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Why new Lalomba wines are ‘one giant leap forward’ for Rioja 

Why new Lalomba wines are ‘one giant leap forward’ for Rioja 

Three years since Rioja introduced its Single Vineyard category, Ramon Bilbao unveils its long-anticipated Lalomba project – a series of Vinedos Singulares wines that set out to capture the individual character of each very special vineyard. The entirely new Finca Valhonta andLadero reds are the producer’s most expensive ever wines and the Finca Lalinde 2019 Rosado is a re-launched premium rosado, which all share an unprecedented degree of background research and development. Quite apart from the individual merits of each wine, collectively Lalomba shows how producers in Rioja are starting to believe that terroir character can be a better predictor of quality than the length of time that a wine spends maturing in a barrel.

Peter Dean
4th August 2020by Peter Dean
posted in People: Producer,Tasting: Wine ,

Using concrete tanks, 500l barrels and no American oak in sight, the Lalomba wines are an exciting, new, modern expression of Rioja

Rioja producer Ramon Bilbao launched Lalomba, its new single vineyard collection, almost three years to the day after the Consejo Regulador do Rioja announced plans to introduce a new single vineyard designation. The Vinedos Singulares is a designation that sits alongside the current system where wines are labelled according to their length in the barrel – Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.

Producers have to prove the delimitation of the vineyard, the fruit has to be hand harvested, yields have to be 20% lower than the usual DOC level, full traceability has to be in place and the wines have to be vinified and aged separately. And hopefully the wines will do the rest.

When beverage giant Zamora acquired Ramón Bilbao in 1999, the winery owned 2ha of vines. Since then, the figure has grown to 203ha.

Last Wednesday when Ramon Bilbao unveiled two new single vineyard reds and a re-branded Rosado the wines certainly did what was expected of them, namely, reflect the specific virtues of their different locations in a transparent way. The producer’s original aim was to develop a series of single vineyard wines all from the 160ha estate on Mount Yerga, one of the prized sites in Rioja Oriental, but this has been dropped in favour of a collection of special vineyards across the entire appellation.

The winemaking process using new-fangled cement tanks and 500l barrels, so as not to overpower the quality of the fruit, shows how producers in Rioja are starting to believe that terroir character can be a better predictor of quality than the length of time that a wine spends maturing in oak.

The new reds, Lalomba Finca Valhonta 2017 and Lalomba Finca Ladero 2016 are made in an almost identical fashion and yet clearly showed differences in their specific locations (albeit the fruit components and vintages vary between the wines).

Finca Valhonta. ‘Lalomba’ means ‘hill’ or ‘slope’

Finca Valhonta is 100% Tempranillo from bush vines planted in 2000 at a 2.8ha site on the 650m high terraces of Villalba de Rioja at the limit of the growing zone in Rioja Alta. The wine is fermented in concrete and then spends 14 months in 500l 100% French oak before it comes back to concrete for eight months of 2ndageing – to work the elegance, character, texture and purity of the tannins.

Finca Ladero. The vines are low-trellised for wind protection.

Finca Ladero is 80% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha trellised vines planted in 1989 at a 6ha site on the 720m high Monte Yerga in Rioja Oriental. After fermenting in concrete the wine undergoes malo in 225l French and Hungarian oak, ages for 16 months, and is then racked into chilled concrete for 22 months. The average yield per vine for the Tempranillo is 1.1kg per vine (compared to Valhonta’s 1.8kg per vine) so because of this higher concentration this wine needs more time for balance.

Rosana Lisa and Alberto Saldon. In the pipeline is a fourth wine from Finca Aguilones, a 23-ha property stretching across a meander of the Ebro river in San Asensio.

Winemaker Rosana Lisa who joined the company in 2011, headed up the research and development team and now oversees Lalomba, was speaking with project manager Alberto Saldon from the shiny, new state-of-the-art winery that is adjacent to Ramón Bilbao winery in Haro, Rioja. Given the no-expense-spared approach to Lalomba and the intense research that underpins the project Lisa describes Lalomba as “a university”.

Ramón Bilbao winemaking director Rodolfo Bastida has previously described the relationship between Lalomba and Ramón Bilbao as like being what a Formula 1 racing team is to its parent automobile company – all about innovation and research which will eventually feed its way back to Ramón Bilbao.

Ramón Bilbao is noted for its innovation and much of their presentation was built around insight into what they have learned from years working and understanding the terroir through precise viticulture, weather stations that measure humidity and wind intensity, microbiological soil analysis (with WineSeq), choosing site-specific Yerga yeasts and working with the changes that altitude and UV radiation brings – experimenting, for example, with piling black or white stones around the vines – “One of the treatments increased the grapes’ colour intensity, and another led to a definite improvement in the acidity of the fruit.” As a result the team also chooses different barrels according to how much UV radiation the fruit receives during its lifetime, for example.

Lisa explained that the choice of French and Hungarian oak was down to it reflecting the vineyard more than American oak. “We tasted the wine with American and other oaks and we found the American oak left a sweeter, oaky flavour whereas the other oaks was more respectful of the fruity character of the vineyards.”

