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Three Wineries in La Rioja

Updated: Mar 23

Until this spring, I’d never done a wine tasting visit to Europe.

 

In fact, until January, I’d never formally gone wine tasting outside of the United States! And while I can serviceably explain the broad contours of many of the great European wine regions, the only way you really learn about the history, traditions, and wines being made in these places is to visit. That’s how I came to know our homeland’s great wine growing geographies––trip after trip visiting and touring wineries, chatting with area professionals, and experiencing the fruits of their labors. Having never gone tasting in Europe seemed like an awfully big blind spot for someone trying to make his way in this industry.

 

Toward the end of 2023, I had a certificate for an international upgrade on American Airlines that was about to expire, and pressed for time, I found upgrade space on a cheap ticket to Spain, one of the few western European countries I’d never explored, and picked a random date in the spring, largely expecting work obligations would ultimately keep me from boarding the plane. To my surprise, after leaving my job in December and having little luck finding a new one during the slow season, I found myself unencumbered in March, and getting tired of just sitting around being depressed in rainy Petaluma, I made the last-minute decision to make the trip.


Barcelona was the beginning and ending point of the six-night trip, and while I could have easily filled my week exploring the city and greater Catalonia, I noted that it was a fairly easy train ride up to La Rioja, Spain’s most famous and storied wine region, and the only one with which I was any more than tangentially familiar. In fact, one of my favorite producers in the world, the one which first introduced me to wine from Spain, is located in the heart of Rioja, and so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit.

 

 

The history and geography of La Rioja

 

Rioja is nestled between two east-west mountain ranges in the north of Spain along the River Ebro, along the southern border of Basque Country. The peculiar geography of the Iberian Peninsula places Rioja right at the convergence of Atlantic and Mediterranean influences––from the east comes the warm, dry air of the Mediterranean, supporting varietals like garnacha, and from the west, cool Atlantic air fuels strong diurnal shifts, and the more moderate climate nourishes the most dominant varietal of the region, tempranillo. The Sierra Cantabria in the north block excess moisture from the Bay of Biscay, while the Sierra de la Demanda in the south is home to many north-facing terraced vineyards at various altitudes which form the bulk of production in Rioja Alta.



Evidence of wine production in Rioja dates to the Phoenician civilization on the Iberian Peninsula and extends throughout the Roman Empire, proceeding as much of Spain did all the way until a seminal moment in the region’s winemaking in the late 1800s––the arrival of French wine merchants from Bordeaux. The prized vineyards of Bordeaux had been laid to waste by a root louse called phylloxera, and the French sought places free of the pest to grow and make their wines. With them they brought not just their fine wine expertise, but also oak barrels, which would become a critical component of the evolution of wines in Rioja and their becoming some of the finest examples of wine in the world.



Location of La Rioja in northern Spain. Photo from Britannica

 

In the old world, the finest wines are quality controlled by governments and organizations that set stringent standards for production and labeling, so that a wine branded as, for example, “Rioja Reserva,” must meet certain requirements for quality and production. These regulations help protect the reputation of the region and clarify the nature of the various wines for the market.


Rioja’s Consejo Regulador began issuing regulations in 1953, and the Spanish government created rules for guarantees of wine quality, evaluating wine regions for an award of denominación de origen (DO) and granting such a distinction to Rioja in 1970. In 1991, Spain issued its first award of a higher classification, denominación de origen calificada (DOCa), to La Rioja, and to this day it is only one of two wine regions to achieve this designation in Spain.

 

The meat of the regulations focuses on precisely the innovation that the French brought to Rioja––oak aging. In ascending order, the classifications crianza, reserva, and gran reserva require increasing oak and bottle aging time, with the highest classification mandating five years of aging (two minimum in barrel, two minimum in bottle, with the fifth year allocated as the winemaker sees fit). Other wines aged outside of the parameters of the board, which are increasingly common, can only bear the generic “Rioja” label.


