Contributing Writer & Interviewer
Founder at SocialVignerons.com
So when it comes to fine Spanish wine, one can comfortably say that Julio Saenz really knows his subject
Julio Saenz is the head winemaker of one of the most famous wineries in the most famous of Spanish wine regions, Rioja. His winery and group called La Rioja Alta SA also owns three wineries around Spain: Torre de Oña , which is another winery in the same regions of Rioja, Bodega Aster in the neighboring Ribera del Duero region and Lagar del Cervera in Ria Baixas on the Spanish Atlantic coast.
So when it comes to fine Spanish wine, one can comfortably say that Julio Saenz really knows his subject.
With this interview we spend some enjoyable time chatting with Julio about his region, its history and its grape varieties. We talked about his winery of course, and how he makes his wines, surprisingly using only American oak.
A very long History making wine is Rioja
The Rioja region of Spain has been making wine for many centuries. As Julio told us “the history of the Rioja wines is very, very long”. But the quality of the wines, and more importantly the fame of the area really took off during the second half of the 19th century. Saenz gave us an insight on how and why, after the phyloxera disease had destroyed the French vineyards around the middle of the 19th century, winemakers from Bordeaux went in search an area capable of producing quality wines. They found the Rioja region, just South of Bordeaux across the Spanish border.
Many of the first wineries to be established there are gathered around the train station of the town of Haro, simply because it made it more convenient to ship wine from there. “Here in the Barrio de la Estacion, all of the winery are, they are very, very old, more than 125 years old.”
La Rioja Alta SA was one of these pioneering wineries: “last year, was our 125th anniversary. We were celebrating this anniversary around the world” Saenz told us. “Rioja Alta was founded in 1890 in the Station district in Haro by five families and these families are now in the management of the company.”
Winemaker Julio Saenz, obviously hasn’t been making wine for 125 years. But with his pharmaceutical background that he’s found very useful in his job, he has been working at La Rioja Alta for nearly 20 years. After last year’s celebration of the winery’s 125th Birthday, 2016 will give La Rioja Alta another reason to party: “This year I celebrate my 20th anniversary in the company” Julio told us.
A story of style, grape varieties, and American Oak
With all of his experience, Julio Saenz was the right person to ask the question of the evolution of style in the wines of Rioja. Over the past one or two decades in particular, the region’s wines have dramatically changed under the influence of modern winemaking styles, international wine critics, and the globalization. Julio highlighted how in the 1980s, “the wines of Rioja was very soft with less color”. “In the ’90s, the history changed a lot because appearance of new wines that we call High Expression Wines. These wines, were part of a particular vineyard or a singular winery, and the wine was very strong in color, in alcohol content, in acidity, all of them.”
Despite the evolution in style, what hasn’t changed are the grape varieties used in Rioja. Beyond the famous Tempranillo and Grenache (locally called Garnacha) varieties, Rioja also uses very local grapes. Saenz gave us his views about them and how to use these particular grapes. “The graciano improve the wine in bottle. They improve the aging in bottle of the wine, maintain the color and improve the aroma and then the flower of the wine.”
“The acidity of mazuelo is very high but we only use to blend a little bit with tempranillo to improve the aging of the Viña Arana because we are looking for a more soft wine with less color, more freshness, improve the freshness of the wine.” “The mazuelo has elegant acidity.”
Another secret of the La Rioja Alta winery, is its exclusive use of American oak, while many top producers around the world boast about using only French oak. To this, Julio had a simple pragmatic answer of someone that knows his wines: “The reason is because we think that they improve the quality of the tempranillo of La Rioja Alta. We made several experiments with the French oak but the result wasn’t very good and didn’t improve the quality of the wine.”
He explained to us however, how this oak was very carefully selected from specific forests of Kentucky and Missouri.
The wines from La Rioja Alta SA
“Here in the Rioja Alta, we elaborate five brands.
The younger is Viña Alberdi, it’s a 100% of tempranillo, we age in two years in American, in American oak. The first years is in a new American bottle and the second is in our bottles. We are looking with this wine with a wine like a crianza, it is very typical, is very common here, the word of crianza in our wines. This wine is, the quality is very, very high because this wine is subtle. The other brand is Viña Arana, it’s a blending of tempranillo, 95% of tempranillo and 5% of mazuelo. We age in three years in American oak. We sell our Reserva, for us it’s a special wine because it’s the preferred wine of the workers of the winery. It’s a very elegant, soft, smooth, silky wine for us. I think it, probably we are the only winery in Rioja that elaborate this kind of wine.
The main brand for us is Viña Ardanza, it’s more known wine. It’s a blend of 80% of tempranillo and 80%, or 20% of, sorry, garnacha. The next vintage, 2008, that we sell in the market, we sell in the market, probably it have the nature of our vineyard. We have a particular vineyard of Rioja Alta area, Rioja Baja area, sorry, called La Pedriza. All of this vineyard is stone, very, very full and the quality of the vineyard is amazing. I think, probably the next Viña Ardanza could be better than the others.”
“The most special wines that we elaborate is the Gran Reservas. We elaborate two Gran Reservas: 904, which is a little bit younger, it’s a blend of 90% of tempranillo and 10% of graciano. Graciano is a particular variety of grape of Rioja. It’s very, it’s not common now in Rioja in the last 20 years but now it’s very common in the blending of the Gran Reservas. We have our vineyards of graciano only to elaborate the Gran Reservas. And the case of 904 is 90% tempranillo and 10% of graciano. How we age it: four years in American oak and we sell the wine after four years in bottle.
And the most special wine for us, the best wine is 890, if of all the wine in our winery, it’s a blend of 95% of tempranillo, 3% of graciano and 2% of mazuelo. And we age it six years in American oak. It’s more special, a more special wine and this is the wine that we elaborate and is in the bottle.”
Drinkability comes from long aging
In Rioja, many wineries think about their consumer, and age the wines in oak and in their cellar for a very long time before releasing them. They do not expect you to buy the wine and store it for 10 years before drinking it. They do the hard work for you. La Rioja Alta takes this concept very seriously. In fact, if you look at their current releases, there is nothing yet in the 2010s. 2005, 2007, 2008 or 2009 is what you will find. Again, Julio Saenz shared his pragmatic approach to wine’s quality: ‘We do not produce our wine every year. Instead, we release our wines when they are ready to drink.”
Some say time is money. It seems in Rioja time is more than that: Time is good wine!
Learn more about La Rioja Alta SA.
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