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. Roll onto 2020 and Alberto has taken over leading their Lalomba project; we tasted the third, 2017 vintage of Lalomba Rosado at the beginning of our 2018 visit, but this project has taken on greater scope and ambition since, as I discovered on a virtual Zoom tasting in late July 2020.

Ramon Bilbao wine barrel violin

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

At the bodega, we had a fascinating, 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.

Lalomba wine range bottle image

The latest releases of their Lalomba Rioja range, now focusing on single vineyards

Interestingly, some of the plots shown in that barrel sample tasting are the same that have gone on to be released as Lalomba’s new, single-vineyard red Riojas – Finca Ladero, for example, providing two of the 2016 barrel samples tasted, from 500L and 225L oak. The Lalomba 2016 release was apparently raised in 225L, so I wonder if the sample we tasted made it into the Lalomba blend? In 2018, I certainly preferred the 225L barrel sample to the 500L and scored it 17+ / 20; I scored the Lalomba Finca Ladero 17.5 / 20.

My only niggle with this range is its packaging. Given the importance of climate change to their viticultural studies and innovations, and given that glass packaging is one of the largest contributors to a winery’s CO2 footprint, it is a little surprising that the Lalomba bottles are so heavy – 861g for the 2018 Rosado, compared with, say, 400g ones Torres are using for some of their wines. I appreciate the need for smart-looking bottles for wines of up to £100 each, but the heavyweight era is surely passé now? Either way, it runs contra to their sustainability stance.

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.

Then, in 2020, at the height of Covid-19 lockdown, Rodolfo and dedicated Rueda winemaker, Sara Bañuelos, gave a virtual Zoom tasting. This time they showed the effects of different maturation vessels on Sauvignon Blanc, along with the latest bottled vintages of Sauvignon Blanc, Verdejo and Lías limited edition, old vines Verdejo.

In the 2020 tasting, what was clearest was the effect of micro-oxygenation on the reductiveness of each of the 2019 Sauvignon Blancs shown, with increasing fruit expression from the most reductive, sweaty stainless steel, via the middle concrete, to the most oxidative foudres, but with the foudres counterbalancing the fruit with addition of nutty oak aromas.

The 2018 Tate event was followed by admission to the gallery’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, live events and virtual tastings, with notes on the wines from the range of Ramón Bilbao and Lalomba Rioja, and Rueda wines encountered across those.

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
  • Ambitious Lalomba: addition of the single-vineyard reds shows a lot of intent to position this brand at the top end, and exploit their increasing vineyard understanding
  • 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, though the old vines Sobre Lías cuvée is the top of the pile

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.

Within Rioja, they have established the Lalomba sub-brand (which may become a standalone brand in its own right, with Ramón Bilbao moving off the label for the 2020 releases, though remaining as a debossed logo on the bottle itself). The project began with a rosado – 2015 the first vintage – and by 2020, two single-vineyard red Riojas joined the range. These are ambitiously-priced at £100 a bottle, with £23.50 for the rosado.

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.

The Lalomba project has had its own, dedicated, concrete-dominated winery built immediately next door.

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. To moderate this impact, they’ve developed vineyard treatments, spraying vines with algae to reduce the impact of UV-A (310-340 nm), uric acid for UV-B (270-290 nm) and Vitamin C for UV-C (<260 nm) moderation.

At higher elevations, IPT is higher with more concentrated tannins, fewer free anthocyanins but more polymerisation of the anthocycanins. With fewer polysaccharides in resulting wines, these tannins come across as more astringent.

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. That floral sense was particularly clear on their first release of Finca Valhonta from the Lalomba project, whose pure Tempranillo showed clear violet and rose notes in the 2017.

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.

The concrete theme has been taken to its logical conclusion in Lalomba, where 48, specially shaped, slightly rounded, cuboidal fermentation and maturation tanks, that taper towards the top, have been installed in the new winery. Having tested unlined and epoxy-lined, Burgundian and Veneto designs, as well as different shapes, these are unlined concrete, from the Veneto. The intent is to get the neutrality of stainless steel, with some of the micro-oxygenation of oak (about half, with an OTR of 6.15 mg / L).

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.

By contrast, Lalomba is using a mix of French and a little Hungarian oak, with some 500L barrels as well as 225L, and with maturation for 12-16 months, depending on the wine. They even have a Garnacha matured solely in concrete, so shorter or no oak maturations may feature more in future. The two reds – Finca Valhonta 2017 and Finca Ladero 2016 – nevertheless carried notable oak influence, and I wonder whether pulling that back a little over the coming years might accentuate the vineyard expression.

