Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

FIVE DAYS IN RIOJA – PART II: Bodegas Rioja Alta, Remelluri, Luis Cañas, Artadi, Marques de Murrieta


We’re motoring through landscape that’s a meld of the kind of ochres, umbers, and sepias that would have delighted Braque, not to mention Spain’s own master of subtly-coloured canvases, Juan Gris. The mountain peaks dent the dark, unmoving clouds, without puncturing them.





This estate has been family-owned for five generations and controls an impressive 450 hectares of vines. « Our approach is classical, » says Javier Amescua. « We don’t make show wines, we make good wines. » As he drives along, he waves his hands emphatically, absent-mindedly letting the car drift towards the wrong side of the road, the increased peril giving added stress to his words.


If many bodegas are using an ever-increasing proportion of French oak – which generally imparts a more subtle woodiness – Rioja Alta tend to favour the American kind. As they are clearly well-financed (all their equipment is state of the art), this must be due to choice, not necessity. As we enter the vast, hangar-like winery we pause to sample the infant ’07 red. Rich in pigment, it smells like plum jam and prunes and has no hard edges. «A very good year, ’07, » says Sr Amescu with emphasis.



Already brown-tinged, this has a soft smell of plum jam and prune, with the piercing sweetness and spice of American oak at its core. The fullish, malty flavour is spicy and low in acidity, with a dryish, woody finish.


2001 VINA ARANA (14.95° alcohol)

A much darker and more forceful wine, with a truffly element adding an extra dimension to the plummy aroma. Raspberry and strawberry lurk in the background. The aroma promises more body than the flavour delivers, and the dry rasp on the plum and liquorice wood finish must be due to a long sojourn in wood.

Drink 2012-14.



Faintly tawny, this has a livelier smell, quite Burgundian, of red and black fruits. Buoyant and precise, it exhibits the plump sweetness of wholly ripe grapes. The flavour, if light, is intense, but the finish is witheringly dry – too long in wood. A bit like an old-fashioned Chambolle-Musigny from a lesser vintage: elegant but thin. Will fade away around 2014.


1995 GRAN RESERVA 904 *** (4 years in oak; contains 10% Graciano)

Made of altogether sterner stuff, this dark wine has a big, fleshy aroma of plum jam, chocolate, and cinnamon. Voluminous and malty, it makes me think of Gigondas. The flavour is full and vital, with a touch of marmelade behind the chewy plum-jam fruit. The flavour is more focused than the smell, with good acidity on the longish, stony, clove-and-cinnamon finish. A good wine with integrity. Will improve.


2005 GRAN RESERVA 890 ***(*) Only 8000 bottles made

Dark, with a richer, more nuanced aroma of blackberry, plum, prunes, and truffle. A lovely smooth, fleshy smell, vinous and enticing. As with all good wines, the aroma expands, developing hints of rose petal, bilberry, violet. The excellent flavour has real complexity, with molasses on the long aftertaste, which drifts towards damson. Good lift. Drinkable now, it will be better still in 4 years and best of all in 10-12.


2004 BARON DE ONA ****

Judged by looks, you could take this for a Cheval Blanc à I’aveugle, because of its rich, glowing black-purple « robe ». The aroma has a floating, aerial quality but there’s plenty of substance within, a solid core of vinosity. It smells, in fact, not unlike a Guigal Côte Rôtie. In the mouth, voluptuous yet restrained. Wild berries, liquorice, and black fruits present themselves in sequence, and the long, uncompromising aftertaste is very mineral. An impressive wine that should develop well for a good 15 years.


2000 ASTER RESERVA (Ribero del Duero) ***

Another Cheval Blanc lookalike, this has a huge, juicy, intense smell of black cherry jam, violet and liquorice. You sense a nucleus of focused, velvety fruit full of vitality. If the first impression is of voluptuousness, you quickly register a masculine assertiveness too. The flavour confirms this, and the sustained finish is suffused with blackberry and prune fruit with stony overtones. This will be splendid with game around 2012-20.


Rioja Alta’s motto is « evolution, not revolution ». The evolution of their top wines seems to be proceeding at a much faster pace than that of their humbler bottlings, and the quality divide is disproportionately great. It would be good to see it dwindle.





