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Here's our latest "Inside Look" at Bodegas Vega de Ribes in the Penedes D.O. of northeastern Spain. These two amazing winemakers are producing some of the most exceptional white wines you can find throughout Spain, while remaining entirely organic, natural, and following in the footsteps of 16 generations of the Bartra family!!
THE HISTORY OF THE BODEGA & REGION
Vega de Ribes is a small family bodega in the D.O. Penedés region of Spain, within the Autonomia of Catalunya. Just outside the outskirts of the southern side of Barcelona, this Catalan wine region is split into three main areas: the Alt (or Upper), Central, and Bas (or Lower) Penedés. As the titles infer, the region is quite mountainous, and the elevation is key to the different production throughout the region. Furthest west and inland is the Upper Penedés, which is known for its small production wines high in the mountains, and for producing several red varietals. Heading towards the nearby Mediterranean Sea, the hills get lower in elevation and more influenced by the water in the Central and Lower Penedés, creating a phenomenal microclimate for the famous white wines of the area. Spain’s renowned sparkling wine, Cava, is produced predominately in and around the Penedés and draws much attention for the wine region. Historically, vines and production date back to the 4th century B.C., while boasting many stories of how different varietals came to be in the coastal region.
Vega de Ribes sits only 4km from the water, and is nestled in the foothills and forests of the Garraf Massif (the local coastal mountain range). Since 1540, Enric Bartra’s family has been making wine in the same small bodega, pulling from many of the same vineyards sites, and practicing the same natural and organic methods that were instilled from the beginning. Only once has the bodega been updated, and since then (late 1980’s), more modern technology has aided some of the production. Sixteen generations of experience and tradition has been passed along in order to create the amazing wines from this bodega.
The house takes its name from Vega, the famous star in the summer night sky, and Ribes, a nearby village in the Penedés. As stars were guides for traveling ships long ago, the bodega finds the old local stories of the region very important to its heritage. In the 13th century, when wines of Penedés were still made from whatever field grapes were found, a man from Sitges (another predominant coastal town of the area) traveled to Greece to find more grapes. At the time, Malvasia was a highly acclaimed varietal for quality wine, and the town of Sitges (and surrounding areas) wanted to get their hands on this grape since their soils and climate were very similar to Greece’s. The man traveled to the source, Monemvasia Greece (from where the name Malvasia derives), and brought back clippings to plant in the area. The grape proved to be very fickle to grow, had very loose clusters, was easily susceptible to disease, and eventually it bordered on extinction by the early 1900’s. Although its adaptation to its surroundings had made it not an ideal grape variety to make wine with, when it was cared for properly, the resulting juice was exquisite and delightfully tasty. In the late 1970’s, the Bartra family found a stone in their vineyards that had an engraving upon it discussing this great story of the Malvasia. With some inquiring to the local farmers, they found a gentleman with a few cuttings of the clone down in Sitges, and planted them on their estate. After years of efforts, Vega de Ribes has revived this varietal, and now produce two incredible wines of differing styles with their 3 hectares (8.1 acres) of vines. In 2005, the international group of Slow Foods was visiting a local restaurant to award it for their philosophy and vegetable upkeep, when they got wind of the Malvasia de Sitges story at Vega de Ribes. After investigation and complete enthrallment with the story and results, the bodega was awarded for their work with this varietal in Turin, Italy in 2006. To this date, this event is the only time when a grape varietal has ever been awarded with this honor.
Enric Bartra is the owner and winemaker for bodega Vega de Ribes. It has been through his family that this winery has thrived for nearly 500 years. He is a humble man with incredible class and an amazing intellect. His appreciation for those around him is evident in his warm smile, and his passion for his family tradition of wine making is motivating. In the past few years, Enric has extended an invite to a good friend of his named Rafael Sala, to join him in his winery in order to broaden their portfolio. While Enric focuses on his Malvasia de Sitges, Sauvignon Blanc, and a few other varietals, Rafael pulls from his 80 year old Xarel-lo vineyard to make a single wine called the Clar de Castanyar. Rafael is a witty and very kind-hearted gentleman, who had never even considered the wine business until the 1990’s when he and his wife moved to the hills of Penedés. They found a gorgeous piece of property that was planted with old-vine Xarel-lo in a very natural environment on a southern facing hill. His dedication to the natural production of his grapes, and the wine that results from them is fantastic and exciting, and with the help from Enric (less now as Rafael learns more and more), he is able to create stunning wines from this breath-taking varietal.
