Fri 07 Jun 2013

Rioja: Sisters Doing It For Themselves


Recently Rioja’s finest gathered in London and Edinburgh to show Society members their wines and talk about what it is that makes them so special.

Manuel Muga discussing his wines with Society members at the tasting.

Manuel Muga discussing his wines with Society members at the tasting.

Rioja has long been the jewel in Spain’s fine winemaking crown. The bodegas present, Muga, La Rioja Alta S.A, Lopez de Heredia, Amezola de la Mora and CVNE, all family owned and with over 600 years of winemaking heritage between them, can lay claim to being largely responsible for this and for establishing a benchmark of quality by which others measure themselves.

Though all the wineries are steeped in tradition, key to their success is the fact that they haven’t rested on their laurels. A healthy respect for the past is matched by a desire to constantly improve and innovate. Everyone that I spoke to talked of fulfilling the dreams of their ancestors and carrying on their work – the sense of a generational responsibility and family pride – not unique to this group, nonetheless came across very strongly.

Sisters Cristina and María Amézola represent the new generation in Rioja. They were Spain’s youngest winemakers when they took up the reins at just 17 and 18 respectively following the tragic death of their father.

Cristina and María Amézola

María and Cristina Amézola

They were studying at university and hadn’t even thought about working in the family business. Their mother continued to run the business until they finished their studies. ‘Coming back to the winery felt like the right thing to do,’ Cristina told me – they really had to hit the ground running and Cristina, who had been studying journalism, found herself in charge of production, winemaking and tourism. Her sister gravitated towards sales and marketing as well as overseeing finances and viticulture and now travels widely promoting their wines.

Both are now settled in their roles and are pleased to be carrying on the work of their father and uncle who had replanted the vineyards and restored the winery in the 1980s. The bodega dates back to the 19th century and had been in the family for generations but had fallen into disrepair following the outbreak of phylloxera.

Cristina told me how much she had learned from their consultant oenologue, Georges Pauli, a respected Bordeaux winemaker and bodega manager Julio Galeretta. She acknowledged that one of the most challenging aspects of her role comes when she has to act as mediator between consultant and cellarmaster. Old ways die hard; justifiably so. Between them they are obviously getting it right though as their wines demonstrate a seamless blend of innovation and tradition.

Their treatment of the white grape viura reveals something of their spirit to try new things. ‘People told us to grub up the white grapes.’ María told me. But the sisters thought it was important to keep the five hectares of viura they had and to make smaller quantities of better quality wines. ‘Viura is the tempranillo of the white grapes,’ María says, ‘it’s a difficult variety…it has fruit but it isn’t obvious and it needs careful ageing in barrel…the key is to get the balance right between freshness and flavour and to allow the mineral character to shine through.’

Bodega Amezola

Bodega Amezola

In fact the historic viura grape (which goes by the name macabeo throughout the rest of Spain and macabeu/maccabéo over the border in Roussillon), was not the original white grape of Rioja. Garnacha blanca and malvasia predominated in pre-phylloxera Riojan vineyards. Growers were encouraged to replant with viura after the epidemic as it was high-yielding and resisted oxidation well. But the grape is not easy to grow or vinify and needs to be pruned hard and be grown at altitude to get the best out of it. But despite the grape’s reputation – Oz Clarke said in his Encyclopedia of Grapes, ‘it is a grape which obstinately defies nearly all attempts to turn it into world-class wine’ – the sisters believe in its potential, eschewing the normal practice of throwing in some malvasia or garnacha blanca into the blend.

They showed their 2010 Iñigo Blanco on the night (we don’t list, as we feel it is rather pricey). Their best vintage yet, the sisters told me, it showed great purity of fruit, a mix of white peach and apricot on the nose and an appetising rich texture and full flavour. A wine to get the taste buds going before a meal but with enough richness to accompany seafood or chicken dishes; very much a white Rioja in the modern mould but no less authentic for that.

The sisters are also experimenting with blending a little viura into their red crianza wines to give them added freshness (a maximum of 5% is permitted). While this might be something of a novelty in Rioja today it actually harks back to an age-old tradition when white and red grapes were often grown side by side and picked and fermented together.

But if proof were needed that viura is capable of making great white wine and in a traditional style capable of long ageing, another pair of sisters, María José and Mercedes of historic López de Heredia, can provide it. More on them to follow next week.

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

Categories : Spain, Wine Tastings

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