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  • October 14, 2022 8 min read

    ‘You gamble one whole year on just one or two weeks’. Pablo de Simón, of leading Rioja Alavesa vineyard, Valserrano, on the perils and pleasures of making great wine.

    How is the 2022 vintage looking at this time? Has it been a difficult year with all the intense heat?

    In Rioja the Spring and Summer have been not only very hot but also very dry, with almost no rain in the last few months. So not only are there not many bunches of grapes per plant in some areas, but the vines have endured significant hydric stress, which means they haven’t been able to ripen properly, as the vines have suffered a lot during the biological process. Thus, who knows what can happen, but at the moment it looks that the harvest will arrive in advance this year, the yield will be lower in quantity, and the quality looks good now but will depend on the level of rain that we have in the last 2-3 weeks of the ripening cycle. On the other hand, and trying to be optimistic, the lack of rain means that the health of the vines is very good, and in spite of a little percentage of grapes and bunches that have dried because of the heat, the grapes are very clean and healthy (at least up to September 6th), what clearly benefits the quality. Let’s cross fingers and catch again in Dublin at the end of September!

     

    When will the harvest take place? Are there any special traditions/events in your area to mark the harvest? Your family ownership goes back how many generations? How has the harvest and the production of wine changed over the years?

    In Rioja Alavesa and Villabuena, where we are, normally we begin with the Viura and white grapes at the end of September, and the reds come later, mainly at the beginning of October. But this year the previsions are that the white grapes maybe come 1 or even 2 weeks in advance, and the reds in a similar way. It will depend on the level of rain in the last weeks, but if there is any bit of (soft!?) rain, it will accelerate the ripening and improve the quality for sure.

    My Family has been making wines here since 1880, 5 generations, and things have changed a lot: harvest periods used to be a bit delayed than now, according to what I have been said (October in Rioja Alavesa, which is one of the latest in Rioja, and some years finishing even close to November), and the methods and means have advanced a lot, what allows that even in bad climate years nowadays we can follow making wines, suffering less problems and ups&downs in quantities and qualities among vintages than 50-60 years ago, when the effects of the bad weather and vine diseases could be devastating some years, more often than now, when it has to be a dramatic hail or frost, which is quite uncommon.

    In the region of Rioja the main festivals are in late September, SAN MATEO Festivals (Saint Matthew), in honour to the harvest along our region, which is almost full of vineyards.

     

    Your vineyards produce on average 450,000 kg of grapes. It must be a monumental feat of organisation. How long does it take and how many people are involved?

    Yes, it is: you play or gamble one whole year in just 1 or 2 weeks, so everybody is very focused and nervous. And very often the climate just change from Summer into Autumn just this season, so if it rains it is even more tricky. In one side we have a team in the vineyards, mainly with temporary workers, of about 12-15 people, picking the grapes; and into the winery there is a team of +/- 6 people processing the grapes, young musts and wines, as well as developing all the rest of common needs that there are in the production and packaging process of the Bodega.

     

    According to your website you make on average 306,000 litres of red wine and 30,000 litres of white wine. As a leading producer how does Valserrano manage quality control for the 10 different cuvees it makes?

    Yes, that’s right, although it is approximate, and depends on the yield of the vintage. When I was a child we used only 6 big concrete tanks for the fermentation, and now we use 40 small-medium stainless still ones. So the first thing to try to control the fermentations and quality process, trying to respect each grape and parcel, is to make small vinifications. Later we will join some of them into Crianza, Reserva or other wines, but in the beginning we try to separate as much as possible all the different parcels and grapes. But we mustn’t forget that the main point to obtain quality is to try to receive good healthy grapes at the winery! So we try to make a strong selection process in the vineyards, so that the grapes which are not perfectly healthy don’t go into the receiving hopper.

     

    While tempranillo is obviously at the heart of Valserrano wine-making, do you experiment with other grapes and techniques?

    We are quite focused in the Tempranillo grape for the red wines and in the Viura for the whites, and apart from these we have an interesting percentage of the red grapes Graciano and Mazuelo. Graciano is a Riojan native variety, with great colour, acidity and freshness, and because of these we always blend it with the Tempranillo for the Reservas and Gran Reservas; while the Mazuelo is how we call here to the Catalonian Cariñena and French Carignan, and although is also fresh and fruity, it is also more productive, and so we blend it with the Tempranillo to make our Crianzas. And some years, when these tricky varieties of longer ripening cycle are in great ripening point and quality, we make a 100% bottling of them.


