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Putting the Terroir Back into Tempranillo

Words by Lin Weiwen

Driven by sustainable viticulture and a desire to make expressive wines, the small producer of Valenciso is one of the rising stars in the region of Rioja.

*This is an extract of an article that first appeared in Wine & Dine May/June 2021 ‘Southeast Asia’ issue

After working at a top Rioja estate for more than a decade, Luis Valentin and Carmen Enciso founded Valenciso—an amalgamation of their last names—in 1998. They also created what was possibly the first crowd-funded winery in Rioja: they invited friends and family to be part of this vinous project.

“The idea was to invite [them] to be a part of this dream and make it a long commitment,” says Diego Santana, 38, one of the winery’s partners and also its export director. The winery began with a very modest production of 10,000 bottles—all vinified in rented facilities—from four hectares of vineyards.  

Today, Valenciso produces over 100, 000 bottles from 24 hectares of vineyards located in the village of Ollauri, which is less than 5km away from the winery. 90 percent of its production fall into the higher tier Reserva range, which requires an ageing of at least 36 months in barrel and bottle before release. The winery has six wines in its portfolio.

Even among the modest-sized wineries that the region of Rioja is known for, Valenciso is considered a small producer and, of course, a young one, too. Among fans of Spanish wine, the winery is a considered a rising star; a status backed up by the numerous noteworthy mentions it has received in wine publications like Spain’s Guia Proensa and La Guia of Todo Vino.

Despite its success, the winery has not strayed far from its humble origins. It has only nine employees, all of whom lend their hand come harvest time.

The winery's signage (Image courtesy of Valenciso)

MAKING ELEGANT TEMPRANILLOS

Rioja is home to Tempranillo, a rich red wine known for its ageing potential. The grape variety is also the most widely planted red grape in Spain. Valenciso and its vineyards are located in Rioja Alta, one of Rioja’s three sub-regions or zones, the others being Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental. Rioja Oriental, which is located in the lower, eastern part of Rioja, is the warmest and driest, while the hilly Rioja Alta in the west and Rioja Alavesa in the north offer milder climates. Thus, Tempranillo takes on rather distinct styles, depending on which area it hails from.

“Rioja Oriental has a more Mediterranean climate, with alluvial soils in lower altitudes, so the Tempranillos are richer in aromas but less elegant in terms of acidity,” says Santana. “In Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, you get fresher and more elegant Tempranillos. The calcareous clay soils are rich in calcium, which brings minerality to our wines. [There is] also more concentration of flavour in the wines because the yields are much lower than those in Rioja Oriental.” Valenciso reduces its yield to 5,000 kg per hectare.

Rioja Alta’s proximity to the Atlantic means it receives more rainfall, allowing Valenciso to eschew irrigation in the vineyards. During the summer evenings, a north wind tames the heat, bringing the temperature down a few degrees; an effect that gives the grapes more time to build their flavours. This is especially advantageous for Tempranillo—it’s an early ripening variety so any condition that extends its maturation is welcome.

Valenciso also preaches ‘sustainable winegrowing’, a concept that integrates organic and biodynamic winemaking principles. The winery is currently transitioning to a fully organic enterprise, and expects to receive its certification in two years. It has taken the team more than two decades to reach their current stage of organic viticulture as they have avoided the use of copper sprays, which are commonly accepted fungicides in organic winemaking elsewhere.

A hotel or nest for insects on the vineyard (Image courtesy of Valenciso)

“We sometimes forget that we are in an agricultural business. If we do not look after our land and vines, [future generations] won’t be able to source for grapes,” remarks Santana. The winemaking team adopts a philosophy of low intervention in the vineyard. It also introduced a hormone confusion system—dispensers that emit female insect hormones—to confuse male insects, thwart mating, and thus prevent the laying of eggs on the vines.

Over in the winery, concrete tanks are used as they “protect the wine against changes in temperature, and guard the wine against vibrations in the winery”. The concrete tank also offers a gentler extraction and “allows us to keep the acidity high, which is a really important characteristic in our wines”.

“I think the style of Tempranillo has changed in the last decade. We had the traditional style of Rioja, which was very much influenced by the use of American oak. Then we got influenced by the ‘Robert Parker-style’—over-extracted and too much concentration [of flavours],” says Santana. “But over the last year, we have been coming back to the wine’s regional origins by focusing more on the grape variety’s typicity, elegance, acidity, and freshness. It’s a more terroir-driven Rioja wine rather than a more global Rioja style.”

*Read the full article in the Wine & Dine May/June 2020 ‘Southeast Asia’ issue. Available on Magzter

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