The vast and rural Spanish region of Rioja is home to some of Spain’s most famous wines. Due to its immense success on the international market, it’s also become known for a very particular style of wine; often quite ripe with oak influence.
But there are growers in the region who are determined to create something unique; something that stands out from the crowd. Bodegas Moraza is one of these domaines, led by the talented Janire Moraza (who goes by Julia). Julia wants to do things her way, to best express the terroirs of her area, San Vicente de la Sonsierra, in Rioja Alta.
And we must admit, we love Rioja, Julia-style.
Julia Moraza represents the the sixth generation of growers in her family. During the cooperative boom in the 1970s, the Moraza family remained determined to keep making their own wines, as opposed to selling fruit to the coops. She tells her story:
“Moraza is my own name. My family was proud of the wine they were making at my grandma’s home — where we live now — so they decided to register our name as a brand. They were one of the first small producers to bottle their own wine. At that time, it was more common to sell wine in larger containers — back then, people would usually bring a container, fill it, and go.”
She explains that the style Rioja has become known for — the more oaky style — is in fact a fairly recent phenomenon, and that once upon a time, the wines were much lighter:
“My vision is to go back to our roots. Our vines are fresher and fruitier, and that’s what I see Rioja to be. If you find an older bottle from the 60s or 70s, those wines don’t have a ton of colour. They’re still very fruity, and the alcohol isn’t very high; it’s more or less 12.5%. So what I want to do — and try to do — is to make the kind of wines that my father used to drink when he was 16… when he was working in the vineyard with his grandfather and their plough. Those are the kind of wines that can go with every kind of food.”
She explains that due to their location, the area has a rich diversity of cuisine. She tells us that Rioja should be versatile in its ability to pair with all sorts of food, and when you make lighter, fresher styles, they’re more food-friendly.
“We are one hour from the sea, so fish is a typical dish. And lamb is important too. Our reds are the kind of wines which you can have with cod or anchovies, pork, beans… and you can also have them by themselves. That’s equally important.”
It’s a mission of simplicity, and about letting the fruit speak. For brighter, less ‘made up’ wines of Rioja, Julia is leading the way.
“My grandfather didn’t like herbicides; he realised that they also killed the good plants which oxygenate the soil. So, aside from a brief flirt with them in the 70s, the vines have always been organically farmed: before and since.”
For a long time, they worked organically without certification. But after a while, they realised they wanted to certify for transparency:
“Certification means more paperwork, but we feel it is important to show people who don’t know us that we work organically.”
When Julia was beginning to get more involved with the farming, she came across biodynamics, and decided to apply for certification. Her father asked her what it was. She remembers,
“I explained about the moon cycle, and the integration of herbs into vineyards, and he said… that’s what we do! I told him, it has a name and there’s a certification.”
At that stage, they hadn’t yet done the preparations 500 and 501 (the cow manure and the silica), but they had always meticulously followed the lunar cycle with regards to pruning in the vineyard and racking in the winery. Next, together with her husband, she’s exploring how to make her vineyards even more diverse:
“My husband and I are deeper into biodynamics, as we want to explore the whole process further. We’re still experimenting. We don’t plant a cover crop, but we have natural herbs — rosemary, thyme, fennel… We also want to buy some trees — almonds and nut trees — to plant into the north of one vineyard so we can introduce more biodiversity, and block some of the wind in a natural way.”
They only work with fruit from their own vineyards, which they have farmed themselves. Julia emphasises that this is important to her:
“When you work naturally, traceability is important. We know that we have healthy bacteria and yeasts. If you don’t, then you might have problems when winemaking. We work a lot in the vineyards, and very little in the winery.”
Since the 1950s, they have used concrete as fermentation vessels. In 1983, they built a central winery — a crucial step for them, as their vineyards are spread out over a fairly large area, and beforehand they had had several very small cellars where they made their wine.
Although Rioja is famous for its joven/crianza/reserve/grand reserva designations, Julia does not adhere to these (they require you to age the wine for a certain amount of time in oak). For her, it doesn’t make sense that this should be the focal point. She explains,
“The first mention of Crianza was in 1979 - kind of late! If you find a bottle from the 60s, it will say Cosecha (meaning vintage — the year the wine was made) 1967 for example, not Crianza. Many of those wines were made in barrels, but very big barrels that were super old, so it gave no flavour to the wine. I like to work in concrete, as you get a similar effect from the micro-oxygenation as you do from those large old oak barrels. But to make a wine that’s labelled with Crianza now, it has to be aged in a Bordeaux barrel of 225 litres—much smaller and when they’re new you get very strong oak flavours. To make the kind of wine like the ones from the 60s, you need to have very old barrels. I don’t have any of those.”
“When you choose to label with the designations, then all your treatments are customised to the designation. I don’t like the flavour of oak. The varieties we have are delicate, so from my point of view it’s unnecessary. You can have a rounder wine aged in concrete, and when it comes to ageing, it’s about allowing the wine to just best express itself.”
