A Wine Tour money could not buy

Wine Society member Geoff Barker was one of the four lucky members to win a place on this year's 'Inside Track' tour of Rioja. He shares his experience below.

During the first few days of July I had the good fortune to be a guest of The Wine Society on a four day trip to the Rioja region of Spain. There were ten of us, Pierre Mansour, the Society's Spanish wine buyer, his wife and eight Society members including myself and Jane, who farms with us, and an eclectic mix of people ranging from a retired Air Vice Marshall to a Swiss banker. As usual though, it soon became apparent during that first evening, we had one thing in common, a very healthy interest in all aspects of wine.

We flew to Bilbao and were met by our minibus and driver who took us to the Hotel Los Agustinos in Haro, just in time to watch the second half of the European Football final. This, as you can imagine (Spain beat Italy), became a recurring topic when first meeting anyone Spanish!

The tour was based around visits to several of the bodegas that supply The Wine Society and had been chosen to give an insight into how diverse the wineries are in Rioja, from the ultra-modern at Viña Real to the very traditional at Viña Tondonia.

The Rioja region is centered around the Ebro river which flows from northwest to southeast in the north of Spain. The temperate climate means Rioja is capable of producing some excellent wines, the finest coming from both Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavese in the northwest.

Haro is the perfect centre to explore these areas and several top bodegas have their wineries there. The area's wealth is said to have arisen from its rail links with Bordeaux and the rest of Spain. During the early days of phylloxera the Bordelais were desperate to maintain red wine supplies to blend for their markets and Rioja was in the perfect position to fulfil this until the epidemic reached Haro in 1900. After that Rioja went its own way, thankfully!

Our first visit, at 9.30am, was to La Rioja Alta, one of the oldest bodegas in Haro. We started with a tour of their new winery on the outskirts of town and learnt that Rioja wine is made using a strictly policed set of regulations. Fermentation, using wild yeasts, is carried out in large stainless steel or oak vats and, alcoholic and malolactic fermentation can last several months during the cold winters.

The tops of the 16,000 litre fermenting tanks, La Rioja AltaThe wine is then transferred to 225-litre American or French oak barrels and aged for one or more years with the wine transferred to fresh barrels every six months (racking). After blending and before bottling a further period is spent in large vats, during which time fining with egg white can be done.

After bottling the wine has then to be stored for a further two or more years before release on to the market. It was very sobering to see 35,000 barrels and nine million bottles in store at La Rioja Alta and it explains, quite succinctly, why good Rioja costs as much as it does. It also makes one wonder what their accountants must think of the cash flow situation.

We returned to the bodega to taste the wines. We sat around a large table with cellar notes and a large array of glasses. While the wines were poured a description of the first was given which we then tried and so we moved on. Spitting was allowed and, I must say, fairly essential.

The start of our first tasting. La Rioja AltaThe tastings throughout the trip all followed a similar pattern, Crianza wines followed by Reservas and Gran Reservas and very often a 'flagship' wine as a special treat. I won't write about every wine as I think an extended list of ta sting notes will benefit no one.

Unusually, we were given a very nice 2011 Albariño white, Lagar de Cervera, from Rias Baixas to try first, most welcome as it was 11am by then and we had all developed a bit of a thirst.

Two other wines tasted are worthy of mention, The Society's Exhibition Rioja Reserva, 2006 is from Rioja Alta and well worth buying and, 1998 Gran Reserva 904 which, very unusually, was off! Not that we had noticed, but Pierre very politely suggested that, perhaps, they needed to open another bottle as the first was not showing itself correctly. He was right.

Our second visit of the day started at Bodegas Muga, 200yards around the corner. As before, we drove out of town to visit one of their vineyards, accompanied by Jorge Muga, chief grower and winemaker. We had a brief, but very informative lesson in organic viticulture.

Vines are selectively propagated for disease resistance and for their ability to produce open bunches, which helps to minimise insect damage. The variety, graciano, is grown for the acidity and flavours it adds to the tempranillo grape. However it is very susceptible to oidium, a stem disease, and there are few treatments which do not affect the wild yeast needed for the fermentation.

Garnacha and mazuelo (grenache and carignan) are also used for blending though they need to be grown at higher altitude to preserve their freshness, which can then delay harvest sometimes into November. The garnacha failing to ripen is one of the main reasons that Reserva wines are not made in certain vintages.

Jorge Muga and Pierre Mansour With the lecture out of the way we were treated to chorizo barbequed over vine clippings and washed down with splendid Muga Rosado, allegedly one of RP's top three rosés in the world.

Returning to the bodegas in Haro, we had been promised lunch with our tasting but first had a tour of the winery. This was a much more traditional operation with no stainless steel in evidence. The barrels and oak vats are all made in-house and Jorge explained how he was experimenting with different types and sizes of oak barrels for the fermentations and ageing so that he could fine-tune the flavours of the finished wines; not strictly allowed in the Rioja rule book. The extensive use of old wood increases the micro-oxygenation of the wines and leads to a considerable evaporation loss which, according to Jorge, produces a very stable wine capable of long ageing. As we found out later it definitely works.

The wines are clarified in 16,000 litre vats using egg whites and we were shown the 'state of the art' egg separator consisting of two opposing, sloping steel channels which coped with one egg at a time. I pity the poor apprentice vigneron set the task of separating the thousands of eggs needed to fine the year's output.

Lunch was taken in the family dining room with Jorge and colleague, Jose Velo Rego, or Pepe, who seemed to be acquainted with everyone connected with Spanish wine in the UK. We first met father, Isacin, and then settled down to a six-course lunch with wines. Conversation flowed as did the wine and Jorge was very interested to hear the latest about Latour and seemed very pleased that they 'had finally adopted the sensible Riojan way and given up selling en primeur'. We also learned that in the not too distant past, the final blending and tasting of the wines were entrusted to the women of the family; the men's palates were not to be trusted after evenings in the bar!

Courses were anticipated when another set of cutlery arrived and wines were expected when another glass appeared. At one stage Jane and I had seven glasses each! The fifth course was memorable, as we thou ght that, maybe, we had finished but it turned out to be the most wonderful grilled lamb chops served with Muga's top reds, Prado Enea 2004 and Torre Muga 2006.

Sometime around 5.30pm we were given a 'cleansing' glass of cava and then left in a daze, after a most amazing experience, to return to the hotel for a much needed evening siesta. The first day, however, was not yet over.

Jorge and Pepe decided that, as opposed to the usual wine buyers they had to entertain, we were a breath of fresh air and obviously up for it, they would take us on a tapas bar crawl starting at 8 o'clock.

Seven of us were waiting in the hotel bar at 8pm, however three did not want to ruin the next day's tastings. Most of the bars in Haro were closed after the football the previous night but our hosts found one serving food. Some of us had a beer, others had white wine to start and then the party began.

Jorge had organised magnums of Prado Enea to drink with the food he had ordered which, once again, kept arriving. I can vaguely remember near the end of the evening a huge plate of beef turning up, which we cooked, to our taste, on red-hot iron skillets and that, to our dismay, when that was finished another arrived. I think we finally departed with half a magnum of wine still on the table. During the walk back to the hotel Jorge decided we needed a nightcap and steered us to a bar which, after one look, we had to christen 'The Brothel'. Red and black leather upholstered bar and seats were not something we were used to. Their speciality was gin, with around 50 varieties to choose from. I chose Hendricks which I thought was fairly safe but it arrived in a 'large goldfish bowl'! Happy memories of the largest G & T I have ever seen.

If anyone is interested a photographic record of the whole tour is available on Society Grapevine

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