Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Falling in love with Rioja - the "Cata Estación" experience


We live in troubled times. It seems that everyone is quarrelling with each other, co-operation appears to be a swear word, and working together for a greater good is a mere pipe-dream of out-of-touch hippies. Against this backdrop it was wonderfully refreshing to visit somewhere in the world that represents the antithesis of this; the Haro region of Rioja Alta. In the picturesque, slightly sleepy town of Haro you find the premises of the sub-region’s seven wine producers: Viña Pomal, CVNE, Gómez Cruzado, López de Heredia, Roda, Muga and La Rioja Alta. All of these producers are to be found in the town’s Barrio de la Estación (neighbourhood around the station) as they back onto the local railway station due to the historical importance of being able to load the wine for distribution across the country, and indeed, the world. 

Each of these producers are renowned in their own right for producing wonderful Rioja wine and are fiercely proud of their products and their provenance. Against this backdrop, you’d expect to find a sharp rivalry, or perhaps even open hostility between the producers. Au contraire! Instead, the producers have decided in recent times that their strength lies in their combined value as a sub-region and, building on this, committed to putting on a combined event that showcased the glory of their wines, their terroir and their region. The event is known as the “La Cata del Barrio de la Estación” which translates as "the tasting of the neighbourhood around the station" and takes place biennially. The main event is held over a weekend, where around 3,500 people visit the celebration and partake in the wines. On the Monday afterwards, there is a private tasting for 800 or so sommeliers, wine journalists, wine bloggers. I was lucky enough to be invited to this year’s event, which was the third time that they have held it. Previously I had not tried anything better than mid-level Rioja and was familiar with their pleasant, if somewhat uninteresting, coconut and vanilla sweetness from those oak barrels. I suspected that there was more to Rioja than this and was keen to see if my suspicions would be confirmed! 

A celebratory meal to start 


After the three hour bus ride from Madrid to Haro (note to potential visitors, Bilbao is a much more conveniently situated airport than Madrid for visiting Rioja) we were brought to the La Vieja Bodega restaurant where a stylish canapé reception got the event underway, with speeches from Agustín Santolaya, the current President of Cata Estación wine experience (and MD of Bodegas RODA), as well as the incoming President. We were also treated to an advance preview from Sarah Jane Evans MW, one of the pre-eminent voices on Spanish wine and, in particular, Rioja, who as “Maquinista del Año” (the engine driver for the year, keeping the rail theme going) was to give a master-class the next day. The audience very much represented the great and the good of the wine making community from Haro, as well as from the gastronomic scene and local and international press; an impressive bunch! 

You know this will be a serious dinner!
Dinner was served shortly after the speeches concluded and we were shown to our tables, where the number of glasses on the table told us that we were due to get down to some serious tasting! Each producer selected a bottle from their collection to present at the table, the offerings were: 2009 Viña Ardanza, 2011 Muga Reserva Selección Especial, 2005 RODA I, 2014 CVNE Imperial Reserva, 2012 Alto de la Caseta, 2014 Montes Obarenes Selección Terroir and 2005 Viña Tondonia Tinto Reserva. 

I was immediately impressed with the quality, elegance and beauty of these wines; gone were the heavy, over-used oak notes that are essentially used to disguise poor wine-making. Instead, we were tasting balanced, subtle and delicate, yet powerful wines. Each had its own character and charm, however I had a couple of favourites from the selection. 2005 Viña Tondonia Tinto Reserva from López de Heredia, which had an absolutely dynamite aroma in the glass, really complex with dark black fruit and tobacco notes accompanied by an intriguing smoky profile. On the palate it had touches of ripe strawberry and a bit of cranberry bite. This is a wine that is still young and will only improve with time. I also really enjoyed the 2011 Muga Reserva Selección Especial which had a more elegant and perfumed nose than the López de Heredia; I felt it was almost Burgundian in profile with clove and rose aromas coming to the fore. To taste it had juicy flavours of red cherry and lush plums, all carried off with a beautifully supple elegance. I had been particularly looking forward to the 2014 CVNE Imperial Reserva as I had heard a lot about this particular vineyard; it had a warm, generous, rich and smoky nose that really excited. When tasted it had a front end burst of fruit and spice and a really power and body to the wine, however we were all a little surprised that they chose to showcase a wine so young still - this has 20+ years ahead of it and I would dearly have loved to have seen a wine with a bit more maturity to feel its development and additional complexity. 


