At a time when most producers (at least in Spain) are broadening their range of wines and adding a wide array of specialties like single-vineyard, varietal or experimental wines to their portfolio, brothers Eduardo and Víctor Hernáiz have decided to go against the tide. “This is the result of 20 years of work,” explains Eduardo Hernáiz. “We have realized that we can make better wines by blending different elements.”
In 1996, the Hernáiz family bought a 101-hectare estate in Baños de Rioja, 12 kilometres from Haro on the northwestern end of the appellation. The name Finca La Emperatriz refers to its former owner, Eugenia de Montijo, the last empress of France and wife of Napoléon III. The property was later owned by the house of Alba.
With 80 hectares of vines including old plots and new ones planted by the Hernáiz family, the estate has been producing good value Crianza and Reserva wines, a couple of structured single-vineyard reds (Terruño and Nº 1), a highly distinctive Garnacha and an old-vine Viura with the ability to age.
The latter four, which helped the brothers to gain a better understanding of their terroir, have been replaced by two new premium wines, a white and a red, which are set to be released later this month. Both wines are from the 2016 vintage, share the same presentation (see photo above) and will be sold for around €35-€40. This is a bold move -it is rather unusual in Spain to set identical prices for reds and whites sourced from the same vineyard. To attest the high expectations, the name Finca La Emperatriz is followed by the words Gran Vino (like in Bordeaux’s Grand Vin). The wines are expected to join the Viñedo Singular category from the 2017 vintage.
The move goes hand in hand with the reshuffle of the family's vinous assets with a new company name, Hermanos Hernáiz, which goes beyond Finca La Emperatriz. The new additions include Las Cenizas, a new red they have been producing from their vineyards in Cenicero since the 2015 vintage and the entry level El Pedal. El Pedal is a fruit-driven, second-year wine aged in concrete and seasoned barrels which blends grapes from all the family’s vineyards -apart from Finca La Emperatriz, they grow 30 hectares in Cenicero, Fuenmayor, Navarrete and Hornos de Moncalvillo, all of them in Rioja Alta. All the wines are produced at their wine facilities in Finca La Empeatriz, so under current Rioja regulations, Las Cenizas cannot be labelled as a village wine. With very few exceptions, all grapes are sourced from the family’s vineyards.
The Hernáiz brothers have not been afraid to label their wines as ‘Gran Vino’. “In 2014, after 15 years fermenting and ageing grapes from the estate, we set apart four to six barrels of a wine made in the old Rioja style”, Eduardo recalls. The idea was to blend "Tempranillo from a cold area with Garnacha providing high acidity and silky, round tannins, plus a good number of white grapes.”
These trials have culminated in the current Finca La Emperatriz Gran Vino 2016. Ángel Ortega, a professional with extensive experience in Rioja (Bodegas Corral, Izadi), has played a key role in the style of the wine. “He is a classic winemaker with a contemporary spirit,” says Eduardo Hernáiz.
In fact, the blend of 70% Tempranillo, 25% Garnacha and 5% Viura is in line with many historic Rioja wines. With 41.876 bottles in its first vintage, the three varieties are fermented together with natural yeasts. It is an estate wine, but the addition of Garnacha and Viura helps to tame the rustic tannins of Tempranillos grown at Finca La Emperatriz. Hernáiz thinks that this rusticity has to do with the cool, continental microclimate of the property which lies beyond the influence of the Ebro river (“this is an extreme area of Rioja Alta”) and the poor alluvial soils with sand and gravel. “Given the low content of clay and the absence of a limestone bedrock, found in other areas of Rioja Alta, there is very little water retention and soils resemble those in the Médoc in Bordeaux,” says Hernáiz.
The main challenge is to find a good balance between the different grape varieties. “Picking dates are marked by Tempranillo; Garnacha is harvested earlier than usual but low yields help us to obtain a spicy rather than green profile. Viura is the trickiest one because you can end up harvesting green or overripe grapes.”
Once the grapes are cold macerated, fermentation takes place in concrete tanks without extended time with the skins. Malolactic fermentation is done in barrel and the wine is aged for 18 months. There are distinctive spicy notes (pepper, cumin) in most of the wines from the Finca La Emperatriz estate, in this case with firm black fruit and meaty nuances on the background. This wine is really savoury and sapid, with lively acidity and serious, ripe tannins. There is an undisputed cellaring potential.
The white (16,756 bottles on the 2016 vintage) comes from a selection of the three oldest Viura plots in the property. Half of the wine is fermented in concrete vats and the other half in barrel; afterwards, the wine spends 10 months in 225-litre barrels (but they are starting to introduce 500-litre barrels), a year in concrete tanks and an additional year in bottle before its release. According to Eduardo, combining different vessels helps to dilute the weight of oak in contrast with the former Cepas Viejas which was fully aged in barrels, even if it developed nicely with time. Bâtonnage and oak ageing times have been reduced. Thus, the new Gran Vino white delivers a serious profile with excellent ingredients to age, a broad, savoury palate and fine oxidative ageing.
Both wines labelled as Gran Vino will be released as Reserva. Eduardo Hernáiz didn’t want to renounce to “a word which is strongly linked to those great old Riojas from the 1950s and 1960s which have been a source of great enjoyment and inspiration.”
In terms of the 2016 vintage, Eduardo points out that it was a good vintage for producers who own vineyards and were able to control yields. “We even had to throw bunches in old vines.”
The revamp of their wine range has gone hand in hand with a refurbished winery and a firm decision to work with concrete. “I like our concrete vats because of their size and shape: they are small, equally wide and tall and perfect to age wines,” Hernáiz explains. “Stainless steel is fine for fermentation, but I don’t like to keep my wines in it; in any case, I don’t like to work exclusively with concrete.”
Paradoxically, the Hernáiz brothers are more concerned about the changes in their entry level range than with their new premium wines. The new Jardín de la Emperatriz Crianza, which will take the place of the former Crianza and Reserva, is set to be released in January 2020. “We have followed the Bordeaux model of the second wine, but have tried to keep the style of the old labels,” Eduardo explains.
In spite of the “commercial vertigo” that this change involves, Hernáiz describes the new Jardín de la Emperatriz as “an improved Crianza” as it includes batches from the top red plus small additions of Garnacha and Maturana Tinta. It shares the spicy, meaty character of the Gran Vino, but the sweet, seasoned fruit and earthy nuances prevail. It is a well-made, straightforward, easy-to-drink red. At €10 retail price in Spain, it offers great value.160,000 bottles were produced in the 2017 vintage, but the family expects to reach 250,000 bottles in the future. The Jardín de la Emperatriz brand also features a young white (60,000 bottles in the 2017 vintage).
The icing on the cake is the impending organic certification which certifies the practices they had de facto carried out for some time. Following the reorganisation of their wine assets, the Hernáiz family will be producing between 400,000 and 500,000 bottles.
Ultimately, the move tries to capture the essence of Rioja and the lessons learnt after 20 years of work in the estate. Starting prices are very reasonable, although they expect appreciation of their two new premium wines to go in crescendo. A story of courage and maturity in Rioja.