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Getting to know Luis Hurtado de Amézaga

28/07/2021 Interviews

Luis Hurtado de Amézaga has the great responsibility of being the technical director at Bodegas Herederos del Marqués de Riscal. He is part of the sixth generation of this legendary Rioja winery with more than 160 years of history behind it, but he didn’t inherit his position. This man has had extensive training, having even gained experience in places like the renowned Château Margaux in Bordeaux, and is one of the leading experts of the Verdejo variety. Let’s find out a bit more about Luis Hurtado de Amézaga, who has plenty to tell us.

- What does wine mean to you?

It’s a strong family tradition and a good way to express the natural richness of the places where I grew up. Wine is the history of civilisations and culture and the best way to enjoy gastronomy.

- You were born surrounded by vineyards and wines. Did you ever think about doing anything other than joining the family business?

When I was very young I was drawn to the business and financial world, but once you get your hands covered in grape juice and experience working in a winery during the grape harvest, there is no way to shake that off. Making a natural product, from the land, with so much diversity and that can be different every year, is very exciting.
At home we were never encouraged or pushed into the industry, and my parents have always been very respectful with the way we have approached our professional careers, I think they knew that some of us would get sucked in...

- Your life must be full of memories around wine. Could you share a memory with us that has stuck with you and that you like to think back on?

I have great memories of my first professional experience at the Castillo de Perelada in the Empordà. The Suqué family welcomed me as one of their own and I was very sorry about the recent loss of their patriarch Arturo Suqué, who was able to transform the castle into a great cultural, enotouristic and architectural project. I believe that his son Javier has managed to carry his legacy by growing the brand and increasing the quality of the wines he makes all over the peninsula. It also allowed me to meet José Luis Pérez, from Mas Martinet, an incredible man who taught me not to take anything for granted and to continue experimenting with wine growing and winemaking. Together with his daughter Sara Pérez and siblings, they are one of the great winemaking families.

- You are the sixth generation of Marqués de Riscal. What influence have your ancestors had on you, especially your father, who is another important figure of the winery’s development?

At home we have lots of documentation about the entrepreneurial history that led to the creation of the winery in Elciego and that is something that has always impressed me, that it could happen in a century as turbulent as the 19th century was for Spain. I think this is even more impressive, not just because of the perseverance my ancestors showed in their attempt to consolidate the project, but also for their very long-term vision of where the wine business should go. When you are part of a family like this, you take on these responsibilities with a deep sense of duty. Firstly out of respect and admiration, and then because it is a profession and a tradition that you are passionate about and that feels fulfilling. For me, my father was a clear example of this way of doing things, with hard work, constant learning, perseverance and passion. And that is something that marks you for the rest of your life. You have to learn to be patient because this world of wine is a marathon, not a sprint.

- Your father, Francisco Hurtado de Amézaga, was a very important figure in the creation of the D.O. Rueda and it could be said that you were born at almost the same time as this Denomination of Origin. You did your final year project on the viticultural and oenological aptitude of the Verdejo variety. Do you think these factors might have influenced your interest in this white variety, which is the queen of Rueda?

I spent my first years of life in Rueda and my first serious contact with wine was harvesting the grapes for the production of Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc white wines. After my studies in Spain I was lucky enough to be able to complete my training in France, and in Montpellier I had the opportunity to meet the great professor Jean Michel Boursiquot, who at that time was the best ampelographer in the world. He was the one who suggested me to do an in-depth study of the Verdejo variety, one that was little known around the world but that impressed him a lot because of the personality and balance of the wines I took him to taste. An intelligent, simple, endearing man, passionate about his work and who quickly passed on his interest in learning about new varieties to me. This was what led me to study this Spanish grape that the great Emile Peynaud and my father fell in love with in the early 70s.

- Since the creation of the D. O. Rueda and the great acceptance of wines made from the Verdejo grape, many people have followed suit, enticed by its popularity and guaranteed success. What do you think a real Verdejo wine should be like? Are there any characteristics or qualities of this variety that have captivated you and that you want to share with us?

As long as this variety does not leave the gravelly terroirs of the Duero River terraces, which are typical to the Rueda area, Verdejo is a very versatile variety. Its young wines have a medium aromatic intensity but a very marked varietal character, with aniseed aromas of fennel and white flowers. These wines have good acidity and they are fresh with good structure, which is why they have adapted very well to other production methods like aging on lees or in French oak foudres. I have always been impressed by their strong personality, which makes them easily recognisable. The most complex wines show a great aromatic originality and sometimes a mineral character that places them among the world’s great white wines.
Outside its traditional terroirs it becomes a neutral variety, dominated by fermentative aromas and not very interesting. Unfortunately, this happens a lot in Rueda.

