Can a few thousand bottles start a revolution? Probably not, but things are gradually changing in Rioja as a new, young generation of small producers emerges in the area. They lack the financial resources to undertake a substantial project, so their wines and the stories behind them are a result of their background, their ability to identify distinctive areas or vineyards in the appellation and their particular vision and passion for winemaking. Although on a small scale, the range of styles embodied by these young producers significantly broadens the choices in Spain’s most renowned wine region. It would come as no surprise if they play a significant role in shaping the future of the appellation in terms of grape varieties, terroirs and winemaking methods.
Determined and bursting with energy, this 32-year old winemaker is deeply attached to Viñaspre, a hamlet in the district of Lanciego —a vineyard area on the foothills at the eastern end of the Sierra Cantabria mountains. High altitude (around 620 metres) and replanos, a term used to describe tableland areas with distinctive limestone and sandstone soils, are characteristic in this area and provide a unique character to the Tentenublo range of wines.
A cycling enthusiast in his youth, Roberto started farming the family vineyards at the age of 16 when his father was unable to carry out the work. “I’ve learnt a great deal of things in the area’s bars and from my 72-year old uncle”, he explains. After working as a winemaker in various wineries and wine regions, he felt it was time to go back home and start a project of his own. Before his return, the family’s grapes were sold to well-known Rioja producers. Oddly enough, he doesn’t care about sending samples to wine guides, but he is always willing to show visitors around even the day after he became a father, as he did with us.
Neither does he take sides or advocate for a particular style of winemaking. He has used biodynamic preparations in order to learn how they work, but he prefers to practice what he defines as "traditional viticulture observation”, which includes copper and sulfur treatments. Using animals to farm his land is not his thing either. “The amount of fuel I’d need to make a bale of hay to feed a horse for 15 days is larger than what I use for my two tractors”, he says.
Two sentences caught our attention while visiting some of the 22 plots totaling 7.5 hectares that encompass the Tentenublo project. "You have to remain in one place" and "the grower has to take time." I guess that’s why Roberto is so committed to graft new vines in order to “leave a legacy”. It also explains how he changed his mind completely about one of his single-vineyard wines called Las Guillermas. The vineyard it comes from includes two adjacent plots, one of them planted with Tempranillo, the other with Viura. He started making a 100% Tempranillo but felt that there was something missing, so he decided to bottle the landscape around him. Thus the current and extremely original Las Guillermas includes 40% Viura adding remarkable acidity and a great cellaring potential.
Graphic designers Calcco from Logroño have created some striking labels for Oliván’s wines. Roberto recalls the first meeting at their offices —he was literally sent back home and given the task to find an original name with a good story behind it. Fortunately, he was able to return with Tentenublo, the name given to the bell ringing used to fight off hailstorms in some Rioja villages. Under this brand, 10,000 bottles of a fresh, lively and long red are produced every year as well as just 1,300 bottles of a Viura and Malvasía barrel fermented white. White grapes are usually mixed-in or planted in the uphill parts of his old vineyards. Both wines retail at about €14-15.
The Escondite del Ardacho range, which retails above €30, is named after a native lizard species that appears dressed as a human on the label. It comes from identified old plots with tiny productions which sometimes do not exceed 1,000 bottles. The range includes Las Guillermas and two Garnacha wines that do not undergo malolactic fermentation: the extremely juicy El Abundillano (a plot of less than one hectare planted including 9% Tempranillo and some Malvasía; 1,300 bottles); and the long and elegant Las Paredes (a 0.37 ha. parcel also with some Tempranillo). Roberto Oliván’s wines can be found at Lavinia and Gourmet Hunters or via Wine Searcher.
Rivière’s family comes from Cognac. Olivier arrived in Spain in 2004 to work for Telmo Rodríguez albeit in a couple of years he was already purchasing grapes for himself. He currently sources grapes from various spots in Rioja. A few years ago he started a new venture in Covarrubias, a gorgeous valley within DO Arlanza (Burgos), and after his numerous trips to Navarra —where he acts as consultant for Laderas de Montejurra— he purchased a very old Garnacha vineyard in the village of Dicastillo where he has just released the 2010 vintage. His work totals around 90,000 bottles distributed among three appellations.
