Juan Carlos Sancha: A Riojan Champion of Sustainable Viticulture

Sancha tilling his Cerro La Isa vineyard

The World Tourism Organization’s fourth Global Wine Tourism Conference in Chile in December 2019 emphasized the role of wine tourism for sustainable rural development and launched a call to action.

UNWTO General-Secretary Zurab Pololikashvili said: “Wine tourism creates jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities. It touches all areas of the regional economy through its linkages to handicrafts, gastronomy and agriculture. There lies its great potential to generate development opportunities in remote destinations.”

Rioja wineries read his message loud and clear.

Today, over 400 Rioja wineries have a tourism program, increasing visits to wine villages, generating jobs, promoting knowledge about wine culture, enhancing the wineries’ image and creating additional revenue streams. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.

However, challenges remain. Among them is attracting discerning wine tourists who have no shortage of choices of wineries to visit. The most forward-thinking wineries here are moving away from the traditional model of “visit the winery, taste some wine and go to the gift shop” toward an approach focusing on the vineyards.  Explaining how the specific conditions in a particular vineyard – soil, microclimate, elevation, exposition to sunlight, grape varieties, farming techniques and the relationship of the vineyard to its habitat is a necessary step to gain a better understanding of what goes into a bottle of wine.

One of the most interesting wine tourism projects based on sustainable viticulture and winemaking in Rioja is at Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha in the remote village of Baños del Río Tobía in the Rioja Alta subregion.

Sancha’s efforts earned him a ‘Best Of Wine Tourism’ award from the Great Wine Capitals Global Network in 2019 for Sustainable Wine Tourism Practices.

Sancha has been a champion of sustainability in Rioja for over 30 years. While at Viña Ijalba he was a pioneer in introducing organic viticulture, and together with colleagues in the department of viticulture at the University of La Rioja, led the fight to rescue several traditional grape varieties on the verge of extinction in Rioja, including red and white maturana and turruntés, which were later added to the list of approved varietals in the DOCa. Rioja.

In 2007 he moved back to his village and took over the management of his family’s vineyards, most of which were planted to garnacha (grenache) by his great grandfather on steep terraced hillsides at about 700 meters (2,300 feet) above sea level. Sancha’s goal was to learn about the characteristics and differences between his vineyards and eventually make single vineyard wines from several different plots. After the Rioja Regulatory Board created the category of viñedo singular (singular vineyard) and it was approved by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Sancha applied and his Cerro La Isa vineyard was among the first to be granted VS status in 2019.

Today, both red and white Cerro La Isa have been approved as wines made from viñedos singulares.

While Sancha the academic is known for experimenting with long forgotten grape varieties in Rioja, his true love is his plots of old vine garnacha, a variety that once outnumbered tempranillo in Rioja vineyards but by 1973 had shrunk to 39% and today is only 8% of the acreage in Rioja.

Sancha’s Peña El Gato vineyard

With his knowledge of Rioja’s viticultural heritage and with his old vines planted above his village, it was a no-brainer that his wine tourism project would be focused on sustainability.

When you visit Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha, among other things, you will learn about

sustainable viticulture and winemaking;

conserving old vines and their genetic material;

saving historical grape varieties and vineyards;

the holistic relationship between vineyards and their surroundings.

A visit to the property features a trip up to Cerro La Isa (Isa’s Hill) where Sancha has built an eight-sided covered lookout from which you can see the family’s old garnacha vineyards planted in the early 20th century.  Sancha will tell you that he was lucky to save most of the vineyards, but pointing at empty terraces, unlucky in that several were uprooted before he moved back to the village.

You will begin to understand the backbreaking work invested by Sancha’s ancestors to create and tend their vineyards without the benefit of machines on a cool, windswept landscape.  

You will learn about Rioja’s singular vineyard project, whose goal is to encourage owners of old vines to maintain them and hopefully make unique wines from the grapes produced there.

You will learn the difference between massal and clonal selection when planting vineyards or replacing vines and you will see some extremely old vines of vitis silvestris, with male and female plants rather than the hermaphroditic vitis vinifera, the prevalent species of grapevine planted around the world today.

In the winery Sancha will explain that solar panels provide energy, water is used sparingly and little or no sulfur dioxide (SO2) is used as an antimicrobial agent and antioxidant in winemaking. In fact, one of his wines is ‘natural’, with no added SO2.

Sancha’s enthusiasm and his passion for saving Rioja’s viticultural heritage are boundless.  After visiting his vineyards, wine tourists will have a much better understanding of the hard work and skill required to produce the grapes that make great wine.

Juan Carlos Sancha, S.L.

26320 Baños de Río Tobía, La Rioja, Spain

Tel. +34 941 23 21 60 ; Cell. +34 639 21 60 11

URL: juancarlossancha.com

3 thoughts on “Juan Carlos Sancha: A Riojan Champion of Sustainable Viticulture

  1. Reblogged this on Sacred Drop and commented:
    Juan Carlos Sancha was my professor at Universidad de la Rioja and later became my mentor and good friend. I am so proud of everything he’s done for Rioja and love when I see other’s recognizing his hard work and dedication to the wine industry. Felicidades Juan Carlos y Marian!

  2. Hi April, Glad to hear that you enjoyed reading about our mutual friend Juan Carlos! Hope all is well with you and your family! Best, Tom

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