The table wines from the Rioja region are certainly world
famous and in the cellars of connoisseurs around the world.
We're seeing a dramatic improvement to the wines of Spain and there are still great
bargains to be found here. For many years we've been exploring this delightful area
of the wine universe. You'll find, as a result, we have a substantial stock of
is a very traditional, old-time winery.
The winery owns close to 500 hectares of land has about 360 of their own
"estate" vineyards. At one time they claimed to have produced
about half the fruit needed for their winemaking. When I visited the
winery in 2014, I was told "we grow all our own grapes...we do not buy
But I suspect the fellow who showed me around has not read their web
site: "We also use fruit supplied by approved growers, all of them
magnificent producers, who provide the quality that we require in our raw
These are "classically-styled" Rioja wines. They're not dark
in color, nor are they fruit bombs. As a result, wine writers who
appreciate traditionally-made Spanish wines find these to be quite good, while
those looking for "extreme" wines such as those produced in
California and Australia routinely have not been impressed.
A representative of the winery told us recently "We no longer send our
wines to certain American publications. Why should we? After all,
they do not understand our wines."
When I visited the cellars in 2014, we were told "We do not send
wines to various publications, but our American importers and distributors
have recently been sending the wines." And, in 2013 The Wine
Spectator re-discovered wines from Rioja. Really? We've been
featuring good Rioja wines for a few decades...hello!
I'm certain the critics in question would argue otherwise, but one of them
once published an article on paella. They could not recommend a Spanish
wine for paella, but they did like some California Zinfandels and Pinot Noirs!
If you like old-fashioned, classic Spanish reds, La Rioja Alta should be viewed as a
really good winery. And they make a nice wine, or two, which can
successfully accompany a good paella.
The new winery in Labastida--the tanks are below, leaving plenty of
room to play shuffle-board or for skateboarding...
very high percentage of the wines here are Reserva or Gran Reserva designations.
They have more than 30,000 barrels in the cellars!
Imagine the work involved in maintaining such a cellar full of
cooperage...constantly topping off barrels to keep them full and in good
Putting a spigot in the barrel-head they can rack the clear wine off
the small bit of sediment which forms in the barrel.
Rioja winemakers typically "rack" or decant the clear wine off
its sediment about every 6 months.
The barrels which have been emptied are then washed, rinsed and dosed
with a small sulfur tablet which is burnt inside the barrel and sealed
with a bung...there's a bung and small wire just behind the candle...those
yellowish little disks are sulfur tablets and they attach one to the wire,
light it on fire with the candle and drop it into the empty barrel.
This keeps the barrel clean and disinfected.
They have a crew of coopers who maintain their barrels and build new
An old photo from the Rioja Alta archive of their cellar many decades ago.
At the original winery they have some nice cellars, if a bit
smaller. Here they keep an eye on their higher-tiered wines.
They have millions of bottles maturing...one of the beautiful features of
traditional Rioja wines is that they are aged in cooperage and then given
bottle aging, a concept lost on many California vintners.
long been fans of
their "Viña Alberdi," a Reserva wine with a relatively modest price tag. The
2008 is quite good, showing the lovely woodsy notes we've come to expect in
this wine. It's matured for a year in new American wood before being
racked into older cooperage. We find some nice berry-like fruit, with
fine "woodsy" notes on top. It's a medium-bodied Rioja and one
that's perfectly drinkable right now. It's especially good with grilled
meats, but a paella with seafood and sausages works well, too.
The 2005 Viña Ardanza is delightful and "classically-styled"
Rioja. You'll find plenty of oak and the usual woodsy notes of
patiently matured Spanish red wine. It's very drinkable now, though it
ought to last for five+ years more. Very fine and well-priced.
The 2004 Gran Reserva #904 is an outstanding bottle. It's blended
with about 10% Graciano from a few old vineyards and the wine was matured
for four years in wood. The oak is nice in this wine and it's quite
showy. Medium-bodied, this
can be paired with both white or red meats. It's quite drinkable now,
tasting smoother with food.
