It has taken Marqués de Riscal three decades to launch a white version of Barón de Chirel after releasing their red Rioja with the 1986 vintage. This red, whose grapes are sourced from very old vineyards planted in the early 20th century in Elciego (Rioja Alavesa), is often presented as the modern version of the legendary Reserva Médoc. In contrast, Barón de Chirel white is made from Rueda’s most ancient Verdejo vines located in the southeastern end of the appellation in the province of Segovia (Castilla y León).
Sandy soils are the main peculiarity of this area, which includes villages like Nieva, Aldenaueva and Aldehuela del Codonal, which was saved from phylloxera. Sand is typically found on the surface but if you dig 80cm underneath, the gravelly-sandy layers are capable of storing water. Further below, many roots manage to reach the limestone layer.
For a long time, winegrowers have planted their vines ungrafted so now pre- and post- phylloxera plants coexist. The area’s relative isolation has helped to preserve this heritage turning it into Rueda’s largest concentration of old bush vines. In contrast with other areas, Verdejo grows closer to the ground here, with bunches almost touching the ground. Vines with entangled cordons are grouped in small plots with many plants missing between rows.
“My father had already bought grapes in Segovia when Marqués de Riscal set up its project in Rueda; at that time there weren’t many Verdejo vines in Valladolid [the largest-producing province with villages like Rueda, La Seca or Medina del Campo], but as plantings increased, we started to pick our own grapes so it didn’t make much sense to purchase grapes from so far away”.
A legendary name in Rioja, Marqués de Riscal settled in Rueda in 1972 confident that the region had all the necessary elements to make quality white wines on a relatively large scale in Spain. They pioneered the fresh, fruity style that reigns in the white wines made in this DO, launched the first single-varietal Verdejo, followed the recommendation of professor Boubals from the University of Montpellier to plant Sauvignon Blanc (1970s Verdejo wasn’t very aromatic) and made the first modern barrel-aged Verdejo under the Marqués de Riscal Limousine brand.
Riscal didn’t set its eyes on Segovia until some years after Luis Hurtado de Amézaga’s arrival in 2003. “In 2007 we started buying grapes from bush vines to add volume and acidity to our Marqués de Riscal Verdejo, but without changing the style. Shortly after, we started fermenting specific plots separately in 600-litre barrels. Now we process around 200,000 kilos of grape from the area”, explains winemaker Luis Hurtado.
Barón de Chirel (€36.90 at Ideavinos or via Wine Seacrher) is not a single-vineyard white but “it captures the essence of the soils and vineyards found in Segovia,” according to Luis. For the first 2014 vintage (2,500 bottles) they brought in grapes from two plots; a third one has been added for the 2015 vintage, whose 5,700 bottles will soon be released. Another important decision was to stop using the DO Rueda seal for this wine: “We wanted to express our dissatisfaction with many of the things going on in the appellation”, explains Luis. The fall-out with the Regulatory Board dates back to 2014 when under Pablo del Villar’s presidency, Riscal issued a complaint to the Castilla y León authorities for the alleged failure to comply with wine quality controls.
According to Luis Hurtado de Amézaga, the style of wines from Segovia is particularly mineral. They are quite understated on the nose and definitely need some cellaring time to develop and open up, but they have volume, depth and complexity on the palate. Undoubtedly, they boast a singular Verdejo personality within Rueda.
It’s worth comparing Barón de Chirel with Finca Montico (€13.90 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher), until now Marqués de Riscal’s single-vineyard flagship Verdejo. Grapes for Montico are sourced from a nine-hectare plot planted with bush vines in La Seca’s traditional terraces near the Duero River. Cuttings were taken from very old vineyards owned by local winegrower and purveyor Ángel Rodríguez Vidal whose signature Verdejo Martínsancho is made at Riscal’s winery in Rueda. Although exotic aromas are not strident —spontaneous fermentation is the norm in all of Riscal’s top whites— Finca Montico Verdejo feels more aromatic with fennel, pineapple and white fruit notes followed by a well-defined palate, yet very far from Chirel’s mouth-filling experience.
Marqués de Riscal owns 230 hectares in the area and controls 300-350 more to produce around four million white wine bottles. They are now focused on expanding their own surface under vine. “I buy every single old vineyard that falls into my hands and convert it to organic growing,” says Luis Hurtado.
