Monday, April 4, 2011

Faustino wines: where tradition meets contemporary styles

Photo: Alvaro del Santo y Mora

Perhaps the last place you would expect to find a portrait of Christoph Willibald Gluck, the 18th Century German opera composer, is on a bottle of Spanish wine.

Yet there it is on Faustino V Reserva 2005, a specialty listed wine in British Columbia and selling for $25.

Gluck is also on the labels of several other Faustino wines. Gluck has company. A portrait of Rembrandt, the Dutch painter, graces the labels of Faustino I Gran Reserva 1999 ($38 in the Liquor Distribution Branch’s speciality store) as well as labels of other of Faustino’s reserve wines.

Apparently, no one at Grupo Faustino, Spain’s largest family-owned wine group, remembers why these portraits were chosen when the 150-year-old winery began bottling Rioja wines under its own labels in 1931. Those distinctive labels are memorable to fans of Spanish wine, even if they seem a little dated among compared with contemporary labels.

At the recent Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, Grupo Faustino was unique among the Spanish wineries in having two tables, side by side. One table featured its traditional Rioja wines and labels. The next door table featured the more contemporary wines (and labels) from the wineries that the group has elsewhere in Spain.

Although there were about 35 other Spanish wineries at the show this year, fifteen minutes at these two tables was an excellent introduction to the roots of Spanish winemaking as well as to the innovative winemaking now going on.

Later on, I pulled aside Alvaro del Santo y Mora, the winery’s export manager, for a conversation about the group and its wines. “We have adapted to the new trends [in the wine market] without forgetting our winemaking traditions,” he said.

Bodegas Faustino, the group’s best known Rioja winery, produces the traditional Gran Riserva and Riserva reds that one identifies with Rioja. These wines are made primarily with the Tempranillo grape, are aged as much as 30 months in oak and then in bottle before release. These are long-lived reds. The winery’s current offerings include a Faustino I Gran Reserva from 1964.

The Faustino I Gran Reserva 1999 was the oldest wine among those shown at the festival. Somehow, the Rembrandt on the label seems just right. Like an Old Master Painting, this richly flavoured wine – plums, figs, black olives, vanilla – comes in a frame created by the beneficial effects of bottle aging. 91.

The Faustino V Reserva 2005 is also a satisfying traditional Rioja – a wine with the polished texture of ripe tannins and oak aging. On the palate, there are flavours of plum, vanilla and chocolate. 90.

The family probably has been making wines in this style almost since the winery was established in 1861. That was during a golden age of Rioja when vineyards and wineries were being opened to compensate for the collapse of French wine production during the phyloxera epidemic.

Of course, Rioja wine production goes back to Roman days, stalling during the Islamic conquest of Spain and then reviving after the region was reconquered in the late 15th Century by the Christians. The Spanish ships sailing to the New World were all provisioned with wine, no doubt including reds from Rioja. Since some of the earliest European explorers of the British Columbia coast were Spanish, it is just possible that Rioja was the first wine consumed here.

Today, Grupo Faustino considers itself the largest vineyard owner in Spain, with a total of 2,100 hectares including 850 hectares in Rioja. “They were farmers first,” Alvaro del Santo says of the family. “That’s the key point.” These vineyards include many 50 to 100-year-old vines, always an advantage when growing premium wine.

Those extensive land holdings now support seven wineries, four in the Rioja and three in other Spanish appellations. Innovation, as opposed to traditional winemaking, marks most of the newer properties.

Bodegas Campillo, one of the Rioja wineries, operates from a 1980s winery designed to resemble a French chateau. While traditional Rioja is generally aged in American oak, many of the Campillo reds are aged in French oak or in a combination of French and American.

Marqués de Vitoria was the original Faustino winery in Rioja. Recently, it has moved into the production of organic wines. One of the reds, an excellent unoaked Tempranillo under the “Ecco” brand, is listed in British Columbia.

Ecco Organic 2009 ($14.99) is a juicy red bursting with flavours of cherries and plums. This combination of price and quality makes the wine a candidate for summer barbecue drinking. 88.

If Spanish wine, which has been selling well already in British Columbia, gets an added lift from the Playhouse Wine Festival, you can expect Alvaro del Santo to introduce additional wines from the group, if only because wine consumption in Spain declined with the recent crash of the Spanish economy. Grupo Faustino used to sell between 60% and 70% of its wines in the domestic market. Today, 60% of its wines are being exported.

One of the group’s brands that should be made available here is Bodegas Portia, a spectacular new winery that the group opened last fall in Ribera del Duero. Grupo Faustino spent an astonishing 38 million Euro to build a striking winery designed by British architect Norman Foster. It is a three-storey, star-shaped building, designed to that the grapes are delivered to the top floor and gravity looks after moving them from press to fermentation to barrel. There is so much modern winemaking technology here that groups taking the 90-minute tour are not allowed to take interior photographs.

Portia Primo 2007 ($32 if listed here) is 100% Tempranillo, a dark, full-bodied red with flavours of black currants and blueberries set against subtle French oak notes. 90 points. This was one of the red wines served last fall at the Nobel Prize awards dinner. A very good example of modern Spanish winemaking, it deserves to available in our markets.


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