On a late summer’s weekend in Haro, in the heart of Rioja, northern Spain, a remarkable event took place. La Cata del Barrio de la Estación was an uncommon show of solidarity among seven of Rioja’s leading wineries. The point of the weekend was not simply for the bodegas to show their wines in a spectacular series of tastings (“cata” means wine tasting), but also to shine a spotlight on the famed Barrio de la Estación, the historic area surrounding the town’s railway station where some of the region’s top wineries are clustered.
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The event opened with cava and selected wines served in the impressive cellars of Bodegas Roda, flanked by massive oak casks, one of the defining features of Rioja. Afterward, some of Rioja’s finest wines were showcased at the gala dinner prepared by Michelin-starred chef and local hero Francis Paniego, as well as at the professional tasting staged at Bodegas Bilbainas the following day. Over the course of the weekend, all seven wineries opened their doors and cellars to the public. In brilliant September sunshine, some 5,000 people wandered from winery to winery (all are within walking distance of one another), glass in hand, eager to sample this extraordinary lineup of Rioja wines. The weekend was declared a resounding success by all concerned — the wineries, the local tourist authorities and the general public — and there are rumors (and hopes) that it may become an annual event.
Wines shown at the professional tasting ranged in age from 1981 to 2013, while those tasted in-house were of the latest vintage to be offered on sale. Below is a selection presented by the seven participating estates. Rioja of this quality is widely exported. Check wine-searcher for your nearest supplier.
Bodegas Bilbainas, Viña Pomal Gran Reserva
Bodegas Bilbainas was founded in 1901 and occupies pride of place right beside Haro station. In 1997 the estate was acquired by the Catalan-based Codorniú group, which has invested handsomely in both hardware and oenological expertise. Viña Pomal is its signature brand, made principally from Tempranillo with a little added Graciano for color and aging potential. Gran Reservas are aged at least two years in American oak, a further year in oak casks and three more years in bottle. Garnet-red tinged with russet, richly perfumed, supple and elegant, this is a wine to have and to hold.
López de Heredia, Viña Tondonia Reserva
López de Heredia, just across the tracks from Bodegas Bilbainas, is the station’s oldest winery, established 1877. They make classic, traditional-style Rioja presented in bottles clad in the characteristic gold wire netting that was originally designed to prevent tampering and fraud, now purely decorative. Viña Tondonia is its 100-hectare (250-acre) vineyard, planted in 1914 and responsible for impressive, deep golden white wines, significant reds and some rosé. Red Reservas blend Tempranillo with Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo and are aged six years in American oak. They are vibrant in color, supple and beautifully textured with good acidity and firm tannins auguring long life.
La Rioja Alta, Gran Reserva 904
La Rioja Alta, founded at Haro station in 1890 by five families from Rioja and the Basque Country, is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. Another classic bodega making touchstone Rioja, it is responsible for a range of impressive red wines (no white) destined for long aging. Gran Reserva 904 (Tempranillo and a little Graciano) is fermented in stainless steel and aged four years in small, used barriques, made in-house by the firm’s own cooper from imported, all-American oak staves. With its cherry-red color, intense bouquet and jammy fruit, it’s smooth and powerful — a wine for fall, perfect with lamb braised in red wine or a rich mushroom risotto liberally seasoned with black pepper.
CVNE, Contino Reserva
CVNE, which stands for Compañia Vinícola del Norte de España (usually styled Cune for simplicity), was set up by the Real de Asúa family in 1879. It remains in family ownership, run today by the fifth generation, and is famous for dovetailing the best of ancient and modern Rioja. Contino comes from Tempranillo grapes (plus Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano) grown in a single 62-hectare (150-acre) vineyard situated just outside Haro. Fermented in stainless steel, the wine spends two years in used oak barrels (40 percent American, 60 percent French) and at least a year in bottle before release. Rich ruby and silky-smooth, it’s an intense mouthful of long-lasting pleasure.
Roda, Roda I Reserva
Roda is the new bodega on the block, arriving at Haro station in only 1987. What the estate lacks in antiquity it amply compensates for in terms of excellence, and it has made an immediate impact with its modern Rioja wines, made exclusively from own-grown, indigenous grapes (Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano) and given extensive oak aging in a purpose-built, temperature-controlled barrel room, which is carved straight from the rock face. Roda I, closed with a black capsule, is 100 percent Tempranillo, aged 16 months in French oak barriques and given another 20 months in bottle before release. Bright cherry with a lively fruit nose and rich, plummy depths, it’s a wine to curl up with in front of the fire.
Muga, Prado Enea Gran Reserva
Muga joined the other bodegas in the Barrio de la Estación in 1932 and makes super-classic Rioja characterized by long fermentations followed by extensive oak aging and long spells in bottle. Prado Enea, which comes from selected high-altitude plots, is an exemplary Gran Reserva that majors on Tempranillo with 20 percent Garnacha and a smidge of Graciano and Mazuelo and spends three years in oak (French and American) and three more in bottle. Deep ruby in color with a brambly nose (blackberries at end of summer), it has mellow spice flavors and enormous elegance and grace –- a wine to cellar whatever the vintage (it’s not made every year), and to enjoy with favored, wine-loving friends.
Gómez Cruzado, Honorable
Gómez Cruzado was founded by exiled, Mexican-born aristocrat Don Angel Gómez de Arteche, who began making and bottling his own wines here in 1886 (a rarity at the time — most wines were sold in bulk). In 1916 the estate was acquired by a local nobleman, Don Jesús Gómez Cruzado, who gave it its present name. The smallest bodega in the Barrio, it has made giant strides in recent years under the supervision of consultant winemakers David González and Juan Antonio Leza. Honorable comes from one of the estate’s prime parcels of vines, many of them aged more than 50 years, mainly Tempranillo with the other three varieties present in small quantities. Black cherry jam hues with loads of ripe red fruit and good acidity to give it backbone, this is truly an honorable wine from an estate that’s moving up.
Main image: The López de Heredia winery in Rioja, Spain. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style