What’s unusual with Lalomba is that the wines then go back into concrete for further maturation, to polymerise and soften the tannins – 8 months for Valhonta and 22 months for Ladero, in their first vintages. The tannins on both were quite elegant, though for Valhonta, still on the youthful side. As Alberto explained, this is a trade-off: longer in the vat would help mature the tannin, but would likely suppress the floral dimension. 

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.

The Wines

Symposium Bodega visit masterclass wines, 2018

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.
Deep black-purple, with a fairly narrow rim. Smoky, stony tones on the nose. Floral violet and liquorice overtones. Mulberry fruit. Chocolate-cinnamon. Precise, bright palate with, 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.
Deep ruby. Mocha oak. Stewed raspberries. Spice. Meat. Savoury. Dusty rock. Some balsamic. On the palate, 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.
Deep purple. Mocha, bramble, richer darker fruit. Cinnamon. Sweet, black fruit on the palate 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.
Mid-deep purple. Nutty, papery oak. Dusty and rocky. Muted blackberry fruit. 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.
Deep purple. Woody oak. Toasty cedar develops. Dense and closed. Crushed rock and cordite. On the palate, ripe, but pure, 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.
Deep purple, with a narrow rim. Muted, papery, cocoa oak. Coaxed out some dried herb. Vanilla. On the palae, 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.
Deep purple. Some rose floral notes, then nutty, vanilla oak. Cordite. Black cherry fruit. Plush, black cherry palate. 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.
Deep black-purple, with a narrow rim. Garrigue herb and black pepper. Smoky. Rocky-stony minerality. Spiced palate with 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.
Deep purple. Some rose floral notes, then nutty, vanilla oak. Cordite. Black cherry fruit. Plush palate of black cherry. Some spice. Toasty oak. Elderberry. Firm, chalky tannins. Long

Aperitif and dinner wines, 2018

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.
Pale onion skin-amber. Toasty wild yeast-style nuttiness. Savoury. Some peachy, strawberry fruit. Brisk acidity. Rich body. Strawberry, spice and cream. Some salinity and flint. Medium-long length

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Mirto 1999 (17 / 20)
First vintage.
Deep black-garnet. Balsamic, ripe red and black cherry. Tobacco. Spicy oak, but balanced. Still fairly youthful. 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.
Pale gold. Pungent stone fruit and cream. Spice. Nutty. On the palate, brisk acidity, earthy-pungent fruit and 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.
Deep ruby-garnet. Clove vanilla, balsam and spice. Rich red and black fruit. Tobacco. Mellow. Fresh, bright, balsamic cherry notes on the palate. 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.
Deep black ruby-purple. Clove oak, cinnamon and some violets. Dark, ripe cherry. Dense. Youthful nose. Juicy blueberry and raspberry on the palate, with more 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.
Deep garnet with a brick rim. Truffle, black tea and walnut. Fully mature. Old leather, toast, spice and cigar box on the palate. Long, toasty-spice finish

Tate Modern Masterclass, 2018 and Zoom video call, 2020 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.
Pale lemon. Some boxwood pungency and fresh leaves, but notable guava and cream. On the palate, a body rounded by lees. Dry, with guava and fennel herb tones. Salty tang. Fair length

Ramón Bilbao Rueda Verdejo 2018 (15 / 20; drink 2019-21)
100% Verdejo, from owned 40Ha vineyard at 770m, planted 2016, on gravel, and 60Ha external vineyards under their control. Fermentation in stainless steel, to maximise varietal expression. Fermentation at 16°C to promote fruit aromas. Three months lees until bottling, in absence of oxygen. High protein content, so clarification to manage that. Trials have led them to use vegan fining agents such as green pea, bentonite or potato-based agents, to be labelled as such from the 2019 vintage. pH 3.2, 1.2 g/L RS, 12.8% ABV. RRP £11.95.
A hint of pungent spices gives a savoury tone to the otherwise quite rich fruit, blending greengages and cooked gooseberries, and a little bay leaf. Some fruit-sweetness on the palate, with phenolic texture and some oiliness. A hint less mouthwatering in its acidity than its Sauvignon Blanc peer. Fair length though

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.
Pale lemon. Nutty boxwood. Grass and kiwi fruit. Toasty lees tones. Spicy-savoury nose. Crisp, linear, lemon-lime acidity. Some spice and nut. Saline notes with plenty of character. Fair length