Lots of woodsy, oaky notes. The acidity is crisp, giving the wine
the ability to cleanse the palate when you're bombarding it with
garlic-seasoned grilled lamb chops, por ejemplo. We suggest
opening this and allowing it to blossom in a decanter for an hour or so
Reserva #890 from the 1994 vintage was just being released at the end of
2007. Here's a remarkable, very traditionally-made Rioja wine.
It comes from old vines which yield few grapes. It's approximately 85%
Tempranillo and the rest is Graciano and Mazuelo. Six years of
aging in wood!! Imagine that! Once bottled, the wine was then
stored for another 6 years and it's offered to the market in 2007! The
bouquet is lovely, woodsy, cedary and shows a note of cigar box...It's dry
on the palate, but not "plush" in the fashion of modern-styled
wines. Pair this with a roast or grilled meats. Very special.
Currently available: 2008 "Viña Alberdi"
Rioja Reserva (List $25) SALE $19.99
2004 Gran Reserva #904 SALE $54.99
2005 Viña Ardanza SALE $29.99
1994 Gran Reserva #890 List $160 SALE
Borsao comes from a cooperative winery
(actually, it's three wineries!) in the Aragon region of
Spain. They have something like 1500 hectares of vineyards, primarily in Garnacha
vines. The official name of the winery is the Sociedad Cooperativa Agricola Limitado
de Borja, so you can see their name Borsao is certainly much easier to remember.
With a price tag of about six bucks-and-change, it's hard to forget! The wine is made for
immediate consumption, being primarily Garnacha with a bit of Tempranillo. They do a
fermentation in the style of Beaujolais....a whole berry fermentation which minimizes the
tannin and highlights the red fruit notes (raspberry, strawberry, zesty
plums, etc.). This is best served at cool cellar temp and you will
want to drink this in its youth as it's not made with the idea of needing 5
years of bottle aging.
A visitor from Los Angeles was poking around a few years ago, admiring all the
interesting and famous California wines and he saw a little sign on this wine.
"How can this be any good for five bucks?" he asked quizzically.
"Why don't you buy one and find out?" I replied.
He put some money on the counter and departed with a bottle of this.
About four days later he called from L.A. and arranged to have a dozen bottles shipped to
his front door.
The current bottling of Tres Picos is a delight. It's a
sweetly-scented, very berryish red wine with a nice touch of oak. The wood
is fragrant and beautifully integrated, too. It's a medium-bodied wine
with good length. Not a wine for cellaring, it's at its best right now.
There's another wine in their portfolio that's worth noting. Berola.
We're pretty sure they didn't name this after the Brazilian soccer star.
It's Garnacha as the base of this wine, but then they blended in a fair bit of
Syrah and a small percentage of Cabernet.
Nicely oaked, the wine reminds of a good Cabernet with all the dark fruit and
nicely woodsy notes.
Medium-full bodied, it's intended for immediate consumption.
You won't find a wine of this quality at this price in Napa or Sonoma.
Currently available: 2012 Borsao "Campo de
Borja" (list $9.00) SALE$6.99
2013 TRES PICOS GARNACHA SALE$13.99 2011 BORSAO "BEROLA" SALE$13.99
Also located in Haro,
this family-run producer also has its own cooperage associated with the winery. They
buy wood, season it themselves and there's a cooper on hand to build and repair
barrels. While many wineries in Rioja are using stainless steel for their
fermentation, Muga clings to the past, fermenting in wooden vats! They are using
French and American oak for their wines, having more than 10,000 barrels in their
long-time prestigious bottling of "vino Tinto" is called Prado Enea. This
is predominantly Tempranillo with about 20% split amongst Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo.
Matured for an extended period in oak, the 2000 is just now coming to market!
It is drinkable now and should be in tip-top form for another 5-8 years, maybe
Torre Muga is the "reserve-reserve" bottling. It is a big
time red wine and the 2005 is the current release. It's a three grape
blend, 75% Tempranillo, 15% Mazeulo and 10% Graciano. The juice gets a
long period of skin contact and the wine is matured in wood for
approximately two years, 18 months being in brand new barrels. Here's
a thoroughly modern wine made by a fairly traditional winery...You can pair
this with grilled or roasted red meats...drinkable now, it may cellar well
for another 5-10 years...
