Spain, Rioja: the wines of Alavesa

Along with Rioja Alta to the southwest and Rioja Baja to the southeast, Rioja Alavesa on the southern limit of Spain’s Basque territory has some important climatic and topographic differences that can be seen in the character of the wines.

rioja mapRioja is one region, but with multiple personalities. The bodegas would seem to play down the importance of their sub-region, most failing to name it on their labels. Often that’s because they have vineyards spread across the sub-regions, and many Rioja wines are a geographical blends. But differences there are, with Rioja Baja being furthest from the cooling influence of the Atlantic and having a more Mediterranean climate that is hot and dry, whilst Rioja Alavesa hugs the Cantabrian mountains, and wines from there experience a cooling influence with good acidity and a more mineral character.

Rioja Alavesa

Driving south from Txakoli, across the mountains, you can stop and enjoy a perfect overview as the Rioja vineyards spring from the rock of the foothills beneath you.

samaniegoThese vineyards really do hug the shadow of the mountains to the north and run to the River Ebro in the south. The mountains help create a micro-climate by offering some shelter from the Atlantic weather and wind, but still the rainfall here is almost double that of Rioja Baja. Tempranillo is the king here, accounting for around 80% of all plantings in the mostly chalk and clay soils, whilst Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano for red wines and Viura, Malvasía and White Garnacha are grown for white wines. Shown right, the village of Samaniego from Bodegas Baigorri in the Cantabrian foothills.

riscalFor the visitor, Rioja Alavesa’s 125 or so estates boast both rustic Bodegas melding into the landscape with their honey-coloured stone, and an arresting collection of architectural show-piece wineries, like the winery hotel at Marqués de Riscal (left), Frank Ghery’s stunning building with its ‘sails’ of gold and pink titanium that mirror the sky and the landscape. BodegasBaigorri’s vast, minimalist glass cube is all that is visible above ground, the winery dug deep into the hillside.

The estates

In truth there is something distinctive about the wines that come from Alavesa soils. There is an energy, a sense of depth but with an edge of cool minerality that one can taste in young Tempranillo grown here, that seems quite different from Tempranillo grown in Rioja Alta or Baja. There are some single vineyard bottling around that let you experience this, though that character is somewhat diffused by blending in most of the wines from bodegas in the region. Find all UK stockists of Rioja Alavesa on wine-searcher.

Viñedos de Páganos

Marco Eguren The Eguren family have been grape growers since the 19th century, today Marco Eguren (right with son Eduardo) is the 5th generation in charge, working with his brothers and 6th generation children on the business which transformed from grape farmer to wine producer in 1957. Twenty-five hectares are planted at 600 metres above sea level, in the Rioja Alavesa town of Páganos. In fact, the Eguren family have six bodegas spread across Rioja and Toro. Though the vineyards are much older, the Páganos winery was built only in 1998 to produce two labels, ‘La Nieta’ and ‘El Puntido’. The extraordinary underground cellars consist of miles of tunnels carved from the rock immediately below the vineyards. cellars

Marco and Eduardo showed me around their meticulous operation, where all grapes are hand selected at harvest, followed by two levels of sorting at the winery: by bunches, then berry-by-berry. Only new French oak barrels are used, and this is a determinedly modern interpretation of Rioja, focused on the terroir of the vineyards. Marco says “Páganos complements our other, more classic bodegas like Senorio de San Vicente.” Marco also tells that above all else they are “Trying to preserve minerality,” in the Páganos wines.

La Nieta comes from a tiny plot of 1.75 hectares immediately behind the winery, planted almost directly into rock with less than 30cm of topsoil. Marco says “There are huge differences in structure between one plant and another, but the environment balances out the production. We find less and less need to green harvest.” Some biodynamic techniques are being employed, with fertilisation only with sheep manure and treatments carried out according to the lunar cycle. After a very impressive tasting that showed superb quality in the 2005, 2004 and 2001 vintages, Marco predicts 2010 is “going to be even better.”

