Rioja and Bordeaux go head-to-head in Haro

The two wine regions have plenty of shared history, but is that reflected in the glass to this day? Adam Lechmere attends a tasting held in Haro and asks experts from CVNE and Canon la Gaffelière to join him in comparing wines from their respective regions

Words by Adam Lechmere

rioja and bordeaux wine tasting haro

There’s a handful of railways and stations much revered in the wine world. The tin shed at Coonawarra in South Australia is one, and the beautiful tiled station at Pinhão in the Douro is another. But perhaps the most famous is the station at Haro in Rioja.

Clustered around this unassuming terminus are some of the most eminent names in Rioja: CVNE (Cune), Bodegas Bilbaínas, Gómez Cruzado, La Rioja Alta, Muga, Bodegas Roda, López de Heredia. Every year various tastings are held to celebrate the Barrio de la Estación, as the group is called (López de Heredia is no longer a member).

Haro achieved its fame through its singular relationship with Bordeaux. Since at least the middle of the 18th century, Rioja winemakers had looked north for inspiration; in 1860, for example, the winemaker of Chateau Lanessan in the Medoc, Jean Pineau, was hired to introduce his methods to Rioja – this was on the advice of Camilo Hurtado de Amezaga, the Marqués de Riscal, who was inspired by an enforced stay in Bordeaux in the 1830s. The relationship between Rioja and Bordeaux became even tighter after the devastation of the French vineyards by phylloxera a few years later – between 1865 and the beginning of the 20th century, Rioja exported millions of litres of wine to Bordeaux (it’s closer to Rioja than it is to Paris), almost all of it by the newly-built railway.

rioja haro tasting sign
Barrio de la Estación, the logistical key to the close relationship between Rioja and Bordeaux, is home to a host of big-name wineries

The wealth that poured into Haro as a result enabled the founding of the half-dozen wineries that make up the Barrio de la Estación today. Earlier this year, I visited for a unique tasting: the Barrio had invited a handful of Bordeaux châteaux – Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Léoville Barton and Langoa Barton, Rauzan Sègla, Lynch-Bages, Canon-la-Gaffelière and Petit-Village – to show their wines alongside those of the Barrio.

To try to tease out some of the differences between Bordeaux and Rioja, I sat down with CVNE‘s co-owner Maria Urrutia and winemaker Maria Larrea, and Magali Malet, communications chief at Canon la Gaffelière, to ask what they found out from the tasting. What surprised them about the wines of their long-standing trading partners?

In the vineyard

Some key distinctions between the two regions were noted, such as the idea that Rioja’s style comes as much from climate as vintage. ‘You have the Atlantic or the Mediterranean influence,’ Malet noted – the northern reaches of the appellation being influenced by the Atlantic, the southern by the Mediterranean.

The most surprising thing to come out of the tasting was the affinity between the regions. Notwithstanding their shared history, I had the distinct feeling that the Bordelaise didn’t expect to find so much in common with Rioja – and that they were pleased to find such commonality in the styles. ‘This wouldn’t happen with Ribera del Duero, or Priorat,’ said one.

Malet pointed out the trend in Rioja towards the celebration of village and vineyard rather than multi-regional blends, and noted how in Bordeaux, there was the same move toward understanding the potential of their plots and to revive the real style of their terroir and grape variety. ‘We didn’t have this years ago,’ she added.

Of course there is an affinity: all the winemakers in the world are cousins. We all learn from each other – Maria Urrutia

Multi-regional blends are still the mainstay of Rioja, but they don’t preclude a deep understanding of the individual vineyards, Urrutia said. CVNE’s Imperial, first produced in the 1920s, comes from clearly-defined plots in Rioja Alta – Villalba, Briones and Torremontalvo – crucially all owned by CVNE (unusually for Rioja, where the norm is for bodegas to buy a large percentage of their grapes). ‘We understand the plots Imperial comes from. We’ve been understanding them since the 1920s and in the last few years the focus has been on the primacy of the vineyard,’ Maria Larrea said.

