La Rioja Region
In the blissful month of May I was invited to experience and furthermore explore the region and some Rioja wine. La Rioja is the well-known wine growing region in Spain and basically everybody who lives there is somehow involved into wineries. The region itself is divided in La Rioja Alta in higher territories and La Rioja Baja a little lower. My visit though was more about the Rioja Alta and primary the Bodega Ramón Bilbao and its wines.
When driving to the region from the airport, i already recognized the massive amount of green in the scenery. Imagining Spain would not necessary lead my thoughts to juicy fields of grass and trees carrying their maximum of leaves. Later that evening I was told about a good rain period which made all this possible, but it should come back in mind at a later stage of this short trip.
What could have been better after hours of traveling, then arriving at a peaceful and calm place in the evening. The dinner, of course with a Rioja wine pairing took place in the Venta Moncalvillo, a well-known gourmet restaurant and one of the regions most recognized eateries. We were greeted by the Echapresto brothers who own and run the restaurant. One in charge of the pots and pans and the other was so called the „Rioja Pope“ and a walking Rioja wine lexicon.
After being asked in and a look on the very good wine selection, including some Germans, we enjoyed our reception in the garden. The chef was growing a lot of herbs and veggies there which are also implemented for the seasonal cooking. The sun was standing really low, a car would barely pass by so no noise at all and I was sipping a glas of well temperatured Lalomba 2017, the first Rioja wine. Chef Echapresto slowly started to serve some memorable bits and bytes and I gently fell into local mode.
Amongst these little dishes have been items like a crispy and creamy cauliflower tube, deconstructed peas or the best from my point of view, an onion ice cream on toast. Everything was well balanced in taste and textures and always served with a bit of serenity. The Lalomba made from Garnacha and Viura was very fresh and fruity as it was grown in rather heights. The peachy color with apricot notes and lychee make this wine a definite favorite for my next summer gathering. Looking back, I can still remember each item served while enjoying the little hidden backyard and its surroundings.
Before taking a seat in the restaurant, glasses were replaced and poured with another Rioja wine. This time it was a Edición Limitada Verdejo Lías 2016. The hand-picked grapes for this Rioja wine are 100% Verdejo. Taste and nose in this case were getting a bit more complex compared to the first wine. A creamy texture with notes of stone fruit, spices and white chocolate made this a good preparation for some stronger dishes from the chef.
…was really little yet in a good way. It had very few tables with a view into the lovely garden. Tables were very limited in wealth and decoration to not distract the guests from the experience of food and wine. There was a separate room with a big table for 12 persons in which we took our seats. The service was subtle but very professional. As I heard later, a lot of food travelers from overseas find this place also and to be honest, I can only agree with one wanting to have a culinary experience in Rioja. The dinner itself has been consisting of 6 wonderful courses and was served with a corresponding wine from Ramon Bilbao. Let me go a little into detail here to give you an expression of what happened that evening on the plates, in the glasses and on my palate.
The first course was calamar, young peas & crustacean broth and was paired with the Verdejo. A strong aromatic dish with a light gracefulness. Perfect for getting into it yet simple enough to not be irritated.
Second course were some black beluga lentils, cooked with a nice bite, paired with smoky notes of eel which I really love and to round things up, some pickles came along on this plate. Tastewise one of my favorites because I have always been the one for really savory recipes with a balanced taste into sour notes. Sure, it had to be a red now and we were served the Viñedos de Altura 2015. Rubin red colored with a scent of red cherries and notes of herbs with a bit of balsamic vinegar, this wine just matched up with the served food still leaving the stage to the dish.
Off to the third course the glass has been filled with my favorite wine of that night, yet there was a very special something being brought from the winemaker of Ramón Bilbao himself: Mr Rodolfo Bastida. But first things first, The Mirto 2004 was a blast for my palate. This unfiltered wine is an art for itself being made from selected grapes only. It matures for 19 months in french oak but still the taste is not reduced to barrique. The oily texture makes it last long on your palate and flavors of pepper, coffee or dark chocolate combined with fruity cherry notes make this wine extremely versatile. The corresponding statement of the chef has been a TRIsotto with liver and chicken. Together these two have been playing the ball of flavor back and forth.