The food that we had alongside the wines was also excellent; for a starter we had slices of cod in a Riojan Pisto (obviously!) and a Pimiento Choricero sauce; for main course we were served a slow-cooked tail of beef with a mushroom and foie gras sauce; for dessert we were treated to a caramelised French toast that was rich and decadent (picture on the right). Cooking for an entire restaurant on this kind of scale and to this level is a special skill and was carried off with aplomb. 

During the meal I had the pleasure of company from some of the international press corp with whom I was sharing the meal, but also Victor Charcan (Sales Director, RODA) who was very generous in telling us all about the wines that they make, the challenges that they face in the region and his hopes for the future. It was truly illuminating and helped me to appreciate his wines even more. This was a really excellent evening and a great aperitif before the real business of the following day. 

The main event 


The main event started relatively early the next day and commenced for us with something that I was really looking forward to - Sarah Jane Evans MW’s masterclass. This took us through 14 different wines (two from each producer) with some nice variations, including some older vintages and some whites. It wasn’t done as a tutored tasting, i.e. everyone tasting their way through at the same time; instead, Sarah Jane hosted a number of guest speakers whom she interviewed on varying topics whilst we were making our way through our wines and taking our notes. I should also note, that it was very impressive that Sarah Jane conducted all of these interviews in Spanish - we were given an earpiece which had live translations of the interviews so that we could keep up to speed as they went along; all very technologically impressive! Here is a summary of my notes from the tasting: 

Reds


2010 Viña Pomal Gran Reserva - a pleasant, warm nose with black fruit and some sweet spice. Rich and opulent on the palate with a great balance to the wine. 

2010 CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva - notably darker and richer than the Pomal, more plummy and damson notes. Really powerful and weighty wine, with a fair amount of heat to it from some pretty intense tannins. Will be a great wine, but needs five to ten more years. 

2014 Gómez Cruzado Honorable - pleasant nose with compote-style fruit and a touch of perfume. Notably simpler than the previous wines, lighter in style with more delicate fruit notes. Well balanced, if not overly complex. 

2006 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Tinto Reserva - a relatively quiet nose, with nice ripe strawberry notes. On tasting, I felt that the acidity was quite high, as were the tannins. This felt like it needed another five years to really express itself properly. 

2010 Roda 107 - heady and brooding nose, with dark fruit (black cherry and blackcurrant) and sweet spice notes. A really joyful wine to drink, full of ripeness and richness. There were bags of blackcurrant and clackberry flavours, underpinned by some still fairly insistent tannins. This was pleasurable to drink now, but give it longer and it will reward you for your patience. 

2015 Torre Muga - an expressive nose with plenty of energy. I noted that this tasted like a “coiled spring”, it was full of potential and ready to go! Lots of dark fruit flavours, along with high tannins that gave it a rather grippy mouth feel. 

2017 La Rioja Alta Garnacha de Finca La Pedriza - this was a complete curveball for me; a 100% Garnacha wine and only one year old. It had a beguiling nose that was smoky and sweet with dominant notes of cloves and cinnamon. On tasting, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this wine - it was full to brimming with rich, red cherry notes; there were tannins, but they weren’t too prevalent. This was a beautifully, elegant wine and one that really surprised me.   

2001 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia - at first this had a slight funk to the nose, but after a bit of time in the glass the aroma got better and better and BETTER! I kept a bit of this one in the glass right to the end, just so I could keep smelling it - beautifully heady mix of dark fruits, along with some woody elements (Hawthorne?); as it evolved it presented sweet spices and then increasingly rose and dark chocolate. Just phenomenal! On the mouth it was a wonderfully elegant wine, that is showing perfectly right now. It still possessed a firm tannic grip, which retained its structure and then lad a long, glorious finish. My favourite wine of the tasting! 

2001 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva Especial - another beautiful nose to this wine, expressive and elegant with touches of floral elements to it. On tasting, there was slightly more body to this wine than the Tondonia, which meant that it retained a real power and weight. This felt like it still had a few years of development ahead of it before it hit its sweet spot. This will be a phenomenal wine. 

