Rioja’s All-Star Winemakers
Rioja is Spain’s region of plenty, with an abundance of wine styles, microterroirs and history. Progressive yet steeped in tradition, it is home to more than 600 wineries, dozens of which are notable. Yet, within this land of vinous riches, certain producers stand out for their history and accomplishments.
Here’s Rioja’s “First Team,” or what Spaniards might call la selección: six wineries that have been getting it done in the vineyards and in their cellars, enhancing Rioja’s top-flight image.
Victor Urrutia is part of the fifth generation of the family that owns Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España, better known as CVNE. Urrutia is as Spanish as tenor Plácido Domingo or the actor Javier Bardem, but he’s also a bit of an outsider in Rioja’s tightly knit community.
Maybe that’s to his advantage. Educated in England and the United States, Urrutia speaks perfect English, with a British accent. He has been on the executive board at CVNE since his early 20s. In 2003, at age 29, he took over as CEO after his uncle retired. But Urrutia only did so because his father demanded that he come home from Brazil, where he had been working as a management consultant.
In the years under Urrutia’s leadership, the CVNE image has gone from aloof and behind the times to a contemporary leader. Sales in the U.S. have risen 600 percent.
“There’s no shtick. We are simply taking more pride in who we are and what we do.” —Victor Urrutia
“This is a company founded in 1879—we are not modern,” says Urrutia during an interview at the winery’s headquarters in Haro. “I hate saying this, but prior to me taking over, we had become complacent. My uncle was an introvert who didn’t like to travel, and as a result, we were not well known despite our history.
“The truth is, nothing was broken. Our wines from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s were all very good, just unknown. We didn’t have the right importers, most of which were either too big or just didn’t care.”
In 2010, Urrutia moved CVNE into the hands of Europvin, a savvy specialty importer of mostly French and Spanish wines with good distribution channels and a strong sales force.
Today, CVNE and Vega Sicilia co-own Europvin, which represents 13 top wineries, including CVNE’s neighbor, La Rioja Alta. “There’s no shtick,” he says. “We are simply taking more pride in who we are and what we do.”
Signature Wine: 2010 Real de Asúa; $100, 96 points.
A decade ago, Marqués de Riscal received fewer than 5,000 visitors per year. But in 2006, this venerable winery opened its dazzling City of Wine complex, centered by a Frank Gehry-designed luxury hotel with a swirling, multicolored titanium roof. Now, more than 100,000 wine lovers annually flock to the village of Elciego to view the avant-garde architecture, visit Riscal’s state-of-the-art winery and ancient cellars, and taste the wines of one of Rioja’s most renowned bodegas, which was founded in 1858.
“We wanted something distinct, a place to welcome visitors that Rioja never had before,” says Francisco “Paco” Hurtado de Amézaga, the winery’s technical director and chief of production. Part of the fifth generation of the Hurtado de Amézaga family to manage Marqués de Riscal, Paco smiles when discussing how Rioja’s reputation has soared since the debut of the hotel and its Michelin-starred restaurant.
“I was one of the first to say, ‘Let’s show this region to the world,’ ” he says. “That was back in 1988. We want people to come during harvest and see the sorting tables in action, to taste the wines, to see the vineyards and realize that our wines come from these grapes.”
I was one of the first to say, ‘Let’s show this region to the world.’ ” —Francisco Hurtado de Amézaga
Marqués de Riscal has embraced enotourism like no other Rioja winery, employing 22 full-time workers to meet, greet and guide guests. It also continues to produce its share of fine wines, with about 65 percent of production exported to 108 countries.
Riscal controls more than 1,000 acres of proprietary vineyards in Elciego, and has nearly 2,500 acres of vines under contract. It produces about 4.5 million bottles of Rioja Reserva per year, along with 1.5 million bottles of crianza called Arienzo.
That alone qualifies Riscal as a large-scale producer, but with wines like its Gran Reserva and particularly Baron de Chirel, a blend of mostly Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon, Marqués de Riscal has become a symbol of the Rioja region and a company whose wines speak for themselves.
Signature Wine: 2010 Baron de Chirel Reserva; $75, 94 points.
On a cold winter night, the mold-covered walls, well-used barrels and wooden fermentation tanks at López de Heredia’s winery in Haro smell particularly earthy. It’s a unique aroma—a cross between rot, a rainforest and well-aged wine—that reflects the traditional winemaking style of one of Rioja’s original wineries.
Founded in 1877, R. López de Heredia, which remains 100 percent family owned and operated, is arguably Rioja’s most traditional winery. But “tradition” is a term that its managing director, Maria José López de Heredia, doesn’t much care for, regardless of its accuracy.
“The dream of my grandfather, who built this place after the Spanish Civil War, was that there would be no change over time,” she says. “We were founded on the Bordeaux model, and that’s what we adhere to. Our only goal is to make wines that express what nature gives us.”
“Being traditional is not the opposite of being modern.” —Maria José López de Heredia
Several techniques distinguish López de Heredia from other Rioja wineries. It uses old wood vats for fermentation, employs mostly used, housemade American oak barrels for aging, and holds its vineyard-designated wines for years in those moldy cellars prior to release.
“Being traditional is not the opposite of being modern,” says López de Heredia. “I prefer the term ‘classical’ to describe our wines. We respect technology, but we choose not to use it. Our wines stand the test of time, and if you believe in your methods, you continue with that.”
In terms of what’s in the bottle, the wines are a throwback to olden days. The current vintage of its waxy, lightly oxidized white wine, Viña Gravonia, is 2006. Meanwhile, the 2004 Viña Tondonia Reserva, a Tempranillo-based red that we tasted at the winery prior to its release, eschews overt ripeness for red-fruit aromas and flavors of plum, pie cherry and currant.
