An exploration of wine

Ramón Bilbao: modern Rioja with altitude

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Ramon Bilbao logo

The Ramon Bilbao bodega and logo in 2014

Ruth and I first visited Ramón Bilbao just as tourists in 2014, when visiting Haro the first time. In 2018, by random allocation, we were back at the bodega on the outskirts of Haro for dinner on the Friday evening of the IMW Symposium, along with 16 other guests (around 20 bodegas were hosting the 450 delegates in separate groups). We noticed immediately that the winery had undergone a reworking, with a revamped reception and enlarged visitor centre.

Dinner group at Ramon Bilbao

Ramon Bilbao bodega and logo updated in 2018, with the Symposium dinner party

In 2018, we were hosted by Rodolfo Bastida, Chief Winemaker and for the Zamora Company, the current owners of Ramón Bilbao, along with Rías Baixas and Rueda wineries. He was joined by Alberto Saldón, their Wine Innovation and Communications manager.

Ramon Bilbao wine barrel violin

Rodolfo Bastida, showing the violin commissioned by the bodega, made from barrel wood

We had an interesting structured tasting of barrel samples to understand the work they are doing to explore altitude as a counterbalance for climate change, followed by an excellently cooked dinner by their chef and catering team.

Ramon Bilbao catering team

The chef and kitchen team after our dinner

Their food deserves a specific mention for its matching and its cleverness. As pre-dinner canapés with Lalomba Rosato, we had simulations of different parts of the vineyard and vine. Here, what looks like vine canes is, in fact, black olive flavoured sticks of light pastry:

Vine cane olive sticks

Black olive flavoured ‘vine cane’ sticks

A few weeks later, I was invited to join Rodolfo again in London, as part of a structured tasting for the press at the Tate Modern, showcasing not only their top Riojas, but also the experiments they are doing with maturation vessels at their recently planted Rueda estate, Finca Las Amedias. That was followed by admission to the Tate’s new Picasso exhibition:

Picasso Girl Before a Mirror

Girl Before a Mirror, in the Tate Picasso exhibition. She was Marie-Therese Walter, his mistress

This profile is a combination of these various visits, including tasting notes from the range of Rioja and Rueda wines encountered then.

As an aside, it was another opportunity to compare how consistently I evaluated these wines, when they overlapped between separate occasions. I’m glad that this was generally high (Gran Reserva 2010 17.5 and 17.5+; Mirto 1999 17 and 17+; Rueda Lias 2016 16.5 and 16.5), albeit with some differences with assessing Mirto 2012 (16 and 17 / 20).

 

Summary

Overall, my key impressions of Ramón Bilbao are:

  • Modern style: the Riojas have certainly switched to the ‘modern’ idiom after 1999, with riper fruit and ABV, more new French oak, and higher tannin extraction – especially with the Mirto wines
  • Gran Reserva quality: nevertheless, the Gran Reservas retain a touch of classicism and carry an elegance and particularly a restraint of tannins that I prefer to Mirto – though the 1999 Mirto shows that this can and will integrate both tannins and oak
  • Innovation: there is a clear intent to test and learn, from maturation vessels to altitude to vineyard practices, suggesting a likely future path with continuous change
  • Tannin extraction: with modernity comes firmer tannins, both from longer maceration and extraction, and from more new oak, particularly French. In some cases, that may be too much, especially as the ‘new wave’ of Riojas pare-down oak to show the vineyard and elevate an alternative style
  • 2010 Rioja vintage quality: more reinforcement that 2010 is a great Rioja vintage, shown by both the Gran Reserva and Mirto having lovely balance of dense flavour, but with fine, ripe tannins and refreshing acidity
  • Rueda to watch: the young vine cuvées show promise, especially with an affinity for Hungarian oak. As these age, their complexity and longevity should develop, suggesting a fine future

 

Introduction

Ramón Bilbao was founded 1924 in Haro, capital of Rioja Alta. After sale by Ramón Bilbao’s widow to another family, the company was acquired In 1999, by Zamora Company, better known for owning Licór 43 (Cuarenta y Trés). This was as part of diversification strategy by Zamora.