He also consults for Bodegas Lacus in Aldenaueva de Ebro (Rioja Baja), an area where he sources grapes for his Rayos Uva entry-level red (€6.95 in Enterwine), an unusual 50% Tempranillo and 50% Graciano blend. Since 2013, he also owns a 1.5 hectare vineyard as well as two rented ones in Laguardia. His Rioja portfolio includes the white Jequitibá and the top-of-the-range Ganko (€20.50 at Decántalo), a village wine made from old Garnacha vines grown in the town of Cárdenas (this is located in the cool, southwestern Alto Najerilla valley on the right banks of the Ebro river) often with some 10-15% Mazuelo included in the blend. “Ganko”, which means "stubborn" in Japanese, was the nickname his Tokyo wine importer gave him.
"I settled here because I discovered Garnacha”, Rivière says. “You get floral, lovely scented reds in this area; Garnacha has an Atlantic-style, almost Pinot Noir like, but it feels more delicate”, he concludes. Olivier usually ferments with stems to add extra structure. He aims to achieve “a wine that feels lighter but which it is not light at all and is capable of showing unexpected freshness”. “I try to avoid monolithic wines”, he adds. An advocate of low SO2 levels, his wines account for about 40-50 grs./litre —he usually adds small quantities to harvested grapes and wines during aging and prior to bottling. "We must ensure that our wines are flawless”, he says.
Although his initial focus was primarily aimed at the export markets, he is currently trying to boost his presence in local markets, meaning that up to 20% of his wines are now sold in Spain.
As the son and grandson of wine growers from San Vicente de la Sonsierra, Pedro Balda, 32, used to hate everything that had to do with vines. From an early age, his father took him to farm the family plots. "In summer when my friends were swimming at the pool, I would be bud pruning or removing stones”, he recalls. “I wanted to be an architect but I wasn’t that good at drawing so I finally took Agronomy. I loved attentding Viticulture lessons because it had nothing to do with what I had experienced and I thought, I really want to work at this."
He travelled around, harvested in Chile and California and spent half a year at legendary Henschke winery in Australia (“the best thing that’s ever happened to me") with a short stay in New Zealand where he tasted a natural wine for the first time.
Back in Spain in 2008, he started teaching and working on his PhD with leading grape expert Fernando Martínez de Toda at La Rioja University. At the same time he decided to make wine from Larrad, a 0.5Ha vineyard planted by his grandfather. It was mostly Tempranillo with some scattered Viura vines. "I wanted to do just the opposite I was taught at university”, he recalls. “I wanted to see if natural wines were possible and if so, how long they would hold out”. He was supported by celebrated winegrower Abel Mendoza, who lives next door to his parents. “I pay great attention to Abel —I consider him my mentor, not only for wine-related matters, but also for other aspects of my life. Regarding wine, one of the best advices he has ever given to me is not to hurry.” No wonder Balda lets wines follow their own pace, even if malolactic isn’t completed until September the following year.
He currently produces two reds from two different harvests at the Larrad plot. The first one, called Vendimia Seleccionada (Selected Harvest), from which just one barrel is usually made, comes from less compacted bunches that are manually destemmed ("grain by grain" as it is also customary in a couple of Abel Mendoza’s reds). “There’s no other way to achieve such fine tannins”, says Pedro.
The second wine is called Cosecha and it is made with the remaining grapes that are thoroughly destemmed. Quantities are tiny and most bottles are exported. Anyone wishing to drink Pedro Balda’s wines in Spain should try Celler de Can Roca (Girona) or La Cigaleña (Santander), two restaurants stocking a great selection of natural and organic wines.
As far as wine growing practices are concerned, Balda skips classifications. He says he’s neither biodynamic nor organic, although the first thing he did when he took charge of the Viticulture department within the Winegrowing and Oenology Master Studies was to introduce biodynamics in the curriculum. Working without sulphur “has many risks and you must deal with the consequences”, he admits. Wisely enough, Pedro acknowledges that some barrels have been spoiled, but he is pretty certain about what he’s doing. “I make wine, I don’t work miracles”, he states.
