Wine has been produced in Spain for thousands of years: Romans had a particular liking for Rioja wines, records exist of shipments of nearly 20 million amphorae from Spain to Rome in 20 AD! The region gets its name from the river Oja, a tributary of the Ebro.
The real improvements in Rioja wine making began around 1780, when then modern techniques were adopted from wine makers in Bordeaux. Historically in Rioja, growers grew the grapes, sold these to the wine makers who bottled, stored and sold the wines. This practice still exists, with contracts between growers and Bodegas.
In the early 1980’s when Gabriel Cuevas inherited a portion of his family’s vineyards, located on the high mountain slopes of Rioja Baja, he decided to break with tradition, began making wine from these vineyards, rather than selling the grapes as his ancestors had. His dream was to produce wines that reflected the region, where his family had worked for generations and where he believed the best quality grapes were grown. He initially sold his wine locally under the Arteso label and later throughout Spain. As sales continued to increase, Gabriel purchased more vineyard land in his native region.
Raquel, Rubén and María Pérez Cuevas are part of the fifth generation of the Pérez Cuevas family to carry on the tradition of grape growing in the southern part of Rioja. Raquel is the the head of the business.
Today’s vineyards are still set in mountainous terrain above the tiny village of Quel in Rioja Baja. They are roughly divided in two – those used to make their Artesa range of wine are about 600m altitude. Whilst the vines used for the Ontañón range are much higher at up to 1000m.
The vineyards are managed using a combination of modern technology alongside old-fashioned, traditional viticulture. Drones are used to photograph the vines and highlight any growing problems. The vines are also tended to by hand by a local workforce who fully respect nature and their wine making traditions. For example, they carry out traditional techniques such as stressing the vines using Jasmine (forcing the vine to produce more fruit as it sees the Jasmine as a threat).
Raquel is a frequent visitor to The Wine Buff shops in Ireland. "We are unique because all of our fruit comes from our own vines, most of which grow at high elevations, and thus they express the special terroir of our lands.” Raquel believes that Rioja Baja as a whole has the potential to be a new face of Rioja. “We are trying to restrain the oak in our wines, which has not necessarily been done in the past, in order to showcase terroir as well as traditional varieties such as Graciano,” she says. Most of Bodegas Ontañón’s innovations are focused on sustainable cultivation. “We employ lucha integrada (a form of minimum intervention) to help us naturally maintain healthy land. We have also begun converting some of our vineyards to 100 percent certified organic farming.”“We take great pride in maintaining these vineyards in the most sustainable manner possible, as it is our land that supports our family tradition in wine. Passion for the vine, passion for wine and passion for art is our motto, as we believe that each of these elements contributes to the human experience and illustrates the vital connection of the land to people and culture”.
If you’re planning a visit to Rioja, make sure you call to Bodegas Ontañón in Logroño, with over 20,000 visitors a year it is one of the most popular winery tours, where you can visit their barrel and bottle aging halls. When Gabriel started making wine, he was friends with local artist Miguel Angel Saenz and his painting and sculpture are displayed throughout the winery along with other local artists. You’ll even get to taste some wines, local cheeses and olive oil.