Apr 29 2024

Traditional Spanish Grapes: a Treasure Trove for the Contemporary Winemaker

Rare and lesser known traditional Spanish grapes - in some cases varieties that were nearly lost altogether -  are now being treasured and finding their way into increasingly interesting wines. Here are the reasons behind the very positive trend to preserve and nurture Spain’s viticultural heritage


by Patricia Langton 

If you have ever tasted a good example of a Graciano wine you’ll have noticed its rich colour, wonderful aroma, freshness and impressive complexity as well as an elegance that reflects its name. Looking at today’s vibrant winemaking scene, it’s difficult to image that this variety nearly disappeared from the vineyards as growers turned to varieties which were more productive and less challenging to cultivate.

It’s taken quite some time but today, as Santiago Garde at Bodegas del Medievo (Rioja Oriental) says, Graciano has gone from being “close to extinction to a jewel that we must polish”. Slowly but surely more varietal wines, including this producer’s Tuercebotas wine, are coming on stream as well as blends containing Graciano.

Garde explains that a different approach to winemaking was the catalyst for this shift: “At the beginning of the 20th century, the development of aged wines made winemakers think more positively about Graciano as a variety offering high acidity, colour, structure and an aromatic quality which was different to other varieties. A percentage of Graciano - 10-20% - is extraordinary in a blend with Garnacha and especially Tempranillo contributing good ageing potential and character”.

Graciano is a low-yielding variety with a long growing cycle; the variety is typically harvested around 10 days after Tempranillo. This meant that reaching full and ideal ripeness has been challenging in cooler vintages. In the light of climate change, with drier conditions and higher temperatures leading up to harvest, this has changed in favour of later-ripening varieties such as Graciano.

Over the last 20 years, Bodegas del Medievo has encouraged growers to replant vineyards with Graciano which is highly respected by the producer as a unique grape for authentic Rioja wines.

There is even a Tuercebotas Graciano monovarietal wine. Its color can be described as red cherry with purple tones, and ruby background. The aromas include ripen fruit with floral and vegetable hints as well as spiced and French oak notes. It is beautifully concentrated in mouth with fresh balanced tannins.

The view is similar at Bodegas Riojanas where Graciano (and Mazuelo*) are important and valued grapes in wines such as Viña Albina. Indeed the Viña Albina vineyard in Rioja Alta has one of the most extensive plantings of Graciano in the region. Winemaker Emilio Sojo explains that both grapes bring freshness to blends and enhance quality. Each grape is vinified differently in the bodega, as he explains: “For Graciano we look for high colour extraction and with Mazuelo we want to get good aromas and freshness; for Graciano we use a barrel with higher toast while Mazuelo is better suited to a lighter toast”. He adds: “We must nurture these two varieties which are so integral to the Rioja style, our very essence and our identity”.

Mazuelo is also turning heads

The Vintae group is considering a range of lesser known indigenous varieties around the regions with the right credentials for its wines. “We always focus on a good level of acidity, but also varieties capable of creating unique wines,” says general manager Richi Arambarri.

Mazuelo is among them, along with Graciano and Garnacha, and one of the producer’s latest wines is a varietal Mazuelo from the higher altitude Alta Najerilla area of Rioja Alta. “We believe that Mazuelo is a very refined and elegant grape variety thanks to its high acidity - it’s a great variety for hotter years,” he adds. El Pacto Malacara (named after the name of the vineyard), which will be released in the Spring of 2024, is a medium-layered wine, with intense red tones and blue trim that denote its vitality and energy. In the nose, it has medium-high intensity, with a floral profile that stands out above all, starring ethereal aromas of flower petals. It is accompanied by balsamic notes and aromas of acidic red fruit, like currants and raspberries, which denote its great freshness, typical of a very long ripening that reaches its peak in the middle of autumn with cold nights. Also notes of scrubland are perceived, typical of the Alto Najerilla area, with notes of thyme, rosemary and other aromatics. The mouth is elegant, with an intense acidity but also  breadth and finesse. The old vineyard, marked by low yields, provides volume and unctuousness. It is a tannic low wine with a light structure that gives it a silky, long palate route and great intensity.

Another passionate advocate of Mazuelo is Javier Arizcuren whose wines are made from long-established vineyards in the Sierra de Yerga in Rioja Oriental. He firmly believes that Rioja needs Mazuelo for complexity and this can be seen in the bodega’s wines which feature Mazuelo in three different guises: barrel-aged, amphora-aged and as part of a blend. Each reveals a fascinating take on the variety..

Traditional varieties are indispensable

Barón de Ley, also based in Rioja Oriental, has backed a wide range of grape varieties for its wines including Maturana Tinta and Graciano. An ancient Rioja variety, Maturana Tinta (and Blanca) gained official DOCa status for winemaking in 2007 and features in a growing number of the region’s wines albeit in small quantities. Barón de Ley has one of the largest areas under vine with 53 hectares of the variety and more coming on stream.

For this producer Maturana Tinta plays a key role complementing Tempranillo in Reserva wines as well as featuring as a varietal wine. As winemaker Pablo Tascón says: “Maturana gives remarkable colour intensity… a deep, nearly black hue and a distinct aroma reminiscent of Cabernet Sauvignon and a highly complex and structured mouthfeel due to its inherent tannic nature”.

“As climate change presents new challenges for winemaking we can look to the attributes of traditional varieties to maintain balance in our wines,” he concludes. The monovarietal Maturana tinta wine has a deep purple color with a good robe. Talking about its aroma, fruit compote can be found with a presence of balsamic aromas, mint and cocoa, with mineral underlying mineral nuances. The palate is warm, with silky, velvety tannins that are perfectly integrated. It is a full-bodied and elegant red wine with a persistent finish.

There are many more traditional varieties, including white varieties, which are making a comeback around the Spanish wine regions, partly due to climate change. This is good news for wine quality and variety, especially for more curious wine enthusiasts. Every cloud has a silver lining…


*Mazuelo is known as Cariñena in other Spanish wine regions (and Carignan in France).