Spain has been making wine since at least 1100 BCE when Phoenicians founded trading posts there, but archaeologists believe grapes were cultivated in Spain even earlier, between 4000 and 3000 BCE. As of 2019, Spain had 138 identifiable wine regions, with more than 400 varieties under vine. In a country defined by its diversity of terroir, production, and style, can its richness be communicated? One wine company is trying.
Vintae started as a small family-run winery in 1999, intent on highlighting the region’s distinct flavor. Still, in the decades since, it has blossomed into a global juggernaut producing wine from 14 denominations of origin, with a presence in 27 states in the US.
Twenty years ago, Vintae hoped to bring the best of Rioja to the world, but the founder and his two sons ultimately broadened their scope beyond that one region to encompass the entire country. They also committed to sustainable winegrowing practices and social justice to improve Spanish winemaking and ensure its future.
Ricardo Arambarri, CEO of Vintae, explains that for more than 150 years, his father José Miguel Arambarri and generations before made wine in the sub-region of Rioja Alta. But, like most winegrowers in the region, they weren’t focused on selling their wine far beyond the boundaries of their village. Many just grew grapes and made wine for their family and friends.
“My father pursued his professional life outside of his hometown, the little village of Badaran in Rioja Alta, and it wasn’t until the late 1990s that he returned and opted to turn his experience toward what he saw in his family’s business,” says Ricardo. At first, he focused exclusively on wines made by local growers from Rioja, and only reds. Vintae quickly established itself as a purveyor of quality, affordable, fresh, and local reds.
The family started to produce reds from Hacienda López de Haro and whites from the recovered grape Moscatel from Maetierra which had been lost for 100 years in Rioja.
Vintae’s ability to achieve a high quality to price ratio helped them gain traction in a crowded market. In 2003, José launched the Hacienda López de Haro range and then expanded into other regions like Ribera del Duero, Navarra, and Ribera del Queiles.
As Vintae blossomed, Ricardo followed in his father’s footsteps, leaving to pursue an education and career far beyond the bounds of Rioja, eventually earning an Undergraduate and MBA from University of Texas in Austin. But by 2007, like José, he felt called to bring his business acumen home instead of investing it abroad. But there was more to it.
“My brother [José Jr.] and I wanted to bring a new generation’s perspective to Spanish wine,” Ricardo explains. “It was happening in the vineyards too. Children were taking over their parents’ vineyards, and we saw a real opportunity to bring our history and our terroir to people across the world, to show them the beauty of the old vines and indigenous grapes.”
When Ricardo and José Jr. took over, their father had grown Vintae from zero to 32,000 cases in eight years. Despite the inauspicious timing of their takeover (the 2008 financial crisis was imminent), they managed to grow to 500,000 cases, with a presence in more than 60 countries.
“About five years ago, we realized that we didn’t just want to grow and make good wine; we wanted the wines we put on the market to reflect our philosophies and the very best of Spain’s terroir,” Ricardo says.
He and his brother were also witnessing the effects caused by a warming climate. “Between 2015 and 2017, we had serious issues sourcing grapes because there was either too much heat and not enough water in the summer or difficult frosts,” Ricardo recalls. “We knew we couldn’t control the weather, but we also knew we could do more to impact how the grapes were grown.”
In a bid to gain more excellent command of the winegrowing and production process, Vintae has increased its vineyard acreage to about 620 acres. They have built out six wineries around the country, all staffed by members of their carefully-trained team so that they can vinify their wines. All Vintae vineyards are grown organically, with wild ferments, minimal oak, and little intervention in the vineyards. All told, 38 different varieties flourish for 35 wines.
Several of their wines are also certified as vegan. Fining uses several animal byproducts and fats, but Vintae uses agents derived from peas or potatoes. “It honestly doesn’t change much on the production end, and we feel that organic and vegan wine is where the market is headed and is perhaps even where it should be headed,” Ricardo says. “We want people to feel comfortable drinking our wines and to have no doubt about ingredients or origin.”
Ricardo also puts a premium on making sure that his team is fairly compensated. In addition to farming their vines, Vintae also works with a network of growers, which it aims to support, come what may at harvest-time.
“We know firsthand how expensive farming is, especially when it is done organically,” Ricardo says, adding that Vintae pays farmers a living wage, even when their harvest is lacking due to unforeseen acts of nature.
“Without the farmer, we won’t have wine,” Ricardo says. “If we want to highlight the value and beauty of Spain’s terroir, we have to pay a fair price and support the people who enable us to produce the wine.”
Supporting farmers became part of Vintae’s DNA, but then the pandemic hit, devastating Spain’s hospitality and tourism sector. Through their Hacienda López de Haro line, Vintae launched a social media campaign to support the hundreds of restaurants forced to shut their doors during Covid-19. Using the hashtag #Abiertopornarices, they encouraged bars and restaurants to “raise their shutters” and enabled wine lovers to enjoy wine on their terraces and in their bars. The campaign went viral, and Vintae ended up distributing 15,000 free bottles of de Haro, handing out 250,000 disinfectant wipes, and promoting various establishments with discounts and gifts. Vintae also recruited the singer Isaac Miguel and the rapper Princess Ramen to lend their voices to the campaign.
Vintae offers a full range of Spanish flavors under its umbrella, but two themes resonate throughout the portfolio: an adherence to sustainable growing practices and a love of indigenous grapes.
As Ricardo puts it, “wine is the best way to travel, discover and explore the traditions and culture of a region.”
Since flights are grounded, here are a few tastes of Vintae’s Spain:
Bodega Hacienda López de Haro’s wines feature O.G. Vintae terroir: all are focused on La Rioja DO. The Gran Reserva, comprised of Tinta de Toro (Tempranillo) and Graciano, hails from low-production old vineyards and is aged in French and American oak for 30 months, then matured in bottle for at least four years. Intense, complex aromas of deep black and red fruits, overlayed with notes of coffee, chocolate, and balsamic.
Proyecto Garnachas represents Garnacha’s history and its future, a variety that Vintae believes has been wrongly maligned for its hands-on requirements in the vineyard. Produced from old vineyards in Rioja, Catalonia, Navarra, the Ebro Valley, and Aragón, the vegan wines are made with fascinating results. La Garnacha Salvaje del Moncayo is round and youthful, with just five months spent in French oak barrels. Incredibly fresh, notes of wild strawberries grown in the mountains, baking spices, violets, and balsamic.
Bardos hails from El Páramo de Corcos, the least known region of Ribera del Duero, cold, remote, dry, severe. The Ars Romántica is made from old-vine Tempranillo. The grapes undergo malolactic fermentation in French oak; then the wine is aged for 14 months in barrels. It emerges soft, elegant, with notes of ripe plums, dark coffee, and dates.
Bodega Matsu hails from the DO Toro, where land-over-hand rules. The grapes are Tinta de Toro, a robust variety grown here in 90-year-old vineyards, cultivated biodynamically. The result is a wine with incredibly vivid notes of black and blueberries, stones, and licorice.
Aroa has pioneered organic and biodynamic agricultural practices in the Navarra DO, with many expressions in their line. Laia is made from Grenache Blanc and is aged for two months in French and European oak barrels. The result is a complex but tropical sip, with notes of mango and grapefruit, a sprig of mint, with a salty minerality that grounds it.
The best way to follow Vintae’s journey—until you can visit Spain in person—is through their Instagram, @vintae_usa.