Rioja is having a moment. In fact, more than a moment, it’s on a roll – sales are good, old school, elegant Riojas made with a lighter touch are being snapped up by collectors and sommeliers all over the world, whilst a number of new wave producers are cutting back on the oak, extraction and alcohol levels and winning new fans.
The region has also introduced some new features, including the introduction of three new geographical categories. Rioja may now be labelled Vino de Municipio (village wine), which means that not only the winery, but also the grapes have to come from vineyards with the village. And say hello to Vinos de Zona (subzone wine), which can be labelled with one of the three zones that make up the Rioja region – Rioja Alta in the west, Rioja Alavesa in the northern Álava province, and what is now known as Rioja Oriental in the east (called Rioja Baja until 2018), with each town boasting its own unique personality and terroir.
One such place in Rioja Oriental is Bodegas Ondarre in the town of Viana. It was founded in 1985 by the Ucin family, who hail from the Basque country, and can trace their origins there back to 1450.
It all started back in 1970, when the family created Bodegas Olarra, near Logroño, to make an innovative style of wine that was about bringing the aromas of the fruit to the forefront, though still following Rioja’s tradition of mixing grapes from different terroirs in the region. However in 1985, they decided that it would be a good idea for the world to see just how diverse Rioja is by creating further wines that show off the region’s distinct terroirs.
The family chose the village of Viana, which overlooks the Rioja Valley, in what is now known as Rioja Oriental. Located at a higher altitude, the terrain is particularly uneven here, especially to the north of the village, thanks to several streams that run down from the mountains that mark the northern border of Rioja.
Soils, too, are very shallow here – down to a mere 15-16 inches north of Viana, and soil patterns vary noticeably for vineyard to vineyard, where there are high concentrations of the relatively rare Mazuelo and Tempranillo Blanco vines, plus old vineyards situated on slopes that climb towards the mountains.
Add to that the fact that there were no other winemakers in the vicinity and the challenge was on to create quality wines with a distinct terroir. So Bodegas Ondarre was born, named after the original family home in Azpeitia, Basque Country.
The pioneering move paid off and Bodegas Ondarre now offer a range of wines, originally including Reserva and Gran Reserva reds, as well as a white, but more recently with the addition of a more openly specific vineyard related range of wines, backed by DOC Rioja’s new wine classification based on grape provenance.
Cue the third of the new, much more geographically precise, categories of Rioja that has been introduced by the governing body, the Consejo Regulador. From the 2017 vintage, wineries that want to produce fashionable single-vineyard wines can go right ahead and now declare it on the label, as Viñedo Singular (single vineyard). The rules are strict though – the vines must be at least 35 years old, the grapes handpicked, and the wines must pass a taste test.
Bodegas Ondarre has embraced the changes, and the tougher rules, with its Mayor de Ondarre. It’s a wine made from grapes grown in two specific vineyards, and all going well, should become Ondarre’s first Single Vineyard wine. Whilst the Valdebaron Red and White are both made from grapes grown in the eponymous area just northwest of Viana, including a significant percentage of Mazuelo, from those old vines, while the white is made with 100% barrel-fermented Tempranillo Blanco.
So what of Viana itself? This year it’s celebrating its 800th anniversary – it was once one of the most important towns in the old kingdom of Navarre. In fact, the Crown Prince’s official title was Prince of Viana, is a title still used today by the Crown Princess of Spain. Viana also became one of the most prominent of the several fortresses that secured the border of the kingdom of Navarre with Castile, along the banks of the Ebro River.
Today Viana is thriving town, home to many different businesses, which have all played their part in helping to restore a large part of the town’s heritage, with its revitalised historic quarter returning the town to its original splendour. Bodegas Ondarre is part of that success story, maintaining Viana’s place in history, and showing the world that Rioja offers a distinct terroir and a defined sense of place.
Bodegas Ondarre has been going it alone here for the best part of 35 years, largely because of the strict DOC Rioja rules that prevented them from shouting about the provenance of their grapes. But thanks to the recent changes in DOC Rioja regulations, the way is now clear for Bodegas Ondarre to tell the world about what they have, and indeed are investing further in the land. Watch this space.