Late in 2017 I was invited to an extraordinary tasting in northern Spain to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bodegas Roda, one of the star names of modern Rioja. Not only did the brief visit feature a superb meal at Asador Etxebarri, a remarkable restaurant were chef Bittor Arguinzoniz cooks everything over open wooden fires, but also a tasting that attempted to demonstrate the company’s “total respect for the vintage.” It would feature pairs of the flagship wine, Roda 1, each pair from two consecutive vintages, 1994 and 1995, 2004 and 2005, 2010 and 2011.
The quality of each vintage in Rioja is officially awarded one of five grades, from ‘Average’ to ‘Excellent’. Unusually, nature granted all three of these pairs of consecutive vintages as ‘Excellent’, but the pairs had been chosen to demonstrate the effect of the climate on the style of the wine produced: some are predominantly influenced by Atlantic weather systems, other by Mediterranean systems. Leading the tasting was Mario Rotllant, founder of Bodegas Roda, and Agustín Santolaya, President and chief winemaker. Mario had been involve in other Spanish bodegas in his career before Roda, but says he thought things could be done better: “I knew that quality must become the driving force, in everything from hygene in the wineries, to vineyard quality. I had seen how things were done in other countries and knew this was the challenge facing Spain.”
At the heart of Mario’s philosophy is what he came to call “a concept of perfection,” and he set out to build a new winery and brand “that I knew would have to be taken slowly, as cost could not be a barrier.” That search took some time, and he looked at properties in Catalonia and Ribero del Duero, but decided the fame of Rioja would give a great advantage. And so he assembled “an amazing team, almost all of whom are still with us.” Interestingly, it was also a “clean, new team,” drawn from outside the Rioja region which, as Mario says, “was not conditioned by Rioja, but came with open minds. We wanted to start from zero.”
After 30 years, Mario says he still thinks of Roda as a project, looking for perfection, and never with a thought to cost. A full 7% of gross sales is permanently directed to research and development.
Agustín Santolaya (left) then introduced us to the theme of the tasting, explaining that Roda works with several vineyards with different climatic influences. Some are 80km north of Haro, close to the Atlantic coast, on a plateau with a continental influence. Others are in the valley, sheltered and with a more Meditteranean influence. In fact they farm 17 different vineyards, each vinified separately, before deciding on the blends for Roda and Roda 1. As Augustin says:”The elegant red fruit style of Roda, or the darker more mineral style of Roda 1.” All vineyards are composed of bush vines with a minimum age of 30 years and all are dry-farmed, with no irrigation. Another factor in the ‘total respect for the vintage’ philosophy is the Roda wines are always 100% of the vintage, as they never use the maximum 15% addition of another vintage that the rules allow – a common method most other wineries employ to obtain the character they want each year.
Roda farms 120 hectares, 70 of which they own. Sustainable viticulture is practised throughout, but Agustin says farming organically is too difficult with the rainfall in Rioja. He stresses that there is minimum intervention in the winery too, with spontaneous fermentation and malolactic fermentation. They work with 10 different coopers, using both French and American oak, always light to medium toast. But again, showing the company is true to its word on experimenting and refining in that search for perfection, much in the barrel cellar has changed: early vintages spent 24 months in barrel, but this was reduced gradually to 14-16 months in barrel and from 1997 onward, the recipe of using 1/3 each of new, second-fill, and older barrels was changed, so that now it’s 50% new and 50% second-fill barrels.
Agustin says he described his perfect dream wine to Mario when the project began. He knew he did not want it to be like Bordeaux, “so tannic and undrinkable when young,” but also wanted the wines to have longevity. He says he is delighted with the way that has been realised at Roda.
We begin with the three paired vintages of Roda 1, but over the lunch which followed several other vintages were poured, as well as other wines in the Roda portfolio, so those notes are included.
(2018) A very harsh year, very dry and austere. 15% Garnacha joined the Tempranillo in this year, as the climate produced a dark Garnacha that fitted the profile. Lovely edge of brick to the colour. Dry, mineral, a touch of iron oxide, a touch of dried blood. Beautiful fruit on the palate, very dry, the tannins coating the mouth, but such a delightful cherry and blackcurrant intensity of fruit. Racing acidity adds to the wiry, tense feel of the wine. Fabulous length. No UK retailers of this vintage listed at time of writing, but use the wine-searcher link to find overseas sellers who ship worldwide.
