A few months ago, Will and I were delighted to be invited by Indigo Wines on a trip to Discover Rioja. We all know the massive wineries and brands producing wine on an industrial scale that dominate Rioja. Well known names like Vina Ardanza, La Rioja Alta, Ramon Bilbao, Marques De Caceres to name but a few. However, during our 3 day trip we were keen to visit some wineries that are looking to do things differently in Rioja and move away from excessive oak aging.
On the surface, Rioja seems steeped in tradition: historic wineries with lofty cellars stacked with barrels that define a well-known classification system based on time spent in oak. In fact this is a tradition that dates back to the 18th century when phylloxera forced Bordeaux négociants to look further afield to supplement their ravaged stocks. As well as barrel ageing, the Bordelais encouraged a focus on Tempranillo and Garnacha, and the investment they brought led to large wineries being set up that functioned like cooperatives buying in volume from local growers.
Before this, the wines of Rioja were field blends made from co-plantings of dozens of different varieties. Over time growers began to abandon the higher sites and concentrated on growing Tempranillo on the flat, fertile land closer to the river. Farming was less labour intensive here and grapes ripened more reliably. All these factors led to increasingly uniform wines with little sense of regional identity or terroir.
Chris in the field blend vines at Bodegas Lanzaga
In 1994, Telmo Rodríguez and his partner and friend Pablo Eguzkiza set-up Compañia de Vinos Telmo Rodriguez. In 1998, while working at Telmo’s family estate Remelluri, they noticed and started to buy small parcels of abandoned vineyards around the town of Lanciego. Their aim with Bodega Lanzaga is to rediscover the ‘true’ historic taste of the villages of Rioja that has been camouflaged by oak ageing. They believe these higher altitude sites with a long tradition of viticulture have the potential to produce exceptional wines.
The fantastic looking winery at Bodegas Lanzaga
Bodega Lanzaga is located in the village of Lanciego amongst six hills and three valleys. The Sierra Cantabria shields the vineyards from the Atlantic winds and rains from the north, creating a unique microclimate with low rainfall. Soils are stony with a palm-deep layer of iron-rich calcareous clay overlaying the mother rock.
"The whole estate is dry-farmed and worked organically, it’s the second largest organic certified estate in Rioja – the largest is Remelluri"
Production is relatively small in comparison to the big brands: they currently produce between 180-250,000 bottles a year, compared to many of the more well-known estates that produce several million.
Telmo thinks it’s important to talk about the quantity of wine they make, all the cuvées state the number of bottles produced: “Much Rioja is an industrial product, it’s ugly to say we produce 12 million bottles”.
Their vineyards are mainly mixed plantings. They have managed to maintain some older vines, especially in the Las Beatas plot, but are in-filling or replanting at most of the sites. They are using massal selection to re-populate the vineyards with cuttings of Garnacha from the El Velado vineyard and Tempranillo from La Estrada vineyard. This enables them to use the more traditional Tinta Fina Tempranillo clone rather than the much more common Tinta de Toro that they could buy from vine nurseries today. Some people think the smaller, tighter bunches of Tinta de Toro produce better quality wine, but Telmo and Pablo think time has made the selection in Lanzaga’s old vineyards:
“Generations of growers in Rioja have made a quality selection of the vines through massal selections from the original clones planted in the vineyards close to a century ago”.
Juan, the winemaker at Lanzaga, showed us how they hand-graft their cuttings on to American rootstocks.
The Bodega use a Burgundy style classification for the wines: Corriente is their négociant wine, they use the grapes that don’t go into their village wines and also buy some grapes for this from next door village Labastida. The term corriente was used in the early 20th Century to describe good, approachable everyday wines drunk by ordinary people, that reflect their region. They’re particularly pleased with the 2016 vintage.
The team enjoying some well earned lunch in the vineyard, Iberico Ham, local asparagus, Spanish omelette and of course the wines.
LZ is their young village wine, grapes are taken from several different plots across their estate. It’s a field blend from younger vines of around 90% Tempranillo plus some Graciano, Mazuelo (known elsewhere as Carignan) and several white varieties. The grapes are mostly de-stemmed and whole berries are fermented in concrete tanks to retain freshness. It’s bottled the summer after the harvest – historically wineries did this to free up their tanks for the new vintage – and the heady fruit perfume almost leaps out of the glass.
Lanzaga is their other village wine from older vines, it’s 90% Tempranillo plus Graciano which adds structure and a herbal, liquorice note, Lanzaga is aged in old foudre.
Telmo isn’t a fan of new oak: “Oak is a cosmetic, it masks the taste of the village and the grapes”.
Having worked in Lanciego for for 20 years, Telmo and Pablo have singled out what they consider the best sites and make a selection of four single vineyard wines: El Velado, La Estrada from sites around Lanciego and Tabuérniga and Las Beatas from Labastida. I asked Telmo how they identified these exceptional sites, of course there’s not a simple, empirical answer:
“Vineyards are like people, they have personalities which are a mix of all their characteristics”.
El Velado is one of the first vineyards that caught Telmo and Pablo’s eye when they started working in Lanciego. It’s a small plot of under 1 hectare planted with 80-year-old bush vines, mainly Garnacha which thrives in this warmer south-east facing site, but with some Tempranillo and other varieties. La Estrada is even smaller, just 0.6 hectares of poor calcerous-clay soils in the highest part of the village. This site is planted with 80-year-old vines, this time mainly Tempranillo with some Graciano.
La Estrada being enjoyed at lunch
The other single vineyard wines come from nearby Labastida and are vinified in a small winery in Ollauri which they have renovated. The Tabuérniga vineyard had been farmed by the same grower for 50 years before it was bought by Telmo and Pablo in 2012. There is a higher percentage of Graciano on this site. Soils are sandy and rich in limestone and clay. The final wine Las Beatas is a labour of love – a tiny 1.9 hectare plot – slowly assembled by acquiring smaller neighbouring parcels on the abandoned old terraces. Telmo refers to this wine as ‘the museum’ where many of the vines are over 80 years old and there are perhaps 11 varietals in the vineyard. They are also replanting to fill in any gaps with their massal selections cuttings. Soils here are mainly sandstone and marl which produces more perfumed and delicate wines.
Photographer Will enjoying the view.
......and stomping the vineyards at the Remelluri Estate.
So in Bodegas Lanzaga and Remelluri we found what we were looking for. A ground swell, lead but Telmo among others towards producing site specific elegant, fresh and sophisticated wines from Rioja.
Next on the itinerary was a trip an hour and a half North to the coast and into Basque county to taste the delights of Txakoli.. More on that next time!
LZ, Lanzaga Corriente and the Txakoli are now available online and in store!
The single vineyard cuvees (Tabuerniga, La Estrada, El Velado & Las Beatas) are not available yet, but once they are released we will be running a limited allocation so keep your eyes peeled.