I become very fond of the Logroño restaurant La Chatilla de San Augustin and eat three meals there. One features a delicious cod steak in tomato sauce with red peppers. The very drinkable Rioja Crianza I drink with it is topped up without charge. This induces me to return for dinner, to be ravished by some of the finest raw ham (jamon iberico) I’ve ever eaten. A lovely rose-pink, it is sweet and delicate and sliced as thin as tissue paper. Some roast milk-fed lamb was also outstanding, likewise a fillet of beef. As general MacArthur said under very different conditions, « I shall return! ».





Once again the landscape changes before our eyes: wheeling black clouds and bright sunshine alternately plunge the same stretch of country into shadow and then bathe it in radiance. The very contours change from bright to dark and seem to bulge and sag in the process. We reach the lower slopes of Mount Gorostiza – picked out in the 19th century as the best of all Rioja sites – and start our ascent of a boulder-strewn landscape that could have featured in « Wuthering Heights » – especially now, as the clouds again obscure the sun. A tilted sign bears the apt name of « Labastida Chiaroscuro ».


The Remelluri estate covers 152 hectares on the very edge of the Rioja region, on what was once the site of an ancient monastery. Vineyard accounts for just over two-thirds of the area. The property was founded 40 years ago by Jaime Rodriguez Salis, now 80, who with his rumpled black donkey jacket and ·tousled white hair looks like a great humanist philosopher or writer.

« When I first came here there was no water, no light, no power. And there was a shortage of money too. » The buildings, he recounts, were in ruins and such vines as existed were in a parlous state – though some of the plants, he was delighted to find, were pre-phylloxera.


As the vineyards are at a high altitude, they stay relatively cool in extremely hot years, giving grapes full of fresh fruit rather than the dried-out kind, with rough tannins. In cooler years, though, it can be hard to attain full ripeness, which is why Sr Salis is pleased about climate change. « It’s brought us considerable benefits in Rioja, not least here, at 600 metres above sea level. »


Also on a visit to Remelluri is Manuel Ruiz Hernandez, veteran oenologist who is described as the « Peynaud of Rioja ». He’s been a consultant at the bodega for many years. White-haired and olive-skinned, he talks with commitment and authority. « We’re going for ever-smaller grapes, which give better polyphenols, » he tells me. To demonstrate his point, he picks two tiny Tempranillo grapes from a nearby vine that’s gnarled with age. He bursts them open. « You see, one contains· two pips, the other only one. The one with just one pip has a better juice-to-skin ratio. » I ask these two patriarchs to name the best Rioja vintages of recent decades. Sr Salis answers for them both, drawing on his experience of over 40 vintages. « ’64, ’70, ’80, ’82, ’94, ’95…Oh, and ’89. Eighty-nine saw the start of climate change… »


At Bodegas Remelluri, Manuel Ruiz Hernandez, "the Peynaud of Rioja", shows Frank Ward a tiny Tempranillo grape containing one single pip. "We're going for ever-smaller grapes with the aim of better skin-to-juice ratio".

At Bodegas Remelluri, Manuel Ruiz Hernandez, "the Peynaud of Rioja", shows Frank Ward a tiny Tempranillo grape containing one single pip. "We're going for ever-smaller grapes with the aim of better skin-to-juice ratio".

Within the dark, cavernous winery, the many barrels prove to be mostly French (90%) and they prefer medium- to high-toast ones. Wines made from the Garnacha grape, which is susceptible to oxidation, are however lodged in big wooden vats, to keep exposure to the air to an absolute minumum. I study a big map on the wall, which shows each and everyone of Remelluri’s 285 distinct plots. It looks like a jigsaw puzzle. Each one of them has its own unique exposure, incline, subsoil, and microclimate. « I built it up bit by bit, » says Sr Salis with feeling, his voice reverberating through the cellar.


2006 REMELLURI BLANCO (made from Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc vines growing on a 3-hectare experimental plot)

This glittering, green-gold wine has a superb nose of greengage, pine-apple, honey, white peach and yellow rose. The oak is scarcely noticeable in the very pure, concentrated flavour that is crisp and vital and carries hints of rhubarb and okra (the latter, surely, from the Sauvignon Blanc). The excellent acidity, in tandem with the ample fruit, presages a good 5-6 years of steady improvement. The best white so far on the trip.



