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A new day is rising for Rioja.

I’m standing in an immaculate cellar where the cool air is replete with the aromas of cherry, toast and clarified butter, scents emanating from barrels stained from years of holding deep-red Rioja wine. Traditionally, these wines taste of dried fruit and herbs, earthy and barrel-aged – a meaty match for Spanish food. In the one arch-ceilinged chamber, nearly a million dark glass bottles, stacked into a wall almost as tall as me and a football field deep, are aging their Gran Reserva contents for another few years. Slowly, I climb the cellar stairs to come back above ground, blinking through the white-hot sunlight that floods the grounds of Montecillo, a winery that’s been around since 1870 and where the distinctive T-shaped clusters of tempranillo grapes are still largely picked by hand. Time-honoured, labour-intensive practices like these in northern Spain’s Rioja region are about as Old World as winemaking gets.

Earlier in the morning, I left rainy Galicia behind, crossing the Cantabrian Mountains to the dry soils of Rioja Alta. In Logroño, a city where pilgrims have stopped for centuries to see a glowing icon of the Crucifixion, narrow lanes of sombre stone facades hide boutique hotels and lively wine bars. Today, their patrons crave crushable wines they can sip with one-bite pintxos – lively, fruity reds rather than the leathery wines their parents and grandparents revered. Rioja is changing, and I’m here to meet two of its disruptors, winemaker Mercedes García and Montecillo’s communications director, Rocío Osborne.

Rocío Osborne and Mercedes García

Rocío Osborne and Mercedes García are driving the change in the vineyards.

García, a quietly intense woman whose shiny black bob forms precise points under her chin, is showing me around Montecillo, where she’s been a winemaker since 2008. In the same way she stripped clean the winery’s cobwebby cellar and filled it with 20,000 new barrels to eliminate off-flavours from old oak, she is meticulously remaking the signature style of its wines. When she arrived at Montecillo, she couldn’t make change happen fast enough. “There were people above me, men who didn’t want things to change and didn’t want a young woman telling them what to do.” But she did it anyway.

Over the last 10 years, García has gradually modernized wine growing and winemaking at Montecillo, and her efforts and determination come through in the Edición Limitada she pours me, a fresh, modern cherry bomb of a red. It’s full of bright fruit and white pepper, with suede-like tannins. In the past, grapes from across the region would have been combined into one homogenous wine defined by its aging regime. García favours rounding out juicy tempranillo, which can vary between vineyards, with blending grapes; here, it’s fragrant graciano. “This is my own style of winemaking, but the essence is still Rioja,” she says. It could not have come from the dark and grubby cellar she found a decade ago; rather, it mirrors the transformation into the pristine chamber we just visited. “I called the old cellar Mordor,” she says. Her colleague (and my other guide) jumps in to make a familiar jab about “Mercedes’ little obsession with hygiene – her house must be spotless.” García deadpans: “The winery is probably cleaner.”

Thousands of bottles in the Montecillo cellar

Thousands of bottles slowly mature in the Montecillo cellar.

That colleague is García’s fellow change agent, Rocío Osborne, who feels the Edición Limitada exemplifies García’s stealthy winemaking revolution. A sixth-generation member of the Osborne family that owns Montecillo, she is the face of the company’s wines, but her journey to this cellar parallels García’s. “We suffered similar difficulties,” says Osborne. Like the winemaker, she was in her twenties when she joined a business run mostly by the same generation of men since the 1970s. “Every change we tried to make, from swapping out the barrels and tanks to focusing on more terroir-specific wines, was answered with, ‘We’ve always done it this way. Why change?’” says Osborne. “I’ve seen the fights she’s had to fight.”

A few years ago, Montecillo’s marketing team was pulled together to blind-taste some competitors’ high-scoring reds – small-batch wines expressing fruit and terroir in a contemporary style Osborne wondered if the winery should embrace. García, who had been quietly nurturing some experimental barrels without the marketing team’s knowledge, snuck a few of her “secret” unreleased vintages into the tasting. “Sometimes, I had to make my own style of wine, on my own, and find the opportunity to put it in front of people,” García says. The wine that came out on top became the Montecillo Edición Limitada.

Montecillo French oak barrels

Montecillo’s cellar is stacked with French oak barrels.

Sitting with the winemaker in the tasting room at Montecillo, I ask her about its bright berry notes and smooth body, a departure from the region’s typically dark, tannic style. “I spent a lot of time looking at technology to improve the winemaking environment,” she explains. Stainless-steel fermentation tanks slowly extract colour and fruity flavour from the grapes, softening the tannins; new barrels made with French oak deliver subtle spice compared to the heavier, vanilla-tinged American oak flavours that Rioja historically featured. The impact of García’s changes is also palpable in the 2017 Blanco she pours next: a viura, sauvignon blanc and tempranillo blanco blend, fragrant with grapefruit and apple-blossom scents that indicate precise winemaking, round and creamy from careful barrel fermenting. It’s a world away from old-school oaky and oxidized white Riojas.

After pouring the results of their decade-long push for change, García and Osborne want to show me the vineyards where this winemaking revolution began. We drive up into the hills of Rioja Alta, where vineyard manager Carmelo Espinosa waits among baking-hot rows of vines. He bends down to the rocky soil to grab a handful of reddish, iron-rich clay that crumbles between his fingers. “The poorer the soil,” he says with delight, “the better the quality of the grapes.”

