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Building site in Rioja

In a region where history and modernity rub together, Adam Lechmere gathers a panel of winemakers to discuss where things are headed for Rioja’s wines and to debate their ideas – from the soil, to the cellar

Words by Adam Lechmere

Photography by James Sturcke

winemakers discuss rioja wine around a table framed by wine bottles
The Collection
Adam Lechmere (centre) is joined by winemakers María Urrutia, Bárbara Palacios, Rosana Lisa and Eduardo Eguren (L-R) to discuss ideas around the wines of Rioja

A few years ago, Rioja was in turmoil. The issue at stake – whether or not you could name a village or a vineyard on your label – wasn’t trivial. For the past couple of decades, the primacy of site has become a winemaking article of faith worldwide: nothing trumps the vineyard. Except in Rioja, that is. Here, for a century and more, the finest wines have been classified not by individual terroirs but by blending multiple vineyards, and ageing time in oak.

When tensions were at their height, I remember a long car journey with a renowned winemaker who passionately defended the traditional methods in Rioja, fulminating about the ‘rebels’ who defied the rules, and the signatories of the 2016 ‘Matador manifesto’, which demanded recognition for village denominations.

Speeches were made suggesting that promoting the idea of single vineyard meant demoting blends. ‘It’s sad when they criticise Rioja for its classification based on minimum ageing time,’ Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW said in 2016.

But, as Ballesteros also pointed out, you can’t make good wine without knowing your vineyards intimately, whether you’re sourcing from half a hectare or hundreds. No winemaker would deny that. Essentially, the argument was a question of people angrily agreeing with each other.

Since then, Rioja’s ruling body has changed a few things, notably adding the new categories Viñedos Singulares, Vinos de Municipio and Vinos de Zona, which allow you to recognise vineyard, village and region respectively. Things have calmed down mightily. A new generation of Riojan winemakers celebrates both village and blend with equal enthusiasm. A fine wine is a fine wine, no matter how it is labelled.

To get a better picture of what modern Rioja looks like, we asked four winemakers who (on paper) could be said to come from different ends of the traditional and modern spectrum to join a round-table discussion that we held at Wine Fandango in Logroño, the capital of Rioja.

winemaker rosana lisa sits outside lalomba winery
Rosana Lisa, director of innovation for Ramón Bilbao

Rosana Lisa is in charge of Lalomba, Ramón Bilbao’s single- vineyard cuvée made in 48 beautifully sculpted concrete vats. Bárbara Palacios – niece of Alvaro and cousin of Rafa – trained at Château Margaux, Pichon Baron and with Robert Mondavi; she makes fascinating Merlot/Tempranillo blends from 7ha in Riscos de Bilibio near Haro (her winery is a warehouse in a business park). María Urrutia is co-owner and marketing director of CVNE, one of Rioja’s oldest bodegas, whose single-vineyard Contino is highly celebrated. Eduardo Eguren, scion of the family that founded Toro’s Numanthia and Teso La Monja (whose 2017 retails at around £1,200 a bottle), makes single-vineyard Rioja under the label Cuentaviñas. ‘My philosophy is that wine is not made in the winery,’ he says.

We started by talking about the importance of winemaking heritage. I have to say here that this is (not by design) a group of Riojan aristocracy. All except for Rosana Lisa are from winemaking families of impeccable pedigree. Lisa, brought up in Aragon, notes she’s the only one of the four who isn’t from Rioja. Wine is their destiny – ‘it’s genetics,’ as Palacios puts it. But she notes, ‘Because I started in 2008, I can say I’m the first generation of this bodega.’ There’s laughter around the table, but it’s true, Eguren says: they’re each of them making their own way. ‘I don’t like to keep to the path; I don’t like to follow established rules.’

winemaker eduardo eguren smiling
Eduardo Eguren, a fifth-generation winemaker now making strides with a single-vineyard philosophy at Cuentaviñas

Not following the rules in 2023 means more wine and less politics. Winemakers like Palacios still see themselves as pioneers of the single vineyard, but now they’re talking about the how not the why. The big difference is that ‘we are looking to explain to people how important the vineyard is,’ she says.

Palacios uses no new oak for her Barbarot label because she can’t afford it. She has evolved a concentrated, racy, full-bodied style with waterfalls of juice and with the earthy precision of great Rioja that is, nonetheless, utterly modern. She reckons that won’t change, even when she can afford new barrels. Her style has been forged by necessity, but it brings up another stylistic difference between the generations: instant gratification. Eguren notes that winemakers his age – digital natives who are used to having everything at the tap of a button – are impatient with the idea of wines that have to age to be drinkable, so they have to fulfil a dual function. ‘It’s a marvellous thing: we’re making wines that can be evolved for years and years, but they can also be drunk when it’s just in the market.’

barbara palacios tasting sample wine from barrel at barbarot winery
Bárbara Palacios produces Barbarot's Merlot/Tempranillo blends in a warehouse on a business park in Rioja

I begin to think the very terms ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’, so beloved by Rioja-watchers, are redundant. These winemakers blur the lines between old and new. Lisa notes how, a decade ago, she saw ‘a big separation’ between viticulture and winemaking, and that’s no longer the case; she’s in the vineyard all the time. Palacios chimes in to say that’s how it used to be ‘before we started selling our small plots to go into big blends. Now we’re going back to being growers again.’