There’s an increasingly number of foreign winemakers working in Spain. Frenchman Tom Puyaubert studied Agronomy and Winemaking in Bordeaux and moved to Rioja to do an apprenticeship at a large French cooperage. He fell in love with the foothills in Sierra de Cantabria, recognized the area’s great potential and the more wine growers he met, the more determined he was to make his own wines.
He sources grapes from 14 hectares of long-termed leased vineyards, some of them located at Monte Yerga’s foothills in Rioja Baja, although the majority are located in the village of Ábalos (Rioja Alta), where he works with 22 plots of traditional bush vines, directly looking after the most important farming tasks like pruning, thinning or picking. Annual production ranges between 60,000 and 70,000 bottles.
With roughly 500 wineries and 16,000 grape growers, Puyaubert believes Rioja’s vineyards are managed to a large extent as a business. He describes the appellation as a region where ancient, historical wineries stand next to large and medium-sized ventures primarily established in the second half of the 20th century like Artadi, Roda or Finca Allende and a new generation of small producers like himself who are trying to delve deeper into different terroirs.
He makes wine at a functional winery located in an industrial estate in Laguardia. Tom prefers wooden or uncoated cement vats to ferment his wines, though he usually uses stainless steel for Garnacha. His entry level red Bozeto (50% Garnacha, 50% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, €5.95 at Decántalo) is a balanced, fruit-driven, balsamic and even sexy red offering good value. The Horizonte de Exopto range includes an expressive white Viura with some White Garnacha and Malvasía fermented and aged in barrels (€11.10 at Vinissimus) and a red Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano blend showing lively fruit, balsamic notes and good balance (€13.95 at Vinissimus). The top-of-the-range Exopto is made with Rioja Baja-grown Graciano grapes left to ripe much longer than usual, blended with 30% Tempranillo and 10% Garnacha. This is a rather extreme, concentrated, mineral red (€31.90 at Vinissimus). As is the case with most producers featuring in this piece, Puyaubert exports 80% of their wines.
As one of the youngest members of a saga of vine growers and winemakers from Laguardia (Rioja Alavesa), Javier San Pedro has not yet turned 30 but carries wine in his blood. As he explains in his website, he helped clean his grandfather’s cellar at the age of five and made his first wine at his father’s winery (Vallobera) when he was 17. He owns seven hectares of vines and sources grapes from 46 hectares owned by one of his cousins. Most of them are located in the village of Laguardia but he also farms a couple of hectares owned by his wife’s family in Lanciego. San Pedro set up his own venture recently, but it is growing so fast that he may have to leave the family facilities soon to build a new winery for himself.
Having grown up in a family with a reputation for great value wines, he seems to have found a sweet spot with a couple of increasingly popular styles which are providing him with the necessary financial support to develop a single-vineyard project. Anahí (named as a tribute to his mother Ana Isabel, €7-8, 150,000 bottles) is a blend of Malvasia, Sauvignon Blanc and Tempranillo Blanco with 40 grs. of sugar and has turned into very popular choice for tapas in Logroño. His Cueva de Lobos range comes from young vines and includes a carbonic maceration wine (less than €5), a Crianza (€7.5) and a white wine.
But his efforts are primarily focused on the Viuda Negra (Black Widow) range. Named after the poisonous spider, the logo also bears the keys of Saint Peter (San Pedro in Spanish, which is Javier’s surname). There’s a nicely structured, slightly mineral Viuda Negra Crianza (86,000 bottles, €8.60 at Ideavinos) based on 30+-year-old vines planted in his cousin’s vineyards; Viuda Negra Taconera (under 3,000 bottles, €13.90 at Vinósofos) is a single-vineyard Tempranillo made with 32-year old vines owned by Javier’s mother showing Laguardia’s vibrant red fruit profile. Viuda Negra Villahuercos (€16.50 at Vinósofos) might be San Pedro’s most unusual wine, the result of his passion for White Tempranillo. Convinced of its potential, San Pedro has succeeded at making a round, fairly structured and expressive white from very young vines.
Javier is working on more single-vineyard wines which he expects to launch soon, some of them with short barrel aging times, he says. Unlike other young producers, his wines are mostly sold in Spain.