Visiting the Luis Cañas winery in Rioja

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Many people forget that the Rioja wine region is one-third Basque.  Rioja Alavesa, located in the Basque province of Álava, is tucked between the north bank of the Ebro River and the Cantabrian Mountain Range.  As Rioja’s northernmost region, there are significant cooling effects from both the neighboring mountains and relative proximity of the Atlantic Ocean.  This results in a lovely freshness throughout the region’s wines.

As for landscapes, Rioja Alavesa offers little besides vines, mostly Tempranillo bush vines on poor chalky-clay and limestone soils.  In the past, these were made into young carbonic maceration wines, those overtly-fruity, tannin-free, easy-drinking reds made famous by Beaujolais Nouveau.  One had to go next door to Rioja Alta to find more serious wines from traditional producers such as CVNE, Lopez de Heredia, La Rioja Alta, and Muga.

That started to change however in the late 1980s.  Luis Cañas, founder of the eponymous Rioja Alavesa winery in 1970, had made his living selling those same carbonic maceration wines to merchants in Bilbao.  In 1989 however, his 33 year old son Juan Luis Cañas would shift production to Vinos de Crianza, i.e. aged wines.  This marked a turning point not only for the winery, but for Rioja Alavesa as a whole.

Since then, Juan Luis has turned his father’s winery into an impressive, internationally-recognized operation.  Expansion has meant there are now three wineries, stretching across two DOs, but still run by one family.  Besides Bodegas Luis Cañas in Villabuena de Álava, another Rioja Alavesa winery called Bodegas Amaren set up just down the road in 2009.  Almost at the same time, Bodegas Dominio de Cair opened in Ribera del Duero.

Good-value wines are a hallmark of all three bodegas, but this is especially true of Bodegas Luis Cañas.  What’s wonderful for us as customers, is that their price/quality ratio has remained attractive despite the number of prizes they’ve obtained at prestigious competitions, such as the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles or the Decanter World Wine Awards.

The Vineyards

The luminous Mirador tasting room is a spectacular setting for enjoying a bottle of wine while taking in views of the vineyards, the surrounding hills, and the Cantabrian mountains in the distance.

The plots seen below form part of almost 900 plots in total, spread out over roughly 1,000 acres of vines that are either estate-owned or cellar-controlled.  The average age across all vines is 40 years old, and older plots, such as the El Palacio plot at the foot of the picture, are part of a field blend.  Here the make up is 90% red grapes (mostly Tempranillo), and 10% white grapes (Viura and Malvasía).  Field blends were common in wine regions all over the world before phylloxera, adding diversity to a vineyard where the strengths and weaknesses of each variety would balance each other out.

Luis Cañas practices what it calls rational viticulture, using no pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers.  Vines are dry-farmed and hand-harvested, with the latter being a must, as over 90% are untrained bush vines.

The Winery

Once the grapes enter the winery, clusters are hand-selected at sorting tables before destemming.  Individual berries are then checked again through one of three systems:

  1. The Mistral sorter uses air to blast away berries that don’t meet size requirements.
  2. The optical sorter rejects fruit that doesn’t meet color and/or size requirements.
  3. The last is the oldest (and slowest) method around: selecting the fruit by hand, berry after berry.

For fermentation, stainless steel is used only for the young Crianza wines, while grapes for all other red wines are fermented in 10,000 liter oak vats, at a considerable expense.  What does this do for the wine?  A wine that’s exposed to oak tannins first during the alcoholic fermentation (as opposed to afterwards during cask ageing) offers a richer and softer mouth-feel with better integrated oak flavors and less rugged tannins.

For cask ageing (and barrel fermentation for their white wine), Luis Cañas has roughly 6,500 oak barrels, (60% French, 40% American), which they rotate out every three years.  The 3yo barrels are for Crianza wines and 2yo for Reserva, while new barrels (for both MLF and ageing) are used only for Gran Reserva, Seleccion de la Familia, and Hiru.

If you’d like to see more of the processes at the winery, check out these short videos (in Spanish) on the Luis Cañas facebook page.

