Rioja Diary Day 3: Haro Here We Come

Down to serious business today as we head to Haro, the epicenter of the Rioja wine trade. October 12 is a national holiday honoring the Virgen Pilar and the entire country shuts down. But we are able to get 2 VIP tours, first to Bodegas Bilbainas, one of the oldest wineries in Rioja and to Lopez de Heredia, the oldest winery in Rioja.

'bad' mold Bilbainas

‘bad’ mold Bilbainas

Bilbainas was purchased by the massive cava producer Cordoniu several years ago and at 3 million bottles annually is one of the larger producers. They have kilometers of ancient underground cellars built by the French who came here in the mid-1850s when phylloxera ravaged Bordeaux. Unfortunately these cellars, which would be the envy of any other producer, cannot be used because for 40 years they were not properly maintained and there is a serious non-correctable problem with bad mold. As you’ll read later on, another winery doesn’t have any problem with mold  although the cellars appear identical.

Here are a few helpful insights we gained at Bilbainas:

  • 2015 will be an excellent vintage, the only blemish being a severe hailstorm in September that destroyed many vineyards
  • the mazuela grape used in many blends is the same as carignan
  • the white grape viura used in Rioja cava is the same grape as macabeo, the main grape of Catalan cava
lunch at Bilbainas

lunch at Bilbainas

For our lunch at the winery we started with a leafy green vegetable stuffed with foie and apples, paired with Crianza 2012; our next course was pigeon pie paired with Viña Pomal Reserva 2010, 100% tempranillo; roast suckling pig paired with La Vicalanda Reserva 2010, also 100% tempranillo; and for dessert mil hojas with chocolate sauce, paired with their Royal Brut Nature, a blend of viura and malvasia.

Our next stop will be one of the tour highlights and if you ever visit Rioja, make sure you visit Lopez de Heredia. For the 3rd time we were able to present Jose Maria, the in-house barrel maker, with a NY Yankees baseball cap. It was his day off but he came just to greet us and be presented with the cap.

The tour through their cellars never ceases to amaze anyone: row after row of mold-encrusted underground caverns and unlike Bilbainas, they have no problem with mold and indeed welcome it! Of course the proof is in the tasting: we started with the 2005 Gravona, a 10 year old white wine 100% viuramoldy bottles at Tondonia with 4 years of barrel aging, redolent of white flowers and almonds (everyone loved it!); 2003 Tondonia with 6 years barrel aging made from 75% tempranillo, 15% garnet, and the rest graciano and mazuela, a delicious smooth wine with soft tannins; and our special treat from Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia: 1981 Gran Reserva Tondonia which had 10 years barrel aging. Someone called it elegant and refined and we all realized we were treated to a special wine experience.

To put these wines in perspective, you need to remember that Rioja DOC requires crianzas to have a minimum 1 year barrel aging and 6 months bottle aging; reserva to have 2 years barrel aging and 1 year bottle aging, and gran reserve to have at least 3 years barrel aging and 2 years bottle aging. Tondonia prefers not to refer to vintages but rather the length of time spent in barrels, which average 20 years old each.

As an aside, their wines are a ‘chollo,’ a new slang word we learned today: a bargain!

You can read all about our Rioja wine tour in the links below:

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