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  • A new generation of brave producers in Rioja (and II)
  • A new generation of brave producers in Rioja (and II)
  • A new generation of brave producers in Rioja (and II)
  • A new generation of brave producers in Rioja (and II)
1. Sandra Bravo. 2. Arturo De Miguel. 3. David Sampedro. 4. Bárbara Palacios. Photo credits: Yolanda O. de Arri, Amaya Cervera and DSG Vineyards

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A new generation of brave producers in Rioja (and II)

Yolanda Ortiz de Arri | April 21st, 2015

They are young and talented; some of them have even had to go against established practices, but they all fight to get their wines to mirror the terroir they come from. This is the second part in the series about some of the figures shaping the future in Rioja.

Sandra Bravo, Sierra de Toloño

Brave and original are two adjectives that accurately describe the project of this youthful thirty-something woman in Rioja. Although born and bred in Logroño, Sandra breaks the norm in that she doesn’t come from a family of winemakers or winegrowers —as is the case among most of her colleagues in the area. It was her fascination for this trade that pushed her to study oenology and then learn while travelling. She worked for wineries in Bordeaux, Chianti (Italy), Marlborough (New Zealand), California and Priorat, where she worked as a winemaker before settling down in Rioja and produce her first vintage in 2012.

From all these regions she learnt and brought home an artisan, non-interventionist approach. She applies this philosophy onto the couple of wines she makes in a rented winery in Villabuena (Rioja Alavesa) and which come from bush vines planted at 650 metres high between Labastida and Rivas de Tereso, on the foothills of Sierra de Toloño, which is also the name of her venture.

For the time being, she isn’t thinking about having her own winery. She cannot afford to buy vineyards either, but she seems happy with the 8.5 hectares of Tempranillo and Viura that she rents from a local grower who takes care of them and with whom she shares the idea of how to work the land to obtain fresh, concentrated wines from those clay-chalk soils nestled on the mountain’s rock.

Sulphur is only used on the vines and prior to bottling. Sandra works with native yeasts but what’s really original is that her wines ferment in amphorae since the 2013 vintage, an unusual practice in a region where oak is the undisputed king. She is happy venturing off the beaten track; she tried to ferment in open wood 500-litre vats but she feels that the amphorae’s porosity is better suited to the style of wines she likes.

Sandra currently produces two wines: Sierra de Toloño Tempranillo (€11 in Spain, from €16 in Winesearcher, maximum production limited to 30,000 bottles) is a fresh, lean red with pleasant red fruit notes and good acidity that reflects its origin. Sierra de Toloño Viura (€9.5, 3,000 bottles) is a fresh, lively wine with white flower aromas and and elegant, long-lasting palate which joins a new style of whites gradually visible in Rioja with great personality and complexity.

She is working on a new wine coming from Tempranillo old vines and aged for 12 months in French oak barrels which she expects to launch soon.

Arturo and Kike de Miguel (Artuke), defending their heritage

Brothers Arturo and Kike de Miguel are convinced that the future —and the present— inevitably lead them to their roots. Born into a family of winegrowers, their dad Roberto —a man of few words and an honest look— sold Artuke wines in bulk until 1991, when he started to sell bottles in the Basque Country. When sons Arturo and Kike joined him in the winery in 2003 and 2010 respectively, they decided to carry out a detailed study of the soils in their plots —located in Baños de Ebro, Ábalos and San Vicente de la Sonsierra— to see what they were capable of and make wines that reflected their background.

Conscious of their heritage, their aim is to preserve it rather than transform it, hence their efforts to work the 22 hectares they own in the old way —their plants are all bush vines, even the new ones. “Government aid goes to trellised vines because they can be mechanized and yields are larger, but their resistance to water stress is lower”, argues Arturo, 33, while he shows us one of his plots nestled on the Sierra Cantabria foothills. “I regret the loss of old bush vines; they’re being replaced by trellised plants”, he adds.

Arturo and Kike don’t let nostalgia take over, though; they are channeling their efforts towards the recovery of vineyards such as La Condenada (literally, the doomed one), an abandoned plot with sandy soil and sandstone subsoil purchased by the brothers in 2012 and planted with old Tempranillo, Graciano, Garnacha and some Cagazal or Calagreño vines, an obscure variety which resembles Palomino Fino). After a lot of field work, as the pictures on their Facebook profile bear witness, the first vintage of this wine will be launched briefly. An elegant and very personal wine, which Arturo compares with a young Mencía, it will be part of their single vineyard wines portfolio.