A few years back, both Enric and Rafael decided to start a joint venture with their talents, and in 2008, they began a wine project called “Ancestral.” Pulling from the true Ancestral method of Champagne production (before Méthode Champenoise), they create three sparkling wines of different grape varietals and ranging in sugar levels, and were able to release their first bottling in 2010. The wines are incredibly complex, with exquisite and fine bubbles, a range of flavors, and of course, all organic and natural as can be. The two make quite a pair, and the wines go to show what fantastic feats they can accomplish.
Vega de Ribes Team Rafael Sala (pink shirt) Enric Bartra (far right)
THE EARTH & WEATHER
Situated to the south of one of Spain’s most beloved cities (Barcelona), the Penedés D.O. straddles the Garraf Massif coastal mountain range alongside the Mediterranean Sea. Steep hillsides that turn throughout the region are home to rolling hills, ravines, and a variety of different plants. These unique hillsides create varying microclimates that are ideal for the different grape varietals that grow near the coast. The limestone is rich in these parts, and has streaks of silica, chalk, and many marine deposits mixed throughout the land. There are portions in the Penedés with such pure sand, that local bottle makers gather the sand to make their glass with; proving to be a great local source for the wineries in the area. As for the vineyards, these soils have excellent drainage capabilities that encourage the vines to struggle just enough to dig their roots very deep, giving the older vines not only strength and stability for years to follow, but also giving a true sense of complexity in the structure and minerality of the finished wines. The vineyards for Vega de Ribes sit between 50-100 meters above sea level and have excellent southern exposure to the sun for the most part. There is one vineyard of Malvasia de Sitges that faces north, and it has a sandy base with many marine fossils, sediments, and oyster shells; making for a portion of the final wines to have a different ripeness, as well as a unique mineral note.
Due to the close proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, the climate is greatly variable throughout the Penedés. As Vega de Ribes is closer down towards the water, the weather patterns in the summer are drier and warmer than the neighboring vineyards further inland. The mountains, hills, gullies, and ravines not only create differing soil types, but also many microclimates for the region. For the most part, the mild and warm summers are exceptional for the unique varietals of the area, giving reason for the amazing white grapes to retain such beautiful depth and acidity.
Vega de Ribes creates wine in the most earth-conscious and sustainable way that they know. Producing only 2500 cases of wine in the most fruitful of years, their focus and dedication to the earth and the wine it brings them, is inspiring. The bodega is certified organic, but they go well beyond the standards in order to ensure the vines and their surroundings are treated in the upmost respect. Enric Bartra’s family has always sincerely adhered to the details of natural winemaking traditions, and when Rafael Sala joined in the production, he was merely an extension of this family’s wonderful ideology. Drawing from great sources such as: an indigenous bird book that Enric’s great uncle made, which details the roles that each bird has in the local ecosystem; actively utilizing a local network of information on weather patterns and growing measurements; and being at the forefront of monitoring the local natural diseases; Enric and Rafael are at the top of the game in using organics to work in harmony with their surroundings. They encourage bat reproduction in order to combat many of the flying insects throughout the vineyards. They plant numerous varieties of native fruit and palm trees that attract certain insects and animals that would otherwise feast on the vines and grapes, including a particular palm that produces a special kind of date that the pesky foxes cannot resist. Stone walls surround many of the vineyards, giving a firm foundation to hold the water and soils safe under the vines from erosion, as well as protecting the vines from natural elements, aiding in a great diversity for the vineyards.
