An important part of Rioja's history is written with the rough, strong hands of people like Jorge González Mendieta. A grower from Lanciego who followed family tradition, Jorge, 62, works 35 hectares, mainly Tempranillo and some Viura, which he devotes entirely to producing young carbonic maceration reds. Made with whole bunches and no oak, the goal is to obtain fresh, fruity wines for quick consumption.
González Mendieta embodies the traditional vigneron or cosechero of Rioja Alavesa and other villages in the Sonsierra region. In his book Rioja Alavesa en la encrucijada (Rioja Alavesa at the crossroads), writer and master in viticulture and oenology Miguel Larreina defines this figure as "professional growers who dared to sell their crop directly as bottled wine and who strived to invest a small part of the surplus value of their efforts in their families and villages.”
This is how renowned producers like Artadi, Abel Mendoza and Luis Cañas started out. In the process, they helped to establish the fame of Laguardia, San Vicente de la Sonsierra and Villabuena, their respective villages. So did Artuke, who sold wine in bulk until 1991. Arturo de Miguel, who now runs the winery alongside his brother Kike, agrees with Larreina's definition and adds that there are two types of small growers: 20th century and 21st century cosecheros.
"The first type is a grower like my father who looked after his vineyards, made his wine and waited for people from Vitoria and other towns in the Basque Country to come to his winery to buy the wine or alternatively, he drove over there to sell in the bars", explains Arturo, who has vivid memories of those journeys with his father in the van traveling from Baños de Ebro to the city on Saturday mornings. "The 21st century cosechero, myself included, works the vines just like a last century cosechero, but his business model has changed. We no longer wait for people to come to us to buy; instead, we travel across the world looking for buyers who like and appreciate artisan wines. The 20th century was a model of success in the eighties and nineties, but unfortunately, anyone who has not transformed their business or expects to do so soon, is doomed to disappear, as is happening in Villabuena, which was a model village with the finest growers".
Official figures substantiate De Miguel's impressions. In its 2019 annual report, the Rioja Regulatory Board recorded 234 cosecheros in the entire appellation (134 of them in Álava). However, Ana Jiménez, from the Association of Family Wineries of Rioja, fears that the real number of growers in business is even lower, as producers who cease to operate are not obliged to sign off their membership of the Council.
One need not go far back in time to realise that, while the presence of large wine producing groups --the infamous "Top 40" companies who control 80% of Rioja's output-- is gaining ground, the number of small growers is steadily falling: in 2014, the Rioja Board counted 307 cosecheros, of whom 169 were in Alava. According to Larreina, whose book contains figures for small family-run wineries (a term which includes cosecheros who buy some grapes or have a few barrels and which the Council classifies in other categories), in Rioja Alavesa alone the number of wineries has fallen from 591 in 1985 to 217 in 2014.
Cosecheros who earn their living making young wines and selling part of their crop to other wineries deal with this situation as best they can. With the price of grapes plummeting, rising production costs and cumbersome bureaucracy, the traditional Basque Country txikiteo (socializing in bars while drinking small glasses of wine) in free fall even before the pandemic and the non-written pressure from large wine companies to industrialize their production, the challenges for the 20th century cosecheros, who are mostly men, are significant. Here is an account of the lives and concerns of a handful of them in Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta.
According to Arturo de Miguel's definition, Jorge and his brother Juan Carlos González Mendieta, 59, who also works in the winery, qualify as 20th century cosecheros. The siblings, using simpler words, say that they are "old-fashioned".
Their father left the village cooperative to set up on his own and 33 years ago, when the business was flourishing, the bodega was built with the latest technology of the moment: stainless steel tanks and temperature control equipment. Jorge remembers that he learned a great deal during the winemaking course he attended in Laguardia in 1983. "We were well acquainted with tradition, but Ernesto Arbulu, a prominent winemaker, taught us all sorts of things, such as how wines need to be made in winter and analysed every month", Jorge recalls.
