Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Rioja uses technology for smoothness, not power

In California, whenever I hear of a winery marshaling the very latest in technology and sparing no expense in the vineyard, the result seems to be a big-bodied, powerful, intense, concentrated wine.

It's interesting to visit new wineries in Spain that use the same painstaking attention to detail with a different goal in mind: smooth mouthfeel.

Today I visited Baigorri and Roda, two trendy, architecturally amazing Rioja bodegas with seemingly unlimited resources.

Baigorri technical director Simon Arina Robles is so thorough that he triple-filters all the water that enters the winery, in part to remove calcium – just because hard water deposits on freshly cleaned tanks might affect the taste of a wine.

Roda director general Agustin Santolaya is so exacting about his winery's two (occasionally three) annual releases that he has 28 different vineyards each year, from which he chooses only the best 17 to be fermented at Roda (the rest are sold off), and then after the 17 separate “wines” are individually made – all the way through barrel aging -- he sells off several before blending the remainder into either Roda or Roda1.

When I hear about that type of spare-no-expense winemaking, because I live in California, I expect yet another rich, voluptuous, full-bodied wine destined to get high ratings and be collected and admired, but rarely drunk with dinner.

But that's not the goal in Rioja. Roda export manager Gonzalo Lainez, also one of the 6 tasters who decides which wines make the cut, said over and over, “We want to produce a modern wine with a smooth palate.”
Gonzalo Lainez

By “modern” Lainez means “fruit-driven.” But the more important adjective there is “smooth.”

The best of these luxury wines are so silky and easy to drink that the glasses empty almost without thought, even at a professional tasting. Put a plate of delicious pata negra ham, cheese and bread along with them and it's paradise – if you like wines of elegance.

Ironically, the delightful Roda is cheaper than Roda1 because the latter has more dark-fruit character, higher alcohol and more power than Roda – and thus has more value on the export market. Yet smoothness is still more important than power, and you can taste the difference that emphasis makes.

Similarly, at Baigorri, the Reserva is so smooth you can imagine European royalty drinks it, but to satisfy the New World cult market, there's a higher-priced “Baigorri de Garage” (ironic because the clean-lined, stunning Inaki Aspiazu-designed winery is about as far from a garage as possible) with higher alcohol, darker fruit and more noticeable oak. Yet here also, smoothness is still the main goal.

It's great to see technology used in pursuit of something other than concentration, richness and power.

What if a winery decided to use all of the most innovative winemaking techniques available to pursue, say, complexity? Sign me up for the mailing list.

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