Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

FIVE DAYS IN RIOJA PART I: Bodegas Izadi, Vina Real, Muga, and Roda

December 2008

When I lived in Sweden some years ago I had three wine columns in the press and used to devote quite a bit of space to Rioja wines because of their excellent value for money. In those days Gran Reservas from top vintages were released when 10 or even 12 years’ old, at a third of the price of comparable French wines that were, furthermore, far less mature.


I still recall tasting, blind, the ’64 Gran Reserva from the Marques de Murriéta when it was about 20 years’ old. I was impressed by its glowing colour, beautiful balance, and depth of flavour. Stylistically, it was like a cross between a claret and a Burgundy of very high quality.


Also excellent was a series of wines from CUNE (Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espagna). All were well-coloured, full-bodied, round, and very satisfying. And most were fully-mature. True, they sometimes did exhibit that faintly cloying sweetness of wines that had undergone long ageing in American oak, but with CUNE at least this aspect was scarcely noticeable and did not greatly mar one’s enjoyment.


Many other Riojas, though, were often pale, washed-out even, and had a dried-out finish. Much of their fruit had been eaten up by excessive exposure to oxygen – and by being bottled far too late.


Some year’s later I spent quite a bit of time with Emile Peynaud, the great oenologist who transformed wine-making all over the globe.


He’d helped virtually all of the Crus Classés estates of Bordeaux transform their wines (he was an outstanding practitioner as well as theoretician), and had also given crucial assistance to major producers in many other countries, Spain included. He had, like me, a high regard for Spain’s vinous potential: “Spanish wines are of very high quality and cost only one-third as much as the French. Spain could produce great wine, but first she must modify her viticulture. Today, the trade is dominated by big shippers, who blend or make wine from too many disparate elements.”


In recent years it has become increasingly clear that important changes are being wrought in Rioja. A few – though not many – individual estates have come into being and even some of the more old-fashioned bodegas have created single-vineyard wines. The time therefore seemed ripe for my first visit to the region in over a decade. I’d originally intended to arrive just after the 2008 harvest but, as things turned out, inclement weather had slowed everything down and some bodegas had barely started to pick the grapes. When I arrived on 6th October the whole region resounded to the grinding of grape-Iaden tractors and the air smelled, pungently, of fermenting must.


Rioja is named after the River Oja (Rio Oja) and has more than 60,000 hectares of vines, or a little more than half the vineyard area of Bordeaux. A gently undulating plateau, Rioja is ringed by chains of mountains, which most of the time protect it from bad weather. During my stay, though, it was rainy and cool, and pewter-coloured cloud masses rested indolently on the mountain tops. The sun often broke through, but the clouds soon got the upper hand again. This ever-shifting chiaroscuro gave an unsettled, almost eerie, feel to the landscape; it made the very same stretch of country seem to metamorphose, changing, chameleon-like, from sombre to radiant and back again.


In any event, the prospects for 2008 do not look good. Several producers, with disarming frankness, said straight out that they expected a poor vintage. However, the weather did improve markedly towards the end of the week and it may well turn out that those who delayed picking (and there seemed to be quite a few of them) would make at least decent wine.


A foretaste of Rioja wine, at an otherwise nondescript restaurant in San Sebastian on the eve of my arrival:



With the glowing colour of a top Saint-Emilion, this has a fine, full scent of black fruits, violet, and liquorice, leading into an excellent, very smooth flavour of bilberry jam. The finish is both elegant and sustained.


This well-balanced wine is so delicious that we ordered a second bottle (a rare move on my part, as I relish contrast) which tasted even better. Very like a good Pomerol in fact.






We’re driving towards the Basque Mountains that form the northern perimeter of Rioja. “Behind those mountains, no vines,” says our driver. We’re surrounded by a sea of vines, many still burdened with purple grapes, their foliage a lovely olive-green against the ochre and indian red landscape. At this precise instant the sun shines and the temperature, just for a moment, is around 28°. It won’t stay at that for long.


Izadi has four different wineries, says Almudena Imhof who receives me, adding that, like many other bodegas, they use a mix of French and American barrels with light, medium, and heavy toast. The red varieties are all vinified together. Tempranillo dominates, of course, and they also use the traditional Garnacha and Graciano. The rules have been relaxed to allow a minor addition of the “foreign” Cabernet-Sauvignon and Merlot, and Izadi avail themselves of this loophole. The French varieties can only be mentioned on the label as “other varieties”.


Vega Sicilia’s winemaker was consultant here for five years and his influence was one of the reasons, surely, why the wines I am about to taste are so good.


2007 IZADI BLANCO * (80% Viura, 20% Malvasia)

This very pale wine has an incisive smell of grapefruit, honey, and orange blossom, with the oak’s woodiness noticeable but not obtrusive. The flavour is crisp, the finish steely. An acceptable if unexciting wine for the next 4-5 years.



