Forming deeps roots from past to present in Rioja Alavesa

Amanda Barnes learns how Luis Cañas is not only coaxing complexity out of its old vines and clones, but is also using them as a tool to tackle climate change.

Rioja producer Luis Cañas has a family heritage of winemaking in Rioja Alavesa since 1928, and made waves in the 1970s when Juan Luis Cañas started putting the overlooked and under-estimated Rioja Alavesa region on the map, by bottling his wines as fine wines rather than selling them in bulk. Today, Juan Luis is working with his son Jon, and they are making waves in Rioja again — this time looking back at some of the traditions of their ancestors and rediscovering their wealth of old vines as a way to shape the future wines of their cellar and of the region.

Over a hundred years ago, the wine regions of Rioja were planted with a huge diversity of varieties, which gradually were whittled down to a few clones of Tempranillo that experienced more commercial success. During this transition, many of these old vines and ancient varieties were replaced and lost. But in some of the oldest vineyards and field blends, you can still find these old vines today.

“We have been identifying the different varieties and clones in our vineyards and separating them to understand their qualities,” explained Juan Luis. “We now have planted 167 different biotypes of Tempranillo; 53 of Graciano; 34 of Garnacha; 24 of Viura; 21 of Malvasía Riojana; 14 of Bobal; and 5 of Calagraño.”

Not only does this wealth of varieties add more complexity to the final blend of the wine, but they also believe they can be used a tool to manage climate change, as some of them have great drought resistance and heat tolerance. This research is being carried out with the Institute of Science of the Vine and Wine and is helping build a germplasm bank for the DOCa RIOJA, and the family also continues to use these old vines and field blends to make their wines under their two winery brands — Bodegas Amaren and Bodegas Luis Cañas.

A case in point is the magnificent Bodegas Amaren Malvasía Riojana. Made from a selection of grapes coming from a 108-year-old vineyard, Jon discovered that there were some special vines in the plot which had a pink hue and were an ancient genotype of Rojal. These grapes are harvested separately and vinified in concrete tanks with several months on lees to allow the wine to “express the true terroir,” says Jon. The wine shows not only the incredible acidity and freshness achieved in this north-facing, high-altitude vineyard (at over 500 m.a.s.l.) planted on chalky soils, but also the intense mineral character with delicate notes of chamomile and citrus blossom.

“Malvasía Riojana used to just be added to the young Rioja red wines, the ones that were made with carbonic maceration, and so it was never vinified separately,” explained Jon. With careful selection in the vineyard, Jon and his father, Juan Luis, are trying to give back value and a reputation to this ancient variety — of which there are only some 155 hectares or so left in Rioja — which can produce wines of great freshness and vibrancy, with a long potential for ageing.

Part of the challenge with these old vines is that they produce very little fruit — less than a kilo per plant in the case of the Malvasía — and so the wines need to be focused on premium and high-quality wine production. Which is also what Jon and Juan Luis have been working on with their single vineyard, or Viñedo Singular, wines.

Bodegas Amaren is producing two Viñedo Singular wines, both old vine field blends. Carraquintana is a field blend of mainly Tempranillo with Garnacha, Graciano and Malvasía Riojana, which are all harvested together and co-fermented, requiring a lot of work in the vineyard beforehand, in order to try to get these different varieties ripening at the same time. The result however is a delicate and nuanced wine with beautiful floral aromas of roses and a chalky minerality. “The idea is to get the complexity and delicacy of these grape varieties too,” explains Juan, “especially of the white grape, the Malvasía, in this field blend.”

Bodegas Amaren El Cristo de Samaniego had the same grape varieties in the field blend but it was a world apart in its expression — with firm tannins and meatier notes, with wild herbs and refreshing acidity. This field blend reflected the cooler, higher-altitude terroir and was one of the first vineyards to be planted so high in the region — at 685 m.a.s.l. in 1980. “Everyone thought it was madness to plant so high at the time,” says Juan Luis, “but now with climate change, we are all seeing the value.”