Rodolfo joined then as Chief Winemaker. At that time, styles of wine in Rioja were changing, with Vinos de Autor and other trends that defined the ‘modern’ style. Ramón Bilbao also moved in that direction, from classical Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, to more modern profiles especially with the launch of Mirta in 1999, shown below with its distinctly modern-style packaging design – unchanged since 1999:

Mirto 2006 with lunch

In 2014, we enjoyed Mirto 2006 over lunch in one of the Haro town squares

At that stage and onwards, Zamora also invested in new vineyards and winery technology. 2016 saw the purchase of Finca Las Amedias to establish their own Rueda estate and winery.

 

Rioja

The current Ramón Bilbao brand strategy is to be the leader in the Rioja category in Spain (65% of sales are domestic), with particular strength in the on-trade. They see 3 drivers to achieve this:

  1. Fruit: important to have this first, with oak only as a guarantee of longevity
  2. Freshness: keeping acidity, even with a riper ‘modern’ style
  3. Rioja Alta: express the district’s elegant profile

As much as their style has modernised, which was clear from tasting a range of wines, this brand position is led by their Crianza which represents 70% of their total 4m bottle production and sales. For the domestic market, this spends longer in American oak to meet expectations of a more traditional style. For export, whose principal markets are the US, UK, Switzerland, Netherlands and more recently Mexico, more fruit is desired, so ageing is shorter.

The upgrade of the visitor centre is a contribution to the brand’s positioning. Wine tourism has apparently been growing in Spain, especially in the traditional regions of Jerez and Rioja. Ramón Bilbao were receiving 12,000 visitors a year (which makes for an interesting comparison with El Fabulista in Laguardia), so invested to ensure a high-quality experience for consumers. As they are competing for visitors with 15 other bodegas in Haro (and are not in the famous Barrio de la Estación district) they needed to offer the best experience, which includes virtual reality.

They now employ 6 full-time tour guides to ensure tours are typically for 15 people and maximum 25, with a view to building strong consumer connections to the brand and transform them into ambassadors. Most are from Spain, especially Northern Spain and the Basque country, plus Madrid, but 22-23% are from outside Spain.

 

In the Vineyard

Ramon Bilbao Tempranillo vine

Vines approaching flowering in Ramon Bilbao’s home vineyard, 2014. Since reduced to make way for bodega expansion

Ramón Bilbao have 4 vineyards in Rioja Alta, with 2 vineyards in Rioja Oriental. These total 180Ha, providing 30% of grape requirements, with 200Ha under long-term (10+ year) leases that are farmed by Ramón Bilbao. As a result of plot fragmentation, acquiring sufficient vineyards to cover all their production needs is very difficult.

Over 2 generations, harvest dates have moved forward by 1 month because of climate change. As a result, avoiding leaf-plucking and re-orientating rows from North-South to East-West are both being done to reduce Sun exposure and moderate ripening rates. But above all, Ramón Bilbao are looking increasingly to higher-altitude, mountain vineyards to seek more freshness at phenolic ripeness, through lower pH. As a side-benefit, this also means lower SO2 needed to yield the same required molecular SO2 to protect the wine.

Growing temperatures are up to 5°C different in Lalomba, Rioja Alta at 720m or Villalba at 650m vs. Alfaro in Rioja Oriental at 260m, yielding better phenolic ripeness at lower sugar content. Moreover, diurnal temperature ranges are up to 15°C, especially in September and October for harvest time. Aspect can be added to this, as mountain ranges to both North and South can give South and North-facing aspects at similar (650m) altitude in 2 of Ramón Bilbao’s vineyards.

Further, UV intensity at 750m is +12% vs sea level and +8% vs. 250m altitude, giving thicker, darker-coloured skins. Additionally, the prevailing North Westerly winds that funnel down the Ebro valley from the Bay of Biscay are stronger at higher altitude again ventilating and cooling the grapes, as well as encouraging thicker skins.

Finally, soil composition is rockier, with far less sand and clay that are washed down into valleys. Coupled with necessarily smaller parcel sizes, these will drive different viticultural practices as well as changes in vinification – such as smaller vats for smaller plot vinification and pre-fermentation macerations over post-fermentation to manage tannins.

