Rioja Gems Part III: Hugely Successful Innovator
Last week I reported here on a multigenerational winemaking family I visited on my late-June trip to Rioja that is making excellent, largely traditional style Rioja wines that have yet to achieve wide notoriety. This week, it’s my pleasure to relate the details of a visit to two of the winery properties owned by one of Rioja’s reigning winemaking families—the highly successful Egurens.
Egurens have been growing Tempranillo in Rioja since 1870. Fifth generation Guillermo Eguren, pictured on the left above, founded Bodegas Sierra Cantabria in 1957. He started by making simple, fresh, young reds by carbonic maceration, a process by which whole, uncrushed grapes begin fermentation, without yeast, inside the grape itself. The results of this process are familiar to most American consumers in the form of Beaujolais nouveau . By the 1970s, he was making gran reservas primarily from carbonically macerated grapes. His sons Marcos and Miguel Angel helped transform the family’s wines to a more modern style, although they still produce traditional style Rioja wines under two of their four Rioja labels.
Marcos, pictured on the right above, and his brother pushed their father in the mid-1980s to identify the lowest yielding Tempranillo vines from the many vineyards the family had amassed through the years. (Marcos estimated they now own 135 hectares of vines in Rioja, in over 60 different vineyard sites.) Guillermo initially thought these vines were being selected so they could be eliminated, so was quite surprised when his two sons revealed their plan to replant the family’s ideally situated 44.5 acre vineyard La Canoca with those lowest yielding vines.
At the time, growers in Rioja were for the most part doing quite the opposite. Since the ‘70s, the drive had been to produce as much fruit as possible, which had led to diluted wines, driving down the high quality level that great Riojas had reached from the 1940s to 1960s.
Once the Egurens’ lowest yielding vines had been identified, it turned out they shared common characteristics, including smaller berries, looser clusters and hair-like protrusions on the bottom-side of the leaves. It was the latter feature that led to this selection of vines being called Tempranillo Peludo (hairy Tempranillo).
The Egurens worked slowly and carefully, planning for the future by first allowing the La Canoca Vineyard a long rest period before replanting with the Tempranillo Peludo. As a result, the first vintage of wine from these vines that could be offered for sale was the 1991, which wasn’t released until 1994.
They called it San Vicente, after the name of the old hilltop fortress town in which the vineyard is situated, San Vicente de la Sonsierra. When it hit the market, it was a huge and immediate success, even though the price the Egurens were asking, reflecting some of the massive investment that went into creating this special wine, was substantially higher than any other Rioja reserva.
As explained in last week’s post, to qualify for the traditional Rioja category of reserva, red wines must be aged at least one year in oak and a minimum of two years in bottle. Although San Vicente easily qualified as a reserva, the family took another innovative step with its next vintage, the 1994 (the intervening two vintages were considered of insufficient quality for San Vicente), by releasing it outside the country with just the generic Rioja sticker on the back instead of the Reserva label. Their American importer, Jorge Ordóñez, had predicted the lack of a reserva label wouldn’t hurt export sales and he proved to be absolutely correct. So the following vintage they marketed the wine the same way in Spain.
Their example has since been followed by many other Rioja producers who seek greater freedom in the length of barrel and bottle aging for their higher end, more modern, fruit-forward style wines than is currently permitted under DOC regulations.
The San Vicente is now aged about 20 months in new oak barrels. Originally this was all American oak, the traditional type of barrel used in Rioja. Marcos, who had taken over as winemaker from Guillermo in 1989, began experimenting with French oak, gradually increasing its percentage from 1996 on, so that now he’s using only 10% American oak for this wine, the rest being French.
Marcos has gone on to replicate the success of the richer, concentrated, more modern style San Vicente with several other wines, both in Rioja and the region of Toro, located about 250 miles southwest of Rioja.
In 1998, Marcos and Miguel Angel, who is the Eguren Group’s general manager, not only started a fourth winery in Rioja–Viñedos de Páganos–they also acquired a vineyard in Toro with very old, low yielding vines from which they made a wine called Numanthia. The first vintage of this wine received a 95-point score from Robert Parker. They also found a pre-phylloxera vineyard, with vines over 100 years old, from which they made the first Termanthia under the Numanthia-Termes label in 2000, likewise an immediate success.
The Egurens subsequently sold Numanthia-Termes to luxury goods conglomerate Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) in 2008. They’ve used the proceeds to refurbish their properties in Rioja and to purchase another property in Toro, very close to Numanthia-Termes, called Teso La Monja.
The results of what the Egurens have done with their properties in Rioja is nothing short of magnificent. We began our visit with the Egurens at Viñedos de Páganos. There Marcos’s son Eduardo, who is also a winemaker and who speaks English, gave us a brief tour of the vineyards, very impressive and extensive caves and winery, before leading us in a tasting of the very modern-style wines they are creating there.