Ramón Bilbao Rueda Sauvignon Blanc 2018 (15 / 20; drink 2019-21)
100% Sauvignon Blanc from 18Ha at 770m, planted 2016, on sandy gravel soils. Night harvest at around 10°C. Fermentation in one third each of stainless steel, 4,100L concrete tulips and 4,500L French oak foudres. Fermentation started at 16°C, then reduced to 14°C to promote herbal and thiol aromas. Micro-oxygenation during fermentation as the variety has a tendency toward reduction. Six months on lees until bottling, in absence of oxygen. Blend in foudre. Gentle clarification to avoid ‘pinking’. pH 3.2, 1.4 g/L RS, 13% ABV. RRP £11.95.
Both deeper in colour than its Verdejo peer, and gold rather than green tinged. Passionfruit and ripe grapefruit on the nose; fruitier than a typical Sancerre expression, yet without the focused intensity of Marlborough style. On the palate, the fruit is forward, though there is a sandy-textured undertow that carries a certain amount of length. Lacking a little in mid-palate intensity, reflecting the very young vines, but good clarity and freshness

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.
Pale lemon-gold. Vanilla-guava aromatics. Some passionfruit. Some boxwood or dried herb tones emerge. 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.
Pale lemon. More closed, nutty-toasty. More flint. Some cucumber skin and fennel herb. Savoury, spicy, green apple and lime palate. 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.
Pale gold. Marked vanilla-cinnamon and clove aromatics. Stone fruit and grapefruit. Dusty. Some guava too. Rich, dense palate with spicy oak on the 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.
Pale-medium lemon-gold. Toasted almond oak and sandalwood. Boxwood sweat tones. Mirabelle and some guava tones over cooked citrus. Complex and interesting. Some tannic grip on the palate with spice tones over ripe lemon citrus and mirabelle. Complex and inviting. Some clove, pepper spice and sandalwood. Long

Ramón Bilbao Stainless Steel Sauvignon Blanc 2019 [tank sample] (15 / 20; drink 2021-22)
100% Sauvignon Blanc from 20Ha at 770m, planted 2016, on sandy gravel soils. Night harvest at around 10°C. Fermentation and 6 months’ maturation in stainless steel, to give varietal expression. pH 3.18, 1.1 g/L RS, 12.9% ABV.
A little flinty and reductive. The most restrained of the three tank samples in fruit expression. Apple and grapefruit pith palate with some chalkiness of texture

Ramón Bilbao Concrete Sauvignon Blanc 2019 [tank sample] (15 / 20; drink 2020-22)
100% Sauvignon Blanc from 20Ha at 770m, planted 2016, on sandy gravel soils. Night harvest at around 10°C. Fermentation and 6 months’ maturation in 4,100L concrete tulips, which gives some micro-oxygenation and more body. pH 3.2, 1.2 g/L RS, 13% ABV.
Creamier aromatics than the stainless steel, with less overt guava fruit of the foudre sample. Overall, seems to express the lees contact more on the nose, while giving lovely clarity to the acidity on the palate

Ramón Bilbao Foudre Sauvignon Blanc 2019 [cask sample] (15.5 / 20; drink 2020-23) 
100% Sauvignon Blanc from 20Ha at 770m, planted 2016, on sandy gravel soils. Night harvest at around 10°C. Fermentation and 6 months’ maturation in 4,500L French oak foudre, which gives some micro-oxygenation and some wood notes. pH 3.18, 1.1 g/L RS, 12.9%.
The most expressive aromatically, carrying guava and grapefruit, but also expressing some of the herbal side of Sauvignon more evidently than the other two tank samples, alongside a subtle nuttiness from the wood. Most textured of the three on the palate as well, with some gentle phenolic grip and oiliness

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.
Pale-medium lemon. Restrained, dusty fennel-touched guava. Toasted almond tones, which are well integrated. Plenty of nutty oak. Sandalwood. Some saltiness on the palate, with boxwood pungency, sandalwood spice and rich lees. Guava and ripe grapefruit. Warming, spiced finish

Ramón Bilbao Rueda Verdejo Lías Edición Limitada 2017 (16.5 / 20; drink 2019-25)
100% Verdejo, from the oldest 5Ha of owned vines on their Finca las Amedias estate, planted 1999. Hand picking. Bunch selection at a sorting table. Pre-ferment maceration at low temperatures with CO2. Pressed. Fermentation in 4,100L concrete tulips. Barrel fermentation does not work so well with Verdejo as it tends to dominate the variety’s fruit, and temperature control is more difficult. Fermentation is at a constant and slow 15-16°C, with micro-oxygenation due to the porous concrete. 1-2 months on lees in concrete until transfer to barrel with the lees. Eight months on lees in a mix of French and Hungarian barriques, with bâtonnage, then blended in foudres. pH 3.22, <2 g/L RS, 13% ABV. RRP £15.
Compared with the unoaked wines tasted beforehand, the baking spice and vanilla notes from the oak treatment here are clear. Nevertheless, there’s a solid core of yellow peach and passionfruit there too, into which the oak is integrating. An attractive grapefruit pith bitterness and a stony mineral note enhance the, oily, rounded palate. Good freshness. The extra vine age compared with the straight Verdejo definitely enhances the concentration on the mid palate

