The English language has many fine phrases associated with wine. One of my favourites is “in vino veritas”, which translates as “in wine [there is] truth”.
The link between wine and religion also connects with the notion that confession is good for the soul. So we begin with a confession: I have never really enjoyed red wines from the Rioja region of Spain.
As a child I used to assemble model aircraft, cutting outlines with a razor blade from pieces of balsa wood. I can remember chewing a piece of balsa. That is the sensation I have most often experienced when tasting riojas. Drinking these wines is too much like chewing pieces of wood.
But an encounter with Bodega Ijalba changed my perception. They make riojas that show the lovely and lively fruit in the region’s tradition grapes of tempranillo and graciano. Bright black fruits instead of wood.
In 1975 Dionisio Ruiz Ijalba, an industrialist from La Rioja, converted land previously used for open-cast mining into vineyards. The soil is poor and vines grow on a mere 80 centimetres of topsoil. Because the soil cannot retain much water the vines yield little fruit, concentrating flavours.
The bodega’s 80 hectares of vineyards are on the outskirts of Logroño and in the towns of San Vicente de la Sonsierra and Valle de Najerilla.
Ijalba has focused on organic viticulture methods, eliminating the use of herbicides and chemical fertilizers.
Bodega Ijalba was built in 1991. It makes about 2 million bottles a year. I had the chance to taste four reds supplied by the Wine Culture company in Hong Kong: the 2010 Dionisio Ruiz Ijalba red, the 2008 Ijalba crianza, the 2007 Ijalba reserve and the 2001 Ijalba special reserve.
Wines at Ijalba tend to be made from classic riojas grapes like tempranillo and graciano. The Dionisio was the exception, made entirely from maturana tinta (tinta is Spanish for red).
This red wine grape, unique to the Rioja region, is almost extinct – almost wiped out by the phylloxera louse. It ripens late, which separates it immediately from wines made with tempranillo, which translates as the “little early one”.
Maturana makes wines similar in profile to cool-climate shiraz – lots of flavours of wild herbs and white pepper. A feature was the freshness in the glass and the vibrant quality of the wine.
The 2001 special reserve is probably the company’s flagship wine. It is a 50:50 blend of tempranillo and graciano aged for two years in barrel and another three years in the bottle. It comes across as lively yet profound. A quality wine that echoed in the empty glass hours after it was consumed.
The 2007 Ijalba reserve is another superb wine – a compote of dark black berry fruit, with aromatic hints of mint and a soft tannic structure. The reserve, as required under Spanish law, spends two years in barrel and another two years in bottle. It is a blend of 80 per cent tempranillo with the balance graciano.
The 2008 Ijalba crianza blends 90 per cent tempranillo with 10 per cent graciano. A crianza is only required to spend a year in oak and another year in barrel.
It is probably the best introduction to rioja, though you will still get a slight sense of that balsa wood taste in your mouth. The black fruit leaps from the glass and engages one’s senses, promising sunshine and joy. It’s probably best enjoyed with pasta with a strong meat sauce, or hard cheeses.
Footnote: The Vinci Pacific Company in Hong Kong offered a tasting of Macedonian wines. Macedonia is famous as the home of Alexander the Great. Part of Macedonia is now in Yugoslavia and Greece. The country has potential for producing wine because of its temperate climate.
The native red grape of vranac featured at the tasting, along with some traditional French varieties. It has a delightful nose but offers little to the palate.
The most pleasant and intriguing wine was a 2012 white made from temjanika. The grape’s name comes from the French phrase “franc encens” meaning high quality incense, an indication of the intensity of its aromas. The wine smells of cinnamon, pineapple and strawberry and reminds one of a good moscato.
Published 25 April 2013. Find a link here.