I’ve been a fan of wines from Spain’s Rioja region, especially older Riojas from traditional houses, for some years. I’ve very much been wanting to learn more about the region and its rich history. I was therefore hugely excited to be part of a week-long trip last month to Rioja for five American wine bloggers organized by the Control Board of the Rioja Designation of Origin (Consejo Regulador DOC Rioja) and its Vibrant Rioja campaign. I returned home with a deep appreciation and love for this beautiful, long valley, which is producing terrific wines, many of which are also amazing values.
Rioja is both a very long and wide valley in northern Spain, divided by the winding Ebro River and ringed by mountains. The picture above shows a portion of the spectacular Cantabrian Mountain range to the north, which dominates the skyline and protects this region from cold Atlantic winds and rain. Vines are planted nearly everywhere. The valley is dotted with old towns, like Briones and San Vicente de la Sierra, built on small mountains, topped by old churches and medieval walls. In other words, it’s ridiculously picturesque. Add to that wonderful food–largely from delicious, locally produced fruits, vegetables and meats; gracious and warm people; a long, quality winemaking tradition and very serious winemakers. What more can a wine lover ask for?
In upcoming posts, I will highlight several of the excellent producers we visited on our weeklong visit. For this first Rioja trip post, I wanted to start with a winery that didn’t happen to be on our original itinerary, but that I was thrilled to be able to fit in on a day when we didn’t have another winery visit scheduled, thanks to some very happy coincidences.
In a trip filled with highlights, my visit to Franco-Españolas was a standout for me for several reasons. I’d been curious about this producer ever since its wines—including a 1968 Royal Reserva and 1964 Excelso Gran Reserva–had come out on top for me in a couple of retrospective tastings of older Riojas in the past year. It’s also an incredibly beautiful winery, dating back to the 1890s, in the heart of Logroño, Rioja’s largest city. The winery has been wonderfully and thoughtfully restored. The winemaker, Carlos Estecha, who has been making the wines for 24 years–and who also serves as the winemaker for Franco-Española’s sister winery, Federico Paternina–is an accomplished artist as well as a winemaker, and a fascinating person to listen to. In the space of my afternoon visit, he managed to answer some longstanding questions I had about Rioja wine history, for which I’m deeply grateful. And the wines are exceptional—from the good quality, fresh young wines, to the Reservas and Gran Reservas, to the aged examples (especially an outstanding old white Gran Reserva, one of the best wines I’ve tasted this year). In short, this is a producer deserving of much greater attention, especially from those, like me, who are fans of the world’s great traditional producers.
That I was able to get there on this trip was due not only to being in the right place at the right time, thanks to our Consejo hosts, but also to fellow wine blogger Jim White (Napaman.com), who introduced me before I left, via email, to his friend, Tom Perry, an American who has worked in the Rioja wine industry for years, including 20 years as head of PR for the region, and who writes the informative blog Inside Rioja. Tom came by to meet me on my third night in Logroño, and happened to mention that his son, John Perry, worked at Franco-Españolas. As soon as I heard that, I begged Tom to get me in touch with his son, to see if there might be any chance for me to visit there. Since there was a break in our schedule the following Friday afternoon, and I’d mentioned to the Vibrant Rioja organizers prior to the trip that I wanted to see another traditional winery at that time, John graciously agreed to pick me up from our hotel in Haro, after I participated in the wine battle there, and bring me over to Franco-Españolas for a tour. That he was able to have winemaker Carlos Estecha join us for a tasting afterwards made for a very memorable day indeed.
Bodegas Franco-Españolas dates back to the invasion of Rioja by French wine producers looking for new grape sources to meet customer demands in the late 1800s, when phylloxera devastated French vineyards decades before the destructive louse made it to this region. In 1890, Frederick Anglade Saurat of the Bordeaux negoçiant Anglade family partnered with Spanish investors and winegrowers to found the winery.
They built the winery in what is now the heart of the city of Logroño. It’s the last classic Rioja winery still standing in the city–but it used to be surrounded by vineyards. They currently own more than 200 acres of vineyards, and also purchase fruit from farmers with whom they’ve had long relationships.
By 1922, the Spanish owners bought out their French partners. Hemingway, with his bullfighter friend Antonio Ordóñez, was a visitor in 1956. He was reputedly a fan of their wines and included the white wine “Diamante” in his book A Moveable Feast.
The winery is now owned by Carlos and Rosa Eguizábal, who also own Bodegas Federico Paternina, another longtime producer founded in 1896.