Fields of vines, Baño de Ebro

Fields of dreams: vines as far as the eye can see near the village of Baño de Ebro, in Rioja.

I put on a floppy hat and walk the dusty rows, picking test grapes from each side of every few plants. Espinosa, a biologist, is inseparable from his tablet, loaded with geolocation software he helped develop that reveals detailed stats on any vineyard at a touch. “There are big differences between these little areas,” he says, gesturing north of the Ebro River to the Cantabrian foothills, where the white, chalky soil of higher-elevation Rioja Alavesa produces grapes with bright acidity. Then he points to the hotter, flatter plains of Rioja Oriental, east of Logroño, where grapes ripen to a higher sugar content, leading to a higher alcohol level. Only a region like Rioja Alta, where summer temperatures swing from a daytime 37°C to a cool 14°C at night, produces wines that tightrope between ripe fruit and mouth-watering acidity.

García’s strategy is to celebrate these regional differences with vivid, singular wines. Like most Rioja wineries, Montecillo, which only grows 30 percent of its own grapes, buys fruit from other farmers – from some 1,200 vineyards in total. Her team goes to the extraordinary lengths of helping monitor and manage partner vineyards to get the exact grapes they need for her winemaking. After we return to Espinosa’s Toyota, he pops the hatchback to reveal a mini-lab of tools like Brix meters and digital refractometers. We squish the grapes in clear plastic bags and test the juice for ripeness right here in the vineyard – immediate results are important, Espinosa says, as sugar levels can change in a matter of hours near harvest. Along with carefully overseeing vineyards, Montecillo has even revised the way its farmers are compensated, using a formula that pays more for lower-yield old vines that produce premium fruit.

This meticulous approach reflects the scientists García and Espinosa are: Both hold master’s degrees in viticulture, earned at Spanish universities. Though past generations of Rioja winemakers went to France’s Bordeaux or Burgundy regions to learn winemaking and returned to pass their knowledge down, today’s winemakers are often homegrown, schooled in modern technology and techniques gleaned from far-flung wine regions.

Marqués de Riscal cellar

The stellar cellar at Marqués de Riscal is the oldest in the region.

“I’m from Madrid; I’m not supposed to be a winemaker,” García tells me during an alfresco lunch in the vineyard. Her passion for farming comes from childhood vacations in Ribera del Duero where her family made its own wine. The one-time possibility of her family having to sell that land prompted her to become a professional winemaker. After university, she worked in Chile’s Maule Valley, where she learned to cultivate international grape varieties and make the fresh, fruity wines world markets now crave. She came back a “very complete winemaker,” according to Osborne, who says García brought her education and expertise to managing 700 hectares of vineyards and making in-demand wines at Osborne’s Malpica, in the Toledo region.

More than a decade after García and Osborne first met, I sit with them in Montecillo’s winery, now a swank tasting room where grey walls contrast with pale wooden floors, ancient stone and wooden beams. The contemporary makeover respects tradition, much like the Montecillo Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva reds that, because of Rioja’s aging requirements of up to several years, have only recently started reflecting García’s fresh flavour profile.

Aromas of orange peel, violets and raspberries swirl out of my glass, and every silky mouthful of wine lingers with biscuity warmth. We are tasting the 2010 vintage of Montecillo 22 Barricas Gran Reserva, named for the original 1870 batch size at the winery. It’s a blend of tempranillo, graciano, garnacha and mazuelo that scored a coveted 94 points from the influencial magazine Decanter. “This is me,” says García, clinking glasses with Osborne across the table. “It’s me using my freedom and going a little wild.”


Rioja, Spain

Explore

Marqués de Riscal

Photo: Gunnar Knechtel

Marqués de Riscal

Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry, of Guggenheim Bilbao fame, designed a winery sculpturally threaded with purple and blue metallic ribbons at the oldest bodega in the region.

marquesderiscal.com

 

La Batalla del Vino

Photo: James Sturcke / Alamy

La Batalla del Vino

Every year in late June, get wine-soaked in the Rioja town of Haro, where an epic wine fight is followed by a festival of vino, dancing and partying.

wine-fight.com

Eat and Drink

Logroño

Photo: Gunnar Knechtel

Logroño

Logroño streets like Calle Laurel and Calle San Juan are lined with pintxo and wine bars, close enough together you can make a night (and new friends)of flitting from one to another.

lariojaturismo.com/logrono

 

Taberna Herrerias

Photo: Gunnar Knechtel

Taberna Herrerias

Located in Logroño’s historic centre, this restaurant is a place to devour regional specialties like chuletillas de cordero lechal (milk-fed lamb chops) and cocochas (cod cheeks), with more than 100 Rioja wine-pairing options.

tabernaherrerias.es

Sleep

Hotel Calle Mayor

Photo: Gunnar Knechtel

Hotel Calle Mayor

There are just 30 rooms in this 16th-century palace turned high-design temple, with 12 of them boasting Philippe Starck bathtubs and modern art that complement stone archways and weathered wooden beams.

hotelcallemayor.com

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