Nowadays they work in the same facilities in Lanciego making bulk wine that they sell to another local winery, and Gonzamendi, their young wine (Gonzamendi is also Jorge's knickname). The brothers make some 70,000 bottles of this honest and pleasant red wine, as well as a small quantity of white. Both of them are personally delivered by Jorge to the bars in Logroño and some in Zumárraga and Vitoria in the Basque Country. They also have a very loyal clientele of individuals who drop by the winery to pick up a few boxes or who call to have it sent to them, but the González Mendieta family are, for the moment, oblivious to modern technology and trends (they do not have a website or an online shop, nor are they open to wine tourism).
Perhaps the pandemic might force them to rethink some things because sales in the hospitality industry have plummeted and they still have some 25,000 litres of 2019 wine to sell. Or maybe not. As Jorge shows us a charming underground cellar where he keeps a barrel for his personal use, he says: "what with the work in the vineyard and the cellar and us two getting older, we're struggling to cope. 'Bad wine, good sales' was the old saying; now, with the pandemic, it's the other way round: good wine, bad sales.”
The continuity of the family legacy seems to be assured with Igor González Ayala, Juan Carlos's son, who is already making his own artisan wines from old family vineyards farmed organically. "Thanks to him I've changed my attitude and now I drink everything, even natural wines," says Juan Carlos, under the cheeky gaze of Gonzamendi, who concedes that he prefers his own carbonic maceration wine. "We understand that quality is what we have to look for. Jorge and I find it hard to discard grapes, but in the end that's what we'll have to do.”
A few metres up the road from Gonzamendi's winery in Lanciego, his cousin Juantxu Mendieta, 47, is making the transition to 21st century cosechero. Like so many other growers in Rioja Alavesa, his parents decided to build the winery in 1982 but never dared to bottle and sell their own carbonic maceration wines. Juantxu was convinced that he could do a better job with the 13 hectares of family vineyards located in Lanciego, Viñaspre, Assa, Laguardia and Kripan, so in 2005 he launched Riolanc (a mix of Rioja and Lanciego).
He started out making and selling young red wines, but as time passed and as he travelled, read and tasted other wines, he gradually realised that the future lies in quality and in making wines with a sense of place. "On a trip to Bordeaux we visited a producer who made a living from two hectares of vines and I asked myself: If this man can do it, why can't I?”
In 2016, by then married to Carmen Osaba, a Californian with Basque roots, and father of two daughters aged now 14 and 11, Juantxu changed the name of his winery to Mendieta Osaba, revamped the labels of his wines, swapped the capsules for colourful seals and set out to provide his vines and wines with their own identity.
His young carbonic maceration red, which is sold to bars and restaurants as well as to private individuals, mainly in the Basque Country and Asturias, still accounts for half of his total output (80,000 bottles). Juantxu makes four additional wines, including a Tempranillo from different vineyards, the two Vascomendi single-vineyard cuvées, one red and one lees-aged white from his Vasconegro vineyard in Lanciego, and a fragrant and balanced single-varietal Mazuelo from a 1.5-hectare plot with views of the ruins of the Mantible Roman bridge.
Juantxu, a quiet guy who is convinced that the future lies in improving the work in the vines, does not use herbicide in his vineyards and farms partly organically, albeit not yet certified. In any case, he tries his best to take care of his vines and minimises treatments.
With time and if things go well, he would like to stop selling in bulk, to reduce his dependency on the domestic hospitality industry and to gain weight in international markets. At present, he sells to Russia and hopes to open up new markets that were left on hold when the pandemic struck.
The bits of dirt and mud inside Iñaki Pérez Berrueco's old Audi leave no doubt as to which of his two jobs is the primary source of income. In addition to being a full-time winegrower, Iñaki is in his second term as mayor of Villabuena de Álava and in his fourth as a councillor in this village with a great cosechero tradition —almost all of its 300 inhabitants currently live or have earned their livelihood from the vines.
