Energy, camaraderie, good vibes and the feeling of being part of a special day could, in a few words, sum up the day spent by around 60 young wine producers at the Basque Culinary Centre (BCC) on 14 July.
Members of famous wine sagas such as Roc Gramona, Martina P. Pariente, Manuel Méndez, Michael Zacagnini, Jon Cañas or Celia Vizcarra were present at the Young Wine Talents event in San Sebastián, along with other lesser-known but promising projects committed to quality and identity in their respective territories, such as Francisco Barona, Miguel Eguíluz, Ricardo and David Fernández, Bárbara Requejo (Las Pedreras) or Lucía Abando (Las Orcas).
The event in San Sebastian was the first for EDA Drinks & Wine Campus, an ambitious project driven by the BCC, the Regional Assembly of Alava and the Basque Government that seeks to become an international leader in wine and beverage education. Headed by Elisa Ucar (ex Domaines Lupier), the campus will have sites in Rioja Alavesa and Vitoria, the Basque capital, and will begin to develop its training and research activities in 2025 with a view to being fully operational in 2026.
After the presentations by Joxe Mari Aizega, director of the BCC, and the institutional representatives Eduardo Aguinaco and Bittor Oroz, it was time for the four round tables to begin. The first, on entrepreneurship, was presented by Aitor Irazu of Makatzak Wild Wines (Gipuzkoa) and included Óscar Mestre (Alicante), Josu Amatria (Navarra) and Jade Gross (Rioja).
They all agreed that passion, patience and dedication are essential for small projects to succeed, but as Amatria, whose family has no ties to vineyards and is involved in the recovery of Garnacha vines in Ayegui (Tierra Estella), pointed out, "without funding and sales, there is no project.”
A family winery can provide a cushion against the vertigo of those starting from scratch. This is the case of Aitor Irazu, who began his Atlantic wine project in 2020 with three hectares of abandoned vineyards near Zarautz. On the other hand, there is the experience of Óscar Mestre, whose family has been making artisanal bulk wines in La Marina Alta for a century. They wanted him to carry on the tradition and discouraged his personal ambitions.
"What I saw in Priorat opened my eyes, and when I returned home and asked my family about changing the style of our wines, they said 'no way'". However, Óscar did not give up, and from the tiny corner of the winery that his family offered him, he started his own business, buying a few stainless steel tanks and a beer tap from Wallapop as a rudimentary refrigeration system. Today he produces around 15,000 bottles a year, with varieties such as Giró and Moscatel, and others in the process of recovery such as Trepadell, Arco and Forcallat.
Aitor, who also spoke of the feeling of "stress and suffocation" when diseases strike at the beginning of the growing season, also called for bureaucracy to be reduced for small producers. "It is not fair that someone who produces 7,000 bottles has to go through the same paperwork as a winery that makes two million. We vignerons should concentrate on the vineyards and the winery, which is what we are good at.”
Thinking small, being realistic and fighting for herself from the very start are three ideas that have guided Hong Kong-born Jade Gross after leaving her job in haute cuisine to settle in the tiny Rioja village of San Vicente de la Sonsierra and make wine. The support of other like-minded producers is also important. "I am very grateful for the help of Abel Mendoza and Maite Fernández," Gross confessed. "They really push me hard, but they also let me fall and that's good because you have to learn from your own mistakes."
Roc Gramona (Gramona Wines), Carlos López de Lacalle (Artadi, Izar Leku), Alain Quintana (Bodega Quintana) and Álvaro Loza shared their thoughts during the round table on viticulture, which I chaired. We began by talking about vocation ("I didn't like going to the vineyard with my father when I was a boy, but now I can't imagine continuing without passion, effort and perseverance," said Quintana, a third-generation Labastida winegrower) and what it means to be a good vigneron.
"Nowadays, it seems that the only good vignerons are those who practice respectful pruning and farm low-yielding old bush vines," says Gramona. "In Penedès, there are good growers who do this, but there are also people who follow a model of productive viticulture, with yields of 11,000 kg/ha, and who look after their vineyards very well. We sometimes forget that there are two realities.”