Gran reserva Riojas can be among the finest examples of wine in the world, like this 100-point wine from La Rioja Alta

A significant reason for this stringency comes from the nature of the region’s specialty varietal, tempranillo. Thought to be introduced by the Phoenicians centuries ago, the varietal constitutes some 70 percent of production in the region, and can present with high acidity and high tannin; the longer it ages, the more balanced it becomes as the acid and tannin mellow and integrate, guaranteeing (in the abstract) that the most elegant and harmonious wines bear the highest classification, and ensuring the wines are ready to drink when released to the market.


Recently, due to burgeoning interest in single-vineyard and terroir-expressive wines, the Consejo added a Burgundy-style classification of vineyards, with vineyards dubbed singulares, the Spanish equivalent of grand cru, requiring year-over-year 95-point wines to qualify––these wines can be of the "generic Rioja" variety, which helps producers distinguish their products even if they don’t follow the aging restrictions for classification as crianza, reserva, or gran reserva.


Source: rioja.uk

Rioja has been divided into three sub-regions, each roughly representing a microclimate and soil type. Many of the finest wines and most traditional come from the western side, Rioja Alta, where tempranillo thrives due to the cooler climate, red-tinted clay soils, and shorter growing season, fostering the magnificent acidity of the varietal that makes these wines so age-worthy. The Mediterranean-influenced Rioja Oriental (formerly Rioja Baja) is warmer and drier, with alluvial soils and a longer growing season more conducive to the dominant varietal in eastern Spain, garnacha. Finally, in Rioja Álavesa, north of the River Ebro in Basque Country, the vineyards at the foot of the Sierra Cantabria are cooler and drier, with poorer soils sporting lower-yielding vines producing particularly high acid, complex fruit.

 

 

What kind of wines are made in Rioja?

 

Tempranillo is king in Rioja, but wines made entirely tempranillo are much rarer than those blended with some permutation of the other dominant red varietals in the region––garnacha, graciano, and mazuelo (the Spanish word for carignan). Traditional Riojas reds will usually sit at around 70–85% tempranillo with some combination of garnacha providing body, graciano character and complexity, and mazuelo color, tannin, and acid for better aging. In Rioja Oriental, you’ll primarily find garnacha-based blends. Meanwhile, there’s a steady drumbeat calling for revival of long-ignored strictly local varietals, like the rare and racy maturana grape, as well as a desire to cultivate single-varietal expressions of grapes like graciano traditionally reserved for blending.


Tempranillo on the vine. ©Fernando Garcia Esteban / www.shutterstock.com

White wines are made to a lesser extent, and by far the most important varietal is viura, called macabeo pretty much everywhere outside Rioja, with expressions ranging from bright and fresh to intensely aged, oxidized, and nutty. Some of the most prized wines in Rioja are viuras, particularly those aged in oak in ways similar to the more common and traditional tempranillo blends.

 

Today there are over 600 wineries in Rioja. As with many of the great wine geographies of Europe, Rioja is steeped in tradition, and many of the bodegas (wineries) in the region maintain the old ways dating back to the introduction of oak in the 19th century, innovating and introducing new technology only when necessary and convenient. As the region has modernized and developed, and trends in winemaking have tended to reward innovation and site-specific terroir and varietal character have become more desirable in the market, many wineries have deviated from the traditional methods to create signature styles.



During my three days in the area, I visited wineries spanning the spectrum from traditional to modern, and the three I highlight in this entry represent each of the three sub-regions of La Rioja as well as varying varietal focus and vinification techniques. In the end, I’d bring home 14 bottles of Rioja and one magnum, and because the wine is famously inexpensive, left Spain with a suitcase and wallet far heavier than if I’d visited American or French wineries!

