Wednesday, 23 November 2011

La Rioja, Spain - Part Three

Rioja is a fabulous region and Tony has been buying from here for almost 40 years. Our very own JMS has his winery Altos here so we’ve plenty of contacts and friends to guide us through the region, the wines and of course; the food.

Spain is often thought of as flat and hot. It isn’t. The Rioja region is actually very picturesque and the rolling vineyards are at a height of up to 800m (2,600ft). The Rioja vineyard growing area is split into three zones: Rioja Alta in the west; the hotter Rioja Baja in the east; and in the north around Laguardia, Rioja Alavesa.

The vineyards hug around the Ebro River and its tributaries such as the Oja which gives its name to the region. The valley is protected from the cold Atlantic winds by the huge wall of the Sierra de Cantabria Rioja. The soils are pockets of clay and limestone with the Tempranillo grape being most at home here, but Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano can be found in the region. Whites are made from the Viura otherwise known as Macabeu in France and the Malvasia. The whites are less well known in the UK, but the tart acidity makes the wines extremely long lived, as we found out in the restaurant.

We were about to find out even more!

Our first visit was to Vina Tondonia in the town of Haro. We were greeted by the owner and winemaker Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia and shown into what seemed at first like pitch black tunnel.

Little did we know but we were about to be transported back to 1880s! This has to be one of the most fascinating wineries in the world. Here, time has stood still and the winemaking is, well let’s say, traditional. It is quite a magical place and once your eyes adjust to the dark, the enormous ancient wooded vats are visible. There is absolutely no stainless steel here and the wooden vats are never cleaned so as to allow the living bacteria and natural yeasts to do the work and create the characters sought after in the wines.

Safety is not number one in this winery and after we navigated our way by walking the planks in between the tops of the vats it was time to go down in to the ageing rooms and tunnels. The wines are aged in some cases up to four years in small, 225-litre barrels as in Bordeaux. The difference here is that they never change the barrels and the in-house cooperage works full time to keep the barrels and the vats in working order. The barrel store is a seemingly endless labyrinth of tunnels and rooms housing some 20,000 barrels (Le Chai has 800). Wandering around is quite challenging for your sense of direction.

Finally a tunnel opened out into the wine cellar full of the old stock going back a hundred or so years. However we did not taste in here and we were guided back up to the surface of the earth to the more modern tasting room.

After a fabulous tour we were not let down at the end. Maria Jose is certainly not afraid to open wine and popped some truly amazing wines! We started with the 1991 Tondonia white, followed by the 1970 reds and the Tondonia reserve 1981, 1991 and 2001.

With the eyes re-adjusted to daylight we crossed the road to our next visit at Bodegas Muga. Read more in part four.


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