Ramon Bilbao embraces higher altitudes to better Rioja

Ramón Bilbao is exploring the altitudinal limits for grape growing in Rioja to produce fresher reds with a greater ageing capacity – although it’s a costly approach.

Ramón Bilbao produces 2.2 million bottles annually of Crianza Rioja, more than half its yearly production

During a presentation in London in September, Ramón Bilbao’s technical director, Rodolfo Bastida, showed how growing grapes a high altitudes in Rioja was producing better results, stressing the preferable conditions for vines in terms of temperature, soil, light intensity and exposure among mountain sites compared to those on the valley floor.

However, he also told the drinks business that the costs of mountain viticulture were at least 25% higher than the production of grapes from the valley floor, and even greater if one factors in the lower yields of higher altitude vineyards.

Defining a high altitude vineyard in Rioja as anything planted at 500 metres or higher, he said that Ramón Bilbao’s vines are found between 450 and 720m, adding that the limit for grape growing in the famous Spanish wine region was 750m.

Outlining the reasons for exploring high altitude sites in Rioja, he identified four main advantages to growing grapes at 500m and above, beginning with the affect of mountain viticulture on temperature.

Crucially, there is a much greater diurnal temperature difference at higher altitudes, favouring a longer and slower ripening process that sees greater retention of acidity in the berries.

The temperature peaks are also lower the higher you go, with the number of degree days – defined as those over 10 degrees Celsius – amounting to 1,300 at 720m, compared to 1,700 at vineyards planted at 260m.

Secondly, Bastida stressed the benefits of increased light intensity at higher vineyard locations, pointing out that the more UV that reaches the berries, the thicker the grape skins become, enhancing colour and anthocyanin levels in the resulting wines.

“Every 250m higher you go, you get 4% more intensity of light,” he said.

He also observed how mountain vineyards benefit from better air circulation, which ensures healthier bunches. “The more aeration, the less likely you are to get any fungal problems,” he recorded.

Finally, he highlighted how mountain vineyards have thinner topsoils, fewer nutrients, and better drainage, reducing berry size and the pH of the grapes.

“The higher up you go the less sediment there is in the soil, and the harder it is for the soil to retain water, and we see a lower pH in the wines from higher altitude vineyards, which gives a more stable colour from the start, and a greater capacity for ageing,” he said.

Furthermore, higher levels of acidity (from lower pH levels), enhances the microbiological stability in the wines, allowing Bastida to lower the amount of Sulphur Dioxide used to preserve the Riojas made from higher altitude vineyards.

Ramón Bilbao’s vines are found between 450 and 720m. Source: Ramón Bilbao

And, in terms of style, such sites yield wines with a fresher taste, which, he said, was an aim for Ramón Bilbao, in response to a consumer demand for brighter red wines.

Finally, he expressed in particular his high hopes for Ramón Bilbao’s vineyards at 520-720m on Monte Yerga, a mountain in Rioja Oriental, formerly called Rioja Baja.

These sites, which cover 90 hectares, are being used to produce wines under the brand name Lalomba, because the Monte Yerga name has been registered by another winery, according to Bastida.

Although these vineyards have historically been used just to make a rosado, from 2015, Ramón Bilbao began making red wines using both Tempranillo and Garnacha from Monte Yerga, and from this year’s vintage, single vineyard expressions, having built a winery specifically for the Lalomba wines, the construction of which was completed just in time to receive the 2017 vintage.

As part of this move to bottle wines according to specific plots, one year ago Ramón Bilbao began using drones at the Monte Yerga vineyards to create a map of vigour “vine by vine”, said Bastida.

Ramón Bilbao produces around 4 million bottles of Rioja annually, making the brand “bigger than Muga but smaller than Marqués de Cáceres”, recorded Bastida, adding that the company’s Crianza Rioja was the best-selling red wine of its type in Spain’s bars and restaurants.

Ramón Bilbao was founded in Haro in 1924, and was bought by its current owners, the Zamora family, in 1999.

For more detail on Bastida’s research on altitude and wine style, see the following pages. 

One Response to “Ramon Bilbao embraces higher altitudes to better Rioja”

  1. Susan McHenry says:

    Fascinating article! Thank you so much for the information!

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