In the late 1980s, La Rioja Alta SA took the decision to cease production of white Rioja. A brave, bold step for a company formed by five Rioja winemaking families in 1895. Not that the company has ever been conservative - its original president was a woman and it has always been quick to try new things - acquiring its own cooperage, introducing malolactic fermentation… and exploring Spain for better options than those on its doorstep.
The company was looking to produce a great white with personality which would set it apart from other Spanish wines. The region it settled on was Galicia - Rías Baixas - and the grape, Albariño. La Rioja Alta acquired a long-established winery, Fernández Cervera Hermanos in O Rosal, south of Pontevedra and Vigo. Although it was renamed, the name became Lagar de Cervera out of respect for the founders.
The vision, however, was more ambitious than anything that had ever been attempted in this wild north-western region of Spain - to put together the largest Albariño vineyard (growing from 5 hectares to 65ha) in the region yet produce single-varietal wines of extraordinary quality.
Galicia is called the country of 1,000 rivers; like most Celtic lands, it is fertile and verdant, with forests and grazing pasture for its famous Galician Blond cows. The Rías Baixas DO is generally known for its heavy rainfall and storms rolling in off the Atlantic from the Trafalgar area heard in the Shipping Forecast.
The O Rosal Valley has a very particular microclimate which sets it apart from the rest of the DO. Despite the Atlantic influence, the area receives more sun exposure than other parts of Rías Baixas - particularly as the vines are planted on south and south-west facing slopes. This also means they receive the optimal ventilation. As a result, the grapes ripen sooner, producing a perfect balance between acidity, alcohol content and aromatic intensity.
The soil here is mineral-rich schistose in a shallow, sandy loam with good drainage, a very low pH and a balanced fertility. The vines average 25 years of age, with the oldest plots, Seoane and Cervera, being the 5 hectares located next to the original Finca Viña Cervera, in O Rosal. In the distant past, Albariño would be found growing wild around poplar trees and trailing through bushes - not exactly practical for winemaking on any scale! Lagar de Cervera trains the vines in the pergola style. Between the vines, plant cover is allowed to flourish without use of herbicides, thereby maintaining a natural balance and soil microbial life.
In other La Rioja Alta SA wineries, the director of winemaking, Julio Sáenz, has come in to shake things up since appointment in 2005 - usually plotting the terroir in greater detail and introducing malolactic fermentation, as well as increasing the scientific rigour of the winemaking. At Lagar de Cervera, while Sáenz has an influence, two factors mean he is not as hands-on. One is geographic remoteness; the other is that Lagar de Cervera already had a technical director in Ángel Suárez who understands the terroir and the workings of the winery (or, rather, over the years, wineries) in fine detail.
Suárez not only oversaw the vineyard expansion, but also renovated the winery once in 1990 and then, come 2011 ran the building of an entirely new €2.8m winery - opened in 2013 in time to celebrate Lagar de Cervera’s 25th anniversary. On the outside it’s an attractive building in traditional regional style, made of local river granite, with vines creeping up the walls and design echoes of the surrounding forest and creek. Inside it is a state-of-the-art winemaking facility.
Although Lagar de Cervera grows 65 hectares’ worth of grapes, only half of them go into its own Albariño, thanks to the strictest of selections. The wine produced is a real benchmark for Albariño - the characteristic peach and apricot on the nose, with a superb botanical freshness, often revealing as citrus leaf notes. On the palate, the citrus brightness is fully revealed thanks to the well-integrated acidity. Hints of orchard and tropical fruits are there, but not distracting. Most years, malolactic fermentation is unnecessary or limited, but the wine usually spends around three months on lees to increase depth and mouthfeel. This gives it the heft to segue beautifully between apéritif drinking into the accompaniment to a salad or seafood. A perfect summer wine.
Armit Wines began to work with La Rioja Alta SA in 2010 and, as part of that relationship, is the exclusive importer of Lagar de Cervera Albariño to the UK.