Viñatero profile: Juan Carlos Sancha
Updated: Feb 3
On the occasion of the second meeting at the Association, we decided to address a vibrant theme. There are many people who consider that drinking Rioja is boring and old-fashioned. We do not agree. Yes, it is true, in the United Kingdom we have a big problem with those Spanish wines that we find on the supermarkets' shelves, but there is life beyond standardized wines.
Gladly, things are changing. We will talk in the future about the changes that are taking place in La Rioja, but today we want to focus our attention on the figure of a man whom we consider a key element for the introduction of ecologic viticultural practices and a staunch defender of the recovery of Riojan indigenous grape varieties.
Juan Carlos Sancha.
Juan Carlos is not only a professor in oenology at the University of La Rioja, but also the man behind the Ad Libitum project, which started in 1988 at the University of La Rioja itself. A project against the current of what was happening in Spain during the 80s. In the throes of a time when planting international grape varieties was fashionable, they decided to work with the autochthonous varieties that already existed in the old vineyards of Rioja, which were disappearing little by little.
Thanks to Ad Libitum project, 4 historical varieties that have been on the verge of disappearing have been released: Tempranillo blanco, Maturana blanca, Maturana tinta and the only 100% Monastel (please, not to be mistaken with Monastrell) bottled in the world.
Unfortunately, during the past 30 years, public grants have been given to uproot these marvelous old vines and to install trellises full of productive Tempranillo clones. For that reason, Juan Carlos is also the father of another project dedicating body and soul to the recovery of centenary Garnacha vineyards. He bought vineyards that were half abandoned, and cultivated them. Today, he markets these wines under the “Peña del Gato” label, respecting the identity of the different vineyards from which they harvest (by marketing the wines with the name of the winegrower who has maintained that vineyard over the years). This are wines made naturally, without added sulfites, all organic, and one of them is even made in a clay amphorae.
A philosophy, growing organically, that is the main pillar of both projects. For Sancha, behind are the times when the quality of Riojan wine was measured depending on the time that the wine spent in the barrel. For him, the important thing is not that, but the vines, the soil and the microclimate that gives the grapes special characteristics.
When he looks back on his "past life" he considers himself a mercenary because he has worked in 13 wineries throughout the Spanish geography, at a time when winemakers were paid to replant unproductive vines and replant them with the sole objective of increasing productions, which entailed lowering the quality of the final grape.
It was important for him to return to his village to do things as they should be done. And it has not gone bad at all, since it has proudly managed to put the name of Baños de Río Tobía among the elite of the great Spanish wines.
Under his point of view, in Rioja steel tanks and barrels are shown far too often, neglecting the essence of the quality of their wines, which are the vineyards. For him it is crucial that visitors see those centenary vineyards since, as the grandmothers have always said, "an old hen makes good broth". So clear. The inheritance of his great-grandparents, grandparents and the vast majority of winegrowers of that time is a viticulture made by those who did not go to university or coursed oenology studies. However, they did apply common sense, planting vines in those poor, not very fertile soils, where no other crop could be planted. And that is where the magical Riojan grapes are grown.
In our case, 4 have been the wines that we have been able to taste:
Ad Libitum, Tempranillo Blanco, 2019: Coming from a 20+ y/o vineyard, this youthful white was a pleasant surprise for all the members of the association. Even if it is a white vinified 100% in stainless steel there's some complexity on it as it rest for 7 months on its own lees. The result is a voluptuous and glyceric white capable of retaining the acidity and a fresh character. Ends with great persistence.
Ad Libitum, Maturana Tinta, 2018: A rocker! This reclaimed vineyard is approximately 15 years old, but it is already capable of producing wines of dazzling nerve and vitality. Fermented and aged for 11 months in old 500l barrels. A very expressive wine, loaded with many red fruits, vegetable memories and sweet spices. Long aftertaste, filled with a clear varietal identity it shows good aging capacity. Long live her majesty the acidity!
Ad Libitum, Monastel de Rioja, 2018: Same work in the winery as with Maturana. However its identity is completely different. It definitely has less nerve and tannic load. Velvetier. The aromatic profile focuses much more on the greediness of the forrest fruits. A wine that, after tasting it as monovarietal, we have a better understanding of its role in Rioja blends.
Peña el Gato, Garnacha, 2017: It's a shame that on this occasion we couldn't have gotten our hands on any of his single vineyard. Maybe next time! This Peña el Gato is his entry level. A wine from Riojan Grenache grapes coming from those vineyards that we mentioned earlier, resulting in a Garnacha warmer than I expected, with a good concentration of fruit, citrus skin and hints of thyme. Fairly balanced.
As you can see, Juan Carlos represents doing things well again, under a philosophy of organic viticulture that is reminiscent of how our grandparents made wine at the beginning of the 20th century, working with small productions per vine and per hectare.
A man who reminds us that we must look at our terroir without forgetting that viticulture is not the poor sister of oenology.
Founder of the Spanish Sommelier Association