- Thursday 1 August 2002
Spanish giant Bodegas y Bebidas is creating a special brand to help consumers better understand the country's wine regions. JOHN DOWNES MW reports
French wine may be getting a bit of flack these days but at least the French have made sure we know their wine regions. Any enthusiast worth his corkscrew can rattle them off, from Burgundy to Bergerac and Bordeaux to Bandol. Now ask the same guy to name a few Spanish regions. Rioja may trip off the tongue but mention the likes of Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Rias Baixas, Jumilla and Navarra, and a noisy silence may follow. With shiploads of Spanish wine sold on our shores it's a pity the marketing men aren't capitalising on this success by giving us that little extra knowledge which makes the wines taste even better.
Happily San Sebastian-based company Bodegas y Bebidas has realised 'the Spanish problem' and met it head on. 'Everybody agrees that Spain has great potential,' says CEO Pedro Oyarzabal Guerricabeitia. 'But by definition that means the potential hasn't been realised. We hope that the wines we produce under one umbrella will help put our regions on the map.' reigning in spain
Bodegas y Bebidas is putting its money where its mouth is. It already owns bodegas in Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Navarra, Valdepeñas, Jumilla, Ribeiro, Rias Baixas and La Mancha, together with three in Rioja. As well as continuing the hunt for further Spanish gems, it is ploughing money into its existing bodegas. 'Making higher quality wine isn't rocket science,' says Guerricabeitia, 'but it calls for time, experimentation, experience and, of course, pesetas.'
From its overall portfolio ByB has chosen its four top vineyards and launched them under the 'Iverus' banner. The elite list of properties involved includes Bodegas Tarsus in Ribera del Duero, Aura in Rias Baixas and Ysios in Rioja. Surprisingly, to complete the picture it has bravely ventured overseas – albeit to a country with strong Spanish links and a well-established winemaking pedigree, Chile.
Guerricabeitia explains: 'The Iverus philosophy brings together the best wines from the best terroirs in the most prestigious wine regions, with each of the wines expressing the unique personality of that single vineyard. Viña Selentia, our new acquisition in Chile, fits the bill perfectly.'
The Iverus range is linked not only by philosophy and quality, but also by a flying duck. 'We're hoping consumers will easily pick out the red logo on the shelf and that it will help to open their eyes to Spain and its quality wines,' smiles group winemaker Hervé Romat. Following Robert Parker's 100/100 score for Tinta Pesquera many moons ago, Ribera del Duero took centre stage. Even high prices didn't stop the queues forming at high street stores. Today, this northerly region, perched at 850m above sea level (for a short growing season, cool nights and crisp acidity in the Tinto del Pais grapes), has established itself as world class. 'Nevertheless,' says Romat, 'we looked at four bodegas in great detail before going into our Tarsus joint project with Inigo Moreno y de Arteaga, the Marquis of Laula.'
The main grape variety of Ribera, Tinto del Pais, (aka Tempranillo), dominates Tarsus, but a touch of Cabernet lifts the blend to brilliant heights. Much of Ribera's vineyards are goblet (bush) trained, but Tarsus' 86ha are planted in orderly Guyot-trained rows. 'As well as giving optimal bunch ripening, the system enables more evaporation from the damp gravel sand with clay soils,' explains Romat.
The region's low maximum legal yield of 52 hectolitres per hectare (hl/ha) ensures concentration but Tarsus often goes one better, the first vintage in 1998 yielding a mean 45 hl/ha. Similar laws to Rioja govern maturation, and a minimum of 12 reserva months in barrel produces a toasty vanilla sheen to the deep-coloured wines. Tarsus is aged in 75% American oak and 25% French oak, while the second wine, Quinta de Tarsus, sees a 50/50 American/French split.
Driving north from Ribera to Rioja means negotiating the Sierra de Cebollera mountain range before you drop onto the vineyard plains – a journey that takes you from the continental climate of Ribera (hot summers, cold winters) to the more maritime climate of Rioja (hot summers, milder winters).
The cool Atlantic influence on Rioja Alavesa helps produce the finest grapes, and the new Ysios winery is there to do the rest. This architectural wonder, which houses all the latest winery technology, rises majestically from its Guyot-trained plateau vineyards, almost as a homage to the sea that helps craft its wines. 'The modern and unique expression of the building is in perfect harmony with our wines,' says winemaker Diego Pinilla.
Ysios is classified as reserva with a minimum of one year in 225l barrels and two years in bottle before release. As in Ribera, more and more French oak is finding its way into the cool cellars. 'The 2000 was aged in 65% new American and 35% new French oak and, just as in 1999, will spend 16 to 18 months in barrel,' he says.
As recent as 10 years ago you would have been lucky to find 10% of French oak in Rioja, but now it's not unusual to hear of cellars holding 30% of Alliers, Nevers or Tronçais casks. Along with the rest of the wine world, Rioja is reacting to the consumer move away from sweet vanilla American flavours towards more elegant, toasty French notes.
Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta and Mazuelo may be the main varieties in Rioja, but 2–3% of Cabernet Sauvignon can make a fruity blackcurrant addition to the cepage. At Ysios, the label says 100% Tempranillo. 'A little is allowed,' says Pinilla, 'but you're not allowed to put it on the label.'
The fashionable Iverus Blanco takes us west to the white wine region of Rueda, home of Verdejo, the native grape that has formed a very happy union with Sauvignon Blanc. The classic variety thrives here and, just as Cabernet lifts Ribera and Rioja, Sauvignon injects a zip of acidity into Aura, Iverus' Ruedan white. To squeeze the very best out of the region, Bodegas y Bebidas has joined forces with an experienced and highly respected local grower, Javier Valesco. In proportion to the wine's cepage, the vineyards are planted with 24ha of Verdejo and 8ha of Sauvignon Blanc, on clay siliceous soils. Unusually for a wine made with Sauvignon Blanc, Aura is barrel- fermented in French oak to give a toasty spice sheen to the crisp, honeyed apple tones.
The Iverus project may be making all the headlines but the company's investment doesn't end there. In fact, it's only the start. One visit to the old Campo Viejo winery in Logroño says it all. This long-established, popular Rioja brand is a major part of the company's portfolio and, following 'an offer we couldn't refuse' for the Campo Viejo's town centre site, plans were drawn up for a big volume, out-of-town winery. Nearing completion, the sea of steel tanks, cellars containing 80,000 barrels and a bottling line that handles 20,000 bottles an hour, has been cut into the ridge high above Logroño. The final bill for all this could top £17 million. Although it may also look overseas again in the future, the investment at Logroño emphasises Bodegas y Bebidas' commitment to Spain. 'We want to increase the Iverus portfolio to produce a Spanish brand concept which makes the consumer – so often lost within the regions of Spain – feel safe and secure,' says Guerricabeitia.
Let's hope the bright red duck will succeed in helping consumers understand Spain's wine regions beyond Rioja.
John Downes MW is a writer and lecturer.