Family Wineries of Rioja

Everyone here is talking about the 2012 harvest in Rioja.  It was one of the smallest in recent years, 355 million kg of grapes, compared to 387 million kg in 2011.  This has pushed grape prices up, to the satisfaction of growers.  The wineries also seem to be pleased with quality, so I was excited to attend the traditional tasting of wines from the 2012 vintage by the Family Winery Association of Rioja (Bodegas Familiares de Rioja) earlier this month.  Twenty of the 35 wineries in the association showed their latest releases along with the rest of their range to about 1000 visitors to the two-hour walk-around event. It was impossible to try to taste everything so I concentrated on 2012 reds.


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I was happy to note that all the wines I tasted showed intense purple in the glass with lots of fresh red and black fruit, good acidity and lots of tannin.  My only criticism was that they weren’t too expressive on the nose because they had only recently been bottled, some of them only a couple of days prior to the tasting. Hopefully in the future, the tasting will be held a few weeks later to allow the wines to show themselves.

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My favorites were two old-vine garnachas from Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha in Baños de Río Tobía.  The first was a 2012 from his colleague and friend Fernando Martínez de Toda’s 100 year-old vineyard Finca de Valdeponzos.  It was a recently bottled tank sample, very potent and in need of taming in the bottle.  His second wine from his grandfather’s vineyard, planted in 1917 was from vintage 2011, also extremely powerful, with dark fruit and a nutty character.  It was rounder on the palate than the 2012.  Both wines are marketed under the label Peña el Gato. These are not your economically priced, everyday tippling wines, but powerhouses meant for the high roller.  Juan Carlos is an extremely accomplished winemaker and grape grower who’s perfectly familiar with the vineyards in his village.  If you can find them, they’re well worth the price.

Other favorites of mine at the tasting were from the Najerilla valley. This area is making a comeback and features producers of fine garnacha-based reds and claretes such as César del Río, Honorio Rubio and Pedro Martínez Alesanco.  Casimiro Somalo, a local wine writer and long-time Rioja lover (he’s from Baños del Río Tobía) agreed with me that these wines were showing more balance and freshness than most of the others.

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A surprise

I had never tried wines from Nestares Eguizábal from Galilea in Rioja Baja.  Their Segares tempranillo 2012 was elegant and packed with ripe black fruit.

Wines to watch out for

Small family-owned wineries are attracting a lot of attention here for their efforts to promote wines from villages and single vineyards.  They’re trying to distance themselves from the big wineries that lately seem to have gone to bed with supermarkets around the world and whom many feel have sacrificed quality to hit aggressive price points.

What’s missing today, however, is a more active international presence for these small producers.  If you’re interested, here are some links to get you started:

Family Winery Association of Rioja  http://en.bodegasderioja.com

Juan Carlos Sancha: http://juancarlossancha.com

Bodegas Nestares Eguizábal:  http://nestareseguizabal.com

Bodegas Honorio Rubio:  http://honoriorubio.com

Bodegas César del Río:  http://bodegascesardelrio.com

Pedro Martínez Alesanco:  http://bodegasmartinezalesanco.com

(Photo credits:  Casimiro Somalo)