[Image: Bunch of Grapes]
Europe Wine Diary 1998

© Copyright 1998 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

Spain - Rioja

Monday, May 18, 1998

This view on a hazy day from the medieval walled hilltop village of Laguardia distinctly shows the startling pale color of Rioja's clay and limestone vineyards.

Bodegas Fernando Remírez de Ganuza, Samaniego, Rioja Alavesa

Remírez de Ganuza 1996 Rioja Alavesa (barrel sample) - Very dark garnet. Deep black fruit and subtle oak aromas of vanilla and spice. Big and very full, fruity and approachable. Remarkable finesse for a young barrel sample.

Remírez de Ganuza 1995 Rioja Alavesa (barrel sample) - Inky dark reddish-purple. Delicious, complex aromas mingle toasted coconut, aromatic vanilla, deep black fruit and something like beeswax. Big, full and forward flavors mirror the nose; plenty of oak that needs time to integrate, but it's already spectacular.

Remírez de Ganuza 1994 Rioja Alavesa - bottled last September after 25 months in oak, scheduled for April 1999 release. Opaque, it's rather closed in the aromas, showing anise, herbs and black-fruit; but it opens up on the palate with an explosion of clean, immense fruit flavors.

Remírez de Ganuza 1992 Rioja Alavesa - This will be the winery's first commercial offering when it is released in September. A light vintage (but not as light as '93, which Remírez de Ganuza sold off and decided not to make), it's lighter in color than the rest, with earthy, truffle notes over black fruit and balsamic aromas. Fresh and juicy fruit shows on the palate, where it's tart and, oddly, a little more obviously tannic than the barrel samples.

Remírez de Ganuza 1997 Rioja Alavesa "shoulders" - In an odd but intriguing experiment that demonstrates his innovative approach to wine, Fernando made this and the sample below by dividing a quantity of grape bunches in half, using the upper (and presumably riper) "shoulders" to make this sample and the lower, greener "bottoms" to make the sample below, both vinified by carbonic maceration and identical in every detail except for the location of the grapes on each bunch. This sample is a very dark purple, with ripe, fresh red fruit on the nose and palate, crisp and clean.

Remírez de Ganuza 1997 Rioja Alavesa "bottoms" - Identical to the above except that the grapes came from the less ripe "bottom" of the bunch, this sample is a dark reddish-purple, not as dark as the "shoulders" sample. It shows a fruity, strawberry-like aroma and flavor typical of carbonic maceration and reminiscent of a Beaujolais. Well-balanced and refreshing, it's a good wine, too, but startlingly different from its sibling.

Tuesday, May 19, 1998

San Vicente
The village of San Vicente is home to the Sierra Cantabria winery.

Sierra Cantabria, San Vicente, Rioja

Sierra Cantabria 1997 Murmiron Rioja - Clear garnet. Luscious strawberry aroma with a brief initial hint of hard-boiled eggs that suggests substantial sulfiting. Juicy, simple fruit. Made from 100 percent Tempranillo and all put through whole-berry carbonic maceration, it's a light, pleasant table wine for early drinking.

Sierra Cantabria 1996 Codice Rioja - Day-glo reddish-purple. Oaky vanillins and juicy red fruit on the nose and palate; juicy fruit and sweet oak flavors. Nice quaff.

Sierra Cantabria 1995 Crianza Rioja - Dark reddish-purple. Good black cherry and oaky vanilla and spice, similar to the Codice but showing more structure and power. Bottled only two months ago, still a little awkward, but showing good promise.

Sierra Cantabria 1994 Crianza Reserva Rioja - Very dark garnet. Beautiful perfumed black-cherry fruit framed by oak; vanilla, chocolate and coffee notes, but the fruit stays out front. Juicy fruit flavor, crisp acidity. Seems a little thin at this point, but good flavor and balance suggest aging potential.

