The many family-owned bodegas of the Rioja Alavesa on the north bank of the Ebro river include 300 cosecheros - producers of young wines sold to the larger wineries that will mature, bottle and sell them. Over the past 15 years, these families have increasingly begun to spawn winemakers, some very small, who bottle their own wine and are now counted among the avant-garde of Rioja. They often not only seriously incorporate the idea of terroir into their wines (as opposed to the multi-regional blends of the big bodegas), but also distance themselves from classic Rioja concepts such as long ageing in American oak barrels.
Among the best-known of these are Artuke, Altún, and Abel Mendoza, the senior player among these former Cosecheros. These old-hands have been joined by a diverse group of wine adventurers who are united by the idea of revealing the essence of Rioja and revitalising the region by means of ‘unvarnished’ terroir-focused wines. Limited production is an important trump card here along with a focus on precision. This naturally includes a clear commitment to sustainable viticulture, which is much easier to implement on a small scale than it is for the larger players who source their grapes from a potpourri of suppliers.
The belief that Rioja with its enormously diverse landscape is one of the noblest places in the world in which to make wines full of character is particularly common among winemakers with international experience, such as the new star among single-vineyard producers like Eduardo Eguren who cut his teeth in California, France, Australia and Italy but also for ‘terroir tinkerers’ like Oxer Bastegieta who makes very different wines under the Bizkaiko Txakolina appellation. Their open-mindedness enables innovators to elicit nuances from the Tempranillo that were rarely known before. A good example is Phinca San Julían 2018, the new wine from US-born Melanie Hickman, which offers an immensely complex web of balsamic notes and flowers.
Rosana Lisa Oliva runs Lalomba with Alberto Saldón and proves that even large producers can bring terroir-driven wines to market
Terroir in focus
With her Sierra de Toloño project, Sandra Bravo has specialised in plots in the higher altitudes of the Sierra Cantabria. This Logroño-born organic winemaker with broad international experience in Bordeaux, Tuscany, New Zealand and California has put together an estate of almost 10 ha of vineyards. Some of the plots cling to the southern foothills of the limestone mountains and stand on steep terraced terrain as well as in vertical plantings. She produces eight wines, including a pair of single-vineyard efforts and two ‘assemblage’ specialities, each of which is made up of five mini-plots. Without this young winemaker's efforts, these very old vines would simply have ceased to exist.
Despite the high level of sunshine in this area - the southern ridge of the Sierra has Mediterranean features as well as continental influences from northern Castile - the growing cycles are slowed down by the altitude, and allow for the production of a very fine, measured style, even in the case of the single-varietal Garnachas. Amphorae and wooden barrels of varying volumes are used for vinification, and all the wines shine with clarity, freshness and convincing precision.
Even if some critics believe that having Marcos Eguren – arguably Spain’s top winemaker - as a father, gave Eduardo Eguren an advantage when starting his own project, this is only partly true. To have the courage to focus his attention solely on creating a limited portfolio of truly noble wines in the mountain village of Peciña, in the middle of the so-called Sonsierra with a small acreage of spectacular old vineyards, was certainly far from straightforward. Cuentaviñas is the name of his small winery, and the wines are certainly groundbreaking in terms of finesse, elegance and balance. This also applies to the pricing, which is as much a talking point as the quality of the wines.
Tradition vs. renewal
The great strength of these highly motivated winemakers is their commitment to clarity and transparency without slipping into purist obsessions. Although it is tempting to want to see the innovators as a single unit, or perhaps a new generation cast from a single mold, their philosophies differ widely. And a readiness to borrow from long-established Rioja traditions is quite common. While the influential winemaker David Sampedro, Melanie Hickman’s husband, for example, on the sites and parcels of Elvillar in Rioja Alavesa when creating their Bodegas Bhilar project, South African-born Bryant MacRobert embraces almost the whole of Rioja, always in search of the combination of the most ideal terroirs for the best possible varietal typicity. In the broadest sense, this producer who has a background of working with one of the Cape’s most celebrated winemakers, Eben Sadie, is actually following a typical Riojan approach practiced by traditional bodegas.
Eduardo Eguren creates outstanding wines with his small winery Cuentaviñas
The contrast between these producers reflects the diversity of the approach of the new wave. Some see no need for designations like Reserva and Gran Reserva, while others embrace them. Sampedro, who is considered one of the pioneers of the new generation of winemakers, goes even further by reviving a traditional but now little-used Spanish ageing designation on the label of his top red wine Phinca La Revilla. ‘Sexto Año’, refers to the six years this pure Viura white spends in 100% old French oak, and echoes references to ageing periods familiar from some of the country's famous classic growths, such as Vega Sicilia's ‘5° Año Valbuena’.