His grandfather and uncle founded the winery in 1981. Nowadays the business is in the hands of Iñaki, who has been looking after the family's 28 hectares of vineyards for 22 years; his wife and mother, who manage the office, and his brother, who is in charge of the winery and the deliveries with his van to the bars in Lekeitio, his main point of sale, and other towns and villages in the Basque Country. They have neither a website nor an online shop, although according to Iñaki, their winery door is a new point of sale thanks to Villabuena Wine Tour, an original joint initiative involving several wineries in Villabuena which includes tours and tastings in the village's best-known wineries as well as cosecheros such as Pérez Maestresala.
The winery is a typical cosechero building with a metal door on the ground floor and accommodation on the upper floor where his parents live. On the two lower floors are the concrete and stainless steel vats and tanks where the Pérez Berrueco brothers make their wines in the traditional way, with stems and a small amount of white grapes, although they have not trodden with their feet for 15 years now.
Despite the mildew problems during 2020, Iñaki is very happy with the quality of the vintage, when they picked 50,000 kg of grapes, some of which they have sold to bodegas such as Luis Cañas, Izadi or La Rioja Alta. They usually harvest around 80,000 kg, but given the difficulties of selling their wine in bars and restaurants because of Covid, they are satisfied. "On a normal year, by the end of January, we were already selling the new vintage but we still have wine from 2019," says Iñaki, who fears a price war for the 2021 vintage that might cause further damage to their business.
Although his parents owned the village's butcher's and fish shop, Javier Eguíluz remembers that wine was always made in his home. "Two or three families got together and filled a vat. The wine that was bled, the first, was shared between them and the rest was then sold".
Together with his brothers, Javier started to buy vineyards in Ábalos totalling 30 hectares, but as they got married and started their own families, Javier ended up buying the family bodega, built in 1982. Now the business is managed by him (farming the vines), his wife (admin) and their son Israel, 30, who after studying industrial engineering and oenology in Logroño, is responsible for winemaking and marketing.
Eguíluz is not a strictly traditional cosechero. They own 15 hectares, farmed conventionally, but buy grapes from family members and sell around 50% of their wine in bulk to Garcia Carrión, one of the country's largest bodegas. However, they continue to make a pleasant, fruity young wine in the old-fashioned way, trodden with their feet and bottled in the estate. This is the house's flagship wine which is sold to bars and restaurants via distributors and to private customers, but the slump in sales following the virus (they still have more than 30,000 litres from 2019) has further strengthened Israel's idea of focusing on the export market, which is where he sees the future, and on gradually reducing bulk sales to concentrate on making their own wine.
In addition to their young wine, the Eguíluz family also produces around 30,000 litres of Tempranillo which they age in oak barrels and sell as Crianza and Reserva with labels created by Calcco, one of the country's top designers. These wines, like their flagship red, are always made using carbonic maceration, which is their trademark feature.
José Luis or Itu, as everyone calls him, has a particular fondness for young wines made in the traditional Rioja style of yesteryear —with whole grapes that are trodden with the feet in the open presses of the winery founded by his great-grandfather in 1870. He is gradually taking over the reins of the business, but he still works alongside his mother Isabel Bañares, to whom he has dedicated a wine, and his father Teodoro, who was the first Rioja grower to bottle his wines under his own brand in 1973.
Their young red is the house's main wine. A substantial part of the grapes they grow in their 10 hectares of vineyards in San Vicente are destined for this wine, although they also look after a further 24 hectares owned by Itu's cousin, which they later sell to other bodegas.
The Ruiz Monge vines, mainly Tempranillo plus some Garnacha and Viura and small batches of Mazuelo, Turruntés and Malvasia, are on average 50 years old and are not treated with herbicides. Grafting is done by hand with our own plants, explains Itu.
