Small vineyards, big wines

The neoterroirist movement is gaining traction in Rioja. One of the families leading the charge is the Egurens.

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You might ask yourself, “Neoterroirists? Hasn’t Rioja always been a terroir-based wine?” Yes and no.  If we look at the last quarter of the 19th century, the founders of what is known today as modern Rioja (that is, wines made from destemmed grapes and aged in oak – Luciano de Murrieta, Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga, Rafael López de Heredia and others) believed in owning vineyards and creating brands based on wines produced there.  But they, and wineries founded later also believed in blending grapes and wine from different parts of our region because the low alcohol tempranillo-based wines from Rioja Alta and Alavesa needed the meatier garnacha-based wines from hot Rioja Baja to flesh out their wines and because the end of the harvest in Alta and Alavesa often brought cold and rain.

The neoterroirists reject the Rioja-wide blending habits of the large wineries, assuming the risks of putting all their grapes in one basket, attempting to define the personality of wines produced in small vineyards.  The latest slogan used by the Rioja Regulatory Council,  ‘Rioja:  the land of a thousand wines’ recognizes this fact.

Like a few other families in Rioja, the Egurens started out as farmers who decided to vinify their grapes, age and bottle their wines rather than sell grapes to other wineries.   The family have been farmers since 1870 with the fifth generation currently managing the company. They own 100 hectares in Rioja and 92 hectares in the DO Toro. Their Rioja business is based in San Vicente de la Sonsierra across the Ebro river from Briones in La Rioja and Páganos, near Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa.

Three generations of the Eguren family (Credit:  Eguren brochure)

Three generations of the Eguren family (Credit: Eguren brochure)

San Vicente de la Sonsierra is the largest village in the Sonsierra region, located at the foot of the Sierra Cantabria mountain range. San Vicente belongs administratively to La Rioja but viticulturally, the Sonsierra lies between Briñas to the west near the Conchas of Haro to just east of San Vicente and includes vineyards in La Rioja and Álava. Some wine writers call the Sonsierra ‘la milla de oro’ or ‘the Golden Mile’.

The family philosophy is to blend wines from their own vineyards for the Sierra Cantabria range and to produce single vineyard wines for the Viñedos de Páganos range.  Marcos Eguren, the head viticulturist and winemaker for the family explained that their project is “to make wines that evoke the character of the vineyard, versatile and with a strong personality”.

The family’s properties are:

In Rioja:

  • El Puntido (25 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1975 in Páganos at 600 meters above sea level on calcareous clay soil)
  • La Nieta (1,75 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1975 in Páganos on silty clay soil, with 30% of the vines planted on a bedrock base)
  • La Veguilla (16,5 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1975 in San Vicente de la Sonsierra on pure clay and calcareous clay soil with pebbles)
  • Finca El Bosque (1,48 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1973 in San Vicente de la Sonsierra on clay soil with pebbles)
  • La Canoca (18 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1985 on calcareous clay soil)
  • La Llana (10 hectares of tempranillo planted in 1980 on alluvial soil)
  • Valgrande and Jarrarte (4 hectares of tempranillo and garnacha, planted in 1957 and 1959 on calcareous clay soil).

In Toro:

  • 90 hectares of tinta de Toro (tempranillo) on sandy soil.  All of the vineyrds were planted at least 70 years ago, and some are prephylloxeric.

All of the family’s wines are vinified from grapes from their own vineyards.

We tasted five Riojas and three Toros.

1)   Organza white 2010 (Rioja)

Organza is made from a field blend of viura, malvasía and white garnacha coming from the family’s vineyards, but from which ones wasn’t specified. Fermented in new French oak from the Vosges, remaining on the lees for six months and later matured in  barrel for a further nine months.

Organza was the last wine in the tasting, which I think is a shame because it really didn’t open up after pouring.  When I used to take journalists to their San Vicente winery, Marcos Eguren always recommended tasting Organza both at the beginning and the end of the tasting.

I found it to have a straw yellow color, a chamomile and aniseed nose opening up to peaches and apricots, with great acidity and structure. It’s consistently one of the best white Riojas I’ve ever tasted.

2)   Murmurón 2012 (Rioja)

Murmurón is arguably Rioja’s best cosechero red, with no hint of the bubble gum and sulfur dioxide aromas that characterize most of Rioja’s cosecheros.  It showed a violet-bright cherry color, a fresh, grapey nose reminiscent of strawberries and raspberries, well balanced with ripe tannins and very easy to drink.  It was served slightly chilled, as these wines always are in bars here.