But if the vineyard is all-important, then so is the blend. ‘Everything begins with origin,’ as Eguren’s website notes. Blending different vineyards from different terroirs is an art as meticulous as working a tiny, rare hillside plot. There’s a rare note of disagreement when Lisa proposes that single vineyards might be more ‘sincere’. The point of blends, she says, is that you can ensure volume and ‘stability of style’. A single vineyard, dependent as it is on the vagaries of vintage, is perhaps a more sincere expression of the land.

winemaker maria urrutia smiles for camera
María Urrutia, part of the fifth generation running the show at family operation CVNE

Is this true? No, says Urrutia. ‘CVNE’s Imperial comes from multiple vineyards, but they are all single entities. Even though you do a blending, you’re always thinking of a single plot.’ So all wines are blends, however small the plot?

Suddenly everyone’s talking at once. My recorder picks up different aspectsdifferent orientationsoils… Eguren’s voice can be heard championing micro- (or nano-) viticulture: ‘Every vine has a different branch…’

rioja winemakers debate around a table under mirror and lights at wine fandango
The grape debate: the panel shares ideas around the future of the region and seems to be in agreement that the vineyard will be at the crux of it all

The idea that long barrel ageing in oak somehow masks terroir is also given short shrift. The proper use of oak is the ‘perfect expression of Tempranillo, with its high tannins and deep colour. It needs an ageing process in oak. It’s an identity and a style, and it’s terroir as well,’ Lisa says. Everyone agrees. A blend is not just of different vineyards or parcels; it’s ‘the balance of the terroir and the agent’; Urrutia forcefully cites CVNE’s Imperial Gran Reserva as a wine that ‘speaks of where it comes from. It gets its excellent balance from barrel ageing.’

Styles evolve and labelling regulations change, but the one immutable thread that runs through all this is the vineyard: a wine must speak of its place. But even that changes. Take Garnacha, which ‘used to be the ugly duckling’, Eguren says, destined for light claretes and easy-drinking reds. Now it is celebrated for its complexity, and winemakers are eagerly seeking out ancient parcels across Rioja.

winemaker rosana lisa stands before cement tanks at rioja's lalomba winery
Rosana Lisa at Ramón Bilbao's historic winery, where she's charged with single-vineyard label Lalomba, aged in impressive concrete vats

That the wine world is conservative or slow to change is a popular trope, but the more we talk, the more I see just how radical this business is. These winemakers celebrate progress and change; whether that’s reviving their grandparents’ methods (such as rediscovering the possibilities of carbonic maceration) or embarking on radical experiments with concrete (as Lisa does at Lalomba). There have been so many ‘movements’ in Rioja, Eguren says, when I mention the Matador manifesto. He cites his own movement to rehabilitate Garnacha. It was called CDVIN, a contraction of the name of the village, Cordovín, because that wasn’t allowed on the label.

Most important of all is the movement towards transparency. Bodegas used to be secretive – ‘everything behind closed doors’, Palacios says – but the new generation is keen to share and learn. Eguren makes an interesting point: in the past, they were wary of letting anyone in on their methods for fear they’d be copied. But you can’t copy a single vineyard. ‘Your winery is unique, like the soil where the grapes grow. You can try to copy it, but it’s never going to be the same.’

They’ve all travelled widely and were shocked at how advanced the New World is in terms of understanding the soil

With transparency comes knowledge. They’ve all travelled widely and were shocked at how advanced the New World is in terms of understanding the soil. Not for much longer. More soil pits are being sunk in Rioja than ever before – Eguren has dug 120 ‘just in San Vicente de la Sonsierra’. (He challenges me to describe the soil profile of that corner of Rioja. I fail, to his amusement.) And they’re sharing this knowledge not just with each other but with anyone who’s thinking of buying their wine. ‘There’s so much more involvement with the consumer,’ Lisa says. ‘They want to know more about the region, the soil structure.’ More knowledge means better sales.

These winemakers seem to me like pilots aboard some exhilarating and powerful machine – one they don’t fully understand, yet they’re fascinated by the possibilities of every switch or lever. They’re not going to go mad, though; I note caution when it comes to international varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, which are now allowed. Palacios laughs. ‘I have Merlot of course,’ she says. ‘I don’t use them myself, but I welcome them,’ says Eguren. Lisa puts a metaphorical restraining hand on his arm. These varieties tend to be early ripening – they need a cooler climate, she says. ‘We’re more concerned with developing the indigenous varieties, which can be more adapted to our conditions.’

winemaker barbara palacios with dog puppi in rioja vineyard
Bárbara Palacios with her dog Puppi, who stars on the labels of Barbarot

As we end our discussion, I ask the panel to look to the future. What do they think the Rioja wine landscape will look like in ten or 20 years? They almost speak as one: more professionalism, less volume and higher quality through complexity. How are they going to achieve that? Through understanding the vineyard, and the tools at their disposal. (Urrutia notes that at CVNE they are diving ever deeper into the nuances of barrel ageing.) They’re also keen to stress that appellation politics – what you can and can’t put on your label – has nothing to do with this; it’s all about the grapes. As Palacios says, the days when the winemaker didn’t walk the vineyards are past. ‘As winemakers, the idea that we don’t know exactly which grapes, from where, are coming into our winery – it’s just not in our heads.’