André's Travel Log
January 2010: Part 3, Rioja and the Basque Country
The land of Tempranillo and the greatest of expectations...
Conde De Hervías
Iñigo Manso is affable and incredibly genial. His family has been farming these lands in Rioja since the twelfth century. His flagship project Conde De Hervías from pre-phylloxera vines has been very well received in the US. We are on the last of the 2004 which I am betting will last an easy twenty years. It has acid and great structure backed up by solid fruit. For the last few years I have been trying to coax out of him the wine that doesn’t make this cuvée. Finally this year we will get some under the label Mencos.
We ride out to his 35 hectares parcel in the heart of Rioja Alta. Here we see the beautiful old vines that line the Ebro river. I learn that although the elevations are lower the plot is cooler and makes for naturally higher acid wines. These vines are old creatures whose life is drawing to an end.
We then move on to the Mencos parcels that fill in this new line. These are the young vines and they average 40 years old with various soils from sand to alluvial and to very gravely. More incredible vineyards. There will be three wines: A Joven, a Crianza and a Reserva. The wines are fabulously balanced with great acidity a resounding sense of place. For me, they define the village of Torremontalvo in Rioja Alta. Flowers, black/red fruits and stone.
It’s been twelve years since I started searching for the flavor of Rioja and here it is shining bright. The young wine will no doubt redefine the notion of what Rioja is about, modern Rioja. The discussion of old school versus new school is over for me. It is about unoxidized, classically built wines with great structure that speak to the place. The few old school wines that are around speak to a different time period and, as valid as they can be when confronted with a good vintage, I’ll take the modern style if it is as elegant as these wines. The group is stunned by how good these wines are and how well they express their terruño. Can’t wait to get these out and start the discussion.
A completely different style operation than the Count’s but one common theme: old vines in the right places. Florentino is a crazy farmer whose passion is clear. We immediately go out to the parcel that I have been focusing on over the last couple years: Paso de La Cosera. This beautiful site is known as Biga in the US and in 2006 it comes exclusively from this little three and a half hectare bowl. Planted about thirty years ago in an area most said would not be suitable because of frost, Florentino proved them wrong. The cool effect at a fairly high elevation in the Elciego township provides the high toned notes that attract me to this tank year in and year out. We taste 2006 through 2009 and a line is drawn in the sand, this is Rioja Alavesa at the extreme limit of Elciego before it turns into Laguardia. Now the fruit of Elciego is clear to me, it is bright red with spices and flowery notes. A crazy meal of rabbit and wild boar stew by his wife highlights the sauvage farmer.
Now we travel seven kilometers to another township in Rioja Alavesa; Samaniego. Here the fruit is spicy, earthy and mineral. Ostatu has been around for a long, long time and again we find the same thing: old vines. Iñigo and his brother Gonzalo are at the helm and the fruit they are getting is stunning if a bit large framed. They changed directions radically in the late eighties with the influence of a Bordelais who landed here to make a special wine. When Gonzalo is asked about the positive influences of the Frenchman he emphatically focuses on viticulture and I agree with him.
The fruit they are bringing in is beautiful these days. Wines like the Reserva handle this well. My concern is that the wines are outsized versions that need to be pulled back to normalcy especially when we speak of the introductory wines. This is an issue that I have been bringing up with greater emphasis each time I sit down with the brothers. They are agreeing with me and have started to do less aggressive punch downs and allowing the fruit to come out on its own. The current wines are excellent with the Reservas being the stand out wines and the little white that could and does beat all expectations. The 2009 is no exception.
So the conclusion of the Rioja stay is that Terruño is alive and finally peeking its head after the dark ages of following the trends. We are fortunate to be working with incredible farmers who are willing to adapt and change in the same way that the character of Rioja changed with the advent of wood two centuries ago.
Mediocrity is not acceptable here, individuality and character is the norm.
We get to Getaria and Ignacio of Ameztoi is awaiting our arrival along with Felipe his helper for such occasion. There is a feast prepared for us. One has to be very careful what is said. I pay the price for my last comment when I told Ignacio that I felt slighted at the last visit since he ate the heads of the fish while we just got eat the loins. So now there is not just fish loins but heads of course, and cockles and spider crabs and, well, the list goes on.
The wines here are always so excellent and even in a vintage with a certain light character they are still a pleasure to drink. The rosé is in its infancy with bright saline notes and some red fruit. All the wines are described by Felipe as more true txakoli in the sense that we are back to the acids of a few years ago. Ignacio is on a roll and continues to deliver one of the most refreshing wines of the peninsula.
We breathe in and get ready for a Txotx. The season just started for cider up in the Basque Country and we are in for a treat. Txotx is a food festival that happens January until April where people come to the cider house for a prix fixe meal consisting of cod omelet, cod and a big dry aged steak on the bone grilled and all this washed down with copious amounts of cider straight from the barrels.
Isastegi makes delicious natural Basque cider and Miguel Mari who is at the helm here is the reason why this is so good. His attention to detail and focus on quality is the key. During the Txotx season he is the one turning on the the flow of cider for the customers every night. Wow, how fantastic to be able to partake in something so primal and so about everything we care about!
We leave early in the morning for Bakio where Itziar and Andoni (husband and wife team) operate their two century year old winery along with vineyards of the same age. Immediately we go to this old plot of Hondarribi Beltza, old vines whose age is hard to approximate because no one alive remembers when they were planted. The whites are also delicious but mostly unavailable due to the local demand. No matter, we get most of the red and the 2009 is delicious if somewhat hard right now. Itziar is a talented winemaker and coaxes the most beautiful fruit from what was a challenging vintage. Bakio is an amazing little village that makes striking wines in the Bizkaia province.
This site is ridiculous, and thanks to the density of the soil here the minerality is crazy in these wines. Dense black rock lies below the little soil that there is. The view is just like Ameztoi, the Atlantic Ocean, but the wines are different. The 2009’s are ridiculously good and let’s not even talk about that rosé, holy something. Cab Franc crazy notes. Something is definitely going on here.
Crazy Roberto seems to have found his groove with the addition of Jon as winemaker/consultant. The vineyards are almost in the town of Bilbao and they face the Ocean. A whopping three hectares. The wines are extremely poised, well balanced and delicious. 2009 is another great year for them.
What can I say about those Basques other than it is a pleasure to continue to discover such incredible diversity in the wines and the sites.