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La Rioja

R. López de Heredia

We began our visit to wine country in Spain and Portugal in Rioja. And I think that was a good decision. It is--at least in my opinion--Spain's best known and most historic wine region. I suppose I'm an advocate of the cliché "begin at the beginning." Winemaking here goes back at least to the Romans. And it was a bonus that it was a relatively easy four-hour drive from Madrid's Barajas International Airport to the region.

We had intended to stay at the Parador in Haro--by most descriptions, it's pleasant...and it's walking distance to some of the classic old wineries of Rioja. Fate would have it that the Parador was booked up for the time we wanted (booked by a tour group more than six months in advance). A little research led me to Maribel's Guide to Rioja (a good source for anyone planning to visit the region)...and to the insight that the author chooses to stay at the Hotel Villa de Abalos in the little village of Abalos...describing it as having charm. The hotel has 12 rooms...a small, but well-regarded restaurant...and a wine bar. We booked...and were so glad we did.

José Luis and Merche own the hotel and are intimately involved in their guests' experience--particularly in the evenings. Merche is the chef and José Luis is the host, sommelier and--frequently--the server. Our evenings began in the little wine bar. And we took it as a good sign that there were always locals stopping in for a glass of wine or two to start their evenings. And I can see why. José Luis makes both red and white wines from his vineyard. His label is called Empatia (the red's primarily tempranillo and the white is viura with malvasia and a little garnacha blanca) and they're excellent. I was surprised at the prices--they'd set a good example for many a wine bar...less than $3 a glass!

After a couple of glasses, we went in to dinner. Despite being small, the restaurant offered my opinion, about the right number of choices. Three choices of appetizers...three choices of mains...three choices of dessert. If there's no choice, you may end up with something you don't care for (that happened later on this trip). And if they offer too many choices in a little restaurant, it's a clue that the food may all be frozen. The food here was fresh, well prepared and delicious.

The first morning, we had a 9:00 appointment at Lopez de Heredia. But breakfast doesn't start until until 9:00 (the owners stay in the wine bar until after midnight--this is Spain, remember--and don't arrive in the morning until about 8:30). We asked if they could leave some coffee and rolls out for us before they went home. No problem. We arrived the next morning to find fruit, ham, bread, pastries, juice and coffee. I mention it not because it's so fascinating, but because it gives you a bit of insight into how they treat people.

Lopez de Heredia is as traditional a Spanish winery as there is anywhere. Founded in 1877, it has been in the same family for almost 150 years. And they've resisted the temptation to abandon their historic vineyard and winemaking techniques to copy Napa or Australia or some other new "thing." They've certainly capitalized on improvements...but only within the context of how they do things. They still age their wines well beyond the minimum--whites as well as reds. While most Spanish whites are bright and fresh, their's are deep, complex and a bit oxidative. And their reds also get special treatment. Most wineries release a Gran Reserva at every opportunity. Not Lopez de Heredia! They only make one in truly great vintages...and they age them for many years (usually at least eight years). The next one has been identified, but only time will tell if I'll be around long enough to see it released. No wonder their Gran Reservas sell out so fast!

From Lopez de Heredia we went to CVNE, across the tracks. It was founded in 1879--and like Lopez de Heredia, it's still family-owned. The reason that the historic wineries are grouped in downtown Haro is that it gave them easy access to the railroad and shipment to Bordeaux and regions beyond. I say Bordeaux because in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when phylloxera decimated the vineyards of Bordeaux, vignerons came south to Rioja to source grapes. That attention helped to re-energize winemaking in the area. CVNE is an acronym standing for the Compañia Vinicola del Norte de España...but in conversation it is referred to as Cune (coo-nay). First of all, Cune is much easier to say than CVNE. Secondly, in the early days, when they ordered labels for their wine bottles, the printers somehow assumed they really meant Cune--and printed them that way!

Technically, CVNE is three wineries--not just one--all in RIoja. Besides CVNE in Haro, they own Viña Real in Laguardia and Contino in Laserna. Each has its own vineyards and winemaker and is operated relatively independently. That said, it is CVNE in Haro that is both the most historic and the largest. It produces ~80% of the company's ~600,000 cases per year output. A significant portion of that is the pleasant and good value Cune Crianza. More highly regarded are the Imperial Reserva and Gran Reserva--we enjoyed several vintages of both.

While tasting the wines was--as always--enjoyable, the tour was perhaps even more memorable. The aged cellars, with their heavy coating of natural mold, kept the bottles, some many decades-old, in prime condition. And the barrel room, designed by the famous French engineer and architect Gustave Eiffel, had, in its time, the largest unsupported roof in the world. That's only one of Eiffel's claims to fame. VIrtually eveyone knows of his iconic Tower on the Champs de Mars in Paris. Some may not realize that he was the designer of the structural elements of the Statue of Liberty. For me, that Eiffel-designed barrel room symbolized the history and the tradition of CVNE and of Rioja.

While in Rioja, it is almost mandatory to sample their traditional dish of lamb chops grilled over a fire of vine cuttings. We worked our way through a platter piled high with chops at Restaurant José Mari--washed down with 2001 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904. Lovely! And equally lovely was a visit to the Vivanco Wine Museum...which has been widely hailed as the world's best wine museum. The acclaim seems warranted.

While we were treated well at both Lopez de Heredia and CVNE, and got individual attention, both host a considerable number of visitors each day...they were bustling with activity. Our experience at Remelluri the next day was quite different. We were the only visitors that day. The quiet countryside vineyard and winery were a lovely contrast. We had an enjoyable tour...and then sat down for lunch in their glass-enclosed dining room. They brought in their chef to prepare a special menu for us designed to show their wines in good light. All of it--the food and the wine--were pre-coordinated. What a great way to taste wines...the way they were meant to be enjoyed--with food! And the wines (and food) were excellent.

We enjoyed Rioja very much. But from a wine perspective, it was more like a first visit to the homes of friends than it was a brave new adventure. That changed as we moved west to Galicia.

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