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DFWE 2023: Discovery Tasting of Remírez de Ganuza’s pioneering wines

At the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter 2023, José Ramon Urtasun hosted a fascinating tasting of top Riojas in the Discovery Theatre, comparing the winery’s modern releases with older vintages. Julie Sheppard reports.

When Fernando Remírez de Ganuza set up his own bodega in Rioja in 1989, he had no winemaking background. But he had a vision… As a vineyard broker, buying and selling parcels of vines, he had in-depth knowledge of the terroirs of Rioja and knew where he wanted to source grapes to make his wines.

Scroll down to see tasting notes and scores for the six Remírez de Ganuza wines tasted

His initial collection of quality vineyards across the Sierra Cantabria foothills included the villages of Samaniego, Leza, Elciego, San Vicente de la Sonsierra, Laguardia and Abalos. As well as sourcing top-quality grapes, he also adopted an innovative, almost radical, approach in the winery too.

At the time in Rioja, little attention was paid to sorting grapes after they had been picked. So in 1991 Remírez de Ganuza became the first winery in the region to own a sorting table. While sorting the grapes, Fernando noticed that the ‘shoulders’ of the bunches were riper and more concentrated. In 1998 he started cutting off the tips and only using the shoulders of the bunches to make his red wines: a reserva and gran reserva.

Setting the scene

‘This grape selection has been key to our production,’ explained José Ramon Urtasun, who joined the bodega as co-owner in 2010. ‘In my opinion our use of a sorting table was the beginning of a change in Rioja, as then other people started focusing on the selection of grapes and quality,’ he added.

Another change that was driven by Remírez de Ganuza was the introduction of new French oak to age wines. Traditionally Riojan producers had always favoured long ageing in American oak barrels for their wines. But from the start the winery used more French than American oak, most of it 100% new barriques. ‘In the beginning we were known as a modern producer because we were using French oak,’ explained Urtasun.

Remirez de Ganuza vineyard

The vineyard of Remírez de Ganuza. Credit: Diego Martinez

He told the audience at the Discovery Theatre that today Remírez de Ganuza owns 80ha of vineyards, spread over 200 plots in nine villages, with an average vine age of 60 years. ‘It’s very important that the winery is close to the Sierra Cantabria, which brings freshness to the grapes,’ Urtasun said. More than three decades on, has the style of the wines evolved?

Looking back

Urtasun decided to explore this question with Decanter readers at the Discovery Theatre. ‘It’s never easy to decide what wines to bring,’ he explained. ‘So I brought wines that speak of where we started and wines that show where we might go.’

The first three wines were therefore older vintages: Reserva 2012, Gran Reserva 2005 and Trasnocho 2010. The latter wine is made only in top vintages and is yet another example of innovation at Remírez de Ganuza. When the juice for the reserva and gran reserva has been run off, the remaining skins are pressed by inserting a PVC balloon into the fermenters and gradually filling it with water. This technique, which took nine years to perfect, gently presses the grapes while avoiding friction and oxidation to create fresher, purer wines.

Clearly built to last, these mature older vintages were tasting beautifully on the day: complex and layered, their structure is undoubtedly shaped by that French oak, but it never dominates their flavours or aromas. All still showed plenty of fresh, primary fruit.

Wine glasses

Credit: Ellen Richardson

The Reserva 2012 and Gran Reserva 2005 are both Tempranillo-dominant – Rioja’s signature grape variety – but blended with 10% Graciano. ‘The Graciano gives extra freshness to the Tempranillo,’ explained Urtasun.

Remírez de Ganuza’s reservas and gran reservas are also fermented with skins of white grape Viura. ‘Co-fermenting with white grapes is a way of preserving the wine,’ said Urtasun, explaining that it causes a chemical change in the structure of the reds, increasing their potential for longevity.

And there’s more to come… ‘Trasnocho 2010 needs more years, but it has promise,’ quipped Urtasun. These are certainly wines for the long haul.

In with the new

The next three wines to be tasted were a selection of younger and newer bottlings from Remírez de Ganuza. Most recent was Iraila Garnacha 2021: the bodega’s only single-varietal Garnacha. Its inaugural vintage was 2020. While much of the Garnacha planted in Rioja comes from warmer Rioja Oriental in the east, the bodega once again decided to do things a little differently. Iraila is sourced from two cool, high-altitude vineyards on the slopes of the Sierra Cantabria in Rioja Alavesa.

A product of yet more innovation and experimentation, Iraila is aged in three different vessels: 228-litre French oak, a cigar-shaped 275-litre barrel and a 400-litre amphora. ‘Iraila’ means ‘September’ in the Basque language. Urtasun explained that the name was chosen because the wine reflects the character of a Spanish autumn: warm but fresh. Will this wine age in bottle? ‘We’ve kept 300 bottles at the winery to find out,’ he advised.

Decanter readers were also lucky enough to taste a sample of Unico Viñedo Paraje La Rad 2020, a new single-vineyard Tempranillo. Already showing lovely purity of fruit and a distinct florality to the aromatics, Urtasun explained that there was no need to add Graciano to the blend, as this particular plot of Tempranillo produced naturally fresher grapes.

The tasting session finished with Remírez de Ganuza Olagar Blanco Gran Reserva 2015. Made from Viura, the first Remírez de Ganuza blanco was introduced in 2004. It was followed by a blanco gran reserva in 2013. Still innovating, the bodega’s whites are barrel-fermented at a low temperature in a cool room. In order to avoid oxidation during batonnage, the closed barrels are placed on rollers and rotated instead of being opened and stirred. The result is a sophisticated Burgundian-style white Rioja that wears its bottle age elegantly.

Tasting notes and scores for the Remírez de Ganuza wines

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