 

 

Day 1:  Arizcuren

 

Logroño, a city of roughly 150,000, is the capitol of La Rioja––it’s there that a voyage by train to La Rioja begins and ends from most large cities in Spain. While Logroño boasts a fantastic culinary scene (more on that in a future post!), there aren’t many Bodegas within the city, but a notable exception is Arizcuren, a relatively new winery founded by local architect Javier Arizcuren. Taking inspiration from the “urban” wineries you might find in San Francisco, New York, or London, their microscopic facility is housed in a Logroño storefront immediately adjacent to Javier’s architecture offices. With a production of only about 2500 cases annually, it was by far the smallest winery I’d visit in Rioja.



Arizcuren grows their fruit on plots at and around the family estate nestled in a pocket of the Sierra de Yerga in the southeastern reaches of Rioja Oriental under the shadow of Monte Gatún. The warmer Mediterranean climate from the east is moderated by the location of the vineyards within ridges surrounding them. The finest of Arizcuren’s plots, some several hundred meters up the mountainside, qualify for the singulares distinction due to their production of superlative wines which receive 95-point ratings or higher every year.



It’s not uncommon for Rioja wineries to offer different brands corresponding to the tier of the wines. Arizcuren offers a cuvée-style red wine similar to lower-priced crianza offerings from the more traditional houses, sourcing from multiple vineyard sites and producing higher volume for the larger market. As Arizcuren’s vineyards are in the Oriental subregion, garnacha forms the majority of this Monte Gatún blend, along with graciano and mazuelo. Easy drinking, mouthwatering, and fresh. They also make a viura under this label which I didn’t get to try, but did purchase––it was only 18 Euro, after all!


Arizcuren’s flagship label focuses on single varietals, many of which age in a clay amphora from central Spain rather than oak. The tasting room host, Oscar, called this approach “wine without makeup”––aging in the porous clay amphora approximates the oxygen penetration from oak, which adds complexity and texture to the wine without imparting any manner of “oaky” flavor that might mask the character of the varietal. Some of their other varietal-specific wines see some Slavonian neutral oak, but always with the goal of balance.



I sampled each of their single-varietal offerings, including amphora-aged expressions of garnacha, mazuelo, graciano, and maturana, as well as an oak-aged mazuelo. It was wonderful to taste these varietals unencumbered by oak, especially the latter two, which were new to me. The graciano, with a distinct herbaceous character and concentrated but lush darker fruits, was my favorite; meanwhile, the maturana, an exceptionally rare varietal just beginning to gather newfound attention as one of Rioja’s indigenous grapes, had very direct flavors of pepper that were at first slightly off-putting, but became more beguiling as the character of the fruit came into harmony with the pyrazine. Both found their way into my suitcase, and I’m excited to revisit the fascinating maturana in particular.



Oscar underscored the commitment to experimentation among the winemaking team––as an homage to Javier’s career in architecture, they call their line of experimental wines Apuntes, or “sketches,” like the initial drawings an architect might make for a new building. One wine per year is made under this label in very limited quantities, and the current release is a rosé of garnacha aged for several years in oak, a style that mimics oak-aged viura-based white wines made by several traditional producers in Rioja. The fermented juice spends significant time in oak and absorbs more oxygen the longer it ages, gradually oxidizing the wine and adding texture, body, complexity, and nuttiness. “This is a wine for geeks,” says Oscar, as I gleefully sip one of the most spectacular examples of rosé I’ve tried. Amazing stuff.


Finally, Arizcuren crafts two single-vineyard garnacha-based blends from two sites at higher altitudes on Mount Gatún. These wines can be classified as singulares, or the highest caliber of vineyard sites in La Rioja, the equivalent of grand cru sites in Burgundy. Featuring some of the oldest vines in Rioja Oriental, these wines are truly special. Finca el Foro is the lower elevation and less expensive of the two, but was my favorite wine of the visit, with a bit more ripeness and plummy, darker fruit. Meanwhile, Barranco del Prado, the pinnacle of their wines, had a magnificent structure and sang with dark cherries and lively acidity, with a shade more grip than the Finca. Needs time to age, but doubtless will be incredible. And at these prices––neither wine was more expensive than $70, while in California a wine of comparable quality would sell for well over $100––both bottles were irresistible buys.



