jueves, 17 de enero de 2013

Bodegas Artadi (Laguardia - Rioja Alavesa)


Junan Carlos López de Lacalle is a hugely successful winemaker who collects ratings between 98 and 1oo points in the most influential American publications, yet he remains acutely conscious of the tasks that remain ahead and refuses to be swayed by local tales about Spain´s wines having become the toast of the world. “I do believe that we make some great wines in Rioja, but also that Rioja and Spain in general remain the great unknowns on the international wine scene." he says. “We are far from being as well appreciated as some optimists say. We have a long way to go and also much to learn.”

It certainly isn´t the modest López de Lacalle’s fault, for he has taken Artadi, once a fledgling cooperative cellar in Rioja Alavesa, to the top ranks of the worlds wineries in just 25 years. The scion of a family of grape growers in Laguardia, he was one of the first oenology graduates from Madrid’s School of Viticulture in the mid-1970s, then he studied agricultural engineering in Pamplona. Thats a rather standard background in Spain’s wine industry, one shared by many competent winemakers who turn out competently made, technological wines. What made López de Lacalle different was that he knew that the truth lay in the vineyards and that he travelled far and wide to the places where that tenet is truly practised, from Burgundy, to the Rhine, to the better vineyards in the New World, to learn more about it.

As he recalls now, “Back then, there was a mere production-driven concept of quality, but no attention was paid to the soil, the climate, or the vintage. We were concerned about good colour in the wine, about avoiding spoilage, but not about mouthfeel or length. The great difference with my son’s generation is that they know these things from the start, and they value what makes a wine’s intrinsic quality.”

Back in the 1980´s, these folly concepts wore hard to enforce for a young grower with little money so Lopez de Lacalle did what he could. He assembled a small group of colleagues and built a small cooperative cellar where they could bring their grapes and get a better return for their efforts than by merely selling them to private bodegas or to one of the larger coops. The name of the co-op. Coseeheros Alaveses, was soon superseded by its brand name: Artadi.

Like other fledgling producers of that era, Abel Mendoza comes to mind, the Artadi group made only the most inexpensive, basic wine for several years: the young, unoaked cosechero red traditionally made by whole-cluster carbonic maceration. This is the wine every family in Rioja drinks twice a day. the wine consumed in every bar in the region and in the Basque Country.

Artadi´s was better than the others because it was meticulously vinified and, more importantly, because it came from the sort of old vines, organically cultivated under Lopez de Lacalle's supervision, whose grapes usually go into much more expensive cask-aged wines. Artadi Joven remains very good today, even though some customers grumble that it is no longer the same, because those top grapes now go into the more expensive wines made by the bodega, which is today a private company with Lopez de Lacalle as the controlling shareholder. But thats a logical development, parallel to the development of the excellent barrel-aged and still prudently priced Vinas de Gain.

López de Lacalle knew from the start that his forte was viticulture, in addition to providing the leadership, some would say the ideological impulse to an enterprise set on returning to terroir-driven wines in Rioja, instead of falling for the buzzwords of that era: technology and marketing. He chose from the start to have a top-notch oenologist by his side, one with the skill to produce fine wines with a far less interventionist approach. As Artadi introduced its first barrel-aged wines, there are 1,300 casks in the cellar now, all of them made with French oak, that man was Benjamin Romeo, whose stellar work was soon widely recognized. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there was not much love lost between López de Lacalle and Romeo when the latter decided to leave in 1999 and start his own successful bodega in nearby San Vicente do la Sonsierra.

But the loss was soon compensated with an exotic acquisition. López de Lacalle went all the way across Spain to the then-underappreciated region of Jumilla in the southeast to engage French oenologist Jean-François Gadeau, who had arrived there years earlier with Altos del Pío, a French company intent on exploiting the old Monastrell vines that (under their French name, Mourvèdre) whetted their appetite for mass-produced, good-quality, inexpensive wine. Altos del Pío was ahead of its lime and soon went bankrupt, but Gadeau stayed in Jumilla, working for Agapito Rico, one of the pioneers of the rebirth of the area, lie didn’t, however, hesitate at the chance to move to the already famous Artadi in Rioja. And with Rico and Gadeau, López de Lacalle created the El Sequé estate near Jumilla, now fully integrated into the Artadi group.

With Romeo, then Gadeau, in the cellar, the Artadi portfolio grow from the early 1990s, as did its vineyard holdings from 70 to 88ha (173 lo 217 acres) which cover about 80 percent of its needs.

The all-Tempranillo cuvée Viñas de Gain (from the Basque word meaning “heights”) has been the bread-and-butter wine for Artadi since that time, when the unoaked Joven was scaled back to its current annual production level of some 40,000 bottles, only one tenth that of Viñas de Gain. It was the other way around in 1987, when Viñas de Gain first timidly appeared.

The depth, the terroir feel, the complexity, and the sheer pleasure one finds in this cuvée are remarkable for a wine produced in such quantities and sold in the 15-20 range in Spain. Tom Cannavan, an experienced British taster, has described the 2004 Viñas de Gain in typically glowing terms: “Lovely, rich, deep, crimson black. Deep, sinewy, sensuous nose, with a plush red fruit quality, giving a velvety impression with hints of herbs and woodsmoke, its tight personality revealing hints of mocha and complexity. The palate has beautiful fruit, with that signature balance of concentration and richness and fresh fruit and acid character. Lovely, mouth-filling wine, with structure and presence, lovely fruit quality, and the potential to age.”

