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Getting to know Juan Carlos López de Lacalle, winemaker at Artadi

Visionary, unconventional and revolutionary. These are some of the adjectives used to describe Juan Carlos López de Lacalle. With his modest knowledge and without making any fuss, this man has brilliantly and creatively produced avant-garde wines at Artadi, his family winery. Some of these wines have even achieved the much-coveted 100 Parker points.

Juan Carlos has also used his wisdom and versatility in other parts of Spain to produce other great wines. All of this has undoubtedly made him one of the most admired winemakers with an international reputation. We’re here to find out more.

- As the fourth generation of a family of winegrowers and born in a leading wine region, how would you describe what wine means to you? Would you be able to live without it?

Us humans are very resilient and we can survive through a lot, so I think it would be too much to say I couldn’t live without wine. However, after almost forty years of my life around wine and vineyards, it’s honestly very difficult for me to imagine my life without all the experience I’ve had around wine. Viticulture is an endeavour that really catches your attention and draws you in.

- Do you have any special early memories that you like to look back on?

The first memories I have are linked to my family and, specifically, my grandfather Jenaro and uncle Julián; two men who really lived through the evolution of viticulture in our region. From recovering the vineyards affected by phylloxera to the introduction of machinery in the vineyards during the fifties and sixties, they played a significant role in these events. My first memories with them in the vineyard are from when I was very young, about eight or ten years old.

- Having been born in a wine region, to a wine-growing family, did you ever think you would do anything other than make wine? What was it that finally drew you into the winemaking world?

I have mentioned on other occasions that when I finished high school I was excited to study architecture. But thankfully, my father told me that it wasn’t the best time for architecture, practically and economically, so I turned my attention towards my roots. At that time, my grandparents had passed away and my mother already owned a vineyard, which made me turn my focus to wine. I started my studies in oenology in Madrid and then later I studied Agricultural Technical Engineering in Pamplona. And that was the beginning of me dedicating my life to the vineyard and wine.

- Artadi was set up in 1985 in Laguardia (Rioja Alavesa) as a cooperative of harvesters. In 1992 your family took on the project. You scored your first 100 Parker points with your “El Pisón 2004” wine and in 2015 you decided to leave the DOCa. Rioja.Rioja. That’s a lot of change and emotion in a relatively short time. How was that for you and how has all of this contributed to making Artadi the great place it is today?

Life is a long race with many stages to go through. The cooperative project with twelve winemakers and growers was my first project. It was exciting and we worked to showcase the harvester’s wine. But they were not easy times, the economic situation hindered our progress.

The investments we needed to make to build the winery, buy barrels, tanks, create a marketing structure, etc., made this first attempt unviable.

Starting in 1992, we began a new chapter as a public limited company. We were able to incorporate capital, which enabled us to think more about our production and marketing processes from a technical and economic point of view. Ultimately, we set out to achieve higher quality levels, knowing that the market was right for them. That brought us to 1995 when we received significant recognition from the specialist international press.

In 2002 we began the journey towards ecological viticulture. With the 2004 vintage we had one of the most gratifying moments in the winery’s history when we were awarded those first 100 Parker points. In 2009 we started to produce and sell single-plot wines, which have given us so much personal and professional satisfaction recently. And then when we reached 2015, we had to make a decision that was risky, but well thought through, that would see us leave the D.O.Ca. Rioja.Rioja.

The DO project Ca. The D.O. Ca. Rioja is a great project, it has been very successful, but staying part of it would mean we couldn’t work towards the ambitions we had.The vineyard as a concept, the land, the unique places, its orientations, the vintages, the edaphological variety...In short, the viticultural wealth that we have was very difficult to convey to the market in a single message. And that’s not just my opinion. In reality, the vast majority of the world’s great wine-growing regions, if they want to grow in quality, they need to characterise their wines or sell them with a more concrete message linked to their territory.

At Artadi, we think because we’ve put these values into practice, our wines are recognised for their quality on the national and international market.

- You must be tired of being asked why Artadi left the DOCa. Rioja in 2015.Rioja in the year 2015. Rather than ask why, we would like to know how leaving has changed things for you? And what is it like to work with this new freedom, without having to stick to perhaps more commercial or political models that are not part of your work philosophy? Is this change reflected in your wines? If so, how?

At first we did have bit of pressure from the media, but that is over now. Little by little time puts things right. The reality is that Artadi has not left its home, we continue to cultivate our vineyards in Laguardia, we are still making wines in the same winery as we have been for the past 40 years and we still work to discover the great opportunities that lie in our unique land. We are still where we started, in Laguardia.

We work with freedom, but our work is tied to nature, that we want to look after well, and we use sustainable growing methods to offer wines with their own character. We could say that nature doesn’t know about regulations or administrative systems that are often difficult to understand. And so, with a change that wasn’t really a change, we are still doing our work.

- You also decided to leave Rioja, without abandoning it, by making wines in other regions of Spain. What captivated you about El Sequé, in Alicante and Artazu in Navarra?

One of the great things about wine is discovering the places, the varieties and their people. I have been fortunate to find wine-growing areas like Alicante, with a Mediterranean climate, but with contrasts, and a variety like Monastrell that is rooted in its territory and boasts freshness and elegance. Thanks to a great friend Randall Grahm, I also discovered the magic of the Garnacha variety, its strength and its energy, and this led us to Artazu (Navarra) to make our Garnacha wines there. And finally, we have embarked on a new project to make sparkling wines in Zarautz, using the region’s traditional varieties like Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza. This is another project full of mystery, which fills us with the energy to work to discover new emotions in the idyllic world of sparkling wines.

