Ramon Bilbao goes back to the future in Rioja

Peter Ranscombe straps himself into his DeLorean to watch Spain’s flagship wine region take a step back in time.

WITH its massive turbine hall and colossal central chimney, there’s no forgetting that the Tate Modern art gallery was once the Bankside power station, burning through piles of coal to provide electricity for London’s homes and industry.

That varied history made the gallery an appropriate setting for today’s wine tasting with Spanish drinks giant Ramon Bilbao, which showed a selection of its wines from the Rioja and Rueda regions.

Rodolfo Bastida explained that, when he joined Ramon Bilbao as its winemaker in 1999, the company was at a turning point.

Rather than simply focusing on the traditional styles of Rioja – labelled as crianza, reserva or grand reserva depending on how many years the wines had aged in wooden casks and glass bottles – Bastida led a shift towards a new style, which focused more on fruit flavours instead of oak.

Bastida described the newer style as fresh and elegant, saying it had “rewritten the book” when it came to how grape varieties were used to express the characteristics of the Rioja Alta sub-region.

Four-decade vertical tasting

To illustrate his point, he began by serving a pair of older vintages, the 1981 Ramon Bilbao Reserva and the 1991 Gran Reserva.

The 1981’s colour echoed that of the red-brown bricks used to build what’s now the Tate Modern, with aromas of mushroom, leather and manure hinting at its age; on the palate, it was much fresher, with a kick of acidity and cranberry, redcurrant and sour cherry flavours joining the mushroom pate notes and the milk chocolate and coffee.

While the wine felt a bit thin by its finish, it was still alive with fruit and acidity – not bad for a bottle that’s older than me.

The 1991 had a similar colour but less-intense aromas on the nose, with some redcurrant still peeking through the cigar smoke and mushroom.

More of the vanilla flavours from its time in oak were apparent on the palate, along with more red fruit and blackcurrant, while the mouthfeel was rounder and the finish riper or sweeter.

The old and the new

Alongside the 1999 Gran Reserva – with its bramble, cherry, milk chocolate and vanilla aromas and flavours – came the 1999 Mirto, made simply from the tempranillo grape variety instead of mixing it with its traditional blending partner, garnacha, the Spanish name for France’s grenache.

The result is a wine with far more primary fruit and far fewer of the tertiary characteristics that come with age, with brambles joining the vanilla and distinct dark and milk chocolates on the tongue; the tannins are ripe and firm and the overall package still tastes fresh and fruity, near 20 years on.

For me, it was the opposite way round with 2004’s Gran Reserva and Mirto, with the older style offering a gorgeous nose full of vanilla, milk chocolate, black cherry and blackberry and lots of lush and rounded chocolate flavours on the tongue, with softer tannins and warming alcohol – all in contrast to sandal wood aromas on the new style of wine and drier tannins, which perhaps need a little longer to integrate, with plenty of fruit and vanilla on the palate left to survive further ageing.

My favourite wine from the tasting was the 2010 Ramon Bilbao Gran Reserva (£22.50, Great Western Wines), which came as a surprise because I expected to prefer the fruiter style of Mirto, yet the combination of black cherry, liquorice and caramel on the nose with a savoury edge of roast meat, blackcurrant and prune on the palate won the day for me.

Its bedfellow, the 2010 Mirto, felt heavier in terms of structure, perhaps needing longer for its tannins and acidity to soft and integrate; the fresher red fruit on the nose and the fruiter finish demonstrate the wine’s merits for further ageing.

Climb every mountain

While the interplay between the older and newer styles of Rioja continues, Bastida was keen to emphasise the next steps that he believes the region will take.

He described “the move from valley to mountain”, as climate change forces grape growers and wine makers to explore cooler sites at higher altitudes.

Bistada reeled off the advantages of mountain vineyards – from more intense ultraviolet light for thickening skins and improving colour and tannins through to longer hours of heat to build ripeness and cooler nights to retain acidity – and explained how higher acidity and thin soils would also alter the characteristics of the grapes, with tempranillo showing more floral notes and garnacha displaying jammier flavours and balsamic notes.

He said the result could be a return to the use of winemaking techniques more akin to those employed by his grandfather’s generation, with smaller plots replacing larger fields.

His winery in Rioja is already setup for the changes, with a focus on fermenting the grapes in smaller concrete vats; once derided over their need to be lined with epoxy resin, Bastida argued that modern concrete was much easier to work with, even down to picking the sand that will be used in the concrete to remove the need for resin and allow the right amount of oxygen into the developing wine.

Lamb for lunch

While it was fascinating to hear about the past and the future for Ramon Bilbao in Rioja, two of the wines from the present day were particularly worth of mention – especially when they were served alongside dishes created by Tate Catering chief executive Hamish Alexander and his team.

Cold-brew coffee-cured duck breast charcuterie was paired with the 2015 Ramon Bilbao Vindeos de Altura (£79.11 for six bottles, The Fine Wine Company; £14.50 for a single bottle, Great Western Wines), another example of the fresher and more vibrant style composed of half tempranillo and half garnacha, with its tonnes of sweet black cherry, milk chocolate and vanilla flavours balanced by coffee notes and a healthy kick of acidity.

A piece of summer herb-crusted lamb shoulder was matched to the 2015 Ramon Bilbao Edicion Limitada (£160.92 for a case of six magnums, The Fine Wine Company; £14.50 for a single bottle, Great Western Wines) served from a magnum, with its sweet bramble, milk chocolate and vanilla flavours working cleverly with the fattier cut of meat.

Lamb rump, meanwhile, saw the return of the 2010 Gran Reserva, with its redcurrant notes and higher acidity forming a tasty pairing.

In amongst all the talk of what had passed and what had yet to come, it was encouraging to find the focus hasn’t been lost on today’s wines – and I’m sure Doc Brown and Marty McFly would drink to that.