Single Bottle Review

Wine Review: Conde Valdemar Finca Alto Cantabria 2019

White Rioja gets far less attention and plaudits compared to red Rioja, mainly due to the fact that white varieties only account for 10% of the total vines in the region.  However, when one particular white Rioja recently received a glowing review from Tim Atkin I thought it would be interesting to try. I subsequently saw that Tim had given an early vintage of the same wine his “Wine of the Year” tag in 2017.  Before we look at the wine itself, we start with a refresher on the Rioja wine region and a brief background on the producer, Conde Valdemar.

The Rioja Wine Region

Administrative divisions and sub-regions

Map of the Rioja wine region by municipality and sub-region
Credit: Dieghernan84

Although Rioja is Spain’s most famous wine region, there are differences between the area of the DOCa and the administrative divisions of the area.  There have also been a few name changes over time, confusing things further.  To sum up, the wine region extends into four administrative areas:

  • La Rioja (formerly Lagroño)¹
  • Álava/Araba: a province in the Basque country
  • Navarra: historically part of the Basque region, but not currently included in the Basque Autonomous Community²
  • Burgos: just a tiny part of Burgos for a single vineyard: Hacienda El Ternero³

As can be seen from the map above, the bulk of the Rioja wine region is within the Autonomous Community of La Rioja.  The sub-regions are partly based on politics, partly on geography:

  • Rioja Alavesa: 17 municipalities, entirely within Álava from whence it takes its name
  • Rioja Alta: literally “Upper Rioja” consisting of 80 municipalities of La Rioja and 1 in Burgos
  • Rioja Oriental (formerly Rioja Baja): literally “Eastern Rioja”, nowadays preferred to “Lower Rioja” which has intimations of low quality, consisting of 42 municipalities in La Rioja and 8 in Navarra.

Structure of Rioja wine trade and 21st century innovations

Although there was a lot of influence and interest from Bordeaux producers in the later part of the nineteenth century, at a high level the Rioja wine trade is more like that of Champagne than Bordeaux; there has long been a distinction – or even divide – between small grape growers and large wine producers. 

Wines often consist of several different grapes from across different sub-regions; Rioja Alta tends to be somewhat reserved due to its altitude, Rioja Alavesa is a bit more generous while higher in acidity and Rioja Oriental can be very high in alcohol though a little less elegant.  A blend of the three is often the best compromise, though the wine can lack a sense of place and exceptional plots may ended up being blended away.

Two innovations in Rioja this century have had a small affect so far but will be increasingly important in the region.  The first has been the addition of new permitted grape varieties in 2007: Maturata Tinta (Jura’s Trousseau), Maturana blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Turruntés, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo.  Of course it will take time for these varieties to be planted in the places most suitable for them, but in my opinion this is a good initiative – particularly for the white grapes – as Viura can be too neutral and some of the new grapes have more recognition among customers.

The second initiative is much more recent; in 2017 the Rioja wine authorities announced new label indications including Single Vineyard (Viñedo Singular), Zone and Village names.  The hope is that the cream will rise to the top and more top quality wines will emerge.

Conde Valdemar

Family and History 

The story begins with Joaquín Martínez Bujanda who began making wine in 1889.  His son Marcelino then grandson Jesús both followed into the family business.  It was the third and fourth generations – both called Jesús – who set up Conde Valdemar itself in  1985.  Today the winery is in the hands of fourth generation Jesús plus his son and daughter Jesús and Ana; the fifth generation are spearheading the family’s fortunes in Valdemar Estates in the USA.

The family has gradually expanded their holdings over the years, and bottles wines from their own estates separately.  A notable addition was the 1982 purchase of Finca del Marquesado which is now planted with over 180 hectares of vines.

White Rioja has consistently been championed by Conde Valdemar; they were the first to plant Viura in Alto Cantabria in 1975 and the first winery to make a 100% Tempranillo Blanco wine in 2005.  In between these vineyard firsts they were also the first winery to make a 100% barrel-fermented and -matured Spanish white wine in 1988.

Conde Valdemar Wine Range

There are five distinct wine ranges within the Conde Valdemar portfolio; three in Rioja, one in Ribero del Duero and one in Washington State.  Unusually for Rioja, Conde Valdemar only produces wine from its own grapes.