She tells us that although the wines have always been made more naturally, they were riper once:
“My father and uncle used to make wine in a natural way. They used natural yeasts and picked the grapes a bit later to have a bit more alcohol. 20 years ago that was the fashion! But since 2013, year by year — at the end of the day, you only have one chance a year to try things — we’ve been doing what I think should be done. And right now, we’re some of the first to harvest. So, the wines have lower alcohol levels, while maintaining phenolic maturity.”
Julia’s personal mark on the Moraza wines started in 2013, and step by step she began to call the shots, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. She recalls,
“It was difficult, and I had a lot of help from my husband. Making wine is seen as a man’s work in these rural areas. My grandma used to taste tanks and say, this is better than that one — the female taste was more recognised in this area. But beyond that, all the business decisions were made by men.”
She explains that there still aren’t many women at the helm of wineries:
“In the region, usually the women do winery visits, and paperwork. In terms of women saying, I want to guide the winery this way, I want to make these kinds of wines, well… there’s not a lot.”
Even now, it’s Julia, her two cousins (both men), her husband, her father and her uncle. Initially, whenever she had an idea, it would take a lot of persuasion to get the ball rolling. She says,
“I wanted to make a 100% Garnacha, as we have some old vineyards. They said, yeah — next year we can try. And when my husband came here from Canada, we were working in the vineyards and I was explaining my idea. He said, ah, we have to do it! but I explained that I’d already tried to persuade the family a couple of times. So we found a sneaky way to do it — we said I have a client who’ll buy it. Then my husband looked at me and asked how we should make it, and that’s when I started to take the lead.”
Where there’s a will, there’s a way! These days, she says it’s easier:
“I work with my older cousin — we have the same vision in the vineyard, and he appreciates what I think about the wines, and the direction we’re moving in. I am very lucky because I have these vineyards that have been well treated, but sometimes working with your family… you have to demonstrate things twice or three times more.”
Her goal is to showcase the varieties of Rioja with minimal interference, and crucially also — her vineyards and their unique terroirs. Due to the designation system of Rioja — which focuses on winemaking as we explored earlier — it has been frustrating for Julia as she has not been able to put her terroirs on the labels. She feels that it should be her vineyards, not a specific ageing regimen, that should belong on the label. But slowly, things are changing:
“In 2017, the DO allowed us to put the name of the area on the label. We didn’t reply that year as we forgot,” she laughs. “We had deep frost and lost 70% that year…”
We can only imagine that her mind must have been elsewhere.
“We applied for 2018, so for our whites you can find Rioja Alta, and the name of the village. But you can only do that if you have the vineyards and winery in the same place. So, for our Garnacha, we can’t put the name as it’s further from our winery.”
We sigh together. Beaurocracy… but Julia shrugs — we have a feeling not much fazes her. We’re proven right when we move onto the topic of orange wine:
“My first experiment for skin macerating wine, my 4 Caminos label, was in 2018. I had wanted to do a skin maceration wine — my husband is from the French part of Canada and has a super-wide knowledge of wines, and we taste many wines together. We love Radikon (an iconic natural winemaker from Friuli) and very long skin contact, but the first time we did a wine like that we had to be careful — we didn’t want to go too wild, as we didn’t know how it would work with Viura, a totally different variety. We really liked the experiment, but my father and uncle didn’t understand, as they are not used to that kind of wine. My cousins didn’t understand either, but we did it anyway, so we’re very happy. But with the DOCG it’s strict, and every year you have to apply, and sometimes it will be declassified if it’s not thought to be ‘typical’ for the region.”
But while she’s dedicated to exploring new techniques, and a new side of Rioja, she also loves to make the simple wines of the past. Her cuvée Soplar, is a nod to this:
“Soplar is the kind of wine that’s made for sharing, for drinking without thinking — just for fun. It’s actually the first blend, as we wanted to separate to explore every variety together, in every vineyard. It was the tradition to have wines like these a long time ago, when people would go from one bar to another for a glass — a lighter style, what you could call glouglou.”
They also have a small amount of the Graciano grape variety, which had been grafted onto the white varieties when the DOC changed the laws and they had to decrease the production of their white varieties — they even sent a letter to Julia’s father.
“My father was very sad — he’s someone who lives in the vineyards. So he decided to graft some Graciano onto those vines, to keep the vines alive and keep their deep roots. We only make 750 bottles or so! It’s different to the other varieties that are more fruity; Graciano is more in the peppery style; something to explore and something completely different.”
It’s this latter element of exploration and excitement that means Julia well and truly has the wine bug. For her, winemaking isn’t just a job:
“My work is all about trying, playing and enjoying. It’s exciting. Wine is something you make from your own decisions — it’s so personal. Especially in my small winery, the wines are a clear indicator as to what I like. In life, your tastes change, so it will be so interesting to see the evolution of those wines in my future life. I believe every generation must do their bit to improve what you have.”
And what’s next? She smiles.
“I really want to explore pét-nat. I tried to do just 12 bottles last minute — I bought cheap cava to have just the bottles! I cleaned them, and gave it a go, but it was a total disaster. I will plan in advance next time. Every year is a work in progress!”
All of Julia’s wines represent such purity and sense of place — they’re the kind of wines that make you stop and think mid-sentence. And if that’s an indicator for what’s to come in a sparkling wine future, well… we’re sure that she’ll be a revolutionary.