Miguel Angel de Gregorio – a Rioja iconoclast but one heck of a winemaker

Miguel Angel de Gregorio

Whenever I see Miguel Angel de Gregorio’s mischievous smile he reminds me of the perennial bad boy in an elementary school class, ready to throw a spitball or yank on some girl’s pigtails. Looks are deceiving, however.  Behind the smile is the brain of one of Rioja’s most accomplished winemakers and a staunch defender of Rioja’s diverse terroirs.

Miguel Angel invented the expression ‘Rioja, la tierra de los mil vinos’ (Rioja, land of a thousand wines) that the Regulatory Council more or less copied in its tagline ‘Rioja, land of 1001 wines’.  Even though Miguel Angel doesn’t produce anywhere near one thousand wines, he has been a pioneer in the expression, through his wines, of the immense variety of soils and microclimates in our region.  He has also had a running battle with the Regulatory Council to be able to define these terroir-based wines on his labels.

De Gregorio comes from a family steeped in grapegrowing and winemaking. His family comes from Argamasilla de Calatrava in La Mancha.  He grew up climbing over the barrels in the Marqués de Murrieta winery where his father was cellarmaster, learning about wine from the great Jesús Marrodán, the winemaker there.

He studied Agronomical Engineering in Madrid and was responsible for one of Rioja’s first ‘modern’ wines, Loriñón, at Bodegas Bretón.  Here he discovered the grapes and vines of the village of Briones in Rioja Alta and when he decided to start his own winery he chose Briones as his home base, patiently restoring the Palace of Ibarra as his office, home and tasting room, building a modern winery and accumulating small plots of singular vineyards around the village.

Finca Allende has 56 hectares (138 acres) of vineyards divided into 92 plots.  The grapes farmed are mainly tempranillo, with some garnacha, graciano, malvasía and viura.

The Allende brand is a blend of grapes from several vineyards while his brands Calvario and Mártires come from specific plots.  His battle with the Council began when he tried to label his wines as coming from old vines from a specific vineyard.  There wasn’t (and still isn’t) a rule in Rioja allowing real single vineyard designations to appear on the label, although the word ‘Viña’ (vineyard) is on hundreds of labels here. Some brands, especially from the hundred-year old wineries around Haro, really express the origin of the grapes, while others registered ‘Viña X’ etc. at the trademark office,  and for whom ‘Viña…’ is just a brand name. Single vineyard wines is a concept the Council will eventually have to deal with, as expression of terroir is a hot topic here. For the Council, it’s both a political and a logistical problem.

It’s political because the big wineries, who wield the power in the Council, don’t want the small boutique wineries to have an edge –which they already have because wine writers naturally gravitate to the smaller wineries where they’re told about terroir even though it can’t go on the label.  It’s a logistical problem because the Council has always said that they don’t have the staff to verify that the wineries are actually separating the grapes in the winery. I agree.  They don’t. But they should.

And ‘old’ vines?  How do you define old? So far, with Calvario, de Gregorio has neatly sidestepped the problem by stating on the label that the vineyard was planted in 1945, something that can be proven with official documents.  But the battle lines have been drawn.

De Gregorio has also proved to be an astute marketer.  When he launched Allende, he positioned it as a boutique wine with a fairly high price.  When he successively launched Aurus, Calvario and Mártires, they were positioned even higher than Allende.

De Gregorio likes to say that he is rediscovering the Rioja of the old days.  One example is the use of vertical wooden presses that slowly extract the juice from the pomace, in contrast to pneumatic presses that in his opinion overpress.  He says he has a letter from Bill Harlan of Harlan Estate in the Napa Valley thanking him for showing the virtues of these vertical presses, after which Harlan got rid of his pneumatic presses.

Even though he may not admit it, de Gregorio has had to respond to the economic crisis by creating a second range of wines made at a separate winery in Briones, ‘Finca Nueva by Miguel Angel de Gregorio’.  The packaging speaks for itself – there’s a symbol of a bird released from its cage (I imagine that it’s de Gregorio’s creativity released from the constraints of tradition) and the tagline ‘Pleasure wines’. These wines are marketed to younger consumers.

I tasted nine wines on September 7 with a group of Canadian wine lovers on a Rioja tour with my good buddy Barry Brown of the Spanish Wine Society (of Canada).

Finca Nueva white 2010:  100% viura from calcareous soil in Briones.  Light straw (barrel fermented). Juicy, flowery, some oak.  Very flavorful on the palate.  A good food wine.

