When we tried to define our project with a perfect phrase, the following one appeared to be most inspirational: “Rioja, tradition is diversity”.

Perhaps the inspiration was not so much so, but rather a reflex action of self-protection: can there be anything more diverse than a South African winemaker making Rioja wine? However, we do not believe that this was the spark that led us to connect tradition and diversity, but rather a more substantial one; not exactly an impulse to rebel, but certainly an affirmation. Affirmation of a project which is based on a denial: Rioja wine should not be identified, parameterized, with a certain type, in which the greatest weight of identification, perhaps even improvement, comes from an element which is not natural to the wine itself – it is not the climate, it is not the soil, it is not the plant – such as the wood of the barrels in which it must rest. It cannot be, and must not be, that the richness of the land of the Rioja is so constrained and consequently impoverished. Quality parameters are one thing and standardization is another. We cannot assume that it is tradition that has led to this standardization.

Our project, as you already know, is a young one. We have barely had time to attend seven harvests, to produce seven vintages. However, from the very beginning our course of action was established: to try to reflect in our wines all the richness and diversity of the variety of soils, vineyards and climates in this land -if they are naturally within our reach, which is no small matter.  Of course, we are obliged to use artificial elements -concrete, stainless steel, wood- but under no circumstances must these define the wine, nor alter its natural properties; at most they must contribute to enhancing them, to making them more perceptible.

Fortunately, a book published in 2017 by the local government entitled “Minority Vine Varieties in La Rioja”, by Pedro Balda and Fernando Martínez de Toda, has recently fallen into our hands. In this book we have hopefully seen our aspirations scientifically confirmed.

 

variedades minoritarias de vid en la rioja

 

It contains what is surely the nicest part of the doctoral thesis that the former (with a PhD) wrote in 2014, under the direction of the latter, a University professor, and which we are told can be downloaded at the following link from the University of La Rioja: https://dialnet.unirioja.es/descarga/tesis/43838.pdf

In the foreword signed by the professor you can read:

“In general, in any wine-growing area, there are two types of winemaking culture. One, which we could call ‘traditional’, tries to obtain an increasingly better product, based on the region’s own culture, that is to say, using traditional and typical vine varieties of the area and seeking as an end product a classic wine, although better produced than before. The other type of winemaking culture, which we could call ‘modern’, seeks a different product, more in line with current international tastes and uses foreign varieties, widely grown throughout the world and not traditional in the area concerned.

Both types of winemaking culture can produce high quality wines, and their main difference is that, in the first case, we are maintaining the genetic and cultural diversity typical of our Mediterranean culture and we are making our own wine, particular and different from the rest. However…”

End of quote, because we are not interested in addressing the ills that plague a standardized wine industry for sale, but rather to affirm our principle: “Rioja, tradition is diversity”. And so much so that pages ahead in the PhD thesis, we see Bryan’s presence portrayed in the “communication” of experiences that has shaped the tradition of Rioja wine: “In the case of La Rioja, an important communication route is the Ebro Valley and, at certain periods in its history, the Way of St. James. This has allowed not only the arrival of many varieties from faraway places but also an important circulation of ideas and viticulture and winemaking innovations”.

Of course, participating in this affirmation requires participating in the idea that biodiversity is a great wealth, and that uniformity is monotony and poverty. It is therefore reasonable to get hooked onto the genetic heritage that we have inherited in this land, thanks precisely to the “traditionalism of the winegrower”, as it is the one that has empirically adapted best to the circumstances of the soil and climate in which it develops, trying to understand it and improve it according to the times and circumstances that affect us; as there is no doubt that these supports change, are in fact changing, and perhaps, as the English would say, dramatically. In this respect, we should be grateful for the moves of something as naturally ultraconservative as the DOC Control Board in incorporating minority varieties into the land of Rioja (Maturana Tinta, Maturana Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco and Turruntés, 2008), or in recognising the particular characteristics of some vineyards, (not so much in admitting foreign varieties simply because they have proved successful in other designations of origin).

Thus, the varieties authorised in the Designation today are Tempranillo, Garnacha tinta, Graciano, Mazuelo and Maturana tinta (for red wines) and Viura, Malvasía, Garnacha blanca, Tempranillo blanco, Maturana blanca, Turruntés, Chardonay, Sauvignon blanc and Verdejo (for whites).