Being that Enric oversees the production team and winemaking of the Malvasia de Sitges, Sauvignon Blanc, and a few red varietals, and Rafael’s home actually sits on the land with his old Xarel-lo vineyard, their immense involvement in the vineyards is fairly similar, and backed with the same organic philosophy. From centuries of experience with the family vineyards, Enric knows exactly how to tend to his grapes with as little intervention as possible. Pulling from only .5 hectares of Sumoll, Xarel-lo, and Garnatxa each, as well as 3 hectares of Malvasia de Sitges, the team carries out three prunings throughout the winter, and the vineyards never see a green harvest during the growing season, as they find keeping the plants as natural as possible retains the healthiest growth overall. Sulfur treatments are limited to only once per year, and only of the purest sulfur found on the market. Depending on the rainfall for the year, once seven leaves have grown on a single vine, pure copper oxide is utilized to prevent any possible rot. These treatments are made at Rafael’s Xarel-lo vineyard as well, and this natural approach is crucial in creating all of the deliciously unique Vega de Ribes wines. The vineyards are surrounded by wild fennel which not only attracts the snails in this maritime climate keeping them from feeding on the vines, but also imparts a faint anise note in several of the finished wines. Rafael’s estate is quite a site to see when graced by his dozen-plus dogs that keep an eye on the grounds to ward off any dangerous boars or other common pests. According to Rafael’s simple approach to his vines, “when the grapes are ready, of course,” is his determining factor for calling his large extended family to come harvest all of the fruit. Once collected in the early mornings, the grapes travel gently to the bodega for their evolution into wine.
Each wine sees different treatments once inside the bodega, but all see very gentle mechanics throughout their process. Stainless steel is utilized for the amazingly complex Sasserra, and the Ancestral wines and Clar de Castanyar Xarel-lo are all fermented in 225 liter chestnut barrels. They use this particular wood from the Galicia region of Spain because it gives the perfect amount of oxygen during fermentation, as well as imparting a faint but unique flavor component to the finished wine. A very local cooper does a minimal toast on the wood before it is used for fermentation. Light filtration is carried out for all Vega de Ribes wines, and then bottling begins for each to start its proper aging. The wines are truly released when both Enric and Rafael decide they are ready, a prime example being the Sasserra, spending an average of 5 years in the bottle before release. The Ancestral wines are done in a very traditional old method for sparkling wine, experiencing only a single fermentation from start to finish; merely cooled to a slow pause when entering bottle, and then raised back to temperature in order to continue its fermentation in bottle, thus creating CO2. Both the Xarel-lo and Sumoll/Garnatxa Rosado enter the bottle at 24 g/l of sugar to result in a bone-dry sparkling wine; as the Malvasia de Sitges starts its progression in bottle at 102 g/l of sugar, resulting in a semi-sweet sparkling wine.
LOCAL CUISINE & FOOD PAIRINGS
The Penedés D.O. sits just south of Barcelona and right up against the Mediterranean Sea. The marine influence not only directly affects the freshness of the local wines, but also influences heavily the cuisine of the region. Great seafood dishes are a staple here, and put up against the fresh acidity of the delicious white wines of Vega de Ribes, food pairings are quite magical.
Vega de Ribes Sauvignon Blanc: True to its varietal integrity, this Sauvignon Blanc has clear characteristics of lemongrass and citrus fruits, but is accompanied by the freshness of the nearby sea- showing salinity and minerality obtained from the marine lavished soils; an ideal match for firm cheeses, green salads, and grilled shellfish.
- Idiazabal cheese & membrillo
- Frisee salad with lemon-thyme vinaigrette
- Grilled oysters & mignonette; grilled prawns & spiced remoulade
Vega de Ribes Sasserra: This rich and robust white wine is made from 100% Malvasia de Sitges. After a year of lees aging in stainless and 5 years in the bottle to mature, this wine can stand up to a crowd of delicious and intense foods. Try it with strong flavored cheeses, rich and fatty dishes, or even chocolate!