For Álvaro Loza, being a good vigneron can be accomplished both with owned and leased vineyards. "It depends on the person. Within the same village you wouldn't know the difference between leased and owned vineyards," said Loza, a member of the Martes of Wine group and with experience in harvests from Tasmania and Napa to Champagne.
When asked how to reconcile the traditional structure of small winegrowers in Rioja with the large investments in vineyards by powerful wine businesses, López de Lacalle said that vineyard segmentation is essential. "We are in a global world; to maintain our identity, we must emphasise the importance of the territory and ensure that there are small areas with traditional winegrowers," said the Alavese producer, who owns vineyards in Laguardia, Zarautz, Navarra and Alicante.
Roc Gramona, for his part, mentioned Miguel Torres and his idea of organising collective brands or DOs to really help small growers, including the redistribution of vineyards. "This will mean more obstacles for the big groups, but it is the only way for wine growing regions to strike a balance, as is the case in Champagne, Priorat or Bierzo. And vineyard distribution should favour young winegrowers rather than large companies."
Inevitably, they mentioned the low grape prices and shared their thoughts on how they would reverse the situation. Quintana spoke of the need to regulate supply and demand: "if there were half as many grapes 40 years ago and things worked, it's easy to see where things should change,” while Loza suggested we look to Champagne, where he thinks there is a balance: "Nobody sells vines there; growers generate enough money and if a plot is sold, it's the grower next door who buys it. They have learned to create a solid business and have the purchasing power.”
López de Lacalle proposed a return to the model of grower and producer, as in Champagne, encouraging small growers to also produce wine, while Gramona believes that a natural selection in the production model is inevitable to achieve a balance. "Our yields will drop by half, 50% due to the drought this year, but the prices paid by the big companies have only risen two cents at the most. We are seeing more and more growers installing solar panels in their vineyards.”
In a debate that could have gone on for a long time -at least for us at the table- we also discussed the need to establish a definition of what an old vineyard is and its quality perception (Gramona said that for sparkling wines, where acidity, low pH and large clusters are required, old vines are generally not the best), whether regenerative viticulture is just a buzzword or a revolutionary concept (mixed opinions), and the use of water in the vineyard.
On this point, López de Lacalle was firmly against irrigation, even in his vineyard in Alicante, while Gramona confessed that it is a regular bone of contention with his father. "If only we had water I could come to believe in irrigation if done well, but at this moment in Penedès we have no choice but to opt for fewer plants per hectare, vigorous rootstocks, indigenous variety selection seeking resilience to drought and 6000kg/ha instead of 12,000 kg/ha but with optimal bunches.”
The third round table focused on wine styles, with the participation of Eduardo Eguren (Cuentaviñas), Judit and Juan Valdelana (Valdelana), Juan Príncipe (César Príncipe) and Martina P. Pariente (Prieto Pariente and José Pariente). As all the speakers belong to wine dynasties, the moderator, Lorea Mendizabal, a professor at the Basque Culinary Centre, began by asking them about the influence of family tradition on their wines.
"The best thing is to learn from your mistakes and find your own way," said Eduardo Eguren, who left his father's winery and the opportunity to make wines such as Teso La Monja or El Puntido to start his own project in Rioja with vineyards inherited from his maternal grandfather. On the other hand, the rest of the panel admitted to having followed a more continuist line. At Valdelana, Juan and Judit said they had adapted to "trends and what young people are looking for,” while Príncipe is still learning to innovate. "I do not want to change, I want to improve the wines we make. Our Clarete is and will always be the same; what I am going to do is launch some new wines or new styles.”
Martina P. Pariente, who emphasised her mother's legacy as a pioneer of modern winemaking in Rueda, said she had introduced changes at José Pariente gradually, focusing on vineyard classification. "We shouldn't underestimate a wine that works," said Pariente, alluding to the estate's successful entry-level Verdejo, of which Bodegas José Pariente produces more than half a million bottles. "But we try to have our own identity in Rueda, without selling out to fashion.
