Arriving at Stansted airport at 5.30am on a Monday morning in April is not my idea of fun. However, the prospect of my annual pilgrimage to Rioja and Ribera del Duero was just about enough to brighten my mood as all 6’ 7” of me grappled with the low-cost leg-room as I tried to snatch a bit of broken sleep en route to Bilbao.
My travelling companions and I arrived excited, if not exactly refreshed, and made the hour-long drive into Rioja. Our first stop was Bodegas Muriel, whose youthful and jovial proprietor, Javier Marua, had been making encouraging noises about mature vintages in decent quantities. Tasting his ’82 and ’85 Gran Reservas, we instantly recognised an opportunity not to be missed and reserved the full quantities there and then. 1982 is a seminal vintage and this example is now fully mature, with lovely vanilla, leather and tobacco notes and a long silky finish. The ‘85 shows orange peel, leather and some strawberry fruit, with fine tannins and great length. Both will benefit from decanting.
Next stop was Bodegas Bilbainas in Haro, producer of the popular Viña Pomal label, which recently celebrated its centenary and has never been better. The 100% Tempranillo 2006 Crianza was full of dark fruits, leather and vanilla from 12 months in American oak.
The day’s last visit took us to one of my favourite producers anywhere, family-run Majestic stalwart Bodegas Muga, whose wines just get better and better. Of the current releases, the 2006 Reserva is absolute benchmark Rioja, while the barrel-fermented blend of Viura and Malvasia is a superbly restrained, classy white. Tasting the Muga range, at the end of a long day, with a fantastic dinner of local produce and the family’s wonderful company, was a real highlight of my year.
The following day gave us just enough time for a trip to Bodegas Campillo before the three-hour drive to Ribera. Unlike some glamorous wineries, Campillo backs up its architecture with excellent wines and the 1995 Gran Reserva was the real star here. Its colour is remarkably bright; its flavours incredibly youthful. And although it’s drinking superbly now, it should go on for many years yet.
Rioja Blanco 2009, Muga
￡10.99 or ￡8.24 when you buy 2 bottles*
Rioja Reserva 2005/06, Muga
￡16.99 or ￡12.74 when you buy 2 bottles*
We didn’t make it to the legendary Pesquera winery as we’d hoped to, but its wines still justify a mention; particularly the dense, tarry dark fruits and creamy oak of the 2007 Crianza. Thankfully, we did manage a tasting and lunch at Spain’s most famous and prestigious winery, Vega Sicilia. Suffice to say this didn’t disappoint. The top wines were just extraordinary, but the Alion 2006 at £55 was also hugely impressive: long and polished, with plush, pure fruit. I’ve no doubt this will mature spectacularly.
The long road home
And that, we thought, was that. We woke up in the hotel in Valladolid the next day expecting a civilised breakfast, a short drive to the airport and our 11am flight back to Stansted. But Eyjafjallajökull had other ideas and the plane never left the tarmac.
More Ribera and huge steaks made for an enjoyable enforced extra night, but by the next day it was clear this was no short delay. We investigated every possible mode of transport and came up short before moving north to Getaria near San Sebastian.
Two days later, still no joy (although we did manage to extract some pleasure from a couple of days on the beach eating seafood and drinking Txakoli.) Finally, a ferry was found, from St Malo in France, over 1,000kms away. The next morning, cue a frantic drive to the French border, taxi across, train to Bordeaux, hire car to St Malo, brief sleep, eight hours on a Portsmouth-bound ferry and taxi to Stansted to collect our cars. It was midnight on Sunday when I eventually arrived home.
Arriving at Majestic Head Office at 8.30 am on a Monday morning in April after that journey is not my idea of fun. But what a week!
New arrivals from regional Spain
This great-value 100% Tempranillo is aged in French and American oak barrels for 12 months, adding softness and a lick of vanilla to the crushed red fruit flavours.
La Poda Sauvignon Blanc Verdejo 2009, Vino de la Tierra Castilla y León
￡6.65 or ￡4.99 when you buy 2 bottles*
Verdejo provides pungent intensity, plus peach and apricot flavours, while the Sauvignon injects greener citrus notes to this increasingly popular blend.
El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa’ Old Vine Garnacha 2008, Navarra
￡9.32 or ￡6.99 when you buy 2 bottles*
An absolute stunner made from vines up to 100 years old. Its colour is inky; its exotically perfumed nose has blackberries, cherry jam, liquorice, dark chocolate and floral overtones. The fresh, focused red and dark berry flavours gain real depth from silky tannins, a note of bitter chocolate and a minerality that conjures up iron filings.
This Albariño reflects its terroir in the coolest part of the Rias Baixas region, with lovely purity and focus on the green-apple and kiwi-fruit palate. A classic wine for shellfish.
*All prices valid until 1st November 2010 unless otherwise stated.