Viura – the illusive white wine of Rioja

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  If you’ve like Spanish wine, you undoubtedly love Rioja.  The backbone of Rioja was build on Tempranillo, and is dominated by rich, red wines, but did you know that Riojo also has refreshing and lovely white wine? While there actually is a Tempranillo Blanco grape, the shining star among the allowed white varietals in Rioja is Viura.  A mildly acid white grape, it is often used as a blending component, and was nearly wiped out by phylloxera.  When they replanted, much of it was replaced by Malvaia and Garnacha Blanca.  Viura is also one of the most im . portant grapes in Cava production, where it is known as Macabeo. Viura is an excellent alternative to Chardonnay, and if you see the Lopez de Haro Blanco in your wine travels, be sure to check it out. 100% Virua, these grapes were hand harvested and spent a short 3-4 months in oak, keeping the vibrant and fresh flavor.  A low 12.5% ABV (Hallelujah!) this is a wonderful choice for brunch or lunch, wit tropical flavors, peach, fresh citrus, and a lush mouthfeel.  Yum!   Thanks to another great selection from Vintae and Lopez de Haro!      

Location, Location, Location

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Winemaker Dave Phinney has a 20 year history in the wine industry, when he was first inspired by a semester abroad in Italy.  Introduced to wine culture on this trip, he started working for Robert Mondavi in 1997.  Being an industrious young wine enthusiast, he began making his own wine n 1998, with a few tons of California’s heritage grape:  Zinfandel. Over the next 10 years, Phinney continued to make his own wine, as well as developing several wine brands.  Today, his international travels and wine knowledge led him to create Locations Wine, which represents his in creating wines that best represent the regions, while making wine less complicated, and aren’t restricted by local appellation rules and regulatio.  This allows freedom of expression that can sometimes be stymied by the local laws. Locations Wines come from Spain, France, Argentina, Portugal and Italy, as well as a diverse American portfolio that are all unique.  Free to completely express the wines of these regions, Phinney’s wines break all the rules but yield delicious results that are simple, yet complex, and fun.  First up, Locations Wine F4 – France .  With an $18 price point, this blend of Grenache, Syrah and Bordeaux varietals is soft and supple with leather notes, tobacco leave and Herbs de Provence while ending with a savory herbal finish.         Next, E4 – Spanish Red Wine is a blend of Grenache/Garnacha, Tempranillo, Monastrell, and Carignan/Cariñena.  This grippy Spanish beast evokes the classic tables wines of Spain, with dried figs, cracked pepper and espresso.  Dark and silky, the dark purple fruit surrounds you like a warm blanket.       My favorite of these three was by far the Locations Wine AR5 – Argentinian Red Wine.  This supple belnd of the classic Argentine Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, it is deeply concentrated.  Hailing from the Uco Valley, southwest of Mendoza, the 3,000 foot elevation adds a gritty yet pleasing mineralality and complexity to this wine.  The now commonplace blending grape of Cab, adds dimension and complexity to the sometimes overpowering boldness of the Malbec.  Inky and unctuous, boysenberries and chocolate leap out  the glass and make me smile. All Locations Wines are priced ~$18, making them an easy sell for Tuesday night, as well as a backyard barbeque.  With the freedom to experiment, Phinney takes his Orin Swift baseline and explodes on the scene with these new and inventive wines. Stay tuned for more from Locations Wine, including wines from CA, OR and WA. Special thanks to Balzac Communications for introducing me to these interesting wines!      

