Rioja Wine invites applicants to attend first ever Somm’er School

Monday, April 08, 2024. 4:39pm
Rioja Wine invites applicants to attend first ever Somm’er School

Rioja Wine invites applicants to attend first ever Somm’er School

Rioja Wine is inviting Ireland’s sommeliers and on-trade buyers to apply for a place on the very first Rioja Somm’er School – a three-day educational trip to the region.  In the lead-up, Liam Campbell is taking us on a journey around Rioja, exploring its 100km of Diversity.  To secure a place on the trip and experience Rioja in person, please sign up here.

I first discovered the wines of Spain’s most prestigious region, Rioja, over forty years ago when I worked in Manchester.  At a time when the wine offerings were mostly restricted to production from Western Europe, the wines of the early 1980s in general had variable quality, with acidity and tannin in reds not always kind to the palate or balanced by fruit or flavour.  A chance discovery in 1983 of a Rioja Reserva 1978, offered as a try-before-you-buy tasting in Oddbins was a pure surprise and delight.  The wine delivered such a fragrance of liquorice and vanilla pod with a velvety smooth texture of dark dried fruits infused with cake spices, cinnamon and clove, that I bought a case.  At £1.75 a bottle it was a bargain, even on a £60 weekly salary.  I converted many of my 20+ year-old friends to the joy of Rioja over the following weeks, entertaining in my one-room flat.

Following my WSET studies, over the course of thirty years tutoring and writing about wine and judging in international competitions, I continue to be impressed by how well Rioja’s wines, both red and white in particular, have kept their roots in tradition with a deep respect for their environment, faithful to using local grape varieties that have adapted to the very diverse landscape within the 100km mountainous region and yet look to the future to ensure it is a sustainable one.

The region is located in the north of the country on the banks of the Ebro River.  The tributary Rio Oja inspires its name for the winelands.  Protected from the Atlantic by the dramatic Sierra de Cantabria and Sierra de la Demanda rain-barrier mountain ranges, the Ebro is the only one of Spain’s rivers that flows into the Mediterranean instead of the Atlantic.  Because of the diverse landscape, the region is divided into three zones: most mountainous to the West (Rioja Alta) and North-West (Rioja Alavesa) with highest altitude and cooler temperatures, resulting in vineyards producing a number of grape varieties, but with a particular focus on Tempranillo and Viura fruit; and sloping to a lower altitude to the warmer East (Rioja Oriental), following the flow of the Ebro.  The river valley creates a corridor for the Mediterranean’s warming influence to access and ripen the Rioja Oriental’s Garnacha fruit the most, giving fuller-bodied wines with richness and opulence.

Rioja Wine invites applicants to attend first ever Somm’er School
Rioja Map

Looking to the future, the great diversity within each zone has recently acquired evenmore prominence and visibility with the recent additions of wines such as “ViñedoSingular”(singular vineyards) and “Vinos de Municipio” (village wines).

Rioja Wines

While Rioja has enjoyed an ancient history of wine-making for over 2,000 years and a reputation for being a protector of tradition, but also for being an imaginative innovator. An example of this innovation I experienced first hand at a tasting and seminar for sommeliers, trade and press in Dublin on 5th September 2023 titled “Rioja 100km of Diversity”.  The room-packed seminar was hosted by the celebrated Rioja wine expert and Master of Wine, Sarah Jane Evans, and author of The Wines of Northern Spain.  Among the seven Rioja wines Sarah Jane introduced us to was an orange wine, a Phinca Hapa 2020 from Bodegas Bhilar in the Rioja Alavesa zone and imported by Tindal Wines.

The white wine was fermented on the skins of the crushed Viura, Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia grapes in large concrete tanks.  The old vines were cultivated using biodynamic practices and the vineyards ploughed by horses only.

I told Sarah Jane the Phinca Hapa 2020 was one of the best orange wines I had ever tasted. I asked if this was typical of Rioja’s innovation as a modern, forward-thinking region rooted in tradition and championing sustainable practices to safeguard the future for the people and landscape of Rioja?

