XdT, Rioja (Spain) 2004 ($95, Vinamericas Selections LLC): Sometimes a wine's story can captivate you as much as the taste of the wine does. That is the case with this new Rioja wine, which is the first release in modern times from an ancient, rock-walled winery that has been painstakingly restored by its owner.
The name XdT represents the initials of the Marquis of Ximenez de Tejada, an ancestor of Gonzalo Fernandez de Navarette, who is the man behind this wine. Gonzalo (although I have never met him, I feel justified in using his first name, for simplicity) restored an old family winery that is believed to be about 1000 years old and has not been used since 1862. That was the era when, as histories of Rioja mention, French merchants came to Rioja propelled by the consecutive scourges of powdery mildew and phylloxera in France's vineyards. At that time, the old winery was abandoned by its owners in favor of a larger facility that could accommodate Rioja's sudden growth. The old winery has now been refitted with modern winemaking equipment, while retaining the museum-like original structure. Because the winery's size is limited by the original structure, the XdT winery today produces only 480 cases of wine.
The winemaking team is a father-daughter act: Antonio Palacios Muro, one of Spain's first enologists to study winemaking outside Spain (in Bordeaux) in the 1970s; and Barbara Palacios Lopez-Montenegro, who also studied enology in Bordeaux and subsequently trained at such illustrious wineries as Robert Mondavi and Chateau Margaux, as well as in Italy and New Zealand. Palacios is Gonzalo's uncle.
The wine itself is a new-style Rioja in that it is deep in color, has soft acidity, tastes clearly of Tempranillo, and has marks of new oak in its aroma and taste. But it is not a brash international wine. It is a wine of harmony and subtlety.
The wine's aromas and flavors suggest fresh blackberry fruit, along with vanilla and spice. The wine is full-bodied and has a medium amount of acidity -- enough to give depth and length to the taste -- and smooth, velvety texture. Its tannin is soft in the front of the mouth but firm and commanding in the rear because the oak is not yet fully integrated into the wine. With time, the beautiful, harmonious character evident on the fore palate should overtake the firm oak tannin.
Several aspects of this wine are unusual. For one thing, apart from Tempranillo the wine contains ten percent Merlot. (Subsequent vintages have about five percent Merlot.) Merlot is considered an experimental variety in Rioja, and most producers who opt to use international varieties favor Cabernet instead. Gonzalo's family planted two hectares of Merlot in 1986 near the town of Haro. He believes that Merlot marries well with Tempranillo because it helps sweeten the wine's tannins.
Another unusual aspect of this wine is its extremely long maceration (skin contact), totaling 46 days: 11 days of pre-fermentation cold soak at 42°, two weeks of fermentation, and three weeks of post-fermentation skin contact. This prolonged maceration is apparently responsible for the wine's smoothness of texture. And then there's the Spanish oak. XdT has pioneered the use of oak from northern Navarra, near the Pyrenees, a very fine-grained but rare and costly oak that Spain's National Institute of Agricultural Research has determined (through experiments at XdT) to have more aromatic components than other European oaks.
Choose your fascination: the ancient winery, the unusual grape blend, the innovative winemaking, the family winemaking team, or the quest for quality. Whatever appeals to you about the story of this new wine, the quality of the wine itself will validate it.