Winter always marks a dramatic shift in the wines we begin to reach for. Many regions that have largely sat on the bench during the sweltering months have eagerly anticipated their call up to the plate. January also coincides with one of the very most exciting releases of the year––The Rioja Cellar.Hiram Simon's WineWise, the official California importer of Lopez de Heredia, visits private cellars each year in and around Rioja. There, he tastes and acquires aged wines from the deepest and most serious cellars in the region. I gave my order request last year based on his tastings, and today, these pristine Tempranillo-based Rioja gems are in stock and ready to ship.Over the last two years, the highlight of Hiram's selections, for me personally, is in these more relatively modestly priced wines. This is always such a rare opportunity to taste one of the world's most classic and age-worthy regions with simply perfect provenance. As mentioned, these wines have been aged in cellars in and around Rioja since their initial release.Note: Gran Reserva (sp.) is part of a nomenclature implemented in 1982. Before that, the Reserva wines were all non-vintage and denoted as 6º Año, in the case of Tondonia. Any wine called Cosecha is by nature the wine subsequently marketed as Gran Reserva.
Photo Credit: Julia Volk
It's hard to comprehend how one producer, like Raul Perez, can redefine the Spanish white wine category. His most monumental wine is Sketch, an Albariño sourced from a 0.5-hectare parcel of old vines in Rias Baixas, priced at $100-plus per bottle. It's worth its weight in gold, but upon release, rumors swirled that his other Albariño was going to be the proverbial mic drop moment for the variety.
Our go-to Atalier bottling, "A Cruz das Animas" comes from two parcels of Albariño vines in the Cambados area of the Salnés Valley, located in the southern portion of Spain's northwest tip. And today, we're adding "La Encrucijada" from Atalier's oldest and most sea-adjacent vines, which sees extended aging in barrel (About 14 months) on its fine lees before bottling. Raul's greatest influence is white Burgundy, and he takes every step possible to preserve Albariño's cut and delineation iwhile also pushing for maximum ripeness and flavor development.
The key steps are harvesting very late and then blocking malolactic fermentation, which allows for superb ripeness but eliminates the more viscous and creamy elements of Albariño that don't appeal to Raul. Aging is in older French foudre, which preserves tension and softens texture. Perez redefines what a mineral-driven Spanish white wine is capable of, showing the same depth and nuance I expect from Chablis and Côte de Beaune Chardonnay. Simply put, his Atalier over-delivers.
Legendary U.S. importer José Pastor has been the gateway to many new Spanish discoveries, including Envínate and Luis Rodriguez. Alberto Nanclares and Silvia Prieto in Cambados marked a massive shift in my understanding of descriptors like "crystalline" and "acid-driven" when it comes to the Spanish white wine category.
Like Dauvissat's La Forest in Chablis, there's an element of clay in the soil here (mixed with decomposed granite) that gives these wines more texture and breadth on the palate. Nanclares y Prieto's Paraje Manzaniña parcel, in particular, produces a powerful and saturating style of Albariño still founded upon a fresh streak and salty, long finish.
In 1992, Nanclares and Prieto left Basque country and settled in the beautifully green and lush northwest Galicia region. Organic viticulture is no easy task in Rias Baixas, as high humidity and constant rainfall mean conventional farming with chemicals and high yields are the overwhelming norm. Nanclares gradually shifted over the years to farm his parcels the right way through painstaking labor.