Fourth course has been a croaker with onion carpaccio and vegetables. A solid dish but for my taste not as memorable as the others. The fifth course though was again superb, a pigeon x3 and it came with a treasure being opened for this night. A 1982 Ramón Bilbao Viña Turzabella Haro. I got to admit, that I do not get to drink something like this wine too often. After all this years, the scent and taste seemed to have matured in a rather clear direction, just like a grown up knowing exactly what one wants. Oak, fruit and spices have been an awesome palate play.
Sixth course was chocolate in textures, but I have to say I was still too focussed on the red liquid in my glass. A good finish yet not to compare with the wine. Just for the record, the last wine has been a Gran Reserva 1995. Very mature tannins a bit of cherry, spices and of course barrique in color and taste. A great wine for the cold time of the year, if you are into liquids like this. My wrap up? What a start and what a difference these Rioja wines have been to my past experiences. Applause to the Echapresto brothers, true masters of their field.
View From Above
One can imagine how you feel after a good dinner with a lot of wine the next morning. All this could not keep me in bed as the start of this day was a personal premiere. Scheduled was a balloon ride over the Ramón Bilbao vineyards. I already mentioned that everything was super green but bringing this together with the early morning light coming up across the mountains, the magic was set. Trying to compensate with my fear of heights, I climbed into the basket and gently went up into the air. I think the pictures underneath speak for themselves. Try it out if you have the chance to…
Rioja Wine & Where It All Happens
After safely landing in a random field, we were picked up to drive to the headquarters of Ramón Bilbao. A very impressive property showing a glance of the winemaker’s philosophy to understand the terroir and learn to work with it. We had a quick bite and were guided to the source of each wine, the vineyards. The focus of these Rioja wines clearly went towards rather fruity character balancing the oak rather than overlaying it. Mr. Bastida grew the variety of vineyards over the years and started to work with wines from higher regions, using grapes like Garnacha for instance. Of course, one has to be brave to do such change management but in rewards the wines are what they are today through these efforts. Rioja for most of the people I know has a kind of dusty reputation, yet things have changed and being there, seeing all this and most of all tasting the difference made me place an order for a couple of bottles after my return to Berlin.
Another Wine I Did Not Know About…
Spending a fair good time in the yards, talking and exploring, everybody was hungry and so we returned to the Bodega. Sure, that we sat down for a rustic and tasty lunch. Along with each course there has been a wine and so we were served an Albarino 2014 which is one of Spains ancient grapes. The blue bottles do not fit the German market I learned, as the people associate mineral water with this color. Anyways a perfect lunch or terrace wine, easy drinkable, rich nose but very fruity and a lot of acidity. Amongst them also has been the Reserva 2012 and the special Cruz de Alba. The last one mentioned is made in small quantities only and each bottle is numbered. It is made using the best Tinto Fino grapes, cultivated using agrohomeopathic treatments according to the biodynamic calendar and harvested carefully by hand. A very impressive wine for my taste.
Different wines require different methods and therefore there are 3 ways the Rioja wine may be produced. There is the concrete tank, a steel one and the classic barrique one. These three amongst for instance the temperature and fermentation time already have a strong impact on the wine before even getting in the barrels. Today the rather colder process is preferred by the company to achieve this modern look of taste they are aiming for. One thing we have to be clear about, it is never just one or the other. It is crucial that the grape itself, from growing, to the choice of terroir, the expertise of the winemakers and of course a personal decision making the wine to what it is. You may forgive me not to take it to far from here, as I have a sensible palate but not the expertise to do so. 😉 So, what has been my personal outcome of this trip? I learned a lot about Rioja wine and am very fascinated about these decision makers of the wineries. I know one cannot have it all, but I like to learn new things. The wines I have tasted, the philosophy that approached me have been very memorable and mind changing. Companies like Ramón Bilbao are on a very good way, even these changes happened to take place over decades and ongoing. We can plant the seeds for the future at anytime if we are just brave enough. Some of the wines will sure be enjoyed with family and friends very soon and I will be remembering the days full of good food and wines. Thanks to everybody, who made this trip instructive and special through their efforts. SANTÉ