hectares of them, but all of the wines I tasted were from purchased grapes. In 2016, they will ferment their wines in the new winery on the outskirts of Logroño.

Roberto Oliván from Tentenublo and some of his old vines in Viñaspre

I went to Viñaspre to visit some of Roberto Oliván's vineyards to get a better understanding of his wines. He works a myriad of tiny plots with very old vines, some of which are almost dry with many plants missing, so yields are tiny. He spends most of his time in the vineyards and even on an extremely warm day, he was out at the time when most people would be enjoying a siesta. These are truly handcrafted terroir wines.

Among the newcomers and sophomores, we have others like Alba Real, Arizcuren or Oxer Bastegieta, whose new wine Kalamity seems to be inspired by the aesthetics (and I'm afraid prices) of Sine Qua Non. Other names worth mentioning are Pedro Balda, producer of what I've seen referred to as 'moderate natural wines' (!?), who already appeared in my last article. I tasted his new vintages, which are consistent with what I found last time.

Sine Qua Non-inspired Rioja?

Still in his twenties, Javier San Pedro Ortega appears here for the first time. He is the son of Javier San Pedro Rández from the Vallobera winery in the village of Laguardia; he shares a surname that is well known in Rioja, as other members of the family are also in wine. He owns 7.5 hectares of vineyards in Laguardia, some of them pretty old, and already produces up to 250,000 bottles per vintage, so he is not a boutique operation. I'm scared if those are the starting volumes... Hardly handcrafted wines.

There are three new and exciting whites from Honorio Rubio from the village of Cordovín, who is experiencing a second wind with the help of winemaker Alberto Pedrajo. I tasted three whites from Viura that showed completely different and reminded me of the Verdejos from Ismael Gozalo from (outside) Rueda, in the sense that you can produce a number of wines from the same grape that show truly distinctive personalities.

Watch out for three unique whites from Honorio Rubio.

He has produced a non-vintage blend from different years with an extended ageing in oak calledAñadas (vintages), a Viura kept in contact with the skins for one year under the moniker Macerado(macerated) and another one matured with lees for 12 months that is named after the lees (Lías). Not only are they different, they are also very good! My favorite here is the non-vintage Añadas, which is a blend of 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 aged in barrel until bottling in July 2012. These mixed-vintage wines have a name, CVC, conjunto de varias cosechas, which is the lowest of the lowest - quite a pejorative category locally. But sometimes the lower categories, like the case of table wines, can produce great results - which is what happened with the Super-Tuscans...

Talking about whites, after years in the dark (planting white varieties was forbidden for years!), interest for the category has grown exponentially. Now even the Consejo Regulador has a publicity campaign to promote white Rioja. Part of this white-craze is illustrated by Marqués de Murrieta releasing the missed Castillo Ygay Blanco from the 1986 vintage... a full 30 years after the harvest! And CVNE is bringing back the old rendition of its Monopole, topped up with Manzanilla Sherry (yeah!) and dressed with the old label.

Not surprisingly, the 1986 Castillo Ygay Blanco Gran Reserva Especial came out at the top of my hierarchy, with a perfect score, among all of the wines tasted for this article. Fruit of the circumstances: it spent 21 years in well-seasoned American oak barrels, followed by some six years in cement vats until it was bottled in January 2014; it was then held to be released when it coincided with the 30th anniversary of its harvest.

This is the amazing color of the 1986 Castillo Ygay Blanco 30 years after the harvest.

I don't want to mix old wines with current releases, so a tasting of historical vintages of the Castillo Ygay Blanco is in a completely separate article in this very same issue. I tasted white wines going back to 1919, and I firmly believe that the 1986 has all of the ingredients to challenge the very best old vintages tasted. Now, don't get me started about the price...

Trends and Rants

Reading a lot of technical wine sheets from what I tasted, Rioja's cellars should be filled with 500-liter oak barrels. Not only Rioja, but the whole of Spain, as a matter of fact. Or so people say. But in reality (according to a barrel salesman), few large barrels are sold and seen in wineries. People are in search of used 500-liter barrels, yes, but there are not many for sale. If you want to have used 500-liter barrels, you have to buy them new and age them yourself. Because when they are well seasoned and neutral, nobody wants to get rid of them. It seems like a lot of people think larger volumes are now part of the 'magic' talk: whole clusters, indigenous yeasts, ageing in used 500- or 600-liter barrels... It's said more than done.

