Don Day first discovered Campo Viejo Rioja about 30 years ago.
I was on holiday in Spain and going through an image transition. I was trying to leave the slob behind that only I loved and metamorphose (I think it’s a word) into one of the sophisticates who seemed to be spending a lot more evenings with the women Don Day wanted to spend a lot more evenings with.
I changed my sneakers to sandals. I began wearing shirts with buttons…leaving the two at the top strategically undone. And I switched my glassware of choice from chunky brown beer bottles to delicate stemware.
Don Day quickly learned that, in Spain, when in a bar, attempts at being pretentious…sorry, being sophisticated…when it came to wine has little importance for, when one asks for a glass of red wine, that’s all one asks for. Always Don Day would be given a glass of Rioja. And, almost always, it would come out of a bottle decorated with a classic yellow Campo Viejo Rioja label.
Though I was still a little naive when it came to my image, I was already aware that it might not just be that Campo Viejo was better than all of the other Riojas. It might be that Campo Viejo had some crackerjack salesmen peddling their image or, speaking in my new sophisticated voice, who were better at marketing their label than all of the other brands.
When I returned to Canada, Don Day began drinking a lot of Campo Viejo Rioja. Because that made Don Day feel he was drinking the wine of those sophisticated Spaniards, those people whose hair never turned grey, those people who could all dance better than Don Day, those people who didn’t eat dinner until 9:00 pm. But after a while I moved on. To other wines. From other countries.
I was thinking of that last Wednesday, when, at 9:15 pm, the event Don Day was attending, The Streets of Spain, a very promising evening sponsored by Campo Viejo Rioja, still hadn’t opened the doors and it was four hours past the time each day that Don Day traditionally has alcohol first touch his lips.
There were quite a few things outside the doors to the restaurant to keep Don Day amused including a sampling of the wines being featured, Campo Viejo Tempranillo and Campo Viejo Reserva, being served by olive-skinned women in well above the knees, fire engine red dresses. There was mural-sized street art being created by two Spanish artists whose names meant nothing to me but probably should have. Plus there was a delicacy; the toasted rice crust being scraped from the bottom of a paella pan, that Don Day loves and even remembered that the Spanish call soccarat.
Inside, at the bar, we again had a choice of Campo Viejo Tempranillo or Campo Viejo Reserva and, when Don Day began talking to the man with the curly, gelled, shiny black hair that Don Day has always wanted on the top of his head, he soon realized this guy knew a lot more about Riojas than Don Day did. His name was Roberto Vicente and he knew a lot because he was Campo Viejo’s winemaker. I brought him over to our table and, probably because he was not only very knowledgeable but very handsome, Don Day’s Wife rose to her feet to welcome him.
For a 32-year-old guy, Roberto has already had a reasonably full career in the wine industry. He studied oenology at the University of La Rioja and spent a short period with Rioja wineries before moving to Marlborough, New Zealand to work at South Pacific Cellars and expose himself to the “new world” of winemaking. The following year, he returned to Spain and Campo Viejo.
“Having worked in large wineries around the world, the opportunity to return to Campo Viejo and work with the unique character of Tempranillo again was too good to refuse,” Roberto said.
Not usually one to mince words, one of the first questions I asked Roberto was, “What makes Campo Viejo better than other Riojas?”
After creating a little buzz for Spanish wines in general, Roberto talked geography and the three different and defined areas in Rioja. All located in north central Spain, the grapes must be grown in one of three places, Rioja Baja which means low Rioja, Rioja Alta which means high Rioja and Rioja Alavesa which Don Day has no idea what it means.
“There are optimum times for harvesting the grapes in each area and each one adds its own individual characteristics to the wine,” Roberto continued. “We have a large number of microclimates and soils which add their own personalities and interesting complexities to each of the wines.”
Riojas can be made only with four grapes: Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano or Mazuelo or, in rare occasions, which require dispensation from someone who seems to be almost as important as the Pope in Northern Spain, Cabernet Sauvignon. Tempranillo is always the dominant grape, usually representing about 80% of the total mix.
Roberto Vicente told me, “We make traditional wines in that we use the traditional varieties of grapes and we follow all regulations regarding aging both in the barrel and in the bottle. Inside those century-old traditions we make a modern impression of Rioja with more fruit, less oak, and everything well-balanced.”
Campo Viejo had pulled out all the stops with the food for The Streets of Spain. Local superchef Stuart Cameron of Patria was teamed with chef Maria Jose San Roman of Michelin-starred Monastrell in Alicante, Spain. The promise was a five course dinner. When you added a tasting of olive oils (all of them about as good as Don Day has ever tasted), an amuse bouche and an extra dessert, it was more like eight courses.
The first official course on the menu, a gazpacho that combined very sweet strawberries and tomatoes with asparagus and chicken egg was served with Campo Viejo Rose, a wine that’s not readily available in the area of Canada that Don Day lives in or the area of Mexico that Don Day calls his second home so I won’t tease you with my opinions.
With the second course, the red Riojas arrived at the table. The dish was spot prawns, flown in from British Columbia, paired with chorizo from Iberico, sofrito, crispy squid and aioli. The wine was the 2012 Campo Viejo Tempranillo.