Lopez Haro – an instant classic from Rioja

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I love Spain.  In fact, I have had the good fortune to have visited five times in five years.  In the heart of Spain’s most well known wine region, Rioja, Bodegas Classica brings you Hacienda Lopez de Haro, a Vintae project.  Focusing on revolutionizing the world of wine while still focusing on the small family feel, I had the pleasure of being introduced to Vintae on my first visit to Rioja in 2011. With Lopez De Haro, the region of the Rioja Sonsierra is the focus.  Located within Rioja Alta, it is nestled at the foot of the Toloño Mountains.  This moderate climate is perfect for making Rioja wine.   From a youthful red blend, to the age worthy La Reserva, these wines are a great example of how Rioja can be affordable but luxurious at the same time. 2015 Bodega Classica Hacienda Lopez de Haro Tempranillo – made from fruit from 50-70 year old vines, this weeknight treat is earthy with dried cherries, tobacco and herbal notes.  Simple but not boring, there is a kiss of oak to finish this is a delicious $8 wine for your pizza or hamburger. 2013 Bodega Classica Hacienda Lopez de Haro Crianza – the youngest of the classified Rioja wines, this luscius blend of Tempranillo, Garnaca and Graciano is a mouthwatering treat.  Soft and pleasing to the palate but firm in structure, dried orange peel, mulling spices and fresh strawberries jump out while Herbs de Provence and cracked pepper layer of subtle vanilla.  At $12, this is a steal. 2009 Bodega Classica Hacienda Lopez de Haro Reserva – surprisingly elegant at this price point, this wine is full of chocolate and chili spice, with lush dark fruit and balsamic notes.  The finish is is full of smoked meat, and it just gets better with time.  At $13, the selection of low yield Tempranillo and Graciano is elegant and silky.  With 20 months in oak, this wine will just get better and at this price point is an excellent introduction to the higher escalations of Rioja. With wines of this quality for less than $20, make sure some Lopez de Haro is on your Thanksgiving table, or wherever you are celebrating this season!  I can’t wait to go back to Spain to visit this special place.   Special thanks to Rebekah Polster of 401 West Communications for introducing me to these excellent wines will killer QPR.  Yet again, Spain is proving that wines of exceptional quality do not have to be exceptionally expensive.

Rosé , Rosé , Rosé , Rosé

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Will they ever be as sweet? The answer is, no!  because rose has made a revolution, and there are new kids on the block.  Gone are the days of bygone all there was to rosé was a sweet, cloying white zinfnadel.  Today’s American pink wine is diverse, exciting, and runs from off dry to bone dry, from juicy strawberries to salted watermelon. To focus on these diverse styles of rosé, this month’s #winestudio is focusing on the various style of rosé from Sonoma County. The first up is Passaggio Wines, who’s winemaker Cindy Cosco loves to play with different fruit sources.  I’ve known Cindy for a while now, from her humble beginnings at Crushpad in San Francisco after a career in law enforcement, to her thriving tasting room on the Sonoma Plaza. Starting with the Barbera, on through the Mourvedre, pushing through Rosé Colored Glasses (a Tempranillo) and on to her latest pink project from Merlot, there is always something new to taste form this eclectic winery. 2014 Mourvedré Rose (sold out) – quite possibly my favorite of the three, the Mourvedré Rose comes from Clarksburg, a warm climate in the Central Valley.  With juicy red fruit, strawberries and raspberries as expected, but with an herbal and floral finish, this is a perfect rose with grilled wild salmon or grilled chicken. 2015 Rose Colored Glasses – Sourced from Sonoma County, this starts out similarly to the Mourvedré, with bright red berries, it quickly reveals itself to be a stronger rose with deeper red fruit, watermelon, and a hint of spice.  A classic rosato style, it stands up well to burgers and other grilling meats. 2015 Merlot Rose – is the newest kid on the block, hailing from Carneros.  Low in alcohol and deep in color, it has classic Merlot flavors of cherry, plum and blackberry, but finishes with a beautiful green herbal note and savory dried herbs.  This is a fun addition to the club, and I can taste the salted watermelon salad, pork chops or turkey burgers. Three cheers to Cindy and her rose project, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next! While the Merlot rosé was a sample sent to me for the purposes of particiapting in #winestudio, all other Passaggio wines were purchased by…me! Next up in #winestudio, Ellipses Wine Compnay Rose of Pinot Meunier!  