Old vines exist, but do not abound.

Old vines are also more talked about than reality, although quite a few remain. One thing I learned this time, and I heard variations of the story in two different villages, is that there is something odd in the vineyard register: many vineyards are recorded as much younger than they really are. At the time the register was created, there were rumors in different villages, for example, that the owners of the older vines would be forced to rip them up. Elsewhere, the word going around was that landowners would have to pay higher taxes for older vineyards. As a result, the data we have today is inaccurate in many instances, as people lied and declared vines younger than they really were. Rumors, rumors...

Going back to the site-specific wines, one positive trend is that some place names start to permeate and more and more people talk about Monte Yerga, villages like Cárdenas, or Montes Obarenes. In some instances, those names already appear on labels. Many of the classical wines were sourced from vines grown in these locations, but those names didn't necessarily transcend; the names were only in the minds of winemakers and winery managers that sought those grapes for their best wines, but kept the origin as a kind of trade secret.

On the other hand, one worrying move is the tremendous expansion in the region of volume producer García Carrión, originally from Jumilla where they produce their popular Tetra Pak brand, Don Simón. They have purchased the remains of Paternina, once a quality producer that turned into a volume and supermarket brand with their range of Banda Azul, Banda Roja, etc. Muriel purchased part of Paternina's assets, an old cellar (including a large stock of old bottles, mostly whites) and the brand Conde de los Andes some time ago. Now pretty much the rest has been purchased by García Carrión. The Paternina wines had been lagging behind for too long, but there was a time when the name Paternina was a guarantee of quality on a label. This is the end of a great name in Rioja. Sic transit gloria mundi.

García Carrión has announced that they intend to produce some 20 million bottles of Rioja, but I'm afraid that's only the beginning, as apparently their capacity is much, much larger than that. I've always explained that there is a need for basic, cheap and readily available wines. But the risk here is that the growth of bulk and low-cost wines does not stimulate quality, and there will be no incentive for grape growers to increase quality or control yields when they are paid by the kilo, regardless of anything else.

If things don't change, it won't be long (if it's not already the case) before Félix Solis (another volume producer from La Mancha and owners of the popular brand Pata Negra) and García Carrión control the Rioja appellation, as has happened elsewhere. No, their wines are of very little interest for our readers; they are aimed at a different audience and are not reviewed here.

As I had just finished this article (I was deep into tasting Priorat already), there was an unexpected development: some 40 wineries from Rioja Alavesa associated to ABRA, the Asociación de Bodegas de Rioja Alavesa, filed the official documents formally requesting the creation of a new appellation of origin called Arabako Mahastiak/Viñedos de Álava. There's not a lot of information available and it's still unclear how this could be managed. There are more questions than answers. What we do know is this: It would be a new appellation that overlaps with Rioja, precisely the land of Rioja within the Álava province - or rather a piece of Rioja that would stop being Rioja. It would be a political rather than geographical demarcation, which brings to mind many doubts as to whether this will be possible at all.

The documents were sent to the Basque local authorities; after them, the request would have to be approved by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture and after that, by Brussels in the European Union. It seems very unlikely that all wineries located within Rioja Alavesa would be willing to leave the Rioja name behind and label their wines Arabako Mahastiak/Viñedos de Álava, rather than Rioja.

The names of the supporting wineries have not been disclosed, but I spoke with Juan Carlos López de Lacalle and he confirmed that Artadi is not behind the request, as he has never even been part of the association. He does not exactly agree with the move, but he's happy because there's movement. We had a short chat and he agreed with me that dividing the Sonsierra in two is a mistake. At the same time though, it's difficult to deal with different administrative bodies, because the appellation spreads across different provinces and autonomous communities. The Consejo Regulador of Rioja is not that happy either. They feel kind of betrayed and released an incendiary official statement against the move. But they did the same thing when Artadi left... Geological and terroir limits rarely coincide with political boundaries, and when the background seems political rather than wine related, the initiative might find little support from people whose main interest is wine quality. My take? I don't think this is going to fly.

Guardaviñas Times Three

Guardaviñas

Guardaviñas are rustic stone buildings in the shape of a pointy igloo and are typical of Rioja; they were used as shelter for the people and animals working the vineyards and also as watchtowers. They date mostly from the end of the 19th century and are part of Rioja's landscape. There are some 70 of them scattered across the fields, mostly in Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. Some have been restored, catalogued and named. The Eguren family owns the largest registered guardaviñas, a two-story one with a bedroom on the top floor and fireplaces on both. The Spanish verb guardar means 'to guard' and also 'to put away', and viña of course means 'vineyard'.