A vivid purple, with a superb perfume crammed with lush black fruits, raspberry, and iris. Round and voluptuous, it is clean-cut, harmonious, and vibrant on the palate. The forceful finish is long, with an aftertaste of black cherry and damson. Tautened by ripe tannins, it will improve for a good dozen years. Not unlike a fine Pommard.



Really dark, this has a lovely aroma of dark fruits, red rose, and carnation. Unlike some ’03s (a roasting hot vintage) it is neither dried out nor overly tannic, with a richness and roundness that are wholly unforced. The lovely flavour is concentrated but buoyant, with a core of rich, profound fruit. The aftertaste goes on forever, with superb tannins. Drinkable now if decanted, it will improve steadily for 20 or so years.


Many ’03s, scorched by the sun, have a harsh side to them. That this wine does not must be at least partly due to the cool microclimate (and superlative wine-making of course).


1999 REMELLURI GRAN RESERVA **** (« The first genuine château wine in Rioja! »)

This has the lustrous, nuanced colour found only in top wines made from old vines with low yields. The composite smell of blackberry jam, plum, chocolate, and raspberry shows great harmony and depth – a meld of flowery, fruity, and spicy elements. The flavour, brimfull of fruit, measures up to this. The long, probing aftertaste derives structure and definition from the very best kind of tannins. The oak is scarcely noticeable. An outstanding Spanish wine, to hold back some 6-7 years and enjoy over the following 10.

Emile Peynaud would have rejoiced to have tasted such a Rioja wine.





Jose Miguel Zubia, who runs this estate, is a resolute looking man who inspires confidence: you almost feel that, had Eisenhower not felt quite up to the task of running the Normandy invasion, Sr Zubia could have taken over at a moment’s notice! Clearly, nothing is too much trouble for him if it results in better wine. With a sweep of his muscular arm, he takes in the surrounding vineyard. « There’s our winery… We have a very special approach to the vine, the soil, the wine itself. Our neighbours do lots of treatment to their vines. We don’t do any. That’s why our vines look different. All our vines grow within three kilometres of the winery: the soil is clay and limestone – the very best. And we control absolutely everything, from start to finish. »


Sr Zubia interrupts himself to introduce us to a slim, alert man with dark hair and merry eyes. « This is Senor Luis Cañas. He’s 80 years old, but still the first man to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night, when he locks up. He’s involved in every stage of production, from picking to the crushing of the grapes. »


This is no idle talk: later on, inside the winery, I see Sr Cañas working alongside employees, diligently sorting the incoming bunches of grapes, rejecting leaves, debris, or green or rotten fruit. I am heartened to learn, too, that he still drinks a bottle of wine a day – still further proof of the health-giving benefits of good wine.


Luis Cañas, 80, helps employees sort incoming grapes at his state of the art winery in the village of Villabuena, where 90% of the 325 inhabitants work with wine.

Luis Cañas, 80, helps employees sort incoming grapes at his state of the art winery in the village of Villabuena, where 90% of the 325 inhabitants work with wine.

The bodega owns 90 hectares of vines and buys grapes from a further 200. A great many vines are very old, some being a century old. Such plants give more concentration and greater depth. Each and every one of the 850 distinct plots has its own unique combination of soil, rocks, incline, minerals, and so on; and each is treated individually in accordance with these variables. I’m shown a chart which gives a complete profile for one of these plots. Every conceivable factor is covered, even down to the number of branches and bunches per vine. Each plot is rated on a 10-point scale. There’s one such chart for every single plot.


The ’08 harvest is well under way as we penetrate deeper into the winery, where we see their state of the art Foss auto-analyser, which gives a precise analysis of all incoming grapes. This is just one of the human and mechanical quality controls that are carried out here at every stage of production.


2005 CRIANZA *** (95% Tempranillo, 5% Garnacha)

This is a deep crimson and its smell of cherry and raspberry has a surging, cushiony quality that reminds me of the Merlot grape. Red rhubarb and cranberry come to mind too. The thrusting, richly fruity flavour is long and expressive, the red-fruit aftertaste uncurling in the mouth. The tannins are of the ripest kind. 3 years then 7-8 +.