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.
Medium brick-garnet with a medium brick rim. 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. On the palate, 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.
Mid garnet, with some brick touches at the rim. Some vegetal hints, like dried seaweed. Dried tobacco. Lots of balsamic. Dried liquorice. Some prune and blood notes. Bright acidity, with chocolate tones and 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.
Mid-deep garnet. Earthy richness to balsamic, coffee and some toasted coconut. Marked dried and macerated red cherry and blackberry fruit. On the palate, 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.
Deep black-ruby with some garnet through the rim; surprisingly youthful. Markedly toasty, spicy clove oak. Cordite. Tobacco and dark chocolate. Coal smoke. Macerated black fruit. Rich. Deep. Modern, for sure. Rich and full-bodied on the palate, with 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.
Mid-deep ruby-garnet. Slightly jammy raspberry fruit. Caramel and clove. Some toasted coconut. Some tobacco tones. Ripe-but-sour cherry on the palate. 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.
Deep ruby-black. Closed. Cordite and spice. Smoky fruit. Cinnamon emerges. Black fruit with some seaweed emerges. Sour balsamic edge to the black cherry palate fruit. 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.
Mid-deep ruby. Toasted cocoa nibs. Clove. Ripe bramble fruit. Some tobacco hints. Rich, but with some balance between fruit ripeness and oak density.
On the palate, sweet, black cherry fruit with 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.
Deep ruby. Vanilla cream and cordite. Toast. Oak dominant. Raspberry and red cherry. Ripe and dense, but not overripe. On the palate, 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.
Pale lemon. Slight reductive swimming pool note that becomes sweaty. Cucumber skin, lees vegetal tones. Nutty with some citrus. On the palate, brisk acidity and a cheesy touch, with lees creaminess. Kiwi and grapefruit. Fair length

Ramón Bilbao Rueda Verdejo Lías Edición Limitada 2016 (16.5 / 20)
Current release.
Pale-medium lemon. Nutty-creamy oak notes. Some herbal character. Guava tones and grapefruit. Medium-full, creamy body, with sweet guava and melon, and 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.
Deep ruby. Dense bramble berry. Some jammy tones. Lifted cinnamon-vanilla. Toasty oak. Coffee-cacao. Ripe, bright black and red cherry on the palate, with 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)
Deep ruby with a narrow rim. Deep clove-cordite spiced oak. Plum. Black cherry. Ripe. Modern style Rioja. Rich and 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.
Deep black-ruby. Cedar and cinnamon. Dark chocolate and clove. Ripe and focused black cherry. On the palate, juicy acidity, spice, vanilla and black cherry. Medium-firm, peppery tannins. Clove finish. Fairly long. Not quite got the density

Lalomba Zoom virtual tasting, 2020

Lalomba virtual tasting wines

Ramón Bilbao Lalomba Rioja Rosado 2018 (16.5; drink 2019-21)
Fourth vintage. Rosado. 90% Garnacha, 10% Viura from Finca Lalinde in Monte Yerga, Rioja Oriental – the single vineyard added to the label from the 2019 vintage. Atlantic-moderated, continental climate. 5.4Ha of bush vines at 520m, planted in 1976 on a 1.5 x 1.7m planting frame (3,922 plants / Ha). Fresher vintage. 13% ABV. RRP £23.50.
Fairly pale, gold-flecked peach colour. Dusty, stony overtones – the concrete tanks, perhaps emphasising that mineral edge – with coriander spice, nectarine and white strawberry, that takes on a creaminess as it warms. Brisk, lively palate of mandarin, passionfruit and a chalky mineral depth. I’d like just a little more length though 