Higher altitude Tempranillo gives more floral and red fruit character, while Garnacha gives more tannins and colour, with more jelly fruit character.

Other viticultural enhancements include using aerial colour photography and other techniques to facilitate precision agriculture, particularly for grape maturation and harvest timing, but also for vigour management.

 

In the Winery

Fermentations are now kept separate by parcel and variety, with picking done by village area and fermentations kept separate, village-by-village – typically in tronconic-shaped, temperature controlled vats. Total maceration times are longer, including pre-fermentation maceration. Wines have more body and volume. New processes such as small, French oak vat fermentation and use of delestage for special wines have been added. No filtration or clarification now take place.

They are also testing small concrete vats, paying attention to the sand and stones being used to make the vats. These are unlined, to allow some oxygen exchange during fermentation. Their research extends to yeasts, isolating strains to understand how to give more personality to the wines, particularly the Rueda and Rías Baixas whites, but also for the Rioja red wines.

In maturation, ageing periods are extended, but using more oxygen through racking, French oak and new oak are both now in greater proportions, with total barrel stock being around 60% American and 40% French oak. Combined with riper, richer fruit, this delivers the ‘modern’ style.

When we visited in 2014, these were kept in separate cellars, which made a fascinating point in the visit: upstairs, the American oak cellar smelled of vanilla-cream and coconut, while the downstairs French oak cellar was cinnamon and clove dominated; a useful sensory education!

French oak barrel cellar

Barrels in the lower, French oak cellar

 

Rueda

Ramón Bilbao partnered with another company in 2007 to make Rueda, but in 2014 decided they needed to make their own wines with their own winery. Rueda is a 700-800m plateau of 13,000Ha with an extreme continental climate and poor, stony soils.

 

In the Vineyard

Ramón Bilbao bought 60Ha and spent 2 years researching the soils across the different parcels in Finca Las Amedias, before planting. There were a small number of old vines already planted, but the majority of plantings are virgin. 77 soil pits were dug, and data gathered on water levels, water retention etc.

Soil types were mixtures with and without calcium carbonate; sandy and stony. Sauvignon Blanc was planted in the more sedimentary area to the East of the bodega with more water retention, with Verdejo in the sandier, stonier soils with more drainage to the West. The new vines will be 3 years old in 2018 and start commercial production.

 

In the Winery

The new winery has been built with capacity to make the wines in concrete, large oak foudres, small barrels (French, American and Hungarian) and stainless steel. Stainless steel is easy for temperature control and hygiene. Concrete adds oxygen which can open aromatics. Foudres also add oxygen, but flavour too. Wines are made by Sara Bañuelos, the dedicated winemaker for the Rueda estate.

 

Symposium Bodega visit masterclass wines

Ramon Bilbao altitude tasting

Our individually-named tasting mats

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Ábalos vineyard Tempranillo 2016 [barrel sample] (17.5 / 20)
100% Tempranillo from 27Ha at 700m on South side of Sierra de Cantabria, with sandy, decomposed sandstone soils, planted in 1930. Fermented in French oak vats. 10 months in new 225L French oak. pH 3.46, <2 g/L RS, 14.2% ABV.
A: Deep black-purple, with a fairly narrow rim
N: Smoky, stony tones. Floral violet and liquorice overtones. Mulberry fruit. Chocolate-cinnamon
P: Precise. Bright, polished chocolate and blue fruit. Floral. Firm, fairly fine tannins. Decent length

Ramón Bilbao Rioja La Pedriza vineyard Tudelilla Garnacha 2016 [barrel sample] (17+ / 20)
100% Garnacha from North-facing 10Ha at 650-700m in a Mediterranean mountain clearing, with stony soils, planted in 1969. Fermented in French oak vats. 8 months in new 225L French oak. pH 3.35, <2 g/L RS, 14.35% ABV.
A: Deep ruby
N: Mocha oak. Stewed raspberries. Spice. Meat. Savoury. Dusty rock. Some balsamic
P: Juicy, fresh, red and black cherry. Moderately firm, furry tannins. Decent length