Carlos Estecha has been with the Eguizábal Group since 1988. He currently serves as the Technical Director for both Bodegas Paternina (their Rioja and Ribera del Duero divisions) and Bodegas Franco-Españolas. He holds a degree in labor relations (coincidentally, my current field) from La Rioja University and is a graduate in oenology of Rovira y Virgili. He also studied drawing and painting at the Escuela de Artes y Oficios of Logroño for three years, under the painter Vicente Gallego. His works have been exhibited in the Museum of La Rioja and in other cities in Spain and Europe. I was very taken with his art installations in the winery itself, including a theatrically lit Tempranillo vine sitting on a throne suspended in the air.
Carlos is very much a traditionalist in his approach to winemaking. He’s no fan of what he refers to as “globalization” and “frivolity” in today’s wine world. The top wines he’s currently making for Franco-Españolas are very much in keeping with the complex, ageworthy and elegant wines of the house’s illustrious past.
Speaking of that past, the wine that I tasted with Carlos that most overwhelmed me was an old white Reserva, in a German Riesling style bottle, from 1959. It was wonderfully complex, rich and delicious, with a tremendously long finish. It was as good as, and showing better at this point, than any of the prized, long aged white Reservas and Gran Reservas from the traditional Rioja producer that is much better known in the U.S., López de Heredia.
Carlos explained that Rioja used to be more known for their great white wines than their reds. More white wine was then produced and consumed in Rioja than red wine. The whites, because of their greater value, were taxed at higher amounts, so winemakers used to try to lower their tax bill by adding some “tinto” to their white wines, making them appear red. That’s apparently the origin of the common term for red wine throughout Spain today.
In answer to my questions, Carlos explained that 700 millimeter was a standard size for Rioja fine wine bottles until 1988 or 1989, when they had to conform to European Union requirements for 750 millimeter as the standard size. Carlos also said that older wines usually had the Crianza stamp on the back regardless of whether they were actually Crianzas, Reservas or Gran Reservas.
Franco-Españolas’s original brand was called Rioja Bordeaux, but the French objected to the use of a French place name so the label was ultimately renamed Rioja Bordón.
Like most traditional Rioja producers, Franco-Españolas has long offered two premium lines of wine. One of these is typically a more robust, tannic wine—inspired by Bordeaux—while the other tends to be a lighter bodied, more elegant wine—think fine old Burgundy. Many producers, confusingly, issued the bigger wine in Burgundy style bottles and the more elegant one in square shouldered Bordeaux style bottles. Given its strong tie to its Bordeaux origins, Franco-Españolas has never used a Burgundy style bottle. The Bordón is their bigger wine; the Royal is the lighter, more elegant line. In keeping with Rioja’s traditions, both are aged exclusively in American oak. In particularly good vintages, they’ve also issued a Baron d’Anglade Reserva bottling, aged in French oak, honoring the house’s French founder.
Franco-Españolas’s non-vintage, semi-sweet Diamante wine, originally called Diamante Sauternes, is the best selling white Rioja wine in the world, very popular in Scandinavia. It is, however, the least of their wines.
We tasted recent and older vintages of both the Bordón and Royal bottlings, and I was tremendously impressed. These are wines that are very much in keeping with the magnificent Franco-Españolas wines from the sixties that had so grabbed my attention at old Rioja tastings last year, before I’d ever heard of this winery. There is both an elegance and tension to these wines, especially the Reservas and Gran Reservas, that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. The 1995 and 2005 Royal Reservas and 2005 Baron d’Anglade Reserva bottling we tried are among the most impressive young Rioja reds I’ve ever tasted.
Current releases from Franco-Españolas are generally available in the U.S. through their U.S. importer, Vision Wine & Spirits, LLC.
For my complete tasting notes and other details on the both the Franco-Españolas and Federico Paternina wines I tasted on this visit, see below.
Diamante (semi-sweet, non-vintage white)
- NV Bodegas Franco-Españolas Rioja Diamante – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Light lemon yellow color; sweet peach, ripe lemon nose; sweet, fresh, simple, ripe lemon, ripe peach palate in a semi-dulce style; short-medium finish 86+ points (no oak aging; averages 28 grams per liter residual sugar) (86 pts.)
- 2008 Bodegas Franco-Españolas Rioja Bordón Crianza – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Medium dark ruby color; appealing, focused nose of cherry, dried berry, dried cherry; elegant, tart cherry, dried cherry palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 90+ points (80% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha; from vines averaging 25 yrs old; 12 mos in American white oak barriques of medium toast with racking every 6 mos for natural clarification; great value at $12 in U.S.) (90 pts.)
