The evolution of Artuke is apparent the moment one crosses the entrance to their modest winery in Baños de Ebro (Rioja Alavesa). Next to a photo album with pictures of the De Miguel family cleaning their fermentation tanks, Arturo —harvest of 1981— keeps some old bottles with labels that were once modern. They stand in contrast with the polished, classic image of their wines these days. For him, they are a daily reminder of Artuke’s humble beginnings.
“We used to sell these bottles in Vitoria and Bilbao at €1.80; Artuke Crianza was born in 2005 and from 2009 it became Pies Negros and had a generic back label. The designers have refined me now,” jokes Arturo. “They said our labels were telling a totally different story to our wines and I realized that they were right.”
Like many other producers in Rioja, his father Roberto de Miguel, fourth generation of grape growers, stopped producing wine in bulk in 1991 to make his own young cosechero wines which he sold with his van across the Basque Country.
With his degree in Agriculture Engineering and a Masters in Winemaking, Arturo arrived at the family bodega in the 2000s. His intention was to put into practice all the teachings he had learnt at university. “I used to fight a lot with my dad. He macerated for six days, as it was traditional here. I had learnt that long macerations, 200% new oak and one bunch per vine were desirable things; you eventually realize that the wines are hiper-concentrated and that it makes no sense at all. The key word is balance,” he says.
The days of bling winemaking were gradually left behind and Artuke returned to the ways of the past thanks also to the study of soils they did in their plots, which showed their potential.
Now Arturo and his brother Kike, who joined Artuke in 2010 and spends most of his time on the vineyards, work their land like it was done 50 years ago and have returned to macerations that last six days (“if you work well in the vineyard and have moderate yields, there’s no need to force things at the winery”), cement containers, wooden vats and large 500- and 600-litre barrels, although they still use stainless steel tanks.
They don’t shy away from technology when they think it’s necessary, as it happened in 2018. “If you put a reduced wine into the wooden vat, it will be even more reduced so we have added a bit of oxygen in one of the tanks,” explains Arturo. “It’s not fashionable to say this, but it’s a useful tool. It does the work of a new barrel but without the wood intake.”
He also confesses to having used external yeasts when his own were not up to scratch, but his plan for the future is to ferment each of his four plots —Finca de Los Locos and La Condenada (Baños de Ebro), Paso Las Mañas (Samaniego) and El Escolladero (Ábalos)— with their own native yeasts. As a taster, Arturo and Kike selected 200 bunches from their vineyards in September, chose the best yeasts and created a yeast starter which was used to ferment the entire Artuke range of wines in 2018.
“We are autonomous in that sense, but to get to this point we’ve had to be technical and use a microscope. I don’t like to ferment with the yeasts that arrives directly from the vineyard,” explains Arturo. “This work is interesting but the trade doesn’t talk about this now. It seems that to be a cool grape grower these days you have to be a hipster, drive with a flat tyre and let yourself go. I think it’s best to have control over the whole process and then take your decisions.”
In that sense, he admires Francesc Grimalt, from 4 Kilos. “He reads a lot and studies the microbiology of the soils; that’s something few growers do. Who cares about finding out what happens with the roots in clay, granite or sand soils? I know you get sensorially different wines but I don’t know what’s the reason for them to be different. We still have a great deal to learn.”
Arturo and Kike are learning every day at Paso Las Mañas, a 3.9Ha vineyard on the highest slope in Samaniego which they planted in 2013 with Tempranillo from Finca De Los Locos, one of their single-vineyard wines.
All of their plots are organic and head-pruned in the traditional way, but vines in Paso Las Mañas had to be trained because the wind, which blows relentlessly, ruined 300 plants in the second year. “It wasn’t the shoots that were broken but the head of the graft so we decided that we either tipped the vines severely or we had to look for an alternative system. We don’t like the trellis [their last one dates from 2007] so we travelled to Switzerland and the Rhône three times to look at other training methods,” explains Arturo.
Now they green prune and tie each plant’s vegetation to a post with organic rope on the same day. “In Baños, where we use this system on an old vineyard, we can green prune and wait a couple of weeks to tie the plants. In Samaniego, we have to be faster,” he points out. “We are only two kilometres away from Baños but the climate is very different. Vines in Samaniego are harvested a month later than the rest of our vineyards.”
This difference is palpable on the wines: Finca de Los Locos feels beefier and riper, whereas Paso Las Mañas is thinner and less unctuous although tannins are firm. “I call them the tannins of the cold; they take more time to polish,” says Arturo, who compares this style of wine in terms of colour and tannins with Barolo.