Though I certainly started my trip to Rioja with the most unconventional of the producers I would visit, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to experience Arizcuren, and frontloaded with a half case of their wines, despite already foreseeing the struggles involved in packing my suitcases later!

 

 

Day 2:  R. López de Heredia

 

Logroño is the largest population center of La Rioja and its regional capitol, but Haro, a much smaller town about 30 minutes to the west, is the beating heart of the region.



Straddling Rioja Alta and Rioja Álavesa, Haro is the home to many of the largest and most famous producers of wine in Rioja. In the 19th century, Haro’s train station became the locus of the migration of French wine merchants and producers into Spain, and today the area around the station, appropriately called barrio de la estación, is a playground for wine enthusiasts––the campuses of many of the biggest and most famous Bodegas in Rioja are within steps of one another, and guests can take pre-arranged tours of the wineries or just meander from bodega to bodega enjoying tastings, glasses of wine, and food at the wineries’ respective wine bars. None of these wineries, however, enjoys the cult popularity and mystique of R. López de Heredia.



Founder Don Rafael López de Heredia y Landeta emigrated to Spain from Chile with his parents in the 1850s. When the French came to Haro, his adopted and beloved home, he studiously and enthusiastically absorbed everything he could about viticulture and winemaking from the newcomers from Bordeaux. In 1877, he began construction on a new winery facility just steps from the train station. The descendants of Don Rafael still operate the winery in his original facility.

 

If Arizcuren is a wild departure from tradition, López Heredia is a temple to it. The wine has been made the same way since their first vintages in the 1890s. The family has maintained original equipment whenever possible, and Don Rafael’s practices are adhered to with almost religious precision.



Your first stop is not the impossibly rustic winemaking facility, but the modernist decanter-shaped wine shop flanking it. Designed in the 90s (1990s, to be precise!) by famed architect Zaha Hadid, this is the only indoor space on the premises open to the general public––since the pandemic, only professionals in the wine industry are invited to tour the winery and caves, while other pilgrims to the winery can enjoy wines by the bottle on the patio, decorated with furniture upcycled from the winery’s decommissioned barrels.



Inside the “decanter” you’ll find the first genuine artifact of your visit––a stunning art nouveau booth built by Don Rafael for the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1910 to promote his new winery and his beloved Rioja. Remarkably, the pavilion is nearly entirely original, reassembled in Haro like an IKEA dresser after the Hadid-designed shop was completed. Inside the display cabinets, you can find bottles of Heredia’s flagship tempranillo blend dating to as early as the 1920s.



The real magic begins, however, when your guide opens the massive cellar doors. The aroma of wine and oak is immediate and intoxicating, as is the awe at the sight of leviathan wooden vats dating to the earliest years of the 20th century, still in use for fermentation today. This is one of the thinnest veils imaginable between the present and the past––nowhere in Spain can you step into the world of winemaking as it was in the earliest days of the ascendancy of one of the greatest wine geographies in the world.



The comprehensive tour, provided privately to just yours truly, covers nearly every aspect of winemaking in the facility. In the cavernous main cellar, you’re introduced first to the poplar carrying containers used to hand-harvest the grapes at peak ripeness, a talisman of their unwavering commitment to tradition––even the now-ubiquitous lighter, plastic bins used by nearly everyone uses are too modern (and too unsustainable) for the traditionalists at López.

 

Atop one of the bins sits a bundle of dried canes from the vineyard, displayed as an example of how the winery upcycles, and does not discard, literally everything. Once the pruning is done in the winter, the shoots are fashioned into bundles that are used to filter the wine in the vats as it is transferred to the barrels. Once they can no longer serviceably filter, they provide compost or smoking material for grilling. Even the poplar gathering vessels find new homes as flowerpots and patio furniture when no longer useful for harvest.