Before providing the ampelographic characteristics of 36 minority varieties under study, to which they add the ubiquitous Tempranillo as an appendix due to its reference value, the aforementioned authors express their concern about the serious loss of this diversity which humanity is witnessing, and which in the field of wine can be defined as the standardization of plantations – sometimes atypical or foreign – which in turn are standardized due to the exclusivity of the type of clone or rootstock. We could say that, in the artificial environment of the human being, the Darwinian natural selection is not produced by the quality or improvement of the species, but by its immediate and short-term economic yield.

“The preservation of viticultural biodiversity has three fundamental levels: biodiversity on rootstocks, inter-varietal biodiversity and intra-varietal biodiversity (between biotypes of the same variety)”.

The configuration of the rootstock is a question that affects the planting of the vineyard; as a result of the phylloxera invasion, the winegrowers had to resort to grafting clones or biotypes of the desired variety onto a disease-resistant American rootstock.  This rootstock is the “trunk” that is planted in the ground, and therefore forms the vine on which the shoots will grow. The loss of biodiversity may occur here due to the standardization of rootstocks and the standardization of clones, but this is not an issue that we should address now since what we are going to explain here are our wines, and these today come from old or very old plantations, all of them post-phylloxera.

 

Portainjerto-plantado

 

The intra-varietal biodiversity is present in our Laventura varieties. The inter-varietal biodiversity is present in La Nave (diversity of monovarietal plots, planted less than 35 years ago, thus complying with the new rules that do not allow inter-varietal mixing in the vineyard). And the inter and intra-varietal biodiversity is present in our unique vineyards or so-called Viñedos Singulares (Barranco del San Ginés). We will continue to explain all this in successive installments.

When we talk about Rioja wine, we have a problem with location, because we think at first that it is wine produced in La Rioja, as a region or community, which is not exact. Specifically, we must refer to wine produced in the area defined as the Rioja Qualified Designation of Origin (DOC Rioja), produced in accordance with the rules established by its Control Board, and duly qualified as such by the latter. And this area of the DOC Rioja does not coincide geographically with that of the political Community of the name La Rioja, but rather occupies a part of it, the same as it does in other parts, certainly smaller ones, of other provinces, which are Alava, Navarre and Burgos (of the latter only one estate that is truly an enclave within the first), in turn integrated into other differentiated Autonomous Communities.

We have chosen the expression “LA TIERRA DEL RIOJA” (the land of the Rioja) to bring them together. We would like to give you some information, usually taken from our own life experience here, that may interest you about wine and the territory where it is produced. Whenever we talk about “el Rioja”, we will be thinking indistinctly about the qualified wine and the area of the denomination.

 

mapa denominacion rioja

PANORAMIC VIEW / The three sub-zones of the Rioja Denomination of Origin

There are three areas in the territory of the Designation that have been commonly distinguished: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja (the difference is due to the average altitude of the territory, but today the latter has preferred to be known as Oriental or Eastern Rioja) and Rioja Alavesa.

The first comprises the whole of the western part up to the area of Logroño where the eastern part begins; the Alavesa includes, from the northern part of the Ebro river, that area which belongs to Alava (and further proof of the artificiality of the boundaries; we will generally describe it as Sonsierra and treat it as a single area). The truth is that such a generic distinction, or any other surely the same as the one we are going to apply here, is due to the ambiguity of its vague and inaccurate boundaries. Sometimes this is why a Rioja Media (Middle Rioja) is introduced into the distinction. Not even the possibility of its real application as a sub-zone would be truly representative of the variety and richness of the Rioja. Timidly, although already with official recognition, the need and coherence to delimit with more precision and traceability the areas of the land from which the wine comes, and which provide it with its personality, is beginning to emerge: subzone, municipality, estate, unique vineyard (viñedo singular)…

The land of the Rioja is located in an extensive valley marked by the winding course of the Ebro river, which made its way through the mountains in the west, at the point known as Las Conchas de Haro, and retreated placidly and without any obstacles to be overcome in the east, there by the area of Alfaro.

