Unlike most languages, Spanish has its own word for ‘terroir’: terruño. The meaning is identical, even if it’s a relatively new and increasingly aspirational term when applied to Spanish wine. In Rioja, one of Spain’s most famous and productive wine regions, there have long been wineries who’ve valued specific villages and vineyards. But it’s been a struggle to be heard above the noise of the region’s bigger names, as well as Rioja’s traditional age classification system.
Yet increasingly, terroir-driven winemakers are breaking through. ‘It’s a long, difficult job, but it’s slowly working,’ says Arturo de Miguel of Bodegas Artuke, one of the leading champions of Rioja’s own terruño. ‘Despite the challenges, there’s never been a better time for vignerons in Rioja,’ he says.
This positive outlook on the region at present might have something to do with ‘Rioja ‘n’ Roll’. The unofficial association of some of Rioja’s brightest young winemaking talents was first established in 2016 with the shared vision of showcasing a more artisanal side to Spain’s most famous wine region. It’s seen a collaborative energy emerge among winemakers; through the collective, Bodegas Artuke says it has found a like-minded group to taste with, swap notes and slowly expand its definition and understanding of Rioja and its traditions.
Bodegas Artuke has plenty of tradition to speak of. Located in Baños de Ebro, a village in La Rioja Alta surrounded by beautiful rolling landscapes and strongly influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, the family has a winemaking history of more than 100 years – although it wasn’t until 1991 that Arturo’s father, Roberto de Miguel stopped selling his wine in bulk. Putting his faith in the quality of his wines, Roberto started peddling his wine by hand, often travelling far across the region to sell his new vintages for less than €2 (£1.70) a bottle.
Thirty years is a short time in the world of wine, yet Artuke is already firmly on the map – not just as one of the most exciting producers in Rioja, but as an example of what can be achieved when the focus is on the land as opposed to the brand. The wines are highly acclaimed by local vignerons in Rioja, as well as those with their finger firmly on the pulse of Spanish wine. Both wine critics Tim Atkin MW and Luis Gutiérrez are to be found tasting with gusto here every year.
Arturo and Kike are committed to viticulture combining philosophy of the past with modern understanding
Arturo and his brother Kike (put the two names together to make ‘Artuke’) are committed to viticulture that combines a philosophy of the past with a modern understanding of vineyard management. There are no trellises in any of their vineyards; bush vines reign supreme – with all the extra cost and effort that entails. On the other hand, they have conducted extensive research into their soil, with many long weeks spent in soil pits. Biodynamic and organic practices are used extensively, even if they’re rarely mentioned in the marketing material.
Unsurprisingly, for someone so focused on the quality of the land, Arturo often references Burgundy. ‘The region has always spoken about the producers and their vineyards,’ he stresses, ‘and now everyone is looking to Burgundy for inspiration.’ He’s not wrong. In Spain alone, official classifications have been approved in both Priorat and Bierzo that strongly echo the Burgundian focus on vineyards and villages. While Rioja is unlikely to follow suit any time soon, Artuke would be well established with its array of exceptional, single-vineyard wines: La Condenada, Paso Las Mañas and El Escolladero.
While all different, the wines are famed for their restrained power and natural elegance, without the overpowering influence of oak; each wine offers a beautifully detailed expression of the land and increasingly, they stand up as some of the very best in the region.
Yet perhaps the most understated element of the Artuke magic isn’t found in the vineyard at all. ‘Great wine is born in the vineyard, but it needs to be raised in the winery,’ says Arturo. The brothers’ passion for bush vines means that every parcel is hand-harvested and carefully sorted, both in the vineyard and on reception to the winery. Indigenous yeasts are the norm, and large, older oak is generally favoured for the élevage, with sizes varying from 350l to 3,500l.
The philosophy that binds the members of Rioja ‘n’ Roll has also found friends further afield. Both Kike and Arturo are co-founding members of Futuro Viñador, an association of some of Spain’s most highly regarded producers, with a shared philosophy of putting the vineyard first and foremost. It’s an invaluable forum – rubbing shoulders with the likes of Adega Zarate, Telmo Rodriguez, Algueira and more.
In just Rioja, the pressure of these smaller producers is increasingly telling: in 2019 the regulatory body updated their guidelines to allow for a greater expression of Rioja’s terruño, with villages and single vineyards referenced on the label of the bottle.
So, what else lies in the future for Rioja? ‘Without the big producers, we wouldn’t have this platform to work from. Rioja has taken its name from their work,’ replies Arturo in typically thoughtful fashion. ‘But I’m optimistic about what we’re doing here. People who really love wine want to taste the land, the terruño, and they’re willing to search for it.’