- 2007 Bodegas Franco-Españolas Rioja Bordón Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Medium dark ruby color; appealing, spicy, dried cherry, raspberry nose; tasty, tart cherry, dried cherry, tart raspberry, cedar palate with integrated oak and good acidity; drinking well now; medium-plus finish (80% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha, 5% Mazuelo; fermented in stainless steel tanks for 9 days at 25 degrees centigrade, then macerated in contact with the skins for 5 days; 24 mos. in American white oak barriques of medium and intense toast with racking every 6 mos; 2 yrs in bottle; $15 in the U.S.) (91 pts.)
- 2004 Bodegas Franco-Españolas Rioja Bordón Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Dark ruby color; complex, evocative, licorice, chocolate, caramel, dried berry nose; maturing, tart cherry, tart berry, dried berry palate with medium acidity and fully integrated oak; will go 10-12 years; medium-plus finish (80% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha, 5% Mazuelo, 5% Graciano; destemming and soft crushing of the grapes before fermentation for 10 days in stainless steel tanks at 26 degrees centigrade, followed by maceration in contact with skins for 7 days; aged 3 yrs in American oak barriques of medium and intense toast plus 2 yrs in bottle before release; only $22 in U.S.) (92 pts.)
- 1969 Bodegas Franco-Españolas Rioja Cosecha Especial Bordón – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Bricking dark red violet color; rich, intense, tobacco, dill, dried red fruit, dried shitake mushroom, cinnamon nose; delicious, mature, tobacco, dried mushroom, shitake palate with freshness due to medium acidity and good body; long finish (94 pts.)
- 2005 Bodegas Franco-Españolas Rioja Royal Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Very dark ruby color; caramel, ripe cherry, black cherry, oak spice, dried cherry nose; tasty, maturing, tart cherry palate with integrated sandalwood oak and wonderful tension and medium acidity; medium-plus finish (80% Tempranillo, with Graciano and Mazuelo; aged in 2 and 3 yr old American white oak barrels) (93 pts.)
- 1995 Bodegas Franco-Españolas Rioja Royal Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Bricking medium dark ruby color with light orange meniscus; redolent, sweet cigar box, dried orange peel, dried cherry, red fruit, freshly unearthed mushroom nose; very tasty, fresh, elegant, dried cherry, tobacco, light mushroom palate with tension; should continue to age beautifully for decades; long finish (95 pts.)
- 1968 Bodegas Franco-Españolas Rioja Royal Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Bricked medium red violet color with orange meniscus; more mature, oxidized, dried red fruit, apple nose with gingerbread note; mature, dried cherry, orange preserves palate, on the austere side; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
- 2005 Bodegas Franco-Españolas Tempranillo Rioja Baron d’Anglade Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Dark ruby color; poised, tart cherry, black cherry, incense nose; complex, charming, tart cherry, raspberry, dried tangerine palate with both richness and restraint; long finish (80% Tempranillo, 10% Mazuelo, 10% Graciano; selected grapes in particularly good vintages are destemmed and softly crushed before fermentation in stainless steel tanks at 26 degrees centigrade, followed by maceration with skin contact for 7 days; 26 mos. in French Allier oak, medium toast barrels; 2 years in bottle) (95 pts.)
Viña Soledad – Tête de Cuvée
- 1959 Bodegas Franco-Españolas Rioja Viña Soledad – Tête de Cuvée – Rioja Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Medium golden color with 1 millimeter clear meniscus; evocative and transporting, mature, cumin, coriander, curry, preserved lemon nose; exquisite, complex, silky textured palate with tension and flavors of preserved lemon, cumin, coriander and orange marmalade; long finish 98+ points (in a Riesling style bottle) (98 pts.)
Federico Paternina wines
- 1958 Federico Paternina Rioja Conde de los Andes Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
From 350 ml bottle – mature, bricked medium garnet red color with orange meniscus; appealing, sweet, surprisingly fruity, dried orange, sweet tobacco, cigar box, incense nose; delicious, delicate, sweet tobacco, light dried cherry, tart raspberry palate with a touch of bitterness on the finish; long finish (5 yrs in used barriques; blend included 10% white grapes, probably all Viura) (94 pts.)
- 2010 Federico Paternina Rioja Clisos – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Very dark ruby color; fresh, ripe currant nose with an olive note; tart currant, tart cherry, olive palate with good acidity; medium finish (100% Tempranillo; 2-3 mos in American oak; very good value at about $10) (90 pts.)
- 2009 Federico Paternina Rioja Selección Especial – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Very dark ruby color; fresh, ripe currant, cherry nose; tasty, ripe cherry, spice, black cherry palate; medium-plus finish (100% Tempranillo, from 25-35 yr old vines; 13% alcohol) (90 pts.)