Allende white 2009:  90% viura, 10% malvasía de Rioja.  From red clay soil around Briones.  Pale yellow/green.  I perceived citrus fruit, stone fruit and chamomile aromas and a magnificent unctuousness on the palate. My favorite wine in the tasting and proof that it’s possible to make a great Rioja from viura (along with those from López de Heredia and Muga).

Finca Nueva crianza 2007:  100% tempranillo.  Brillant medium ruby.  Sweet oak and black cherries on the palate.  Perfect acidity/fruit/oak balance on the palate. A great sipping wine.

Finca Nueva reserva 2005:  100% tempranillo.  Medium ruby.  Soft red fruit.  Good balance, easy to drink.

Allende 2006:  100% tempranillo from +35 year-old vineyards (Miguel Angel dixit). Medium intense ruby.  Dark fruit with a mineral edge.  Lovely, soft, and balanced.  Ready to drink now.

Calvario 2006:  90% tempranillo, 8% garnacha and 2% graciano – a field blend from a specific plot, with gravelly soil with a high iron content.  High intensity ruby.  Mountainside plants.  High acidity.

Aurus 2007.  85% tempranillo, 15% graciano.  Black cherry.  Dark, jammy fruit. Long, unctuous (one of my favorite words!), complex.  A wine to keep.

Extra credit:

Miguel Angel also showed us three wines from Finca Coronado, a vino de la tierra from Argamasilla de Calatrava in La Mancha.  The wines come from his family’s estate, where M.A. wants to prove that really fine wines can be made in this area.  In fact, he boasted to me several years ago that he wanted to make ‘the first 100-point Parker wine from La Mancha’.

These wines were a different kettle of fish from de Gregorio’s Riojas – to me more of a New World style – wines with a 400 horsepower, 8-cylinder engine.

Finca Coronado 2005.  30% tempranillo, 30% cabernet sauvignon, 20% syrah, 10% petit verdot, 5% graciano and 5% merlot. Intense black cherry with brick.  Very spicy.  A real mouthful.

Finca Coronado graciano 2005.  Intense ruby. To me, floral notes predominate, but with a sensation of overripe grapes.  Another blockbuster in the mouth.

Finca Coronado petit verdot 2005.  High intensity cherry.  Menthol, mint, dried leaves.  Same sensation in the mouth, along with round, firm tannins.

My final impression was that Miguel Angel has dialed back on the intensity of the Allende, Aurus and Calvario in comparison to his first vintages in the 90s and early 2000s.  His Riojas show more elegance and less raw power – maybe the earlier style meant to make an impression as one of the first ‘modern’ Riojas.

On the other hand, Finca Coronado still shows a definite New World character with power and intensity.  For me definitely too powerful to enjoy with food.

Whether you like the Rioja style or the high-powered Finca Coronado, Miguel Angel’s immense talent will keep surprising us in the years to come.

Finca Allende, Plaza Ibarra 1 – Briones – La Rioja

Tel. +34 941 322 301; Email allende@finca-allende.com

The website is currently under construction.

Local boy makes good-researchers discover tempranillo’s ancestors

Researchers in Spain have discovered the ancestors of the tempranillo grape, Spain’s most widely planted red variety and flagship of the DOCa Rioja.

Tempranillo’s heretofore unknown parents are the humble white albillo mayor, a variety grown in north-central Spain, known in Rioja as turruntés and benedicto, a red variety no longer grown anywhere in Spain except in sporadically in Aragón.

Turruntés (a white variety not to be confused with the torrontés found in Galicia and Argentina) was recently approved for use in Rioja.  It is a variety ‘rescued’ from extinction thanks to the work of  local researchers Fernando Martínez de Toda and Juan Carlos Sancha.

The genetic analysis was carried out over a period of eight years by a team from La Rioja and Madrid.  Among its conclusions was that tempranillo was the result of a spontaneous crossing in the Middle Ages, possibly in La Rioja.

Two thoughts crossed my mind when I read the news.  First, that humble ancestors could engender such mighty offspring, and second, the possibility that the discovery offers for improving tempranillo in the face of global warming.  Tempranillo thrives in cool climates like that in the Rioja DOCa but tends to lose acidity in warmer regions.  Since Rioja is bound to get warmer in the future, genetic modification can create strains that will maintain their best characteristics in spite of an increase in temperature.

This process, however, is likely to take up to thirty years because it involves not only creating new strains of tempranillo but also how well they develop as young and aged wines.