  • Conde Valdemar
  • Valdemar Lands / Estate Wines
  • Finca del Marquesado
  • Fincas Valdemacuco (Ribera del Duero)
  • Valdemar Estates (USA)

Details of the wines in each range are given at the bottom of this article.

Finca Alto Cantabria

Map of Finca Alto Cantabria vineyard

This map (Credit: Conde Valdemar) shows the three grapes planted on the 23.3 hectare site: Viura, Tempranillo Blanco and Tempranillo, with the first accounting for 8.6 hectares.  The vineyard is at 489 metres above sea level, 114 metres above the River Ebro.  The steep inclines at the edge of the site and strong winds help to avoid frosts and humidity which leads to disease pressure.  The soils are a combination of limestone and sandy loam.

Conde Valdemar Finca Alto Cantabria 2019

CV-Finca-Alto-Cantabria-2

So here we have a wine from a high altitude vineyard which is particularly suited to white grapes and has been classified as a “Viñedo Singular”.  As mentioned above this is a 100% Viura wine, but the excellence of the site helps it to exceed the limitations of the variety; a longer growing season means that the grapes can develop fantastic aromas and flavours by the time sugar maturity is reached.

After being hand harvested into shallow boxes the grapes are first temperature stabilised before being pressed.  Fermentation of the free run juice begins in stainless steel tanks before being transferred into French oak barrels.  The wine matures in barrel for six months with weekly lees stirring.

In the glass this wine is a mid straw yellow.  On the nose, oak dominates initially but then gives way to citrus and stone fruits with enticing blossom notes.  The palate is complex and smooth, full of ripe fruit and nutty notes, succulent and viscous, rich ripe and vibrant.

This is among the top few white Riojas I have ever tried and represents exceptional value for money.

  • ABV: 13.0%
  • RRP: €26 – €27
  • Stockists: wineonline.ie; The Wine House, Trim
  • Source: media sample

Conde Valdemar

These are the Bodega’s original wines:

Reds:

  • Conde Valdemar Tempranillo: 100% Tempranillo, made using a blend of carbonic and traditionally fermented grapes
  • Conde Valdemar Crianza: 90% Tempranillo, 5% Garnacha & 5% Mazuelo, matured in American oak barrels for 19 months
  • Conde Valdemar Reserva: 80% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Maturana [aka Trousseau, Bastardo] & 5% Garnacha, matured for 27 months in American (65%) and French oak (35%) barrels
  • Conde Valdemar Gran Reserva: Old vines; 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano & 5% Garnacha, matured for 36 months in French (50%) and American (50%) barriques
  • Conde Valdemar Edición Limitada: a modern style Rioja made from 60% Tempranillo, 25% Maturana & 15% Graciano, matured for 24 months in French (60%) and American  (40%)oak barrels

Whites and Rosés:

  • Conde Valdemar Rosé: 75% Garnacha & 25% Mazuelo
  • Conde Valdemar Blanco: A traditional white Rioja blend of 60% Viura, 25% Tempranillo Blanco & 15% Malvasía.
  • Conde Valdemar Tempranillo Blanco: 100% Tempranillo Blanco
  • Conde Valdemar Finca Alto Cantabria: 100% Viura from a single vineyard – further details below

Valdemar Lands / Estate Wines

These are very limited edition wines made from specific single vineyards and single varieties

  • La Recaja Tempranillo: 100% Tempranillo from a two hectare portion of La Recaja vineyard in Rioja Alavesa, matured for 16 months in French oak barrels
  • Las Seis Alhajas Graciano: Named “The Six Jewels” after six different clones of Graciano planted as a trial in 1991 to bring the grape back from the brink of disappearance.  Matured for 29 months in new, fine-grained American oak barrels.
  • Balcón de Pilatos Maturana: A revival of the Maturana grape which had disappeared in Rioja during the phylloxera crisis, matured for 13 months in new, fine-grained American oak barrels

Finca del Marquesado

An estate in the east of Rioja, yet at a considerable altitude of 600 m.a.s.l., particularly suitable for Garnacha:

