Life Lessons with La Rioja Alta’s winemaker Julio Sáenz

The veteran winemaker of one of Rioja’s most famous bodegas on amateur football, the gaita navarra, and the lure of Stellenbosch

Words by Adam Lechmere

Julio Saenz with a glass of Rioja in hand

Julio Sáenz, technical director at the Sociedad Vinícola de la Rioja Alta, joined the famous old bodega in 1996. He oversees winemaking at all four of the group’s properties: the historic La Rioja Alta itself; Torre de Oña, an innovative single-vineyard estate producing a more modern style of Rioja; Aster in Ribera del Duero; and Lagar de Cervera in Rias Baixas, Galicia.

As head of one of the region’s oldest wineries (La Rioja Alta was founded in 1890) he’s responsible for some of Spain’s most famous wines, made, unusually, almost entirely from 360ha of vineyards owned by the company: La Rioja Alta’s eccentrically-named Gran Reservas 890 and 904, the former named after the foundation year and the latter after the date – 1904 – when one of the founders, Alfredo Ardanza, proposed the merger of his winery Bodega Ardanza with La Rioja Alta.

Two other wines can claim international renown: Viña Ardanza itself, and the classically-styled Tempranillo-Graciano, Viña Arana, the Gran Reserva 2014 of which was released this summer. It is, Sáenz told Club Oenologique, “the best Arana I have ever produced.”

Rioja Alta vineyards in autumn
Founded in 1890, La Rioja Alta is one of the region's oldest bodegas

While La Rioja Alta is considered one of the region’s most traditional bodegas (Berry Bros & Rudd reckons it to be “one of the benchmarks for traditionally produced Rioja”), Sáenz prefers the term “classic” to describe his wines. The winery’s exclusive bottling for UK retailer Booths’ own-label Rioja was recently crowned as the Rioja Trophy winner at this year’s IWSC.

Born and brought up in Rioja, he trained first as a pharmaceutical chemist, before taking a degree in viticulture and oenology. La Rioja Alta was his first winemaking job; and while he has never quite realised his early ambitions of becoming either a professional footballer or a musician, he shows no sign of moving on.

What was your childhood ambition?

I wanted to be a professional footballer. I now play for my hometown’s amateur club, La Calzada, Rioja.

Patek Phillipe watch
Most valuable: "my Patek Philippe watch"

What exercise do you do?

Running. The half marathon is my maximum distance.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?


What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?

That would be my Patek Philippe watch.

If you could do any other job what would it be, and why?

As I studied biochemistry, I could be a pharmacist, but really I would like to be a professional footballer.

If you could make wine anywhere in the world (apart from Rioja), where would it be?

Burgundy, or Stellenbosch in South Africa. The first because they make the most complex, elegant and sophisticated wines in the world; South Africa because I love the country, the people, the philosophy, the landscape. The wines are not the best in the world but the land is beautiful.



Inside London's Sexy Fish restaurant
Hunky dory: London's Sexy Fish is one of Sáenz's favourite restaurants
Traditional dulzaina instrument
Desert island tunes: the gaita navarra, a traditional Basque instrument

What is your favourite restaurant – anywhere?

Arzak in San Sebastian, Sexy Fish in London, Echaurren in Rioja.

What luxury item (except wine or spirits) would you take with you to a desert island?  

My Spanish guitar, or my gaita navarra [a traditional Basque woodwind instrument, played with a double reed like an oboe].

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?

To be a good musician – I just don’t have time to learn.

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?

I would enact a law that would protect the environment.

Whom would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

Nelson Mandela and Robert Parker, who changed the philosophy of wine around the world. He is probably one of the most important people for wine in the last 100 years – I don’t subscribe to his preferred style of wine, but he made people see wine from another point of view.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? 

Thank you so much!


What’s your greatest regret?

That I stopped studying music

The Crown on Netflix
The royal box: The Crown is one of Sáenz's top box-sets

What’s your current favourite box-set, TV programme or podcast?

The Crown is top of my list – I’m looking forward to the new season starting this week – and Designated Survivor [in which low-ranking politician Kiefer Sutherland is catapulted to the presidency of the United States after the Cabinet is wiped out]

What time do you go to bed?

It depends…