As I spent quite a lot of time in the San Vicente de la Sonsierra and Ábalos zone this time, I saw quite a few of them. But what made me tell you about them is that after years of experimentation, Abel Mendoza has released a new, noteworthy, non-sulfured red under the name Guardaviñas; it has a label depicting an architectural drawing of one of these buildings.

Guardaviñas

Furthermore, there is a new wine bar and bistro in Logroño, the capital city of Rioja, which also carries the same name; it was like a signal that the time to explain the meaning of the word guardaviñas had come. The Guardaviñas wine bar and bistro is the brainchild of Alberto Ruiz from Les Caves de Pyrene, a UK/Spain wine importer and distributor. Besides some creative and delicious food (smoked eel on red tuna and green apple potato salad, anyone?), they have the most eclectic wine selection in the whole of Rioja (I had a stellar bottle of 2013 Les Marnes Bleus from Ganevat); they also have a calendar of tastings and dinners with themes off the beaten path, like Georgia, Burgundy, Sicily, Rhône or Piemonte. But if you want Rioja, which is what you probably want unless you are local, they also stock rare labels like the mentioned ones from Honorio Rubio.

Guardaviñas

So, a popular architecture building, a new wine from Abel and a new place in Logroño...

Vintage Trouble

Almost three-quarters of the wines I tasted for this article were from the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 vintages, because Rioja is not like Bordeaux, Burgundy or Mosel - where all wineries release the same vintage at once. Here, the different categories and the time requirements to achieve them make it a lot more widespread. You have already probably noticed by now that I dislike vintage generalizations, that's why we have to get details and score wine by wine, so talking about an average does not make any sense. Other than that, Rioja is so HUGE that it makes even less sense to talk about vintages here. But there you go.

Cereals are used to let some of Rioja's best soils rest, alternating them with vines.

2013 was a very challenging vintage. It was a rainy year and it was generally cooler than the previous four. Ripening was slow and late. So far, so good. The problem was that at harvest time, it rained and rained and rained, and then rained a little more. It was a change in tendency after a series of four warm, dry vintages (2009 to 2012), and it's a year when you find the best and the worst. For those that worked well in their vineyards, the result could be fresh and vibrant wines; but for those who didn't, you can find botrytis, under-ripeness and even over-ripeness, because they had to wait too long. Temperatures were low, ripening was slow and the grapes lost it while some waited for physiological ripeness.

Many decided not to bottle their top wines, others did severe triage and produced less quantity than in other years, even when yields could have been higher. In general, results were better than expected - especially at the high end - and most consider it a very good vintage for whites. Some are surprised at how well some wines have turned out and the Eguren family, as well as others like Abel Mendoza, Pujanza or Olivier Rivière, may have produced some of their best wines to date.

One of the multiple Tempranillo vineyards from the Eguren family.

People are also more honest about vintage conditions early on, when they are still not thinking that they have to sell the wines. Well, let's not be too unfair, sometimes wines take surprising turns in the winery and behave better or worse than expected. Anyway, early on I heard from people that 2014was a challenging vintage, even more than 2013! Tom Puyaubert from Exopto tends to be quite candid in his vintage appreciations and he described it as 'complicated' with great conditions for the development of botrytis, with frequent rains during harvest time. They had to be selective and got rid of 20-25% of their grapes in a vintage closer to the style of 2013 than 2015.

What people tell you when they are asked to comment on a very ripe and warm vintage is that the grapes were very healthy. Well, obviously, but they don't like to go into discussing over-ripeness or low acidity, which tends to be linked to that style of vintage. We also tend to call them Mediterranean, as we associate the mild climate of the Mediterranean zone with such years. Having said that, it's good to have vintage variation, to have cooler and warmer years, to have different styles of wines for different folks, to have years with marked acidity and lower alcohol, and others that are more generous, round and soft. 2015 seems to be one of the latter, with the earliest harvest on record (every year seems to be a record for something in recent vintages). What I've tasted from 2015 is mostly young, unoaked reds and this kind of vintage seems quite good for the style - what people are looking for are fruit-forward, juicy, soft wines. Warm years are also good for late ripening and/or warmer climate varieties, such as Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano, which might struggle to ripen in cooler vintages. In years like this, you might want higher altitude, north-facing, cooler vineyards that cushion the effect of the year. Or maybe not. Basically, it depends. That's why I'm quite anti-vintage generalization.