“The good thing about what we do is that there’s no pressure,” says López de Heredia. “We make fewer than 400,000 bottles a year. It’s actually quite easy.”
Signature Wine: 2003 Viña Tondonia Reserva; $51, 91 points.
When a winery makes 27 wines of various styles and origins, coming up with a single catchphrase is difficult. Familia Eguren, run by brothers Marcos and Miguel Eguren, could be called “The Modernists” due to the bold, often ripe and oaky style of their wines.
But after meeting with them in Rioja in late 2015, “The Interpreters” seemed more appropriate.
“We work with different lands, from San Vicente to Laguardia, always seeking to express the individuality of each place,” says Marcos, who makes the wines. “Where a wine comes from determines its character, and there are huge differences from one site to another.”
Take Finca El Bosque, one of Familia Eguren’s most powerful Tempranillos. It comes from a plot of less than four acres located just outside medieval San Vicente de la Sonsierra.
“Wine elicits emotion, and wines are best when pulled from deep within the best terroirs in a region.” —Miguel Eguren, right, pictured with brother Marcos
“This is a gravel-based vineyard with clay and limestone,” says Marcos. “The result is more power than our Sierra Cantabria wines, which are our most traditional. We want to convey the essence of each vineyard. We are viticulturists first and foremost, just like our father and grandfather before us.”
When asked if he was comfortable being known for “modern” or “new wave” Rioja wines more than traditional wines with extended oak aging, Miguel said he and his brother prefer the term “new classics.”
“Wine elicits emotion, and wines are best when pulled from deep within the best terroirs in a region,” says Miguel. “That’s why we are committed to Rioja’s golden stretch, the 10 miles or so that follow the Ebro River from [San Vicente] to Laguardia, and which lies between the river and the Sierra Cantabria to the north.”
Signature Wine: 2011 San Vicente; $58, 95 points.
One of the first things you notice when entering Muga’s winery, which is located near the historic train station in Haro, is a preponderance of oak. There are no cement tanks in the bodega, nor any stainless steel. You can hear the saws running and smell the smoke emanating from the winery’s on-site cooperage.
“We build around 700 to 800 barrels per year, and we buy maybe 300 more for our white wine,” says Manuel Muga Peña, one of the offspring of Isaac and Manuel Muga, the brothers who shifted the focus of the family business from grape growing to winemaking in the late 1960s.
In the cooperage, stacks of three-year-old staves of Tronçais oak stand ready to be converted into barrels, and maps of the various French forests that provide Muga with its cherished oak line the walls.
“We have about 12,000 barrels in use now. We need a lot due to the way we age wine.” —Manuel Muga
“We have about 12,000 barrels in use now,” says Muga. “We need a lot due to the way we age wine. Prado Enea [Muga’s top gran reserva] spends an average of three years in barrel.”
The mostly retired Isaac Muga explains that he and his late brother wanted to follow the winemaking norms set by the likes of “Rioja Alta, Tondonia and CVNE,” meaning fermentation and aging only in oak.
Where Muga differs from those highly respected, traditional wineries is in the modernity and freshness of its wines, particularly Torre Muga, Aro and Selección Especial. All are dark, ripe and lusty in style—and are only made in the top vintages.
Muga did not bottle Torre Muga in 2012 or 2013, and scaled back its production in 2014. “We didn’t make Prado Enea or Aro in 2012, either,” says Muga. “For most wineries, it was a very good vintage. But for us, it wasn’t up to our standards.”
Signature Wine: 2011 Torre Muga; $100, 96 points.
Juan Carlos López de Lacalle, the owner and winemaker of Artadi in the village of Laguardia, is highly respected around the wine world for his meticulous winemaking practices and strong opinions, many of which are iconoclastic.
López de Lacalle will chide collectors: “Wine doesn’t get better after it’s bottled,” he says. “Tannins are what they are.” And he equates the role of the human stomach to the soil in which vines are planted: “Like with eating, the land breaks down organic materials and absorbs minerals and proteins, which are further absorbed into the plants.”
This type of deep thinking contributes to Artadi producing some of Spain’s most spectacular wines. It has also put the winery on the outs with many of its contemporaries in Rioja.
“The rules are not aimed at precision, and that goes against our philosophy.” —Juan Carlos López de Lacalle
In January, Artadi, which in the Basque language means a group of oak trees, announced that it was leaving the Rioja regulatory board. It would no longer abide by local rules and regulations, pay dues to the association or use the Rioja name on its wines, including its critically acclaimed single-vineyard wines like El Pison, Valdegines and El Carretil.
This move drew a rebuke from the Rioja Consejo Regulador, which implied that Artadi had been bad-mouthing a region that helped make it highly successful. But López de Lacalle is undaunted.
“Rioja produces 500 million bottles of wine per year,” he says. “There are 600 wineries of every type and size. Production is six times what it was 20 years ago and increasing. The rules are not aimed at precision, and that goes against our philosophy.”
What are precise are Artadi’s wines, most of which come from small vineyard plots in Rioja Alavesa with distinct sun exposures and soils. In the winery, each vineyard has its own fermentation vat, and there’s little human intervention in the winemaking process.
“Like kids, we have been taught ‘mirarlo mucho, pero tocarlo poco,’ which means ‘look, but don’t touch,’ ” says López de Lacalle. “Once the grapes are harvested, we mostly just sit and watch.”
Signature Wine: 2012 Viña El Pison; $300, 94 points.
- 1The Phoenix | Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (CVNE)
- 2The Welcoming Committee | Marqués de Riscal
- 3The Throwback | R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia
- 4The Interpreters | Familia Eguren
- 5The Woodworker | Bodegas Muga
- 6The Iconoclast | Artadi