Carbonic maceration, with a long tradition also in San Vicente, is the only production process used at Teodoro Ruiz Monge, not only for the young red but also for the rest of the wines. Itu, a confident young man with clear views, is adamant that the perception of carbonic maceration wines as easy drinking wines apt only for quick drinking should be dispelled. "I'm interested in long-lasting wines that invite you to drink them, with fine fruit, restrained oak and a lot of terroir". As a result of a process of selection, trial and error, he is gradually defining his range, which includes reds such as La Pacha, a field blend in honour of his grandmother, who told him stories of the eponymous pre-phylloxera plot, and Desniete, a fine and elegant Garnacha from La Cóncova, on the slopes of the Toloño mountains, which has improved in quality by successfully replacing the 225-litre barrel with a 500-litre one.
Over time, Itu wants to continue developing the brand, incorporating wine tourism visits with activities in the vineyard and in the cave that the family restored in San Vicente's 12th century castle. By 2022, he intends to focus on export without neglecting winery door sales, which account for 50% of the young wine output, as well as restaurants and wine shops. " The one thing I'm clear about is that we don't want to grow beyond what I, with the help of my cousin, can manage," explains Itu.
José María Pascual had not planned to take over the small family winery in the centre of Cenicero so soon, but the death of his father Valentín in March 2020 at the age of 61 gave him no choice.
Up until last year, José María, who studied chemistry and oenology, looked after the six hectares of vineyards in Cenicero, lent his father a hand in the winery, particularly during the grape harvest, and helped him with the wine deliveries to the bars in Logroño. Now, after a break to recover from the blow of his dad's death and having sold the grapes of the 2020 vintage, 32-year-old José María has taken on the responsibility of transforming the bodega's annual 70,000kg of grapes into a carbonic maceration wine and three vermouths, called Tirolés, a tradition that was started by José María's grandfather in 1964.
Production is entirely done by hand. They tread the grapes with their feet, ferment them in open stone vats, press them manually in a traditional press and store the wine in a set of imposing hundred-year-old vats holding between 7,000 and 10,000 litres each, which rest in three connected underground chambers in the family's cave, the oldest part of which dates back to the 15th century. "When my friends lagged behind in their studies, they were sent to prune vines; I was sent to clean these vats," jokes José María.
Everything looks more or less the same as it did in 1885 when the bodega was bought by Felipe Lagunilla, José María's great-great-grandfather and one of the men who brought American rootstocks to Rioja after phylloxera. What is new are the tourists visiting the old bodega and the treading events that José María wants to boost further, as well as cellar door and online sales. "My father took care of everything; he was a very charismatic man. It will be difficult to follow in his footsteps but I will do my best", says José María.
The Obarenes mountains, in the northwestern tip of Rioja, have never been a traditional carbonic maceration area, but Jesús Pérez de Urrecho decided to specialise in this style of winemaking because it is what he likes to drink.
His winery is a functional facility with spectacular views of the Sierra de la Demanda mountains to the south of the region. He built it in 2011 with stainless steel tanks and a capacity to produce 100,000 bottles.
Even though until the pandemic he consistently sold all his wine in the year, Jesús decided some time ago that his business would not grow any further. "My wife Ana and I don't want any more complications in our lives. We drive to Logroño twice a week, to Miranda de Ebro once a week and to Bilbao once a month to deliver our wines, and we manage well with that. I got a call from people abroad who wanted to import my wine, but all that paperwork put us off. Besides, Internet is often unavailable here", adds Jesús, whose winery door is always open to visitors even though he does not do formal wine tours.
He grows Tempranillo and Viura on trellises which he began to plant in 1989, when he moved from Logroño to Galbárruli at the age of 18. "I have always been drawn to the countryside and as my father had a hectare of vines in the village, I studied oenology and settled here," adds Jesús, who now farms 13.5 hectares in Galbárruli, Fonzaleche and Villaseca to produce his own wines. "I used to sell the grapes to wineries in Haro such as Cvne, La Rioja Alta and Ramón Bilbao, but in 2011 I decided to bottle my wines for the first time and I have never regretted it".
He recently released a white, a style he believes has a bright future in this cool climate region where, until recently, reds were rarely made because they lacked colour.