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ASTER LA VISTA, BABY

Guest Blogger Dave Groves (Manager of Oddbins Crouch End) visits Rioja in July 2013

The first of our guest bloggers, Dave Groves, the Manager of Oddbins Crouch End, re-lives the thrills and spills of a trip to Rioja, where he tried some unforgettable wines and met some unforgettable creatures…

 

At home, in north London, around midday, a report on the radio of delays to flights across southern England, due to a computer failure at Air Traffic Control, cast an ominous shadow over proceedings. Ours was supposed to be a short, sharp, slurp, sip and spit (maybe), in-and-out type of trip. Any major delays in getting there just wouldn’t work with our schedule...

At 4pm, I headed off to Heathrow to meet the rest of the gang as planned, hoping that the ATC issues would be resolved. They were – excellent news. However, one member of the gang was at the wrong airport, Gatwick – not so excellent news. One high speed, inter-airport dash in a taxi later and the five of us: Thom from Oddbins Crouch End, Lucy, Lewis from Oddbins West Hampstead and me, were ready for action. We were joined by our guide, Andrew, who was to accompany us around La Rioja Alta, whose wineries make our Aster Ribera del Duero (£11.75), Lat 42 Rioja (£11.75), La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 (£35), Viña Alberdi Reserva Rioja (£15.75) Viña Ardanza Rioja and One Ribera del Duera.

After a short flight, we emerged from baggage reclaim to find ourselves snuggled up close in a nice air-conditioned Mercedes – albeit without the requested Sat Nav.  Thom, the tallest of our gang, was in the hot seat up-front and, thenceforth, assumed the title Tom-Tom. Aiming us south of Bilbao at near warp speed, our very own Tom-Tom soon set us on our way. In Andrews’s hands, our Merc gave the Millennium Falcon a run for its money down the Kessel Run [that’s Star Wars speak for a really fast spaceship – Ed].

Approaching Rioja, we stopped in a layby to get some directions. Lewis had wondered off to stretch his legs when he suddenly shouted ‘snake!!’ He’d very nearly trodden on a (possibly) deadly serpent. We all rapidly fumbled for our cameras and other gadgets, whilst in pursuit of this (probably) deadly snake, trying to get a snap…

The (possibly) deadly snake

After we’d had some smelling salts and fanned ourselves a little, Francisco, our wonderful, gracious host, came out to meet us in front of the La Rioja Alta winery. He then took us in to what would be our digs for the next two nights, at the magnificent Torre de Oña estate, the home of the Lat 42 Rioja, which is exclusive to Oddbins. There was a sumptuous spread laid out on our arrival of jamon (ham), tortilla, smoked peppers, white asparagus (my favourite). There was also quite a lot of cerveza (beer – Heineken, strangely), Champagne and of course lots of Torre de Oña and the delicious Lagar de Cerveramade Albariño by the company over in Rías Baixas. That is to say nothing of the fantastically refreshing Orujo, an Eau de Vie distilled with herbs and aged in oak. Served chilled, this slips down dangerously easily.

Having survived our first close shave with nature (the (almost certainly) deadly serpent), we were to have another terrifying encounter – and nothing could have prepared us for this next beast. It was an alien-esque praying mantis no less, as big as your hand, basking in the moonlight and feasting on flies. This was Lucy’s quarry and again we were all queuing up to be snapped with this ferocious predator.

Preying Mantis photo shoot

The next morning, I rose promptly at 9.47am for a 9.30am start. Oops. This was not a huge problem, though, as our first appointment of the day was a tour around Torre de Oña, where we were staying, so, to steal a phrase from The Beatles, I “woke up, fell out of bed and dragged a comb across my head” and went to find the tour. At either 57 hectares (my notes) or 65 hectares (the information provided by the winery), this is a small but perfectly formed estate.

The gang

Not for the last time over the next couple of days, I was about to be blown away by the level of care and attention that La Rioja Alta pay to every stage of production. Spotlessly clean from top-to-bottom with barely a machine in sight, this is handcrafted wine in the truest sense.