Another modern classicist is Jon Peñagaricano, whose father started his small winery near the wine capital Haro back in 1978. Today, he cultivates just under 7 hectares and produces the traditional range of Joven, Crianza, Reserva and occasionally a Gran Reserva.
Big and Beautiful
Also in Haro, Bodegas Olabarri follows traditional methods to produce fine wines that are always carried by a soft fruit. Surprisingly, given an annual production of around 750,000 bottles, this producer, too, has remained under the radar. While some of the new wave are focusing on Tempranillo, in addition to Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, this bodega follows the great Rioja tradition of blending the Rioja trinity of Tempranillo, Mazuelo and Graciano. It also produces an organically certified Crianza under the Bikandi brand.
Pedro Peciña's bodega on the western approach to San Vicente de la Sonsierra is certainly better known in some markets, but remains largely unknown in others. Hermanos Peciña can probably offer one of the most complete traditional portfolios in Rioja. Over the years, the Gran Reserva has become a classic reference point for Rioja lovers, and the Señorío de P. Peciña Crianza and Reserva are also very true to the traditional spicy-fine style of this region’s wines.
This bodega is larger than many, with 50 ha on the light limestone soils of the Sierra Cantabria southern slopes. Even though concessions were made to the more concentrated modern style of Rioja with its Parker-rated Chobeo de Pecina, the wines under this label are still well-balanced.
Despite its size, winemaking here is extremely artisanal. The barrique-aged wines are transferred from barrel to barrel by hand in the traditional way and most of the oak is American. Given an inventory of a good 4,500 barrels, this activity keeps a team busy for many weeks of the year. The bodega is distinguished by the fact that it respects the tradition of only producing Gran Reserva in selected years. So, only 1998, 2001, 2005 and 2011 of the Hermanos Peciña wines carried this designation.
The success of these wines prompted Pedro Peciña to launch an even more exclusive Gran Reserva brand. Finca Iscorta de Peciña Gran Reserva is a selection from a 55-year-old limestone-sand parcel, near the river, with 48 months of ageing in American oak. The debut 2010 vintage will be followed by 2015.
Among Ramón Bilbao's Lalomba wines, the Tempranillo from Finca Valhonta stands out for its elegance
Success through restructuring
Another famous new wave producer that is deliberately taking a turn towards a more classic Rioja style is Bodegas Finca Emperatriz, known to many Rioja connoisseurs as one of the most important new projects of the early 2000s. The Hernaiz brothers acquired the estate in the nineties and, after extensive investments in the vineyards and cellar, started out with seven wines. They caused a sensation with their ‘Parcela N° 1’, and until 2016 stuck to the concept of a broad range of fruit-driven, terroir wines.
Then the brothers decided to restructure the project, creating two ‘Gran Vinos’, one white (100% Viura) and the other red (Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta, Viura) under the Finca la Emperatriz Reserva label. Both are accompanied by a second wine labeled as ‘Jardín de la Emperatriz’.
The two Gran Vinos which are intended to be matured, are quite firm at the core, but elegant and complex overall and could be described as neo-classics. The core of the estate is a spectacular, block of vines that covers nearly 30 ha and is certified as the largest Viñedo-Singular – VS - of the region, and the pair of two Gran Vinos will be sold under this designation starting with the 2017 vintage.
Even the largest producers can be postmodern. Many connoisseurs of the Rioja wine scene were surprised by the verve with which the long-established producer Ramón Bilbao approached its ‘Lalomba’ terroir project. Under the direction of Rosana Lisa Oliva, one of the most spectacular new fermentation cellars in the country has been created directly adjacent to the old ones. Lalomba has been described by some Spanish critics as the highly successful wine group’s ‘new boutique winery’.
This may not be an entirely appropriate description for a facility with 48 concrete tanks, serving fermentation on the one hand and blending on the other. However, its size in no way diminishes the quality of the project or the performance of the Lalomba team. From three areas in Rioja Oriental and Rioja Alta with a total of 14.5 hectares, this winemaker has produced three extraordinary terroir wines.
The best-known of the trio, the Finca Lalinde Rosado from a slope of the Monte Yerga mountain range, gives a taste of how Lalomba succeeds in marrying purist clarity with captivating intensity. What works excellently as a Rosado, increases to a masterpiece of elegant-mineral Tempranillo at Finca Valhonta from a parcel near Villalba. There is probably no better example at the moment that some Rioja big players have also recognised the signs of the times.