Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Old and new cohabitate in Rioja

I'm visiting Rioja, Spain, and digging the similarities -- not the contrast -- between old- and new-style wineries.

Today we met the owners of Bodegas Artadi, one of two Rioja wineries to get 100 points from Robert Parker's Wine Advocate. A couple hours later, we visited Lopez de Heredia, a place where you can see generations worth of mold on the cellar walls.

What struck me was this: The extremes of innovation and tradition both rely on a "who cares what people think?" attitude.

At Artadi, they ignore the Rioja tradition of blending wines from around the region (Tempranillo from the hills with Garnacha from the lowlands) as well as the rigid Spanish classification system based on how long the wine spends in barrels. Instead, Artadi makes three levels of wine based on vineyards: one from high-altitude vines, one from old vines and one from a single vineyard, Vina el Pison (this was the 100 pointer).

All three wines we tasted were from 2006, so they only qualify as the least-respected category of "joven" (young) under Rioja's system because they haven't spent the minimum required time in oak to be "crianza" or "reserva." But in fact, the Vina el Pison is one of the most sought-after, expensive wines from the region. It's lovely, too: a complex, aromatic wine with fruit that switches between raspberry and black currant from sip to sip, floral notes and potent but well-managed tannins.

Artadi owner Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle bristled when someone suggested his winery was "new wave." In fact, while he does use two sorting tables, men still stomp the grapes with their bare feet. Lopez just hates regulations.

“I like Rioja. I like Tempranillo," Lopez says. "But I don't like crianza, reserva, these classifications. For me it's important to make good wines, not to make classified wines.”

Meanwhile, a trip to Lopez de Heredia could be like a trip back in time -- cobwebbed cellars full of bottles from the 1940s that are still for sale -- save for the glass, decanter-shaped tasting room designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid. That, and the fact that the winery is run by two sisters.

Co-owner/winemaker Mercedes Lopez de Heredia does put “Reserva” on her current release, but since the current Vina Tondonia was harvested in 2000, she could call it “Gran Reserva” if she chose. She's just too modest for what she considers a young wine. Her current Gran Reserva was harvested in 1991, and you can buy a current-release Tondonia white wine from 1987.

I was taking a photo in the cellar of some mold-covered, unlabeled bottles, when I realized (only after my flash illuminated them) that they were white wines, and the wine was still a pale gold. “That's the 1976,” Mercedes said, and it's still available to any distributor who wants to order it. I wanted to try it, so she opened a bottle.

Wow, that was a great wine: The aroma started off floral, with some pear and dried apple, and the wine got nuttier with more air: walnut bread, macadamia nuts, cashews, but still very fresh. The mouthfeel was sensual, like light honey, but completely dry. Most white wines are undrinkable at age 33, but this one was wonderful and probably still improving.

Lopez de Heredia ferments everything in ancient oak tanks, some of them 80 years old. The fermentation room would look like a wine museum if it were cleaner. The winery keeps carpenters on staff to repair barrels and oak tanks, even though buying new ones would be cheaper.

“Maybe because we are a family-owned winery, we are able to maintain our tradition,” Mercedes says. “If we were owned by a big company, they would have changed everything.”

In Rioja, ultra-modern wineries like Artadi and the ultra-throwback winery Lopez de Heredia actually share an attitude – they follow their own muse.

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