- Epoisses cheese (seriously amazing!!)
- Torrija (egg battered & fried toast) with Foie Gras
- Pan-seared pork belly & apricot marmalade
Clar de Castanyar: Made from 80 year old Xarel-lo vines, this wine exudes utter freshness and agility, yet holds complexity and unbelievable structure. Fermented in chestnut barrels, the exciting nutty flavor and bright tree fruit expression from the Clar is suitable for a plethora of appetizers, fish, and white meats.
- Salt cod stuffed squash blossoms, ratatouille, and squid ink sauce
- Slow-baked white beans with Jamon Iberico
Ancestral Xarel-lo: A dry sparkling wine made of 100% Xarel-lo, packing wonderfully robust fruit as well as a creamy toastiness that lingers perfectly on the palate to accompany many types of cuisine. From salads to meat courses, this Xarel-lo holds its own.
- Cured meats, olives, Foie Gras
- Skin-seared dorada, oil & salt rubbed potatoes, & asparagus
Ancestral Rosado: A blend of the native Sumoll grape and Garnatxa, this dry Rosado sparkling wine is exceptionally earthy and deep. Loaded with dark fruit as well as freshness, this is a fun pair with anything that ends up on the table.
- Braised baby root vegetables & romesco sauce
- Roasted lamb rack & whipped potatoes
Ancestral Malvasia de Sitges: A sweet and sparkling wine made of 100% Malvasia de Sitges, this bubbly can be very versatile at the table. Try it as a delightful aperitif with light bites, or as the perfect complement to a sweet finish.
- Anchovies, olives, & cured yellow hot peppers
- Peach ice cream & almond cookies
This week's "Inside Look" is on Bodegas Virgen de la Sierra in Calatayud, Spain. An amazing winery that represents all of the winemakers of a very small town. Check out this indepth view on this exciting winery!
Bodegas Virgen de la Sierra
THE HISTORY OF THE BODEGA & REGION
Bodegas Virgen de la Sierra sits within the walls of Villarroya de la Sierra, a small medieval town with a very rich history and culture. At the top of the hill in the center of this literally ‘walled’ village, sits a picturesque castle that served as a protective barrier when the town endured numerous battles in the 1300’s for ownership. The regions of Aragón & Castile were always looking to expand their territory, and this historic village sat on the edge of them both. When everything cleared by the 15th century, Villarroya was claimed by, and still sits today within the province of Zaragoza in Aragón, and is naturally quite close to the eastern border of Castilla y Leon. Still quite small, the town’s population is a mighty 3,000 people whose hearts and souls belong to this fertile area, which sits just down the road from Calatayud. In 1990, the entire surrounding region was named after the beautiful city of Calatayud as a wine D.O. for Spain. The name comes from an Arabic background, roughly translated as “the Castle of King Ayud,” as the area’s past has seen a variety of different rulers, long before it was a country called Spain.
The tradition of the Calatayud area is astonishing and admirable, as each and every spring, the local towns take a pilgrimage on foot to the peak of the Sierra de la Virgen mountains, to visit an old monastery named Virgen de la Sierra. Here a statue stands tall in honor of the Blessed Virgen. The town of Villarroya is very active in this journey, as their town’s only winery takes its name from this great site. Once they reach the monastery, all of the people young and old, pray for a fruitful harvest for all of their crops (grapes especially!) and ask for protection from the winds, dryness, sickness, hails, and freezes. All 400 hectares of grape vines that encompass the surrounding region known as the Camino de la Virgen (1 of 40 in the Calatayud D.O.), are under ownership of individual families within the village. Each year they commit to farming in an extremely traditional and natural way, in order to work with the landscape and to produce the very best grapes for the winery to use. They are paid for the quality of their grapes, not the quantity, in order to maintain an outstanding reputation for the bodega, as each year the wine is made from their hard-earned harvest. Once the fruit is processed and inside the bodega, Manuel Castro takes control.