 

 

The northern and southern limits of the valley are mountain ranges, of not exaggerated altitude, but of marked personality, personality that they transmit to the climate and the soil. These are, to the north, Obarenes, Montes de Toloño and Sierra de Cantabria (or, by extension, Toloño) and then the Sierra de Aras, and to the south the Sierra de la Demanda, the Cameros and the Sierra de Yerga and de la Hez. The advantage of this parallel chain of heights is that you can enjoy fantastic views of the valley from them. Looking from north to south, we could stop at Cellórigo, at the foot of the Obarenes that our little ones know how to identify with the back of a stegosaurus – in some guides we read that it is known as the “Pulpit of La Rioja”, and the plates on the dinosaur’s back as Peña Lengua, and are identified with stone needles that resemble the Gothic needles of a cathedral; no doubt, ways of seeing that everyone can improve-, in the Peñacerrada pass -in the ascent of which there is precisely a “Balcony of La Rioja”-, or in Lapoblación, climbing the Bernedo pass where is located El León dormido (the Sleeping Lion) -known by the inhabitants there as La Picota, perhaps because to see the lion it is necessary to have as much distance as imagination. Looking from the south to the north, we could perhaps visit the Monte de San Lorenzo (perhaps too high to enjoy the valley), the Castillo de Clavijo, or the Cabi Monteros.

Of course, as we go up to these viewpoints we leave the land of the Rioja behind, but since there is a continuum between plain and mountain, it is not superfluous to include some information about them here; and with the search now for higher, cooler and more humid areas for planting vines, as a result of the changes in the climate, they will become part of the DOC when least expected.

Our intention is to follow the course of the river in the same west-east direction with an eye on the horizon of mountains, as reflected in our imagotype, and to provide data that we think may be of interest to you from any point of view, especially, of course, that related to winemaking.

 

sierras de la rioja

First of all, let us inspect the southern slope of the Ebro river, distinguishing here, more for taking a breath than with a differentiating value, the valleys or basins through which its tributaries flow, namely: Oja (or rather Oja-Tirón) -it seems so easy to say that the river Oja has given its name to La Rioja, that etymologists do not naturally agree-, Najerilla, Iregua, Leza and Jubera, Cidacos and Alhama. Then, at the end, we will cross the river to pass into Navarre and return westwards, first along its banks, and then through the area that we emotionally encompass within the so-called Sonsierra riojana and which, from Logroño onwards, occupies as a continuum spaces in La Rioja and Alava. Furthermore, since we do not find any outstanding tributary rivers to stop us for the respite, we will address these spaces in one go until the exit via Briñas, which they call the portal.

In this way we try to convey to you that what defines such a small space is its diversity. That, in terms of winemaking, it is born from the diversity of soils: ferrous-clay (reddish, with more or less alkalinity, low organic matter…), clay-limestone (whitish), more or less stony, alluvial on the banks of the great river;

tipos de tierra en la rioja

from the diversity of climate: which goes from the western Atlantic due to its proximity to the Cantabrian sea, to the eastern Mediterranean because it is already influenced by this sea successively nuanced or aggravated by the altitude in its slope towards the mountains; and today by the irrationality that feeds the climate change and that seems to translate into long periods of drought with violent and excessive inrush of water, exaggerated heat and abrupt peaks of extreme cold and off-season frost; from the diversity of authorised vine varieties and the shape and age of their planting; and also from the landscapes, villages, people…. All this makes the land of la Rioja a unique, singular and diverse “terroir”.

Now, it turns out that our intention is already embodied, since November 2019, in a magnificent book published by Los Aciertos y Pepitas publishers, written by Antonio Remesal and Alberto Gil, with the title: Rioja. Silent Wines, and with the subtitle: “A guide to getting to know the other Rioja: the regions, the villages, the vineyards, the wineries, the wines and the people of this surprising wine-growing region”; and what they tell us in 311 pages, we cannot pretend to summarise in this booklet. So what we want to do is to inform you about its existence and to assure you that it is of paramount interest for the knowledge of Rioja -the authors, excluding the definite article “La”, solve the problem of location-, and essential if you are one of the “good people” of whom Antonio Machado said: “where there is wine, they drink wine” -if there is no wine, they will have to make do with “fresh water”-, and thus you get on the move to satisfy that primordial need.

Here, therefore, we intend to be intrinsically subjective because we will only talk about what we have experienced. We will not be partial, nor impartial, because we will not make comparisons, but in no case shall we be arbitrary. I do not think we will be referring to any place that you cannot already find in the standard guides. Naturally, we tend to go to restaurants where we can drink MacRobert & Canals wines, but this is not always possible. There is no more complicated place to sell Rioja than the land of the Rioja. Here there are ‘special obligations’: there is no restaurateur who does not have a father, son, brother, brother-in-law, nephew, friend, or parishioner who in one way or another has no interest in a certain wine, if not the restaurateur himself.

 

The D.O.Ca Rioja is one of the most important wine regions in the world. As a D.O. it was established in Spain in 1925, and was awarded the category of “Calificada” (qualified) – the only one to date – in 1991.