The most awe-inspiring sight, however, is the seemingly ancient equipment. The massive vats date to the earliest decades of the winery, saturated with the wine of over 100 vintages and filling the nostrils with heady aromas of macerated grapes and oak. It's in these vats they still ferment their wines, eventually sending them to age in barrel in the hand-dug caves beneath by gravity, the purest way to move wine with minimal disturbance.



Once the precious free-run juice has been drained into barrels, the remaining skins and seeds are squeezed out in a basket press the likes of which most wineries haven’t used since the first half of the 20th century. Press juice, though, is not good enough for the winemaking team at Heredia; instead of incorporating anything but the gold standard gravity-drained wine into their final product, the team uses the press juice to cure their barrels, which (of course) they make themselves in their own on-site cooperage. Once pressed, the skins and seeds are scattered over the vineyards as compost.



Because of the age and absolute saturation of wine in the vats, flying insect pests like moths are common in the cellar; my guide points to a corner of the ceiling covered in dusty cobwebs and says, “they control the pests for free.”

 

López de Heredia is one of the few traditional wineries in Rioja that has always grown their own fruit––nearly every other bodega sources most of what they make into wine from third-party farmers. From four different vineyard sites––Tondonia, Bosconia, Gravonia, and Cubillo––the family has been farming using the same practices, many of them deeply sustainable before sustainability was fashionable, since the early years of the winery.



Each of these vineyards is mere kilometers from the winery, and each bottle is specific to one of the vineyards, meaning that not only are these wines capable of the highest classification of aging regime in Rioja, gran reserva, they are also single-vineyard expressions, a rare intersection of traditional Rioja and the newfound desire to emphasize the particular terroir of certain sites, a practice this winery has taken seriously long before it was in vogue. Unsurprisingly, the viticulture team will keep a vine planted as long as it is reasonably healthy and productive, meaning that the vineyards maintained and used by López de Heredia contain some of the most storied, ancient vines in La Rioja, a recipe for the most magnificent fruit imaginable.



Guided by gently glowing pendant lights that are original to the building (López was one of the first wineries in Spain to install electricity in their facility), I descended into the cool, damp underground caves, dug by hand during the time of Don Rafael. It is here the wines are aged for up to a breathtaking six years in barrels made and cured in-house by master coopers on the payroll of the winery, and then up to another six years in bottle.



While oak aging is particularly important in traditional Rioja production, the winemakers at Heredia use their oak barrels for as long as possible so that the incorporation of oaky flavor is subtle and does not overpower the wine; this is why they cure the barrels for over a year with press wine to extract the flavors of new wood before using them to age the free-run juice. Many of these barrels have been in rotation for decades, and it shows––darkly stained by wine, oxidation, and the patina gathered by rolling them (no forklifts here), the barrels look like the stuff of storybooks.



Being nine meters underground, the caves are a perfect temperature for aging of wine––when these wineries were built back in the 19th century, climate control for ideal fine wine aging could only be done underground, so each of the older bodegas has a massive network of hand-dug caves––“sometimes you can hear them giving a tour in Muga’s caves next door!” Moreover, they’re also fairly humid chambers, which helps extend the usable life of the barrels and minimizes loss due to evaporation, but the humidity covers everything in a dense crop of fungus.



Seems Heredia is not concerned with all the bonus hyphae, however, and it grows freely on walls, barrels, bottles, and everything in between. Stacks of hundreds of bottles of decades-old viura might be nearly congealed in mold. And rather than being gross, it just seemed to add to the whole marvelous ambiance of the estate, as if to think if they did clean the mold or clear the cobwebs, the curtain would lift. After all, it's the bottle that's moldy, not the wine.



