“I have practiced a return-to-the-past wine growing philosophy until very recently”, Miguel Ángel de Gregorio explains on a beautiful sunny day in February while he drives me around some of his vineyards in Briones (Rioja Alta).
“But it turns out that I’m living in a kind of everlasting eve. In the world of wine, it’s almost impossible to be up to date,” he moans. “Now I understand how winegrowing was done in the old days, but I feel a step behind because the challenges of today are different from the ones we faced 20 years ago”. The most disturbing concerns, he says, are wood diseases (“of colossal intensity”) and climate change (“we still fail to really understand what it means.”)
Were it not for this context, it would be unthinkable for a producer like him, who has vehemently championed terroir in Rioja, to install irrigation in some vineyards. “In 2012 and 2015 we had to carry water to Mártires (Finca Allende’s top vineyard for white grapes) and the only reason we didn’t have to do it again in 2017 was the low yields caused by frost and drought,” he explains.
A leading figure in the wine revolution that shook Rioja in the 1990s, De Gregorio had probably never paid so much attention to his vineyards as he does now.
Planting material is proof of how fast things are changing. “Almost 20 years ago our selection criteria was based on quality: we looked for loose bunches, high polyphenol content, resistance to botrytis…,” De Gregorio explains. “Now our number one priority is to find plants that are resistant to wood diseases.”
Finca Allende has so far gathered 84 different biotypes of Tempranillo and Graciano reflecting the biodiversity found in their vineyards in the hope that they may be of help in such an uncertain future. Series 30 and 40 come from Mingortiz and Gaminde respectively, the two plots that provide the grapes for Allende’s new single-vineyard reds. Other biotypes have been the basis for some of the new high-quality Tempranillo clones offered by nursery Vitis Navarra.
There is a huge difference between these Tempranillo clones and those in the market in the 1970s, which favoured high yields. According to De Gregorio, who has some of the latter planted in Gaminde, one just has to taste the grapes of these neighbouring plots to realise the difference in quality between them.
As well as the planting material, Finca Allende is also looking into water stress in the vineyards. “As Tempranillo is rich in anthocyanins but not in tannins, we have been rather obsessed with tannins and have gone too far in our search of water stress which I don’t think is a good thing for vines,” he explains.
“Today is more important to know what kind of tannins we are working with,” De Gregorio points out. “Water stress results in harsh tannins; avoiding water stress means finer tannins.” He made me taste two samples from two different vintages to prove his point: 2017 -a dry year with hydric stress and harsh tannins- versus 2016, much gentler given the lack of stress.
All Finca Allende vineyards are in Briones and neighbouring villages on the right bank of the river Ebro. With a little over 1,300Ha under vine, it is one of Rioja’s most important villages in terms of surface under vine. De Gregorio praises this area’s northern exposure which gets less protection from the Sierra de Cantabria than vineyards on the slopes of the opposite bank. “Soils are reddish in colour compared to those in San Vicente and elevation rises from 420m to 620m,” he adds.
We stop by at La Cenzana, a vineyard with red clay topsoils and gravel that De Gregorio described as “the archetype of Briones”. The calcareous gravel substrate —a legacy of the ancient river course— allows roots to develop well into the subsoil and, according to him, explains the minerality of the wines.
Miguel Ángel de Gregorio first arrived in Briones in 1986 to carry out a study on mechanical harvest. During his stay, he had the chance to taste red wines that had been stored in the calados (underground cellars) for 20 years and were surprisingly lively. All of them had been fermented with whole clusters following the local cosechero tradition and had been aged in old barrels. When he joined Bodegas Bretón as technical director, almost half of his grape purchases were made here. Unsurprisingly, when he set up on his own, he chose Briones.
Finca Allende’s first vintages used an old cosechero winery and De Gregorio made his wines in a very similar way to those he had fallen in love with. During my visit, he generously opened a 1997 that showed the deep, meaty character and decadent, rich style that caught his attention such a long time ago. He didn’t need his top wines —Aurus or Calvario— to prove the ageing capacity of his wines.
In recent times, Finca Allende has been planting four to five new hectares per year to reach a total surface of 74Ha with two additional hectares set to be planted this year. Despite this progress, the average age of the vines is 55 years. Some little gems like La Maza, planted in 1901, help to improve the statistics. According to De Gregorio, this is the oldest registered plot in the entire appellation. La Maza produces grapes of high quality but not outstanding so as to produce a single-vineyard wine, so they are usually destined to the flagship red Finca Allende, which tries to transmit the character of Briones in every new vintage.
De Gregorio thinks that the concept of old age in a vine has changed in the 21st century. “In the past we would say a vineyard was old at 40 or 50 years of age. Nowadays, a 25-year-old vineyard can be at its peak.”
Until very recently Finca Allende's high-end range included Aurus, a wine sourced from north-facing high elevation vineyards that tries to reflect Rioja’s Atlantic character, and two single-vineyard reds. De Gregorio acknowledges it was "love at first sight" with his Calvario vineyard, whereas Mártires is a vineyard that radiates a special energy -a Celtic sanctuary once stood there and the chapel of the Holy Martyrs (hence the name of the wine) was built there afterwards. From a vinous point of view, its clay-loam soils sets Mártires apart from any other plots in the vicinity.
The new 2015 single-vineyard reds come after a laborious process. For more than 10 years, wines from 14 different vineyards have been fermented and aged separately in order to study whether the influence of terroir was always present regardless of vintage variations. Four vineyards were finally shortlisted but two of them were discarded: one of them didn’t perform well in hot vintages; the other needed long cellaring to express its real potential. The newly released single-vineyard reds retail below Mártires and Calvario and show distinctive, almost opposed styles.
Gaminde (around €50) occupies 14 hectares but only four of them are employed to make wine. At an elevation of 495 metres, this eastern-exposed vineyard planted to Tempranillo and tilled with horses features Briones’s archetypal soils (clay with gravel in depth and a little bit on the surface). The wine is distinctively firm and mineral with nicely ripe fruit and chocolate notes; it feels relatively fresh despite its 15% alcohol.
We couldn’t get to Mingortiz (around €45) because of the heavy (and very welcome) rain on previous days, but we were able to contemplate it from afar. Planted in 1964, this southern-exposed vineyard stands at 515m above sea level on clay-limestone soils. This wine is lighter than Gaminde: an aerial, fragrant, spicy red with well-defined red fruit followed by a fresh, juicy palate.
It was interesting to taste these two wines alongside Calvario which showed more depth and intensity and felt almost chewy with outstanding length and plenty of life ahead. It is obvious that Miguel Ángel de Gregorio wants to add new terroir-driven wines to his range to fill the gap between his village wine (Finca Allende) and the high-end range retailing over €80.
Hopefully De Gregorio, who is devoted to his vineyards, will carry on capturing the soul of this beautiful spot in Rioja Alta.