This tendency to go against the current, searching for different terroirs, must have been inherited from their grandfather who, back in the fifties, had the vision to buy a 3-hectare plot on a terrace at 500 meters of altitude overlooking the Ebro river. Locals in Baños de Ebro, where the family winery is based, thought it was madness to plant vines on such poor sandy soils with gravel and three times more chalk than the average in the area, hence the name of the wine Finca de Los Locos (The Crazy People’s Plot) (€20.60 in Enterwine). Made from Tempranillo (80%) and Graciano (20%) grafted with massal selection, brothers De Miguel use ambient yeasts to ferment the wine in stainless steel deposits which is later aged in new and used 500-litre barrels. The new 2013 vintage, due to be launched in May, is fresher than the 2012 vintage with black fruit and chalky notes and a marked mineral character.

K4 (€32.95 in Vinissimus) completes the trio of single vineyard wines. With a tiny production of 900 bottles, Arturo and Kike aim to mirror the freshness of the plot where it comes from —planted in 1951 on clay-chalk soils at 660 metres and in the vicinity of Ábalos. Vintage 2013 is a blend of Tempranillo (75%) and Graciano (25%) and displays violets and black fruit aromas and silky, elegant and subtle tannins.

Their range of village wines includes two wines: Artuke (€5.20 in Vinissimus) and Pies Negros (€8.10 in Decántalo), with balsamic and underbrush and concentrated tannins.

Arturo is always up for a challenge; he has recently purchased a vineyard on El Cerro de las Mulas (Mules Hill), a windy area on the foothills of Sierra Cantabria where cattle used to graze. The plot lies at 730 meters high in the vicinity of Samaniego (Rioja Alavesa) and has clay soils and stones on the surface. The oldest Tempranillo vines found here are 20 years old; the rest are being planted gradually and tied to stakes, using biodynamic principles. The result will be visible in the future but their grandfather would undoubtedly be proud.

David Sampedro looks back to the wine growing past

David is one of those vignerons who makes his wine in the vineyard. This sentence, which is sometimes used by producers with a keen eye for marketing, rings true when it comes to this ex rugby player brought up between the Basque capital Vitoria and Elvillar, one of Rioja Alavesa’s highest enclaves and the place where his family has been working the vineyards for generations.

Walking among his vineyards, David passionately explains the differences between soil types, exposures and heights in his plots and how he aims to pass on such qualities onto his wines. His vineyards are organically grown since he went solo in 2006 and he is currently working to make them biodynamic under the Demeter certification.

His focus is on quality, rather than quantity. Yields never reach beyond 3,500 kg/hectare and the only treatments he applies to his plants are sulphur and milk whey. He is conscious that such things have gained him a reputation among some of his neighbors as “the village’s worst vine grower” but David, who trained as an agronomist and winemaker, wants to revive some of the practices that his grandfather did out of intuition, those that the previous generation to him unlearned in favor of modernity.

For the time being, he rents a small space in Elvillar while he waits that the slow wheels of bureaucracy turn to give him the relevant permits to lay the foundations of a new working winery fully integrated with the village landscape. In there he plans to have concrete tanks, more space for his vats and 500-litre French oak barrels and animals to work his vineyards, where he only grows native varieties. 

He produces an interesting range of wines with undeniable personality, most of them vinified with stems, natural fermentations and gentle extractions. He looks for harmony and balance and derives his inspiration from the golden number Phi, which represents proportion, hence the name Phincas (Phi and fincas, which means plots) in many of his wines and the letter H interspersed in others.

Bodegas Bhilar (derived from the Basque word for Elvillar) encompasses his Rioja production, with less than 10,000 bottles for each wine. Lágrimas de Graciano (€6, €11 in Winesearcher) is the only varietal in the portfolio and spends 12 months in tanks. It is made with purchased grapes, as is the case with part of Bhilar Plots (€10 in Luxury Vintage), a blend where Tempranillo is the dominant variety aged for 14 months in barrels. Along with Bhilar Plots Blanco (€10 in Luxury Vintage), made from Viura and Garnacha Blanca, these wines are popular and affordable (he has a few more in other areas) and help him to “have time”, he says as he snaps his fingers in a gesture meaning “relief for his wallet and liquidity”.