Tilenus – Excellence in the lost art of Mencia

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From one end of Spain to the other, the #OleWinos continuing adventures took us across the country – by trains, planes, and automobiles.  OK, there were no planes, but at times the high speed train from Alicante to Madrid certainly felt like one! A two hour blur later, we piled in the rented van and took off for Bierzo, a small DO located in the northwest region of León.  Located in a lush, green, and hilly area of the north, there are many small valleys and wide, flat plains that are perfect for cultivating Mencia, the area’s grape. Making our homebase the university town of Ponferrada, the castle loomed large over the walled old town where our hotel was.  With a viticultural history dating back to Roman times, the phylloxera plague nearly wiped out the industry in the 19th century.  With modern advanced in vine grafting, the vineyard economy slowly recovered, and producing grew to be a significant influence on the region’s economy.  In 1989, the DO was created. With the heavy quartz and slate soils, vineyards are planted on moist, rich soil.  Here in Bierzo, only a handful of grape varietals are allowed: Mencia, Alicante Bouschet, and a few experimental grapes for red Godello, Palomino and Dona Blanca (and a few more experimental grapes) for white. With these “experimental” varietals only allowed in Crianza (young) wines, the Riserva and Grand Riserva wines must only contain the classic varietals to carry the DO lable. On this trip, we were exploring MG Wines‘ property Bodegas Estefania, which was founded in 1999.  Keeping in line with MG Wines mission of sustainalbe, unique, and local wines, “Tilenus”, as Estefania is commonly known as, meets and exceeds those expectations.   Bodegas Estefanía, much like the other MG Wines Group properties, prides itself of being sustainable, modern, and true to the native habitat of the region.  While they focus primarily on the indigenous Mencia group, they also make a Godella (white).  Our host, winemaker Carlos Garcia, led us on a bit of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – as we explored the rugged countryside where the vineyard are located.  On this particular day, it was drizzly and cold, so we scrapped our plans to explore the hilltop plot, and instead explored the oldest vineyard. Here, in what was formerly the land of bulk wine and large coop wineries, Bodegas Esefania was founded in 1999, it was influential as the start of the Bierzo revolution.  Once an old creamery, it was acquired by bin 2014.  It’s primary brand, and what most people refer to the winery as, Tilenus, pays tribute to the Roman era of Bierzo; today, this history is on the wine labels, with the image ofa Roman coin, signifying the period of history when the Roman’s mined the area for gold. The red earth undulated like a fault line, revealing many microclimates of peaks and valleys.  In these vineyards, 80% of the fruit is grown, with the additional 20% sourced from small, local vineyards.  Tilenus carefully maintains separate […]

Bodegas Lavia – true expression of Monastrell

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In the continuing saga of the Adventures of the #OleWinos, who are visiting the wineries of the luxury wine group MG Wines Group, we meandered around southern Spain to the DO of Bullas.  The Bullas DO is located in Murcia, and is known in particular for it’s young red and rose wines from the local Monastrell grape. This time, we are headed to Bodegas Lavia, in the DO of Bullas.  This area has been producing wine since at least the 13th century, when he Christians invaded and pushed the Moors out.  The modern wine industry wasn’t developed, however, until the 1980s, when the bulk wine industry was supplanted by modern equipment and smaller winery investors.  In 1994, it officially became a Denominacian de Origin.With MG Wines’ focus on wineries that share a philosophy of coaxing the essence of the grape out, Lavia fits this culture perfectly with it’s dedication to the finer points of Syrah and Monastrell. Bodegas Lavia was founded in 2003, when a a like minded group of wine lovers and winemakers became enamored of the possibility of creating a winery that produced wines from organically grown grapes, crafted in to wines with the maximum expression of the grape.  Here at Lavia, everything has a purpose and is done with great care and consideration – from the gravity flow winery, to the focus on Syrah and Monastrell, the wines are expressive and clear beacons of the Bullas DO. Located in Venta del Pino, Bodegas Lavia is at approximately 800 meters above sea level.  With Monastrell vines averaging 40 years old or more, younger Syrah plantings are intermingled, giving Lavia it’s distinct flavor profile.  The use of native yeast further adds tot he overall terroir of the wines, and it’s slant towards lower tannin, elegant, and fresh Monastrell-Syrah based blends.  With 2,500 hectares planted to 80% Monasrell, a bit of Tempranillo, a bit of white, and the rest Syrah, the wines are an icon of the very small Bullas DO. With his eye on a more Burgundian expression of the grape, winemaker Sebastien Boudon (who also makes the wines of Bodegas Sierra Salinas) strives to make fresh and elegant wines, in a different style from Sierra Salinas.  By using only 500 liter barrels instead of the standard 225 liters, oak is a very light hand and is primarily a storage vessel versus a flavoring component. Bodegas Lavia’s wines are all elegant and complex, and very different than Sierra Salinas even though the primary grape used in both houses is Monasrell.   2010 Lavia is 80% Monastrell, 20% Syrah.  The rocky soil produces fruit with thinner skins, helping to create a lighter colored wine with a more translucent color.  Flavors of rich red fruit, cherry and raspberry burst out of the glass, followed by floral notes, smoke and plum.  This fresh and light style of Monastrell show a bright acidity on the finish, with a touch of pink peppercorn. 2006 Lavia + – this 100% Monastrell gem is a deep brick color, primarily due […]

Bodegas Sierra Salinas – Discover the Magic of Monastrell!