We Walked Some Vineyards

Marqués de Riscal uses grapes purchased from long-term suppliers, some of them from small plots of very old vines.

I love walking vineyards, because it really helps me understand the wines - just looking at the landscape, soil and textures, smelling the surrounding vegetation. Every time I go to a wine region, I save time to visit vineyards. This time, I started with a stop at Marqués de Riscal, where we visited some of the really old, small plots of vines that they purchase from growers, many of them northwest of Elciego and on the way to Navaridas.

No, I didn't convince Paco Hurtado de Amézaga from Marqués de Riscal to uncork this amazing-looking 1870...

They are also regrafting most of the vineyards they purchased from Domecq (others were ripped up), because the Tempranillo clones were not what they liked. There's quite a lot of regrafting going on throughout Spain, even if it's not as widespread as what I saw in Chile. In the case of Riscal, they are only changing from one clone of Tempranillo to a different one, not changing the variety.

A whole lotta regraftin' goin' on.

By pure coincidence, I visited quite a few vineyards in the San Vicente de la Sonsierra village, one of the most important in vineyard extension, as well as in a wealth of zones, soils and expositions that make it very diverse.

Quiñón de Valmira, the new super-Garnacha from Álvaro Palacios.

I wanted to visit the Quiñón de Valmira vineyards, source for the new super-Garnacha by Álvaro Palacios, but he's such a traveler that I couldn't make our agendas coincide. I was also interested in visiting the new-ish Garnacha plantations from La Rioja Alta in La Pedriza, in the village of Tudelilla, which have contributed to the blend of the 2008 Viña Ardanza for the first time; but I couldn't find the time to travel to Rioja Baja. They are on the list of my priorities for the next round in 16 months.

Very old Garnacha at the Viña Tondonia from López de Heredia.

On top of my list for this year was also to walk Viña Tondonia at López de Heredia, in that huge meander of the Ebro River in Haro; this is something that, surprisingly, I hadn't yet done. There, I saw how the 170 hectares of land are rotated between old vines and new plantations, with some time for the soils to rest, alternating vines with cereals. They currently have 130 hectares of vineyards in production.

José Luis Ripa and María José López de Heredia

I tasted with María José López de Heredia and her husband, José Luis Ripa, who works on the commercial side of the business. It was in a small building over an underground cave that they have in the middle of the vineyards, overlooking the village of Briñas. In the evening, I also tasted directly from the top of all the ancient oak vats in the winery with María José. Those large old vats contained both young and old wines, red and whites. You almost never get to taste unbottled wines here. It was my first, but hopefully not my last time...

One comment about the wines from López de Heredia: as the traditional style of Rioja was not really popular and the wines weren't selling roughly between the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s, they somehow stopped producing Gran Reserva for a while. The result is that there are no new Gran Reserva, Tondonia, Bosconia or Tondonia Blanco until the 2001 vintage, which won't be released until around 2021. So the shortage and therefore the hike in prices for these wines is only going to increase.

When it comes to the Gran Reserva category, the last white Tondonia (already sold out) was from the 1996 vintage, and the reds Bosconia and Tondonia were from 1995. The last Rosé sold was from 2000 and the following vintage is 2008, which I had the chance to sample, but it will not be sold until 2018. All of their wines are highly allocated and they are putting the prices up to try and control demand, but I'm afraid this ain't going to stop it...

Abel Mendoza works hard in his vineyards.

Nothing pleases me more than to see the improvement in the reds of Abel Mendoza, with much better integrated oak. He works hard in the vineyards and the wines have shown it, but they were often a little too oaky. There is still some room for improvement (there always is!), but he's starting to really realize the potential of his very good collection of vineyards. He took a lot of time to show me some of his vineyards with pride. He works many different plots in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, Ábalos and Labastida, a mosaic he built with what he inherited from his father, and what he planted and purchased himself with a lot of work.

Abel Mendoza and his wife and winemaker, Maite Fernández.

He lives with his wife, Maite, who is the winemaker, in a house in San Vicente above their winery in a true vigneron fashion - living and breathing wine. Lovely people, it's a pleasure to talk to them, and it's great to see their wines improving.

Working the vineyards with a mule is a tradition that has been recovered.

