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Text: Jane Walker
From Spain Gourmetour, September-December 1994 (pages 157-158)

As mighty oak trees stem from tiny acorns, so too one of Riojas’ most prestigious bodegas has grown, since its founding in 1861 by Eleuterio Martinez Arzok, from the acorn of a modest family vineyard to the mighty oak as Spain’s largest exporter of Reserva and Gran Reserva wines renowned around the world. In the early days Don Eleuterio only sold his produce in bulk to local bodegas for blending with other wines. But in 1930 his son, Faustino Martinez Perez de Albéniz, inherited the company, decided to improve the quality and began to bottle and distribute his wines across Spain.

Julio Faustino Martinez, grandson of the founder, took over the reins in 1957. The decade between 1981 and 1991 was one of major expansion when the company planted new vineyards and introduced a policy of quality over quantity, producing a smaller amount of high quality wine rather than mass producing a cheaper product.

Now with the fourth generation of Martinez, the company is one of the few major wine producers in Spain to remain en­tirely in family hands, with 61-year old Julio Faustino still at the helm and his son José Miguel, 36, an economist and graduate in business management, handling the day-to-day business as managing director.

 He frequently travels around the world visiting many of the 44 countries which import Faustino Martinez wines. His sis­ter, Lourdes, a computer expert, is also closely involved with the family business.

A recent European Union study into the ideal geographical and climatological conditions for top quality wine showed that optimum conditions are short sharp winters, rolling hills at between 400 and 600 metres (1,300 and 1,950 feet), ade­quate spring rains and sufficient but not too many hours of sunshine in the summer. It was found that the higher slopes of the Rioja Alaveza region of Spain, sheltered between the foothills of the Cantabrian mountains and the Ebro River, fulfill all these conditions. Bodegas Faustino Martinez in Oyón are fortunate in that all their vineyards are in this area and they now have over 500 hectares ( 1,235 acres) of vine planted with the four traditional Rioja grapes: 300 hectares (741 acres) of Tempranillo, 50 hectares (123 acres) of Gra­ciano and 25 hectares (62 acres) of Mazuelo for reds and 125 hectares (308 acres) of Viura, the grape used to produce both Faustino white wine and the excellent recently intro­duced cava.

  Self Sufficient in Grapes

Since it is vital to maintain total control over the crop for top category wines —picking at the exact moment of ripeness, even if other vineyards in the area are not yet harvesting or cultivating vines in the optimum positions - Faustino Martinez is entirely self-sufficient in grapes for all its Reser­va and Gran Reserva and virtually all of the white and rosa-do wines. However a small quantity of fruit is obtained from specially selected neighboring vineyards for Faustino VII crianza wine.

A recent visit to Oyon coincided with the end of the harvest, as producers were celebrating what could, thanks to excel­lent spring rains and a hot dry summer, well become one of the great vintages for over a decade possibly not one of the highest in quantity, hut certainly top quality. The aroma of new wine filled the air as we walked around the modem pressing mills, many of which use the sophisticated ‘hydro pneumatic’ process, of which Faustino Martinez were pio­neers in Spain, whereby rubber walls of the vats expand to gradually squeeze out the grape juice without damaging the skins or pips. Fermentation of the mosto’ was taking place in giant stainless steel tanks, with the temperature strictly controlled so as never to reach more than 30_C (86_F) for reds or 16_C (61_F) for whites. The ever expanding installa­tions contain some of the most up-to-date winemaking equipment on the market, covering all stages of the process from the pressing, filtering through special ceramic “mili­pore” filters which prevent any form of impurities entering the finished wine, the cork­ing with specially produced Catalan corks, to the ageing in casks and in bottles. 105 employees work full time on the plant, with extra hands coming in at peak pe­riods such as in the spring or at harvest time.

In order to maintain a high quality and reliable product, the Consejo Regulador de Ia Rioja (the region’s Regulato­ry Board) imposes strict controls over the produc­tion of wines. They insist that any wine sold as Gran Reserva should be aged for at least two years in oak casks and in the bottle for a further three years before it is sold. A Reserva needs a minimum of one year in oak and two in the bottle. The process is a slow and labori­ous one. Every six months the wine is transferred from one oak cask to another to get rid of sediments and im­purities, which gather at the base of the barrel. The emp­ty casks are then scrupulous­ly cleaned and sterilized be­fore being put into use again.

In Faustino Martinez there are 25,000 oak casks of age­ing wine at the plant at any one time. The casks specially manufactured locally for Faustino Martinez, are mostly American oak and the re­mainder are Limousine oak from France. There are also stocks of at least 9 million bottles of the Gran Reserva Faustino I and Reserva Faustino V maturing on the racks, in addition to the cri­anza Faustino VII and the young whites and rosados which are usually on the market within a few months of picking.

