When people think of Spanish wine regions, the first one that usually comes to mind is La Rioja, and for good reason, with its’ long history and tradition of great wines – red, rosado and white. To a great extent, in recent decades, it had succumbed to the lure of Parkerization – the global wine fad of big, fruity, wood and alcohol laced red wines that could come from anywhere in the world and did. Fortunately, while that fad had become as entrenched in La Rioja as it had elsewhere in the world, it hadn’t totally taken over production and more traditionally styled Rioja wines continued to be made, even as they had come to be relatively neglected by the market. Like Cinderella, though, their time has returned and their true beauty is shining again. Our destination after a long drive into cold, wind and snow, was one of the very best of the traditional La Rioja wineries – Bodegas Lecea in San Asensio, a small wine making town not too far from the major Riojan center of Logroño, where we would spend the night and the next morning.
Sunday nights in small town Spain are generally quiet affairs and it was no different in sleepy San Asensio as we followed our GPS through dark, empty streets and alleys to reach Bodegas Lecea, perched high on one of the area’s many hills, in what appeared to be one of the older areas of the town in a neighborhood called “Barrio de las Cuevas” or “Neighborhood of the Caves” named for the proliferation of wine caves underneath. We were greeted at the large, heavy door by Luis Alberto Lecea, the winemaker/owner of Bodegas Lecea, who escorted Gerry, Bill and I upstairs to a cozy, fire-warmed apartment at the back of the winery. Lecea was in the process of making dinner to share with us – a typical, delicious meal of tortilla Española with bread, embutidos, and, of course, wine.
Lecea finished preparing our dinner and while the tortilla was left to rest, he took us on a tour of his winery and cellars. Bodegas Lecea is an old winery with its cellars dating back to the 16th century and wine continues to be made in the traditional ways with nary a new oak barrel anywhere. The wines are stored in large, 300 year old concrete containers, called “hornbills”. Some of the reds do eventually spend time aging in used French oak barriques, but the whites and rosados generally do not.
The winery is a living museum, not just with some of the methods used in production, but the place itself and quite a few intriguing “displays” including this old inside-out goat skin that was utilized for transporting wine. The skin had been inverted with the fur on the inside. Pine resin was then used to seal the seams from leaking in a process similar to that used by the Greeks for over 3000 years to make Retsina. We did not taste any wine from this particular skin, however.
We did taste the wines directly from the hornbins, though. Our first stop was to taste a fresh, fruity and delightful rosado made from 75% Garnacha and 25% Viura (aka Macabeo). I had tasted plenty of wines from barrel and stainless steel before, but never one directly from a concrete bin. I was thrilled.
A couple of years ago, in Chile, I had the pleasure of stomping grapes with my feet – grapes that would be used to make wine. It was an unforgettable experience, but not unique to that particular winery. This traditional method of crushing grapes has largely fallen by the wayside, but Bodegas Lecea continues to make a red using this crushing technique following a period of carbonic maceration.
Approximately 1500 kg of grapes are placed into the “Lago” to undergo the carbonic maceration for a couple of weeks before crushing by foot with the juice coming from the heart of the grapes reserved for their Corazon de Lago bottling.
The final crush is then done under a manually operated weighted press.
We returned from this fascinating tour famished and still thirsty. The local embutidos and Lecea’s tortilla were the perfect antidotes to our hunger.
To wash down the food we tasted and drank a variety of Lecea’s wines including a 2011 vintage rosado, that still tasted young, fresh and delicious, a mysterious white that had been in the bottle for over twenty five years, more of the lovely Corazon de Lago and some spectacular aged Rioja Gran Reserva from the 2004 vintage.
The old white was thought to have been an aged bottle of the Corazon when Lecea chose it, but instead, it was a white, which turned out to be a very pleasant surprise, as it too had withstood the test of time and had aged well. Exhausted, but happy, we finished our visit and made our way into Logroño and our hotel for a well deserved night of sleep. (Bodegas Lecea Flick’r Photoset)
The next morning, I awoke refreshed and walked through Logroño to the train station to purchase a ticket for later in the day. The city is of a good size, urbane and sophisticated with plenty of charm.
I also took a walk around the old quarter with Gerry and visited the food market, where we could see plenty of evidence of the superior quality of the region’s agriculture. We would experience that more directly a bit later in the day.
This was to be our last day together on this trip and we had to leave Logroño and La Rioja, as I was headed back to Barcelona and Gerry and Bill back to Madrid.
Still, we had enough time to take a quick tour of the area before we left La Rioja to get our last bite together of this trip. This was not going to be just any bite though. This was a taste of the region worthy of its own post.