From Earthmoving to Ecological Viticulture – Viña Ijalba

Monterrey, the bar conveniently located next door to our apartment building, held its bimonthly charity wine tasting earlier this week. This time it was Viña Ijalba’s turn.

The business was founded on an unusual premise – earthmoving.  Dionisio Ruiz Ijalba had a very successful gravel business but didn’t know what to do with the land after removing the stones and grinding them into smaller pieces to sell to road construction companies.  He decided to fill in the pits with earth and plant grapevines and olive trees.  Currently the company owns 80 hectaresof vineyards and 20 hectares of olive orchards.

When Ruiz Ijalba decided to build a winery in 1991 there was a lot of scepticism in Rioja about how a newcomer to the industry could survive, but the company has succeeded beyond the founder’s wildest expectations.

One of the keys to the winery’s success was the appointment of Juan Carlos Sancha as managing director.  Sancha, an enologist, agronomist and university professor had always showed an interest in reviving  grape varieties on the verge of extinction in Rioja and studying their possibilities for use as Rioja grapes.  At the time, a lively, and as it turned out, almost eternal debate was taking place about the possible use of international varieties like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in Rioja and talk of new local varieties only served to fan the flames.  Of course this turned into a political stalemate and is the topic of another post.  Viña Ijalba, however, led the charge in favor of allowing experimental plots of these varieties (you can see them in front of the winery) and after what seemed like an eternity, several of these almost forgotten grapes, notably maturana tinta and maturana blanca were allowed to be used to make Rioja. To my knowledge, the first 100% graciano sold commercially in Rioja was also made at Viña Ijalba.

Naturally, Viña Ijalba was the first company off the starting line when these vairieties were finally allowed.

Back in the early 1990s, using new varieties was just a dream, and the winery realized that it had to innovate in other ways to succeed.  They decided on a three-pronged strategy:  avant-garde labeling, curious brand names based on names for colors (múrice is from the purple ink secreted by a type of clam and genolí is a pale yellow pigment used by artists), and ecological viticulture.  In fact, Viña Ijalba was the first Rioja to use the ecological viticulture association’s seal on their bottles in 1998.

At the tasting this week, the winery’s current winemaker Pedro Salguero showed us three wines: Genolí 2011, Múrice crianza 2008 and Ijalba reserva 2007.

Genolí – 5000 bottles made – , exclusively from maturana blanca (or rivadavia), was pale yellow with aromas of lemon peels and peaches, elegant and full-bodied.  This will always be a connoisseur’s Rioja because the grape clusters are only about one third the size and weight of a cluster of viura and consequently most growers won’t bother with it.

Múrice crianza 2008 – 70000 bottles made – is a blend of tempranillo (90%) and graciano (10%).  Medium garnet, strawberries and cinnamon on the nose with medium body, ripe tannins and easy to drink.

Ijalba reserva 2007 – 30000 bottles made – is a blend of 80% tempranillo and 20% graciano.  Aged for 20 months in French and American oak and 16 months in the bottle before release.  Medium-high intensity garnet (you can’t see your fingers if you look through the wine), red and black stewed fruit and oak – maybe a little overdone – firm tannins, long mouthfeel with an elegant structure.

Viña Ijalba is a great example of how to innnovate in a crowded market.  Their wines are definitely worth looking for.

Bodegas Viña Ijalba

Carretera de Pamplona, km. 1

26007 Logroño (La Rioja)

Tel. +34 941 261 100 (the company is currently revamping the website)



Wines from Moldova – Under the radar, but not for long

Moldova is under the radar for all but the most enlightened North American and Western European wine drinkers.  If, however, you’re from Russia or a former Soviet-bloc country you have undoubtedly had wine fromMoldova because it was one of the leading suppliers to the USSR.

Practically all Moldovan wine was shipped in bulk and bottled in the USSR so there was little incentive to produce high quality or create brands.  Even after the collapse of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s, the wine trade went on as usual.

In 2006, however, Russia denied access to Moldovan wines, accusing Moldova of using illegal pesticides in the vineyards, refusing payment for wines already shipped.  The accusation proved to be false, but payment was never made, so when the ban was lifted at the end of 2007, Moldovan wineries were choked with debt and unable to invest in the infrastructure necessary to compete on 21st century terms.

The industry has been encouraged to find new markets and some wineries have been successful selling bottled wine to Eastern Europe, Germany, the UK and the USA, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to raise the standards of viticulture, winemaking, sales and marketing to western consumers.

I spent last week in Moldova as part of a team hired by the European Investment Bank to provide technical assistance to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry and the trade following a 75 million euro loan provided by the EIB.  My first impression about Moldova’s potential was positive.

Most vineyards have been planted to international varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, riesling and merlot.  I was more interested, however, in tasting wines made with local grapes such as the white varieties feteasca alba and feteasca regala and the red variety rara neagra.  Some of the winemakers we talked to seemed to turn their noses up at the mention of these local varieties, so we tried to explain that part of the international success of Chile,Argentina and Spain was due to carmenère, malbec and tempranillo.  We also tried to make the point that unless Moldovan chardonnay and cabernet were vinified to express the character of the soils and climate of the country and were marketed as Moldovan, the risk was that their cab and chard would only be attractive as commodities and only if the price was right.

We’re returning toMoldova the first week in April to visit wineries and taste more wines, after which I’ll have a better idea of the current state of the industry.  The Ministry, several wineries and winery associations and international cooperation agencies are working together to create a strategic sales and marketing plan, which includes the creation of a public-private national wine promotion board like Wine Australia.