Winery Profile: Baron de Ley
The Epitome of Rioja
by David Lawrason
In early autumn, downtown Toronto was pillar to post with winemakers and export managers from Rioja. Within a week I met, interviewed or at least chatted with six, most of whom were attending the Spanish Wine Fair in late September or the Rioja tasting event staged by VINTAGES on October 2.
Although I could not attend the latter, it attracted not only several winemakers, but also Jose Luis La Puente, Managing Director of Rioja Regulatory Control Board, which oversees the 600 wineries and 16,000 vine-growers in Spain’s most famous and historic region. The senior señor, as it were.
“We are here,” he said, “because Canada is showing a surprising increase in sales of Rioja. It is our 7th largest market, but sales have doubled here since 2011. And we think that with our great price/quality relationship we have room to grow even more.”
There were many topics and issues under discussion as Rioja faces the challenges of global markets. There are questions around wine style – the traditional long ageing in barrel versus the world’s growing thirst for fresher, fruitier wines. There are those who want Rioja to focus more on its regions and individual vineyard sites. There is also the question of whether Rioja should do more single varietal wines, as opposed to the blends that totally dominate the market. WineAlign’s John Szabo recently reported on some of these issues as well in his Oct 1st VINTAGES Preview.
My most insightful discussion was with Sergio Soriano, the young export manager for a mid-sized winery called Baron de Ley. I interviewed and tasted with him at Toronto’s Cava – a fine Spanish tapas restaurant. I had also tasted some of the current releases both at VINTAGES media tastings and at the WineAlign office. So I was really getting the hang of the elegant yet rich styling of Baron de Ley’s wines.
To me, this property and its wines epitomize Rioja today – a company that is dead centre in terms of philosophy and style, and its story is instructive.
The company feels old – perhaps because it is based at the 16th Century Monastery of Imas on the banks of Ebro River. But it was only established in 1985 as an estate winery focused on higher quality wines. It makes about five million bottles per year from over 700 hectares of vineyard in two sub-regions, mostly in Rioja Baja. The reconditioned cellars house 15,000 American and French oak barrels.
Although short, the history of Baron de Ley is complex. It was founded by Eduardo Santos Ruiz, a young banker whose company had owned the much larger winery El Coto de Rioja. In 1985 he created Baron de Ley as a separate business based on the French chateau and estate concept, whereas El Coto at four times the size was more of a merchant business, buying grapes for a wide range of wines. It remains one of the giants in Rioja.
Baron de Ley was founded to make only reserve and aged quality wines, with eyes firmly set on the global market. Today 85% of Baron de Ley’s production is exported.
That Matter of Traditional vs. Modern Style
“Baron de Ley does not make Rioja joven or crianza,” explained Sergio Soriano, “only reserva (three years minimum ageing with one year in barrel) and gran reserva (five years minimum ageing with two in barrel). Our wines are all barrel aged, but still we think of our style as being more modern within Rioja’s traditional style.”
I struggled with this apparent contradiction until he explained what goes on in the cellars. Despite the massive barrel inventory, new barrels are always being purchased and no barrels stay in use longer than four years. This is to keep the wood itself fresh and prevent the onset of brettanomyces, a bacterial infection prevalent in many old European cellars. It creates those rather meaty/barnyard aromas and sometimes antiseptic flavours long associated with Rioja, among other areas.
“Our wines don’t have brettanomyces. We want to make wines that are approachable and not over-oaked, but not too modern either,” he said. That absence of “brett” helps define why he thinks they are not traditional, or really old school. And indeed in the glass, the wines are notably well balanced and smooth and show good fruit amid the generous wood notes.
“There are many consumers who love barrel-aged Rioja, and this must be taken into account,” he added. “Perhaps younger consumers are looking for fruitier wines and that’s fine. But we have a style I think is in the middle and can please both.”
On the subject of ‘terroir’ and single vineyard expression, Mr. Soriano explained that with over 700 hectares spread across four different sites Baron de Ley is certainly in a position to focus on terroir wines but is not planning on bottling individual ‘crus’ at this point. “This is something smaller wineries are very interested in,” he said. “Many of them are located in the Rioja Alavesa zone.”
The vast majority of Baron de Ley’s vineyard area is spread across three sites in Rioja Baja – the easternmost, generally lower and more Mediterranean influenced side of Rioja.
