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Getting to know Garikoitz Rios, Technical Director of Bodegas Itsasmendi

01/06/2022 Interviews

With a nonconformist and fighting spirit, Garikoitz Rios, Gari for short, has txakoli in his DNA. Having spent a lifetime dedicated to producing quality wines in Biscay, he has contributed to transforming the popular image of a young, sparkling white wine with marked acidity into a fantastic white wine with an Atlantic character and its own personality. Today's txakoli is neither poured from high nor drunk in a low glass. So get yourself a glass and dive right in with one of the people most responsible for the resurgence of quality Biscayan txakoli.

- Both through your work and your dedication, wine is in your blood. Could you tell us what your first memory with wine was?

It wasn't all glamour hahahaha.... My first job was to select vineyards in Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa and that’s where I tasted what the winegrowers were producing. In Bizkaia there were small producers whose quality was not always what I wanted and my introduction to wine was complicated. I fondly remember two wines that made me realise that a focus on quality was beginning to emerge in txakoli: a Sauvignon Blanc made by Roberto Ibarretxe, and a txakoli from Lezama made by the Dañobeitia brothers and the Getaraia Gaintza and Txueka producers. I have fond memories of the 4 of them, they were an oasis in the desert.

- Having studied agricultural engineering in Villaba (Navarra), it seems like the land was calling you from a very young age. However, did your passion for wine start at birth or did you develop it on your own? Who has been your main mentor?
I have always liked agriculture, although my introduction to viticulture came later and to the world of wine even later. I was introduced to wine through the vineyards. It was our first winemaker who awakened my interest through wines like Guitian, Anima Negra and certain French wines.
Afterwards, I was always a restless person who travelled a lot, especially to Galicia and Priorat, two areas that I love. France and Germany have also been destinations that have influenced me. Each producer in these areas was increasing my interest in this world.

- With a non-conformist spirit, wanting to bring dignity to txakoli, eight winegrowers from Biscay decided to join forces and founded Bodegas Itsasmendi in 1989. What were the main struggles in achieving your goal of producing a quality txakoli? How did you overcome them? 

I have definitely always been a demanding person and perhaps, from the courage that youth gives you, I was quite brave in changing the concept of txakoli. My love for viticulture with a very high level of demand for quality productions and the decision to hire my own winemaker in 1995 were key. The main drawback was encountering a sector that was reluctant to change and some end customers who didn’t accept the professionalisation of the sector, holding onto a mistaken idea of tradition in my opinion.

- In return, I’m sure you have also received many rewards after so much hard work. What do you feel most satisfied with?
Well, when the wines were first made, developing new concepts of txakoli and forging the way for all the producers in the DO is something to be proud of. But right now, my greatest satisfaction is my co-workers, it’s having built a professional, enthusiastic team that enjoys what they do. In every project, if the right people aren’t there to drive it, it will never get off the ground.

- Based on the idea of practicing environmentally friendly viticulture, you have carried out a study of the soils to understand what type of terroir each plot has and to be able to make the most of it. What does Itsasmendi (a Basque word meaning sea and mountain) have that the others don’t?
I think our winery has the most diverse plots, with great variation in geology and microclimates. This has given us a full view of Bizkaia and an unrivalled wealth of grape qualities, productions and knowledge of the environment. This knowledge, the amount of information we have, together with our innovative spirit based on respect for the territory, gives us a great edge. We are also a modern organisation trained in all aspects of viticulture, enology and marketing, which makes a difference.

- Climate change is a reality. How does it affect your vineyards? Have you come up with any particular strategy to deal with these issues?
No, we don’t worry about the future, we are a winery that has turned difficulties into opportunities and we manage the changes that are coming with peace and experience. One of them, of course, is climate change, I believe we have a great capacity to adapt and resolve situations.

Currently, you have a great track record. Wines like Itsasmendi 7, Itsasmendi Artizar or the original Itsasmendi Eklipse have been some of the first txakolis to win awards and have a presence in major national and international restaurants.  Of all the wines you have made, which one are you most proud of?

A father never chooses between his children, he loves each one in a different way. They are all different, partly because you make them at different times, but it is true that Itsasmendi 7 was the txakoli that changed the course not only of the winery but of Txakoli itself. It has set us down a path we can’t come back from.

- 25 years after the creation of the DO BizkaikoTxakolina, txakoli has broken many clichés. A product that, thanks to the efforts of producers in search of excellence, is enjoying good popularity on the market. Why is txakoli more and more popular? What is the key to its success?

Being very different from other winegrowing areas in Spain. The presence of the Cantabrian Sea and the Pyrenees give us a markedly Atlantic character. Our spontaneous vegetation, our climate, our microbiological richness, offer us a unique character.

- The Regulatory Council of the DO Bizkaiko Txakolina has recently presented their new changes to the Regulations to make sure they meet the new needs of producers and the market. What is the main reason for these changes?
To match the reality of the industry. Regulations must be evolving and subject to constant analysis or they result in immobility and conflict. It is important to spend time analysing and changing because this is the document that has to cover our everyday work. If not, it causes problems. The regulations should be the tool that covers the everyday work of the sector and that’s why we have made an effort to modify them by creating new categories that will give us prestige and, above all, cohesion to all producers. There aren’t many of us and we must all be united in our diversity.

- As part of these changes, you have incorporated new categories with new production methods. Could you explain to us what each of these categories are?
We are maintaining our young wines and creating new categories that will give us prestige and allow us to produce more valuable products.
The first is BEREZIAK, which relates to wines with an aging process. In our area there is very good acidity, which has allowed us to work on the concept of cellaring, something that is associated with the great winegrowing areas.
We have also created the APARTAK or unique category where the most restless winemakers can work on market trends that often cause friction in denominations. We want to remain united so that the most daring producers can work without bureaucratic limitations: wines without sulphites, spontaneous fermentations, fermentations with skins. Innovative products that will require time for all the stakeholders in the sector to grasp.
On the other hand, for many years there have been late harvests that have changed their name to Uztagoienak in order to make the products more flexible and improve their quality due to community legislation. APARDUNAK, for the sparkling wines where, we believe, there is also a bright future

- One of the new categories included in the new regulations is Apartak or unique wines, which, unlike other denominations, includes wines made using less common winemaking processes. What is the aim of creating this new category that is so far outside the traditional paradigms?
It’s so that the most daring producers and those who want to move in the direction of other successful areas don’t end up leaving the denomination, making sure that they have legal coverage to innovate and test the potential of our area in market trends that continue to add value to the D.O.

-Being a very young denomination, what stage do you think the D.O. BizkaikoTxakolina is in right now? In your opinion, what is the way forward?
Not many denominations of origin in Spain have evolved as much as we have. There is a very solid base and although covid has put a significant obstacle in our way, we are maintaining our level of demand. I think we have a promising future among Spanish wines. The future lies in the creation of aged wines to enhance the value of vintages and unique vineyards. And we have a huge challenge in communication and marketing where we will have to put in significant work.

- Between the vineyard and the winery, do you have any free time left? What do you like to spend it doing?
The only drawback of this project that I have created has been not being able to dedicate the time I want to my family and friends. It is a high price that I want reduce for these last years of my professional life. My daughter, my partner, my family and friends understand that the work I have put in has been worthwhile and that I will be able to have quality time with them. As well as my other two passions which are being in the mountains and gardening.

- Finally, could you tell us about a wine that has pleasantly surprised you recently?
Son Negre by Ánima Negra, El Veneno by Pepe Mendoza, Pesseroles by Sara Pérez and Doosberg by Peter Jacob Khün.
Great wines that always have great people behind them.

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