Currently available: 2003 Muga "Rioja
Reserva" Sold Out
2005 Torre Muga (list $95) SALE $84.99
Alava and Navarra contribute their first letters to form
"LAN," the name of this enterprising bodega. These are the
three regions intersected by the Rioja region. The winery was
founded in the early 1970s and became the property of a gentleman who made
batteries and plastic tubing. And his engineering prowess is on
display in the LAN cellars.
The winery has been on a mission, after making serious investments in
stainless steel tanks, oak barrels and other winemaking tools. What
it lacked was vineyards and grapes. LAN began its search for better
fruit and they've made great investments to assure top quality
grapes. You see, they're paying above-market prices for grapes and
the quality of the LAN wines has risen handsomely.
The winery owns 72 hectares of estate vineyards and now they have about
another 400 hectares contracted with growers.
Despite the large production, some things are done on a relatively
And other things are done "big."
They have considerable quantities of bottled wine "aging"
in the cellars.
And of course the cellars are full of small oak barrels.
They owner of LAN designed and had this gizmo constructed
to facilitate moving barrels around after racking wine, allowing them to
clean the barricas in a more efficient manner.
You'll see these 'train tracks" on the cellar floor and this
machine glides from the barrel stacks to the cleaning stations on the
other side of the cellar.
We were told that a crew from California's Gallo winery paid LAN a
visit, as they are masters of efficiencies. The Gallo crew came
through to have a look and make notes!
Ironically, when we visited the Gallo winery in Modesto, a
security guard was all over us to say we were not allowed to take any
photos while visiting their winery!!!
They produce a large quantity of wine and we find some of their vintages
to be spot on and price-worthy.
Currently we have a 2010 "Crianza" in the shop. It's made
entirely of Tempranillo and aged about a year in small American oak
barrels. While it's not the most compelling bottle of Rioja we've
run across, it is the best buy in good Rioja...it costs a mere ten bucks,
unheard of these days. Try finding an entry level red in Napa for
$9.99. Buena suerte as they say in Spanish. Even other
producers in Rioja were surprised when I mentioned the value-pricing we
see from LAN here in San Francisco...
The 2010 Crianza is a medium-bodied red. Nice woodsy notes from the
oak and some red fruit elements from the Tempranillo. It's drinkable
now and you can cellar it for a few years.
The 2005 Reserva is a winner...lovely, classic Rioja...80% Tempranillo,
10% Mazuelo, 10% Garnacha, the grapes coming from the Rioja Alta
area...older vineyards, too. It's matured for a year in both
French and American oak. We like the woodsy notes on the
nose. And it's smooth enough to enjoy immediately.
Currently in stock: BODEGAS LAN 2011 RIOJA
"Crianza" SALE $9.99
2008 BODEGAS LAN "Reserva" $17.99
This winery is located in the Terra Alta region of Spain, perhaps 2
hours' drive south of Barcelona. You're maybe an hour from the coast
with the biggest town (and the main road) being Tarragona.
Francesc Ferre takes care of the vineyards and cellar. His family
has had this property for perhaps two centuries, but it took them until
just recently to figure out "Maybe we ought to make wine."
The vines are planted on what's been described as "petrified
sand." They have several different varieties in the
vineyard, but we've been enchanted by a particular bottling of Garnacha
The area of Corbera d'Ebre is hard to find on a map, but the sun finds its
way there and it can be quite warm during the day. But with its
proximity to the sea, there's typically a bit of a breeze to help moderate
the heat. Then, factor in the 1200 foot elevation, which can cause a
20 to 30 degree swing to low temperatures at night...this helps the grapes
retain a measure of acidity.
For some reason the Garnacha Blanca was called Vernatxa in the old
days. It's a Catalan term and not related to the Italian grape
Once the grapes have been picked, Ferre crushes the fruit and leaves the
skins in contact with the juice. This is not unusual, of course, for
a red wine, but this is a white. Many of the practitioners of what
today is called "orange" wine (whites fermented with the skins)
frequently seem to produce some rather odd, or to be charitable,
idiosyncratic wines. However, this wine succeeds brilliantly and
skeptics such as we will be won over to this sort of wine.
