Must confess, I came to Rioja expecting something pretty ‘trad’ … deserted vineyards baking under the hot sun and sleepy barrel halls where wines are quietly aged for years, sometimes decades. Followed by a super-chewy lamb chop for tea.
So imagine my surprise to find it overflowing with likeable, hugely energetic people who are nuts about their region and proud to only release their wine when it’s ready to drink (which drives their accountants mad). These are people who really know how to eat … and how to party … and yes they even have young people and women!
We landed in Bilbao, a charming little city that’s just inland from Spain’s northern coast. It’s framed by mountains and bent around a handful of kinks in some lazy old river. Bilbao is the engine room of the Basque country, which has a local language that had me at ‘hello’ (or ‘kaixo’) and would make for some off-the-charts Scrabble scores thanks to all the Zs and Xs you see in everyday words.
Until quite recently, drinking the local white wine, Txakoli, was a two-handed affair. One hand on the glass and the other gripping the table. These days it’s a trendy white served with oysters in Bilbao’s bijoux bars. Typically to chaps in suede loafers – sans socks.
For a wine person, what’s remarkable about subtropical Bilbao is that it’s just an hour from parched Rioja. The secret? To drive to Rioja, you pass over the Sierra de Cantabria, a shield of mountains that protects Rioja from the Atlantic’s influence.
Once you’re in Rioja you can clearly see the mountains holding up Bilbao’s weather, like a traffic cop. One minute the scenery is mountain greenery, the next it’s Spaghetti Western.
Here are our favourite 7 winemakers in Rioja, in no particular order.
1. Bodegas Manzanos, in San Adrián
Wines: Los Hermanos, Dinastia Manzanos, Marqués de Berceo, Marqués de Butrago
Bodegas Manzanos is a real triumph-over-adversity story. For over a century they were quite happy pottering about making decent enough Rioja. Then eight years ago they won their first big export contract … and in the excitement their dear old dad passed away unexpectedly. His wife was understandably distraught and her two lads needed to step into the breach. The youngest, David, was 17 and studying in Bilbao at the time … and came into the business with his father suddenly gone and a huge export order looming!
Fast forward to 2017 and the winery is thriving – and has even bought a couple of the neighbouring estates – and the young men seem to be taking every challenge in their stride, helped along by winemaker Borja.
We particularly liked the handy vintage guide they gave us – which starts with 1927. “We didn’t want to include anything that’s too old for drinking.”
As thanks for how much Laithwaite’s Wine and Beth have supported them in recent times, the brothers have offered to fly several members of staff to Rioja towards the end of Summer for visits and tastings.
Jamón and Spanish omelette for lunch. Tasty, if saltier than the Dead Sea.
Shop for Manzanos here.
2. Valdemar, in Oyón-Oion
Wines: Familia Martínez Bujanda range, Finca de Marquesado
Another cracking name for a village, shown on many signs with the Spanish and Basque spellings joined together. Oyón-Oion or Oion-Oyón. Fun for all the family.
Here we met with Ana from the fifth generation Martínez-Bujanda wine family, plus Antonio their new winemaker. We first bought the 1985 vintage from these guys so they are among our oldest and most loyal suppliers.
These days there are two quite separate arms of the Martínez Bujanda family and we will meet our old friend Carlos shortly.
See the wines here.
(No jamón on this visit).
3. Bodegas Larchago, Lapuebla de Labarca
Wines: Pagos de Tahola range, Tierras de la Reina white
We end the day at a much more ma-and-pa winery, or in this case father-and-daughter.
We first started working with Ruth and her dad in 2003 and they are immensely proud of the wines they have done for us and of their family’s history in the region (“as far back as the records go, we are wine people”). She also speaks fondly of how many customers have voted for her wines at the Vintage Festival and in the US.
Ruth is naturally warm and honest (yet another Rioja theme). A conversation with her involves being gently squeezed at regular intervals on your shoulder, elbow, hand. She never lets you feel too far away.
Asked why she thinks her wine is so enjoyable, she talks up the benefits of being in the cooler, higher-altitude Rioja Alavesa rather than what she calls “down Rioja”, or Rioja Baja, where the climate is hotter and the historically mass-produced wines lack freshness or complexity.
Their big news at the moment is a whopping 95 points from Decanter for one of their top bottles. We taste it and are reminded once more that top, top Rioja is such a bargain if you benchmark it against fine wines from France.
Brings to mind Guy Woodward’s final editorial when he stepped down as editor of Decanter magazine: “The question friends have asked most over the past 10 years is ‘What’s your favourite wine?’ What do I buy most of? I buy the wine that offers, to my mind, the best blend of quality, complexity, heritage and value – for it is those qualities, the latter in particular, that I cherish most. The wine? Rioja.”
Find Ruth’s wines here.
No jamón on this visit, but dinner in hilltop Laguardia is porky tapas as we wander the narrow medieval streets hemmed in by a wall built by the fabulously named King Sancho the Strong. A great town to visit, like Saint-Emilion but more affordable and a little less formal.
