07/19/2012 11:36 am ET | Updated Sep 18, 2012

Rioja Gems Part I: Bodegas Franco-Españolas

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looking north toward the Cantabrians from Dinastia Vivanco

I've been a fan of wines from Spain's Rioja region, especially older Riojas from traditional houses, for some years. I've very much been wanting to learn more about the region and its rich history. I was therefore hugely excited to be part of a week-long trip last month to Rioja for five American wine bloggers organized by the Control Board of the Rioja Designation of Origin (Consejo Regulador DOC Rioja) and its Vibrant Rioja campaign. I returned home with a deep appreciation and love for this beautiful, long valley, which is producing terrific wines, many of which are also amazing values.

Rioja is both a very long and wide valley in northern Spain, divided by the winding Ebro River and ringed by mountains. The picture above shows a portion of the spectacular Cantabrian Mountain range to the north, which dominates the skyline and protects this region from cold Atlantic winds and rain. Vines are planted nearly everywhere. The valley is dotted with old towns, like Briones and San Vicente de la Sierra, built on small mountains, topped by old churches and medieval walls. In other words, it's ridiculously picturesque. Add to that wonderful food -- largely from delicious, locally produced fruits, vegetables and meats; gracious and warm people; a long, quality winemaking tradition and very serious winemakers. What more can a wine lover ask for?

In upcoming posts, I will highlight several of the excellent producers we visited on our week long visit. For this first Rioja trip post, I wanted to start with a winery that didn't happen to be on our original itinerary, but that I was thrilled to be able to fit in on a day when we didn't have another winery visit scheduled, thanks to some very happy coincidences.

In a trip filled with highlights, my visit to Franco-Españolas was a standout for me for several reasons. I'd been curious about this producer ever since its wines -- including a couple of Reservas from the 1960s -- had come out on top for me in a couple of retrospective tastings of older Riojas in the past year. It's also an incredibly beautiful winery, dating back to the 1890s, in the heart of Logroño, Rioja's largest city. The winery has been wonderfully and thoughtfully restored. The winemaker, Carlos Estecha, who has been making the wines for 24 years -- and who also serves as the winemaker for Franco-Española's sister winery, Federico Paternina -- is an accomplished artist as well as a winemaker, and a fascinating person to listen to. And the wines are exceptional -- from the good quality, fresh young wines, to the Reservas and Gran Reservas, to the aged examples (especially an outstanding old white Gran Reserva, one of the best wines I've tasted this year). In short, this is a producer deserving of much greater attention, especially from those, like me, who are fans of the world's great traditional producers.

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Carlos Estecha

Bodegas Franco-Españolas dates back to the invasion of Rioja by French wine producers looking for new grape sources to meet customer demands in the late 1800s, when phylloxera devastated French vineyards decades before the destructive louse made it to this region. In 1890, Frederick Anglade Saurat of the Bordeaux negoçiant Anglade family partnered with Spanish investors and winegrowers to found the winery.

They built the winery in what is now the heart of the city of Logroño. It's the last classic Rioja winery still standing in the city -- but it used to be surrounded by vineyards. They currently own more than 200 acres of vineyards, and also purchase fruit from farmers with whom they've had long relationships.

By 1922, the Spanish owners bought out their French partners. Hemingway, with his bullfighter friend Antonio Ordóñez, was a visitor in 1956. He was reputedly a fan of their wines and included the white wine "Diamante" in his book A Moveable Feast.

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Hemingway at Franco-Españolas with wife Mary Welsh in September 1956

The winery is now owned by Carlos and Rosa Eguizábal, who also own Bodegas Federico Paternina, another longtime producer founded in 1896.

Carlos Estecha has been with the Eguizábal Group since 1988. He currently serves as the Technical Director for both Bodegas Paternina (their Rioja and Ribera del Duero divisions) and Bodegas Franco-Españolas. He holds a degree in labor relations (coincidentally, my current field) from La Rioja University and is a graduate in oenology of Rovira y Virgili. He also studied drawing and painting at the Escuela de Artes y Oficios of Logroño for three years. His works have been exhibited in the Museum of La Rioja and in other cities in Spain and Europe. I was very taken with his art installations in the winery itself, including a theatrically lit Tempranillo vine sitting on a throne suspended in the air.

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Carlos is very much a traditionalist in his approach to winemaking. He's no fan of what he refers to as "globalization" and "frivolity" in today's wine world. The top wines he's currently making for Franco-Españolas are very much in keeping with the complex, ageworthy and elegant wines of the house's illustrious past.

Speaking of that past, the wine that I tasted with Carlos that most overwhelmed me was an old white Reserva, in a German Riesling style bottle, from 1959. It was wonderfully complex, rich and delicious, with a tremendously long finish. It was as good as, and showing better at this point, than any of the prized, long aged white Reservas and Gran Reservas from the traditional Rioja producer that is much better known in the United States, López de Heredia.

Carlos explained that Rioja used to be more known for their great white wines than their reds. More white wine was then produced and consumed in Rioja than red wine. The whites, because of their greater value, were taxed at higher amounts, so winemakers used to try to lower their tax bill by adding some "tinto" to their white wines, making them appear red. That's apparently the origin of the common term for red wine throughout Spain today.

Franco-Españolas's original brand was called Rioja Bordeaux, but the French objected to the use of a French place name so the label was ultimately renamed Rioja Bordón.

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Like most traditional Rioja producers, Franco-Españolas has long offered two premium lines of wine. One of these is typically a more robust, tannic wine--inspired by Bordeaux--while the other tends to be a lighter bodied, more elegant wine--think fine old Burgundy. The Bordón is their bigger wine; the Royal is the lighter, more elegant line. In keeping with Rioja's traditions, both are aged exclusively in American oak. In particularly good vintages, they've also issued a Baron d'Anglade Reserva bottling, aged in French oak, honoring the house's French founder.

We tasted recent and older vintages of both the Bordón and Royal bottlings, and I was tremendously impressed. These are wines that are very much in keeping with the magnificent Franco-Españolas wines from the sixties that had so grabbed my attention at old Rioja tastings last year, before I'd ever heard of this winery. There is both an elegance and tension to these wines, especially the Reservas and Gran Reservas, that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.

For my complete tasting notes and other details on the both the Franco-Españolas and Federico Paternina wines I tasted on this visit, see the full report on my blog here.