  • Finca del Marquesado Rosado: 75% Garnacha & 25% Mazuelo
  • Finca del Marquesado Crianza: 75% Tempranillo & 25% Garnacha, matured for 13 months in American oak barrels
  • Finca del Marquesado Selección: 80% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano & 10% Garnacha, matured for 12 months in French and American oak barrels
  • La Gargantilla Garnacha Single Estate Wine: 100% Garnacha from La Gargantilla vineyard, matured for 7 months in French Allier barriques
  • La Gargantilla Tempranillo Single Estate Wine: 100% Tempranillo from La Gargantilla vineyard, matured for 15 months in French (60%) and American (40%) fine-grained oak barrels

Fincas Valdemacuco

Wines from the Valdemar family’s new outpost in Ribero del Duero:

  • Fincas Valdemacuco Crianza: 100% Tempranillo from selected vineyards in the area of Nava de Roa (Burgos), matured for 4 months in French (70%) and American (30%) oak barrels
  • Fincas Valdemacuco Roble: 100% Tempranillo from selected vineyards in the area of Nava de Roa (Burgos), matured for 5 months in American oak barrels

Valdemar Estates (USA)

The family’s newest venture in Walla Walla, Washington State.  This was driven by Jesús and Ana Martínez Bujanda

  • Valdemar Estates Klipsun Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Klipsun Vineyard in the Red Mountain AVA, matured in French oak (60% new, 40% 3 years old) for 18 months
  • Valdemar Estates Dubrul Vineyard Chardonnay: Barrel-fermented Chardonnay from the Dubrul Vineyard in Yakima Valley, matured for 12 months in French oak (22% new, 78% 3 years old)
  • Valdemar Estates Blue Mountain Syrah: 100% Syrah from the Blue Mountain Vineyard in Walla Walla, matured for 12 months in neutral French oak

¹ The initial letters of Lagroño, Álava and Navarra were the origin of the name of Bodegas LAN, a well known producer.

² The Rioja DOCa extends into the south west part of the Autonomous Community of Navarre, separate from the Navarra DO which is further north.

³ Thanks to Tim Atkin for the info

 

Opinion

Spanish Treats from O’Briens

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Here are a few of my favourite Spanish wines available at O’Briens – and until 17th August they are on sale with 20% or more off, so it’s a great time to snap them up!

Martín Códax Rías Baixas Albariño 2013 (12.5%, €17.95 down to €14.36 at O’Briens)

21089-Martin-Codax-Albarino j

The fresh one: Named after a literary hero from Galicia in northwest Spain, this wine also uses the celebrated local grape Albariño.  While some examples can be a little too tart for my taste, several months of ageing on the lees before bottling and a few years’ rest make this wonderfully round, though still fruity and refreshing.  Expect citrus and soft stone fruit notes.

Marqués de Murrieta Rioja Capellanía 2010 (13.5%, €24.95 down to €19.96 at O’Briens)

15WSP010-Capellania j

The Marmite one: this is generally a love or loathe type of wine due to the deliberate introduction of some oxygen during the winemaking process – i.e. giving it a slight “Sherry” taste.  It’s how traditional style white Rioja is made – and to be honest I’m all for it as technically better modern examples are often a bit dull.  I also tasted a 2005 vintage recently and it was still going strong, so don’t be in a hurry to drink it!

Torres Ribero del Duero Crianza Celeste 2012 (14.0%, €21.95 down to €17.56 at O’Briens)

Celeste

The regular one: Although it’s fairly well distributed, this is a classy wine that always delivers – it’s a regular tipple for me.  It’s made from Tempranillo which is of course the mainstay of red Rioja, but the hotter days and cooler nights of the Ribero del Duero give the local variant a thicker skin and hence the wine has more colour and flavour – dark berries with a pinch of spice!

Monte Real Rioja Gran Reserva 2007 (14.0%, €30.45 down to €24.36 at O’Briens)

13WSP007-Monte-Real-Gran-Reserva j

The surprising one: This wine was one of the stand outs for me at the O’Briens Spring Wine Fair.  When it comes to Rioja I don’t usually go for a Gran Reserva as they can be woody and dried out from too much time in oak, but this was a revelation.  30 months in American oak followed by 3 years in bottle have set it up superbly.  The strawberry fruit is so, so soft with vanilla on the side, and a slight smoky edge to the wine.  The oak is definitely noticeable but it’s now well integrated.  A fabulous wine!

