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Rioja: Blend it like Ramon Bilbao

As you sip away at your glass of Rioja, do you ever consider the steps that led to your enjoyment of it? Decanter's associate editor, Tina Gellie, recently turned winemaker for the day to put her blending skills to the test.

Rodolfo Bastida of Ramon Bilbao put journalists through their paces in London.

Sure, you may have glanced at the bottle label and noted that it came from Rioja Alta and that it was 100% Tempranillo. You may have even read a bit further and discovered details about soil, altitude, and vine age.

But, did you ever stop to think about why this soil, those vineyards and that variety were chosen? It’s more than just that they were the best. They might not all have been, individually. But in combination – as a blend – then that’s where the magic happens. And that’s where the winemaker’s skill comes into play.

Recently I was invited to an ‘Art of Blending’ session with Rodolfo Bastida, who has been the winemaker for Ramon Bilbao in Rioja since 1999. Rodolfo wanted to explain the intricacies involved in deciding on a blend: which villages and vineyards to use, what proportion of each, and how to imagine what the wine might be like in five, 10 or 15 years’ time.

‘Winemaking can be like painting,’ he said. ‘You can use a big brush and a big pot of one colour to obtain something that’s pretty bland, or you can use a small brush with lots of small pots of different colours to give character and complexity.’

We were given four barrel samples of 2013 Tempranillos from each from a different high altitude vineyard in Rioja Alta and told to taste them individually to assess their character and then blend them in our test tubes – in any combination and proportion – to create the perfect Edicion Limitada.

Rodolfo said he was looking for a ‘pure, fresh and fruity wine with a hint of umami character that showed Rioja authenticity’ and could be enjoyed now but had the capacity to age. We only had four samples and at Ramon Bilbao they normally deal with 10.

The problem that winemakers face (and I quickly realised) is that barrel samples aren’t the finished wines. Like tasting Bordeaux en primeur, you have to be a bit of a seer to predict what it ‘might’ be like in time. Consequently, Rodolfo reminded us several times that this was a ‘technical not a sensorial’ tasting. We had to think analytically not just about aroma and flavour, but the structure, body, acidity and elegance of each wine separately and how two or more wines would marry (or clash) to make the perfect whole.

Most of us worked individually to create our blends, which Rodolfo then assessed. My first one used 50% of the savoury, Haro vineyard wine from very poor soils at 475m, and 25% each of from the 600m-high, old Abalos vineyard (elegant, peppery and chocolatey) and 500m-high Cuzcurrita vineyard (evident cinnamon and varnishy US oak). Rodolfo was quite polite at my finished product, but essentially dismissed it.

My second attempt comprised 30% of the Abalos fruit and 50% of the Cuzcurrita grapes, but replaced the Haro fruit with 20% of wine from the San Vicente vineyard at 510m. Its distinctive, balsamic character was due to the Tempranillo being the Peluda (‘hairy’) clone. ‘I like it,’ said Rodolfo. ‘Spicy and structured, but perhaps lacking in some fruit charm.’ Back to the drawing board.

Eventually, it was Decanter contributor (and no stranger to blending himself) Peter McCombie MW who found the perfect combination: 20% Abalos ‘for the elegance and spice’; 30% San Vicente for ‘the acidity and balsamic note’; 40% Haro for ‘the complex, savoury-fruit base’ and 10% Cuzcurrita for ‘the oak’.

Unlike mine or other blends created by the group, the pieces of this liquid jigsaw slotted together perfectly: a smooth, supple mouthfeel of chocolatey plum fruit and a soft cloak of oak – a lovely modern Rioja.

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Written by Tina Gellie

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