Known across Spain for producing some of the greatest Garnacha one can find, Manuel Castro is truly a master of his craft. Specializing in exceptional values, he strives to make wines that are true to the region, and true to the people’s hard work and dedication. Manuel started as an agricultural engineer before he started on the production side, and began to make wine in different areas throughout Spain. Ten years ago, he landed in Calatayud and has been making wine for Bodegas Virgen de la Sierra ever since. His gentle and extremely warm demeanor is contagious, and his passion is obvious through his enthusiastic eyes which are always carrying a smile. During the growing season, he gets out to visit all of his friends and their vineyards as much as he can in order to ensure that the practices are natural, organic, sustainable, and in conjunction with the Bodega’s philosophy.
THE EARTH & WEATHER
Sitting in the shadow of the Sierra de la Virgen mountains, ranging between 700 and 1200 meters high (2900-4000ft) is where all of the beautiful vineyards grow for the ‘Lo Brujo’ line of wines. The constant rolling hills glow red from the clay rich soils that are covered with rocks of all shapes and sizes. Dotted amongst the vineyards are small groves of peach and almond trees along with age-old small huts carved into hillsides that gave protection from the hot sun only a few decades ago. A consistent afternoon wind graces the hillsides, providing an extra bit of cooling for the grapes during the hot afternoons (averaging at 91° F in the summer months). The evenings drop down into the mid 40’s, providing ample time for the grapes to relax before the next day’s heat. The overall climate is very continental, even though the Mediterranean Sea does shed some influence; the winters turn bitter cold in opposition to the heat of the summer, building strong vines that have lasted for over a century in some parts. The vines grown by the village of Villarroya consist predominately of Garnacha, a few plots of Macabeo, as well as some small amounts of interspersed Bobal (known locally as Provechon) and Monastrell. More than half of all planted vines are grown in bush fashion due to their strength and protection from the elements, as well as the depth that the roots grow to. The D.O. of Calatayud prohibits watering Garnacha vines, and since rain is very sparse during the growing season, it is important that the roots reach deep enough to attain water from the clay below. For all of the organic vines that Virgen de la Sierra collects grapes from, there are only two sulfur treatments allowed per year to stay in line with their ecological production.
Bodegas Virgen de la Sierra has been producing their local wines for over a century. They produce about 75,000 cases annually, as well as providing ‘bulk’ wine that is dispensed from taps coming out of the wall in the tasting room, for the town farmers when they bring in their jugs. Once the grapes have been accepted into the bodega, everything enters large stainless steel tanks to undergo alcoholic fermentation. All except for the youngest fruit from the fields (5-10 year old vines), start fermentation naturally from the native yeasts that are present on the grapes. Many pump-overs take place each day as the wine is developing. As malolactic conversion begins for the red wines, all juice is transferred to very large, underground cement deposits as the cold winter approaches. This placement happens because of the natural temperature held in these vats from the earth is actually warmer than the stainless tanks that sit above ground come December, January, and February. The majority of the wines settle during this time, losing any excess yeasts and other solids, and when the wine is pumped out of these containers, very little filtering is ever necessary. For all of the reds, no clarification takes place, and only a light bentonite addition is used for the white wines, keeping all production from Virgen de la Sierra animal-product free and vegan. To add to the minimalist approach, since the winery remains so cold throughout the winter months, it is not necessary for the wines to undergo any additional cold-stabilization before continuing their aging. Each wine is then moved to either bottle or cask for additional aging, and released to the market thereafter.
LOCAL CUISINE & FOOD PAIRINGS
Due to the freshness of Manuel Castro’s wines, food pairing can be an absolute delight. Local cuisine in Calatayud can range greatly due to its situation within Spain; not too far from the Mediterranean Sea for delicious sea fare, and inland far enough to be close to Spain’s famous lamb and pork regions. Here are some ideas for food pairings with the wines of Bodegas Virgen de la Sierra.