We visited the onsite cooperage before (finally!) tasting the wines, and it was a decidedly different vibe from the ultra-modern cooperage I visited at Old Forester in Bourbon Country. All their oak barrels are made in house by their team of three coopers, repaired whenever possible and economical but only replaced when necessary; a barrel that gets taken apart becomes firewood for the toasting of a new barrel, or gets turned into furniture.



The analog nature of the cooperage is something to behold––it’s clear they’ve been making the barrels the same way since the beginning. Noticing a theme here? Indeed, cooper work is more art than science, best learned through skilled coopers passing their knowledge down to the next generation of apprentices rather than the introduction of fancy equipment. “If it works, why change it?” quips my host as we walk past the literal measuring stick they use to figure out how many staves they need for their next 225 liter barrel.

 

It was finally time to taste some wine. Displayed in a sort of nondescript room in a more modern wing of the winery was the original bar that Don Rafael had constructed for Heredia’s first dedicated wine shop in Madrid. It was here I’d taste two––just two––of the current release wines, along with some succulent slices of Iberico jamón.



López de Heredia is known for three red wines, two white wines, and one rosé, each corresponding to one of their vineyards. Unlike many producers who wish to emphasize vintage character, Heredia wants to make each years’ wine taste as similar to other years’ as possible, so that if you were tasting two vintages side by side, you’d see a difference, but a bottle of 2011 at dinner one night and a 2010 another night are both still unmistakably Heredia.



The highest tier red and their flagship wine, from the Tondonia vineyard, is aged an almost unrivaled six years in barrel and six in bottle. Bosconia, their mid-tier offering, produces a wine of notably more structure and depth, and is aged for just one less year than the Tondonia. Even their lowest-end red––the Cubillo––is aged for long enough (the current release is 2015) to be called a gran reserva, the highest classification of aging in Rioja. But Heredia saves the “gran reserva” label for the very best years and makes a separate wine in exceptional vintages with that name. The prices? Just 41 Euro, 32 Euro, and 18 Euro, respectively; unheard of for wines of this caliber.


It's the whites, however, that seem to draw wine nerds to the work of Heredia. Made from two vineyards––Tondonia and Gravonia––these viuras receive a treatment incredibly similar to the reds, with extensive aging in very neutral oak and plenty of time in bottle. Those many years in barrel are quite uncommon for white wines and allow for a gradual slight oxidation of the wine as the years pass. The result is a wine with the natural acidity of the earlier picked viura grape with an underbelly of complex flavors resembling roasted hazelnuts. It’s unlike any white wine you’ve ever had. Even the Gravonia, aged for a handful of years fewer than the Tondonia, is special, and can be found for a preposterous $25 in some shops.



The Gravonia was the wine that first hooked me on Heredia. I got a mixed case curated by a wine shop in LA when I first moved there in 2014, and a 2005 Gravonia was part of it. Hence began my Heredia obsession. When I returned to the shop begging to buy more, the proprietor guffawed, said he was long since sold out, and wished me luck finding more of it anywhere in town. It’s only been by chance that I’ve been able to stumble upon it at random shops, including my mom’s hometown liquor store in Iowa, over the years. On the online secondary market, the whites are so in demand that they can sell for three or four times their retail price.

 

It's the cult following surrounding them, and how few bottles of them they produce relative to the reds, that create the scarcity––“you can only make as much as the vineyard gives you.” You won't taste them during your visit, either, much to my dismay, and if you want to buy a bottle of either white, you must also commit to five bottles of the Tondonia red per bottle of white. “People would just come here to buy cases of the white and sell it on the secondary market,” says my host. No exceptions for industry folks, either. And don’t even think about trying to find the rosé, made in the same style as the whites but only in certain years and with much lower production. If you find a López white out in the market, it’s good luck; if you find a rosé, it’s a genuine miracle.

 

Wrapping up my tasting experience at Heredia with my wonderful host, Sarah, felt like stepping forward again in time. The two hours I spent immersed in some of the most traditional winemaking practices to be found anywhere in the world were absolutely flabbergasting. I’d never experienced a winery like this and doubt I ever will again. My sommelier friend, seeing I was visiting Rioja, called his experience at López “mind blowingly ridiculous.” No disagreement here.