Eduardo, who has been making wine since 2002, interned in California for Stolpman under Sashi Moorman. He explained to us that, when it comes to making the family’s wines, “Father is the brain; I’m the hands.”
At Viñedos de Páganos, the Egurens are making single vineyard, 100% Tempranillo wines from two special vineyards, El Puntido and La Nieta. El Puntido, planted in 1975, is fairly dense for Rioja at 3500 vines per hectare. Their first vintage from this project was 2001. My favorite of these wines was the very impressive and complex La Nieta, from a 4.2 acre low yielding Tempranillo vineyard, pictured below. The berries that go into this wine are individually hand sorted and the wine spends about 18 months in new French oak. The first Gran Reserva El Puntido, from the excellent 2005 vintage, was also delicious and complex, with an entrancing nose of sandalwood, tart black fruit and licorice.
We then drove to the family’s Viñedos Sierra Cantabria winemaking palace, where barrels of maturing wine resting in vast, thick-walled, beautifully lit rooms are serenaded by recordings of Gregorian chants. A large bust of Guillermo set in a space reminiscent of a small chapel in a Gothic cathedral is, according to Eduardo, the family’s way of thanking his grandfather for having the foresight to acquire vineyards whenever he had the chance, never spending money on luxuries for himself.
Settling down in a large dining room, we tasted wines created under both the Sierra Cantabria and San Vicente labels before digging into a delicious lunch created by the Egurens’ staff.
We started with the younger wines, including a delicious rosé, moving on to the traditionally labeled Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva under the Sierra Cantabria label. These were beautiful wines, particularly the 2004 Gran Reserva. The wine that most knocked me out from this group—my wine of the day—was the 2000 vintage of the Sierra Cantabria Colleccion Privada. This wine is a continuation of a wine that Guillermo began making in the ‘70s, partly based on carbonic maceration.
Marcos explained that 2000’s favorable weather conditions, following a bad freeze in 1999 that had shut down the vines early, created the biggest crop ever in Rioja. There were so many bunches hanging on the family’s vines that Marcos thought they needed to drop a lot of fruit to preserve concentration. He said Guillermo thought he was crazy, but when his father went away on vacation, he and his brother went ahead and dropped fruit.
The 2000 Colleccion Privada makes a good case for Marcos’s side of the argument, as it is one of the greatest red Riojas I’ve ever tasted. Its maturing palate includes flavors of roasted black fruit, tobacco and truffle, and the wine has a wonderfully long finish.
The 2001 San Vicente, from those low yielding Tempranillo Pelludo vines, was also a delicious wine with a complex nose, although still youthful and tight on the palate.
The latest released versions of the flagship wines of the Viñedos Sierra Cantabria label, the single vineyard bottlings Finca El Bosque and Amancio, were also quite impressive, although showing a lot of their new French oak at this stage.
While I was still lost in my enjoyment of the 2000 Colleccion Privada, Marcos opened a special mystery bottle for us. It was an old magnum from their cellar that he used heated tongs to remove the top of. It turned out to be one of the wines his father had made, a 1964 Sierra Cantabria Gran Reserva. It wore its age very well, exhibiting a delightful nose of dried roses, violets, lavender, spice and tart black cherry, along with a complex palate and long finish. It had been aged, like other gran reservas of the time, in American oak, and had a high percentage of carbonic maceration and white grapes, Viura, in the mix. Clearly Guillermo had been a master winemaker too for his times.
For our final flight of wines, Marcos shared with us another of his innovations: a modern white Rioja blend of all three of the traditional white grape varieties—Viura, Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca—made from late harvested grapes fermented at low temperatures and then aged on its lees in oak for six months. This is the Sierra Cantabria Organza, and it’s a luscious and delicious wine.
The Egurens couldn’t have been more warm and hospitable to their five American wine blogger guests. Our visit with them is one of the indelible memories of our trip.
For my complete tasting notes, see below.
Viñedos de Páganos El Puntido
- 2008 Viñedos de Páganos Rioja El Puntido – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alavesa, Rioja
Very dark red violet color; appealing, refined, berry, blackberry, French oak nose; plush, tasty, naturally concentrated, berry, black fruit, mineral palate with a touch of lead pencil and integrated oak; medium-plus finish 92+ points (16 mos in new French oak; 14.5% alcohol) (92 pts.)
- 2007 Viñedos de Páganos Rioja El Puntido – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alavesa, Rioja
Dark ruby color; tart blackberry, French oak, sandalwood nose; tight, tasty, structured, tart red berry, berry, mineral, sandalwood palate with silky tannins; needs 3-plus years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (14.5% alcohol) (91 pts.)
- 2005 Viñedos de Páganos Rioja Gran Reserva El Puntido – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alavesa, Rioja
Very dark ruby color; entrancing, sandalwood, tart black fruit, berry nose with a sense of licorice; tasty, rich but balanced, tart berry, subtle herbs palate with olive notes, integrated oak and sweet tannins; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish 93+ points (14% alcohol) (93 pts.)