Eguren made an interesting observation on the question of wine styles. "One of the things we have a problem with in Spain is that we are the kings of imitation and discounting. The old labels of some of the century-old wineries in Rioja had Chablis style, Burgundy style or Bordeaux style printed on them. I think that prevents us from growing as professionals. It is a mistake to define a wine in terms of its style; it must be associated with the land, the grape variety and the soul of the person who is trying to convey these elements.”
The panel also discussed trends and wine consumption among young people. For Príncipe, "wine for young people has already been invented,” and he cited the example of the clarete wines made in his home region of Cigales, because they are an easy way to start drinking wine. The producer from Rueda agreed, defending the idea of kalimotxo (a popular blend of red wine and Coca-Cola in Spain) or low-alcohol wines in cans as an outlet for grapes that would otherwise end up being distilled. But she pointed out that the latter two are entirely different businesses to bottled wine. "Wine in cans is great; if only 10% of festival-goers start drinking wine that way, that's a good thing. Our palates evolve and become more sophisticated over time.”
To conclude the discussion, Eguren warned against the temptation to respond to the demand for lower-alcohol wines, even at the risk of losing the identity of an area, and recommended "being more professional, avoiding being too patronising with young people and continuing to look for added value in the wines we make.”
The final round table, chaired by Elisa Ucar, was joined by Estela Lecea (Bodegas Lecea), María Santolaya (Bodegas Roda, La Horra), Bertol Izagirre (Gorka Izagirre) and Pablo Nieto (La Lagareta). When asked about the best strategies for raising the visibility of a project, Nieto, who in addition to looking after his vineyard also offers wine tourism and rural revitalisation services, made a curious comparison. "In war you have tanks, guns and bazookas. To communicate, you have different tools and you shouldn't focus on just one of them. Instead, you should combine all of them, organising and setting goals, which is not usually done. Strategy is important and social media is a good tool, but the anchor must always be something physical.”
For Estela Lecea, who runs a successful wine tourism programme at her family's 16th-century winery in San Asensio, visits are her main means of communication. "Social media helps spread the word about our winery and our wines, but the grape-treading festival we hold every year at harvest time is the perfect excuse for visitors to come back and for us to be heard by the media. Word of mouth also helps us a lot".
This is also true in Roda, where the Barrio de la Estación attracts thousands of people every year, but María Santolaya stresses the need to have a clear plan and structure for every press release or Instagram post. "Marketing and communication are almost as important as the wines when it comes to presenting the brand," she said.
With 5% of the winery's budget spent on marketing, Bertol Izagirre does not believe that large investments are needed to effectively communicate a message through social media, but he does believe that it is important to manage it in-house.
This idea was shared by María Santolaya, who mentioned the 300 micro-videos she recorded of her father during the pandemic, in which he described the day-to-day life of the vineyard to an audience of people confined to their homes. "The videos had a huge impact and the investment was zero; all we needed was a mobile phone and to draft a script beforehand.” Of course, targeted communication, with tastings and press meetings, Santolaya said, is much more costly. "If the budget were unlimited, we would invest even more in this regard," she confessed.
On the question of whether fairs are still useful, Nieto called for more diverse formats involving end consumers. In the case of Roda, who take part in a handful of conventional fairs, they also welcome fairs with consumers, press or collectors, provided that they are carefully targeted to a selected audience. Meanwhile, Lecea suggested hosting more tourism-focused fairs and opening up Rioja to wine tourism. "What we have now is just the tip of the iceberg," she concluded.
Before moving on to the informal lunch, where each guest brought a bottle to share and where we tasted all sorts of wines and chatted casually, Joxe Mari Aizega announced a new edition of the event in 2024 and asked each person in the room to say one word that they felt should be central to the construction of the EDA. Emotion, Origin, Ambition, Creativity, Identity, Heritage and Commitment were just a handful of what the young wine talents want from this new education centre. A tall order, no doubt.