This low-end, everyday wine would traditionally be called a Crianza, the Rioja that Don Day has had many years of practice consuming. As far as Don Day can remember, that’s what Campo Viejo used to call their entry level Rioja as well, but now, in Canada, it simply goes by the handle Tempranillo which probably reflects the fact that it is made from 100% Tempranillo grapes. In Mexico, the last time I had it, the word Crianza was still on the label and I expect it still is (I wished I’d asked Roberto Vicente why, but I didn’t). The wine spends just under two weeks macerating with the skins, is fermented in stainless steel vats, and then spends four months aging in American and French oak casks. The result is an aroma of cherries and a taste of fresh red fruit with a hint of vanilla and chocolate.
Campo Viejo Tempranillo was used again to pair with the third course and Don Day was beginning to realize just how special this dinner was. The dish combined Australian black truffles with Atlantic lobster and chanterelles. It was Don Day’s first time for truffles that were flown in from Oz. Bet you can guess where Patria chef Stewart Cameron is from.
The next course featured another outstanding ingredient, pork cheeks served with garbanzo beans and padrons, those peppers that show up in Spain in early June, the time Don Day always wishes he was there. Chef San Roman told Don Day that the pork cheeks came from the black hoofed pigs of Iberico whose principal diet is acorns. The nutty flavor really does come through. For the wine pairing it was time to move up the line a little to Campo Viejo Reserva.
Like most, possibly all, Rioja Reservas, it is not made exclusively from Tempranillo but combines 85% Tempranillo with 10% Graziano and 5% Mazuelo grapes. It spends almost three weeks macerating with the skins, is fermented in stainless steel vats at a slightly warmer temperature than the 100% Tempranillo that we’d started with, spends 18 months in oak and another 18 months in the bottle before it is allowed to enter a bar. The result is a wine that is not quite as bright red in color as the 100% Tempranillo and aromas that are much more complicated. I got plums and raspberries on the nose and coconut and pepper as well as vanilla on the palate.
There were still two different desserts to follow and both, again, were paired with the Reserva.
Though, I’m sure most wine experts would favor the intricacies and elegance of the Reserva, Don Day was very happy with the added fruitiness of the Tempranillo, particularly paired with food.
That’s it for Campo Viejo reds available in Ontario through the LCBO, just the two to choose from. If you live in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico though, you can double your pleasure. There are two more steps up the line you can take. Don Day was fortunate to recently be given a Gran Reserva as a gift so I can also tell you a little about what’s in the bottle and how good it is.
Campo Viejo Gran Reserva is very much like the Reserva except it spends two years in oak and three years in the bottle. On Campo Viejo’s website, it says that the Gran Reserva “retains the ripe red-berry fruit aromas of blackberries, blueberries, and black plums extraordinarily well. Gradually it opens up to reveal smoky, toasted wood nuances, with spices and hints of minerals and tobacco.” Now that’s a bit much for Don Day possibly because I don’t have the most sophisticated of all palates and I found the taste almost identical to the Reserva. Even tasting them side by side, I had a real problem identifying which was which.
The last red in the Campo Viejo wine and the fourth one those in San Miguel de Allende are fortunate enough to have available to them is their most prestigious (that’s pricey in Don Day talk). It’s called Dominio and it combines Tempranillo with Garnacha and Mazuelo grapes. Don Day has yet to try it but it’s on his to do list for when he returns to Mexico at the end of this month when hopefully there might be 400 extra pesos (about $30) in the to drink bank.
So what did Don Day get from spending a night on The Streets of Spain? Well first I had what I consider a world-class meal with ingredients and preparation of once-in-a-lifetime quality. I feel bad that I haven’t shouted from the rooftops how good the food was in this blog but I decided to write mostly about the wine and, as Campo Viejo was picking up a lot of the cost (the price tag was only $50 Canadian a person), they deserve it.
I learned that I had not been giving Riojas in general the acclaim they deserve. We all have habits…Don Day’s revolve around New World Cabernet Sauvignons and French Rhones when it comes to reds…and it was time to break those habits a little and fit a few more Riojas into my eating and drinking schedule. I learned that Bodegas Campo Viejo is an enormous winery (Roberto Vicente told me they produce about 80 million bottles each year) not just because they’re so good at marketing but because their wines taste very good. And, when I got home and did a little research, I learned one more thing.
Campo Viejo wines are a bargain. For the last few years, mostly out of habit, Don Day has always chosen one of three different Rioja Reservas. My choices have always been Beronia, Cosme Palacio or Muga. I went to the LCBO website to see how the prices compared and here’s what I found:
Beronia: $19.95. Cosme Palacio: $23.95. Muga: $23.95. Campo Viejo: $17.95.
Campo Viejo not only throws absolutely wonderful parties. They produce wines that are much cheaper than Don Day’s old favorites. And, if you regularly read Don Day, you’ll know that cheap is almost always Don Day’s favorite wine.
Campo Viejo Tempranillo and Reserva are available at the LCBO in Ontario, Canada. Campo Viejo Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva and Dominio are available at La Europea in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.