    And a few years ago and although in a much minor volume, we have also planted a bit of Maturana red vines (a kind of cousin of the Cabernet, discovered in Rioja some years ago) and a bit of Chardonnay, as it was authorized by the Rioja Consejo +/- 15 years ago. As these are young experiments, we don’t have much results or conclusions yet.

     

    As to the heat, is climate change a serious threat now and into the future for Valserrano? Have you taken any steps to mitigate it? And what of the future?

    Good question, who knows. My opinion is that climate change is a reality, yes, but the changes affecting to the modern wines are not just a result of the climate change, but of the human being work and modern processes also. We are in Rioja Alavesa, which is one of the higher and northern areas in Rioja, and so we feel that we are in a lucky situation, as this area tends to be more Atlantic, fresh and acidic for the wines than others. For example Mazuelo and Graciano traditionally used to have difficulties for the ripening, and now they normally ripen. So not everything is bad for us in this process, alhough it is true that we have to adapt to this climate situation and focus on fresh vineyards of higher altitude and in grapes and clones better adapted to the sunny warm temperatures. And in the future… maybe we have to consider to plant Tempranillo in Ireland?

     

    Your wines have been receiving excellent reviews including the latest 90 plus scores from Decanter and the critic Tim Atkin. While obviously welcome as a measure of quality, do high critical scores create their own kind of pressure?

    Although our work motivation is not just to receive high scores, however they are of course appreciated and we know that in some markets the good ratings can be a good push. However we don’t feel much pressure with them, as we know that when the vintage goes well and our grapes are healthy, the wines should be good. The problem is that it doesn’t happen every year, and this is really the pressure, if we will be able to collect good grapes to make good wines, as well as if we will be able to make reasonable good wines then the harvest is not so good.

     

    Your website headlines that “the quality of our wines is born in our vineyards”. What makes wines from the Rioja Alavesa special? What are the characteristics that distinguish Alavesa wines from the rest of Rioja?

    With many exceptions in other areas of Rioja Baja and Alta, sure, I think that it can be said that some of the best vineyards in Rioja are between the Alavesa and the Alta area, around the area of “La Sonsierra”. And this area, where we are located, is good in general because is in the North of the Rioja region, slightly higher in altitude, with clay-chalk poor soils and in hilly vineyards oriented basically to the South-West. These conditions produce smaller grapes and yields and give you fruity wines with good acidity and freshness, in general, what is good either to make young wines of great fruity touch, or to make wines capable to age very well.

     

    Is this also a reference to what you see as a need for greater geographical specificity in the description of Rioja wines? That wines from Rioja Alavesa should be recognised as having different qualities to other Rioja wines. You were part of a campaign for this some years ago. What is the situation in Rioja now? How do producers from the other areas feel about it?

    I honestly consider that RIOJA is a natural region with many common elements inside. However there are up to 130 kms between some points, what means different soils and climate, obviously. The problem is that during many years there were lobbies in Rioja DOC that didn’t want to show the differences an origins of the grapes and wines coming from the different villages and areas of Rioja, because Rioja itself was a brand and a business for many. And so we were (and still are) altogether under the same “umbrella”, but with some really different profiles and production factors (for example the price of the grapes, the structure of the vineyards that affect to the production costs, etc). My opinion is that we are all Rioja and proud of it, but it should be positive to show the real origin of the wines, showing also the “surname” of the village and sub-region, so that the market and customer can decide what to buy, as it happens in Bordeaux, for example. And little by little Rioja DOC is being more comprehensive and allowing this, but we are still in the way.

     

    You grew up part of the family business. Did you ever see yourself leaving it or do you feel a responsibility to tradition?

    Well, in fact before working at the family Bodega I was working in a Bank first and in a big Law Firm in Madrid later, and my Brother and Sister did something similar. I really feel a responsibility to tradition, because it is really beautiful and a honour to do it, but at the same time we mustn’t forget that it is also a business and that we have more family going to school and a salary every month, etc. So I believe that the heritage is beautiful and romantic, but that responsibility has to be in balance with other aspects of life. And in fact it is!

     

    Finally, of all your wines and the various vintages, what is your favourite and why?

    Great question and difficult to reply in few words, as wines are sometimes sensations that depend on moments, places and persons. But “thinking with the brain” I will say that to me the most genuine wines that we make are the Gran Reservas, red and white, and even the Reserva, as they show the miracle and potential of the time and development, and is really remarkable that these wines can be good and drinkable 20 years later. But considering “from the heart or blood” in a more instinctive way, I recognize that I love also the intense modern Riojas that show the caracter of the grapes and terroirs, as our Finca El Ribazo and Finca Monteviejo. At the end, 2 different styles of Rioja, but both fully Riojan, what means fine, balance, fresh and elegant.

     

    - Pablo de Simón