Bodegas Ramón Bilbao: Taking Terroir-Driven Wines to a Higher Level

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Terroir’ is a popular buzzword in the wine world.

One of the Oxford dictionaries’ definitions of terroir is “the characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced”.

Making wines from a specific terroir is popular at the top end of the wine spectrum but is a relatively new concept in Rioja.  Until recently, Rioja wineries have followed two main directions:  making blends of different grape varieties from all over the region and single varietal wines.

Recognizing the diversity of soil, topography and microclimates in Rioja, the Rioja Regulatory Council recently approved the concept of singular vineyards, from which terroir-specific wines can now be made.

Bodegas Ramón Bilbao in Haro understood that one of the most important elements of its terroirs and a key factor defining the quality of its wines were the specific yeast strains found on the skins of the grapes in its vineyards.

As everyone with more than a passing interest in wine knows, yeast is vital to winemaking. In the absence of oxygen, yeast converts grape sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. As Louis Pasteur discovered, different strains of yeast, both from the saccharomyces and other varieties, perform a second function, helping the formation of aromas in wine.

Bodegas Ramón Bilbao believed that to make truly unique terroir-driven wines, they had to identify, examine, develop and use the prevalent yeast strains found on the grapes in each of their vineyards.

Rosana Lisa, Director of Innovation and Development at Ramón Bilbao, explained the winery’s project in a recent article in Decanter magazine.

“There is a clear sameness about the wines on the market, so through this project, our idea is to strengthen the identity of our wines. And at the same time, help to conserve autochthonous (indigenous) strains, saving them from extinction and fostering the discovery of their virtues and unique oenological personality.”

The project was carried out in several stages:

  • Identifying yeast ecotypes from those vineyards with greater varietal typicity;
  • Testing to determine if the identified yeast strains could stand up to the fermentation process without generating undesirable odors or an increase in sulfur dioxide, using the Varietal Aromatic Potential Index (IPAv);
  • Preselecting promising yeast strains;
  • Carrying out DNA analysis to determine which strains were not commercially available;
  • Developing these strains in freeze-dried form.
  • In the winery, vinifying grapes from each vineyard using the best ‘unique’ strains of yeast.

Following three years of experiments, Bodegas Ramón Bilbao recently announced that for the first time in 2018 they produced all of their wines with their own yeast strains, improving their varietal aromas, taste, structure and most importantly, raising the bar for terroir-driven wines.

Tom Perry, Inside Rioja