Traditional Vines

The Regulatory Board is al­so anxious to preserve the unique character of Rioja wines and the traditional Tempranillo, Graciano and Mazuelo grapes used in its production. They do not want growers to be tempted into introducing new vines which happen to be trendy or ‘in fashion’ at any partic­ular time. Thus, and only on a very limited and experi­mental basis, the Campanil­lo Bodegas, a Faustino Martinez subsidiary at near­by Laguardia, have been granted permission to plant a small quantity of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The lime-clay soil and the 650-meter (2.132 feet) altitude are proving excellent for this variety of vine. But although planting began in 1988, the wines are still not on the market. Early signs are that the quality is excellent, but the Martinez do not plan ever to produce it on a large scale at the expense of their traditional wines.

The family is also particular­ly proud of another recent introduction, Faustino MartInez Cava, which it has only been producing for the past seven years and which it describes as “the culmina­tion of 125 years of vine growing tradition in the family.” The cava is pro­duced with the viura variety of Rioja grape grown on 125 hectares (309 acres) of the estate using the traditional “champenoise method”. José Luis Santaolalla, for­merly Export Director of Faustino Martinez, who now runs the image and market­ing side of the business, ad­mits that they are still only producing a limited quantity of cava but he is confident of its extremely high quality. “We produce Extra-Dry and Brut Reserva cavas,” he says. “Up to now we have not publicized it very much because we weren’t making large quantities, but we are currently building a new warehouse dedicated exclu­sively to Faustino Martinez Cava, and by next year we hope to increase our pro­duction sufficiently to be able to promote it on the national and international market”.

Exporting to 44 Countries

Faustino Martinez has won numerous medals and prizes in many countries for their products, most recently two awards for teh 1989 Faustino V red Reserva, and the 1993 Faustino V Rosado in Paris. The export market is partic­ularly important for the fam­ily. Faustino I Gran Reserva forms over a third (31.3%) of all exports of Gran Reservas from La Rioja, and the Faustino Martinez wines can be found on the shelves in 44 countries, with the Unit­ed Kingdom, Scandinavia, France, Holland and Ger­many amongst the most im­portant European cus­tomers, and the United States and Mexico featuring prominently on the other side of the Atlantic. Earlier this year, a small consign­ment of 65 cases and a larg­er one of 175 cases, includ­ing 10 cases of Faustino I Gran Reserva 1964, left for Poland. Marketing director Santaolalla says: “We are in­terested in making our pres­ence felt in Eastern Europe so that we can watch the market, set up our distribu­tion chains and hopefully in­crease our sales there when the economic situation im­proves.” He says they have noticed no great shortage of currency in Russia and other East European nations. “Those who do have money seem to have plenty of it,’ says Mr. Santaolalla. The Pacific Rim nations are also important customers for the Faustino Martinez family, with Japan topping the list, followed closely by Thai­land, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. They are optimistic that there will shortly be a new market opening in Chi­na which is currently being handled through the Hong Kong distributor. Perhaps surprisingly another impor­tant customer is Australia, the country which produces so much wine of its own. “We find that countries which produce their own wines are selective drinkers of the best wines of other na­tions,” remarks Santaolalla.

Rioja, like all of Spain’s wine-producing regions, is currently concerned by a European Union proposal calling for the destruction of some 300,000 hectares (741,000 acres) of vines in order to reduce the flooded “wine lake”. “We plan to fight this proposal,” says Mr. Santaolalla. “We understand that no new vine should he planted but it is ridiculous to force us to pull up those already producing.” Spanish producers are particulary sensitive about the practice of “chaptalization”of wines, the adding of sugar to a young wine in order to in­crease its alcohol content. This is common in countries such as Germany where the hours of sunshine are lower than in southern Europe, but unnecessary in Southern Europe where the summers are long and hot. “Our problem is the reverse. Spanish wines often contain too much alcohol rather than too little,” he says.

Recently published figures show an increase of over 12% in Rioja wine sales world-wide in 1993. Although much of this is a younger sin crianza wines (wines of the year), there is still an ever growing market for top of the line, Reserva and Gran Reservas. By concentrat­ing on this sector, Bodegas Faustino Martinez are in a good position to maintain their status as principal exporter of quality wines.

Jane Walker, a British jour­nalist and long-time Madrid resident, has been the Spain correspondent For Time Magazine since 1978. She also contributes regularly to the Irish Independent and Sunday tribune as well as magazines such as Life, People and Town & country.

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