Murmurón

3)   Sierra Cantabria Selección Privada red 2009 (Rioja)

This wine comes from the Valgrande and Jarrarte vineyards.  It was vinified with whole berry fermentation and with crushed grapes and aged for 18 months in new French and American oak.  Medium cherry.  Spicy nose – to me, nutmeg with dark fruit and cocoa coming out after a few minutes.  It took a long time to open up, with jammy fruit coming through when I retasted all the wines at the end of the tasting.  Well balanced with ripe tannins.

Colección Privada

4)   El Puntido 2008 (Rioja)

El Puntido is a single vineyard wine coming from the eponymous vineyard.  16 months ageing in new French oak, with bottling in May, 2010. Fairly intense, brilliant cherry, cherry and slightly acidic, cranberry-like fruit.  Not too much oak coming through in spite of the time spent in new wood.  Great acidity and a long finish.  My favorite wine in the tasting.

El Puntido

5)   La Nieta 2009 (Rioja)

Also a single vineyard wine.  Intense cherry, slightly less brilliant than El Puntido.  Black cherries on the nose but otherwise closed.  A mouthful.  Many of the tasters gushed about La Nieta being the best wine in the tasting but I thought it was closed.  It probably would have showed better if the tasting had been an hour longer.  A shame.

La Nieta

6)   Almirez 2011 (Toro)

To me, the Eguren story in Toro is fascinating.  They created two dynamite brands there, Numanthia and Termanthia, the undisputed darlings of  international wine gurus, led by Robert Parker.  This naturally attracted the attention of the luxury brand conglomerate LMVH, who bought the Toro winery, the brands and the vineyards.  The Egurens must have kept something up their sleeves, however, because they immediately began to develop new brands, a winery and 90 hectares of old vines.  I’m not sure, but I suspect they owned them before the LMVH deal because otherwise the vineyards would have cost a fortune.  In any case, the family is once again at the top of the heap in Toro.

Marcos Eguren explained that one of the problems winemakers face in Toro is achieving phenolic (anthocyanins and tannins) ripeness, optimum alcoholic strength (avoiding massive 15% wines) and aromatic ripeness at the same time.  The solution:  looking for vineyards at higher elevations, something they have succeeded at. Fruit extraction is less intense than in Rioja to obtain ripe juice while eliminating the ‘green’ flavors from unripe seeds.  The Eguren story in Toro could be summed up as ‘taming the beast’.

Almirez is 100% tinta de Toro, aged for 14 months in oak – 30% new French and 70% one year-old French oak. It shows a very intense cherry color, dark fruit (hard to define because the wines were closed), with elegant tannins and good balance between spicy oak and rich fruit.

Almirez

7)   Victorino 2010 (Toro). 100% tinta de Toro. 18 months in new French oak, bottled in June, 2012.

Very intense cherry.  Again a very closed nose at first, opening up to reveal black cherries and spicy aromas.  It was more open on the palate than on the nose, with ripe tannins, vibrant acidity and great structure. After 15 minutes in the glass it was still closed.

Victorino

8)   Alabaster 2010 (Toro). 100% tinta de Toro from prephylloxeric vines.  18 months in new French oak.  Bottled in July, 2012.

Intense black cherry color.  Closed nose.  I was only able to discern the spicy oak.  A huge mouthful, however, revealing black fruit and ripe tannins. Smooth and well-balanced.

Alabaster

I learned a lot from this tasting, especially about Toro:  the value of north-facing vineyards in the region;  high altitude vineyards to allow ripe tannins, moderate alcohol, and vibrant acidity; and sandy soil as the home of prephylloxeric vineyards (Jumilla is another place where this occurs). It reaffirmed my faith in Marcos Eguren’s prodigious talent as a winemaker and the unquestionable advantage of owning old vines.  My only comments were that in future tastings, all the wines should be poured at the beginning to allow them to open up and be fully appreciated.  Just opening the bottles isn’t enough. If consumed with a meal, these wines should be decanted at least 30 minutes before service. And finally, do the Toro wines need 18 months in new oak?  If I can put my finger on one ongoing criticism of Rioja and mine especially in Toro is that oak aging is often overdone.  Maybe a touch less would be a good thing.

(Bottle shots courtesy of the Eguren family website  www.eguren.com)

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