Thursday, October 22, 2020

Rioja, Part 5

 Bodegas Bilbainas control 250ha in 50 plots in Rioja Alta. This points to a typical Rioja blending operation. Two aspects stand out. Bilbainas is organic, and it has vineyards in limestone soil.   

I tasted a white wine and a rosé under the Viña Pomal brand. The white was made predominantly from Viura, the rosé from Tempranillo, of course. These were ok wines, but nothing special.

I then had the classical line-up of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. The 2016 Crianza is matured in American oak, and tastes of fresh fruit and vanilla. 80,000 cases of this are drunk mainly in bars in the afternoon, with something to nibble on. The 2014 Reserva is half this volume and sells for an astonishing 12 €. It has more intensity and firm tannins. Then we have the 2011 Gran Reserva. It is a 90/10 Tempranillo/Graciano blend, spends three years in barrel, then three in bottle, before it is marketed. Only 2500 cases are made of this, at 26 € per bottle. This is a more rounded an elegant wine, still quite fresh, with silky tannins.

If you want to experience traditional Rioja winemaking at good quality, this is the winery for you. But now we step it up a bit.

Muga is sometimes described as Rioja's First Growth, and I got to experience why. The winery was founded in 1932. It owns 150ha, and contracts another 150ha. One special feature is its own cooperage.

They build 900 casks per year, 90% from French, 10% from American oak. It is a very laborious process. To start with, the wood gets dried for 5! years. The big advantage is that you can customize the building and toasting to your requirements. And Muga does not do things by halves. They also own 250 large American vats, which have been in use for 50 years for alcoholic fermentation. Total production is 130,000 to 170,000 cases per year.

The 2018 Muga White, made from 90% Viura is fresh and harmonious, with medium acidity. With red wines, Muga makes traditional wines, but also modern ones.

The 2015 Reserva is made in the traditional style. It is a blend of 70% Tempranillo, 20% Granacha, 10% Mazuelo and Graciano. It is matured in their own light to medium toasted barrels. 60,000 cases made. The wine is red fruited, with some spice, smoke and vanilla. I found the finish a little rough. The 2014 Reserva Seleccion Especial is a similar blend. This wine is matured for over two years in French oak (40% new), 15,000 cases made. The red fruit is more concentrated, and the spice and mocca flavours more intense. This is a more elegant and silky wine.

The next wine, the 2011 Prado Enea Gran Reserva is a step up and really a great wine. It comes from special clay-limestone vineyards at high altitude. The wine is picked late. The wine is aged for one year in American oak, then for three years in French oak. This wine tastes of blackberry fruit, with forest floor and cocoa notes rounding out a ripe, yet elegant flavour. The wine provides a big mouthfeel. It is still fresh and balanced with a lingering finish. You have to put 70 € on the table for this.

The 2015 Torre is a blend of 75% Tempranillo, 15% Mazuelo (Carignan), 10% Graciano. The wine is aged for 18 months in 100% new French oak. This wine is a bit of a monster, very concentrated and not totally balanced at this point. It needs time.

Overall, Muga is a very impressive winery. The blending adds to the complexity of the wines, and the oak treatment, while substantial, is quite light.

The last winery visit is at CVNE, sometimes called Cune.  It is one of the original railway station wineries in Haro. So I come back to where I started. It is another large winery with 500,000 cases from many plots in Rioja Alta and Alavesa. It includes in fact five wineries.

Most of the wines made are in the traditional style, but the Contino winery has branched out into single vineyard wines. The first wine I taste is the Viña Real Crianza, a fresh, simple wine of dark cherry fruit. This is followed by the 2015 Contino Reserva. This wine is quite concentrated with strong tannins. The 2012 Cune Gran Reserva is made in the old style with American oak quite prominent.

The Imperial winery is kind of the premium winery with a smaller production of 18,000 cases. The Imperial Gran Reserva is the only Spanish wine which was named number 1 in the Wine Spectator Top 100. It was in 2013, but for a different vintage from the one I taste, which is 2012. This is a very good wine. The vineyards have different soil profiles, adding to complexity. The blend is 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Mazuelo. This is similar to the other wines. Maturation took place in old French and American oak. Black cherry and forest fruits form the flavour. The tannins are velvety and soft, delivering an elegant mouthfeel.

I then taste the Contino single vineyard wines. This is the chateau concept with a large vineyard surrounding the winery. The wines are made from this 62ha vineyard.


The 2017 Contino Granacha is fermented in concrete eggs and then matured  in used large French oak vessels. The result is a raspberry fruity, quite sweet wine. The 2015 Contino Graciano is the last to be harvested. The grapes are thick skinned with intense colour. This wine needs medium to high toasted French oak. Black cherry and eucalypt flavours are packaged in firm tannins and high acidity. It is not easy to make a very pleasing wine from 100% Graciano. This variety is usually added to give Tempranillo additional structure, but on its own, it is pretty tough. 

The final wine is the 2016 Contino Viña del Olivo, a 90/10 blend of Tempranillo/Graciano. The wine is matured for 18 months in  French oak. Dark cherry and blackberry fruit is dominant, but there is also black pepper, anise and mint. This is a very smooth wine of great length. When I tasted the previous two wines, I could not quite see the benefit of the single vineyard concept, but this wine is something special.

OVERALL CONCLUSION: I only touched the surface of the Rioja region. It delivers incredible value for money; Crianza wines at 12 to 15 €, 5-10 year old Reservas and even Gran Reservas at 20 to 30 €. I actually preferred the fruit forward Crianzas in most cases. But a modern style Reserva, such as from Muga can still be fresh, and deliver good complexity. When it comes to single vineyard wines, there is a great variety of styles. I liked the precision of Valenciso, and the modernity of Altari. Pricing varies dramatically, from 20 € up to 300 € for the Altari El Pison. 





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