In the Rioja region, all but a handful of wineries are family owned and operated. Most of the recently created companies were founded by vineyard owners who decided to vinify their grapes, bottle and sell wine rather than merely sell grapes to cooperatives or other wineries. Some of these small companies even age their wine in barrels. This has been made possible by the Rioja Regulatory Council’s decision to allow wineries holding fifty-225 liter barrels and a total of 33,750 liters of wine to use the official Rioja back labels, giving them legitimacy in the marketplace. Thirty years ago, the minimum was 500 barriques, and later, 100.
It’s too early to say how many of these newly created wineries will withstand the rigors of the wine business over time, but history shows that a number of family owned and operated Rioja wineries founded in the 19th century have flourished and some have become real powerhouses in the industry.
Probably the most famous of these is Marqués de Riscal, whose official name in English is ‘Wines of the Heirs of the Marqués de Riscal’. Although Riscal’s capital is no longer held 100% by the family, one of the founder’s descendants has a share in the company, sits on the board. His son is a member of the winemaking team.
Other examples are R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, founded in 1877 and run by the fifth generation of the family; Bodegas Faustino, managed by the fourth generation of the founding family that started as a vineyard owner who built a winery in the mid-20th century and are now the leading producer of gran reserva Rioja; and Bodegas Martínez Lacuesta, founded in 1895.
The oldest Rioja winery continuously in the same family hands is Bodegas de La Real Divisa, founded according to the owner, in 1367. This makes it several years older than the venerable Antinori in Tuscany, that has produced wine since 1385.
There are, of course, quite a few Rioja wineries that are still in business over a hundred years after their founding but they’re no longer in the hands of the original owners: Marqués de Murrieta (1852 by some accounts), Rioja Santiago (1870), Berberana (1877), CVNE (1879), Bodegas Riojanas (1890), La Rioja Alta (1890), Bodegas Franco-Españolas (1890) and Federico Paternina (1896).
I recently visited a fifth generation family owned and operated winery in Villabuena de Álava – Bodegas de la Marquesa. The winery was founded in 1880 by Francisco Javier Solano y Eulate, the Marquis of La Solana who owned a large holding of vineyards in Villabuena in Rioja Alavesa. Solano was inspired by the teachings of Jean Pineau, the winemaker at Château Lanessan in the Médoc who had been hired by the regional government of Álava to teach wineries how to make wine following the Bordeaux philosophy (better vineyard husbandry, destemming grapes before fermentation, fermenting in closed vats and aging in small oak barrels).
The family’s current holdings are the original 65 hectares plus ten additional hectares owned by friends of the family but managed by the winery. These vineyards yield about 400,000 kgs of grapes that produce about 400,000 bottles. About 80% of the vineyards are planted to tempranillo, and the remainder to the other traditional Rioja varieties: mazuelo, garnacha, graciano and viura.
The winery has made a strong bet on the virtues of aging in oak barriques (2,500). All ten wines in the current range have spent time in oak.
The winery itself is built on the original 19th century property with underground cellars with the fermentation vats and most of the barrel aging area above ground. The family is in the process of restoring the old cellar.
We tasted four of the most popular wines in the range:
Valserrano white 2013. (Valserrano is a valley between the villages of Villabuena and Samaniego where most of the family’s vineyards are located).
100% viura. Fermented four months in oak. Beautiful balance between the fruit and the oak (something that a lot of white Riojas don’t get right).
Valserrano crianza 2011. 90% tempranillo, 10% mazuelo. The first impression was a little mustiness that I thought was probably due to ‘closed bottle syndrome’ – confirmed after a few minutes when the wine opened up to reveal dark fruit and good structure.
Valserrano reserva 2009. 14,5% alcohol. Medium garnet; acidic fruit that reminded me of cranberries, with good structure and round tannins on the palate with potential to further improve in the bottle. (We bought a case.)
Finca Monteviejo 2010. A single vineyard wine made from tempranillo (95%), mazuelo and graciano (5%). Medium garnet; dark fruit with noticeable oak; round on the palate. Ready to drink now.
The winery and its wines are well known in Spain and are gaining a lot of international exposure through affiliation with ARAEX, an export consortium specializing in wines from Rioja Alavesa. They are definitely worth searching for.
Bodegas de la Marquesa isn’t open to tourists yet. The four members of the family have their hands full with the vineyards, winemaking, sales in Spain and administration . Our host María Simón promised us, however, that the winery would be ready once remodeling of the old cellar was finished.
After our visit we repaired to the nearby Hotel Viura, an avant-garde boutique hotel located in the center of Villabuena. Much like the Marqués de Riscal hotel in Elciego, visitors are surprised by the sharp contrast between the light stone buildings in the village and the gleaming metallic structure of the hotel . Since Villabuena is built on both sides of a steep ravine, you can drive straight through the village without even seeing the hotel. You have to look out for the sign.
The day we visited the hotel there was an exhibition of photographs and posters of actresses from the mid to late 20th century wearing dresses designed by Cristóbal Balenciaga, the Basque designer of haute couture. By the way, there’s a Balenciaga museum in Getaria in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa, near San Sebastián that’s worth a visit.
Next to the hotel there’s a well-stocked wine bar where we had a pre-lunch drink.