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Villalba vineyard Tempranillo 2016 [barrel sample] (16.5 / 20)
100% Tempranillo from 13Ha at 650m on South side of Sierra de Cantabria, with sandy, decomposed sandstone soils, planted in 1942. Fermented in French oak vats. 6 months in new 225L French oak. pH 3.44, <2 g/L RS, 14% ABV.
A: Deep purple
N: Mocha, bramble, richer darker fruit. Cinnamon
P: Sweet, black fruit with a sour undertow. Firm, fine tannins. Juicy. Some chocolate at the medium-long finish

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Monte Yerga vineyard Sector A Tempranillo 2016 [barrel sample] (16.5++ / 20)
100% Tempranillo from 5.4Ha at 520m, with conglomerate soils containing 47% sand, 35% limestone and 18% clay, and low organic matter. Sector A planted in 1974 to Garnacha and Tempranillo – first plot on the estate, with lowest aeration. Tempranillo harvested at 4.1t / Ha, then fermented in concrete vats. 7 months in new 225L French oak. pH 3.39, <2 g/L RS, 14.3% ABV.
A: Mid-deep purple
N: Nutty, papery oak. Dusty and rocky. Muted blackberry fruit
P: Rich, sweet blackcurrant – almost pastille fruit. Bright acidity. Fairly firm, slightly drying tannins. Dark fruit

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Monte Yerga vineyard Sector D Tempranillo 225L 2016 [barrel sample] (16.5 / 20)
100% Tempranillo from 19Ha at 540m, with conglomerate soils containing 44% sand, 40% limestone (with high active lime content) and 16% clay, and low organic matter. Sector D planted in 1978 to Tempranillo, with good water retention. Tempranillo harvested at 4t / Ha, then fermented in concrete vats. 11 months in new 225L French oak. pH 3.46, <2 g/L RS, 14.45% ABV.
A: Deep purple
N: Woody oak. Toasty cedar develops. Dense and closed. Crushed rock and cordite
P: Ripe, but pure and bright raspberry and blackberry. Brisk acidity. Chewy, wild, firm tannins

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Monte Yerga vineyard Sector D Tempranillo 112L 2016 [barrel sample] (16 / 20)
Same fruit as Sector D Tempranillo 225L above, but 11 months in new, half-barrique 112L French oak. MLF in barrel. pH 3.46, <2 g/L RS, 14.45% ABV.
A: Deep purple, with a narrow rim
N: Muted, papery, cocoa oak. Coaxed out some dried herb. Vanilla
P: Dense, ripe blackberry fruit. Firm to high, powerfully-chalky tannins – gum puckeringly dry. Fair length. Needs a lot of time!

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Monte Yerga Ladero vineyard Tempranillo 500L 2016 [barrel sample] (16.5+ / 20)
100% Tempranillo from 6Ha on a steep slope at 720m, with conglomerate soils containing 63% sand, 22% limestone and 15% clay, and low organic matter. Planted in 1988 to Tempranillo, with low productivity. Tempranillo harvested at 3.2t / Ha, then fermented in concrete vats. 9 months in new 500L French oak. pH 3.37, <2 g/L RS, 14.4% ABV.
A: Deep purple
N: Some rose floral notes, then nutty, vanilla oak. Cordite. Black cherry fruit
P: Plush, black cherry. Some spice. Toasty oak. Elderberry. Firm, chalky tannins. Long

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Monte Yerga Ladero vineyard Tempranillo 225L 2016 [barrel sample] (17+ / 20)
Same fruit as Ladero Tempranillo 500L above. 9 months in new 225L French oak. pH 3.37, <2 g/L RS, 14.4% ABV.
A: Deep black-purple, with a narrow rim
N: Garrigue herb and black pepper. Smoky. Rocky-stony minerality
P: Spiced. Chewy, firm tannins. Blackberry. Smoky-salty