 

The D.O.Ca Rioja is a great valley that occupies about 150 square kilometres from east to west and 60 from north to south, distant another 100, in the north, from the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by mountains to the north and south, crossed by a majestic river, the Ebro, of which another seven smaller rivers are tributaries, forming an equal number of valleys.

What characterises the Rioja, then, is its diversity of soils – clayey, limestone, ferruginous clay, alluvial… -; of crop heights – from 400 to 800 metres approximately, and rising -; of climates – Atlantic in the west, Mediterranean in the east; and of grape varieties – up to 40 different varieties have been counted, and although today there are far fewer of them recognised by the D.O.Ca., some of them are still present in the oldest vineyards. An expression of this diversity was the traditional way of making wines, with blends of varieties not only from within the vineyard itself, but also from different areas and sub-areas. In modern times, as new plantations have been planted, it has been possible to pay more attention to varietal wines.

Diversity of people too. Four autonomous communities participate in the designation. A hospitable land that today welcomes Bryan as it has welcomed so many in the past. All this encourages our spirit: tradition is diversity.

 

My earliest childhood memories are of running barefoot in a village in the Swartland region of South Africa – about fifty kilometres north of Cape Town.

 

 

Because, if you look closely, it all goes back many years, almost as far as my years.  My earliest childhood memories are of running barefoot in a village in the Swartland region of South Africa – about fifty kilometres north of Cape Town where I was born – amongst the farmland vineyards that my parents used to and still own. I remember the contact of my bare feet with the earth and I think that is where my love for it and my passion to understand it began. It was there that I learned to cultivate the vineyards and make my first wines, while studying Viticulture and Enology at the University of Stellenbosch. After graduating, I spent several years travelling between Spain and South Africa, working in the Priorat and Swartland wine regions, areas of small plots of old bush-trained /goblet-trained vines and without irrigation. These are fixations that I keep in order to obtain wines of the quality and personality that I dream of.

Even then, and completely unaware of what time had in store for me, I had fallen in love with wines, the fine wines of La Rioja, very special wines with a terroir that I could not locate at the time.

Maybe one thing led to another, the fact is that I also fell in love with a girl, also an oenologist and a traveller, whose parents lived in La Rioja where, so as not to tire you out with the story, we decided to settle down in the year… Clara, my wife, found a job with a well-known wine group – “if we are going to work in the world of wine, one of us must have a salary”-, because it was difficult for me to find a job; and it was precisely from this difficulty that MACROBERT & CANALS was born, as an adventure, from which we expected good fortune, the dream not only of finding a way of life in my case, but of building something that would bring value to society that we could be proud of.

We have chosen the mountains as the image of our winery.

The mountains convey ideas of ascent, verticality and solidity; of mass.

Besides, those chosen also express our idea of diversity, biodiversity,

which we understand to be a tradition in Rioja.

 

At the base is Table Mountain. It is the base not so much because it is the lowest mountain and because it is literally at the table where our work is especially appreciated, but because being the iconic image of Cape Town sends us back to Bryan MacRobert, the soul of our project, who always had it in sight in the years when his passion for wine was developing in the family farm there at the southern edge of the southern hemisphere.

The other three form mountain ranges that give an idea of the diversity of Rioja: they embrace four different political communities and account for the different climates, soils and vines that give variety to our wines.

In ascending order, firstly the Sierra de Cantabria, which marks the northern boundary of the Rioja. We have chosen a profile that can be seen from properties that we cultivate in the Rioja Alavesa, in which El León dormido (The sleeping lion) stands out, and is also the closest reference to the city of Logroño in which we live.

Next is the profile of the Sierra de la Hez which marks the southern limit of the eastern part of the Rioja, taken from the Tudelilla vineyard which supplies us with that very special garnacha.

And the highest, the Sierra de la Demanda, where the Monte de San Lorenzo (Mount San Lorenzo) rises up, the totem of the Rioja, the southern limit of its western part and perceptible almost from any point of our vineyards in the area, including the Rioja Alavesa. The mountains are defined by colours that can be as changeable as life itself, and enclosed in a circle that seeks to indicate the sum of hemispheres that our names express, but which does not close completely because it opens up to new expectations and horizons. Perhaps you can imagine the glass and feel the land of the wine that is drunk from it. Two notes of colour, perhaps the sun, perhaps the moon, which mark our rhythms, complete the perspective