Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fashion in La Rioja, Part I

Haro, the capital of the wine-making industry in La Rioja in north-central Spain, does not seem like a place whose residents would be obsessed with fashion. This isn't the California wine country with its Internet billionaires trying to start wineries; nor is it Beaune, the center of the wine trade in Burgundy, which effortlessly oozes a sophisticated if rustic wealth. Haro is a small town in the mountains with a grittiness to it. Its oldest wine producers - Lopez de Heredia, Muga, CVNE (the initial stand for Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) - are near the train station even though it's across a tributary of the Ebro from the town because in the 19th century they shipped much of their product to France and wanted to be as close as possible to the railroad. They've never bothered moving.  

Lopez de Heredia's affect furthers this impression of being oblivious, or impervious, to wine world trends. Now in its fifth generation of family ownership, the winery has retained the same methods and packaging for decades. The men who now make the oak barrels in which the wine is aged come from families that have supplied the winery with coopers for several generations. The oak comes as it always has from Kentucky and Missouri. The underground facility in which much of the production takes place was made more than a century ago and still contains no cooling or humidifying equipment; instead, thick layers of mold on the ceiling insure the 75% humidity at which the wines age best. The cellar smells a little like the wines.    

But the guide, an affable woman of about 30, is exceptionally conscious of the effect changing trends have on winemaking. Lopez de Heredia is most famous for its whites (the guide says the 1964 grand reserve is the best she's tasted), and the Habsburgs brought a taste for whites with them when they came to Spain in the 16th century. Into the late 19th century, the Rioja wineries produced mostly whites, which stimulated demand from Alsace when phylloxera devastated the French wine-making industry. Demand from France for red wine helped spur that segment of the La Rioja wine trade.

Tastes continue to change, of course. The guide said that most of her friends prefer beer to wine and wouldn't appreciate a wine like LdH's 1993 grand reserve or its roses, which its makes only in certain years and, sadly, won't be offering for several more years. LdH also faces an international wine market that leans heavily toward robust reads and largely disdains whites, which even respected producers from Bordeaux have a comparatively hard time selling despite the region's prestige and long history of wine-making. Demand for the reds is significantly greater. (Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillion are the primary grapes in Bordeaux whites.) But taste is fickle, and LdH intends to keep making its wines the same way it's always done, the guide said. She strongly recommended I have lunch at the restaurant attached to Los Agostinos, the best hotel in Haro, which has a 20€ lunch special and a sommelier with strong opinions about wine.

No comments:

Post a Comment