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Monte Yerga Lalomba vineyard Sector G Garnacha [barrel sample] (15.5+ / 20)
100% Garnacha from 7Ha at 556-600m, with conglomerate soils containing 50% sand, 35% limestone (but very low active lime) and 15% clay, and low organic matter. Planted in 1988 to Tempranillo and Garnacha, with higher water stress. Garnacha harvested at 4.2t / Ha, then fermented in concrete vats. 8 months in new 225L French oak. pH 3.23, <2 g/L RS, 14.6% ABV.
A: Deep purple
N: Some rose floral notes, then nutty, vanilla oak. Cordite. Black cherry fruit
P: Plush, black cherry. Some spice. Toasty oak. Elderberry. Firm, chalky tannins. Long

 

Aperitif and dinner wines

Lalomba premium rose lounge

Lounge set up in Tate Modern to showcase Lalomba Rosado as a premium wine

Ramón Bilbao Lalomba Rioja Rosado 2017 (16 / 20)
Magnum. Served as an aperitif for welcome and visit, before masterclass. 90% Garnacha, 10% Viura. <2 g/L RS. Made to be a traditional style Rioja rosé for gastronomy.
A: Pale onion skin-amber
N: Toasty wild yeast-style nuttiness. Savoury. Some peachy, strawberry fruit
P: Brisk acidity. Rich body. Strawberry, spice and cream. Some salinity and flint. Medium-long length

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Mirto 1999 (17 / 20)
First vintage.
A: Deep black-garnet
N: Balsamic, ripe red and black cherry. Tobacco. Spicy oak, but balanced. Still fairly youthful
P: Still firm, but ripe tannins and balanced acidity. Some velvety fruit. Balsamic. Long

Ramón Bilbao Rueda Verdejo Lías Edición Limitada 2016 (16.5 / 20)
Concrete then Hungarian oak maturation, followed by assemblage in French oak foudres.
A: Pale gold
N: Pungent stone fruit and cream. Spice. Nutty
P: Brisk acidity. Earthy-pungent fruit. Nutty oak. Gooseberry and tropical fruit. Toasty oak. Medium-long

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Gran Reserva 2010 (17.5 / 20)
90% Tempranillo, 10% Mazuelo and Graciano. American oak maturation.
A: Deep ruby-garnet
N: Clove vanilla, balsam and spice. Rich red and black fruit. Tobacco. Mellow
P: Fresh, bright, balsamic cherry. Spicy oak. Balance and length

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Mirto 2012 (17 / 20)
100% Tempranillo. Same village as 1999. 70 year old vines. Bunch selection. Medium toast barrels, matched to the lightness or richness of the vintage.
A: Deep black ruby-purple
N: Clove oak. Cinnamon. Some violets. Dark, ripe cherry. Dense. Young
P: Juicy blue and raspberry. Spicy clove. Ripe, moderately firm tannins. Nutty finish with decent length

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Gran Reserva 1982 (17- / 20)
Mainly Tempranillo, with 10-15% Viura, and Garnacha and Graciano. Just 12% ABV.
A: Deep garnet with a brick rim
N: Truffle, black tea and walnut. Fully mature
P: Old leather, toast, spice and cigar box. Long, toasty-spice finish

 

Tate Modern Masterclass wines

Verdejo maturation vessel experiment

The 2017 Verdejos from the same vineyard, from 4 maturation vessels

Ramón Bilbao Rueda Verdejo 2017 (15.5 / 20)
From 40Ha owned vineyard, planted 2015 and a contracted, controlled 60Ha, gravelly vineyard at 770m. pH 3.3, <2 g/L RS, 12.5% ABV. Stainless steel fermentation. 3 months on lees.
A: Pale lemon
N: Some boxwood pungency and fresh leaves, but notable guava and cream.
P: Rounded lees body. Dry. Guava. Fennel herb tones. Salty tang. Fair length

Ramón Bilbao Rueda Sauvignon Blanc 2017 (16.5 / 20)
From 20Ha owned vineyard, planted 2015. Sandy-gravel at 770m. 1/3 each stainless steel, foudres and concrete. 6 months on lees. Believes the style is more like Graves. pH 3.25, <2 g/L RS, 13% ABV. 10% of vines in the region are now Sauvignon Blanc, but only 3% labelled as such.
A: Pale lemon
N: Nutty boxwood. Grass and kiwi fruit. Toasty lees tones. Spicy-savoury
P: Crisp, linear, lemon-lime acidity. Some spice and nut. Saline notes with plenty of character. Fair length