Lo Brujo Macabeo: The Macabeo has incredible acidity, a rich mouthfeel, as well as a delicious herbal zippiness that can pair with many foods such as tapas, salads, and seafood.
- Fresh caught Bacalao (unsalted cod) with prawns & cream sauce
- Seared Foie Gras on toast with marmalade
- Langostinos or prawns
- Green salad with citrus-herb dressing
Lo Brujo Rosado: The Rosado is made from 100% Garnacha, and although taken off of the skins quickly, still packs a lot of delicious fruit and spice. The fresh approach of this wine from its crisp acidity is ideal with a range of ‘pre-meat’ dishes.
- Grilled prawns
- Radicchio & endive salad with creamy white balsamic dressing
- Pan-seared Dorada & garlic
Lo Brujo Garnacha: This unoaked Garnacha has such freshness, but is backed with grips of fresh berry fruit and exciting spicy notes, that it can be quite versatile on the table. Try with everything from seafood to lighter meats.
- Fresh vegetable & tuna salad (drizzled with balsamic reduction)
- Seafood Paella
- Fried pork leg & aioli
Lo Brujo Viñas Viejas: A Garnacha with some time on oak, this wine shows richness on the palate in comparison to its unoaked sibling. Robust and juicy, this wine is fond of grilled meats and roasted dishes.
- Roasted pork loin & tomatoes
- Grilled lamb leg & herbed potatoes
This weeks "Inside Look" is at Bodegas Ruchel. Probably my favorite white varietal (in the world) right now is Godello... if you've followed along.. you would know I'm crazy about it!! And Ruchel takes the cake!! Such amazing wines of Godello, and their reds made from Mencia are stunning as well. Enjoy an in depth view of this amazing house in Valdeorras!
This is Amadeo (the founder) & Miguel (the winemaker) in front of their estate
THE HISTORY OF THE BODEGA & REGION
Carving its way westward through the mountains of eastern Ourense to the Atlantic Ocean is the River Sil; a slow moving river that has created a unique microclimate in Spain’s northwest corner for the past millennium or two. Built around this snaking body of water is the D.O. of Valdeorras, the furthest eastern wine region of Galicia and backed up against Bierzo in the western reach of Castilla y Leon. During the area’s ancient Roman rule, before the Romans planted grapes along the banks of the Sil, they mined for gold in the mineral rich mountainsides, thus the name Valdeorras: Valley of Gold. Plantings are on both sides of the river but vary in distance from the water. The hills on the north side of the Sil are gentler than on the southern bank, and have greater southern exposure to the sun during the region’s short summer. The area is becoming famous for their chestnut production as well as their wines, and may even soon see a D.O. title for them as well. For grapes and wine production, the region has eight communes: Larouco, O Barco, O Bolo, Petín, Carballeda, Rubiá, A Rúa, and Villamartín. Each village has its own rich history and style, with slightly different microclimates, different soils, and different traditions.
Bodegas Ruchel sits at the top of the town of Villamartín, overlooking the village and the beautiful river that lines it. With large vineyards that were literally ‘cut’ into the hillsides, there are approximately 12 hectares of vines immediately surrounding the bodega. The winery also sources from other neighboring vineyards that terrace up and down the hillsides, each enjoying its own situation in this diverse region. Amadeo López Ferrer began Bodegas Ruchel in the late 1980’s, and has been running and assisting in the winemaking ever since. He chose this name (Ruchel) because of a very old story that the immediate area tells about a man by the name of Ruchel. A very wealthy family with a fortune to accommodate their lifestyle, the Ruchels could do anything they chose to do, whenever they chose to do it, and they didn’t mind any of the authority’s rules that they didn’t want to adhere to. The surrounding neighbors, the nearby towns, and all who were around began to equate the name “Ruchel” with the family who could afford to do whatever they want. After time, the word began to take its own form as an adjective rather than a noun, and would forever enter the land of folklore when seeking the origin of this unique word: Ruchel. In the early 1970’s, Amadeo’s cousin was a man who had been known to have plenty of money and could live the lifestyle he chose to live. He owned the entire hillside that the village of Villamartín sits against, and decided to cut off the top of it in order to build a castle. Now this isn’t a legend from centuries ago- this was 40 years ago! He literally chopped off the entire cap of the hill, built a rustic looking castle from the boulders of the torn up hill, and left it for his family to behold. When Amadeo decided to begin the winery, the location at the top of this hill was within the family holdings, had a 100 meter cave built into the ground below the castle, and was a perfect home for raising Godello vines in Valdeorras. The bodega was constructed utilizing the unique underground system that was previously built, and as no big surprise, he decided to name the estate after his cousin’s reputation, and being that the location has a 35 year old castle as its backdrop… he named it Ruchel.