Rioja Wine invites applicants to attend first ever Somm’er School
Sierra de Cantabria and Pruned Vineyards

Sarah Jane MW replied: “Yes, I agree, Phinca Hapa is an exciting example of modernity coming from tradition. David Sampedro and his wife Melanie Hickman are a blend of El Villar and Hawaii.  The wine is a traditional local style revived and polished.  They are biodynamic farmers. Phinca Hapa is a wine that opens doors to a new generation of young consumers, showing that there are many faces of Rioja.”

From 1999, David started learning about the biodynamic philosophy and changed how he cared for his vineyards. First, he converted to organic farming and then began following tenants to recover the harmony between man, earth, vines, and cosmos. In 2014, tractors were eliminated and horses were brought back to farm the vineyards.  Using horses avoids any compacting of the soil by heavy tractor tyres.

After years of making his personal wines in wineries where he consulted, David decided to focus all of his energy on his “Phincas” wines and personal projects throughout Spain. In 2012, he started his garagiste winery close to his vineyards in Elvillar and named it after his village; Bhilar is Elvillar in the Basque language. The new minimal intervention winery finalised in 2016 is a château concept that moulds into the landscape. The sustainable design is “off the grid” utilising solar power and built partially subterranean with concrete fermentation tanks to help control the temperature in the winery.

David’s philosophy is deeply rooted in biodynamic practices.  “Our goal is to make terroir driven wines with soul, respect for the land, work only with indigenous grapes, and to share our unique wines with good people with positive energy.”

For this article, I asked Sarah Jane to nominate an icon wine. After a long pause, Sarah Jane replied: “So difficult! But a firm favourite is La Rioja Alta’s 890.  I have huge respect for that winery. They specialise in Gran Reservas. They make blends, which are thought to be unfashionable given the trend for single vineyard wines. But what blends! 890 is really terrific; and remarkably the wine keeps on getting better. The attention to detail and quality makes it – and them – an icon. It’s wines like this, and from its neighbours in the Station Quarter (aka Barrio de la Estación, in Haro) – and beyond, that make Rioja world class.”

Prompted by Sarah Jane’s endorsement, I researched La Rioja Alta’s tradition for making supreme Gran Reservas and why they were so special in the wine world and in the Rioja region.  I discovered that their Gran Reserva 890 from the 2005 vintage was the only Spanish representative in the tasting of ‘The Ten Best Wines in the World’ (‘Top 10 Tasting’) organized by Wine Spectator in October 2019 in New York.  Gran Reserva 890 2005 ‘Selección Especial’ was ranked in fourth place.  La Rioja Alta SA has been making Gran Reserva 890 since 1890.  It is the winery’s top wine. The much-awarded 2005 vintage is also one of the best to date of the 21st century. It is a wine made with Tempranillo (95%), Mazuelo (2%) and Graciano (3%).

The selected bunches were harvested manually. After fermentation, the best batches were transferred to barrels where they were aged for six years with ten traditional rackings, during which new selections were made, passing only 199 barrels into the final blend, resulting in just over 57,000 bottles. In order to preserve the aromatic components as much as possible, Gran Reserva 890 2005 was not filtered.  For the dining table, this rich and complex mature wine is as comfortable with meat casseroles infused with aromatic herbs as with a dessert of chocolate.

I met Victor Charcán, a director at Bodegas Roda at a wine tasting event in Dublin on 26th February.  The Roda I Blanco 2020 was an exceptional wine showing the modern face of the fresh and lively style of the iconic region’s white wines, but often eclipsed by the diversity of memorable reds.  A classic blend of Viura, Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca, it is a standard bearer for the exceptionally promising 2021 vintage shown at Prowein in Dusseldorf in early March according to distributor, Albert Baginski, Solera Wine’s owner and a former sommelier.

