Part of the Iberian Mountain range, Sierra de Moncalvillo is a little-known area located 20 kilometers south of Logroño, the capital of La Rioja. It marks a dividing line between the Najerilla and Iregua valleys. In the past, its northern orientation and altitude was a challenge in terms of ripeness, hence the lack of major producers based here. The area nevertheless supplied grapes to some of the large companies in the appellation.
The 2000s marked a turning point. Climate change together with a terroir-focused approach have contributed to the emergence of small projects willing to reflect the landscape of this distinctive spot in Rioja. Although small, one of the most interesting is Ojuel, the brainchild of Miguel Martínez, a young man on a mission to recover supurao, a traditional sweet wine made from dehydrated grapes. In the old days, supurao was drank as an invigorating drink or at family celebrations.
Miguel grows nine hectares of vines scattered in 30 different plots up to 800m above sea level, six of which come from his paternal family. They are located in Sojuela, his home village (the brand Ojuel is Sojuela without its first and last letters), or in neighbouring villages like Daroca and Medrano. Most of them are old bush vines surrounded by forests.
In Sojuela, Miguel distinguishes two different areas separated by the LR-341 road which used to be an important route linking Burgos with Soria. On the lower side, soils are rich in clay and Mediterranean crops like olive trees are dominant; upwards, the vegetation turns to oak trees and holm oaks. La Espinilla (pebbles mixed with clay and sand at 750-800m above sea level) is one of his wildest vineyards, from which he plans to release a single-vineyard red. “Variations in altitude, temperature and vegetation result in an extraordinary biodiversity,” Miguel explains.
Ethnography brought Miguel Martínez to wine. A summer restoring the old snowfields in the Moncalvillo mountains helped him to rediscover a plethora of nearly forgotten traditions. The story of supurao, which he remembered from his own family, fascinated him to the point that he became a wine producer.
He used his grandparents’ old haystack to hang bunches (there’s room for around 6,000 of them) in order to dry the grapes and concentrate their sugar. A naturally sweet wine, supurao has low-alcohol (11-12% vol.) and is relatively young. It is partially fermented in stainless steel tanks and it later spends a couple of months in barrel prior to bottling. A light, fruit-driven, easy-to-drink red, it is sold under the Ojuel brand in the traditional red version that was made in the area but also as a white, a novelty created by Miguel himself. Quantities are tiny: around 600 liters of red and 400 liters of white. Every year, around 20% of the vintage is reserved to test the evolution of the wines as they continue to age in small oak barrels. His first supurao vintage was 2012 but it took two years to get the Rioja Regulatory Board to accept the wine in the DO.
His portfolio of dry wines is increasing —some of them are set to be released as village wines under Rioja’s new designation rules.
Entry-level wines include Aloxa (€8, around 4,500 bottles), a cosechero style, foot-trodden young red made in the old wine press of the ancient, cramped family cellar; and Ojuel La Plana (€8, 1,500 bottles), a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha and Maturana. The range continues with Cerrosojón (€16,1,300 €), a Maturana and Mazuelo blend sourced from several vineyards grown on a hill on the edge of the LR-341 road, and follows with Carrasojuela (€18, 1,000 bottles, “carra” in ancient Spanish means “on the way to …”), a field blend of three vineyards grown at higher altitude including Garnacha, Tempranillo, Mazuelo, Macabeo, Calagraño, Moristel and Morisca among other varieties.
There’s the sulphite-free red Salvaje (wild in Spanish). Grapes are sourced from a south-facing Garnacha plot on the lower part of Sojuela. Pure, direct and with lively fruit, Salvaje is reserved for the clients of Venta Moncalvillo, a Michelin-starred restaurant nearby.
Two whites complete the range: a blend of Tempranillo Blanco and Garnacha Blanca called Fuente León (€8, 3.000 bottles) and a single-varietal Garnacha Blanca (only 600 bottles, €14) sold under the same brand.
In his quest to recover other traditions in the area, Miguel also produces arrope. Made from boiled grape must, it is a syrup served at breakfast or used as sugar in rosquillas, a traditional doughnut-shaped biscuit. It is sold in small glass jars (€8) mainly to restaurants that use it as an ingredient in desserts.
The packaging has been redesigned to include some of the butterflies that are so numerous in the area (75% of all the butterflies in Rioja and half of Spain’s total are present in Moncalvillo). Respectful with tradition as Miguel is, some of his wines' names (Oxuel, Aloxa) are written in ancient Spanish with and “x” instead of a “j”.