Posted on 24.05.19 #80

Going back in time for a thoroughly modern Rioja

It is fashionable these days to go on ‘a journey’. Contestants on reality shows like the ‘X Factor’ or ‘The Voice’ don’t have back stories, or life experiences, they go on ‘journeys’ instead. Back in the day, a journey was what got you from A to B. Now, as you fight back the tears, recall how you felt about the death of your first hamster and how it defined you, the ‘journey’ is your life story. 

“They say that people don’t make journeys, but rather that journeys make people” are the words that greet you on the front page of the Ramón Bilbao website. The veteran Haro-based producer was established in 1924 and makes much of its creator, Don Ramón, but the brand’s success probably owes as much to its modern messaging as its traditional roots, deftly managing to combine both to tell a compelling story.

… bold thinking …

Twenty years ago, the family business was sold to the Zamora Company – the conglomerate behind ‘Licor 43’, the world’s fastest growing spirit – and, since then, it has successfully applied some of the bold thinking that supports liquor brands to the more fusty world of wine.

‘Experiential’ is a word we hear a lot, especially from marketeers, and Ramón Bilbao is striving to sell the vision and imagination of its founder, including some of his more eccentric ideas for transporting wine, to link the concept of a ‘journey’ to the enjoyment of a bottle of wine.

And so it was that a small group of journalists were invited to an elegant apartment building in ‘the Mayfair of Madrid’, Salamanca, close to the Retiro. Up several flights of stairs, a ring of the doorbell, and our ‘journey’ began.

I’ve never been very good at harnessing my inner Ian McKellen, having once been ordered out of a BBC managers’ awayday for taking the piss during a role playing session, so I feared the worst as Don Ramón’s secretary invited us in.

The spitting image of Betty Boop, she assured us that the great man was “very busy” as we were shown to his study, carefully reconstructed as it would have looked in the late 1920s. Initially lost in thought, seemingly unaware of the noisy arrival of 4 journalists, 3 publicists and a couple of  members of the marketing team, Ramón looked up, greeted us and began to proffer a vision for “wines that represent their origins”.

Next, we were asked for the small cogs sent to us in our elaborate boxed invitation, to launch a moving Art Deco dresser, accompanied by stage effects and dry ice, revealing an adjoining room  in which we were asked to sit, blindfolded. By this stage, this was starting to resemble the BBC kidnap training course, so I was relieved to discover the darkness was for another ‘sensory’ experience, allowing us to gently grope the terroir of the Rioja Alta, and breathe in the distinctive aromas of barrel rooms, dark cherries and chocolate. 

From there, blinking into the light, it was back to the here and now, in a modern tasting room, for the launch of ‘Mirto’, the limited release premium vintage wine that is effectively a Gran Reserva with bells on, to be introduced by the modern incarnation of Don Ramón, its charismatic Wine Director, Rodolfo Bastida.

Explaining the theatrics, Bastida talked about the importance of forging a distinctive identity, explaining to our mildly baffled group that Ramón Bilbao “always try to do things differently. Everyone offers a winemaker tasting for a new release, but we wanted to be more ambitious”.

Alongside us international journalists, regular buyers and consumers were also taken on the ‘journey’, in hourly appointments, with a series of intimate visits across 3 days. The apartment was rented for a week, and fitted out in just a couple of days, with the actors hired for their impressive skills performing bi-lingually.

So what about the wine?

‘Mirto’, named after the myrtle bushes that grow around the edge of the vineyards, comes from   select, high altitude, dry farmed plots in Rioja Alta. 100 percent Tempranillo, it is only released in the best years, with 11 vintage releases since its launch in 1999. Back then, production was 14 thousand bottles, with the most recent run of 39 thousand a measure of its success.

To give us a sense of the development potential of the new release, we were treated to a vertical tasting of 3 past vintages, starting with the first, now two decades more mature, and virtually impossible to get your hands on. 1999 Ramón Bilbao Mirto has aged elegantly, with sweet soft leather and the skins of Jersey Royals on the nose, smooth tannins, supported by acidity that remains bright. “Retaining acidity is very important for the perception of life”, Bastida told us, explaining that this particular vintage had been preceded by a bitterly cold winter.

Next, the absolutely outstanding 2004 Ramón Bilbao Mirto, deeper in colour, with bright bramble fruit, cedar, dried herbs and forest floor, leading into fresh acidity, juicy black cherry, fine dark chocolate and lower alcohol than you might expect at 13.6 per cent.

2010 Ramón Bilbao Mirto is a young rampaging bull, by comparison, but it shows great potential with its sheer concentration of fruit, intense herbal character, high acidity and muscular tannic grip.

… the star of the show …

Finally, the star of the show, waiting in the wings like Elaine Page in Cats, poised to blast out ‘Memory’, 2014 Ramón Bilbao Mirto (available from Great Western Wine £49.50), fermented with indigenous yeasts developed by the winery’s scientists, aged 19 months in new French oak, bottled 3 years ago and released this month. “It is technically a Gran Reserva in terms of ageing”, says Bastida, “but we didn’t want people to only think of it as that, as the vintage is more important”. The nose is a feast of foraged blackberry, blueberry and red cherry, there’s also eucalyptus, spearmint, plums, dark chocolate and coffee, all supported by grippy tannins and bright, vibrant acidity that delivers a wine that feels alive.

A thoroughly modern Rioja, it makes sense of a launch that was anything but traditional. More importantly, Ramón Bilbao Mirto 2014 is a wine that is built to last.  It is just starting its ‘journey’.

This piece originally appeared in The Buyer

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