(2018) By contrast to 1994, quite a wet year, with 25% more rain but Agustin says it all fell at the right times to make for a very expressive vintage. Similar colour, a touch smoky and dusty, a little more fat and expressiveness about it on first impression. Certainly more sweetness to the fruit, more plummy flesh, but that mineral and bloody background is there, in another lovely and pure wine, a little sweeter and softer, and that extra ounce of voluptuous fleshiness might just give it the edge for me as there is still great structure. Not listed by any UK retailers at time of writing, but again there are overseas retailers who will ship.
(2018) At first the winemaking team had doubts about this vintage, following hailstorms and very unsettled summer. On 11 September the weather changed with rain that gave fears of rot, but a north wind dried the vineyard and the rest of the harvest was perfect. Youthful colour, an intense, taut black fruit nose, with a certain richness and fruit concentration, but that Roda minerality still there. Glossy and rich on the palate, firm, juicy black fruit always bittersweet edged with cocoa and plum skin bite. Long and such pure fruit, creamy and polished.
(2018) A very dry year - even drier than 1994 - a Mediterranean vintage with hot summer and low rainfall. Lots of coffee and more torrefaction character, dense and svelte. Again the colour very youthful. Supple, plush, the deep fleshiness of the plum and mocha fruit and the warming creaminess of the oak. Such a dark pool of fruit here, spices and modern in style, but absolutely beautifully done. Hugely impressive and sumptuous, but on personal taste, the edge of the 2004 just sneaks this battle. Bottle price equivalent given, but only half and full case stockists at time of review.
(2018) A great vintage with sufficient rain but very few problems needing any intervention. An Atlantic year. Deep, dense colour. Intense very youthful profile with cedar and black fruits, a graphite and mint chocolate character, and a sense of serious concentration. The palate carries a welterweight of cassis and mint, dramatically dark and plush, long and very very pure, the touch of austerity just adding rigorous charms, but there is light and shade aplenty here.
(2018) A Mediterranean year. A great drought, with only around 15 inches of rain. Early flowering in hot temperatures but then July was cold, August and September hot, meaning a harvest 15 days earlier than in 2010. Darker and more dense in colour still, quite closed, glossy and dark, quite impenetrable at this stage. The palate a similar muscular, deep character but has that mineral, slightly dusty but deeply hued character, so grippy, masculine and rich. Power and weight here, dark vine fruits, huge structure and the coffee touch of creaminess. A cautious 94, but this has the potential to be as great a Roda 1 as the 2010.
(2018) Though not part of the 'vintage pairs' comparitive tasting, 2008 was definitely an Atlantic year for Roda, the winter very dry, then Spring brought rain "that did not stop," with 250mm falling in May alone, followed by a terrible summer and very late harvest for all agricultural produce in the area. There is a herbal note here, as well as cherry and a little dried blood and game note, the pertness of the cherry is lovely. On the palate there is a supple roundness, spiciness, and that herbal touch just adds to the fresh and quaffable character, with plenty of fruit in an obvioulsy well-managed vintage.
(2018) A difficult winter with 15 days below zero and Spring frosts. "Rioja went mad," says Mario, with the price of grapes rocketing. Selection was the key to being able to make a great wine. A warm rim of brick, quite a developed colour but such beautiful aromas, soft Burgundian character, medium bodied and silky, so aromatic exotic spices and sweet red fruit. Drinking absolutely beautifully. Is it past it's best? Well that's a matter of opinion, as it has traded some structure and precision for sheer deliciousness.
(2018) A difficult vintage again, but Roda have conjured a very good wine. Wonderful nose, so truffly and gently gamy, Sandalwood spiced and sweet tobacco. A solidly fruit driven style, but again quite Burgundian and silky smooth. Delicious richness and in many ways in a similar place to the 1999. Like it, not for extended cellaring but most enjoyable.
(2018) From Roda's estate on the northern bank of the Duero, this is Corimbo 1, where Agustin places "an emphasis on Roda elegance, well handled oak and freshness." So much more on the rich, intense small black fruit side. Sweet small berries with intensely creamy flavour and texture. Fine, chocolaty tannins and sweet acidity complete a svelte and delicious picture. Great Ribera del Duero and though there are no UK stockists of the 2013 at time of writing, 2010 and 2011 is quite widely available.
(2018) Roda's super cuvée, from some of the oldest vineyards, literally chosen vine by vine, this has 14% Graciano in the blend, this is fermented in French oak and stays eight months in all new barrels. Delicious red fruit brightness and elegance, darker notes and hints of balsamic and chocolate. In the mouth, superb sweet fruit, edged with a mocha and bittersweet cocoa depth, and sweetly ripe tannins. This has a smoky mineral salinity in the background too, in a long, complex, silky and profound wine that drinks beautifully now but has the structure, fruit and balance to cellar for considerable time.