“A masterclass in terroir” is how one merchant described our buying trip to Spain, where a group of indies visited the three estates of Familia Martinez Bujanda in Rioja, Rueda and La Mancha, organised in partnership with UK importer Berkmann Wine Cellars.
The family’s hospitality, the hot air balloon ride and the quixotic windmills will live long in the memory. But, as Claire Harries reports, the main attraction was the wine itself, which ticked all the right boxes for our intrepid group of buyers.
Seven merchants discovered the earthly pleasures and heavenly delights of Rioja, Rueda and La Mancha on a trip that encompassed three wine estates belonging to Familia Martinez Bujanda.
The Martinez Bujanda family has been making wine since the late 19th century, but the story of the Tres Fincas on our agenda started with the vision of the fourth generation: brother and sister Carlos and Pilar Martinez Bujanda.
Their desire to build the family’s winemaking legacy and produce estate wines from notable locations began with the construction of Finca Valpiedra in Rioja Alta in 1997. Finca Antigua in La Mancha followed in 2003; and finally, in 2008, white wine became a focus with the construction of Finca Montepedroso in the heart of DO Rueda.
Now, Pilar’s daughter, Marta, and Carlos’s son, Adrian, are at the helm of the family business and the winemaking is in the hands of Lauren Rosillo.
First stop: Finca Valpiedra
It is immediately obvious why the Finca Valpiedra’s name translates as “Stone Valley”. The vineyard has been carved out by the River Ebro and the bush vines are nestled among large river pebbles, which provide drainage and retain heat. The vast majority of grapes grown here are Tempranillo and grapes are hand-harvested before a manual selection.
We are greeted by export manger Karin Nylund who escorts us to lunch on a shady terrace. The vestiges of early morning travel are soon shaken off as we relax to the sounds of the river and devour the first of many wonderful meals.
Karin says the family exports to around 65 markets, but their relationship with the UK remains key. “Like Paris is to fashion, the UK is to wine; in many aspects it is at the forefront of new trends,” she says.
“It’s a market that focuses a lot on meeting with the consumer. We also feel that you really need to understand wine through experiences, and this is why we want to get across the story telling of the three fincas.”
The vista from the tasting room is breathtaking and sets the tone for the rest of the trip. The architecture may be extremely modern – all glass and steel and stone – but each winery is perfectly integrated into the landscape.
As Carlos Blanco from Blanco & Gomez observes, “the attention to detail shown everywhere, in the wineries, in the tasting rooms, is reflected in the quality of the wines, which have a uniqueness, a minerality, which would be almost impossible to get from anywhere else in Rioja”.
For Jaime Fernandez of Vino Vero in Leigh-on-Sea, the Finca Valpiedra Reserva Blanco 2016 is a stand-out. “I’m a huge fan of barrel-aged white Rioja and this wine doesn’t disappoint,” he says. “It’s complex with lots of smoky stone fruit and fleshy lemon, but still really fresh and approachable.”
Both Thom Allinson from The Oxford Wine Company and Devon Mahon from The Wine Loft in Brixham particularly enjoy the Cantos de Valpiedra Rioja, and Carlos says he also intends to add it to his portfolio as it “will catch the eye of any wine lover”.
“It has an expressive red-fruit character with a touch of oak coming through on the finish,” says Thom. “Having this served slightly chilled really adds to the refreshing fruit character.”
“The Cantos surprised me,” adds Devon. “It’s an amazing example of Rioja and I can’t wait to have this on our menu served chilled, just the way we drank it in Spain.
“Although I have had the Finca Valpiedra Reserva many times before, it still blows me away with how complex and elegant it is. The minerals and black fruit are so beautifully balanced with the use of French oak that it makes this wine incredibly special,” he adds.
The tasting finishes up with a tour of the barrel hall and what Karin refers to as the “sleeping beauty room”: racks and racks of bottles waiting to be labelled, a process that has become more complicated due to each country’s individual laws and requirements.
