Lalomba: an exciting new project from Rioja

Lalomba is an exciting new project from Ramón Bilbao, one of Spain’s most significant producers with wineries in four regions. Often associated with large-ish production wines that are high quality but widely available, this new venture is quite niche. I caught up with Rosana Lisa, winemaker and technical director, and her colleague Alberto Saldon, to have a look at the first releases.

Lisa, who for the last eight years has been in charge of Ramón Bilbao’s research and development, says that this is not something they have rushed into. ‘We are not in a hurry,’ she says. It is the vineyards they own – which she describes as a special heritage – that has led them to press ahead with Lalomba.

Spain has a tremendous diversity of vineyards, she points out. There’s ‘green Spain’ on the Atlantic coast. There’s ‘Mediterranean Spain’ in the south and east. And then there is dry, ‘mountainous Spain’, with two plateaus above 800 metres and a continental climate. ‘It is the second most mountainous country in Europe, after Switzerland,’ says Lisa. Rioja is a particularly interesting (and also diverse) wine region, with 2000 growing degree days (GDDs) in the west and 2700 GDDs in the east. Ramón Bilbao has 205 hectares of vineyards here.

Ramón Bilbao have used a lot of tools to study their vineyards. They’ve used precision viticulture (flying drones and also getting images from satellites), they have weather stations in all the vineyards for real time monitoring, they have studied soils, and for the last five years they have been investigating the microbial populations too.

This helped them decide which the most interesting vineyards were to use for Lalomba. ‘This is our DNA,’ says Lisa. ‘We have come from the research part of the company. All the information from this research is shared with all the wineries in the group.’

They are focusing on three terroirs. The first is Finca Lalinde, in Rioja Baja, close to the river. These are 1976 plantings, and they start at over 500 m in altitude. The climate is moderate Atlantic with a continental influence: the wind from Aragon helps create fantastic sanitary conditions. They have 5.4 ha of Garnacha and Viura here, to make their rosé.

The second is Valhonta, which is 100 km from Rioja Oriental, close to the Sierra de Catalina. The 2.8 hectares of vines are grown at 650 m, which is close to the limit of growing grapes. This site has a huge diversity of microbial life with over 600 communities of bacteria and fungi living in the soil. Planted in 2000 with bush vines, Lisa describes this site as ‘super balanced.’ The Atlantic influence from the Basque country makes this nice and cool, and the main problem is spring frosts.

The third is Ladero in Rioja Oriental. Vines were planted at an altitude of 720 m in 1989, and the varieties are Tempranillo and Garnacha. The six hectare vineyard produces very low yields but excellent quality.

What sort of work do they do in the vineyards? Viticulture is sustainable, preferring biological treatments such as sexual confusion (against grape vine moths) and Trichoderma (as a pruning treatment to stop trunk diseases). They have used Simonit and Sirch to help them with their pruning, again, to avoid trunk disease.

They have done a lot of research on powdery and downy mildew, using predictive models to avoid chemical treatments when they aren’t needed. This has led to a reduction of chemical use by 30%, which for their company means 10 000 litres less of chemical products in one season.

One interesting piece of research involves using biofilters, which are sprayed on the grapes and leaves. These include algae (which filter out radiation in the 310-340 nm spectrum), uric acid (270-290 nm) and ascorbic acid (<260 nm). The uric acid results in 40% more polyphenols in the grapes, while the ascorbic acid results in more colour.

Experimentation continues to the winery. After some research, they decided that concrete was the best material to used for fermentation. They studied a few different options. Stainless steel doesn’t give any flavours and is easy to clean, and it’s easy to control fermentation temperature. Oak is a porous material so it is positive for colour stability and the development of the wine, but it gives tertiary aromas. Managing temperature is not complicated. Concrete is a blend of the two: it gives no flavour, but it is porous, which leads to better colour stability. The cleaning process is complicated, though: you can’t use high temperatures. But concrete has high thermal inertia and keeps the temperature very well.

Once they decided concrete was good, they studied different kinds and also the different lining options (epoxy-lined versus raw; Italian [Nico Velo] versus Burgundian [Nomblot]). They did this research with the University of Vallodolid. Using concrete of the same composition and width as the tanks, they investigated oxygen transmission with raw concrete, epoxy-lined concrete, and concrete covered in tartrates. Raw is the same as a barrel, and epoxy is no transmission at all. Tatrate lining is about half that of the barrel.

In the end they decided on Italy because of the shape, and to go for unlined. They also did a lot of work on choosing the right barrels. They are using French and Hungarian oak, and they are also showing a preference for Quercus petrea (poor soils so oak with more aroma complexity) over Quercus robus (richer soils makes oak with more powerful flavour impact). They use different sized barrels (225 and 500 litres) and then finish off ageing in concrete.

THE WINES

The first wine to come from Lalomba was the rosé, and they are now in the fifth vintage of this. It comes from five villages and they make it in a gastronomic style.

Lalomba de Ramón Bilbao Rosé 2018 Rioja, Spain
13% alcohol. This is powerful and spicy with lovely vivid pear, lemon and dried herbs, with a touch of fennel. It’s a concentrated, gastronomic rose with a bit of structure and nice purity. Very stylish and with real finesse, showing some mandarin detail and more of those fine spicy notes. 91/100

Lalomba Finca Lalinde Rosé 2019 Rioja, Spain
13% alcohol. This is complex and vivid, with a sweet citrus core and notes of spice, pepper and fine herbs as well as a touch of cranberry. This has lovely precision with a lovely balance between the mandarin and lemon fruit, the notes of fennel and fine herbs, and some juicy acidity. It’s a very textural wine, and there’s some tropical detail with a tapering, finely spiced finish. Such a beautiful rosé with amazing detail and precision. 94/100

Valhonta is fermented in concrete with delestage (removing the liquid and then putting it back over the skins to get high quality tannin extraction). It does malolactic in 500 litre barrels and stays there for 14 months, before going back to concrete for 8 months.

Lalomba Finca Valhonta 2017 Rioja, Spain
14.5% alcohol. This is intensely aromatic with some sweet, floral black cherry and blackberry, as well as some spicy oak and a hint of tar. It’s very fresh, focused and floral. The palate is concentrated and taut, with good acidity and freshness, showing lovely black cherries, blackberry and spice. It’s a little technological and shows a bit of oak and polish, but there’s lovely freshness to this fruit: very impressive with good structure and a bit of crunch on the finish, which makes me think this will be a good long-term ager. 94/100

Ladero is a different style of wine, reflecting the vineyard, which is high-altitude. It results in a more classic style. Fermented in concrete and then it spends 16 months in 225 litre barrels, before a further 22 months in concrete. The tannins in this wine mean that it needs more oxygen.

Lalomba Finca Ladero 2016 Rioja, Spain
14.5% alcohol. Sleek, floral and a bit spicy on the nose, with lovely harmony. There are some floral notes alongside the spicy detail and the bright black cherry and blackberry fruit. The palate shows great concentration, with good structure to the grainy, dense, black cherry, blackberry and raspberry fruit. Amazing concentration, with a touch of oak in the background, and nice brightness. Needs time to show its best: it has polish and sheen that aren’t necessary, but the intensely concentrated, focused fruit shows immense potential. It’s a Rioja first growth. 95/100

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