A clear scarlet, with a lively, supple smell and flavour of black fruits. The fruity flavour and mild tannins result in an attractive red to drink young.


2003 RIOJA RESERVA ** (80% Temp., 10% each Garn. & Grac.)

Much darker, with a fuller and more expressive aroma of strawberry compote, ginger biscuit (American oak), and clay. The roasted ’03 grapes deliver plenty of fruit on the palate, leaving a rasp of coffee and tar. A decisive, vital wine with a bitter, slightly clovey finish. For the medium term.


2001 SELECCION ** (*) (80% Temp., 20% Grac., from three plots of 80-year-old vines)

Rich in pigment, this has a full, vinous smell of raspberry and black fruits and a flavour that expands to include cranberry and cinnamon too. Oak shows on both nose and palate but there’s plenty of fruity intensity to counterbalance this. A weighty wine, still aggressive, that needs some 4 years to reach a maturity that will last a good 6 or more years.


2001 EXPRESION (100-year vines) ****

This deep-purple wine has a huge, roasted aroma that emits a glorious surge of ripe autumn berries, black fruits, and oriental spices. The flavour is so mouth-filling it’s almost porty, with a pruny finish that goes on and on. Oaky but not excessively so, it keeps on rolling out new flavours by the minute and one can sense crushed rock in the background. A massive wine to enjoy with rich cuisine around 2014-30.


2005 ORBEN ***(*) 70-80 year vines)

This impressively dark wine has a vital, velvety aroma of chocolate and black fruits. It tastes like the juiciest of black cherries and the aftertaste is long, forceful, and complex. Only the slight dryness on the finish tells you of the presence of the finest of ripe tannins. Full but not heavy, with underlying elegance, it will be superb over the coming decade or two.


2004 VILLACRECES, Ribero dei Duero ****(*)

From a rival region, this black but lustrous wine has a noble, dynamic smell crammed with lushly ripe fruit. Both powerful and refined, it tastes mostly of ripe blackberry and the aftertaste reveals tannins of the highest quality – the kind that retire gracefully after having carried an exceptional wine to full maturity. The 10% Cabernet-Sauvignon and 5% Merlot not only add extra nuances but also partly explain why the wine makes me think of Haut-Bailly in the Graves. For the long haul (though it will also be delicious when young).


2005 VETUS (Toro) **

Toro is a new region, giving burly reds with a firmly, sometimes aggressively, tannic structure.

The blackish colour suggests a big-bodied wine, which is confirmed by an aroma that delivers a hefty aromatic punch of black cherry jam, crème de cassis, elderberry, even black pudding. There’s plenty of spice too. Tannins give a crunchy finish but cannot mask a huge charge of super ripe fruit. It might round out after some 5 years but it could remain a bit severe.





Viña Real is a division of Cune, the latter being a high-profile Rioja producer with a long and honourable history of producing excellent wines over many decades (to my own personal knowledge). Cune itself was founded in 1879. Viña Real are located, the Tempranillo grape is particularly aromatic, in a way that invites comparisons with Burgundy’s Pinot Noir. Thus was created Bodegas Viña Real.

at Viña Real Frank Ward discusses the relative merits of French and American oak with Oscar Urrutia.

Getting the facts : at Viña Real Frank Ward discusses the relative merits of French and American oak with Oscar Urrutia.


Around 1910 the owners started to ask themselves (I’m told by Oscar Urrutia) “how can we make a Riojan version of Burgundy? “. The question was prompted by the fact that, in the Alavesa part of Rioja where Viña Real are located, the Tempranillo grape is particularly aromatic, in a way that invites comparisons with Burgundy’s Pinot Noir. Thus was created Bodegas Viña Real.


The latter – which now accounts for about one-third of Cune’s total production – uses 60% French oak and 40% American. A distinctive feature of American oak is that it is heavier and coarser grained. Both divisions rack the wine frequently, to avoid recourse to filtration.

The wine is kept in oak for “very long”, says Oscar, but this is done with a light touch, so that the wood does not dominate.

(I myself have tasted a Châteauneuf-du-Pape that had been kept in wooden foudres for 20 years; as the wood was utterly clean and contact with air minimal, the wine was as fresh as a daisy.)


2007 VIÑA REAL BLANCO* (100% Viura)

A plump, blossomy wine, not unlike a good Pinot Blanc, smelling of yellow plums, apples, and elderflower, with a flavour to match. To drink over the coming 18 months.



New oak makes whites yellower, which is the case here. The nose is a richer version of the above, with the addition of fig and lychee, with a twist of lime on the medium long flavour. Bolstered by wood, it will outlast the previous wine by a year or two.



The colour of a Côte de Beaune red, this bouncy wine has a fresh smell of red fruits, and tastes of them too. Light, crisp, uncomplicated, it should be enjoyed young.