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Bodegas Valdemar

winery Bodegas Valdemar is a family company whose roots date back to 1889, though current owner Jsús Martínez Bujanda started construction of a winery only in 1982. Its modern facilities (right) and innovative winemaking methods have been a trademark from the outset. Wines are made exclusively from estate vineyards, and indeed innovation does seem to be a watch-word: it was one of the first wineries in Europe to use temperature control in the fermentation vats, the first in Rioja to make a saignée rosé and now it has released a series of wines under the ‘Inspiracion’ label from micro-plots of very interesting varieties including Maturana and Tempranillo Blanco. Maturana is a variety lost after Phyloxerra and not known for 100 years. It was recently rediscovered in a small town, in a 130-year-old vineyard in sandy soils by the side of the river where Phyloxerra did not attack. Tempranillo Blanco is a new, green-skinned mutation of the red Tempranillo that was discovered a few years ago, propagated to commercial quantities and which shares 97% of its DNA with red Tempranillo. I visited the brand new cellars of the separate Inspiracion winery, where grapes arrive in small crates, onto sorting tables, and into small, 15,000-litre tanks rather than the 60,000-litre tanks for the Conde de Valdemar wines. All 270 hectares of the estate’s own vines are in Alavesa, but they have contracts for fruit from the other sub-regions. Of the total three million bottle production only around 100,000 bottles are Inspiracion, with only 3,000 bottles only of white Tempranillo for example.

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Bodegas Baigorri

baigorri glass box The Baigorri winery was the vision of Jesus Baigorri and renowned Basque architect Inaki Aspiazu. Sited near the small town of Samaniego, just below the Cambrian mountains, it is an absolutely fabulous space visible only as a huge glass cube from the road, but leading elegantly down to seven floors of gravity-fed winery below. There are stunning 360º views to the mountains, village and vineyards. Even better for the visitor, a self-guided towards descends through the levels, to an excellent restaurant reached by a suspended walkway over the barrel cellar. winemaker Built in 2001, the winery today is owned by Pedro Martinez, but is still focused on making very high-quality wines in the vast but minimalist space – “designed for winemaking” – according to technical director Simón Arina Robles (right). All grapes arrive in small boxes straight to sorting tables, and once again selection is on a grape by grape basis. In total fruit comes from 110 hectares of estate and contracted vineyard, some over 60 years old “and producing one bottle per vine,” says Simon. In the wineries lowest level, tucked in an area behind a huge cellar of French and American oak barrels where the wine matures, a small experimental winery with an array of small steel vats is a playground for experimenting with grapes, yeasts and winemaking techniques.

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Marqués de Riscal

old winery Riscal is without doubt Rioja Alavesa’s grandest name and most important house. In 1858 it became the first winery in the Rioja to produce wines following the Bordeaux method. Don Guillermo Hurtado de Amézaga, the Marqués de Riscal, was asked by local producers to find a French wine expert to train them in the winemaking techniques of the Médoc. Subsequently he hired Jean Pineau, winemaker at Château Lanessan to come to Spain and the rest, as they say, is history. Today Marqués de Riscal sells its products in more than 80 countries, and it has continued to innovate: in 1972 it was the first winery to promote the Rueda region where it produces its white wines, and which is now one of Spain’s most successful white wine DOs. The stunning bodega forms an entire village of its own, where the ancient stone cellars and offices are towered over by the extraordinary Frank Ghery hotel. And yet on this visit to I found some uncomfortable contradictions. Riscal’s 2005 Rioja Reserva is, and I have to be honest, a poor wine, ruined by huge levels of Brettanomyces. Even worse is the fruitless ‘Proximo’, their entry level blend. Further up the scale the wines were much better, but the Reserva is the flagship product of Riscal and the wine that for many will represent the company. Sadly, nobody from the winemaking team could spare the time to meet me when I visited from Scotland. Being shown around by a tour guide, I was unable to ask the tough questions I wanted to about this wine.