Here we tried the Lat 42 Rioja. To say it’s good value is an understatement.  It is a blinding wine; complex, with highly concentrated aromas, an intense nose of ripe forest fruits, blackberries and wild strawberries. It has plenty of depth, great balance and structure, fine gentle tannins and a lovely smooth finish with lingering red fruit and creamy oak notes. It has had 21 months in oak barrels, mainly French with some American and Caucasian too. Caucasian you say? Indeed – 20% of their barrels are made of Russian oak! I had not come across this but was edified to discover that it allows winemakers to obtain more fresh and mineral qualities in their wine.

With that startling revelation out of the way, it was onwards to the star attraction – the main winery at La Rioja Alta. This is where the incredible Viña Ardanza Gran Reserva 904 and the legendary Gran Reserva 890 are fashioned, along with the slightly more modest Viña Alberdi. Down the years, I have visited many wineries throughout the world, but have never seen anything to compare with this magnificent facility. The scale was phenomenal, with 30,000 barrels, all made on site by their own coopers (barrel-makers). The wines slowly mature in the peaceful serenity of the cellar, with barely a machine in sight. Oxymoronic I know, but I can only describe this place as a boutique winery on an epic scale.

The La Rioja Alta barrel room

There followed a tasting of eight wines: Lat 42, Alberdi, Arana, Ardanza (904 and 890), Finca son Martin and Torre de Oña. The quality ranged from very good, through to great and excellent, with a splash of sublime thrown in for good measure. The flagship wine, Viña Ardanza 904, seemed to be at the top of its game: a powerful yet gentle, classic Tempranillo with a touch of uplifting Grenache. Lunch comprised of super tender lamb chops, barbequed over wood cuttings.

This was not ‘fine-dining’, but rather the finest, freshest ingredients, cooked simply and allowed to shine. In combination with the wine, we were in gastronomic heaven.

The view at Labastida

Anyway, we headed back to the base for a post-prandial snooze – I believe it’s called a siesta over there – before heading off into the night. On the first stop on our nocturnal adventure we took in an amazing view of the region from the picturesque walled town Labastida.

A swift libation in a subterranean bar followed, where we were joined by a Catalan acquaintance of our host who, unsurprisingly proud of his heritage and language, admonished us for waving ‘Adios’, as in Catalan, goodbye is ‘Agur’. Goddit?

Partaking of the libations

Our next port of call was Logroña and, in particular, a street called Calle Laurel, which is tapas central. We were treated to a whistle-stop-tour of some of the best tapas joints and had a glass of wine and a dish at each. This was enjoyed either in the street, or standing at the bar. We had various exotic dishes, including pig’s cheek and ink (with some squid in it). If we were in gastronomic heaven at lunchtime we had ascended further now, to some kind of Catalan foodie Nirvana.

Reveille was 8.30am the next morning, to leave time for the 3 ½ hour journey down to Aster, where we arrived in good time for lunch. Stepping out of the air-conditioned luxury of the Merc into the searing 38 ̊C heat was something of a shock to say the least. I grumble, but if it weren’t for the furnace-hot summer days, the thick-skinned Tempranillo grape wouldn’t reveal  the deep flavours and richness that make Rioja wine what it is.

A quick tour of Aster’s smaller, but nevertheless state-of-the-art winery, and a butchers at the vineyard later and we were back inside. Aster Crianza is one of my all-time favourite wines and I’d been looking forward to this part of the trip with zealotical fervour.

It was served with slow-roasted lamb, cooked simply in water, lemon juice, salt and pepper for about four hours at 140 ̊C and some super-crisp salad, drizzled with beautiful olive oil and salt. ‘Delicious’ does not do this dish justice. For the wine, we had the Aster Finca el Otero, for which they use Tinta del Pais rather than Tempranillo, and use it to great effect. Elegant and well-structured, with superb dense, dark, ripe fruits, this was truly wonderful. Our incredibly generous host Francisco sent us away with a bottle of the Finca el Otero to enjoy at home. I have since recreated the lamb dish at home and can tell you, if you are having lamb, have Aster! It’s total perfection.

We made the onward journey to the airport and home without further ado, in a fantastically sated and soporific state. I would like to thank our hosts La Rioja Alta for a truly magnificent introduction to their region and estate, and especially to Francisco for his time and efforts. Gràcies i agur.

 

If you’d like to try the wines Dave enjoyed on the trip, without having to encounter (probably harmless) snakes, or (rather cute) praying mantes, click on any of the above links or peruse our Spanish wines in-store or on our website.