Miguel Merino is a small family winery in the pueblo of Briones (formerly Brunes in Roman, itself a re-naming of from being that of the Berones, a pre-Roman Celtic people). Like most other Riojan villages, the vineyard land of Briones is a crazy patchwork of small grower holdings. Historically, during the tough years from 1940, these were organised by the village co-ops. More lately, since the 1980s conspiracy to eradicate the village from Appellation Rioja, fruit from these antique plots is mostly sold as cheap, anonymous kilos to ‘The Bigs’ for their reserva-etcetera industrial Riojas. As well as little good coming out of the co-ops and the reservas, a more disturbing sub-plot looms. Many owners of these little parcels are now very old villagers, whose children are away in Madrid or somewhere, and interested in inheritance, not heritage. As the generational hollowing out of land ownership proceeds apace, many of these vineyards are being scooped up by The Bigs. BUT! In between these and the co-ops are a handful of owner-grower-makers intent on fashioning beautiful village Rioja.
TSA has been intently focused on Riojas de Pueblo - ‘village’ wines – for the last decade. There are a lot more Pueblos in la Rioja than the obvious comparisons in Barolo and Burgundy; hence a potentially more interesting and complex terroir overview is available here than pretty much anywhere … if we focus on the Pueblo, not the bodega. The advent of Miguel Merino to the TSA fold means we now have a collection of fourteen! discrete Pueblos which we represent. A complex tapestry, devoted to maintaining and representing Rioja’s patchwork beauty.
Miguel Merino is situated in Briones, a beautiful, iconic village atop a table-topped hill 8km southeast of Haro, on the southern shore of Rio Ebro. Out back of which, towards Sierra de la Demanda, the current owners Miguel and Érika have a bunch of beautiful Southern Rioja foothill plots.
The village itself?
Briones is an incredibly elegant, classical Riojan village. Like San Vicente (4km north) and Laguardia (26km east and a bit north), it’s a medieval site built atop a shark-toothed hill with a flattened top, ideal for surveying arriving marauders … before Torres and co, there were Visigoths, Saracens and all the rest. The Black Car Mob hunting cheap kilos are just cruising a well-trodden path - Village Life is seemingly never a holiday! When not dodging the dodgies, however, the clean fresh air at 500m and gorgeous views north to the Cantabrias and south to la Demanda makes for a compelling address.
Mountain villages like Briones command the landscape as you drive across the valley, acting as waypoint, marker and inspiration during journey, marvel and satisfaction upon arrival.
The Bodega or wine business called Miguel Merino was founded by the current owner, Miguel junior’s father, the eponymous Miguel senior, who died along with his wife during covid-19 in 2021.
As a younger wine-maker, Miguel senior worked as an export manager at Bodegas Berberana in Haro, until its decline from relevance (by 1994). He then bought in Briones – both land and a winery, and sold his first bottles in 2000.
Miguel senior’s decision to start a winery was a reaction to the industrialisation of la Rioja, which included the volume growth that finished Berberana as a producer of interest. The Briones property is a granite bodega built in 1818, perfectly cool, mild, humid and constant. The family currently own 14 hectares of vineyard, across 16 plots, the largest of which is 1.5 hectares of Viura. Most are old vines, but there’s also a vineyard Miguel senior planted in 2001, to Tempranillo and Graciano. Currently 22 years of age, this is (perhaps a little dismissively) released as a Viñas Jovenes wine. This is the wine via which we are introducing Miguel Merino and Briones to Australia.
Miguel Merino currently produce 55,000 bottles and they don’t plan to expand much at all. TSA may very well be the last cab allowed onto the rank in terms of new importers they are able to service with supply (although I’ve been working on working with MM since 2017, I had to scramble hard to get a “yes” to import them)! The eight wines made feature more conservative expressions started by Miguel Senior (very lovely, interesting and pueblo-specific versions of): Reserva and Gran Reserva. Then there is the village wine mentioned above. Alongside which, there’s a selection of more contemporary (yet deeply historical) Vinos de parcelas del Pueblo Briones with focus only on sites, rather than ageing as the quality determinant/indicator. The business is now in the hands of Miguel junior and his wife Érika, who initiated the village-and-vineyard focus in the wines after their involvement in the business from 2017, and now own and run it outright (they both had significant experience in other bodegas prior to ‘coming home’ and immersing in the family project).
Although we don’t like the Industrial Riojan language, MM’s Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are excellent and thoughtful village wines. However, TSA’s focus in working with MM will be on the pueblo and parcela expressions.