The Wines of Familia Luis Cañas

The winery offers three different visits, with the 90-minute Viewpoint Visit at 20 Euros pp offering the best overall look at both the winery and five of their key wines, reviewed below.  An added plus is that you’ll finish back at the wine bar, where the rest of the family’s wines (including those from Amaren and Dominio de Cair) can be tasted by the glass.

Luis Cañas - Cask-Fermented White - We started with their barrel-fermented white wine, which is 85% Viura (Rioja’s dominant white grape), softened by 15% Malvasia, from 50 year-old vines.  This is an easy-drinking, crisp wine dominated by the citric notes from the Viura.  It doesn’t quite have the concentration I would have expected given the vine-age, but enjoyable nonetheless.  The four months of lees ageing and short time in oak lend it a bit of body and nuttiness, while the low toast levels allow the fruit to stand out.  Retails for just under 10€.

Bodegas Amaren - Ángeles de Amaren - We then moved to the Mirador lookout point to taste Ángeles de Amaren, the only wine on the tour that comes from one of the sister wineries.  It’s a great introduction to Bodegas Amaren, made up of 85% Tempranillo and 15% Graciano.  It represents an entry-level Reserva in style, with 16 months in new oak and several years in bottle.  The current release is 2010.  The wine had a rich perfume of red and black fruits, with a touch of spice from the Graciano and well-integrated notes of toasted wood from the new oak.  The bright acidity made the wine refreshingly light on its feet.  Retails for around 17€.

Luis Cañas Reserva (2 versions) - The tasting of the Reserva took us all by surprise.  Standing among the 10,000 liter oak fermentation vats, our wonderful guide Carmen poured two different barrel samples.  Without explaining, she asked us to describe the differences between them.  The profiles were so distinct, that we all assumed they were two different wines.  Only then did she admit that they were both Tempranillo, from the same vineyard, vinified in the same way, and with the same 13 months in barrel.  The only difference was that one sample came from French oak, while the other came from American.

It was a great way of tasting the typical characteristics of each barrel compared side by side.  Tempranillo’s fresh red fruit character (cherry especially), with its touches of pungent spice (licorice) and herbal notes (eucalyptus, bay leaf) were complemented by subtle notes of cloves in the French barrel, and coconut and dill in the American barrel.  The tannins were still a bit rugged, but it had another 5 months to go in barrel, followed by two plus years in bottle before release.  It was a denser wine than the Amaren, although the addition of 5% of Graciano later on will give it some lift once in bottle.  Retails for around 14€.

Luis Cañas Seleccion de la Familia Reserva - Not counting the ultra-premium, 80€ Hiru wine, Seleccion de la Familia is the bodega’s flagship wine.  It’s 85% Tempranillo from 50 year-old vines.  Unlike the cask-fermented white, the concentration of fruit from these low-yielding vines is much more noticeable here.  The 15% “other varieties” listed on the website is in fact Cabernet Sauvignon, which adds black-fruit character, firmer tannins, and bright acidity.  The current release is 2010, and the wine is still quite young in the glass.  Its juicy fruit stays with you on the palate, and the 20 months of new oak are well integrated, aided by the MLF being carried out in new casks.  While this wine is enjoyable now, it will benefit tremendously from another 4-5 years in bottle.  Retails for around 20€.

Visiting Bodegas Luis Cañas

Visits must be reserved in advance, either via email ([email protected]), phone (+34 945 62 33 73), or through the website booking form.  No reservation is needed to stop by the wine bar/shop however, open Monday-Saturday.

Bodegas Luis Cañas S.A. - Carretera Samaniego #10 - Villabuena de Álava (called Eskuernaga in Basque), Álava province, The Basque Country.


Last update: November 15, 2016

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One Response to Visiting the Luis Cañas winery in Rioja

  1. Murray says:

    Hey Nigil;
    Love to read your thoughts on wines. I particularly like the photographs. They give me a clear vision of what the land is like, what the landscape is.
    (From a Madrid barcelona tour, now some time ago.)

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