We settle into an evening out in Logroño, and Karin judiciously waits until we have beers in hand before she asks us to divulge how much we weigh. This information needs to be passed on to a hot air balloon company so the relevant calculations can be made.
Surely the following exquisite dinner of lamb chops, asparagus and gorgeous things with freshly shaved truffle on top, wouldn’t add any extra poundage? Too late. The numbers have been collated and recorded. We have thrown caution to the wind.
The road to Rueda
The sign for Finca Montepedroso becomes visible several minutes before arrival. The huge green letters are a welcome beacon, rising up Hollywood-style from the scrub.
This is a single-varietal estate, dedicated to Verdejo and, with 25ha under vine, it is smaller than Valpiedra’s 80ha. The vineyard is 750 metres above sea level and the harvest here is done by machine.
We embark on a vertical tasting, showcasing the 2021, 2017 and 2015 vintages. It proves “a really good way of showing us the ageing potential of these wines and how they change,” says Dean Harper of HarperWells in Norwich. “I really love the 2017, which has a fantastic balance between the age and the vitality of the wine.
“We have customers who look for white wine to lay down to drink a few years later and these wines, with their complexity, would be perfect for that.”
Claire Carruthers from Carruthers & Kent in Newcastle is also a fan of the 2017. “There would definitely be a place for that at our shop,” she says. “We’d put it on by the glass with a little food matching.”
Devon says he would be keen to recreate the tasting for his customers. “The 2017 vintage is beautifully elegant,” he says. “We would be interested in stocking each of the vintages to be sold in threes.”
Carlos adds: “This is what Rueda is all about. The Verdejo shows its full potential after three to four years of ageing, but even young it’s beautiful, well balanced and gorgeous to drink.”
It’s a rare treat to have the opportunity to taste Montepedroso Enoteca 2019, a wine made only in exceptional harvests, and with an average bottling of fewer than 4,000, there is scarce availability in the UK. The 2019 is beautiful, deep and aromatic, with clear cellaring potential.
Full of a lunch that includes gazpacho, fois gras and a never-to-be-forgotten Russian salad, we pile back into the minibus and head for Valladolid.
After a few drinks in the square, observed by a couple of peacocks, and a short walk to a superb dinner, the idea is to be tucked up by midnight as we have a very early appointment the next day with a hot air balloon.
We have a sneaky suspicion that local bar owners are in on the plan, as shutters are lowered along the street; and for this, punctual and clear-headed at 6am on Wednesday, we are grateful.
Up, up and away to Finca Antigua
Just as the sun is rising we meet Roberto and his team from VallaGlobo. Safety rules and landing positions established, the balloon, carrying its intrepid explorers, gently floats up and away over Valladolid.
An hour later, with a landing smoother than the one afforded to us at Bilbao airport two days previously, everyone is feeling rather Zen.
In the blink of an eye, a table appears, complete with cloth and flowers, and the traditional toast, or re-baptism of souls to the land, is made, accompanied by some very welcome breakfast.
Despite the heat and the travel, the general feeling of calm and quiet well-being endures all the way to La Mancha, where we lunch at Finca Antigua. The remote vineyard boasts an extreme landscape at over 900 metres above sea level. Some 421 of the 1,000 hectares are under vine and the various parcels are made up of non-native varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Syrah) with the remainder indigenous grapes (Viura, Garnacha, Tempranillo and Moscatel).
The vineyard is working towards being fully certified as sustainable and organic by the end of this year. As Karin says, the monte bajo (scrubland) that surrounds the vines adds to the character of the wines.
“The typicity of the wines at Finca Antigua is also due to the surrounding plants,” she says. “They play an important role in the characteristics of the reds, especially. You get the spicy and vegetal tones in the Syrah and Cabernet.”
