“Making wine in different areas of Spain has delocalised us,” remarked Pedro Ruiz Aragoneses one morning in mid-September amidst the great excitement of seeing the first grapes entering the new Pago de Carraovejas winery in Rioja.
Rioja is the last stop of a major expansion started a few years ago by the Ribera del Duero group. In 2013, they acquired Ossian’s pre-phylloxera Verdejo vineyards in Segovia; they set foot in Galicia with the purchase of cult producer Emilio Rojo and Viña Meín in 2019; and in 2018, they ventured into new frontiers in Ribera del Duero with Milsetentayseis to grow high-elevation vineyards in the village of Fuentenebro, in Burgos.
Until not so long ago, the success of powerful, structured reds not only led many Rioja producers to rethink the style of their wines. Some of them also decided to establish a second winery in Ribera del Duero. The list includes names like Roda with Corimbo, Luis Cañas and Dominio de Cair, La Rioja Alta and Áster, or Ramón Bilbao with Cruz de Alba. But the growing interest in balanced, complex, lighter wines is shifting the focus towards Rioja, all the more so since Vega Sicilia, in partnership with Baron Benjamin de Rothschild, settled in Rioja Alavesa in the late 2000s.
The first harvest of Carraovejas in Rioja was expected to be a quiet one. They had reached an agreement with the Eguíluz family, exemplary growers from San Vicente de la Sonsierra and producers of the Cupani brand, to source grapes from around 12 hectares of land which they planned to process in rented facilities. However, the opportunity arose to acquire the Hermanos Laredo Villanueva winery in Leza, and everything changed radically. While half the world slowed down because of the pandemic, they went full steam ahead with the unexpected change of plans.
With the refurbishment work not yet completed, new tanks just brought in, the bodega crew sharing the space with the builders and the hustle and bustle of cars and lorries, rarely has this village of little over 200 inhabitants seen so much activity.
The mood was very different the following day at Baños de Ebro, also in Rioja Alavesa, where the García family, owners of Mauro, Garmón and San Román in the Duero valley, has chosen to settle. Albeit slightly smaller, their winery is also in the village, but it is enough to handle the grapes they source from the four hectares of old vines that the family has bought in the vicinity of Baños de Ebro.
During our visit, we found it striking that the harvest had finished on September 18th. “We were among the first to pick grapes here,” said producer and Rioja’n’Roll member, Tom Puyaubert, who is also “the García’s man” in Rioja. He is a very close friend of technical director Eduardo García and both share a similar understanding of the world of wine.
“Grapes had aromatic ripeness, good acidity and the rain was imminent,” manager Alberto García adds over the phone. He also confirms that their Rioja will be very different from the reds they produce in the Duero valley: “Lighter, but with depth, more aerial and vertical, but not lacking in substance.”
They have decided to make the wine first and then carry out the renovation work. Designed to work by gravity, the winery has concrete tanks that the family will continue to use. The best feature is the underground cellars -moving the wine will be a little more complicated on a daily basis, but they provide the ideal conditions for the long ageing times that they have in mind.
“Rioja is a personal challenge to enjoy and get excited about rather than a matter of money or vanity. As is the case with Bierzo [the family sources grapes from this region to produce a white and they have plans to make a red], Rioja is not far from Valladolid [their base in Castilla y León] and we can get there on a daily basis,” Alberto points out.
"This is going to be an artisan venture with fewer than 15,000 or 20,000 bottles," he adds. Vineyards are being reconverted to organics, animal traction is planned and two wines, a red and a white ("we have 4,000 kg of white grapes in four hectares") will be produced. They plan to age the red in barrels for at least two years and perhaps one year extra for the white, as their Viura seems to have very good ageing potential. In any case, both wines will be released as generic Rioja and will have a strong village character, since most of the vineyards are located in Baños de Ebro. Consumers will have to be patient and wait between three or four years before they can taste the finished wines.
As for Carraovejas, all roads lead to Leza. A few years ago, the Ruiz family was about to buy a winery in this village. The deal didn't finally go through, but Pedro still remembers the beauty of the landscape: "There was such energy and a very special light on the Sierra de Cantabria mountains that I got goose bumps". Now it is clear to him that Leza deserves more recognition. "I like the idea of being at the heart of the village and the people have welcomed us warmly. There are top-class names in Laguardia and San Vicente, but not in Leza, whose grapes have nourished producers in other places. We still have a lot of listening and learning work to do, but we would like to create something great here."
The first vintage will be limited to grapes sourced from the Eguíluz family in San Vicente. Chief winemaker Patricia Benítez, who is also in charge of Milsetentayseis in Ribera del Duero, confirmed a few days ago that they had processed 80,000 kg on the 2020 vintage, 10.000 of which being white grapes.
Pedro Ruiz Aragoneses says opportunities are emerging to buy old vines from growers who cannot pass the baton to anyone in the family or whose children prefer to work with higher yielding vines. “All the plots we are going to tend in Leza are great vineyards,” Ruiz Aragoneses points out enthusiastically. Our goal in the mid-term is to own between 15 and 20 hectares of vines and produce around 300,000 bottles”. All the vineyards that they may acquire will be converted to organic farming.
In addition, they want their Rioja wines to be at the same quality and price or even higher than their Riberas. "Why should Rioja wines be cheaper?," complains Ruiz Aragoneses, who also sees a strong contradiction between land and wine prices. "In Ribera you can buy a good vineyard for €30,000 or €40,000 per hectare; in Rioja Alavesa, old vineyards range from €100,000 to €120,000 per hectare".
Alberto Garcia shares a similar impression after discovering the great diversity of landscapes, soils, exposures, grape varieties and plant material in the old vineyards. The García family is also delighted with the warm welcome they have enjoyed in the area.
Such enthusiastic views could well encourage new initiatives from Ribera del Duero towards Rioja.