Ramón Bilbao Lalomba Rioja Rosado Finca Lalinde 2019 (16+; drink 2020-22)
Fifth vintage. Rosado. 90% Garnacha, 10% Viura from Finca Lalinde in Monte Yerga, Rioja Oriental. 5.4Ha of bush vines at 520m, planted in 1976 on a 1.5 x 1.7m planting frame (3,922 plants / Ha). Hot, dry growing season. Hand-picked into 12kg crates. Refrigerated trucks to Haro winery. Optical berry selection. 90-minute pressing cycles. First, gentlest pressing only. 3 days’ must maceration with lees (‘stabulation’) at 3-4°C. Fermentation in concrete vats, starting at 17°C, then reducing to 14-15°C. 5 months on lees. TA 5.49 g/L, pH 3.32, 0.51 g/L RS, Free SO2 31.5 mg/L, Total SO2 84 mg/L, 12.8% ABV. 20,000 bottles made. RRP £23.50.
Pale peach, without the gold tints of the 2018. Flinty, slightly reductive nose, with a garrigue-like herbal edge and a leaner, apple and pink grapefruit fruit profile. Only on standing does some richer, creamy stone fruit emerge. Crisp, green apple and redcurrant on the palate. Linear and focused. Fair length. Might be better in a year

Ramón Bilbao Lalomba Rioja Finca Valhonta 2017 (17; drink 2022-32)
Tempranillo from Finca Valhonta in Villalba de Rioja, on the southern slopes of the Sierra Cantabria mountains, in a moderate Atlantic climate. 2.8Ha of bush vines at 650m, planted in 2000 on a 2.4 x 1.08m planting frame (3,858 plants / Ha). After an April frost, a hot, fairly-dry growing season. Harvested into 250 kg crates. Optical berry selection. 3 days’ pre-fermentation maceration. Indigenous yeasts initiate fermentation in concrete vats, with a selected indigenous yeast inoculation on day 4. Extraction by pump-over and rack-and-return. 12 days’ post-fermentation maceration. Pressed to 500L French oak for MLF, then 14 months’ maturation without racking. Racked back to concrete for 8 months’ final maturation. Bottled September 2019. TA 6.93 g/L, pH 3.39, 0.72 g/L RS, Free SO2 31 mg/L, Total SO2 90 mg/L, IPT 69.8. 14.5% ABV. 6,000 bottles made. RRP £100.
Crystalline, mid-purple colour, without any signs of heavy colour extraction. There’s an underlying floral fragrance that is augmented – but not smothered – by sandalwood aromatics from the oak. Bright and fresh acidity with an upfront snap of chalky tannins that fade through the finish. Elegant, if still a little on the youthful side. Nice length, albeit with a touch of warmth

Ramón Bilbao Lalomba Rioja Finca Ladero 2016 (17.5; drink 2020-35)
80% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha from Finca Ladero in Monte Yerga, Rioja Oriental. Atlantic-moderated, continental climate. 6Ha of low-trellised vines at 720m, planted in 1989 on a 2.6 x 1.2m planting frame (3,205 plants / Ha). Cool, but very dry growing season, with just 280mm rainfall. Harvested into 12 kg crates. Chilled for 12 hours. Optical berry selection. 5 days’ pre-fermentation maceration. Indigenous yeasts initiate fermentation in concrete vats, with a selected indigenous yeast inoculation on day 5. Temperature controlled at 24°C. Extraction by pump-over and rack-and-return. 14 days’ post-fermentation maceration. Pressed and racked to 225L barrels, combining second-use French oak and new Hungarian oak for MLF, then 16 months’ maturation without racking. Racked back to concrete for 22 months’ final maturation. Bottled January 2020. TA 6.14 g/L, pH 3.46, 0.92 g/L RS, Free SO2 33 mg/L, Total SO2 90 mg/L, IPT 68. 14.3% ABV. 7,500 bottles made. RRP £100.
Limpid mid ruby-purple. Incense and toast from the oak leads the nose. Like Finca Valhonta, there’s a really attractive freshness on the palate, supported by cocoa-powder-like fine tannins. This has lovely black cherry and raspberry length, with a gentle spice and salinity. Great elegance, but perhaps a hint less obvious oak would allow this to sing?

Tasted at the Bodega, 2014

Ramón Bilbao Rioja Crianza 2011 (?? / 20)
Mid-deep ruby, with purple rim glints. Smoky-vegetal. Spicy oak hints over redcurrant and raspberry fruit. Bright acidity with 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.
Medium ruby with a slight garnet tinge. Riper fruit on the nose than the Crianza. More blackberry and black cherry character. More overt mocha and vanilla touches. Still a bit lean. On the palate, more 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.
Deep ruby. Mocha and hints of wax. Chilli and wood spice. Espresso. Hints of black fruit beneath. The palate has supple, ripe, cranberry and black cherry, with smoky oak spice. Quite bright acidity. Spicy, peppery, medium tannins. Quite long. Youthful, but a little under-ripe?

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