The home vineyard called Mendavia astride the Monastery on the north side of the Ebro River is 219 ha which is planted to tempranillo, graciano and maturana (more in a moment). In the 300 ha Ausejo vineyard, garnacha assumes importance, along with the other varieties mentioned above. And the very large 500 ha (of which 95 ha are already in production) Carboneras site at one of the highest points in Rioja – over 800metres – is focused largely on white grape varieties like viura, verdejo and more recently sauvignon blanc.
The only site not in Rioja Baja is a smaller 94ha vineyard called Cenicero that lies in Rioja Alta. It has a cooler, more Atlantic-influenced climate and much of the tempranillo and graciano grown here are destined for Baron de Ley Gran Reserva. So terroir is very much at work, but just not explained on the labels as much as in other regions.
Baron de Ley does produce varietal wines, and as it happens many are from single sites. They are bottling 100% tempranillo, graciano, garnacha and maturana.
“The varietal wines are always interesting,” said Mr. Soriano, “they add value, and can show the world that Rioja is not just about tempranillo, even if production is not very large.” They are actually difficult to find in Canada, but I was able to try three of them recently, and the graciano last year.
Baron de Ley 2012 Tempranillo is sourced entirely from the high altitude Carboneras site, showing good acidity and cherry fruit, if a bit oaky from 12 months in barrel. This is one I would like to see with shorter barrel time.
Garnacha 2014 was one the most surprising wines of the tasting. Grown in terraced vineyards at higher altitude in the Ausejo area and picked relatively late, it is aged in French rather than American oak. The fruit character changes to strawberry and although Spanish garnacha can be soft and jammy this shows fine acidity and elegance. The oak is less intrusive.
Maturana 2012 was one of my first experiences with the ‘restored’ grape variety that thrived in the 19th Century before phylloxera. Only 60 ha exist today, with Baron de Ley having 30 ha that were planted about ten years ago. It’s a higher acid, late ripening and deeply coloured variety, that showed lifted ripe currant-berry fruit, inky, graphite, herbal and resinous notes.
Baron De Ley Varietales Graciano 2011 was released in VINTAGES last fall. This variety makes firm, quite tannic and quite powerful wines, in this instance showing very ripe almost pruney fruit, amid considerable oak.
The vast majority of Baron de Ley’s production are multiple varietal blends, which of course is the tradition in Rioja. The most ambitious and obscure of all is a single vineyard field blend of seven red and white varieties, not surprisingly called Siete Vinas. I have not had the pleasure.
Baron De Ley Blanco 2015 is made from viura with a touch of verdejo and malvasia, this is the first vintage from new vineyards at high altitude. It’s un-oaked, nicely pure and fresh with a hint of spritz.
Baron De Ley Tres Vinas Blanco Reserva 2010 is a golden oldie is very much in the tradition of mature, barrel-aged Rioja whites – made from garnacha blanca, viura and malvasia fermented separately then blended and aged 12 months in American oak. Classic and delicious.
Baron De Ley Finca Monasterio 2012 is a single vineyard, terroir-driven Rioja from the Baron de Ley’s Monastery Estate Vineyard. It’s a blend of tempranillo and other varieties aged for 18 months in new French oak casks and then a further six months in large “foudres”.
Baron De Ley Reserva 2010 is Baron de Ley’s bread and butter wine from its Mendevia vineyards in Rioja Baja, aged 20 months in American oak casks. It’s medium weight, slender, tender and fairly smooth, with finely honed tannin. (VINTAGES Release November 26th)
Baron De Ley Gran Reserva 2010 is sourced largely from the Cenicero vineyard in Rioja Alta, this has a lovely, uplifting nose. It’s quite full bodied, smooth and almost satiny, with fine tannin – really well integrated, and approachable and delicious. (At VINTAGES now.)
As a regular feature WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery. Our critics independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted to WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery profile. Wineries pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, if any, is entirely up to WineAlign. See below for more details provided by the winery.
More about Baron de Ley
Baron de Ley was founded in 1985 by a group of four Rioja wine professionals who had a dream of establishing a “château” with their own vineyards in Rioja. Eduardo Santos-Ruiz (chairman), Julián Díez, Julio Noáin, and Pedro Guasch started the winery that is now based in an old fortified monastery.
Baron de Ley set out to make Riojas in a modern style and has continued to experiment with blends and lesser known varietals such as Maturana. Thirty years later, Baron de Ley has grown to become the biggest viticultor of Rioja (more than 700 ha) and an award-winning winery among the elite of Rioja top brands.
Please call Hobbs & Co. for more information about these wines 416.694.3689.