Up until a few years ago for me, wine for me was white, red or rose. I heard oenophiles talk about full body, legs, dry, elegant and the nose of wine. And like people who like what they see or eat but don’t know why, I too was mystified by the great knowledge and palette of these wine mavens. So with time, I started to take an interest and trained my taste buds to observe the differences. It’s amazing what one can learn with patience and attention.
Recently, I had what I consider a fabulous wine education in Spain. Call Vino 101, it took place in La Rioja area where there seems to be vineyards of every size often with awesome wine cellars and tasting rooms throughout this beautiful area. Another distinguishing feature is that so many of the guides and owners of the wineries are young and so knowledgeable, enough to make a dilettante very self conscious. But wine does go back centuries and the history is massive …a good place to start your wine education.
The important instrument for grape content
La Rioja horses
My first stop led to another mystery solved. Cooperage or barrel making isn’t just putting a few slats together but knowing the difference between French and American oak. The French is more desirable and from forests that date back to the days of Napoleon and where the trees have to be at least 50 years old before the can be cut down. As for American oak, its use is on the rise now that they’ve figured out the faults.
In a small town , Alfara, at Toneleria Magrenan, we were handed earplugs (and with good reason, the noise of the machinery was deafening) where we would be witnessing this incredible long process, approximately 8 hours to construct one barrel. Certainly without the ear stuffers, it would not have been a happy experience.
Stunning “lobby” at Tondonia winery
Firstly, the planks are cut to a specific size, this by machine while afterwards they are smoothed by hand. Because this wood has to be weathered, “when dry there’s shrinkage and wet it swells”. Then these slats are stored in layers, like a baker’s rack, each with the exact number of staves for one barrel. Here they are exposed to the air and with this exposure, any undesirable odors and tannins are eliminated which might affect the wine. Who would have known how scientific it is to make a barrel? Metal hoops are put around the staves which are then hammered by hand until ready for a claw like machine which pressures them down to just the right place on the barrel- this done with the professional eye of one of the craftsmen.. This time-intensive procedure isn’t ended until the barrel has been heated by fire and the inside has been toasted for light, medium or heavy taste. Finally, after the oak is curved and searched for faults, heavens forbid that there’s a blister, the mainly hand processing is finished by inserting the grooved and perfectly fitted ‘”ends”. Each barrel is laser scorched with the name of the company. Now it was time to experience the area’s wine and learn about the harvest and taste.
Our first stop was a vineyard where they sell their wine in bulk to other wineries, therefore don’t bottle under their own label. Youthful Marina Grijalba, is the family spokesperson and asked us to randomly pick a few grapes. When we had each gathered a handful, she put them into a clear plastic bag, squished them into juice and from a small leather case took out a strange looking instrument that seemed somewhat similar to a miniature kaleidoscope. The Refractometer measures the sugar content in the grapes. To her horror, expecting about 12-13 degrees of alcohol, the measurement showed closer to 15 degrees, a very high amount. “More than that it becomes liquor,” said the perplexed woman. If it rains, sugar content decreases, there’s more water and less sugar. And if the weather is nice, the sugar content goes up quickly. She realized it was time to pick these grapes as soon as possible. This was all confirmed when her brother who owns an adjoining huge vineyard, drove by and from the car mentioned his astonishment too. The vineyard produces some of the finest wine in the area. Politely excusing herself, we were whisked off to our next stop.
The very well known and old established, Bodegas Muga in the small town of Haro is a swishy building that hasn’t left a thing about wine to the imagination. Art, , referring to wine, a fine wine accessory shop and then one of the most modern cellars, not always opened to the public are only part of this amazing complex.
Muga Winery started in 1932 and has gained an international reputation for their fine wines. This winery is unique in that they control every step of the viticultural process. They even make their own barrels with oak from both California and France. After viewing this museum-like environment and most up to date wine cellar, we headed to the spiffy tasting room. Set before us were 6 glasses on a round table. Juan Muga, one of the heirs, started us off with Muga Blanco which has slow fermentation in new French oak. When I asked about Rose, although polite, Juan told me that while they sell over 200,000 bottles a year especially to the US. he doesn’t much care for it. In fact, he hinted that he really didn’t think of it as real wine. However, realizing that I would like a tasting, he was able to locate a single bottle, enough for tasting for our small group of six. Naturally, I loved it which is something Muga couldn’t comprehend. He was relieved when we got to the real wine. The Reserva 05 is aged for 6 months – a nice white wine. This was followed by Muga Seleccion Especial with an aging process of 5 months in wooden vats, 28 months in oak barrels and 1 year minimum in the bottle and indeed was extremely special. Prada Enea Gran Reserva was my favorite and has a very long aging process up to about 7 years. Feeling somewhat jaded after these wonderful tastes, the Torre Muga red, was well liked by all of us but couldn’t surpass the last wine. However, this proved there is a wine for every taste and Bodegas Muga is part of the important industry now known internationally.
Even if Tondonia Winery wasn’t just a few hundred meters away and our next stop, I would have insisted on taking a closer look at the unusual architecture in the middle of this grape growing region. The visitor’s pavilion, as it is called, is by the renowned architect Zaha Hadid. At first glance this skewed bottle shaped glass structure is so incongruous with the ancient surroundings. But Hadid, known for her amazing concept of integrating the environment here, 125 year old bodega buildings, conceived this for the important anniversary. What’s also so very unusual is that inside the first item that catches one’s attention is an early 20th century large carved wood ‘stand’ which was used in the Brussels exhibition in the early 20s now in the centre of this glass ‘bottle’.
Founded in 1913 by Don Rafael Lopez de Heredia y Laneta, Vina Tondonia is one of the most famous vineyards and their products are available in Canada. The Canadian representative, Carol Slatt of Lorac Wine, feels it’s an “honour because the wine quality, longevity is so impressive.” “We do extremely well with the white reserva and the red reserve from this house,” says Slatt. “And the wines are internationally recognized.”
Rare bottles of wine
Wine tasting at Muga Winery
After descending several dozens of narrow stone steps the cellar certainly deserves its name. The most expensive and treasured dated bottles are covered with thick dust and grime with spider who seem to have been weaving their webs working overtime. The tasting room has a Halloween atmosphere with a table’s centerpiece looking like the Adam family’s living room.
Showing us around is one of the great grand daughters, Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia, who certainly knows her wines. Although the competition amongst the wineries is never mentioned, it’s clear that there are several owners boasting that they are the only vintners who go from grape vines to barrel making to harvest and bottling in the same premise. Several do. Also if there is a unique taste discussed at a tasting and considered special another company just laughs when we discussed the hint of the taste of horse hair. Admittedly, my taste buds aren’t that sensitive or educated so I didn’t get involved with this so subtle flavor.
But at the end of the trip, on a horseback ride on a rough and often stone ridden pathway, up and down hills surrounded by lush vineyards overlooking a stunning ancient city, the last thing on my mind was wine tasting. I just wanted my very old nag to make it back to the stable.