Bodegas Ramón Bilbao was founded in 1924 by a grape grower and wine trader named Ramón Bilbao Murga. The winery was held in the family until 1966 and was converted to a corporation in 1972. The corporation was acquired by Grupo Diego Zamora in 1999.
We were picked up at the hotel in four 4-wheel drive vehicles and, on our way to the vineyards, collected Doug Frost MS/MW and the two individuals who had missed the bus from Bilbao earlier in the day. At one point on the journey we stopped to view the ribbon of the Ebro River in the distance and to discuss aspects of the local soil. According to Rodolfo Bastida, our tour leader (and Managing/Technical Director of Ramón Bilbao), the soil is sandstone above the river -- he called it the "mother rock" -- and sedimentary, sandy soil close to the river.
Ramón Bilbao sources grapes from its own vineyards (75 ha over seven vineyards) as well as from high-quality growers in the region. Upon our arrival at the Haro vineyard, we were issued gloves, grape shears, and jackets and led into the field to pick grapes. The bunches were cut and placed gently into brown crates that were provided for this purpose. This exercise was designed to place us into the shoes of the workers who harvest grapes on a regular basis. It was hard work and our pace would require two years to clear the berries from the vineyard. When we had picked a "suitable" amount of grapes, we were told to stop. The crates with grapes were placed into the back of a pickup and, after turning back in our gloves and shears, we reboarded our vehicles for transit to the next stop on the experience tour.
After a short drive we came to a stop behind the tour leader's car and disembarked. Just off the road we saw a large stone slab with a number of carved indentations. We were told that this was a 14th-century-era stone vat which would have been used by small growers of the time. According to the PR Manager, wine was an important source of calories in that period and small growers would have owned vineyards of 1.5 ha on average. Grapes would have been picked by hand and then transported to these vats where the juice was extracted by treading. The juice would then be transported to the winery in sheepskins for fermentation. Given a lack of skin contact, only whites and rosés were made using this process. In many cases the juice would have been mixed with honey and spices.
The grapes that we had picked were placed into the largest indentation of the vat and we were -- after being issued rubber boots -- invited to tread them. After a few team members had taken turns doing so, a small portion of the resulting juice was strained into a bottle and offered to us to taste. I was otherwise engaged. The Ramón Bilbao team had used this same method to make some wine prior to our arrival so that we could taste for comparison. One of the wines was placed in bottle after 4 days fermentation and had about 6% alcohol. The other was fermented to completion and had alcohol levels of about 10%. The fully complete wine had, at best, a cranberry color.
|The guys who missed the bus|
At the end of this demonstration we headed to the winery. Our visit occurred in the midst of harvest in Haro so, as was the case for all of the wineries we visited, we were able to see the facility in full production mode. The Technical Director took glasses into the tank room and drew wines that had been fermenting for 1, 2, 5, and 10 days and had us taste them. The same-day ferment tasted like sweet grape juice while the 5-day ferment had a deeper color, was less sweet, and the acidity was more apparent. This wine had about 6% - 7% alcohol. The 10-day ferment had an even greater progression.
Ramón Bilbao stores 17,000 barrels on premises. Sixty percent of the barrels are American oak with the remainder being French oak. According to Rodolfo Bastida, micro-oxygenation of the wine is the most important contribution of the oak barrel to the winemaking process. He sees more flavor resulting from the use of American oak but greater micro-oxygenation resulting from the use of French oak.
We left the production area and went to a tasting room to sample selected wines. The first wine tasted was a 2012 Albarino from a sister label Mar de Frades. This wine had floral notes accompanying lime, lemon, citrus rind, tropical fruits, and burnt orange. Spiciness and minerality on the palate. Slight bitterness on the finish.
The first Ramón Bilbao label tasted was the 2008 Reserva, a blend of 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano and Mazuelo which is aged in American oak. Red fruit, baking spices, tar, and olives. Tar and spice prominent on palate. Moderate length on the finish. The 2006 Gran Reserva had red fruit, baking spices, shoe polish, and mahogany. Almost flabby. The 2010 Vinedos de Altura is 50% Garnacha and exhibits geranium, violets, red fruits, cinnamon, clove, and tar. Clove and cinnamon on the palate. A simple wine.
The 2010 Cruz de Alba is 100% Tinto Fino from Ribera del Duero. This wine is aged in French oak and shows baking spices, vanilla, cassis, and sweet tobacco. Rich red fruit, nutmeg, and spice on the palate. Structured. Excellent wine.
At the end of the tasting, we repaired to the dining room for dinner.
The activities in which we participated at Ramón Bilbao allowed us to observe contrasts in winemaking practices and styles and informed us as to how the differing styles affected the final product. There was the contrast between the use of wine in the 14th century (a source of calories) and its use today. In the 14th century, wine was harvested by hand but, instead of the grapes being transported to the winery for processing, they were taken to the stone vats for juice extraction. That juice was then transported to the winery in sheepskins for fermentation. It was easier to transport the juice to the winery rather than the grapes. Because there was no skin contact, color, flavor, and tannins were left on the floor of the vats. This affected the color, flavor, and longevity of the finished product as seen in our demonstration.
We were then able to taste wines which had been de-stemmed, crushed, and placed in stainless steel tanks where the juice was forced to maintain contact with the skins through pump-overs. Different color and more structure even in the early phases of fermentation. We then tasted finished wines which had undergone oak aging, allowing us to see the effects of oak on the finished wine. Baking spices, vanilla, and tar flavors and aromas are introduced into the mix as a result.
On behalf of the wine blogging team I would like to thank the Ramón Balboa team for their inventiveness in putting together this comprehensive and innovative program. It yielded beneficial insights. Our heartfelt gratitude.
Great first day in Haro. Can't wait for tomorrow.
©Wine -- Mise en abyme