One of the first things you do after visiting a winery is commenting on the wines and talking about which one you liked the most, and which one you liked the least. There are times that it’s easy to make both choosing, though the wineries I usually visit are always wineries that make wines of my liking. I do not usually like to write about what I do not like. I do not consider myself a wine critic who talks about good wines and bad wines. I prefer to write about the wines I like and the wineries that for one reason or another have a special meaning for me. This special meaning is not on the wines they make, but the people behind it. This is what I most like about the world of wine: meeting these people who teach you what they do, who share with you not only their passion for their work, but also share with you their time and , in many cases, their own home.
Marian and Juan Carlos are two of these people.
In a very particular way that when I remember I still smile about it, my wingman Andrew and I arranged a date to visit the winery. It was about getting there, getting to know each other, talking a little bit and tasting their wines. But soon Juan Carlos said that rather to come in the middle of the morning, it would be better to arrive at 2:00 pm and have lunch together. It was an invitation that it can hardly be rejected because it distilled kindness everywhere. So, we set the GPS to go to our destination, Baños del Río Tobía, in the very deep heart of the Rioja Alta, but in the south side where it almost borders the outer edges of the DOC Rioja and in winter it always snows. And you as my faithful reader will ask yourself: “Rioja? Which Rioja winery is this one?” Easy. The name is Juan Carlos Sancha.
Juan Carlos is not the classic winemaker. For starters, he is doctor in viticulture and professor at the University of La Rioja. Besides his academic background, he has been making wine for the last 30 years. Firstly taking part in different projects with other people and since 2007 for himself in the winery that bears his name. Juan Carlos does not cultivate what everyone else does. On the contrary, his calling has always been to work with less known and developed varieties and recover some that were condemned to oblivion. His work is well documented in the academic world and is also evident in his winery. However, before talking about it, we must first say that the winery produces around 35,000 bottles a year, with grapes coming from nine hectares spread over 45 plots around the village. Next to the winery they have a small vineyard that is used as a multiplier, that is, vines are not planted to grow grapes but to regenerate the vines that have been lost.
We must highlight that Juan Carlos does not make wine using the Tempranillo variety. Like some of his Riojan colleagues, he is recovering the use of traditional Rioja red varieties such as Garnacha, with which he produces a line of wines called Peña El Gato. The name refers to some plots located next to the hill Cerro de La Isa in the outskirts of Baños. It is a wine collection that works in two different ways. The flagship wine is Peña El Gato, a traditional Garnacha with an aging of 11 months in barrel. Then, there is a collection of six bottles that come from six different small plots with different soil and exposures. The objective here is to show the difference when making wine with grapes marked by these characteristics. Finally, there is a very special version of this Garnacha: Peña El Gato Natural. A wine that has been produced for the last four years and always runs out before it is released to the market. They started producing a barrel and after such a successful acceptance, they gradually increased production. Still, they only produced 3,300 bottles of the 2016 vintage.
The other line of the winery is Ad Libitum, name that in Latin means “At pleasure”. It includes two white wines and one red wine. The latter is made with a grape that has practically disappeared from the wine map in La Rioja. And it had practically disappeared because Juan Carlos is one of the few winemakers who makes a wine with the Maturana Tinta variety, a traditional Rioja grape that has been cultivated for a long time.
The white wines that complete this collection are a Tempranillo Blanco (9,500 bottles in 2016) and a Maturana Blanca (2,600 bottles in 2016). The Maturana Blanca does pass through barrel, unlike the first one that only goes through stainless deposit.
We had the visit beginning at 14:00 and after the introductions, Marian took us to the Cerro de la Isa from where you can see all the plots in la Peña El Gato and also the course of the Najerilla river. It was very interesting to see the differences between the plots. In addition, at the top of the hill the Sancha family has installed a temple with a picnic area that delights anyone who can get up there and enjoy the views, food and wine carried with them and if you are lucky, and in this area you are, you can see the Tears of San Lorenzo.
Coming down from the hill, which opens your appetite even if go up by car, it was time for some appetizers. To begin with, Ad Libitum Tempranillo Blanco 2016. A very rich and very fresh wine. Very pleasant acidity that helped this wine to be easily drank. It was very rich. Then we enjoyed the Ad Libitum Maturana Tinto 2014. A very surprising wine that aged for 11 months in oak and with a great aromatic balance that could lead you to think it could be a Cabernet Franc. For me, a wine like nothing I had ever tasted before and that I certainly enjoyed a lot.
Now it was time to sit around the table. The main course was some delicious beans with the Anguiano Denomination of Origin. Anguiano is a nearby village. Very tasty and also homemade. Together with the beans, the second course, the dessert and the coffee we enjoyed Peña El Gato 2016 and Peña El Gato Natural 2016. I had already tried the Peña El Gato before and it was one of the reasons for this visit. And the natural wine, well, what can I say? Fantastic does not get to describe what I thought of this wine.
After lunch we went to the cellar. We took a tour to see the facilities and then we enjoyed two more wines. The first was resting in a 500-liter cask that Juan Carlos is making together with his students of the Enology Master. A lot of Garnacha, some Maturana and a little bit of other varieties. All the grapes are destemmed by hand. According to Juan Carlos, and the wine was in the barrel for only five weeks, it is the best wine he has ever made. I’m not going to argue with him, though I’m from Bilbao city center. I’m not fighting around with anyone after two dishes of beans, but I can say that the wine was fabulous. In my opinion, it could be bottled right away because we did enjoy it a lot.
And to finish our visit, we approached to a strange object located next to some barrels. We reached to it, we touched it, we smelled it, and then we realized it was a 500-liter terracotta amphora. A clay vessel!!!!!!!!! Juan Carlos told us it was full of Garnacha from the Peña El Gato. We tasted it and a word came to our mind: ecstasy.
The article began by saying that after making a visit to a winery, you always categorize the wines and choose the best and worst, or better and less better. Here, already on the highway, which by the way was far away, I still did not make up my mind.
The amphora one was spectacular. The red blend, superb. The natural wine, amazing too. The Maturana Tinto, so unique and special that it was great. The Peña El Gato, I liked it a lot beforehand. El Tempranillo Blanco, one of those wines that make you like white wine. Jean, yes I like white wines, but exactly as this one. It’s hard to say which one was better, because I liked them all and none less than the others because each one was great on its own way. It is a small problem to decide between six wines so great, but it is also a blessed problem.
Soon we will talk to Juan Carlos about a lot of things, because that conversation goes for a long way.