Rioja Revolutionary – F+R meets Artadi’s Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle

Last week F+R met up with Artadi’s owner and winemaker Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle. On meeting Juan you would not immediately think that this man is one of the most powerful producers in Spain. He is friendly, unassuming, excitable and immensely proud to be working with his youngest daughter, Patricia, who has recently joined the business along with her older brother and sister. He enthusiastically and modestly shared his winemaking philosophy whilst we tasted through his new 2016 single vineyard releases.

The name Artadi is inextricably linked with the iconic top wine El Pison. No other wine has been chosen as the Best Wine in Spain by the influential Penin Guide as often as El Pison. Indeed, despite being located just outside the ancient Citadel of Laguardia in the heart of Rioja Alavesa, saying the name Artadi to wine lovers they will probably think of Viña El Pisón as one of the consistently best wines made in Spain first, and Artadi as one of the top producers in Rioja second.

Recently, everything that is written about Juan Carlos seems to focus on his contrarian decision to leave the Rioja DOC in 2015. Juan Carlos held no punches when explaining his thinking. For him, having Rioja on the label is bad for business. Although he has never been particularly concerned with following the rules of barrel ageing to be able to put Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva on the label, his gripe with the appellation is not that it is overly restrictive, but that it is too generous. He expressed wide-eyed dismay that the DOC allowed an increase of 18% yield last year and was aghast at the statistics that in the 1990s and 2000s 80 million bottles of Rioja were sold annually and by 2018, this had exploded to 400 million bottles, with total production of more than 500 million produced. This is not something he wants to be associated with and he believes that real quality has to be self-policed. Asked why not more follow his example, Juan Carlos said with some regret that they want to, but the DOC is still very influential, and makes it very hard to leave. Not all producers have the confidence in their wines to go it alone and break ranks.

Artadi’s wines are all about terroir. This philosophy has become even more pronounced in recent years, when Juan Carlos decided to eschew his very popular, and very very good, Grandes Anadas and Pagos Viejos multi-vineyard blends. We were able to taste some older vintages of both these wines at the tasting, and they were stunning. However, Juan Carlos wants to keep all his fruit from the 2016 vintage onwards for the single vineyard expressions – believing that every vintage should be celebrated for its unique snapshot of time and place. Whilst he was able to make beautiful, age-worthy wines by blending across his sites, the real power for him comes in fine-tuning what nature provides, but ultimately accepting what is outside of his control. This is also reflected in his (and his son Carlos’s) decision to pull back a little on the oak treatment, now opting for 50% new and 50% one to two year old oak.

Juan Carlos has six single vineyards in total, including the famous El Pison. El Pison is a 2 hectare stone walled vineyard planted by his great-great-grandfather in 1945 and holding special sentimental value for the family and an especially esteemed status in the fine wine market.  El Carretil is right next to El Pison, with some even older vines planted in 1930, but with a different soil profile with a higher percentage of chalk compared to El Pison’s limestone soil. El Pison and El Carretil yield from under 400 to potentially 500 cases a vintage. Valdegines is the highest production of the three made from younger vines but producing an equally beguiling, if more accessible, expression of Tempranillo.

This celebration of time and place does mean that he believes that every vintage will be considered ‘equal’ and he is cognisant of the scrutinising eye of the critics and the fine wine market. He will accept that nature will hand him a more difficult vintage from time to time, and will lower his prices accordingly. Lower volume does not automatically mean higher prices. So the gods may have been kind with the 2016 vintage he was handed. With a plentiful and high quality crop he found the 2016s to be very balanced and “very mature”, a characteristics he looks for. Given the choice of picking underripe or slightly overripe fruit, he would choose overripe any day of the week. He wants his wine to have full volume, silkiness, depth, profundity and no hard edges – especially with age.

Fine wine enthusiasts will not hesitate to secure a case of the magnificent top wine, judged by Luis Gutierrez as possibly “one of the finest recent vintages of El Pison”, but we urge you to also consider the El Carretil as its equally serious if less expensive and Valdegines as a gorgeous expression of Artadi craftsmanship that you will be able to enjoy sooner and for almost unbelievably good value at under £30 a bottle.

Look out for an offer from your Account Manager on 12th November or review the Artadi profile for latest releases.