Fourteenth in a series of posts about a recent trip to Barcelona, Bilbao, Rioja and Granada with my friend, Collette
Within five minutes of leaving Laguardia at 3:45, we approached Elciego, home of one of Spain’s most famous wineries, Marqués de Riscal. We needn’t have worried about finding it. The rose, gold and silver colored titanium roof of its Gehry-designed wine tourism hotel would be hard to miss.
The English tour, led by Elena (for 10,50 Euros) was a combination of old and new, as is Marqués de Riscal itself.
Riscal claims to be Rioja’s oldest and first Rioja winery to follow the Bordeaux method of wine making that was imported to Spain in the 19th century (although Marqués de Murrietta also claims that distinction). But besides wines made in a traditional (Bordeaux) style, in 1986 Riscal began making what it considers its most prestigious wine (priced accordingly), a cuvée containing 15-20% cabernet in addition to the usual suspects from Rioja (especially Temperanillo and Granache). Its basic Reserva, while mass produced (at 3 million bottles/year), is far more than just “competently made.” Served at the end of the tour, the 2009 was an excellent, medium-bodied red and a great value. After the tour, we did try the 2004 Gran Reserva and it beat the pants off the Reserva, but it cost twice as much.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Elena started the tour by showing the slickly produced video explaining the history of the winemaking house. It also introduced the brand image, “Vivid Sensations” (which I think has the unfortunate connotation of a condom ad ) and the story behind the “City of Wine.”
Marqués de Riscal wants to do more than create distinctive wines. It wants to be a global brand that is synonymous with style. The pedestrian-only campus, paved in gold-toned brick, encompasses the hotel, several historic buildings and the visitor’s center. It is wine-lovers’ Disneyland, intended to be an attraction in and of itself. Part of the lore Elena imparted on the tour was that Frank Gehry wasn’t originally interested in designing the hotel, but they plied him with delicious wines until he relented. In effect, the company is saying, “We are more than a winemaker. We are a creator of experiences so unique that Frank Gehry wanted to be part of what we are doing.”
Leaving the theater, we visited two of the campus’s oldest buildings, beginning with the production facility used for the winery’s premium Rioja wines, built in 1883. Elena walked us past the area were grapes are sorted, placed in large wooden tanks for the first fermentation, and then moved to large barrels for the malolactic fermentation stage, which takes the edge off the wine.
One of the things Marqués de Riscal does differently, I surmised, besides using technology to help control quality, is t0 age wine longer than required in both barrel and bottle, and to use 8-10 year old French oak barrels for its finest wines, the Gran Reserva, the Finca Torrea and the Baron Chirel. The French oak, Riscal believes, produces a finish that is softer, less “oaky” and fruitier.
The other ancient facility we visited was the storehouse for its old fine wines, where one thousand bottles of every wine Marqués de Riscal has produced is stored, gathering dust. The oldest wine in the library dates to the 1862 vintage. Elena explained that the winemaker periodically pulls out a vintage to see if it has peaked and may be beginning its descent in quality. She also demonstrated the use of heated tongs to cleanly sever the neck of a very old bottle of wine, avoiding the pesky problem of a disintegrating cork. (Never having ordered a bottle of wine that is more than a decade or so old, I’ve never run into the practice.) Lastly, on the subterranean level, below the Gehry hotel, we walked through the gigantic temperature controlled bottling and racking areas. Marqués de Riscal bottles 5 million bottles a year at this facility, and another 4.5 million bottles of white wines at another facility.
In the modern glass-walled room where the tour ends with tasting, I found the 2013 Rueda Verdejo (white) delightful (and priced right at 6-7 Euros). Marqués de Riscal, Elena explained, was instrumental in helping to establish the Rueda D.O.. I found the Verdejo citrus-y but less acidic and rounder in the mouth than an Albarino, and I liked its green apple and tropical flavors.
Collette was curious about the alcohol content of the wines, and we learned about a consequence of global warming that we hadn’t considered. Elena replied that wine in her hand had an alcohol content of 12.5% and stated that the alcohol level of the Rioja wines has increased one to two percent compared to several decades ago, a consequence of hotter summers that produces grapes that are higher in sugar, which in turn converts to higher alcohol.
Then we moved on to the brick red 2009 Rioja Reserva. “For the quality and price, this is the best,” Elena commented. We ended up concurring. A full bodied wine made of 90% Temperanillo sourced nearby in Rioja Alavesa, the Reserva has a slightly smoky character. The winery’s website commented, “The Graciano and Mazuelo varieties, whose presence in the blend does not exceed 10%, provide crispness and a lively colour.”
The 2009 Reserva seemed an especially good value after we had sampled the 2004 Gran Reserva in the stylish lounge of the hotel. At 10 Euros a glass, the cherry-red wine had similar overtones of a light toast on the oak, in addition to blackberry and chocolate flavors. We loved it, but found it on the expensive side. Slightly less expensive, the 2007 Finca Torrea was more acidic, “louder,” if you can use that term in the context of wine. (And since most wine tasting vocabulary is ridiculous, I don’t know why not.)
In order of preference, here’s how we ranked the reds we tasted at Marqués de Riscal:
#1 2004 Gran Reserva (48 Euros/bottle on site, selling for $40-50 in the U.S.)
#2 2009 Reserva (28 Euros/bottle, selling for $27-30 in the U.S.)
#3 2007 Finca Torrea (36 Euros/bottle, selling for $25-35 in the U.S.)
A final note about the hotel experience. A couple who was staying at the hotel said that, although Starwood operates it, they felt there were a number of “misses” in terms of service. On balanced, their experience made it seem overpriced. Despite what Elena said about the hotel being designed to reflect the town of Elciego and the Rioja wine country as a unique locale, it had the feel of an international hotel that could have been anywhere. We continued to prefer our special little home-away-from-home of Hotel Collado, even if it wasn’t as fancy.