- In Spain there are wines that are already a symbol of the country's oenological wealth and Marqués de Riscal Reserva is a clear example. An iconic and unmistakable red wine that is still sold with its famous protective metal mesh. How have you managed to make sure this classic Rioja red wine is still known all over the world and, most importantly, that it never goes out of fashion?

Everything is easier when you have been in such a competitive market for much longer than most and the brand is recognised as a safe bet for its consistent quality. But the reality is that our Rioja Reserva wine has been very well adapted to market tastes, so it is difficult to appreciate the change, but it has certainly evolved in style over time. The prominence of wood and aging has been replaced by a more fruity character, and a more pleasant and easy-drinking structure on the palate. This has only been possible thanks to the great effort of selecting of old vines that my father, together with his technical team, has been doing for more than 40 years. We currently have 450 ha of vines planted before the 1970s, a quantity that no one else in the world has been able to come close to, and this is unique to a terroir like Rioja Alavesa, where we have been sourcing grapes for more than 160 years, always from the same area. That’s why our wine is so recognisable in its style and never goes out of fashion. Riscal character and Rioja character.

- Herederos del Marqués de Riscal has not only revolutionised the Rioja wine scene, it has also managed to revolutionise its landscape. Your winery has one of the most beautiful hotels in the world, you have managed to seamlessly merge wine and architecture. Thanks to this, wine tourism in Rioja Alavesa increased by 35% in the first year of the new winery. What other benefits has the promotion of wine tourism at Marqués de Riscal brought you?

The brilliant idea of our chairman Alejandro Aznar, the real driving force behind the creation of the City of Wine, with Frank Gehry’s landmark building at the centre, was the definitive push we needed to position the Riscal brand worldwide. The media impact, which we’re still seeing the effects of, has turned us into a global brand able to export to more than 100 countries. The large number of visitors, over 100,000 in 2019, has increased the number of Riscal ambassadors around the world. The sale of wine directly from the winery was already a significant source of income, and opening the winery to all wine lovers has allowed us to showcase our natural and respectful winemaking philosophy, based on a strict selection of vineyards and vinification with minimal intervention. The best way to keep growing is to allow people to taste our wines in situ, attracting new wine lovers.
The hotel and its surroundings, the spa and the Michelin-starred restaurant run by Francis Paniego, work together to create one of the most complete wine tourism offerings in the world.

- Pioneers in the production of quality wine in Rioja, promoters of white wines in Rueda and now venturing into the production of Txakoli under the D.O. Getariako Txakolina. For anyone not familiar with this kind of wine, what can you tell us about txakoli and what do you like about it?

Because we are concerned about climate change, we are experimenting with new production areas in more northerly terroirs, at higher altitudes or with cooler climates. We have always made our wines mainly with local, native varieties with great personality, like Verdejo or Tempranillo from Rioja.
With this in mind, we found that the Hondarribi Zuri variety fitted with our philosophy and our new concerns. This is a cooler area, resulting in more acidic wines and this local variety has a strong personality and a potential still to be fully discovered. This is an example of adapting to an unusual terroir with a climate right at the limits of cultivation. That’s why we were attracted to it and found it an exciting challenge. These are sharp, aromatically intense wines with good aging potential.

- After so many years of work and experience in the world of wine and being one of the most popular and recognised wineries on the world wine scene, what is there left to do? Do you have ideas about a project you would have liked or would like to try?

I am a big fan of sherry wines and Rueda was one of the areas where, 50 years ago, this kind of wine was successfully produced. We have tried to make these wines under a yeast cap with Verdejo, but we have never been very convinced by the results. So my big dream would be to convince the whole Riscal family to make some wine in Jerez, a great historic terroir, which together with Rioja put Spain on the winemaking map for more than a century.

Being the technical director of a winery as important as Herederos del Marqués de Riscal must take up most of your time. What do you like to do when you get a break from your work?

With so much travel and time away from home, what I enjoy most is spending a few days with my wife and children, watching them grow and sharing their concerns is the best. And I really enjoy the countryside and nature, and that’s where we spend a lot of our weekends. I love books and podcasts about the history of Spain and playing paddle tennis or visiting museums with my wife, who as a good architect is very passionate about art and I never stop learning. Travelling with my wife and children to wine regions is also something that we are enjoying and that the whole family is passionate about.

Finally, would you like to share with us the most recent wine you have tried that excited you?

I was enjoying dinner with my wife and a friend gave us a taste of a Château Rayas 2006 which I thought was an aromatic marvel with a freshness that was truly surprising for its age. A classic with a very modern profile, it was elegant and I enjoyed a lot, accompanied by some morels and grilled octopus.

This wine is not particularly affordable but it reunited me with the Garnacha variety, which I had been a little disappointed with. The Southern Rhône never ceases to amaze me and they have masterfully interpreted this great Spanish variety.

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