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Lar de Paula

winemaker The Baroja wine group has operated in the village of Elvillar since the early 1900s, historically as the processing centre for the area’s growers, and producer of entry level and bulk wines. The modern wine business was created by Fernando Meruelo (right) in 2004. A man with definite views, all of Lar de Paula’s red wines are 100% Tempranillo. “I’m not a big fan of Garnacha,” says Fernando, particularly from Rioja Baja “It doesn’t have staying power and is too low in acidity.” He tells me he has tasted extensively of the world’s greatest Garnachas in an effort to unlock its appeal, but decided France and some small production Priorats are the only places making great Garnacha (Grenache) wines. Here in Rioja Alavesa Fernando thinks the adequate rainfall and cooler climate is key, and says he has no need for irrigation. His vineyards are some of the highest in the region at 600 – 650 metres. The winery is equipped with a variety of stainless steel tanks of capacities ranging from 12,000 to 30,000 litres, meaning all parcels can be fermented separately prior to blending. Grapes are whole bunch fermented with strict temperature regulation to control the ferments and free run wine accounts for about 85% of the final blends. Wines are aged in French and American oak, though Fernando is experimenting with Castellan, Chechyn and Bulgarian oak in his cellars. Fernando also worries that young Spaniards do not seem to appreciate even the finest Spanish wines. “Do you know that Italian Lambrusco is a huge hit with young Spaniards?” he asks me. “Just one local supermarket claims to sell four million bottles per annum. And we are drinking less and less wine – consumption in Spain is now just 18.5 litres per person, when it was once over 60 litres per person.”

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Bodegas Luis Cañas

Juan Luis The original, family-owned Luis Cañas winery dates back to 1928, although the Cañas family has been in the winegrowing and winemaking business for more than two centuries. However, it was in the 1970s that Luis Cañas began marketing wines in his own name. Now 82, I am told he is in the winery every day, and on the sorting table from day one of harvest until the last. Today his only son Juan Luis Cañas (right) heads the company. He recalls its beginnings: “In the 1970s my father was drinking the local wine with friends in the village square when a man stopped and asked to taste. It turned out the man was the President of the gastronomic society in Saint Victoria, and he and his members returned, asking for more. That led to Luis Cañas being the first grower to bottle his wines in this region.” The business has gone on to become one of the leading wineries of the Rioja Alavesa region. barrels Juan Luis took over in 1989 at the age of 33, and “brought a new atmosphere to the winery. ” New wines were introduced and steps taken to up the quality of the Crianza wines. In 1994 a new winery, equipped with the best winemaking systems, opened to make the higher quality Crianza and Reserva wines. A new barrel cellar was added in 1999, and now a top tier of wines appears under the ‘Amaren’ label, named in honour of Luis Cañas’s late mother. Pretty in pink on the left, some private reserves for special customers, each cellared in their own unique barrel livery.

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Six more estates

As well as the visits above, I had time to meet six more of Rioja Alavesa’s winemakers and taste their wines with a rendezvous at Villa Lucía in the beautiful hill-top town of Laguardia. Villa Lucía has a small wine museum and other wine-focused facilities, and the winemakers brought along a small selection of their wines for a series of ‘speed-dating’ tastings and talks with me, before we enjoyed a few glasses in a much more relaxed manner over dinner. bottles I passed this impressive winery of Eguren Ugarte near the village of Samaniego several times, with its state of the art facilities and a 21-room boutique hotel. Cleary ambitious, the wines are modern in style and were presented to me complete with their high Wine Advocate scores. Bodegas Covila was founded in 1989 by a group of 60 vine growers who farm 250 hectares of vineyard and produce a wide range of wines. Bodegas Luis Alegre, founded in 1968 by Señor Luis Alegre, was bought by a group of family investors in 2000 who have built a new state of the art winery, with an ambition to male “modern and elegant” wines. Bodegas Ostatu is a family winery that “harmoniously combines tradition and experience of older generations with oenological science and knowledge of younger generations.” Valserrano was founded in 1880, with a relatively small production entirely from its own 75-hectare vineyard. They export 50% of their production. Another family business is Carlos San Pedro, which produces only 50,000 bottles, focused on quality. Their underground tunnels have been used for storing wine since 17th century, and are a popular tourist destination for visitors to the Rioja Alavesa region too.

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