2003 RESERVA ***(*) 40-50-year vines

Darker and more lustrous, this ’03 has the rich, chunky smell of black fruit jams, with hints of chocolate, morel mushroom, leather, and coffee. The flavour is full and energy-packed, with a refreshing quality – a rare trait in wines from this super-hot vintage. ·Fruity acidity gives cut to the raspberry and cherry finish. A strikingly fruity wine with vast reserves, to enjoy around 2012-20.


2001 GRAN RESERVA ****

Dark, with a voluminous yet contained smell of red and black fruits and crushed rock, this weighty wine crackles with energy and is all of a piece. The flavour has both muscle and sinew, with ample, concentrated fruit, with such elements as cherry, chocolate, ginger, and cranberry on the protracted, mineral finish. Needs 7-8 years to open and should evolve for 15 or so more.


2002 RESERVA DE LA FAMILIA **** (85% Tempranillo, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon)

Nearly opaque, with a glossy, impressively deep smell of ripe autumn berries, raspberry, vanillin, and red rose. The flavour, still oaky at 6 years (the ’01 is even oakier), is vital and focused, with the thrustful Cabernet clearly accounting for much of the dense core of vinosity. The smoky finish is dominated by lush black fruits, with crisp acidity and fine tannins inrermeshing to give a rousing finish. Still very young, should excel around 2016-28.


2002 AMAREN TEMPRANILLO RESERVA ****(*) (vines over 60 years’ old)

A glorious bouquet of crushed raspberry, black fruits, and clay whooshes out of the glass, exhibiting great depth, and leads into a seductive, velvety flavour of black fruits and pomegranate. The aftertaste is wonderfully fresh and sustained, with the smoothest of tannins showing on the finish, like the grainy texture of a charcoal drawing by a master draughtsman. This could turn out great. Best around 2016-30.


2005 HIRU RACIMOS (from old vines with 3 or fewer bunches) ****(*)

Nearly black, with a huge, thick-smelling aroma of grape must, crème de cassis, black cherry, chocolate, and morel mushroom. It’s a vast, all-encompassing nose, bigger than the glass that contains it. Despite the great volume, the wine is vibrantly fresh on the palate, and superbly balanced. The sweeping, very mineral aftertaste positively ripples with myriad sub-flavours. This wine is so masterful you almost feel it’s tasting you rather than the other way round! Best 2016-26.


2005 GRACIANO ****(*)

Black as night, redolent of the blackest berries, camphor, and truffle, this pure varietal is so rich and scintillatingly fruity that it almost throbs. The aftertaste is phenomenally long and so intense it reaches into the farthest corners of the palate – and stays there. The acidity is that found in perfectly ripe black cherries. As rich and deep as vintage port but without the alcoholic burn.


It was fascinating to taste this dark horse of a variety in pure form. It bears a striking resemblance to the Petit Verdot of Bordeaux – another underestimated and misunderstood grape. Both are difficult to cultivate, both ripen with difficulty, both, when fully mature, give their respective regions’ blackest and most complex wines. And both are resurgent and attracting growing attention.





Founded in 1985, this bodega has 85 hectares of vines and boosts production by an additional 20% through purchases from small growers. They take especial pride in their Vina el Pison, a 2.4-hectare vineyard planted in old vines, many from 1945. Unlike most of their confreres, they don’t make a crianza, saying that their Vinas de Gain is more or less equivalent but without their following the restrictive rules governing crianza bottlings.

Here I had the smallest tasting of the entire week.


2006 VINAS DE GAIN **(*)

This extremely dark wine has an excellent, energy-packed smell of black fruits and cinnamon – an aroma that quickly expands to include saffron and carnation. The flavour is lively and harmonious, calling to mind plum, damson, roast chestnut. The finish is gently roasted, but not scorched, but still very closed up. Drink around 2014-22.


2004 PAGOS VIEJOS *** (« old plots ») 40-80-year vines

An aubergine black-purple, this has a juicy, expansive smell of black and red fruits, red rhubarb, purple rose, and red pepper. A lushly fruity, inviting aroma. The bouncy flavour delivers a mass of black fruit intermingled with liquorice and oriental spices. A wine of huge potential, it is nonetheless a bit gawky at present and needs a good 5 years to soften and round out. A highly individual wine that ought to evolve splendidly over the 2010s.