4. Bodegas Primicia, Laguardia
Wines: Carravacas de Primicia
One minute you’re ambling down a typically narrow street in Laguardia. Knock on any of the many doors and it’ll most likely be answered by a ham-nibbling pensioner. Until you reach a door marked Bodegas Primicia. Choose that door and you suddenly drop several floors into the cool earth and a thousand years back into the history of wine. A ‘time tunnel,’ says their wee brochure, and they’re not wrong.
11th century Primicia is probably the oldest building in Rioja and is likely the oldest building still making wine in the whole of Spain. ‘Primicia’ … literally first.
The tunnels under Primicia are so extraordinary that engineers were sent from London when The Underground was just a twinkle in a planner’s eye. The current custodian, Iker, isn’t sure what they learnt, but is confident they enjoyed the fact-finding trip.
Winemaker Fernando also tells us they’ve done a lot of testing of their cool, underground cellars versus new climate-controlled cellars and the thousand-year-old cellars always win. Progress, eh? Primicia also have a barrel shape we’d never seen before – apparently custom-made to fit in their elevator. Which it does … just.
Was also one of those visits where everyone keeps draining their glasses. Always a bit of a giveaway that the wine is fabulous! Buy the wines here.
5. Finca Valdepiedra, in Fuenmayor
Wines: Finca Valpiedra, Cantos de Valpiedra, Finca los Trinos, Venta Vieja, Sierra Almiron
Carlos is Tony’s oldest and greatest friend in Rioja and you’d struggle to meet a nicer man, even in Rioja where the bar is set high. If you don’t warm to Carlos there’s really no hope for you. His wife Ana and niece Martha are very much involved in the business too.
32 vintages since our first purchase he’s increasingly focused on high-end wines from his Finca Valpiedra estate. Valpiedra means ‘valley of stones’ and his vineyards are real ankle sprainers, not unlike the famous pudding-stone vineyards of Chateauneuf.
Carlos says they amplify the warmth of the sun and keep the grapes ripening into the evening, so his vineyards are ready to pick a couple of weeks earlier than all of the neighbours’ – so his crop is never threatened by the late-Summer rains.
Shop for his wines here.
The ‘valley of the stones’ is unlike any other part of Rioja, located in a horseshoe
bend of the River Ebro and packed with Chateauneuf-style pudding stones.
Lunch is with Carlos and wife Ana. He is clearly besties with the local fishmonger. Yes, there is jamón too. The best of the trip. Jamón, jamón! And just when we’re rammed to bursting they bring out the main course … superb pork-cheek stew. Then we hear the death rattle of the dessert trolley in the hallway … “it’s only wafer thin”.
6. Bodegas Muriel, in Elciego
Wines: Barón de Barbón, Limeleaf, Posada del Rey, Finca las Rejas, Cherry Orchard, Bodegas Muriel, Conde de Cron, Conde de los Andes
Mid-30s Javier Múrúa and his dad are our No.1 supplier in Rioja, thanks to the success of Barón de Barbón since 2003, followed by Posada del Rey and Limeleaf. They’ve also become great friends to staff across our business, helped by regular appearances at major customer events including our annual Vintage Festival and Laithwaite’s Live.
And these people are lunatics. Forget stuffy old Rioja. They bounce off the walls with energy. Our final night in Logroño ends with Team Laithwaite raising the white flag at 3am after plate after plate of jamón via intoxicating garlic mushroom skewers at Bar Angel and famous Cojonudo tapas at Bar Donosti (basically a bite-sized breakfast biscuit of quail egg, bacon and a pepper). “But the night is young?” say Javier and his wife Almudena as we limp off to our hotel. No idea how they do it!
7. Gómez Cruzado, in Haro
Wines: Gómez Cruzado, Sendiero de Santos Albariño
The most recent addition to our Rioja list, Gómez Cruzado had a Mexican owner so weren’t seen in the UK for 127 years … and then won a Best in Class trophy in London.
Back in the 19th century, Bordeaux was ravaged by phylloxera. The best wines of Rioja were drafted in to fill the gap and left for Bordeaux from the railway station in Haro. So all the historic greats are within a stone’s throw of the station. When you stand at the cellar door at Gómez Cruzado you can see the facades of a Who’s Who of Rioja … Muga, Tondonia, La Rioja Alta SA.
Four years ago the two winemakers at Gómez Cruzado suggested to their Mexican owners that they take a stake in the winery so they could push quality to another level by investing in the equipment and vineyards they needed. The owners agreed and Gómez Cruzado is now the hottest ticket in town. Winemaker David is a barrel of laughs but you wouldn’t challenge him to Twister once you’ve seen him get in and out of a vat.
No sooner had we finished shooting in the sweltering vineyards than David whipped out a selection of jamón to enjoy under a tree with a chilled glass of his Rioja Blanco – a star turn for the winery and a memorable way to end a fantastic visit.
Which brings us to the end – and well done if you got this far.
I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say Haro.
Haro, Haro … I don’t know why you say goodbye …
(Reporting by Andrew in our catalogue team.)