Knowing I can easily find bottles of their Tondonia and Cubillo red wines in the states, I walked away with a magnum of Tondonia red in a branded pine box and a bottle of Bosconia, much harder to find in the American market. The Tondonia white would have to mock me as I left in its six-pack with five bottles of the red––it didn’t make much sense to use five bottles’ worth of space in my luggage for a wine I can find easily at home, even if the reward for that was an R. López de Heredia white wine. Pray for my luck in intercepting one out in the world.

 

 

Day 3:  Pujanza

 

After spending the remainder of my day post-Heredia hopping from bodega to bodega in the barrio de la estación and sampling seemingly endless glasses of every gran reserva I could find, I wasn’t quite sure my body was ready for more wine on the morning of my third day in Rioja! This upcoming visit, though, was one I’d been looking forward to, since it would be the first bodega in Rioja where I’d be on an estate the likes of which you’d find closer to home––outside a town and surrounded by its own vineyards.


Pujanza is in Rioja Álavesa, north of the River Ebro in Basque Country, just a stone’s throw from the picturesque hilltop hamlet of Laguardia. Under the shadow of the Sierra Cantabria, the winery grows fruit for its wines at multiple mountainous vineyard sites of various degrees of altitude and proximity to the mountains. The further north of the river and higher in altitude the vineyards get, the cooler the site, the poorer and rockier the soil, the less rain and hence deeper roots, and the more brilliant, complex, and ageworthy the wines.



Carlos San Pedro’s family has lived in Laguardia for generations, and his son, my host at Pujanza, tells me that there is evidence that winemaking started in his family at least five generations ago. After working at his father’s winery for decades, Carlos launched his own project in 1998, constructing a winery and adding to his inherited acreage by planting and acquiring his own vineyards with the goal of making site-specific expressions of tempranillo––100% tempranillo, that is.



His wines have been praised extensively in the quarter century since Pujanza’s founding, and his modern style––focused on aging in French oak, a relative rarity, and capturing the terroir of each of this single vineyard sites––reminded me much more of wineries I’d find back home than what I’d experienced so far in Rioja.


The drive to Pujanza took me north through rolling head-trained vineyards tinged red with iron-heavy clay soils flanked by 16th century castles in hilltop villages, all under the backdrop of the ash-colored Sierra Cantabria. From Laguardia, where I’d stop for breakfast, the view south seemed to allow me to take in every corner of La Rioja.



Pujanza is a wonderful example of a winery falling somewhere between the modernism of Arizcuren and the unflinching tradition of Heredia. Carlos San Pedro’s wines are made classically, but more in the French style, using French oak for aging and strongly emphasizing the character of each vineyard and vintage. Some two-thirds of the winery’s production, around 5000 cases annually, is a scrumptious tempranillo called Hado, meant for broad distribution and sourced from several of the family’s vineyards in Rioja Álavesa. It’s the 100% tempranillo site-specific reds, however, that keep wine enthusiasts coming back to Pujanza.



Four expressions of vineyard-designate tempranillo are offered in Pujanza’s portfolio, each named for the vineyard where the fruit is grown. Directly adjacent to the winery is the Valdepoleo vineyard, one of the youngest and the lowest in elevation. The tempranillo from this vineyard exhibits a bit more ripeness, with lush red and black fruits underpinning a brilliant acidity and slightly chewy structure––Carlos Jr. says the wines are made to age, giving time for the grippy tempranillo to settle a bit in the bottle. Valdepoleo also sees only neutral oak, making it a more fruit-forward, accessible offering. Delicious, indeed.