Because Bodega Roda is ideally placed in the heart of the Rioja region, located in the Station District of Haro, a city bordering zones Rioja Alta with Rioja Alavesa, I asked Victor what makes Rioja wine so special? Victor answered: “Rioja is being redefined.  It is the most dynamic and vibrant appellation right now, yet it is at a crossroads.  And the path is quality, typicity, fewer and better vineyards and higher price segments.”

Rioja Wine invites applicants to attend first ever Somm’er School

Bodegas de la Marquesa Valserrano is regarded by Tim Atkin MW as one of the top ten wineries in Rioja and owned by the De Simón family for over 150 years.  To gain some personal insights into the Rioja region’s traditions, I asked Pablo de Simón Baranda a few questions to understand the complexities of the region more.

What are the main features between the three zones of Roja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental?

In some of the land in Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, we always had vineyards, like my family’s ones, for over 150 years. Why?  Because the soils are dry and chalky and poor in nutrients.  They could never be planted with any other crop other than vineyards and olive trees.

Rioja Alta is quite large and diverse, whereas Rioja Alavesa is a smaller area, so here it is easy to find good vineyards in general. This zone is like Burgundy and is quite hilly.  Vineyards at the top of the hills normally are excellent because the soil is infertile, forcing the Tempranillo and Viura vines’ roots to dig deep to search for nutrients and water and produce wines with more food-friendly acidity.  In contrast with vineyards at the foot of the hills where the soil is more fertile and the roots are shallower.

By contrast, Rioja Oriental is a flatter landscape with very large vineyards.  Garnacha can be great here, especially in vineyards close to the mountains, with Mount Yerga in particular; or, in vineyards with chalky poor soil on the slopes.

What makes Rioja wine so special?

I think that Rioja has two positive advantages, climate and soil.  As we are in a very wide valley of the main river in Spain, protected by mountains and in the cooler north of Spain, this combination helps our wines to have more balance and acidity.  History also benefited us.  After the attack of vines by Phylloxera in France initially, and later spreading through Europe’s vineyards in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, French winemakers came here because we were not far from Bordeaux.  Later, Basque families invested here.

How important is wine to Rioja?

Rioja is a small province and Comunidad Autónoma and almost fully planted with vineyards. So, wine is the very heart and soul of Rioja.

How would you describe Rioja – traditional or modern?

We have been always very traditional.  But, in the last few decades we have embraced innovation and now we try to maintain both.  Our traditions are updated and produce modern wines, not defined only by time spent aging in barrel, (Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva), but also emphasising the quality of the vineyards.

How would you describe the people of Rioja?

I like Ireland and the Irish.  Sometimes, I think that Riojans and Irish are not too different, we both are kind, simple, open, friendly and honest people.

The April edition will continue the story of Rioja with a focus on the complementary synergy between Rioja’s wines and gastronomy with endorsements from globally awarded sommeliers.

Rioja Wine invites applicants to attend first ever Somm’er School
Cantabria Mountain Chain

To experience the region in person in June, Rioja Wine invites Ireland’s sommeliers and on-trade buyers to apply for a place at the exclusive Rioja Somm’er School.

Taking place between 24th and 27th June, the Rioja Somm’er School will be a three-day trip to the region complete with winery visits and educational tastings.  Three sommeliers will have the opportunity to visit leading wineries across the region’s three zones, meet with pioneering producers and discover both traditional and newer styles of wine being produced in the region. 

To apply, please follow the link here.

For more information about the regions, wines and winemakers mentioned in this article, as well as more information on visiting Rioja, please contact the Rioja Wine team on [email protected].

To learn more about Rioja and its wines, visit the Rioja Wine Academy, a fantastic online platform offering free educational courses for trade and consumers alike.  There are six courses available on the platform from introductory courses right through to the Rioja Wine Diploma, which covers everything from grape varietals to styles of wine, regulations on viticulture, and gastronomy and history.  To register for a course, head to

Supporting retailers and restaurants, Rioja Wine runs the Rioja Wine Directory, with an Ireland specific Directory, which includes exclusively retailers and restaurants in Republic of Ireland – and Northern Ireland retailers and restaurants are included in the UK Directory.

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