2001 Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva - this was another wine that really grabbed me when I smelled it; plenty of brooding power to it with a dark and stormy profile full of black cherry, blackcurrant, smoky bacon and forest floor notes. On the palate it was pure hedonism from the first sip, silky smooth, rich and opulent, tannins well integrated into the wine, and a finish that went on for well over a minute. An exciting wine that showed how great Muga can be - loved it! 

2001 Roda II - a quiet and understated power to the nose on this wine, slight primary notes of fruit but soon replaced by secondary, more savoury, notes. Another really decadent wine to drink, full of luxuriant blackberry compote notes; all set off with a wonderful balance and a long finish. A beautiful wine now, and one suspects it will still improve with more time. 

Whites: 


2017 Viña Pomal Vinos Singulares Maturana Blanca - a refreshing wine with a pleasant gooseberry and elderflower nose and bags of lemons brightness and vitality on the mouth. 

2015 Gómez Cruzado Montes Obarenes - rich, broad nose with a pie-crust style depth to it. On tasting it possessed a definite oakiness, which gave it a beautiful decadence. This reminded me of a well-made Burgundian Chardonnay - high praise indeed! 

2014 CVNE Monopole Clásico - one of the more interesting wines of the tasting; as well as having a classic grape (Viura), it also had a slight dosage of Manzanilla. The nose was intriguing, plenty of mango/pineapple brightness, but also definite notes of buttery richness. On the mouth it possessed pleasing acidity and balance, with juicy, Amalfi-lemon vibrancy.  

More mornings should be like this...

Following the masterclass, we moved to a food tent where we were given some vouchers that would allow us to purchase food from an array of food stalls. Now, these weren’t just any food stalls, these were food stalls manned (and womanned) by some of the greatest chefs from the Spanish gastronomic scene and had been conceived by such Michelin-starred luminaries such as La Rioja Michelin Star chefs Francis Paniego (from El Portal del Echaurren) and the Echapresto brothers (from Venta Moncalvillo). 

Michelin-starred croquettes!
Of particular note were some absolutely incredible ham and chicken croquettes which were as smooth and creamy as you could hope for. I also particularly enjoyed a local speciality which is known as “shepherds’ bread shavings” served with La Rioja sausage, grapes and an egg yolk (to bind it all together). I had heard about this dish and it had a lovely simplicity to it, yet it was satisfying, rich and just what was needed after a morning wine tasting. We finished our lunch with a dessert, which was the complete opposite of the last dish: complex, thought-provoking and decadent. Created by Juan Angel Rodrigalvarez his “Maravi de Chocolate” dessert was made from delicious, rich dark chocolate, but offset against sea salt and olive oil to add to the flavour profile. It also had some nice textural elements that again served as a good counterpoint against the smooth and luxuriant chocolate.  

Oh! To get in behind that gate...
In the afternoon, the Bodegas opened up their doors and hosted tastings of their own where you could explore their offerings further. I chose to spend a fair amount of time exploring CVNE’s wines and was pleased to find my way onto a tour around their wine cellars, which included discovering a fascinating section of their cellars which was used to mark their centennial (1879 - 1979), they put a bottle of wine from each of the vintages from these years into a vault and then locked it up and threw the key into the local river! Anyone up for trying to find that key?? 

As we were exploring the vaults, we were truly honoured when the Sales Director opened a bottle of 1976 CVNE Imperial for us to try; if you recall, I had been very keen to try an aged wine from this vineyard and where better to try it?! The wine had lost that weight and heaviness from the young wines, but it still possessed a noticeably vibrant burst of acidity. The flavour profile had both softened and evolved with its age, leaving a more complex and interesting wine that really showed how top Riojas benefit from giving them some time. 


Conclusion 


I think it should go without saying, but I feel very lucky and honoured to have been invited to this wonderful event. It was beautiful to see these producers coming together to put on this showcase for their wines and their region. As ever, visiting wine regions helps me to understand and appreciate them more; I see the pride and passion of the people who make the wines; I get to know the landscape, the topography, the environment and the terroir; and you start to understand the history and the provenance of the wines and the region. I will now be a lifelong fan of the wines from this region and am already looking out for them on the wine lists of restaurants that I visit. 

Thank you so much to the organisers - especially Blanca and Maria, who did a phenomenal job in looking after us, both before and during our stay. 

In the spirit of full disclosure; I did not pay for this trip, however nor was I paid to write the article. The opinions within this article are, nonetheless, my honest opinions.