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Each week we will try to present one of our houses with an in depth view for your reading pleasures... as well as an educative take on different regions, culture, and history. Enjoy!
Bodegas Las Orcas
THE HISTORY OF THE BODEGA & REGION
Bodegas Las Orcas is located a stone’s throw from the historic city walls of Laguardia, the capital of Rioja Alavesa in Spain. This picture-perfect village is nestled up against the Sierra de Cantabria, which line the northwestern side of Alavesa, and run into the Pyrenees Mountains which separate Spain from France. Within the greater autonomia of La Rioja, the three wine subzones that make up Rioja D.O.C.a run west to east along the famous river Ebro, which carves its way through the middle. On the eastern half of the region and primarily sitting to the south of the river (Navarra is north of here), Rioja Baja is known for a great amount of grape production as well as having extremely high summer temperatures. Due west, a bit smaller in scale, and known for its quality wines, is the Rioja Alta. It gains in elevation, and enjoys the Mediterranean influences that come straight up the Ebro River Valley. As the Alta is on the south side of the river, the north side is known as the Alavesa. Rioja Alavesa is a touch higher yet, and is entirely encompassed by the Basque country of the north (Pais Vasco). It too is known for its high quality wines, and some may even argue that it produces the best Rioja of all.
The region takes its name after a tributary of the Ebro called the Oja, and has noted wine making records dating back over two thousand years. Like much of Europe, monks played a key role for wine production in the early days, until Rioja eventually shifted to a strong French influence in the 1800’s. Being that Rioja is relatively close to Bordeaux (just over the Pyrenees), many of the French winemakers retreated to Rioja when phyloxxera struck their region, in order to start new wine projects, as well as make a name for themselves in wine production consultation. This started Rioja into a new world of techniques, as oak influences hadn’t been as common for their traditional style. French oak became used often, along with mixes of other woods. It wasn’t until the early 1960’s when some of the classic Rioja houses (such as Marquis de Riscal and La Rioja Alta) began using very old American oak to age their wines and gain subtle nuances and delicacy. The reaction Tempranillo has to American oak was very satisfactory, and since then has become a standard. However, as these subtle flavors were once subdued and integrated, they have now been noted as “classic” markers (dill, coconut, cedar) of Rioja, and the traditional old American oak has shifted in many bodegas to brand new wood in order to bring these characteristics to the forefront of the palate. This shift has brought much debate as to “What is classic Rioja,” and many bodegas today are experimenting all across the board again with oak treatments. What hopefully remains constant through each of these wines however, is Rioja’s clear and distinctive flavor of their unique place; rich with calcareous and ferrous clays, a unique climate that stands apart from all other Spanish regions, and a long history of wine tradition.
The families of Bodegas Las Orcas have been making wines from the grapes of the Rioja Alavesa region since 1900, and have undergone the great transformations of the Rioja region as well, in order to reach the point which they are at today. With long family lineage in Rioja, both Raimundo Abando (Rai for short) and Cristina San Pedro’s families have been farming and producing local wines for a very long time. Rai’s two great-great uncles, Raimundo & Gregorio Real de Asua (the uncles of Rai’s grand-father Raimundo Abando) were founders of the famous Rioja house Cvné in Haro, a prosperous town in the Rioja Alta. The Abando family were partners of Cvné until the early 1990’s. Cristina’s family is the reason for Bodegas Las Orcas’s current production in the Alavesa. She is the 4th generation of winemakers, and the current wines of Las Orcas still use some of the vines that they harvested since the beginning. In 1993, Rai & Cristina married, and decided to create a new branch of the family business, and began to make wine in the old family bodega within the city walls of Laguardia. This consisted of making wine in two old and traditional presses that sit in a simple garage type building built on the edge of a steep hill. The entrance to the room is at street level in the town of Laguardia, but the entire building goes down 7 stories from there along the town hillside, which contains old giant vats for fermentation and aging. Directly above the tanks are small foot-crushing pads, so that after the grapes were stomped (yes, with their feet!), gravity would fill the vats to continue the process. Construction for what is now the current bodega outside the town walls started in 1999. Once the new Bodega opened and had its first vintage in 2001, a bit more modern equipment replaced these old-school procedures, but some of the traditional methods and ideology for winemaking still carry on.
