Michael Fridjhon recently returned toÂ Marques de Riscal in Rioja after 25 years andÂ came away hugely impressed by the quality of the wines despite the increase in production.
Wine and time coexistÂ in a kindÂ of paradoxicalÂ juxtaposition. SomeÂ bottles need theÂ length of a human lifetime to reach their peak,Â others are as transient as the seasons. In someÂ places, Georgia for example, wine is made using ancient techniques. In Bordeaux, evenÂ the best known â€“ and most prestigious â€“ estatesÂ are compelled to invest in massively expensiveÂ upgrades to achieve infinitesimal gains, simplyÂ to maintain their competitive edge.
We like to believe in the certaintiesÂ of ancient wisdom, the truths which haveÂ acquired the stature of gospel â€“ while atÂ the same time we watch how knowledgeÂ and technology subvert â€œlawsâ€ which wereÂ once etched into the foundation stonesÂ of production sites. We celebrate naturalÂ yeast fermentation (without ever inquiringÂ whether the ambient yeasts are any differentÂ from the commercial selections previouslyÂ used at the cellar) because there is a promiseÂ of tradition and craft. We love the idea ofÂ winemakerâ€™s intuition and yet we admireÂ winery laboratories designed to ensure thatÂ cellarmasters can go about their work withÂ absolute precision.Â In the midst of all these apparentÂ contradictions, the one abiding truth we clingÂ to is that it is not possible to increase volumesÂ without a commensurate decrease in quality.
This law â€“ of the inverse relationship betweenÂ quantity and quality â€“ is as much part of ourÂ DNA (nothing is gained without loss) as it isÂ of the winemakerâ€™s canon. So when I visitedÂ Marques de Riscal for the first time in aboutÂ 25 years â€“ and saw the extent to which theÂ business has been transformed, in size, inÂ range, and in the volumes produced, I wasÂ more than a little astonished. My initialÂ thought was that its expansion from the
original 19th-century winery and cellars toÂ a modern behemoth could only have beenÂ achieved at the expense of the wine, a classicÂ Rioja which has been the most famous nameÂ in Spanish wine around 150 years.
My tasting experience of the wines,Â over much the same period,Â contradicted this. At no stageÂ did I feel as if the winemakers had over-commercialisedÂ the wines in the standardÂ range? The annual releases of the Reserva hadÂ been consistent while the Gran Reservas I hadÂ sampled or cellared were equally impressive.Â In fact, my impression of the fabulous 2005Â is that it will equal the 1994 â€“ of which IÂ have only a few bottles left. This left me withÂ trying to reconcile apparently contradictoryÂ information â€“ the more so once I chattedÂ with Francisco Hurtado de AmÃ©zaga, the chiefÂ winemaker and a direct descendant of theÂ founder of the business.
I discovered that overÂ the period in question the overall volumes ofÂ Riscal wines had increased by 75%, while theÂ range itself had seen the addition of severalÂ (admittedly small production) cuvÃ©es, mostÂ notably the 150th Anniversary Gran ReservaÂ and the Frank Gehry special selection. SinceÂ these two additional products had been addedÂ to the top of the brand pyramid, there seemedÂ the inevitable risk that whatever choice fruitÂ had been put aside to create these vinousÂ masterpieces would necessarily reduce theÂ average quality of the wines into which theÂ grapes had previously been blended.Â These assumptions did not survive theÂ empirical experience of a day spent tasting there. From the whites which come from theÂ Rueda cellar to the Tempranillo-based redsÂ from Rioja, no single wine within the rangeÂ appeared to be of a lesser quality than anythingÂ I had sampled in the past two decades.
ForÂ some of this there was an obvious explanation:Â amongst the whites from Rueda the newlyÂ introduced â€œBioâ€ Verdejo had a plushness andÂ dimension quite unlike the standard cuvÃ©esÂ with which I was familiar. In my experience,Â this added quality is partly the result of the extraÂ attention which goes into the management of organic vineyards which might account for theÂ palpable difference in quality.
The same argument cannot apply whenÂ it comes to the premium finely oaked whiteÂ releases (wines like the Finca Montico andÂ Baron de Chirel ViÃ±as Centenarias) thoughÂ here you might argue that the best fruit hadÂ been selected for these more highly pricedÂ reserve wines. Had that been the case, youÂ might have expected that the standardÂ Rueda would have emerged that much moreÂ emaciated, more two-dimensional and withÂ less fruit intensity. This wasnâ€™t the case, andÂ thereâ€™s no ready explanation except thatÂ greater care in the vineyards and better fruitÂ processing has made the overall gain possible.
When it comes to the reds, however, theÂ sheer arithmetic appears to be stacked againstÂ the application of this theory. In 1995 theÂ combined production of the Elciego (Rioja)Â cellar and Rueda (white wines) was six millionÂ bottles. Today, it is 10.5m bottles, with sixÂ million alone in the new, high-tech ElciegoÂ winery which crushed its first vintage inÂ 2000. You canâ€™t maintain quality and increaseÂ production by these percentages withoutÂ other factors playing a key role in your success.
Some of the explanation is instantlyÂ evident the moment the technical staff take youÂ through the new facility. Until the upgrade, theÂ best wines of Marques de Riscal were producedÂ in two buildings which had been built in theÂ 1860s and 1880s, using technology whichÂ had been state-of-the-art in the 19th century.Â When I visited in the early 1990s, the workingÂ space was cramped but this didnâ€™t seem anÂ impediment as long as it could accommodateÂ what needed to be done, for the volumes goingÂ into the market at that time. I was glad I didnâ€™tÂ have to manage the 3,900 barrels housed inÂ that confined space, but the comfort of wineryÂ workers never features very highly in theÂ considerations of the commercial team.Â When you consider the currentÂ production volumes andÂ compare them to what wasÂ being handled then, the new facilities wereÂ inevitable.
As you watch the team in actionÂ it becomes obvious that only by creating aÂ massive new cellar could more wine, of betterÂ quality, be made by fewer people in the newÂ working environment. Thereâ€™s a simple of wayÂ of looking at why the new space makes forÂ improved winemaking. The 37,000 barrelsÂ (a ten-fold increase) are racked every threeÂ months in the first year (and once or twiceÂ thereafter). This means that the clear wine mustÂ be drawn off the lees of one barrel and intoÂ another receptacle. The old barrel must thenÂ be thoroughly cleaned, steamed and sulphuredÂ before wine can be put back into it â€“ 37,000Â times every three months. The sheer physicalÂ movement of barrels, wine, and cleaningÂ equipment needs height, space, volume. In theÂ cramped 19th century winery where barrelsÂ cannot be stacked more than three-high, theÂ sheer logistics become impossible.
The new Marques de Riscal is like the oldÂ business but on steroids. It is bigger and better,Â with greater range, more modern vinifications,Â more precise fruit notes, and the same orÂ better maturation potential. Less has been left to chance, more happens under the directÂ watch of a winemaking team which has beenÂ augmented by access to the latest technology.Â All this is counter-intuitive to those brought upÂ in the belief that small is beautiful. The currentÂ releases are luminous proof thatÂ the seeminglyÂ impossible can be achieved.