“We have a strong emphasis on organic and biodynamic wines with minimal interference,” says Vino Vero’s Jaime Ferndanez. “Having seen the process from start to finish at each winery, we know first-hand how these wines follow the ethos of the products we already stock.
“The fact that they are pushing for full organic certification, making them the largest organic estate in Europe, is extremely impressive and something our customers would buy into, and the wines would fit in perfectly to our range.
“The Finca Antigua Viura 2021 is the perfect summer white. Really fresh and juicy with lots of texture from the lees ageing. It’s the kind of wine where you can really taste the quality of the fruit and the care that has gone into making it,” he adds.
Claire Carruthers agrees. “We will put the Viura and the Moscatel on by the glass as soon as we can,” she says. “The Finca Antigua Viura is, without doubt, my favourite white of the trip. It is one of the most delicious Viuras I have tasted in this price range. It has a delicious creamy unctuousness with an added lovely elegance.”
The Moscatel strikes a chord with all the merchants, who appreciate the direct branding onto the bottle rather than a label. “Not only does it taste divine,” Claire continues, “it looks amazing and is totally the right price. Everything about it works.”
For Dean Harper, the Finca Antigua Garnacha is a highlight. “I love this wine for its complete balance, wonderful use of oak and silky smooth tannins, as well as gorgeous brambly fruit and hints of the flora on the estate, like wild fennel,” he says. “A lovely wine to drink now, either with food or on its own. Great versatility and value for money.”
“The wines of Finca Antigua offer real value for money at the pricing sweet spot for our customers, at around £15,” adds Thom Allinson. “The quality of the wines punches above that, at closer to £20, in my opinion. I would be looking at introducing these to our customers as a ‘more wine for your money’ alternative to regions of Spain like Rioja and Ribera.”
Carlos agrees and says: “Of all Spanish wines, the wines from La Mancha have never been the most popular when it comes to quality, but the ones from Finca Antigua are definitely worth having. They are excellent value for money and so well made with such good balance, that they have changed my preconceptions about the wines from La Mancha in general.”
Thanks for the memories
As we are in the heart of Quixote country, we can’t resist the opportunity to tilt at a few windmills. Karin and her team have anticipated our literary curiosity and we enjoy our last evening together under the stars amidst a romantic backdrop of windmills and a distant electrical storm that intermittently lights up the sky.
We return to the lavender-filled courtyard at Finca Antigua on our final day, reluctant to abandon the tranquillity of the finca for Madrid airport. It’s agreed that, especially after such a long hiatus in buying trips, no amount of Zooms and tastings can replace such an experience.
“Having started my WSET Diploma this year, it was great to get among vineyards and wineries in person to help connect some of the dots learned in a classroom,” says Thom.
Matt Wallis from Brigitte Bordeaux in Nottingham agrees. “I’ll never forget walking into that tasting room at Finca Valpiedra,” he says, “and I’ll remember these wines for the rest of my life.”
Above and beyond the unforgettable hospitality, the ultimate impression of our trip was the successful blend of the old and the new – a respect for tradition dovetailing with the continuing innovation shown by Rosillo and his team that shines across all three estates.
“There was a strong sense of modernity and tradition at each winery,” says Jaime Fernandez. “It is clear they are focused on progression and forward thinking, but at the same time never losing sight of the traditions of each region.
“What impressed me most across the whole range of Lauren’s wines at the three estates is the consistency in the purity of the wines.”
“There’s a definite house style across the Tres Fincas wines,” says Thom, “with a real finesse and class. There’s an emphasis on showing the varietal character of the grapes as well as expressing the terroir of each of the regions. It’s at the heart of his winemaking.”
“You could describe this trip as a masterclass in terroir,” adds Dean Harper. “Having visited the three fincas, you can completely understand why the family wanted to make wine in these different areas in order to have a broad portfolio.
“I was super-impressed with what Familia Martinez Bujanda are doing at Finca Antigua. These single-varietal wines are a revelation.”