2004 CUNE RESERVA **(*)

Dark and vinous, all of a piece, this smells of plum and cranberry with a touch of cinnamon. Harmonious, long, and spicy, with red pepper on the finish. Best around 2012-18.



Promisingly dark, this Reserva has a weighty and authoritative aroma of plum, damson, ginger, and orange peel. The hedonistic flavour is viscous, intense, and long, the texture lovely. The satiny aftertaste has the sort of tannins that give grip without harshness. Enjoy around 2011-23.



This 10-year-old smells of red fruits, carnation, rose petals, orange peel, and smoke. Saffron also springs to mind. The sinewy flavour is vinous and full, leaving an impression of soil containing clay and rock. The aftertaste turns to damson and cinnamon and the tannins are a bit harsh. There’s a want of acidity too. Drink around 2010-14.



More stirring than Cune’s Crianza, this smells of cranberry and black fruits, with a fine tannic structure underpinning the ample fruit. Will improve for a good decade.



Great colour – that special, nuanced glow of wines that have begun producing tertiary aromas. The juicy, black-fruit aromas of the Tempranillo (85%) dominate but there are hints, too, of caramel and molasses. In the mouth, cranberry, damson, roast chestnut, and dark chocolate, with the structured Graciano bringing a Pauillac-like firmness to the complex aftertaste. A superb wine, serious and firm (I think fleetingly of Latour) that’s sure to evolve for 20 years or more.


2004 CONTINO RESERVA **(*) (their first single-vineyard wine)

Dark, juicy, and very round, this has a lively flavour of damson and ripe fig. Weighty and concentrated on the palate, it is buoyant and so appetising that I have to resist the temptation to swallow a few drops. Intense, without heaviness, it will live a good dozen years.



Dark and intense, this smells of beetroot, smoke, raspberry, and ginger. I’m reminded of a modern-style, very assertive Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I’m in two minds about it: it’s sappy and crammed with fruit on both nose and palate but the finish is on the dry and bitter side. Which way will it go?


2002 PAGOS DE VIÑA REAL ***(*) (100% Temp.)

This black wine looks and smells like a top Saint Emilion (La Gaffelière). Smoky, richly fruity, it smells of blackberry jam, beetroot, and red pepper, with a matching flavour. It has so much substance that I wait 10 minutes to retaste. It continues to expand, taking on fresh nuances all the time. A superb wine that will taste still better tomorrow. For long ageing.


2001 REAL DE ASUA ***(*) (100% Temp.)

Even blacker than the above, with a roasted, exuberant aroma of great force. I’m again reminded of La Gaffelière. The rich, almost violent, flavour is packed with energy and crammed with fruit. Damson dominates the long aftertaste, which is slightly bitter but not abrasive. If drunk young, should be decanted 10 hours in advance. Will improve for 20 years at least.





We’re on the road again and the Riojan landscape seems to roll and buck under the dark clouds, with odd flashes of sunlight heightening the effect. Green vines harmonize fetchingly with the ochres and umbers of the earth. As we arrive at the next winery the nose is tickled to the point of sneezing by the acrid smell of fermenting must.





Muga lies in Haro, where it and many other bodegas are clustered around the railway station. Muga’s yearly production is 1.7 million bottles, fuelled by their own 200 hectares of vineyards and grapes purchased from a further 200. The estate is headed by Jorge Muga, a big, ebullient man whose aim is “to preserve the unique aroma of the grapes.” To coax these out to the maximum, he says, you need a long vegetative cycle. “And that’s just what we have in Rioja. Very, very long cycles. The longest in the world.”


It’s the 7th October and they’ve only picked 5% of the harvest so far, mostly white. I see huge mounds of white grapes being tipped into a hopper, with many leaves scattered among them. The grapes are picked by hand, I’m told, and brought to the bodega in l00-kg boxes.


Some Tempranillo grapes arrive. I taste one. Not much bigger than a pea – all noble grapes are tiny – it has a sweet, elegant flavour, midway between bilberry and black cherry. As we enter the winery we pass men racking the 2007 white. A glass is passed to me and I taste it. The infant wine is clean and crisp and just a little edgy. Judgement suspended.


I now witness a cooper assembling a barrel. The 30 or so staves are tailor-made to fit inside steel hoops and I watch breathlessly as he dextrously puts the barrel together more or less in mid-air, slotting the last stave into the remaining gap without leaving the tiniest space.


2004 MUGA RESERVA (70% Temp., 20% Garn.,10% Mazuelo % Grac.)

Dark, opaque, with a big, satisfying, if somewhat raw aroma, this 4-year-old is packed with black fruit and has a rustic but engaging flavour that squats on the palate as if planning not to budge. Raw the way a barrel sample can be raw, it needs some 5 years to round out and should then last well.