One Wine to Lead Them All and From Reservas Free Them (with sincere apologies to JRRT)
The evolution of the parcela expressions began with a single vineyard of Mazuelo. Miguel senior had been making wine from this plot since 2006, but from 2019 M junior (from here, simply, Miguel) and Érika convinced M senior to allow them to change the handling. Mazuelo is a sharp wine here in cool Riojan vineyards, and only just ripens, compared to its broader presentation as Caranyena and Carignan in warmer Priorat and Southern French locations.
Miguel and Érika felt that ageing in barricas gave a leathery/earthy wine and that the electric energy of the young single vineyard Mazuelo wine was lost after entering 225s. They purchased a 1300L concrete vat to age half the vineyard’s crop in and put the rest into 2-3yo 500L wood to age. The wine ferments in open 500s before ageing in this concrete/Bocoi mix.
This informs the handling of other parcels they have bought and made since. So, the ‘new’ range is of very old, place-specific vineyards, nurtured antithetically to the official Riojan norm: listening to the wine, handling neutrally and as little as possible. In the past 5 years, Érika and Miguel have purchased several old plots and have also rented 5 hectares of organic grower vineyards in Briones, bringing their supply base to 14 hectares (they pay up to 2E/kilo for this fruit compared to the 2022 price of 63 cents).
The wines of Briones
Briones is Atlantic, but drier than San Vicente and Labastida, and the vineyards are south of the Ebro, west and south of Briones. Miguel and Érika crop at around 3 tonnes/hectare and all the wines are organic. The soils are highly varied, but based in a mix of white clay and limestone pebble soils. The oldest vineyards are 1931’s ‘Mendiguera’, and 1946 ‘la Loma’. Overall, their varietal holdings are 90% Tempranillo with a bit of Graciano, Viura and Mazuelo. Racking is restricted, if used at all, and there is no filtration (the Viñas Jovenes is filtered lightly).
MIGUEL MERINO ‘el Rincon’ Tempranillo de Pueblo Briones 2020
Currently, this is a genuine single vineyard release from ‘el Rincon’. However, this wine is going to get other new parcel plantings in it from time to time, so we are happy to ‘de-classify’ it ongoing as a village wine, while it fosters younger vines of Tempranillo and Garnacha through to an age where they can contribute to or become wines higher up the scale. ‘El Rincon’ lies on the hillside ‘la Dehesa’, with a very cool easterly orientation. To get our Spanish appellation language skills up to the point, this makes it’s correction location ID Parcela ‘el Rincon’ del Paraje ‘la Dehesa’. It’s 1.34 ha of Tempranillo with about 6% Graciano-Garnacha in clay-calcareous soils.
2020 was difficult, rain and mildew in spring, a very hot summer, an abrupt cold change on the brink of harvest, snow in the offing! End result?: the usual magic of quality Riojan viticulture; good concentration, relatively low alcohol, mature tannins and terrific natural acidity. Hand-picked, double-sorted, small stainless ‘vat’ fermentation with temperature control. Seeking elegance over power, the wines rested 12 months in neutral, clean old Murúa barricas (French heads, American staves), regularly topped, not racked.
A classic Riojan mix of berry, floral spice and balsamic maturity, earthen, true-hearted, pure. There are gorgeous tiny mulberries, perfectly set like little gems in a bed of heather, with touches of cola, cocoa and graphite. In fact, there’s more than one fruit-in-miniature gem inset here: small sour plums continue the atlantic blue feels, while teensy mini-boysenberries dance in a little red spectrum, perhaps thanks to the Graciano. Flavour words aside, the fruit quality is evinced by perfectly ripened sweet seeds without any glyceric heft at all. It’s mid-weight and maintains a lovely line, beautifully formed without evident muscularity, the tannins glide-not-thrust and with fine, textural natural acid, it’s all elegant and easy.
Descriptions of other wines by Miguel Merino, not currently shipped...
MIGUEL MERINO Parcela la Quinta Cruz Mazuelo
A 1.2 hectare steep slope, planted in 1986 on the slopes of Monte Calvario. It has a very thin gravelly sandy topsoil, covered by rolling pebbles, limiting fertility and vigor. Mazuelo is a fertile, vigorous plant, needing a long vegetative cycle and is totally marginal (a Donkey on the Edge!) here in Atlantic Rioja. Big bunches require a green harvest; resultant ABV normally 12.8-13.2%. It’s planted in pebbly alluvial shallow soil; total production less than 3,000 bottles.