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Bodegas Sierra Salinas was founded in the year 2000, by the longtime viticultural family Castano.  Here, old vineyards were revitalized, in this corner of southern Spain tucked between Alicante and Murcia.  Sierra Salinas is committed to making artistically expressive Monastrell, the classic, dark grape of this region that is bound to tradition and culture.  Castano however, is dedicated to mixing old with new, and has created a modern wonder of a winery, in this classic culture of winemaking.   In 2013, when MG Wines Group acquired the property, there were already far ahead of the game. The vineyards of Sierra Salinas are located in the mountainout region of the same name, in the town of Villena, which is in the inland area of teh Alicante DO.  Here, with the diverse altitude that only mountain regions can bring, along with the dry, almost desert like landscape, there are a large number of microclimates playing with grape growing.  With it’s dusty lunar landscape, and high mesa and plateaus, one might think they had been transported to the Arizona desert.  In fact, this region is well known as an area where Spaghetti Westerns were filmed, with the Arizona like landscape, cold winters, and hot hot summers.  And yet, with the Meddeterrean so nearby, the climate can be Continental and Medeterranean, with a large diurinal swing helping to keep acids high and sguars in balance.     The soils of the region are an interesting factor as well, with large, loose stones, Caliza, and limestone all impacting the terroir.  The 30-60 centimeters of loosly packed topsoil is high in iron content, giving it it’s distinct red color.         Winemaker Sebastien Boudon, French by birth and Spanish by passion, emigrated to the region because he saw new horizons in winemaking.  The state of the art winery features a gravity flow winery, to avoid unneccesary pumping, and small tanks for batch vinification to exact measures.  With 70% of the property planted to Monastrell, Sierra Salinas specializes in this variety.  Another 20% if planted to the local Alicante Bouschet (known locally as Garnacha Tintorero).  This place is history ina  glass, with the oldest vines being 70 years old, and the newest babies only 15.  These ancient vines have rootsystems so deep, that they penetrate the limestone layer, some 15-20 feet thick!   Sierra Salinas specializes in organically grown wines that are treated with care; from hand harvesting, to custom fermentation tanks featuring adjustable, self sealing lids – everything is carefully thought out and designed.  The wines we tasted on this day clearly showed this passion for the region and for Monastrell, as they were each different expressions of the same, delicious grape with slight variations.    2012 MO – Monastrell 35 year old Monastrell, blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, and Garnacha Tintarero, with a hint of Syrah. Dark purple, with strong spice notes sprinkled on top of dark cherry, ripe plum, blackberry, and tobacco. Chewy and dense with blue fruit and cigar box.  Mo is an excellent choice […]

On the Road to Spain!

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It’s hard to believe, but in three short days, I will be on a plane, headed to Spain, where maybe it will rain.  I am excited to be returned to one of my favorite places to explore, and to reach out to new areas of wine production and geography. On this adventure, I will exploring three wine producing regions in Spain, to experience some world class wines, hospitality, and food. First up, Bullas, a DO in the wine region of Murcia, which is in the southeaster corner of Spain.  This southern gem kisses the Mediterranean sea, and the town itself is an ancient one with evidence of Roman occupation, including wine production dating from that time.  Now, it is known for it’s bold and powerful Monastrell (Mouvedre) based red wines.  In Bullas, we will visit Sierra Salinas, and Bodegas Lavina, soaking up the delicious Monastrell and jamon as as explore the sustainable agriculture and stewardshp of the region. After our southern adventure, it’s off to the norther DO of Bierzo, located in the northwest corner of Spain.  Here, we will experience Mencia, Alicante Bouchet, and a smattering of white wines at Tilenus Winery.  Here, it’s xpereincing the hearty chickpea stew of the northern part of Spain to keep us warm and ready to go. A short but sweet whirlwind through Spain, and then i’m off to France on vacation for a week!  Wish me luck and delicious wine, and check for updates from the road.  There will be plenty of pictures of jamon Iberico as I plan to eat my weight in Pata Negra, as well as delicious tapas, and other delights.  France will include a trip to the Champagne region, where I will taste the stars in a glass, and gain a smile ear to ear. ¡Salud!        