THE WINEMAKER & THE NAMES
Raimundo Abando and his wife, Cristina, own and operate Bodegas Las Orcas. Raimundo (Rai) lives and breathes the wines that he makes, and his love for Rioja is an essential part of his character that shows in his strong presence. Rai is a tall and powerful man who seems to be built for the long hours that he puts in the field and in the winery. He has amazing warmth in his charismatic personality, and a humility that belies greatness. When he walks anywhere in the town of Laguardia, he calls everyone he sees by name, young and old, and the respect that each person gives him in a glance is as clear as if they proclaimed it out loud. Rai grew up in the fields and in the bodega. He has learned the art of winemaking over years and years of experience. Rai believes that any good wine must have plenty of “soul” put into it; and although he has endless “soul” in his wines, he is still his own greatest critic and an absolute perfectionist with his wines, always working to develop his techniques further in order to make better wine each vintage.
Bodegas Las Orcas takes its name from an old-style plow that was used not only to turn the soil for the coming year’s harvest, but also to turn seeds into the earth for new vineyards. Rai and Cristina chose this name because the Orcas tool reminds them of the traditional and natural practices of the area. Randez, of Solar de Randez, is an old family name on Cristina’s side, and has been seen on bottles of her family for close to a century. Solar de Randez essentially translates to “The house of Randez.”
THE EARTH & WEATHER
More than just a breathtaking view of the Sierra de Cantabria jutting across the north side of Rioja, and the Sierra de la Demanda and Sierra de Cameros angling to the southeast, Rioja D.O.C.a benefits greatly from its unique and enclosed situation along the river Ebro. These mountain ranges come close to meeting in the northwest corner of Rioja, providing ample protection for the vast majority of the valley from the continental influences coming from the south, and the blasting winds of the north. Although physically much closer to the Atlantic Ocean, this shape entices the tail end of Mediterranean influences to make its way to these historic vines. With both bodies of water playing their role in the weather patterns, Rioja’s climate is quite moderate. A long growing season is vital, as the heat of August only reaches average temperatures of around 77 degrees Fahrenheit, creating a slow but consistent ripening process for the grapes. Most of Rioja is home to large amounts of ferrous clay soils with long stripes of alluvial fans to complement, but in the Alavesa region, it is predominately calcareous clay. This chalky influence happens in the upper most portions of Rioja, and as the Alavesa ranges right around 600 meters (just under 2000 feet), it makes for prime territory full of this coveted soil. Bodegas Las Orcas’s soil is full of a beautiful mixture of sand, rocks, and chalky clay, as well as marine components from a few vineyards lying near old salt lake beds, adding to the depth and complexity of their wines.
The families of Bodegas Las Orcas have been making wine in the Rioja region for over a century, and under this quality label for 15 years now. All of the fruit has been family-owned for many different lengths of time, as the entire production is just about 40 hectare (96 acres): 3ha are 70-80 year old vines of Viura for the Solar de Randez Blanco; 1.5ha hold Garnacha vines for blending purposes; 3ha of Graciano vines will soon become a single varietal wine; 32.5ha of Tempranillo vines make up the rest of the Red and Rosado production. Each year they produce around 25,000 cases of wine, which include a wide selection ranging from blanco (white wine), to a small pre-phyloxxera vineyard Tempranillo only made in exceptional vintages. In the vineyards, Rai is very careful to employ focused practices that are natural, sustainable, eco-friendly, and even seeks out land that is far from developing areas; both the Graciano vines as well as the Tempranillo vineyards that go on to make the Joven, are grown in an area that is a protected migratory bird region. Depending on location and situation, the vines range from bush vine pruning to Guyot trellising and see trimmings only two times a year: once in January during the winter months, and once during the spring bud-break (around May) at 6am-9am each morning in order to not interrupt the day’s maturation. All but their youngest red wine is hand-harvested by a group of field workers and carefully placed into small baskets to return to the bodega.