Very late-picked, on the margin of the season, and aged in a mix of raw concrete and larger French oak vats for 12 months. Earthen, very good focus and organisation, touches of nutty tannin and seeds bitter. Delicate fruit sweetness (dusty, earthy cranberry, rosehip) and lacy tannin but nicely ripe; round and soft without the vegetal linearity of Caranyena. Flourishes of thyme, stone, minerals and plum.
MIGUEL MERINO Parcela la Ínsula Garnacha
A tiny, sandy pre-phylloxera vineyard planted in the late 19th century. 0.1 hectare of un-grafted, historical Garnacha. There’s just enough of it to fill a single 500L barrel. Nothing left to say.
MIGUEL MERINO Parcela la Loma
La Loma is 1.4 hectares of bush vines ‘en vaso’ planted in 1946 at 534 metres, in the south-west corner of the Briones municipality, facing east and quite steep. Limestone, sand and clay vary and interplay within the parcela, and the ridge line is shallow and pebbly. The Garnacha Blanca in La Loma goes into the MM Blanco, and the rest is bottled as a single vineyard field blend of Tempranillo Garnacha. It ferments in small stainless after a cold soak for 3 days, then ages in 4x500L French oak barrels for about 14 months.
MIGUEL MERINO Blanco 2020
Since 2016, the village white is based on Viura from the miniscule (0.2ha) Mingortiz parcela blended with old vine Garnacha Blanca from La Loma. Three other tiny old vine parcels contribute a bit of fruit. Most years, it’s a 50/50 varietal mix, roughly, but in 2020 hail decimated the Garnacha Blanca and it’s only 20% of the blend. Fermented in 500L Bocoi, racked off lees without malo and returned to cleaned barrel to age 10 months on fine lees.
Mineral, with syrupy honey and white flowers, freshened with preserved lemon skin. Sweet spice, herb and grasses, a chlorophyllous pea pop, lovely sharp nose on entry, nice depth of honey nougat in back. An excellent line is imposed on richness and breadth of these varieties, with good acid freshness in a gently driving mineral finish. Light on its feet.
MIGUEL MERINO Reserva 2017 ‘Vitola’
So, there are two Reservas, terroir-selected into two styles. Vitola is from fresher vineyards, more atlantic north and west orientations, planted in the 1960s and 70s, on white calcareous clay (with pockets of iron-rich redder clay). Aged in a mix of barricas, new, one and two years old, aged a couple of years. Only 24 barrels were made as crop reduced by about half in 2017, thanks to the frost of April 28. Vitola is a Cuban cigar reference summing the thickness and length of the roll.
The MM reserva/gran reserva wines are aged in barricas from the Murúa cooperage, American oak staves with French heads. The Merino family have worked with Murúa since the get-go in 1994.
Lovely leather and earth with nuggets of spice, and a pleasing looseness in the fruit, rather than tightly packed and oaky. It’s open but well organised and just a bit of oak presence at full back, around which the wine radiates really nicely. And, yes, there’s tobacco in here, along with just a bit of coffee in allspice, nutmeg, cardamom husk. Lovely clay energy underlies everything and it features rippling, clear and bright cherry fruit, both fresh and silty on the finish. As with all Miguel Merino wines, elegance, space and ‘organisation’ are brilliant in this. Bright, juicy, mineral and fresh.
MIGUEL MERINO Reserva 2016
And the second style of Reserva is this. Stony, pebbly, warmer soils and older vines are expressed in a bolder wine. The core vineyard was planted 1960 but the wine includes fruit from other parcels going back to the 1940s; fermented in small vats then aged in 2/3 new oak, balance 1 and 2 yo, with very little racking, constant barrel topping. Tempranillo and a touch of Graciano, maybe 4%.
Smells of old roses rising up from the warm, rich stones, with a lovely ribbon of blood in the floral earthen perfume. There’s a touch of parsnip/root vegetable earthiness as well. All of which repeat in the mouth, which is softly chocolate but not sweet, gently flowing and full of charm. Fundamentally round, with as much verticality as if not more than ageing length. Mulberry, dried bush thyme, licorice … calm, round and confident.
MIGUEL MERINO Gran Reserva 2009
Quintessential Briones: 550m altitude vines planted in the 1950s and ‘60s, in limestone-clay. Stainless steel fermentation, 2 years ageing in new French oak and a third year in old wood. Little to no racking and regular topping. It’s not a ‘Gran Reserva’ Gran Reserva, just a bloody good wine.
Deep-set tobacco, briar, secondary oak character. Balsamic, with clay pipes, cherry trending plum and prune, lovely florals after, and always the gentle light red dirt reminders. Mid-weight, relaxed and a bit like crunching on a red apple. The beautiful juicy acidity is mobile not linear, and the finish has a gorgeous sense of space.