La Condenada, in Baños de Ebro, is another vineyard they are learning from since 2012, when they purchased it. Planted in 1920 with Tempranillo, Graciano, Garnacha and Calagraño (Palomino) on sandy and sandstone soils, the De Miguel brothers cleaned it and rescued it from neglect to make a field blend, single-vineyard wine. The devastating effects of mildew in Baños de Ebro —where Artuke lost 10,000kg of grapes— kept production down to 600 litres in 2018.
They are in the process of recovering a beautiful 800m² plot surrounded by holm oaks and two terraces on a side of La Condenada. Although they were neglected for a few years after a fire, spurs are growing from some of the vines hidden among the high grass. “Our goal is to maintain the style of viticulture that was traditionally done here.” In order to achieve it, they are gradually buying small abandoned plots next to La Condenada that used to be part of the vineyard. For now, they have managed to group 7.5Ha.
“It’s an example of what’s happening here. It used to belong to a couple, their children leave to go to college, stay there to live and when the parents die, the vineyard is abandoned,” explains Arturo, who doubts there is an easy solution to the problem of depopulation in rural areas. “Life is good here but it’s hard to have a doctor only twice a week or having to drive to Villabuena to go to the chemist. Internet helps but I regret that my kids don’t have more friends to play with. There are only 15 children aged 0 to 12 years old,” he points out. In other villages of Rioja, the situation is even more dramatic.
Arturo accepts that his children might not follow in his footsteps, but both he and his brother are set on working the 25 hectares they own. He’d rather have half this amount of vineyards and sell the wine at double the price —many around him encourage him to do that— but he doesn’t see himself doing that, at least for now. “Of course that our work, a great deal of it manual, must be paid at a fair price but right now I don’t think I can sell my single-single-vineyard wines at €200,” confesses Arturo. “It’s not that I don’t want to earn more money, but everything needs to be balanced and have consistency. It seems as if a wine, just because it comes from a single vineyard, needs to be expensive. It doesn’t.”
He also thinks that the origins of Artuke play an important role in the image of their wines. “I’ve always complained that we didn’t have a godfather. Having worked with producers like Telmo Rodríguez, Raúl Pérez or Pétrus helps to get people to trust you, but that hasn’t bee the case with us. We were born as cosecheros and we have made a name for ourselves through our own work. It’s a hindrance when it comes to increasing prices; people don’t understand that wines have a higher value now because farming costs are higher.” This is especially the case in the local market, but they don’t want to let it go because it is an important part of their sales. “We want to continue selling in the Basque Country because that’s what we have always done and it helps with liquidity.”
Although they pondered the possibility of attending Prowein with the rest of Rioja’n’Roll producers, Artuke does not see this group as a springboard to increase their international visibility or as a marketing tool; it’s rather a group of friends with a similar vision of wine. “We try to get together once a month for dinner or for specific tastings like Tim Atkin’s or the Masters of Wine Symposium in Logroño earlier this year. Prowein didn’t grant us space so I went with Tom [Puyaubert] and Bryan [MacRobert],” says Arturo. “It’s all about having a good time; the more time we spend together, the more we enjoy each other’s company. It’s no good forcing things to make them happen.”
With the rest of the Rioja’n’Roll crowd in general, he shares a scepticism towards the regulations of the Rioja Control Board. Artuke wines will not carry the official Village or Viñedo Singular labels. “I’m not going to say that I will abandon the Big Brother house but I feel increasingly disappointed with their actions and their obstacles. Why can’t I label all of my wines with the name of my village? In the end, they will have to create a category called Illegal Rioja for those of us who do not identify with this classification,” complains Arturo.
The brothers are also clear about their role as grape growers and refuse to ever become “managers”. Their business model is designed for 170,000 bottles, 10,000 more than their current production. Most of them (140,000) are labelled as Artuke and Pies Negros, their village wines, and the rest are limited productions of their single-vineyard wines. “If you want to make 300,000 bottles you need to hire a couple of workers [they have two now] and worry about selling them to pay the wages.”
They like the Burgundian model, where a grower can make a good living with just a few hectares. “In spite of the differences, because this is Spain and the image of wine here needs to be gradually improved, that’s the model we look up to.”
But not everything in Burgundy is exciting. Of all his travels to wine growing areas, “my biggest disillusion was in Burgundy when I saw the uniformity of the landscape,” confesses Arturo. “I love the way they have classified their vineyard but I was much more impressed in Côte Rotie or Hermitage. In terms of the landscape, Ribeira Sacra in Galicia is a million times more breathtaking.” He adds: “Something else I don’t like that idea that everybody makes Burgundy-style wines now. I think Spain should look like Spain; we must have our own personality.”
A little before the end of our visit, Arturo has a final confession to make. “I almost planted Verdejo in 2007 but I later realized that we must be loyal to our origins. When American clients are tasting our wines, they ought to taste our history and tradition, not a technological wine,” muses the oldest of the Artuke brothers. “It’s not about making the best wine in the world; we’d rather make original, unique wines.”