A fresh new approach at Contino and reflections on the differences between Rioja & neighbouring Navarra, plus a plug for graciano!
Day two started at Contino, Jesus Madrazo's former winery and part of the CVNE group, where we meet new head winemaker, Jorge Navascués. Despite his youthful looks, Jorge has 17 years' experience making wine in Cariñena, Calatayud, Navarra and Somontano, and it was refreshing to see him bring his experience of those areas to Rioja. 'I want to go back to the past when it comes to ageing wines' Jorge explains, 'for long-term ageing you need freshness; you need to pick early and use less oak'.
Tasting line up at Contino
To illustrate this we tasted Contino Blanco 2016 (the vintage before Jorge took over) alongside a tank sample of the 2017 – the difference in style was fascinating. The former was made using 100% new oak and is broader, richer and fatter with lower acidity compared to the rapier-like, floral and impeccably elegant 2017, of which 50% is aged on the lees in stainless steel and the rest in new oak. 'It's a wine made for ageing – it's about freshness and slow, steady development'.
The 2016 was delightful, but there was something so precise and purposeful about the 2017. As we tasted the range it was fascinating to hear Jorge's take on Contino and the changes he has in mind, looking to give the wines more focus and allow people to put their wines away for longer periods of time for long, slow maturation. We certainly can't wait to get our hands on some of them, in time!
Our next visit was to Viña Zorzal in neighbouring Navarra where, as it turns out, Jorge is a consultant and was on his way there as well. Although Rioja is arguably Spain's most prestigious wine region, it could be said that Navarra is producing the county's most exciting red wines.
Driving from Contino to Viña Zorzal, approximately an hour to the north-east, the difference between the two landscapes is remarkable; like chalk and cheese – or should I say, chalk and limestone? The rolling vineyards and hill-top towns of limestone-rich Rioja Alavesa and Alta roll out into vast expanses of flat farm land, where medieval towns and historic bodegas give way to warehouses and garages as if you were travelling through time.
Navarra is much flatter than Rioja, and after the Pyrenees must come as a relief for pilgrims like these walking the Camino de Santiago!
But it's not just the topography that changes: in Navarra garnacha is king, accounting for approximately 25% of the region's area under vine – this is opposed to Rioja where tempranillo occupies a staggering 75% of total plantings, alongside mazuelo (carignan), garnacha, graciano and viura (the main white grape of Rioja).
Jorge, Pierre and Xabier at Zorzal
Zorzal (which means thrush)'s distinctive bird logo features on all their labels
We were welcomed by Xabier, a regular at Wine Society events, to taste through their new vintages and a few new projects they have on the go at the moment. Viña Zorzal was founded on the principles of rescuing native Navarran grape varieties and producing single-varietal wines based on authenticity and simplicity.
They started with graciano (see below), a grape variety that produces some of my favourite Spanish wines, before moving on to garnacha taken from vineyards on the edge of the Ebro River. As at Contino it was great to see the 'Jorge effect'; wines with extra vitality and plenty of bright acidity, crunchy red fruit in the garnachas, and fabulously aromatic and concentrated graciano, all from the 2015 vintage.
Interested in giving them a try? If garnacha is your thing then check out their full, ripe Viña Zorzal Garnacha, or, if you're looking for something a little more 'serious', go for their Viña Zorzal Malayeto 2015 for a fabulous, terroir-led garnacha.
Graciano – Spain's most underappreciated variety?
One of the greatest things I will take from this trip is a new love and respect for graciano. This dark-skinned, richly perfumed variety fell from favour due to its inconveniently low yields with many producers uprooting their vines in favour for more popular, higher-yielding varieties like tempranillo and garnacha. However, graciano has seen a resurgence since the turn of the century with a few select producers making exceptional 100% examples.
Graciano produces wines with a distinctive blackcurrant, violet, bay leaf and chocolate perfume that complement the sweet vanilla and spice gained from oak ageing, forming typically sultry and seductive wines. Here are my three 'must-have' gracianos from the exceptional 2015 vintage:
Viña Zorzal Graciano 2015 – gateway wines like this should be illegal, especially at this price! Blueberries and violets meet leather and spice in this purple powerhouse from the low-lying plains of Navarra. This screams out for a barbeque and al fresco dining.
Viña Zorzal Cuatro del Cuatro 2015 – A tribute to the founder of Viña Zorzal, Antonio Sanz (born on the 4th April, hence the name), deliciously pure and elegant graciano packed full of blackcurrant and mulberry fruit. The grapes are from a 40-year-old vineyard and picked just as they hit full ripeness giving the wine extra crunch and freshness.
Contino Graciano 2015 – arguably the kings of graciano thanks to their San Gregorio Grande plot planted in 1979, this is characterised by immense concentration coupled with aromas of blackcurrant, cassis, annis, herbs and a hint of leather. The palate is full and rich but with the brightness and freshness that is synonymous with this outstanding vintage. Do not miss out