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Oct 6, 201101:32 PMFood & Wine

A Tale of Two Riojas

Oct 6, 2011 - 01:32 PM
A Tale of Two Riojas

How can one small place offer such dramatically different experiences of terroir and territory? Two wineries, two towns. La Rioja is incredible in this regard.

As part of a guided tour, which I highly recommend, you can visit wineries providing the most extreme imaginable differences in operations and wine styles. Parts I & II of this four-part Spain story featured wines that are "modern" style. Now we will visit a pair of wineries that define Riojan benchmarks for modern (new oak barriques) vs. traditional (large casks used many times) styles of Reserva and Gran Reserva Tempranillo wines with great aging potential.

 Bodegas Fernando Remírez de Ganuza, nestled in Samaniego in the  heart of the Rioja Alavesa sub-zone, is a mere 20 years old. While this isn't necessarily new even by New World standards, it is just a baby in La Rioja. There are about 1,000 tightly controlled bodegas (wineries) already occupying nearly every inch of existing farmable land in the province. Supply already exceeds demand, so this is a tough market dynamic.

Let me tell you, I have never visited a winery as pristinely clean as this one. While it isn't necessarily the most high-tech winery I've ever seen, the range of experimentation with production equipment and methods was very interesting, with a focus on both quality and efficiency. The owner's daughter, Christina, has degrees in biology and chemistry. Christina makes all the lab decisions on when to pick ripened grapes from very old vineyards, judges the progression of fermentation, and  evaluates the condition of the wine until it goes into bottle for the final aging period. The Remírez Reservas and Gran Reservas are balanced and complex, but very much a modern style with lots of oak influence in the flavor profile. One of my go-to resources for European wines, Decanter Magazine, rated Remírez de Ganuza one of Rioja’s “most reliable” producers, and recommends particularly the 2001 Gran Reserva (drink now).

López de Heredia Viña Tondonia is one of the so-called centenary wineries, also rated a “most reliable” Riojan producer by Decanter Magazine. Started in 1877, located in the important town of Haro (Rioja Alta sub-zone), it is Rioja’s 3rd oldest winery in continuous family operation. Everything about this winery is old! Fermentation casks - 64,000 liters, American oak - are 100+ years old. The aging casks are used over and over again at López de Heredia, whereas Remírez de Ganuza buys new barrels every year.

The Reservas use all 4 permitted grapes (75% Tempranillo, the rest a blend of Garnacha Tinta, Graciano and Mazuela). It was light in color and body, yet bold and complex in flavor. I think I finally understand what "gamey strawberry" aroma and flavor actually means. It is an elegant, gentle wine.

The walls of the caves holding 13,000 barrels are covered in slimy black mold – it is frankly tough to breathe! López Tempranillo wines have the potential to age in bottle for decades. (During my visit to the winery I saw a 1952 that is reportedly drinking very nicely now.) López operates its own cooperage to repair and build new barrels.

A huge surprise and very special treat illustrating how seriously this family takes its winemaking is the golden hued Viura (white). On my visit I tasted a 1991 that was dry as a bone, better and better with each sip. It is a gorgeous wine, occasionally available in our market. I encourage you to take a chance on this experience. (Decanter rates this wine 18.5 out of 20; drink now through 2050!!)


Previous: “Hola La Rioja” and “Wine and Tapas”
Next: “The Prism of Wine”

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Kathy Merchant

Kathy Merchant • Wine Consultant

Since 1994 wine has been a focal point for Kathy’s explorations of the world. In January 2011 she completed the Level 4 Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, prerequisite for the Master of Wine, and was admitted to the Institute of Wine & Spirits. As President/CEO of The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Kathy combines her shared passion for wine and philanthropy, where place matters for both, through education, events, travel and writing.

Kathy Merchant
The Greater Cincinnati Foundation
200 West Fourth Street
Cincinnati, OH 45202-2775