08/03/2012 02:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Rioja Gems Part III: Hugely Successful Innovator

Guillermo, Eduardo and Marcos Eguren

Last week I reported here on a multigenerational winemaking family I visited on my late-June trip to Rioja that is making excellent, largely traditional-style Rioja wines that have yet to achieve wide notoriety. This week, it's my pleasure to relate the details of a visit to two of the winery properties owned by one of Rioja's reigning winemaking families -- the highly successful Egurens.

Egurens have been growing Tempranillo in Rioja since 1870. Fifth generation Guillermo Eguren, pictured on the left above, founded Bodegas Sierra Cantabria in 1957. He started by making simple, fresh, young reds by carbonic maceration, a process by which whole, uncrushed grapes begin fermentation, without yeast, inside the grape itself. The results of this process are familiar to most American consumers in the form of Beaujolais nouveau. His sons, Marcos and Miguel Angel, helped transform the family's wines to a more modern style, although they still produce traditional style Rioja wines under two of their four Rioja labels.

Marcos, pictured on the right above, and his brother pushed their father in the mid-1980s to identify the lowest yielding Tempranillo vines from the many vineyards the family had amassed through the years. Guillermo initially thought these vines were being selected so they could be eliminated, so was quite surprised when his two sons revealed their plan to replant the family's ideally situated 44.5 acre vineyard La Canoca with those lowest yielding vines.

At the time, growers in Rioja were for the most part doing quite the opposite. Since the '70s, the drive had been to produce as much fruit as possible, which had led to diluted wines, driving down the high quality level that great Riojas had reached from the 1940s to 1960s.

Once the Egurens' lowest yielding vines had been identified, it turned out they shared common characteristics, including smaller berries, looser clusters and hair-like protrusions on the bottom-side of the leaves. It was the latter feature that led to this selection of vines being called Tempranillo Peludo (hairy Tempranillo).

The first vintage of wine from these vines that could be offered for sale was the 1991, which wasn't released until 1994. They called it San Vicente. When it hit the market, it was a huge and immediate success, even though the price the Egurens were asking, reflecting some of the massive investment that went into creating this special wine, was substantially higher than any other Rioja reserva.

As explained in last week's post, to qualify for the traditional Rioja category of reserva, red wines must be aged at least one year in oak and a minimum of two years in bottle. Although San Vicente easily qualified as a reserva, the family took another innovative step with its next vintage, the 1994, by releasing it outside the country with just the generic Rioja sticker on the back instead of the Reserva label. When it still sold well, they marketed the following vintage the same way in Spain.

Their example has since been followed by many other Rioja producers who seek greater freedom in the length of barrel and bottle aging for their higher end, more modern, fruit-forward style wines than is currently permitted under DOC regulations.

Marcos has gone on to replicate the success of the richer, concentrated, more modern style San Vicente with several other wines, both in Rioja and the region of Toro, located about 250 miles southwest of Rioja.

We began our visit with the Egurens at Viñedos de Páganos. There Marcos's son Eduardo, who is also a winemaker and who speaks English, gave us a brief tour of the vineyards, very impressive and extensive caves and winery, before leading us in a tasting of the very modern-style wines they are creating there.

Eduardo in the El Puntido Vineyard

Eduardo, who has been making wine since 2002, explained to us that, when it comes to making the family's wines, "Father is the brain; I'm the hands."

entrance to the caves at Viñedos de Páganos

At Viñedos de Páganos, the Egurens are making single vineyard, 100 percent Tempranillo wines from two special vineyards, El Puntido and La Nieta. My favorite of these wines was the very impressive and complex La Nieta, from a 4.2 acre low yielding Tempranillo vineyard, pictured below.

We then drove to the family's Viñedos Sierra Cantabria winemaking palace, where barrels of maturing wine resting in vast, thick-walled, beautifully lit rooms are serenaded by recordings of Gregorian chants. A large bust of Guillermo set in a space reminiscent of a small chapel in a Gothic cathedral is, according to Eduardo, the family's way of thanking his grandfather for having the foresight to acquire vineyards whenever he had the chance, never spending money on luxuries for himself.

Settling down in a large dining room, we tasted wines created under both the Sierra Cantabria and San Vicente labels before digging into a delicious lunch created by the Egurens' staff.

The wine that most knocked me out was the 2000 vintage of the Sierra Cantabria Colleccion Privada. This wine is a continuation of a wine that Guillermo began making in the '70s, partly based on carbonic maceration.

It is one of the greatest red Riojas I've ever tasted. Its maturing palate includes flavors of roasted black fruit, tobacco and truffle, and the wine has a wonderfully long finish.

While I was still lost in my enjoyment of the 2000 Colleccion Privada, Marcos opened a special mystery bottle for us. It was an old magnum from their cellar that he used heated tongs to remove the top of. It turned out to be one of the wines his father had made, a 1964 Sierra Cantabria Gran Reserva. It wore its age very well, exhibiting a delightful nose of dried roses, violets, lavender, spice and tart black cherry, along with a complex palate and long finish. Clearly Guillermo had been a master winemaker too for his times.

For our final flight, Marcos shared with us another of his innovations: a modern white Rioja blend of all three of the traditional white grape varieties -- Viura, Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca -- aged in oak for six months. This is the Sierra Cantabria Organza, and it's a luscious and delicious wine.

The Egurens couldn't have been more warm and hospitable to their five American wine blogger guests. Our visit with them is one of the indelible memories of our trip.

For my detailed tasting notes, see the complete report on my blog here.