Rioja – This is the Modern Way

Matthew Horsley, a trainee in Buying, joins Pierre Mansour on a trip to Rioja. First stop, a shiny new bodega in an ancient vineyard with a familiar face behind the wines.

In February I joined Pierre Mansour, head of buying and your buyer for Spain, on a trip to Rioja and Navarra primarily to assist in the blending of our next vintage of The Society's Rioja Crianza. It was also a chance to visit of some of the region's most celebrated producers, many of whom are undergoing exciting changes, as well as gaining an insight in to the sunny highs and frosty lows of the 2017 vintage. We also had the opportunity to witness the coming of age of one of Spain's trickiest customers – the graciano grape.

Blending The Society's Rioja at Bodegas Palacio Blending The Society's Rioja at Bodegas Palacio

El Sacramento – a new and ancient wine

One of the biggest changes in Rioja over the last couple of years has been in personnel, with the stepping down of Contino's chief winemaker, Jesus Madrazo, to take on a new venture at El Sacramento. This is an ancient vineyard in Alavesa (the northernmost of Rioja's three principal sub-zones) purchased in 2011 by the owner of Viñas Leizaola, Etienne Cordonnier. Etienne has a fascinating family history, and his ambition is two-fold: to revisit his family roots (his great grandfather owned some of Bordeaux's greatest Châteaux including deuxième cru Cos d'Estournel) and to offer a wine that lives up to the other side of his family's history – the brokering of fine wines into the Belgian market.

Despite making wine at El Sacramento since 2011, Etienne only started building his winery last year (due to be finished for the 2018 harvest) and, although currently just a shell, it is going to be quite a sight once finished. Cut in to a hill just south of Laguardia overlooking El Sacramento, the huge glass-walled building (complete with barrel and tasting rooms) will be sure to have one of the most envied views in Rioja. And if that wasn't enough, the winery will also be his family home.

The Madrazo magic touch

Pierre & Jesus Pierre & Jesus

What Etienne is building, while not exactly understated, does have substance – he's brought together one of the region's most sought-after vineyards with a history going back hundreds of years, and one of Rioja's greatest winemakers – and the difference to the wine since Jesus' arrival is incredible.

During a vertical tasting the quality, concentration and flavour achieved from the first few vintages of El Sacramento are undeniable, but the consistency and focus that Jesus has brought to the blend is clear to see. The wines have more of an identity, a house style if you will; a style that boasts rich full dark fruit and bramble flavours, bold ripe tannin and plenty of spice. The wines are unashamedly modern and are in their infancy – intricate, dense and still teething – but with masses of potential. I for one cannot wait to see how they develop over the years.

View at El Sacramento View at El Sacramento

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