Eguren Ugarte – getting lost in history

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Before we finish my tour of Rioja with the ultimate wine experience in Haro, I have one last (and favorite) stops was Bodegas Eguren Ugarte, in the Paganos area.  Situated high in the hills, with the mountains looming behind it and the stunning expanse of Rioja below, the Ugarte property combines old world charm and new world hospitality with a luxury hotel, winery, and restaurants. Three generations of the family have made wine here since 1870, in the Basque countryside or northern Spain.  With over 120,000 hectares of grapes, it’s easy to see the influence that they have had in the region. Eguren Ugarte is known for it’s 2 kilometers of underground caves, hand dug and sloping downwards farther in to the stone hillside.  Each side tunnel has private cages that can be purchased by wine lovers, and walking through the tunnels is walking back in time.  While my pictures didn’t come out, there nooks and crannies with private dining areas are a particularly unique experience that must be enjoyed on any visit to Rioja. After a tour of the caves and the hotel, we tasted through the wines before enjoying a traditional lunch in their cozy restaurant. 2010 Crianza  – a young, fresh and lively blend of 92% tempranillo and 8% garnacha.  The goal was to create a fresh experience without as much oak influence, and the big, dark red fruit comes through with a touch of coffee.  A crowd pleasing friendly wine with a touch of anise and oak influence. 2008 Reserva – classic style, 90% tempranillo and 10 graciano, with bright acidity and firm tannins.  With 14 months in new oak, and another 2 years of bottle aging ,this is Rioja at it’s best, full of smok and lavendear notes. 2004 Grand Reserva – the Queen of the dance, with 90% tempranillo and 10% mazuelo (carignane).  I love the bright red fruit, currant, raspberry and tomato notes.  The darker black fruit and firm tannins will age for years, and are especially tasty with grilled meats and cheese. Eguren Ugarte is full of character and is as diverse in it’s wine as it is in it’s offerings.  Step back in time in the caves; enjoy a luxurious getaway at the hotel and it’s spa; dine in one of the two restaurants.  This is a must stop in the mountains of Basque Spain, even on the shortest of trips. Google

Bodegas Izadi – a collective quest for Rioja

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One of my favorite stops on my tour of Rioja was Bodegas Izadi, a small group of producers established 25 years ago. A striking 5 story winery is tucked behind the small house that holds the tasting facilities, and is the centerpoint of the gravity feed operation.   Bodegas Izadi, located a stone’s throw from the Basque country is Basque for nature, and the wines reflect that in the wines and properties.  While most of Rioja is widely known for the red wine made from Tempranillo, Bodegas Izadi is more famous for thier whites, which are refreshing and beautiful on a hot Rioja day. The calcareous soils of Rioja Alavesa look like a moonscape, with dried, cracked calcium rich soils holding strong to the bold Tempranillo vines.  Known for wines with a fuller body and higher acidly, the hard scrub soils produce vigorous vines that fight for nutrients creating some amazing wines of bold character. First up, the 2012 Blanco F.B. is a blend of Viura and Malvasia.  This bright and clean wine has notes of flowers, specifically daisies, and a aromatic vanilla finish.  Full of peaces and musk melon, this fresh and fruity white is barrel aged for 3 months, and a steal at $20.     The 2009 Crianza is made with fruit from 40 year old vineyards and is the flagship wine of Bodegas Izadi.  This fresh, fruity, friendly wine has dried figs, fruit compote, violets and molasses.  Yum!  A pinch of Graciano is included from the field blend, although they are unsure how much is actually planted in there as it has intermingled with the Tempranillo for so long.  The firm tnanins in this wine are great with food and will maintain it’s structure for years to come.   Regalo, or “The Gift”, Reserva is made from a small selection of low yield vineyards that are averaging 50 years old.  Primarily Tempranillo, there is also 1% blended in with Garnacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo (Carignane).   The rich smokey blackberry fruit, blue fruit and chewy dense red fruit really shine through in this special wine.  The finish oges on for days, and is perfect for a classic Rioja steak en plancha (meat on a stick, grilled)! The Orben brand was started with the intention of introducing new ways of winemaking in the old world regime of Rioja.  With careful sellection of fruit and modern winemaking techniques, the Orben wines are appealing to the New World palates.  The 2008 Orben Tempranillo is made the modern style, with a selection from 72 plots around Rioja Alvesa.  These very old vines produce a single bunch of grapes each, full of bigger, bold fruit expression and personality.  This chewy and dense wine still holds a beautiful bright acidity on top of the brooding bramble berry fruit.  A declassified Rioja (green label), this gives the winemaker freedom in style and expression and this shows in the Orben.  The name Orben stems from orb, or circle, but an imperfect circle; always striving to be better, the Orben is […]

