To get a feel for how important the culture of the vine is in the tiny and picturesque hilltop town of Villabuena in Rioja Alavesa, consider this: Villabuena has roughly 317 inhabitants, and just over ten percent of them (about 40) are wineries; so the town hosts 1 winery for every 8 or so people.
Looking out from the back patio of an old house owned by one of those winemaking residents – Bodegas Izadi– and taking in the quaint images of hanging laundry, satellite dishes, and brick-colored rooftops in the shadow of the mountains, Villabuena proffers an odd locale for a winery. But there must be something to the nearby sloping hills that suits the vine – particularly Tempranillo – to explain the preponderance of wineries that call the town home.
Izadi was founded in the late 1980s by restaurateur Gonzalo Anton, following the dual urges of creating wine good enough that he could serve it to his friends, and wanting to produce wines in a more modern style – clean, and approachable – than those that being produced by other members of his members.
It’s ironic, then, that their most compelling wine (in my view, anyway) is the one that has the greatest nod towards Rioja tradition, and is made from the 100-year old vines planted so haphazardly a short drive from the old Villabuena residence that Izadi now calls home.
Not that Izadi’s lineup slouches at any point, really – in fact, their offerings that I tasted during my Rioja jaunt (as a guest of the Vibrant Rioja campaign) almost universally over-delivered for the prices. But one in particular got my imagination all fired up.
That wine was the 2009 “Malpuesto” Orben, a smoky, silky, plum-filled beauty that came off all modern and sophisticated (and a touch oaky) at first, but settles down quickly with tobacco-and-dust laden tannins that betray its Rioja origins. The fruit comes from a half acre of 100 year old Tempranillo vines, producing only around four thousand bottles and planted in an odd spot with little rhyme and reason compared to today’s meticulously-designed rows (hence the name).
That vineyard was a mere hop, skip and jump from Izadi’s house, explained our host, export manager Almudena Imhof. Yeah, it was about 100F outside and the sun was at its peak, but did we want to go see the vineyard?
Oh yes, I wanted to do that!
The vines themselves seem to take well to basking in the Rioja Alavesa sunshine. They would enjoy a spectacular view of the Alavesa, if they had eyes. On the whole, their small, wizened stocks don’t conjure up quite the same grandeur that the vines in older historic vineyards, such as those of Lodi’s Bechthold, Henschke’s Hill Of Grace, or Langmeil’s Freedom. But they suggest some ineffable vinous wisdom all the same – after all, could any of us survive poor soils, little water and searing sunshine for one hundred years? Okay, maybe some Floridians have already done that?
A good compliment to basking in that Rioja heat (for us humans, anyway) is Izadi’s barrel-fermented Rioja Blanco, of which I tasted the 2011 release. A field blend of approximately 80% Viura and 20% Malvasia, it’s the Malvasia minority that really shows in the wine’s tropical, heady, floral aromas. The balance shifts to a much more linear, citric, pithy, and chalky presentation once it’s in your mouth, and it remains fresh even though it’s not exactly crisp – there is some flesh on the bones, and it’s a good buy.
On the other end of the spectrum, the 2004 Izadi Expresion is the $100-a-bottle powerhouse of the lineup, and not a wine you’d want to encounter after a day sweltering in the sun. 100% Tempranillo, this is tight now, with savory balsamic notes, black cherries, licorice, oak spices, liqueur, dried herbs and prunes. The tannins are dusty, and a tart red plum core is wrapped up in some very serious dark cherry and dark berry flavors. It’s great juice, apart from a finish that’s just a tad too leathery. Overall: big, modern, elegant. And expensive.
The rest of the Izadi offerings are a bit easier to find stateside, and all present good value for money (which will help you save up for some serious sunscreen – which I can tell you now from personal experience you are gonna need – if you ever decide to visit them in person in Villabuena…).
2007 Izadi Reserva (Rioja)
Made from 35-year-old Tempranillo vine fruit, this is a “foodie” wine. You won’t think that at first, with all the tobacco and oak spice notes that hit you on the nose, but you will start to gradually warm up to the notion once the tart plums, dried fruit and dried herb notes come through after a few minutes in the glass. On the palate is where it seals the foodie deal, offering lovely and lively Chianti-like red fruit, raspberries, a smooth texture, and just enough structure to prop it all up.
2005 Izadi El Regalo (Rioja)
A field blend of mostly Tempranillo, with Graciano, Mazuelo and Garnacha, my rating for the El Regalo continued to climb up as the tasting notes got longer in my notebook. Cranberry, dried sour cherry, fresh dark cherry, cherry liqueur, red licorice, tobacco leaf, herbs… the age of the vines (35-60 years) was really starting to show in the aromatic complexity. They make their presence known on the palate, too, where a tangy red plum core is buffered by dark fruits that taste extracted but in a natural, authentic way. Oak spices are there, but all oak is not evil, particularly when it’s as balanced as it is here. Same thing goes for those tannins, which are grippy without being obnoxious. Overall, El Regalo is elegant, and has fresher moves than Kool and The Gang. Stick around for a long, spicy finish replete with tart cherries and dried herbs.
2006 Izadi Orben (Rioja)
Tempranillo with a smattering (3%) of Graciano for good measure, pulled from several small plots of 75-90 year old vines. Orben is chalky, herbal and damn meaty, and dark fruits dominate. It’s also quite modern and silky, but still fresh (if a bit big overall). I didn’t so much dig the rich jaminess of Orben as I did the savory undertones, licorice notes and the overall elegant intensity of it.
And now for the item that started this whole article in the first place! We’ve already covered the smoke, plums, tobacco and dusty tannins; what we haven’t talked about are the savory and dried herb aromas, which positively dance on top of all of the red and black plum flavors in this wine. There are hints of red and black licorice, and liqueur (sensing a theme, here?) too, but the thing that really gets Malpuesto into full gear is its overall character and tension. This is a wine balanced between clean, reserved, modern elegance while still being true to its humble roots, by way of the rustic and “fuzzy” edges to its tannic structure. Everything comes off as genuine here, as if you’re looking at a piece of well-designed modern art, made from old materials and ancient tribal designs but encased in a frame of the sleekest, shiniest steel.