The 2014 Vernatxa is light straw in color, not the usually dark,
bronze-to-mahogany often found in these so-called "orange"
wines. The fragrances are a delight. There's a peach and melon
sort of fruit with a mildly toasty, woodsy bouquet from the oak aging
(maybe 6 months). It's dry and mildly acidic on the palate with
bright, fresh fruit flavors. Nice length on the palate.
Currently in stock: 2014 VERNATXA $23.99
BELEZOS (Bodegas Zugóber)
small estate is located a short drive west of Logroño. Lapuebla
de Labarca is the town, right along the Ebro river, so they're
technically in Basque country.
The estate is the work of Eduardo Gomez Palma, who hails from Jerez
(Sherry country) and his wife Maria Isabel Bernardo Cordoba (we're
almost done) de Samaniego. (You can call her Maribel for
short.) She's from Rioja. With traditional winemaking in
their veins, the couple wanted to have a modern cellar but respecting
They launched this ship in 1987 and they seem to have a fondness for the
wines of France's Burgundy. Perhaps that explains the beauty and
elegance of their wine?
We're fans of what's labeled as Belezos Vanguardia Ecologico. It's
a 2011 vintage and features Tempranillo. The grapes are farmed
organically, for what that's worth. And it's clear they've taken
good care in the vineyards and have a good sense of balance in making
It was matured for about 9 months in both French and American oak
cooperage. We like the woodsiness of the wine, as the American oak
notes are familiar and classic, but the French oak gives a mildly cedary
It's a medium-full bodied wine, a bit more dark fruit than you usually
encounter in good, classic Rioja.
We sometimes read about various Rioja wines being described as made in
the style of Bordeaux, while others are pegged as Burgundian. If
we were going to make such comparisons (why can't the wine be Riojana
styled?), we might say you'll find elements of each in this
In any case, Belezos is delicious and that's the most important
thing. But a second attractive feature is the wine arrives here at
a reasonable price.
Currently in stock: 2011 BELEZOS Rioja $18.99
BODEGAS HERMANOS PECIÑA
estate is fairly young, being founded in 1992 by Pedro Peciña Crespo
and his kids. They began making simple table wine, but five years
into their adventure, they decided maybe producing some more
"fancy" wines would be a good idea.
In 2003 they were having a fair amount of success and they built yet
another new cellar, this one housing a thousand small oak barrels.
In 2011 they needed more space, so another wine cellar was constructed.
They're big on "natural" wines, organic, etc. Gravity
So today they have 50 hectares of vineyards, three winery buildings and
a couple of additional cellars for aging bottled wines.
We've followed their wines over the past five or six years, maybe
more. We always had found the wines to be heading in the right
direction in terms of style, but let's say the wines lacked a measure of
polish and we'd end up deciding against bringing anything in to the
shop. Maybe they were simply a bit too rustic.
We'd read notes from naturalistas who praised the wines and we'd
wonder "what are we missing?" Well, we weren't missing
anything, it was simply the wines were not as bright and lively as those
being made by other vintners. We'd find the wine might be showing
itself as a bit tired, perhaps. They had the stylings of classic
Rioja, but something was simply not all there.
So we can't say precisely if the 2009 Crianza from Peciña is an
indication they've figured it out or if it's simply a vintage where the
stars and planets were in alignment and Peciña bottled the wine in time
to retain more fruit. We hope it's simply an indication the
learning curve is bending in the right direction.
The 2009 Crianza comes from vines averaging about 40 years of
age. The primary fermentation takes place in stainless steel
utilizing indigenous yeasts. The wine is then put into seasoned
American oak cooperage where they use a traditional racking system,
barrel to barrel and this takes place every six months.
They typically blend in a tiny percentage of Graciano and a
tinier amount of Garnacha. We like the woodsy notes we find in
old-school Rioja and the wine is medium-bodied and has crisp acidity (so it
works well with a seafood/chicken paella, for example, but also grilled
lamb). The 2009 may hold up well in bottle for several more years, but
it's a wine we find quite satisfying right now.
Currently in stock: 2009 PECIÑA
Rioja Crianza $21.99
There's a curious grape grown in Spain's "Conca de Barbera"
region near Tarragona called Trepat. We've known of this variety
for many years, as it's been utilized to produce some good pink Cava
sparkling wines. But we've only known it in these sparkling
rosados as nobody in their right mind would make Trepat as a red
wine. Or so we have been told.
