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

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.




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.


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.


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)



Maturana: a valuable addition to Rioja’s arsenal of grapes

Nada que VerBy choosing to support native red grapes rather than internationally popular varietals, Rioja has taken the road less traveled, but it’s a strategy that’s paying off.  Maturana is one of the red varieties most recently approved, and a few years after the first vines were planted, several brands have been launched.  Last night I had the chance to taste two maturana wines produced by Bodegas Pedro Martínez Alesanco, a 100% maturana and a blend.

Maturana was one of the many native-to-Rioja varietals on the verge of extinction studied by professors Fernando Martínez de Toda and Juan Carlos Sancha of the University of La Rioja.  Following a rigorous selection process and several years of political wrangling in the Rioja Regulatory Council and the Ministry of Agriculture, maturana was approved in 2007.

Gonzalo Ortiz, the 87 year old former winemaker at AGE and Berberana, who still owns a winemaking consultancy service with his son Gonzalo (Bodegas Valdemar) and daughter, invited several of his friends to an informal tasting last night at our local bar, the Monterrey, in Logroño.  Gonzalo is proud to talk about his role in the rescue process of maturana, which began with the discovery of several vines in a vineyard in Navarrete which were first studied as an R&D project at Berberana, where, if my memory serves me, Martínez de Toda was working.

One of the Ortiz’ consulting clients is Bodegas Pedro Martínez Alesanco in Badarán (incidentally the town where Martínez de Toda was born) in Rioja Alta.  Martínez took a liking to maturana and Ortiz has helped him develop it, both as a single varietal wine and as part of a blend. We tasted both.

Gonzalo Ortiz

Gonzalo Ortiz

The first wine was Nada que Ver (‘Nothing to do’ in English because the wine has nothing to do with any other Rioja).  A 100% maturana, crianza 2009.  13,5% alcohol. Intense black cherry.  Wild fruit character – I thought of zinfandel – with a floral touch.  Great body and structure with firm tannins on the palate.  I liked it A LOT!

The second wine was Pedro Martínez Alesanco reserva ‘Selección’ made with 40% maturana, 30% tempranillo and 30% garnacha. It was vinified in 500-liter wood tanks and later aged in barrique for 18 months, followed by 20 months in bottle before release.

Intense black cherry.  Dark fruit and spices, more delicate than the 100% maturana.  Good balance, firm tannins.  I liked it too.

Several other producers have launched Riojas with maturana.  As far as I know, they are Bodegas Valdemar, Viña Ijalba (where Juan Carlos Sancha was managing director and winemaker for many years) and Ad Libitum, Sancha’s own winery in Baños de Río Tobía, not far from Badarán.

In a recent interview, Juan Carlos Sancha offered his opinion about maturana: “Character (it’s unique), original (from Rioja), great structure, color and acidity, small cluster and grapes and resistance to plagues.  A real current and future grape on its own and an ideal complement to tempranillo, offering in my opinion, a lot more than cabernet sauvignon to Rioja.”

So far, maturana has been promoted chiefly by its discoverers Sancha, Martínez de Toda and the Ortiz family with the help of Pedro Martínez Alesanco.  But more followers are sure to come!


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

www.ijalba.com (the company is currently revamping the website)