Viñedos de Páganos La Nieta
- 2009 Viñedos de Páganos Rioja La Nieta – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Very dark purple red violet color; very appealing, violets, blackberry, licorice, cloves nose; silky textured, rich, blackberry, violets, black fruit palate with largely integrated oak; needs 3-plus years; long finish (14.5% alcohol) (94 pts.)
Sierra Cantabria Rosado
- 2011 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Rioja Rosado – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Light pink color with 1 millimeter clear meniscus; light strawberry, light Rainier cherry nose; tasty, dry, juicy, tart Rainier cherry, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (64% Viura, 28% Tempranillo, 8% Garnacha) (91 pts.)
Sierra Cantabria Reds
- 2008 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Rioja Crianza – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Dark ruby color; tart red fruit, plum nose; fresh, tasty, spicy plum, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 90+ points (14 mos in 4 yr old French and American oak barriques) (90 pts.)
- 2004 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Rioja Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Dark ruby color; evocative, tart plum, mineral, tart black fruit, iron nose; tasty, tart berry, mineral, tart red berry palate; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (97% Tempranillo, 3% Graciano; 24 mos in American oak, 25% new) (93 pts.)
- 2008 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Rioja Reserva Unica – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Dark ruby color; appealing herbs, mineral, coffee, lavender nose; coffee, tart plum, lavender palate showing oak that needs to integrate; needs 5 years; medium-plus finish (97% Tempranillo, 3% Graciano; 24 mos in 60% French, 40% American oak, 30% new) (92 pts.)
- 2009 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Rioja Colección Privada – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alavesa, Rioja
Opaque purple red violet color; appealing, reach, berry, French oak, blackberry nose; tight, oaky, blackberry, berry, coffee, herbs, mocha palate; needs 5-6 years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (100% Tempranillo grapes from 50+ yr old vines; 18 mos in new oak, 50/50 French and American) (92 pts.)
- 2000 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Rioja Colección Privada – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alavesa, Rioja
Slightly bricking very dark ruby color; mature, mushrooms in hoisin sauce, tobacco, roast plum nose; tasty, maturing, roast black fruit, tobacco, mushrooms, charcoal, black truffle palate; long finish 97+ points (97 pts.)
- 1964 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Rioja Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
From magnum – bricking medium red violet color; sauvage, spicy, roses, dried roses, lavender, dried violets, tart black cherry nose; complex, very tasty, youthful, dried roses, lavender, dried violets, rich black fruit palate; long finish (aged in American oak; high percentage of carbonic maceration and Viura) (94 pts.)
Sierra Cantabria single vineyard bottlings
- 2009 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Rioja Finca El Bosque – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Very dark purple red violet color; evocative, violets, tart berry, black fruit, pencil lead nose; tasty, tart black fruit, violets palate with integrating oak; needs 7+ years to integrate; long finish 94+ points (18 mos in new French and Hungarian oak; malolactic in new barrels, then racked into new barrels) (94 pts.)
- 2008 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Rioja Amancio – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Very dark purple red violet color; appealing, French oak, green herb, tart black fruit, roast coffee nose; tightly coiled, tart black fruit, roast coffee, French oak palate; needs 7+ years; long finish 93+ points (100% Tempranillo selection of 8-10% of bunches from vines that naturally give 2 clusters per vine; 24 mos in new French oak) (93 pts.)
Sierra Cantabria Organza
- 2010 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Rioja Blanco Organza – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Light lemon yellow color; luscious, floral, peach nose; luscious, ripe peach, floral, lime blossom palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (55% Viura, 24% Malvasia, 21% Garnacha Blanca; 6 mos in oak on lees, batonnage twice per week) (92 pts.)
- 2005 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Rioja Blanco Organza – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Light medium chartreuse yellow color; a little oxidized, beeswax, lanolin nose; oily textured, slightly oxidized, lanolin palate; long finish (55% Viura, 25% Malvasia, 20% Garnacha Blanca) (91 pts.)
- 2008 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Rioja Blanco Organza – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Light yellow color; pear, lemon, floral nose; silky textured, tart pear, white flower, lemon palate; needs 2 years yet; medium-plus finish (65% Viura, 18% Malvasia and 17% Garnacha Blanca) (92 pts.)
- 2008 Señorío de San Vicente Tempranillo Rioja San Vicente – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Nearly opaque red violet color; herbs, French oak, deep black fruit nose; tight, deep, tart black fruit, tart berry, mineral palate; needs 6 years; long finish (100%Tempranillo Peludo; 20 mos in new oak 90% French, 10% American) (93 pts.)
- 2001 Señorío de San Vicente Tempranillo Rioja San Vicente – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Bricking dark ruby color; savory, balsamic, tobacco, tarragon, sour cherry nose; truffle, mineral, tart cherry, tobacco palate with character and still resolving tannins; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish 93+ points (new oak 60% French, 40% American) (93 pts.)