Ramón Bilbao Verdejo Foudre 2017 (16 / 20)
5Ha, owned gravel plot, planted in 1999. 2nd use foudres, so still giving oak aromatics. 6 months on lees. pH 3.23, <2 g/L RS, 13% ABV.
A: Pale lemon-gold
N: Vanilla-guava aromatics. Some passionfruit. Some boxwood or dried herb tones emerge
P: Clear, brisk acidity. Guava and kiwi, with grapefruit acidity. Some vanilla cream at the finish. Good length

Ramón Bilbao Verdejo Concrete 2017 (15.5+ / 20)
5Ha, owned gravel plot, planted in 1999. Fermentation and 8 months’ ageing in 4,100L tulip-shaped concrete vats. pH 3.23, <2 g/L RS, 13.1% ABV.
A: Pale lemon
N: More closed, nutty-toasty. More flint. Some cucumber skin and fennel herb
P: Savoury, spicy, green apple and lime. Flinty. Linear

Ramón Bilbao Verdejo French Oak 2017 (15.5+ / 20)
5Ha, owned gravel plot, planted in 1999. Fermentation in concrete then 8 months’ ageing in new French oak barriques. pH 3.2, <2 g/L RS, 13% ABV.
A: Pale gold
N: Marked vanilla-cinnamon. Clove. Stone fruit and grapefruit. Dusty. Some guava
P: Rich, dense. Spicy oak mid-palate. Very oak dominant. Creamy finish over citrus and stone fruit. Medium-long length

Ramón Bilbao Verdejo Hungarian Oak 2017 (17 / 20)
5Ha, owned gravel plot, planted in 1999. Fermentation in concrete then 8 months’ ageing in new Hungarian oak barriques. pH 3.2, <2 g/L RS, 13% ABV. Rodolfo believes that Hungarian oak and concrete vats are likely to be the future for Verdejo production.
A: Pale-medium lemon-gold
N: Toasted almond oak and sandalwood. Boxwood sweat tones. Mirabelle and some guava tones over cooked citrus. Complex and interesting
P: Some tannic grip. Spicy tones to ripe lemon citrus and mirabelle. Complex and inviting. Some clove, pepper spice and sandalwood. Long

Ramón Bilbao Rueda Verdejo Lías Edición Limitada 2017 [cask sample] (16.5 / 20)
Assemblage of Verdejo planted in 1999. Concrete fermentation then 8 months in French and Hungarian oak, on lees. pH 3.22, <2 g/L RS, 13.8% ABV.
A: Pale-medium lemon
N: Restrained, dusty fennel-touched guava. Toasted almond tones, which are well integrated. Plenty of nutty oak. Sandalwood
P: Some saltiness. Boxwood pungency, sandalwood spice. Rich lees. Guava and ripe grapefruit. Warming, spiced finish

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Reserva 1981 (17 / 20)
Excellent vintage for the region. 73% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha, 5% Mazuelo, 2% Graciano, 5% Viura (permitted until 1999). Viura co-fermented. Concrete vat fermentation then 20 days skin maceration. 42 months in American oak. pH 3.35, 12% ABV.
A: Medium brick-garnet with a medium brick rim
N: Black tea, truffle, balsamic. Pot pourri tones to dried red cherry. Toasted coconut and cinnamon background tones with a touch of vanilla. Complex and mature, but still with some fruit freshness
P: Brisk, dried red cherry and balsamic. Spiced, toasted vanilla oak. Some tea and truffle tones. Light, fine tannins. Fairly long and creamy-toasty finish

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Gran Reserva 1991 (17.5 / 20)
Very good vintage for the region. Mainly Sierra de Cantabria fruit. 80% Tempranillo, 7% Garnacha, 6% Mazuelo, 4% Graciano, 3% Viura. 39 months in American oak. pH 3.45, 12.5% ABV.
A: Mid garnet, with some brick touches at the rim
N: Some vegetal hints, like dried seaweed. Dried tobacco. Lots of balsamic. Dried liquorice. Some prune and blood notes
P: Bright acidity. Chocolate tones. Some saltiness. Balsamic-laced dried red and black cherry. Spicy mid-palate. Rich. Long, toasted finish

