Above everything else, David Sampedro considers himself a vine grower. He displays an intimate knowledge of his vineyards and the soils where they lay, on the outskirts of Elvillar, one of the higher areas in Rioja Alavesa. His vineyards are organically grown since he went solo in 2006 and he is currently working to make them biodynamic under the Demeter certification.
As a firm believer of these practices, yields at his vineyards range between 3,000-3,500 kg/hectare (well below the appellation limits) and the only treatments he applies to his plants are sulphur and milk whey. He is conscious of the bad reputation he has gained as “the village’s worst vine grower” but believes it is part of the eternal dispute between young people’s new ways and old people’s conservative approach. Ironically, though, it is David, armed with his winemaker’s training, who wants to go back to do things the way his grandfather did out of intuition.
After a couple of years of bureaucracy and problems to obtain the necessary permits, David has managed to build a small but highly efficient winery in the outskirts of Elvillar surrounded by vineyards and spectacular views of the Sierra Cantabria and the Rioja landscape. Powered exclusively solar energy -apart from a diesel generator for emergencies- he has installed concrete tanks, wooden vats and French oak barrels of various sizes. He uses horses to work his vineyards, where he only grows native varieties. He produces an interesting range of wines with undeniable personality, most of them vinified with stems and gentle extractions.
Bodegas Bhilar (derived from the Basque word for Elvillar) encompasses his Rioja production, with less than 10,000 bottles for each wine. Lágrimas de Graciano (€6) is the only varietal in the portfolio and spends 12 months in tank. It is made with purchased grapes, as is the case with part of the Bhilar Plots (€11) production, a village blend where Tempranillo is the dominant variety. It is fresh and mineral and spends 16 months in 225 and 500-litre oak barrels. His provider follows his guidelines and only applies sulphur and transports the grapes on a small tractor. Phincas (70% Tempranillo, 15% Graciano, 10% Garnacha and 5% Viura, 17€) follows a single vineyard concept and is complex, with fresh black fruit and elegant tannins.
Phinca Abejera does not leave anyone indifferent. A blend of Tempranillo and Graciano (40% each) and a touch of Garnacha and Viura (10% each), it comes from a west-facing plot with limestone soils and is captivating on the nose, with lavender and chamomile aromas (rosemary has been more present in previous vintages) and plenty of liveliness on the palate (2,000 bottles, €32). Phinca Lali (€40, subtle on the nose and with depth on the palate, comes from a plot dating from 1910 planted with black and white varieties and is vinified in 400-litre barrels. Generally, they are long-lived wines, which are capable of aging very well in the bottle.
As well as the reds, David makes three whites: Thousand Mils (€37) includes a mix of varieties in the blend from 50- to 60-year-old vines planted on his Abejera and Lali plots. The name of the wine, which refers to its diverse origin, used to be Thousand Milks but the Patent Office forced him to change the name on the basis that wine names cannot include “names of foods”. Bhilar Plots Blanco (€11) is his village wine and Phinca La Revilla Sexto Año (60 €), a Viura blend which used to be called Terca. For Sampedro, the latter is his most special wine. As a tribute to the white wines of Rioja from the old days, the current 2011 vintage has spent six years in barrel without any manipulation. Regardless of this time, it hasn't lost any freshness or acidity and displays great complexity.
Of the 9.5Ha in the Bhilar project, 3.5 belong to Melanie Hickman, David's wife. Born in Ohio but deeply attached to Hawaii, where she lived for several years, Melanie invested her retirement savings in a couple of beautiful vineyards whose grapes will be destined to three single-vineyard wines that will be launched soon.
San Julián comes from an east-facing old vineyard on a slope planted mostly to Tempranillo which can only be worked with animals. The wine, fermented with whole bunches in 500-litre barrels and then transferred to 225-litre French barrels, shows a very pure profile with refined and elegant notes and returns to that classic Rioja style. The other two wines - a mineral and vertical red and a white with great personality- come from Santa Engracia, a vineyard on the higher part of Elvillar, on the slopes of the Sierra Cantabria mountains. Both will be called Hapa, a tribute to Melanie's dog, who was with her for most of the years she lived in Hawaii and who died shortly before she she moved to Rioja. This story and many others about her life with David Sampedro can be read in her book Struggling Vines published in 2016.
A talented man with an inquiring mind, David does not restrain himself to his Rioja vineyards. Under the name DSG Vineyards, he produces wines in several wine regions with some common denominators: local indigenous varieties, minimum intervention and wines that express the land and terroir where they have been born. He went to Navarra to help Australian winemaker Dan Standish find some vineyards, but he was fascinated by the old Garnacha vines he discovered on the slopes and ravines in San Martín de Unx. At the village cooperative he produces Lágrimas de Garnacha, a fresh red with pleasant fruit and a great everyday wine, and Pasolasmonjas (€11), a perfumed and mineral wine which has been aged in barrels for two years.
On the granite and slate soils of Sierra de Francia, on the southern edge of the province of Salamanca, David makes two wines with local variety Rufete and children’s tale names: Phinca Encanto (€20, Encanto means charming) is an elegant, mineral red which resembles a Mediterranean Pinot Noir (it is believed that Rufete is a mutation of this grape); and Phinca Durmiente (€38), made from Rufete Blanco, a minority variety with vines scattered around the region thus requiring considerable selection efforts.
La Malkerida (€6.75) is the result of his partnership with UK-based sommelier Bruno Murciano, who was born in Valencia. David has reinterpreted the local Bobal variety, leaving rusticity and tannins to one side and focusing on elegance and fruit.
In Galicia he makes Costa de Santa Mariña, an Albariño aged on its lees for 24 months in small barrels and a thin layer of flor sourced from the vineyard of the same name in Valle del Salnés and Shanela (€11), a saline and mineral Albariño aged on its lees for 16 months which comes from the same area, in the heart of the Rias Baixas appellation. The Atlantic Ocean views enjoyed from the vineyard give this wine its name (xanela means window in Galician) although the spelling has been changed to suit the American market. It now resembles Shakira and, according to the Galician friend who suggested it, that cannot be a bad thing.