Bodegas Bilbainas – Classic Rioja

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Meandering through the country side of Rioja, Bodegas (wine cellars) are dotted along the back roads like farmhouses in Iowa.  Bodegas Bilbaninas is in the heart of Rioja, in the Haro district of Rioja Alta. With 250 hectares (615 acres more or less ) of vineyards, they have been known for excellent wines since 1859.   Never content to sit back and let change pass them by, Bilbanianas recently added the modern and upstart Vina Zaco to it’s line up.   Currently owned by a French company, the family of brands also produces cognac and champagne.Bodegas Bilbainas has the oldest bottling registration in Rioja, which is unique among such an old wine tradition.   As we toured the winery, we were greeted by a visual history of the bodega, which is a living piece of history.  When wine first became the economic center of the region, as today, there were many attempts to counterfeit true Rioja.  To combat this, Bodegas Bilbaninas and others, began the process of adding the net over the bottle that we can still see today (though now it’s decorative in nature).  Why you might ask?  As our host explained to us, if you put a net over the bottle after the label is affixed, you can’t slap another label on top.  Genius I say! As the largest vineyard owner in the Haro area, Bodegas Bilbaninas believes in the importance of the estate vineyard.  With 250 hectares of contiguous land, this is unusual and unique in Rioja and sets them apart from the competition. Having experienced the smaller bodegas and the larger bodegas, Bodegas Bilbaninas runs regular tours and tastings to educate the enotourist on the special aspects of Rioja Alta. Make sure you taste the young, fresh and fun Vina Zaco.  Make of 100% Tempranillo, the Vina Zaco is a fruitier expression of Rioja that is indicative of the newer wine movement in the region. For a more traditional approach to winemaking, Bodegas Bilbaninas also produces Vina Pomal, and La Vicalanda wines. Be sure to include Bodegas Bilbaninas on your trip through the region!  You won’t be sorry. Google

Risky business at the Marques de Riscal hotel

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       After spending a leisurely morning horseback riding in the high tableau above La Rioja and her vineyards, the intrepid travelers were treated to a luxurious after noon at the Marques de Rical Spa. Opened in 2006, this stunning art piece stands high on a hill, well hidden from the prying eyes of road warriors, in the town of Elciego, Spain.  Master architect Frank Gehry, who is well known for his work on the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed the building in a similar style – with a waving metallic roofline, and soft, unctuous features. Since the opening, the Marques de Riscal has become a famous retreat for the elite, as well as the masses, with a focus on design, art, gastronomy and of course – wine.  For our group, we spent the afternoon relaxing in the spa, massaging away the horseback – behind, travelers aches, and other stresses.  The Spa Vinothérapie Caudalie Marqués de Riscal is tucked away in the lower levels of the hotel, with a peaceful outdoor sitting area overlooking vineyards and the hillside.  With an indoor pool and hottub, as well as a variety of luxury treatments, I could have stayed with my book all afternoon. Special treatments at the spa were designed to highlight the benefits of essence of the grapes, from the surrounding wine culture, to sooth and invigorate the skin.  I had a massage with grape oil, and there is an option for a barrel bath, soaking in the grape pomace.  Ahhhh! After our spa treatments, and exploring the hotel grounds, we headed to the restaurant for an epic feast.  Awarded with a Michelin Star in 2012, the traditional Spainsih fare is turned on it’s head with a modern twist. From wine “caviar” to beer “soup”, our evening progressed in to a classic, and long, Spanish dinner, full of wine and laughter.  The dishes were magical a retelling of simple and classic traditional Spanish items, and we enjoyed them to the very last crumb of dessert. Spa treatments start at 60 Euro for a 20 minute massage, with a Barrel Bath treatment at 110 Euro.  The pool area is open to hotel and spa guests, and is a fantastic way to relax on your trip to Rioja.  A full day of touring in the region and and access to the spa is a very affordable 80 Euro for you day trippers out there! For those who are points collectors, the Marques de Riscal is a Starwood Preferred Guest program property, and I can envision myself saving up some points to stay here!  I highly recommend a visit to the Hotel Marques de Riscal, in the “City of Wine”, in the heart of Rioja.  You won’t be sorry! This visit was provided by the good folks at: Google

Where in the world is Rioja?

