Meet brothers Eduardo and Ignacio Azpillaga. They have quietly been one of the pioneering organic grape growers and natural winemakers in La Rioja, one of Spain’s oldest bastions for traditional (AKA conventional) grape growing and winemaking.
Eduardo finished his viticulture and enology studies in Laguardia in 1992, when a fateful trip led him to the Beaujolais. Here, local winemakers and vignerons opened their doors to their region’s flourishing natural wine movement.
When Eduardo returned home to take over his parents’ vines in Rioja Alavesa with his brother, he set clear conditions – he would farm organically and make the low-intervention wines that respect and highlight his work in the vines.
Organic farming led to biodynamic farming, which lead Eduardo one step further – to regenerative farming, where vines coexist with naturally-growing grasses and plants to foster a diverse, holistic ecosystem. He stopped plowing to preserve the diversity of the topsoil, and instead cuts the inter-vine growth, and leaves the cuttings to decompose and fertilize the vineyards’ soils. Eventually, once the Spanish bureaucracy allows him, he’ll introduce livestock to the vineyards to eat the ground cover growth, fertilize the vines, and hoof-plough the soils.
Eduardo and Ignacio work 33 different parcels of vines spread out over 12 hectares, all around the Rioja Alavesa hill town of Lanciega (population under 700) in the northern edge of the Rioja appellation that overlaps the southern reaches of the Basque Country. This is his, and the winery’s, home.
The Atlantic and Mediterranean climates collide here; the Atlantic Ocean, less than 100 miles due north meets the Mediterranean climate that funnels up the Ebro River Valley that runs through La Rioja to dump out into the Mediterranean 500 miles east of here.
On a Spring day, you might find black storm clouds from the Atlantic stacking up against the Cantabrian Mountains just up the hill from Lanciego, while the refracted rays of Mediterranean sunshine illuminate rosemary, thyme, and amaranth.
Eduardo and Ignacio farm Tempranillo, Graciano, Garnacha Tinta, Garnacha Blanca, Viura, and Graciano. Rioja is a patchwork of parcellated vineyards (everyone in these little hill towns seems to own some vines), traditionally planted at a very low density. The brothers’ parcels hold 3,000 to 4,500 vines per hectare (compare to 10,000 vines per hectare that is traditionally common in, say, Burgundy) and span 1,200 to 2,000 feet in altitude. The diverse soils here range from clay-limestone to reddish, river bottom sandstone.
For both their tintos and blancos, Eduardo and Ignacio honor Rioja’s traditional vinification – just like in Beaujolais, whole cluster, carbonic fermentation. They leave the whole clusters in stainless steel for 7-10 days, press, and return the juice to stainless steel to finish fermenting with native yeasts. They don’t add any sulfites, except, sometimes, at bottling, and always in miniscule amounts (under 20 parts per million).
Their wines showcase the opulence, structure, and freshness of the region without the conventional trappings passed down from Bordeaux at the turn of the century (like high yields, destemmed fruit, controlled fermentation, and homogenous blending across terroirs). You’ll find more symmetry in these with his friends the Beaujolais – and with the Southern Rhone – than most of their neighbors in La Rioja.