Once the grapes have reached the bodega, they are processed and pumped to large stainless steel tanks for close to a week of cold soaking at 41° to 45°F. The wines use only their natural yeasts to begin fermentation, and during rémontage (pump-overs) the wines are filtered through large bundles of cut grape vines in order to keep the hoses clean; an effective and resourceful method that has been used in the family for close to a century. Except for the highest end red (Pagos de ValdeOrca), all wines undergo both alcoholic and malolactic fermentation in tank before continuing with their destined aging. None of the wines are fined or filtered before bottling, making the entire range of Bodegas Las Orcas vegan friendly. Rai utilizes both American and French oak, as he finds each to give particular characteristics to his wines. He has found that with his grapes, the French oak gives a beautiful structure backed by a lot of power. The American oak (which is only used on the Crianza), gives a sense of softness and elegance while displaying some gentle characteristics of older Riojas. All wines see varying aging processes before bottling, but are always given ample time to age before being released to the market, as Rai desires to release his wines when they are just starting to taste their best.
LOCAL CUISINE & FOOD PAIRINGS
The entire range of Bodegas Las Orcas can be a fantastic line for wine pairings. Starting with crisp and fresh white wine, going up to very serious and well-built Rioja tintos, the wines can be versatile and very flexible with different foods. Rioja takes great traditional pride in its local cuisine. From local vegetables to locally raised lamb, the food is easy to pair with the large range of delicious wines, as there is a Rioja for almost any food.
Solar de Randez Blanco: The Blanco is 100% old vine Viura which has seen no oak, and has unbelievable freshness and clarity. Its acid can complement fresh salads, or serve as the perfect cut through rich and fatty appetizers.
- Arugula salad with grilled prawns & green goddess dressing
- Smoked salmon in olive oil with pignolas (pine nuts)
- Foie Gras & toast points
Solar de Randez Rosado: The Rosado is made from 100% Garnacha. It has brightness as well as great depth in its fruit, and a spicy red berry quality that is approachable with almost any food consumed on a patio.
- Burrata cheese & slow roasted tomatoes
- Jamon Ibérico (or other cured pork)
Solar de Randez Joven: This unoaked Tempranillo has a delightful palate that is extremely food friendly. Fresh and clean fruit flavors move into uncompromised layers of earth and spice, developing a pleasant mouthfeel that does not interrupt the cuisine it accompanies. Try with rich appetizers, cheeses, and several types of meat.
- Cheese stuffed cherry peppers with balsamic & oil
- Manchego or Idiazabal, chorizo, & bread
Solar de Randez Crianza: A rich and full bodied Tempranillo that has a beautiful balance of earth, fruit, spices, and oak. Truly an everyday drinking wine, the Crianza is built to pair with dinner (or a Spanish lunch). Whether it is fresh fish or a lamb rack, this wine is a chameleon with cuisine.
- Grilled white fish with capers, olives, & tomatoes
- Rack of lamb with a robustly flavored sauce
- Grilled vegetables & romesco sauce
Solar de Randez Reserva: Aged longer in oak (French only) and in bottle, this Tempranillo has so much elegance and balance while being backed with sheer power and structure. The fresh acidity and strong fruit can accompany any red meat, powerful sauces, or even taste phenomenal with delicate dishes and simple vegetables.
- White asparagus & balsamic reduction (try it!!)
- Callos in tomato sauce with onions and chorizo
Solar de Randez Cellar Reserva: The Cellar Reserve was created in the old-school style of Bodegas Las Orcas. A true ‘field blend’ with old oak aging, the wine has such fantastic grace that food itself is honored to be served with it! Still showing very fresh fruit and earth, while lined with explosive acidity, makes this wine a no brainer for delicious meals.