Amadeo López Ferrer founded Bodegas Ruchel in 1989 and saw his first vintage come to fruition with only nine thousand bottles of Godello in 1990. With a strong focus since the beginning on quality and environmentally friendly practices in both the vineyards and the bodega, the family began this expedition not necessarily certain where the business would lead. Now having over 20 years of experience with the land and the grapes, Bodegas Ruchel is known around the area as making some of the greatest Godello and Mencia wines and has received some very high accolades as well. Miguel has the most predominant hand in the winemaking today (although this small family group uniquely works as a team throughout many parts of the production), tending to each aspect of the process intently in order to maintain their exceptional reputation. Although not all of the grapes produced come from the family’s own estate, in this small commune it is very easy for Bodegas Ruchel to be involved with their local farmers and friends in order to oversee how the grapes are treated before brought in to the estate. Overall, the general demeanor and vibe of this small group of people is very gentle and warm, making it clear and obvious why the wines are so exceptional and fantastic to drink.
THE EARTH & WEATHER
The Sil River Valley is a natural entrance into the province of Ourense and the general Galician wine regions, bringing a touch of a Mediterranean influence to the eastern portion of this wet Atlantic zone. Villamartín is right at 300 meters (under 1000 feet) and sees half as much rainfall as Rías Baixas to the west, yet is exposed to decent amounts of snowfall in the mountains during winter, giving ample moisture to the growing fields nearby. The summer season is relatively short but very hot at its peak (reaching daily temperatures in the upper 90’s), and ideal for the two local varieties to thrive: Godello and Mencia. The winters drop into the low 20’s which takes care of any bugs and disease, aiding in regulating the vineyards well enough to not require any treatments outside of typical sulfur management, giving Bodegas Ruchel an easier path towards their unobtrusive philosophy. The darkly soiled landscape is full of granite and slate, and striped with chalk in some particularly good areas for grapes. Deep in the cave of Bodegas Ruchel, there is an open room that displays perfectly the striped soils that occupy the land here. The hills are covered with chestnut and olive trees which play a large part not only for their cuisine, but also boosts the local economy.
Bodegas Ruchel has been making exemplary wines from local vines of Godello and Mencia since 1990. They produce upwards of 20,000 cases annually, and have a sincere dedication to producing wines as naturally and unobtrusively to the earth as possible. They own 12 hectares of vines and source from another 18 hectares to make their entire production. Being that the terrain is mountainous and incredibly steep in parts, the amount of grapes actually grown is significantly less than an average field of the same area, as many vines are on terraced plots. Generally, the Mencia grows higher up and on steep edges to maximize the exposure to the sun, and the Godello thrives on flatter and lower plots in order to stay protected from the heat. The Consejo Regulador for D.O. Valdeorras limits production to 10,000kl/ha for the wines of the area; Ruchel keeps yields well below this number as they see a direct effect on the quality of their wines. They will do the first passing for green harvesting in late June to maximize growth on the superior berries that have emerged as well as to follow the regulations. After the initial pass, individual clusters will be pruned throughout the season based on maturity and development. By time of harvest, the vines are developed and perfectly mature to be picked predominately by hand. The most the vines see in a summer is one treatment of organic sulfur after the spring rains have finished, and the only fertilizers used in the fields come from after the harvest is through, utilizing the skins and stems of the current crush’s softly pressed juice.
