The Hunt for a Really Good Rioja

Norberto Miguel
Noberto Miguel at a class at Chain Bridge Cellars last May.

Way back in 2008, the first time I ever tasted local importer Jonas Gustafsson’s Spanish wines, I asked him – “Any chance you can find a really good Rioja that’s not wooded to death and is actually a good value?” “I’m trying,” he said with a small shake of the head.

It really shouldn’t be so hard to find a great bottle of Rioja. It’s one of Spain’s bigger growing regions, is loaded with old-vine, low-yielding vineyards and has 150+ years of global fame. And yet many of the Rioja we see are either over-ripe, woody messes with more American oak vanilla than a scoop of ice cream or are so lean and tart that they are hard to enjoy with everyday foods.

That’s why we were so excited when Jonas first brought us the wines of Bodegas Laukote from Rioja Alavesa. And after we met owner/winemaker Norberto Miguel last May, we were more excited still! This is the kind of story you can’t make up.

Echos of Romeo and Juliet

Noberto’s mother’s family began growing grapes in rocky, barren, Rioja Alavesa about 100 years ago, but tragedy struck during the Franco years. Norberto’s mother’s family were supporters of Franco, but she met and fell in love with a local boy who was an active Leftist. When they married, they’d planned to grow grapes and make wines, but her family refused them access to the vineyards and actually disinherited her. Soon, facing persecution from the local government, Noberto’s parents fled Rioja to safety further south.

Noberto’s mother had two aunts who had become nuns at the beginning of the Spanish revolution, but who had also managed to hold on to a small slice of their family land. Believing Norberto’s parents had been treated unfairly, they persuaded them to return to Rioja and gave them 7 hectares of Rioja vines, most of which had been planted by Norberto’s maternal grandfather.

Noberto’s father and mother grew grapes and sold them to larger Rioja estates for years, and that’s how Norberto began in the business as well. But, he came to believe that the quality of his old-vine Tempranillo and Viura was wasted in large winery blends. And so, in 2004, Norberto launched Bodegas Laukote to make wine from his 7 hectares of vines, making it the smallest commercial winery in all of Rioja Alavesa.

A Marriage of Tradition and Modernity

Norberto takes a practical, uncomplicated, approach to working his vines and making his wines. He farms his two plots of Tempranillo – one 82 years old and another 35 years old – and small plot of 80 year-old Viura vines as naturally as possible. The old vines naturally keep yields low, and Norberto picks his fruit when he thinks it tastes good.

“Tastes good” is, in fact, Norberto’s driving principle in the winery. His “young” (if you can call 35 year-old vines that) vines seem to taste best when they are fresh and fruity, so he vinifies them in tank using carbonic maceration and bottles the wine with no oak. His Viura is concentrated and deeply flavored with great freshness, so he uses a traditional barrel fermentation regime but pulls the wine from barrel to tank early, getting creamy texture and complexity with fine acids and minerality.

And, for his top wine – made from his now 82 year-old Tempranillo vines – Norberto ages the wine in wood until he things it’s delicious and ready to drink – and no longer. That’s why you won’t find the traditional “Crianza” or “Reserva” designation on the label of his Vendimia Seleccionada. Norberto is unwilling to tie himself to Rioja’s rules on minimum time in oak or bottle, even though doing so might make his wines look better in the marketplace. Instead he gives his Rioja the exact exposure to wood and time in bottle needed to make it excellent – and not one bit more.

“When you buy a bottle of wine … drink it!”

It’s hard to capture Norberto’s verve, energy, passion and humor in an email like this – especially since he speaks essentially no English (fortunately, his niece accompanied him and provided excellent translation). But I would like to share two snippets from his visit with us.

First, asked how long to age his wines, Norberto drew himself up and said, “Let me give you an important tip about wine. When you buy a bottle of wine…drink it!” Very fine advice, although my experience is that Norberto’s white and Tempranillo both improve for a year or so and hold for a while after that. And, as I drink through my stash of the 2005 Vendimia Seleccionada, I’m noticing that every bottle is a touch better than the last.

Finally, I think Norberto summed up things beautifully at the end of the evening when he reminded us all that, “What you are drinking are wines of heart and soul. My heart; my soul. I love my wines.” That love shines through in all his wines, but most powerfully in his flagship Rioja Vendimia Seleccionada. Come see for yourself!


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