The third wine in Artadi´s basic range is a more recent addition, geared mainly to the international markets. Artadi Orobio, which retails below the price of Artadi Joven, is made from young Tempranillo vines. One half is briefly aged in French oak while the other half remains in tank before being blended. It comes under a serewcap, as the Joven also does now, and is an uncomplicated, fresh drink.

At the other end of the scale there has been a special blend made only in great vintages: Grandes Añadas, which now seems about to be phased out. But this remains the realm of López de Lacalles obsession, old Tempranillo vineyards of great quality. A blend of three small ones is called Pagos Viejos, and Viña El Pison still reigns supreme.

But more is on the way. “One of the ways of discovering the truth of wine is distinguishing terroirs, since every single plot has its own personality,” López de Lacalle said while showing barrel samples of three single-vineyard wines Artadi made for the first time in the outstanding 2009 vintage: El Carretil, La Poza, and Valdeparaiso. There will be ten barrels, 3,000 bottles, of each of those old plots, which have formed the backbone of the Pagos Viejos cuvée since the early 1990s.

There is, of course, that fourth old vineyard whose grapes have always been harvested and bottled separately. Nominally, El Pison vineyard is no longer part of Artadi but of Viñedos Lacalle-Laorden, that is, the company bearing the last names of Juan Carlos and his wife, Pilar. In so doing, López de Lacalle is singling out the character of that fabled vineyard, inherited from his grandfather, as a monopole in Burgundian terms and as one of the true “grands crus” of Spain. That said, in practical terms Viña El Pison remains a part of the Artadi portfolio and is still the standard-bearer for the estate. The 2004 vintage was the first Artadi wine to win a 100-point rating in Robert Parkers Wine Advocate, a symbolic number with which Artadi had been flirting for a decade.

Another old favourite of López de Lacalle is white wine, with which he briefly tinkered in the 1990s before returning to it in 2006 with considerable success. There is little doubt that his forays into Burgundy played a role in his decision to start making whites again, which is remarkable in an estate that officially has no white varieties in its vineyards. Yet Artadi only needs to buy about 30 per cent of the grapes it uses for its reborn Viura white. Old mixed vineyards in Rioja Alavesa have the advantage of yielding a few white grapes, which have now found a more interesting use than being added to the must used for the young, carbonic maceration reds.


- Viña El Pisón: This small cuvée of some 8,000 bottles comes from a 2.8ha (7-acre) patch southeast of Laguardia, planted in 1945 with Tempranillo plus a little Graciano and Garnacha. It produces some of the most delicate and elegant expressions of the Tempranillo grape, and the wine often reaches amazing heights of complexity. A modern classic. The 2004 vintage is particularly successful. The wine experty and critic Robert Parker, came to give it a 99 out of 100, one of the highest scores achieved by a Rioja wines.

- Artadi Grandes Añadas: only when weather conditions and qualitative balance combine best vineyards bordering on perfection, Artadi made the "great vintages".

- Pagos Viejos: A blend from the three best among the older plots owned by the estate, this is earthier than Viña El Pison but at least as complex and has shown outstanding ageworthiness over the past 20 years.

The great balance of old vines make up the true spirit of this wine: lean production, coupled with careful preparation and meticulous stay in the cask, gives results, this wine of intense color, complex nose, structured broad mouth and aftertaste.

With 12 months in barrels of 12 different coopers, delights with its freshness, aromatic complexity and balance. Virtues that improves all the time, it is a wine to drink and for aging porposes.

- Viñas de Gain Blanco Fermentado en Barrica: Artadi has no dedicated vineyard for white varieties, but quite a few of its old plots are interspersed with ancient Viura vines. In the mid-1990s, they were harvested separately for a couple of years, and their must was fermented in oak barrels, giving a very fine white wine. The practice was discontinued, then resurrected in 2006. The wine is moved to stainless-steel tanks after fermentation and aged two years on its fine lees there. It resembles a fine Graves white, with a floral and mineral nose and some real depth, and it is definitely ageworthy.

- Viñas de Gain: The youngest of the family, because it was the first result of the new wine experience that Juan Carlos applied. Viñas de Gain The first corresponds to the 1987 harvest. Gain in Basque means "height", being produced with grapes from vineyards located at the highest altitude of this winery. Made exclusively with Tempranillo and a stays in French oak barrels for 12 months.

- Artadi Joven: Clinging to the tradition of the Rioja region, this young red wine made with grapes and fermented with whole grapes. This wine is full of personality, where youth and naturalness are its most notable features.

Bodegas Artadi
Area under vine: 88ha (217 acres)
Average production: 850,000 bottles
Adress: Carretera Logroño s/n, 01300 Laguardia, Álava
Contact: Tel: +34 945 600119; Fax: +34 945 600 850; Web: www.artadi.com

Writen by Hugh Johsnon (The finest wines of Rioja) 

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