- Firm cheeses of sheep or cow milk
- Mushroom risotto with duck breast & pickled cherries
Pagos de ValdeOrca: A Tempranillo from century old vines, this wine’s mighty force speaks of true Rioja. The depth and complexity can balance the equivalent on a plate, or prove to be made for simply roasted meats.
- Roasted leg of lamb with natural jus
- Seared rare beef, fried spicy peppers, & mushroom cream
As summer is wrapping up and entering into the amazing autumn months, it seems I find my palate beginning to crave new things. It isn’t time to build a fire, or to turn off the water supply knowing frost is coming, or even time to dive into the fall squash bins quite yet; but things seem to be changing slightly each day. The sun is dropping earlier each night, the burn of the sun wanes a bit quicker, and the evenings seem to hold a chorus of glorious angels shining through the trees because it’s the time of year that I… consider perfect.
However, I find a dilemma as this all approaches because I still want the refreshing, delicious juice I enjoyed all summer to continue its dance on my palate each night, but I want it to excite me for the heavier wines coming soon with the cold air. I’m done with the cheek-zinging Sauvignon Blancs, the bright toned Pinot Grigios, and the fresh Gruner Veltliners, but I don’t want to leave the way they remind me of wonderful summer. So the wine that’s knocking my socks of right now... Godello.
A grape hailing from Northwest Spain’s Galicia region, where Albariño also comes from, Godello (pronounced Go-Day-Oh) is a grape that grows further inland than its popular roommate, and has become a favorite among the wine geeks of the world, but still has a while until it takes over the rest of the planet (which it will!). Being the same grape as Verdelho of Portugal, but not to be confused with Verdejo from Spain, the grapes most famous home is in the D.O. Valdeorras, about 100 miles east of the Atlantic coast.
My first taste of this crazy-delicious white was about 2 ½ years ago with some colleagues, as we cracked a bottle of arguably the greatest Godello available in Spain (and the world): Rafael Palacios’ “As Sortes”. A wine that sees about 8 months in barrel before being bottled, which isn’t necessarily the common ‘traditional’ practice of Valdeorras, but the result is unmistakably phenomenal. Last week, I had the priceless experience of meeting the esteemed Eric Solomon (famous Spanish & French wine importer), and it began with a glass of his 2009 “As Sortes.” It brought me right back to the first time I tasted this luscious grape, and inspired me to write this post.
As Mr. Solomon suggested, this varietal could be Spain’s answer to France’s refined and scrumptious Chablis. I find myself agreeing with each Godello I crack. A variety with such class, such elegance, and so much prowess that it begs for a beautiful sunset to accompany your sips. Refreshing, yet it holds weight with each sip. Stone fruits, lemon, and bits of flowers occupy the palate; not to mention that its versatility with food is pretty stunning.
As for our Godello from Valdeorras?… a bit more toward the traditional preparation; unoaked, clean, well-built, and has a texture that puts this distinctive varietal in its place. Bodegas Ruchel, a small, family owned estate of Luciano Amoedo, that puts sustainable and natural farming practices to work in order to create their beautiful wines. I opened a bottle the other night to find it so enticingly tasty, and so very fitting for this ‘mood’ my palate has been trying to find. Loads of lemon (and all of the lemon: zest, pulp, juice) and mineral, lifted by bits of honeysuckle, and topped with a touch of the freshly browned meringue of my grandmother’s legendary lemon meringue pie! A stunningly good bottle of white, that I think will someday be part of the Godello revolution that sets Americans crazy for this late summer white! As we all sat and sipped this wine on the patio, it got me stoked for this ‘interim’ phase of wine drinking.
If you have yet to check out 'The Wine Brothers,' watch this video on Bodegas Ruchel... beautiful wines... beautiful Godello.