Another winemaker, David González at Gómez Cruzado, told me he sources grapes from three major terroirs in Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta, ranging from the poor soils of the Atlantic-influenced Sierra Cantabria in the north of the appellation, to the high slopes of the Alto Najerilla at the southern point of Rioja Alta, where the climate is markedly warmer. If Gonzalez needs colour and acidity he can range further, sourcing Graciano from Tudelilla in Rioja Baja, for example. ‘I have a huge choice of vineyard and elevation and grape and exposure.’

rioja grapes
David González of Gómez Cruzado praises the range of terroir and selection of grapes at his disposal from across the Rioja region

In contrast, Canon-la-Gaffelière, a St Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé, has a mere 19.5ha of vineyard: Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon on clay and limestone at the foot of the slope leading up to the town of St Emilion. ‘Our style is defined by our Cabernet Franc [Canon-la-Gaffelière typically has 40 per cent Cabernet Franc in the blend, a much higher proportion than most of their neighbours in St Emilion],’ says Malet. ‘We aim to be true to the terroir and the location. Our mix of clay and limestone on the slope and clay and sand at the top of the hill is very well adapted to it.’

In the winery

When the talk turns to winemaking, the similarities between the regions become obvious. In common with fine winemakers around the world, there’s less use of oak. At Canon-la-Gaffelière they will use 600l foudres as well as 225l barrels; while Larrea at CVNE is allowed only the 225l size, she experiments with French and American barrels, and the age of the wood itself. Extraction regimes are gentler and gentler. ‘We are all looking for finesse and elegance,’ Larrea says.

haro wine tasting rioja bordeaux
Talk turns to barrels at the tasting in Haro in northern Spain

Tasting the wines was fascinating. Both regions have always made wine to be aged, but they are different terroirs, climates and grapes, different blending and ageing methods (‘I never try to see the similarities between regions,’ Malet warned) but side by side, they dovetail. The Bordeaux wines tend to have an edge to their tannins, a more uncompromising structure in some cases (I’m thinking of the Leoville Barton 2011), while tannins in Rioja might have a more opulent, voluptuous feel. The two whites – Roda and Smith-Haut-Lafitte – put the differences into relief. The first is full-bodied and luxurious, the latter slightly leaner.

Perhaps Maria Urrutia’s comment on the relationship between the two regions is the best summing-up. ‘Of course there is an affinity: all the winemakers in the world are cousins. We all learn from each other.’ Or, as Herman Melville said, ‘Genius all over the world stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.’

Rioja and Bordeaux wines to compare and contrast

Cvne Imperial Gran Reserva 2018

CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 2018

85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Mazuelo; 13.5%

2018 was cool and wet. Bright, intense dark fruit on the nose, and a tightly-wound, concentrated palate. The tannins are fine with a powerful grip, the acid juicy, all in balance but needs a few years yet to settle down. Coiled. (Not released – the current vintage is 2015.)
£46, BBR

Gómez Cruzado, Cerro las Cuevas 2017

Gómez Cruzado, Cerro las Cuevas 2017

Tempranillo, Graciano, Mazuelo; 14%

Lovely fresh nose with dense red fruit. Juicy mid-palate with sweet tannins, some fine fruit (a hint of cherry) with a herbal top note. A complex, powerful wine, delicately-poised but with real energy.
£240 for a case of 6, Millesima

Bilbaínas Viña Pomal 2014

Tempranillo, Graciano; 14%

A deceptively soft and giving wine with a nose of sweet cherry and a palate that starts smooth but gives in to a powerful tannic kick. But the tannins remain silky and the cherry fruit has an edge of spice with some sweetness from the oak. Amazing value for money. (Current vintage is 2015)
£12.99, Majestic

Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 2011

La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 2011

Tempranillo, Graciano; 14.5%

Hugely complex with fine dark blackberry nose and a palate full of more dark fruit with notes of spice. Earthy, toasty on the mid-palate with a fine tannic grip and fresh acidity. A wonderful sweet and juicy wine which stimulates the palate and leaves you wanting more. Effortless.
£53.50, Lea & Sandeman

Muga Prado Enea 2015

Muga Prado Enea 2015

Tempranillo, Graciano; 13.5%

Aged 36 months in French and American oak barrels, this is ripe and rounded with very fine, high perfumed notes of black fruit aromas. Powerful, with soft tannins and a creamy, toasty undercurrent leading to a finish with a welcome bitterness. Delicious.
£43.33, Bordeaux Index

Roda I [one] Blanco 2019

Roda I [one] Blanco 2019

Viura 92%, Malvasia, Garnacha Blanca

A brand-new unreleased white from one of Rioja’s savviest producers, renowned for its powerful reds. It’s been on the cards since owner Mario Rotllant asked his team to make him a white wine. He was patient. This has a few weeks on the lees resulting in a wine that is reminiscent of the bright, voluptuous whites of the Southern Rhone, or California. It’s full-bodied and luxurious, yet with a grapefruit freshness (overlaid with creamy quince) held up by a mineral texture, it’s complex and accomplished.
£50 (released September 2022), Hedonism

Château Rauzan Ségla, Margaux 2006

Château Rauzan Ségla, Margaux 2006

Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc; 13%

Rich and toasty on the nose, and a palate ripe (almost bursting) with classic blackcurrant and spicy notes. The ripeness extends to the tannins, which underscore the whole effect with a silky grip, and there’s a sweet note of elegant rot. Bright, unpretentious, rather luscious in its way.
£840 for a case of 12, Farr Vintners

Château Léoville Barton, St Julien 2011

Château Léoville Barton, St Julien 2011

Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot; 13%

A classic vintage after the flamboyant 2010 and 2009. This is rich and concentrated with black fruit and powerful tannins, and above all a welcome wash of juice, which lifts fruit that might seem shy. There’s an austerity to the finish, with mineral and saline notes that contrast the whole. Just about ready.
£79, Sandhams

Château Lynch-Bages, Pauillac 2019

Château Lynch-Bages, Pauillac 2019

Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot; 14.5%

Brilliantly perfumed with cassis and mint with dark plum fruit and an earthy undercurrent. So complex and concentrated, the fruit is lifted, the whole has tremendous energy borne of its juicy acidity and fine dusty tannins. Persistent and luscious, it’s barely started its journey. Classic Pauillac.
£138, Hedonism


Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte Blanc, Pessac-Léognan 2019

Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte Blanc, Pessac-Léognan 2019

90% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Semillon; 14%

The Graves whites are among my favourite white wines in the world; the best marry opulence (or, the potential for opulence) with piercing acidity and a fine mineral texture. Smith Haut Lafitte is celebrated for its whites and this is a corker. It has the most lovely fresh and exotic fruit – pineapple, a hint of orange flower, grapefruit – shot through with acidity and a hint of bitterness which makes a vivid contrast. Unputdownable.
£152, Hedonism

Château Petit-Village, Pomerol 2017

Château Petit-Village, Pomerol 2017

Merlot with a small amount of Cabernet Franc; 13.5%

I love this estate for the uncompromising structure of its wines. This is tightly-wound still but with great energy, concentrated fruit and fine grippy tannins. The blackberry fruit is set off by rich coffee-and-dark-chocolate notes, which lends a dryness just mitigated by juice. But it will soften and become silky smooth. Seriously good wine.
£55, Le Bon Vin


Château Canon-la-Gaffelière, Premier Grand Cru Classé, St Emilion 2016

Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon; 13.5%

Favours of plum and rose petals on the nose, and earthy notes. Concentrated and intense on the palate with rich, dark fruit; hints of liquorice make a welcome contrast. What a lovely wine, pure and very elegant, with supple tannins and mouth-watering acidity. A classic of power and finesse.
£69, Millesima