- One characteristic that your wines from different areas all share is that they are single-variety. Is there any reason why you decided not to make coupages?

Co-planted vineyards and creating coupages with different varieties is a great way of making wines, resulting in wines with complexity, strength and personality. But the truth is that we have decided to try and discover other wines. These are, perhaps, more transparent wines that let us see the landscape of the wine-growing areas where we work.

Sometimes they are simpler wines but they become great when that simplicity is made pure and accurately defines the character of a terroir. We know that this is another way to interpret a vineyard.

- People say you are a visionary. An unconventional and revolutionary winemaker, if you were a musician, you would be a rock star. Talking now more seriously, how do you do it? How would you describe that energy or intuition that motivates you to choose an alternative path from the ones usually followed in winemaking? Is it this philosophy and this production style that you would define as “wines from the new Old World”?

I would answer all these questions by quoting Antonio Machado, when he says “Walker, there is no path, you make the path by walking.” Vines and wines are living elements that respond to biology and certain physical-chemical elements. And although lining all these things up does require some human intervention, it can only really be achieved through nature. Nature is a great designer and is what guides us and defines our minimal intervention processes.
For all this, perhaps I feel more identified with the Old World school and guided by a minimal intervention. It is also true that in the New World this trend is already a reality. So, I like your ‘New Old World’ expression.

- You are one of the first Spaniards to have achieved the much coveted 100 Parker points with your “El Pisón” estate wine. What do you think a great wine should be like?

It’s not easy to describe the sensations I get from a great wine in just a few words. Sometimes we stop after we have listed the visual, olfactory and flavour sensations, but great wines go a bit further than that. Wines seduce us with their external and sensorial aspects, but really a great wine is one where you feel the soul, spirit and emotion. And at the end you discover a shadow that reveals the territory, the earth and the people behind it.

- You often say “you should look at the grape a lot and touch it little”. What is the key to your success in minimal intervention and producing the highest quality?

I might be repeating myself a bit what I talk about the essence or the key to success, but I want to be honest and say that the key to success is in nature and people should only work to discover the sensations that people are able to enjoy.

- You are the fourth generation of a family of winegrowers, you carry a great legacy and you are a revolutionary on the Spanish wine scene. What do you think about the new generation at Artadi? How does the immediate future look to you? How does the immediate future look like?

I have always told my children that they must choose their own path because life belongs to each person and that means you should go your own way. But they have ignored me. The vineyard and the wine are so powerful that all my children have been enticed to work at this project. For that reason, we are going through a phase of new ideas, processes and values that each generation focusses on in a different way. Both the family and the wider Artadi team are enjoying a new way of approaching a future full of new projects. Projects we are looking at from a new, modern, avant-garde perspective that fit in with the times we are living in. We are very fortunate.

- And speaking of new generations, do you think we are capable of “communicating” wine? How do you think we can bring the “culture of wine” to younger audiences?

This is a really difficult question. Communicating is a skill. But we could try something new and bring young people, even very young people out to the fields, to the vineyard, to the winery, include them in cultivating the vineyard, in short, we could bring them closer to nature. Maybe that would make things easier. I have great faith in young people and they are of course the future of this old culture.

- You are a very versatile winemaker, and as well as red and white wines, you have made cava in Rioja using the Viura variety. In Alicante you have tried making a sweet version of El Sequé with Monastrell. In 2015 Artadi started a new project, Izar-Leku, in Zarautz, Basque Country, where you make a sparkling wine using the Hondarribi Zuri and Hondarribi Beltza varieties, and you are really enjoying that. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

The Izar-Leku project came out of the 40-year-old friendship between the Zapiain and Lopez de Lacalle families. In 2015 we started making Txakoli in Zarautz. The original idea was to make some of the vintage into still wine and some into sparkling wine, but the results of the first production were so good that we decided to focus all production on sparkling wines. Now, after six harvests, we can confidently say we have taken the right path.

We produce wines with a marked saline and mineral character. Wines full of energy, exuberant in their fruity freshness and that after a long period of aging in the bottle develop an elegance and finesse typical of the great sparkling wines of the world. We are very excited about this project that is already becoming a reality and we are sure that in the coming years your wines will give us great satisfaction.

- Like many winemakers and wine lovers, we know that you’re also captivated by Sherry wines. Do you have plans to make any wine in that area? Would you like to?

I don’t think anyone can deny the greatness of Sherry wines. Jerez is a university of wine. The possibilities and the wealth that come out of those lands and those wineries are completely unique. So, who wouldn't want to take advantage of that? But you can’t do everything in life and for that reason I’m going to settle for really enjoying the wines that my friends make in that area.

- And finally, passionate as you are about wines and sparkling wines, could you tell us
What is the last one that you have tried and that has managed to excite you?

As a good father, my children come first. But I understand that the organoleptic possibilities that exist in the world of wine are so immense that it’s not hard to find great treasures. One of the last wines that surprised me was the Paul Bara 2005 Comtesse Mari de France. Its balance on the palate masterfully combines with its depth and length. A bottle bordering on perfection.

It has been a pleasure to share my stories and thoughts about wine with you.

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