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SPAIN:  Table Wines

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 Spanish wines.

The Lay of The Land...Backgrounder on Spain

Some Wines and Wineries We Like:

LA RIOJA ALTA
riojaalta.gif (10934 bytes)Located in Haro, this 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 fruit."

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 material."
 
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...


A 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 condition.
 
 

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 ones...

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.
 
Let's taste!




We've 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 before dinner.

 



The Gran 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 $149.99
 
 

 


BORSAO
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




 



MUGA

torremuga.gif (14767 bytes)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 impressive cellars. 

 


prado_enea.gif (3288 bytes)Muga's 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 longer!

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

 





BODEGAS LAN
Logroño, 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 small scale.

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








CELLERS FRISACH
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 Blanca.

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 called Vernaccia.

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)

This 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 classic wine.

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 the wine.

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 quality.
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 wine.  

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

This 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 flow, too.

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

 


 

 

 

 

 

VINICOLA SUCCÉS

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 price.

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 king.  
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 Robles.  

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 cellaring.  
 
Currently in stock:  JUAN GIL 2009 Jumilla Red $15.99

 



ZUAZO GASTON

Prudencio 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 Crianza  $13.99

 



 

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