Spain Wine

A brief visit to Artadi: a pioneer in Rioja Alavesa

Laguardia, Rioja: September 2021

Artadi has symbolized quality for some time under the astute stewardship of owner Juan Carlos López de Lacalle. His remarkable journey began with transforming a cooperative operation into a well-respected private winery, firmly placing Artadi on the world wine map.

Continuing our trip after visiting López de Heredia in Haro, we had the privilege of touring the winery and vineyards as friends. Therefore, we will not provide such a thorough or analytical report as usual.

Artadi, often celebrated but far from being excessively priced, offers a unique philosophy. López de Lacalle passionately asserts that his winemaking approach is not the modern style that some label it, but instead harkens back to the traditional processes before phylloxera changed the paradigm in Rioja with the increased demand from France. His vision? Producing wines using a process that includes open tanks, no pumping, racking, pigeage, a brief maceration of 15 days at most and no pressing. These wines are made exclusively from Tempranillo grapes and matured in French barrels for periods ranging from 12 to 24 months. The result is wines with a darker fruit profile than in Rioja Alta. They exhibit a more savoury and austere character that is not obscured or softened by an excessive use of American oak.

Artadi’s commitment to producing single-vineyard wines is noteworthy. Discarding popular blends and the typical Reserva designation, López de Lacalle is one of the region’s fiercest advocates for this approach. Artadi’s decision to break away from the Rioja appellation in 2016 sparked controversy. Carlos, López de Lacalle’s son and the current leader of Artadi, believed that the ‘Rioja’ label did not adequately reflect the value of their wines. He was concerned about the increasing tendency to produce inexpensive Rioja wines, which eclipsed the meticulous work of quality-oriented producers. Artadi’s wines are now marketed simply as “Vino de Tierra” or “Spanish wine”. Ironically, Rioja’s governing body, the Consejo Regulador, would introduce a new category in 2017: “Vino de Viñedo Singular” for “Wine from Singular Vineyard”.

His vineyards, all organic and certified, span an impressive 84 hectares. While basking under the Rioja sun, we found ourselves in the legendary vineyard of El Pisón. Located on a gently rolling hill, this 2.4-hectare vineyard has been nourished since 1945, a legacy handed down by López de Lacalle’s grandfather. Though the grapes were a touch too bitter just a fortnight before harvest, the promise of the ensuing richness was palpable. Yet, in the centre of the sun-drenched plot, a wonderful fig tree offered a delicious fig, one of the best we have ever tasted.

The tasting room is beautiful, with a contemporary design and luminous ambiance. Our tasting session included almost the whole range of Artadi’s cuvées from Alava, such as Viñas de Gain and the 2018 vintage of the single vineyard bottlings of Valdeginés, El Carretil and San Lázaro. The latter felt promising, but very young. In contrast, a Pagos Viejos 2007, which used to be a blend of all these single vineyard wines, impressed us with its complexity and balance. We also encountered an unexpected bottling – Izar-Leku, a sparkling txakoli that delighted us with its freshness and originality. We enjoyed it so much that we ordered it again later that day at Elkano.

Artadi – Pagos Viejos 2007
A blend of Valdeginés, El Carretil, San Lázaro, La Poza, Los Olivos, Quintanilla o El Cerradillo (before these were bottled separately).
Nose:Very aromatic. Notes of dried flowers and blackberries.
Palate:Rich fruit, but tamed and balanced. Slight raisin aromas, but the wine still has plenty of life. Cedar, leather and vanilla in the finish.
Structure:Medium silky tannins, crisp acidity, medium alcohol, medium body. Very long finish. The wine is clearly on its peak.

Artadi – Izar-Leku 2016
50% Hondarribi Beltza, 50% Hondarribi Zuri on clay, slate and basalt. 30 months on the lees.
Nose:Elegant aromas of brioche combined with green pears and green apples. A textbook cool climate nose.
Palate: Lime, lemon dominate the attack, whereas the finish is buttery and with hints of lime.
Structure:Medium body, medium alcohol, dry. Very high acid but ripe, not austere. A very soft mousse and a long finish.
Panoramic view from the town of Laguardia.

Driving to Artadi through the picturesque landscapes of Rioja Alavesa is an experience in itself. As we ventured up from Haro through San Vicente de la Sonsierra and the village of Laguardia on the N232a road, we were greeted by stunning views of vines stretching to the horizon, fortified villages perched atop each hill. A scenic preamble to a visit to Artadi.

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