DSG Phincas (70% Tempranillo, 15% Graciano, 10% Garnacha and 5% Viura, €17.50 in Decántalo) applies the idea of a single vineyard wine and is complex, with fresh black fruit and elegant tannins. Phinca Abejera (€32.15 in Vinissimus, 2,000 bottles) does not leave anyone indifferent. A blend of Tempranillo and Graciano (40% each) and a touch of Garnacha and Viura (10% each), it comes from a west-facing plot with limestone soils and is extremely appealing on the nose, with pungent rosemary aromas and plenty of liveliness on the palate.

The range of reds finishes with Phinca Lali (€40.65 in Vinissimus), from a plot dating from 1910 planted with black and white varieties and Vuelta de Terca (€ 29.90 in Gourmet Hunters) a Tempranillo whose production is limited to 1,500 bottles.

David’s range of whites are his favorite. As well as Bhilar Blanco (€11), he makes Terca (€29.90 in Gourmet Hunters) —aged for 12 months, with a fine nose and slightly oxidative on the palate— and Thousand Mils (€34.65 in Enterwine), which includes a mix of varieties from 50-60 year old vines planted on his Abejera and Lali plots. The name of the wine, which refers to its diverse origin, used to be Thousand Milks but the Rioja appellation forced him to change it on the grounds that wine names cannot include “names of foods”.

Talented and inquisitive, David —who is about to turn 40— likes to discover new terroirs and has ventured well beyond his area of comfort. Under the name DSG Vineyards, her makes wines in Navarra, Sierra de Salamanca, Rías Baixas and Valencia. They all share a common denominator with his Rioja project: local varieties, minimal intervention and wines that express their origin.

Bárbara Palacios, a passion for Merlot

As a member of the Palacios dynasty from Alfaro (Rioja Baja) —she is the niece of Álvaro and Rafa— Bárbara carries viticulture and wine in her veins. But rather than her heritage, it was her desire to learn and her work in various world wine regions what led Bárbara to set up her own winery and make Barbarot, an unusual wine in Rioja due to the presence of Merlot —along with Tempranillo— in the blend.

Her Bordeaux education and wanderlust took her to legendary wineries such as Château Margaux, Château Pichon Longueville Baron in Médoc or Robert Mondavi in Napa as well as others in Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Chile and Argentina. She learnt at all of them, but three of them have been a great influence. “I was very lucky to start in the world of wine working at Château Margaux, where I learnt the importance of winegrowing and the quality of the grape; at Robert Mondavi I discovered how different it is to make wine in the New World. At Pulenta Estate in Mendoza I realized that I was able to set and run my own winery”, says Bárbara.

She brought all these experiences back home to Rioja, where she started working in a vineyard purchased by her grandfather and which was later planted by her father, Antonio Palacios Muro, after he left Bodegas Palacios Remondo. “There is less media interest in him”, explains Bárbara, “but all his wisdom and experience in the world of wine are of great help to me”.

The calcareous soils and low pH in this vineyard at 450 meters high on the Riscos de Bilibio in Haro reminded Antonio of the soils in Pomerol where he studied. Give that Rioja’s regulatory body had allowed experimental plantings of Bordelais varieties, Antonio decided to grow Tempranillo and Merlot. Since 2005 and with the help of her father, Bárbara takes care of the vineyard, which today extend over 4.5 hectares although she plans to grow an additional hectare with Tempranillo to expand her portfolio with two more wines.

Barbarot comes from the combination of her name and the word Merlot, her favourite grape and the name of her cute Golden Retriever. Vilification takes place at a winery in Briones, where she has installed stainless steel fermentation tanks. The wine undergoes 24 months of aging in French and American oak barrels which are stored in a 17th century cellar in Ábalos with a gorgeous ancient winepress. The result is an easy to drink wine, with ripe fruit and licorice notes, rich toasted and tobacco notes, polished tannins and pleasant on the palate.

Around 1,500 bottles of the current 2007 vintage have been released, but she plans to increase production in order to keep her main markets —mainly La Rioja and England, where it is imported by Laithwaites— well supplied.

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