Tom Puyaubert (Bodegas Exopto) talks to Curious Wines

It always takes someone who is prepared to break the mould.

One of the many things that gives you that ‘punch the air’ moment in this business is when you find a range of wines that have the x-factor, delivering something different and unique that others can’t emulate. That’s exactly what Bodegas Exopto has brought to our range of Rioja wines.

In his first interview with Curious Wines, winemaker and Bordeaux native Tom Puyaubert explains how he went from selling oak barrels in La Rioja to producing world-class wines that would gain world-wide recognition in under ten years.

To view our introduction to Bodegas Exopto, click here.

1. Tom, you’ve been in La Rioja since 2000. Why did you decide to start making wine there, and not in your native Bordeaux?

I moved to Rioja in 2000. I was training for a famous french cooperage that was setting up a subsidiary in Spain. This experience allowed me to be in touch with most of the best Spanish winemakers, to exchange knowledge and learn from them.

It was very exciting to compare my winemaking background (USA and Bordeaux mainly) with their knowledge and feelings about the Rioja soils, terroir and grapes. I always knew I would make my own wine one day, the place didn’t import much but I really fell in love with the Rioja region.

The region certainly has the most complete and rich heritage of Spanish viticulture. First of all because of the age of its vineyard, it’s not unusual to find 60 to 80 years old small plots that give fantastic wines in terms of concentration, complexity and structure. Combined with a fantastic terroir influenced by the Sierra Cantabria, a mountain range that protects the vineyards from bad weather, I thought all the conditions were there to make a great wine.

Moreover, I thought it was very challenging at the beginning of 2000 to make a different Rioja, in terms in winemaking and blends, and break with the traditional reserva and crianza.

2. Tempranillo is obviously a very important grape variety in La Rioja. What variety performs particularly well for you? Is there one that you believe gives real distinction or personality to your wines?

Tempranillo is definitely the Soul of Rioja and we have to respect it. It is the basis of the wine and its structure. Most of Riojas are made out of 100% Tempranillo, which I don’t really understand when you’re “allowed” to work with two other fantastic grapes that are Garnacha and Graciano. It’s maybe because of my French influence I like to blend. I thought it so interesting to blend the three varieties depending on the wine you want to make. They’re so different but complete themselves very well at the time.

As I said, Tempranillo will bring the structure, Garnacha will be used for its fruitiness and sweetness, meanwhile Graciano will bring complexity and good freshness.

Winemaking is like cooking! Actually, in all three reds I’m producing you’ll find the three grape varieties but with a majority of Garnacha in Bozeto (fruity and easy to drink), Tempranillo in Horizonte (structure and Rioja Style), and Graciano in Exopto (Complexity and freshness).

3. Your range has had some amazing recognition from wine competitions all over the world, and also from Robert Parker in the US. What do the big scores and medals mean to you, and what makes something like the Bozeto so celebrated?

This is a complicated question to answer. For a small winery like mine, scores and competitions are very important to promote the wines all other the world. We don’t have the financial structure to travel and present the wines, so getting good press reviews helps a lot.

On the other hand it might be dangerous to depend too much on scores. They must be an indication for the consumer who must never forget that his own opinion is much more important than the press.

Concerning bozeto, I think the really good acceptance by the international press is due to the new character of the product: a high presence of Garnacha, big fruit, just a hint of oak. This is a really new style in Rioja, very surprising and that combines fruit and freshness of young wines with the structure and elegance of oak aged wines.

4. Is there a wine that you most look forward to every year, or one that you enjoy making more than any other?

Our top cuvée Exopto of course! First of all because we don’t produce it every year. It’s made from 60% Graciano, which is a very complicated grape to grow and ripen. It’s a lot of work in the vineyard, keeping the yields low. You need some luck as you need really good ripening conditions during the last three weeks. If you don’t get a perfect ripening period, Graciano is just awful (green, aggressive).

It’s completed by 90-year-old Tempranillo vines that are also fantastic to work with. It’s incredible to see how different the grapes (and then the wines) are. More concentration, more tannins, more of everything!

Our Horizonte white is also a challenging wine that we keep working at. Rioja is not especially known to produce great whites, but the blend of grapes is interesting (Viura, Malvasia, Garnacha Blanc) and combined with a good aging program, I’m sure we’ll make a great white wine.

5. You’ve just bottled the 2011 Bozeto and the 2010 Exopto and Horizonte. How are they drinking now, and is everything going to plan ahead of the 2012 Harvest?

2010 and 2011 were really good vintages, all conditions were there to make great wines. This is an interesting question. Of course, if you drink these wines now you’ll see a very modern style: fresh fruit, intensity and power in the mouth and also a great dark colour. Just like a wine should be when it’s been recently bottled. Some consumers love this kind of wine, that’s why I like to put them on the market early.

But what is very important also is that these wines can age very well. All the wines we are producing are aging well (bozeto included), they all have the important characteristics (acidity mainly) that will allow to age well. They’ll then become more “classic”, developing a good bouquet of spices, tannins will be polished and sensations will be different.

When people ask me “Do you produce classical or modern Rioja?” I usually answer “It depends on the moment you drink them.”

6. As a French winemaker working and living in Spain, you’re almost certainly going to say that terroir is more important than the winemaker, but what do you think makes your wines unique to any other winemaker in La Rioja?

Of course the terroir is very important, I talked about it before. The choice of vineyard, soil and climate is the best step to making a good wine. You then have to improve, you have to give it your own character and soul.

First, our wines are different because they blend Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano, which is quite unusual. Then our winemaking process is quite different from the traditional rioja style. We ferment in concrete and oak vats that respect the fruit and colours. We also use these vats to age the wines (Garnacha mainly) when most of the wineries age in old American oak barrels. Our barrels are all french oak barrels, more elegant and respectful to the wines.

7. Lastly, Tom, do you have a desert island wine? A wine that you would take to heaven with you if you could?

Quite hard to answer. I think you expect me to pick some of my wines, though I love to drink other wines from the Rhone Valley, Pomerol, Margaux, Moulis, Saint Estephe.

The desert island wine could be Horizonte Red 2006, certainly the best I’ve ever made. Very well balanced, elegant, really good integration of the oak and good freshness at the time!

As I hope I’ll go to Heaven as late as possible, I’ll have to pick a wine that ages well in the bottle, this would need to be Exopto because of its high proportion of Graciano with great acidity that allows the wine to keep all its body and gain in complexity through the years.

Exopto 2009 would be my pick.

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