What single visual image best captures what Spanish wine is today?
It’s a visually stunning hotel in Rioja juxtaposed against Tempranillo vineyards and a classic Castilian village.
Seven years ago, Marqués de Riscal inaugurated its City of Wine in the town of Elciego. Many observers were shocked—even offended—by the ultramodern style of architect Frank Gehry’s Hotel Marqués de Riscal, the centerpiece of a project that also included renovations to Riscal’s venerable underground caves and winemaking facilities.
The hotel was out of place, gaudy and not Spanish enough, bellowed the critics, who included Elciego’s head priest. What it turned out to be was evolution in its purest form. A town that few international wine lovers had ever heard of became Spain’s calling card, while Rioja cemented its status as Spain’s premier wine region.
“Prior to opening the hotel, we were receiving about 9,000 visitors a year,” says José Luis Muguiro, Riscal’s global sales manager. “Last year, we hosted 75,000 people.
“We have always tried to be pioneers,” he says. “We are the oldest winery in Rioja, we helped create the Rueda D.O., but the key has been combining innovation with tradition.”
In fact, innovation has been at the heart of Riscal’s existence since Guillermo Hurtado de Amézaga founded the winery in 1858.
It was the first Spanish winery to fully adopt the Bordeaux chateau model, where all grapes are estate-grown, and top wines are aged in barriques. Over the decades, improvements included wrapping its bottles in gold netting to thwart forgeries; launching a wine called Barón de Chirel in the 1980s that prompted the entire Rioja region to explore making fuller, more internationally styled wines; and employing top-level French winemaking consultants like Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux.
That vision and gumption paved the way to construct the Hotel Marqués de Riscal, home to a Michelin-star restaurant run by local chef Francis Paniego, as well as a Caudalie Vinotherapy Spa.
On the wine side, Marqués de Riscal, which produces just under 1 million cases annually, is hardly standing pat. Two years ago, it overhauled its 1883 El Palomar wine cellar to bring it up to date.
What’s next? A wine called Próximo, the Spanish word for “next.” This value-priced wine earned a Best Buy for the 2010 vintage, while the current releases of Barón de Chirel (2006) and Gran Reserva (2005) scored 94 and 93 points, respectively.
Riscal will release a new, as yet unnamed ultra high-end wine from the 2012 vintage in 2015 or 2016.
It’s this willingness to take risks, and the successes that have resulted, that make Marqués de Riscal the choice as Wine Enthusiast’s 2013 European Winery of the Year.
“Being named European Winery of the Year confirms that what we have been doing is correct,” says Muguiro, who works closely with winery president Alejandro Aznar in charting Riscal’s international course.
“We are now in 103 countries, so consumers must like our style, which is internationally appealing wines with Spanish personalities.”