Marques de Murrieta Castillo De Ygay Gran Reserva Especial 2007 (14.0%, €85.00 down to €68.00 at O’Briens)

Castillo Ygay j

The no-expense spared one: Yes, this is an expensive wine, but it is counted among the best in Spain, so if you’re splashing out then why not?  It’s a blend of 86% Tempranillo and 14% Mazuelo (a.k.a. Carignan) matured in oak for 28 months.  It tastes pretty damned amazing, but it’s still a baby – put a couple of bottles away for a special occasion in a few years time!

Tasting Events

Highlights of The Coman’s Silent Tasting Part Three

So part one focused on Peter Lehmann’s Barossa gems and included a joke about hand gestures.  Part two covered the wines of Lapostolle from Chile and Ochoa from Navarre, with a reference to Björk “It’s All So Quiet” (you all got that, right?  right??)

Now part three will showcase a flight of Sauvignons, amongst others, and the disclosure of why this tasting wasn’t as silent as it should have been.

The Sauvignon Blancs

The first flight looks at some of the more memorable Sauvignon Blancs brought in by Comans.

McKenna Sauvignon Blanc 2013

McKenna Sauvignon Blanc 2013
McKenna Sauvignon Blanc 2013

This is an exclusive to Comans as it’s bottled especially for them by Undurraga.  The name celebrates the historical connections between Ireland and Chile in the person of Irish-born Captain John Juan McKenna who played an important role in the rebellion of 1810.  Take a few minutes to read the details in Tomas Clancy’s post here.

It’s unusual for me to recommend an inexpensive  Chilean Sauvignon, but this is well made.  You’d never mistake it for Marlborough, but if you find some of those too much then this is a little more restrained.  The key word here is grapefruit – fruit sweetness but also acidity, making it tangy and refreshing.

Sablenay Touraine AOC Sauvignon Blanc 2012

Sablenay Touraine Sauvignon 2012
Sablenay Touraine Sauvignon 2012

In terms of bang for your buck, reliability and availability, it’s pretty hard to beat a Touraine Sauvignon.  If I were drawing up a hypothetical restaurant wine list it’s the first thing I’d put on there.

This one has the typical grassy notes of a French Sauvignon, but also sweet tropical fruit and grapefruit.  It’s much more expressive that your average Touraine, a better bet than a lower quality no-name Sancerre.  Perfect for summer on the patio!

La Rochetais AOC Pouilly Fumé 2012

La Rochetais Pouilly Fumé 2012
La Rochetais Pouilly Fumé 2012

This is a lovely, pure, almost “Riesling-like” linear wine.  It’s also an accessory to an embarrassing incident.  Now as you know at pro tastings there’s no swallowing, everything is spat – if you want to taste several dozen wines and remain upright, never mind drive home afterwards, it’s the only way forward.  Plus, not having so much alcohol in your bloodstream means your senses aren’t dulled and you can focus more on the tasting.

At the time of the tasting I was still recovering from a nasty chest infection – a colleague semi-seriously asked me if I had tuberculosis.  Now imagine a sudden coughing fit when you’ve got a mouthful of Loire Sauvignon that you’re swilling round and trying to interpret.  Instinct says spit now…but I wasn’t close to a spittoon, and so almost choked.

Thankfully the assembled members of the press were very kind and didn’t mock me which they would have been entitled to do.  Though one kind gentleman did suggest I describe this wine as “one which took me breath away”.

My friends, even wine-tasting can be an extreme sport at times!

Château de Sancerre AOC Sancerre 2012

Chateau de Sancerre 2012
Château de Sancerre 2012

Forget own label Sancerres in the French supermarkets, this is the real deal.

The Château is owned by the Marnier-Lapostolle family who Chilean operation featured in Part Two.  Both properties show the advantages of cooperation between winemakers from different areas; while the French influence can be seen in Lapostolle’s Sauvignon Blancs, for me there is a definite new world aspect to Château Sancerre – a roundness and suppleness to the fruit which make it caress the inside of your mouth.

The vineyards span four different soil types which, when blended intelligently, results in a complex yet focused wine.