 

The newest vineyard in the Pujanza lineup is also the one that produces a wine most distinct from their signature style. The La Paul vineyard sits on rockier, more rugged soils, producing a wine with a clean, almost flinty character, and one not as lush and more red fruit–driven when compared to the Valdepoleo, with significant tannin still present. Carlos Jr. described this as a “love it or hate it” wine, and while I certainly understand why it was a bit distinct in style from Pujanza’s other tempranillos, I still very much enjoyed it and in fact could see it being the most compelling of the three single-vineyard offerings with several more years of age.



Carlos Jr. was deliberately cagey about what wine was his favorite, but I could tell it was the last offering I’d taste––Norte. Before describing the wine, I’d like to take a moment to appreciate how magnificently scenic the vineyard itself is. As the name suggests, it’s the farthest north of the family’s vineyard sites, and sits just below the cliffs of the Sierra Cantabria surrounded by old growth oak forests. Carlos Jr. tells me that British wine critic Tim Atkin calls this one of his favorite vineyard sites to visit in the world.

 

And what a wine it creates. Straddling the spectrum between the lush wild berries of the Valdepoleo and the singing red fruit and structure of the La Paul, it was easily my favorite of the three, with a spectacular balance and tension and the slight vanilla of new French oak rounding everything out. A truly special wine, and one that could sell for three times its price if made in France or the States. The only wine I bought two bottles of on the trip.

 

I wouldn’t be lucky enough to taste their most prized tempranillo, Cisma, from a tiny vineyard with century-old vines, and the price was a bit too dear to justify without tasting it, but Carlos Jr. assured me I’d selected his favorite to take home––“you have good taste.” I did, however, feeling light on acquisitions of viura, take home, taste untasted, a bottle of their most precious white wine.

 

Pujanza farms a small portion of one of their vineyards for viura and makes a single expression each year called S. J. Anteportalatina, after the name of the site. The limestone soils contribute to a wine with remarkable freshness and aromatic character driven by citrus and white peach, with a robust body flaked by essence of toasty French oak. It was not this wine, however, but their even rarer Añadas Frias that would find its way into my suitcase.

 

In the coolest vintages, Pujanza labels the viura from S. J. Anteportalatina with the name “Añadas Frias,” itself translating to “cold vintages,” and treats the wine slightly more preciously. These vintages produce, for Carlos San Pedro, a very special expression of viura, with lower yields and higher acidity resulting in more concentration, phenolic character, and ageworthiness. Their 2019 Añadas Frias was ranked the best white wine in Rioja and fifth best in Spain, and I was lucky enough to land one of the last bottles of this wine from the subsequent “añada fria,” 2021, to take home and age for several years.



Pujanza was wonderful to visit, and spending time with 20-year-old Carlos Jr., who is fully committed to taking over the family business from his father, gave me fascinating insight into the family’s history and his father’s approach to making the wines. While not “traditional” the way you’d describe bodegas like Heredia, the classically-designed wines are magnificent expressions of the terroir from which they’re sourced and love letters to Rioja’s famed tempranillo grape. An excellent way to experience the fruit of Rioja made in a way that more resembles the wines I'm used to in the new world.

 



Three winery tours gave me a look at examples of the diverse styles of winemaking being done in Rioja today, and while the wineries could not have been more different, they had a part to play in telling the story of the region, which may, after this visit, be my favorite in Europe.

 

So, why Rioja?



It may just be because it’s the only old world region I’ve explored in-depth, but there’s just something about Rioja. Perhaps it’s the unpretentious, eminently approachable atmosphere; perhaps it’s the fact that even the most reasonably priced of these wines punch well above their price points. Or perhaps, instead, it’s the palpable sense that the people here are fiercely committed to how special this place is, and not in a manner that makes them want to seek renown for their endeavors, but instead one which guides their work with a humility and grace that is hard to find in many comparable wine regions of the world.

 

Whatever it is, Rioja is special, and every wine enthusiast, professional, or even hobbyist who happens to find themselves nearby should make a pilgrimage to this magnificent place. Just remember, as the Maestro has advised before, to leave room in your suitcase.

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