Trepat, the story goes, only produces wine of little color, so there's
no point in trying to vinify it as a red wine.
A few years ago there was some sort of program encouraging people to
launch their own wine brand. If we've understood this correctly, a
co-op winery provides facilities for making wines and bottling them in
the hopes the vineyards in the Conca de Barbera will become more
valuable. Albert Canela and Mariona Vendrell began their winery,
then, with the 2011 vintage. And they've decided to prove wrong
all those who dismissed Trepat as a viable red wine.
The name of their wine is "El Mentider," translating from
Catalan as "the liar." And, apparently, if
you taste this distinctive red, you will see that Trepat CAN be vinified
as a good red wine, despite all those naysayers.
The 2012 is a medium-full bodied red. We find some dark fruit
notes on the nose, with a suggestion of a spice element. Oak is
not a part of this wine's profile, though it was matured for about nine
months in barrel.
The wine is sensibly priced, too. Imagine a California winery
offering a red wine from seriously old vines at a relatively modest
Old vines of Trepat...the young vines are 80 years of age, with some
being more than a century old!
Currently in stock: 2012
SUCCÉS "El Mentider" $25.99
BODEGAS JUAN GIL
There has been
a succession of Juan Gils at this winery, which traces its roots back to the
early 1900s in south-eastern Spain. After the first Juan, maybe they
should have named these guys by number, Two Gil, Three Gil, etc.
I think the current owner is Four Gil.
They're located in the Jumilla region, a place where the Monastrell vine is
We were curious to taste a current vintage from this producer, having read
an article in a French magazine indicating the Juan Gil wine fared very well
in a blind-tasting comparison of Mourvèdre wines, most of which were from
France's Bandol appellation. And you know the French often believe
they have exclusive "rights" to all things of culture, whether
it's wine, food or art, so when you read a French journal praising a Spanish
wine that's a fraction of the price of the Bandols...well...
We found a wine that's going to be a hit with folks who like Lodi
Zinfandels, for example, or many of the ripe reds from Paso
The 2009 is made entirely of Monastrell and matured for about a year in
small French oak barrels. It's a fairly hefty red wine...robust, but
soft and fairly smooth on the palate. Lots of dark fruit notes, some berries
and vanillin along with a touch of cedar. This is best consumed
in its youth...the acidity is not terribly high, so it's not a candidate for
Currently in stock: JUAN GIL 2009 Jumilla Red $15.99
Zuazu Gaston runs this relatively new little winery. His family
had founded the co-op winery in their hometown of Oyon and later founded
a second grower's cooperative winery which is today the Marques de
Vitoria and is part of the Faustino group (the Faustino winery is, in
fact, a neighbor)...
After selling fruit to El Coto, Faustino and Valdemar, Zuazu Gaston
began vinifying its own grapes in 2001. They own some 54 hectares
of vines and rent another 50, producing the equivalent of 5 million
bottles annually. I gather they don't actually make that many
bottles, but that a percentage of their production is sold in bulk, as
Prudencio retains what he feels is his best wine.
The cellars are clean, modern and utilitarian...the winery is not a
museum-like show-place, but an actual winemaking facility.
It's a relatively small company, though...four people work the vineyards
(apart from during the harvest when they have seasonal help) and there
are twelve working in the cellar.
We found a lot of stainless steel fermentation and holding
tanks in the winery.
Prudencio says he prefers these rather wide fermentation tanks as they enhance
the skin contact during the fermentation.
They ferment the various varieties separately...
As with many top cellars in Rioja these days, there's a
special room for "hospitality"...
...they can host tastings, meals or brain-washing sessions in this dining room
with a view to the cellars.
Alberto Anoz, Prudencio's export manager/right hand man...they have a nice
tasting room, by the way.
The 2009 Crianza is a nice bottle and it's
well-priced. Made entirely of Tempranillo, the wine is matured
in both French oak and American barrels. There's a nice red fruit
note along with a mildly cedary tone...less overtly oaky than many
old-school Spanish reds.
It's a good middle-of-the-week red wine where it will certainly
enhance a good home-cooked meal.
Currently in stock: 2009 ZUAZO GASTON Rioja