Once the juice has been pressed, the wine is immediately chilled in order to relax a bit before fermentation. Only natural yeasts are used for the must to begin alcoholic conversion, and malolactic fermentation is never carried out with the white wines of the house. For the Godello, the wine is decanted off of the lees in order to remain fresh and pure, and remains in stainless steel for several months before being bottled for the market. The Gran Ruchel is a Godello of exemplary quality and limited production. This wine is placed in tank for fermentation and ages with stirring of its lees for two full months, after this it is transferred to another tank to let the lees settle for another 6 months before it is ready to be bottled. The Mencias of Ruchel only see oak treatments in stellar vintages and only for very small quantities. The rest of this red varietal go into a very clean and unoaked version of the wine and is released yearly; it is fresh and uniquely complex, and is surely a phenomenal example of the grape. Although Bodegas Ruchel has a general pattern for aging and then releasing their wines to the market, they have no qualms with adapting to the vintage and adjusting each wines time in tank and bottle in order to assure the quality is exactly what they expect it to be. The wines go through cold stabilization as well as a local clay filtration; no egg whites are used in this process, making the wines of Bodegas Ruchel vegan friendly. Having an extremely deep cave that extends into the mountain from the bodega, there is no use for any temperature control system throughout the entire facility. The temperature is consistent year round and is perfect for the development of their young and older wines.
LOCAL CUISINE & FOOD PAIRINGS
The wines of Valdeorras are truly remarkable with cuisine. The Godello varietal is crisp and acidic, but backed with a full texture and robust fruit profile that is absolutely ideal with many foods. Mencia is an exciting red varietal that has depth of earth and hints of spice, but is packed with very fresh fruits and ample acidity, making it a wonderful complement to a wide array of flavors and textures. Due to the situation of this wine region, it has influences from both the center of the country (and its devotion to meat), as well as being not too far from the Atlantic ocean for a great assortment of fresh seafood. The pairings here are unlimited, but here are a few ideas.
Ruchel Godello: The Godello has an amazing depth to it which is very unique in comparison to other varietals. Rich in texture, but still refreshing and acidic, this white is fresh and robust. Try with all types of preparations of vegetables, or there is a lovely lemon custard note in this wine that will most definitely compliment citrus vinaigrettes on salads, creamy sheep & goat’s milk cheeses, or many types of shellfish.
- Bitter green salad with goat cheese, candied chestnuts, and Meyer lemon vinaigrette
- Sheep’s milk cheese & Membrillo (or candied lemon zest honey)
- Seared scallops with citrus reduction
Gran Ruchel Godello: The Gran Ruchel is as exquisite a white wine can get. Comparable to Premier and Grand Cru Chablis in texture and flavor, this lees aged wine is not for the faint of heart. This wine will complement robust fish dishes, and stand up to most meats as well.
- Cured beef (and many types of charcuterie) & roasted bell peppers
- Braised chard and Jamon (cured pork) empanadas
- Pan-seared white fish, root vegetable puree, lemon-herb oil
Ruchel Mencia: This unoaked Mencia is fresh but with a lot of deep character. The bright fruit quality is extremely expressive and will pair beautifully with grilled fish and meats, as well as being a go-to wine for a table of assorted cuisines.
- Ground pork sausage crostini with quail egg
- Cured meats & spicy peppers
- Grilled lamb rack with olive tapenade
D’Amadeo de Ruchel Mencia: This oaked Mencia is rich and robust with a delicious dark fruit attack that is complemented by gripping tannins, toasty oak, and a long complex finish. Made only in years of exceptional quality, this Mencia is made for roasted, stewed, or grilled meats.
- Slow-roasted boar with rosemary & creamed potatoes
- Grilled spice-rubbed rib eye steak, root vegetable puree, and pan seared brussels sprouts
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.