Wither Hills Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012

Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2012

At the NZ Sauvignon Masterclass before the annual trade tasting this year, Kevin Judd et al. took us through how the marked differences in weather between 2012 and 2013 translated into markedly different flavour profiles.  Since then I’ve found it remarkably easy to identify 2012s blind – much greener, especially asparagus, and less tropical notes.

This Wither Hills 2012 wasn’t tasted blind but the asparagus character came straight through (I like it, some don’t), but with a tangy grapefruit finish.  Dare I suggest this would be amazing with an asparagus starter?

Undurraga TH Sauvignon Blanc (Single Vineyard) 2013

Undurraga TH Leyda Valley  Sauvignon Blanc 2013
Undurraga TH Leyda Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2013

So what is this?  It’s a premium, single vineyard Chilean Sauvignon Blanc.  Given how many Chilean Sauvignons are around £6 / €10 it’s quite surprising to see a producer move upmarket.  The first tasting note I wrote was “who’s just mowed their lawn” – it’s that distinctively grassy!

The grapes are sourced from a vineyard in Leyda Valley, which is only 9 miles / 14 km from the cooling Pacific Ocean.  There are some great Pinot Noirs coming from that area, but that’s a story for another day.  This 2013 vintage wine also belies its age – it has a smoother mouthfeel than one might expect from such a young wine.

So the key questions – is it a success?  Is it worth the extra money?  Right now I’d be happy to drink it, but I probably wouldn’t spend €24 of my own money in a wine merchants.  However, I reckon this will actually evolve over the next few years, so I’d be very interested to taste an example with some more bottle age to see where it goes.

The Best Of The Rest

If you’re all Sauvignoned out, here are some of the other whites which stood out for me:

Dr L Riesling 2010

Dr Loosen Riesling 2010
Dr Loosen Riesling 2010

For those scared or wary of Riesling, Dr Ernst Loosen’s entry level bottling is a great place to start. It’s fairly simple, though it has enough acidity to evolve more complexity over a decade.  It’s fresh and fruity with a touch of residual sugar, but it’s pleasant and balanced – so moreish!

Of course Dr L makes more profound and expensive Rieslings, but the true nature of the bargain is that you won’t feel like you’re missing out even if you’re a Rieslingphile.

Also check out this post from Tim Milford.

Salterio Albariño DO Rias Biaxas 2012

Salterio Albarino DO Rias Baixas 2012
Salterio Albariño DO Rias Baixas 2012

I like Albariños on the whole, but my main beef with them is that they often don’t offer enough bang for the buck.  Meet Salterio’s offering which is a great value example from Rias Baixas.  It won’t be the best you’ve ever tasted but it’s remarkable at the price.

Protos Verdejo DO Rueda 2012

Protos Verdejo DO Rueda 2012
Protos Verdejo DO Rueda 2012

Not much to add here as I’ve recommended this Rueda several times before – it’s a cracker!

Muga Barrel Fermented White Rioja 2013

Muga White Barrel Fermented 2013
Muga White Barrel Fermented 2013

Rioja’s Viura (also Catalonia’s Macabeo) is a fairly neutral grape.  By neutral, I mean thin and often lacking in flavour.  This makes it a good base component for Cava, but can make for an uninspiring dry still white.  The winemakers of Rioja have long used two main techniques to add interest to their whites – oxidisation and barrel ageing.  As a personal preference I’m not yet a convert to oxidised styles, so such examples from Rioja leave me cold.

Happily for me, this Muga example is clean as a whistle and definitely worth a try.  It has 10% Malvasia in the blend and was fermented in new French barriques.  Maturation on the lees adds to the creamy texture, but it is tangy and fresh – a great example at a fairly modest price.

Joseph Perrier Cuvée Royal Brut NV

Joseph Perrier Cuvee Royal Brut NV
Joseph Perrier Cuvée Royale Brut NV

Good Cava and other traditional method sparklers are better than poor Champagne (the type you often see in the supermarkets at 50% off).  But good Champagne holds its own, in my opinion.

This is an almost-equal-parts blend of the main Champagne grapes – Chardonnay for lemon and freshness, Pinot Noir for red fruit and body, plus the often unfairly maligned Pinot Meunier for  white fruit and floral notes.

The Cuvée Royale has three years on the lees prior to disgorgement – far beyond the minimum for not vintage – and this is where the extra body and creaminess come from.  It’s far better value than a special offer Champagne.