San Vicente 1996 Tempranillo Reserva Rioja (barrel sample) - Very dark reddish-purple. Blueberry, vanilla and burnt-sugar aromas; berry fruit, lemon-squirt acidity and heavy tannins on the palate. Young, angular, just-pulled sample at cellar temperature, and still showing very well.

San Vicente 1995 Tempranillo Reserva Rioja - Clear, dark reddish-purple. Lovely, deeply perfumed red fruit, spice and a whiff of incense. Heavy tannins cloak but don't hide big, juicy fruit. Held for lunch at the winery, it opens up nicely over two hours. Scheduled for October 1998 release.

San Vicente 1994 Tempranillo Reserva Rioja - Dark garnet. Black fruit, vanilla and coconut, but the latter is much less pronounced (and the wine thus a bit less idiosyncratic) than in a bottle tasted in the U.S. last month. Delicious, juicy fruit, sweet oak, and tart acidity show over perceptible but palatable tannins.

Sierra Cantabria
Miguel (left) and Marcos Eguren of Sierra Cantabria flank Victor de la Serna as they take a look at the winery's Rioja vineyards.
Sierra Cantabria 1996 Collection Privada Rioja - An experimental, "New World-style" Rioja, this bottling is a blend of two batches, half put through carbonic maceration and the rest fermented traditionally, then aged 12 months in new oak. It will sell at the top of the Sierra Cantabria line but below the pricey San Vicente. It's a dark reddish-purple, with pleasant but somewhat muted black-cherry and blueberry aromas. Very fruity indeed in the flavor department, it shows sufficient acidity and soft tannins that become a bit more evident in the finish.

San Vicente 1994 Rioja (unoaked) - Not for commercial sale but honoring a tradition that winery owner Guillermo Eguren started a generation ago, the winery puts aside a small quantity of each year's vintage for vinification without any oak at all. It's intriguing to compare it side-by-side with the regular '94 San Vicente: The unoaked version, very closed at first, opens up into a very different wine. Shorn of the oaky vanilla and spice, it speaks instead of herbs and minerals and deep, brooding black fruit. Served blind, it would be very difficult to guess the varietal, and if you didn't look, the herbal perfume might almost make you think it was a white. Very interesting wine!

A "light" Riojan lunch

After a tour of the winery and vineyards at Sierra Cantabria, the Eguren brothers invited us to stay for a light lunch at the winery. We carried the leftover wines from the tasting (the '94, '95 and '96 Riojas from the winery's San Vicente line) into a cavernous dining room furnished with antique furniture from the region.

This was my first exposure to "light" eating by Riojan standards, and I can't say I've ever seen anything like it. Or expect to see anything like it ever again.

Initially, I thought the first course was the only course. It seemed ample enough: Serrano ham sliced paper thin, slender baby leeks braised in olive oil, duck pate and crisp baguettes. I figured this would have to hold me until dinner, so I took plenty.

Then the second course came. What looked like a little mound of bean sprouts turned out to be a Riojan rarity: Anguilles. They weren't sprouts at all, but tiny, silvery eels, sauteed in fruity olive oil with roasted garlic and a pequin chile pepper or two. It took just one bite to get past that sense of disbelief, and the rest went down the hatch in seconds (and matched perfectly with young, tannic Rioja).

Would this be all? Hardly. The courses just kept on coming:

  • Basque potato and chorizo soup, thick and hearty, with just a taste of peppery spice.

  • Lamb tripe and knuckles in a peppery ragout, rich and hearty.

  • And, when we thought we could eat no more, a thin slice of rare grilled beef filet with roast piquillo peppers, drizzled with fruity Basque olive oil.

    And that, at last, was all. Well, all except for dessert, of course, a light cheese custard with raspberry sauce and a dense chocolate mousse cake in a pastry crust with a lemon sauce.

    And coffee. Au lait. And for those who indulge, cigars.

    It was quite a meal. I didn't eat again that day, and I was tempted not to the next day ... until a similar lunch at Vega Sicilia beckoned ...

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