The Eguren family works a wealth of vineyards, some 120 hectares in San Vicente de la Sonsierra and a further 45 in Páganos, which is a parish of Laguardia. We visited a number of different zones to see how the soils varied. They work some of their vineyards with a mule, as I could see in the plots around the new winery still in construction in San Vicente de la Sonsierra. After building an impressive cellar in Páganos, with caves going down 15 meters below the surface, they are building a new one in San Vicente. They have been at it for a while. "We are not in a rush," Miguel Eguren told me. "We are doing all of the work ourselves, and it takes time." It's a huge project in their home village, with similar underground cellars excavated in the rock underneath the winery that they built, with the stones they extract from digging the cellars.

The new winery is built with the blocks of stone extracted to dig the caves underneath.

I also spent time with Benjamín Romeo of Contador fame and visited some of his vineyards (he works 42 hectares spread over 66 different plots!); in one vineyard, we found up to three bird nests and saw the difference in cycle from one zone to another without leaving San Vicente. He's one of the producers that decided not to bottle many of his top wines in 2013.

A bird's nest in one of the vines of Benjamín Romeo.

As for breaking news, Romeo is also starting a new project at 700 meters' altitude in the San Vicente de la Sonsierra village, in a zone called El Llano de la Madera; this area was traditionally too high and cold for vines, and has never had vineyards. He plans to plant some 25 hectares there on north-facing slopes and maybe even build a completely new and separate winery, as part of a project that will include a tasting room overlooking a good part of Rioja Alta. These potential new wines will not see the light until 2022-2025. But you are reading it here first...

The breathtaking view from Llano de la Madera in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, where Benjamín Romeo plans to build his new project.

It had also been quite long since I visited Fernando Remírez de Ganuza in his winery in Samaniego; we went to see some vineyards, including some high-altitude white Viura plots that are some of the highest in Rioja. After a long day tasting, I also had a car tour of the vineyards between Haro and Villalba de Rioja with Jorge Muga, but it was getting too late and dark. They source many of the grapes for some of their top wines from that zone. I'm talking about wines like their stellar 2009 Prado Enea, possibly the bargain among the top Riojas.

White vines tend to be at high altitude on whiter soil, like this old Viura from Fernando Remírez de Ganuza.

And talking about top Riojas...

The Moment of Truth

I was given the opportunity of retasting three of my top reds side by side: the 2013 Las Beatas from Telmo Rodríguez, the 2013 El Pisón from Artadi and the new 2014 Quiñón de Valmira from Álvaro Palacios. The quality of the three is extremely high. It's more a matter of preference as to which style you prefer, as they are rather different. The Artadi is quite marked by the new oak and feels riper and more concentrated; it is slightly more international in style, and will need some time to render the aromas from the oak and the wood tannins. But with an air-dried chunk of beef, it was the better match! Las Beatas is possibly the one taking the best from both worlds and at the end of the day, my favorite. They were initially concerned about the potential of this 2013 (most likely because they had experienced the challenging harvest!), but it has turned out to be as good, or maybe better than the previous years. Last, but not least, the new super wine from Álvaro Palacios in his homeland is the lightest of the three, the more ethereal, but at the same time the one that is harder to pin down as Rioja. Quiñón de Valmira is pure Garnacha from Monte Yerga in Alfaro. What is remarkable is that only one of these three wines existed in 2010, which gives a hint of how Rioja is also changing.

Tasting side by side

I like to do comparative tastings; I prefer to taste wines against each other rather than in isolation. I find it easier to build the hierarchy and decide if I like one wine better than another. Comparing top wines is not always possible, because bottles are scarce, but I'm often lucky to have access to dream wines. For example, Telmo Rodríguez and his business partner Pablo Eguzkiza were generous enough to uncork all of the vintages they have produced so far from the single vineyard of Las Beatas. Yes, that's only a mini-vertical of four vintages, from the initial 2011 to the still unreleased and just-bottled 2014, but it made for a fascinating comparison.

Mini-vertical of Las Beatas, Telmo Rodríguez's awesome achievement

Agustín Santolaya insisted that we taste different vintages of Roda against top Bordeaux from the same vintage. The wines are very different, but it really helps to put things into perspective. And then some friends came over and drank the leftovers! This is the generosity of people from the wine world, one of the many reasons why I love wine. Now, if we all loved wine, what we all have to do is start thinking about closing up the gaps that I mentioned in the beginning of this report; we need to make these gaps smaller, rather than larger. Wine is too great to not do this. Rioja is too great to not do this.