Concrete tanks in the new-fangled winery, Haro

The greatest focus at the launch was reserved for the raw concrete tanks whose bespoke design was a team effort between the two architects in the family, Ramón Bilbao winemaking director Rodolfo Bastida, the Lalomba team and the Italian supplier from Veneto. Time was spent researching various shapes – eggs, troncoconics– until they arrived at the imposing final design, which is two layers of concrete sandwiching a layer of water for temperature regulation. No coating was chosen to improve the purity of the finished wine and the tank was designed with a taper so as to break the cap with délestage.

The concrete itself conserves temperature (through thermal inertia) so it needs less energy than other materials to cool the vat, it does not add aromas and its permeability allows for oxygenation, resulting overall in wines that are pure, fresh and ‘clean’. The team also experimented with different concretes to monitor the differing rates of oxygen transfer in the second ageing process, the aim being to achieve fruitier, balanced wines with fine tannins; they discovered that permeability with the concrete was roughly half that of a barrel. The second ageing in concrete is because it gives more aromatic definition to the wine.

An unstated aim is also presumably to make wines that do not have to then spend 10 years or more in bottle to achieve drinkability – both reds were ‘good to go’, although it will be fascinating to see how they age, as they certainly will do and have sufficient (fine) tannin to allow them to age for decades.

Lalomba has really embraced the single vineyard concept and made two red wines in similar circumstances that capture the identity, flavours and aromas of the vineyards. Tasting them side-by-side they eschew simplistic comparisons (red/black fruit for example) but are very different.

The two reds are set to become Ramón Bilbao’s most expensive wines

The Lalomba Finca Valhonta 2017 is a complex, fantastically fresh medium-bodied red which really captures the essence of fresh Tempranillo; deep purple; aromas of black bramble fruit, violets, licorice, fresh tobacco; the palate is bright, with firm acidity making itself felt on the front palate; there are notes of red plum flesh, blue plum skin, strawberry; it is finely textured, precise, dry, with a tidy, blood orange/ grapefruit pith finish. Great flavours, great length

The Lalomba Finca Ladero 2016 is more full-bodied and has a nose that is impossibly enticing; It is garnet-purple, slightly less pristine than the Valhonta (although that could have been my bottle sample). The nose is more leathery and toasty, the palate smoother, the wine feels riper, more voluptuous, with a fantastic structure, ultra fine, ripe tannins and a purely gastronomic finish; again the wine is complex with strawberry fruit mixing with concentrated black fruits and a Garrigue-like quality of wild herbs coming from the Garnacha. Both wines have an RRP of £100.

These two reds sit alongside the new, fifth, vintage of the Lalomba Rosado which has been rebranded and renamed Lalomba Finca Ladero 2019 Rosado to reflect better its single vineyard status. There is a fourth wine in the pipeline from Finca Aguilones, with more to come after that.

Lalinde is considered to be one of the best sites in the whole of the Rioja Oriental if not the entire region

The fifth vintage of Finca Lalinde Rosado is an excellent 90% Garnacha and 10% Viura rosé from a dream 90ha parcel high up in the Sierra de Yerga mountains in Rioja Oriental. Ramón Bilbao winemaking director Rodolfo Bastida thought the fruit would be perfect for a ‘clarete’ (Provençal) style of Rosé: 40-year-old Garnacha vines planted at 700 metres altitude on stony, clay-limestone soils, with the surrounding Mediterranean forest sheltering the fruit from prevailing winds.

The fruit is hand-picked, sorted for quality and then given six hours’ maceration in a press. At this point, only the free-run juice is collected for 20 days’ fermentation, first at 17C to enhance the aromas and then reduced to 13C to reduce the colour and bring out the primary flavours of the fruit. The Viura is used in the blend to help control the colour, the wine is then aged in steel on fine lees for five months to bring sweetness and complexity to the palate.

The wine label design (as with everything Lalomba) is also built around the concept of slopes

“We’ve been producing this style of Rosé for a long time in Rioja even if we only exported our first – the Ramón Bilbao Rosado – from 2015,” says Bastida. “We’ve also been purchasing fruit from this vineyard for around 15 years, so I was keen to see if the freshness and finesse I knew these particular Garnacha grapes to have would translate into a premium Rosado which reflects the terroir of the vineyard. And I really believe they do.”

Ramón Bilbao has changed the label to fit in line with the launch of the two red wines, it also has dropped Ramón Bilbao from the front label and is now calling it Lalomba Finca Lalinde – to take advantage of the new single vineyard quality categorisation in Rioja.

So how was it tasting?

Lalomba Finca Lalinde 2019 Rosado (RRP £25). Salmon rose-pink with saffron highlights; elegant and quite discreet floral nose, fruity (but elusively so); the palate is fresh, with bright acidity, flavours of red berries, cherries, rose petal, the finish is long with a lick of cream – a fine marriage between Provence and Rioja and intentionally so. Such a finely balanced and precise wine that delivers bags of flavour, with a weight of texture and tannin that you don’t normally associate with Rosé outside perhaps Navarra. Really top class and great value for money – there are now many premium rosés that cost five or six times this amount.

The Lalomba wines, as with all the wines of Ramón Bilbao are imported into the UK by Enotria & Coe and will be available from September. Enotria & Coe is a partner of The Buyer and you can learn more about them by clicking here.