Aretha Franklin nailed it when she sang, “All I need is a little respect”. In the Rioja wine business, respect has historically been in the hands of small boutique wineries, coddled by wine writers and magazines for their handcrafted wines while large wineries have been derisively dismissed as factories pumping out millions of bottles of mediocre plonk.
Respect has come to larger properties here because of their efforts to cater to visitors and one of the keys to their success has been accentuating the advantages of a large organization – access to the latest technology, marketing muscle, well-qualified staff and the power to put product on shelves and wine lists. If Rioja is a well-known international brand today, it is probably due more to the presence of big, ubiquitous brands than to small wineries boasting 95+ Parker and Wine Spectator points.
One of the newcomers to wine tourism in Rioja is Bodegas Montecillo, founded in 1874 in Fuenmayor as a family winery but since the 1970s owned by Osborne, the well-known sherry, brandy and more recently table wine and Iberian ham producer based in Puerto de Santa María, in southern Spain.
Osborne brings a wealth of wine tourism experience to Montecillo. According to ACEVIN, the Spanish Wine Route Association, over 400,000 wine tourists visited the Sherry region wine route in 2013, more than twice the number visiting Rioja. Osborne has an active wine tourism department responsible for showing visitors around their wineries in Puerto de Santa María and Malpica in Toledo as well as Cinco Jotas, a leading producer of Iberian ham.
Montecillo is reaching out to Rioja wine tourists with two estates: the original Fuenmayor property, a lovingly restored stone winery with several underground niches 12 meters below ground that will be used as a visitors’ and events center, and the nearby winery built in 1975.
Group wine tourism director Carolina Cerrato explained during the opening ceremony of the Fuenmayor winery that Montecillo is the third oldest winery in Rioja. The original owner, Celestino Navajas, learned the wine trade in France and his winery was one of the first to adopt the Bordeaux system of winemaking here. The winery boasts that it has made wine since the creation of the Rioja Regulatory Council in 1926 and has a stock of old wine that hasn’t been moved from its niche for over one hundred years. Is the wine drinkable? Apparently, yes. In 2000 a group of experts from Christie’s, the British auction house opened a number of bottles, selecting the 1938 and 1945 vintages for auction where one bottle fetched £ 834.
The winery in Navarrete is proof that a large property is capable of producing great wines. My own experience in Campo Viejo and El Coto proved to me that large wineries, with their financial clout, give them access to the latest technology as well as teams of highly qualified vineyard and winery managers who are able to produce a ‘house style’ year in and year out. This technology was evident at Montecillo with the use of Ganimede fermenters, racking by gravity, two aging cellars with a total of 38,000 barriques from different suppliers featuring an ongoing experiment to follow the evolution of wine from the same vintage aged in different types of barriques.
Montecillo has made a strong bet on gran reserva. We were shown a cellar with 600,000 bottles of gran reserva 2008 waiting to be labeled and shipped. That’s a lot of wine and a healthy investment if you take into account that Montecillo has financed the cost of the wine, barrels, bottles, corks, bottling and warehousing for seven years before selling a single bottle!
Our tour ended with a stop at the well-stocked shop where you can buy wine from the group’s wineries as well as tee shirts, ties and other souvenirs featuring the Osborne bull.
The bull is arguably the most recognized symbol of Osborne in Spain and has an interesting story behind it. About twenty years ago, the Spanish government forbade the use of roadside billboards, among them, those featuring the Osborne bull. Osborne successfully argued that the bull was not primarily an advertisement for their brand but rather, a symbol of Spain (a well-known euphemism for the Iberian peninsula is ‘la piel de toro’ – ‘the hide of the bull’). The company was allowed to keep the billboards.
Montecillo doesn’t boast an avant-garde, architecture award-winning winery but the visit they offer wine tourists is first-class and the wines are seriously good.
Historical 1874 winery
Ctra. Fuenmayor-Navarrete, km. 2
26320 Fuenmayor (La Rioja)
Polígono Industrial Lentiscares
Ctra. Fuenmayor, km. 3
26370 Navarrete (La Rioja)
Photo credits , except for the Osborne bull: Tom Perry