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Rioja is a vast region of Spain, and one of the most well known wine regions from that country.  While you can make similarities to Sonoma County, as La Rioja is also a community (or county), the wines from that area can be from Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Baja, and even the surrounding regions of Navarra and Alava. Located in a north east pocket of Spain, Rioja can be mountainous, lush, dry, desert, or anything in between.  First recognized as a wine growing region in the middle ages, it has evolved to be a world renowned and diverse wine region. The three regions within La Rioja are microclimates, each with specific soil types and terroirs that differ, while holding a similar continental climate.  Rioja Alta, where I spent most of my visit, is on the western edge and has the highest elevation.  Known for old world style wine, the higher elevation makes a cooler climate.  Rioja Alavesa is similar to Rioja Alta,  but tends to make bigger, bolder wines.  Poorer soil quality means that vines have to struggle more, producing stronger wines.  Finally, Rioja Baja is less of a continental climate are more of the warm, balmy, Mediterranean climate. The most common varietal planted in Rioja is Tempranillo, though Garnacha (Grenache), Graciano, and Mazuelo (Carignane) are alos allowed and are commonly used for blending.  There are a few rebel wineries that are doing some single varietal bottlings of these grapes and are really very interesting.  While they are the same grapes as their French neighbors in the Rhone valley, they are quite different and more powerful.  The more rare and special Rioja Blancas are usually Viura (Macabeo, which is often used or Cava), Malvasia, and my favorite – Garnacha Blanca. One of the keys to understanding Rioja, beyond the sub regions, is understanding the classification system.  Much like Bordeaux and it’s first growth Chateau, Rioja has rules around what can be a Crianza, Reserva, or Gran Rerserva.  But it’s not what you think! Spanish wines are labeled based on how long you age the wine; while there is a newer classification that is simploy “Rioja”, or declassified wine, you can classify most wines in three categories. Crianza red wines are aged for 2 years with at least 6 months in oak. Crianza whites and rosés must be aged for at least 1 year with at least 6 months in oak. Reserva red wines are aged for at least 3 years with at least 1 year in oak. Reserva whites and rosés must be aged for at least 2 years with at least 6 months in oak. Gran Reserva wines typically appear in above average vintages with the red wines requiring at least 5 years aging, 18 months of which in oak and a minimum of 36 months in the bottle. Gran Reserva whites and rosés must be aged for at least 4 years with at least 6 months in oak. Confused?  Yeah me too; so Crianza is what most people drink on a daily basis, and what you’d order in a bar.  Reserva is probably what you’d bring to a dinner […]

A Spanish Castle stands guard over Rioja

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On a bright early summer day, as our jet lagged bodies were drug out of bed to meet Rioja sun, we were off on our first visit of the trip, to Bodegas Castillo de Sajazarra. This beautiful castle was purchased in the 1960s and restored by the Libano family as their family home.  Investigating the property, they realized that there were remnants of wine productoin facilities, and they set out on an adventure to impart their own stamp on a new, modern winery. The 700 year old original fortress was situated on the border of the Moorish Muslim territory and the northern European Christians, which – as you can imagine could be quite a contested region during the crusades. Enter the current owner and his family, who are Basque.  Again, a hotly disputed territory, they moved to the now tranquil region of Rioja Alta to escape persecution from the separatist movement in Basque country. After restoring the wine making facilities to modern standards, the first vintage was produced in 1973 from the the rich chalky soils of the region.  Here, the bold wines of Rioja are front and center, along with the lesser known, delicate and delicious whites.  Today, 250,000 bottles are produced, and aged an average of 3 to 4 years. While the castle isn’t open to the public, I highly suggest making the time and arrangements to view this piece of history in Rioja!  You wont be sorry, and you might get lost in the dungeon!        Google  

Ranchero Cellars

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Ranchero Cellars is a small winery, based in Paso Robles.  When visiting for Hospice du Rhone this year, I made it a point to visit with Amy Butler, owner and winemaker for Ranchero on the recommendation of some local friends.