Darker, this is full and malty and smells mostly of black fruits. A higher proportion of French oak (70%) results in a more subtle aroma. The same is true of the flavour, though it’s still in the burly, even aggressive, mode. There’s a touch of crushed rock (a common Riojan trait, it seems) on the firm, sooty, drily woody aftertaste. A forthright, energetic wine that needs time. Drink around 2012-18.



The deep purple colour tinged with mauve reminds me of a Gigondas, but the curious aroma, with its whiff of rubber, takes me aback. But there’s plenty of substance in the composite smell of baked plum, crushed raspberry, and cloves. The flavour is concentrated, if less than expected (about the weight of a top Chinon), but very closed up though there’s lots of substance there. Raspberry and liquorice wood show on a finish which is still harsh. Time should reward those who wait until around 2012-18.


2005 TORRE MUGA ** (matured in 100% Allier barrels)

This heavily-extracted wine is extremely dark and has a huge, alcoholic smell of damson, blackberry, dark chocolate, and eucalyptus (the latter a trait associated with heavily toasted oak). The burly flavour conjures up black fruits, prunes, and bitter espresso. Massive if somewhat shapeless, it stays on the palate and oozes richness. Drink around 2013-20.


2004 ARO *** (3300 bottles from 3 vineyard plots) 14.5° alcohol

As black as night, this blockbuster smells eerily like a Saint-Estèphe, hinting at berries and black fruits, liquorice, and crème de cassis. It’s very clayey in the mouth – like most Saint-Estèphes – and the dominant black fruit taste interlaces with molasses, liquorice, and coffee. Though weighty it’s not really heavy and fine tannins and minerals promise a positive evolution. Bursting with personality, it should improve for a decade at least.





“It’s impossible to make a single vineyard wine in Rioja,” declares Gonzalo Lainez, oenologist at the Roda winery. “Professor Winkler of Californa” – a viticultural expert of world renown – “has defined six distinct types of vine terroir. Rioja has four of them”. He looks proud about this.


Roda, he continues, has 28 different vineyard plots all over the region. “We choose the 17 best every year and make a blend of the very best. You can’t release 17 different wines!” They use only local grape varieties and are against the practice of green harvesting, or the lopping off of a proportion of infant bunches to concentrate the rest. “0ur vines are 30-90 years old, and old vines tend to self-regulate. They also give lower yields as a matter of course.” All in all Roda has 170 hectares of vines, though 40% are in fermage. They only use one type of oak for maturation: Allier, rated by many as the very best.


2004 RODA RESERVA **(*) (Red capsule, “red fruit character”)

The poised aroma, mainly Tempranillo, is replete with red fruits and has a clayey smoothness. The full flavour is elegant and harmonious and shows polish. The finish is long, with the kind of velvety texture typical of the Tempranillo and other smooth, refreshing varieties like the Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, etc. 3-4 years then 8+.


2004 RODA RESERVA*** (Black capsule, “black fruit character”)

Darker and thicker, this has a pure, elegant nose which, if understated, does not conceal an excellent underlying harmony of various black fruits (black cherry, sweet autumn berries). The glossy flavour is packed with such fruit, with a touch of cinnamon from the deftly-used oak. The aftertaste, still in bud, is long and polished, with much tensile strength. Of sterner stuff than the previous wine, will drink best around 2014-24.


2006 CIRSION (“Thistle”) ***

Viscous, nearly opaque, with a dense, smoky smell of utterly ripe black fruits intermeshed with such sub-flavours as cinnamon, violet, and coffee-and-chicory. The aftertaste is long, suave, and gently tannic. A balanced wine, of optimum concentration, best around 2015-25.


1994 RODA I *** (83% Temp.; 17% Garn.)

This 14-year-old has an evolved colour and a vital, maturing aroma of plum jam, chocolate, clay, and prunes (the latter probably from super-ripe Garnacha). A refined, subtle bouquet in which the fat, spicy Garnacha is well in evidence. The fullish flavour, if slightly edgy, matches up to the smell, and the grainy finish is long and authoritative. Drink around 2013-20.


2001 CIRSION Prueba **** (”’01 – the greatest vintage since ’64”)

Exceedingly dark, with a fine, sophisticated aroma of elderberry, dark chocolate, sweet prune, and smoke: a smell that tells you that the grapes were of perfect ripeness. There’s a hint of graphite too. The flavour is both smooth and sinewy, with berries, wild plums, and minerals showing on the long, structured aftertaste. Excellent follow-through. Could live a good 20 years. Superb.


Roda also produces very good olive oil, the best of which smells enticingly of tomato leaves.



© Frank Ward 2008

Continued : PART II : Bodegas Rioja Alta, Remelluri, Luis Canas, Marques de Murrieta, and Artadi

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