Founded in 1852, this famous estate has been making first-rate, single-vineyard Riojas for many decades. It is one of the very few sources of top-quality white Rioja. All four of its wines come from 300 hectares of vines that ring the Murrieta winery, which lies on the outskirts of Logroño. The clay-limestone vineyard is strewn with boulders and the soil is rich in minerals. I am received by the striking Miryan Ochoa, who gestures eloquently towards the sea of vines. “Our treasure, » she says with a broad smile.


The harvest is well under way. As we pick our way through the rows of vines we have to tread carefully, to avoid soiling our shoes on countless bunches of grapes that litter the ground. This fruit, representing a big proportion of the harvest, was cut away in order the concentrate the juice of the remaining bunches. « Murrieta isn’t

just a business, » says Miryan with emphasis.


Yields, at a modest 40 hectolitres per hectare, give an average annual yield of 1 million bottles – every one of them estate-bottled. An array of 10,000 oak barrels – only 10% of them new – is used for the maturation of the Murrieta wines. 3 million bottles lie maturing in the cellars.



This yellow-green wine has a round, blossomy scent, at once soft and assertive, that makes me think of a Chassagne-Montrachet (even though the latter is made from a totally different grape). The flavour starts out like crab apple, quickly filling out to something more like apple mousse. Though just a shade thin on the mid-palate, it’s an excellent wine, not without depth, to enjoy around 2009-12.



The stylish, Burgundian aroma of red fruits and orange peel quickly expands to encompass saffron, cinnamon, and vanillin. The oak is more in evidence in the ripe plum flavour but there is plenty of ripe, expressive fruit both on the mid-palate and the long finish. In a blind tasting it would be easy to mistake this wine for a decent Gèvrey-Chambertin from Burgundy. A wine to relish around 2010-15.



This smells of prune, plum jam, and cigar box but I’m initially hesitant about a diffuseness bordering on oxidation. This impression quickly abates and the smell grows firmer, more decisive – and fresher. The fine, gently sinewy flavour is vinous and dry, with a reprise of plum jam on sustained, faintly bitter finish. The flavour expands abruptly, with chocolate supplying a kind of gustatory counterpoint to the dominant strawberry fruit. Should leap forward in about two years, as prelude to some 6-8 years’ further improvement.


2004 DALMAU RESERVA ****(*) (86% Tempranillo, 8% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 6% Graciano)

This has the deep, stained-glass scarlet colour of a Cheval Blanc, the great Saint Emilion. The superb aroma lives up to the « robe », emitting gusts of black and red fruits, cigarbox, and crème de framboise. A nose of great presence: dense, profound, with limitless reserves. The flavour is weighty yet buoyant, with superb balance while the subtle aftertaste unveils suggestions of truffle. The tannins, of the highest quality, meld seamlessly into the velvety fruit. This great Rioja not only looks like Cheval Blanc but tastes not unlike it too. Will improve for many years.



In this wine, superlative winemaking raises the humble Viura grape to true greatness. My eye is caught instantly by the colour, the kind of gold-tinged green yellow found only in whites from fully-ripe grapes from the choicest plots. The bouquet is distinguished too: a complex meId of orange blossom, apple mousse, and hazelnut. The flavour, still a bit oaky, is subtle and understated and has a lovely texture. Ethereal, yet with great tensile strength, it sends out twisting threads of sub-flavours that go off in different directions yet remain interconnected. A great white Rioja from a humdrum grape, to relish with such delicacies as John Dory, turbot, or .even veal in cream sauce over the coming 3-5 years – and possibly much longer.


At the end of the tasting I reminisce about a Murrieta Ygay 1964, tasted in Sweden some 20 years ago. Our hostess sudddenly gets up, leaves the room, and presently returns with a dust-covered bottle, which she then uncorks.



The colour of total maturity: plum-purple at the centre, glowing red-orange at the rim. The noble bouquet, distinctly truffly, conjures up strawberry compote, saffron, orange peel, and sealing wax (slightly smoky). The flavour while undeniably showing its age, is taut and concentrated, and delivers fresh nuances every few seconds: orange marmalade, redcurrant, raspberry, ginger, and a reprise of truffle. Still eminently drinkable at 44 years, it is not unlike a lacy old Chambertin.


The wonderful aftertaste stays with me for a long time as I leave the great wine region of Rioja, vowing to return at some future date.


© Frank Ward 2009

Photos : Philip TUOHY


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

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