The expression of Rioja Alavesa is certainly at the heart of the family’s wines. At Bodegas Luis Caña, even with the ‘Reserva’, one of the flagship wines and much larger in production than the single vineyard wines, the freshness and vibrancy of this higher-altitude and cooler elevations are integral to the identity. The wine is juicy and lively, making it ultimately very drinkable. “Tempranillo in our region typically has this freshness,” explains Juan Luis. “And our old vine Tempranillo really invites you to drink it.”

The single vineyard wines, or Vinos de Finca, are El Palacio and Camino Leza. El Palacio is wine made from Tempranillo, Graciano and Viura planted on three terraces and made with whole bunches and some carbonic maceration, which keeps the wine lively and vibrant — showing notes of thyme and rosemary. Elegant but complex with a sanguine finish, it’s a completely different expression to the more intensely fruit-driven expression of Camino Leza, which has an intense nose of fresh strawberries with cracked black pepper. This wine comes from vineyards planted in 1965 of a heavy clay loam soil and has Tempranillo, Viura, Malvasía and Calagraño in the blend.

This was a fascinating tasting and insight into the particularities of these old vineyards and vines in Rioja Alavesa. And what’s most exciting of all is that this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the research being done into the diversity of old vines and efforts to protect them. Bodega Luis Cañas, together with the ICCV (Institute of the Science of the Vine and Wine) and Vitis Navarra nursery, are planning to show us a lot more in the future from these old vines — and if these wines are anything to go by, the future is bright indeed.

Wine tasting notes:

2016 Bodegas Amaren, Malvasia


RRP £35

Coming from a 110-year-old vineyard (planted in 1911), this Malvasia Riojana (Rojal) has a beautiful nose of citrus peel, chamomile and a very intense mineral character with a creamy finish.

2017 Bodegas Amaren Carraquintana 2017

Field Blend

RRP £60

This vineyard has three parcels planted in 1930, 1940 and 1962 in a field blend with Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano and Malvasía Riojana, which are all harvested and co-fermented together. Beautiful notes of rose petals and rosehips really jump out of the glass from this aromatic and complex wine with layers of balsamic, white pepper and earthy notes, and a long, fresh finish.

2017 Bodegas Amaren El Cristo de Samaniego

Field Blend

RRP £40

Another field blend (with Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano and Malvasía Riojana) planted at 685 m.a.s.l. in 1980, this wine offers a slightly meatier nose with notes of wild herbs and a firm spine of tannins, with some oak influence. A bold, textural wine with refreshing acidity and a long finish.

2015 Bodegas Luis Cañas, Reserva

Tempranillo (95%), Graciano (5%)

RRP £22

This classic Tempranillo shows the freshness of the region and has vibrant red fruit notes with a touch of vanilla on the finish. An attractive, juicy Reserva wine.

2017 Bodegas Luis Cañas, Finca El Palacio

Field Blend

RRP £52

This field blend with old vines of Tempranillo, Graciano and Viura has vibrant red fruit notes and a really lively finish with juicy fruit and floral expressions complementing an earthier, sanguine undertone. Elegant and thought-provoking.

2017 Bodegas Luis Cañas Camino Leza

Field blend

RRP £65

Coming from vineyards planted in 1965 on a heavy clay loam soil, this field blend of Tempranillo, Viura, Malvasía and Calagraño has beautiful energy to it. From incredibly low-yielding Rupestre Tempranillo clones, with less than 3.5 tonnes per hectare, the family’s story goes that Juan Luis’ grandfather “got confused” because he meant to plant a high production clone but planted this low yielding clone. But it was certainly a blessing in disguise because the result is an intense rich fruit expression with attractive notes of peppered strawberries.


Main photo: Luis Cañas, his son Juan Luis Cañas and grandson Jon Cañas