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Gran Reserva 1999 (17.5 / 20)
90% Tempranillo, 7% Mazuelo, 3% Graciano. 36 months in American oak. 5.7 g/L TA, <2 g/L RS, 13% ABV. 80,000 bottles produced.
A: Mid-deep garnet
N: Earthy richness to balsamic, coffee and some toasted coconut. Marked dried and macerated red cherry and blackberry fruit
P: Ripe, rich red cherry and dried blackberry fruit. Chocolate tones to balsamic, cinnamon and vanilla oak. Moderate, fine-grained tannins. Decent freshness and length

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Mirto 1999 (17+ / 20)
Single village, single fermentation vat from Villalba at 650m, planted 1942 and 2005. 13Ha at <2t / Ha to fill 18kL vat. 100% Tempranillo. Fermentation in French oak vats, followed by MLF in 50 new French oak barriques of M and M+ toast, from Seguin Moreau and Radoux, with batonnage. 6.6 g/L TA, 2.2 g/L RS, 13.7% ABV. 14,404 bottles and 620 magnums produced.
A: Deep black-ruby with some garnet through the rim; surprisingly youthful
N: Markedly toasty, spicy clove oak. Cordite. Tobacco and dark chocolate. Coal smoke. Macerated black fruit. Rich. Deep. Modern, for sure
P: Rich and full-bodied. Blue and black fruit. Chewy, dense, firm but fine tannins. Becoming velvety but certainly fully-extracted. Clove and cordite length

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Gran Reserva 2004 (16.5+ / 20)
Excellent vintage throughout Rioja. Vineyards in Briones and Abalos at 450-700m. 55-60 year old vines. 90% Tempranillo, 7% Mazuelo and 3% Graciano. 2 days cold maceration. Short, 8-day fermentation, followed by 9 days’ maceration on skins. 36 months in Ohio and Missouri American oak, from Martin and Demptos coopers. 5.5 g/L TA, 2.1 g/L RS, 14% ABV. 115,000 bottles produced.
A: Mid-deep ruby-garnet
N: Slightly jammy raspberry fruit. Caramel and clove. Some toasted coconut. Some tobacco tones
P: Ripe but sour cherry. Chalky, firm tannins. Some balsamic and chocolate. Like chocolate covered cherries. Creamy oak finish

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Mirto 2004 (17+ / 20)
100% Tempranillo from 27Ha vineyard in Abalos at 700m altitude, planted 1930 and 2002. Fermentation in French oak vats. MLF in 124 new French oak, M and M+ toast barriques from Seguin Moreau and Radoux, followed by 24 months’ ageing. 5.6 g/L TA, 2 g/L RS, 13.6% ABV. 36,000 bottles and 620 magnums produced.
A: Deep ruby-black
N: Closed. Cordite and spice. Smoky fruit. Cinnamon emerges. Black fruit with some seaweed
P: Sour balsamic tones to black cherry. Spice. Chalky, firm tannins. Rich. Ripe. Cinnamon finish

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Gran Reserva 2010 (17.5+ / 20)
Vineyards in Briones and Abalos at 450-700m. 55-60 year old vines. 90% Tempranillo, 7% Mazuelo and 3% Graciano. 2 days cold maceration. Short, 8-day fermentation, followed by 9 days’ maceration on skins. 36 months in Ohio and Missouri American oak, from Martin and Demptos coopers. 5.3 g/L TA, 2 g/L RS, 14% ABV. 115,000 bottles produced. Current release in UK at £22.50 / bottle.
A: Mid-deep ruby
N: Toasted cocoa nibs. Clove. Ripe bramble fruit. Some tobacco hints. Rich, but with some balance between fruit ripeness and oak density
P: Sweet, black cherry fruit. Clove and dark chocolate oak. Spicy mid-palate. Firm, slightly chalky oak tannins. Mouthcoating. Lots of spice through the finish. Good length. Needs time