He is particularly proud of having over 200 organically certified hectares and 20% from his purveyors. “Switching to organic winegrowing is not that expensive or laborious”, he explains. “Yields typically fall 20%, but we pay a bonus to winegrowers controlling yields. We ask for a maximum of 7,500 kilos per hectare compared to 10,000 kilos permitted by the Regulatory Board.”
Dry weather conditions in the area are good for organic winegrowing. “Threats are mostly reduced to oidium which can be treated with powered sulphur. We use sexual confusion to fight moths and we add copper in spring when necessary. Copper taints the ground water and it can be a problem for aromas if applied late because it reacts with thiols,” Luis explains.
He also wants to plant more bush vines, a tradition which is increasingly rare in an area where over 90% of the grapes are mechanically picked and many traditional vineyards have been trellised.
Riscal has recently acquired a 23Ha estate in Nieva (Segovia) with schist soils; Luis wants to plant it as it was done in the past, starting with the plant root and grafting the Verdejo cane one year after. Schist is rare in Rueda but Luis —a confessed lover of wines made on this type of soils in the Rhône, Loire or Priorat— was well aware of the existence of a schist vein stretching from Ortigosa del Monte, on the foothills of the Guadarrama mountain range, to the nearby village of Bernardos. It is not unreasonable to think that Riscal may release at some point a single-vineyard, single-varietal Verdejo from this distinctive soil.
Other recent acquisitions include 77Ha of vineyards with gravelly soils in Rueda. Distributed in four different locations, they are due to be planted over the next two years.
Riscal’s premium range, including Barón de Chirel, Finca Montico and Limousin, benefits from specific winemaking practices and has notably benefitted from the new small presses which perform a soft crushing on the intake with maceration lasting just the time it takes to fill the press. “Verdejo’s famous bitter edge isn’t as much a varietal feature as a result of maceration; mechanical harvesting involves a certain degree of maceration,” Luis points out.
After a soft press, the must is gently settled (“turbidity is not bad”) and not particularly protected (“a bit of oxidation is good for a less reductive winemaking process”). No sulphur is added prior to fermentation given that they work with natural yeasts.
Barón de Chirel is fermented in foudres and in 600-litre vats. Stockinger, the Austrian producer, is a real favourite of Luis because “they are great at preserving minerality and don’t mask the fruit.” The lees of Finca Montico are aged in stainless steel tanks but the final blend includes wine aged in an oval foudre. Marqués de Riscal Limousine (€15.90 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher) is probably the wine with a more obvious evolution in its style. It is aged for six to seven months in 600-litre barrels compared to the 10 months it used to spend in 225-litre oak barrels. The final bottling is a selection of the best barrels; the remaining wine (around 30,000 litres) goes for the approximately 2.5 million bottles produced for Marqués de Riscal Verdejo, its flagship white in the area.
Limousin has not only benefited from less oak presence (even if toasted notes reveal its aging in oak); it has also gained consistence thanks to the inclusion of about 30% of grapes sourced from some of the best plots in Segovia which for some time now have been fermented separately.
Luis Hurtado de Amézaga expects to raise the bar higher by converting Finca Montico and the vineyard with schist soils in Nieva to biodynamics. He also wants to experiment with concrete eggs in the new bodega destined to house Riscal’s top whites after the company bought Prado Rey’s neighbouring facilities in Rueda last September. With so much additional space at his disposal, Luis is eager to add cooling chambers and to increase wine tourism activities in the area.
They are looking forward to apply Rioja’s successful model in Rueda. In 2016 Riscal’s state-of-the-art winery in Elciego received 100,000 visitors. They will not have a luxury hotel designed by Frank Gehry, as they have in Rioja, but they plan to benefit from its location next to the A6 road that makes them so visible.
They are set to allocate some space for training activities in Rueda in line with Aula Marqués de Riscal, heir to the one started by Marqués de Arienzo in Rioja and whose vineyards and brand were absorbed by Marqués de Riscal in 2010.
"Bringing people to your home is money well-spent,” says Luis Hurtado de Amézaga. However, an increasingly important amount of their wines are sourced from Segovia, more than 60 kilometers away in a southeasterly direction.