How Bodegas Ramón Bilbao Innovates Rioja Wine
When Bodegas Ramón Bilbao was founded in the heart of the Rioja Alta in 1924, in the village of Haro, the focus was on the classic Tempranillo blends that Rioja is known for. Today, the brand, which was bought by the Zamora Company in 1999, cultivates over 200 hectares of estate vineyards and makes a wide variety of both red and white wines. Impressively, 2023 marks the fifth year that Ramón Bilbao has appeared in the World’s 50 Most Admired Wine Brands, drawn up by the prestigious Drinks International magazine.
For a lot of traditional Rioja wines, it can be hard to distinguish the actual grape taste—it’s often shrouded behind the long, heavily toasted oak aging process that has been a hallmark of the wine. The appointment of Rioja native Rodolfo Bastida as head winemaker, technical director, and general manager in 1999 ushered in a new era in the history of the bodega. His previous work at Breton Winery—and the fact that he was only 31 when he took over—allowed him to innovate and experiment. Instead of hiding behind the aging process, Bastida manipulates the grapes less, allowing them to express their full and unique character, resulting in fruitier, fresher wines. Bastida accomplished this with several innovations. Firstly, two new estates allow for grape growth at high altitudes and careful optical selection ensures a crisper taste. Next, the use of cement vats, aging in lightly toasted American and French Oak barrels for a maximum of five years, and no filtration or clarification let the delicate grapes fully shine.
A perfect example of Bastida’s philosophy is Mirto, made from 100 percent Tempranillo grapes coming from the Rioja Alta subregion, allowing for a pure expression of the terroir. It is only made in the best years from a single village, which changes from vintage to vintage. The 2016 vintage from the village of Cuzcurrita was aged for 19 months in new French oak. The result is heady balsam and eucalyptus , dark fruit, and peppery aromas that give way to ripe tannins and slightly smoky, chocolaty flavors on the palate. Drink it with mushrooms, stewed meats, and chocolate desserts.
The purchase of “their dream vineyard” in Monte Yerga led to the launch of their first wine from this terroir, Lalomba Finca Lalinde Rosado. In 2016, Ramón Bilbao acquired the Rueda vineyard Finca Las Amedias, which allowed the brand to start producing more white wines in a new D.O. region. The estate’s 60 hectares are at an altitude of 770 meters, and it’s also the brand’s only vineyard growing the green grape varietals of Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc, which love the crumbly, sandy soil and hot summers and cold winters. Sara Bañuelos, who studied agriculture and oenology at University of La Rioja, is the technical director of Bodegas Ramón Bilbao Rueda. Before joining Ramón Bilbao, Bañuelos worked at various wineries in La Rioja to familiarize herself with the different ways of working in small, large, family, and cooperative wineries. At her post in Rueda, she has become an expert in its terroir and its main varieties. Bañuelos has just passed her last exam to obtain the WSET Diploma.
Her Verdejo is a clean, bright wine with hints of jasmine, aniseed, and citrus fruits. Pair it with steamed vegetables, salads, cheeses and white meats. Sara also experiments with oak aging through her Verdejo Sobre Lías, made from a small parcel of older vines which she ages on the lees with a bit of oak. The result is a perfect balance of white pepper, fennel, and citrus with a creamy palate. Meanwhile, her Sauvignon Blanc has aromas of cut grass, as well as citrus, lychee, and passion fruit, with lingering notes of citrus fruits and herbs, pairs well with fish and seafood.