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Mirto 2010 (17++ / 20)
100% Tempranillo from 27Ha vineyard in Abalos at 700m altitude, planted 1930 and 2002. Fermentation in French oak vats. MLF in 124 new French oak, M and M+ toast barriques from Seguin Moreau and Radoux, followed by 24 months’ ageing. 5.8 g/L TA, 2 g/L RS, 13.8% ABV. 36,000 bottles and 620 magnums produced. 2012 is current release, at £39.50 / bottle in UK.
A: Deep ruby
N: Vanilla cream and cordite. Toast. Oak dominant. Raspberry and red cherry. Ripe and dense, but not overripe
P: Raspberry and mixed berries. Juicy acidity. Spiced cordite and cinnamon-clove. Chewy, but not over-extracted, fairly firm, peppery tannins. Needs time, but is showing some grace already. Long

 

Lunch wines

Ramón Bilbao Rueda Sauvignon Blanc 2017 (16 / 20)
Deliberately served cooler than in the tasting.
A: Pale lemon
N: Slight reductive swimming pool note that becomes sweaty. Cucumber skin, lees vegetal tones. Nutty with some citrus
P: Brisk acidity. Cheesy touch. Lees creaminess. Kiwi and grapefruit. Fair length

Ramón Bilbao Rueda Verdejo Lías Edición Limitada 2016 (16.5 / 20)
Current release.
A: Pale-medium lemon
N: Nutty-creamy oak notes. Some herbal character. Guava tones and grapefruit. Nutty
P: Medium-full body. Creamy. Sweet guava and melon with a citrus undertow. Toasty, creamy vanilla. Some oak clove tones. Medium-long finish

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Viñedos de Altura 2015 (16.5+ / 20)
First commercial wine made with grapes all from vineyards over 600m in altitude. 50% Tempranillo and 50% Garnacha. French oak vat fermentation followed by 14 months in new French oak.
A: Deep ruby
N: Dense bramble berry. Some jammy tones. Lifted cinnamon-vanilla. Toasty oak. Coffee-cacao
P: Ripe, bright black and red cherry. Coffee and cacao spice. Slightly wild, rustic, fairly-firm tannins. Spicy. Slightly warming alcohol (>14% ABV?). Vanilla cream finish. Good length

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Edición Limitada 2015 (16.5 / 20)
A: Deep ruby with a narrow rim
N: Deep clove-cordite spiced oak. Plum. Black cherry. Ripe. Modern style
P: Rich. Full-bodied. Black cherry. Spice and cordite. Chalky, moderately-firm tannins. Moderately long. Some tobacco and balsamic development. Warming finish

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Mirto 2012 (16 / 20)
100% Tempranillo. French oak vat fermentation. 2 years in new French oak barriques without racking. 2012 is current release, at £39.50 / bottle in UK.
A: Deep black-ruby
N: Cedar and cinnamon. Dark chocolate and clove. Ripe and focused black cherry
P: Juicy acidity. Spice. Vanilla. Black cherry. Medium-firm, peppery tannins. Clove finish. Fairly long. Not quite got the density

 

Tasted at the Bodega, 2014

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Crianza 2011 (?? / 20)
A: Mid-deep ruby, with purple rim glints
N: Smoky-vegetal. Spicy oak hints over redcurrant and raspberry fruit
P: Bright acidity. Crisp red fruit. Slightly under-ripe savouriness. Hint of herbal or liquorice notes over gravelly mineral

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Reserva 2008 (?? / 20)
90% Tempranillo, 10% Mazuelo and Graciano.
A: Medium ruby with a slight garnet tinge
N: Riper fruit than the Crianza. More blackberry and black cherry character. More overt mocha and vanilla touches. Still a bit lean
P: Sweet, ripe, red cherry fruit. Crisp acidity. Ripe, subtle, chalky tannins. Crisp but rich. Minerality and spicy oak

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Gran Reserva 2006 (?? / 20)
90% Tempranillo, 5% Mazuelo, 5% Graciano.
A: Deep ruby
N: Mocha and hints of wax. Chilli and wood spice. Espresso. Hints of black fruit beneath
P: Supple, ripe, cranberry and black cherry. Smoky oak spice. Quite bright acidity. Spicy, peppery, medium tannins. Quite long. Youthful, but a little under-ripe?

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